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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.

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.

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A Middle Eastern Westphalia

Albadr SS Alshateri

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This book, Towards a Westphalia for the Middle East, is a product of many conferences and seminars between government officials, policy wonks, academics, international organization officials, experts from Europe, and the Middle East; in addition to a host of think tanks. The authors, Brendan Simms, Michael Axworthy, and Patrick Milton “have summarized the results” of the “discussions, provided a detailed account of the most important elements of the Peace of Westphalia, and outlined elements of a possible framework for peace in the Middle East.”

The Westphalia project started with the observation of the parallels between the current situation in the Middle East and the Thirty Year War that ended up with the Westphalia Treaty (1648) to put paid to the “war of all wars.” The German Körber Foundation and the Policy Planning Unit of the Federal Foreign Office in cooperation with Cambridge University launched the project to see if there were lessons to be drawn from the European conflict in the first half of the 17th century and the subsequent peace treaty to shed lights on the current crisis in Syria. The authors are well aware that parallels do not mean similar. “The analogy between the Thirty Years War and the war in Syria informing the present work thus ought to be employed as an analytical framework, and the Peace of Westphalia ought not to be used as a blueprint.”

There are models to regional peace and security other than Westphalia. The authors see Westphalia as the aptest for two reasons. One is structural: the current Middle Eastern crisis comprises a set of interlocking political and religious struggles at the local and the regional levels.” The second is the religious factor: although in both cases, religion cannot be entirely blamed, however, “sectarian tension has tended to merge and interact with other levels of conflict.”

From the outset, the authors debunk two main myths about Westphalia. One is that Westphalia had established sovereign states. Two, Westphalia reduced religious order in favor of a secular one. “Sovereign states existed well before 1648, and interventions in the domestic affairs of other states (and other Imperial Estates) continued well after 1648.” Further, although Westphalia foregrounded secular laws over ecclesiastical laws, “Westphalia was explicitly a Christian peace”. The Treaty reorganized confessional balance into constitutional laws “and regulated relations between Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists in a highly detailed set of confessional laws.”

Turning to the Middle East, the authors see three interconnected factors that influence the dynamics of the conflict. The lack of state legitimacy, according to the authors, harks back a century, i.e.,  to the inception of these states as a result of Sykes-Picot. The reason is arguably attributed to being contrived by colonial states. After all, it was a colonial power, namely Britain that reneged on its promises to deliver a unified Arab state from Syria to Yemen.

Political Islam cannot solely be ascribed to “secular Arab autocracy and against the failure of Arab nationalism to achieve its aims”, as the authors claim. Islamic revivalism predates secular Arab regimes and had started in the nineteenth century. Moreover, Hassan al-Banna launched his Muslim Brotherhood in 1928; more than two decades before Nasser assumed power in Egypt: It was the defeat of these regimes in the 1967 war, however, that gave political Islam prominence as an alternative ideology to secular nationalism.

The second factor pertains to what the authors call Saudi-Iran dualism and great power rivalry. The geopolitical competition between Riyadh and Tehran has fueled the fire in the region. Various hot spots have seen both countries on opposing sides. The Syrian civil strife witnessed Iran’s direct involvement in support of Assad’s regime and Saudi backing of some opposition groups. Likewise, Yemen has seen both actors and allies supporting the warring sides in that internecine conflict.

Iran is not alone in picking sides in the Middle Eastern confrontations. More recently, Turkey has been playing a significant role in regional maelstroms. The Arab Spring and the ascendancy of political Islam have enticed Turkey to play a larger role in the Arab World. Turkey is involved in several areas of contention. Turkey’s interest in containing the Kurds and fear of irredentist claims led to its involvement in northern Syria. Geoeconomic and geopolitical imperatives, as well as ideological competition, dictated Ankara’s propping up the Government of National Accord in Tripoli; and showing its fangs to the Europeans in the East of the Mediterranean, to boot.

Last, sectarianism is the third factor that influences the regional dynamics. The historical rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites contributed to the current situation. The authors are quite cognizant of the role played by confessional enmity; however, they do not assign a deterministic power to such a factor. Many legitimate demands have nonetheless “descended into sectarianised conflict in many quarters”.

