January 30, 2012

Situation in Syria continues to deteriorate - ADDENDUM

خالد مشعل‎ - Khalid Mish'al
(This adds additional information to my earlier article, Situation in Syria continues to deteriorate.)

The situation in Syria has gotten so bad that the leader of the Palestinian group HAMAS is looking for a new place from which to operate. Khalid Mish'al, the leader of HAMAS, believes that Damascus no longer secure enough for the group's headquarters. HAMAS is designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. State Department.

There are concerns other than security that are driving Misha'l out of Syria. HAMAS is an Islamic organization whose goals include the elimination of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic Palestinian state in its place. As such, it is supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, the primary member of the Syrian National Council, the group heading the opposition to the secular Ba'th Party regime of President Bashar al-Asad. It is unseemly that HAMAS would be headquartered in the capital city of the state HAMAS's Islamist allies are attempting to overthrow.

It also appears that HAMAS and Misha'l have found new protectors/sponsors - the Turkish government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) is an Islamic party and a primary sponsor of the Syrian National Council.

On Erdoğan's watch, Turkish groups have attempted to run the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, with fatal consequences (see my earlier article, The MV Mavi Marmara in the Golden Horn). Turkey has chilled its relations with Israel over these incidents. The country is also moving closer to Iran, an avowed foe of Israel, and coincidentally a major financial and material supporter of HAMAS.

In his attempt to find a new home for HAMAS's headquarters, Misha'l has also visited Jordan. The mechanics of the visit are interesting. Misha'l was listed as a member of the delegation of the Crown Prince of Qatar so as not to offend the United States, a close ally of Jordan. HAMAS has not has an official presence in Jordan since it was expelled a decade ago. Although Misha'l may request a renewed presence for the group in Jordan from King 'Abdullah II, senior Jordanian officials have stated it will not happen. The relationship with Washington is far more important that any benefit that would accrue from having HAMAS in the kingdom.

Misha'l's willingness to leave Damascus for elsewhere is telling. The situation in Syria shows no signs of improving, and Syrian President Bashar al-Asad shows no willingness to step down. It will get worse before it gets better.


* HAMAS is an acronym for the Arabic words حركة المقاومة الاسلامية, harakat al-muqawamah al-islamiyah the Islamic Resistance Movement.

January 26, 2012

Situation in Syria continues to deteriorate

Meeting of the Arab League Ministerial Committee on the Situation in Syria

The situation in Syria shows no signs of improving, despite the efforts of the Arab League to mediate a solution. Of course, it would be helpful if the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Asad was interested some sort of compromise. Asad is operating under the belief that he will be able to survive this crisis and remain in power - he may be right. The Arab League, as well as many other nations including neighboring Turkey, have called for Asad to step down.

Violence continues in various parts of the country, including clashes between the Syrian armed forces and groups of soldiers who have defected from the military and formed the so-called Free Syria Army (FSA). The violence has claimed the lives of both government troops, members of the FSA, civilian protesters and innocent bystanders as well. Just this week, the secretary general of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and a Christian priest have been killed, although by whom is not clear. Of course, there are conflicting accusations - the government did it, the protesters did it....

I will give credit to the Arab League for at least trying to address the situation in Syria. Their intentions were noble, if the execution was a bit flawed. Sending a Sudanese general with the cloud of human rights violations over his head to lead an Arab League observer team to Syria was probably not the best idea. The observer team was ill-equipped to deal with the practiced deceit of the Syrian regime. Syrian forces merely withdrew temporarily where the observers were present, only to return as soon as they were gone. This is reminiscent of Iraqi actions when there were United Nations Special Commission observers in Iraq in the 1990s.

Not to be taken in by the Syrian regime, the Arab League did release a scathing critique of the Bashar al-Asad government and proposed a plan whereby the president would step down and transfer power to Vice President Faruq al-Shara'. I almost laughed when I read this - Shara' is hardly the leader to guide Syria out of this morass. Shara' is a Sunni from the Dara' area of southern Syria and made his way up the Party ranks via Syrian Arab Airlines (now Syrianair). He rose through the ranks by being a threat to no one. He's a pleasant man for sure, but hardly of the gravitas required for this job.

