Connect with us

Middle East

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

Published

on

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.

Anant Mishra is a security analyst with expertise in counter-insurgency and counter-terror operations. His policy analysis has featured in national and international journals and conferences on security affairs.

Continue Reading
Comments

Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran want to be friends again

Published

on

Eventually the ice-cold relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia began to melt. The two countries sat at the negotiating table shortly after Biden came to power. The results of that discussion are finally being seen. Trade relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have already begun to move. Although there has been no diplomatic relationship between the two countries since 2016, trade relations have been tense. But trade between Iran and the two countries was zero from last fiscal year until March 20 this year. Iran recently released a report on trade with neighboring countries over the past six months. The report also mentions the name of Saudi Arabia. This means that the rivalry between the two countries is slowly normalizing.

Historically, Shia-dominated Iran was opposed to the Ottoman Empire. The Safavids of Persia have been at war with the Ottomans for a long time, However, after the fall of the Ottomans, when the Middle East was divided like monkey bread, the newly created Saudi Arabia did not have much of a problem with Iran. Business trade between the two countries was normal. This is because the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Iran at the time were Western-backed. That is why there was not much of a problem between them. But when a revolution was organized in Iran in 1979 and the Islamic Republic of Iran was established by overthrowing the Shah, Iran’s relations with the West as well as with Saudi Arabia deteriorated. During the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini called for the ouster of Western-backed rulers from the Middle East. After this announcement, naturally the Arab rulers went against Iran.

Saddam Hussein later invaded Iran with US support and Saudi financial support. After that, as long as Khomeini was alive, Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran were bad. After Khomeini’s death, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatemi tried to mend fences again. But they didn’t get much of an advantage.

When the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran’s influence in Shiite-majority Iraq continued to grow. Since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, Iran’s influence in the region has grown. Saudi Arabia has been embroiled in a series of shadow wars to reduce its influence. It can be said that Iran and Saudi Arabia are involved in the Cold War just like the United States and the Soviet Union. Behind that war was a conflict of religious ideology and political interests. Diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran came to a complete standstill in 2016. Iranians attack the Saudi embassy in Tehran after executing Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimar al-Nimar.  Since then, the two countries have not had diplomatic relations.

Finally, in April this year, representatives of the two countries met behind closed doors in Baghdad. And through this, the two countries started the process of normalizing diplomatic relations again. The last direct meeting between the two countries was held on September 21.

Now why are these two countries interested in normalizing relations? At one point, Mohammed bin Salman said they had no chance of negotiating with Iran. And Khomeini, the current Supreme Leader of Iran, called Mohammed bin Salman the new Hitler. But there is no such thing as a permanent enemy ally in politics or foreign policy. That is why it has brought Saudi Arabia and Iran back to the negotiating table. Prince Salman once refused to negotiate with Iran, but now he says Iran is our neighbor, we all want good and special relations with Iran.

Saudi Arabia has realized that its Western allies are short-lived. But Iran is their permanent neighbor. They have to live with Iran. The United States will not return to fight against Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia. That is why it is logical for Iran and Saudi Arabia to have their ideological differences and different interests at the negotiating table. Saudi Arabia has been at the negotiating table with Iran for a number of reasons. The first reason is that Saudi Arabia wants to reduce its oil dependence. Prince Salman has announced Vision 2030. In order to implement Vision 2030 and get out of the oil dependent economy, we need to have good relations with our neighbors. It is not possible to achieve such goals without regional stability, He said.

Saudi Arabia also wants to emerge from the ongoing shadow war with Iran in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon to achieve regional stability. The war in Yemen in particular is now a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are unable to get out of this war, nor are they able to achieve the desired goal. Saudi Arabia must normalize relations with Iran if it is to emerge from the war in Yemen. Without a mutual understanding with Iran, Yemen will not be able to end the war. That is why Saudi Arabia wants to end the war through a peace deal with the Houthis by improving relations with Iran.

