Tag Archives: Middle East

Murky Waters: Implications of a Syrian No-Fly Zone

Syrian Flag

by Dylan Maguire, Research Intern
Edited by Dr. Denise Natali, Minerva Chair

As the events in Syria continue to unfold and new accounts of atrocities committed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime against the Syrian people are reported, calls for the international community to take decisive action will grow stronger.

At a recent panel held at the Rethink Institute in Washington, DC, an affiliate of the Turkic American Alliance, senior staff from the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies as well as the Syrian Expatriates Organization called for the imposition of a no-fly zone to create and maintain a humanitarian corridor inside Syria proper. All of us who are following the events transpiring in Syria want to encourage policy options that will stop the killing and lead to a transfer of power from the dictatorial regime to one that reflects the true aspirations of the Syrian people. However, before the legitimate use of military power can be employed in a responsible manner it is important that all of the possible consequences of such a policy are explored. Recent history provides us with two interesting case studies, Iraq and Libya. When examining these cases it is important to remember that the stated goal in Libya was Qaddafi’s departure while in Iraq it was population protection and humanitarian relief.

After Operation Desert Storm and the surrender of the Iraqi Army, the Kurds in the North and the Shia’s in the South revolted against Saddam’s regime. The international coalition decided to impose a no-fly zone over portions of the north and south of Iraq to prevent Saddam from using his air force to put down these rebellions. In addition to preventing Iraqi over-flight in the north, coalition ground forces also began distributing humanitarian aid among the Kurds. While Saddam was unable to use fixed-wing aircraft to suppress those in revolt, he made effective use of helicopters, artillery, and ground troops. The coalition air assets could have expanded their target options to include these ground forces, but they did not. In fact, there were almost no Iraqi planes for coalition pilots to engage as Saddam largely respected the no-fly zone knowing that his ground forces were more than capable against the lightly armed resistance. There are three lessons to be learned from this episode. First, no-fly zones are only effective against other aircraft, when ground force is used as the means of oppression, then what is called for is a no-drive zone, or in effect a conventional air campaign. Second, lightly armed resistance movements will not be able to mount decisive counter-regime operations unless they are supported by conventional air power. Third, dictators like Saddam and Assad are well aware of the capabilities of all parties involved and will play their cards as effectively as possible. They will do so by limiting their exposure to overwhelming air-power while using their conventional ground forces to demolish the local opposition.

A good example of a no-fly zone expanding into a no-drive zone is the recent NATO air campaign in Libya. The limited operation to prevent Qaddafi from using his air force against the resistance quickly turned into a conventional air campaign as Qaddafi made use of his armor and artillery to pound revolutionary cities into submission. When allied airplanes began to attack these formations Qaddafi ordered his forces to shed their uniforms and heavier equipment. They changed their dress to appear like the opposition forces in order to confuse NATO pilots. This in turn led to the need for on-the-ground coordination between Libyan revolutionary forces and NATO command and control to prevent friendly fire casualties. What had begun as a limited no-fly zone quickly morphed into NATO acting as the air force for the Libyan revolutionary forces. Again there are three main lessons that can be taken away from this case. First, in these types of operations mission creep is not a possibility but a certainty. Second, dictators like Qaddafi and Assad will not hesitate to change their ground strategies to realize the full potential of their own forces, even if that means breaking all of the recognized laws of war, such as wearing uniforms and driving marked vehicles. Finally, by wedding allied airpower to local opposition forces, western nations will be taking ownership of the conflict and all that entails. When non-combatants are unintentionally killed by allied air strikes it could potentially help to further entrench the dictator’s base, or possibly turn locals against allied forces.

