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Understanding Hezbollah’s “military engagement” in Syria: Achieving political goal or a religious drift?

Anant Mishra

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Since the early 1980s, Hezbollah has been an “aggressive” politico-military actor “influencing” regional politics in the Middle East, particularly Lebanon. Its membership phenomenally grew after their direct “confrontation” with Israeli defence forces in Lebanon, 2006. After subsequent yet “successful” Arab Springs, Hezbollah’s “political popularity” took a sudden dive. One of the factors responsible for this “sudden political unpopularity” was Hezbollah’s unprecedented support to the Assad regime and its subsequent “military intervention” in Syria, which according to some military experts, occurred on Assad’s personal request.

This “military intervention” is extensively viewed (but not limited to) asa “politico-military” action, with some experts going at an extent of even“labelling” it as a“religious motivated decision”,in the light of Hezbollah’s affiliation to Shi’a sect of Islam. However, in the light of numerous arguments presented by military and strategic experts behind Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria as strictly “religious motivated decisions”,on the contrary, the author, assessed significant evidences and concluded that the decisions were rather “politically motivated”. Hezbollah “undoubtedly” as a “tendency” to “harness and politicise certain religious sensitives” in an effort to recruit and motivate its followers, however, after extensively studying its military operational mechanism in Syria, the author concluded that Hezbollah, in this particular case, fulfilled its “strategic region-politico objective”.

Introduction

Regional conflicts, particularly civil wars, similar to other region centric violent domestic confrontations, involves significant interference from local, regional and international actors. Coupled with numerous political and socio-economic factors,if one part of a state experiences a civil war, there is a formidable chance for neighbouring states and international communities to “suffer its consequences”. Furthermore, to prevent any further “fall-out”, these neighbouring states could possibly provide “external support” to actors involved in the conflict. On numerous occasions, neighbouring states play the role of “participatory instigators” in a civil war, supporting any “element they find sympathetic or vital to their strategic/regional interests”. These states provide all available necessary support including, military, diplomacy and humanitarian. In the light of these “participatory actors”, the civil war no longer retains “within the regional boundaries” and elevates to an “international geo-political crisis”.

Alternatively, the intervention of foreign elements further “infuriates” an already “infuriated conflict, elevating the conflict to an “international level”.

One such example of this “internationalised conflict” is the Syrian civil war which involves numerous “aggressive” external actors, supporting either the Assad regime or the Free Syrian Army or established militant non-state actors such as Al Qaeda or Al Nusra Front, engaged in a violent confrontation against each other. Interestingly, the “participatory actors” in Syrian civil war are violent non-state rather than the traditional state backed elements, out of which, one such peculiar case is Lebanon based militant group Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syrian civil war.

Hezbollah is a militant politico-religious non-state actor that maintains formidable presence in Lebanon and has actively participated in roughly all major conflicts in the Middle East. With reference to the aforementioned statement, according to the author, Hezbollah is a “socio-political militant organization” with a strong affiliation to the Shi’a sect of Islam, which is followed by significantly large members including the top leadership. Hezbollah, which literally means “Party of Allah” or “Party of God”, is currently headed by a charismatic leader Hasan Nasrallah, who is also the incumbent General Secretary of the party. Since the early 2013, Hezbollah has maintained significant “military” presence in Syria, while reinforcing the Assad regime forces with its fighters.

This “military intervention” of Hezbollah in Syria has further “infuriated” an already “infuriating” conflict with few regional “participatory actors” welcoming them amidst global condemnation. Hezbollah received acute criticism on its “sudden shift from traditional interests” (besides Hezbollah vowing to relentlessly pursue their arch-enemy Israeli Defence Forces), whose focus was now on targeting Syrian masses, who sympathetically supported their cause for decades. In the light of its “strong affiliation to Shi’a sect”, the movement was blamed for “purposefully instigating” sectarian violence, particularly when the Assad regime (traditionally Alawites) were in violent confrontation against the predominantly Sunni rebels. Reinforcing the argument with context to regional security, Hezbollah, because of its “military intervention”, not only risked regional stability but adversely compromised domestic security of Lebanon.

In its defence, Hezbollah not only rejected the allegations outrightly,but also claimed their actions to be “in defence for people of Syria”, which was widely considered as a “desperate” effort to strengthen“Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance”. Furthermore, the party claims to combat radical Islamic militants pre-emptively, in an effort to prevent their entry into Lebanon.However, in the eyes of its supporters, “Hezbollah is a Shi’a affiliated militant non-state organization which is carrying out military operations against Sunni radical factions”, an effort to “religiously colour” their military intervention.

In support of aforementioned argument, there are numerous documents pointing towards the same conclusion. Furthermore, many experts have sited religious theologies, propaganda excerpts, Hezbollah’s past involvements followed by its evolution from a movement to a strong politico-religious party in Lebanon. On the contrary, readers will find numerous researches, theories and pedagogies (mostly misleading) on the politico-religious ethnic tensions between the Shi’a and Sunni sects of Islam. With respect to this argument, the objective of the article is not to follow the same path, but to identify, evaluate and assess motivation/decision behind Hezbollah’s “military” intervention in Syria.