The conflict-ridden region of the Middle East is in a dire need for regional peace. The question is what the Thirty Year War offers in terms of lessons for the Middle East. The European geopolitical scene, according to the authors, was dominated by the rivalry between France and the Habsburg powers. “It is the equivalent of the Saudi–Iranian rivalry in the Middle East, the chief difference being that France and the Habsburgs were not divided by religion (they were both Catholic) and that they often engaged in direct full-scale war.”

The rise of Calvinism in the 1560s has thrown the delicate balance into chaos. Few leading princes had converted to the proscribed creed and had caused a clash with the Lutherans. The Calvinists had upped the ante and resisted the banning of their faith, “and were determined to confessionalise disputes and thereby paralyse the system”.

As with the conflict in the Middle East, the Thirty Year War cannot be characterized as a religious conflict. The polarization was not clearly on confessional lines, and intra-confessional wars had their share of the pervasive conflict. However, religion had colored the threat perception among the warring countries, and faith and geopolitics had interplayed in a very pernicious manner. Similarly, the Middle East in this century has mirrored Europe in the seventeenth century: “the quest for security has become increasingly sectarianised, as it was and is assumed that one will find automatic allies among co-religionists.”

Naturally, one can find similarities and analogies between varieties of conflicts. The question remains how conceptually these conflicts are analogous to warrant the comparison under discussion. The authors found a few structural parallels between Europe in the seventieth century and today’s Middle East.

The authors outline five structural analogies between the two cases. The conflicts then and now tend to be complex and of a variety of types: “state-on-state wars; internal rebellions; civil wars; proxy wars; [and] external interventions in civil wars”. The second parallel is conflict over sovereignty and civil war. Thirdly, the growth of rebellious conflicts into full-fledged wars. Another similarity is great power competition and interventions. Finally, in both situations, no war is declared and wars resulting from the process of state formation. 

The authors provide ample examples of such parallels and analogies within these categories. However, the context seems to be glaringly different. For example, one cannot draw a parallel between a secessionist movement in seventeenth-century Bohemia and the rebel forces like ISIS as state-building wars; alternatively, one cannot compare the geopolitical competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran to dynastic squabbles in early modern Europe.

The authors seem to be more well-grounded in European history than Middle Eastern current affairs, which presents a skewed view of the entire comparison. The idea that “Arab–Israeli problem has been less prominent in regional geopolitics,” shows less perspicacity of the current strategic realignment in the region, and flies in the face of the most recent developments. Israel and oil have been the most important strategic concern for the US in the Middle East. Without both Washington would’ve slept better.

Examples of useful lessons from Westphalia for the Middle East abound. A normative consensus had been a fulcrum of the Westphalia Peace. The authors find in religion, culture, language, and legal tradition, without specification, serve as the basis for normative consensus in the Middle Eastern region.

Other lessons that could be drawn from Westphalia are the establishment of trust, inclusivity, the role of diplomacy and negotiations, mediations, security guarantors, and de-sectarianization of the conflict among others.

There is also the question of why Westphalia and not other regional orders! Can one be selective and draw lessons from, say, Concert of Europe, for example. Alternatively, are there other examples from Africa and Asia that one can look at and select bits and pieces that might work for a new Middle Eastern order?

The problem with the Westphalian order for the Middle East is the diachronic comparison. At the time of Westphalia the world system and had not congealed to what is today. Globalization and great powers rivalry has allowed extra-regional powers to play a bigger role, and not always in the interest of the region.

The book, hopefully, would spark a discussion that is very important for a new security structure in the Middle East. One wishes translations of the book in Middle Eastern languages would appear to allow access to a wider audience in the region.  

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Shaping Palestinian politics: The UAE has a leg up on Turkey

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The United Arab Emirates may have the upper hand in its competition with Turkey in efforts to shape Palestinian politics. Similarly, the UAE’s recognition of the Jewish state gives it a leg up in ensuring that its voice is heard in Israel and Washington irrespective of who wins the November US election.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t miss a beat during his address to the United Nations General Assembly, insisting that he, unlike the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, would not accept a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is not endorsed by the Palestinians.

Mr. Erdogan’s solemn pledge may earn him brownie points with large segments of Middle Eastern and Muslim public opinion critical of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the two Gulf states but does not strengthen his weak hand.

