Archives for posts with tag: Syria

I have been conflicted over writing a followup post to my original blog written in 2012 (eek!). Many aspects of the conflict have changed since then and they have been mostly been for the worse. In addition to these negative updates, events have unfolded at break-neck pace: not long ago ISIS (now Islamic State) operated in a small section of eastern Syria and western Iraq. The fast-changing and often grim news emanating from the region put me off of writing more about it. The barbaric execution of Western journalists and aid workers and other recent events in Iraq and Syria have compelled me to write an updated blog about the situation there. My goal in this blog is to explain some of the historical causes for the recent outbreak of violence, but also to try to elucidate the broader ideological and geopolitical conflicts that are currently taking place throughout the region. Why are some parts of Iraq and Syria aligning with IS while others resist?

For many it will not be news that the sectarian divide among Sunni and Shia muslims predates the existing conflict by a long mark. The way the media has portrayed this conflict as both ancient and interminable (just as the Arab-Israeli conflict is portrayed) is too simplistic and ignores the relatively modern origins of the regional conflict taking place now. The schism between Shia and Sunni Islam is rooted in a disagreement over who should govern muslim world after the death of Muhammad, and thus the schism in Islam is as old as the religion itself. But while the two communities had a violent confrontation in their early history (more here) there was also a long period of coexistence and a status as co-religionists. Perhaps the biggest historical event to change this status was the conversion of the Safavid Dynasty (1501 to 1722) to Shia Islam. This conversion turned a theological dispute into a geopolitical conflict, as the Safavid empire fought a series of wars with Sunni empires such as the Ottomans and the Mughals. Even after the dissolution of these empires and the formation of modern nation states, their legacy remains:





Beyond converting what is now Iran to Shia Islam, the Safavid empire also (forcibly) converted the regions that now make up Azerbaijan and Central/Southern Iraq, which is reflected in their modern religious demographics. While the Safavid empire was not solely responsible for the spread of Shia Islam throughout the Middle East, it changed the religion’s relationship with both the Safavid empire and the subsequent Iranian nation. Unlike Sunni Islam, which has had many capitals over time (Istanbul, Cairo, Damascus, et al) Shia Islam’s theological and cultural centers are mainly in Iran.  This has meant that for many Shia muslims, religious guidance and doctrine has come from Iran; whether in the form of Iranian-educated Imams (Musa al-Sadr, Ali al-Sistani, for example), or through edicts (Fatwas) issued from Qom, Iran itself.

When the Iranian revolution took place in 1979 the state was transformed from a monarchy into an Islamic Republic, under the organizing principle of  Vilayat-e Faqih or “Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist.” This theory, which was created by Ayatollah Khomeini prior to the revolution, posits that one Shia muslim jurist (or Supreme Leader) should have guardianship over all issues for which Prophet of Islam and Shi’a Imam have responsibility, including governance of a country. Iran’s transformation into an Islamic Republic as well as its importance to Shia muslims proved destabilizing in the region.

When the Ayatollah called for a similar Islamic Revolution in Iraq he was met with hostility from Saddam’s Ba’athist regime in Baghdad. In September 1980 Saddam invaded Iran under the auspices of incorporating the Khuzestan province (with a large Arab population) into Iraq and eventually overthrowing the Islamic Republic in Iran. While the Iraqi regime did not have an explicitly Sunni organizing principle (the Ba’ath party was secular and Arab-nationalist) it was dominated by Sunni Arabs. As the war continued Saddam was forced to withdraw from Iranian territory; in 1982 the revolutionary leaders in Iran invaded Iraq with the hope of overthrowing the Ba’athist regime and introducing a Shia Islamic Republic there. After eight years neither side was successful and the status quo was reintroduced after a cease fire in 1988. This war, which lasted eight years, served as an introduction for the new geopolitical context that sectarian divisions would exist under. Iraq’s Shia-dominated government has many links to Iran, and some of the Shia militias fighting Islamic State are funded/directed by Iran.

Iran’s overt support for the Shia community in Iraq would continue long after the war but did not stop there. Historically, the Shia community in Lebanon was one of the poorest and worst represented of the religious communities there. Despite having a larger  population than either the Christians or the Sunnis, they received the least prominent role (Speaker of the House of Representatives) under the original confessional model. A major effort was made by Musa al-Sadr, an Iranian-trained Shia Imam empower the Shia community of Lebanon, forming the Amal movement before his mysterious disappearance in 1978. As the Lebanese civil war entered a third bloody stage (1982-1990) Iran became involved when it sent 1500 Iranian Revolutionary Guards paramilitary into southern Lebanon to support Shia militias fighting there. These militias would eventually form Hezbollah, a party-cum-militia which would be blamed for a series of attacks against Israel and the US during the conflict. Hezbollah was the only group not to disarm after the Taif Agreement that ended the civil war and would continue to receive military and financial support from Iran.

