Syria’s doctors on the frontline

Borzou Daragahi reports: Just a few more days, the pediatrician assured his friend, and he would come back. Doctor Hatem, as he is known in the tight-knit community of Syria war physicians, had an important exam to take in Istanbul, a half-hearted attempt at career development in the midst of the chaos that had engulfed his homeland. Hatem asked his fellow pediatrician and friend, Muhammad Waseem Moaz, to delay his own long-planned break a little while longer so he could sit for the test.

“You stay, and I will change places with you later,” he promised his friend.

The last couple weeks of April had been a particularly stressful stretch of the war. A shaky cessation of hostilities between pro- and anti-Syrian regime forces was crumbling in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital and largest city. Casualties were mounting again as helicopters and planes pounded the city with barrel bombs. One day a missile landed in the city, barely missing the Children’s Hospital, where Hatem is the senior doctor.

Then there was the daily battle to stock up on essential supplies. Transit routes to opposition-held territory in eastern Aleppo had closed as rebels lost control to fighters from the regime of Bashar al-Assad, to ISIS, or to Kurdish militias. Only the dangerous Castello Road leading to the northwest, through Idlib province, remained open. Doctors had stocked up on six months of supplies, but the regime appeared to be targeting their warehouses. “We used to get supplies through Kilis, but now everything is affected by the siege,” Hatem said. [Continue reading…]

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Not just Russia: The Iranian surge in Syria

Aron Lund writes: When the Russian Air Force intervened in Syria on September 30, 2015, it changed the tide of battle. After a year of painful defeats in places such as Idlib, Jisr al-Shughour, Palmyra, and the Hawran region, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government managed to regain its balance. By the end of the year, Assad’s forces were again moving forward in the northern Latakia region, east of Aleppo, and on several other fronts. In February 2016, his army cut a key rebel supply route between Aleppo and the Turkish border, and, in late March, Assad’s Russian-backed troops retook Palmyra from the self-proclaimed Islamic State. They are now moving on the Ghouta enclave east of Damascus, exploiting weeks of disastrous infighting among the local rebels.

Assad’s advances have slowed down recently, partly due to a brittle cessation of hostilities agreement monitored by the United States and Russia. The government even lost some ground in the Aleppo, Latakia, and eastern Homs regions. More significantly, the Syrian economy is in disastrous shape, and this might undermine Assad’s military progress. But there is no question that Assad’s position has greatly improved due to the Russian intervention, or that Moscow’s influence over the conduct of the war in Syria has grown significantly.

That is the conventional narrative, at least. However, it is missing something.

What happened in autumn 2015 was not just that Russia began operating in Syrian airspace. The reason the Russian intervention was so successful was that it was also accompanied by Iranian intervention on the ground. Let’s take a closer look at how that happened. [Continue reading…]

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Death of Mullah Mansoor highlights Taliban’s links with Iran

The Guardian reports: The killing of the Taliban chief on the main highway leading from the Iranian border shines new light on the movement’s complicated relationship with Tehran.

Although it is Pakistan that has traditionally been condemned for secretly supporting Afghan insurgents, analysts say Iran also provides weapons, cash and sanctuary to the Taliban. Despite the deep ideological antipathy between a hardline Sunni group and cleric-run Shia state the two sides have proved themselves quite willing to cooperate where necessary against mutual enemies and in the pursuit of shared interests.

Mullah Mansoor first entered Iran almost two months ago, according to immigration stamps in a Pakistani passport found in a bag near the wreckage of the taxi he was travelling in when he was killed by a US drone strike.

The passport, in the name of Wali Muhammad, also showed he had only just returned to Pakistan from the border crossing of Taftan, some 280 miles (450km) away from the site where he was killed, an area called Ahmed Wal, where he had stopped for lunch. [Continue reading…]

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Following reports that Hezbollah might reduce its forces in Syria, Nasrallah promises to boost support for Assad

Middle East Eye reports: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Friday said his Lebanese Shia movement would boost its support for Syria’s government after one of its top commanders was killed there last week.

“We will increase and bolster our presence in Syria,” Nasrallah said in a speech during a ceremony to mark a week since Mustafa Badreddine, the head of Hezbollah’s military wing, was killed near Damascus.