Understanding the religious argument

Essentially, religion has always played a “vital” role in thoroughly assessing, analysing the political dynamics in the Middle East. This “literally interlinking of religion and politics”occurs in the region with predominant Muslim communities. More importantly, even in nations which consistently recall their nature of state as secular(one such example is Syria), the debate with respect to interlinking of state and politics (din wa dawla)continues to exist. Talking this argument in the theoretical context of international relations, the state and the religion are essentially separate, however, if the state is traditionally Islamic,it is literally impossible to separate the two“as the source of its legitimacy comes from the Sharia and its integration with politics and religion”.

Taking the example of Syrian politics, in this case, the political system can be rightly placed with respect to the aforementioned argument. However, the Assad regime continues to paint Syria as a secular country, but in accordance with the 1973 constitution specifically the third article states that “Islamic jurisprudence is the sole source of legislation” (1973 Constitution of Syria). The aforementioned argument further reinforces the fact that, in Syrian political system, the religion and the state is inseparable; to further concrete the argument, the two elements (state and religion) extensively interacts on numerous stages(political, social, economic).

In an effort to extensively understand this “fore-play” between state and religion, the author employed numerous “tools”in an effort to carefully understand and assess this intense “relationship between the state and religion”. Out of numerous tools employed, the author achieved formidable understanding by employing “state-politico-friction”, which states that “state will always have surplus of operational and organizational readily available mechanisms, and the political leadership will intend to utilise all available resources, in an effort to strengthen its position against opposition forces”.

It is important to note that,in the light of “versatile” religious theologies and doctrines “sensitively” linked with Muslim communities, religious institutions in roughly every Muslim country is influential enough to call for “religion-centric mobilization”.

One of the most important element within this “religion-centric mobilisation” is “instigating a sense of responsibility towards an individual’s religious identity”while keeping in place certain “essential incentives in the need of mass mobilization of followers/individuals” while strictly relating the call with “socio-economic sentiments”. Instigating a sense of responsibility towards an individual’s religion not only gives an opportunity for religion centric institutions to mobilise vast followers/individuals but to link their current social, cultural, economic and political situation with “historical texts and examples”.

It is important to note that, religious centric institutions have “strong foundations”, critically equip them to call for mass mobilizations. Then, these religion centric institutions rally behind the “weak, the poor and socio-economically outcast”, declaring their fight against the ruling elites. The then political leadership does not view this stance through eyes of a particular religion but tends to ease their content by strengthening social services, medical facilities, education and monetary benefits. Within the context of Middle East, Islam is ideologically powerful enough for mobilization.On the contrary, it is important to note that every religious call for mobilization does not necessarily have “religion on its agenda”; on most occasions, it is “dipped and cloaked with political ambitions”.

Today, in the light of frequent “unstable” political drift coupled with the conflicts in the Middle East, religious mobilization is vital to effectively understand such “complexities”. When secular nations, particularly Syria, Iraq and Egypt failed to satisfy desires of significant communities, religious yet ambitious institutions fulfilled these responsibilities. One such example is Muslim Brotherhood.

Furthermore, after deposition of Saddam Hussain from Iraq, the Sadr Movement rose to fill the leadership vacuum created by US withdrawal. They initiated development programs for the poor, but subsequently rose as a prominent “politico-religious group”. On the same notion, Hezbollah offers similar “lucrative programs” for marginalised Shi’a community in Lebanon.

Relationship between Hezbollah and religion-centric mobilization

The principle reason behind the establishment of Hezbollahin the early 1980s, was (not limited to): eliminate Israel occupying forces in South Lebanon and sympathising with Palestine while assisting the Palestinian Liberation Organization or HAMAS with any means necessary. Essentially retaking control over South Lebanon in late 2000s, the movement was successful, but it drifted from its traditional agendas. Nonetheless the movement (now party) immediately re-aligned with its cause, prioritising the security of the state of Palestine and Lebanon from Israeli defence forces, while re-tasking all available resources to resistance groups. With a seat representation 15.36% in the Parliament and two members in the cabinet, its military faction has been transformed into a matured functional military infrastructure; finding its own reason to exist.

Hezbollah’s enormous network of followers remain “vital” for its ability to “call for mass mobilization” in short span which dually assists in promoting the followers/individuals’ religious identities. More importantly, Hezbollah has established numerous religious centric institutions which implements numerous socio-economic programs. Reporting to the central command, in the name of Social Services Central Unit, the organ is the principle agency tasked to monitor and implement socio-economic programs. There activities involvere construction of buildings shattered in war, followed by chains of hospital, veterinary services, medical care units, intensive medical assistance centres and centres for everyday needs. The Social Services Central Unit also runs non-governmental organizations, particularly women empowerment centric groups, a specialized think tank to identify solutions for socio-economic challenges, along with middle and high schools, public welfare organizations and religious centric institutions.

