Posts Tagged ‘middle east’

Munich_Eye_05_15_49_00In a recent testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security, National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas Rasmussen estimated that over 20,000 fighters from across Europe, North America, or elsewhere in the Arab world had left their homes to join militant groups operating inside Iraq and Syria. This figure is striking given global outrage over widely publicized executions, the depth of the US-led coalition, and extensive barriers to entry resulting from European legislation targeting would-be militants traveling to Syria. The common narrative is that despite these deterrents, potential fighters decide to join groups such as the Islamic State (IS) due to a shared religious ideology. However, this explanation is likely more convenient than accurate. Militants do not join IS because they adhere to the group’s specific interpretation or brand of Islam, but rather because of a secular combination of personal and environmental factors pushing and pulling them to the Levant.

Interviews, testimonies, and social media analyses of militants operating inside Syria and Iraq indicate that “pull” factors comraderiesuch as the yearning for adventure, seeking camaraderie, and search for purpose serve as greater internal motivators to join IS than one’s religious fervor. Within many Arab countries, youth seek to fill the “purpose void” in their lives that is the product of a lack of desirable career opportunities or social integration. Coupled with the inherent sense of adventure that most youth, regardless of faith or nationality, grapple with, a militant life in Syria can be as alluring as backpacking through Europe is for many western college graduates. Referring to fighters that had already left for Syria, several Jordanian men in a recent Foreign Policy article called IS militants “our friends and neighbors” – alluding to a pseudo-fraternal perspective of IS.

A bevy of environmental factors also provide the “push” that many militants consider in making the decision to join. An unemp;aforementioned lack of career prospects and youth unemployment rates over 29% region-wide portray IS as “a potential employer more than an ideological kinsmen” said one Jordanian man interviewed by Foreign Policy. Injustices at home in the wake of the 2011 Arab Uprisings, whether in the form of police brutality or community ostracism, perpetuate the “us versus them” mentality at the heart of many regional conflicts. Finally, a lack of faith in the West, particularly the US, to act leads many to think that they alone must turn the tide of the battle against Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad, and/or creeping Iranian influence.

Rather than the common “shared ideology” narrative used to explain why militants decide to join jihadist groups such as the Islamic State, it is more appropriate to attribute such a decision to a complex and secular blend of personal “pull” and environmental “push” factors. However, given that each potential jihadist’s motivations are inherently unique and multifaceted, perhaps a greater focus on the “how” versus the “why” would succeed in stemming the flow of foreign fighters to Syria. While significantly more expensive and intrusive, “how” factors are easier to diagnose, address, and measure. Increased scrutiny of social media, communication surveillance, social network mapping, and enhanced airport security protocols all have the ability to impede the “how” why remaining applicable to all potential militants despite their elaborate spectrum of “whys.”

Despite an uptick in effective military strikes against IS targets in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere, the problem of eliminating IS cannot be completely solved with the barrel of a gun or any number of “how” remedies. Insurgencies, by their nature, focus on hearts and minds to appeal to recruits. Therefore governments and societies from which foreign fighters flow must take a critical and introspective look at the conditions they are fostering at home and realize these circumstances are far more likely to send young men and women to the battlefields of Iraq and Syria than any radicalized interpretation of Islam.

In response to a friend’s recent question pertaining to current events in Iraq and Syria: What are your feelings on the situation [ISIS’ recent land-grab and subsequent US-led coalition strikes]? And why aren’t more Middle East countries involved in the coalition? I wish Iran would step up and show they are not as crazy as they use to be… and “for once” Israel has a legitimate reason to conduct air strikes, why don’t they take advantage of it?”

