Photo: SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP/Getty Images
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
DAMASCUS, Syria — Until civil war broke out in 2011, Iman enjoyed a comfortable life in Mezze, the center of middle-class Damascus and a popular neighborhood for Syrian government employees. The 39-year-old devoted herself to her two sons, never dreaming her family could ever slip out of the comfort that, after all, was an explicit promise of President Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist state.
Today, the endless grind of war has reduced Iman’s life to a constant state of anxiety. She keeps her sons in hiding, afraid they’ll be drafted by a government hungry for conscript soldiers or simply grabbed by militiamen, who have been known to arbitrarily arrest innocent civilians and hold them for ransom or even forget them in detention. Her psychologist husband quit his practice because he made better money driving a taxi — but then the war made the roads too deadly, and now he says he hasn’t left the house in months. Iman, meanwhile, cleans houses for $3 day — not enough to buy food — and begs her casual employers to pay her utility bills.
Sitting at a café popular with government supporters and members of the security service, she spoke openly about her fears and her desperation to find a path to Europe.
“I live in fear for my sons every day, that they will be drafted or disappeared. There is no solution for this crisis,” Iman said. She placed her tongue against her front teeth and made a long, low whistle. “It will be long, long, long.”
Iman’s plight is shared by thousands of Syrians living in today’s Damascus. Their stories all point to a central quandary facing Assad: How long can his beleaguered government keep its supporters engaged in the fight, as Syria struggles with colossal human losses and economic deprivation?
Few supporters of the government are switching sides to the opposition these days, but many are simply exhausted by the immense toll exacted by the war. Half the country’s people have been pushed from their original homes. The infrastructure is creaking. Even some supporters of Assad say they feel that government-held Syria is hollowing out, running on fumes.
In private, people discuss the point at which they’ll give up. One says they would flee if the road from Damascus to the coast were permanently cut. Another says the breaking point would come if the Islamic State entered central Damascus. For the Assad government, all this worry is driving the Russian- and Iranian-backed campaign initiated last month to save Syria’s urban heartland — a narrow belt of cities stretching from Damascus to the coast — even as the hinterland slips away from the government’s grasp.
The answer to whether Assad’s forces can keep that heartland lies with Syrians like Iman, who have chosen to remain in government-controlled areas and consider themselves neither rebel sympathizers nor government boosters. Iman is a Sunni who wears a headscarf, and some of her relatives are in prison — enough to make Iman herself suspect in these days of heightened sectarianism.
“My neighbors all work for the government, and as long as we walk straight, they leave us alone,” Iman said. “Unless someone writes a report about us.”
Her gripe, however, isn’t with the state or its leaders. She had no intention of leaving until the Syrian currency collapsed, along with her husband’s livelihood.
She dreams of Germany’s free medical care, which she hopes can treat her older son’s eye problems and younger son’s asthma. But she’s terrified that before she can amass the $6,000 she thinks it would cost to smuggle her family to Europe, her sons will be swallowed up by the Syrian military. With their health problems, she’s convinced they wouldn’t survive long in uniform.
Life during wartime
Over the course of a recent 10-day visit, Damascus residents said they feel less embattled than they did a year ago, but the war is still an inescapable reality of everyday life. Every night, dozens of mortars still land in the city center, sending wounded and sometimes dead civilians to Damascus General Hospital. From the city’s still-busy cafés, clients can hear the thuds of outgoing government guns and the rolling explosions of the barrel bombs dropped on the rebel-held suburb of Daraya.
Army and militia checkpoints litter the city. In some central areas, cars are stopped and searched every two blocks. Still, rebels manage to smuggle car bombs into the city center. According to residents, explosions occur every two or three weeks, but are rarely reported in the state media.
Workplaces across the country have emptied out over the summer, as Syrians with a few thousand dollars to spare risked the trip to Europe via Turkey and a boat ride to Greece, taking advantage of a newly permissive Syrian government policy to issue passports quickly and without question.
Employees in government offices, international aid organizations, and private Syrian corporations estimated that anywhere between 20 and 50 percent of their coworkers left the country this summer.
“The government doesn’t care if people leave. It can’t stop them,” one middle-class Syrian, who has chosen so far to remain in Damascus, said of the exodus. “The war seems like it will go on forever. People see no future for their children. The only people who are staying are the ones who have it really good here or the ones who aren’t able to leave.”
Over the last year, the Syrian military has suffered a major manpower shortage, which Assad acknowledged this summer in a rare, frank public assessment of his vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, Syria’s currency tumbled to one-sixth of its prewar value, causing an economic crisis for all but the wealthiest citizens. Rebels have made steady territorial gains throughout 2015, until the recent Russian military intervention threatened to turn momentum in the government’s favor.
Yet for all the danger signs, Assad’s government tries to project confidence. It has lost key territory in the north and east, but it still controls most of the important urban centers from Damascus to the coast, where anywhere from half to 80 percent of the population lives. Members of all of Syria’s ethnic and sectarian communities, including many from the Sunni Arab majority, continue to support the government.
The government showcases its readiness at Damascus General Hospital, whose emergency room treats the capital’s civilian casualties. Despite nationwide shortages and difficulties created by Western sanctions, hospital administrator Dr. Khaled Mansour said the hospital still strives to keep six months of supplies on hand.
“We are prepared to continue serving the population even in the case of a siege,” Mansour said. It has been tough to keep sophisticated machinery like scanners working, he said, and to maintain reserves of diesel and water. Imported medicines are more expensive after the currency collapse, and many pharmaceutical factories are located in areas now under rebel control.
It’s also hard to keep doctors from emigrating. According to Mansour, rebels have kidnapped some medical professionals and forced them into service, and Syria’s well-trained doctors find it relatively easy to emigrate. About 200 out of 650 doctors left the country over the summer, Mansour said, while adding that the hospital had more than enough “spare capacity.”
The brain drain, however, is evident in the examining rooms.
“We used to have the best doctors in Syria,” one patient said wistfully. Now, he said, quality was down; during a recent medical appointment, two young doctors had consulted Google on a smartphone to decide which medicine to prescribe.
