Iran’s Vietnam?

Posted May 14th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


[Published in Foreign Policy.]

ARSAL, Lebanon — For more than a year, leaders in Lebanon have anxiously eyed the murderous civil war in Syria, wondering whether it would leap across the border and engulf the small, fractious country. And yet, it is Lebanon that now has jumped decisively into the fray, with Hezbollah’s help apparently crucial to the Syrian regime’s strategy and survival.

Uniformed Hezbollah fighters openly patrol the northern reaches of Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, fighting on either side of the increasingly porous border with Syria. Rocket and mortar teams target Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters a few miles away, and Lebanese Hezbollah infantry fighters crisscross the “Shiite villages” surrounding the city of Qusayr just across the border in Syria, which now forms one of the pivot points of the conflict.

The fighting around Qusayr has brought into the open the parlor game over whether Iran and Hezbollah are active combatants in Syria’s war. In an April 30 speech, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah hinted at greater involvement from the Lebanese paramilitary group in Syria, warning that the regime had “real friends” who would prevent Syria from “fall[ing] into the hands” of the United States and Israel.

The thunder of artillery fire in the mountains flanking the Beqaa Valley, like the spate of no-longer-hidden Hezbollah funerals, make clear that Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors have crossed a Rubicon. They are now fully vested factions in the Syrian civil war, and they’re committed to an open and escalating fight.

Not 20 miles from Hezbollah’s position as the crow flies, FSA fighters flee across the border to the Sunni village of Arsal, nestled north in the Beqaa Valley in the mountains separating Lebanon and Syria. They make no distinction between the Syrian army, Hezbollah, and Iran — because, they say, they get shot at by all three.

“We could have common interests with Hezbollah, but they’re attacking us. Now there are grudges, which we will have to settle after the war,” said Shehadeh Ahmed Sheikh, 24, a self-described mortar man in the FSA. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor of an unfinished home in Arsal. Sheikh had brought with him 16 members of his extended family after their house in Qusayr had been destroyed earlier that week; as we talked, they squatted around him in the dwelling, which they had been assigned to by Arsal’s mayor.

Like many Sunnis in the area, he referred to Hezbollah, whose name means “the Party of God” in Arabic, as Hezb al-Shaitan — “the Party of Satan.”

By supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the hilt, Hezbollah and Iran are risking their hard-won reputation as stewards of an anti-Israel and anti-U.S. alliance that transcends sect and nationality. Syrian combatants increasingly understand the war in sectarian terms: On one side there is the Sunni majority; on the other side, other sects and a small group of Sunnis that have made common cause with the Alawite regime.

Western diplomats estimate that a few thousand Hezbollah fighters are involved in the Syrian fighting. Close observers of the group, which carefully guards its operational structure, say that they mistrust any precise numbers. But if Hezbollah has sent hundreds, or even a few thousand, of its best-trained fighters to Syria, that deployment certainly represents a significant percentage of its fighting force. During its 2006 war with Israel, the highest estimate of Hezbollah fighters killed was about 700, with the group’s own official death toll closer to 300.

Sunnis are increasingly framing the conflict as a sectarian jihad. The influential Lebanese Salafi cleric Ahmad Al-Assir has set up his own militia, suggesting his fighters would be just as willing to confront Hezbollah in Lebanon as they already are to travel to Syria to fight alongside the rebels there. Supporters of the regime and Hezbollah point out that the rebellion tolerates Sunni fundamentalist extremists whereas Assad and Hezbollah rely on a time-tested alliance of minorities, including Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Shiite Muslims. The propaganda of both sides has sharpened a narrative of the Syrian conflict as a struggle between Sunni extremists and old-style authoritarians, who at least protect the minorities they exploit. Deadly identity politics have taken root, and people on both sides of the conflict see it more and more as a matter of survival. Sheikh, the young Sunni fighter, planned to return to battle as soon as he settled his family: “We cannot go back to the way things were before.”

* * *

On the eve of the uprisings just three short years ago, many Arab analysts observed half-jokingly that the most influential state in the Arab world wasn’t Arab at all — it was Iran, awash in oil revenues and ready to lavish cash on a region in the throes of an increasingly hot Sunni-Shiite cold war. Sunni monarchs and dictators fretted about a “Shiite Crescent” linking Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah. Tehran, for its part, strutted triumphantly across the Arab stage, bragging about an unstoppable “Axis of Resistance” oiled with ideological fervor and the supreme leader’s bank account.

What a difference a few uprisings can make. Today, Iran’s involvement in Syria has all the makings of a quagmire, and certainly represents the Islamic Republic’s biggest strategic setback in the region since its war with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ended in 1988. Syria’s conflict has begun to attract so much attention and resources that it threatens to end the era when Iran could nimbly outmaneuver the slow-moving American behemoth in the Middle East.

