Page 1

Behind the Stalemate

Inside the battle for control of Syria

Can Morsi Bite the Bullet?

Mubarak’s economic legacy haunts his successor Issue 1577 • Nov/Dec 2012

Established in London 1980

Authority Strengthened by Silence

TM1577_01_Cover.indd 1

Download this magazine to your mobile. Use your smartphone to scan this code.


9 771319 087129 The Majalla

Issue 1577

30/11/2012 09:35

TM1577_02-03_Ad.indd 2

26/11/2012 14:30

TM1577_02-03_Ad.indd 3

26/11/2012 14:30


Established in 1987 by Prince Ahmad Bin Salman Bin Abdel Aziz Al-Majalla Established in 1980 by Hisham and Ali Hafez Chief Executive Officer Dr Azzam Al-Dakhil Editor-in-Chief Adel Al-Toraifi Assistant Editor-in-Chief Manuel Almeida Business Development Officer Jan Singfield Managing Editor Azeddine Senegri Editor Amy Assad Designer Matt Dettmar Submissions To submit articles or opinion, please email: Subscriptions To subscribe to the mobile edition please download from the iTunes App Store Also available at Disclaimer The views expressed in this magazine are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or views of The Majalla and its editorial team. Al Majalla © 2012 HH Saudi Research and Marketing (UK) Limited. All rights reserved. Neither this publication nor any part of it may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission of HH Saudi Research and Marketing (UK) Limited.

Advertising Tel: +44 (0)20 7404 6950 Fax: +44 (0)20 7404 6963 Mobile: +44 (0)7825 888788 Arab Press House 182-184 High Holborn London WC1V 7AP

London Office Address HH Saudi Research & Marketing (UK) Limited Arab Press House 82-184 High Holborn London WC1V 7AP DDI: +44 (0)20 7539 2335/2337 Tel: +44 (0)20 7821 818 Fax: +(0)20 7831 2310


TM1577_04_Credits.indd 4

29/11/2012 09:12

TM1577_05_Ad.indd 5

26/11/2012 14:31




he Syrian crisis has dominated the headlines since it erupted. As time passes and casualties mount, Bashar Al-Assad’s regime is increasingly isolated internationally. Recently, Turkey and a number of Arab and Western states recognised the new opposition leadership formed after a round of meetings in Doha. Against the widespread support for the Syrian opposition is the Iranian leadership—which is not surprising, given their strategic alliance with the Syrian regime. President Ahmadinejad and his cohort have repeatedly portrayed the uprising as a terrorist plot supported by outsiders. More puzzling, however, is the Shi’a clergy’s silence about the increasing death toll of this conflict. We asked Mehdi Khalaji, a renowned expert on Iranian politics and Shi’ite groups in the Middle East, to reflect on the Shia’a clergy’s stance towards the matter. A Shi’ite theologian by training, Khalaji argues that their silence is not explained simply by the alliance between Bashar Al Assad’s regime and Iran, nor by the fact that Alawites are a branch of the Twelver school of Shi’a Islam. The issue is far more complex: to understand it one must delve into the internal politics of Shi’a clergy, especially in the two main seminaries at Qom and Najaf. The impression that the Syrian conflict reached a stalemate is widespread. To examine this assumption, The Majalla has taken a look at the military capabilities of both the government and opposition. As it stands, it seems that no side truly has the means to achieve ultimate victory. To shed light on the ongoing crisis, we also bring you interviews with Akil Hashem, a former Syrian brigadier general, and Steven Starr, author of the book Revolt in Syria. As expected, the first few months of Muslim Brotherhood governance in Egypt have been no walk in the park. In particular, Mubarak’s economic legacy haunts Mohamed Morsi, the country’s new president. Sophie Anmuth asks whether or not Morsi and his advisers are likely to rise to the challenge of repairing such a distressed economy. We invite you to read these articles and much more on our website, and to follow us on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates. As always, we welcome and value our readers’ feedback and invite you to contact us with your questions and comments at


TM1577_06-07_Editorial.indd 6

29/11/2012 09:30

Contributors Mehdi Khalaji Mehdi Khalaji Is a Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on the politics of Iran and Shi’ite groups in the Middle East. A Shi’ite theologian by training, Mr. Khalaji has also served on the editorial boards of two prominent Iranian periodicals, and produced for the BBC as well as the US government's Persian news service.

Bryan Gibson Bryan R. Gibson is a PhD candidate in International History at the LSE and specializes in US-Iraqi relations during the Cold War. His PhD thesis is on the US policy toward Iraq and the Kurdish Revolt, 1958-75. He received his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees in history and a Bachelor of Social Sciences in criminology from the University of Ottawa, Canada. He is the author of, Covert Relationship: American Foreign Policy, Intelligence and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988, based on his MA thesis.

Juliet Highet Juliet Highet is a writer, photographer, editor and curator, Juliet Highet specializes in Middle Eastern heritage and contemporary culture. Ms. Highet is currently working on her second book, Design Oman, having published her first book, Frankincense: Oman’s Gift to the World, in 2006.

Nicholas Blincoe Nicholas Blincoe is an author and screenwriter living between London and the Palestinian city of Bethlehem. He writes regularly for The Guardian and The Telegraph.

Sophie Anmuth is a freelance journalist specialising in the Middle East, with a range of interests varying from politics to culture stories. Born in Paris, she is currently based in Cairo. She works for French and English-speaking media. Her academic background is in philosophy, international relations, journalism and Arabic.

Issue 1577 • November/December 2012

TM1577_06-07_Editorial.indd 7


29/11/2012 09:30



Cover Story Authority: Strengthened by Silence

Editor’s Choice Obama and the Iranian Question: Profile: Saudi Interior Minister 12 Politics 48 Is a military attack on Iran looking less Prince Mohammed Bin Naif


likely than ever before?

Candid Conversations Intervention Advocate: Interview with former Syrian Brigadier General Akil Hashem

le The Cautious American: 38 Profi What became of America's "fresh start" in foreign policy?

of Nations Can Morsi Bite the Bullet? 42 Wealth Mubarak’s economic legacy haunts

his successor ––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––– Big Dreams for Iraqi Oil: Iraqi oil production capacity could increase five-fold by the 2030s

Arts Recording, Reframing and Resisting: 50 The Arab photographers act as cultural

commentators and agents of change ––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––– A Hollywood Rescue Mission: Ben Affeck’s new film Argo

Critics Revolt in Syria: 58 The Eye-Witness to the Uprising

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––– Interview with Stephen Starr

Final Word Arab Heroes: 62 The Trapped between repute and celebrity


TM1577_08-09_Contents.indd 8

29/11/2012 09:15

Behind the Stalemate Inside the battle for control of Syria


Issue 1577 • November/December 2012

TM1577_08-09_Contents.indd 9

As the Syrian civil war continues, The Majalla assesses the military balance between the two sides


29/11/2012 09:16

TM1577_10-11_Ad.indd 10

26/11/2012 14:32

TM1577_10-11_Ad.indd 11

26/11/2012 14:32


Obama and the Persian Dilemma Is a military attack on Iran looking less likely than ever before?

An impressive new report comes to some sobering conclusions about the costs of potential military force used to stop Iran enriching uranium, while welcome new developments behind the scenes in Washington and elsewhere make a strike look much less likely. Bryan Gibson

Photo © Getty Images


he question of an attack on Iran has become the subject of intense debate over the past few months. What is puzzling about this debate is that it has not centered on Iran’s nuclear program or whether Iranians seek to obtain a nuclear bomb, but rather on whether Israel or the US (or both) will attack Iran to prevent this. The re-election of Barack Obama to a second term is important, yet the situation vis-à-vis Iran and Israel has not changed significantly. Iran still faces harsh sanctions and its economy is on the brink of collapse; nevertheless, its nuclear program continues to advance unchecked and the regime does not show signs of weakening its grip on power. Likewise, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces elections in January 2013, but is likely to win a resounding victory; Iranians will also go to the polls in 2013 to elect a new president and Majlis (parliament). The outcome of these elections will neither change the overall threat Iran’s nuclear program poses to Israel nor the military threat Israel poses to Iran. Caught between the risk of an Israeli attack on Iran or an Iranian attack against Israel is the United States, desperately trying to avoid the outbreak of an Iranian–Israeli war, the consequences of which are unpredictable. In an attempt to publicize the costs of such a risky endeavor, an impressive group of former American officials joined together recently to “encourage more informed and objective discussion of the military option by policymakers, the public, and the press,” and produced and released a detailed report entitled Weighing the Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran. This consortium of former officials has called themselves the Iran Project. Their findings offer plenty of compelling reasons for concern regarding a hypothetical attack on the Islamic Republic.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with American President Barack Obama

According to Thomas Pickering, a seventime US ambassador, former undersecretary of state for political affairs, and one of the report’s authors, the report was conceived in early 2012 when tensions were rising in the Gulf and there was increased talk of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, especially from Israel. At this point, a small group of scholars and diplomats that had been engaged for some years in track two diplomacy with Iran decided that there needed to be a “serious effort to look factually at the costs and the benefits” of this option. In response, the group prepared a paper that was circulated to a wide number of “distinguished, very experienced former officials from the Senate to the national security advisors to military officials to former diplomats and asked them for their comments and their willingness to sign on.” These individuals read the draft report and offered valuable comments that led to a redrafting of the report, which was released in early September. In addition, those who participated in the

drafting offered their endorsement of the findings. As Pickering points out: “The report is interesting because it has no recommendations and it has no conclusions. Those are left up to the individual after reading over the factual information. It contains extensive footnotes relating to the expert opinions that have been relied upon to produce the conclusions in the report. Nobody agreed with absolutely everything but everybody agreed with the thrust of the report that there should be an informed and indeed well-articulated debate in the United States before any decision was made to use military force.” Thankfully, there have also been some recent signs that the chances of a military strike on Iran are receding. While there is no question that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in favor of an attack, arguing in contradiction of wellknown facts that Iran is building a nuclear bomb, Obama’s attitude has been cautious and the US has taken action behind the


TM1577_12-17_Politics 1.indd 12

29/11/2012 09:39

scenes to restrain Israel. The Obama administration’s stance is based on the conclusion of the US intelligence community that while Iran continues to enrich uranium, its leadership has not yet decided to build a bomb. Instead, they see Iran as intent on developing nuclear “break out” capacity: obtaining the know-how to build a nuclear bomb, but stopping short of this final stage unless threatened. American officials have grown increasingly concerned that Netanyahu’s posturing will drag the United States into a war with Iran. Consequently, Obama has bypassed the Israeli leadership by strengthening ties with its security establishment, which has become an increasingly vocal source of opposition to an Israeli-led attack on Iran’s nuclear program. In short, the Obama administration has enlisted a set of powerful allies in Israel, a mirror image of the widelyheld belief that an Israeli lobby holds sway in Washington over Middle East policy. “Red Lines” While the US and Israel agree on the fundamental objective of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, it is immediately apparent that the two countries differ greatly on the point that Iran needs to cross that would result in the use of military force, the so-called “red line.” On the Israeli side, Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said the world needs prevent Iran from entering what he calls a “zone of immunity”—the point at which Iran’s nuclear facilities would be immune from any potential Israeli military strike because all the necessary components for developing a nuclear weapon would have been moved further underground. The American “red line” is very different. For the Obama administration, the line is drawn at Iran’s acquisition of a functional nuclear weapon, but US intelligence experts have judged with a high degree of confidence that “no such decision [to develop one] has been taken by Iran’s Supreme Leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Indeed, according to the Iran Project report, the US “has excellent capabilities for detecting any Iranian efforts to build clandestine weapons-development facilities.” A good example is the Obama administration’s exposure of Iran’s secret Fordow nuclear enrichment facility in September 2009, which was first detected in 2007. The report conIssue 1577 • November/December 2012

TM1577_12-17_Politics 1.indd 13

cluded that it would be “extremely difficult for Iran to hide a nuclear program devoted to weapons development.” US and Israeli differences over red lines have led to an open rupture between the two governments. Take, for instance, the public disagreement that surfaced in early September following one of Netanyahu’s provocative speeches in which he said, “Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.” In an interview with Bloomberg Radio, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a sharp rebuttal, saying that the US was “not setting deadlines” for Iran and still considers negotiations as “by far the best approach” to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. A few weeks later, Obama and Netanyahu’s speeches to the United Nations General Assembly showed clear differences of opinion on the issue. Netanyahu, after paying lip service to the crippling sanctions that Obama has managed to convince the international community to implement, argued, “At this late hour, there’s only one way to peacefully prevent Iran from getting atomic bombs, and that’s by placing a clear red line on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Red lines don’t lead to war. Red lines prevent war.” He continued, “Red lines could be drawn in different parts of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but to be credible, a red line must be drawn first and foremost in one vital part of their program—on Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium.” At this point, Netanyahu took out a cartoon image of a bomb and began to explain the logistics of the construction of a nuclear weapon. He explained that “by next spring, at most by next summer, at current enrichment rates,

Jessica T. Mathews

[Iran] will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage. From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks, before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.” Netanyahu then took out a marker and drew a red line on his cartoon and argued that Israel cannot allow Iran to complete its enrichment of medium enriched uranium (MEU) to 20 percent. It is important to note that the level of enrichment needed for weapons-grade uranium (WGU) is around 90 percent, which is not technically difficult to achieve once a stockpile of MEU has been built up. When it was Obama’s turn to give his speech, he was firm on the American position with respect to Iran: “Let me be clear: America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited. We respect the right of nations to access peaceful nuclear power, but one of the purposes of the United Nations is to see that we harness that power for peace. Make no mistake: a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. That is why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable. And that is why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Quite clearly, the American red line with respect to Iran is an Iranian decision to acquire a nuclear weapon. It is at this point that Obama would consider an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. However, it seems unlikely that Iran would make this decision under present circumstances and that there would be identifiable signs that the Iranian leadership was moving toward this decision, like withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and expelling International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, who currently have access to Iranian nuclear facilities. As these signs appeared, the international community would respond by ratcheting up sanctions and building an international coalition to approve the use of force against Iran. However, should the Russians or Chinese block such efforts, the 13

29/11/2012 09:39


US could take the matter to the General Assembly for a vote, which would likely gain widespread support. Even so, given the talk of red lines and the threat that increasing possibility of an Israeli preemptive strike, it is important to assess the military capacity of the Israel and the US and the likelihood of achieving success. Attacking Iran One of the reasons for the difference in the American and Israeli stances on the question of red lines boils down to technical capability. The fact is that Israel does not have the capability to destroy Iran’s nuclear facility. According to the Iran Project, if Israel were to launch an airstrike it would have to rely mainly on the Israeli Air Force’s (IAF) long-range strike aircraft and land or submarine-based cruise missiles, which are nowhere near as numerous as their American counterparts, and are not stealth designs. The report also points out that the IAF would be required to cross over Iraqi or Jordanian airspace to carry out such an attack. Another key problem is that the Fordow facility is buried between 200 and 300 feet underground. This is why Israel is so intent on obtaining American support prior to an attack on Iran. If the US were to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities it would likely employ its stealth bombers armed with the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), a 30,000-pound, “bunker-busting” bomb. While experts disagree on whether this option is capable of destroying Fordow, the US can also employ the use of cruise missiles, drones, and special operation forces to destroy some of Iran’s high-value targets. Should the initial strikes not destroy the facility, the US is capable of additional sorties, but this would increase the risk to US forces and increase the duration of the campaign. While an American attack has a much greater chance at success than an Israeli one, the destruction of Iran’s enrichment facilities is not guaranteed. Indeed, as the Iran Project concluded, “An Israeli air strike is unlikely to succeed in destroying or even seriously damaging the Fordow enrichment facility and the stockpile of MEU that is stored there.” Even worse, the report concludes that even a successful Israeli attack would only set back Iran’s nuclear program by up to two years.