In addition to the lessons that can be learned from these two cases there are other questions that must be answered before the US military engages in any operations in Syria. In the Iraq case, only certain areas of the country were protected by the no-fly zone. In Syria how will the no-fly zone and the humanitarian corridor be defined? Will the no-fly zone only protect a few of the varied ethnic communities in Syria? If coalition forces choose only to protect certain communities, this would have an effect on the domestic balance of power once Assad was ousted. How long will the no-fly zone be established for and who will pay for its upkeep and enforcement? If the Assad regime falls, will the US become responsible for the creation of a new government in Syria? By taking on these responsibilities the US would be committing itself to a new round of nation building in the Middle East.

The killing taking place in Syria at the hands of the Assad regime is unconscionable and must be recognized as such by the full international community. Yet, beginning an air campaign to limit Assad’s military capabilities could turn into a full-fledged conventional battle between allied power and the hardcore elements of the regime. Leaving aside issues concerning UN Security Council resolutions and Russian intransigence, the US must realize that in committing to a no-fly zone policy it will be in effect declaring war on Assad’s regime. If that is truly the desired policy, then a real war plan making use of the full capability of the US military must be employed. However, it appears that this is precisely what the Obama administration is seeking to avoid. Thus, it must refrain from taking actions, such as imposing a no-fly zone, which will inevitably lead it to the same place.


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Syrian Conflict: Lebanon at Risk

Flag of Lebanon

By Tess deBlanc-Knowles, Research Intern
Edited by Colonel Joel Rayburn, Military Research Fellow

Whether or not the Assad government survives the deepening current crisis, the explosion of violence and instability in Syria will have a serious impact on its neighbors and fundamentally alter regional dynamics.  As the world considers the potential regional fallout, international attention has tended to focus either on Iran or on the exacerbation of sectarian divisions in Iraq.  But civil war in Syria will also likely drag Lebanon into the fray and put devastating pressure on its fragile political framework.

In the face of Syrian unrest, the Lebanese government of Prime Minister Mikati has attempted to pursue a policy of determined neutrality in an effort to “disassociate” itself from the Syrian conflict.[1]  The government has attempted to insulate Lebanon from Syria’s instability by steering clear of both Arab League and international initiatives, declining to participate in sanctions against its neighbor or to play a role in the Arab League observer mission.  Most recently, the government declined the invitation to attend the “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunisia, citing “compliance with the country’s disassociation policy.”[2]

Beyond official statements, however, actors within Lebanon have begun jockeying to capitalize on Syria’s political disruption and the perceived waning of the Assad government’s power. Hezbollah’s March 8 coalition, for example, has clearly affirmed its support of the Assad government.  In recent speeches, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrullah downplayed the scale of the Syrian unrest, blaming the media for false reports and exaggerated casualty counts.  Nasrullah additionally cautioned that a new regime in Syria would increase the influence of both the United States and Israel.[3]

By contrast, leaders of the opposition March 14 coalition have declared support for “the will of Syrian the people” and the establishment of democracy in Syria.[4]  Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri has called for “solidarity with the Syrian people” and for international recognition of the opposition Syrian National Council.[5]  In a recent interview, Fares Soueid, the Secretary General of March 14, affirmed the coalition’s support of the SNC and boldly asserted, “the Syrian regime will most certainly fall down.”[6]

This polarization over Syria has touched even those who ostensibly occupy the neutral center of Lebanon’s political spectrum.  Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has participated publicly in anti-Assad rallies and has predicted that “the Syrian people’s revolution will win,”[7]  and has gone so far as to call for arming the Syrian opposition.[8]   President Michel Suleiman, similarly, appeared to side with the Syrian opposition when he declared in late February that “we, as friends of the Syrian people, hope that democracy will be established in Syria because if it is well, then Lebanon will be well.”[9]

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s domestic politics have ground to a halt.  Public fracturing of cabinet politicians along pro and anti-Syrian lines continues to raise tensions within government, stymieing compromise and hampering basic functioning.  Disagreements between pro-Assad Christian leader Michel Aoun and the anti-Assad opposition led to a four week suspension of cabinet sessions by Prime Minister Mikati last month.  While Mikati declared the crisis resolved following the resignation of a cabinet member from Aoun’s political bloc, the stalemate illustrated the now-continuous tensions between the coalitions, which have flared again over budgetary issues.[10]