In Syria, Iran’s role has been both overt and multifaceted. The Iranians have had a long alliance with the Alawite-led government of Bashar al-Assad ever since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. This relationship has a religious component as the Alawite faith is a branch of the Twelver school of Shia Islam (practiced in Iran) but with syncretistic elements. Support for the Assad regime has included direct military assistance, arming Shia and Alawite militias, and sending Hezbollah (the Shia militia based in Lebanon) to fight on behalf of the Assad regime.


(picture taken by me in Damascus, Syria in 2010. From left to right: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar Assad, Hassan Nasrallah)

When looking at Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon the role of religion and ideology is undeniable: Iranian trained clerics like Ali al-Sistani and Hassan Nasrallah, who subscribe to the state ideology of Iran (Vilayat-e Faqih) lead Shia communities that are more supportive of Iran than their Sunni compatriots. But behind this broad trend of political views coinciding with sectarian ones there are differences. Iran’s anti-Western geopolitical orientation and its support for anti-Western governments/groups such as Bashar Assad in Syria or Hezbollah in Lebanon is sometimes attributed to the view of all Shia communities, however unfairly. This was especially troublesome during the 2011 Bahrain protests, where the Shia majority rose up against the Sunni monarchy, only to have the protesters unfairly linked to Iranian subterfuge. Even after the 2003 US led invasion of Iraq, Shia Arabs have a more favorable view of the US than Sunni Arabs (Kurds in Iraq have the most favorable view of the US):


(source: Zogby, poll conducted in 2011)

This survey is quite instructive in underlining the complex relationship between geopolitics and religion in the Middle East. Shia Arabs view Iran more positively than either Sunni Arabs or (mostly Sunni) Kurds, while Sunni Arabs view Saudi Arabia (KSA on the survey) more favorably than Kurds or Shia Arabs. What this survey is also helpful in illuminating is the efforts that have been made by various regional actors to engage with the various communities of Iraq. It is no coincidence that Turkey and Saudi Arabia have both worked hard to establish relations with the Sunni Arab leaders in Iraq, though Turkey has also made inroads with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and some Shia leaders.

Saudi funding for Sunni militias in Syria and its support for Sunni Arabs in Iraq also has considerable history predating the rise of Islamic State. Saudi Arabian support for Sunni militia and its opposition to Shia movements has deep roots, going back to the the very founding of the modern Saudi Kingdom after the fall of the Ottoman empire. Many muslims in Saudi Arabia are followers of the the Wahhabi/Salafist movement, an ultra-conservative sect of Sunni Islam that posits that Shia Islam is not a legitimate form of Islamic faith. Prominent clerics in the Kingdom have preached violence against Shia muslims in Iraq and a great deal of money flowing to hardline Sunni militants (including Islamic State) has come from private donations from Saudi Arabia as well as other parts of the Gulf.

Turkey, itself a large, majority-Sunni nation with a democratic (though increasingly authoritarian) moderate Islamist government lead by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has tried to gain influence among Sunnis in the region by touting its own model of political Islam. A notable difference between Turkish and Saudi engagement in the region has been the relatively good relations Turkey has had with Iran while Erdoğan has been in power. Saudi-Iranian relations, on the other hand have been poor for a very long time, with many viewing the two states as rivals in the region. Turkey often finds itself, paradoxically, in a rivalry with the Saudi Kingdom over influence with Sunni muslims in the region and beyond. This is a good example of a contradiction I’ve mentioned before: because there is no dominant cultural/theological center for Sunni Islam, there is no one state or even one ideology which successfully advocates on behalf of Sunnis as effectively as Iran does for Shia muslims. 

Indeed, the two major ideologies within Sunni Political Islam today that both promote an Islamic role in government, though they differ widely in their interpretation of this role. Followers of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement founded in Egypt, advocate for an Islam-inspired government that uses Islamic Law (Sharia) as either the partial or sole basis of their constitution, but wish to create a modern state with a modern economy. Salafists, on the other hand, wish to reintroduce an Islamic Caliphate and create a society modeled on the original Islamic empire, sometimes called the Islamic Golden Age. Generally, Salafists view Shia Islam and Iran critically, and have been vocal in their opposition to the Iranian state. Christians and other non-muslim minorities have also come under fire from Salafist groups at times. While there are non-violent Salafist movements like the al-Nour party in Egypt, there are violent jihadist movements like Islamic State and al-Qaeda who all share the same political vision, if not the same tactics to achieve it. While these militant groups have received some support from private donors, they have limited support by states in the region. In truth, the Salafist’s political vision threatens all contemporary majority-Sunni states, perhaps more so than to majority-Shia ones. I believe that this is why the coalition to fight Islamic State includes many Sunni Arab states.


