Monday, August 1, 2016

The Middle East Defined in Two Words – Retribution & Humiliation

“If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him” Old Testament/Torah (Leviticus 24:19-20 ESV; see also Exodus 21:23-25). “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” New Testament (Matthew 5:38-40)
“And We ordained for them therein a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and for wounds is legal retribution. But whoever gives [up his right as] charity, it is an expiation for him. And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed - then it is those who are the wrongdoers.” Qur'an 5:45
These religious texts, born in the Middle East, proselytize conflicting messages of revenge and forgiveness. It does appear that human nature almost automatically goes into attack-back (or cowering-in-humiliation) mode when assaulted. But even the soul who cowers, for obvious self-preservation, often harbors aggressive anger, a lust for retribution, upon such assault. Rare is the person, or the society, that resorts to charity upon such assault.
Societies that allow attacks without retribution, as common wisdom dictates, will soon perish from this earth. And the act of retaliation itself often invites another act of retribution, an ever-escalating cycle of violent reaction that often results in the decimation of one side or the other, frequently inflicting horrific damage even on the victor. In historical terms, a perceived initial societal wrong can take years, decades or even centuries to resolve. Religious admonitions notwithstanding.
The Middle East is the cradle of civilization. Judaism. Christianity. Islam. Complex interrelated social systems – such as those that defined ancient Egypt or Persia – rested side-by-side with small, nomadic communities, each side eyeing the other with suspicion. A small nomadic community, with limited resources and a need to keep moving, generated strict rules and severe but quickly-imposed penalties for their violation.
Murder, adultery and theft threatened the integrity of the entire tiny mobile community and were dealt with exceptionally harshly. Honor codes were developed to maintain that community at the expense of individual freedom. Our holy books reflect not only religious teachings but the social mandates of the ancient cultures that generated them. Just as the desert is harsh and unforgiving, so often are those codes of honor.
The factions ripping at each other in the Middle East today, conflicts which have escaped the region to almost every corner of the globe, seem to be a study in attack, humiliation and retribution. Start with the obvious, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jews were slaughtered in Europe over millennia of vile antisemitism, culminating in the Nazi Holocaust. Relying on the 1917 Balfour Declaration, most of the Jewish Holocaust survivors relocated to their biblical “Promised Land” in Palestine, embraced a new militancy and pledged “Never Again!” For local Arabs, who had lived peacefully with the Sabras (Jews born in the region), the shock of masses of armed rebels seizing and occupying their lands was a humiliation that triggered a powerful need for retribution.
Over the years, wars between Arabs and Israel generally did not go well for the Arab attackers. Israel’s territory spread; its population absorbed massive Arab (Muslim) populations. Local Arab leaders embraced their own “never again” equivalent. Militancy escalated as regional Arab nations pledged fealty to their Muslim brethren. Fatah. Hamas. Indiscriminate rocket fire into Israeli towns. Israeli reactions escalated as well, from rapidly expanding settlements in lands that had been promised to the newly absorbed Arabs, retaliatory shelling and assaults, to bulldozing the homes of the families of individual terrorists. Hatfields and McCoys who speak Hebrew and Arabic.
And then there’s the reopened Islamic wound between Persian-values-driven Shiites (a mystical vision of Islam) and the tribal/nomadic-values-driven Sunnis (Qur’anic literalists, particularly the Taliban, ISIS and Wahhabi fundamentalists). The 10% Shiite Syrian leadership, the 60% Shiite majority in Iraq and the 95% Shiite majority in Iran are at war with regional Sunnis (almost everybody else in the region). Iraqi Sunni and Shiite factions had stabilized until, in 2003 (and beyond), the United States foisted a regime change, purged all of the governing-experienced elements in Iraqi society and handed the country to the once-subjugated Shiite faction, who began a systematic persecution of everyone and everything Sunni. The Kurds in the north, rapidly separated from the rest of the country and set up their own autonomous regional government.
Sunnis in both Syria and Iraq were faced with a double whammy: global warming reduced their once-productive farms to dust while their “leadership” turned violently against them. With strong U.S. support, the worst perpetrator of violence – not too different from the horrors later perpetrated by ISIS against Shiite in retribution – was Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (2006-2014, and a vice president from 2014 to 2015).  Al-Maliki coordinated with his handlers in Shiite Iran, who reinforced his hold on Iraq, humiliating and crushing his Sunni subjects without mercy.
His callous persecution of Sunnis, described by some as bordering on full-on genocide, was the straw that gave ISIS the ability to claim “legitimacy” as the regional representative for those disenfranchised Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis. Al Qaeda, they claimed, might be focused on token retribution against the Shiites – suicide bombers taking out Shiite targets in Baghdad – but the seminal change to crash the oppressing Shiites required the ultra-violence of retaliatory ISIS. ISIS was wildly successful, taking land from Shiite masters and inflicting terror upon those who had inflicted terror on their subject Sunnis. But ISIS was now a horrible alternative, clearly running massive Sunni territory; yet many locals still preferred Sunni oppressors to the Shiites who were there before and had done worse.
American policy to contain ISIS, avoiding Western boots on the ground, depends heavily on deploying regional ground forces, notably from Iraq (with leaders whose strings are being pulled from Tehran) with clear military supplements from Iran. The same Iraqi Shiites (supported by U.S. cash, arms and advisors) who inflicted death and torture on the Sunnis who ran to ISIS for help. Neighboring and mostly Sunni Turkey, profoundly anti-Kurdish, is focused on containing (repressing) those who mounted a failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Sunni-Shiite combat spread to Yemen, where bordering Saudi (extreme Sunni) forces grappled to extinguish Shiite/Iran-supported Houthis rebels… with very limited success. But Kurdish and Iraqi forces began to push back ISIS territorial holdings. ISIS responded with explosive direct and inspired terrorist attacks against Western targets far from the main combat zone. Even if ISIS is slowly removed from its territorial holdings, slammed by aerial assaults from Western and Russian aircraft and mopped up by forces dominated by Iran-controlled Shiite ground troops, what breaks this revenge/retribution/retaliation/oppression/genocide cycle between Shiite and Sunni forces?
Is there the slightest reality to restoring Iraq to its pre-ISIS combination of Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions, an artificial nation created by the 1916 Sykes-Picot accord as greedy French and British colonial powers carved up a post-Ottoman world (see above map)? Almost zero. Turkey is nervously eyeing a new independent Kurdish nation in northern Iraq, one that is a natural focus for other Kurds in Turkey, Syria and even Iran. Sunnis just will not trust any government where Shiites are dominant. Shiites will never allow Sunnis to dominate them again either.
I haven’t even addressed the conflict in Islamic Pakistan and Afghanistan, well beyond the Middle East, but as you can readily see, there are no stabilizing solutions even for the Middle East any time in the foreseeable future. Look carefully at the policies embraced by both presidential candidates. Think either will remotely be able to settle the region down during their likely term in office? Bring Israelis and Palestinians to a peaceful solution in that same period? How exactly does a U.S. presence, given our regional track record, remotely have a shot at restoring our credibility given our stated strategies? Yup, the paths are exceptionally delicate and unbelievably complex. There are no easily answers, so if you hear any, trust me, they are simply wrong.
I’m Peter Dekom, and as important as it is for our leaders to get it right, as voters, we also need to understand that raw and general slogans cannot remotely explain what needs to be done to restore order to the most volatile region on earth.

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