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Iran’s religious gateway into Iraq

Iran has long sought to spread its Islamic revolution into neighboring Iraq. With Saddam and the US out and Shiites in control, Iraq’s leaders are now intent on rebuilding their country as a regional Shiite power. But first, they must pacify radical Sunni elements and unite its various Shiite sects who remain divided over various issues. Those divides, however, have opened the door for Iran’s long-awaited ascendancy in Iraq. In doing so, Iranian revolutionary Shi’ite Islam – arguably above anything else –  has become the Islamic Republic’s foremost strategy of attaining influence in Iraq.

As is the case with most religious groups, Shiites are not monolithic and there are notable ideological and political differences among them. For centuries, Iraq has historically been the premier source for Shiite ideology, much of it stemming from the southern city of Najaf. However, Saddam’s secular dictatorship systematically targeted leading Shiite clergymen, thereby forcing many into exile in neighboring Iran. That said, the return of thousands of Iraqi Shiites and clergymen – many now learned in Iranian dogma – have become a major catalyst for spreading Tehran’s religious message throughout Iraq. With their return, Iran has sought to supplant or push aside the traditional Shiite leaders from the “quietist” religious school in Najaf with revolutionary Islamic teachers who have trained and studied revolutionary Islam in Qom, Iran.

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Assad’s Military Gains and the Western-Sunni Setback in Syria

 

The Alawite regime in Syria has by and large won a series of impressive tactical victories. Fighting is not yet over, however mere mop-up operations and rebel raids remain. The war has been costly, as bloodshed has already claimed more than 10,000 lives in Syria. To that point, the existing sectarian tensions and the asymmetrical nature of the conflict, mean that Syria is likely to endure a prolonged low-level insurgency for some time. With Assad no longer clinging to power, his military successes’ highlight the regime’s overall mastery of sectarian divisions, and the premier factor for his sect’s ability to rule Syria for over four decades. Needless to say, without mastering those divisions – mainly the ethnic and religious minorities against the Sunni Arab majority – Syrian military gains and continued Alawite rule would have been impossible.

Furthermore, Assad agreed to a recent UN-brokered ceasefire after he and his advisers likely calculated that they could officially declare an end to the fighting with the upper hand, which could theoretically offer him greater leverage in post-conflict negotiations. However, those negotiations are unlikely to happen any time soon, as militants within Syria and their supporters abroad are unlikely to recognize any peace deals with Damascus in the near future. Simply, their intransigence towards negotiating will serve to show that the Assad regime is an illegitimate ruler of Syria.

Even so, immediately after the fragile agreement was being announced, Assad’s forces stormed the population centers of al-Mazareb, Khirbet Ghazale, Homs, Latame, and Saraqeb, showing once again that it is on the offensive and reaffirmed that it has the upper hand. Although the ceasefire is by and large holding, it remains unlikely that it will last in the near term, given that there still exists fighting on both sides throughout Syria and the opposition’s reluctance to re-accept Alawite rule. 

On the diplomatic front, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently warned Sunni Arab and Western states against continuing to arm Syrian rebels by saying, even if they were “armed to the teeth”, they will still lose. Russia’s warning shows that Moscow is indeed confident that Assad’s regime will stay put. But most importantly for the Kremlin, Russia has been successful, along with other powers, in deterring its Western rivals from taking more aggressive action in Syria.

At present, Assad and his army have by and large defeated the potency of Sunni militants in Syria. The current low-level insurgency does not pose an existential threat to the regime in Damascus for the near future and desperate calls for intervention are unlikely to bear fruit any time soon. In addition, after regaining greater stability within Syria, Assad’s regime will likely seek retaliation against those entities that increased their meddling in the country. Chiefly, Assad could use his sectarian allies, such as the Kurdish PKK – a new ally, the Alevis in Turkey, Hezbollah, and minority Shiites across the Middle East to punish those actors who acted against him, mainly Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

Assad’s victories have shown that the era of dictatorial rule is indeed not over and the forces which promoted the ousting of Qaddafi in Libya and Mubarak in Egypt, are losing the current battle in Syria. Moreover, those who predicted Assad’s demise soon after protests broke out over a year ago- spoke to soon. For his continued rule highlights that despite claims that the new era of the “Arab Spring” would bring sweeping democracy throughout the Middle East, sectarianism prevails.

For up to date analysis on the Syrian conflict, click here.

Sanaa Airport Attack: Saleh show of force?

Tensions are running high in Yemen’s capital city of Sanaa following an April 7 attack on its international airport  by forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. On the same day, Saleh’s fighters are alleged to have sabotaged power lines into the capital, causing blackouts throughout the city. The move on the airfield came after current President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi issued a set of decrees the previous day in which he ordered the replacement of 25 civilian and military officials left over from the Saleh regime. Of those slated to be removed from their position was Air Force Commander General Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, the half brother of the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the leader considered to be behind the assault on the airport. For his part, al-Ahmar has refused to step down from his post and is actively challenging the Hadi administration.