Beyond politics, the spillover of Syria’s turmoil has led to unrest in the Lebanese street.  Large anti-Assad rallies have been held in the cities of Saida and Wali Khalid, and the Russian embassy in Beirut was the scene of impassioned rival demonstrations following Russia’s veto of the UN Security Council Resolution proposing a gradual turnover of power by Assad.[11]  Most recently, tensions exploded in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli – always a sectarian flashpoint – where clashes between pro-Assad Alawites and anti-Assad Sunnis left 3 dead and 23 wounded.[12]  Pro and anti-Assad rallies escalated into violent clashes, including the launching of rocket-propelled grenades from both sides.[13]  Reports of armed militias roaming the streets, explosions of machine gun fire, and targeted attacks on Lebanese Army personnel have flooded the Lebanese press.  Weekly anti-Assad protests organized by the Salafi Hizb Ut-Tahrir have followed the violence in the city, with protestors calling for jihad against the Assad government.[14]

The government responded to these incidents by dispatching the army to reestablish security.  The Lebanese Armed Forces have additionally been deployed, since the first week in February, along the northern border with Syria.  This deployment came at the request of the Syrian regime in response to growing Free Syrian Army activity in the area and the vocal condemnation by the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon of the smuggling of weapons across the border into Syria from its “brotherly state.”[15]  Such a deployment, ostensibly to maintain “security,” undermines Mikati’s neutrality policy and brings Lebanon a step closer to outright involvement in the conflict.  While Mikati has emphasized the deployment as an effort to protect the country’s borders, Hezbollah has indicated the importance of the army’s border presence as an impediment to the actions of Syrian sympathizers and to intercept the flow of weapons to the Syrian opposition.   Large numbers of refugees fleeing the violence, estimated by the UNHCR to number over 6000,[16] further add to the complex situation in the north.

Publicly, Hezbollah’s leaders have proclaimed their neutrality, asserting their commitment to maintaining Lebanon’s distance from the Syrian troubles.  For example, Deputy Hezbollah Secretary General Naim Qassem declared that Hezbollah “will not allow Lebanon to be used as a platform to attack others or a conduit for settling political scores in order to execute Israeli and American projects.”[17]  By framing the statement in such a manner, Qassem attempted to position the organization with the disassociation stance of the government, albeit with a firm anti-western intervention message.  Meanwhile, in response to Prime Minister Mikati’s earlier suspension of the cabinet, Hezbollah leader Nasrallah publicly confirmed the organization’s support of the government, insisting that now “is not the appropriate time for overthrowing cabinets in Lebanon.”[18]  Nasrallah has voiced the opinion that Lebanon would be the first country affected by Syrian unrest, and has thus asserted Hezbollah’s commitment to the current Lebanese government and its attempts to provide stability and political security.

Reports from the ground, however, paint a different picture.  A number of sources have implicated Hezbollah in pro-Syrian activities in the border areas, including the tracking down of opposition leaders,[19] the training of snipers, and the involvement of Iranian intelligence officers.[20]  More recently. The Free Syrian Army condemned the alleged involvement of Hezbollah armed brigades, along with Iranian Revolutionary Guards, in supporting the Syrian regime.[21]

In its public rhetoric, Hezbollah has endeavored to transfer blame for Lebanese instability to the actions of March 14, while simultaneously shifting the focus to the threat of Israel and Hezbollah’s critical role as a bulwark against it.  Hezbollah has positioned itself as pro-Assad, but also pro-disassociation, launching rhetorical attacks at its March 14 rivals, accusing them of arming the Syrian opposition and of attempting to use the Syrian uprising as an avenue for political gain.[22]  Senior Hezbollah official, Nabil Qaouk, warned March 14 against such steps, asserting that “the resistance today is at its strongest and is prepared to bring down a great catastrophe upon Israel.”[23]  Following the anti-Assad speeches of March 14 leaders Saad Hariri and Amin Gemayal, Nasrallah asserted the opposition alliance was “plunging Lebanon into war.”[24]

