Monthly Archives: October 2013

Syrian-Americans must engage the US system

Syria is burning. And the large, prosperous, and well-established Syrian-American community is doing very little about it. This can’t continue.

The reasons are numerous. Like their counterparts in the Middle East, the Syrian and Lebanese communities are deeply divided along pro- and anti-Syrian regime lines. There is a scandalous degree of overt support for the Mafia-like regime in certain quarters. There is also a more understandable sense of alarm, especially among religious minority groups, about Islamist influence in the armed opposition.

But many Syrian-Americans do not appreciate the extent to which their citizenship in the United States enables to them to potentially participate in a policy conversation that can have a decisive impact.

Many seem oblivious to the rather obvious point that if they were Syrians living in, for example, Canada or Mexico, their ability to influence their country’s foreign policy would be much less relevant to developments in their homeland.

Moreover, it would appear that most of those Syrian Americans who do see the opportunity do not yet understand how to influence US foreign policy.

The answer, like Poe’s famous Purloined Letter, is hidden in plain sight. You must embrace the system as it exists and use the levers of influence in the American policy-making and framing conversations that produce results.

These are usually misunderstood as simply boiling down to votes, money, and the media. However, foreign policy is primarily the purview of the executive branch, which has one extra and crucial requirement: ideas and information.

The policy debate on Syria has been intense. An extraordinarily wide array of individuals, many of whom have never set foot in Syria and have gathered everything they know from open-source Internet material, have become significant voices in that conversation. But because Syrian-Americans who are opposed to both the regime and al-Qaeda have not systematically organized themselves to engage in the American conversation, for the most part they have not had a seat at the table.

The results have been tragic: The mainstream opposition has been withering on the vine. In its place have inevitably sprouted the noxious weeds of “jihadism,” al-Qaeda, and foreign extremists. The Assad regime and these extremists have a deep history of engagement. In theory they despise each other, but in practice they find each other convenient.

The “jihadists” can tell their private Gulf benefactors that they are fighting on behalf of “Islam” against “heretics who are murdering Muslims.” Assad can tell the rest of the world that he is merely fighting the good fight against the most dangerous terrorists on the planet.

These two cartels of villainy found each other useful in attacks against Americans and their allies in Iraq during the past decade. And now, between them, they are burning, bombing, and smashing Syria into slivers of shattered glass.

But being effective in the American policy debate requires contextualizing aims within the broader context of the American national interest without reservation, hesitation, or compunction. It requires the slow, steady accumulation of credibility, access, and influence based on the quality of ideas, and the ability to communicate receivable messages to the crucial policy audience without worrying about political correctness. It requires a real existential leap of liberation from traditional approaches and a full embracing of the American system, political structures and norms, and broad policy goals.

The Syrian-Americans must learn how things work in Washington from all other successful American constituencies – ethnic or otherwise – and play the game according to its own rules rather than trying to assert a new set of imperatives. It means winning some and losing some. It means agreeing to disagree. And it means building coalitions with those who might otherwise disagree on almost everything else. There is no other way.

The other essential approach is a humanitarian one, and there are many relief efforts underway for the millions of refugees and displaced Syrians. An excellent example of that is pianist Malek Jandali’s “Voice of the Free Syrian Children” concert tour, which is designed to raise funds for humanitarian relief for the orphaned and vulnerable children of Syria.

Yet even that has proven controversial due to community divisions and tyrannical forms of political correctness. But it’s a fine example of what one person, with a few of his friends, can accomplish to help the most vulnerable and innocent victims.

Humanitarian efforts are necessary, but they’re not sufficient. There are too many influential voices in Washington that are wrongly convinced that “there are no good options,” or that Syria is all about Iran and Russia.

It is past time for the Syrian-American community to embrace its American identity, both in the American national interest and in order to save Syria from an even worse fate than has so far befallen it. This can and must be done.

Syria and Hizbollah have hollowed out the Lebanese state

The fragmentation of the Syrian state is rapidly spilling over the country’s borders. Lebanon, in particular, is facing the prospect of unprecedented state disintegration, and of the unravelling of its system of uneasy sectarian coexistence. This is by far Lebanon’s deepest crisis since the end of the 15-year civil war that ran from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s.

In Iraq, the Syrian spillover is being manifested primarily in almost-daily suicide bombs and car bombs that killed more than 1,000 people in September alone. But Iraqi domestic politics are not driven by events in Syria the way matters in Lebanon have been.

In the latest manifestation of the metastasis of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon, at least four people were killed in fighting between Sunni Muslim and Alawite militias last week in the northern city of Tripoli. This is merely the most recent of a series of violent incidents that have rocked the country, all linked to the conflict in Syria.

In August, two car bombs exploded at mosques in Tripoli, killing 42 people and wounding hundreds. A week earlier a bomb attack killed 20 in a Hizbollah-controlled area of southern Beirut. Rocket attacks, explosions and kidnappings have all been on the rise throughout the country.

The main Lebanese political forces have tacitly agreed, and barely managed, to more or less quarantine the direct spillover from Syria to the northernmost part of Lebanon. How long this can continue is increasingly questionable, given Hizbollah’s own direct intervention in Syria on the side of the Damascus dictatorship. This was a direct contravention of the 2012 “Baabda declaration”, in which all major Lebanese political factions agreed to stay out of regional conflicts.

But it was inevitable that the Syrian fighting would spread into northern Lebanon and that Hizbollah would feel compelled to support the Syrian regime, its partners and fellow Iranian client. As the stakes grow higher, the danger of the Syrian conflict extending itself into much or most of Lebanon – as it seems to have done in Iraq – intensifies.

In fact the Lebanese political crisis – fuelled, if not created, by the Syrian conflict – is perhaps even more alarming than the spillover of physical violence seen thus far. The Lebanese state is experiencing a degree of fragmentation and disarray that is, for its institutions, at least as severe as what happened in the worst periods of the civil war. The spillover thus threatening the equilibrium of unstable elements that has held Lebanon together, more or less, in recent years.