“More commanders than before will go to Syria. We will be present in different ways and we will continue the fight,” he said.

Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria was considered vital in shoring up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government earlier in the more than five-year war against opposition rebels backed by Gulf Arab states and Western countries.

Its fighters secured most of the Lebanese border region, cutting vital rebel supply lines, and reasserted government control in most of the southern suburbs of Damascus, including the Sayyida Zeinab Shia shrine district.

Hezbollah said last week that Badreddine had been killed by rebel artillery fire, with Nasrallah on Friday vowing to avenge his death by inflicting a “great and final defeat” on those responsible.

But the circumstances of Badreddine’s death remain unclear with earlier media reports citing Israeli security sources that he may have been killed by Syrian pro-government or Iranian forces in a dispute over Hezbollah’s role in the conflict.

According to those reports, Badreddine had been planning to withdraw many of Hezbollah’s forces back to Lebanon after suffering heavy losses, possibly a third of his fighters. The area where he was killed is technically under the control of the Syrian army and is also believed to host Iranian fighters. [Continue reading…]

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What are Moqtada al-Sadr’s ambitions in Iraq?

After thousands of protesters, most of whom are loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, once again stormed the Green Zone in Baghdad, Michael Weiss reports: Thirteen years of lawlessness, sectarian bloodletting and terrorism following a deeply unpopular military occupation have conspired with successive waves of Iraqi leaders who are increasingly seen as little more than factotums of interfering outside powers, namely the United States or Iran. U.S. policy has been single-mindedly wedded to backing individual actors, be it al-Abadi or the man he replaced, Nouri al-Maliki. The second, who was greeted at the White House by President Obama as a partner in making Iraq “sovereign, secure, and self-reliant,” governed with authoritarian excess, manipulated an election in 2010, and then proceeded to alienate Sunnis by means of legal persecution on trumped-up “terrorism” charges or acts of state violence. The first, while a seeming improvement on his predecessor, is simply too weak and ineffectual to deliver on his promised reforms. That al-Abadi’s office has now been raided twice by an angry mob has underscored that stark reality more persuasively than any State Department talking point.

But is al-Sadr looking to make Iraq great again, or is he just a cynical machiavellian looking to exploit failed statehood for his own outsize political ambitions? “I don’t think he gives a damn about reforms,” a U.S. military official told The Daily Beast. “Sadrists are as corrupt as hell, too. The popular anger is for reform across the country and beyond this movement. The Sadrists will follow what Moqtada says. If he says: ‘We need a dictator who’s very corrupt. They will say, ‘Allahu Akhbar, we need a dictator who is corrupt.’”

Khedery, however, welcomes the protests as a natural corrective on top-down political sclerosis. “I’m very pleased by these events because I believe Iraq needs regime change to end the systemic sectarianism and the endemic corruption that’s baked into the DNA of the post-2003 order. Not the foolish, ill-informed, hubristic foreign-backed regime change of 2003, but regime change from within, which will, one way or another, install leaders of the country that represent the Iraqi people. If they fail in meeting expectations, they’ll likely face the same untimely demise as their predecessors. Revolution is a time-honored tradition in Baghdad.” Most of today’s Iraqi elites, Khedery added, lack the qualifications to “run anything much bigger than a household.” They’re also inveterate crooks presiding over a national economy that can no longer compensate for runaway graft with unusually high global oil prices.

In this context, al-Sadr has positioned himself as one of the few true Iraqi nationalists with enough authentic grassroots support to take on a Western superpower and an interfering regional theocracy. [Continue reading…]

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The Arab revolution of 2011 is being destroyed by a counter-revolution led by dictators and jihadists

The Irish Times reports: In late 1400 and early 1401, the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane left “pyramids of skulls, like those constructed by Islamic State today” across Syria, recalls the French Middle East expert Jean-Pierre Filiu.

Tamerlane had already destroyed Aleppo. The great Arab historian and statesman Ibn Khaldun talked to him for 35 days, in the hope of saving Damascus. “The whole time, Tamerlane knows he’s going to massacre everyone in the city,” Filiu continues. “He uses the negotiation to divide and rule, to massacre more people, faster.”