Boomtown on the coast
If Damascus can feel like a city under siege, the Syrian coast resembles a booming war economy. Millions of Syrians fled the fighting early in the war and relocated to the safer coastal cities of Tartus and Latakia. The coastal cities are considered strongholds of the Alawite minority, of which the Assads are members. But they have sizable populations of Sunnis and other groups, and tensions have grown as displaced people, mainly Sunnis, have fled to the coast from war-torn parts of the country.
The displaced have driven up rents and strained the infrastructure, but they’ve also brought money, and many have reestablished their old businesses. The Ministry of Social Affairs has created dozens of new positions to employ displaced people. Down the street, Mohammed al-Heeb, a pastry shop owner originally from Aleppo, has created 30 extra jobs for displaced people, mostly make-work positions to help families in need. Despite the charity, he’s still turning a profit.
The fight has become an integral part of daily life, directly affecting almost every family from every type of background. Throughout the coast, photographs of the war’s casualties adorn every block. Each neighborhood has a wall of martyrs, some of them featuring hundreds of dead — part of an effort to build a martyrdom culture not unlike that which sustains loyalists of Iran’s ayatollahs and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, both of which provide key support to the Syrian government.
The government avidly pursues draft dodgers and, at the same time, has made a special effort to burnish the cultural cachet of the families making sacrifices to defend Assad’s state.
The sanctification of martyrs
In the hills above Tartus, the provincial governor in early October unveiled an art fair entitled “Tartus: Mother of Martyrs.” For the exposition, the governor commissioned 30 sculptors to build marble tributes to Syria’s fallen. Most of them included literal representations of mothers, along with local motifs encouraged by the governor, like Phoenician boats and a phoenix rising from ashes.
Hundreds of war-wounded and relatives of soldiers who died in the conflict gathered in the hilltop village of Naqib for the unveiling of the statues. Parents wept as a local official read the names of the fallen — nearly 180 just from the village and its environs, an area with a population of about 80,000 people, according to the mayor.
“This is our destiny,” said Ahmed Bilal, an Alawite cleric who was circulating in a shiny white robe and chatting with the assembled families. A long line of fighters predating the establishment of modern Syria had resisted foreign invaders, he said, and gave inspiration to today’s soldiers.
“Even if we lose one-third of our young men, we will still have the rest to live,” Bilal said. “They died so that the others should have life.”
Saada Shakouf, one of the bereaved mothers, sharpened her sense of Syrian identity after her son died fighting rebel forces in March in the battle of the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. The opposition victory, which was accomplished by a coalition that included the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front as well as U.S.-backed, Free Syrian Army-linked groups, created a sense of panic in government circles. From Jisr al-Shughour, the rebels had a gateway to the coast, allowing them to directly threaten strongholds like Latakia.
Shakouf’s son, Nabil, was 23 years old when he died along with his entire unit. He had been “stop-lossed,” a procedure for extending a soldier’s service beyond his or her time of enlistment, and was in his fourth year of military service. According to his mother, Nabil and his companions were burned to death in barrels. She didn’t know if they had hidden there — or if the rebels placed them in the barrels and set them on fire as a grisly form of execution.
Government forces are fighting for a model of coexistence and tolerance that is vanishing from the Arab world, Shakouf said. She had lost her enthusiasm for the pan-Arab cause that had once been so central to Syria’s political identity.
“We used to say the Arab nation was one, and we supported the rest of the Arabs against Israel. Where are those Arabs now? They are attacking us; they are attacking other Arabs,” Shakouf said with bitterness. “We don’t believe in the Arab nation anymore.”
An official from the Ministry of Information who was monitoring the interview interjected: “You can’t say that!”
Shakouf, however, refused to back down.
“We are only Syrians,” she insisted. “Syria can protect itself alone. We don’t need anybody to help us.”
Times could get much leaner than they are now in Tartus, and families like Shakouf’s will be called upon to continue to support the fight. Strained by dwindling resources, she said, the resolve of Syrian government loyalists would only grow. She promised that her surviving daughters and 15-year-old son said they would join the military if called.
“We fought the Ottoman Turks for 400 years,” Shakouf said. “There is no way we will fall. We have been fighting five years for our existence, and we will not lose.”
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
QARDAHA, Syria — The sonic boom of a fighter jet momentarily cut short the conversations at the hilltop mausoleum of former President Hafez al-Assad. The engineer in charge of enhancements to the manicured park and shiny marble shrine to the founder of Syria’s ruling dynasty broke out into a wide grin.
“The Russians!” said one visitor.
“The plane is Russian, but I bet the pilot is Syrian!” he said with a laugh.
Syria’s coastal cities were buzzing this week with anticipation that a muscular Russian contingent would alter the momentum of a war stretching into its fifth year, giving backers of the regime a catalytic push to victory.
Qardaha is the former president’s birthplace as well as his final resting place, and it symbolizes a Syrian regime whose Baathist and Arab nationalist ideology is inextricably intertwined with the ruling Assad family.
Syria’s leadership has staked its future on preserving its prewar ruling constituency. In almost every conversation here, fighters opposed to the government were called “terrorists” rather than rebels, and the civil war that has killed more than 200,000 people and has displaced 12 million others is still called “the crisis.”
The war’s grinding toll hasn’t dampened the optimistic rhetoric of government officials and supporters, like the shrine supervisor Maan Ibrahim.
With the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin and other allies, he promised, Syria would prevail against its enemies. “War has been raging for five years,” Ibrahim said. “All these terrorists will meet their end here and now.”
Analysts have been trying all week to untangle the thicket of overlapping interests driving the Kremlin’s escalation in Syria. On the ground in the part of Syria still tightly under the control of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, however, the strategy was far clearer than would appear from the speeches and statements emanating from world capitals. Scores of interviews with regime supporters and local officials in the Alawite heartland could be summed up in a simple plan: no quarter, no compromise.
Whether it’s likely to succeed or not, the regime has persuaded its own constituents to support Assad’s blueprint, regardless of any ambivalence they might express in private.