Drone strikes could also have an impact on the Saudi Aramco oil field to bring Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. Because after the drone attack, the oil supply was cut in half. The Saudis do not want Aramco to be attacked again. Also, since the Biden administration has no eye on the Middle East, it would be wise to improve relations with Iran in its own interests.

Iran will benefit the most if relations with Saudi Arabia improve. Their economy has been shaken by long-standing US sanctions on Iran. As Saudi Arabia is the largest and most powerful country in the Middle East, Iran has the potential to benefit politically as well as economically if relations with them are normal.

While Saudi Arabia will normalize relations with Iran, its allies will also improve relations with Iran. As a result, Iran’s political and trade relations with all the countries of the Saudi alliance will be better. This will give them a chance to turn their economy around again. The development of Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia will also send a positive message to the Biden administration. It could lead to a renewed nuclear deal and lift sanctions on Iran.

Another reason is that when Saudi Arabia normalizes relations with Iran, it will receive formal recognition of Iran’s power in the Middle East. The message will be conveyed that it is not possible to turn the stick in the Middle East by bypassing Iran. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran need to be normalized for peace and stability in the Middle East.

But in this case, the United Arab Emirates and Israel may be an obstacle. The closeness that Saudi Arabia had with the UAE will no longer exist. The UAE now relies much more on Israel. There will also be some conflict of interest between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Prince Salman wants to turn Saudi into a full-fledged tourism and business hub that could pose a major threat to the UAE’s economy and make the two countries compete.

Furthermore, in order to sell arms to the Middle East, Iran must show something special. Why would Middle Eastern countries buy weapons if the Iranian offensive was stopped? During the Cold War, arms dealers forced NATO allies to buy large quantities of weapons out of fear of the Soviet Union. So it is in the Middle East. But if the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is normal, it will be positive for the Muslim world, but it will lead to a recession in the arms market.

Continue Reading

Middle East

Turkey and Iran find soft power more difficult than hard power

Published

on

The times they are a changin’. Iranian leaders may not be Bob Dylan fans, but his words are likely to resonate as they contemplate their next steps in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan.

The same is true for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president’s shine as a fierce defender of Muslim causes, except for when there is an economic price tag attached as is the case of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims, has been dented by allegations of lax defences against money laundering and economic mismanagement.

The setbacks come at a time that Mr. Erdogan’s popularity is diving in opinion polls.

Turkey this weekend expelled the ambassadors of the US, Canada, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden for calling for the release of philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala in line with a European Court of Human Rights decision.

Neither Turkey nor Iran can afford the setbacks that often are the result of hubris. Both have bigger geopolitical, diplomatic, and economic fish to fry and are competing with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama for religious soft power, if not leadership of the Muslim world.

That competition takes on added significance in a world in which Middle Eastern rivals seek to manage rather than resolve their differences by focusing on economics and trade and soft, rather than hard power and proxy battles.

In one recent incident Hidayat Nur Wahid, deputy speaker of the Indonesian parliament, opposed naming a street in Jakarta after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the general-turned-statemen who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Mr. Wahid suggested that it would be more appropriate to commemorate Ottoman sultans Mehmet the Conqueror or Suleiman the Magnificent or 14th-century Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic, and poet Jalaludin Rumi.

Mr. Wahid is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and a board member of the Saudi-run Muslim World League, one of the kingdom’s main promoters of religious soft power.

More importantly, Turkey’s integrity as a country that forcefully combats funding of political violence and money laundering has been called into question by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international watchdog, and a potential court case in the United States that could further tarnish Mr. Erdogan’s image.

A US appeals court ruled on Friday that state-owned Turkish lender Halkbank can be prosecuted over accusations it helped Iran evade American sanctions.

Prosecutors have accused Halkbank of converting oil revenue into gold and then cash to benefit Iranian interests and documenting fake food shipments to justify transfers of oil proceeds. They also said Halkbank helped Iran secretly transfer US$20 billion of restricted funds, with at least $1 billion laundered through the US financial system.