The Lebanese prime minister-designate, Tammam Salam, has been unable to form a cabinet since April, because of a bitter dispute between pro-and anti-Syrian factions, particularly Hizbollah.

An alliance of Sunni Muslim and Christian parties is pushing for a three-way division within the cabinet with Shiites, Sunnis and Christians each receiving eight seats. Hizbollah, however, is insisting on one extra seat for itself or its allies – in practice, demanding a veto over all major government decisions.

Hizbollah seeks total impunity in those parts of Lebanon in which it operates a de facto state-within-a-state, complete with its own foreign and defence policies and military, while at the same time aiming to block any decision it cannot accept involving the rest of the country. Its demand to be “first among equals” is not acceptable to the other factions. This impossible position is largely driven by the agendas of Hizbollah’s Syrian and Iranian patrons.

Hizbollah’s most immediate fears involve Lebanese government cooperation with and funding of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which has indicted five Hizbollah operatives for the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. He had reportedly been threatened by Syrian President Bashar Al Assad personally, shortly before his murder.

But there are far deeper problems lying beneath the Lebanese political surface. Most of the country’s governing and service-providing institutions – with the obvious exceptions of the cabinet itself, the internal security services and significant parts of the military – have been either systematically hollowed out or else taken over by Hizbollah. Those that have not been are under growing threat, as the paralysis over forming a new cabinet demonstrates.

The Lebanese are used to their country serving as a proxy battlefield for regional rivalries. But for many decades the state has not been so hollow, or the stakes for outsiders so high.

Lebanon finds itself trapped in concentric circles of alliances and rivalries. Internally and in neighbouring Syria there is the immediate conflict between pro-and anti-Al Assad forces. These groups are themselves proxies in larger regional rivalries pitting Iran against Saudi Arabia and its allies. And at the global level, there is a re-emerging conflict of interests between the United States and Russia that also filters down into the Lebanese context.

UN special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen was not exaggerating when he warned recently that “Lebanon today is facing the most dangerous situation in its history after the end of the civil war”.

The reality is that Syria is starting to look increasingly like Lebanon: fragmented, splintered and ruled in fact by different groups in their own discrete areas. The irony is that Syria’s transition into a Lebanese-like reality may destroy the ability of Lebanon to maintain its own uneasy equilibrium

Why Muslims should love secularism

Muslims should love secularism. But very few of them do, largely because they misunderstand what it stands for and would mean for them.

Secularism as an English term – in contrast to the French concept oflaïcité – simply means the neutrality of the state on matters of faith. This bears almost no resemblance to the way in which most Arabs understand what the term, whether translated as ‘almaniyya,ilmanniyya, or even dunyawiyya.

Secularism has become strongly associated in the Arab and broader Muslim worlds with atheism, iconoclasm, and anti-religious attitudes and policies. And in the process, one of the most important pillars of building tolerant, inclusive, and genuinely free Muslim-majority societies has been grotesquely misrepresented and stigmatized.

The first of these experiences was the overtly anti-religious attitude of the government of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, which was presented as “modernization” and “secularism.”

The second is the objectionable and noxious French concept of laïcité, which also tends to be more anti-religious than neutral. This association has been particularly exacerbated by “secular” laïcité laws in France and elsewhere that oppressively prevent Muslim women from covering their hair in public spaces such as schools.

The third, and perhaps most damning of all, has been the misappropriation, abuse, and discrediting of “secularism” by regimes that placed Arab nationalism at the center of their authoritarian ideology. Socialist, communist, and fascist Arab regimes oppressed, abused, and waged wars against their own peoples and each other in the name of, among other things, “secularism.”

None of them were properly secular, of course, but they certainly were anti-Islamist. And that has set up the present-day dichotomy in contemporary Arab politics in which not only Islamists, but also many ordinary Muslims, instinctively mistrust secular politics.

The Syrian dictatorship is a perfect case in point. In the name of “secularism,” among other things, it is waging a brutal war of repression. But for various reasons, high among them Western and Arab government negligence, the opposition has become increasingly Islamist. The consequence has been increasing numbers of religious minorities, particularly Christians, reluctantly siding with the dictatorship, while growing numbers of Sunni Muslims are siding with various Islamist groups. Faux-secularism and Islamism mutually provoke and promote sectarianism.

What devout Muslims need to understand is that real secularism alone offers them something most of them seem to badly want: freedom. If there really is no compulsion in religion, only a secular society can provide that. Only in a secular system can Muslims be free to practice Islam exactly as they see fit. Any “Islamic” polity will of necessity be imposing a particular version or interpretation of Islam, which is an extremely heterodox set of traditions.

The claim that secularism is really just Christianity in disguise is manifestly false. The language is European, inherited from the Enlightenment. But both Western chauvinists and anti-Western demagogues badly misread the fact that although the specific language of modern human rights and freedoms is, for historical reasons, currently packaged in Western terms, this hardly means that they lack non-Western cognates, origins, or bases.

Since at least the 10th century, most Muslim societies have distinguished between political and religious authority, and it’s absurd to claim that religious freedom originates only or even mainly as a concept from the Protestant Reformation. There are deep roots in both traditional and modern interpretations of Islam that lend themselves to political secularism.

The Islamist project of trying to obliterate traditional heterogeneity within Islam and establish religiously-oriented states is misguided and totally inappropriate. In many Muslim-majority states, there remains a vast range of diversity of doctrine and practice that must be accommodated for even the Muslims to be free in religion. This is to say nothing of Christians, Jews, atheists, agnostics, and others who also have a right to freedom of both religion and conscience.