isis-ten-arab-nations-join-us-led-coalition-against-islamic-stateRegarding the question of why more Middle Eastern countries aren’t involved in the coalition, I would say it’s because the Middle East isn’t a unified, solitary actor/participant in regional or international affairs any longer. Countries throughout the region all have different goals and desired outcomes not only for Iraq/Syria, but for the new balance of power in the region at-large. Gone are the days were the Arab League, and even the GCC, spoke for everyone represented in their respective regional groups. Qatar/Kuwait are believed to be supporting non-ISIS Islamists – both political and militant varities – in places like Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Iraq with money, supplies, and even weapons. All the while, the UAE/Saudi Arabia are opposing, by means of arming and financing the competitors of, the very forces that Doha and Kuwait City are supporting. We saw this struggle occur very overtly in the recent Tunisian parliamentary elections (where the UAE-support secularist Nidaa Tounes party outgained the Qatar-backed Islamist Ennahda party), and we are seeing this on the battlefields of Syria each day. While I think there’s pretty unanimous animosity towards ISIS at the state-level, there are plenty of individual donors in all the above-mentioned countries who are supportive of the group. These donors all likely have some amount of political or economic leverage and leeway within their homelands. Granted, experts agree that private donations make up a tiny percentage of the money ISIS is sustaining itself on (oil sales and extortion being the chief methods and whole other cans of worms); it goes to show the level of disagreement alive in the Middle East at the state and individual-level right now-even on the most pressing issues. I also think Arab regimes have a legitimate concern that if they directly participate in the killing, whether collateral or deliberate, of other Arab tribesmen and militias sympathetic to ISIS, then uproar at home may result.

iran-historic-nuclear-deal.siAdding to the internal differences of opinion within Arab countries, Iran is an equally-looming issue for our Middle Eastern partners with respect to their cooperation with U.S.-led coalition efforts. As long as the U.S. refuses to deliberately target Assad’s forces, a puppet of Iran, Middle Eastern countries do not see the U.S. as supportive of one of their chief foreign policy interests (degrading Iran’s regional influence), and therefore they are hesitant to play bigger roles in the coalition. This is now coupled with/exacerbated by the U.S. and Iran coming closer and closer to a nuclear deal. I think Iran isn’t stepping up to do more unilaterally in Iraq because they know such action will fan the flames among their Arab neighbors/Israel more than they can tolerate politically at the moment. There are most definitely Iranian advisers (intel, military, political) at work in both Syria and Iraq, but unfortunately Iran is held to a different standard when it comes to a physical military presence in the region. They have many decades of suspicion and distrust to dispel among their Arab neighbors, and I don’t think seeing Saudi and Iranian jets flying side by side would end well.

syriaarabisiscoalitionRegarding Israel, we’ve actually seen Netanyahu paint Hamas in a similar light as ISIS recently. By drawing similarities between the two, he is retroactively legitimizing the bombardment of Gaza a few months back. Regardless of that political maneuver, I do not think ISIS poses a credible and existential threat to Israel- hence Jerusalem’s lack of involvement. It’s one thing for ISIS to challenge the territorial integrity of places like Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey where sympathetic radical Sunnis and widespread government resentment exist (albeit as a vast minority in terms of the former). However, history has shown us time and time again that in moments of crisis the Israeli population rallies behind their government’s choice to confront existential threats with massive shows of force. There also does not exist mobilized radical Sunni organization operating inside Israel* willing to cooperate with ISIS (*not to be confused with inside the West Bank or Gaza). I believe Israel would handily suppress, and repel, any maneuver ISIS attempts against their country. Geographically/tactically, ISIS would have to make HUGE gains in Jordan, Lebanon, and/or Western Syria before posing any kind of potential threat to Israel’s borders. Long before ISIS gets within 100 miles of an Israeli border, we’ll be seeing Israeli jets pounding their positions in Jordan, Lebanon, or Syria. I think Israel is also in a similar boat as Iran politically-speaking. Many of the Arab coalition members are participating in a limited fashion in an attempt to save face among their populations at home who want to see the Muslim communities in Iraq and Syria defended by Muslims. Mix in pictures of IDF forces collaborating with Emirati pilots, and you may see public support for the coalition effort wane. The West knows this, and therefore has probably told the Israelis to sit on the sidelines despite their probable desire to participate.