This headline from 2007 underscores just about everything that has been wrong with the coverage of the sectarian divide in Islam. Media in the West has repeatedly covered this conflict as one of “ancient hatred” that has been smouldering since the eighth century. What is missing here is an explanation of how the Sunni-Shia schism was transformed from a theological rivalry to a geopolitical one; key events like the the Safavid conversion to Shia Islam in 1501 and the 1979 Iranian Revolution helped produce this outcome. While the two communities certainly foster some distrust of the other, historically relations have been nuanced, particularly in countries with large mixed communities. Much of the fears that Sunnis and Shia have come from a very real place. Shia muslims have been historically marginalized in much of the Middle East and beyond, only very recently have they been politically empowered in places like Iraq and Lebanon. Many Shia muslims fear annihilation by well financed Salafist groups like Islamic State and al Qaeda, a fear not unreasonable given recent events. Sunnis in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere fear a future of domination and reprisals by Iranian-backed governments that will have little interest in including Sunnis in the political process. Again, these fears are not unfounded given recent events. Unfortunately, it is hard to see an outcome that calms these anxieties in the near future. In the West we can choose to leave this conflict, ignore its impact, but for the inhabitants of the Middle East, this melding of geopolitical and sectarian considerations will persist. I fear that the Iraqi Sunni Arabs will pay a very high price for their support for Islamic State.

We like to think that this mixture of religion and politics is foreign to us, but in reality there are modern examples of Christian sectarian hysteria in West. Imagine if there were very powerful, highly militarized states advocating for a politicized version of Catholicism and Protestantism in the West; it isn’t hard to imagine that our own perceptions of faith and politics would be different if this were the case.

Update: Here are some important links for up to date information on Iraq and Syria

Well, it’s been a while! In my defense, I’ve moved across the world since I last wrote here, and I now have to contend with some very loud birds as I write this. But I have good reason to write now; so much has transpired since I last wrote. You’ll have to forgive me for the length of this blog post, if you read it in it’s entirety you’ll have digested over 3000 words, there’s just so much to write about. With a remarkable confluence of political transitions taking place across the globe, there seems now, even more-so than in 2012, a real opportunity that the world will look very different 12 months from now. From the reelection of Barack Obama to Xi Jinping’s ascent to top spot within the Communist Party of China, many regions appear poised for change and uncertainty. From Israel to Myanmar there has been no shortage of speculation and intrigue regarding what the future will bring. But while there have been notable transitions across the world, some regions seem to have experienced less upheaval than others… so far.


Twelve months ago the world was fixated on the volatility of the European debt crisis and what might happen if an anti-austerity party won in Greece. This did not come to fruition, and while the anti-austerity party Syriza became the official opposition, they remain far from power in Greece. With relatively mundane results in the other European elections (Czechs and Slovenes both elected remarkably boring presidents) you might wonder if Europe really belongs in a blog about political upheaval in 2013. The good news is that very soon that will change, thanks to a combination of factors in Italy’s general election on February 24th.

Italy Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi makes a face as he attends a meeting in Rome

After resigning in 2011, few could have imagined that the scandal-ridden media mogul would return to politics, but underage prostitute scandals notwithstanding, Berlusconi will contest yet another election. He will lead the People of Freedom party against the social-democrat PD, which is leading in polls at the moment; but in an added twist he will be competing with two other unlikely figures for the job.

When Mario Monti was asked to form a technocratic government in the wake of Berlusconi’s resignation he was not expected to contest the election after his government implemented economic reforms, but on December 28th he announced he would run for Prime Minister under the “With Monti for Italy” party. While Monti’s entrance into politics may have been surprising, his background is very different from the leader of Five Star Movement. Beppe Grillo entered politics as a comedian and blogger, and has taken Italian politics by storm; at one point his party scored as high as 20% in national opinion polls, though its popularity has since waned. The Five Star Movement can be defined broadly as an anti-austerity party, though some of Grillo’s other policy prescriptions include more direct democracy and free internet. While few expect either Monti or Grillo to garner enough support for the top spot, their impact on the election could be vast.

Public polling has consistently placed the center-left Democratic Party (PD) in first place, but the latest polls hinted at the possibility of a hung parliament in the Senate, where seats are allocated on a regional basis. This would force Pier Barsani (leader of the PD) to form a coalition, either with Mario Monti or even Beppe Grillo, though this is unlikely. You might wonder why the election in Italy is getting so much attention when so many different political transitions have taken place. Italy sits in a unique place within the EU: while it has come under scrutiny for its large debt (only the US and Japan have more) and its sluggish economy (only Zimbabwe and Haiti grew more slowly from 2000 to 2010) it also commands the largest share of the Eurozone economy outside of Germany and France. It also holds the distinct role of being the largest Eurozone member that is currently undergoing harsh austerity, which is being administered by an unelected, technocratic government. France has already replaced the center-right government of Nicolas Sarkozy with Socialist Francois Hollande, in part because of his promise to transition Eurozone policy away from austerity. If a center-left government emerges in Italy, it might just be enough to move EU policymakers away from austerity, or at least away from its current manifestation. Lastly, Italy’s election matters because it precedes an election in Germany in September, where Angela Merkel’s center-right coalition has faced recent difficulties.