What would be the spiritual virtue of religious dogma that is imposed by the state? It would produce, at best, a false religiosity in many, practice without belief, and mere pretense. Religious leaders generally don’t care what people really believe (because they can never really know that) and instead concentrate on what people can and cannot do. But when such authority is asserted by the state, it demeans and abuses the very concept of faith by mandating the pretense of belief by force of law.

Secularism offers Muslims religious freedom, religious authenticity, and religious meaning. Imposing or privileging religion through state power invalidates all three. Muslims must recognize secularism as the only real path to religious freedom, rather than confusing it with an attack against religion.

Some Muslims can claim to have come by their suspicions about secularism honestly, through a series of unfortunate historical contingencies. But that doesn’t change the fact that, for all their fears, they should not only want, but in reality need, genuinely secular societies.

Toxic Nostalgia Is Ruining the World

Beware nostalgia. It’s unavoidable. It’s bad enough when we sit back and think of the “happy days of childhood” and sigh, oblivious to the fact that they were, at the time, experienced as nothing of the kind. But in the political context, deep nostalgia should set off the loudest alarm bells: in almost all cases, something is going badly wrong or a gigantic con is under way.

The toxin of nostalgia is at the heart of much of the worst political rot in the contemporary Middle East, and, indeed, much of the rest of the world.

As the historian Joseph Ellis explained in the Los Angeles Times, the right wing American Tea Party movement is positively 18th century in its mindset and instinctively dislikes and distrusts the Constitution as too centralising a political structure.

They would, he convincingly argues, prefer a return to the catastrophic Articles of Confederation of the 1780s.

Meanwhile, some Germans are presently experiencing “Ostalgie” – a portmanteau neologism that means nostalgia for communist East Germany, including the infamous Stasi secret police.

Even the worst of times can be reimagined, particularly in the context of present day alienation, as recuperable and, potentially, the loss of a “golden age” or a “time of innocence”.

Certainly many Americans who disparage the 1960s and their cultural impact conveniently forget the racism, sexism and homophobia of the pre-civil rights era.

So there’s nothing unique about the poisonous nostalgia that is informing a great deal of the worst politics in the Middle East. But in any situation in which everything is in flux, insidious influences such as nostalgia and constructed histories can become particularly powerful and therefore damaging.

The entire Islamist movement is built on various forms of nostalgia and constructed, manufactured histories. The one thing that all Islamists have in common is a rejection of the overwhelming bulk of Islamic religious and political philosophy and traditions in favour of a “return” to some supposedly “pure” form of the faith as practised by the earliest generations of Muslims. There is a tendency to chronologically privilege the periods closest to Revelation as less prone to corruption by misinterpretation or non-Islamic cultural norms.

Islamists of all stripes reject the heterogeneous and pluralistic traditions of most mainstream historical Islam in favour of an assertion of a return to a “pure” past or the re-creation of some sort of fictional seventh century “golden age.”

Nostalgia has also poisoned key aspects of the Arab uprisings. When post-dictatorship Egypt finally went to the polls, voters proved significantly uninterested in individual personalities who might have offered new political approaches, such as former Muslim Brother Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, former foreign minister Amr Mousa or former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei.

Instead Egyptians turned to the warm but false familiarity of political nostalgia. They mainly voted for the two most well-established institutions of the country: the heirs of the regime set up by Gamal Abdel Nasser and the long-standing and equally familiar opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. Neither has changed much since the 1950s.

It’s hard to avoid speculating that Egyptians felt a certain comfort in seeing their primary choices in terms of large, recognisable and established groups – neither of which showed any sign of innovation – rather than individuals who might have had some new ideas or approaches.

In other words, the Egyptian election was basically a gigantic exercise in misguided nostalgia that set the stage for the disastrous failed presidency of Mohammed Morsi and the current uneasy period of transition.

Many societies can’t exist without telling themselves elaborate and preposterous lies about their founding, because the truth is always too ugly to be collectively inspiring or induce patriotism. And societies imagine deep and organic roots for their contemporary political identities that are either largely or entirely fictional.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu provides an outstanding example of this. Pride of place in his office is a 3,000-year-old seal of a Hebrew official called “Netanyahu.” He proudly displays it while noting that Netanyahu is also his own name. Except that his family name is actually Mileikowsky. “Netanyahu” was his grandfather’s pen name, which his father formally adopted upon moving to British mandatory Palestine. The connection between Benjamin Netanyahu and the ancient Hebrew official Netanyahu is as tenuous and manufactured as it gets.

The rhetoric of the ruling Turkish AKP party – which disturbingly is both Islamist and Turkish chauvinist simultaneously – reveals similar appeals to transparently constructed historical narratives deployed for contemporary political purposes. The same applies in Iran, most notably former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s efforts to link his own political agenda with ancient Persia, especially a cylinder attributed to Cyrus the Great.

In his classic essay, On the Use and Abuse of History for Life, Friedrich Nietzsche noted, “You can interpret the past only on the basis of the highest power of the present”, but optimistically added, “culture can still be something other than a decoration of life, that is, basically always only pretence and disguise.” The abuse of history (nostalgia) is the most potent enemy of cultural and political progress.

In the Middle East today, nostalgia is probably the most potent vehicle of extremism and obstacle to the informed consent of the governed. Anything that smacks of nostalgia should be viewed as highly suspect at best and political poison at worst.

Axes of Fable: The paling mythologies of the “axis of evil” and “axis of resistance”

The decade following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States produced two defining mythologies in American and Arab political culture: the “axis of evil,” and the “axis of resistance.” Both of these mirages have been subsequently abandoned by their erstwhile constituents, or proven nonsensical by events. Yet the ideas which informed them continue to reverberate in relations between the United States and the Arab world, in the form of both repudiations of some of the core concepts and the rehabilitation of others. The axes are dead, at least for now. But aspects of the tensions they embodied persist, particularly regarding American relations with sub-national groups, above all Hamas and Hezbollah.

