February 19, 2005

'Ashurah - Shi'a Holy Commemoration

The holiest day for Shi'a Muslims is celebrated on the 10th day, or 'Ashurah, of the Muslim month of Muharram. This year that equates to Saturday, February 19.

The story -

Shi’a Muslims make up almost 20 percent of the of the world’s second largest religion. The difference between the sects is as old as the religion itself and revolved around the issue of succession – who would follow Muhammad as the leader of the faithful? The Arabic word for “one who follows or succeeds,” - khalifah (Caliph) - was adopted as the title.

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 the caliphate. Muhammad did have a daughter, Fatima, 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,” and 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 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. However, real political power at this time rested with the Sunni caliph in Damascus. Hasan abdicated in favor of these ‘Umayyad rulers.

Hasan’s brother Husayn assumed the Shi’a imamate, presaging what became the major divide in Islamic history. In 680, Husayn was killed in battle against superior ‘Umayyad forces in Karbala’, Iraq on the tenth day of the month of Muharram. This day is commemorated by all Shi’a as ‘Ashurah (literally, “the tenth”) as a day of mourning and perfidy on the part of the Sunnis. Many male Shi’a practice self-flagellation to honor the death of the imam.

February 18, 2005

Syria-Lebanon: New Syrian Military Intelligence Chief

On February 14, former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri was assassinated. Blame was immediately assigned to neighboring Syria - after all, Syria has had troops in Lebanon and has virtually ruled what many Syrians merely call "the province" since 1976.

On February 18, Syrian president Bashar Al-Asad replaced the chief of Syrian military intelligence, Hasan Khalil, with his brother in law Brigadier General Asif Shawkat. It appears that this is in response to increased political pressure on Syria, but it remains to be seen if this personnel change will be cast as addressing a "rogue" operation in Lebanon.

Removing Hasan Khalil serves other purposes as well. Hasan Khalil was regarded as fairly weak, hence his ability to remain in power. He replaced the legendary strongman Lieutenant General 'Ali Duba - probably the most feared man in Hafiz (father of Bashar) Al-Asad's Syria after the president himself.

When I was posted in Damascus as the air attache to the American embassy, my Syrian iqama (residence card) that indicated my diplomatic immunity, was signed by 'Ali Duba. Military attaches usually are accredited to the host nation director of military intelligence - in the United States, all foreign military attaches are accredited to the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Every time I was asked to show my iqama, as soon as the guard saw Duba's name, he normally turned white and almost threw the card back.

Hasan Khalil succeeded Duba after Hafiz's death since he was not regarded as a threat to Bashar. Bashar was probably afraid of Duba and didn't trust him.

Shawkat's promotion from deputy director to chief of military intelligence reflects a shift on the part of the president. Many thought that he would be a moderating influence after he succeeded his late father. However, possibly in response to increased pressure from the United States and the West, Bashar appears to be siding with Ba'th Party hardliners - two of the most prominent being Shawkat and Bashar's younger brother Mahir.

Syrian military intelligence has always had the portfolio to execute Syrian (meaning Bashar's) policy in Lebanon. It will be interesting to watch how Shawkat handles increased Lebanese popular calls for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country.

February 16, 2005

Syria and Iran Common Front - Nothng New

On February 15, Syria and Iran announced that they are forming a common front to face threats to the two countries. The announcement came during a meeting of the Iranian vice president and Syrian prime minister in Tehran. These periodic coordination meetings have taken place for over a decade.

While the media are spinning out of control over this announcement, there is nothing new here. Syria and Iran have had a close relationship, a "common front" since the early 1980s.

In 1980, Iraqi forces under Saddam Husayn invaded Iran. In the ensuing eight-year war, Iran and Syria were allied politically and at times, militarily as well. On several occasions, Iranian fighter aircraft used Syrian air bases to conduct operations against Iraq. The relationship continued throughout the war. While virtually every other Arab country supported Iraq politically and economically, Syria remained firmly in the Iranian camp.

