Part 7 of “The Isolation of Israel: Peril and Opportunity”
This is part seven of Professor Paul Merkley’s series, “The Isolation of Israel: Peril and Opportunity.” Access to the previous installments can be found by clicking on the following links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.
Part One: The Shia-Sunni Divide
The Assad regime is clearly doomed. Principal figures among the military (the locus of real power since that regime came into existence in 1977) and some figures holding senior titles (redolent but empty of authority) in the civilian government (including the latest Prime Minister) have jumped ship. A gigantic humanitarian crisis is just developing.
It is much too soon to speculate on which of the motley elements among the “rebel” or “liberation” forces presently screaming for our attention might secure the recognition of the world as a new government. There is, indeed, a school of thought that expects to seeSyria become an ungovernable morass of mutually-hostile jihadistgroups, including large numbers from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq andJordan. The Stratfor organization, for instance, suggests that “once that goal [the ouster of Assad] is achieved, it is not assured that all rebel elements will accept the appointment of a new government as the end of their fight …Elements of the growing and increasingly diverse rebel movement… can be expected to sustain an insurgency that will have spillover effects in the region” (“Jihadist Presence in the Syrian Uprising,” Stratfor Global Intelligence, August 1, 2012).
It is not too soon, however, for some tentative conclusions on the significance of this collapse for Israel.
Foremost is that Israel’s most dangerous adversary among governing Arab regimes is about to collapse. Syria had been in the forefront of all of the Arab wars against Israel. After Egypt signed its Peace Treaty with Israel in 1979, Syria undertook to keep the cause of “resistance” to the “Zionist entity” alive by sponsoring a generation of Islamic-terrorist organizations– Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and an ever-changing kaleidoscope of radical Palestinian groups which have operated against Israel mainly out of Lebanon but which are now also well-established within the precincts of the Palestine Authority and Gaza. In recent decades it has been these protean non-state entities that have done the most damage to Israel’s peace of mind.
The Syrian dictators have never made a serious effort at diplomacy with Israel since Syria signed, cursing as it did so, the cease-fire agreement of 1949. Now it is too late for diplomacy. Whatever regime emerges from the present cauldron of mutually hostile political, religious and cultural elements, we can be sure that diplomacy withIsrael will not be on its announced program. And so Israel can forget about pretending to be interested in negotiations over Golan, which has been a flourishing part of Israel ever since Israel plucked it out of the desert and began planting trees and building cities and schools there.
When Syria ceases to have a government, a major source of support for the many terrorist organizations active against Israel will be withdrawn from the action. The issue of Golan, which was never as big a deal in the minds and hearts of the Syrian people as American Presidents claimed that it was, will not remain of much interest to a Syrian government or to the U.S. State Department. These considerations will make it easier for Israel to pursue its foreign policy – both the public side and the secret side.
Iran as Syria’s Best Friend: Background
For most of the period since the Islamic Republic of Iran came into existence in 1979, Syria has bragged about being its best friend. Still, a painful obstacle to the meeting of minds between Ahmadinejad and Assad lies in the fact that Syria’s official ideology – Baathism, drawn up in the 1960s and disseminated in the schools and over the media for the purpose of providing the kind of deep-thinking national philosophy that twentieth century European dictators liked to have — was proudly secular and socialist. Everything about socialism and secularism is deeply repugnant to the masters of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who see its teachings as a conspicuous example of the pagan filth left over from the days when European ideas polluted intellectual atmosphere of the Muslim world.
Nonetheless, Syria was an essential ally of Iran during Iran-Iraq war (September 1980 to August 1988). (The other Arab countries who chose to back this non-Arab Shiite theocracy in those days were Libya,Lebanon, Algeria, Sudan and Oman [www.iranprimer.usip.org].) Iranhas invested billions in the economy of Syria. There have been moments of sharp disagreement — over Lebanon, for example, where the two principals have at times funded and supported with diplomatic action and terrorism different parties; but for most of the time the secret activities of the two principals have been complementary and their objectives and their public positions have been attuned. It is generally agreed that Syria’s ability to provide life support to anti-Israel terrorists has hitherto depended on the willingness of Iran’s Shiite regime to pick up most of the cost and to provide most of the professional military equipment and training. Recently, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta summed up the present scope of Iran’s involvement in beleaguered Syria: Iran, he said, is building and training a militia to help President Bashar Assad’s regime battle the rebel fighters trying to topple him. The Iranian efforts, said Panetta, will only add to the killing going on in the country and “bolster a regime that we think ultimately is going to come down” (“Pentagon: Iran building, training militia in Syria,” AP August 14, 2012).
A significant public moment in the development of the Syria-Iran alliance was taken on February 17, 2007 when President Ahmadinejad and President Assad met in Tehran and proclaimed their alliance to combat US and Israel conspiracies against the Islamic world. Another public moment came when Iran dispatched to Syria Saeed Jalili, head of Iran’s National Security Council. “What is happening in Syria,” he said, “is not an internal issue but a conflict between the Axis of Resistance on one hand, and the regional and global enemies of this axis on the other” (www.guardian.co.uk, May 9, 20122, www.insideiran.org).
