Friday, September 18, 2015

Arab World: The crisis of Arab civilization

by Ariel Ben Solomon
Jerusalem Post
September 17, 2015

Former Pentagon official Harold Rhode says Arab Muslims often thrive when living in non-Muslim communities in the West, meaning the obstacle holding them back is not the people but the society.

Syrian and Afghan refugees struggle to stay afloat after their dinghy collapses just off the coast of Greece. (photo credit:REUTERS)

The Arab Muslim world has been going through a civilizational crisis for decades with low economic and educational performance, but the chaos in recent years has brought the region to a nadir.

The refugee crisis in Europe is evidence that the Arab world cannot deal with or contain what appears to be the collapse of the regional order.

For a region that is quick to blame the West or colonialism for its ills, it now appears that without a helping hand, the region will sink even further and bring Europe down with it.

“At bottom, we are witnessing the consequences of a civilization’s failure either to overcome or to accommodate the forces of modernity,” argued Walter Russel Mead in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend.

Historian Bernard Lewis, trying to explain this crisis more than 20 years ago in What Went Wrong? described it this way: “The proud heirs of ancient civilizations had got used to hiring Western firms to carry out tasks that their own contractors and technicians were apparently not capable of doing.

Now they found themselves inviting contractors and technicians from Korea – only recently emerged from Japanese colonial rule – to perform these same tasks.

“Following is bad enough; limping in the rear is far worse. By all the standards that matter in the modern world – economic development and job creation, literacy and educational and scientific achievement, political freedom and respect for human rights – what was once a mighty civilization has indeed fallen low.”

It was this feeling of inferiority, of having fallen from great heights, that led Arabs to a tendency to scapegoat their failures on others, explained Lewis.

Demonstrating the resort by many Arabs to conspiracy theories, a survey reported by The Washington Post on Tuesday found that 82 percent of Syrians say Islamic State is a US and foreign- made group. One in five say Islamic State is a good thing, showing that some, instead of blaming others, throw their support behind Islamists to fix the situation.

Moreover, the traditional Arab tribal modes of behavior continue to be maintained among urbanized parts of society, which has been an encumbrance to adaptation to modernity.

“Modernization and kinship systems are inimical to each other in many respects,” wrote Prof. Majid Al-Haj, from the department of sociology and anthropology at the University of Haifa in a 1995 journal article titled “Kinship and Modernization in Developing Societies: The Emergence of Instrumentalized Kinship.”

Al-Haj, the founding director of The Center for Multiculturalism and Educational Research at Haifa University, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that his article is still relevant because while on the one hand Middle Eastern countries have become more modernized materialistically, with brand-name clothes, food, and so on, “they did not bring real change in the society or culture.”

This has created a "partial modernization" in which changes at the individual level have not been reflected in the larger society.

“The sociocultural system has not changed much,” a system that contains traditional tribalism and kinship elements, he said. This culture has “prevented the democratic culture from progressing in the Middle East.”

Each sect or family group saw its mission to strive for political power or keep the power it already had gained. Instead of building a modern system of political participation, it pushed aside the educated elite in favor of a corrupt system of promoting fellow family members.

Mordechai Kedar, director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam, which is under formation, and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar- Ilan University, told the Post that the important tribal value of honor means that preventing shame becomes a common motivation for behavior instead of other more productive modes of behavior.

This leads not only to corruption within governmental institutions but also to revenge-seeking against those who are perceived to be dishonoring, he said. This cultural element, along with bitter sectarian and religious divisions, he said, are main reasons why the Arab states have failed to replicate the European nation-state model.

Harold Rhode, a senior fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute and a former adviser at the Pentagon, told the Post in an interview on Wednesday that while Islam was stopped twice at the gates of Vienna, Muslim immigrants are now taking planes and trains around the Austrian city.

Rhode, who has traveled widely in the Middle East during his career, said one of the roots behind the crisis in Middle Eastern civilization is the lack of independent and critical thinking, which he blames on Sunni culture.

The gates of independent and critical thinking (ijtihad) to determine matters of Islamic law were closed around 1,000 years ago by the Sunni leadership. This threatened the political leadership, which put an end to the practice in the 10th century, arguing that all questions had been addressed in the previous years since the advent of Islam, explained Rhode.

“All that was left was ‘analogy,’ meaning that if a new problem arose, the Sunnis had to find a similar situation in the past and apply that decision to the new problem.”