More on Israeli participation in the coalition effort here

flagsLast week prominent international relations scholar, and my personal academic idol, Stephen Walt published an insightful Foreign Policy article entitled “National Stupidity: In International Relations, Pride Goeth Before a Fall.” Inside his article, Walt outlines the valuable role that nationalism — the sentiment, belief, or feeling of identification with a particular nation — played in purging the world of some of its greatest historic afflictions (such as the rampant colonialism demonstrated by the British, French, Ottomans, and so on).  Nationalism is alive and well in modern international relations. Glancing across headlines, we rarely see a week go by where ethnic Kurds don’t flex their nationalist muscles against their Iraqi, Syrian, or Turkish overlords. Looking eastward, major Asian powers such as China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have been spatting over a series of contested rocks in the South China Sea that may or may not possess the catalytic lifeblood of most geopolitical conflicts: oil. While I agree with Walt that nationalism has negatively pervaded many of the most critical foreign policy headaches currently plaguing wonks worldwide, I think there’s a bit more to the nationalism onion that needs peeling back.

Victimization, what I loosely define as the feeling of being wronged, slighted, or harmed, has been politically operationalized to magnify nationalist sentiment for years. During my study of US-Iranian relations last semester, the underlying theme of victimization was constantly mentioned as a fundamental barrier to true social/cultural rapprochement between the two countries. Yes, major heads of state are participating in direct talks on nuclear, economic, and diplomatic prerogatives, but the feeling of victimization seems to be alive and well within both American and Iranian societies. In the opening minutes of Ben Affleck’s award-winning movie Argo, onlookers are greeted by chanting mobs, chador-adorned Iranian women, and crazed men scaling the walls of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran. I have no doubt that these fleeting minutes of Hollywood storytelling did more to sully the image of modern Iran in the minds of the average American movie-goer than any poorly-scripted sabre rattle speech delivered by Senator Ted Cruz (TX) ever could. Similarly, annual footage of a handful of fanatical Iranians burning the American flag in celebration of their conquest of our “den of spies” back in 1979 isn’t making anyone more likely to endorse the easing of sanctions. The point is, the more we paint ourselves as victims of some wrongdoing – no matter how long ago that offense might have occurred – the less likely we are to see the current situation on the ground through a moderate lens, and the more likely our governments are to commandeer our sentiment in a way that promotes an “us versus them” foreign policy. We’re seeing Chinese emotions run high as Japanese leaders refuse to visit war shrines. We’re seeing Benjamin Netanyahu and the entire IDF twitterverse dedicate immense amounts of time and effort to publicize every Palestinian “threat” (despite Israeli vows to expand settlements amidst ongoing peace discussions – but that’s another story). We’re witnessing Bashar al-Assad and his regime loyalists emphatically denounce the efforts of foreign terrorists to destabilize his and the Syrian peoples’ homes, and we’re unfortunately seeing Egypt — my country of focus — descend into chaos.

