Thursday, April 25, 2013By Barry Rubin“I know what the world thinks of us, we are Communists, and of course I have said very clearly that we are not Communists; very clearly.” –Fidel Castro, 1959U.S. policy toward Syria has changed but it is too late. A senior State Department official said at the meeting just concluded of opposition groups: “We have to help the moderates, people like [Chief of Staff of the Free Syrian Army] Salim Idris….”This is what I proposed two years ago but I have to admit that I almost never saw anyone else who suggested that the strategy should be to help the non-Islamists with money, weapons, and diplomatic support.Unlike Castro, the Islamists in Syria never lied about their goals and ideologies. Now the Islamists are far more powerful and well-armed than anyone else, courtesy of U.S. policy. Oh, and there’s one more problem. Many or most of the Free Syrian Army’s troops, that is the supposed non- or anti-Islamist alternative, are also Muslim Brotherhood supporters.So what’s there to do with revolutionary Islamists controlling Syria and sooner or later, though it might take a couple of years, taking over the whole country or at least gaining recognition as the legitimate government of Syria while the regime holds out in the northwest of the country?That’s okay, says the main line of U.S. policy. We don’t care if they are America-hating fanatics who want to impose Sharia, suppress or even massacre Christians, and commit genocide against Jews. Just as long as they aren’t affiliated with al-Qaida.Beyond this, there’s mostly wishful thinking. Compare these statements by a Turkish diplomat and a Saudi newspaper:“Once Assad is gone, al-Qaeda won’t stay long in Syria.”“We know that there are radical forces like [al-Qaida] but do not overestimate them.”But it seems impossible to get the mainstream debate to recognize the fact that the problem is not merely al-Qaida but other radical Salafists and another Muslim Brotherhood government.What kind of situation would another Egypt bring about in the Middle East?What will happen within Syria which historically is a far more radical entity (for historical, political culture, and geopolitical reasons) than Egypt?What will be the fate of all those modern-oriented women, liberals, Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Kurds?Going beyond the largely worthless current debate on Syria let’s look ahead into the seemingly inevitable future. We can reasonably assume that the Assad regime might last another year or two but it will either retreat to the Alawite areas by then or have fallen totally. There is by the way another possibility. Rebels make advances in Damascus, then use the opportunity to announce the establishment of a provisional government there. The United States and other countries then recognize it–despite Assad’s continuing hold on much of the country–as the legitimate government of Syria.Whatever happens, there will be a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Syria and Obama will support it. The Salafis will not rule but they will kill people, intimidate non- or anti-Islamist forces, and probably be the main force in various local areas of the country.Many conservatives and Republicans favor more intervention which means in practice working even harder to install an Islamist regime in Syria. That’s a terrible idea. With few exceptions they never seem to grasp the point about supporting the non-Islamist forces and not just the Syrian rebels in general as if they were glorious freedom fighters.A few other people favor supporting the Assad dictatorship to keep the Islamists out of power. This is another terrible idea. Aside for morality and the impossibility of saving Assad, no Western country is going to adopt such a policy. Whatever its past, the Assad regime had in effect become an Islamist regime, a Shia Islamist regime, and its fall will weaken Iran and Hizballah.The problem, of course, is that its fall will also strengthen the Sunni Islamists. According to estimates by my colleague, Dr. Jonathan Spyer:–Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, has about 6,000 fighters.–The Syrian Islamic Front (dominated by Ahrar al-Sham) has about 13,000 fighters.