The UAE, with whom Mr. Erdogan is at loggerheads over Libya, Syria, and the future of political Islam, may have less clout than it thinks in bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, but has, for now, more cards to play.

What those cards are worth will only emerge over time.

The UAE is betting that a combination of soft power garnered through recognition of Israel and close security, economic and technological cooperation will enable it to convince the Israeli government that an independent Palestinian state is in Israel’s interest.

While there is little reason to believe that the UAE will succeed where others have failed in recent decades, Emirati leaders, in contrast to Turkey, potentially could in cooperation with Israel also try to impose an unpopular Palestinian figure who has close ties to the US, Emirati and Israeli leadership.

The move would be designed to install a leader who would be  more conducive to engaging in peace talks on terms that hold out little hope of meeting long-standing Palestinian aspirations.

It is a scenario that 84-year-old Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appears to be taking seriously and appears to be trying to pre-empt.

The Democratic Reform Bloc, a political group headed by Mohammed Dahlan, a controversial Abu Dhabi-based former Palestinian security chief believed to be close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE’s de facto ruler, said dozens of his supporters had been arrested or summoned for questioning by Palestinian security forces in recent days.

Mr. Dahlan appeared to be walking a fine line when he recently denied any role in mediating relations between the UAE and Israel.

Mr. Abbas’ suspicions stem from an unsuccessful effort last year by the UAE to engineer a deal in which Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, would share power with Mr. Dahlan.

Mr. Dahlan went into exile in the UAE in 2007 after Hamas defeated his US-backed efforts to thwart the group’s control of Gaza. US President George W. Bush described Mr. Dahlan at the time as “our boy.”

He has since been indicted by Mr. Abbas’ Palestine Authority on corruption charges.

UAE recognition of Israel constituted an acknowledgment that the 18-year old Arab peace plan that offered Israel diplomatic relations in exchange for land and a Palestinian state had produced naught.

In its rivalry with Turkey, whose assertive support for the Palestinian cause has likewise failed to produce results so far, the UAE is banking on the expectation that it has the upper hand in getting not only Israeli but also the attention of Washington that under US President Donald J. Trump has disregarded Palestinian rights.

The UAE assumes that it will be able to capitalize on the fact that Emirati recognition of Israel has further complicated Turkey’s relations with its NATO ally, the United States.

Turkey’s relations with the US are already troubled by US support for Syrian Kurds; Turkish military backing of the Libyan government in Tripoli; tensions between Turkey and Greece, another NATO ally, in the Eastern Mediterranean; and Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile defense system.

The Trump administration hopes to finalize by December the sale of F-35 fighter planes to the UAE in the wake of the deal with Israel.  Earlier, it cancelled Turkey’s acquisition of the same plane in response to the country’s S-400 deal with Russia.

For now, Turkey can look at appreciation by important segments of Arab and Muslim public opinion as an upside of its  strident support for the Palestinians.

Seeking to capitalize on its Palestinian goodwill, Turkey has been attempting to end the rift between Mr. Abbas’ Al Fatah movement and Hamas in a bid to get the Palestinians to agree on elections and the formation of a joint government.

The two groups, agreed during  talks in Istanbul this week to work together and hold long overdue elections in the next six months.

The joker in Turkish-Emirati differences over Israel and Palestine is the upcoming US presidential election in November.

Irrespective of who wins, Turkey has lost to the UAE the beneficial mantle of being Israel’s best Muslim friend.

Nonetheless, an electoral victory by Democratic challenger Joe Biden, who is expected to be more critical of arms purchases by the UAE and other Gulf states and take them to task on human rights issues, could put both Turkey and the Emirates on the back foot.

A Biden victory would be for Turkey a lost opportunity. The very issues that are at the core of its strained relations with the UAE are likely to complicate its relations with a Democratic administration.

Recent media reports reminded Mr. Erdogan that Mr. Biden had described him in a conversation with The New York Times early this year as an “autocrat.” The Democratic candidate suggested that the US. should “embolden” his opponents to defeat him in elections.

In the conversation, Mr. Biden mentioned other issues, including the Kurds, Syria, and tension in the Eastern Mediterranean that do not bode well for US-Turkish relations should the Democrat occupy the White House. Mr. Biden is expected to be also critical of the UAE’s interventions in Yemen and Libya.