In his State of the Union address on January 29, 2002, American President George W. Bush singled out Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an “axis of evil,” which he accused of supporting international terrorism and seeking to proliferate weapons of mass destruction. The phrase invoked two key connotations in American political culture. First, it called to mind the “axis powers” of the Second World War: Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy. Second, it echoed US President Ronald Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.”

Yet almost from the outset, many questioned the coherence of such a formulation. Iran and Iraq, after all, had recently fought a decade-long war in which at least 1 million people had been killed. Neither country was particularly closely aligned with North Korea. The idea that the troika formed any kind of “axis”—a word strongly suggesting an alliance—that was operating as a global menace sounded far-fetched, if not ridiculous, to many. The concept was further damaged when it served—in part—as the justification for the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, which was frequently cited as a response to the 9/11 attacks, even though the government of Saddam Hussein was in no way connected to Al-Qaeda.

The “axis of evil” never made any sense, politically or strategically. But it accurately reflected the emotional state of the American people: they had been confronted by an evil force that, they thought, could not simply be sub-national. The notion that the closest thing to a state agency that might have been involved in the attacks would be elements within the Inter-Services Intelligence wing of a long-term ally, Pakistan, was not seriously considered until much later. Even now, after Osama bin Laden was killed in the Pakistani military city of Abbottabad, surrounded by the Pakistani military and intelligence elite, this possibility remains mired in hushed whispers in Washington DC.

The “axis of evil,” therefore, had an extremely short shelf life in American politics. It has been rarely mentioned since without embarrassment, both because it was such a crude phrase and because it made no strategic sense. Moreover, the primary action it did seem to inform—the Iraqi fiasco—is now universally regarded as a disaster.

The counter-concept of an “axis of resistance” proved much more durable in Middle Eastern political culture. The phrase was apparently coined in 2002 as well, in direct response to Bush’s speech, by the Libyan newspaper Al-Zahf Al-Akhdar. It was subsequently widely adopted in Iranian rhetoric regarding the insurgency against the American occupation of Iraq in the following years. The phrase got further traction with the July 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon, which briefly made Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, popular figures throughout the Arab world.

But since the focus of the “axis of resistance” was rhetoric employed by the Iranian-led (and therefore primarily Shi’a) alliance, the enthusiasm of many Sunni Arabs for the “axis” dampened. What solidified the idea in much of Arab political culture for a brief time was the 2008-2009 Israeli invasion of Gaza. This assault foregrounded Hamas’ role in the “axis of resistance,” thereby undermining the notion that it was essentially a vehicle of Iranian foreign policy and Shi’a sectarian interests.

Indeed, the mythology of an “axis of resistance” that could combine an Iranian-led alliance that primarily consisted of non-Sunni powers such as the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, with a Muslim Brotherhood party, Hamas, was solidified during the Israeli attack on Gaza. Much of the sectarianism of previous decades was briefly overcome as large numbers of Sunni Arabs embraced the idea that it was politically possible for Hamas to be both a member of the Iranian-led alliance and a core Muslim Brotherhood organization, and that perhaps the rhetoric of Tehran that it was leading an “axis of resistance” against Israel had merit. This alliance managed to placate, however briefly, a great deal of Sunni Arab popular opinion about the rise of a Persian and Shi’a power in the region, particularly under the rubric that it was leading the fight against Israel.

This was all, however, a myth. Iran was using Hamas and Hezbollah, and its claim to be the leader of “the resistance,” and even Holocaust denial, to outbid everyone in posing as the champion of the Palestinians. Even a few months after the end of the invasion of Gaza, one could begin to see the fraying of the mythology as Arabs began to remember that their interests and those of Iran were not synonymous. Yet it took the tumultuous events of the “Arab Spring,” and especially the emergence of the war in Syria, to expose the absurdity of the “axis of resistance” myth to most of Arab public opinion.

The Syrian conflict forced Hamas to choose between the benefits it received from its alliance with Iran, Hezbollah and, especially, Syria (where its political bureau was headquartered and much of its financial holdings were invested) and its core identity as a Sunni Islamist party. With the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria being a key player in the uprising against Bashar Al-Assad, Hamas could not remain neutral. And, in the end, they had no choice but to reaffirm their Muslim Brotherhood identity, which meant leaving Syria altogether, and beginning their ongoing struggle to find new patrons and headquarters.

American relations with Hamas and Hezbollah

The United States has maintained a fundamentally hostile, but also somewhat nuanced, relationship with Hamas and Hezbollah. Indeed, the complexity is such that anyone—and this is very common in the United States—who mentions Hamas and Hezbollah in the same sentence as if they were a single or highly comparable entities reveals their lack of knowledge about the details of these policies. The defining feature of relations with both groups, however, is common: both have been Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations since the State Department first issued a list of such organizations in 1997, pursuant to a 1996 law making it a crime to provide any “material support” to such groups, including nonlethal and otherwise lawful aid.

However American policy towards Hamas and Hezbollah is not the same. Hezbollah has been part of almost every Lebanese government since 2005. The American policy throughout has been a simple one: the United States regards Lebanon (somewhat tentatively) as a friend and provides aid to the government even though Hezbollah ministers serve in it. However, American officials will not formally or officially meet or deal with Hezbollah ministers or parliamentary deputies.

The situation was somewhat different when the Palestinian Authority (PA) experienced a brief period of cohabitation after Mahmoud Abbas won the presidential election in 2005 and Hamas secured a parliamentary majority in 2006. The period of cohabitation between a Fatah president and a Hamas-dominated parliament between 2006-2007 led to a series of devastating sanctions implemented by the Middle East Quartet, including the US, as well as Israel. Sanctions were lifted on the PA in Ramallah after the split between Gaza and the West Bank in the summer of 2007, but tightened on Hamas.