cairo-bombingToday, on the eve of the third anniversary commemorating the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on January 25, 2011, Egypt witnessed horrific (although predictable) violence inflicted against it. Three bombings rattled the Cairo metropolitan area in the early morning hours, and additional violence in form of a rudimentary bomb/clashes between protestors claimed the lives of at least a dozen more individuals. Though official spokesmen of the Egyptian regime were careful not to overtly blame the now outlawed, criminalized, detained, and terrorist-deemed Muslim Brotherhood for the attacks, surely few believe that the government is referring to anyone else as they vow to “pluck [these enemies] from the roots without mercy.” As General Sisi, President Mansour, and Prime Minister Beblawi continue to brandish the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization hell-bent on leading Egypt down the road to chaos, I fear that they may be snowballing to a point of no return. The more the anti-Morsi regime continues to portray themselves as under attack by the “others”, the more their exclusionary political platform will continue to take hold in the minds of the average Egyptian. Just as every Palestinian rockets serves the purpose of advancing Netanyahu’s right-wing ideology, every car bomb in Cairo will continue to reinforce Sisi/Mansour/Beblawi’s demonization of the Brotherhood – Egypt’s most powerful and organized political party. Granted, those that perpetrated the attacks of January 24th, the suicide bombing in Mansoura in December 2013, and other violence across the country last year, most likely have a political platform that mandates the reinstatement of Mohamed Morsi as President. However, continually condemning the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization based on the violent acts of a few individuals who have decided to manifest their political frustrations in the form of irrational violence is a foolhardy maneuver at best. Lest these very esteemed Egyptian political figures forget their history, the Brotherhood is an organization born and raised in the shadows of Egyptian politics and society. The Brotherhood was able to recruit intellectuals, consolidate power, and foster political support while operating in an ambiguous grey zone of illegality for over 80 years. Now that the Brotherhood has had a taste of political power and legitimization, a taste that they subsequently squandered by trying to abruptly accrue additional political clout in November of 2012, you cannot put the qitta (cat) back in the haqeeba (bag) and expect them to acquiesce. The Brotherhood represented a very substantial proportion of the Egyptian population who now, after having fought and died in the streets of Cairo, have expressed solidarity with their fallen political comrades even as they are met with the barrel of a gun. Continuing to condemn 10 million+ Egyptians as the “others” will only lead to additional violence, alienation, and turmoil on par, or greater than that, which we have seen today.

Egyptians of all political affiliations, genders, ages, and religious identities are suffering. No one group stands to gain from the kind of senseless violence and political exclusivity that has become the norm in Egypt. sisiGeneral Sisi, poised as he may be to become Egypt’s next president, has a lot to learn about appealing to all Egyptians before he may effectively consider himself a representative and guardian of the people. Just as Walt mentioned that nationalism can be a saving grace during times of duress, times that Egypt is surely experiencing at the moment, nationalism derived from victimization may also be the divisive factor that plunges a state into destruction. Though I think Egypt is a long way away from descending into the kind of disorder that we are unfortunately witnessing in Syria, very frightening and foreboding paths are presenting themselves. I remember playing cards with my Egyptian friends during my waning hours in Cairo last summer, and we were stunned to listen to Al-Jazeera’s coverage of ongoing clashes between pro/anti-Morsi forces on the May 15 Bridge. Crowds were flinging Molotov cocktails, chipping up pieces of the road to throw at their adversaries, and indiscriminately firing birdshot at each other with a level of furor never before seen. Though Eygptians are very proud of their ability to elicit change on January 25/June 30, they were shocked to see the type of widespread violence that their countrymen were inflicting upon each other. “Egyptians are not like this. We are not like Afghans, Syrians, or Iraqis,” I recall them saying. Now, more than 6 months after my departure from Cairo, I see the trend of mutual-victimization taking over more than I ever could have expected. If such violence is capable in Cairo, the umm al-dunya of all places, it is sadly no longer preposterous to start juxtaposing Egypt with the ongoing conflict in Syria. Walt’s article on nationalism could not have been more relevant given current developments in Egypt and around the world, however the idea of politically-instrumentalized victimization is not something that needs to be written about in prominent magazines to be pertinent. Victimization is a tool used by both the weak and strong to rally public support, and current events would suggest that world powers are increasingly viewing their adversaries through this lens. I fear that today’s violence in Egypt will serve as prelude to even bolder attacks on major metropolitan areas around the country, and that the responses handed down by the Egyptian security forces will plunge the country into even greater dichotomy. As former-president Morsi’s trial finally ensues, and as General Sisi prepares to assume his throne, Egyptians should strive to scale back the victimized undertones and make an effort to enact political decisions with the whole of the Egyptian people – women, youth, Muslim Brothers, etc. – in mind. The more the current regime tries to stifle the Brotherhood and simultaneously cast themselves as victims of the Ikhwan’s terrorism, the more likely their exaggerated condemnations will turn in to self-fulfilling prophecies.

Attention: Iran is happening.

Welcome back to al-Ra°yee, and I’ll spare you all the long-winded excuse for why the blog has been hibernating for the past several months. Egypt threw me a curve ball that I was wholly unprepared for, and picking up the pieces of a failed 8 month adventure abroad has left me “busy” for lack of another word. In any sense, it’s good to have you all back for the time being.