Middle East/North Africa

When revolutions swept the Arab world in 2011, it seemed like the greatest emotion expressed in the crowds was relief and optimism; since then, ambiguity has shrouded interpretations of events. Tunisian protesters clash with riot police during demonstration after death of Tunisian opposition leader Belaid, outside Interior ministry in Tunis

This picture was taken in Tunisia on Feb. 6th of this year (source: Reuters/Anis Mili). The killing of left-wing opposition leader Chokri Belaid has sparked the largest demonstrations in Tunisia since the government of Ben Ali was overthrown two years ago. The Islamist-dominated government has dissolved parliament in response to this, and is calling for fresh elections in the wake of the unrest. Elections that took place in Tunisia and in Egypt after their respective revolutions saw Islamist parties win the largest share of the vote. While the outcome of the election was not disputed (unlike Iran in 2009) within those countries or by observers, the conduct of the resultant governments has been very critical. Mohamed Morsi, the president of Egypt and member of the Muslim Brotherhood has seen his first term riddled with controversy ranging from his handling of the drafting of a new constitution, to recent violence between police and demonstrators. Instead of focusing on these internal debates taking place in Egypt and other MENA countries, I’d like to talk about the regional implications of recent political transitions.

Two countries that dominate media coverage of the Middle East and I think warrant special attention for their regional impact are Israel and Iran. Both countries have an awkward (to put it nicely) relationship with many of their neighbors, and both essentially exist on the opposite sides of a diplomatic arrangement with the US. Iran has counted on support from Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, and Shi’a leaders in Iraq, surprisingly.

I mention Iraq as a surprise because this wasn’t always the case; before the US invasion in 2003 Saddam-governed Iraq was actually a fierce opponent of the Islamic Republic in Iran. From 1980-88 they fought a protracted war that cost half a million lives, both Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah sought to overthrow the regime in the other country. After the first Gulf War, the US engaged in a policy of “dual containment” that attempted to limit the influence of both regimes simultaneously. While this strategy was broadly viewed as “stupid” and had limited success containing either regime, the effects of the US occupation in 2003 had a more dramatic impact on regional influence. Nouri al-Maliki, the current prime minister of Iraq, is Shi’a Muslim (the main religion of Iran) and has close ties to the Islamic Republic in Iran, he actually lived there in exile for most of the 1980s. With the elections in 2005, Iraq has become one of Iran’s closest regional allies and has even helped sustain the Assad regime in Syria, another close ally to Iran.

Iran’s relationship with the other Arab regimes has been far less fruitful. Egypt and Iran have had icy relations since the revolution in 1979. Most notably, the Islamic Republic named a street in honor of the man (Khalid Islambouli) who assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. A precursor to this diplomatic freeze was Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel in 1978, as Iran viewed (and continues to view) Israel as its greatest enemy. The ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has helped improve relations, but the two countries remain far from rapprochement thus far. Perhaps the biggest illustration of these complicated new relations came with Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo on Feb 5th.

While Ahmadinejad was given a warm reception by President Morsi, he was grilled by other political and religious figures, most notably for Iran’s continued support of the Assad regime in Syria. In many ways the paths of these two countries were destined to be complicated, by both history and their sectarian importance. One of the tenser moments during the visit occurred when the leader of al-Ahzar (one of the most respected Sunni institutions in the world) grilled Ahmadinejad over everything from Syria to the belittlement of Islam’s first caliphate. Egypt is the most populous Arab country, and in a way it represents the broader Sunni-Arab aspirations in the region. Iran has a similar population, and it’s religious institutions in Qom are viewed with comparable regard to al-Ahzar for Shi’a Muslims across the world. This theological rift turns political when it comes to Syria, where the two countries continue to be at odds over the future of the Assad regime. I don’t want to oversimplify matters excessively: the Muslim Brotherhood’s relations with some Sunni regimes in the Gulf have been frosty at times.

Under this backdrop, the Israelis voted on Jan. 22nd, with most expecting Benjamin Netanyahu’s new Likud-Beiteinu bloc would sweep to victory, however things were not that simple.