US Embassy - Abu Rumanah, Damascus
My office was behind the wall to the right of the white van

As the situation deteriorates, and it is, despite protestations from Asad supporters, the United States is contemplating closing the embassy in Damascus, citing danger to life and property of American diplomats and staff.

The threat to the embassy is real. The chancery is not one of the new fortress-style embassies such as the one in neighboring Jordan. The Damascus embassy is housed in two large, old houses that have been joined and modified, but not the standards that would prevent a successful attack. In fact, the embassy has been attacked several times over the last few years. I was posted to this embassy for over two years - make no mistake about this, when there is an attack or demonstration against the American embassy in Damascus, the Syrian government has either organized or approved it.

Having served at the embassy and living in Damascus, I understand the security issue. There are consequences of not having a diplomatic presence in Syria. It is not so much about the diplomacy, but the ability to have American eyes and ears on the ground in an area of concern. Okay, that might also mean an intelligence capability that is critical to our understanding of the situation. If you look at the areas in which we have had military confrontations, it is in those countries in which we have not had Americans - diplomats and military attaches - there to observe and report.

The situation has gotten so bad the many Arab League members have withdrawn from the mission in Syria, faulting the Asad regime for not halting the attacks on its citizens. Instead, the League has appealed to the United Nations Security Council to intervene. The Secretary General of the Arab League will also ask the UN to support its plan by which Asad steps down and a transition unity government is established. The Syrians, true to form, rejected the Arab League's "meddling in Syrian internal affairs."

What will happen in the United Nations? Is there the possibility of a Libyan-style military intervention in Syria? It's not likely - Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power, is a staunch supporter and apologist for the Syrians. The United States, also a permanent member, is not anxious to involve itself in yet another military operation in the region, despite its new-found strategy of "leading from behind." Syria is not Libya - it has a much a more capable air defense system and air force, and the population is spread out over much of the country rather than being concentrated in a narrow strip along the Mediterranean coast.

The regional powers, including Turkey, are not likely to intervene. The most likely course of action may be some weak UN resolutions condemning the violence, but meaningful sanctions are highly improbable given Russian support for Damascus. In essence, the Syrian regime will continue to oppress its own population in hopes that they can stop the protests. The government does not show any signs of compromise with the protesters.

I do not assess the Syrians as capable of overthrowing the Asad regime at this time. Perhaps if there are continuing large-scale defections from the Syrian military to the opposition, there may be a chance of a change of government. I don't see that happening anytime soon.

Without assistance from outside Syria, be it from Turkey, the United States, or the European Union, there is little chance that the government will fall.

There is a major concern that argues against any American support for the opposition. The primary Syrian opposition organization is the Syrian National Council, which is little more than a front for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Thus, the quandary for the Obama Administration is - do you help remove the oppressive Ba'th regime of Bashar al-Asad and probably usher in an Islamic fundamentalist government? There is precedent: Libya, and to some extent Egypt.

January 19, 2012

Civil war in Iraq - not improbable, maybe likely

Iraqi Shi'a militiamen march on Israeli and American flags

Every day the news from Iraq reflects increasing sectarian violence - it has been virtually the same since the premature, arbitrary and precipitous withdrawal of American troops from the country. My views on that betrayal of trust is well known - see my latest on that outrage: Betrayals - Obama and the withdrawal from Iraq.

It comes as no surprise that in the absence of thousands of American forces in the country, local groups who have been constrained in the past have begun to assert themselves in their quest for power. The Shi'a-dominated groups - this includes the forces loyal to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the Iranian-backed party and militia of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and other parties wanting a piece of the political pie in Iraq - also are seeking revenge for years of being treated as third-class citizens at the hands of the Sunni-dominated Ba'th regime of Saddam Husayn.

Sunni groups, including al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI) who simply waited for the Americans to leave on schedule, have re-asserted themselves in their rejection of the Shi'a-dominated government.