Iran’s ambitions for a leading role in world politics
In an earlier essay, I compared the game-plans of Turkey and of Iran for a restructuring of the Middle East along new and happier lines. The Turkish game-plan, I suggested, envisages return to the Ottoman Empire, the time of Turkey’s pre-eminence in Muslim world, By contrast,Iran’s plan is based not upon historical precedent but upon a vision of the future. Iran’s present leaders intend to inspire all Muslims with the vision of the perfection of human community with which Islam began. It holds out the claim that just such a perfect community has begun to be built in reality in its own theocracy — the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Iranian vision has all the features of the many twentieth century secular utopias with which we are familiar, of which Communist Russia and Communist China are the best-known types; but it draws not upon a “scientific philosophy” but upon memories of nearly fourteen centuries of struggle to make Islam the ruler of all aspects of human life. This history is little-known in our part of the world, and insofar as it is known its motivational dynamics cannot be made to fit with the models that derive from our own historical experience. It is a history of unremitting bloody warfare over issues that make no sense whatever to us but to which the masters of Iran appeal constantly for edifying examples of martyrdom in the cause of human perfection.
The Shia and Sunni divide
Iran’s strategic plan for the Middle East is grandiose. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has recently said: “Wherever a movement is Islamic, populist, and anti-American, we support it.” This plan cannot be understood unless we see it as Phase One of Iran’s strategic plan for the world – including you and me. The key to understanding this two-phase plan is found in the history of the most consequential division within the Muslim world, the Shia-Sunni divide of the mid-Seventh century. Iran’s plan calls for going back beyond the present Arab Spring, back before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago — back across all the not-so-glorious history of the Empires that succeeded the Prophet to the days that immediately followed the death of the Prophet (632 AD.)
All Muslims everywhere belong to the dar-al-Islam. In fact, Muslims do not, in the truest sense, belong to anything else. This reality explains the irrelevance of the other models of belonging which spring to our minds when we think of “citizenship”, “nationality,” “nation”, “race”. All these models of belonging Muslim theologians denigrate as qawmiya, which reflects the “evil of tribalism.” The matter was put succinctly by a grand vizier of the old Ottoman Empire: “The Fatherland of a Muslim is wherever the Holy Law of Islam prevails.” (Quoted in Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (New York: Oxford U.P. 1993), p. 136.)
When asked how future Muslims would discover the “straight path” following his death, Prophet Muhammad replied: “My community will not agree on an error.” In reality, however, a bloody war of succession broke out almost immediately upon the death of the Prophet. This initial period (which Muslims remember as that of the first Rightly Guided Caliphs) was unremittingly bloody. Three of these first four Rightly Guided Caliphs died violent deaths, two of them at the hands of fellow Muslims. Indeed, neither in that generation nor in any since has a unity of Muslim life under one undivided authority ever been achieved. In the course of the first two centuries alone the dar-al-Islam underwent four civil wars and the lives of all Muslims were made perilous by constant conflicts over dogmas and succession challenges.
Most of the Islamist–terrorist organizations that we know anything about, including al-Qaeda, derive from the Sunni side of the Muslim street. Their understanding of the past the present and the future of mankind derives from the teaching of Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949), the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the fountainhead of wisdom to the newly-elected President of Egypt, Muhammad Mursi. Al-Banna taught that it was the Jews who contrived to turn the first Muslim caliphs against each other, by establishing the Shia sect at the heart of Islam as a “fifth column.” This is the primary reason for the weakness of Muhammad’s people today. This must surely take the prize for Muslim conspiracy theories (although it is a huge and growing field.) [Tarek Fatah, The Jew is Not My Enemy (Toronto: McClelland Stewart/Signal, 2010), 32.]
The leaders of Iran would agree that the Shia-Sunni schism is “the number one threat against Islam.“ They insist that the present uprising against the government of Syria is the work of infiltrators into that happy land — puppets whose strings lead back to the government of Saudi Arabia. The latter, in turn, is the principal ally of the United Stases in an war-to-the death against rightful Islam (embodied in all Shiacommunities and guided by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.)
In light of this history, we can guess that Iran’s most recent involvement in the destiny of the people of Syria has aggravated Shia-Sunni relations, and made the hope of national unity more distant than ever to the Syrian people.
Implications for Israel
Israel has no reasons to favor one side or the other in this ancient toxic feud. It is a serious mistake to imagine that we can untangle this hatred and find grounds for preferring one side against the either. It is irrational — it is Hatfields and McCoys going on for 1600 years. So long as Shiiteshate Sunnis (and vice-versa) Iran will never be able to impose its will upon a government of Syria.
But Israel knows that the one theme that has the possibility of allowing temporary cooperation among the various mutually-hostile camps is hatred of Jews and of Israel. As the Arab Spring unfolds, calls for unity of Muslims against the sons of pigs and monkeys are heard more clearly every day.
Jubin Goodarzi, “Iran and Syria,” The Iran Primer (United States Institute of Peace) http://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/iran-and-syria
“Iran aims to strengthen ‘Axis of Resistance,’ fans flames of Syrian civil war,” [Toronto[Globe and Mail, August 8, 2012; “Iran hosts Syriaconference, West skeptical,” www.reuteers.com, August 8, 2012.
“Iran Sees Syria as Priority Issue,” www.voanews.com, August 8, 2012.
Jubin Goodarzi, “Iran and Syria,” The Iran Primer (United States Institute of Peace) http://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/iran-and-syria.