Yesh Atid Party's Yair Lapid Awaits Israel's General Election Results(source: Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

The man pictured above is Yair Lapid, a TV presenter-turned politician who now leads the second largest party in Israel, Yesh-Atid (translated: There is a Future). While Yesh Atid was expected to win about 10 seats, he nearly doubled this total with 19. Most of Mr Lapid’s platform was very centrist, with broadly popular ideas like reducing corruption and reforming education getting mention. More controversially he also proposed ending the exemption on Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jews) from military service and negotiating with the Palestinians with the goal of creating a two-state solution. This latter declaration is significant because even after tacitly accepting a two-state solution, Netanyahu has done very little to indicate that he takes the idea seriously. Even after reaffirming his commitment to two-state solution, he said that the Palestinian Authority needed to drop any preconditions on talks, even as his government moves ahead with the controversial E1 settlement plan.

Lapid has also differentiated himself from Netanyahu on Iran, saying the Likud leader has been too confrontational towards the Obama administration regarding Iran, saying “[Netanyahu] thinks he can drag America to do what it doesn’t want to do. He is leading Israel to war too soon, before it’s necessary.” While it is less clear what meaningful differences they have w-r-t Syria, the biggest question right now is what government, if any, can emerge from this fragmented election:


(Source: BBC) Coalition talks are expected to be very acrimonious as they have to first be led by Netanyahu (who won the most seats) who has been weakened by this electoral result. His list lost 11 seats and he is coming under scrutiny for his role in a variety of troubling and quite funny scandals. Whatever the outcome, the region faces a range of crises, from Syria’s civil war to the economic malaise that affects so many countries in the Middle East; now, more than ever, is a time for effective leadership in the region.


Perhaps more than any political transitions that have taken place this year (including the US election) changing of guard in China, Japan, and South Korea. Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe, Park Geun-hye have all been elected to lead their countries in a time when East Asia represents an increasingly important economic area:

gdp share asia usa 2000 2012 (source)

Unfortunately this increased economic importance is being supplemented with increasing hostility between the respective governments, with the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute receiving a great deal of media coverage. While the dispute has been simmering for over a century, things came to a head when in September Japan decided to nationalize part of the island chain, setting off a diplomatic row with China that has caused alarm across the globe. While Japan’s purchase of the disputed islands from a private owner may seem like an obviously provocative act (it certainly was by China), the action was actually intended, however clumsily, to deescalate tensions. This is because the bellicose mayor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara had stated his intention to buy the islands; Japan’s government feared he would use his ownership to provoke China publicly. Things have escalated quickly since then, with anti-Japans protests and boycotts enveloping China. Perhaps most disconcerting has been an allegation by Japan that China had targeted one of its vessels near the islands with it’s fire-control radar.

Senkaku islands (Source: The Guardian)

History has played an increasingly important and often detrimental role in island disputes in East Asia; the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute is only the most recent example. Last summer a series of symbolic gestures were taken by the South Korean government to underscore its control of the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands, whose control is disputed with Japan. What came next surprised many when South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said that were emperor of Japan to visit Korea he would demand an apology for Japan’s crimes in WWII. Lee is no longer in office, his party instead nominated Park Geun-hye to run in the 2012 Presidential election, which she won narrowly. She campaigned on a platform of economic liberalization but at deftly supported reforming the state’s relationship with the Chaeobol (powerful family-owned businesses). Perhaps more than her policies, she has been scrutinized for her own history: she is the daughter of the late dictator Park Chung-hee, a controversial figure in South Korea. She, like her predecessor has demanded that Japan apologize for its crimes in WWII, though her own nationalism is now being matched by a flamboyant counterpart in Japan.

Shinzo Abe was elected Prime Minister of Japan on a platform of expansionary economic policies (which have many left-wing champions) and a nationalist foreign policy. In October Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where some Class-A war criminals are enshrined; in the past he has suggested Japan should review its apology for using comfort women in WWII. Though he shelved this latter plan, his other, less symbolic proposal could signal bigger, more worrying development for neighboring countries. Shinzo Abe has suggested his government will review its interpretation of the Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution which under it’s current interpretation prohibits an act of war by the state. This has been justified as enabling Japan to engage in “global security operations” as well as allowing its military to engage in joint military operations with its allies, such as a strike on North Korea. It seems clear that while this might be accepted in Seoul and Washington, it will raise eyebrows in Japan’s biggest neighbor.