It's a pretty simple analysis - the Shi'a want to marginalize any Sunni influence in the government as that government leans toward Iran; the Sunnis want to regain some of the political power they once enjoyed. The Kurds are probably the only winners in this situation, enjoying the relative safety and security of the Kurdish Autonomous Region in northern Iraq.

The Kurds are concerned, however, that al-Maliki's moves to consolidate his power as soon as American forces left have put the country at risk of a civil war. The Americans were hardly out the door when al-Maliki sought the arrest of Sunni Vice President Tariq Hashimi in what most analysts believe to be are trumped up charges as part of a power play to seize even more control of the government.

As al-Maliki tries to marginalize the Sunni-supported coalition Iraqiya party headed by former prime minister Iyad 'Alawi (himself a Shi'a), pushback from AQI and Sunni political leaders has lead to a spike in violence targeted against Shi'a areas and religious functions. The attacks are reminiscent of the 2006 attacks against Shi'a shrines that led to an outright religious civil war in the country. Iraqiya ministers boycotted the parliament in protest; the Shi'a-dominated body reacted by suspending the boycotting ministers, leading to a greater political crisis. If this tit for tat does not stop, the violence will devolve into a full-blown civil war.

The violence is disheartening to anyone who has served or has family who served in Iraq. It cheapens the sacrifice and commitment of our young men and women - who believe in what they did - to allow the Iraqis to develop a successful post-Saddam Iraq. The new reports are saddening.

Since the withdrawal of American forces - what I describe as Obama's mad dash for the exit - at least 200 people have been killed in the sectarian violence as the Sunni groups attempt to goad the Shi'a into another civil war. The Sunnis have assessed, correctly in my view, that Iraqi forces are unwilling or unable to stop the violence without American troops to back them up.

The image at the beginning of the article is illustrative of how badly two American administrations have handled our involvement in Iraq. The mere fact that Muqtada al-Sadr is still alive is a statement of failure by the Bush Administration - al-Sadr should have been killed in 2003 when we had the opportunity. The fact that the militias are now free to spew their anti-American hatred is an indictment of the Obama Administration and its failure to capitalize on the success of the surge and Anbar Awakening that broke the back of AQI and other Sunni insurgent groups.

Without American troops, it appears that a civil war is not only improbable but likely. Should it happen, there is almost nothing the United States can do about it. Thanks to President Obama's failure to secure an American presence in the country after December 31, 2011, the only way American forces can assist the Iraqi security and military organizations in keeping the peace is via an invitation from the Iraqi government.

Given the fact that the Shi'a-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki stands to gain from the disorder, there is liitle chance of that invitation happening.

We are now faced with a situation in which a country whose freedom was purchased with the effort and blood of American forces is devolving into civil war, and the Obama Administration has squandered any opportunity to influence events.

January 10, 2012

The Obama Administration and Iran - an infusion of spine?

CJCS General Dempsey, President Obama and Secretary of Defense Panetta

Has there been a sudden infusion of spine at the White House? If you believe the words of Dennis Ross, one of President Obama's key advisors on Iran, it has been there all along - I'm not so sure. Ross served on the National Security Council as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region (Middle East, Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan and South Asia).

I first met Ambassador Ross in the early/mid-1990s while I was posted as the Air Attache to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Syria. He was a frequent visitor to Damascus as then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher attempted to restart the Syria-Israel track of the Middle East Peace Process. I found him to be extremely knowledgeable on the region, although his bias towards Israel was easily discernible. The Palestinians did not regard him as an honest broker, likely because of this perceived bias.

According to Ambassador Ross, the President has "made it very clear" that he regards a nuclear-armed Iran as so great a threat to international security that "the Iranians should never think that there's a reluctance to use force...." He argues that those who believe the President would rather contain a nuclear-armed Iran than use military force to prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring nuclear weapon are wrong. The ambassador claims that the Administration considers Iran with nuclear weapons a greater threat than the fallout from American military action against Iran's nuclear facilities.

That is refreshing to hear, but I am not thoroughly convinced that this has been the President's position for any length of time.

