Posts Tagged ‘Syria’

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

On The Ground:

stock-photo-16681817-jerusalem-and-tel-aviv-road-signsAs expected, Jerusalem is vastly different from Tel Aviv. Weather: sure, architecture: definitely; however the cultural variations are most stark. Certainly the intersection of Arab/Palestinian communities with Jewish ones is among the most distinct and economically disparate faults of the Israeli government, but when chatting with a lot of locals in Jerusalem I’ve found that the commingling of various Jewish sects often creates more friction that an outsider might expect. I envisioned most Israeli Jews living in relatively peaceful coexistence under the banner of a  Jewish State, happy to be among a social majority. Though there aren’t protests in the streets, per se, there is evidently a lively and heated debate between more secular Jews and their ultra-Orthodox counterparts over issues of economic integration and “sharing the burden“. As a function of neglecting a formal education in English, math, the sciences, and computer skills, these ultra-Orthodox communities are vastly under-qualified to enter the modern workforce and are additionally exempt from serving in the military (as all other Israeli youth are mandated). The ultra-Orthodox are growing at a much faster rate than secular Israelis due to an exponentially higher birth rate, and are demographically gobbling up neighborhoods in order to sustain their expanding communities’ needs. These communities then implement conservative norms such as forbidding the operation of vehicles on the sabbath, enforcing strict codes of social conduct, and many others. One interesting quote I heard from some locals was that “we get along better with the Arabs than we do with the Orthodox,” and I was very surprised to hear such a claim. As someone who expected Jerusalem to be a city personified by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I found it interesting that Jerusalem suffers from internal dissension as much (if not more) than it does from various foreign pressures from its neighbors and the international community.

Touristy Stuff:

No trip to Israel would be complete without the standard trips to the Old City, Dead Sea, and various other notable locales. I had the privileged opportunity to be shown a slew of holy and historic cites by a fantastic tour guide named Natalie (who’s contact information I would be happy to pass on). Evidently, Israel takes its tourism very seriously and implements a very rigorous certification requirement  entailing 2+ years of training for all official tour guides. The quality of the tours we received really reflected this commitment to excellence, and Natalie demonstrated a keen expertise in all aspects of Jerusalem’s history. We toured the Western Wall, al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Dome of the Rock (where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Issac/Ishmael – depending on your faith), among other noteworthy sites. Even as a very secular person, I couldn’t help but be moved by some kind of magical mysticism surrounding a city as vested in religious and anthropological history as Jerusalem. We visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the location of Jesus’ crucifixion and eventual ascension into heaven, and needless to say it was a very powerful place to behold. They have places where you can reach your arm in and literally touch the rock that Jesus’ cross was fastened to, and I was sure to rub all sorts of Holy juju onto myself wherever I could. A large amount of the biblical history of Jerusalem was beyond what I could recall from my brief stints in childhood Catechism class, but it was certainly fascinating to learn bits about the original City of David, the various demolitions of Jerusalem by various marauding powers, and the evolution of Jerusalem’s society as a result of generations of conflict.

More Interesting Visits:

Some high points of my trip to Jerusalem, and Israel in general, include visits we made to the Golan Heights and to Rosh Hanikra (a city on the northwestern border with Lebanon). Being able to see Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon from various perched vantage points, I photoreinforced my understanding that Israel simply cannot afford to be wavering, timid, or overly defensive in its national security strategy. The Golan Heights is an occupied territory in northeastern Israel that was claimed from Syria as a result of the 1967 Six Day War. Though there has been relative peace between the two nations over the past few decades, a bloody civil war continues to wage inside Syria and now along its border with Israel. Regional instability emanating from the revolutionary tides inside Syria, Jordan, or Egypt have the ability to destabilize Israel if for no other reason than sheer proximity. Former treaties, agreements, and détente, with the Mubarak and Assad regimes to Israel’s south and north are now at risk, and this concerns Israel tremendously when analyzing the prospects for peace in a post-Arab Spring Middle East. At multiple points when driving north or south along the Israeli coastline, the border with the West Bank is no more than 9-10 miles to your east. I had a chance to study Afghanistan and Pakistan security challenges this past semester, and the concept of Afghanistan as a source of “strategic depth” for Pakistan continually came to mind when surveying how territorially narrow the Israeli homeland actually is. There is no place for Israel to fall back to, and major population hubs are a matter of miles (if not meters) away from contested/hostile territories. This sobering fact forms the backbone of Israel’s obsession with security, and it is no longer surprising to see the preemptive measures Israel’s military is willing to take to protect the country. I have yet to come to a conclusion on how I feel about this strategy as I find myself perpetually grappling with the legal and realist arguments for courses of action or inaction.

Onward:

The delicate balance of multiculturalism, vigilant national security, and religious sanctity makes Israel the most unique country I have visited thus far in my journeys. Israel occupies a unique place in the world politically-speaking by being the only true democracy amidst a sea of dictatorships, monarchies, and fledgling democracies who’s fates are not yet known. In terms of government organization, provision of civil services, and generally liberal attitudes and lifestyles, there is little to suggest that Israel is not a “western” country. However, as you barter the prices of melons and candies in the shuk, suffer the fate of a thousand car horns in the crowded streets near the Old City, and realize just how little personal space you have in lines for restaurants and ATMs, Israel appears very Middle Eastern in nature. In a way, Israel was the perfect springboard into my next stop: Cairo, Egypt. Israel possessed just enough Middle Eastern charm, coupled with various western creature comforts, to make the culture shock less severe than it could have been. Politically, I’m glad I was able to observe the domestic dynamics and international concerns facing Israel before living in an Arab country. Israel and Egypt possess a highly interesting history characterized by very high highs and very low lows that have cumulatively shaped the current relationship in profound ways. Much has yet to be seen about the fate of Egypt-Israel relations under President Morsi, and I am excited to see (from the sidelines, of course) how that relationship unfolds. Surely I will encounter plenty of critics of Israel during my stay in Egypt, but I will encounter them knowing that the Arab-Israeli conflict does not alone define Israel or the region. Israel grapples with environmental concerns, internal political debates, territorial disputes, and even rifts among its native Jewish communities- all in addition to a stagnant peace process and constant potential for military conflict. I look forward to experiencing Cairo for all that it is and is not, and sharing my journeys with all of you in the weeks to come.

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)

Political realism at it’s finest. Why would China and Russia undermine their economic and strategic interests in Syria just to appease an international community they’re already at odds with? Comparatively, do you think the US would be quick to slap down sanctions on Israel if a similar situation occured (not that I think it would)? A country is going to protect and preserve its national interests, even if they’re at the cost of another nation’s innocent lives and a tarnished international reputation. Not saying I agree with their move, but I can definitely understand their rationale from a realist perspective.