November 17, 2011
Number 11/11 #04
Today’s Update features two pieces on the worsening international position of Syria’s Assad regime, in the wake of Syria’s suspension by the Arab League, a call by Jordan’s King Abdullah for Assad to step down, and new European sanctions. All this occurred as the killing went on in defiance of an Arab League peace plan (at least 40 people were reportedly killing on Monday, some disturbing video is here) and following attacks in Syria and Lebanon by pro-regime mobs on the Embassies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Jordan.
First up is Israeli academic expert Mark Heller from Tel Aviv University, who discusses in more depth the Arab League’s decision and the background to it. He notes that while moral revulsion at the continued killing is not irrelevant, that is not the key issue for Arab states, many of which are not exactly shrinking violets in their own internal politics. He says that Syria’s flaunting of the Arab League peace plan and concern about increasingly important Arab public opinion played a part, but sectarianism, and especially the divide between Shiite Iran and its allies including Syria on the one side, and the Sunni states, is also key to understanding the Arab League policy. For the rest of what Heller has to say,
Next up is is British thinktanker Michael Weiss. He discusses both the reasons for the Arab League decision and the growing split in the Syrian opposition between army defector groups prepared to pursue a military rebellion and the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council (SNC), which has been getting most international attention and is still opposed to military defections. Weiss makes the case that there appears to be no other hope to protect Syrians, not from the UN, nor from the Arab League, and the SNC may ultimately have to rethink their stance and support military defectors. For his argument in full, , CLICK HERE. Weiss had another good piece highlighting how the Kurds could play a key, even critical, role in the future of the Assad regime, while other experts discussed the economy as key to the regime’s fate. Meanwhile, rebel Syrian army factions are now attacking Syrian military bases.
Finally, this Update contains some additional analysis of the aftermath of last weeks’ damning International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran. Reuel Marc Gerecht, a scholar who continues to write some of the most interesting analysis on Iran around, has a look at how the Iranians reacted to the report, and what it says about Iranian politics. He notes that the regime’s media actually reported the report’s findings fully, indicating that the regime wished to call attention to its nuclear achievements, and goes on to offer some interesting, and concerning, conclusions about what this says about the mindset of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For Gerecht’s look inside the Iranian regime’s attitudes toward the IAEA’s nuclear revelations, CLICK HERE. For more on Iranian responses, MEMRI has a highly useful summary based on translation from the Iranian press, while Israeli military analyst Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael Segall discusses signs the Iranian regime views itself as ready for a confrontation, military or otherwise, on the nuclear issue.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Former senior American official Elliot Abrams argues that the recent events mean that the Assad regime is ultimately doomed, as does American security analyst Max Boot. An editorial from the Wall Street Journal comes to the same conclusion.
- Calls for additional US-led sanctions on Syria.
- Michael Rubin argues that Syrian President Assad needs only to hold out for six weeks until the US pullout from Iraq means there will be little impediment to Iran sending much more aid to the embattled dictator.
- Additional serious analysis of the IAEA report on Iran comes from academic and former Israeli UN Ambassador Dore Gold, Israeli proliferation expert Efraim Asculai and noted strategic analyst Anthony Cordesman.
- Israel says its own intelligence indicates Iran is actually closer to gaining a nuclear weapon than the IAEA report indicates.
- An additional look inside Iranian politics with experts Ramin Jahanbegloo and Mehdi Khalaji.
- Proliferation specialist Olli Heinonen discusses the strategic opportunities created by the IAEA report, while Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl has some thoughts on the Israeli debate about what to do on Iran.
- Foreign policy expert Walter Russell Mead says France is now leading the charge for tough action on Iran and explores why.
- Some policy advice on dealing with the Iranian nuclear problem through sanctions – here and here.
- Some interesting speculation on the significance of the an explosion at an Iranian military base that killed a Revolutionary Guards commander – here and here.
- James Kirchick discusses the US failure to get Russia to support tough Iran sanctions and what can be done.
- Iran’s parliament passes a new penalty of five years prison for any Iranian traveling to Israel.
- Iranian opposition dissidents call for the Iranian government to suspend uranium enrichment as UN Security Council decisions demand.
- While it’s getting little media coverage, recent weeks have seen a steady stream of rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza and yesterday a rocket hit a kindergarten – which luckily was empty.