–The Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, which seems close to the Muslim Brotherhood, (including the Farouq Brigade of Homs; Suqour al-Sham of Idleb, and Tawhid Brigade of Aleppo) has about 40,000 fighters. It is not clear whether these groups are under the Brotherhood’s discipline. If they aren’t then the situation is even worse since that means the Salafist forces are stronger than they seem.Even this numerical advantage understates the Brotherhood’s power because its political leadership is centralized while Jabhat al-Nusra is spread thinly across the country and the Syrian Islamic Front is a loose coalition of different Salafist groups.But the Brotherhood won’t suppress even the most extremist ones, that is al-Qaida, as long as they don’t attack the new central government and don’t disrupt the country too much. The Brotherhood will let them attack, massacre, and bully the country’s Alawites, Christians, Druze, political moderates, and non-Islamist women.The too-late proposed Western strategy is to strengthen non-Islamist forces in Syria and to create safe zones, for minorities and to keep out Salafists, near Syria’s borders. This looks good on paper but it won’t work for several reasons.First, the non-Islamist forces are too weak to hold any territory. his might be influenced by the successful creation of such a zone for the Kurds in northern Iraq. Yet the Iraqi Kurds were a well-armed, coherent ethnic group that was sufficiently united and had favorable terrain. These conditions don’t apply to Syria, or at least only for Syrian Kurds and Druze, not for the Sunni Muslim majority or Christian minority. The setting up of safe zones on, say, the Jordanian and Israeli borders will simply be an attractive target for Salafists who will mobilize popular support by branding the “moderates” as the traitorous tools of infidels and attacking them. Non-Islamist forces are also at this point unreliable and some of those groups touted as “moderates” seem to be closer to the Brotherhood.And then we will once again be told that the Islamists and lots of Muslims only hates the West because it invades their countries and intervenes against them. Incidentally, don’t be surprised when after the revolution the victorious Islamists will claim that the West was behind the old dictatorship–a lie–and that not giving the rebels even more weapons was a Western stab in the back that further merits hatred.Given these realities, then, the task of Western policy will be based on the understanding that they will not be able to shape events in Syria. It could have been different if a proper policy had been followed earlier.The best that can be done now would be to help Christians either to survive or flee; to assist Druze and Kurds protect themselves by strengthening the former’s militia and the latter’s autonomy; and even, as a purely humanitarian strategy if Assad has fallen, to help Alawite civilians not guilty of war crimes to escape. Otherwise, thousands of people could be massacred.There are other important issues that simply are not being fully discussed:Will Western countries allow those in threat of being killed to be granted political asylum for thousands of Druze, Christians, Alawites, and moderate Sunni Arabs? Or will they insist that everything is great in Syria and even push back the refugees who have already left the country?Will Western countries correct the disastrous policy toward Egypt and actually help moderate Sunni Arabs, or at least anti-Islamist Sunni Arabs, to organize for elections and political influence so that the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists don’t steamroller over them?Will Western countries give additional help to Israel, having helped to bring it a new and more energetic enemy on its border, or Jordan, a moderate regime that the West usually takes for granted?Will Western countries do a better job than in Libya about collecting advanced weapons so they aren’t use for terrorism against Syria’s own people, a Syrian Kurdish autonomous zone, Israel, Jordan, and Iraq?People will continue to debate increased Western intervention but–and U.S. policymakers now partly understand this–to deal with the strategic disaster that’s been created, in part by them.
If you are interested in reading more about Syria, you’re welcome to read my book The Truth About Syria online or download it for free.
Posted: 23 Apr 2013 08:00 AM PDT
By Barry Rubin
One of the reasons why the Middle East situation is less fearsome than it might seem is that the radicals and terrorists are not united at all but battle among themselves for tactical, doctrinal, ethnic, and ambition-related reasons.
Despite their daily, bloodthirsty howls for Israel’s destruction, for example, three groups are at odds:
–The Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt wants to revolutionize the Middle East but is putting the priority on entrenching its power in Egypt itself, including dealing with economic and internal security problems. One of its difficulties is a terrorist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. While this includes cross-border attacks on Israel it also involves assaults on Egyptian soldiers, police stations, and other facilities.
–The Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip wants to revolutionize the Middle East and puts a high priority on genocide against Israel. But it has to balance backing Salafist and even al-Qaida groups with controlling the timing of its wars on Israel.
