Archive for the ‘Lebanon’ Category

Rural Ruminations

by Haviland Smith


Before we adopt a new Syria policy, a quick review might be helpful in better understanding the endless confusion that rules over the situation in that region today.

Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turks make up about 72% of the Syrian population, Shia 13% and Christians about 10%. The Syrian government, its military and economy under Bashar Al Assad are dominated by the Alawites (Shia). Minority Alawites and their allies run everything important in Syria.

The current civil war in Syria began in the Spring of 2011 with the establishment of the Free Syrian Army, a group of Syrian Army defectors who are roughly 90% Sunni.

This struggle has been something of a proxy war with Iran (Shia) and Yemen (Shia) the main supporters of the Assad (Shia) regime with outside help from Russia. Arrayed against them in support of the rebels are Jordan, Saudi Arabia (the birthplace of Sunni fundamentalism), Turkey and Qatar (both Sunni) along with France, Britain and the US. The sectarian violence has spread to Lebanon where Hezbollah (Shia) has allied itself with the Assad regime and, additionally, fought with Lebanese Sunni groups.

ISIS began life as a fundamentalist Sunni organization. In effect, ISIS is a criminal organization populated by thugs for whom there are no rules of decency. Given sufficient exposure, it is highly likely that ISIS will completely alienate the Sunnis in Northern Syria and Western Iraq, as there is nothing in the Koran (as it is seen by the vast majority of its adherents) that justifies the murderous activities in which they have continuously been involved. Shia Iran is ISIS’ foremost committed enemy. Whose side are we on?

In addition, we have the new Iraqi army which is now being trained by the United States, but which has been referred to as “not so much an army as a vast system of patronage”. The Army, beholden as it is to the Shia government of Iraq, excludes from its ranks any Iraqi who might be opposed to that government. The army is widely said to have been infiltrated by local militias and foreign insurgents, resulting in secular killings and operational failures. It is, to all intents and purposes an inefficient, albeit Shia, operation. Further, current reporting indicates that much of the anti-ISIS opposition comes from Shia militia from Iraq. Do we want our boots on the ground with them?

Then we have the Kurds who are the largest ethnic group (28,000,000) in the world without a country and whose people are spread out over Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. They are estimated to represent 15-25% of the total population of Turkey. Even though they are Sunnis, like the Turks on whose land so many Kurds live, they are viewed with grave suspicion by the Turks as ongoing threats to the sovereignty of Eastern Turkey. In fact, they do find time to kill one another on a fairly regular basis. Whom do we support?

So we have this incredible mélange of ethnic and sectarian Middle Easterners involved either directly or indirectly in the Syrian insurgency. It is impossible at any given time, to predict just how they will react to the wide variety of scenarios that exist for the future. They are hardly the sort of allies that the US is used to and from whom we could possibly profit. Who are our friends? Our enemies?

Counterterrorism doctrine promotes police work, intelligence collection and Special Forces operations, never military. No matter what the Administration says, Syria is not a counterterrorism problem. It is a counterinsurgency problem. Some Americans openly promote American troops on the ground in Syria. US military doctrine dictates that in fighting an insurgency the occupying force must have one combatant on the ground for every 20-25 residents of the country involved. Even with all the Syrians who have left their country, there are probably around 22 million left. That would mean a force of 440-550,000 troops. Are we up to that? Who will pay for it?

And then there is the other reality. We have learned from our invasion of Afghanistan that if you overlook the rules and put American troops on the ground fighting against an organization that even the local residents hate, you present those residents with a dilemma. Do they support the invading Americans or do they support an indigenous group that they otherwise would hate? Our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq give us a pretty clear answer to that question.

These realities will not change simply because our policy makers want them to. And then, what is our goal? Even if we are successful in bringing down ISIS, what then?

We are so over our heads here!







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First Published in the Barre Times-Argus and the Rutland Herald

Lebanon is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on the face of the earth with evidence of human activity going back over 7,000 years.

Probably because of its topography, which features wild 10,000 foot mountains, Lebanon has a large supply of defensible sites for towns and villages.  In the Fourth Century, Christianity began to spread in the region. Roman persecution of it saw the movement of those Maronite Christians into the Lebanese mountains where they survived first the Romans and then the Muslims and thrive to this day.

Lebanon’s population of about 4 million is divided at about 95% Arab and 4% Armenian, although it should be noted that many of Lebanon’s Christians prefer not to be classified as “Arabs,” but rather to be called “Phoenicians”.

Religiously very diverse, the Lebanese are 60% Muslims (30% Shia, 24% Sunni and 5% Druze) and 40% Christians (21% Maronite, 8% Greek Orthodox and 7% Greek Catholic).

Lebanese populations often live in religious communities, which are not unlike some of the tribal societies that one finds in other Arab countries.  More often referred to as clans or families, these groups often have their own armed gangs that pursue clan interests.  It is said that having once totaled over 80 such tribes, the number is now down to between 30 and 35.

In addition, Lebanon is home to roughly a half million Palestinian refugees from what is now Israel with half of them living in refugee camps plus a quarter million Syrian refugees from the ongoing Syrian fighting, all of which is potentially destabilizing.

Syrian and Lebanese histories have been so intertwined over the centuries that many Syrians have considered Lebanon to properly be a part of greater Syria.  This has led to a pattern of active Syrian meddling in Lebanese affairs, including the effective occupation of that country from 1976 until 2005.

Most important, Lebanon is also home to Hezbollah, a Shia Islamic political party and militant group that has waged almost continuous war against Israel since the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.  Hezbollah was inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and has consistently called for the destruction of the state of Israel.  It is supported militarily by Iran and politically by Syria. The trio of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah has sought to deter or contain Israeli attacks while challenging U.S.-Israeli hegemony in Lebanon.

On short notice, Hezbollah can mobilize hundreds of thousands of demonstrators supporting its various causes and is said to be able to field fighting forces of 10,000 men.  It has enough seats in the Lebanese Government to give it veto power over government operations.  It runs its own social and medical services, TV and radio stations for its Shia adherents.  In short, Hezbollah is a government within a government.

Lebanon is by its very nature at the mercy of its environment.  Its demographics and geographic location make it about as involuntarily vulnerable to events in the Arab world as could possibly be.  The lion’s share of that vulnerability results from its close proximity of Israel and the presence in Lebanon of Hezbollah.

As the primary enemy of most of the Arab world, Israel is continuously targeted by one Arab group or another.  It started with the Palestine Liberation Organization and continues today with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Lebanon has the great misfortune to be sandwiched in between Israel and Syria.  As both Syria and Lebanon have significant Shia populations and because Hezbollah is supported by the Shia government in Syria as well as by Shia Iran, Lebanon is the focus for Arab paramilitary ground activity against Israel. In the case of the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel War, consensus says there was no real winner, not a bad result for a ragtag militant group against a powerful military nation.

In addition to the hundreds of rockets it regularly rains down on Israel, it is reported that Hezbollah has at least 100 ground-to-ground rockets that can reach Tel Aviv.  Syria has one of the largest stores of chemical weapons in the Middle East.  It is also now being reported that Syria, should the Assad regime be forced out of power, might be persuaded to give some of that Chemical WMD to Hezbollah to be mounted on those rockets, an act totally unacceptable to Israel.

The mere possibility that that even might happen underlines the fact that the Middle East, in this case Lebanon with all its national, tribal and sectarian instabilities, is on the edge of chaos virtually all the time, chaos that could easily engulf the entire region.


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