Reforms in the Yemen’s military and civilian structures have been deemed essential for the success of the reconciliation process in the wake of the uprising against the previous regime. However, the attempt to restructure the military comes at a point of great tension for the southern republic. Hadi has been under immense pressure since he took the role of interim-President, the lion’s share of which is directly related  to the rooting out of Saleh’s allies and relatives from the influential military system known for its corruption and strong hold on the levers of power in the state. The Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), Yemen’s central opposition bloc, have placed the reforms as a condition of their participation in the government. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators continue to come to the streets demanding the removal of Saleh loyalists from the military.

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The Mali coup d’état: The rise of a new Islamist state?

After almost a century of fighting and with little to show for, the traditionally nomadic and ethnic Tuareg people of North Africa are suddenly on the verge of accomplishing one of their premier goals- securing the territory needed to establish the state of Azawad within today’s northern Mali. The Tuaregs, who number some 1.2 million people in the region, are one of the many distinct ethnic groups who continue to shake North Africa’s geo-political future. In doing so, the Tuaregs have utilized their primary military front, the secular-nationalist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) to accomplish their military objectives. Furthermore, their latest offensive and the subsequent seizure of large swaths of territory has surprised many with the speed and firepower deployed. To that point, their latest gains are primarily due to two major developments – the fall of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya and the alliance between Islamists and Tuaregs in Mali.

Even before Mali started hitting the headlines this past week, town after town along the northern Mali-Algeria border began to fall to the Tuareg-Islamist insurgents. Moreover, some 200,000 people have been displaced in the last three months alone. To that point, Malian soldiers – mainly ethnic sub-Saharan Africans – who once had the upper hand against the formerly lightly armed Tuareg insurgents were now facing a heavily armed, reinforced, and highly motivated fighting force. Simply put, the Mali army found itself outgunned and undersupplied to fight against a determined enemy in one of the harshest environments on the planet. Since the rebellion began in January, the mounting military defeats pressed the country’s junior officers and soldiers to seek a solution. Therefore, the now disgruntled and demoralized army decided to launch their coup d’état and seized power on March 22 from the Western-backed, now deposed President. Since then, little has gone the junta’s way, as the mutineers, including their leader – US military trained Captain Sanogo – were undoubtedly surprised, not only by the international outcry against them, but also the rebel offensive in the north that has seized territory roughly the size of France in just one week.
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Israel’s Revamped Policy of Peripheral Alliances

The Jewish State will continue to secure its interests by aligning with nations beyond the greater Middle East

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu greets South Sudanese President Salva Kiir

Following the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel managed to deescalate its decades long conflict with the Arab world with an earnest effort to forge a peace process with the Palestinians with a goal to quell mutual hostility and acrimony. Over the last decade, however, the peace talks witnessed setbacks beginning in 2001, which subsequently led to an escalation in violence. Frustration with negotiations and actions taken by Israel’s leadership led to a militant campaign carried out by the PLO and other Palestinian factions, making Israel vulnerable to heightened security threats. This escalation hampered the Jewish state’s diplomatic ties, especially with its one time regional ally, Turkey. Due to the escalation and its confrontation with ongoing diplomatic challenges, Israel has responded by returning to and employing an ‘old’ foreign relation policy in a new way.

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Iraq’s rising Shia fundamentalism

As a conservative Muslim nation, Iraq, is by and large opposed to Western ideals and movements deemed contrary or heretical to Islam. One Western export, the “emo” subculture – an American-born hardcore punk music movement – is considered almost synonymous with being gay in Iraq, a label that carries severe risksin the Muslim world. While the targeting of “emos” throughout the world and especially in Iraq is not new, the intensity and brazenness with which Iraqi Shiite militias are currently eliminating them is telling of a broader development – the increasing aspirations to violently enforce an autocratic and fundamentalist Shiite state in Iraq.

Over the past few weeks, a surge in brutal extra-judicial killings of Iraqi youth suspected of being affiliated with the “emo” subculture has shocked human rights groups in the country and around the world. The withdrawal of American troops in December and overall support coming from a sympathetic Shiite government in Baghdad have facilitated an upsurge in vigilante violence against the aforementioned subculture. The security vacuum left by America’s troop withdrawal, along with an increase in religious fundamentalism, have created a climate of fear for anyone who is suspected to be involved or affiliated with the group.

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Israeli attack on Iran: Unlikely in the near term

By Ron G.

Throughout the last few months and even more so in the past few weeks, discussions of a possible Israeli strike on Iran has come to the forefront of the agenda for many politicians, security analysts, and entities with interests in the region. Despite the increased rhetoric on all sides of this issue, which has been enhanced with the coverage of a frenzied media, the reality is that the probability of such an attack against Iran likely remains low for the near term.