–The Salafist groups in the Gaza Strip and Sinai want to attack and wipe out Israel but some of them also want to overthrow the Brotherhood and institute an even more extremist regime in Egypt.
So here is the problem. What happens when Palestinian Salafist groups, including supporters of al-Qaida, want to attack Israel through Egyptian territory or to work with Egyptian Salafist groups to attack Egyptian soldiers or policemen?
Answer: Egypt doesn’t like it.
And Egypt blames Hamas. Why are you helping these people? Or why aren’t you suppressing them? We will let people attack Israel from our territory if and when we want to do so. And, yes, our intelligence does have evidence you are helping these anti-Egyptian forces.
For example, we saw that you weren’t interfering with the smuggling of material to make phony Egyptian army uniforms. Salafists can use these to attack Israel disguised as Egyptian soldiers, thus getting us into a shooting confrontation with Israel while we are trying to borrow money and keep the Americans happy. Or they can even pretend to be our men and kill Egyptians.
So why should we help you when you are helping those who attack us?
The latest event was the firing of two rockets from Egyptian territory against Eilat on April 17. A global jihad-affiliated network in the Gaza Strip calling itself the Shura Council of the Jihad Fighters of the Environs of Jerusalem claimed responsibility. Their claimed motive was interesting: to protest two Palestinians killed in Tulkarm in a violent confrontation with Israeli security forces.
In other words, Palestinian Islamists are carrying out their war with Israel using Egyptian territory without permission.
The group’s statement also made the remarkable demand that “the sane members of Hamas” pressure the Hamas government in Gaza to stop trying to arrest its men.
So this is the chain of events:
Hamas must decide whether to allow al-Qaida affiliated or similar groups attack Israel from Egyptian soil. Even if it doesn’t mind their attacking Israel from Gaza, it needs to keep the Egyptians happy so that the Egypt-Gaza border is kept open for goods, including weapons.
But some Hamas men want instant all-out jihad against Israel.
Hamas must also decide whether to restrain these same groups from waging an Islamist revolution against the Islamist regime in Cairo. Again, perhaps some Hamas gunmen or officials think the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t going fast enough to turn Egypt into a Sharia state. That’s hard to believe, though. Perhaps more likely these Hamas officials are incompetent, bribed, or blackmailed.
At any rate, even though it was completely avoidable, then, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood regime is very angry at the Hamas Muslim Brotherhood regime. The relationship has been damaged and the Egyptians’ willingness to back up Hamas has been reduced.
Moreover, Israel has given Egypt permission–required under the peace treaty–to move troops into the eastern Sinai to combat the terrorists. Let’s stop for a moment and realize that when Israel (which the Muslim Brotherhood wants to wipe off the map) cooperates with a radical Islamist regime in Egypt (run by the Brotherhood) to send soldiers to fight radical Islamist terrorists (who want to wipe out Israel and also attack Egypt) you know you are in the Middle East. And you know that the revolutionary Islamists are making major strategic mistakes.
Parallel situations—albeit based on the very intense Sunni-Shia Islamist battle—are creating splits in Lebanon and increased Sunni Muslim antagonism against Hizballah and Iran generally because the latter back the current regime in Syria. Some time ago, Egypt also arrested a number of alleged Hizballah agents in Cairo accusing that group of planning attacks on Egypt. And for more on the Sunni-Shia battle among Islamists see here.
A couple of years ago I wrote an article saying that while the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood hated al-Qaida and saw it as a competitor, the two groups had a lot of parallel ideas. Of course, they don’t agree on a strategy of direct attacks on the United States. The official Brotherhood website, partly misreading my point, did a very polite critique of my article trying to distance itself from al-Qaida.
The response was restrained back then since it was on the English-language propaganda site trying to convince the West that the Brotherhood was moderate. But when you are trying to put down the non-Islamist opposition and land an almost $6 billion IMF loan it’s easy to throw out a few soothing words. Al-Qaida attacks on Egypt and Israel make that game more difficult.