Halkbank has pleaded not guilty and argued that it is immune from prosecution under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because it was “synonymous” with Turkey, which has immunity under that law. The case has complicated US-Turkish relations, with Mr.  Erdogan backing Halkbank’s innocence in a 2018 memo to then US President Donald Trump.

FATF placed Turkey on its grey list last week. It joins countries like Pakistan, Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen that have failed to comply with the group’s standards. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned earlier this year that greylisting would affect a country’s ability to borrow on international markets,  and cost it an equivalent of up to 3 per cent of gross domestic product as well as a drop in foreign direct investment.

Mr. Erdogan’s management of the economy has been troubled by the recent firing of three central bank policymakers, a bigger-than-expected interest rate cut that sent the Turkish lira tumbling, soaring prices, and an annual inflation rate that last month ran just shy of 20 per cent. Mr. Erdogan has regularly blamed high-interest rates for inflation.

A public opinion survey concluded in May that 56.9% of respondents would not vote for Mr. Erdogan and that the president would lose in a run-off against two of his rivals, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and his Istanbul counterpart Ekrem Imamoglu.

In further bad news for the president, polling company Metropoll said its September survey showed that 69 per cent of respondents saw secularism as a necessity while 85.1 per cent objected to religion being used in election campaigning.

In Iran’s case, a combination of factors is changing the dynamics of Iran’s relations with some of its allied Arab militias, calling into question the domestic positioning of some of those militias, fueling concern in Tehran that its detractors are encircling it, and putting a dent in the way Iran would like to project itself.

A just-published report by the Combatting Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy West Point concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) faced “growing difficulties in controlling local militant cells. Hardline anti-US militias struggle with the contending needs to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, meet the demands of their base for anti-US operations, and simultaneously evolve non-kinetic political and social wings.”

Iranian de-escalation of tensions with the United States is a function of efforts to revive the defunct 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program and talks aimed at improving relations with Saudi Arabia even if they have yet to produce concrete results.

In addition, like in Lebanon, Iranian soft power in Iraq has been challenged by growing Iraqi public opposition to sectarianism and Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are at best only nominally controlled by the state.

Even worse, militias, including Hezbollah, the Arab world’s foremost Iranian-supported armed group, have been identified with corrupt elites in Lebanon and Iraq. Many in Lebanon oppose Hezbollah as part of an elite that has allowed the Lebanese state to collapse to protect its vested interests.

Hezbollah did little to counter those perceptions when the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened Lebanese Christians after fighting erupted this month between the militia and the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite party, along the Green Line that separated Christian East and Muslim West Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war.

The two groups battled each other for hours as Hezbollah staged a demonstration to pressure the government to stymie an investigation into last year’s devastating explosion in the port of Beirut. Hezbollah fears that the inquiry could lay bare pursuit of the group’s interests at the expense of public safety.

“The biggest threat for the Christian presence in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces party and its head,” Mr. Nasrallah warned, fuelling fears of a return to sectarian violence.

It’s a warning that puts a blot on Iran’s assertion that its Islam respects minority rights, witness the reserved seats in the country’s parliament for religious minorities. These include Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians.

Similarly, an alliance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias emerged as the biggest loser in this month’s Iraqi elections. The Fateh (Conquest) Alliance, previously the second-largest bloc in parliament, saw its number of seats drop from 48 to 17.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi brought forward the vote from 2022 to appease a youth-led protest movement that erupted two years ago against corruption, unemployment, crumbling public services, sectarianism, and Iranian influence in politics.

One bright light from Iran’s perspective is the fact that an attempt in September by activists in the United States to engineer support for Iraqi recognition of Israel backfired.

Iran last month targeted facilities in northern Iraq operated by Iranian opposition Kurdish groups. Teheran believes they are part of a tightening US-Israeli noose around the Islamic republic that involves proxies and covert operations on its Iraqi and Azerbaijani borders.

Efforts to reduce tension with Azerbaijan have failed. An end to a war of words that duelling military manoeuvres on both sides of the border proved short-lived. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, emboldened by Israeli and Turkish support in last year’s war against Armenia, appeared unwilling to dial down the rhetoric.