In fairness, the fact that Hezbollah itself is guilty of what it accuses March 14 of doing does not mean that March 14 is entirely innocent.  There is ample evidence that some March 14 elements do, at a minimum, have the intent of helping to arm the Syrian opposition, as Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea recently implied in his call to all countries to act decisively to stop the murder of Syrian civilians.[25]  And a recent explosion at an arms warehouse in Tripoli may have involved a Future Movement cache intended for arming the Syrian opposition.[26]

Thus the stage is set for Syria’s violence to spill over into Lebanon.  Lebanese politics have become deeply polarized, rival Lebanese factions are likely providing material support to the opposing Syrian sides, and the tension is already causing armed clashes within Lebanese borders.  Of course, the collapse of the Assad government would bring with it the danger of a security vacuum in any case.  Such a dynamic would have the strong likelihood of pushing Syria over the precipice into full-blown civil war, an occurrence that would send shockwaves through the delicate sectarian and security stability of the region as a whole.  Civil war in Syria would almost certainly complete the unraveling of Lebanon’s shaky confessional political system and plunge it back into civil war, and thus,  as the crisis in Syria worsens, the issue of the Assad government’s survival will eventually imperil the survival of the Lebanese government as well.  For Lebanon, to not follow a policy of disassociation would indeed be, as Prime Minister Mikati has declared, “suicidal.”[27]  But the influx of Syrian refugees, the escalation of political struggles, the polarization of the political parties, and the eruption of popular violence seem to indicate that this is a policy that has already failed.

[1] “Mikati , in Paris, Says France Understands Lebanon’s Syria Sensitivities.”  Daily Star 10 Feb 2012

[2] “Lebanon to Miss ‘Friends of Syria Conference.”  Daily Star 21 Feb 2012

[3] Nasrallah, Hassan.   Sayyid Al-Shuhada Complex, Beirut, Lebanon.  7 Feb. 2012.

[4] “We are with the Syrian People as a whole and support the democratic option, and this is included in the proposal of the Syrian leadership”  An Nahar  30 Jan 2012.

[5]  “Lebanese Press Round-Up: February 15, 2012” NOW Lebanon 15 Feb 2012

[6]  Interview with Fares Soueid.  Al Arabiyya Television,  Dubai 16 Feb 2012

[7] “Jumblatt Joins Anti-Syrian Regime Protest in Beirut” NOW Lebanon 22 Feb 2012

[8] “Jumblatt Calls for ‘Arming Syrian Opposition’” NOW Lebanon 25 Feb 2012

[9] “Suleiman: Some Flaws Need to Be Addressed to Fortify Taef Accord”  Naharnet  24 Feb 2012.

[10] “Mikati, Suleiman Emerge Winners in Deal to End Cabinet Crisis”  Daily Star 24 Feb 2012

[11] “Rival Demonstrators Face Off at Russian Embassy”  Daily Star 6 Feb 2012

[12] “Syrian Violence Spills Over Into Lebanon.”  Al Jazeera  12 Feb. 2012

[13] “Syrian Violence Spills Over Into Lebanon.”  Al Jazeera  12 Feb. 2012.

[14] “The Syrian Uprising in the Eyes of  Lebanese Islamists”  Al Akhbar  29 Feb 2012 .

[15] “Mikati, Syria’s Envoy Discuss Arm’s Smuggling.”  Daily Star 18 Jan 2012.

[16] Noor Malas and Charles Levinson, “Syrian Conflict Spills to Neighbors.”  Wall Street Journal 18 Feb 2012.

[17] “Lebanon Won’t Be Used To Hit Arab States: Hezbollah.”  Daliy Star  13 Feb. 2012.