In Egypt now there are four Islamist parties: Brotherhood, Salafist willing to work with the Brotherhood, Salafist critical that the Brotherhood isn’t going fast enough, “moderate” Islamists. Of course, all of them are pushing in the same direction and will cooperate much of the time. A lot of the debate is simply over how fast to convert Egypt into a radical, repressive Sharia state. But at least it makes their task harder.
All of these maneuvers are important and undercut the Islamist revolutionary movement. With Western policy being so confused, ineffective, and ignorant the divisions among enemies may be the best thing going.
If you are interested in reading more about Egypt and radical Islamist movements, you’re welcome to read my book Islamic Fundamentalists in Egyptian Politics online or download it for free.
If you are interested in reading more about the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, you’re welcome to read my book The Arab States and the Palestine Conflict online or download it for free.
Posted: 24 Apr 2013 06:32 AM PDT
By Barry Rubin
Political leaders and government officials are paid for trying to avoid, mitigate, or manage damage to their countries. Experts and journalists are supposed to warn about them and explain the dangers. This isn’t happening. Instead, language is being used to define threats down to the minimum by speaking of revolutionary, anti-American, antisemitic forces quite willing to use terrorism when it suits them into moderates.
The latest step toward making it impossible to understand the world is a decision of the Associated Press, the world’s biggest source of news for English-language mass media. AP’s new step, however, does not launder all Islamism nor does it outlaw the word “Islamism.”
We should remember, however, that use of this word–the description of the world’s most important revolutionary movement today–is already outlawed not only for U.S. government officials in public but also in their internal writing.) In AP’s case, you can still use the word Islamism but not in connection with saying that this is intrinsically a bad, extremist or dangerous thing. So it becomes a broad label like liberal, conservative, social democratic, Christian democratic, etc. In other words, Islamism is defined not as a radical threat but as a full-spectrum movement.
What the AP’s decision means is a far more limited step. It is defining Islamism as a not necessarily militant, radical, or threatening movement. This is significant though not as bad as the accusation being made that it has gone much further. What has happened is that the AP has adopted a somewhat more moderate version of Obama policy that there are good Islamists and bad Islamists.
According to the new AP stylebook:
“An advocate or supporter of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam. Do not use as a synonym for Islamic fighters, militants, extremists or radicals, who may or may not be Islamists. Where possible, be specific and use the name of militant affiliations: al-Qaida-linked, Hezbollah, Taliban, etc. Those who view the Quran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians to militants known as jihadi.”
I guess if you can get elected to office somewhere that means you can’t be a militant, extremist, or radical. Now this does reflect a basic principle of mainstream thinking in the United States: popularity is inversely proportionate to extremism. To win elections you must move to the center. Without getting into how this applies to U.S. politics, that is usually but by no means always true in democratic countries. In the Arabic-speaking Middle East, the truth has been the exact opposite for decades: radicalism wins out. When there are no attractive, real solutions available, demagoguery almost always triumphs.
There are three subtle points about the AP’s decision here that might be easily missed.
First, the AP has taken a political stance of defining the Muslim Brotherhood leadership as “mainstream politicians.” Who else might be a mainstream politician among Islamists? The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia, where the organization has captured political positions through elections? Or perhaps the Brotherhood cadre of Hamas or in Syria? Maybe it refers to Hizballah’s politicians who now run Lebanon? Well, the best job of camouflage has come from Turkey but then that government–precisely because it seems moderate–has rarely been properly braned as Islamist.
Now it is quite true that not all Islamist movements favor violent or terrorist tactics, at least at this moment. Yet that is not what the Stylebook dictates. It would be absolutely reasonable to say that the word Islamist should not be a synonym for terrorist.
Note the wording about,”reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam.” No. An Islamist is not someone who wants to do that anymore than a democratic socialist or a liberal is a Communist. If you want to make society a bit more Islamic, you’re not an Islamist. The leaders of Iraq or the Palestinian Authority, for example, are not called Islamists.