In practice, continued Rhode, “that meant the abandonment of science and non-Sunni sources of knowledge, which from then on prevented them from progressing.”

To read the entire article click here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Analysis: Syrian conflict worsens as outside states raise involvement

by Ariel Ben Solomon
Jerusalem Post
September 11, 2015

The fact that Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia are willing to escalate conflict by entering ground forces and increasing arms shipments means that Assad’s position in power is assured for the near future.

Russian troops. (photo credit:REUTERS)

A perfect storm appears to be brewing in Syria, in which Russia and Iran are reportedly increasing their support for Bashar Assad’s regime, just as Western countries contemplate increasing their involvement in the war-torn country.

The fact that Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia are willing to escalate the conflict by placing forces on the ground and increasing arms shipments means that Assad’s position in power is assured for the near future.

This is likely to remain the case so long as the West does not make any concrete effort to tip the scales in the other direction.

Despite statements from European capitals stating that they would like to join US air strikes against Islamic State, it is difficult to imagine that such an operation would directly confront the Syrian regime.

Increasing attacks against Islamic State would also aid Assad by hurting one of its enemies.

The overwhelming Sunni Middle East, supported by Gulf cash, will probably – in the long run – succeed in toppling Assad’s regime.

Russia and Iran assume that increasing their military support will not only strengthen the regime’s position during negotiations over any political settlement, but will also work to solidify Assad’s Alawite coastal enclave in the absence of one.

“Russia is upping the ante in Syria in an attempt to convince the West to reverse its stand that Assad must go,” Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.

Putin insists that the Assad regime be part of any future plans for a resolution to the Syrian conflict.

“The Russian effort is unlikely to succeed,” Landis continued, noting US President Barack Obama’s insistence that Assad step aside.

To support this policy, the US administration is supporting its Sunni allies, Turkey and the Gulf countries, which are using rebel groups to weaken the Syrian military in order to force major concessions, he said.

“By siding with the Sunni rebel forces in Syria, the US has seemingly committed itself to ushering in a Sunni ascendancy in Syria, much as it ushered in a Shiite ascendancy in Iraq in 2003,” Landis explained.

“This will mean an end to the Alawite dominated security state, something Russia and Iran vociferously insist they will not accept.”

“Get ready for more fighting and refugees,” predicted Landis.

Prof. Lawrence Rubin, a Middle East expert from the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told the Post that the refugee crisis may push Europeans to become more involved with – and perhaps more supportive of – US actions. “But the more important game will be between the US and Russia,” he said.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

‘Druse no obstacle to ISIS reaching Israel’

by Ariel Ben Solomon
Jerusalem Post
September 8, 2015


Syrian Druse in the southern Jabal al-Druse region are no obstacle to Islamic State reaching the Golan Heights, a top Israeli Druse figure told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.

Former deputy foreign minister Majallie Whbee – now a roving ambassador for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean, a forum for the region’s parliaments to come together and reach common objectives – disputed the notion expressed by Israeli Druse personalities in a Post article on Monday, that their Syrian brethren stand between Islamic State and the Israeli border.

In that article, Druse spiritual leader Sheikh Maufak Tarif said that if Islamic State were to get past Sweida province – where Jabal al-Druse is located – it would put Jordan and the Israeli border areas at risk.

Another Druse figure, Mendi Safadi, who has served as chief of staff for Deputy Regional Cooperation Minister Ayoub Kara, agreed.

“Sweida is the wall between us and Islamic state,” he said in the article. “Islamic State has to pass through Sweida in order to get to us. Israel’s interest is to strengthen the Druse in Sweida and southern Syria to prevent Islamic State from progressing on Israel’s borders.”

However, Whbee argued Tuesday that al-Qaida’s Nusra Front and Islamic State could reach the area near Israel’s border from other areas, such as Quneitra province near the Golan Heights.

He said he had told senior Israeli officials on a number of occasions that if they wanted to help Syrian Druse, they needed to give them the ability to defend themselves.

If Israel cannot give the Druse weapons directly, then it should ask the Americans or others to do that, he said.

It’s not small arms they need, but larger and heavier weapons such as artillery, he went on, adding that most Syrian Druse knew how to use most weapons, since they had served in the Syrian army.

Whbee pointed out that there are more than 600,000 Druse in Syria, and said that in order to survive the war raging there, were staying neutral and were concerned only with defending themselves.