With a revival of the nuclear program in doubt, Iran fears that Azerbaijan could become a staging pad for US and Israeli covert operations. Those doubts were reinforced by calls for US backing of Azerbaijan by scholars in conservative Washington think tanks, including the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

Eldar Mamedov, a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, warned that “the US government should resist calls from hawks to get embroiled in a conflict where it has no vital interest at stake, and much less on behalf of a regime that is so antithetical to US values and interests.”

He noted that Mr. Aliyev has forced major US NGOs to leave Azerbaijan, has trampled on human and political rights, and been anything but tolerant of the country’s Armenian heritage.

Continue Reading

Middle East

Process to draft Syria constitution begins this week

Published

on

The process of drafting a new constitution for Syria will begin this week, the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, said on Sunday at a press conference in Geneva.

Mr. Pedersen was speaking following a meeting with the government and opposition co-chairs of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, who have agreed to start the process for constitutional reform.

The members of its so-called “small body”, tasked with preparing and drafting the Constitution, are in the Swiss city for their sixth round of talks in two years, which begin on Monday. 

Their last meeting, held in January, ended without progress, and the UN envoy has been negotiating between the parties on a way forward.

“The two Co-Chairs now agree that we will not only prepare for constitutional reform, but we will prepare and start drafting for constitutional reform,” Mr. Pedersen told journalists.

“So, the new thing this week is that we will actually be starting a drafting process for constitutional reform in Syria.”

The UN continues to support efforts towards a Syrian-owned and led political solution to end more than a decade of war that has killed upwards of 350,000 people and left 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.

An important contribution

The Syrian Constitutional Committee was formed in 2019, comprising 150 men and women, with the Government, the opposition and civil society each nominating 50 people.

This larger group established the 45-member small body, which consists of 15 representatives from each of the three sectors.

For the first time ever, committee co-chairs Ahmad Kuzbari, the Syrian government representative, and Hadi al-Bahra, from the opposition side, met together with Mr. Pedersen on Sunday morning. 

He described it as “a substantial and frank discussion on how we are to proceed with the constitutional reform and indeed in detail how we are planning for the week ahead of us.”

Mr. Pedersen told journalists that while the Syrian Constitutional Committee is an important contribution to the political process, “the committee in itself will not be able to solve the Syrian crisis, so we need to come together, with serious work, on the Constitutional Committee, but also address the other aspects of the Syrian crisis.”

Continue Reading

Publications

Latest

Africa Today5 hours ago

Climate Change Could Further Impact Africa’s Recovery

The World Bank’s new Groundswell Africa reports, released today ahead of the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties...

African Renaissance8 hours ago

The Cemetery Of The Mind

This is me. The voices are inside my head. Calling me. Speaking in ancient tongues. They talk and talk and...

USA China Trade War USA China Trade War
Economy12 hours ago

The US-China Trade War

Trade deficit with China became a major issue in 2016 American election. Touching the sensibilities of American working class, Donald...

Defense14 hours ago

ASEAN has the ability to counteract AUKUS’ Cold War strategies

Authors: Raihan Ronodipuro & Hafizha Dwi Ulfa* The United States’ new tripartite defense alliance with the United Kingdom and Australia,...

Intelligence16 hours ago

Chaos Maker: Bernard-Henry Levy video in Panjshir and the chaos making in the Middle East

First: The Israeli-French intelligence maneuver deliberately displaying the video of the French-Israeli Jewish chaos maker “Bernard-Henry Levy” globally to form...

Southeast Asia18 hours ago

The 38th ASEAN Summit Meeting: Agenda and Outcomes

The 38th ASEAN summit meeting is held from October 26-28th and the list of areas to concentrate for the ASEAN would be far too many which includes...

Africa Today20 hours ago

World Bank to support reconstruction plan for Cabo Delgado in Mozambique

The World Bank will provide US$100 million (€86 million) to support the Mozambican government in the reconstruction plan for Cabo...

Trending