Many risks, few rewards In assessing the viability of a military attack on Iran’s nuclear program it is important to take into consideration both the benefits and costs of such action. The report does this brilliantly. The most obvious benefit of a US attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities will delay Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon by “up to four years,” but this would require sustained US airstrikes. The report suggests that the basis for this estimate is reflected by the time that it took Iran to build the Fordow facility deep underground and how long it took to then bring it online. Second, an airstrike may do permanent damage to key nuclear infrastructure that would be very difficult to replace under the current sanction regime, but experts dispute Iran’s capability to procure replacements. Third, in addition to striking Iran’s nuclear facilities,

a sustained campaign would require the US to destroy key military infrastructure, including Iran’s air defenses, air force, command and control facilities, and communications networks. The US would also likely attack military bases, missile and rocket launching sites, and the facilities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). These attacks would have a much more lasting effect on Iran’s overall military capabilities. A fourth benefit to an attack on Iran is that it would serve as a deterrent to other nations considering obtaining a nuclear capacity. Indeed, “if Iran’s nuclear program were set back, key regional players … would feel less pressure to pursue their own nuclear programs.” Finally, military action would offer broader geopolitical benefits for the US, since it would disrupt government control over the populace, deplete the Iranian treasury, raise


TM1577_12-17_Politics 1.indd 14

29/11/2012 09:39

internal tensions, and, perhaps weaken the regime. This last point, however, is a matter of contention, since many experts believe that an attack would strengthen the regime by creating a “rally around the flag” effect. It is clear from the report that the costs of military action against Iran will be very high. The most obvious repercussion of a US or Israeli military strike against Iran is retaliation, which would cost lives and cause damage to US property and assets throughout the region. In the event of an attack, Iran could retaliate directly at several targets: US forces in the region, Israel, and the Strait of Hormuz. The Iran Project members argued that a US strike would lift any restraint that Iranian officials have had with respect to attacking US forces in the region, particularly the US naval base in Bahrain or US vessels in the Gulf. Iran could make use of its ballistic missile capability to launch missiles at Israeli cities, and possibly Israel’s nuclear complex at Dimona. In both these cases, the scale of damage inflicted would likely be blunted by US missile defense systems deployed in the region. Finally, Iran could finally follow through with its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz. While Iran is capable of achieving this for a few days or weeks, this tactic could easily backfire by starving itself of crucial oil revenues and alienate important allies like China. In terms of indirect retaliation, Iran has a number of assets that it can utilize, including the mobilization of its proxy forces. As the report argues, “If Hezbollah (and perhaps Hamas) were to decide to take action, they could inflict significant damage on Israel with their extensive rocket and missile arsenals.” This would likely result in Israeli retaliation, but this, in turn, could kill civilians, inflict property damage, and set back the Israeli economy. At the same time, Iran could activate its covert assets worldwide. As the report points out, while the “extent of Iran’s ability to conduct . . . a covert campaign is unclear, given some recent failures and missteps . . . the success of the bombing in Bulgaria [earlier this year] does indicate some ability to attack soft targets well outside the Middle East.” Another major cost would be that military action would lead to a major escalation in tensions between the US and Iran, the consequences of which are unpredictable but include the possibility of a full-scale war Issue 1577 • November/December 2012

TM1577_12-17_Politics 1.indd 15

breaking out: “Given the ‘fog of war,’ high levels of distrust, the absence of communication among regional combatants, and the ability of events to overtake even the most careful planning, miscalculation and uncontrollable escalation to full scale combat cannot be discounted.” There are also a number of potential regional and global costs of a US attack on Iran. The most obvious is that there would be a break down in global solidarity against Iran’s program. To date, the Obama administration has proven apt at rallying nations to agree to the harsh sanctions imposed on the country, including a number of Security Council resolutions that were difficult to obtain, given Iran’s ties with the Russians and Chinese. Certainly a US attack on Iran without widespread international backing would unravel these gains, since Iran would justifiably be viewed as a victim of aggression. This would be a significant setback to US interests in the region. A US attack could also significantly increase the likelihood that Iran would actively seek the acquisition of a nuclear bomb. This view is not novel to US policymakers. In fact, it was a primary reason why the Bush administration refused the sale of technology to Israel that was likely to increase the success of an Israeli attack on Iran. An attack on Iran would likely convince the Iranian leadership that regime change is really the goal of US policy and that only the acquisition of a nuclear weapon could head off any future or sustained military action. Iran could also have withdrawn from the NPT, expelled IAEA inspectors, and ultimately cut the US and international community off from important intelligence on its nuclear program.

Joseph Cirincione

An attack would also increase global instability. Certainly a US–Israeli attack could embolden radical elements throughout the region and turn back some of the democratic major gains of the Arab Spring. In particular, an Israeli attack would strengthen radical elements inside Egypt, which could then lead to pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood to withdraw from its peace treaty with Israel. This would be a major blow to the region. It could also increase hostility toward US personnel, diplomats, and civilian contractors inside Iraq, which has a large Shi’a population that identifies itself on a religious level with Iran. Finally, an attack would certainly lead to a spike in the price of oil, which could potentially have a devastating impact on the alreadystruggling world economy. The circumstances of any attack on Iran could have a varying impact on America’s global standing. If Israel were to attack Iran against the advice of the US and the Obama administration was forced to help defend it from retaliation, then American influence would not be significantly harmed. However, if the two nations were to act together, it could easily be construed as an attack on Muslims worldwide, being the fourth attack on a predominately Islamic country in just over a decade (with Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya preceding it). The result would be a significant decrease in US stature throughout the Muslim world, which could also lead to further radicalization. Finally, if it was clear that Iran was actively seeking a nuclear weapon, the US could seek authorization for the use of force through the Security Council, though it seems unlikely that Russia or China would approve. In that case, the US could either form an international coalition, take the matter to the General Assembly, or attack unilaterally. In this event, US influence would still come under intense criticism and its regional influence would suffer, though much less than if there was no evidence that Iran was actively seeking a nuclear weapon. Expert views US foreign policy experts are largely in agreement with the Iran Project’s conclusions. As it stands, at least 35 influential former US officials have endorsed the report, including Zbigniew Brzezinski (national 15

29/11/2012 09:39


security advisor to Jimmy Carter), General Brent Scowcroft (national security advisor to Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush), General Anthony Zinni (former CENTCOM commander), former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE), and Representative Lee Hamilton (D-IN), among many others. Brzezinski gave an interview with Newsman TV in July, in which he warned, “A war in the Middle East, in the present context, may last for years. . . And the economic consequences of it are going to be devastating for the average American. High inflation. Instability. Insecurity. Probably significant isolation for the United States in the world scene.” He then asked rhetorically, “Can you name me any significant country that’s going to be in that war together on our side? That’s something no one can afford to ignore.” It is clear that Brzezinski is more worried about what will happen once the war begins. “Rushing to war is not a wise course of action. You can always start a war, and you know pretty much what happens when you start it. But you don’t know how long it will last, what its consequences will be—and they will be certainly very costly for the United States.” Another US analyst, Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution, a former CIA and National Security Council official, added that he would go a step further than the report’s conclusions: “I think the downsides of military action against Iran, whether it is American, Israeli, or joint, so outweigh the potential gains that it would reckless in the extreme to resort to military action. I think the last think the world needs is another war in the Middle East, certainly the last thing the global economy needs is another war in the Middle East, and that is why I think we need to find a way out of this that avoids conflict.” With such widespread support for the report’s findings among top US officials, it seems clear that a consensus has been reached among US policymakers that the risk of an attack on Iran’s nuclear program far exceeds the threat of Iran’s nuclear enrichment. As a consequence, the US has initiated steps aimed at strengthening ties with Israel’s security establishment, while simultaneously stressing the consequences to Israel’s special relationship with the US if premeditated action were to be taken without American approval.

Reassessing the question of Iran Since the release of the report, a number of positive developments have undermined calls for war. Netanyahu addressed the Israeli public in a televised speech on 9 October, announcing that because of the political impasse concerning the passage of his proposed budget, he had decided that it was in Israel’s best interests to hold an election as early as possible.

Netanyahu’s call for an early election allowed tensions within Israel over the question of an attack on Iran, which had been bubbling under the surface for months, to break into the open. Graham Allison, the director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Shia Feldman, the director of Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies, wrote an article on the


TM1577_12-17_Politics 1.indd 16

29/11/2012 09:39

situation published in the New York Times on 13 October (not long after the election was called). According to their article, Netanyahu accused his defense minister, Ehud Barak—who had long supported the prime minister’s position on Iran—of conspiring with the Obama administration to stave off an Israeli attack again Iran. “The public row with Mr. Barak illustrated the magnitude of Mr. Netanyahu’s retreat and his difficulty in explaining it. He was left with implying that he had been undermined, if not betrayed by, his own defense minister,” wrote Allison and Feldman. Their article goes on to explain that Netanyahu’s about-face was the direct result of a “longbuilding revolt by Israel’s professional security establishment against the very idea of an early military attack, particularly one without the approval of the United States.” Indeed, former and even serving senior Israeli defense and intelligence officials have publicly opposed Netanyahu’s case for war for months; the most notable of whom is former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who said in a TV interview that attacking Iran was “the stupidest idea I have ever heard.” Significantly, the New York Times article points out that the revolt within Israel’s defense and intelligence communities was no coincidence, but rather part of the Obama administration’s strategy to undermine Netanyahu’s reckless push for war. In effect, the US administration established a US lobby among Israeli security professionals, which has forced the Israeli prime minister to back down: “[Behind] the scenes, the Obama administration [has been] conducting a quiet campaign that would strengthen the view, already circulating among Israeli security professionals, that prematurely attacking Iran would not advance Israel’s interests and would damage Israel’s relationship with America. Instead of holding Israel at bay or threatening punitive action, the administration was upgrading American security assistance to Israel—so much so that earlier this year Mr. Barak described the level of support as greater than ever in Israel’s history.” The Obama administration built this lobby by expanding intelligence sharing programs, assisting with Israel’s missile defense shield, and by engaging in joint cyber operations against Iran’s nuclear program. These efforts have expanded the importance of IsIssue 1577 • November/December 2012

TM1577_12-17_Politics 1.indd 17

rael’s security relationship with the United States and ensured that key Israeli officials have “a strong interest in continuing the close partnership.” Indeed, as Allison and Feldmen observe, “It is no accident that the security institutions have become among the most vocal opponents of attacking Iran. No one knows better than they what is at stake if they ignore Washington’s concerns.” A final important development occurred on 20 October, when the New York Times revealed that US and Iranian officials had “agreed in principle” for the first time to one-on-one talks over Iran’s nuclear program. While American and Iranian officials have issued denials, it seems likely that both sides are awaiting the outcome of the election before proceeding further. In an interview, Riedel observed, “I think the prospects of a diplomatic solution have gone up a little bit in the last week with the news that the United States and Iran are considering a direct bilateral negotiation process. Although both sides have denied that, I don’t find either of their denials particularly compelling.” Either way, there is little question that the prospect of US-Iran bilateral talks will not sit well with Netanyahu, since it would limit Israel’s ability to influence a final agreement. Regime change? In the end, the conflict between the US and Israel over the question of Iran’s nuclear program in has been complicated by personal rivalries and the US presidential elections. Some say that Netanyahu does not

Leslie H/ Gelb

wish to see Obama re-elected and believes that Mitt Romney, an old friend and former colleague from his days as a management consultant in the US, would be more sympathetic. His preference is reportedly an open secret, and will undoubtedly lead to greater tension between the two leaders should Obama be reelected. Many observers already agree that Netanyahu and Obama do not see eye-toeye, to say the least. In the words of Bruce Riedel, “I think they despise each other. I think if you wanted to know what Netanyahu’s real number one foreign policy goal is today, it is regime change on the banks of the Potomac. But he has very little mechanism for making that happen.” On the question of an attack on Iran’s nuclear program, the Iran Project makes clear that while Israel is capable of inflicting significant damage, it can only slow Iran’s enrichment of uranium temporarily. The US, on the other hand, has much more sophisticated weaponry, but can merely delay Iran for longer. In either case, as the report makes clear, the repercussions far outweigh any benefits of such an attack. Fortunately, the Obama administration’s diplomatic offensive aimed at convincing senior officials in Israel’s national security establishment that a unilateral attack against Iran is not in Israel’s best interests seems to be paying off. At the same time, the Netanyahu government has collapsed due to infighting over his proposed budget, which has brought tensions over the Iran question into the open. Finally, the revelation that the US and Iran have agreed in principle to bilateral talks suggests that the diplomatic impasse that has plagued relations between the two countries since the Iranian Revolution could possibly come to an end, and resolve the nuclear issue diplomatically.  Bryan R. Gibson is a PhD candidate in International History at the LSE and specializes in US-Iraqi relations during the Cold War. His PhD thesis is on the US policy toward Iraq and the Kurdish Revolt, 1958-75. He is the author of Covert Relationship: American Foreign Policy, Intelligence and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988.


29/11/2012 09:39


Behind the stalemate Inside the battle for control of Syria

As the Syrian civil war continues, The Majalla assesses the military balance between the two sides Alex Edwards As the fighting continues, it has become the received wisdom that the future of the country will continue to be dominated by violence and bloodshed. Each side has shown their determination to crush the other; despite political and diplomatic moves to resolve the fighting, it seems clear at present that it will only end with the decisive military defeat and collapse of the government or the rebellion against it. If the military situation is the one that will define Syria’s future, the reasons that a stalemate has endured need to be reassessed in the light of the recent announcement that Syria’s fractious rebels have formed a

A rebel fighter of the Free Syrian Army, who defected six months earlier from the national army, cleans his weapon in an underground shelter in the town of Maarat al-Numan, on November 17, 2012

new leadership body that has been recognized by several Arab and Western states as well as Turkey, and the news that the UK and France are willing to ‘reconsider’ the issue of arming the rebels. The balance of power The consensus among global media reports on the situation in Syria is that there is a military stalemate between the two sides, even though one has the full resources of a state at its command, while the other is a collection of disparate rebel groups. In reality, however, both sides face the problems that bedevil all military forces in wartime: supply and logistics.

Photo © Getty Images


he front pages of the world’s major newspapers and the coverage of satellite news channels and websites have been dominated by stark footage and images of the fighting in Syria every day: tanks rolling down streets and across the countryside, aircraft falling in flames, soldiers and rebels locked in combat, bloodied bodies pulled from the rubble of what were once homes, a steady stream of wounded and dead civilians, and devastated streets. Behind these tragic scenes lies a complex and evolving battlefield, with both sides trying and failing overcome the resistance of the other.


TM1577_18-22_Politics 2.indd 18

29/11/2012 09:41

The rebels, for the most part, are armed with nothing more than small arms— meaning Soviet-era Russian assault rifles, machine guns and anti-tank rocket-propelled grenades—though some recent attacks against government facilities in Damascus have reportedly made use of mortars, and elsewhere they make use of an occasional captured tank. As many of the weapons in rebel hands were bought, stolen, or captured from the Syrian military, the rebels can supply themselves by capturing government arsenals and stripping defeated army units of ammunition. The continuing instability and unrest in neighboring Iraq is also a bonus for the Syrian opposition, enabling them to lay their hands on weapons left over from the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government and the subsequent insurgency against US troops, especially as the Iraqi military was also equipped mainly with Russian weaponry. There is evidence that some Gulf States are channeling arms and ammunition to the rebels, and with ever-larger areas of Syria— including some border regions—outside of government control, the rebels will likely be able to bring in enough arms through Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon to keep the fighting going as long as necessary. The supply of arms to the rebels is reported to be uneven and at times erratic, however. Free Syrian Army (FSA) soldiers periodically complain to journalists that they have limited supplies of ammunition, and a recent International Crisis Group report stated that some rebels were pretending to be radical religious jihadists in order to secure weapons and ammunition from foreign benefactors. The rebel fighters themselves reflect the nature of the uprising against Assad’s government as something resembling a popular revolution. The fighters operate in relatively small, self-organizing groups of different sizes, composed of a mixture of defectors from the Syrian army and ordinary people (frequently poor, rural Sunnis) driven to take up arms for ideological or personal reasons, with a smattering of Islamist militants with combat experience in Iraq and elsewhere. Groups of rebels vary a great deal in terms of their size and capabilities. Despite attempts to direct their operations from abroad and push them to cooperate, for the most part the Issue 1577 • November/December 2012

TM1577_18-22_Politics 2.indd 19

groups remain uncoordinated and without a large supply of effective anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. Even if they did receive these weapons, they would likely require training from Special Forces troops from sympathetic countries in order to use them properly. In contrast, the government of Bashar Al-Assad has all the paraphernalia of a conventional, modern army, ostensibly armed and equipped to take on Israel. On paper, the Syrian armed forces are a formidable opponent, possessing combat jets, tanks, and artillery—again Russian in origin—and a pre-uprising strength of around three hundred thousand men, with hundreds of thousands more reservists. Nonetheless, the Syrian government has been unable to crush its armed opponents outright, despite its conventional superiority. Its most sophisticated weapons, like its hi-tech MiG-29 fighter jets, were purchased with an eye towards fighting Israel rather than suppressing a domestic insurgency, for which they are less useful. Maintaining combat jets and tanks and preparing to fight is a difficult and expensive task in terms of fuel, ammunition, and basic maintenance, limiting the time they can spend in action. The Institute for the Study of War estimates that the Syrian Air Force can keep no more than 30 percent of its total inventory of aircraft operational at any one time. The arms embargo in place also makes it nearly impossible for the government to replace any losses of this kind of equipment. As a result, air attacks are mostly carried out by unsophisticated aircraft usually used for training pilots, which are simpler and cheaper to operate but carry a much smaller payload

of bombs and rockets. As the US military and its allies have learned to their cost in Iraq and Afghanistan, the most useful weapons when fighting insurgents are not always the expensive, hi-tech, and complex equipment used for high-intensity warfare against conventional foes. The aircraft that are arguably even more useful to the government, its 30-odd Russian ‘Hind’ attack helicopters, are also a liability in some ways. New York Times reporter and former US Marines officer C. J. Chivers has reported from Syria on the problems faced by the government in using them against the rebels, despite their lethality. Helicopters are notoriously difficult to maintain, and he reports that as a result, “estimates are that only half the fleet can be used at a given time, with some helicopters cannibalized for spare parts.” While the government’s larger fleet of transport helicopters can be retrofitted with weapons, they are also prone to the same mechanical problems. Helicopters also typically fly at very low altitudes— unlike jets—making them vulnerable to machine gun and rifle fire. Syrian rebels have shot down several, if footage posted on various social network sites can be believed. In response, air attacks now seem to be taking place from higher altitudes, with a corresponding lack of precision, leading to more civilian casualties and indiscriminate destruction. Despite these problems with its aerial units, the Syrian army has shown signs of strain, but not of breaking down or switching sides en masse. The current president’s father and predecessor, Hafez Al-Assad, came to power through a military coup, and carefully restructured the armed forces to prevent this from happening again. Syria’s security services (which are still intact) monitor the military closely, and many soldiers fear reprisals against their families if they defect to the opposition, as Michael Stephens, a Qatar-based analyst and researcher at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a think tank that specializes in military and security issues, told The Majalla. He also believes that the strain of fighting the rebels has compromised its military effectiveness: “They are now churning out recruits after 38 days of training. There is going to be a quite noticeable downshift in terms of the army’s ability to fight.” 19