He also complained that the Syrian regime had left the Druse largely to fend for themselves without proper weaponry. The Druse fighting against Islamist groups actually benefit the regime, he added.
To read the entire article click here.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Analysis: Russia taking advantage of West’s inaction to keep Assad in power

by Ariel Ben Solomon
Jerusalem Post
September 7, 2015

Expert tells ‘Post’: Moscow "has definitely raised the quality of equipment it is sending" to Syria.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syrian President Bashar Assad shake hands as they meet in the Kremlin. (photo credit:REUTERS)

Russia’s recent military buildup in Syria has sparked concern in Western capitals as Vladimir Putin again appears to be shrewdly calculating that the West will not significantly counter his moves.

The Russian president’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region last year was not strongly resisted by the Europeans or Americans, and the Kremlin likely expects even less resistance to its involvement a half-world away.

Russia’s efforts to maintain its Syrian ally and build inroads with Egypt and elsewhere represent its contest with the US for power and influence in the region.

US Secretary of State John Kerry told his Russian counterpart on Saturday the United States was deeply concerned about reports that Moscow was moving toward a major military build-up in Syria widely seen as aimed at bolstering President Bashar Assad.

US authorities have detected “worrisome preparatory steps,” including the transport of prefabricated housing units for hundreds of people to a Syrian airfield, which could signal that Russia is readying deployment of heavy military assets there, a senior US official told Reuters.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Moscow’s exact intentions remained unclear but that Kerry called Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to leave no doubt of the US position.

The State Department pointed to media accounts suggesting an “imminent enhanced Russian military build-up” in Syria.

However, experts told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that it is highly unlikely that Moscow will insert its army into Syria to fight for Assad’s regime.

Nikolay Kozhanov, a non-resident fellow at Carnegie Moscow Center and a visiting fellow at Chatham House London, told the Post on Sunday that recent media speculation that Russia could get more deeply involved in Syria and even fight for Assad’s regime are exaggerated.

However, he said, his talks with people in Russia and Syria reveal that Moscow “has definitely raised the quality of equipment it is sending,” adding that Russia is “raising the stakes.”

More advanced equipment, such as armored trucks and civilian drones are being sent, but Russian society and its military “have no intention to send people on the ground,” said Kozhanov. The experience fighting radical Islamic groups in the southern Russian region of Chechnya adds to the sentiment in Russia.

What they are doing is increasing the quality of equipment and adding the advisers necessary to train Syrian forces to use it.

Kozhanov suggested that it is possible that Russian aviation and special forces are active in Syria in a supporting role.

Asked if he sees a change in Russia’s Syria policy, Kozhanov replied that he does not see so much change, as more continuity in its Syria policy, which is meant to keep the regime’s stronghold in the Mediterranean coastal province of Latakia from collapsing.

Middle East Quarterly editor Prof. Efraim Karsh, a Middle East scholar at King’s College in London and Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies told the Post, “Russia has historically been extremely careful in committing ‘boots on the ground’ in Third World conflicts – as opposed to arms shipment and advisory support.”

Russia has done so only when seeing no other choice, he said.

“Hence I seriously doubt whether Russian troops will be fighting in Syria,” he added.

Yet, he continued, Putin tends to use whatever means he has to undermine Western anti-Russian measures, as he did in the Ukrainian crisis.

“And what can be better than this, having the Europeans tear each other apart over the escalating refugee crisis and forgetting all about the Ukraine.”

Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and director of the Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for Analysis of Global Security in Washington, told thePost that Russia has ambitions to be an equal partner with the US in Syria and the Middle East.

“To accomplish that, it is projecting power into Syria to protect Assad and fight ISIS, so that it becomes an ‘indispensable party’ to the final settlement.

To read the entire article click here.

Syrian Druse stand between ISIS and Israeli border, Druse sheikh warns

by Ariel Ben Solomon
Jerusalem Post
September 7, 2015

The Druse in Sweida are preparing for war and will fight if they have to, Israeli Druse spiritual leader Sheikh Maufak Tarif told the 'Post'.

An Israeli soldier sits atop a tank during an exercise in the Golan Heights, near the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria. (photo credit:REUTERS)

Israeli Druse leaders told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that the southern Syrian Druse city of Sweida serves as the last barrier separating Islamic State from Israeli territory on the Golan Heights.