As alluded to earlier, the recent hostility between Japan and China has received most of the coverage in this region recently. In many ways the anxiety over the confrontation between Japan and China comes from the the transformation in roles the two countries have had economically:

gdp share e asia 1997 2012

Only fifteen years ago Japan laid claim to the largest economy in East Asia and despite it’s economic headwinds (the 90s were considered Japan’s “lost decade”) few anticipated the quickness with which China would overtake it. For perspective, in 1990 when Japan was considered the chief economic rival of the US, its GDP was $3.018 trillion compared to China’s $355 billion it’s growth rate was for that year was 5.57% compared with China’s 3.8%. Japan’s economic performance was so strong that it captured the fear and imagination of the American public, with popular books and films depicting a Japanese takeover of American businesses. But after 1990 events took a dramatic turn in East Asia; China (and to a lesser extent S. Korea) has overtaken Japan in GDP every year since:

gdp growth e asia

Presiding over this record-breaking growth has been a series of modernizing figures in the Communist Party of China starting with President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji. Their role in directing China’s State Capitalist model cannot be understated, with their successors Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao largely following the same path. With the exception of a brief period of slower growth in 2012 the Chinese economy has looked unstoppable, but this has not stymied the internal debate about the future of China’s economy. Lost in the controversy over Bo Xilai’s role in the murder of Neil Heywood was a vigorous debate about the direction of China’s economy. Bo’s governance of the Chongqing Province was seen as a good model by observers in China and abroad. The model was characterized by its high levels of foreign investment as well as large state-sponsored projects, and succeeded in producing levels of growth that beat the national average while he was premier there. Due to his dramatic downfall, his ideas will have to be debated by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, who will formally be declared President and Premier of China March this year. They will preside over not only the largest economy in East Asia, but also the largest military as well:

military spending 1990 2011

(you should really get this if you want to know more about global military spending) The Senkaku/Diaoyu Island dispute comes at a time of unprecedented disparity in military spending between the two countries, unfortunately it is being coupled with unprecedented nationalism on both sides. What is particularly worrying is how lightly both sides seem to be taking the risks of escalation, especially considering the US declaring itself treaty-bound to defend Japan’s control over the Senkakus. One can only hope that the negative externalities that are at stake will compel both sides to deescalate the dispute. This is important not only because of the risks of conflict, but because of the urgent need for cooperation among the three East Asian powers. North Korea’s nuclear test just last week and it’s threat to conduct more is perhaps the best current example of this need. The world’s most important economic region needs pragmatic leadership now more than ever, it is truly disappointing to see nationalism cloud what was otherwise considered such a promising future for the region.


In all of the examples of political transition I have mentioned here there seem to be forces that both promote the status quo as well as forces agitating for change. In this blog I focused on the forces agitating for change, in part because I find this more compelling. You might have noticed that there were many notable omissions from this blog, I certainly do not wish to underestimate the importance of these political transitions. From Myanmar’s democratic reforms to Enrique Peña Nieto returning Mexico’s presidency to the PRI are just as important to the future as Japan’s recent elections. I will not, however, apologize for omitting the recent election in the United States. Due to my own interest/connection to US politics, I followed the election very closely. If you did not and would enjoy some analysis, I suggest you look somewhere else for relevant coverage: here are a few of my personal favorites.

Ethnic and religious minorities in the Arab world have long fascinated me. The Middle East is home to a variety of ethnic and religious communities with ancient origins; in the village Maaloula in Syria the last remaining speakers of Western Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus) reside. While the community that lives in Maaloula is tiny (2,000 people live there) the region contains many larger groups. This can complicate nation-building and has led to some hilariously complicated political alliances. When I visited the region in 2010, I was particularly amazed at the concentration of groups into enclaves.

I took this picture in Gemmayze district in Beirut. The circular sticker with a tree in the center is actually the symbol of the Lebanese Forces, a militia-come-political party that represents Maronite Christians in Lebanon. A short taxi ride to the south of Beirut, near the Shatila refugee camp you find very different political signs along with different demographics:

In the 2006 war with Israel this area was bombed; most of the people here belong to Shi’a Islam and support either Hezbollah or Amal, whose late founder Musa al-Sadr is pictured here. Lebanon is not the only country with a unique mixture of communities, as the recent hotspots of the Arab Spring demonstrate: minorities play a big role in the outcome of the Arab Spring.

I was thrilled to add Syria to my trip after I arrived in Beirut. Many things distinguish Syria from the other countries in the region; the country’s diversity is just one of them. Syria has been in three declared wars with Israel (1948, 1967, 1973) and numerous other conflicts indirectly. Since 1971 the country has been ruled by the Assad family, first under Hafez al-Assad and currently under Bashar al-Assad. Both Bashar and his father belong to the Alawite sect: a branch of the twelver-school of Shi’a Islam.

Before going deeper into the details of this faith I would like to explain the connection the Alawites have with the Assad regime. At the time of independence from France (1946) the Alawites were marginally represented in Syrian society; most of them lived in the mountainous area east of  Syria’s coast, near Latakia. Young Alawi men began to join the military in large numbers, particularly the Air Force after Syria’s unsuccessful war with Israel in 1948. One of those men was Hafez al-Assad, who would become commander of the Syrian Air Force after a coup by the Ba’athist party in 1963. In 1966 the Ba’athist Party had an internal coup and by 1971 Hafez Assad would become the leader of an authoritarian Syrian state. The role of Syrian Alawites has been transformed since then.