Not limited to rehabilitation and reconstruction affairs, Hezbollah extensively provide military assistance to regional and sub-regional groupings. It enjoys extensive relationships with Al-Shahid and Al-Jarha, which coordinates with them in monitoring school development activities, re-creational centres, while tracking the list of individuals kidnapped or missing. The aforementioned examples highlight the fact that, Hezbollah’s activities are not limited to military assistance but also covers socio-economic and religious affairs. This further reinforces Hezbollah’s ability to organize mass mobilization, while using “its credibility and human resource management” to achieve their objective, which is usually political in nature. It must be noted that, mobilization of individuals, is not the “only essential” tool for Hezbollah; its policy of religious centric mobilization has deep roots.

With reference to Hezbollah’s ability to mobilize,it also initiates reforms within the movement, in an effort to strengthen their resistance. Thus, for Hezbollah, resistance is not only limited to a military form, but also extends to socio-economic and religious engagements; for an individual/follower, it is this life, which is thoroughly regulated. Furthermore, these reforms are advocated through textual contents and propagated through numerous cultural institutions established in the region.

Furthermore, this “reform initiatives” carried out by Hezbollahin non-military forms, highlights the “religious connection”. The much Hezbollah objective to achieve the desired resistance movement can only be achieved through Jihad;here, it implies to spiritual Jihad. Islam, referencing to its traditional concept, focuses extensively on spiritual Jihad than military. The Prophet, in one spiritual text, explained the importance of spiritual Jihad, referring it to a great Jihad.

However, in Shi’a Islam, in order to carry out a Jihad, the individual needs an approval from the Imam. Furthermore, keeping in mind the traditional definition of resistance, in its military and political context, it becomes an obligation for an individual to carry out if the religious leaders (for example Ayatollah Khamenei) deems it.

Analysis of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syrian civil war

Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria highlights the movement’s “socio-political ideology and position”.The commitment demonstrated by Hezbollah followers/individuals towards resistance through mass mobilization, played a decisive role in Hezbollah’s military intervention of Syria. This decision was further reinforced by significant “politico-religious factors” which continues to play a principle role even today. Most importantly, the question remains, by what means?

During its extensive military intervention in Syria, Hezbollah leaders offered numerous rationale.To begin with, the leaders sited their intervention in defence of “Shi’a dominated towns/villages in Syria”. Another leader sited the rationale of “protecting holy Shi’a sites from radical Islamic factions”. The movement, did not took an official stand, also did not restrict the movement of “volunteers” who took the task of defending such holy sites.

The Hezbollah leadership, furthermore, wanted to prevent the destruction of holy sites, preventing a similar scenario of a sectarian conflict which occurred in 2006, instigated by radical Islamic factions. Furthermore, Hezbollah believed that, its combat operations in the region of al-Qalamoon, are exceedingly pre-emptive in nature, as they do not want a spill-over crossing the borders to Lebanon. Nonetheless, this military intervention “painted targets on the back of Shia community” of Syria and Lebanon. This statement is further reinforced by successful violent engagements between Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)with Free Syrian Army supported by rebels. These radical Islamic factions also threaten Hezbollah’s “traditional” regional assistance.

On numerous accounts, many Hezbollah leaders “openly” criticised these Islamic radical factions, calling them as “instruments of conspiracy designed by the US and Israel to undermine their resistance”.

Traditionally the Islamic ideology of “Jihad”has been aggressively used as an instrument of “religious propaganda” dipped in “political “Jihad, Counter-Jihad and Fatwa”.

To begin with, the Islamic violent radical factions are carrying out a Jihad, exclusively against the non-believers, not limited to the Shi’a. This becomes an exclusive case for Hezbollah to call for a mass mobilization of followers and militarily intervene. Interestingly, they use the element of Jihad, carefully. Since, there is no Fatwa issued by any Shi’a philosopher/cleric, making it non-obligatory for Shi’a’s to fight, Hezbollah, on the contrary, calls its followers/fighters who dies during this Jihad as “martyrs”. Also, according to some former military and intelligence officers, Hezbollah considers the defence of Shi’a religious sites as “obligation”. Interestingly when a regional Hezbollah commander was killed during fighting on the Syrian-Lebanese border, many Hezbollah leaders hailed his actions as “a duty in Jihad”.

It is important to note that, the death of one Hezbollah regional commander is not particular in this case,any fighter who dies during combat is hailed as a “martyr”.Moreover, Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria is exclusively sited by academic and military experts as an example of “Shia–Sunni confrontation in the Middle East”. However, this conflict cannot exclusively be termed as a “religiously-regional centric”, there are alternative theories in this conflict that are worth taking into consideration.

The “internationalisation” of this conflict holds extreme vitality for Hezbollah. One of the principle element of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria is to “retain its supply lines”. Support from Iran and Syria is extremely important. On one account, before Hezbollah’s official military deployment, the party had reinforced the Syrian army ranks with its armed followers near the region of al-Zabadani, outskirts of Damascus, in an effort to further strengthen its “supply routes” connecting Demascus with the Bekka valley in Lebanon. Furthermore, the principle reason behind the battle of al-Qusayr which occurred not to disrupt the “supply routes” used by opposition forces but to maintain flow for information between Damascus and Bekka Valley in Lebanon.