If Islamic State gets past Sweida, it puts Jordan and the Israeli border areas at risk, Israeli Druse spiritual leader Sheikh Maufak Tarif told the Post.

The Druse in Sweida are preparing for war and will fight if they have to, he said.

“The situation there is not easy and Islamic State is on the east side,” he explained, adding that it seems that Islamic State is preparing to attack the city.

Asked about his meetings with Israeli officials and foreign governments regarding the Syrian Druse situation, Tarif replied that he is in contact with both Israeli and foreign officials all the time.

“It is a very stressed situation,” he added, urging the US to attack the Islamists in Syria.

Mendi Safadi, an Israeli Druse who has served as chief of staff for Deputy Regional Cooperation Minister Ayoub Kara, agreed. “Sweida is the wall between us and Islamic state,” he told the Post. “Islamic State has to pass through Sweida in order to get to us. Israel’s interest is to strengthen the Druse in Sweida and southern Syria to prevent Islamic State from progressing on Israel’s borders.”

Islamic State is sitting on the borders of Sweida and “[Syrian President Bashar] Assad has given them the green light for them to attack,” Safadi claimed, adding, “I predict in the coming weeks Islamic State will try to attack Sweida.”

Asked about the killing last week of Druse leader Sheikh Wahid Balous, Safadi said that Assad’s regime killed him because it was starting to worry about Druse opposition to the government in Sweida.

Balous opposed his compatriots serving in the Syrian army and called on them to focus only on protecting Druse areas, Safadi said. He did not want the Druse to officially take any side in the ongoing war.

From Assad’s perspective, it was as if Balous was supporting the opposition, Safadi explained. “He was the biggest threat to Assad in Sweida. More than 70 percent of Druse in southern Syria support him and he also has supporters in Israel and Lebanon.”

To read the entire article click here.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Sending Israeli gas through Turkey unlikely to improve bilateral relations, expert says

by Ariel Ben Solomon
Jerusalem Post
September 3, 2015

BESA director to ‘Post’: Turks need to diversify energy sources from Iran and Russia

Israel Navy missile ship patrols near Tamar gas field‏. (photo credit:MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

The belief that sending Israeli gas through Turkey will lead Ankara to decide to improve relations with Jerusalem “is not grounded in facts,” an Israeli expert on Turkey told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.

Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, responding to a report in an Istanbul-based paper saying that Turkey is the best route for Israeli gas to Europe, said, “Turkish-Israeli trade is currently blooming despite Turkish hostility toward the Jewish state.”

The article by Ebru Sengul appeared in the Daily Sabah pro-government newspaper.

Israel regards other alternatives, such as going through Cyprus, as too costly and hence, piping it through Turkey “would be advantageous,” Sengul wrote.

Energy companies view a pipeline passing through Turkey as the cheapest and best option to transfer Israeli gas, said Sengul.

Inbar pointed out that “while there is some merit to the argument that a pipeline via Cyprus to Turkey makes economic sense, energy is not only about money, but is a strategic commodity.

“The Turkish argument is self-serving, because they need to diversify their energy sources [away] from Iran and Russia and want to solidify Turkey’s role as an energy bridge to Europe.

“Why should Israel strengthen Turkey’s international position?” Inbar asked.

Sengul also said, “Following an Israeli confrontation with the Mavi Marmara, a Gaza-bound Turkish humanitarian flotilla, in 2010, Israel turned away from Turkey and toward Greece and Cyprus, whereupon Israeli officials said trilateral relations among them reached a peak.

“However, Israel is worried about realizing the project without first achieving normalization. Israeli authorities said they have a lot to lose, and they have to wait for now,” the article continued.

To read the entire article click here.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Egypt quietly warms relations with Syria in fight against ISIS

by Ariel Ben Solomon
Jerusalem Post
August 30, 2015

Both countries face a Sunni Islamist insurgency that includes Islamic State, and both have a common enemy in the Islamist regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.


Egypt is carefully trying to toe the line between the Shi’ite axis of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah and the opposing Sunni forces led by Saudi Arabia.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi may sympathize with fellow Arab strongman Syrian President Bashar Assad since they both face a Sunni Islamist insurgency that includes Islamic State, and both have a common enemy in the Islamist regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which is a backer of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists throughout the region.