The plain is straightforward: consolidate Damascus’s control over the axis that runs from the capital through the contested cities of Homs and Hama and to the coastal strongholds of Tartus and Latakia — an area that represents the bulk of Syria’s prewar population. Eliminate all armed rebels from that heartland, and then reconquer the economically critical city of Aleppo along with farther-flung districts that have fallen out of the government’s control.
Westerners have parsed the distinctions among the Islamic State, jihadis like the al Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, and the U.S. backed Free Syrian Army. Supporters of the regime, on the other hand, view all armed rebels as sectarian terrorists determined to wipe out or marginalize Syria’s religious minorities and therefore as equally deserving of whatever firepower Assad or his foreign allies are able to muster against them.
“The ones who accept President Assad’s amnesty can come back and be part of Syria,” said a pro-regime fighter relaxing at a cafe in the port city of Tartus. “The other traitors will stay abroad or fight until we kill them. They cannot return.”
The fighter, like many other government supporters, expressed a hope that with the new Russian engagement, the long conflict would come to an end quickly. “We’ll take back all the land in a year,” the fighter said. “After that we’ll only have to worry about sleeper cells.”
Syrian officials believe that the international tide is turning in their favor and that the question is no longer in what condition the regime will survive — but rather how long will it take for the regime to win outright.
That new confidence was on display as the governor of Tartus province received visitors in his ornately re-created Ottoman-style office, while smoking cigarettes and sipping an orange-flavored soft drink. An aide in the waiting room coyly avoided direct praise for the Russian involvement until he found an updated story on his smartphone from the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).
“It’s confirmed on SANA!” he said with excitement, and read aloud a long account of Russia’s first airstrikes.
The governor, Safwan Abu Saada, said it was only natural to feel optimistic. He had been in charge of the northern province of Idlib until a year ago, when the government’s losses forced him to move.
“Syria is like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” he said.“We welcome the help of friendly countries, working with our invitation and under international law. I’m sure I will be visiting Idlib again soon.”
Answers to the many questions about how such a major shift would come about, however, still remain unclear. Assad’s regime already has been throwing all its resources into the conflict, with generous military and financial support from Iran and Russia. The new Russian intervention — fighter planes, anti-aircraft systems, and advisors — comes after a six-month period in which the regime lost ground in Idlib province, dangerously close to towns such as Qardaha and the strategic heart of the regime, where public support runs strongest.
Latakia, the largest of the coastal cities, embodies many of the challenges to the government’s strategy. The population of the city and its suburbs has nearly doubled over the course of the conflict to around 3 million people, according to Syrian officials. Displaced people from Aleppo and other provinces have flooded into the city, straining its infrastructure but also spurring an economic boom.
Almost every block is festooned with photographs of martyrs from the military or paramilitary units. Anxiety in Latakia spiked this spring when neighboring Idlib province fell to a rebel advance of a new coalition called the Army of Conquest, spearheaded by a coalition of jihadis including al-Nusra Front, fighting alongside Free Syrian Army units.
Pushing the rebels farther away from the coast is a much higher priority for regime supporters here in the Alawite heartland than the eradication of Islamic State strongholds in places like the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor, which lies hundreds of miles inland.
An off-duty army officer, recovering from an end-of-week lunch, said that Syria’s fundamentalist enemies “would pay for every drop of blood they had spilled, and every drop of whiskey.”
But he was less sanguine than some of his peers in his assessment of the Russians. “The Russians are part of the process, with their airstrikes, but it’s a little part,” said the officer. “In the end it is Syrians who are on the ground fighting.”
Photo credit: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
The outrageous death sentences in Egypt over the weekend, and the muted reaction from Western governments, suggest that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has cemented a ruling coalition that will propel him out of a transitional phase into a long-term project of power consolidation.
Lost amid the court ruling against more than 100 defendants — which include academics and senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood, even Egypt’s sole elected civilian president, Mohamed Morsi — is the mounting evidence that Sisi has cobbled together a workable formula for ruling Egypt. This formula might be doomed in the long run, but the long run can be very far off indeed.
Today’s governing agenda in Egypt centers around three things: a crackdown on “terror” and dissent, maintaining a steady flow of cash from the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, and modest economic reforms that at a minimum give the impression of vision and positive momentum.
The government’s “war on terror” will resonate with Egyptians for quite some time. Jihadi attacks have proliferated since Morsi was deposed in July 2013; one fact sheet released by the government last year documented more than 700 people killed in the attacks. There have been dozens since, mostly targeting security forces and government facilities.
The public is repulsed by the bomb attacks on the police, army, and other government branches. Even most of the Muslim Brotherhood supporters of the deposed Morsi also condemn the insurgency and its terrorist tactics. As a unifying ideology for the Egyptian state, a war on terror might not suffice — but it will go a long way to mobilize what might be otherwise tepid support for Sisi and the military.
In prosecuting its war on terror, Egypt has lumped the Muslim Brotherhood together with the jihadi Ansar Beit al-Maqdis — equating dissent in the vernacular of political Islam with bombings and assassinations. “The Muslim Brotherhood is the parent organization of extreme ideology,” Sisi told the Washington Post in March. “They are the godfather of all terrorist organizations. They spread it all over the world.”
Perhaps Sisi is motivated by a sincere belief that the entire Islamist current is collectively responsible for the recent attacks, or perhaps he’s made a cynical calculation that the spate of violence offers an opportunity to eliminate the mainstream Islamist opposition under the cover of fighting an insurgency.
The battle against Islamists has given Sisi some legitimacy — but it isn’t what brought him to power. For that he counted on Gulf money, an initial precondition of the coup that toppled Morsi. As we’ve heard in great detail on leaked recordings from the office of Sisi’s chief of staff, the president made clear that he expected the billions to flow unabated from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies: “Man, they have money like rice,” a man who sounds like Sisi famously says in one of the leaks.
This might sound like thuggish extortion, but it’s also shrewd politics. Sisi recognizes that the Gulf can afford to underwrite Egypt, and that it’s willing to indefinitely pay $10 billion or more a year for a dependable ally in Cairo. Egypt struggles to import enough fuel and food staples to keep the country functioning and the poor quiescent; without Gulf money, the summertime power outages would likely turn into long-term blackouts and electricity rationing.