Furthermore, the defence of SayeedaZainab shrine on the road to Damascus International airport by Hezbollah and other Shi’a militiasis another particular example.Indeed, the site is of a holy shrine, the extensive military deployment reinforces the defence of Damascus International airport; which is vital for its constant communication with Damascus.

Furthermore, the “stability” of Assad regime continues to worry Hezbollah. If the Assad regime falls, there is no absolute surety whether the new ruling (which may compromise of members of opposition) will support Hezbollah, in the light of reputative condemnation from Syrian opposition on Hezbollah’s military intervention. Looking at the worst-case scenario, the Sunni Islamic radical faction could probably seek control, who would then focus their attention to annihilate Shi’a factions in Syria.

Military intervention of Hezbollah in Syria, can be seen as a “necessary strategic step” or a “desperate attempt to survive”. Moreover, on many accounts the Syrian opposition leaders have sited that Hezbollah will not face a “win-lose” situation, even if Syria immerge as a victor. The Syrian party wants to “resolve” this issue politically,probably the only way for Hezbollah to securely withdraw from Syria.

To conclude, Hezbollah repeatedly site its military engagement as a retaliatory measure against the radical Islamic factions, which is nothing more than simple “exaggeration”. Notably, not all violent “participatory actors” in Syria belong to radical Islamic factions which even Hezbollah is aware. During the time when Hezbollah officially rallied behind Assad regime, the Islamic radical factions – notably Al-Nusra Front and Al Qaeda – were not aggressive as they are today. Also, Hezbollah’s fighters are predominantly concentrated in and around the region of al-Qalamoon where the jihadi factions are “aggressively” growing, but their major strength lies in North, where Hezbollah is absent. Although, Hezbollah is absent in the North East, where Al Qaeda and some radical factions of ISIS is prominent, the former continues to hold some presence in Aleppo. However, in Aleppo, Hezbollah has deployed few military advisors and unlike al-Qusayr, its military engagement is fairly limited.

Conclusion

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 which resulted in “complete annihilation of Iraq”followed by “sectarian policies” implemented by successive governments further reinforced the arguments of militant Islamic factions such as Islamic State to gain enormous public support. The consequences due to aforementioned sited instances resulted in “sectarian violence” which not only engulfed Iraq but extensively destabilised the entire Middle East. Similarly, the Syrian conflict was initially sectarian because of radical Islamic factions’ involvement. In the similar context, Hezbollah’s “military engagement” in Syria can be interpreted asShia power (Hezbollah and Assad regime) in violent confrontation against the Sunni radical factions.

This is generally perceived as a natural “cause”and no matter how convincing it seems, it remains “limited” in theory. The article, extensively argues realising the fact that, Hezbollah does play the “religion” card to mass mobilise its followers and did the same in Syria. It is also a fact that, out of roughly 53% of Lebanese, who are devotedly religious, are not Hezbollah followers.

Furthermore, playing the “religion card” comprises a fraction of Hezbollah’s tactics of mass mobilization.

In accordance with the aforementioned statements, Hezbollah’s tactics of “self-religious identity”, is not only limited to “religion”. The rationale of “resistance formation” plays a prominent role in mobilization. In accordance with the aforementioned statement, the mass mobilization statement is not limited to “religion”. For Syria, in this particular case, Hezbollah has cited three main arguments: protection of Shi’a religious sites, Syria’s vitality for strengthening regional resistance and external security of Lebanon.

In accordance with the aforementioned arguments, Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria is fuelled by its “geo-political ambition in the region”. Similarly, Hezbollah has deployed its fighters in Syria to “exclusively” defend the “Tehran-Damascus-Lebanon” supply route. Similarly, Hezbollah’s tactic of reinforcing the ranks of Assad regime forces and reinforcing their troops in the south, especially where radical Islamic factions are thoroughly absent – holds due precedence than directly engaging with radical factions in Aleppo.

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How the Guardian newspaper fulfills George Orwell’s prediction of ‘Newspeak’

Eric Zuesse

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On Sunday April 15th, Britain’s Guardian bannered “OPCW inspectors set to investigate site of Douma chemical attack” and pretended that there was no question that a chemical attack in Douma Syria on April 7th had actually occurred, and the article then went further along that same propaganda-line, to accuse Syria’s Government of having perpetrated it. This ‘news’ story opened [and clarificatory comments from me will added in brackets]:

UN chemical weapons investigators were set on Sunday to begin examining the scene of a chemical attack in the Syrian city of Douma, which had prompted the joint US, French and British strikes against military installations and chemical weapons facilities near the capital, Damascus.

The arrival of the delegation from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) came as the Syrian military announced that it had “purified” [no source provided, but this — from 7 March 2018 — is the only source that existed prior to the April 14th missiles-invasion of Syria, and its meaning is very different: the region of eastern Ghouta, of which Douma is a part, after a two-month campaign that killed nearly 2,000 civilians [no source provided as regards either the number, or that all of them were ‘civilians’ and that none of them were jihadists or “terrorists”], following years of siege.