It has taken almost three years for anyone in the Administration to actually say that the United States will not permit Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. That's because it has been the policy of the Obama White House to "engage" the Iranians in hopes that rational diplomatic discourse would deter the Iranians from continuing on their program to enrich uranium and develop a nuclear weapon. There is also no doubt that the goal of the Iranian program is the development of a nuclear weapon.

That engagement policy, in conjunction with ineffective economic sanctions, has failed miserably. It had about the same chance of success as the request to return the reconnaissance drone. While the President is of the belief that he was taking the high road and showing strength in trying to reach out to the Iranians, the Iranians, being Middle Easterners, regarded it as a sign of weakness. Combined with his sprint for the exits in Iraq and Afghanistan, the leadership in Tehran viewed his policy as one of capitulation.

It was not until late last year that a senior Administration official - Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta - said the words many of us have been waiting to hear: "The United States does not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. That's a red line for us and that's a red line, obviously, for the Israelis. If we have to do it we will deal with it. ... If they proceed and we get intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it. There are no options off the table. ... A nuclear weapon in Iran is unacceptable."

The Secretary reiterated his remarks just last week, saying, "They [the Iranians] need to know that if they take that step, they're going to get stopped." The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey followed Panetta's remarks with the acknowledgement that the Pentagon has been planning and positioning assets to be ready to take military action if ordered to do so. This should come as no surprise - this is what military planners do.

Finally, some spine from Obama Administration officials. It seems to be having the desired effect - the Iranians are finally taking notice. They appear to have come to the realization that they are dealing with a superpower.

Combined with real sanctions, those "crippling" sanctions that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has promised since 2009, these statements by senior American officials have Iran concerned. The Administration seems to have found Iran's Achilles heel - sanctions on Iran's central bank. Despite that, after the legislation imposing the sanctions passed overwhelmingly in the U.S. Congress, the President signed it only reluctantly. As Ambassador Ross said, "The latest measures are the first really affecting the core of their [Iran's] revenue, which is their sale of oil." The Administration, with the prodding of the Congress, finally gets it.

Immediately afterwards, an Iranian official threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. (See my earlier article, Iranian Navy versus the U.S. Fifth Fleet? I can imagine the reaction in Tehran when he said that - "You said what? Do you know what the American fleet will do to us if we try that?"

So what is behind the Administration's newly discovered backbone?

I would like to tell you that it was the realization that what we were doing was not working and it was time to adjust our policy to something that might. I would like to tell you that the new Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, retired Army General David Petraeus, and new Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta were able to convince the President that his policies were not working, and in fact were allowing Iran to proceed almost unhindered down the road to a nuclear weapon.

Unfortunately, I think it has more to do with the upcoming Presidential election than the realization of a failed policy. The President needs something successful and popular to run on. Appearing to be strong on the Iran issue will help, as will the by-product of that stance: perception of the President's support for Israel, whether he really favors that or not.

Whatever the reason, the American Administration is finally enacting the crippling sanctions we have been waiting for, and a senior official - the one who runs the armed forces - has made the declaration that we will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.

Spine - it's about time.

January 6, 2012

The resurrection of the caliphate?

Libyan rebel military commander 'Abd al-Hakim Balhaj,
an associate of the late al-Qa'idah leader Usamah bin Ladin

As their forefathers did over 1,300 years ago, the forces of militant Islam have swept across North Africa. Ridding the world of dictators and corrupt regimes is a good thing, but there are always unintended consequences.

In the case of those initial countries who have liberated themselves in what is known in the West as "the Arab spring" - Tunisia, Egypt and Libya - it appears that the replacement governments are going to be Islamic. They are going to be not only Islamic, but likely militant Islamist. Some of the leaders of the emerging governments seek a return to the caliphate of old.

The term caliphate derives from the Arabic khilāfah (خلافة, succession). The caliphate is primarily a Sunni Muslim construct and is the existential difference between the Sunnis and the Shi'a Muslims. The two sects evolved because of their differences over the issue of succession when Muhammad died in 632 – who would follow Muhammad as the leader of the faithful?