Iran — already reeling from sanctions — is spending hundreds of millions of dollars propping up Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In the murky arena of sub rosa foreign intervention, it’s impossible to keep a detailed count of the dollars, guns, and operatives the Islamic Republic has dispatched to Syria. Westerners and Arab officials who have met in recent months with Syrian government ministers say that Iranian advisers are retooling key ministries to provide copious military training, including to the newly established citizen militias in regime-controlled areas of Syria. “We back Syria,” Iranian General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan reiterated on May 5. “If there is need for training we will provide them with the training.”

In private meetings, Iranian diplomats in the region project insouciance, suggesting that the Islamic Republic can indefinitely sustain its military and financial aid to the Assad regime. To be sure, its burden today is probably bearable. But as sanctions squeeze Iran and it comes under increasing pressure over its nuclear program, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) might find the investment harder to sustain. The conflict shows no signs of ending, and as foreign aid to the rebels escalates, Iran will have to pour in more and more resources simply to maintain a stalemate. If this is Iran’s Vietnam, we’re only beginning year three.

The cost of Tehran’s support of Assad can’t entirely be measured in dollars. Iran has had to sacrifice most of its other Arab allies on the Syrian altar. As the violence worsened, Hamas gave up its home in Damascus and its warm relationship with Tehran. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government has also adopted a scolding tone toward Iran on Syria. On Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy’s first visit to Tehran, he took the opportunity to blast the “oppressive regime” in Damascus, saying it was an “ethical duty” to support the opposition.

Gone are the days when Iran held the mantle of popular resistance. Popular Arab movements, including Syria’s own rebels, now have the momentum and air of authenticity. Iran’s mullahs finally look to the Arab near-abroad as they long have appeared at home — repressive, authoritarian, and fierce defenders of the status quo.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Iran’s commitment to Assad has put the crown jewel of its assets in the Arab world, Hezbollah, in danger. Just a few years ago, a survey found that Nasrallah was the most popular leader in the Arab world. Along with other members of the “resistance axis,” Hezbollah mocked the rest of the Arab world’s political movements as toadies and collaborators, happy to submit to American-Israeli hegemony. Today, however, it has sacrificed this popular support and enraged Sunnis across the Arab world by siding with a merciless dictator.

Hezbollah used to try to cultivate allies from all sects, so that it wouldn’t seem to be pursuing a purely Shiite agenda, but it now appears in the eyes of the Arab world to have cast its lot — hook, line, and sinker — with a brutal minority regime in Syria over a popular, largely Islamist movement. A Pew survey last year found that the group’s popularity was declining in predominantly Sunni countries such as Egypt and Jordan, while Lebanese Sunnis and Christians also increasingly soured on the party.

In the border town of Hermel, usually secretive Hezbollah fighters have openly mobilized. They fight on both sides of the border, protecting a ring of Shiite villages in Syria that connect Damascus to the Alawite heartland. An untold number of Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria — so many that the movement has stopped keeping the funerals secret and has even released videos of some of the martyrs. “We bury our martyrs in the open,” Nasrallah said in his recent speech. “We are not ashamed of them.”

Hezbollah positions in Hermel were shelled on May 12, and the Sunni jihadist Nusra Front reportedly claimed responsibility. In their rhetoric, Lebanese politicians have sought to downplay the sectarian nature of the fight in Syria, and there are plenty of individuals who say they have chosen sides out of interest or ideology, rather than sect. Yet to most of its participants, the conflict has taken on an undeniably sectarian hue: an almost entirely Sunni rebellion, against a regime supported by the majority of Syria’s other sects.

“There’s no difference between Hezbollah, the army, and the Syrian regime,” scoffed Mustafa Ezzedine, a driver in Arsal who was recently dragged into the conflict as a literal hostage, kidnapped because he was a Sunni Muslim by a Shiite clan that wanted one of its own kidnapped members released. It doesn’t matter that among his guests at a recent, lazy hashish-fueled afternoon tea was a member of that same rival clan: sectarian politics have little regard for personal views. For residents of the Beqaa Valley, the war in Syria has already drifted across the border, and they fear it could get worse quickly.

The regional stakes are high as well. On at least one occasion, the Syrian conflict has cost an Iranian military commander his life. In mid-February, a shadowy IRGC officer responsible for overseeing Iranian reconstruction projects in Lebanon who went by the names Hessam Khoshnevis and Hassan Shateri was killed on the road from Damascus to Beirut. Iran put out the story that Israel assassinated their man, but Western and Arab officials told me they had seen reliable intelligence reports that it was a Syrian rebel ambush.