29/11/2012 09:41

TM1577_20_Ad.indd 20

26/11/2012 17:39

A civil war, but what kind? In guerilla wars throughout history, the government has typically been able to control the towns and cities (while suffering urban bombing campaigns from rebel infiltrators and sympathizers), but was forced to fight the rebels for the control of the countryside and the roads linking the urban centers together. The situation in Syria is similar. The government has retained control in key areas and is able to project military force into others to attack rebels where they appear, but it lacks the overwhelming military strength to control the country completely. This is especially true in northern Syria, where the rebels have been more successful at contesting government control. Here, the Syrian army “is losing mobility,” says Shashank Joshi, a researcher and analyst at RUSI’s London branch. “The [government forces] are losing control of the roads. In a sense it’s more and more confined to outposts.” These have to be supplied by air, which places further strain on the government’s helicopters, he added, and limits the army and air force’s ability to bring their superior numbers and firepower to bear. In a more conventional conflict, both sides fight it out for outright control over territory, trying to extend their own zone Issue 1577 • November/December 2012

TM1577_18-22_Politics 2.indd 21

Rebel fighters look at SPG-9 rockets in the back of a pick-up truck ready to be transported to the frontline in the town of Maarat al-Numan, on November 17, 2012

of control. This is also true in some ways of the fighting in Syria, with the rebels and the government each stronger in some areas than others. Aleppo is Syria’s largest city and commercial capital, and is hotly contested by both sides. Guerillas do not attempt to capture cities and territory, as the FSA has in the north, but instead avoid decisive battles until they are strong enough to win them and try to wear down the regime to the point of collapse. Several of the disputed areas control crucial supply lines for the Syrian government’s forces, particularly the Aleppo–Damascus highway. However, a major shift away from guerilla-style operations is unlikely, say analysts. According to Michael Stephens, the rebels lack the numbers to contest control of the

Photo © Getty Images

Nonetheless, the loyalty of the armed forces is not entirely reliant on coercion. The upper ranks of the military are dominated by Alawites, and the uprising has most likely caused large numbers of officers and soldiers whose loyalties are suspect to be sidelined, making the pool of military forces that the government can rely on smaller but more cohesive. Units like the Fourth Division, commanded by President Assad’s brother, Maher, have always been tasked with ensuring the survival of the regime like praetorian guards, with recruits selected from amongst Syria’s Alawites and screened for loyalty. It has proven in the past to be reliable: it was one of the units that crushed the uprising in the city of Hama in 1982, and to date has been kept mostly in reserve around Damascus, says Stephens. A report by the Brookings Doha Center estimates that the government relies on a core of just over 20,000 Alawite officers, and points out that, as of last month, less than 10 of them are reported to have defected.

country: “I don’t think they have the manpower to do that. Let’s say [the rebels] have 50,000 men, but Assad has nearly half a million.” They also lack tanks and artillery, or weapons to tackle those of the government’s forces. Mr. Joshi concurs with this assessment: “Where they have tried to move away from guerilla tactics they have failed,” he concludes, with the partial exception of the fighting around Aleppo. International intervention represents a wild card with unpredictable consequences, especially given the possible forms it might take. A no-fly zone would certainly be able to shut down the operations of the Syrian Air Force, but this would be no guarantee of a change in the fighting on the ground. As researchers Christopher Harmer and Jo21

29/11/2012 09:41

seph Holliday at the Institute for the Study of War note in a recent report on the air war in Syria, “The regime has primarily employed its aircraft in a punitive and retaliatory manner rather than a tactical role.” The effectiveness of Syria’s air defenses are also a source of dispute, and the costs of destroying them—in terms of aircraft shot down and pilots killed or captured—are also unclear, making Western governments (and particularly the US) reluctant to get involved. The attendant bad publicity of launching air attacks on another Arab country so soon after Iraq and Libya has also doubtless given NATO leaders pause, especially given the proximity of many Syria’s air defense sites to urban centers with civilian populations, and the inevitable collateral damage—even assuming all bombs or missiles hit their intended military targets. The sinews of war Ultimately, neither the government nor its opponents have the ability to fight and win either kind of war. The rebels are not currently organized enough to plan and wage a successful long-term national guerilla campaign, as opposed to several smaller regional ones, and lack the weapons to tackle government forces head on. The government, on the other hand, lacks the strength to extend its control over the entire country, and cannot deliver a decisive defeat to the rebels on the battlefield. Aside from the fact that there is no single rebel army to pin down and destroy, the government lacks the manpower and resources to simultaneously control its existing territory and recapture all the areas it has ceded to its opponents. The stage is set for a bloody stalemate. Barring a dramatic external intervention—the consequences of which are far from predictable—or a reversal of all trends to date (perhaps with a decision from both sides to negotiate an end to the conflict), the issue will be decided when one side collapses. Given the relatively narrow social base of Assad’s regime, it is likely that it will be the government that collapses—but not any time soon. One area where the government is truly vulnerable is the economy: as the Roman politician Cicero observed, “Endless money forms the sinews of war.” Bashar AlAssad’s rule has proved to be surprisingly resilient, but its finances are far from end-

Bashar al-Assad

less. Syria’s economic problems—youth unemployment, a growing population, corruption, and declining oil revenues being only a few of them—were worrying before the uprisings. With the onset of civil war, the government’s need to buy off key sectors of the population, including the military and the security services, has taken on an added urgency. Sources of subsidy abroad are hard to find: most sources of Arab money are not sympathetic to the government, although it has not been frozen out of the financial system altogether. For example, some Lebanese banks are carrying out transactions for the Syrian government, according to RUSI’s Shashank Joshi. He added that Syria’s allies further afield are not lucrative sources of finance: “If Russia was financing Assad, it would have come out by now,” and Iran, an ally of Syria accused of supplying Assad with weapons and training for his armed forces, is facing its own economic problems. Opinions are divided as to the extent of Iranian support, financial or otherwise, for Assad’s government, but many believe that shipments of arms have made their way to Syria from Iran via Iraqi airspace, helping the Syrian government avoid paying black market prices for arms and ammunition. Nonetheless, as the economy of Syria fragments under the pressures of war, the government’s revenue base will come under increasing strain. Unsurprisingly, prices across the country have been rising, with

Photo © Getty Images


inflation running at 40 percent in some areas, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. Reports have surfaced that the government is experiencing difficulties importing staple foods like wheat, even though these are not subject to sanctions. As for ready cash, the CIA’s World Factbook gives Syria’s reserves of gold and foreign currency as almost US$15 billion in 2011, the last year for which figures are available. Some reports at the beginning of this year claim that the Syrian government was down to half of that figure, and was selling its gold reserves at a discount in order to raise revenue. All of these facts paint a picture of a government crumbling, with its finances and the economic base of its power steadily eroding while its fortunes on the battlefield remain grim. However, with the survival of the government tied up so closely with the fate of the Alawite community and some others, its supporters are no doubt willing to endure a great deal of pain in order to keep it going and stave off a final collapse. Whatever the true state of the regime’s available resources and sheer will to endure, the thing that is most obvious is that they have not been exhausted yet, and much less obvious what their limits actually are. Alex Edwards is a PHD candidate at the London School of Economics (LSE) who specialises in American foreign policy in the Middle East.


TM1577_18-22_Politics 2.indd 22

29/11/2012 09:41

TM1577_23_Ad.indd 23

26/11/2012 17:40

Cover Story


Strengthened by Silence The Syrian crisis and the politics of the Shi’a clergy In times of conflict, being impartial does not necessarily translate into neutrality: silence in such circumstances may signify taking a side. This is indeed the Shi’ite clergy’s narrative about the violence in Syria. Mehdi Khalaji


he number of Muslims who have lost their lives during the course of last two years of crackdowns in Syria greatly exceeds the number of Arabs killed by Israel in the last thirty years. Thousands of Muslims are killed by an Alawite government backed by the ayatollah-led Islamic Republic of Iran. The clergy’s silence doubtlessly helps Bashar Al-Assad justify his aggressive policy toward his opponents. Yet the position of the clerics is not explained simply by the proximity of the Iranian and Syrian regimes. To understand the former’s posture one needs to comprehend the internal politics of the Shi’a clergy—especially the dynamic between the two main seminaries at Qom and Najaf—which are complicated by history, politics, and geography. These tensions have been building since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and were exacerbated by the rise of the Islamic Republic in Iran in 1979. In this context, the silence of the Shi’a clergy towards the violence perpetrated by an Alawite against his (predominately Sunni) citizens is merely another symptom of a

system that encourages silence from the clerics unless they are under direct attack. The simple business of Ayatollah Sistani In one of her first visits to her father after the downfall of Saddam Hussein, the daughter of Ayatollah Ali Sistani asked why her father did not purchase an air conditioner for his house during the

Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei

summer. “When I see [that] all residents of Najaf are able to afford buying an air conditioner for their homes, I will buy one for myself,” her father replied. Sistani receives millions of dollars annually from his followers worldwide in the name of religious taxation. He owns a great deal of property—dozens of madrassas, libraries, seminary campuses, religious centers, and so on—in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Europe. In comparison to Catholic authorities who live in luxury residences and follow highly sophisticated protocol, Sistani’s simple life is astonishing; however, he is not the mastermind behind his lifestyle. In Shi’ism, if a man wants to become a jurist with many followers—or an ayatollah— he should prove his piety and disinterest in worldly pleasures and passions. On the other hand, he must create a broad network of people and institutions to collect revenue. People do not give money to a greedy person; as such, the divine man should live a pious, simple life. But being pious and disinterested in living a luxurious lifestyle does not necessarily mean that the jurist should not take the issue of power seriously. Historically,


TM1577_24-30_Cover Story.indd 24

29/11/2012 09:28

Sayyed Ruhollah Mostafavi Musavi Khomeini

Issue 1577 • November/December 2012

TM1577_24-30_Cover Story.indd 25


29/11/2012 09:28

Cover Story

Shi’ite jurists were able to collect money from people and run their own institutions only when they established very sophisticated relations with the political rulers. Not only is it their stance toward the political authorities that shape their attitudes and even influence their religious views about social and political affairs, but it also represents the internal power struggle among various ayatollahs. When Sistani was trying to assert his religious authority (marjaiya) in Iran in the early 1990s, the Qom clergy was not welcoming at first. Their ambition was to totally transfer the Shi’ite authority from Iraq to Iran and end several decades of rivalry between Najaf and Qom after the death of Ayatollah Abul Qassim Khoi. But two things prevented them from imposing serious obstacles to Sistani’s project in Iran. First, Sistani was the wealthiest ayatollah in the Shi’ite world—and he had not become rich by relying on government support. He also had the broadest network of representatives and followers worldwide, whom he inherited from Khoi, his late mentor. Ayatollahs in Qom either had a small circle of followers and were consequently not as financially well off as Sistani, or they were indebted to the Islamic Republic for their social and financial strength. Second, the clergy in Qom and clerical rulers in Tehran realized that it was impossible to convince the entire Shi’ite community to deflect their attention from Najaf after Khoi. They found themselves incapable of being attractive in the eyes of Arab Shi’ites and other nonIranian Shi’ites, who are not necessarily

Shia Clerics

fond of the Islamic Republic. The situation involving Sistani in Najaf was still much more appealing for the traditional members of the Shi’ite community. For Sistani to run a large office in Qom (headed by his son-in-law, Javad Shahrestani)—along with dozens of other institutions there and in other cities—he needed to prove that he was a threat to neither the Islamic Republic nor its supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. His associates promised government officials that Sistani’s projects and activities in Iran would be limited to providing financial assistance to seminarians and similar services such as libraries. But this was the minimum that could satisfy the Iranian government. Ayatollah Khamenei expected Sistani’s network outside Iran and Iraq—especially in countries like Lebanon that are of the highest strategic value to the Islamic Republic—to be available to him whenever he deemed necessary. Such a deal could have been very beneficial for both parties; without Khamenei’s consent, Sistani would lose his Iranian support, and without Sistani’s network outside Iran, Khamenei would limit himself to his own political network and deprive himself from the religious network that is more useful in traditional milieus. This deal became much more significant after the collapse of the Ba’ath in Iraq in 2003, which opened the way for the Islamic Republic to expand its activities there. Despite Western misinterpretations of Sistani as a man who theologically opposes the notion of velayat-e faqih (political leadership of an ayatollah), Sistani has proven to be harmless in opposition to the Islamic Republic over the last nine years: he has never spoken or acted in a manner that could be interpreted as a challenge to the republic. Sistani’s policy to calm tensions in Iraq was universally useful, but despite his official declarations asserting that he does not intervene in domestic political affairs he has been very supportive of the Da’wa Party and its political ambitions, although this has decreased over the last two years. His ideal of an Iraqi government has rarely conflicted with that of the Islamic Republic. “Quietist,” a description of the ayatollah used by the Western media, was misleading. Instead, Sistani’s pragmatism enabled him to have strong


TM1577_24-30_Cover Story.indd 26

29/11/2012 09:28

Najaf Hawza Ilmiyya Najaf Hawza Ilmiyya (Najaf Seminary), located in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq was founded in the eleventh century by Shaykh Al-Tusi. The Islamic seminary has been the main center of Shi’a training for over a thousand years. Dominance of various political parties in Iraq led to a weakening era for Najaf Hawza in the twentieth century. The Hawza regained its strength and influence after the fall of Saddam. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 revolution in Iran, was educated in Najaf Hawza Ilmiyya. Nafaj Hawaza is currently run by Ayatollah Sistani.

them, the Najaf school tends to take a quietist stance toward politics mostly because clerics there do not believe in velayat-e faqih, so they have no aspiration to take over political power. They declare that in Qom, clerics in the tradition of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini believe that an ayatollah (a Shi’ite jurist) has not only a religious right but a duty to lead the government, and thereby give it Shi’ite legitimacy. According to Khomeini, Muslims should rise up in the face of corrupt, Westernized governance; by handing government over to Shi’ite authority or to Islamists, a maximum effort to implement Shari’a is made. For Khomeini, the government was the practical philosophy of Islamic jurisprudence, but Shari’a becomes meaningless and prophetic law-making becomes futile without governing rule. Therefore, taking political power is an essential element of being Muslim. Being indifferent toward politics is a deviation from Islam and a Western plot to colonize the minds and spirits of Muslims, according to Khomeini. No one in the history of mankind has insulted Shi’ite clergymen who opposed his political views as much as Khomeini;

he labeled them backward, pro-American, ignorant, stupid, and said they had “colonized minds.” But Ayatollah Sistani’s clergy in Najaf—at least in the narrative of Western media—do not believe in the theory of velayat-e faqih and do not share Khomeini’s political ideas. They hold that a proper government does not need to be religiously legitimate, but rather that a secular government can also be acceptable if it does not explicitly violate Islamic law. What Western media did not take into consideration is history, both of the Qom seminary and of that in Najaf. Both seminaries have become involved in politics whenever they felt such involvement was harmless to the clerical establishment or useful in strengthening its authority. Iraqi Shi’ite clerics who lived under the Ottoman Empire until the early 20th century were extremely involved in Iranian politics. They were divided over supporting the monarchy or the constitutional movement, and each camp played an important role in shaping developments in Iran. During the 18th century, a fatwa issued by Mirzaye Shirazi that banned tobacco in

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech during the 18th anniversary of the death of Iran's late founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, at the latter's mausoleum in Tehran, 4 June 2007

Photo © ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

relations with various Shi’ite groups, the Iraqi government, and the Islamic Republic in order to continue his business: being a marja. There are several ways Sistani could justify his relations with the Islamic Republic. First, he could argue that he believes in the traditional view embedded in Shi’ite jurisprudence that the sultan of a Shi’ite territory should be supported as long as he protects the interests of the Shi’ite community. Many have questioned Khamenei’s religious credentials, but there is no doubt that he heads the government of the most important Shi’ite country in the world. Any attempt to undermine Khamenei’s authority as a de facto sultan of a Shi’ite country is religiously “illegal.” Second, the Islamic Republic is providing exclusive financial, social and political benefits to the Shi’ite clergy. This positive form of discrimination has been internalized in the constitution, and has made the Shi’ite clerical establishment the wealthiest it has ever been. Weakening such a government would affect the clerics, deepen the tension between various factions, tarnish the clergy’s reputation amongst its followers—and discourage them from trusting the clergy, paying their religious taxes, or agreeing on religious affairs. Third, criticizing the Islamic Republic would strengthen its critics. There are two main forces that could challenge the Islamic Republic’s status quo: the democratic movement and the military elite. Both alternatives to the republic are anti-clerical. In the minds of the clerics, the current government in Tehran should remain so long as there is no potential replacement for the Islamic Republic that would provide the same advantages to the Shi’ite clergy. Fourth, the decline of the power of the Islamic Republic would affect the power equation in the region against the Shi’ite community. The Islamic Republic was very successful in tying itself up with the fate of Shi’ite clergy and community. Velayat-e faqih in Najaf and Qom In recent years, especially after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Western media tried to distinguish between the Najaf school of Shi’ite jurisprudence and the Qom school of thought. According to Issue 1577 • November/December 2012