Egypt’s rulers have historically feared a “revolution of the hungry” if the circumstances decline for the nation’s many poor.
Economic reform, the last piece of the formula, is trickier. It’s become clear that Sisi’s autocratic ways and narrow, nepotistic circle of military advisors will preclude creative governance. But while significant reform is off the table, piecemeal improvements to the subsidy system could serve Sisi adequately for the medium-term. Meanwhile, theatrical flourishes like the $45-billion new capital planned for the desert outside of Cairo — a boondoggle for Emirati construction conglomerates which will probably never be built — and massive proposed public housing, irrigation, and road works projects give the impression of a nation on the move.
If even a small fraction of these projects materialize, Sisi will cement deep support in some quarters. Wealthy business owners and the small but politically influential middle class have both reliably remained in Sisi’s corner, and could benefit from infrastructure development. The military will also play a major role in any large-scale construction projects and, if shrewdly distributed, new housing or other perks could neutralize some of the few potential oases of organized political opposition, such as factory workers in the cities of the Suez Canal zone and the Nile Delta.
The medium-term stability of Sisi’s regime, however, may lead to more trouble for Egypt down the road. His repressive policies will not cure the country’s many ills, and are guaranteed to drive Egypt into even worse shape that it was when it rose up against Hosni Mubarak in January 2011. Recent events underscore Sisi’s paranoid style, punctuated over the weekend by banning soccer fan clubs known as Ultras and sentencing exiled political science professor Emad Shahin to death. As Shahin put it in a statement, the show trials are a centerpiece of Sisi’s effort “to reconstitute the security state and intimidate all opponents.”
The pattern of prosecutions fits that argument. If the government casts its net wide enough, it won’t have to worry about student union protests or critical university professors, because the majority of Egyptians will be frightened into silence.
Sisi’s paranoid style appears to be the product of a coherent view among Egypt’s fractious security services, which are showing a unity of purpose in carrying out the campaign against all political dissent. The military, police, intelligence agencies, and courts are pulling together to carry out the government’s political vision — an impressive bureaucratic achievement, but one that bodes poorly for democratic reform.
The downsides of the new dictatorship’s governing approach will be toxic for Egypt over the long haul. Securing the cooperation of a balkanized bureaucracy is not the same as controlling it: Sisi has the courts in lockstep on his side, but at the expense of their reputation. The courts have clearly abetted military rule, disbanding the elected parliament on flimsy pretexts, barring popular presidential candidates, and certifying election laws that served the military’s aims.
As a result of these machinations, no one will be able to take the judiciary seriously as a branch of government — and a future ruler, even an unelected autocrat, who wants to restore some semblance of the rule of law will face a daunting rebuilding job. The situation only deteriorated further today, with the appointment of Ahmed el-Zend as justice minister: The head of the influential “Judge’s Club” famously told a television show that judges “are masters in our homeland. Everyone else are slaves.”
The army, which paved Sisi’s path to power, remains the president’s only native constituency. But there’s no evidence to suggest that in a crisis — say, an economic collapse or a widespread popular uprising — Egypt’s generals would sacrifice their own institutional privileges to protect Sisi.
Even authoritarian rulers must play politics to retain power, pacifying the key organizations and constituencies that support them. Under the former dictator Hosni Mubarak, the military had to compete against the police, the intelligence services, and the circle of business moguls around the ruling family for its perks. Today, the military possesses unchecked power, which is likely to lead to greater corruption, unaccountability, and serial failures to accomplish the basic bread-and-butter business of the state.
This incompetence will negatively affect the very war on terror upon which Sisi is building his legitimacy. Jihadis are openly operating out of the Sinai, but according to the few independent reports that come out of the peninsula, poorly trained soldiers have employed scorched-earth tactics in retaliation, bombing towns and arresting random men while actual jihadis escape. Convicting and trying men for crimes theyprobably didn’t commit — as appeared to occur over the weekend in aballyhooed terror trial — won’t end the destabilizing domestic insurgency either.
Sisi also faces other long-term threats that are not solely of his making. These include an untenable national balance sheet, subsidies too expensive to maintain and too crucial to eliminate without massive social dislocation, growing unemployment, and inadequate water for agriculture under current usage practices.
Ultimately, any economic reform will depend on foreign pressure — a formula that didn’t work when the United States was the primary donor. Perhaps financial advisers from the United Arab Emirates will have better luck as they try to implement better practices in the ministries and government offices that will absorbed upward of $32 billion from the Gulf monarchies ever since Sisi’s coup. If those massive sums can’t buy meaningful political influence or instill sound economic practices, no amount of foreign money will.
The new regime is clearly unable to resolve these challenges, but history suggests that mismanagement can continue for a long time. Indeed, perhaps the greatest threat to Egypt is that Sisi simply muddles through. There are surely fissures within the regime, but he doesn’t need a monolithic ruling elite: He needs just enough power to stay in charge, and enough international support to ignore the outrage of Egyptians who want civil rights, political freedom, and genuine economic development.
Munir Makdah, Fatah boss of the camp and commander of the Joint Security Committee. Photo: Thanassis Cambanis
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
AIN EL HILWEH, Lebanon — The gunmen who control this tiny, cramped Palestinian refugee camp in south Lebanon are uncharacteristically eager to please. Hardened militants scurry to meetings with political rivals, and speak with newfound candor to journalists about past unsuccessful efforts to overcome a history of deadly feuds in the camp.
For decades, the coveted slot of camp boss has gone to the man able to deploy the most shooters and force Ain el Hilweh’s unruly clans and factions to fall in line. Today, however, an unlikely new order prevails: Bitter rivals have forged an unprecedented level of cooperation to police their sometimes-anarchic camp, forcing the most violent jihadists to lay low, and even turning over Palestinian suspects to the Lebanese Army, an act that just a few years ago would have been considered an unpardonable treason. Strongman Munir Makdah, a member of the Fatah movement, presides over a special council of 17 militia leaders — including some borderline jihadists — who must approve the most sensitive moves.