Filiu wants Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, to read Ibn Khaldun, for it’s impossible not to see a parallel with the behaviour of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Filiu is an Arabist, historian and former diplomat who served as an adviser to a French prime minister, defence minister and interior minister. His “added value”, he says, is history. He will address members of the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin on The Jihadi Challenge to Europe next Monday, May 23rd, and debate The Spectre of Global Jihad with the author Shiraz Maher that evening at the International Literature Festival Dublin.

In his most recent book, From Deep State to Islamic State; The Arab Counter-Revolution and Its Jihadi Legacy, (published by Hurst in London) Filiu concludes that the Arab revolution of 2011 – a term he prefers to “Arab spring” – is being destroyed by a counter-revolution led by the remnants of dictatorships in collusion with jihadists.

Over the past century, Filiu writes, the Arabs’ right to self-determination was “denied by colonial intervention, ‘hi- jacked’ at independence by military regimes, trampled on by the double standards of the war for Kuwait and the ‘global war on terror,’ and perverted in the UN, where peoples are represented by the regimes who oppress them”.

No other people have faced “so many obstacles, enemies and horrors in the quest for basic rights”, Filiu says. [Continue reading…]

In January, Filiu spoke about the price being paid because of President Obama’s failure to uphold ethical principles.

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What’s left of the Syrian Arab Army? Not much

Tom Cooper writes: The general impression is that the Syrian Arab Army remains the largest military force involved in the Syrian Civil War, and that  —  together with the so-called National Defense Forces — — it remains the dominant military service under the control of government of Pres. Bashar Al Assad.

Media that are at least sympathetic to the Al-Assad regime remain insistent in presenting the image of the “SAA fighting on all front lines”  — only sometimes supported by the NDF and, less often, by “allies.”

The devil is in the details, as some say. Indeed, a closer examination of facts on the ground reveals an entirely different picture. The SAA and NDF are nearly extinct.

Because of draft-avoidance and defections — — and because Al Assad’s regime was skeptical of the loyalty of the majority of its military units  —  the SAA never managed to fully mobilize.

Not one of around 20 divisions it used to have has ever managed to deploy more than one-third of its nominal strength on the battlefield. The resulting 20 brigade-size task forces  — each between 2,000- and 4,000-strong  —  were then further hit by several waves of mass defections, but also extensive losses caused by the incompetence of their commanders.

Unsurprisingly, the regime was already critically short of troops by summer of 2012, when advisers from the Qods Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps concluded that units organized along religious and political lines had proven more effective in combat than the rest of the Syrian military had.

Thus the regime’s creation, in cooperation with Iran, of the National Defense Forces. Officially, the NDF is a pro-government militia acting as a part-time volunteer reserve component of the military. Envisioned by its Iranian creators as an equivalent to the IRGC’s Basiji Corps, the NDF became an instrument of formalizing the status of hundreds of “popular committees” created by the Syrian Ba’ath Party in the 1980s.

According to Iranian claims, the NDF’s stand-up resulted in the addition of a 100,000-strong auxiliary to Syria’s force-structure. Moreover, the NDF functioned as a catalyst for the reorganization of the entire Syrian military into a hodgepodge of sectarian militias. [Continue reading…]

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Obama ‘pleased’ with Syria policy while Kerry warns Assad about unspecified ‘Plan B’

The New York Times reports: Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, said on Tuesday that if President Bashar al-Assad of Syria continues to block access of humanitarian aid to besieged cities and towns, they were prepared to help the World Food Program airdrop food and emergency supplies.

The very fact that they had to threaten the airdrops — which are expensive and often inaccurate — amounted to an admission of how little progress has been made in achieving either the lasting cease-fire or the regular humanitarian relief that European and Arab nations, along with Iran, laid out as the first steps toward a broader peace agreement.

The threat to conduct airdrops came after a meeting in Vienna of the International Syria Support Group, made up of the nations that drafted a largely unimplemented plan to end the country’s civil war. They gathered at a low point: A once-promising “cessation of hostilities” has largely collapsed, an effort to start negotiations between the opposition and the government broke down, and there has been no progress toward negotiating a “political transition” that was supposed to begin on Aug. 1.