TM1577_24-30_Cover Story.indd 27


30/11/2012 15:48

Cover Story

Photo © Getty Images

order to force the Qajari king to refrain from giving the trade monopoly to a British company was a spectacular power maneuver that revealed that the Shi’ite clerics’ social power base can be used for political purposes. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Shi’ite clerics in Iraq played a significant role in mobilizing people against foreign forces. Under Saddam Hussein, they became more cautious due to Saddam’s uncompromising and aggressive attitude, but they did not completely abandon political activity. On the other hand, the Qom seminary was very careful not to get involved in politics in its first two decades in early 20th century. Sheikh Abdul Karim Haeri Yazdi, the founder of the current seminary in Qom, was very concerned about Reza Shah’s anti-clerical agenda. The shah had forced a new discipline on clerics, leading many to leave their careers and become either businessmen or government employees. Reza Shah was also imitating Atatürk’s model of authoritative modernization, and they were both Westernizing their societies and cultures. Among many issues that upset the clergy was Reza Shah’s antihijab agenda, which was enforced by police and often led to violent incidents. Haeri was among those who did not dare to oppose Reza Shah’s anti-clerical and anti-Islamic policies because the clergy was not in a strong position at the time— meaning opposition to the government

could have potentially crippled the clerical establishment. When Haeri was asked by his students why he was not publically criticizing Reza Shah’s anti-hijab initiative, his response was that they had “a higher priority, which is safeguarding the survival of the Qom seminary.” One can safely conclude that there is little theological difference between Najaf seminary and Qom seminary. When it comes to Shi’ite jurists’ right to intervene in politics, the determinative parameters are social and political conditions. In response to a question posed on his website, Ayatollah Sistani states that the Shi’ite jurist is allowed to lead the community if conditions allow. Consequently, the fundamental difference between Sistani and Khomeini might not be their different views on relations between politics and religion, but the historical and geographic circumstances that shape them. Running a modern clergy Clerics have generally been reluctant to publicly oppose or criticize the Islamic Republic, which may help to explain why they have not spoken out against the Iranian-supported Syrian president, Bashar Al-Assad. To begin with, the supreme leader—although himself a jurist—was declared to be a jurist unlike any other. To enforce his rule within the hierocracy, the supreme leader is able to exert his authority through a range of coercive instruments—including, most notoriously,

An explosion in Homs, Syria

through a body known as the “Special Court of Clerics” (Dadgah-e Vizheh-ye Rowhaniyat). This special court operates under the direct supervision of the supreme leader, and it does not follow the juridical procedures and laws of the rest of the country. Since its establishment, the court has become well-known for its brutal and humiliating treatment of clerics of all ranks. Ayatollah Shariatmadari was one of many “tried” in this court. He was accused of being involved in a military coup to overthrow the Iranian government and assassinate Khomeini, when in fact his real “crime” was attempting to challenge Khomeini’s legitimacy as a ruling jurist. His dossier was closed after many of his followers and relatives were arrested or executed, and Shariatmadari himself was paraded on state television as making a “confession” and begging for Khomeini’s pardon. In addition to the court, the Islamic Republic has developed a range of other mechanisms for enforcing its rule within the clerical establishment. Among other things, the Islamic Republic claimed direct responsibility for the day-to-day management of clerical institutions, and this fundamentally altered the clergy’s access to financial resources. The Islamic government confiscated much of the property that had belonged to Iran’s traditional religious authorities. In turn, this property was placed under the control of the supreme leader. For example, Dar al-Tabligh (the House of Islamic Propaganda), which was owned by Ayatollah Shariatmadari, became a base for Daftar-e Tablighat-e Eslami-e Qom (the Office for Islamic Propaganda), the head of which is appointed by the supreme leader. In more recent times, Khamenei’s office has spearheaded the computerization of the management of the clerical institutions, which has helped the supreme leader establish even more control over the clergy’s financial resources and dealings. Before Khamenei, every marja had his own financial section where subordinate clerics registered to receive their salaries. But under Khamenei’s financial system, all payments from marjas to clerics, or from one religious institution to another, first have to pass through a cen-


TM1577_24-30_Cover Story.indd 28

29/11/2012 09:28

tralized office run by the Center for the Management of Qomi Seminaries. These payments therefore ultimately require approval from the supreme leader’s representatives. The Center for the Management of Qomi Seminaries also maintains a comprehensive database of the marjas’ properties, assets, and income. The supreme leader utilizes this data to manage the marjas’ financial activities. Even Ayatollah Sistani—the preeminent marja of Najaf, who has always enjoyed considerable autonomy from the Iranian hierocracy, and who represents a more traditional Shi’ism—cannot operate his office or manage his religious–financial network within Iran (and in some cases in other countries in the Middle East such as Lebanon and Syria) without cooperating with the Iranian government. Before the revolution, ordinary clerics were financially dependent on marjas. Today, however, most clerics also receive financial support through institutions run by the state and by the supreme leader. In order to demonstrate his financial and religious supremacy, Ayatollah Khamenei pays salaries to clerics much higher than the amount paid by the marjas. While most marjas supposedly rely on religious taxes, the supreme leader presides over the wealthiest and most profitable economic institutions in Iran, such as the Oppressed Foundation, the Imam Reza Shrine, and affiliated companies. Today, religious marjas together provide only a small percentage of the clerics’ financial needs. By contrast, the government— and Khamenei himself—are primarily in charge of financial issues in Shi’ite seminaries, especially in Iran. As such, the economic role and authority of the marja has been systematically reduced, just as the Islamic Republic’s authority and power over Shi’ite financial networks has been enhanced. Moreover, since its establishment the Islamic Republic has created an entirely new network of institutions—seminaries, research institutes, community centers, and libraries—whose principal purpose is the propagation of an ideology favored by the republic. The government actively uses this influence to promote ideas beneficial to its goals while at the same time sidelining those ideas Issue 1577 • November/December 2012

TM1577_24-30_Cover Story.indd 29

Qom Hawza Ilmiyya Qom Hawza Ilmiyya (Qom Seminary) is considered one the main Hawzas among Shi’a students of theology. The ancient site of Qom Hawza Ilmiyya was established in the tenth century. It gained a prominent position amongst religious establishments at the time of the Safavid Dynesty, when Shi’ism was the state religion of Iran. The modern Qom Hawza was revived by Abdul Karim Haeri Yazdi and Grand Ayatollah Borujerdi in early twentieth century. Hawza Ilmiyya Qom is currently headed by Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi

and religious teachings that are not. This has ultimately allowed the Islamic Republic to dominate the intellectual life of Iran’s clerical establishment. This has been the case especially since the deaths of the Grand Ayatollahs Abul Qassem Khoei, Mohammad Reza Golpayegani, and Shahab Al-Din Marashi Najafi, all eminent scholars who opposed many aspects of Khomeini’s agenda. Following their deaths, the traditional centers of religious authority that operated as a religious and political check on the newly-formed hierocracy went into steep decline, and a younger generation of clerics reared by Khomeini’s republic has come to occupy positions of great religious and political influence. For clerics who are on the Iranian government’s payroll, life is full of special privileges and perks. The government underwrites a hefty budget for religious institutions, making today’s Iranian clerical establishment the wealthiest of any period in history. Well-connected clerics

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani

and marjas favored by the Islamic Republic are involved in lucrative business deals, receive exclusive governmental benefits, and can borrow large amounts of money from banks without sufficient guarantees for repayment. Even more, many charities in Iran owned by marjas, and high-ranking clerics are doing business through corrupt dealings with the government. The Khomeinist doctrine of velayate faqih requires that all clerics be subject to the orders of the supreme leader and jurist—just as any other Shi’ite worshiper would be. This doctrine is premised on the view that the ruling jurist is the heir of the Prophet Muhammad and the representative of the infallible Hidden Imam, and benefits from all of their divine authorities. The supreme leader thus has the authority over matters beyond the Shari’a and the country’s constitution, granting him—at least in principle, though there are always limits to this in practice—enormous powers over society in general and the hierocracy in particular. According to Khomeini, expediency and government interest overrule all Islamic laws, and this justified the ruling jurist’s authority over matters beyond Shari’a or the constitution. In this vein, some have claimed, for instance, that marjas cannot use religious taxes without the approval of the ruling jurist. It has additionally been argued that “fatwas by marjas that deal with public issues can come into practice only after the approval of the ruling jurist.” Within the Islamic Republic, what an individual jurist believes or the quality of his scholarship is of little significance; what matters most is how, within the structure of the hierocracy, the ruling jurist chooses to define his relationship to other individual jurists. In other words, jurists do not deal with the supreme leader and his office as a fellow or even as a superior 29

29/11/2012 09:28

Cover Story

er in such places. But when Ayatollah Khamenei publically announced that the government would not tolerate demonstrations against election results in 2009, and police and Basij militia consequently cracked down on pacifist demonstrators in the streets—prompting even the government to admit that a number of male demonstrators were raped in prisons— clerics in Qom kept silent. Clerics who claim they support the Palestinian cause, because Palestinians are Muslims and they have a religious duty to advocate the rights of all Muslims in the world, did not utter a word when the Chinese government killed more than 150 Muslims in China in 2009, strictly because doing so may have threatened Iran’s relationship with the Chinese government.

member of a religious community, but instead as the head of an expansive military–economic–political corporation. There are abundant rewards for members of this corporation in good standing. The very constitution of the Islamic Republic is based on a series of discriminations in favor of clerics. For instance, the head of the government, the head of the judiciary, all the members of the Assembly of Experts, the six members of the Guardian Council, the Minister of Intelligence, and several other positions must be mujtahid or jurists. A secular democratic government that removes all discrimination, including policies that favor clerics, would not be an ideal government for the overwhelming majority of jurists and clerics, whether they like the existing political system or not. What the Iranian people might consider an ideal alternative to the current system is not so idyllic for the majority of clerics. The Islamic Republic has systematically sought to deprive clerics of their independence and tarnished their reputations. Despite this fact, the Islamic Republic of Iran is still widely viewed as the most favorable government for clerics in the history of Islam.

“What the Iranian people might consider an ideal alternative to the current system is not so idyllic for the majority of clerics.”

Conflict by other means In order to understand the Shi’ite clergy’s mindset, it is extremely important to recognize its priorities. These often crystallize in their reactions to certain events. For instance, if one examines the incidents to which the ayatollahs in Qom have reacted in recent years, their intellectual and religious sensitivities can be understood. They have strongly opposed Iran’s approval of an international convention that eliminates all forms of discrimination against women, preventing the Iranian parliament from adopting it. When the reformist parliament wanted to include Sunni MPs in their leadership in 2001, the ayatollahs objected because (according to them) Iran is a Shi’ite country and Sunnis should not hold any leadership role in it. When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad expressed his willingness to allow women to attend sports arenas to watch football games, clerics once again publically criticized him for undermining Islamic law and underestimating the danger of men and women being togeth-

The Syrian crisis is another example of such silence, and should not come as a surprise to anyone who followed the record of the clerics’ sensitivities. The Shi’ite clergy, as a religious-economic organization, does not break any boundaries set by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Any individual cleric who crosses the red line is aggressively exposed, if he lives inside Iran—or marginalized, if he lives outside it. The heavy specter of Ayatollah Khamenei overwhelms the Shi’ite community throughout the Middle East. Beyond that fact, the clergy does not care about things that do not directly threaten or strengthen it. In his diaries, Sadeq Tabatabi (the brother-in-law of Ayatollah Khomeini’s son, Ahmad Khomeini) recalls his trip to Najaf when Khomeini was there in exile. In a conversation with him, Khomeini complained about the Najaf clerics’ indifference toward Israel and their conflict with Palestinians. Khomeini said when he asked clerics to react to this issue, they questioned why they should react to something that is not their business.

Israel would not attack Iraq or Najaf: so why would they be concerned about it? The Islamic Republic’s utilization of an array of both coercive instruments to punish anti-government tendencies as well as incentives and other perks to encourage and reward pro-goverment behavior— not to mention the clerical establishment’s own desire for self-preservation and wellbeing—helps to explain why a great majority of Iranian Shi’ite clerics have, on balance, kept silent not only about the government’s violence against peaceful demonstrators following the 12 June 2009 presidential elections, but also the Syrian government’s violence against thousands of its Muslim citizens. This is worthwhile to mention that Shi’ite clergy is sacrificing its reputation for material benefits and jeopardizing its image as a group of pious individuals who care most for well-being of Muslims. Explanation of the Shi’ite clergy’s silence toward such grave issues would not be complete without mentioning their reluctance to adopt modern, liberal legal concepts such as “justice,” “citizenship,” or “human rights.” In the absence of such understanding, the cleric’s perception of politics is rather tribal. They view the Shi’ite community as their tribe and provide them with all sorts of rights to defend their supremacy whenever and wherever they can. Such an outdated perception will likely cause them to gradually lose their influence over younger generations of Shi’ites, who are as eager to live under a liberal democratic government as most others in the world. By averting their eyes from the violence imposed by brutal governments in Iran and Syria, the clergy is only able to indirectly reinforce the Shi’ite desire to have a secular government in countries like Iran, which has been exposed to a Shi’ite-run government for quite some time. Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, focusing on the politics of Iran and Shiite groups in the Middle East. A Shiite theologian by training, Mr. Khalaji has also served on the editorial boards of two prominent Iranian periodicals and produced for the BBC as well as the U.S. government's Persian news service.


TM1577_24-30_Cover Story.indd 30

29/11/2012 09:28

TM1577_31_Ad.indd 31

26/11/2012 15:56

TM1577_32-33_Ad.indd 32

29/11/2012 10:25

TM1577_32-33_Ad.indd 33

29/11/2012 10:25

Candid Conversations

Intervention Advocate

Interview with former Syrian Brigadier General Akil Hashem Twenty months into the uprising in Syria, with the death toll reportedly exceeding 37,000 and news reports showing that violence in the country is spiraling even further out of control, it is no wonder that the thorny issue of foreign intervention is constantly revisited. Amy Assad


kil Hashem, a former brigadier general in the Syrian military, is also one of the loudest proponents of foreign military intervention in Syria. Hashem joined the Syrian army in 1962 and served for twenty-seven years. Half of this time he spent as the commander of a platoon. He later became the commander of a regiment then commander of a tank battalion, and in 1976 he was made the head of operations of a tank brigade. Then he was labeled ‘disloyal’ and was transferred from the field units to teaching positions. Speaking to The Majalla, Hashem discusses his own experience in the Syrian military under Hafez Al-Assad, and reveals how this has informed his position on the current crisis in Syria. What happened after you were reassigned to the military teaching post? I taught for three years in the tank college in Homs, and then the last ten years of my career as a professor in the higher military academy. I was teaching strategy, operation theatre, art of war, and military history. First I was the head of the department for research and military studies and for the last two years I was the dean of the faculty of military history. In 1981, I came to the belief that I am not serving my country, I am not serving the army, I am not serving the people: I am just a tool serving the government of Hafez AlAssad. So I decided to leave. I had no options or alternative, I just wanted to get out of the military, even though I was just a teacher and not involved in any act against anybody. I applied four times for my early retirement—the first three in 1981, 1982, and 1985—and was rejected every time with

Former Syrian Brigadier General Akil Hashem

a threat from the chairman of the joint chief of staff who said, ‘Don’t apply for retirement, we will not agree.’ I applied for last time in 1989. I was so firm in my application. The general Ali Aslan met with me and tried to convince me not to resign. In the end they were forced to grant my status as a civilian on 1 July 1989. Two months later I left the country and went to the United States. Do they usually make it difficult for high-ranking members of the military to leave? Yes, but I was very well known because I had taught around 4,000 officers, most of them high rank between majors and colonels, and most of my students were influential officers in military or intelligence. Although I managed to leave the country two months after my resignation, usually a high-ranking officer cannot leave the country before two years because they

carry too much information that could jeopardize the security of the country. I returned to Syria eight years later because of the health of my mother, who was living with me in the US. I left America, left my children, left my wife, my place, left everything and went back to Syria to live with her until she died. When I tried to return to America to see my family, I found out that I was not allowed to leave. I had already exceeded the age that one needs of permission to leave the country, but in my case they had extended it. They had to get me back from the airplane and delayed the flight until they had retrieved my suitcase. Then they called me to the military intelligence [office], where they confiscated my two passports (US and Syrian) and investigated me for about a year and a half until they found out that some reports written against me were false. In 2004 they gave me back my passport, apologized, and let me leave. I never returned.