“It’s very important: This is the first time we’ve done anything like this,” Makdah said during a recent visit to his headquarters, nestled in Ain el Hilweh’s claustrophobic horizon of apartment blocs. “I call it the democracy of the gun. We tell our brothers when they visit that they can do the same thing in Palestine.”
Since its establishment in 1948, Ain el Hilweh has been a byword for militancy — a haven for fugitives and a bête noir (at different times) to the Lebanese government, the Israeli military, even the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
An estimated 100,000 people live in the camp, which is rimmed by walls, barbed wire, and army checkpoints. Under a convoluted agreement, Lebanese soldiers search the cars going in and out, but don’t enter the camp itself, leaving policing inside to the Palestinian factions.
The experiment underway in this camp represents a rare instance of cooperation and pragmatism in a region where fragmentation and infighting is the norm. Much more is at stake than simply the stability of an overpopulated square kilometer: There is a widespread fear that if the Islamic State, or jihadists sympathetic to the group, ever gained a foothold in Lebanon, it will be in a place like Ain el Hilweh — where residents are poor, politically disenfranchised, and ineffectively policed.
The agreement in Ain el Hilweh presents significant potential upside, too, in a region currently short of examples of political progress. The camp is home to actors who can impact flashpoints all over the region: It could contain the seeds of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza and the West Bank, while authorities everywhere might look it as a model for a successful initiative to curb jihadists.
“Syria’s war was like a storm coming to us,” Makdah said. “Everyone was worried about the camps. We reflect society.”
When it comes to security, senior Hamas officials in Ain el Hilweh amiably take orders from Makdah. At the camp’s Hamas office, a visiting Fatah official refilled the Hamas chief’s coffee cup as the Hamas official gave his unvarnished assessment of the regional security situation. “Honestly, we Palestinians are in a weak position,” said the official, Abu Ahmed Fadel.
Fadel said it took the factions much too long to learn the lesson of the crisis in the Nahr el Bared refugee camp in north Lebanon in 2007, when jihadists battled the Lebanese Army. That fight destroyed the entire camp and left 27,000 residents homeless. Ever since then, Fadel said, Lebanese leaders suggested that the Palestinians set aside their internal differences and form a united front. It took what Fadel called “the fires in Syria” to finally push the sides to agree.
“Compared to what’s happening around us, we’re a stable river,” said Khalid al-Shayeb, the Fatah deputy who’s in charge of the patrols in Ain el Hilweh and the neighboring Mieh Mieh camp. “We managed to neutralize the threats from Palestinians much more effectively than the Lebanese Army has managed to neutralize the threats from the rest of Lebanon.”
There’s no sign here of the discord that forced a bitter break between Hamas and its long-time patrons in Damascus, or the blood feud between Hamas and Fatah, or between Hamas and the more extreme religious factions like Islamic Jihad and Ansar Allah. One fear has managed to outweigh all that acrimony: the dread of an encroachment by the Islamic State, whose entry into the camp could provoke outsiders to destroy it and cost the grand old factions everything.
“People should be united because there is a threat to everybody,” said Ali Baraka, a senior Hamas official based in Beirut.
That’s not to say that the camp’s residents have entirely stayed out of the Syrian war. Some reports say that one of Makdah’s own sons snuck into Syria to join the jihadists. Makdah has figures of his own: precisely 52 Palestinians from all the camps in Lebanon, he says, have been tracked joining the Syrian jihadists.
The impact of the war is felt everywhere in Ain el Hilweh. A human flood of refugees has entered over the past several years, filling the impossibly crowded camp to its breaking point. According to Makdah, at least 20,000 newcomers moved to the camp since 2011, when war broke out in Syria. Officials have struggled to maintain the camp’s fragile water supply and say they can’t provide adequate education, housing, and health care to the camp’s residents. Until last week, Makdah said, he had turned over his offices to refugees. Now that they’ve found better dwellings, he’s moved back in.
A murder in April tested Makdah’s efforts to construct a new order in the camp. A Lebanese supporter of Hezbollah named Marwan Issa was dragged into Ain el Hilweh and murdered. According to Palestinian security officials, Issa was a member of a Hezbollah auxiliary militia called the Resistance Brigades, and his suspected killers were known arms dealers. They believe the murder was related to a weapons deal gone awry. Two suspects were quickly apprehended. Leaders of the 17 factions called an emergency meeting to vote on whether to hand them over to the Lebanese authorities.
“Usually the Islamic factions object,” said Bilal Selwan Aboul Nour, the camp security officer in charge of liaising with the Lebanese security establishment. “In this case, it was different. The victim was Lebanese. And if we didn’t cooperate, it could bring trouble on the entire camp.”
Aboul Nour immediately delivered the captives himself to the Lebanese Army barracks up the road.
A third suspect in the murder remains at large in the camp, however, illustrating the limits of this new cooperative order. That suspect is under the protection of Jund el-Sham, a jihadist faction, in the Taamir area of the camp. “We can’t use force,” Aboul Nour said. “He’s in an area outside our control.”
Hezbollah and the Lebanese government have been patient and understanding, according to the Palestinians, although Hezbollah called the killing a “stab in the back of the Lebanese resistance.”
It was the Islamic State’s infiltration of the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk in Damascus that motivated the dithering Palestinian factions to unite last summer. At the time, the already unraveling region was experiencing extra strain: The Islamic State had seized much of northern Iraq and declared a caliphate, and had seized control of some entrances to Yarmouk and assassinated Palestinian operatives, according to Baraka. Senior officials from Fatah, Hamas, and the Lebanese government quickly agreed that if the Islamic State could win followers in Yarmouk, it could easily do the same in Lebanese camps.
Since September, the Palestinian Joint Security Committee has doubled the number of camp police in Ain el Hilweh from 200 to 400. Fatah supplies the top commanders and foots 70 percent of the cost of the committee, and Hamas provides the rest. The officers are mostly familiar faces in the camp, some of them veteran fighters in their fifties. Now they wear red armbands that identify themselves as Joint Security Committee fighters. Makdah has not only brought together Fatah and Hamas, he has also convinced jihadists and secular Marxists to police the camp in joint patrols — a success that eluded generations of Arab leaders before him.