In many ways the Alawi people of Syria face a similar dynamic that the Sunni Arabs of Iraq under Saddam Hussein; both groups received benefits from the state via association. Syria’s economy, like many Arab countries, is dominated by the state; about 30% of the total workforce in Syria works in the public sector. Alawites frequently direct important businesses, from private cellular companies to the real estate firms. Sadly, the darker side of this sectarian connection has been illuminated by the recent uprising in Syria: the state’s feared Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-Jawiyya (Mukhabarat for short) is controlled by the Air Force, and is currently directed by Jamil Hassan, an Alawite. The Syrian military has also increasingly relied on its 4th armored division to carry out attacks on rebels. This division is commanded by Bashar’s younger brother Maher al-Assad and is almost entirely comprised of Alawi soldiers. While the state controls this division directly, many of the gruesome atrocities recently carried out were done by militias mostly drawn from Alawite population called the Shabiha (ghost), ostensibly with support from the state.

It isn’t my intention to portray the Alawites as an evil sect, or to conflate the actions of the regime with the larger community. With that said, Alawites face a future that is complicated by demographics and a unique relationship with the regime in Syria; they are hardly alone:

(note: I used statistics from the US Dept. of State in part because exact percentages for each community are often disputed by different sources while the DoS estimates are at least internally consistent)

The truth is, more than a third of Syria’s population faces an uncertain future that could be reshaped by democracy; a fact not lost on the regime. I hold the not-uncommon opinion that Assad uses the threat of sectarian conflict to raise the stakes for minority communities in Syria. I think the regime hired Alawites to carry out the massacre in Houla with the expectation that it would provoke a sectarian response by Sunni Arabs. Assad might have gotten his wish at the start of the month when footage was released of Syrian rebels executing four prisoners, allegedly members of the Shabiha based in Aleppo. But the people killed in the video were not from the Alawi sect, they reported to be Sunni Arabs from the Al-Berri clan. Whether or not the opposition is currently engaged in sectarian conflict, there are deep issues about the fate of the Alawi population in Syria once the regime collapses. Some distrust of the sect seems inevitable: the Alawi connection to the Assad regime is complicated by the secretive nature of the group, which keeps certain aspects of the faith secret.

While the Alawi have a connection to the regime poses the primary challenge to the group’s future in Syria, the Druze there face a mainly religious one. While the Alawi have a secretive past, the sect underwent a so-called “Sunnification” under Hafez Assad; this helped bring the Alawi into the mainstream and settle tensions between the Sunni majority and the small sect. The same did not happen for the Druze, whose faith is still considered by most Muslims to be a separate religion from Islam, many Muslim scholars go so far as to call it a cult. Even more so than the Alawi, the Druze keep large portions of the faith a secret and it is alleged that male believers are forbidden from learning certain principles of the faith until they are 40 years old.

In addition to the doctrinal differences that separate Syria’s Druze (about 3% of the population) there is a history of regionalism, and even brief autonomy for them during the French Mandate of Syria:

As pictured, the historic center of the Syrian Druze community has been near the mountain Jabal al-Druze. Most of this resides in the modern governate of as-Suwayda, which retains a Druze majority. While many Druze reside in this area, they can also be found in Syria’s major urban centers, Aleppo and Damascus. Despite the history of autonomy in Jabal al-Druze, Druze in Syria and in neighboring countries are known for their loyalty to the nations they live in.  While the Druze of Syria have tried to avoid taking sides in the recent conflict, recent violence has drawn them in at times.

While they remain silent, the Druze living in Lebanon to the west and in Israel to the southwest have become vocal and divided over the revolution. The influential leader of Lebanon’s Druze community, Walid Jamblatt, has endorsed the opposition and asked foreign powers to help overthrow Assad. Meanwhile the Druze living in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights have become divided, with many youth siding with the opposition. It should be noted that there are about 100,000 Druze living in de-jure Israel who are integrated into Israeli society, holding political posts and serving in the military. Eventually I think the Druze community in Syria will support the opposition, but not until a more clear shift in the balance of power emerges.

If the Syrian Druze face a future partially dictated by the actions of their community abroad, the Kurds of Syria face a future dominated by it. The Kurdish people are dispersed across the region, millions live in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Broader Kurdish relations with the governments of the area have played into local politics in Syria. In 1998 Turkey nearly went to war with Syria (then under Hafez Assad) over Assad’s alleged support for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) which was accused of terrorist acts in Turkey. Hafez Assad reversed his support for the PKK and forced its leader Abdullah Ocalan to leave  Syria; relations with Turkey improved soon after.