According to a report last week in the London based Arab daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, a rapprochement between the two countries is in the works. In a separate report on Saturday in the same paper, an Egyptian diplomatic source said Egyptian security ties were not cut off with Syria.

But Sisi must balance any signs of closer relations with Tehran or Damascus with the interests of his Gulf backers, which have propped up his regime with billions of dollars since he came to power.

Sisi’s latest meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week in Moscow and reports that they intend to improve economic ties and cooperation in other areas, mean that both Egypt and Syria are turning to Russia for backing as relations with the US remain strained.

“What we want, in the first phase,” Assad said in an interview with Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV last week, is that Egypt not be a launch-pad against Syria or against others in the Arab countries.

But, in the second phase, we want Egypt to play the role of the important country that helps the other Arab countries.”

Assad added that Syria believes it stands in the same trench with the Egyptian army and its people against terrorists.

Prof. Lawrence Rubin, a Middle East expert from The Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told The Jerusalem Post that while Egypt and Saudi Arabia cooperate on many important regional issues like in Yemen and Iran, their policies do not exactly align over Syria.

“Since Sisi came to power, Egypt has prioritized fighting Islamic militants and crushing other forms of domestic dissent. This has meant that Egyptian foreign policy follows its domestic political needs,” said Rubin, author of Islam in the Balance: Ideational Threats in Arab Politics.

To read the entire article click here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Israel ‘very interested’ in strengthening relations with Kurds

by Ariel Ben Solomon
Jerusalem Post
August 25, 2015

TAU expert: Oil purchases act as quiet way of providing Israeli aid to Iraqi Kurdistan.

A KURDISH Peshmerga soldier holds a Kurdistan flag during an intensive security deployment after clashes with Islamic State militants.. (photo credit:REUTERS)

News published in the Financial Times on Sunday that Israel imports most of its oil from Iraq’s Kurdish areas came as no shock to those following the secretive Israel-Kurd relationship.

“The news is not so surprising, as it has been going on for some time,” Prof. Ofra Bengio, editor of the book Kurdish Awakening: Nation-Building in a Fragmented Homeland, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.

“The Kurds do not want problems with Baghdad or Tehran, so they prefer to stay quiet about it and not upset anybody,” said Bengio, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.

It is a “wise idea to do it this way for now,” she added, saying the Kurds preferred to get aid from Israel through a third party.

“Israel is very much interested in strengthening relations, but they [the Kurds] are hesitant, especially not wanting to make it public,” she said, going on to assert that at some point they would need to go public, perhaps after gaining stronger US support.

Bengio wrote about the issue last summer in The American Interest magazine, saying the sale of Kurdish oil to Israel via Turkey opened up new opportunities “for triangular economic relations” between them.

“It may also pave the way to improved political relations between Israel and Turkey,” she said at the time.

Semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan is landlocked and depends on Turkey to expert its oil, she noted, and Turkish-Israeli economic relations continue apace despite political differences.

Asked if it was possible that Turkey or the Kurds might not know that Israel was the final destination of the oil since it could pass through a number of intermediaries first, Bengio responded: “Turkey for sure knows about this and welcomes it, since it wants the oil to continue to flow.”

Likewise for the Kurds, she continued, acknowledging that at least publicly, Kurdish officials reject this.

US oil refineries have also been receiving oil from Iraqi Kurdistan, which is locked in a bitter struggle with the central government in Baghdad, which says the sales are illegal.

An oil tanker from Kurdistan that was blocked for months from unloading in Texas due to a legal challenge by Baghdad sailed back to the Mediterranean and delivered its cargo to Israel earlier this year, according to trading sources and ship-tracking data. Several tankers that have carried Iraqi-Kurdish crude from Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan have unloaded at Israeli ports, according to ship-tracking data and industry sources.

Bengio pointed out that the Kurdish religious affairs ministry recently made an unusual move by including a Jewish representative in its work, adding that the timing was interesting.

Asked about the Kurds’ views on the Obama administration, Bengio said they favored Republicans, believing the party would help them. She added that they also considered the recent nuclear agreement with Iran to be dangerous.

Ari Aram, editor of the website, told the Post on Monday that the Kurds were happy to sell their oil because Baghdad had placed restrictions on their oil sales, and few wanted to buy the product.

Baghdad is also cutting the funding it sends to the Kurdish region, Aram said, even as its militia is battling Islamic State.

To read the entire article click here.