The United States has never given Hezbollah any indication of under what circumstances it might be considered a legitimate actor. Presumably, it is seen primarily as a cat’s paw for Tehran, and relations with it depend mainly on the state of US-Iran relations. In the context of Lebanon, it is tolerated but ignored. In the event of direct conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, the United States invariably sides with Israel, but only within a given framework of acceptable actions and for a limited period of time.

Hamas, on the other hand, has been given a very clear framework by the United States and the Middle East Quartet for gaining “legitimacy”: renouncing violence, accepting the Palestine Liberation Organization’s recognition of Israel (or at least the goal of a two-state solution), and accepting the binding quality of existing PLO agreements with Israel. These are essentially also the conditions that the PLO has set out for Hamas to be considered acceptable as a counterpart in Palestinian politics.

However, Hamas cannot agree to these conditions without losing its primary distinction from Fatah: that it takes a more strident line on Israel. Otherwise, the two parties would be essentially pursuing the same goal for national liberation—a two-state solution with Israel—and Hamas’ main appeal would be its religiously-inspired social conservatism. This is highly unlikely to be a path to majority status among Palestinians. Moreover, Hamas is increasingly being outbid on its political and religious right by Islamic Jihad, which has maintained and is strengthening relations with Iran.

Elements within Hamas, including politician Mahmoud Zahar and paramilitary chief Marwan Issa, have attempted to maintain relations with Iran. They have succeeded, to some extent, on the military front. And, following the ouster of former Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi, they are now trying to rebuild political relations. With Mursi gone, Hamas finds itself more isolated than ever, and embarrassingly dependent on Israel for all of its basic supplies and needs, as well as relying on Ramallah for paying the salaries of most public employees.

American relations with both Hamas and Hezbollah, while different, are unlikely to improve as long as both groups remain on the terrorism list. As noted above, relations with Hezbollah are understood in the context of Lebanon’s precarious equilibrium of unstable elements, which the United States generally supports. In that context, Hezbollah is tolerated but kept at arm’s length. Hamas has been given a clear path to legitimacy, but it is one it cannot yet take.

The rise of Muslim Brotherhood parties in post-dictatorship Arab societies, especially Tunisia and Egypt, but also to some extent Libya, produced an unexpected about-face in the Washington policy community’s attitude toward nonviolent Islamists. Beginning with the Tunisian Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi, a whole string of Islamists from North Africa were welcomed by the most prominent American think tanks and institutions. Moreover, they were treated with deference, protected from difficult questions, and generally treated—not as the persona non grata they would have been a few years earlier—but as honored and fascinating guests. It would appear that many American “experts” believed that Islamists, particularly Muslim Brothers, were the authentic representation of majority Sunni Arab public opinion and the legitimate new face of post-dictatorship Arab politics.

Hamas, of course, was not included because of its violent tendencies and its inclusion on the terrorism list. Hezbollah was correctly seen as operating in a space more closely aligned with Iran. However, a significant and growing minority of voices, some of them influential, insist on the legitimacy of Hamas and the need to include it in any kind of peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

Most American observers, and certainly the US government, realize that the Palestinians cannot have two “legitimate representatives” to represent them diplomatically. But some American policy-framers have been so enamored with Muslim Brotherhood parties as “legitimate” and “authentic” that they have also taken up the cause of Hamas. The collapse of the Mursi government in Egypt after less than a year, and to enormous popular acclaim and support, has baffled many of them, since it upends their assumption that, left free to vote for whomever they please, most Arabs will ultimately wish to be governed by Islamists, especially of the Muslim Brotherhood variety.

The future of US relations with Hamas, Hezbollah and “resistance”

The “axis of resistance” is dead for the foreseeable future, replaced by a very different Middle Eastern political landscape in which it is no longer possible for a group like Hamas to be both a Muslim Brotherhood party and part of the Iranian alliance simultaneously. One of the main results of this dissolution is that American policy towards Hamas and Hezbollah is more distinct than ever. Hezbollah, as noted above, whether in Lebanon, Syria or in conflict with Israel, will be essentially seen in the United States as an extension of Iran. The future of US-Hezbollah relations will be a function of the outcome of the US-Iranian interplay over the latter’s nuclear program, and other crucial issues.

The future of Hamas-US relations is also likely to be dependent mainly on not only Hamas’ behavior, but also which parties finally become Hamas’ primary patrons. The current Egyptian government could hardly be more hostile to Hamas. A wide-ranging rapprochement with Iran appears unlikely. Potential patrons such as Qatar, Turkey or Jordan would all likely ameliorate the aggressive behavior of Hamas, but would be unlikely to convince the group to accept the Quartet conditions. It is therefore likely to remain on the terrorism list, and the United States will deal directly with the Palestinians through the PLO and the PA.

The American position, fundamentally, is that the violent “resistance” to Israel or American targets or interests in the region is unacceptable, and that is not going to change. Should regional strategic realities change sufficiently, the potential for a resurrection of the “axis of resistance” is conceivable, even with a much larger and more empowered Islamic Jihad replacing Hamas, or, perhaps, with radicalized, violent Muslim Brotherhood factions disenchanted with democracy and politics seeking some kind of an alliance with Iran and its clients. But for now, that seems at best a distant possibility.

“Resistance” to the Israeli occupation, however, is not utterly rejected by the United States. Nonviolent protests are seen as legitimate, and are gaining steam. Boycott movements, particularly those that target the occupation or the settlements—such as the new European Union occupation guidelines—but not Israel itself, are not fundamentally opposed by Washington. In short, in so far as “resistance” is seen as synonymous with “terrorism,” we are still in a post-9/11 environment in terms of American attitudes. It will be rejected out of hand.