The propaganda-article continued directly: “Units of our brave armed forces, and auxiliary and allied forces, completed the purification of eastern Ghouta, including all its towns and villages, of armed terrorist organisations,” the general command statement said.

No source was provided for that, but this sentence is a sly mind-manipulation, because here is what the Syrian Government’s General Command had actually said: “Statement of the Army General Command declaring Eastern Ghouta clear of terrorism” as headlined by the Syrian Government itself.

In other words: the Guardian’s ‘journalist’ had substituted the word “clear” by the word “purify” and did this after having already asserted but not documented, that the Government had just completed “a two-month campaign that killed nearly 2,000 civilians.” When the Syrian Government announces that an area has been “cleared of terrorists (or of terrorism),” the U.S.-allied propagandist uses the word “purify,” such as “purified the region of eastern Ghouta” or “the purification of eastern Ghouta, including all its towns and villages, of armed terrorist organisations.” But by the time that the reader gets there to “purification … of armed terrorist organisations,” the reader has already been doctrinated to believe that Syria’s Government is trying to “purify” land, or perpetrate some type of ethnic-cleansing. That’s professional propaganda-writing; it is not professional journalism.

Later, the article asserts that, “The OPCW mission will arrive in Douma eight days after the chemical attack, and days after the area fell to the control of Russian military and Syrian government forces. That delay, along with the possibility of the tampering of evidence by the forces accused of perpetrating the attack, raises doubts about what the OPCW’s inspectors might be able to discover.” However, a fierce debate is being waged over whether this was not any real “chemical attack” but instead a staged event by the jihadists in order to draw Trump back into invading Syria. In other words: any journalistic reference yet, at this time, to the event as “the chemical attack” instead of as “the alleged chemical attack” is garbage, just as, prior to the guilty-verdict in a murder trial, no journalistic reference may legitimately be made to the defendant as “the murderer,” instead of as “the defendant.” That is lynch-mob ‘journalism’, which Joseph Goebbels championed.

The Joseph-Goebbels-following ‘journalist’ has thus opened by implying that the Russia-allied Syrian Government is trying to crush a democratic revolution, instead of the truth, that the U.S.-allied Governments are trying to overthrow and replace the Russia-allied Syrian Government. It’s a big difference, between the lie, and the truth.

Another story in the April 15th Guardian was “Pressure grows on Russia to stop protecting Assad as US, UK and France press for inquiry into chemical weapons stockpiles” and this one pretended that the issue is for “Russia to stop protecting Assad,” who is the democratically elected and popular President of Syria, and not to stop the invasion of Syria since 2011 by U.S. and Saudi backed foreign jihadists to overthrow him. Furthermore, as regards “press for inquiry into chemical weapons stockpiles,” the real and urgent issue right now is to allow the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) into Douma to hold an independent and authoritative investigation into the evidence there. Russia pressed for it at the U.N. Security Council and the U.S. and its allies blocked it there. But the OPCW went anyway — even after the U.S.-allied invasion on April 14th — and this courageous resistance by them against the U.S. dictatorship can only be considered heroic. Now that they are there, the remaining jihadists in Douma are firing shots at them to drive them away.

That type of ‘news’-reporting is virtually universal in The West, among the U.S. and its allied governments, which refer to themselves as ‘democracies’ and refer to any Government that they wish to overthrow and replace by their own selected dictator, as ‘dictatorships’, such as these regimes had referred to Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011, Syria forever, and Ukraine in 2014. It’s Newspeak.

first published at strategic-culture.org

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The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism in the Era of MbS – an Update

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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There has long been debate about the longevity of the Saudi ruling family. One major reason for doubts about the Al Sauds’ viability was the Faustian bargain they made with the Wahhabis, proponents of a puritan, intolerant, discriminatory, anti-pluralistic interpretation of Islam.

It was a bargain that has produced the single largest dedicated public diplomacy campaign in history. Estimates of Saudi spending on the funding of ultra-conservative Muslim cultural institutions across the globe and the forging of close ties to non-Wahhabi Muslim leaders and intelligence agencies in various Muslim nations that have bought into significant, geopolitical elements of the Wahhabi worldview are ballpark. With no accurate date available, they range from $75 to $100 billion.

It was a campaign that frequently tallied nicely with the kingdom’s deep-seated anti-communism, its hostility to post-1979 Iran, and the West’s Cold War view of Islam as a useful tool against Arab nationalism and the left – a perception that at times was shared by Arab autocrats other than the Saudis.

The campaign was not simply a product of the marriage between the Al Sauds and the Wahhabis. It was long central to Saudi soft power policy and the Al Saud’s survival strategy. One reason, certainly not the only one, that the longevity of the Al Sauds was a matter of debate was the fact that the propagation of Wahhabism was having a backlash at home and in countries across the globe. More than ever before theological or ideological similarities between Wahhabism or for that matter Salafism and jihadism were since 9/11 under the spotlight.

The problem for the Al Sauds was not just that their legitimacy seemed to be wholly dependent on their identification with Wahhabism. It was that the Al Sauds since the launch of the campaign were often only nominally in control of it. They had let a genie out of the bottle that now leads an independent life and that can’t be put back into the bottle.