- A post highlighting another problem for Gaza’s long-suffering population – lousy amusement parks.
- An interview with Ilan Grapel, (video here) the Israeli-American student and former AIJAC fellow who was held without charge in Egypt for four months before being freed in a prisoner exchange.
- Following up on the last Update, noted Arab journalist Mshari Al-Zaydi joins Western analysts in warning that the Arab Spring appears to be turning into a Muslim Brotherhood Spring.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Two posts on Israel’s controversial proposal to limit or tax foreign government funding for political NGOs- here and here.
- Why Greece’s new government, put in place to implement financial austerity measures, has an antisemitic sting in the tail.
- UNESCO, the UN cultural agency, follows up its admission of Palestine by demanding Israel’s government censor a Haaretz cartoon it didn’t like.
- What the Fairfax papers got wrong about Noam Chomsky and holocaust denial.
- AIJAC National Chairman Mark Leibler on why the only principled decision for Australia at the UN is to support the one path that can lead to two states.
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Heller, Mark A.
INSS Insight No. 294, November 16, 2011
On November 12, 2011, the League of Arab States suspended the membership of one of its founding partners, the Syrian Arab Republic. This is not a totally unprecedented measure, but it is nevertheless highly significant, not because the League itself is a unified and effective international actor but rather because it may well be a harbinger of future actions by many of its constituent governments.
The League’s decision has had an immediate impact in a symbolic sense, by undermining the self-confidence of the Syrian regime while bolstering the morale of the opposition. Moreover, the effect may become material if Arab governments empower the League to follow up on hints of sanctions against the Syrian regime and more tangible support for the opposition. Leaders of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group, have already been invited to League headquarters in Cairo for further discussions, and King Abdullah of Jordan has publicly called for Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to step aside.
Given the League’s generally anodyne posture on inter-Arab relations, the explanation for these actions almost certainly goes beyond moral revulsion at Asad’s brutality in trying to repress the domestic uprising against his regime. Of course, that is not altogether irrelevant. Despite the severe restrictions on credible reporting from Syria, it is clear that Asad’s security forces have already killed at least 3,500 protesters, wounded, abused, or imprisoned thousands of others, and impelled many others to seek refuge across the Turkish, Lebanese, or Jordanian borders. In an environment of growing criticism, Arab League representatives pushed for a peace plan involving the withdrawal of troops from urban areas, the release of prisoners, and a pardon for opposition leaders. The Syrian government formally accepted this plan but then refused to implement it. That was inevitably seen as intransigence, and almost a year into the Arab spring, Arab governments are perforce more attentive to public sentiments about how governments should or should not behave. In other words, Asad is undoubtedly paying a price for what he does.
But the price is compounded by who he is – a member of the Alawite sect associated with Shiism and a leader who, following in the footsteps of his father, has kept his Syrian Arab Republic aligned with Shiite Iran (and against most Sunni Arabs) for more than three decades. This seems an even more powerful explanatory factor than repugnance at Asad’s behavior.
After all, other Arab leaders have responded to domestic insurgencies with similar or greater brutality, yet the commanders of the military regime during the civil war in Algeria, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen all escaped the sanctions now being visited on Asad. In fact, there are only two notable exceptions to the League’s customary refusal to censure Arab governments. One was Egypt, which was temporarily expelled from the League in 1979, not because its government was excessively repressive but because it broke Arab ranks and made peace with Israel. The other was Libya in 2011, but almost certainly only because its leader had personally insulted, alienated, and physically threatened so many other leaders in the Arab world. Moreover, Egypt was soon readmitted following the outbreak of Iran-Iraq War, when its active help was needed to stem the threat of Iranian expansion. That provides a major clue to the subtext of recent Arab diplomatic maneuvering: the need to counter Iran’s hegemonial ambitions, sometimes pursued through local Shiites seen to be acting as agents of Iranian influence.