And yet in Arab political culture there still seems to be an empty space which the “axis of resistance” used to falsely occupy: not a yearning for Iranian hegemony or terrorism, but an active campaign to combat Israel’s occupation in the territory seized in 1967. Here, it would seem, lies a real opportunity for whoever could take advantage of mobilizing popular support that eschews terrorism but confronts the occupation with real, powerful resistance that is truly nonviolent.

State fragmentation is almost inevitable in war-torn Syria

Despite the fluidity in Syria, some tentative but important conclusions can be drawn. First, the war will drag on for years. Second, a military victory by any party in the entire country is extremely unlikely. Third, there is no basis for a negotiated agreement. Fourth, the centralised, Damascus-ruled Syrian state is almost certainly a thing of the past. Fragmentation seems not just inevitable, but well underway.

Syria is beginning to splinter into regionally discrete areas in a manner strikingly reminiscent of Lebanon, though the eventual outcome may look very different.

The regime of Bashar Al Assad represents the interests of a family, a clan, a sectarian community, and a broader circle of clients and cronies, in that order of importance. It would be reductive to call it simply an Alawite government, but that community is its bedrock and primary support.

But the regime need not control all of Syria to secure its interests. It first needs key areas along the border with Lebanon, particularly in the south near Damascus.

Second, it requires the key northeastern roads and infrastructure leading from Damascus north to Qusair, scene of a bloody battle in June between government forces backed by Hizbollah units and rebel groups.

Slightly to the north-east is Homs, which government and rebel forces have bitterly struggled over, and which now lies in ruins. It is the crucial gateway to the north-west coast and rugged mountains abutting Turkey that have been home to the Alawites for centuries.

As long as the regime can control this wide strip of western Syria, its most fundamental interests can be maintained. If eventually regime forces are driven into the north-west, there would probably be an attempt to re-create a de facto version of the Alawite mini-state that existed under French rule from 1922-1936, before it was reincorporated into what ultimately became independent Syria. The putative Alawite state, unlike Lebanon, could not become independent because its capital, Latakia, had then – and still has – a Sunni Muslim majority. Presumably the creation of an autonomous Alawite redoubt would involve significant sectarian “cleansing” there. In the long run, such atrocities might not be forgiven by either the world or the Syrian majority.

But such a de facto mini-state could, at least for a time, be viable. It would possess a large coastline with at least two major ports and both military and civilian airports. It would not be cut off from the outside world, and would continue to receive significant support from Russia, Iran and others.

The Kurdish community in the north has already moved to declare itself autonomous, and aligned itself with the de facto independent Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.

Druze communities in the south have tended to identify with Alawites for a multitude of historical, cultural and religious reasons.

However, their militias are becoming increasingly independent and generally no longer work with government forces.

At the same time they have refused entreaties by Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt to join the rebellion and are staking out a neutral position that is essentially defensive. One can therefore also imagine the consolidation of a much smaller Druze enclave in the Jabal Al Arab region with its capital in Soueida.

Assuming, then, that Alawites, Kurds and Druze all possess the wherewithal, with fraternal, regional and international support, to create their own quasi-autonomous enclaves in discrete areas, that leaves most of the rest of Syria to its Sunni majority and the beleaguered Christian minority scattered throughout the country.

Armed Sunni groups are pursuing different projects in different regions. The Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIS) is openly attempting to establish a kind of emirate in parts of northern Syria, and, indeed, is fighting with Kurdish militias over certain territories.

The more secular and nationalistic Free Syrian Army groups, on the other hand, have taken control of significant areas of the South. In a very troubling development, the newly formed Jaish Al Islam coalition has drawn some Salafist groups away from the FSA coalition and seems to bespeak an intensification of the Islamist component to the rebellion, even when it is not linked to Al Qaeda.

This is disastrous because while the Alawites, Kurds and Druze all have the potential to create safe havens in discrete areas, the Sunni majority and many Christians – and numerous smaller minorities – could end up living under the control of extremist groups, at least for a brief time. Even a short period of fanatical domination is calamitous, as the beleaguered people of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor are currently discovering.

Non-extremist rebels have no choice but to confront Al Qaeda and similar extremists in a two-front campaign that also challenges the regime. And the outside world has no choice but to help them do so by all possible means. If Syria is to fragment, parts of it must not fall into the hands of Al Qaeda or be ruled by Salafists imposing their own narrow, literalist version of Sharia on what is still, and must remain, a cosmopolitan, diverse and heterogeneous society.

Even if it cannot really be held together as a centralised state, Syria must be protected from extremism. And that requires intensive international aid to non-extremist Sunni rebels. State fragmentation in Syria may be inevitable, albeit highly undesirable. But the degree of catastrophe it entails can, and must, be attenuated.

Kurds and Arabs mustn’t fall into Assad’s trap

As they fight to secure their new autonomous zone in northern Syria, the Kurds must be careful not to fall into the trap of becoming a tool of President Bashar al-Assad against Syrian opposition forces and Turkey.

Assad did not act to prevent the Kurds from creating an autonomous region in July 2012 partly because his forces were bogged down fighting for major Syrian cities and strategic areas. But he was also hoping firstly to bedevil the Turks with the specter of a potentially-threatening Kurdish presence along its southern border, and secondly to create a conflict between Arab rebels and Kurdish groups. Neither should oblige him.

Kurds must prevent salafist-jihadist fanatics from using any of their areas as staging grounds, and crush or expel them from any Kurdish-dominated territory. However, they must also be careful not to be drawn into a broader confrontation with less extreme Islamist forces that will only serve the interests of the Damascus dictatorship.

Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions face the same conundrum. The prospect of Kurdish autonomy, or even secession, from Syria is no excuse to join forces with al-Qaeda against local Kurdish militias. Again, the only winners will be the Assad regime.