That is one major reason why some have argued in the past decade that the Al Sauds and the Wahhabis were nearing a crunch point. One that would not necessarily offer solutions but could make things worse by sparking ever more militant splits that would make themselves felt across the Muslim world and in minority Muslim communities elsewhere in multiple ways including increasing sectarian and intolerant attitudes in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The rise of Mohammed bin Salman clearly challenges these assumptions. For one, it raises the question to what degree the rule of the Al Sauds remains dependent on religious legitimization as Mohammed moves de facto from consensual family to one-man rule in which he anchors his legitimacy in his role as a reformer.

It also begs the question of what would ideologically replace ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam as Saudi Arabia’s answer to perceived Iranian revolutionary zeal. The jury on all of this is out. They key lies in the degree to which Mohammed is successful in implementing social and economic reform, his yet to be clarified definition of what he envisions as moderate Islam, and what resistance to his religious redefinition and social reforms will emerge among members of the religious establishment and segments of the population.

Mohammed has so far dropped tantalizing clues, but neither said nor done anything that could be considered conclusive. In fact, what he has not done or said may be more telling, even if it would be premature to draw from that conclusions of the potential limits of change that he envisions. On the plus side, he introduced social reforms that enhance women’s opportunities and relaxed restrictions on cultural expression.

At the same time, he has whipped the religious establishment into subservience and positioned them, including key vehicles like the World Muslim League that the government used to fund and propagate ultra-conservatism, as forces against extremism and militancy and in favour of religious tolerance and dialogue. In February, Saudi Arabia agreed to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels after its efforts to install a more moderate administration failed to counter mounting Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism propagated by mosque executives.

Saudi officials have spoken of a possible halt to the funding internationally of religious institutions although an apparent agreement to pump $1 billion into the building of hundreds of mosques and religious centres in Bangladesh would suggest otherwise. The failure in Brussels and the fact that there is little reason to believe that the religious establishment has experienced a true change of heart or that Saudi Arabia has satisfactorily completed a revision of its text and religious books suggests that the kingdom is ill-prepared to propagate a truly moderate form of Islam in Bangladesh or anywhere else.

In some ways, the question is whether this matters as much outside the kingdom as it does domestically. The parameters have changed with Mohammed’s grip on power but the fact that the religious establishment was willing to ultimately compromise on its theological principles to accommodate the political and geopolitical needs of the Al Sauds has been a long-standing fixture of Saudi policy making.

For the Wahhabi and Salafi ulema, the public diplomacy campaign was about proselytization, the spreading of their specific interpretation of the faith. For the government, it was about soft power. At times the interests of the government and the ulema coincided, and at times they diverged.

Yet, more often than not the requirements of the government and the family took precedence. While contacts between Wahhabi and Deobandi scholars from the Indian sub-continent go back to the 1930s, if not earlier, Saudi scholars were willing to put their differences aside as Deobandis emerged as a powerful force among the anti-Soviet mujahedeen in the 1980s and subsequent anti-Shiite strife in Pakistan.

The problem in mapping the financial flows of the campaign is that the sources were multiple and the lines between the funding streams often blurred. No doubt, the government was the major funding source but even than the picture is messy. For one, who constitutes the government? Were senior princes who occupied powerful government positions officials or private persons when they donated from their personal accounts in a country in which it was long difficult to distinguish between the budget of the government and of the family?

On top of that, the government had multiple funding streams that included the foreign ministry using its network of diplomatic missions abroad, the multiple well-endowed governmental non-governmental organizations such as the Muslim World League that often were run with little if any oversight by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood with their own agenda, institutions in the kingdom like the Islamic University of Medina and its counterparts in Pakistan and Malaysia, as well as funds distributed by Islamic scholars and wealthy individuals.

Adding to the complexity was the fact that there was no overview of what private donors were doing and who was a private donor and who wasn’t. This pertains not only to the blurred lines between the government and the ruling family but also to Saudis of specific ethnic heritage, for example Pakistanis or Baloch, as well as Saudi intelligence. At times members of ethnic communities potentially served as government proxies for relationships with militant anti-Shiite groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Taiba and their successors and offshoots in Pakistan.

Further complicating a financial assessment is the lack of transparency on the receiver’s end. In some cases, like Malaysia the flow of funds was controlled by authorities and/or a political party in government. In others like Indonesia, money often came in suitcases. Customs officials at airports were instructed to take their cut and allow the money in with no registration.

In other words, while the Saudis donated they seldom prior to 9/11 and the 2003/2004 Al Qaeda attacks in the kingdom exercised control over what was done with the funds. The National Commercial Bank when it was Saudi Arabia’s largest financial institution had a department of numbered accounts. These were largely accounts belonging to members of the ruling family. Only three people had access to those accounts, one of them was the majority owner of the bank, Khaled Bin Mahfouz. Khaled would get a phone call from a senior member of the family who would instruct him to transfer money to a specific country, leaving it up to Khaled where precisely that money would go.