The persuasiveness of that clue is reinforced by the identity of the leading forces behind the recent initiative aimed at Asad: Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two Gulf states in close proximity to Iran. There is some irony in this. After all, neither Qatar nor Saudi Arabia is itself a paragon of democratic values. Both had supported the suppression of the revolt against the Sunni monarchy in Shiite-majority Bahrain – the Saudis through direct military intervention – not in order to ensure respect for human rights but rather to check Iran, which was suspected of providing support to the protesters in Bahrain or at least of standing to benefit from their success. Additional evidence in favor of the sectarian explanation for the targeting of Asad may be gleaned from the identity of those who voted against Syria’s suspension – Yemen and Lebanon, along with Syria itself – or merely abstained – Iraq. Given the state of affairs in Yemen, the Yemenis may have simply been concerned about a worrisome precedent (although the decision to allow Saleh to return to San’a following prolonged medical treatment in Saudi Arabia suggests that such a concern is probably overblown). But both Lebanon and Iraq are fragmented states with powerful Shiite communities and Shiite-dominated or Shiite-constrained governments subject to significant Iranian influence.
All of this suggests that while Asad’s actions may well be out of step with the spirit of the times in the Arab world, the singular character of the Arab League’s actions against him may well be inspired by a factor that is never officially acknowledged but constantly hovers in the background. Sectarianism is the dirty laundry of Arab politics. Almost a year after the repression of the upheaval in Bahrain, eight years after the outbreak of internecine conflict in Iraq, and more than thirty-five years after the onset of the Lebanese civil war, it is still normally downplayed or denied, and when manifestations of its existence prove impossible to ignore, the tendency is still to blame it on the machinations of malevolent outsiders: Iran, the United States, or Israel (which has been accused of inciting the latest round of Islamist-inspired attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt). A new era of pluralism and openness may yet emerge in the Arab world, but the old era of identity politics has not yet passed.
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Weekly Standard, November 14, 2011 5:55 PM
It’s been a lousy week for Bashar al-Assad. First came news that Syria was to be suspended from the Arab League despite the complicating fact that Assad still technically holds the presidency of the Arab League Council, the chief decision-making body of the organization. Then, last night, King Abdullah of Jordan went on BBC to say that if he were in Assad’s shoes, he’d step down. Today, the European Union passed a new round of sanctions against Syria, adding 18 more nationals to its expanding list of mainly military figures within Assad’s inner circle who will have their European assets frozen and travel bans imposed on them.
The Arab League had several motives for suspending Syria from its roster. On November 3, the League had announced a “roadmap” for negotiated reforms with the Assad regime aimed at ending nine months of state-perpetrated atrocities; these reforms would begin by removing tanks and armored vehicles from city streets. Just as the roadmap was being hailed on both sides as a testament to peace in our time, nineteen more people were brutally killed in Syria, eighteen of them in Homs, now the capital and principal battlefield of the revolution, and one in Damascus. Gunfire and tank shells were the accompanying soundtrack to credulous triumphalism as Al Jazeera’s Cairo correspondent Jane Arraf noted the League’s jubilant mood at the time: “Secretary-General [Nabil el-Araby] is calling this a paradigm shift in recent relations with Syria, which has huge concerns not just for Syria’s neighbors but for the entire Arab community.”
Humiliating the League further, the United Nations, in the week since the roadmap was struck, found that 60 more Syrians were murdered (activists put this figure closer to 100), bringing Assad’s total nine-month death toll to at minimum 3,500 (that figure is likely much higher as many bodies have not yet been “registered” at state morgues). The Strategic Research and Communications Centre run by Ausama Monajed, a member of the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council (SNC), claims that “heavy artillery, tanks, armored units, anti-aircraft guns, heavy machine guns, nail bombs, and snipers” are still being used in Homs against the protesters. (For an excellent map of the protest activity in this battleground city, click here.)
French foreign minister Alain Juppe was swift to declare the Arab League initiative a dead letter and Assad himself a political nullity. Paris also signaled its intent of recognizing the SNC (so far, only Libya and Tunisia do) and of taking a case to the U.N. for “international protection” for the beleaguered people of Homs.
This is a start. But the SNC, which is still struggling to gain international legitimacy as a government-in-exile, thinks that “protection” can take the form of “Arab and international observers… to oversee the situation on the ground.”