Falling into Assad’s trap, some FSA forces reportedly – and inexcusably – fought in late September alongside the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the al-Sham (ISIS) against Kurdish groups in the northern town of Atma.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the most potent political force among Kurds in Syria, is pulling away from membership in the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). The umbrella Kurdish National Council (KNC) recently joined the SNC, but without much enthusiasm because the SNC continues to oppose Kurdish autonomy.

The KNC move was ostensibly based on the SNC’s grotesquely belated agreement to drop the word “Arab” from “The Syrian Arab Republic,” an embarrassing misnomer for an ethnically heterogeneous society. But the SNC continues to foolishly oppose Kurdish aspirations to autonomy.

However, the KNC was probably driven mostly by its rivalry with the PYD. The PYD has grown in stature as fighting has intensified. Yet the KNC retains a significant advantage: continued support from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is emerging as the predominant Kurdish party in Iraq and regionally.

KDP leader Massoud Barzani is starting to look like a genuinely trans-national Kurdish leader. With its own leader, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, desperately ill, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), – the KDP’s traditional rival in Iraq – seems to be in something of an eclipse.

Recent elections in the quasi-independent Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq saw the KDP increase its parliamentary power to 38 seats, while the PUK dropped into third place with 18. The Change Movement surprisingly came in second with 24 seats, ostensibly running against corruption and lack of accountability in the KDP/PUK coalition that has dominated the KRG since its founding.

But the overall result has left Barzani further strengthened against all rivals, including the jailed Turkish-Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, who is extremely influential with the PYD. Öcalan’s efforts to secure a peace agreement with the Turkish government have recently suffered significant setbacks.

Yet securing Turkish acquiescence for Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria is indispensable. Without an agreement with Öcalan, Ankara is likely to remain deeply suspicious, if not hostile, toward the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish area in northern Syria, despite Turkey’s good relations with Barzani and the KRG.

Indeed, the Syrian conflict appears to have followed the Kurds into their Iraqi capital Erbil, with a series of violent explosions rocking the normally peaceful city. They were clearly aimed at the security services personnel and infrastructure. Tellingly, the attacks came immediately after the announcement of the election results.

It’s possible the sudden violence is connected to Kurdish rivalries, but much more likely to reflect the gruesome spillover of the Syrian conflict into other parts of Iraq. A spate of vicious suicide bombings killed at least 1,000 people in Iraq last month. This seems to mainly be the work of al-Qaeda-linked groups closely connected with the most extreme forces in Syria, who appear to regard Iraqi Shiites as targets that are extensions of its war against the Assad regime.

Both Mr. Assad and al-Qaeda appear willing to use Kurdish areas, not to mention Iraq, as an extension of the conflict in Syria. Any responsible Syrian opposition group should have no trouble embracing legitimate Kurdish aspirations. And the Kurds of Syria need to be careful not to be drawn into becoming unwitting allies of the dictatorship, while denying al-Qaeda any presence in their territories.

The legitimate Syrian opposition and the Kurds should recognize that they face common enemies in al-Qaeda and the Assad dictatorship, and – differences over Turkey notwithstanding – should cooperate as much as possible against both.

Is this the end of the failed Muslim Brotherhood project?

 Is the Muslim Brotherhood dying? In Egypt and throughout the Arab world, Brotherhood-affiliated parties are suffering an unprecedented series of setbacks that cast real doubt on the long-term viability of that version of Islamist politics.

The blow the Brotherhood has received in Egypt is exceptionally severe. Most of its senior leaders are under arrest, and its ability to mount mass protests appears debilitated. There is a pending court order mandating its disbanding and the seizure of its assets. And none of this seems to bother most Egyptians.

It’s not clear when or how the Brotherhood in Egypt can recover from this unprecedented crisis.

What is less widely understood, however, is that Brotherhood-affiliated parties across the region – many of which recently seemed to be on the brink of the political successes they have craved for decades – are suffering extreme setbacks. The Brotherhood’s crisis in Egypt may be particularly dramatic but it is also merely the tip of the iceberg.

A quick regional survey can show how damaged this movement currently is.

In Morocco, the Justice and Development Party might be in the best shape of all, currently occupying the ineffective office of prime minister. But, while ostentatiously praising the King, it is loudly insisting that it is in no sense whatsoever a Muslim Brotherhood party, or affiliated with it at all except insofar as both identify as Islamist.

This is untrue. They only find it necessary to disavow Brotherhood connections so vigorously because of how regionally discredited the movement has become.

In Tunisia, a coalition of secular political and labour movement forces has forced the Brotherhood Ennahda party government to agree to resignation. Ennahda may still be the largest political party in Tunisia, but it’s unlikely that it could repeat its 2011 parliamentary electoral success since secular and non-Islamist forces are becoming much more organised and coordinated. And it’s always been clear it would be exceptionally difficult for Ennahda to beat a consensus secular candidate in a two-person presidential election or run-off.

So, while Ennahda compromised to survive – and is likely to still wield considerable influence in Tunisia – it may already be past the apogee of its power.

In Libya, the Brotherhood and its allies never gained the political traction they expected, especially given the local backlash against their Qatari patrons. They were routed by the non-Islamist National Forces Alliance in the party section of the parliamentary election. This forced them to rely on highly unpopular militia bullying that produced occasional short-term successes but looks headed for long-term failure.

The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, which seemed to be growing from strength to strength a mere year ago, is in utter disarray.

The Syrian Brotherhood was the most influential political force in the opposition after the uprising against the Damascus dictatorship began. But now they seem to have virtually no influence on the conflict or its likely outcome.

Hamas in Gaza is undergoing an unprecedented crisis. It bizarrely made no effort to convince the new Egyptian government that it was not a hostile force, especially with regard to security in Sinai. It is therefore being treated like one.

Egypt has imposed an unparalleled blockade, leaving the economy in shambles. For the first time since 2007, it is now possible to imagine a Gaza no longer under Hamas control.