TM1577_34-37_Candid Conversations.indd 34

26/11/2012 15:14

In your opinion how do the governments of Hafez and Bashar differ? I wasn’t in the military when Bashar came to power, but during the time of Hafez I witnessed day by day the changes he made. He managed to make the military and security forces loyal to him through three elements: first by sectarianism, second by corruption, and third by the huge system of surveillance and monitoring of everyone in the country—especially of the officers—by the intelligence forces. I was labeled as a disloyal officer, so it was required by the security personnel within the units that I served to report monthly on all my activities, my friends, and where I go. That was between 1968 until 1989, so for twenty-one years these people were writing reports on all my activities. How do they judge someone as disloyal and how did they come to label you as disloyal? It’s very easy in the government of Syria to be accused [of being] disloyal. If somebody writes a report about you, even if it’s false, you will be guilty until you are proven innocent. I was labeled from the very beginning but the significant moment came was when I was transferred to the teaching position. That was in 1976 when my division, the Ninth Armored Division, was sent to the eastern borders with Iraq. At the time there was a military conflict, actually not between Iraq and Syria, but between Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad. A few things happened. A pilot from the air force defected with his airplane and an officer defected, and there were so many incidents that the military intelligence headquarters in Damascus sent a wire to the commander of the division and asked him to send them a list of all the officers deemed a threat to the security of the military, those who might defect, who might participate in a military coup, or something like this. The commander of the brigade (of which I was the head of the operation) . . . put my name as one of the officers who might be a threat. We had had personal disagreements because he was lazy and corrupt. I was the head of operation, meaning the one who is responsible for all the planning the training—everything, so he couldn’t let me go because he depended Issue 1577 • November/December 2012

TM1577_34-37_Candid Conversations.indd 35

on me, but he found this opportunity to hurt me. Because of my military reputation—I went through two wars before, I was injured, I had so many medals I was a very successful officer—they didn’t discharge me or put me in jail. The only option was to put me in the teaching position where I can’t do anything because a teacher in the military academy has no authority over anything at all. I didn’t have authority over the guy who stood at my office door and brought me the mail or the coffee. And that’s how I spent the last thirty years of my career. When did you first oppose the government? Was it after you had left? I was against the government from day one, when Hafez Al-Assad took power, but I was also reckless and careless because I spoke out a lot, although only within my very trustworthy inner circle

I have a connection inside Syria with the fighters, with the opposition figures, and I advise everybody. They ask me about so many things because of the lack of military knowledge of military strategy, so I am involved in this but I have no certain position, I am not part of the Syrian National Council (SNC) or any other faction. How far is the army sectarian? During his thirty years of rule, Hafez Al-Assad managed to establish two huge loyal units, the Fourth Armored Division and the Republican Guard, and these two huge units contained maybe 45–50,000 soldiers and personnel from all ranks. These two units were all volunteer personnel, unlike the regular army divisions, with 70 percent or less of them from the military compulsory service. Secondly, 80 percent of the personnel of these two units were Alawites.

“During his thirty years of rule, Hafez Al-Assad managed to establish two huge loyal units, the Fourth Armored Division and the Republican Guard, and these two huge units contained maybe 45–50,000 soldiers and personnel from all ranks.” of friends. Some of them were arrested later on and didn’t reveal anything about me. One very close friend of mine—we met up in a restaurant in Damascus one night until midnight discussing all the horrible things about government— [the] next morning he was arrested. After he was released a year and a half later, he told me that three times he had this ‘party’—they called it party—it was a torturing session, three times he was tortured for one reason: ‘Tell me about Akil Hashem, what do you know about him, how does he think, what does he do.’ But thank God all my friends were really trustworthy. I later became involved in discussions about the government with civilians, especially during the period I spent in Syria before my mother died. Since the beginning of the revolution I have been deeply involved publishing articles, taking part in interviews for the media, et cetera.

Thirdly, these two divisions were provided with the best and newest models of military equipment of arms and tanks and armed vehicles. They had priority, while priority is really supposed to go to the divisions stationed on the Golan Heights front. Also they had more benefits than the regular army—their salary was one and a half times more— and they put in their mind that ‘you are the government, you can do anything in this society you can get anything you want,’ so they have this ego that we are the government. Also we have the four major intelligence agencies—military intelligence, the air force intelligence, the state security, and the political police. Their personnel total around 150,000. This number isn’t matched by any other country. Eighty percent of them are Alawite; most of the officers and the heads of these agencies and their branches are 35

26/11/2012 15:14

Candid Conversations

recruits] depends on the military compulsory service, and this reflects exactly the diversity of the ethnic or religious groups in Syria and sectarian groups. Because Sunnis are 70 percent of the population, it means the personnel in the regular divisions would be 70 percent Sunni, so Hafez Al-Assad could not do the same as with the elite divisions and the Presidential Guard. Instead he concentrated on the officer corps. The majority of the officers who graduate every year from the military colleges are Alawite. When I was under monthly surveillance. There were about two thousand or three thousand officers like me. They also monitor the loyals before the opponents, because loyals have the high positions in the military and in the intelligence. Hafez created this huge establishment of military and intelligence forces to guarantee that he would stay in power. The only threat was when his brother, who was supposed to be the main force behind him, turned against him in 1983. After two years of bloody conflict, Hafez man-

aged to eject his brother out of the country and regain the control and loyalty of his Fourth Division replacing his brother with two sons, Basil first (and when Basil died, Bashar), and the other, Maher. How is it that they have yet been unable to defeat the rebels? First of all, this establishment that Bashar inherited and mismanaged; this establishment is completely corrupt. When people are corrupt they will not be smart and careful and lead as if they are not corrupt because they will just look out for their own benefit, to get just as much as they can from using their position. Second, even though the balance of power is in favor of the government in equipment and numbers — there 300,000 in the military and 150,000 in intelligence; with the Shabiha, half a million; and no more than 100,000, which may be an exaggeration, on the freedom fighters’ side — the freedom fighters believe in the cause, they have the will to sacrifice no matter what, and

Photo © Getty Images

Alawite. All of them were connected directly to Hafez Al-Assad and now Bashar Al-Assad, contrary to the law [by] which the political police should be answerable to the minister of the interior and [by] which the air force intelligence has to be part of the military intelligence, and both should be answerable to the chairman chief of staff, not the president. The only agency answerable directly to the president by law is the state security [apparatus]. This was established during Hafez Al-Assad’s time. All those in this huge establishment—all connected directly to the president—are also tasked with spying on each other, removing any inside threat from these agencies. Hafez put all these troops under a huge net of security personnel monitoring every move, every person, everyone. Then there is the regular army. The Syrian army is huge: seven armored divisions, three mechanized divisions, two special troop divisions, two air defense divisions, and two air force divisions, plus the Presidential Guard. Their main source [of


TM1577_34-37_Candid Conversations.indd 36

26/11/2012 15:14

they have the courage. The government forces lack these three elements completely. They don’t believe in their cause, they lack the courage, and they don’t want to give any sacrifices. After all these atrocities after all this bombing and shelling—it has never happened in the history of Syria—Assad could not manage and he will never manage to put an end this revolution. But on the other hand, the freedom fighters will never get the upper hand over this government; this will go on and on. This is why I was the main advocate for the international military intervention since the beginning of the revolution. This is a very tragic situation and there is no way of properly arming the rebels. From a military point of view, from a strategic point of view, the only way is to solve this mess in Syria is to intervene and the smallest level of intervention would kill this government right away. How have you come to the conclusion that intervention is the best approach? I know the government very, very, well. From day one I said this government will not stop killing people unless somebody superior to it in power forces it to stop. And all the events after that, for eighteen months, proved my theory and analysis. I knew from the very beginning that there would be no way for the rebels to have the upper hand militarily. The whole Syrian territory is still now under government control. There are many spots that are free from that control, but the major highways, the major places, are not so defectors can’t do anything except defect individually. No one could defect with a whole unit because the air forces would find and kill them straight away. The smallest level of intervention, establishing a safe zone, would turn the situation militarily and politically upside down because in this safe area the freedom fighters would be very capable of defecting in whole troops. If there is a safe area then these defectors will defect with their arms, they will have the time to regroup themselves to create a military chain of command to be supplied by weapons and train and from that area liberate the rest of Syria as it happened in Benghazi. Issue 1577 • November/December 2012

TM1577_34-37_Candid Conversations.indd 37

Intervention could come in four forms. First, an air and missile strike where there would be no need for a human to be involved as this uses unmanned weapons—cruise missiles and drones. This would target all the communication of military intelligence and the military headquarters and the places where the government troops are positioned. Second is establishing a partial safe area. Third is imposing the no-fly zone all over Syria. Fourth and last is a complete intervention as it happened in Libya with everything except one thing—no foreign ground troops on Syrian soil.

arms. This will be a transitional period. A couple of years later everything will settle down and Syria will be a free and democratic country. Ban Ki-moon said there can be no military solution, and NATO has also stated that there will be no military intervention. What do you say to this? There is very big proof that someday the Western countries will find themselves forced to intervene. If Bashar Al-Assad committed a huge massacre like in Srebrenica and killed 9,000 to 10,000 people in one strike— and this could happen—what would the

“Even though the balance of power is in favor of the government in equipment and numbers — there 300,000 in the military and 150,000 in intelligence; with the Shabiha, half a million; and no more than 100,000, which may be an exaggeration, on the freedom fighters’ side — the freedom fighters believe in the cause, they have the will to sacrifice no matter what, and they have the courage.” In Libya, NATO acted as the air force for the rebels—but in Syria the rebels are not as unified. If NATO were to destroy the Syrian military, what would happen next?’ Afterwards, we cannot anticipate what will happen. It will be open for all options. There are no critics to Syrian intervention except loyalists to the government. I heard so many people criticizing the intervention and using the example to prove their point and they are wrong. Because they said, ‘Libya will be conquered, Libya will be divided,’ and now we see Libya is still one country, Libya has no occupying foreign troops and they had a democratic election, and a peaceful transition of power from the transitional council before. Yes, there was some chaos, there were some militia who refused to give up their arms, but this is the nature of revolution. Some people will express their opinion peacefully and some people will go to their

international community do? Suppose the Syrian government supported Hezbollah in chemical weapons and Hezbollah used it against Israel, what would the international community do? There are so many possibilities that the international community will find itself forced to intervene and I can tell you for sure that the military plans for intervention are already ready, done, a hundred percent, and this is a contingency plan in case this happens and in case that happens, because the military don’t wait until the politicians make the decision to intervene and then start planning. If the government decides to intervene then the plan is ready and can be executed within a couple of days. Still, I hope there will be an intervention. Amy Assad is an English-Syrian London based writer and an editor at The Majalla. She received her BA in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies from Leeds University and has lived and studied in Syria and Morocco.


29/11/2012 10:00


The Cautious American

What became of America's "fresh start" in foreign policy? At the end of his first term, President Obama’s public foreign policy in the Middle East has reflected his presidency as a whole: cautious, measured, haunted by its own high-blown rhetoric, and in many ways a deep disappointment to the young idealists who flocked to vote for him.


s President Obama and his aides prepare for his second inauguration, it is certain that they have turned their minds to the newest crisis in Gaza and the daunting foreign policy challenges that lie ahead rather than reflecting on the past four years. In contrast, those outside of the corridors of power have only the record of Obama’s first term to go on as they look for hints about the shape of the things to come. Some have argued that without the need to seek re-election Obama has more freedom to pursue bold and innovative new approaches. While it is by no means a foolproof guide to what will happen in the future, an examination of Obama’s record at the end of his first term should give them pause. It is anything but radical. President Obama’s public foreign policy in the Middle East has reflected his presidency as a whole: cautious, measured, haunted by its own high-blown rhetoric, and in many ways a deep disappointment to the young idealists who flocked to vote for him. In private, he has presided over a huge covert expansion of American spying and paramilitary operations against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen—and this is to say nothing of the hardline position he has taken on Iran’s nuclear program. At the same time, he deserves credit for resisting calls from the other side of the political spectrum for the US to become more engaged in the Middle East and stop “leading from behind.” When Barack Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, hopes were high for a “fresh start” in American foreign policy. The title of the famous speech he delivered in Cairo in June of 2009 (in which he sought to recast American relations with the Middle East) was ”A New Be-

ginning,” summing up the hopes many held for the next four years. After the second Bush administration, Obama was seen in some quarters as a transformative figure who would right the wrongs of the previous eight years, repair relations with American allies worldwide, and restore trust in the presidency amongst the war-weary US public. To some extent, he followed through on these expectations. Despite criticism from hawks, Obama ensured that the US met its commitments to pull the bulk of its troops out of Iraq (though this agreement was inherited from the previous administration). To widespread bemusement, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; one commentator wryly observed it was “for not being George W. Bush.” Problems began to surface when he turned his attention to the American efforts in Afghanistan. Legendary American reporter, Bob Woodward, recounted

how the new president struggled with an entrenched Pentagon bureaucracy and his generals over the future of American policy there. "I'm not doing 10 years. . . I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars," he is reported to have told them, but nevertheless acquiesced to an ambitious plan to try another “surge” of American combat troops in the war-torn country, sending a further 30,000 soldiers to battle the Taliban and its allies. Further tensions with the generals manifested when aides of the US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, were quoted in a magazine article mocking the administration and its officials. McChrystal was summoned to Washington to explain himself; he resigned after a meeting with Obama and was replaced with General David Petraeus, the former head of US forces in Iraq.


TM1577_38-39_Profile.indd 38

26/11/2012 15:14

Despite these hiccups, Obama finally thrashed out a policy that will see American troops leave Afghanistan in 2014, if the timetable is followed. Instead, he is reportedly placing more and more weight behind the program of assassinations via drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal belt and to some degree in Yemen, reportedly even going so far as to personally vet the lists of militants to be targeted for drone strikes, and even though this is widely believed to be killing more civilians and embittering ever-larger parts of the population. This alienated some of his original, liberal supporters, but he doubtless calculated that he could survive this politically, aware of the benefits of being seen to be ‘tough on terrorism,’ and that the average American voter gives little thought to foreign affairs. This negative may also have been cancelled out by the political gain from authorizing the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. Another measure of a president is how well he deals with the unexpected, the occurrence of which is the only thing that can be expected with a great degree of certainty. In this case, it fell to Obama to preside over the crafting of the American response to the Arab spring and the various travails that have followed it. Obama was criticized from the Right and the Left for his cautious response to the events in Tunisia, Cairo, Libya, and now Syria, but it is difficult to see what else his administration could have done under the circumstances. In the case of Egypt, Obama passed perhaps the most important test: realizing that the ability of the US to directly influence the transition from dictatorship to a more democratic system was, and remains, limited. Obama’s response to the initial unrest in Egypt was therefore cautious— and he remained cautious throughout the process, careful not to get ahead of events. He only called for Hosni Mubarak to go when he was sure that the Egyptian president was doomed, but this was not out of any affection or regard for the man. The US policy towards Mubrarak’s successor, Mohammed Morsi, has also been cautious. As Hillary Clinton said, “I want to be clear that the United States is not in the business, in Egypt, of choosing winners and losers, even if we could, which of course we cannot.” Issue 1577 • November/December 2012

TM1577_38-39_Profile.indd 39

In the case of Libya, Obama was again cautious. He ensured that American intervention was carefully calibrated, allowing American allies to be appear to be taking the lead, despite the fact that the US military carried out most of the aerial attacks that shattered Qadhafi’s forces. In doing so, he overruled his own influential Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, who opposed US involvement. Judging by the response of the media and public opinion, Obama’s approach was vindicated, with Qadhafi overthrown without the loss of any American life. Subsequent unrest in Libya has tarnished this success somewhat. Especially damaging were the deaths of four Americans, including the US ambassador, Chris Stevens, in the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi on the anniversary of September 11th. (To be fair, this reflects Libya’s problems, and is beyond the control of any American president.) Now, with Syria descending into civil war, Obama is again refusing to be stampeded into hasty, ill-thought-out action.

This time, he has the Pentagon on his side. Instead of unleashing the might of the American military, Obama and his advisors seem to have calculated that US intervention would not serve Syrian or American interests. With a war-weary public, a troubled economy and with no clear endgame in Syria even if Assad falls, Obama is probably right to be cautious, and his cold-blooded focus on working behind the scenes to ensure that the crisis does not lead to a new flowering of international Islamist terrorism is probably the least-worst option. It is worth remembering that the Clinton administration’s attempt to solve the crisis in the former Yugoslavia was a long and agonizing process, in a situation that was not nearly as volatile and potentially dangerous, and in the much less contentious neighborhood of post-Cold War Europe. On Iran and Israel, Obama’s record has been more mixed. His attempts to persuade Israel, in the form of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to make progress on a peace agreement with the Palestinians has been a failure. To be fair to Obama, it is not clear what leverage he had with the Israelis—even the president must respect the will of Congress, which is strongly pro-Israel. This has also plagued his policy towards Iran and its nuclear program. Iran has been a hot-button issue in American politics for 30 years, and the intersection of Iran and ‘nuclear threat’ (as portrayed by Israel and its supporters) has been a potent issue that has succeeded in mobilizing Congressional support for hardline policies. Nonetheless, Obama has been able to put the brakes on the rush to confrontation, insisting on sanctions rather than military strikes, and giving some signs before the election that he may be more willing to try to reach out to Iran diplomatically once again.. Overall, Obama’s policy in the Middle East has made no new friends, but has not created any new enemies either. Given the problems he has been left to deal with, this is probably the best that he could have hoped for. 39

26/11/2012 15:14

TM1577_40-41_Ad.indd 40

29/11/2012 10:26

TM1577_40-41_Ad.indd 41

29/11/2012 10:26

Wealth of Nations

Can Morsi Bite the Bullet? Mubarak’s economic legacy haunts his successor Egypt’s economy is in a dire state, but it remains unclear as to whether Egypt’s new civilian rulers will be able to rise to the challenge. Sophie Anmuth


gypt’s worsening economic and social situation might have fueled the fire of the 2011 revolution, but two years later most of the same problems persist. The blame is usually laid at the door of former president Hosni Mubarak or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took power after Mubarak stepped down in February 2011. Egypt transitioned to civilian rule when the first Muslim Brotherhood president in Egyptian history, Mohamed Morsi, took up his post in July 2012, but the problems he inherited remain unresolved. Egypt’s new president appointed Prime Minister Hisham Qandil, who pledged to form a technocratic, rather than “bearded,” government to tackle Egypt’s huge economic and social problems. They indeed have a massive (if not impossible) task on their hands, with problems including a gaping budget deficit, rampant poverty, appalling health and education systems, and never-ending strikes over labor issues. Are they up to the job?