[18]  “Nasrallah: Time Not ‘Appropriate for Overthrowing Cabinets.’”  NOW Lebanon  7 Feb. 2012.

[19] Mortada, Radwan. “Wadi Khalid: The Free Syrian Army Base in Lebanon”  Al Akhbar  8 Feb 2012.

[20] Amar Al-Wawi.  Interview by Hedi Aouidj.  Owni.  20 Feb 2012.  Web.

[21] “Snc Military Commander: Iranian, Hezbollah Brigades Fighting With Assad Forces”  NOW Lebanon 1 March 2012

[22] “Hezbollah Warns March 14 not to wager on Political Change.”  Daily Star 21 Feb 2012

[23] “Hezbollah Warns March 14 not to wager on Political Change.”  Daily Star 21 Feb 2012

[24] “Future Block Says Nasrallah’s Speech Was ‘Negative.’”  NOW Lebanon 21 Feb 2012.

[25] “Geagea: A Democratic Syria Ends ‘Exportation of Terrorism”  NOW Lebanon 14 Feb 2012.

[26] “Tripoli Clashes and the Neo-Salafis”  Al Akhbar  20 Feb 2012.

[27] Rizk, Sibylle.  “Lebanon is Certainly Not an Organized Platform for Arms Exports to Syria.”  Le Figaro 10 Feb 2012

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Ideology vs Pragmatism: Saddam’s Advice for Cuba

Saddam speaking

By Michael C. Herrera and David Palkki
Conflict Records Research Center

Many Americans view Saddam Hussein as an ideological dictator. Emerging evidence from captured Iraqi records stored digitally at the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC), however, confirms the conclusion that Saddam was first and foremost a pragmatist. Research by notable scholars, like Amatzia Baram, highlights Saddam’s willingness to adapt his behavior and his regime to gain advantage. For example, in 1993, when Iraq felt the full effects of the international embargo, Saddam announced the opening of his Faith Campaign, which would transform Iraq’s secular state to a more Islamic state in concert with the growing religiosity among Iraqis.[i] This ability to adapt in order to preserve power was continually employed by Saddam throughout his 24-year reign as President of Iraq. One can further observe his pragmatism in a CRRC transcript of a 2001 meeting between Saddam and Ricardo Largone, President of the National Cuban Association, where they discuss Cuba’s recent economic turmoil.

From the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s until 2001, Cuba’s economy struggled. Tourism remained its primary source of income, while sugar cane production steadily decreased due to a shortage of replacement parts, fertilizers, pesticides, and petroleum, as well as an unmotivated workforce. Largone voiced these concerns during his meeting with Saddam, who urges Cuba to consider adopting a new, more capitalist, approach.

Saddam begins by first identifying the problem with Cuba’s agricultural collective system. He states that when a farmer owns his own plot of land he has a higher incentive to care for his crop. The farmer will ensure a good harvest if it feeds his chickens and cows, which, in turn, feed his family. Consequently, the sense of ownership creates a cooperative amongst his family where everyone, even a child of six years old, will work on the farm.  Saddam continues:

However, with a collective this does not happen, if a family member finds work that gives him a little extra, he takes it, as for the wife, she does not work in the fields because she has no share in the cooperative. And the farmer feeds his cow sugar cane secretly because the cow is his and the sugar cane belongs to a hundred other people, and the property is public, it is all there, but the quantity of sugar cane is not specifically known.[ii]

Saddam attributes the lack of sugar production to the theory that, because workers do not own the land, they are more likely to steal from it and less likely to work hard to increase production. He goes on to describe how, over time, the Cuban population has grown out of their initial acceptance of the socialist command economy:

At the beginning, when the Cuban revolution occurred and succeeded in 1959, the Cuban people were poor, with their dignity and nationalism stepped on. At that time if you told him he had one share out of ten, he accepted it because he had nothing else. So, he worked hard and was buoyed by the spirit of the new revolution so he was careful, enthusiastic and responsible with the country’s wealth as if it were his own, but after his stomach was full, and he was clothed, well, he started to look for a new kind of life… Now, he sees the government employee, busy with  the news of all the other employees, this one stole and this one abuses public funds and this one skipped work for a few hours because he is a party member. And he sees the occupation in movies and how the American family lives, and he sees the cars or hears about them, but he must live in his country. And if imperialism is as bad as he is told, he does not see those negatives… These generations seek a better situation and secretly, within their hearts, compare their condition and the condition of other systems that took a different road.[iii]

According to Saddam, the new era of information had led Cubans to seek a better socioeconomic situation. At this point we begin to see Saddam’s pragmatism emerge. After identifying Cuba’s problem, Saddam proposes that Cuba consider adapting to its new situation to increase production. He states, “Therefore, if you lease out the land for a high price, that is appropriate for the income, then you will see that the production will double or more.”[iv] He is proposing that Cuba move to a more capitalist system.  Much like China has done over the past few years, Saddam stresses that Cuba should rethink the communist model and slowly make an attempt to move toward owning and farming private property.

It seems as though Cuba has begun to show the same pragmatism that kept Saddam in power. In the past couple of years, Cuba has begun to allow its citizens to own small businesses, it has given farmers new profit-incentives, and even allowed for ownership of private property. Although there are still many restriction imposed by the state, Cuba has begun to take Saddam’s pragmatic approach and learned to adapt to save its ailing economy. Analysts seeking to understand the durability of dictatorial rule in Cuba, Saddam’s Iraq, and elsewhere would do well to pay attention to dictators’ pragmatic behavior, not merely their ideological expressions.

[i] Baram, Amatzia. “From Militant Secularism to Islamism: The Iraqi Ba’th Regime 1968-2003”. http://www.wilsoncenter.org/program/histroy-and-public-policy-program

[ii] All quotes from Saddam Hussein are taken from the collection at the Conflict Records Research Center, Number: SH-PDWN-D-000-507

[iii] CRRC: SH-PDWN-D-000-507

[iv] CRRC: SH-PDWN-D-000-507

Michael C. Herrera is currently finishing his bachelor’s degree at Johns Hopkins University.  He is in the Army National Guard and is a research intern at the Conflict Records Research Center.

David Palkki is the Deputy Director of the Conflict Records Research Center and hasa recently co-authored a book titled”The Saddam Tapes: The Inner Workings of a Tyrant’s Regime, 1978-2001.”

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What happens when Yemen runs out of oil?

By Ted Pikulsky, MA – Research Assistant, Washington College, MD  ’10


Yemen is a nation on the brink. Although ongoing for the past two years, more attention has been drawn to the civil war in Yemen due to the political turmoil being experienced across the MENA region since January 2011. In fact, the country is split along three completely separate fault lines, leading to further chaos than a simple two-faction conflict. First, the resource poor north is at war with the (relatively) resource rich south. Second, tribes loyal to President Saleh are at war with non-aligned tribes. Third, the Islamists are at war with the secularists. These various groups are by no means homogenous themselves and have varying motives ranging from the establishment of a new and unified government to secession and the breakup of the Yemeni state.

The recent events are symptoms of a larger issue and serve to highlight the real threat to Yemen’s future: The growing scarcity of essential resources. Oil production and export accounts for roughly 70-75 percent of government revenue and by some estimates, Yemen could run completely dry by 2017

Such speculation is not based in paranoia. As of January 2010 Yemen’s proved oil reserves were placed at 3.16 billion bbl (oil barrels). Despite some upsets to production in March 2011 and thanks to an emergency oil transfusion  from Saudi Arabia, oil production has leveled off to around 150,000 bbl/day (barely enough to cover consumption based on 2009 rates). Even at such a low rate of production, it is clear that not much time is left. An unstable state to begin with, when the petrodollars are finally cut off the results could be disastrous.