In one instance, Khaled was instructed by Prince Sultan, the then defense minister, to wire $5 million to Bosnia. Sultan did not indicate the beneficiary. Khaled sent the money to a charity in Sarajevo that in the wake of 9/11 was raided by US law enforcement and Bosnian security agents. The hard disks of the foundation revealed the degree to which the institution was controlled by jihadists.

At one point, the Saudis suspected one of the foundation’s operatives of being a member of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad. They sent someone to Sarajevo to investigate. The investigator confronted the man saying: ‘We hear that you have these connections and if that is true we need to part ways.’ The man put his hand on his heart and denied the allegation. As far as the Saudis were concerned the issue was settled until the man later in court testimony described how easy it had been to fool the Saudis.

The measure of success of the Saudi campaign is not exclusively the degree to which it was able to embed religious ultra-conservatism in communities across the globe. From the perspective of the government and the family, far more important was ultra-conservatism’s geopolitical component, its anti-Shiite and resulting anti-Iranian attitude.

The man who was until a couple of years ago deputy head of Indonesian intelligence and deputy head of Nahdlatul Ulema, one of the world’s largest Islamic movements that professes to be anti-Wahhabi, symbolizes the campaign’s success in those terms. He is a fluent Arabic speaker. He spent 12 years in the Middle East representing Indonesian intelligence, eight of those in Saudi Arabia. He professes in the same breath his dislike of the Wahhabis and at the same time warns that Shiites, who constitute 1.2 percent of the Indonesian population and that includes the estimated 2 million Sunni converts over the last 40 years, are one of the foremost domestic threats to Indonesian national security. This man is not instinctively anti-Shiite but sees Shiites as an Iranian fifth wheel.

The result of all of this is that four decades of funding has created an ultra-conservative world that lives its own life, in many ways is independent of Saudi Arabia, and parts of which have turned on its original benefactor. A study of Pakistani madrassas published earlier this year concluded that foreign funding accounted for only seven percent of the finances of the country’s thousands of religious seminaries.

The fact that ultra-conservatives are no longer wholly dependent on Saudi funding is a testimony to the campaign’s success. This realization comes at a crucial moment. Post 9/11 and even more so in the wake of Al Qaeda attacks on targets in Saudi Arabia in 2003/2004, Saudi Arabia has introduced strict controls on charitable donations to ensure that funds do not flow to jihadist groups.

There is moreover no doubt that Saudi funding in the era of Mohammed bin Salman is unlikely to revert to what it once was. The Saudi-funded Bangladeshi plan to build moderate mosques, the relinquishing of control of the Grand Mosque in Brussels, and the World Muslim League’s newly found propagation of tolerance and inter-faith dialogue as well as its effort to reach out to Jewish communities would suggest that Saudi money may be invested in attempting to curb the impact of the kingdom’s decades-long funding of ultra-conservatism.

Yet, there are also indications that Mohammed bin Salman is not averse to funding militants when it suits his geopolitical purpose. The US Treasury last year designated Maulana Ali Muhammad Abu Turab as a specially designated terrorist on the very day that he was in the kingdom to raise funds. Abu Turab is a prominent Pakistani Islamic scholar of Afghan descent who serves on a government-appointed religious board, maintains close ties to Saudi Arabia, runs a string of madrassas attended by thousands of students along Balochistan’s border with Iran and Afghanistan and is a major fund raiser for militant groups.

Abu Turab’s visit to the kingdom came at a time that Saudi and UAE nationals of Baloch heritage were funnelling large amounts to militant anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian Islamic scholars in Balochistan. It is unclear whether the funds were being donated with Mohammed bin Salman’s tacit blessing.

What is clear, however, is that the funding and Abu Turab’s visit coincided with the drafting of plans to destabilize Iran by exploiting grievances and stirring unrest among Iran’s ethnic minorities, including the Baloch. Those plans have not left the drawing board and may never do so. The funding nevertheless raises the question how clean a break with support of ultra-conservatism Mohammed bin Salman is contemplating.

Edited remarks at The Middle East and the Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University and the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, Washington DC 18-19 April 2018

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Middle East

Where will the proxy war in the Middle East last?

Sajad Abedi

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A direct US strike on one of the Syrian Army bases is a new development in the terrorist war that began six years ago against Syria. The attack, which took place after accusing the Syrian government of using chemical weapons in the region of Khan Sheikhon in the Syrian Arab Republic, raised several questions, among which are the most prominent:

What are the realities and purposes of using chemical weapons in the current situation? Why did the Western countries accuse the Syrian government of using chemical weapons without any documents and opposed the Russian request to form a neutral truth-clarifying committee to clarify the facts? Why the US government headed by Donald Trump did does not pay attention to Russia’s request for unilateral action to ignore international law and interference in other domestic affairs? What does it mean to handle this attack? What are the likely outcomes and consequences of this attack?

1- Syria after the use of chemical weapons in arid groups in the East Hemisphere region in 2013 and tensions in the area after the threat of a massive attack on Syria by former US President Barack Obama by mediating Russia he agreed to destroy his chemical weapons in order to prevent any excuse and accusations from the United States and Western countries. As a result, the United Nations Monitoring Committee (UNSC) announced that it was carrying out its mission in full cooperation with the Syrian government, under the supervision of the United Nations, the Syrian Chemical Weapons Depot.

