Archive for January, 2013

This article originally appeared in The Rutland Herald and The Barre Times-Argus. It is the third in a series that began with “Middle East: Cauldron of Conflict” which was published in these papers on December 13, 2012.  The series will consider the Arab Spring, the transfer of democracy to the region and the realities as they evolve in the countries involved.

Like so many countries in the Middle East, before the end of the First World War, Syria was ruled by foreigners.  Canaanites, Phoenicians, Aramaens, Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Hittites prevailed in the pre-Christian era, to be followed later by the Persians, Macedonians, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines.

The spread of Islam in the 7th Century brought Syria into the Islamic Empire, only to be followed, inter alia, by Crusader, Mongol and Mamluk rulers.  Some stability was finally achieved when Syria became a part of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th Century and remained there until World War One, whence it emerged under French Mandate.

The French granted Syria independence in 1946.  However, this new Syria lacked political stability, undergoing a series of military coups during its early years.  Coerced stability was finally provided in 1970 when Hafez al-Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, seized power in a coup.

Along with its fragmented history and lack of experience with self-government, Syria is afflicted with the three prevalent, negative imperatives of the Middle East:  Nationalism, Sectarianism and Tribalism.

Although tribal and nationality issues have always existed in Syria, they have generally been of lesser consequence.  It is in the sectarian arena that Syrian stability has proven most vulnerable.

Sunni Muslims represent about 74% of the population of 22.5 Million Syrians, with Alawites and Druze (both subgroupings of Shia Islam) at 16% and Christians at 10%.  The problem for Syrians is that the minority Alawites under the Assad family have ruled the majority Sunnis and the Christians with an iron fist, killing whenever they felt it necessary.  In the Hama massacre of 1982, estimates of deaths run from 20-40,000, a figure only to be exceeded in today’s ongoing war of the Alawites against their Sunni enemies.

As the only Alawite (Shia) minority government in the Middle East, the Assad regime has had the full support of Iran.  In fact, Iran has supported all Shia groups in the Middle East, in the Gulf States and Lebanon, for example.  Interestingly, at a time when a Majority Shia population was being repressively ruled by a minority Sunni government in Iraq, the exact opposite was taking place in Syria.

The significance of the friction between Shia and Sunni cannot be overstated.  These two sects are in hot wars wherever the opportunity presents itself, as in Syria and Iraq.  As the primary supporters of Shia Islam (Iran) and Sunni Islam (Saudi Arabia) in the Gulf, and as those two countries in the region that seek regional hegemony at the other’s expense, an ongoing political war exists between them.

Because of demographic realities, the Syrians are in the unfortunate position of being the surrogates for this intra-Islamic conflict.  Iran is most certainly providing broad support to Syria’s Alawite leadership and Saudi Arabia is said to be providing the same to the anti-Assad Syrian rebels.

Perhaps this fact is not, in itself, sufficient cause for major long-term concern.  The problem is that the Syrian conflict, aided and abetted by Iraq’s sectarian carnage, could very easily slip into a regional conflict pitting Iran and her Arab Shia allies against the region’s majority Sunnis.

Whether that happens or not, the major concern facing anyone who is truly concerned about the future of the region, and that should include America, is what will follow the Assad family’s Alawite regime into leadership in Syria. This is the reality that dominates US policy making.

Every entity that serves the Assad regime today has, in doing so, forfeited any conceivable claim to acceptable governance in Syria.  Their hands are simply too bloody and when they do fall, which they most certainly will, they will be lucky to leave Syria on anything other than a slab.  This observation would argue strongly that post-Assad Syria is likely to be chaotic and essentially ungovernable.

At this moment there are reports that myriad anti-Assad rebel forces are in conflict with one another over the considerable booty liberated during the course of the ongoing civil war.  That sad reality offers no viable, desirable candidates for future Syrian governance.

We don’t really know who these people are or what they stand for.  That is almost certainly a contributing factor to the Obama administration’s completely understandable decision to opt for the lightest possible observable footprint in Syria.

Any deeper, more specific commitment to rebel groups that are are essentially unassessable could very well be to a group that will not be able to effectively govern, leaving their more heavily involved backers with a frightful mess on their hands.

Any bet in Syria today is a bad bet.