Most of the fighters still stay close to their factions: In the headquarters, Fatah old-timers cluster around the small fountain full of goldfish. Outside, Ansar Allah’s fighters — identifiable by their long Salafi-style beards — politely decline to talk to reporters. Near the hospital, the clean-shaven leftists of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine shun the uniform altogether; their unit commander, Ali Rashid, wears blue jeans and a brown leather jacket. The groups sometimes organize joint patrols, and the major checkpoints include fighters from all the factions.
It was especially difficult for secular leftists to join forces with Islamist jihadists, Rashid said.
“We agreed that we would cut off any hand that tries to mess with security in the camp,” Rashid said. “We cannot tolerate even the smallest action from any takfiri [extremist] who enters here.”
So far, he said, the extremists in the camp have obeyed the new order. They might shelter fugitives — but so long as the fugitives are in the camp they refrain from any active role in militant operations.
Makdah says the camp really needs 1,000 police officers. In March, he extended his writ to the nearby camp of Mieh Mieh. If the experiment continues to succeed, Palestinian and Lebanese security officials said they hope to spread the experiment to all the Palestinian refugee camps in the country.
Ain el Hilweh’s unique circumstances make it an unlikely template for other places: It’s a hyper-politicized area whose claustrophobic living conditions make the Gaza Strip appear positively suburban by comparison. But sudden and intense collaboration between militants of secular, Marxist, Islamist and jihadist pedigrees show just how dramatically the Syrian war has shaken the old order. And it provides a fleeting glimpse of the kind of politicking — and transcending of old divisions — that has so far escaped mainstream Palestinian politics and the revolutionary movements that fueled the Arab Spring uprisings.
Photo Credit: Mohammed Huwais / Stringer
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
By Thanassis Cambanis
BEIRUT — The war in Yemen and the breakthrough nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States have sent the already frenzied Middle East analysis machine into meltdown mode. These developments come fast on the heels of almost too many changes to keep track of: the Iraqi government’s capture of the city of Tikrit, rebel gains in northern and southern Syria, and mass-casualty terrorist attacks in Tunis and Sanaa.
This drumbeat of headlines, however, should not distract us from the larger meaning of events in the Middle East. We are witnessing a struggle for regional dominance between two loose and shifting coalitions — one roughly grouped around Saudi Arabia and one around Iran. Despite the sectarian hue of the coalitions, Sunni-Shiite enmity is not the best explanation for today’s regional war. This is a naked struggle for power: Neither of these coalitions has fixed membership or a monolithic ideology, and neither has any commitment whatsoever to the bedrock issues that would promote good governance in the region.
This is, in some ways, an updated version of the vast and bloody struggle for hegemony that shook the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s. In that era, a coalition of reactionary monarchs, led by Saudi Arabia, did battle with a coalition of Arab nationalist military dictators, led by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Just like in that past era, every single major player today is opposed to genuine reform and popular sovereignty.
Today’s ascendant regimes are all reactionary survivors — and sworn enemies — of the Arab Spring. The Iranians mercilessly crushed the Green Revolution in 2009, and have invested heavily in authoritarian partners in Iraq and Syria, paramilitary group such as Hezbollah, and non-democratic movements in Bahrain and Yemen. Iran’s leaders are theocrats, but they are savvy and pragmatic geopolitical worker bees: They have backed Sunni Islamists and Christians, while even some of their close Shiite partners — like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite, and the Zaidi Houthis in Yemen — belong to heterodox sects and don’t share their views on religious rule.
On the other side of the struggle are the Arab monarchs from the Gulf, run by the same families that brought us the Yemeni war of the 1960s. They have extended their writ through generous payoffs and occasional violence, like the Saudi-led invasion of Bahrain in 2011, which saved the minority Sunni royal family from being overrun by the island kingdom’s disenfranchised Shiite majority.
This Saudi-led alliance is Sunni-flavored, but it would be incorrect to see it as monolithically sectarian.
This Saudi-led alliance is Sunni-flavored, but it would be incorrect to see it as monolithically sectarian. Not long ago, in fact, Saudi Arabia underwrote the same Zaydis it is now bombing in Yemen. The current coalition relies for populist credibility on Egypt, whose governing class is dominated by secular, anti-Islamist military officers. It enjoys dalliances in various conflict theaters like Syria and the Palestinian territories with Muslim Brothers and jihadis. It has drawn extensively on help from the United States — and on occasion from its supposedly sworn enemy, Israel.
Perhaps the best glimpse of the Saudi-led alliance’s goals came when Kuwaiti emir Sabah al-Sabah addressed the Arab League at the end of March, in the meeting that inaugurated the war in Yemen.
“A four-year phase of chaos and instability, which some called the Arab Spring, shook our region’s security and eroded our stability,” the emir thundered. The uprisings, he said, encouraged “delusional thinking” about reshaping the region — perhaps a reference to Iran’s ambitions of regional influence, perhaps a reference to the ambitions of Arab reformers to limit the influence of the repressive states propped up by the Gulf monarchies. To the emir, the only outcome of uprisings was “a sharp setback in growth and noticeable delay in our progress and development.”
This is the crux of the regional fight underway: the old order, or a new one that would transform the balance of power — while changing little else about the way the Middle East is governed. The Saudi bloc wants to turn back the clock to the status quo ante that existed before the uprisings. The Iranian bloc wants to permanently alter the region’s balance of power. Both factions are run by opaque, secretive, repressive, and violent leaders. Neither side is interested in popular accountability, better governance, or the rights of citizens.
For all the doubts about Saudi Arabia’s capacity to craft and execute complex policy, the kingdom has cobbled together a formidable coalition. It quickly signed up most of its clients and partners for the air campaign, including Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Sudan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. The United States supported the war, despite its reservations. Of the kingdom’s close allies, only Pakistan has so far resisted pressure to join the fight.