Indeed there was a previous U.N. fact-finding mission under the authority of U.N. high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay, but it didn’t accomplish much: when that delegation drove through Homs in August, protestors beseeched the members to exit their vehicles and come and inspect the devastation up close. They didn’t. One man even said, “We are protected now because you are here.” Sure enough, when the delegation left the city, the regime started shooting again. Independent human rights monitors and scores of smuggled-in journalists have already confirmed the situation on the ground—namely, crimes against humanity. What’s needed now is action to stop those crimes.
The regime’s men continue to torture people, Syrian activists credibly allege, by electrocuting their genitals; urinating in their mouths and forcing them to swallow; serially raping women and children (the prettier girls go to the mukhabarat section chief, while the plainer ones are left for the warden’s own amusement); and ripping out fingernails and eyeballs. The opposition may not be interested in violence, but violence is clearly interested in the opposition.
The rebel fighting taking place in Homs has been conducted mainly by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) under the leadership of Col. Riad al-Asa’ad, who along with a handful of other former senior Syrian military commanders, is now headquartered in Antakya, Turkey. The FSA doesn’t recognize the SNC because the SNC is formally against military defections as well as any kind of armed defensive campaign. Al-Asa’ad told the New York Times in late October: “We are an army, we are in the opposition, and we are prepared for military operations. If the international community provides weapons, we can topple the regime in a very, very short time.” Sure, that may be bluster, but then, there is a reason why the regime hasn’t been able to retake Homs so easily as it did Hama and Deraa and Jisr al-Shughour.
The SNC must decide at what point does peaceful resistance becomes a suicide pact.
Michael Weiss is communications director of the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based foreign policy think tank.
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By Reuel Marc Gerecht
CBSNews.com, November 15, 2011 9:39 AM
Reading the Iranian press last week after the International Atomic Energy Agency released its report on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program elicited a sense of déjà vu: It could have been the year 2002, when the Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq (Holy Warriors for the Masses) revealed to the world the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. Back then, the clerical regime did not try to censor coverage of the Mujahedin’s discovery in the domestic press. Last week, the Iranian press similarly regurgitated in detail Western reporting on the IAEA’s revelations about nuclear weaponization
The regime can, and usually does, set stringent guidelines on what the media can report. In 2001, when Mohammad Khatami’s reformist government still influenced what could be printed, a sensitive censorship guide for book publishers got released as a book and became a minor bestseller. Its title gives a good idea of how the clerical regime likes to control what Iranians read: Censorship: A review of 1,400 documents from the Office of Book Censorship. This guide brilliantly reveals the regime’s eccentricities. When it comes to internal politics, sex, and the machinations of foreigners, the Iranian censors have demanding standards. So when the ruling mullahs and their praetorians, the Revolutionary Guards, decide to give the Iranian people full access to a Western discussion through officially approved media outlets, they do so for a reason.
In 2002 the regime allowed the Natanz revelations to be fully aired because doing so made the government, in particular Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, look good. Average Iranians, let alone the civilian elite, thought then, as they think now, that the Islamic Republic is far from a first-world country. In a land where quality control is almost nonexistent, where people who have any money always buy foreign-made goods, people expect little from their government. For a regime that had collapsed the country’s living standards in just a few years to be capable, nevertheless, of building a gleaming, stainless-steel facility that could enrich uranium verged on the miraculous.
Before the 2009 presidential election made foreign journalists more aware that many Iranians do not love their government and can, quite easily, separate their deep patriotism from the aspirations of the ruling elite, the Western media — especially the BBC — loved to conflate Iranians’ pride in technical nuclear achievement with a popular endorsement of the government’s nuclear policy, if not the government itself.
Although Tehran had tried to conceal its nuclear ambitions (violating in so doing the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it is a party), it reversed gears after the Mujahedin-e Khalq’s revelations. The regime adopted a new openness — IAEA inspectors were allowed to visit regularly and install cameras at Natanz — undoubtedly in part out of fear of George W. Bush, who’d taken down the Taliban and was preparing to invade Iraq. But Khamenei and the ruling elite also liked the attention.
Above all else, the supreme leader sees himself as the protector of the Islamic revolution. He is the Muslim paladin turning back the Westernization of his homeland and defying the West’s great power, the United States. Uranium enrichment was and is an expression of Khamenei’s and the Islamic Republic’s religious virility.
It is impossible not to see the same emotions at play in the -Iranian media’s extensive coverage of the IAEA’s latest revelations. The regime wants the Iranian -people to know about its progress with nuclear triggers, explosive computer-modeling, and ballistic-missile-warheads. The regime is proud of these achievements.
Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, conveyed this pride pithily just before the IAEA report was released. Formerly a senior nuclear official and undoubtedly a man familiar with the gap between what Iran says it’s doing and what it’s actually done, Salehi remarked: “Let them publish and see what happens.” Tehran may well think that its public defiance of the IAEA is a crowd pleaser at home, and it probably is with the government’s revolutionary base (perhaps 20 percent of the population). But Khamenei — whose personality and preferences increasingly dominate the regime — doesn’t play primarily to the people; he plays to himself, to his Manichean division of the world.
Periodically, when the temperature rises in the West about Iran’s nuclear program, some scholars and commentators focus on the supreme leader’s supposed fatwa against nuclear weapons (it’s bad for anyone to have them, especially bad for Muslims, absolutely haram to use one). Although Islamic scholars in Iran have debated the propriety of nukes, among political clerics the question was settled in the early 1990s after a vigorous debate about whether Iran should proceed with a nuclear-weapons program. Led by Khamenei and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — then the major-domo of the mullah establishment and the man who in 1989 arranged Khamenei’s succession as supreme leader — the ruling clergy decided to back the clandestine program. All of the revelations in the new IAEA report about nuclear triggers and warhead designs — rather strong proof that Khamenei hasn’t had a religious problem with at least building and possessing a nuclear bomb — ought to tell Western observers that Khamenei’s august political-religious office doesn’t denote the veracity one might expect from saintly pope or worldly rabbi.
Reflexively, Westerners assume a certain probity in men of the cloth (despite a superabundance of evidence that churchmen too are sinners). For Iranian mullahs the assumption is woefully misplaced, at least when it comes to honesty (and sex). Iranians have never regarded clerics — except perhaps the most accomplished scholars — as ever being above sin. They are lawyers who, as the great poet Hafez famously remarked, “don’t practice in private what they preach in public.” Even so, public esteem for the clergy has probably fallen in 30 years of theocracy. It’s a good guess that the assessment of the Emperor Charles V’s ambassador to London of English sentiment towards their clergy is close to the truth in Iran: “Nearly all the people hate the priests.”
The enormous disconnect between public attitudes and official rhetoric has introduced a pervasive surreality into the world of Iran’s political clerics, who rule but no longer reign. To say that the Iranian governing elite are mendacious just doesn’t capture the distance between words and deeds.
Khamenei’s nuclear fatwa was not to be taken seriously. It was meant partly for Western consumption. More important, it reflected the surreal Islam-vs.-the-West theater that is a never-ending spectacle in the Islamic Republic. America unleashed the atom bomb in war; the Islamic Republic wouldn’t do such a thing. The West is overflowing with homosexuals; in Iran, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad informed the students of Columbia University in 2007, “We don’t have that.” Ahmadinejad, a man of considerable earthy Persian wit, probably has told innumerable homosexual jokes about the towns of Qazvin and Shiraz — a mainstay of Persian working-class humor. But at Columbia, at that moment, homosexuality in his homeland didn’t exist. Ahmadinejad probably could have passed a polygraph test on the question.
The same for Khamenei on the nuclear issue. Khamenei lives in two worlds: In one, his minions work arduously to build nuclear weapons; in the other they do research on medical isotopes. In one, he sends his minions abroad to slaughter Jews in Argentina, blow up Americans at Khobar Towers, liaise with al Qaeda, and in all probability assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C.; in the other, he’s defending the Palestinian people and all Muslims against aggressive Zionists, peacefully deploring the presence of American troops in Arabia, condemning the bigotry of Sunni extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan, and revealing to all the long track record of American terrorism inside Iran. Khamenei moves between these two worlds effortlessly, without friction, without awareness that he’s crossed the border between fiction and fact.
The Iranian media’s coverage of the IAEA report reflects Khamenei’s most cherished conception of himself and his country. That conception is dangerous because it is insular, disconnected from and at odds with reality as understood in the West. When the supreme leader gets his hands on a nuclear weapon, this self-centeredness may get much worse. If the United States and the Islamic Republic ever go to war, this will surely be why.
Bio: Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and the author of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East (Hoover Institution Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.