Bolstered by Russia’s intervention to help prop him up, Mr. Assad is in a stronger position than he has been in years, many experts say, and has rejected the idea that any new government would have to exclude him. He has the strong support of Iran, his longtime provider of security, though Russian officials seem less concerned about whether Mr. Assad himself remains in power or is replaced by another leader from his Alawite Shiite sect.

At a news conference on Tuesday afternoon with Mr. Lavrov, Mr. Kerry rejected a suggestion that, in dealing with Mr. Assad, he was operating without the kind of leverage he had in Vienna last year during the Iran nuclear negotiations — when American sanctions and sabotage of the Iranian program created the pressure that led to a deal.

But Mr. Kerry — who White House aides say has complained in Situation Room meetings about the lack of clout to force Mr. Assad to make good on his commitments — argued that the Syrian leader would be making a mistake to believe he would pay no price for refusing to cooperate.

“If President Assad has come to a conclusion there’s no Plan B,” he said, referring to more coercive action to force him to comply, “then he’s come to a conclusion that is totally without any foundation whatsoever and even dangerous.”

Mr. Kerry added later that Mr. Assad “should never make a miscalculation about President Obama’s determination to do what is right at any given moment of time, where he believes that he has to make that decision.” Mr. Assad, he said, has “flagrantly violated” the United Nations resolution calling for a nationwide cease-fire and allowing humanitarian assistance.

Yet in making public a case that there would be consequences for Mr. Assad’s intransigence, Mr. Kerry was touching on one of the hardest issues facing Mr. Obama and his national security team in their last eight months in office. The president has repeatedly defended his decision not to authorize a military strike against Mr. Assad after he crossed what Mr. Obama had described as a “red line” against using chemical weapons. He also rejected a no-fly zone to protect fleeing civilians and opposition forces.[Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast reports: White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that President Obama was “certainly pleased” with his administration’s policy on Syria, while simultaneously acknowledging that the country now poses a “heightened risk” to America and its interests.

“We’ve seen terrible violence in Syria, it’s an awful humanitarian situation, and it’s a genuine human tragedy. And it’s a dangerous place, and it’s a place that poses a heightened risk to the United States and to our allies and interests around the world,” Earnest said.

Earnest, who was asked by Yahoo’s Olivier Knox about The Daily Beast’s reporting, argued that the president’s Syria policy had “advanced the national security interests” of the U.S., placing the blame squarely on the Assad regime.

“There’s no denying that what has happened in Syria has changed millions of lives — and not for the better. And that’s a testament to the failed political leadership of Bashar al-Assad, it’s a testament to the way the political chaos in that country has propagated so much violence,” Earnest said at Monday’s White House press briefing.

The Daily Beast reported Friday that senior White House official Ben Rhodes allegedly told Syrian-American activists that he was “not proud” of the administration’s policy on Syria. [Continue reading…]

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In fight against Western decadence, Iranian prosecutor attacks ‘actions that run counter to the values of the establishment’

The New York Times reports: Iran’s judiciary unleashed one of its periodic crackdowns on social media permissiveness on Sunday, announcing the arrest of eight people involved in online modeling without a mandatory head scarf and questioning another woman, a former model, live on state television on Sunday.

A blogger, Mehdi Abutorabi, 53, who managed a publishing tool called Persian Blog, was also detained, the semiofficial student news agency ISNA reported Monday.

The former model, Elham Arab, 26, had been something of an Instagram star, posting pictures of herself in bridal gowns with eye-catching, dyed-blond hair. But on Sunday, months after her Instagram account had been shut down, she wore a pious black scarf and matching gloves as she was questioned by two prosecutors during a live television program.

In sharp contrast to the happy and glamorous images of herself posted online, Ms. Arab spoke of her “bitter experiences” in Iran’s technically illegal modeling industry and warned young women to think twice before posting pictures of themselves online. “You can be certain that no man would want to marry a model whose fame has come by losing her honor,” she said.

The head scarf issue often features prominently in the constant tug of war between powerful hard-liners and Iran’s increasingly urbanized and worldly society. Iran’s laws require that all women, even visiting foreigners, cover their hair out of a traditional respect for culture and morality. Many hard-liners view the obligatory veil as a last-ditch defense against what they say is an onslaught of Western cultural decadence.