In just the last year, we’ve seen at least two major volte-face. Riyadh helped engineer a regime change in Egypt, ushering President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power. After experimenting with quasi-democracy and a Muslim Brotherhood presidency that defied the powerful Gulf monarchies, Cairo is now governed by a military dictator who walks firmly in lockstep with Riyadh — even promising to dispatch ground troops to a war in Yemen of which he would have probably preferred to steer clear. Qatar, the unbelievably rich emirate that has long cultivated an independent foreign policy, also found itself strong-armed by Saudi Arabia and finally caved. Its emir abdicated in favor of his son, a 34-year-old political novice, and today Doha is reading from Saudi Arabia’s song sheet.
Both examples show that this is not a monolithic bloc bound by uniform ideas of authoritarian rule or Sunni supremacy. Instead, it is a messy realpolitik coalition hammered together by shared interests — and at times by bribes and blackmail. Its members don’t agree on everything: Saudi Arabia hates Russia, in part because Moscow backs Iran and Syria. Egypt loves Saudi Arabia because Riyadh keeps its economy afloat — but it also loves Russia, because it can play off military aid from Vladimir Putin against that from the United States. In public, Sisi praises the Gulf leaders — but in leaked private recordings, he dismisses them as oil bumpkins who can be bilked of their money by more dynamic Arab nations. Qatar no longer openly defies Saudi Arabia, but it still supports Muslim Brothers and jihadis in Syria to the extent it can, and in opposition to Saudi preferences.
Since Saudi Arabia’s gloves came off in Yemen,
Sunnis across the region have expressed a kind of fatalistic relief: At last someone is doing something to confront Iranian influence.
Sunnis across the region have expressed a kind of fatalistic relief: At last someone is doing something to confront Iranian influence. But Tehran has extended its influence carefully, hedging its bets by supporting multiple groups in every conflict zone and always maintaining a degree of remove — if their investments fail, it will have not lost a war in which it was a declared combatant. This blueprint has served Iran well during 30-plus years of intervention in Lebanon and Iraq, and four years of orchestrating major combat in Syria. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has entered the Yemen war directly, and therefore has no cover. It will own the civilian casualties, and inevitably — when the war has no clear and easy outcome — it will own a failure.
History is not on Riyadh’s side in this campaign. Regional wars tend not to go well for invaders; just think of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait or the last Yemen war in the 1960s. The U.S. invasion of Iraq should also offer a cautionary lesson: Many people at the time, including some Iraqis, felt that some major action was better than the status quo, that toppling Saddam Hussein would at the least get a hairy situation unstuck. They were soon disabused of that notion, as Iraq spiraled into chaos.
America should take particular care in this conflict. It has built deep alliances with Saudi Arabia, and it has been far too hesitant to reinvent its dysfunctional relationship with Egypt in the post-Mubarak era. It should act as a brake on Saudi Arabia’s outsized expectations in Yemen, and it should exact a price for any support it gives the war there. Any campaign in Yemen should strengthen, rather than undermine, counterterrorism efforts there, and the United States should share its military know-how in exchange for Saudi cooperation on the Iran deal.
Sure, it’s bizarre to see the U.S. military working with Iran to battle the Islamic State in Iraq, while working against Tehran in Yemen. It’s also refreshing. This isn’t a homily; it’s foreign policy. It’s encouraging to see the United States operating around the edges of a complex, multiparty conflict and finding ways to advance American interests. Its next challenge will be finding new ways to simultaneously pressure rivals like Iran and recalcitrant allies like Saudi Arabia.
But to a large extent, the United States is a sideshow: The main event is the regional struggle for influence between the Iran and Saudi blocs. One need only look at the two major events this spring — the Iran nuclear deal and the capture of Tikrit with the help of Tehran’s military advisors — to get a sense of who’s winning. America’s preferred side has bumbled impulsively from crisis to crisis, buying or strong-arming support and launching military adventures that are likely to produce inconclusive results. Iran’s side, meanwhile, has crafted tight state-to-state relations with Syria and its onetime enemy Iraq, and has deepened its influence in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen. Despite the theocratic dogma of Iran’s Shiite ayatollahs, the regime in Tehran has managed to position itself as the regional champion of pluralism and minorities, against a Saudi grouping whose philosophy has drifted dangerously close to the nihilism of al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Unless Saudi Arabia and its allies can learn a new, more durable style of power projection, their costly feints will only buy short-term gains. The kingdom might manage to bomb the Houthis back to their corner of Yemen, and its Syrian clients may seize some more towns and cities from Assad, but the long-term trend points in Iran’s favor.
[Originally published in The Boston Globe.]
During the presidential campaign, two issues often seemed like the only foreign policy topics in the entire world: the Middle East and China. Those are unquestionably important: The wider Middle East contains most of the world’s oil and, currently, much of its conflict; and China is the world’s manufacturing base and America’s primary lender. But there are a host of other issues that are going to demand Washington’s sustained attention over the next four years, and don’t occupy anywhere near the same amount of Americans’ attention.
You could call them the icebergs, largely hidden challenges that lie in wait for the second Obama administration. Like all of us, when it comes to priorities, the people in Washington assume that the thing that comes to mind first must be the most important. The recent crises or tensions with Afghanistan, Benghazi, and China make these feel like the whole story. But in fact they are really just a few chapters, and the ones we’re ignoring completely may actually have the most surprises in store.
If the administration wants to stay ahead of the game, here’s what it will need to spend more of its time and energy dealing with in the coming four years.
Europe’s recovery needs to be managed, and that requires global cooperation and money.
Washington and China, along with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, will have to be closely involved, and that won’t happen without American leadership. Though the European crisis has already been a front-burner problem for two years, in the United States it barely cracks the public agenda except as a rhetorical bludgeon: “That guy wants to turn America into Greece!” But Europe’s importance to the global economy, and to America, is staggering: It’s the world’s largest economic bloc, worth $17 trillion, and it’s the US’s largest trading partner. If Europe goes down, we all go down.