The Islamist is a revolutionary who wants to reorder government and society in accordance with the laws—all or almost all of them—prescribed by Islam as they interpret it, that is in a militant, extremist, and radical manner. That might sound like a detail but it is well known in the Muslim-majority world that there is a huge difference between using Islam as a basis for law and as the basis for law. By the AP’s new definition, the Mubarak regime in Egypt, the Fatah regime in the Palestinian Authority, and the Assad regime in Syria—all considered to be relatively secular—are Islamist.
Second, this dictates the idea of “moderate Islamists” is valid. Would one say “moderate Communists,” or “moderate fascists?”
Consider the four synonyms for which Islamism is being outlawed:
–Fighters. This is the most reasonable idea since it links up to the point that not all Islamists (currently) follow the path of armed struggle. I can accept that.
–Militant. Well, yes of course they are militants. They seek revolutionary transformations of their societies. They believe they are following the word of Allah and thus cannot compromise on any major principles. Of course, they are militant, despite any tactical mirages they spin forth. Notice that militant is confined to al-Qaida, Hizbollah, and the Taliban style groups. Yet a militant can easily be someone who isn’t using violence. They are, however, seeking the fundamental transformation of their societies and nothing less is acceptable.
–Extremist. Is someone who wants to impose their interpretation of Sharia on the entire society, and a very extremist interpretation of Sharia at that, an extremist? In that sentence I am not getting into the argument of whether Sharia must innately be extremist, but that’s certainly true for the Islamists’ version. (If you have any doubt of that ask a genuinely non-Islamist Muslim.)
Remember that getting a lot of votes does not make someone moderate. If you want to say that radical Islamists are within the mainstream of their own societies, that’s fine but the implication then is that the societies themselves are militant, extremist, and radical. AP’s decision, reflecting a mistaken Western view today, is that anyone who is popular cannot be radical.
Third, this stance confuses radicalism/extremism/militancy with actual armed struggle. If you have already seized state power you don’t need to wage armed struggle any more. Such activities are now called state repression.
Fourth, the reclassification of Islamism is integrally related to the misrepresentation of Islamist ideology and goals. For example, Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including those in official positions, daily evince bloodthirsty antisemitism including the explicit goal of genocide against Jews in general and wiping Israel off the map. Yet these people are now to be seen as “mainstream politicians” who are not radical, militant, or extremist?
When I used the term “revolutionary Islamism” or “radical Islamism” I sought to emphasize the inherent nature of the movement, not to suggest that there was also a separate moderate Islamism. Otherwise you get into the ridiculous game of speaking about the “armed” wing or “political” wing of Hamas or Hizballah or Fatah. There is no such real distinction, only a division of labor.
What AP is doing is a smokescreen to play the game of a fictional “moderate Islamism” whose “mainstream politicians” constitute just another non-radical, non-militant, non-extremist movement that just happens to believe women are chattel, Christians have no real rights, Jews are to be wiped out, and America is to be destroyed.
Thus, “Islamism” is not really a threat so what does it matter if it takes over more countries?
But okay I accept the AP challenge. When you talk about the Muslim Brotherhood and other similar parties and politicians, will you dare to label them as radical, extremist, or militant Islamists? That is allowed by your new Stylebook. But will you do it?
And when the Muslim Brotherhood destroys all but the thinnest semblance of democratic practices in Egypt or when it presides over ethnic-religious massacres in Syria will AP alter its Stylebook?
In its first test, the Boston terror attack, the AP did a lot better than some, including its competitor Reuters. One of its articles explained:
“Evidence mounted that Tsarnaev had embraced a radical, anti-American strain of Islam. Family members blamed the influence of a Muslim convert, known only to the family as Misha, for steering him toward a strict type of Islam [emphases added].” I have no problem with these formulations, though they used the word Islam (a religion) rather than Islamism (a political doctrine).
Not all Islam is radical and anti-American, though all too much of it is today. But, yes, all of Islamism is radical and anti-American.