A who’s who of Lebanese politicians paid condolences at the Iranian embassy, and Hezbollah’s number two, Naim Qassem, delivered a long tribute to the fallen IRGC offer at a memorial service in an underground theater in Beirut’s Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs. It was the latest sign that Hezbollah is willing to risk everything in supporting the Syrian dictator — and that Iran just may ask its Lebanese ally to fight to the end, or go down with the ship.

“We would be nothing without Iran!” Qassem thundered in his tribute. “Others hide the foreign funds they receive. We proudly open our hands to Iran’s gifts. What the resistance needs, they provide.”

What really drives civil wars?

Posted January 15th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Christia Fotini with a Syrian girl in a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Syria in the village of Atmeh.

Christia Fotini with a Syrian girl in a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Syria in the village of Atmeh.

[Originally published in The Boston Globe.]

WHAT IS a civil war, really?

At one level the answer is obvious: an internal fight for control of a nation. But in the bloody conflicts that split modern states, our policy makers often understand something deeper to be at work. The vengeful slaughter that has ripped apart Bosnia, Rwanda, Syria, and Yemen is most often seen as the armed eruption of ancient and complex hatreds. Afghanistan is embroiled in a nearly impenetrable melee between Pashtuns and smaller ethnic groups, according to this thinking; Iraq is split by a long-suppressed Sunni-Shia feud. The coalitions fighting these wars are seen as motivated by the deepest sort of identity politics, ideologies concerned with group survival and the essence of who we are.

This view has long shaped America’s engagement with countries enmeshed in civil war. It is also wrong, argues Fotini Christia, an up-and-coming political scientist at MIT.

In a new book, “Alliance Formation in Civil Wars,” Christia marshals in-depth studies of the recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Bosnia, along with empirical data from 53 civil conflicts, to show that in one civil war after another, the factions behave less like enraged siblings and more like clinically rational actors, switching sides and making deals in pursuit of power. They might use compelling stories about religion or ethnicity to justify their decisions, but their real motives aren’t all that different from armies squaring off in any other kind of conflict.

“The idea that today’s enemy can be the next day’s friend was very compelling to me,” Christia said in an interview. “We should not be surprised to see groups switching sides, based on how the balance of power on the ground evolves.”

How we understand civil wars matters. Most civil wars drag on until they’re resolved by a foreign power, which in this era almost always includes the United States. If she’s right, if we’re mistaken about what motivates the groups fighting in these internecine free-for-alls, we’re likely to misjudge our inevitable interventions—waiting too long, or guessing wrong about what to do.


CIVIL WARS ALWAYS have loomed large in the collective consciousness. Americans still debate theirs so vociferously that a blockbuster film about Abraham Lincoln feels topical 150 years after his death. Eastern Europe saw several years of ferocious killing in the round of civil wars that followed World War II.

Such wars have been understood as fights over differences that can’t be resolved any other way: fundamental questions of ideology, identity, creed. A disputed border can be redrawn; not so an ethnic grudge. In the last two decades, identity has become the preferred explanation for persistent conflicts around the world, from Chechnya to Armenia and Azerbaijan to cleavages between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria.

This thinking allows for a simple understanding, and conveniently limits the prospect for a solution. Any identity-based cleavage—Jew vs. Muslim, Bosnian vs. Serb, Catholic vs. Orthodox—is so profoundly personal as to be immutable. The conventional wisdom is best exemplified by a seminal 1996 paper by political scientist Chaim Kaufmann, “Possible and Impossible Solutions to Ethnic Civil Wars,” which argues that bitterly opposed populations will only stop fighting when separated from each other, preferably by a major natural barrier like a river or mountain range.

During the 1990s, this sort of ethnic determinism drove American policy toward Bosnia and Rwanda. It was popularized by Robert Kaplan’s book “Balkan Ghosts,” which was read in the Clinton White House and presented the wars in the former Yugoslavia as just the latest chapter in an insoluble, four-century ethnic feud. Like Kaufmann, Kaplan suggested that the grievances in civil wars could only be managed, never reconciled.

After 9/11, policy makers in Washington continued to view civil wars through this prism, talking about tribes and sects and ethnic groups rather than minority rights, systems of government, and resource-sharing. That view was so dominant that President Bush’s team insisted on designing Iraq’s first post-Saddam governing council with seats designated by sect and ethnicity, against the advice of Iraqis and foreign experts. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy as Iraq’s ethnic civil war peaked in 2006; things settled down only after death squads had cleansed most of Iraq’s mixed neighborhoods, turning the country into a patchwork of ethnically homogenous enclaves. Similarly, this thinking has shaped US policy in Afghanistan, where the military even sent anthropologists to help its troops understand the local culture that was considered the driving factor in the conflict.