But the main culprit was not Ms. Arab, Tehran’s public prosecutor, Abbas Jafar-Dolatabadi, concluded on the television program. No, the main offender was “the enemy,” Iran’s household label for the West and its unwanted influences.

“The enemy is investing in order to create a generation without any willpower,” the prosecutor said of social media. “We must refrain from any actions that run counter to the values of the establishment.” [Continue reading…]

IranWire reports: In March, Iran’s online authorities shut down the Instagram pages of several well-known models, as well as those of hair salons and photography workshops. In their place, online visitors found a large blue frame with the caption “These pages are blocked by the authority of Operation Spider 2 to open security cases by order of the judiciary.” They did not provide any details about the operation, which became known as “the spider attacks.”

Now, Dolatabadi has explained what the so-called “spider attacks” were all about. “In the past two years, a lot of good things have been done in the fight against hair salons and fashion workshops related to modeling,” he said. “In operations Spider 1 and Spider 2, around 50 hair salons, 50 fashion workshops, and 50 photography workshops were prosecuted. Individuals were arrested and pages were shut down by the supervisor of the Prosecution Office for Media Crimes.”

At the same time, the website Gerdab, which promotes news about Revolutionary Guards’ online activities, reported on what it called the successes of Operation Spider 2 over the past two years.

Gerdab’s report accused the “secret supporters and operators of Instagram” of attempting to subvert the “Islamic Iranian lifestyle.” It championed what it called an important achievement in combating “modeling and vulgarity.”

“The first phase resulted in the creation of an accurate database of more than 300 Instagram pages,” the report said, quoting the Organized Cyberspace Crimes Unit of the Revolutionary Guards. “The database is an intelligent collection of specifics about these pages such as postings, followers, those who are followed, the ‘likes,’ the comment writers, addresses of [account users on sites] such as Facebook, Line, and Telegram, and emails, phone numbers, addresses and bank account numbers.” [Continue reading…]

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Syrian activists keep alive the revolutionary spirit of 2011 uprising

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With Iran-backed conversions, Shiites gain ground in Africa

The Wall Street Journal reports: Walking from classroom to classroom at the Ahl ul Bayt Linguistic Center, which teaches Arabic and Islam, director Ahmed Tijani pointed at his students, a mixture of teens and young adults.

“This one is Shiite, these ones are also Shiite,” he said. “And these ones, they are still Sunni.”

Mr. Tijani, whose office in the Cameroonian capital is decorated with an Iranian flag and a poster of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was also once a Sunni Muslim. Then he made the life-changing choice of enrolling at a similar Iranian-funded academy in the coastal city of Douala.

Since converting to Shiite Islam a decade ago, the 39-year-old educator has risen through the ranks, establishing this school in Yaoundé and even visiting Iran on a government-sponsored trip in 2012.

“There is a big difference between Shiite Islam and Sunni Islam,” he said. “Only the Shiites are spreading the truth.”

Such sectarian talk used to be exceedingly rare in much of Africa. So were actual Shiites. The few who could be found in Africa belonged to immigrant communities from Lebanon or the Indian subcontinent. Now, parts of the continent’s Sunni Muslim heartland are living through the biggest wave of Sunni-to-Shiite conversions since many Sunni tribes of southern Iraq adopted Shiism in the 19th century.

Hard figures are difficult to come by. But in Nigeria alone, Africa’s most populous nation, some 12% of its 90-million-strong Muslim population have identified themselves as Shiite in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, up from virtually zero in 1980. The number is 21% for the Muslims of Chad, 20% for Tanzania, and 8% for Ghana, according to the survey.

That demographic change is occurring just as the Muslim world becomes increasingly polarized along sectarian lines, with Saudi Arabia, a self-proclaimed standard-bearer of the Sunni cause, engaged in proxy struggles from Yemen to Syria to Bahrain against a rival axis led by Iran’s Shiite theocracy.