The relationship between Iran and Syria expanded in the mid-1980s to include Iranian operations in Lebanon. The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Al-Quds (Jerusalem) force began training, funding and equipping Lebanese Hizballah. IRGC operatives were also involved in the kidnapping of American officials and civilians. Two of those believed to have been kidnapped and murdered if not by the IRGC, at least with their approval, were U.S. Marine Colonel Rich Higgins and CIA's Beirut Chief of Station Bill Buckley. Iran also was involved in material and financial support to Palestinian oppostion groups, notably Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Iranian access to Lebanon requires Syrian cooperation. That cooperation comes in the form of use of Syrian airspace, airports and roads, and passage through Syrian military checkpoints. It is not uncommon to see Iranian air force cargo aircraft delivering material to Damascus International Airport for follow-on delivery to Lebanon's Biqa' Valley.

It is not inconceivable that Iran and Syria are coordinating their support for the insurgency in Iraq. Both have emnity towards the United States, and both are wary of the emergence of a successful, representative government in Iraq.

See also my April 2003 commentary on MSNBC.com at http://msnbc.msn.com/id/3070263/.

February 15, 2005

Rafiq Al-Hariri Assassination - A Syrian Hand?

It is the conventional wisdom among Middle East specialists that nothing happens in Lebanon without Syrian approval or at least Syrian acquiescence. This is likely the case in the February 14 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri. The U.S. intelligence community has already stated publicly that they believe that there is a Syrian hand, although it may never be proven since Syria is good at hiding that hand. Assassination is a long-time Syrian tactic, one it has used in Lebanon for years.

Why kill Rafiq Al-Hariri? Al-Hariri was a threat to the Syrians, to the continued presence of Syrian forces in Lebanon and their domination of the country. Syria has a long history of wanting to control events in Lebanon, which they consider their own back yard.

Syria also needs Lebanon to support its dismal economy. I think the Syrians always resented the French creation of Lebanon as a primarily a Christian enclave, much like the Iraqis resent the British exclusion of the lower part of Al-Basrah province (what is now Kuwait) from the original Kingdom of Iraq. They both regard this as, if I could borrow a phrase from one of favorite (read: sarcasm) authors, "imperial hubris."

At one point, the Syrians had over 30,000 troops in Lebanon, basically its entire III Corps. They agreed to withdraw them under the Taif Accords, but never did. Of course, the troops have been "asked" to remain in Lebanon for "security" by the Lebanese government. Later on, they did pull out about half of their forces, and moved the remaining troops from the Beirut area to the Biqa' Valley (out of sight, out of mind) - getting them out of the Biqa' might be problematic. I don't think you will see the continued withdrawal of Syrian forces. They have between 14,000 and 15,000 there now, and this probably represents the minimum level they need to exert direct influence over events in the country.

The Syrians also have considerable influence over the actions of the Iranian-back group Hizballah. They also have control over the amount and form of Iranian support that reaches the group's strongholds in the Biqa' valley.

Al-Hariri, a pro-western billionaire with ties to the Saudi royal family, has been vocal in his calls for Syrian comply with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, demanding that Syria withdraw its forces from Lebanon. Hariri, who resigned as prime minister late last year, may well have become the prime minister again after the upcoming elections. Obviously, his return to that post is not in Syria's interest.

Did Syrian military intelligence - the "usual suspects" - do this? I doubt it. Did they have Hizballah or another surrogate do it? That's where my money is.

Of note, Syria's former military intelligence chief in Lebanon, Ghazi Kan'an, is now Syrian minister of the interior. He is in the position to make the assassination of Al-Hariri happen.

interestingly, the United States has withdrawn its ambassador to Syria following a demarche to the Syrian government. The ambassador relayed Washington's "profound outrage" of the AL-Hariri assassination, despite the total lack of evidence implicating Syria in the incident.

As an aside, here is a more personalized illustration of how many Syrians view Lebanon. I had a conversation with the wife of a Syrian doctor friend.

ME: Layla, wayn al-"docteur"? (Where is the doctor?)

LAYLA: Huwa 'ambi-"shopping" fi l-mhafazih. (He's shopping in the province.)

ME: Ayni mhafazih? Huwa mu fi Sham? (Which province? He's not in Damascus?)

LAYLA: La la, huwa fi l-mhafizih, Bayrut y'ani. (He's in the province, Beirut, I mean.)

Lebanon, the province.