The central government has already received a taste of what could be in store when the oil finally stops flowing. Following the March 2011 bombing of the critical 140 mile pipeline that ran from the Maarib oil fields to the primary refinery in Aden, oil production effectively fell to zero throughout the spring. The suspected losses from this brief period of stopped output hover at the billion dollar mark. To an economy whose GDP is only $60 billion to begin with, and an annual deficit of approximately $2.5 billion, such a loss is catastrophic. The money that flowed from the central government to its tribal guarantors sustaining Yemen’s system of patronage effectively ceased. Since Saleh came into power thirty years ago the government has maintained a carefully designed network of money transfers and political appointments. As long as the central government has kept the roughly 4-5,000 tribal leaders paid-off they have been able to maintain their loyalty and control over regions that Saleh’s government would otherwise have difficulty maintaining. The money, like the oil, has slowed to a trickle.

Since the January protests calling for President Saleh’s ouster, a spotlight has been cast on the dangers brewing in Yemen. Intelligence officials have long been aware of the threat of extremism for which Yemen seems to be a breeding ground. It has become increasingly clear that AQAP (Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula) and other sympathetic groups have a strong presence in the country. Some speculations are that there are as many as 500 Al-Qaeda and sympathetic militants in Yemen already. What will happen to the Yemeni state as it exists today if the government totally collapses?

The United States has long had a close relationship with Saleh’s government. No small part of this is the strategic waterway that Yemen occupies. The Gulf of Aden is one of the most crucial waterways to international maritime economy and certainly for oil transport. It is no secret that the United States has taken a vested interest in protecting it since the British left in 1967.

Piracy is a major threat in the Gulf of Aden. While most attacks originate from Somalia, widely accepted to be a failed state, a stable Yemen is essential in staving off this threat. If Yemen were to collapse and Western navies were to lose the strategic foothold of Aden in the region, it is easy to foresee the increased danger to maritime activity.

Finally, Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in what happens in Yemen and to say the Royal Family is concerned is an understatement. Proof of this is the selling, turned “charitable contribution”, of 3 million bbl conceivably intended to prop up the flat-lining Yemeni government while it retakes and repairs the broken pipeline connecting Aden with Yemeni oil fields. Of course this amounts to sticking a finger in the dike, as it is yet to be seen what lengths Al Sa`ud will be willing to go to keep Yemen limping along.

The question remains: What will happen to Yemen when it finally runs out of oil? It is around the corner, yet no infrastructure or social organization exists to absorb the shock that will take place to the economy. Even if the money and/or resources existed, it is difficult to imagine that the appropriate safeguards could be put in place in time. There is no infrastructure or institutional mechanism to absorb or resolve any crisis—political or economic.

The Saudis have already begun to prepare for their eventual future of running dry (one that is considerably further off). They have instituted programs promoting both alternativeenergy and public education that will (theoretically) carry the country into a post-petrol economy. Of course this has been funded by massive amounts of oil money that Yemen could not have matched in its most productive years.

Is Yemen destined to become the Arabian Peninsula’s Somalia? Worse still for Yemen is that running out of oil is not the biggest catastrophe it will face in the near future. The desert nation is already beginning to exhaust its natural aquifers and has neither the money nor geography to take on desalination projects. If Yemen cannot survive an oil crisis, what government will be left to deal with a water crisis?



Ted Pikulsky is the Assistant to the Director of Communications at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, at the National Defense University. He is currently conducting research on media, communications and political processes. He holds a MA in History from Washington College and a BA in International Relations and Economics from Boston University.

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Floating Voters, “Couch Rebels,” and Political Participation

By Elena Johnson, Research Intern, University of Virginia, VA


Each evolution of communication in history has always been followed by a hoard of skeptics and optimists, from Socrates lamenting the advent of writing, to Nicholas Carr questioning centuries later: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

While it is unclear whether writing has made us unable to recall things from memory, or Google is making us dumber, there are skeptics who argue that the rapid advances in media are making us less politically active and knowledgeable.

