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Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and the Middle East in Flames


Two stories tell us that things in the Middle East may have just taken a dark and dangerous turn.

First, Hezbollah fighters played a vital role in Butcher Assad’s assault on rebel-held Qusayr, a strategically positioned town in Syria. Dozens of Hezbollah men were reportedly killed in some of the heaviest fighting yet in the civil war. The battle brought Hezbollah into direct conflict with al-Qaeda-aligned rebel brigades.

Second, a stunning series of car bombs exploded across Iraq yesterday, killing at least 95 people. Ten bombs exploded in Baghdad alone. Another exploded in Balad, north of Baghdad, killing more than a dozen pilgrims from Iran, which strongly supports the Shiite regime of Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki. Another bomb targeted a Sunni militia aligned with the government. Gunmen in Anbar, a nerve center of Sunni extremism, killed eight government policemen; another eight policemen kidnapped last week were found dead in the desert, with bullet wounds in their heads.

“Al-Maliki believes this is the time to be tough and show he is in control of the country…. What we are seeing is the backlash to that,” Patrick Clawson, the director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the AP. “How long do we have to continue living like this, with all the lies from the government?” wondered a 23-year-old Baghdad resident. April was Iraq’s bloodiest month since 2008; 240 people have been killed in the past week.

Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian regime is governing a country that is slowly slipping into sectarian war, with Sunni and Shiite militias once again fighting each other and the government, and with each attack bigger and more horrific than the last. In Syria, Alawite militias massacre Sunni civilians in a prelude to ethnic cleansing operations. And Lebanon is reeling as Hezbollah draws it deeper into the Syrian black hole.

Maliki, whatever his faults, is at least partly right about this: “The most dangerous thing in this process is that if the [Syrian] opposition is victorious, there will be a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan, and a sectarian war in Iraq.” The same could be said of a number of different outcomes of the Syrian war. The Middle East, from Basra to Beirut, is turning into one big Sunni versus Shi’a milita war, egged on by international players like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

[Image of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki courtesy Getty Images]

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  • wigwag

    It would be great for loyal readers of Via Meadia to get Adam Garfinkle’s take on all of this. His expertise and insight are invaluable.

    It seems to me that there is a myth going around that both sides in the region-wide civil war between the Shia and the Sunni are so horrible that there is no one that the West can support. How do you chose sides between the al Qaeda oriented Sunni insurgents in Syria and the Iranian supported, Hezbollah backed Alawite regime of Assad? How do you pick sides when the combatants are the increasingly authoritarian Iranian surrogates in the Malaki regime in Iraq and the Salafist terrorists doing the bidding of the Saudi regime?

    While this argument may mostly be true, it seems to me that there is a party to both the Syrian and Iraqi disputes that is well worth supporting and arming, even though they don’t get much press; the group I’m talking about is the Kurds.

    In the North of Iraq the Kurds have built an increasingly prosperous, peaceful and successful society. They’ve managed to dial down tension with the Turks and they have even provided the Turks with a little bit of help with their problem with the PKK. The Iraqi Kurds are passionately pro-American, they are reasonably friendly the Israelis (the Mossad is training and equipping the Peshmerga) and best of all they are sitting atop boat loads of oil. The United States should be supporting the Peshmerga with arms and it should be in favor of the maximalist territoriral position of the Kurds which is that Erbil Kirkuk and all of Mosul should all be fully incorporated into Iraqui Kurdistan. That both the Bush and Obama Administrations refused to side with the Kurds against the Central Government is simply a sign of how dimwitted both Administrations were (and are). And lets not forget that as Saddam Hussein was gassing the Kurds, George H.W. Bush sat around and did nothing. No one is saying that the Talabani and Barzani families resemble Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, but for the Middle East, they are as good as it gets.

    In the Syria imbroglio, the United States should be doing everything it can to support the Syrian Kurds and insure that they are able to maintain an independent government after the dust settles. Let the Sunni and Shia factions fight it out in Syria; hopefully they will exhaust themselves and end up being weaker than ever; but treat the Syrian Kurds like true allies and do whatever it takes to help them. That includes arming them, training their militias and doing everything possible to support their maximalist territorial position which includes providing them an outlet to the sea.

    It’s simply not true that their are no “good guys” in Iraq and Syria. It’s just that the press is too ignorant to pay any attention to the good guys and Obama, and Bush before him, were to oblivious to realize that supporting the Kurds is one case where American interests and American values coincide almost perfectly.

    • John Burke

      Good point. Let’s remember the region’s millions of Christians, too. There are nearly two million Christians in Syria, eight or 10 million in Egypt, all at the mercy of Muslim intolerance.

      • Frank Arden

        Yes, and many Syrian Christians are Orthodox Eastern (Russian and Greek). Putin has used this to gather support from the Russian Orthodox Church while his primary motive is to frustrate US influence in the region. Smart.

        How else can he justify the sale of weapons to the Butcher of Syria? Wicked.

      • Happycrow

        At the risk of being (Seriously) un-pc, I have a hard time feeling sorry for the Egyptian Christians, who were perfectly willing to profit from intolerance when it was a matter of kicking the Jews out of the country.