Rather than serve as a means to chronicle my escapades and discoveries abroad, this blog entry has found purpose elsewhere. Assuming that the majority of my readership is drawn from those friends and family members whose Facebook profiles I chronically creep occasionally look at, it appears that despite how politically-astute my network of acquaintances actually is, it is particularly quiet about certain issues in international relations that I find most pressing at the moment. Granted, the U.S. government did shut down, the ongoing Syrian civil war rages on, Egypt is still in democratic shambles, and Israel-Palestinian dialogues are fragilely underway, but I don’t see much commentary about Iran? You know, Iran: the Islamic Republic nestled between the two countries we fought in for over a decade, the country who’s upper political echelons frequently spewed anti-Israeli rhetoric and “Death to America” chants during the mid-2000’s , and the country that took 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days in 1979/led Ben Affleck to accept more awards than any person who starred in Daredevil ever should? Well, not to be overly optimistic or dramatic, but the times are a’changin. The P5+1 (US, UK, France, China, Russia, Germany) and Iran are about to begin a second round of highly-unprecedented and highly-important discussions (after a widely-acclaimed first round of discussions that came close, but no cigar, to striking a deal) on the future of Iran’s nuclear program, and you should be waiting with bated breath as much as the rest of the DC international relations intelligentsia is.

To provide some background information, Iran’s recent presidential elections yielded a semi-moderate candidate named Hassan Rouhani. Though Rouhani touts a pragmatic and moderate political platform Hassan Rouhani chooses image of key to symbolise presidential campaigncharacterized by a desire to rejuvenate the economy, respect human rights, and mend international relations, he should not be considered a true reformist akin to the efforts of former presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani. Rouhani is a regime-insider in every sense of the word having served in various high-level positions within the Khamenei regime – including as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005. Rouhani was solely responsible for the last substantive nuclear deal cut between European powers and Iran in 2004 when he agreed to suspend Iran’s nuclear ambitions (much to the chagrin of Iranian hardliners) due to the widely-perceived fear of American regime change in the region. Rouhani’s experiences in the belly of the beast are not a bad thing, however. Having created an extensive network of internal regime contacts, confidants, and cohorts, Rouhani may very well possess the structural know-how and an intimate understanding of the limits of the Iranian presidency’s ability to actually elicit change. Rather than compete with the Supreme Leader on hot button issues — something his predecessors often did and failed at — Rouhani has ever-so-delicately pressed forward with his agenda while making sure to have the Supreme Leader’s blessing every step of the way. Rouhani’s leash is short and fleeting, however, and he faces widespread criticism from the status-quo hardliners who would sooner see Rouhani fold under domestic and international pressure for immediate results than actually work together to see Iran flourish like it once did. Should Rouhani fail to strike a nuclear deal soon (he is already over 100 days into his presidency, mind you), his critics at home may deem the efforts futile and revert back to a foreign policy strategy dominated by anti-Americanism and aversion to change.

iran-sanctions_0Problems and challenges to the rekindling of the relationship do not fall squarely on Tehran’s shoulders, however. Perhaps the single greatest barrier to substantively mended Iranian-American relations resides several miles down Constitution Avenue on Capitol Hill. Though the hard-hitting and invasive sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic for several years have worked/succeeded in bringing Iran to the negotiating table, an assessment shared by myself and prominent Iran expert (and guest-lecturer in my US-Iran Relations class) Barbara Slavin states that the threat of additional congressional sanctions (proposed by the bellicose Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), et al.) stands the chance to unravel all that has been achieved since Rouhani’s election. If sanctions have succeeded in illustrating for the Iranian regime that economic progress at home cannot be achieved without rapprochement with the West, then further sanctions in the wake of Iran coming to the negotiating table will only affirm to the Islamic Republic that the U.S. is not serious about coming to an agreement, that there is no incentive for them to concede any aspect of their nuclear program, and that our true motives are regime change or bust. Unfortunately, Congress’ track record for pushing through Iranian sanctions (such as those JUST PASSED in July, 2013) has a higher success rate (91%) than Peyton Manning’s current completion percentage (71%) thanks to special interests, foreign lobbying, and most significantly: ignorance. Now, rather than choc this one up to yet another ill-developed foreign policy of President Obama, it’s worth noting that the case of Iranian sanctions is something that the White House and Congress are decidedly at odds over. In fact in a recent Foreign Policy article, various State Department and White House officials condemned proposed congressional efforts for new sanctions on Iran as a “march to war” and went on to say that additional sanctions are unnecessary and could put us in a more difficult spot ….  it would play into the arguments of Iranian hardliners that the U.S. isn’t interested in a nuclear deal.