Too many promises Before taking power, Morsi and his government made many big promises. In the annual Egyptian presidential speech commemorating the October War of 1973, President Morsi said he was very satisfied with the progress toward fulfilling the five main promises he made for his first hundred days in power. Nevertheless, they were unlikely to be able to keep those promises, given the dire state of the economy. This bodes ill for their credibility. The Muslim Brotherhood inherited serious economic issues, which have only become worse in the wake of the revolution due to the lack of trust from investors and the decline in tourism. This includes a gaping budget deficit, amounting to 11 percent of the GDP, a lack of foreign currency reserves, slow growth, and high inflation; urban consumer inflation stood at 6.2 percent during the past year according to state statistics. Tourism used to make up 11 percent of the country’s GDP. Yet with concerns over security, there were 33 perA boy stands next to a stall at Magra El-Oyyoun market on January 24, 2012, Cairo

cent fewer tourists in 2011 than in 2010, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism. This represents a loss of nearly US$4 billion, leaving US$8.8 billion in revenue from tourism in 2011. Expectations were high following the revolution. Yet many Egyptians still live under the poverty line; a staggering 40 percent of the population according to the United Nations. Wages are low, and unemployment is high—especially for young people, with many graduates unable to find a job, a quarter of young Egyptians are out of work, according to Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics. The health and education systems are divided between a less-than-effective public sector and a costly private sector. Having given so many assurances about how it will fix Egypt’s problems, what can the government do to keep the confidence of the people it must inevitably disappoint? Morsi’s credibility is at stake and some analysts believe the government should be more open about the economic situation. Jennifer Bremer, chair of the Public Policy and Administration Department at the American University in Cairo, says, “They should openly tell the people how bad the mess is . . . For the moment they can put the blame on the Mubarak era mistakes, but very soon people will start blaming them if they don’t make clear what they’re facing.” Bremer believes that honesty is the best policy and that asking for the people’s cooperation would lead to a healthier state budget. The Egyptians deserve to be warned of the economic hurdles ahead.

Photo © Getty Images

Five promises: the record In an attempt to demonstrate that he was capable of delivering practical solutions and solving Egypt’s numerous problems, Morsi pledged that he would deal with five pressing quality-of-life issues within the first hundred 42

TM1577_42-45_Wealth of Nations 1.indd 42

29/11/2012 09:19

days of his presidency. Now that this time has elapsed, it is clear that attempts to resolve these problems have met with mixed success. Improving the quality and availability of state-subsidized bread was one of Morsi’s key promises, playing off the word 3aich, which means both “bread” and “dignified life.” The price of subsidized bread has not changed since the early 1980s—but many have said it was barely edible, with pieces of rubbish found baked into the bread. Supplies are inconsistent and queues sometimes impossibly long. The problem, according to the president, lies mainly in corruption, with the subsidized flour or the bread itself sold on the black market and not to the factories and the poor whom should have reached it. A real improvement might require increasing the price of bread. The website www., which documents the president’s progress, says that only one of the 13 steps in Morsi’s bread program has been achieved, whereas Morsi said 80 percent of his bread program was accomplished. Resolving poor public sanitation was another meaningful promise. Private garbage collection companies complain of weak financing and lack of support from the state. Local government says the contractors are not doing their job, and rubbish piles up in the streets. The garbagegathering Zabaleen still complain about the loss of their recycling pigs, and that areas of garbage traditionally belonging to them were given to private contractors— and they would like to be paid more. Morsi’s pledge to resolve the congested traffic has also failed, as any reasonable person would expect. Police have started evicting street vendors to prevent them from sitting on the streets and obstructing traffic. A telephone service and local traffic radio stations in the main Egyptian cities have been implemented to guide drivers to less crowded roads. Other measures, dealing mainly with traffic laws, have barely started to be implemented or have been stuck in limbo. The new president also promised more security and police reform. So far—apart from reshuffles, salary increases and the deployment of more policemen—observers say objectives such as cracking down on criminals and providing better equipment for law enforcement agencies have not been fulfilled. Critics also point out that there has not been any substantial reform in the InteIssue 1577 • November/December 2012

TM1577_42-45_Wealth of Nations 1.indd 43

rior Ministry. The current Interior minister, Ahmed Gamal, was the head of security in South Sinai and Upper Egypt Assiut, two governorates where police crackdowns on militants were particularly brutal. Morsi’s fifth promise, to bring an end to periodic fuel and cooking gas shortages, has seen some success in Cairo and its surrounding neighborhoods, including a corresponding crackdown on smuggling. The monitoring of gas stations had not yet begun, and some in Upper Egypt say they still cannot afford butane. Not much experience in macroeconomics Why have these problems remained so stubbornly unresolved? Part of the answer can be found in the scale of the problems themselves, and the limited amount of time that Morsi and his government have had to work on them. However, the president and his advisors must also take some of the blame. While it is possible that the Muslim Brotherhood’s intentions are genuinely altruistic, they likely lack experience in macroeconomics. Morsi has often failed to appoint ministers with training and experience in this field. For example, Prime Minister Hisham Qandil was the minister of water resources and irrigation in the former military-appointed government; many investors would have preferred a high-profile economist instead. Observers say that if Egypt receives the US$4.8 billion loan it has requested from the IMF, investors will be reassured and flock to the country. However, at the time of writing, the loan was far from secured. An IMF delegation have been in Cairo for over two weeks negotiating the conditions of the loan. The failure of Morsi’s government to make necessary reforms is a major barrier to securing the IMF money. According to Jennifer Bremer, there may not be enough high-profile economists, or “people with serious experience in senior or mid-level economics among the Muslim Brotherhood.” This lack of experience is unsurprising, after Mubarak and his cronies purposely kept Muslim Brotherhood businessmen out of power. “Sometimes the Brotherhood’s economic and social decisions give the feeling that they are running an NGO,” she adds. For example, to tackle the garbage issue, they asked

the people to clean the streets themselves: a campaign dubbed “Clean Homeland” called on citizens and Muslim Brotherhoodaffiliated youth to take the problem into their own hands in several cities. According to the president, it would be an inexpensive endeavour—but structural problems made the task more difficult than it first appeared. Not enough social justice? The Brotherhood cabinet has repeatedly pledged to pursue a ‘liberal’ economic policy and to respect private property and other tenants of mainstream capitalism. Their critics have two major fears: the neglect of social justice (the pursuit of which has been one of the main demands of the revolution), and the possibility that power will corrupt the Brotherhood and its own brand of crony capitalism would replace Mubarak’s. The Brotherhood has many members who are businessmen, and therefore it is only logical that this has shaped the movement’s world-view and their decision to take a business-friendly stance. On the other hand, the Brotherhood has long deployed a strategy of neighborhood social protection, thus gaining sympathy and votes. It could be said they have a longstanding history of charity work, but not much of a desire to build a welfare state. Many Egyptians, on the other hand, long for a welfare state, which they associate with an idealized, Nasser-era golden age. Wages are low in Egypt. A minimum wage is one of Morsi’s promises and a demand of the revolutionaries. The president has also pledged to increase pensions. But the problem is that an increase in civil servants’ wages doesn’t necessarily mean an increased level of productivity, and inflation would likely result. In addition, there are no minimum wages in the informal sector, and no means to enforce a minimum wage. Egypt’s new rulers therefore face a formidable task. As Dr. Malak Reda, a senior economist at the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies, says, “A minimum wage is good if the workers become more efficient and it is important to raise pensions to take into account the high inflation in the country.” Reda concedes that increased wages could have a negative impact on the budget and that the government will have to find ways to increase its revenues and better allocate its resources. 43

29/11/2012 09:19

Wealth of Nations

Photo © Getty Images

Not much talk of education and health In terms of services, there is a worrying silence. Speeches by government members do not focus on health or education, even though both sectors are in a precarious state. Public sector employees have regularly demonstrated and gone on strike to say they actually cannot provide even a minimum level of service to the people, such is their lack of funds. Children often finish public secondary school without even being able to read. Patients often leave public hospitals with more diseases than they had coming in due to the extreme lack of drugs and equipment. In fact, Egyptian hospitals often lack even the equipment necessary to sterilize the premises. Indeed, “any policy that would increase health services and improve its quality as well as that of education would take time,” says Dr. Reda, and would require huge amounts of money—which the government does not have. Understandably, the government’s focus seems to be getting the economy back on track, and then to implement all the social

measures they have promised, but this first step, raising the money in the first place, is perhaps the most difficult one. A massive overhaul of the tax and subsidies system Egypt’s subsidy program presents Morsi’s government with a more extreme example of the dilemma faced by many Western countries in the current economic climate: they can either reduce the budget deficit or protect living standards. Some analysts say that if energy subsidies were totally eliminated, the fiscal account would be almost in balance. The government says it wants to cut subsidies for a number of basic commodities including oil, fuel, gas, and rice, which worries the vast number of Egyptians who live below the poverty line. Petroleum Minister Osama Kamal said Egypt would set a limit on the amount of subsidized fuel and cooking gas each family can purchase—but he did not give any starting date. A few other details have emerged, such as a planned increase in the price of 95 octane fuel (used for expensive cars), and

value-added taxes on certain luxury items, such as cigarettes. Kamal has already stated that the government is expected to miss its planned targets for cutting subsidies in the budget for the 2012/2013 fiscal year. With parliamentary elections due in the next few months, the government is unlikely to hasten unpopular decisions, even though this might delay IMF assistance. Many think the subsidies should be distributed directly to the poor rather than injected into commodities. This could eradicate smuggling and the black market. “Cutting subsidies for some large and medium-sized companies could be acceptable to increase the budget revenue. But removing subsidies for small and micro enterprises is a bad idea,” says Dr. Reda. “With the political opening and enfranchising of millions, future political regimes will have to answer social and economic demands through higher taxes on the rich and more public investments,” says Amr Adly, an economist at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights NGO, in a column for an Egyptian newspaper.

Egyptian doctors who are on strike take part in a demonstration in Cairo on November 1, 2012


TM1577_42-45_Wealth of Nations 1.indd 44

29/11/2012 09:19

Morsi’s program spoke about finding new sources of income for the government by increasing taxes on financial transactions and on polluting industries, fighting tax evasion and privatisation of public companies. Focus on investment and productivity The government has tried very hard to reassure investors. Countless enumerations of the country’s resources and reassurances about the government’s commitment to rapid development have been made in official speeches and at conferences. However, taxing both initial public offerings and annual dividend allocation is a part of the economic reform plan, which is likely to displease investors if implemented. The presidential spokesperson said that the main focus of Morsi’s visits abroad (to China and Turkey, for example) is the economy. This appears to be true. Not only is Egypt asking for an IMF loan, but it has asked many other countries for help. So far, Qatar has the deepest pockets. “Some capital inflow may save the country’s economy in the short term. However, it hardly serves as a basis for the restructuring of the economic development model in years to come,” writes Amr Adly. Improving productivity is another issue that has been repeatedly stressed. Here, the government is pinning its hopes on vocational training—but this will require investment in Egypt’s education infrastructure, which (as discussed above) has its own problems. Another governmental measure, primarily aimed at streamlining government spending on energy subsidies, is to ask shops and cafés to close earlier from December onwards. Cairo’s governor has also said that this would encourage people to sleep longer and thus improve their productivity. This is highly unlikely to succeed, as it would be a massive change to the lifestyle of most urban Egyptians. It also goes against the will of the Chambers of Commerce, whose head, Ahmed El-Wakeel, said it would lead to major losses and to a rise in unemployment. The government had to postpone the implementation of the law and to grant the shops and restaurants two more opening hours than initially planned. This episode is but one example of the impression of helplessness given off by the government when attempting to manage Issue 1577 • November/December 2012

TM1577_42-45_Wealth of Nations 1.indd 45

the economy and the reforms it wants to implement—and the Egyptian government’s sometimes-surprising lack of sense when prioritizing economic issues. Hard choices The Brotherhood has gained power after decades in opposition, but the price of this power is the necessity of making harsh, unpopular, ‘no-win’ decisions. Their program was full of social promises but, as with the political promises, they seem hard to keep. Addressing poverty, unemployment and the high cost of living appear more like long-term goals, without even mentioning issues in the health and education sectors. In the campaign everyone— workers, farmers, pensioners, street children—had something planned for them. So far, little has been done (and maybe nothing could be done anyway). Economic growth

and lower state expenditures might be prerequisites to launching social care programs, but the social cost might be too high to even allow these expectations to bear out. With Egypt’s economy in crisis, Morsi and his allies in the Brotherhood face a series of ‘damned if they do, damned if they don’t’ decisions. With no record in government, Egyptians can do nothing but wait and see if Mohammed Morsi has the resolve to fix the economy, even if unpopular decisions have to be made. Sophie Anmuth is a freelance journalist specialising in the Middle East, with a range of interests varying from politics to culture stories. Born in Paris, she is currently based in Cairo. She works for French and English-speaking media. Her academic background is in philosophy, international relations, journalism and Arabic.


29/11/2012 10:01

Wealth of Nations

Big Dreams for Iraqi Oil

Iraqi oil production capacity could increase five-fold by the 2030s An in-depth study by the IEA has predicted that Iraqi oil production capacity could increase five-fold by the 2030s, with significant implications for both the country and the international community. The Iraqi government has repeatedly promised to exceed those predictions—but given the decades of conflict and an ongoing lack of infrastructure and investment, such optimism may be premature. Jenna Marangoni facilities to capture associated gas from existing oil fields instead of flaring it; the natural gas collected would mainly support the domestic power and industry/ manufacturing sectors. Infrastructure across many sectors would have to be improved: amongst other things, the country needs new roads and rail networks, more refinery capacity, and manufacturing facilities to support the fledgling petrochemicals sector and diversify the economy. Even if Iraq does sustain high levels of investment in the oil sector, to become a key exporter it would need to develop new ways to deliver the oil to market. According to the IEA, the country would ideally have two major pipelines running north to the Mediterranean and/or Black seas, as well as increasing its capacity to transport oil internally, hold it before export, and load tankers at offshore facilities. Iraq currently exports the majority of its oil through the Straits of Hormuz, a politically contentious sea pas-

sage that is often mined by Iran (and the subject of repeated Iranian threats to close it entirely). A main pipeline, which runs from Kirkuk north to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan in Turkey, has a nominal capacity of 1.6 million bpd; neglect and damage from years of conflict have brought its operating capacity to only 600,000 bpd. A further pipeline to carry natural gas from Iraq to Europe via Turkey was planned— and would have been extremely useful, as it would have provided further revenue by exploiting this byproduct of oil production—but the project is likely to be scrapped this year due to changed economic circumstances in the EU. As daunting as this may sound, it seems unlikely that the real impediment to such a major increase in production in Iraq will be in investment or infrastructure. Oil has been a source of extreme tension in Iraq for nearly a century; conflicts over it have been an inciting factor in (arguably) the

Photo © Getty Images


lready the world’s third-largest oil exporter—it overtook Iran’s exports in in August—expansion in the country’s oil sector is expected to account for 45% of anticipated growth in world output over the current decade. If such growth were realized, Iraq could become the second most powerful member of OPEC and radically alter the balance of power in the region. The country’s deputy prime minister for Energy, Hossein al-Shahristani, announced in a briefing on the report on 10 October that “the conclusion of our studies show that it’s feasible and desirable for Iraq to achieve a production of 9–10 million barrels per day by 2020.” He further promised that Iraq would seek to achieve that level of production, which corresponds with the predicted output levels in the report’s most optimistic scenario. The IEA’s more modest predictions put 2020 output between 5 and 6 million bpd. (Current production is 3.4 million bpd.) The IEA outlines a number of obstacles to achieving an output of 9–10 million bpd by 2020. Most importantly, Iraq must more than triple its annual investment in the oil sector almost immediately, from US$7 billion in 2011 to US$26 billion per year. (If investment remains around 2011 levels or grows more slowly than anticipated, the study predicts that oil output would be only 4 million bpd by 2020.) It must invest a further US$6 billion in the power sector each year to 2035, to ensure first that peak grid capacity matches peak demand, and then to build a capacity buffer to prevent power outages. It must ensure that there is sufficient water supply for the extraction process, without compromising fresh water supplies required by the population. It would need to build