The purpose of the Syrian disarmament was to prevent Syria from attacking bases of armed groups in the eastern submersion. The goal was also to create space for Syria, and to intervene in the United States to shift the balance of power in favor of armed groups. The Zionist regime, the Zionist lobby in the United States, the warlords and anti-Syrian states, were pushing for such an approach to force Obama to engage in a frantic war in Syria.

Now under the conditions of the Jabhat al-Nusra in Khan Sheikhon region, a chemical strike has taken place that the Syrian army has managed to defeat the attacking armed groups in the suburbs of Hamma and remove the areas under the control of this group. The army also plans to continue fighting in other areas of armed groups and to launch attacks on Jabhat al-Nusra bases in the province of Idlib. With the support of the allied army on all fronts and the achievements of many, as well as the removal by the White House, the Department of State and the United States Mission to the United Nations, that the US government’s priority is the defeat of ISIS, Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian people should determine the fate of Assad. These issues have led to the outrage of the terrorist armed groups and their supporting countries and the American warlords. Hence, they have taken measures to use chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhon and have accused the Syrian army of using this type of weapon to achieve the following objectives.

They are struggling against the Syrian government by accusing the Syrian government of using chemical weapons that were sacrificed by a number of citizens. They demanded that they undermine the status of the Syrian government in international circles and any negotiation.

They are also pushing for the Syrian government to squeeze on the military front to force the army to attack terrorists at various fronts to prevent the terrorists from defeating and collapsing. The goal is to give the terrorists fresh breath and to rebuild their queues once again.

The warlords have called on Trump’s positions to change their position on Assad and the fight against terrorism to attack Syrian military bases, especially military airports. This is a topic that the Washington Research Center has been reporting on. French Foreign Minister Marc Ayro said the chemical test was a testament to the new US administration after its position on Assad’s fate.

2- Accordingly, Western countries quickly accused Assad of using chemical weapons and opposed Russia’s request for a neutral truth-clarification committee to determine the facts. They tried to achieve the stated goals and mislead public opinion and cover the realities and exonerate the Nusra Front. They also demanded that chemical weapons remain in the hands of the terrorist groups if they continue to use it and continue their erosion wars in Syria.

3- The US government’s move to launch a missile attack on the Syrian airspace appears to be in contrast to the Tramp position. He has surrendered to warlords. He wants to align with the warlords, in order to reduce the opposition that the supporters of the supporters of the terrorist groups inside Syria have taken to take action. He also wants to show off with Obama, who hesitated to attack Syria in 2013.

But the US invasion showed that Washington is attacking the government, the Syrian people and the Syrian army with the help of the terrorists, and that the terrorists are instrumental in serving US plans to occupy Syria. America is the largest terrorist country in the world and a terrorist organization. It does not fail to ignore international law and the sovereignty of other countries, and always plays the role of police in the implementation of forest law. It has a right to charge, convict and enforce justice.

4.Consequences of probability

Indeed, the US invasion of Syria has shown that America is directly involved in the terrorist war against Syria. The move came after the West realized that the terrorists were on the brink of destruction, and that the victory of the Syrian national government and the axis of resistance were decisive. The role of the United States will prove this to the people of Syria, the Arab countries and the world’s public opinion that what is happening in Syria is the plan of America, the West, Zionism and the reactionary Arab state aimed at destroying Syria and destroying its national system.  This has led the Syrian people to support more than their leader, and his legitimacy and his unique role in confronting colonial forces, terrorism and Western-affiliated institutions are strengthened.

The US attack on Syria has led Russia to end its air coordination with the United States in the Syrian heavens. This is a practical measure against the ignorance of international law by the United States and its neglect of Russia’s position. Russia emphasized that the Syrian army did not carry out a chemical attack, and the army had no chemical weapons, and these were terrorist groups that possessed chemical weapons. Hence, it is better not to accuse the Syrian government of any reason and evidence. There is no doubt that Russia’s reaction to the developments in Syria will be great. This does not allow US fighters to cover the Russian missile defense coverage. In addition, it is likely that Moscow will provide advanced weapons to the Syrian army to defend against any attack on missiles and fighter jets. It is not possible for Russia to neglect this attack that ignores Russian red lines in the Syrian territories. This is particularly the case when US attacks on Syria and its attempt to rid the terrorists of failure to Russia’s strategic goals of sending its troops to Syria.

US action on the Syrian army’s attack will not only lead to a conflict with the Syrian army and its allies. But there is also the possibility of a conflict with Russia. This is the issue Moscow and Washington are trying to avoid. Because of this will lead to a world-wide destruction of devastation.

Hence, it is likely that the US invasion would be to reduce domestic opposition that Tramp has faced since coming to power in the United States. He has called for this attack to strengthen his position against his enemies without rejecting his opposition to a new and more costly war than the Iraq war.

Trump has said he wants to get the US economy out of recession and solve the US unemployment crisis, and to repair US infrastructure that needs a trillion dollars.

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