Iranian uranium conversion facility outside of Isfahan (AP)

The increased chatter regarding an Israeli strike  on Iran’s nuclear facilities is a direct result of decisions by both the United States and the European Union to impose sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The decision to enforce such sanctions by the aforementioned powers likely arose due to three primary factors: the understanding that negotiations with Iran surrounding its nuclear program are futile, persistent pressure from leadership within the United States’ security and political leadership, and the over-implied threats by Israel that the military option is ‘on the table’.

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The Tuareg Factor

One tribe’s cooperation with various militant groups will continue to challenge stability in some of Africa’s most vital nations

By Jay R.

Since the downfall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya early last year, weapons proliferation throughout the Middle East and North Africa is on the rise and of primary concern. It is now widely known that masses of Libyan weaponry have made their way into the hands of such militant groups as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, and Somalia’s al-Shabaab. Libyan weaponry has traveled as far as the Gaza Strip and appeared in hand of militant groups there.

Tuareg militants en route to Libya from Mali (Sahara Times)

With the recent unrest in Somalia and Nigeria, the above-mentioned groups have been deeply reported on. However, one tribe, heavily active in Africa’s Sahel desert region is operating under the radar in comparison. The Tuareg tribe, composed of 1.2 million people, is historically nomadic. They have long roamed northwest Africa, primarily through the nations of Algeria, Libya, Mali, and Niger. Today, the group has become sedentary, the result of which has seen the Tuaregs actively engage such countries, particularly the Malian government, for stakes in power sharing and wealth benefits from the country’s natural resources.

The ongoing battle for the Tuareg’s perceived rights most recently manifested in the two-year Tuareg Rebellion in Mali and Niger from 2007-2009. This rebellion was ended through a series of peace talks and amnesty allowances; however, the conflict persists to this day as the Malian government regularly takes on the Tuareg militants along the Nigerian border.

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Jos: The Window into a Nigerian Civil War

By Jay R.

The collapse of Africa’s most populous nation into civil war may hinge on the stability of one unsuspecting middle belt city

Nigeria’s Middle Belt region is where the country’s Christian south and Muslim north come to a head. This convergence of religion manifests in the capital Abuja, where the equally represented populations are generally tolerant of one another. In the nearby city of Jos whose societal make up is starkly similar to the capital, religious intolerance is brewing tension to a dangerous boiling point.

Security forces rush to intervene in sectarian clashes in Jos

Over the last twenty years, Jos has been plagued by sectarian violence which has claimed thousands of lives while displacing many others. In 2010, week-long riots resulted in the death of hundreds of locals and the destruction of churches and mosques alike. This steady campaign of attacks against places of worship has made chances of reconciling these populations a seemingly insurmountable feat. The people of Jos may not yet be cognizant of this fact, but the deteriorating security situation in the rest of Nigeria may have a far more tragic impact in a place with a deeply rooted history of intolerance.

Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north has become increasingly engulfed in a violent campaign by fundamentalist violence. On January 20, Nigeria’s second city of Kano was devastated by a wave of bombings by Boko Haram Jihadists against military, police, and government installations, killing upwards of 250 people. Continuous attacks like these, along with a previous Boko Haram warning for all Christians to leave the northern states, have incited nearly 35,000 people to flee southward thus far.

These newly created refugees, who are leaving with such panic and haste that they are not bothering to bring their most valuable of possessions with them, are making way for Jos. Positioned just outside of the Muslim north, Jos provides a convenient safe haven for Christian refugees as they journey towards the friendlier south. As many of those refugees opt to remain in Jos, they threaten to alter the delicate sectarian balance in the city, paving the way for shattering the city’s hard-won peace. Continue reading Jos: The Window into a Nigerian Civil War

Bahrain’s Community Policing Challenge

By Daniel N.

Reforming much-hated security forces are the first step in resolving the Island nation’s sectarian conflict before it deteriorates further.

As Bahrain braces for the year anniversary of the outbreak of its protest movement, worrying trends are beginning to emerge in the activity of its Shia-led activist groups. Since February 14 2011, the opposition’s modus operandi consisted of mostly civil disobedience acts aimed at drawing the world’s attention to the inequality facing the Shia majority. In past months however, activists have stepped up acts of violence, mainly aimed at security forces, whose alleged brutality has come to symbolize their oppression at the hands of the Sunni monarchy.

An opposition activist runs from riot police in Bahrain.

On January 24, opposition groups launched a campaign dubbed “the Rebel’s grip” aimed at expelling the regime’s security forces from Shia villages in the central and northern parts of the Island. The campaign comes days after a prominent Shia cleric issued a particularly scathing sermon, calling for supporters to assault any security personnel suspected of attacking female protesters.  The opposition’s rage towards security forces comes after a year of high profile incidents involving protesters’ deaths as a result of police brutality. Many of these incidents were caught on video, spread through social media and ingrained in the minds of activists.

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