Many believed that the successor to Muhammad should be a family member, someone in the bloodline of the prophet. However, Muhammad had no son, so there was no male heir to assume the caliphate. Muhammad did have a daughter, Fatimah, who was married to Muhammad's cousin 'Ali bin Abu Talib. The people who favored the selection of 'Ali as the caliph were called the Shi'at 'Ali, the "partisans of 'Ali," hence the name Shi'a.

The other school of thought, held by many prominent Muslims of the day, was that the caliph should be drawn from one of the senior and learned members of the faith, the ummah or "community." These were the Sunnis, the traditionalists.

The Sunni position prevailed and the first three caliphs (Abu Bakr, 'Umar and 'Uthman) were not of Muhammad's bloodline. Finally, a convergence occurred in 656 when 'Ali (regarded by the Shi'a as the first imam) was named the fourth caliph. 'Ali was soon murdered and his son Hasan became the second Imam.

Real political power at this time rested with the Sunni caliph in Damascus. Hasan abdicated in favor of these 'Umayyad rulers. Following 'Ali, the succession took on the form of dynasties - the Umayyad, followed by the 'Abassid, the Fatimid and finally the Ottomans. The caliphate was abolished with the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1924.

In the aftermath of World War One and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East was carved up by Western powers. Regions in which Arab tribes lived were divided up. Lines were drawn on maps by people that did not live in the area. Countries that never before existed were created - Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan were established.

The Gaza Strip, West Bank and the area that is now Israel were administered by the United Kingdom under a United Nations mandate. In 1947, the United Nations voted to allow the partition of the Palestinian mandate into an Arab and Jewish state - this led to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

The creation of Israel was a watershed event in the Middle East. Many Arabs, especially the Palestinians, viewed this an attempt to assuage guilt for the actions of the Nazis, a misplaced attempt to create a homeland for the Jews at the expense of the local Arab population. I will not explore the merits of those beliefs - it is the perceptions that are important since they are the basis for Arab reaction.

Fast forward to the Yom Kippur war of 1973. When it was apparent that Israel was in danger of suffering a defeat at the hands of the Egyptian and Syrian armed forces, the United States military executed Operation Nickel Grass, the airlift/delivery of fighter aircraft, armor, artillery, munitions and other supplies to the the Jewish state. The operation turned the tide and the Israeli army soon moved to within 60 miles of Cairo on the Egyptian front, and to within less that 20 miles (well within artillery range) of Damascus on the Syrian front.

The American resupply of Israel led to a confrontation between the superpowers - the United States and the Soviet Union. Both countries put their armed forces on alert for possible intervention in the Middle East. On October 24, I remember going on alert for immediate deployment to counter Soviet moves in the region - it was the first time in 11 years, the first time since the Cuban missile crisis, that American forces went on worldwide alert.

At 11:41pm, the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered all U.S. armed forces to assume DEFCON (Defense Condition) III which meant putting nuclear-armed units on the "highest state of peacetime alert." The next step, DEFCON II would ready the nuclear triad - strategic bombers, and land and submarine-based nuclear missiles - for imminent launch. The Pentagon alerted the 82nd Airborne Division and ordered the movement of aircraft carriers toward the Eastern Mediterranean. It was a scary time - trust me. Things were happening very quickly as young men from the armed forces of two nuclear-armed powers began to square off over events in a far-off corner of the world.

Cooler heads prevailed and both nations stepped back from the brink. Yet another United Nations resolution was adopted and life returned to the new normal. However, the incident indicated that events in the Middle East were not solely under the control of the people that live there, including the Arabs. When the Arabs and Jews/Israelis came to blows, it was the West and East blocs that actually called the shots (no pun intended).

Over the years following the Yom Kippur war, there were other smaller American/Western military interventions in the region, such as the Marine operation at Beirut airport, American deployments in support of Egypt and the Sudan, U.S. operations against Libya, and American support for Iraq against Iran, all in the in the 1980's. However, it was the 1990's that brought about the greatest confrontation between the West and the descendants of the Muslim caliphate.