The biggest and best armed Kurdish group in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has recently taken control of government institutions and set up road blocks in parts of Syria’s northeast. The PYD has connections to the PKK and some have speculated that Assad is allowing the PYD to take control of the northeast in exchange for not joining the opposition. This action been condemned by some Turkish lobbyists, who see it as an opportunity for renewed violence in Turkey’s southwest. In addition to Turkey holding a position on the Kurds of Syria, Iraq’s Kurdish leaders have also become involved. The leader of Iraq’s Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, recently got Syria’s two biggest Kurdish organizations the PYD and the Kurdish National Council to share power. This has in turn inflamed tensions between Iraq’s central government and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), as there was a brief standoff between soldiers in the Iraqi Army and the KRG’s Peshmerga near the border separating Iraq and northeastern Syria. While the Syria the Kurds might not be united behind either the regime or the opposition they remain united in their demand for autonomy: by now the opposition realizes that autonomy, in some form, will be the price for Kurdish support.

The article that inspired me to write this blog (from the WSJ titled: Can Syria’s Christians Survive?) focuses on the final group I want to discuss. Christians have lived in Syria since the advent of the faith, the apostle Paul famously made his conversion there and the community of Christians has stayed there ever since.

(me at the site of Paul’s baptism in Damascus)

The largest Christian denominations in Syria are Greek (Eastern) Orthodox, Eastern Catholic, Melkite Greek Catholic, and the Oriental Syriac Orthodox Church. While different sources dispute the size of the Christian community in Syria, few sources put them under 10% of the total population. Syria has experienced a region-wide phenomenon of large-scale Christian emigration over the past 30 years.  The secular orientation of Hafez and Bashar Assad’s regimes has been popular with many of the Christians in Syria, this has led to tensions with the Sunni majority in places of fighting. In al-Qusayr (a town south of Homs) Christians took up arms and manned regime checkpoints. This provoked a violent response and the town was Christians suspected of supporting the regime were allegedly executed, with thousands later fleeing the city. With this painting a bleak picture for the future of Syria’s Christians, there are Christian leaders within the opposition. George Sabra is a Christian in the leadership of the Free Syrian Army, he argues that the regime is an ally to no faith and that the Free Syrian Army has had Christians in its ranks since the beginning. But even he admits that most Christians are afraid of the future and choose to stay out of the conflict as a result.

The fear of long-term communal violence has led some academics suggest partitioning Syria along sectarian and ethnic lines, but this solution is riddled with flaws in my opinion. Syria is a nation dominated by the two cities Damascus and Aleppo; over a quarter of all Syrians live in the metropolitan areas of these cities and most minorities have large communities there. The two cities might contain more Kurds than the north and northeastern sections of the country, where PYD and KNC fighters have been most active. The countries Druze might be concentrated near Jabal al-Druze but many reside in the two main cities. And while the Alawi have a heavy presence in the northwestern part of the country, their large communities in Aleppo and Damascus would be separated by hundreds of miles from any Alawite State. Finally, the country’s Christians are mostly concentrated in the two cities, but also have communities west of Homs mountains (in Wadi al-Nasara). Despite being 10% of Syria’s overall population, there appears to be no partition of the state that could protect them.

(from the WSJ article)

Some have responded that the sectarian tensions within Syria are so insurmountable that we should just give up and support the regime; again I see many problems with this outlook. It’s true that Christians have complained about the rebels and some refugees have gone on record saying:

The nightmare for Christians is when the revolution took an Islamist face, it is not the moderate Islam we know in Syria. We are talking about a kind of aggressive and impulsive Islam.”

This sentiment underscores legitimate grievances from the Christian minority, but it makes little sense to deduce from this statement that the murderous regime of Assad needs to be supported. The regime is responsible for the majority of the over 20,000 dead in Syria so far. The fighting has created a humanitarian crisis and given the UN and aid agencies a herculean task as more than 200,000 refugees pour into neighboring countries, according to the UN. It seems unlikely at this point that the regime could ever survive in its current state, regardless of outside influence. While Bashar’s father was able to quell an Islamist uprising in Hama in 1982 with similar brutality (killing 20,000 in the process) the world has changed since then. The Cold War has ended and despite Russia’s opposition to any direct action by the UN Security Council there is already evidence of material  support for the rebels pouring into the country.

The region’s march toward democracy does not need to come at the expense of its religious and ethnic minorities, democracy and pluralistic societies can coexist. We should not feel like we’re faced with a choice between the autocratic oppression of the past and a new populist oppression of minorities. For democracy to thrive in the Arab world, there needs to be a change in attitudes towards minorities and towards the state itself. The violent cycle of authoritarian regimes being replaced with new ones that use violence to avenge the past has to stop.  The process of finding truth and reconciliation as it has taken place in Latin America offers some guidance to this end. Until then, the alienation of minorities in the Arab world will only serve to create more enemies and continue the tragic trend of emigration by minorities.