And in those parts of the Gulf in which the Brotherhood has some presence, its affiliates are coming under intense scrutiny and increasing pressure. [In July, 69 people received heavy prison sentences in the United Arab Emirates for belonging to the Brotherhood-affiliated Al-Islah group. Underground Brotherhood affiliates in Saudi Arabia are on clear notice as well. Even the Brotherhood’s affiliates in Kuwait are also bracing for a possible backlash, fearing they too may have overreached.]

But all of this hardly means that Islamism across the board is enduring a nadir. In several Arab societies, Salafists are either outflanking Brotherhood groups or reaping the benefits of the Brotherhood’s crises.

But there is an important distinction: the main regional financers of the Brotherhood movement actually want them to dominate as many governments as possible in Arab republics. States and wealthy individuals who finance Salafists use them to harass the Brotherhood and to project power. But the primary movers behind the regional Salafist movements don’t actually want to see Salafist governments in Arab republics.

If the ideology and practices of more moderate Brotherhood parties have proven unworkable and popularly unacceptable in power, that can only apply far more intensively to Salafist groups. The plausibility of Salafist rule in any post-dictatorship Arab society is, for those two reasons, virtually nil.

This may not be the end of the Muslim Brotherhood but its region-wide crisis is so severe that significant ideological and practical adaptation will be unavoidable for those flexible enough to learn any lessons. The Moroccan and Tunisian branches are already unhappily compromising to survive.

But the Muslim Brotherhood may be dying at least in the sense that what ultimately emerges from the current wreckage will be unrecognisably different. Only a radical change in fortunes across the region is likely to forestall such a process.

So during the very period in which many Arabs and westerners alike expected Brotherhood domination in many Arab countries, we may instead be witnessing the death throes of a nearly 100-year-old failed experiment.

Palestine’s Washington Showcase

“There could be no greater legacy for America than to help to bring into being a Palestinian state for a people who have suffered too long, who have been humiliated too long, who have not reached their potential for too long, and who have so much to give to the international community and to all of us.”

These words—among the strongest ever made by a senior American official about the importance to U.S. foreign policy of establishing a Palestinian state—were delivered in 2006 by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the keynote speaker at the first annual Gala of the American Task Force on Palestine.

This was widely reported in Israel but almost totally ignored in the Arab world. An insightful Israeli noted that Palestinians should regard Rice’s speech as their own “Balfour Declaration,” unequivocally committing the United States to the creation of a Palestinian state.

ATFP’s galas are a celebration of Palestinian Americans, their dignity and pride, their culture and their contributions to the United States and the world. And they are also an unparalleled statement of the mainstreaming of Palestinians and Palestine in the United States.

On October 29, my colleagues and I at ATFP will be holding our 10th anniversary gala, “Generations of Commitment.” More than just a gala, it is the culmination of a long journey to create a defining public event for Palestine and Palestinians in Washington, and to bring the American policy establishment together annually under the banner of Palestine.

One of the most crucial aspects of ATFP’s mission has been to change the image of Palestine and Palestinians in Washington, moving beyond the traditional binary stereotypes of menacing terrorists or wretched refugees. There is an all-American story to be told about Palestinian immigrants to the United States, and a need to celebrate their contributions to our country and to the world. Every year several noteworthy Palestinian Americans are honored at the galas.

Beginning with the first ATFP Gala in 2006 has been a tradition of the highest-level keynote speakers including, during their terms of office, Secretaries of State Rice and Hillary Rodham Clinton, National Security Advisor Jim Jones, and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Keynote speaker Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stands alongside ATFP President Ziad Asali at the 2010 Gala. (ATFP)

ATFP, led by its founding President Ziad Asali, has emphasized the American national interest in ending the occupation and creating, at long last, a Palestinian state to live alongside Israel.

Almost everyone active in ATFP had a significant history of prior Arab-American activism. We knew we were essentially starting from scratch, since the normative approach could not work because it didn’t answer the main questions or address the primary audience.

Traditional Arab-American approaches emphasized history, justice, international law and human rights. But they did not explain why the United States should, in its own interests, adopt ending the occupation as a core foreign policy goal. It was a conversation of outsiders that, even under the best of circumstances could not have, and did not really seek to, influence policy.

It proved astonishingly easy to fit the agenda of ending the occupation based on a two-state solution into the existing American foreign policy discourse. What ATFP demonstrated was that it was not—as many Arab-Americans may have expected—knocking on a locked door. Rather, ATFP found itself pushing on one that opened wide.

The primary reaction in Washington was not “what are you talking about” but “where have you been?”

ATFP’s galas are unique in bringing together a set of stakeholders that rarely appear side-by-side in public. Community members sit alongside senior government officials and diplomats. Pro-Israel advocates mingle with ease at an event celebrating Palestine. Prominent journalists engage with key decision-makers. Typically welcoming over 600 guests, the galas are gatherings of the who’s who in Washington in the Middle East policy conversation.

Even more remarkably, they typically applaud the same things at the same time. Everyone rises for the American and Palestinian national anthems. A Washington insider marveled privately that such an unprecedented mingling of different, and often estranged, constituencies could be assembled.

Any public event is, by definition, at least in part an exercise in political optics. ATFP’s galas are unique in Washington, for the optics they project, the stakeholders they bring together, dignitaries they honor and how they reframe the Palestinian-American community’s presence in their own capital.

The ATFP Gala is an evening of celebration of Palestinian Americans and Palestine, and a showcase for what can be accomplished within the system. “Yes, we can,” because in fact we have.

It is what ATFP does in between galas that makes such a huge range of stakeholders want to attend them. Its work is typically low-key, steady and cumulative, and designed to have a long-term impact.

What ATFP has done is what all other successful American constituencies have. It has emulated others in learning how Washington works and how to work in Washington. And in so doing it has shown how Palestinian Americans—like all others—can work to achieve their goals, empower themselves, and acquire influence.