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This article originally appeared in The Rutland Herald and The Barre Times-Argus. It is the second in a series that began with “Middle East: Cauldron of Conflict” which was published in these papers on December 13, 2012.  The series will consider the Arab Spring, the transfer of democracy to the region and the realities as they evolve in the countries involved.

Voting on the new Egyptian constitution, which was written almost entirely by the Muslim Brotherhood, shows the Brotherhood won. However, with internal dissent evident in the low overall voter turnout of 32.9 percent, and street protests mounting, it is time to take a closer look at the likely ramifications of that divisive win. To do that, it is critical that we understand more about Egypt’s history, what the Muslim Brotherhood is and what it stands for.

Although Egypt has some of the issues of tribe, sect and nation that affect stability in the “countries” of the Middle East created over the past 150 years by Western imperial powers, what is happening there right now has its own very distinctive Egyptian markings.

Since its beginnings before 3000 B.C., Egypt has not avoided repressive rule. The last native Egyptian dynasty fell to the Persians in the fourth century B.C.. Since then Egypt has been ruled by Greeks, Romans and Byzantines. Arabs have ruled only since the seventh century A.D.

Thus, Egypt has not escaped the one reality that dominates the evolving political scene in the Middle East. Since the seventh century A.D., the Egyptian people have no direct, personal experience with democracy, only with the realities of repression, Islam and Sharia law and military dictatorship.

In 2011, the Egyptian people overthrew the military dictatorship that had been in place since 1952, most recently under General Hosni Mubarak. Since 1952, Egypt has no native experience with governance except through military repression. What makes Egypt different from the many other Arab countries that suffered under military dictatorship is that, since 1928, Egypt has had the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood was founded as an Islamist religious, political and social organization. What has made it unique in the Muslim Middle East is that, despite numerous, often brutal, governmental crackdowns, it has functioned as a disciplined political opposition to Egyptian regimes in power. The point is that it has been involved in governance for over 80 years.

That means that when Mubarak was overthrown, the only two organizations with any kind of practical political experience were the Brotherhood and the Egyptian military. It seemed inevitable that one or the other would grab the reins.

Tahrir Square in 2011 was populated by people of widely differing motivation ranging from the rigid Islamist views of fundamentalist Salafists to the rather fuzzy democratic views of the many secular Egyptians who had had some indirect brush with democracy. Unfortunately, the secular forces are untidy, uncoordinated and disunited. The closest they have come to unification, organization and any hope for power has come with the National Salvation Front headed by Muhammad el-Baradei, former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

And while el-Baradei was getting his act together, the Brotherhood was in full swing. Through their new political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, it ran in and won the elections of November 2011. Muhammad Morsi, a leading figure in the Brotherhood and chairman of the Brotherhood’s party, ultimately was declared winner of the election and president of Egypt.

Since then, Morsi has acted decisively to consolidate his position. He has, at least for the moment, emasculated whatever hopes the Egyptian military may have had for power. He took over the Constitutional Assembly that wrote Egypt’s future constitution, causing the resignation from that body of virtually all those Egyptians who might have disagreed with the Brotherhood’s position.

Finally, he unsuccessfully tried to arrogate to himself all the powers previously vested in Egypt’s judicial system, effectively neutralizing any possibility that the courts would rule the assembly or its constitution to be illegal. Hardly a democratic process!

The Muslim Brotherhood’s credo was and is, “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law, the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.”

Its principles include the introduction of Sharia law as “the basis for controlling the affairs of state and society”; and to work to unify “Islamic countries and states, mainly among the Arab states, and liberate them from foreign imperialism.” If this represents the true beliefs of President Morsi, then under his rule Egypt would appear to be heading in the direction of sectarian Islamism of an intensity as yet undetermined.

So, the issue is: Will Eqypt be ruled by an ideologically true Muslim Brotherhood, or has Mr. Morsi, only recently a significant player in the Brotherhood, really been able to effect democratic changes as he claims to have done in an organization that for 84 years has been traditionally hostile to the most basic tenets of democracy?

Whatever evolves, Egypt will remain internally divided and difficult to govern until the political needs of all its citizens are more fully considered.

AP FILE PHOTO Thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo to attend the funeral of activist Gaber Salah, who was killed in clashes with security forces in November.

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