TM1577_46-47_Wealth of Nations 2.indd 46

26/11/2012 15:08

three wars in the country since 1980. After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, analysts had hoped that increased oil production would help repair the country’s tattered economy. This has hardly been the case: even if all the other obstacles to realizing the IEA’s predictions are disregarded or disposed with, it is impossible to ignore instability, corruption, and violence in Iraq. While the 2005 constitution guarantees that “oil and gas are owned by all the people of Iraq in all the regions and governorates,” the government in Baghdad and the autonomous region of Kurdistan have been quarrelling over rights and access to substantial oil reserves located in the northern province. Baghdad’s refusal to enter into anything other than unattractive, low-paying service contracts with international oil companies (IOCs) has led several—notably Exxon and Chevron—to sign deals directly with Erbil. The region is offering significantly more favorable profit-sharing contracts, with a return of US$3–5 per barrel extracted compared to approximately US$1 in the south. Baghdad considers bilateral deals with Kurdistan to be illegal and unconstitutional, and has barred several IOCs that have contracts with Kurdistan (again notably Exxon) from bidding for contracts to develop oil production in the south. Due to this ongoing dispute, transport of oil via pipeline from Kurdistan has been halted in recent months, and the oil that does reach the markets is sold significantly below market value (US$60 per barrel, according to the New York Times). A new pipeline developed independently with Kurdistan is expected to be operational within two years, which should ameliorate the situation in that region somewhat. It will still take many years to resolve the political tensions between the two sides. Baghdad’s dispute with Erbil highlights a major impediment to increases in oil output: the lack of a suitable hydrocarbons law to facilitate and regulate access to oil fields by the IOCs the country needs to help bring output in line with capacity. A controversial 2007 hydrocarbons bill was heavily contested by Iraqi citizens, largely because it sought to take control of oil away from the Iraqi government and award control to foreign (mainly Western) companies for 25 to 30 years in productionIssue 1577 • November/December 2012

TM1577_46-47_Wealth of Nations 2.indd 47

sharing deals. By 2009, the draft law had been all but scrapped and the government had tried to award eight service contracts to IOCs. Only one was taken up—by BP and CNPC (China)—although it was in the largest field at Rumailia. By failing to offer good profits on new concessions with IOCs, the country is also failing to balance the risk on doing business in a new, unstable country. Perhaps more alarming to the country is that, according to the IEA report, 95 percent of government revenue is derived from oil production. Thus delays in the hydrocarbons law in turn delay increased production and thus deprive the country of money needed to invest in infrastructure: a vicious circle. The potential of Iraq’s oil sector is not limited by the size of its reserves, but by the country’s ability to organize, support, and fund its extraction and delivery to market. While Saudi Arabia currently has the largest proven oil reserves, Iraq is

likely sitting on the largest oil reserves in the world: its resources have simply yet to be proven. Iraqi oil is also extremely inexpensive to extract. Three decades of conflict, dictatorship, and poor management have weakened the infrastructure needed to fully exploit that potential. Its citizens have much to gain: a well-managed expansion in oil production could relieve the high unemployment rate (16% in June 2012, according to the planning ministry), or even support direct cash payments to Iraqi citizens (as was proposed in a 2009 draft hydrocarbons law). But if Iraq is to realize its dreams, the government must act immediately and efficiently—and this, sadly, seems unlikely. Jenna Marangoni Jenna Marangoni is a staff editor at The Majalla. She has a particular interest in law and business, and holds an LL.B. from the London School of Economics.


26/11/2012 15:08

Editor's Choice

Prince Mohammed Bin Naif Profile of the new Saudi Interior Minister

Badr Al-Qahtani


ustodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, appointed Prince Mohammed Bin Naif Bin Abdulaziz as Saudi Arabia’s tenth Interior Minister on 5th November. Prince Mohammed Bin Naif takes up this ministerial portfolio during a time when the Kingdom is beset with security obstacles whilst striving to ensure the safety of its citizens across the country. The newly appointed Interior Minister is not only known as a strong opponent of Al Qaeda and terrorism, he also initiated a number of programs to rehabilitate those with extremist ideology, such as the successful Munasaha program. Prince Mohammed Bin Naif served as Assistant Minister of Interior for Security Affairs between 1999 and 2012, during which time he worked tirelessly with security officials across the world to ensure national security and safety. America’s MSNBC network described the Saudi minister as “the General of War on Terrorism.” While US and European officials have described him as the commander of one of the most effective operations to combat terrorism in the world. His operations are based on the principle of tolerance and containing criminals and those who have gone astray, rather than abusing them. He sought to ensure that all those arrested and detained in this regard were granted their full rights and were treated equitably, whether this was by trial or rehabilitation. Prince Mohammed Bin Naif stood with his father, late Crown Prince and Interior Minister Prince Naif Bin Abdulaziz, to eliminate terrorist cells—and their sources—that sought to target Saudi Arabia with a series of attacks beginning in 2003. During this period, the Saudi Interior Ministry relentlessly pursued Al Qaeda cells and extremist ideologues across the Kingdom. Crown Prince Naif Bin Abdulaziz and Prince Mohammed Bin Naif ’s success in this regard ensured that Al Qaeda ele-

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed Bin Naif

“Saudi intelligence officials warned the United States in early October that Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen was planning a terrorist attack using one or more aircraft, three weeks before a plot to send parcel bombs on cargo planes was foiled at the last minute.” ments fled Saudi Arabia for other countries following a strong crackdown and thanks to the vigilance of the Saudi authorities. The Saudi Interior Ministry’s efforts protected the security and safety of the country and its citizens, working diligently to uncover and expose Al Qaeda terrorist plots targeting Saudi Arabia and its allies. CNN, quoting US intelligence sources speaking on the condition of anonymity, revealed that the uncovering of a 2010 Al Qaeda plot to blow up an airplane travelling to the US from Yemen was initiated by information from Saudi Arabia. A White House source, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, on the condition of anonymity following this plot, revealed that “over

many years, the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have cooperated closely in the war on terror. The US government is in debt of the Saudi government for its assistance in this regard. We look forward to further cooperation between the two countries.” In addition to this, the New York Times reported that “Saudi intelligence officials warned the United States in early October that Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen was planning a terrorist attack using one or more aircraft, three weeks before a plot to send parcel bombs on cargo planes was foiled at the last minute.” Prince Mohammed Bin Naif survived an assassination attempt against him in 2009 when a militant who was supposed to be surrendering himself to the Prince blew himself up. Then Saudi Assistant Minister of Interior for Security Affairs had been trying to secure the surrender of Abdullah Bin Hassan Bin Taleh Assiri, who was included on the Interior Minstry’s list of 85 wanted suspects for terrorism related charges. Assiri claimed to be carrying a message from a number of other suspects who were seeking guarantees of safety before returning to Saudi Arabia, an operation that Prince Mohammed Bin Naif was overseeing. The now Saudi Interior Minister personally spoke to Assiri on the phone to reassure him, and even sent a private jet to pick him up. Prince Mohammed Bin Naif only suffered superficial injuries in the attack, and apart from the bomber—who was killed—there were no other serious casualties. Prince Mohammed Bin Naif Bin Abdulaziz was born in 1959 in the city of Jeddah. He has a BA degree in Political Science and was appointed Assistant Minister of Interior for Security Affairs in 1999. He is also a member of the National Anti-Narcotics Committee and the Permanent Committee of the Economic Council. This article was printed in Asharq Alawsat


TM1577_48_Editor's Choice.indd 48

29/11/2012 09:20

TM1577_49_Ad.indd 49

26/11/2012 14:21

The Arts

Recording, Reframing and Resisting Arab photographers act as cultural commentators and agents of change

An Exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum showcases the work of 30 of the most dynamic photographers working in the Middle East today. Juliet Highet


ock the Kasbah is a series of street-scene photographs by Tunisian Jellel Gasteli, taken during the first protest of the Arab Awakening in Tunisia. He says, “The sit-in at the Kasbah has helped reveal a silent majority. I am not part of the silent majority.” The uprising that has shaken the Arab world drew local photojournalists, and also art photographers, to give a face to this silent majority. For the first time at a major museum—London’s Victoria and Albert (V&A)—an exhibition, entitled Light from the Middle East: New Photography, gives visibility and insight into the state of contemporary Arab photography. Several of the photographers, such as Egyptian-born Nermine Hammam, document the heartbeat of the Arab protest. In her series Upekkha, she transports weary soldiers she photographed in Tahrir Square to idyllic landscapes, like fantasy postcards far removed from turmoil. She uses digital manipulation to represent altered consciousness. Rose Issa, whose exhibitions and publications have given massive profile to contemporary Arab artists, comments, “The spread of digital technology, the internet and new communication technologies have accelerated the emergence of young talent in the region and speeded up the distribution of their photographs. . . Amateur and professional photographers helped create the Arab revolution.” Marta Weiss, curator of the London exhibition, says that Arab photographers are “all palpably concerned with history, a common thread is a focus on human beings. . . this is socially engaged work”. This concen-

From the series 'Mothers of Martyrs' by Newsha Tavakolian, 2006

tration on the lives of Arabs—both in their region and in the diaspora—grapples with questions of identity, belonging, emigration, and dislocation, and notably Arab women trying to modernise in the thrall of tradition. “These Arab photographers love their countrymen; they are insiders, not outsiders. We are witnessing their desire to reconstruct their own image,” adds Issa. The exhibition features the work of 30 of the most dynamic and visually sophisticated photographers working today. They represent 13 countries, displaying their creative responses to social challenges and emotive political collisions. Curator Weiss declares: “In the past few years, contemporary photographic practice from and about the Middle East has been some of the most exciting, innovative and varied art anywhere in the world.” The show is

part of collaboration between the British Museum and the V&A, supported by the Art Fund. Its director, Stephen Deuchar, writes, “This new collection is being formed at a time of profound change in the Middle East. Artists and photographers, as cultural commentators, are themselves amongst the agents of change.” The exhibition is structured around three key themes: recording, reframing, and resisting. ‘Recording’ essentially shows how photojournalism is such a powerful tool for documentation and commentary, with war and occupation as a recurring anthem, followed by the requiem of its aftermath—the gaze of its suffering victims. Newsha Tavakolian is one of Iran’s many brilliant female photographers, focusing particularly on women’s issues. In her series Mothers of Martyrs, elderly mothers


TM1577_50-52_The Arts 1.indd 50

29/11/2012 09:45

hold framed pictures of their sons killed in the Iran–Iraq war. Rose Issa notes that “when a land is marked by dispossession, diaspora, war and ongoing occupation, the artists—like those from fractured countries such as Palestine and Lebanon—create conceptually richer work than those from larger, more settled countries.” Even so, “several artists from the oil-rich Gulf countries convey their unresolved wrestle with censorship, double standards and women’s right to vote, drive, work and empower themselves.” Jowhara Al-Saud, born in Jeddah, explores the language of censorship and its effects on visual communication. By scratching only the outlines of snapshots into negative emulsion, she says, “I tried to apply the language of the censors to my photographs, omitting faces and skin. This allowed me to circumvent and comment on some of the cultural taboos, namely the stigma attached to the personal portrait”—and censorship. Part of the second section, ‘Reframing’, includes reworking pre-existing photographs. Inspired by Qajar-era portraits, Shadi Ghadirian recreates these nineteenth century Iranian studio portraits with wry humour, updating them with contemporary props such as a ghettoblaster, a vacuum cleaner, and Pepsi cans. As a wife and working mother, her work reflects her own life and addresses the concerns of Iranian women of her generation. “The jarring contrast of these modern consumer goods with the oldfashioned style of the portraits is indicative of the tension between tradition and modernity, public personas and private desires that many Iranian women navigate on a daily basis,” writes Marta Weiss. ‘Reframing’ could also imply rebranding. In what he calls Souk with a Twist, Hassan Hajjaj criss-crosses between tradition and brand logos, a juxtaposition similar to that of his two residences in Marrakech and London. He captures the upbeat rhythm of North African street life iconography with warmth, humour, and a degree of kitsch self-mockery. Dressed in veils and djellabahs, his models seem to respect their heritage. But look again: one of them is astride a Harley Davidson, another is winking above her veil; their hijabs sport the Louis Vuitton logo while their babouches display the Nike tick. Issue 1577 • November/December 2012

TM1577_50-52_The Arts 1.indd 51

'Saida in Green' by Hassan Hajjaj 2000

'Wonder Beirut' by JoannaHadjithomas & Kalhil Joreige


29/11/2012 09:45

The Arts

The final section, ‘Resisting’, displays photographs which question the authority of the photograph, challenging the medium’s ability to transmit factual information as documentary authority. Whether manipulating or digitally altering or scratching negatives, these artists undermine the reliability of photography. Rejecting modern technology and armed with a basic box camera, Atiq Rahimi records evocative sites across war-ravaged Kabul. He had fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion and returned after the fall of the Taliban. In his poetic, melancholy series Le Retour Imaginaire, he shows the bird market now selling mostly empty cages, as well as the Ghazi Stadium, used by the Taliban as a place of execution and now also empty. In a series called the Zourkhaneh Project (House of Strength), Iranian Mehraneh Atashi investigates the possibilities of selfportraiture. She gained the confidence of members of an all-male gymnasium, not only capturing its world traditionally forbidden to women, but used mirrors to insert her own image. Youssef Nabil also embarked on self-portraiture after he left Cairo, and experienced diasphoric life. “I had closed a door behind me and I was no longer the person I used to be,” he said. Exile, whether voluntary or enforced, can inspire art used to rebuild a sense of self. (One of Nabil’s selfportraits depicts him sleeping among tree roots.) Another series, inspired by the golden age of Egyptian cinema in the 1940’s and 1950’s, created decadently pastiche, highlystaged portraits of glamorous women using a luminous gelatine-silver print process, which he then tints. Contemporary Arab photographers are not only exploring questions of their own history, culture, identity and individual choices, but are reinterpreting photography’s role globally. Light from the Middle East: New Photography runs from 13 November 2012 to 7 April 2013 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Juliet Highet is a writer, photographer, editor, and curator. She specializes in Middle Eastern heritage and contemporary culture. Ms. Highet is currently working on her second book, Design Oman, having published her first book, FRANKINCENSE: Oman’s Gift to the World, in 2006.

'Bodiless I', from the series Zourkhaneh Project (House of Strengh) by Metraneh Atashi, 2004

“In a series called the Zourkhaneh Project (House of Strength), Iranian Mehraneh Atashi investigates the possibilities of self-portraiture. She gained the confidence of members of an all-male gymnasium, not only capturing its world traditionally forbidden to women, but used mirrors to insert her own image.”


TM1577_50-52_The Arts 1.indd 52

29/11/2012 09:45

TM1577_53_Ad.indd 53

26/11/2012 14:19

The Arts

A Hollywood Rescue Mission Ben Affeck’s new film Argo

A recurring joke in Argo is that no one knows what ‘Argo’ means. It is the title of a script for a Flash Gordon-style space opera, but beyond that no one has a clue. Nicholas Blincoe


recurring joke in Argo is that no one knows what ‘Argo’ means. It is the title of a script for a Flash Gordon-style space opera, but beyond that no one has a clue. At a readthrough in the Beverley Hills Hilton, a grizzled and jaded Hollywood producer tries to answer a journalist’s questions but is clearly flummoxed. What is the problem? Has he not even read the script? The point is that no one needs to read the script because no one is ever going to make the film. The story of how the CIA set up a film company in order to smuggle six diplomats out of revolutionary Tehran is retold as a stylish political thriller from actor/director Ben Affleck. In November 1979, the US embassy in Tehran was seized by militant pro-revolution students. Fifty-two US citizens were held hostage for 444 days, but in the chaos of the first hours of the crisis, six members of the US diplomatic staff managed to flee the embassy and found sanctuary at the home of the Canadian ambassador. The CIA had to figure out how to spirit the six away before the Iranians noticed that they were missing. The idea of buying bicycles and pointing the stranded diplomats in the direction of the Turkish border was rejected, leaving only one other idea: “The best bad idea we have. By far,” as a CIA man tells the US secretary of state. The CIA teamed up with a Hollywood special effects man and established a Canadian film company. The idea was to convince the world they were making a kind of Aladdin-in-Space style adventure and that they hoped to film in the central souk of downtown Tehran. A CIA man, played by Affleck, flies in to Iran alone and flies out with the diplomats, all now credited with jobs in the film production. The fictitious film is entitled Argo, and the film telling the story of Argo is also called . . . Argo . Okay. So far, so clear. But what does ‘Argo’ mean?