“The core of the Saudi-Iranian confrontation over power and territory is in the Middle East. But West African Shiites are of symbolic value to Iran, for it to be able to say that its vision of Islam is expanding rather than shrinking. They give Iran more of a claim that they’re able to speak for Muslims in the whole world,” said Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and author of a book on the Shiite revival. [Continue reading…]

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Four ideas about the crisis of the Arab world that need to be repudiated

sykes-picot

An editorial in The Economist says: Arab states are suffering a crisis of legitimacy. In a way, they have never got over the fall of the Ottoman empire. The prominent ideologies — Arabism, Islamism and now jihadism — have all sought some greater statehood beyond the frontiers left by the colonisers. Now that states are collapsing, Arabs are reverting to ethnic and religious identities. To some the bloodletting resembles the wars of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Others find parallels with the religious strife of Europe’s Thirty Years War in the 17th century. Whatever the comparison, the crisis of the Arab world is deep and complex. Facile solutions are dangerous. Four ideas, in particular, need to be repudiated.

First, many blame the mayhem on Western powers — from Sykes-Picot to the creation of Israel, the Franco-British takeover of the Suez Canal in 1956 and repeated American interventions. Foreigners have often made things worse; America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 released its sectarian demons. But the idea that America should turn away from the region — which Barack Obama seems to embrace — can be as destabilising as intervention, as the catastrophe in Syria shows.

Lots of countries have blossomed despite traumatic histories: South Korea and Poland — not to mention Israel. As our special report (see article) sets out, the Arab world has suffered from many failures of its own making. Many leaders were despots who masked their autocracy with the rhetoric of Arab unity and the liberation of Palestine (and realised neither). Oil money and other rents allowed rulers to buy loyalty, pay for oppressive security agencies and preserve failing state-led economic models long abandoned by the rest of the world.

A second wrong-headed notion is that redrawing the borders of Arab countries will create more stable states that match the ethnic and religious contours of the population. Not so: there are no neat lines in a region where ethnic groups and sects can change from one village or one street to the next. A new Sykes-Picot risks creating as many injustices as it resolves, and may provoke more bloodshed as all try to grab land and expel rivals. Perhaps the Kurds in Iraq and Syria will go their own way: denied statehood by the colonisers and oppressed by later regimes, they have proved doughty fighters against IS. For the most part, though, decentralisation and federalism offer better answers, and might convince the Kurds to remain within the Arab system. Reducing the powers of the central government should not be seen as further dividing a land that has been unjustly divided. It should instead be seen as the means to reunite states that have already been splintered; the alternative to a looser structure is permanent break-up.

A third ill-advised idea is that Arab autocracy is the way to hold back extremism and chaos. In Egypt Mr Sisi’s rule is proving as oppressive as it is arbitrary and economically incompetent. Popular discontent is growing. In Syria Bashar al-Assad and his allies would like to portray his regime as the only force that can control disorder. The contrary is true: Mr Assad’s violence is the primary cause of the turmoil. Arab authoritarianism is no basis for stability. That much, at least, should have become clear from the uprisings of 2011.

The fourth bad argument is that the disarray is the fault of Islam. Naming the problem as Islam, as Donald Trump and some American conservatives seek to do, is akin to naming Christianity as the cause of Europe’s wars and murderous anti-Semitism: partly true, but of little practical help. Which Islam would that be? The head-chopping sort espoused by IS, the revolutionary-state variety that is decaying in Iran or the political version advocated by the besuited leaders of Ennahda in Tunisia, who now call themselves “Muslim democrats”? To demonise Islam is to strengthen the Manichean vision of IS. The world should instead recognise the variety of thought within Islam, support moderate trends and challenge extremists. Without Islam, no solution is likely to endure. [Continue reading…]

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Saudia Arabia and Iran: The Cold War of Islam

Der Spiegel reports: No previous US president had been made to suffer such an indignity when visiting America’s supposedly closest ally in the Arab world: When Barack Obama touched down at the airport in Riyadh in mid-April, King Salman opted to remain in his palace. The most powerful man in the world was received by the governor of Riyadh instead. There was no pomp or ceremonial reception and state-controlled television declined to broadcast the arrival. Obama seemed slightly at a loss on the tarmac before trying to cover up the affront with a broad smile.