        The Kurds are muslim, and I would far rather do business with them than with any of the Copts.
        -Russ in Texas

    • Nick M.

      As much as I can get behind the support of the Kurds, Just how practical is doing such a thing? They want a autonomous region covering 4 nations, which includes our ally Turkey. How exactly do we make that happen without not just the regional uproar, but outside opportunists such as Russia and China stepping in to help out those who realized we abandoned them? Because we are the U.S. the sole superpower? Looking at Iraq, that may not be enough.

      Which is sad, because the Kurds really do look like (outside of the Turkey separatist groups) they have their stuff together.

    • Petra Marquardt-Bigman

      Not so long ago, Obama has called Turkish PM Erdogan his best friend… How do you think Erdogan would like your ideas?
      (I like them, though….)

      • wigwag

        Erdogan and the Turks have a thriving trade relationship with the Iraqi Kurds; surely they have an interest in Kurdish oil and very little interest in supporting an Iraqi central government allied with Iran.

        The Iraqi Kurds have been very smart about managing their relationship with the Turks including helping the Turks deal with the PKK.

        Politics sometime makes for strange bedfellows.

        • Happycrow

          This. The Kurds can get away without full sovereignty for a generation, allowing them to become one of the dominant players by demographics, so long as they can obtain regional autonomy and force TPTB to exercise only nominal suzerainty, rather than actually sovereignty, over their territory.
          -Russ in Texas

    • Jim Luebke

      Bush was probably too distracted by the PKK / Peshmerga’s acts of terrorism to embrace them.

      I’ve talked with people who were boots-on-the-ground there not too many years ago. They were not impressed by the Kurds’ dedication to peace and order.

      On the optimistic side, if you’re willing to rehabilitate (push the reset button with?) such people, the US could find friends just about anywhere.

      • wigwag

        The Peshmerga are not terrorists. The don’t target civilian populations, they don’t venture outside of Iraqi Kurdistan to bomb bridges, mosques, restaurants or infrastructure and they only engage in skirmishes with forces from the Central Government when those forces seek to diminish territory under Kurdish control. Their activities are almost exclusively defensive in nature. Conflating the Peshmerga with the PKK is simply wrong.

  • Frank Arden

    Hi wigwag. Good to see you again.

    I’ll read Garfinkle’s take, but in the meantime, I think your post was
    excellent and most intelligent as usual..

    When Assad falls the Levant will be in more serious trouble than it is now.
    Iran will lose its only Arab ally and Hezbollah will move its assets to Lebanon
    that could tear that beautiful country apart, further destabilze Jordan, and
    trigger a sectarian war in Iraq.

    This, also, will increase Hezbollah’s threat to Israel in the Golan.

    I doubt if the US has any realistic options, per se, in Syria now. It’s too
    late. I don’t have a command of Kurdish circumstances and interests as you do.

    But, I admit last summer at Tybee Island I was thinking about this business
    with the Kurds as proxies for the US and asked my French brother-in-law what he
    thought. As most people, he had no idea.

    I wondered if the Kurds wanted to protect their new found good circumstances
    and stay away from the conflict as much as possible and, further that their
    direct involvement as a proxy might invite reprisals against Iranian Kurds on
    Iran’s western border.

    I’ve thought little of that since I read your post.

    The questions are: Do the Kurds want to be a US (and Israeli) proxy in the
    Syrian conflict? What security guaranties would the US have to make to induce
    that proxy?

    • wigwag

      Frank, it’s nice to hear your voice in cyber space again. I remember well your kind invitation to visit your church some Sunday when I am driving from my New York home to my place in Ft. Lauderdale. I appreciated your kind offer.

      I would like to second the very smart comment made by John Burke below to remember the Christians in the Middle East.

      One of the big problems with the Bush Administration was that it conflated majoritarianism with democracy. The big problem with the Obama Administration is that it believes that by appeasing Islamists (whether Sunni or Shia) it can entice the radicals to like us. Both views are idiotic.

      What the United States should be doing in the Middle East is not trying to placate majority populations but protecting minority populations; including Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Alevi, Kurds and others.

      Doing that would not only be the right thing to do but it would be the smart thing to do. If there is ever going to be peace in the Middle East the Muslim populations and governments in the region will need to be taught a lesson; the Christians, Jews, Baha’i have every bit as much right to live in the region as they do. The Muslim majority idea that minority populations can be treated as D’himmis at best and traitors at worst will not be tolerated. Until the United States is willing to deliver that message and back it up, things in that part of the world will not get better.

      Forget bending over backwards to implore the majority populations. Instead do the right thing and the smart thing; stand up for the minority populations in the Islamic world. It’s another example where we can promote our values and our interests at the same time.

  • Luke Lea

    Hmmm. Reminds me of the last verse of this song:

  • Blaton Hardey

    “things in the Middle East may have just taken a dark and dangerous turn” hahaha… right. there’s no “darkest” in the middle east, just dark, darker, darker and even darker.

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