Argo has come out at a tricky time, politically. The Iranian uranium-enrichment program edges ever closer to the point at which it becomes possible to make nuclear warheads. Israel is entering into an election cycle and its prime minister is making bellicose threats of air strikes on Iran while goading the US to act first. Iran’s influence over the governments or opposition political parties in Syria, Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, and Bahrain is causing palpitations and complicating the narrative of the Arab Spring. All these factors are combining to create a highly feverish climate. This might be a great time to reflect calmly upon Iran; unfortunately, there are very few calm Iranians in Affleck’s film. This is a country caught in the white heat of a revolution, powered by angry young men, fired-up, gun-toting and very, very loud. But even beyond these issues, there is one other, all-surpassing reason why a film about the Iranian hostage crisis is politically sensitive now. And that reason is the

US presidential election. The election was in full swing when Argo hit the theaters this October. More than any other issue, the Iranian hostage crisis destroyed the re-election prospects of President James Carter in November 1980. The crisis was a year old by the day of the election. Over twelve months, pictures of panic-stricken relatives had filled newspapers. Images of Iranian students waving guns at the windows of the US embassy or burning flags in its courtyard appeared in every news cycle. Perhaps the most memorable feature of the crisis was the appearance of yellow ribbons, a new phenomenon at the time. Watching US television, it often seemed that every tree, every veranda, every door was decorated with a slip of yellow ribbon, inspired by a folk-pop song entitled “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree”. The ribbon was intended as a visible memento of a missing family, though they ultimately came to mean something else entirely: they became a symbol of a failing government, powerless to free US citizens held hostage by people who absolutely hated them halfway around the world. In the elections of November 1980, the US turned to the Republican candidate, Ronald Reagan, who ran under the campaign slogan “Morning in America.” The easy-going Reagan, an elderly throwback to the feel-good years of the 1950s, promised a new dawn following the nightmare Carter years. Today, President Carter is a respected octogenarian human rights defender, but thirty-five years ago, Carter represented a progressive, even countercultural United States. In the 1980 election Reagan was, in effect, promising to turn the clock back on a liberal experiment that had failed, and a retreat back to the comfortable certainties that had made the US—in Republican eyes—the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave.’ The people behind the making of Argo are en-


TM1577_54-55_The Arts 2.indd 54

29/11/2012 09:49

thusiastic supporters of the Democratic Party and President Obama, and to revive memories of Carter’s devastating defeat at this time seems odd—reckless, even. The producers are George Clooney and Grant Heslov, who are jointly responsible for Good Night and Good Luck and The Men Who Stare at Goats, two of the most impeccably liberal films to have emerged over the past decade. So why did they risk bringing repressed memories of defeat to the surface just as Obama was fighting for the re-election that eluded Carter? The answer might be as simple as the fact that it was Hollywood that saved the day. Tinsel Town brought the diplomats home. Argo tells the story of film-makers and spooks working hand-inhand to make an all-American success . . . and even with the best imagination in the world, there really cannot be too many other examples of such close co-operation. In the years since Reagan’s victory, the standoff between liberal and traditional values has solidified into the so-called ‘Culture Wars,’ with Hollywood on the one side and Issue 1577 • November/December 2012

TM1577_54-55_The Arts 2.indd 55

strict interpretations of Protestantism on the other. Argo depicts a time when Hollywood was not regarded as an enemy by the conservative right. President Reagan, of course, was always proud of Hollywood and of his earlier career as a film star. By turning back the clock, Argo successfully argues that Hollywood is the backbone of the real United States: the source of its courage, its principles and its devil-may-care bravery. Without Hollywood, would the rest of the world even care much about the States? The specter of the Iranian hostage crisis flickered briefly in this November’s election. The US ambassador to Libya was killed by insurgents on a visit to Benghazi under circumstances that remain murky. Questions continue about whether the assassination was planned: Was it essentially a flash mob? Was Al-Qaeda involved, or were the attackers disaffected Libyans? Did the embassy have sufficient security? Fox News relentlessly covered the death of the ambassador throughout the presidential election campaign. They did good journal-

istic work, digging up new revelations and pressing for answers—as well as poor journalistic work, attempting to whip up fear and conspiracies. Yet despite their efforts, Benghazi never became an issue in the way the Iranian hostage crisis had been. Instead, voters in the US opted for a second term for a black president. Moreover, they came out in favor of other one-time counter-culture causes: for the liberalization of marriage laws to benefit gays; for the election of non-Christian candidates from the Hindu, Muslim, and gay communities; and perhaps most surprising for a relaxation of laws on marijuana. Perhaps this is what that mysterious word ‘Argo’ really means: victory in the culture wars. Nicholas Blincoe is an author, critic and screenwriter living between London and the Palestinian city of Bethlehem. He was a founding member of the New Puritans literary movement and writes regularly for “The Guardian” and “The Telegraph.”


29/11/2012 09:49

TM1577_56-57_Ad.indd 56

26/11/2012 14:18

TM1577_56-57_Ad.indd 57

26/11/2012 14:18

The Critics

Book Review Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising By Stephen Starr Hurst & Co., 2012

Stephen Starr spent several years in Syria prior to the uprising against Bashar AlAssad, which began almost two years ago and seems unlikely to end soon. His long experience with the people and the government comes across strongly in this engaging book, both in his understanding of the country’s complex society and his empathy for the Syrian people. Rather than an objective summary of modern history or a collection of despatches from the front lines, Stephen

Starr’s book is a fascinating account of a witness to everyday life in Syria as the country begins to tear itself apart in 2011 and early 2012. This makes this work doubly valuable, as his familiarity with the country and its people also translates into an insight into the regime. He concludes that the rule of the Assads is doomed, but that the rebels will have a tough job on their hands to bring it down, given that the regime was structured by Hafez Al-Assad to survive and crush insurrections, and its determination to fight to the bitter end. This work is therefore useful for those seeking to penetrate the

Interview with Stephen Starr You were one of the few Western reporters on the ground in Syria for a while. How long were you able to stay in Syria after the uprisings began before you had to leave? I left of my own accord last February. Security officers regularly came to my home to ask ridiculous questions (I think the point was to let me know they could find me at a few minutes’ notice). But I was never threatened or asked to leave. I kept a very low profile until I visited Saqba in eastern Damascus and saw the horrors of the regime’s actions. I left a couple of weeks later. How do you rate the media’s coverage of the Syrian civil war to date? I’m not a media analyst so I can’t speak unequivocally about the coverage. From what I’ve seen since leaving, the Englishlanguage media has been largely one-sided. Yes, the regime is carrying out atrocities every day. Yes, more and more Syrians are opposing the government. But there is still a bloc of individuals who support the regime, for whatever misguided reasons. We hear very little about these people and we need to know that there are millions still supporting before any foreign military intervention may take place. Why is it so difficult to get to the truth about what is happening in Syria? Because the regime won’t allow independent journalists to travel freely around the country when it does issue visas. And even if there are recognized, professional journalists on the ground, understanding what is happening is still difficult. For example, a priest was found dead Thursday in a town outside Damascus and the Christian community in this town blame the opposition and the FSA for the killing. This community is now radicalized

fog of war that has infected so much of the reporting on the Syrian conflict, and explains some of the features of the conflict that make it so difficult for outsiders to understand—especially the views of ordinary Syrians of the country’s various regions and religious sects. One of the most compelling aspects of this book is the portrait it paints of everyday life in Damascus and its environs as the uprising begins to take hold. Starr adroitly paints a picture of denial, confusion, and growing fear of the population of the city, as well as the passion for change amongst activists seeking a better life. His prose is

in support of the regime. But no one knows who killed the priest. From what I’ve heard, he was killed in a way consistent with the way I’ve seen others killed by shahiba, so I would not be surprised if government militias were responsible as a way of bringing Christians closer to the regime. But no one knows. You conclude in your book that the Syrian government is doomed—how has it been able to last this long in the face of a mass uprising? How much longer do you think it can last? Because it has cleverly played the sectarian card; it has driven fear into the heart of the country’s business class; the regime is the army, and so there was never a possibility of a split in that regard. Because it has a remarkably powerful and successful propaganda campaign in the areas it still controls. No one knows how much longer it can survive in its current form. There may be an internal coup, foreign military intervention, the rebels may make a series of strategic gains that lead them to Damascus and the regime may run out of money. It will be unable to pay employees in the massive state sector at some point in the future which will lead to a humanitarian crisis across the country—maybe this will bring it down. The regime is essentially a militia with funding from outside forces and a large foreign currency reserve that are keeping it—through its control of the government—afloat. Do you see any signs that the rebels are becoming more organized? They will, if only by default, continue to make more territorial gains. They may not be more organized, but they are still becoming more successful. Jihadists are helping them. They have worked out how to use anti-aircraft guns and how best to win control of military bases in the north. Regime forces are not as motivated as they are.


TM1577_58-59_The Critics.indd 58

30/11/2012 09:42

plain and matter-of-fact, and more effective for it. This is equally true of his descriptions of the mounting anger within Syria as the violence and the detention of activists and their family members turn more and more of the population against the government. He also reminds the reader of the complexities and contradictions of Syrian society, detailing his acquaintance with young Alawites who detest Assad’s government, and Sunnis who resolutely back it. His account of the regime itself is also intriguing—ramshackle, run-down, and inefficient in so many respects, but at the same time feared and omnipresent, with spies and informers everywhere, and able to mobilise battalions of security officers and thugs on short notice. Starr’s discus-

sion of Syria’s economic problems, and the social tensions and pressures these have created, are also illuminating. They fill in much of the ‘back story’ of the uprising shaking Syria, especially the movement of poor, rural, Sunnis to the cities in search of work, and the neglect of rural areas by a regime focused on taking care of its core constituencies. He also makes a good (arguably successful) effort at conveying the fears and hopes of Syria’s minority groups, interviewing Syrian Shi’ites, Druze, Christians and Alawites. The flaws of the book are those of all eye-witness accounts: despite his attempts to be impartial and objective, Starr can only write from his own perspective. Admittedly, his perspective is a valuable one given his knowledge of Syria and its citi-

zens, but is nonetheless one that is limited to that of a single journalist fearful of being deported, and therefore forced to work around the restrictions of Syrian officialdom and the need to ensure the safety of himself and his sources. As a consequence, the voices of those actually taking up arms against the government are absent—and Starr’s story ends in the first half of 2012, leaving the reader wanting to know more about how Syrians are dealing with the civil war. On the whole, though, the book is a valuable tool for those seeking to gain some understanding of the conflict in Syria, and is a timely peek behind the headlines at the lives of ordinary Syrians before the struggle against Assad erupted in earnest, and of the human cost and social trauma of civil war.

It is always difficult to predict the future with any accuracy, and doubly so during a war, but what do you foresee happening next in Syria? As you say, it is extremely difficult to predict. The current stalemate will likely continue. Direct foreign intervention—if it takes place—would change things dramatically. Militarily, the Assad regime is weakening by the day, but at the same time, there are still many Syrians who support it. This middle ground or ‘silent majority’—the Syrians who don’t buy into the regime or the opposition—are being forced by the violence to come down on one side or the other. The time and space for talking is being crushed as deaths increased. If there are 30,000 people dead and thousands more detained and injured how can you expect their families and friends to behave rationally?

but the regime would have folded long ago if it was acting entirely on its own. Lots of civilians I’ve spoken to after regime military incursions into civilian areas have said there were guys with Lebanese accents among the government troops. I saw a lot of bearded guys (Syrian government soldiers are clean-shaven) manning checkpoints in and around Damascus early on in the uprising. I remember driving past the Iranian embassy in Damascus last year and there was four SUVs with Lebanese license plates parked outside. There were groups of tall men dressed all in black using walkie talkies surrounding the SUVs. There were undoubtedly Hizbollah. These guys were guarding someone important and had just come from Lebanon. They were parked outside the Iranian embassy. Were they in Damascus on tourism or to smuggle cigarettes? I doubt it.

What is the most likely scenario for the ‘endgame’? What will it take to end the fighting? No one knows. The regime won’t quit until it runs out of weapons and/or territory. It will probably look to negotiate when that happens, but with the rebels at the gates of Damascus, will they want to negotiate with a regime that has done all it can to blast them to hell? I doubt it. Thereafter, perhaps a transitional authority with some government figures (not regime people) along with figures like Haitham Malleh, Michel Kilo, religious leaders who have not sided with the regime or opposition until now, can lead the country through a transitional period. I am positing. I can’t comment on this with certainty other than to say that it will be bloody and contested.

You discuss the role of the different social and economic classes in the Syrian uprising. Have things have changed since your book was published this summer? Have the urban population of Syria joined in with the uprising in significant numbers? Things have changed and things have not changed at all. The minorities are more radicalized and afraid. The urban classes— mostly Sunni—are sick to death of not having electricity, of having to stay at home on the weekend, of the increasing cost of bread and tomatoes, of having to queue for hours to fill their cars with petrol. They don’t like the revolt but they know the Assads are a brutal mafia. In the beginning they wanted the revolt to win—but they wanted no part in bringing down the regime. Now, they’re sick of the life they’re living and most probably would prefer for everything to go back to the way it was in February 2011. Of course, that’s not possible anymore. Too many people have died. This is a revolution of the poor and the rural, and the minorities and wealthy urbanites have not and will not take part in it.

There have been many rumors about assistance from Hezbollah and Iran (especially the Iranian Revolutionary Guard) to the Syrian government. Do you think there is anything to them? There’s a lot to them. We don’t know exactly to what extent,

Issue 1577 • November/December 2012

TM1577_58-59_The Critics.indd 59


30/11/2012 09:42

TM1577_60-61_Ad.indd 60

26/11/2012 14:16

TM1577_60-61_Ad.indd 61

26/11/2012 14:16

Final Word

Arab Heroes

Trapped between repute and celebrity Adel Al-Toraifi


he English writer Colin Wilson once wrote of America that “No country is more eager to hail celebrity; none more delighted to see its downfall”. Perhaps this description applies to US General David Petraeus, who recently resigned as head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) following revelations about an extramarital affair. It would have been possible for these revelations to pass by without much public notice were it not for the fact that the star of the story was, until recently, considered an American hero. There is no need to examine the facts of the story; they have been covered extensively in the media. Whether you think Petraeus deserves what happened to him given his marital infidelity, or you recognize his records and accomplishments as a military figure, the debate about what happened will continue for some time. If it is proven that Petraeus did nothing wrong security-wise, except for this destructive relationship, then it is likely the incident will be forgotten about and society will be content with their former hero having to endure the pain of his ordeals. Perhaps the most important issue here is not the scandals and their aftermath, but the way in which heroes are manufactured and glorified. If Petraeus was an unknown general, we would not have seen such media clamor, but since he ascended to heroic status, the revelation of his personal mistake casts a shadow of disappointment and shame upon those who held him in such high regard. It is necessary to draw attention to the role played by some in the media who portray certain personalities outside of the normal human framework, and elevate them to the ranks of supreme beings. There is a terrible temptation for society to distort figures like Petraeus, or to transform any successful person into a public figure, burdening them with titles and descriptions—sometimes exaggerated—to satisfy an audience thirsty for heroes. Colin Wilson tried to separate between repute and fame. He noted that there is a fine line that distinguishes between repute, which

is often based on personal talents and accomplishments, and celebrity, which is associated with someone’s transformation from an unknown figure to an icon of public focus, be it for scandalous or noble reasons. Perhaps Petraeus, having moved from a military to a civilian office, fell into this predicament without realizing. A US official close to him remarked that he always placed significant emphasis on his personal image during his military service (Washington Post, 12 November 2012). Here the Petraeus incident merits a wider comparison between societal behavior in the US and societal behavior in the countries of our region. If Petraeus was an Arab, a Kurd or a Persian, would he receive compassion, or would he be dealt a penalty that far outweighs what he did wrong? Here we can make two observations: Firstly, a society such as America’s may be guilty of exaggeration when it manufactures these heroic icons, but the society itself has the mechanisms to correct mistakes. When a sin is committed or when power is abused, the wrongdoer is required to resign. Secondly, the society may be morally disappointed, but it still leaves the door open for the wrongdoer to redeem themselves. Unfortunately, in the Middle East the exaggerations in manufacturing false and imaginary heroes go beyond normal limits. No one apologizes for their mistakes, and certain personalities are placed on a pedestal whereby they are beyond criticism. This phenomenon is not confined to presidents and leaders, indeed certain members of extremist parties are glorified and labeled as heroes, with a magical aura around them, despite the fact that they adopt violent and bloody methods. In the wake of the 1967 defeat, President Gamal Abdel Nasser theatrically announced he was resigning. Crowds gathered and beseeched the president—whose policies had caused the defeat and the loss of Egyptian land—not to leave. Abdel Nasser is viewed as a hero in some circles even to this day. Certain Arab presidents who came to power via military coups found their societ-

ies to be particularly susceptible to exaggerated glorifications. Take, for example, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar in Syria, Muammar Gaddafi and his sons in Libya, and many others. In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini accused the Shah of authoritarianism and arrogance, but after the Shah left power Khomeini himself assumed both a religious and earthly authority, and his aura could not contested by any of his contemporaries. This is not all. The societies of our region unfortunately not only celebrate false heroes, but also ignore real achievements if they are not commensurate with those illusions. Anwar Sadat regained the Sinai territories, and was able to achieve a sincere and arduous peace treaty with Israel, yet he was assassinated in both the physical and moral sense. The former Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba, oversaw a scientific and cultural renaissance in his country, but his life is never discussed without distortion and disparagement. No doubt there are Arab political figures like Petraeus, whose good work mingles with personal wrongdoings, but American culture, which forgives those who atone for their sins and does not ignore their achievements, is very different from the dominant culture in our region, which presents illusions over facts, and forgives criminals but shows no mercy to those who make mistakes. Saddam Hussein started wars, brought a siege upon Iraq, and sent his citizens into exile, yet there are still those who consider him a hero. Likewise, Hassan Nasrallah burdened Lebanon with an unequal war with Israel, has used unarmed citizens as human shields, and even recently stood by the Syrian regime, which is committing war crimes against its citizens, but there are those who still see him as a hero. Perhaps the most striking evidence of this misguided approach is that you can hardly find an objective account of anyone; everyone is either a hero or a villain. There is no space for people like Petraeus, who made mistakes but was also responsible for noble work.


TM1577_62_Final Word.indd 62

26/11/2012 14:16

TM1577_IBC_Ad.indd 63

26/11/2012 14:16

TM1577_OBC_Ad.indd 64

26/11/2012 14:16

Authority Strengthened by Silence  

In times of conflict, being impartial does not necessarily translate into neutrality: silence in such circumstances may signify taking a sid...

Authority Strengthened by Silence  

In times of conflict, being impartial does not necessarily translate into neutrality: silence in such circumstances may signify taking a sid...