Climate change. No politician likes to talk about climate change. It’s depressing news. It’s become highly partisan in this country, and it has no obvious solution even for those who understand the threat. It requires discussion of all kinds of hugely complex, dull-sounding science. When we do talk about it as a political issue, it’s largely as a domestic one: saving energy, dealing with the increasing fury and frequency of storms like Hurricane Sandy, investing in new infrastructure.
In fact, climate change is a massive foreign policy issue as well. On the preventive side, any emissions reduction requires cooperation across borders—between small numbers of powerful nations, like America and China, along with massive worldwide accords like the failed Kyoto Protocol. The responses will often need to be global as well. Rising oceans and temperatures have no regard for national boundaries, and most of the world’s population lives near soon-to-be-vulnerable coastlines. Entire cities might have to move, or be rebuilt, often across
borders. Sandy could cost the American Northeast close to $100 billion when all is said and done (current damage estimates already top $50
billion). Imagine the price of climate-proofing the cities where most of the world lives—Mumbai, Shangahi, Lagos, Alexandria, and so on. Climate change, if unaddressed, could well become an American security issue, propelling unrest and failed states that will spur threats against the US.
Pakistan. Like our tendency to obsess over shark attacks rather than, say, the more significant risk of getting hit by a car, we often find our foreign policy elite preoccupied with rare, dramatic potential threats rather than actual banal ones. You’ll keep hearing about Iran, which might one day have a bomb and which emits noxious rhetoric while supporting well-documented militant groups like Hezbollah. What we really need to hear more and do more about, however, is a regional power that already has nukes (90 to 120 warheads), that is reportedly planning for battlefield bombs that are easier to misplace or steal, and that sponsors rogue terrorist groups that have been regularly killing people in Afghanistan and India for years.
That country is Pakistan. Power there is split among an unstable cast of characters: a dictatorial military, super-empowered Islamic fundamentalists, and a corrupt civilian elite. A significant portion of its huge population has been radicalized, and can easily flit across borders with Iran, Afghanistan, and India. Pakistan isn’t a potential problem; it’s a huge actual problem, a driver of war in Afghanistan, a sponsor of killers of Americans, and perennially, the only actor in the world that actively poses the threat of nuclear war. (The hot war between India and Pakistan in Kargil in 1999 was the first active conflict between two nuclear powers. It’s not talked about much, but remains a genuine nightmare scenario.) Pakistan is also a huge recipient of American aid. We need to find leverage and work to contain, restrain, and stabilize Pakistan.
Transnational crime and drugs. When it comes to violence in the world, foreign-policy thinkers tend to think first about wars, militaries, and diplomacy. But to save money and lives, it would be smarter to think about drugs. In much of the world, the resources spent and lives lost to criminal syndicates in the drug war rival the costs of traditional conflict. Narco-states in the Andes and, increasingly, Central America, make life miserable for their own inhabitants. Criminal off-the-book profits symbiotically feed international crime and terrorism. And in every region of the world, drugs provide the economic engine and financing for militias and terrorist groups; they fuel innumerable security problems, such as human trafficking, illicit weapons sales, piracy, and smuggling. Ultimately, wherever the drug business flourishes, it tends to corrode state authority, leaving vast ungoverned swaths of territory and promoting political violence and weak policing.
The United States pays a lot of attention to this problem in Afghanistan and Mexico, but it’s a drain on resources in corners of the globe that get less attention, from Southeast Asia to Africa. Washington needs to approach the international illegal drug trade like the globalized, multifaceted problem that it is, requiring international law enforcement cooperation but also smart economic solutions to change the market, including legalization.
Mexico. It feels almost painfully obvious, but it’s been a long time since a US president has prioritized our next-door neighbor. Our economies are inextricably linked. America’s supposed problem with illegal immigration is actually the organic
development of a fluid shared labor market across the US-Mexico border. Meanwhile, the distant war in Afghanistan eats up an enormous amount of resources while another conflict races on next door: Mexico’s increasingly violent drug war. Since 2006, it has claimed 50,000 lives, and the violence regularly spills over the border. Washington has collaborated piecemeal with Mexico’s government, but this is a regional conflict, involving criminal syndicates indifferent to jurisdiction. The United States needs to persuade Mexico to pursue a less violent, more sustainable strategy to counter the drug gangs, and then partner with the government there wholeheartedly.
The dangerous Internet. Cyber security might sound like a boondoogle for defense contractors looking for more money to spend on a ginned-up threat. Yet in the last year we’ve seen the real-world consequences of cyber attacks on Iran’s nuclear program, apparently orchestrated by the
United States and Israel, and an effective cyber response apparently by Iran that hobbled Saudi Arabia’s oil industry. Harvard’s Joseph Nye points out that cyber espionage and crime already pose serious transnational threats, and recent developments show how war and terrorism will spill into our online networks, potentially threatening everything from our power supply to our personal data.
The US budget. Elementary economics usually begins with the discussion of guns vs. butter: You can’t pay for everything given limited resources, so do you eat or defend yourself? For generations, America has had the luxury of not really having to choose: The economy has mostly boomed since
World War II, meaning we never had to cut anything fundamentally important. But America now faces a contracting global economy and a world in which it increasingly has to share resources with other rising powers. This is unfamiliar, and unhappy, territory: America’s next defense and foreign affairs budgets will probably be the first since the Second World War to require serious downsizing at a time when there are actual credible threats to the United States.
The Americans who reelected President Obama didn’t care that much about his foreign policy, according to polls. And, perhaps fittingly, Obama dealt with the rest of world during his first term with competence and caution rather than with flair and executive drive. His impressive focus on Al Qaeda hasn’t been mirrored so far in the rest of his national security policy, made by a team better known for its meetings than for setting clear priorities.
In the wake of a decisive reelection, Obama will have the political latitude to shape a more creative and forward-thinking foreign policy in his second term. If he does, he’ll have to work around both deeply divided legislators and a constrained budget: We simply can’t pay for everything, from land wars to cyber threats to sea walls to protected American industries. The priorities the next administration chooses—and its ability to pass any budget—will dramatically shape the kind of foreign influence America yields over the next four years.