The message was clear: Saudi Arabia feels as though it has been left in the lurch by America and is not afraid to show that it isn’t happy.

The story of the failed reception is more than just an anecdote from the international diplomatic stage. It serves to illustrate the massive geo-political shift and the growing conflict that has gripped the entire Middle East. It has become the Cold War of our era, pitting Saudi Arabia against Iran, the two rivals that are striving for supremacy in the region. And it is not entirely clear which side the US is on.

The Middle East as we have long known it is changing dramatically. And no matter where one looks, Tehran and Riyadh are standing behind at least one of the parties involved in the conflict. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, host and protector of the holy sites in Mecca and Medina, sees itself as the home of Sunni Islam, to which the majority of the world’s Muslims belong. The Islamic Republic of Iran, a Shiite theocracy, claims leadership of the Shiites, which make up roughly 13 percent of Muslims worldwide. For both regimes, religion is an important tool of power.

Today’s bloodiest civil war, the conflict in Syria, is entering its sixth year and has thus far cost the lives of more than 250,000 people — and the cease-fire that has been in place for the last two months doesn’t look as though it will last much longer. In Syria, and also in the conflicts in Iraq and in Yemen, the fighting fronts run primarily along confessional lines: Sunnis against Shiites. A fragile peace holds in Lebanon and Bahrain, but it is one that could be shattered at any time by confessional unrest.

All of these proxy wars and confessional conflicts have unleashed a wave of migration among those who have been displaced: more than 6 million people from Syria and Iraq along with almost 3 million from Yemen. And out of the rubble of the Middle East, hydra-headed monster has risen that seeks to terrorize Brussels, Paris, Istanbul and the rest of the world: Islamic State. In an irony of history, the Sunni terror militia sees both Iran and Saudi Arabia as its enemies.

At its essence, the escalation in the Middle East also has to do with America and its changing role in the world. After decades of enmity with Iran, US President Barack Obama wanted to restart a dialogue with the country and he negotiated a nuclear treaty with Tehran. The hope is that the deal will limit Iran’s ability to pursue a nuclear weapon while making it possible for the country to do business with the West in return.

At the same time, though, the US would prefer to withdraw from this complicated, crisis-plagued region of the world. Current developments are also a product of this trend.

Iran, meanwhile, following decades of isolation, would like to revert to its former position of regional importance. The more Middle Eastern countries there are under the control of Shiites, the stronger Iran feels — and the more hard-pressed Saudi Arabia feels, a country whose rulers once rose to power by way of a pact with Sunni fundamentalists, the Wahhabis.

This new Cold War affects the entire world, making it vital to search out its causes and to scrutinize what is pushing Saudi Arabia and Iran to continue on the path of escalation. A team of SPIEGEL reporters went to both countries to investigate and spoke with politicians, religious leaders, activists, intellectuals and normal people on the streets. [Continue reading…]

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Why many of Iran’s ‘moderates’ say they prefer Trump to Clinton

Jeremy Shapiro and Ellie Geranmayeh write: Much of the world seems fairly put off by Donald Trump. Europeans are annoyed that he has threatened to withdraw from NATO. The Japanese and South Koreans seem upset about his intention to withdraw US troops from their shores. Mexicans dislike him so much they are selling Donald Trump piñatas like hotcakes. Even the Chinese seem worried about his idea to slap them with a 45 percent tariff and his support for a nuclear-armed Japan.

So does anyone outside of America like Trump? Many people point to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He and Trump have expressed admiration for each other’s leadership qualities. But beyond Putin, there is (unsurprisingly) little foreign support for Trump’s trademark blend of American nationalism and xenophobia.

Recent conversations, however, have led us to suspect that there might be another country of potential Trump supporters out there: Iran. [Continue reading…]

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UN investigators tell states to stop Syria war crimes

Reuters reports: States backing Syria’s peace process must stop the warring parties from attacking unlawful targets such as hospitals and other civilian sites, U.N. war crimes investigators said in a statement on Wednesday.

Air strikes, shelling and rocket fire had been consistently used in recent attacks on civilian areas, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria said in a statement.

“Failure to respect the laws of war must have consequences for the perpetrators,” its chairman, Paulo Pinheiro, said. [Continue reading…]

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