I get it, though. Skepticism and weariness of Rouhani are understandable. The West, and let’s not forget the Iranian people, endured eight venomous years under Ahmadinejad, and despite Rouhani’s election there are still regime hardliners who support an anti-Western foreign policy and generally anti-American attitude. However, for fear of reverting back to the same narrow-minded and ill-informed mentalities that have stunted U.S.-Iran relations for the past 40 years, we have to be willing to try something new now that a fruitful (and perhaps the most fruitful) opportunity has presented itself. We must be willing to extend an olive branch, let bygones be bygones, and have cautiously optimistic faith that Rouhani means what he says. For lack of having any better insight into what Rouhani and the Supreme Leader actually seek to accomplish, we must take their goodwill gestures and “international charm offensive” at face value. Gone are the days of Ahmadinejad making it easy for Americans to write off Iran as an oppressive, confrontational, and pariah nation of America and Israel haters, and we have unfortunately entered an era where the greatest obstacles to Iranian-American peace are the same individuals who would rather pout shut down their own government than negotiate with their fellow countrymen – much less a mullah from the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I arrived to IsraTelAviv_aerial(194)el after a surprisingly painless flight across the pond through Los Angeles, CA and Newark, NJ. The first leg of my flight (5.5 hours) went by very smoothly as I read a few pages of my book, took a nap, rinsed and repeated. My connecting flight in Newark was more noteworthy, however. There was a secondary screening area just outside my gate in terminal which is apparently standard operating procedure for flights headed to Israel. It was among my fellow passengers that I had my first taste of what the demography of Israel would look like: Hasidic Jews, Christian pilgrimage groups, Arabs, birthrighters, and then me. I was able to log a few hours of sleep during my 10 hour flight to Tel Aviv as I watched Will Ferrell’s “The Campaign” and Tom Hanks’ “Cloud Atlas” (which, I should add, I would prefer to watch again when not under the effect of two Unisom sleep aids).

My arrival into Ben Gurion Int’l Airport was fairly smooth. I chatted with a young New Yorker (adorned in a kippah and tallit) when in line for customs, picked up my baggage without a hitch, and met my driver for the quick ride to the hotel. My driver was a nice guy who spoke English fairly well and did not wait one minute before beginning to talk to me about the Arab-Israeli conflict (interesting given that we were in Tel Aviv, but more about that later). He pointed out the mountains that I flew over before landing, which, thanks to the IDF, “prevented my plane from being shot out of the sky by Arabs;” the mounting crisis in Syria, Obama’s recent visits, and several other topics. I spent the first night wandering around the local neighborhood and I was struck by how similar the Tel Aviv beachfront area is to the beach communities in Southern California. People rode bikes, walked dogs, licked popsicles, etc. and appeared as if completely unaware that a political/religious/cultural conflict was being waged just a few dozen kilometers to the east. After a few more blocks of roaming, I grabbed a quick shawarma sandwich and was on my way back to the hotel to catch up on some sleep.