Christia grew in up in the northern Greek city of Salonica in the 1990s, with the Bosnian war raging just over the border. “It was in our neighborhood and we discussed it vividly every night over dinner,” she says. The question of ethnicity seized her imagination: Were different peoples doomed to conflict by incompatible identities? Or were the decision-makers in civil wars working on a different calculus from their emotional followers? As a graduate student at Harvard, Christia flew to Afghanistan and tried to turn a dispassionate political scientist’s eye to the question of why warlords behave the way they do.

Christia spent years studying these warlords, the factional leaders in a civil war that broke out in the late 1970s. As a graduate student and later as a professor, she returned to Afghanistan to interview some of the nastiest war criminals in the country. She concluded that culture and identity, while important for their adherents, did not seem to factor into the motives of the warlords themselves, and specifically not in their choices of wartime allies. Despite the powerful rhetoric about ethnic alliances forged in blood, warlords repeatedly flipped and switched sides. They used the same language—about tribe, religion, or ethnicity—whether they were fighting yesterday’s foe or joining him.

If ethnicity, religion, and other markers of identity didn’t matter to warlords, Christia asked, what did? It turns out the answer was simple: power. After studying the cases of Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Iraq in intricate detail, Christia built a database of 53 conflicts to test whether her theory applied more widely. She ran regression analyses and showed that it did: Warlords adjusted their loyalties opportunistically, always angling for the best slice of the future government. It’s not quite as simple as siding with the presumed winner, she says: It’s picking the weakest likely winner, and therefore the one most likely to share power with an ally.

In this model of warlord behavior, the many factions in a civil war are less like Cain and Abel and more like the mafia families in “The Godfather” trilogy. Loyalties follow business interests, and business interests change; meanwhile, the talk about family and blood keeps the foot soldiers motivated. In Bosnia, one Muslim warlord joined forces with the Serbs after the Serbs’ horrific massacre of Muslims at Srebenica, and justified his switch by saying that the central government in Sarajevo was run by fanatics while he represented the true, moderate Islam. In case after case of intractable civil wars—Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, the former Yugoslavia—Christia found similar patterns of fluid alliances.

“The elites make the decision, and then sell it to the people who follow them with whatever narrative sticks,” Christia said. “We’re both Christians? Or we’re both minorities? Or we’re both anti-communist? Whatever sticks.”


CHRISTIA’S WORK has been received with great interest, though not all her academic colleagues agree with her conclusions. Critics say identity is more important in civil wars than she gives it credit for, and we ignore it at our peril. Roger Petersen, an expert on ethnic war and Eastern Europe who is a colleague of Christia’s at MIT and supervised her dissertation, argues that in some conflicts, identity—ethnic, religious, or ideological—is truly the most important factor. Leaders might make a pact with the devil to survive, but once a conflict heads to its conclusion, irreconcilable conflicts often end with a fight to the death. Communists and nationalists fought for total victory in Eastern Europe’s civil wars, with no regard to their fleeting coalitions of opportunity against foreign occupiers during World War II. More recently, Bosnia’s war only ended after the country had split into ethnically cleansed cantons.

Christia acknowledges that her theory needs further testing to see if it applies in every case. She is currently studying how identity politics play out at most local level in present-day Syria and Yemen.

If it holds up, though, Christia’s research has direct bearing on how we ought to view the conflict today in a nation like Syria. The teetering dictatorship is the stronghold of the minority Allawite sect in a Sunni-majority nation. And leader Bashar Assad has rallied his constituents on sectarian grounds, saying his regime offers the only protection for Syria’s minorities against an increasingly Sunni uprising. But Syria’s rebellion comprises dozens of armed factions, and Christia suggests that these militants, which run the gamut of ethnic and sectarian communities, will be swayed more by the prospect of power in a post-Assad Syria than by ethnic loyalty. That would mean the United States could win the loyalty of different fighting factions by ignoring who they are—Sunni, Kurd, secular, Armenian, Allawite—and by focusing instead on their willingness to side with America or international forces in exchange for guns, money, or promises of future political power.

For America, civil wars elsewhere in the world might seem like somebody else’s problem. But in reality we’re very likely to end up playing a role: Most civil wars don’t end without foreign intervention, and America is the lone global superpower, with huge sway at the United Nations. Christia suggests that Washington would do well to acknowledge early on that it will end up intervening in some form in any civil war that threatens a strategic interest. That doesn’t necessarily mean boots on the ground, but it means active funding of factions and shaping of the alliances that are doing the fighting. In a war like Syria’s, that means the United States has wasted precious time on the sidelines.

Despite her sustained look at the worst of human conflict, Christia says she considers herself an optimist: People spend most of their history peacefully coexisting with different groups, and only a tiny portion of the time fighting. And once civil wars do break out, the empirical evidence shows that hatreds aren’t eternal. “If identities mattered so much,” she says, “you wouldn’t see so much shifting around.”