Nonetheless, the UAE, despite its own issues with the US, is likely to still find itself in a better place in Washington no matter who emerges victorious from the November election.

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Middle East

Arabs-Israeli Peace must be Well-Anchored, not Neatly Fantasized

Mohammed Nosseir

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Watching a few Emirati and Israeli citizens dance in Chabad House, Dubai to celebrate normalization may give the impression that these nations have realized a genuine peace; a false assumption that disregards the facts that the peace treaty between Israel and two Arab Nations is meant to serve Donald Trump in his upcoming presidential election, values the “ground reality” that clearly favors Israel over United Nations resolutions upholding the “land for peace” principle, and advances western politicians’ view that peace can be imposed top-down, seconded by autocratic Arab rulers.

As an Egyptian, I highly value the peace treaty between my country and Israel that was based on regaining occupied Egyptian land, the Sinai Peninsula. The treaty has helped to alter Egyptians’ views of Israel fundamentally; no longer seen as a permanent enemy, Israel is presently perceived as a “cooperative” neighbor that has offered us millions of tourists and a few sound investments – solid pillars for normalization. Meanwhile, the clear majority of Egyptians, Arabs and Muslims continue to sympathize with the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation – a crisis that can only be resolved by pursuing the same path towards peace as that of Egypt.

For years, the United States has been trying to impose a peace treaty between the Arab nations and Israel based on the concept that Arabs should accept Israeli territorial expansion in return for the injection of substantial U.S.  funds to boost the Palestinian economy, a proposition strengthened by Israel’s military power and Arab rulers’ injudicious, hasty attitude towards the crisis. Underneath this reality lurks the further empowerment of the political Islamist proposition that places Israel as a permanent enemy, which could easily drag our region into additional, unpredicted violence. 

Arabs societies generally appear to lead a “double life”. On the one hand is the reality that 60% are either poor citizens or citizens who are vulnerable to poverty, an unemployment rate of roughly 11%, the lack of basic freedoms and living under autocratic rule; a sad status that has become even more dramatic with the advent of Covid-19. These factors combined intensify Arab youth’s anger and frustration towards their rulers and towards the United States, seen as a solid supporter of those rulers. Obviously, Palestinians living under Israeli occupation rule have an extra challenge to deal with.

On the other hand is the fantasy life constituted of GDP growth and the implementation of a few mega projects that Arab rulers like to exhibit and that western politicians and scholars tend to recognize as a sign of success – completely overlooking the fact that these projects are often awarded to the rulers’ cronies and that the unequal distribution of wealth will keep large portions of Arabs living in poverty for generations to come, making them more vulnerable to violence. Likewise, expanding trade deals between Arab nations and Israel or receiving economic incentives from the United States have proven to benefit only the same cronies.

Moreover, the present rumour that the United States is building a block of Arab nations and Israel meant to potentially engage in a war with Iran is a catastrophic approach. Should it happen, it will thrust the entire region into a state of intense violence and enduring war that could well lead to the collapse of many of the signed treaties. Furthermore, a peace treaty between Israel and two Arab nations, who are not in conflict with Israel, will not help to resolve either the Palestinian crisis or the Iranian conflict – Bahraini and the Emirati citizens will never validate such a treaty, if it is presented to them fairly.

There is a huge difference between a peace treaty concluded between two mature, democratic nations whose respective governments truly represent their citizens, and an agreement that is imposed on nations whose citizens are – to put it mildly – in disharmony with their rulers. Arab citizens, often accused of engaging in violence and declining to peacefully settle with Israel, are in fact caught between two fires: their autocratic rulers, who deliberately offer them undignified living conditions and Islamic extremists, who promise them eternal salvation as a reward for engaging in violence and terrorism.

Permanent Arab-Israeli peace can only be achieved through a bottom-up approach that is designed to last, which entails keeping away from western pragmatism and enforcement, both of no value to this crisis. Israel is continually working to enhance its security, an absolute necessity for its citizens. It needs to offer Palestinians the opportunity to live a dignified life based, first, on regaining their occupied land and establishing a state of their own, followed by advancing their economic status. Offering the later at the expense of the former will keep us in this vicious circle of violence for decades to come.

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