The next day my group toured the old port city of Jaffa, and learnold-jaffaed about how Jaffa gave rise to one of the first major metropolitan and predominantly Jewish neighborhoods in the land. Jaffa is a gorgeous and picturesque old city that reminded me a lot of Toledo, Spain; a towering fortress of a city, built from rock, with lush gardens and tall steeples everywhere you look. Walking back to downtown Tel Aviv from the Old City of Jaffa I had my first introduction to the vast discrepancy of wealth and general living conditions of Arab (and also in Tel Aviv’s case, Eritrean) minorities living in Israel. Tel Aviv is an incredibly expensive city to live in, and even young/educated Israeli youth have difficulty finding good jobs and affordable housing. The neighborhoods outside Jaffa were littered with abandoned buildings, bad odors, panhandlers, and generally unpleasant vistas when compared to the exotic beach area a few kilometers north. My group and I proceeded to visit the Israeli Independence Hall, which is surprisingly lackluster in its outside appearance (as most everyone who has been there would agree). Inside, I was captivated by the story of Tel Aviv’s creation. 66 Jewish families, fed up with marginalization and lack of economic prospects in Jaffa, relocated to the sand dunes of the Israeli desert and decided to break new ground for their small society. That small enclave grew to become the second largest city in Israel, and certainly one of the most culturally vibrant. Inside Independence Hall, we also received a short (yet VERY religious, probably because of the birthright group we shared the hall with) presentation on the state of Israel’s proclamation of Independence on May 14, 1948.

We spent our final day in Tel Aviv at our own leisure. I chose to spend the day on the beach soaking up some sun, swimming a bit, and playing volleyball of course. I was very fortunate to meet up with a close friend from back in the U.S. and pick her brain about what it’s like living in Tel Aviv from an American expatriate’s point of view. Even she admitted to discovering a different Israel on the ground than the one she had grown up learning about back in the States, in both good ways and bad. After a great night of drinks, pasta, froyo, and shared stories, we parted ways and I went to bed content with all that I had learned and experienced when in Tel Aviv.

Takeaways: Tel Aviv is a beautiful, laid back, and charming city that you would swear was located somewhere in Orange County, CA if it weren’t for the Hebrew signs on every corner. As my group was told beforehand, which I later confirmed, Israelis living in Tel Aviv lead vastly different lifestyles than their counterparts in Jerusalem. Women walk around in bikinis, there are posters for gay night clubs, people drink beer on the beach as they work on their tans, and so on. Tel Avivians do not preoccupy themselves with the political turmoil that plagues Jerusalem and Israel at-large simply because they do not have to. There are few, if any, Palestinians living in Tel Aviv, and the West Bank is a foreign land too far off to the east to give any serious thought to (unless you work for one of many NGOs or embassies). Tel Aviv natives are more posh, certainly more secular, and tend to desire more metropolitan lifestyles versus more religious ones. This is not to say that Tel Aviv is immune to the realities of being inside Israel and the Middle East. In November of 2012, residents of Tel Aviv were subject to rocket attacks launched from the Gaza Strip as a result of the IDF-led Operation Pillar of Defense. Without hesitation residents huddled in their bomb shelters, as they had been trained to do, and when the ‘all clear’ sound was given they simply returned to their cafes and paddleball games to resume their normal lives. I would be remiss if I said that Tel Aviv was immune or oblivious to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but it seems that they are certainly apathetic to it. Tel Avivians tend to be more preoccupied with finding a job, finding a house, and finding a beer, than they are with finding a bible, and it was very interesting to have this city be my first exposure to Israel. Jerusalem will be a lot different, I am sure, and I look forward to juxtaposing the two cities in my next post.

golden domeHello and welcome back to my resurrected blog: al-Ra˚yee: My Take on Issues in Int’l Relations! Let me apologize to what few readers I have left for the stagnation (to put it lightly) over the last few months. School, work, and other real life commitments (which I’ll get to in a minute) monopolized my time, and I sincerely regret not being able to post about the slew of juicy issues over the past several months. I had high hopes to post some of my graduate work, however the style of my writing assignments was vastly inconsistent with style of the previous posts on this site. Perhaps I will post some of my work down the road when I have a chance to creatively overhaul them, we’ll see.