In August 1990, Iraqi forces invaded the neighboring State of Kuwait, overpowering the capital city in less than five hours. In two days, there were substantial Iraqi forces on the northern border of Saudi Arabia. Any threat to the oilfields of Saudi Arabia were, and are, a red line for the United States. In what was another watershed event for the region and particularly its Muslim residents, the Saudi royal family asked the United States to deploy armed forces to defend the Kingdom from a potential Iraqi invasion. In the end, over half a million American troops deployed to defend Saudi Arabia and eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

It was the deployment of American troops to Saudi Arabia that germinated the seed of hatred among many Islamists. Saudi Arabia is home to the two holiest sites in Islam, the Ka'aba/Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina. Note that the official title of the Saudi king is actually "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques." This responsibility forms the social contract between the monarchy and the people of Saudi Arabia.

The introduction of American forces into what many Islamists consider holy ground caused a backlash among several groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood (al-ikhwan al-muslimin), and an organization of Arabs who had fought against the Soviets in Afghanstan, al-Qa'idah, led by a Saudi, Usamah bin Ladin. In 1996, bin Ladin issued a fatwa, an Islamic legal pronouncement, entitled "Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places."

We are all aware of al-Qa'idah's operations between 1996 and 2001. Following the American invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, al-Qa'idah moved its operations to Pakistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Somalia. While their primary tactical goal was to kill Americans, the strategic goal always was the fall of current and corrupt Arab governments and the establishment of an Islamic state, or the forerunner to a caliphate.

In a bizarre and somewhat unexpected coincidence of events, the so-called "Arab Spring" brought new hope to the Islamists. It began in Tunisia and quickly spread to other venues, including Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and Libya. North Africa is well on its way to becoming an Islamist bloc. Elections in Tunisia, Egyptand Morocco saw victories by Islamist parties. The new governments of Tunisia and Egypt will be dominated by these parties. Libya will likely follow after elections in April.

In the Kingdom of Morocco, an Islamic party gained a plurality in the hastily called elections and King Muhammad VI named its leader as prime minister. In Algeria, elections this spring will likely result in increased Islamist participation in the government - the campaigns are already underway. If you are an Islamist, you have to consider things to be looking good for your cause in North Africa.

Looking elsewhere in the region, Islamists are also likely pleased with events in Yemen. President 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih is about to renege on a deal that would grant him immunity in exchange for stepping down and leaving the country. This is a temporary reprieve for Salih; he is on his way out. After he eventually departs, there will be a power vacuum - look for al-Qa'idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to consolidate its power and lead the country toward an Islamic state.

In Iraq, the fortunes of al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI) appeared to be on the decline until the scheduled - and some would say, premature - withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. No sooner were the Americans gone than a wave of sectarian violence re-ignited. While the Obama Administration bandies about claims of "success" in Iraq, the country is on the verge of another round of Sunni-Shi'a bloodshed.

As many Middle East analysts (including this one) predicted, AQI merely waited out the Americans to stick to an announced withdrawal timetable. This is what happens when you have a President with no military experience who refuses to listen to his military advisors. (See my earlier thoughts on that: Betrayals - Obama and the withdrawal from Iraq.)

In Turkey, the longstanding absolute separation of church and state is coming under attack. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is an Islamist party and is slowly attempting to replace secular democracy with Islamic law. Note that the terms "Justice and Development" are common to Islamist parties throughout the region.

There is some push back in the region as the Islamists seek to take power. In Syria, the opposition group calling itself the Syrian National Council is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. There is fear among some segments of the Syrian population that an Islamic government will seize power if the regime of Bashar al-Asad is overthrown. In an unlikely alliance against an Islamist takeover, the government has garnered support from secular Sunni groups, Christian residents and the Druze of the al-Suwayda' area. However, Islamists can still be hopeful that the government will fall, ushering in their successful takeover in Syria. It could go either way.

Looking to other locations as well, such as Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria and Mali, may give Islamists hope that their star (and crescent) is on the rise. Is there a chance we could see a new caliphate in the Middle East?

Let's hope not.