This blog will be dramatically changing its focus over the next several months. I will be traveling throughout the Middle East (Israel and Egypt, to be specific) for the remainder of 2013, and feel it necessary to maintain a blog of my adventures, impressions, and thoughts. Though the blog will assume a new role in primarily chronicling my time spent in the region, it will not fail to deliver the same critical remarks about current and local events as it always has. I hope that by living in the region, I will gain a more informed perspective on issues of critical importance to Israel, Egypt, and the United States. No longer will I be the unfiltered American that you all have come to know, love, and despise, blogging from the cozy confines of his metropolitan apartment in Washington, DC. I hope to safely immerse myself in current events inside the region (the good, the bad, and the ugly) and provide critical analysis that you may not read see on CNN back home. As a disclaimer, I am no journalist — simply a student passionate about international relations — so please forgive me for my often biased, incomplete, and impulsive commentary.

I hope to contribute to this blog at least once a week (when possible), and wholeheartedly welcome any and all comments/questions about the topics of my various posts, about Egypt, Israel, Cairo, or the United States in general, or about anything you see fitting to direct my way. I hope you find my adventures provocative, insightful, and refreshing, and look forward to sharing my journeys with all of you.

Next stop: Tel Aviv, Israel — just a man, his beard*, and a laptop…

(* – for the first time in my life I am growing out my beard past the length of stubble that my various jobs somehow found tolerable. It has been about a month since shaving, and I already feel like a completely hairy new man. There’s just something about man and his infatuation with facial hair, and I’m sure you’ll see me commenting about it frequently from here on out. No shave-2013: engaged!)

For anyone who’s seen the witty Starburst candy commercials depicting albino lifeguards and atypical dog behaviors (my favorite here: http://starburst.com/#/videos/dog), you already know that contradictions have become the new flavor of the month. As media focus in the Middle East perpetually looms over Syria and the al-Assad regime’s cling to power, new stories are shedding light onto Lebanon’s position amongst the turmoil. Having had the opportunity to watch a former coworker, and leading Syria expert’s, jarring account of Syrian “spillover” into Lebanon and the region at large (you can find it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yho_m0HRa9c), my interest in the unique Mediterranean country inconveniently sandwiched between its most detested enemy and its war-torn “big brother” has understandably piqued. What I find fascinating is not the situation on the ground in Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs, but the political climate in Lebanon as a result of the violence to the east. Hezbollah, the US-condemned terrorist organization turned political contender, continues to draw in political support from the population (evidenced by their 12 seats in parliament as part of the opposition alliance), and is now expanding its roots into Syrian affairs.

While I do not find Hezbollah’s support of the al-Assad regime surprising, I find it perplexing that Hezbollah continues to deviate from its original intent as an organization. Hezbollah was founded in the mid 1980’s with a clearly defined mission outlined in an official ‘Hezbollah Manifesto’. Included in this Manifesto were 2 very clear and very poignant goals: 1) “to expel the Americans, the French and their allies definitely from Lebanon, putting an end to any colonialist entity on our land“, and 2) “to permit all the sons of our people to determine their future and to choose in all the liberty the form of government they desire.” I understand the need for adaptability and modernity within an organization, especially one bent on the destruction of all things West and un-Islamic, but at what point will Hezbollah’s leadership find that their efforts in Syria are not only tangential to their very creation but downright contradictory? For an organization who’s sole purpose was to protect it’s territorial sovereignty and to enhance the freedoms of Muslim friends worldwide, they seem to be doing a poor job at both (listen to Jouejati and Fisks’s assessment of border violence in north Lebanon).

The Manifesto concludes “As for our friends, they are all the world’s oppressed peoples.” My Arabic is admittedly a little rusty, but I don’t think Bashar al-Assad wholly satisfies the idea of somebody who is “oppressed.” Maybe I’m wrong…

Sources:

http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/10/world/meast/syria-unrest/index.html?hpt=hp_c1 (CNN article regarding new US sanctions against Hezbollah)

http://forabetterlebanon.blogspot.com/2008/02/hizbollahs-manifesto-english-version.html (English translation of the Hezbollah Manifesto)