One outspoken author is Markus Prior, who wrote “Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections.” He claims that due to the wide range of media options available today more people are opting to ignore politics, leaving only partisan voters and an increasingly polarized system.

The argument hinges around the idea of a “floating voter” or those voters who are not strongly affiliated or persuaded by a particular party and “seldom approach an election with a firm sense of whom to vote for and do not always vote for the same party.” Some argue that it was the “floating” youth votes which swept Obama into office in 2008, but returned to their traditionally low participation rates during the 2010 elections when the Republican’s took back the House. 

The rise of new media sources allows people to selectively consume news that interests them or not watch news at all. In recent years the number of people tuning into the nightly news has declined greatly.

Figure 1: A decline in news consumption with the rise of internet sources allows people to selectively consume news that interests them or not watch news at all.

Prior explains that these voters tend to be less politically aware than their partisan peers, and as such they can be strongly influenced by elements like “candidate images or the controversy of the day.” Knowing about these controversies and seeing the images was inescapable back when a nation tuned into watch to the same newscast by Walter Cronkite each night. However, today we have a variety of options to distract ourselves from the news, be it a rerun of “Two and a Half Men” or the Facebook’s status updates on the daily trials and tribulations of your closest 423 friends.

Prior’s Washington Post article points out how “today’s media users seek out the content they really like. Unfortunately… few people really like the news.” This means that those uninformed citizens who are not invested in politics can remain removed from the political sphere. Prior argues that this detracts from the overall participation in an election— Why move your attention away from the most recent American Idol episode or your Twitter if you don’t really care about the elections at all?

This may not be a uniquely American phenomenon: a Washington Post article from June 13th reports that the media freedoms we’ve become so distracted by in the United States may be just as distracting in countries like Iran.

Thomas Erdbrink’s “In Iran, ‘couch rebels’ prefer Facebook” describes how the same people who led the infamous ‘Twitter’ Revolution in 2009 are now “playing internet games such as FarmVille, [and] peeking at remarkably candid photographs posted online by friends.” The YouTube video “Tehran Persian Nights” is a compilation of these photos, and illustrates the glamorous lives of this younger generation, with blonde women without headscarves shopping in high end boutiques, and young men and women going night-clubbing in high heels and fancy jeans.

Jinoos, a 39 year old Iranian artist, described her generation as “couch rebels,” and told Erdbrink that “our world online is like an endless party with no rules, and that keeps us very busy.” Some of  the reluctance to participate openly in politics may be attributed to the “ferocity of the government crackdown that followed the protests of 2009” which has had long standing effects, including curbing any real outcry from Iran during the recent wave of revolutions in the Middle East. Facebook continues to be the tool of distraction, despite the restrictions implemented by the Irani regime.

On a more positive note, there are many ‘techno-optimists’ today, especially on the tail end of the Arab Spring where social networks are given a lot of credit for organizing protests against authoritarian regimes. Undoubtedly, the tweets which organized protests and found their way to Al Jazeera, and to an even wider audience internationally, played a key role in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions.

Studies in the United States are finding that social networks may even be improving our political activism. Pew Internet recently released a report on “Social Networking and Our Lives”, and discovered that Internet users on the whole are more politically engaged than similar demographics that did not use the internet. Beyond internet usage, they also found that using Facebook specifically increased political participation, concluding that:

“A Facebook user who uses the site multiple times per day was an additional two and half times more likely to attend a political rally or meeting, 57% more likely to persuade someone on their vote, and an additional 43% more likely to have said they would vote.”

Perhaps the future of society with social media isn’t quite as bleak as we pictured it. People are rioting for freedom and democracy, and the youth of the United States has proven that they can and will mobilize for a candidate and cause they believe in. All good things, right? Maybe not. Voting and protesting are inherently different elements of political participation, and some wonder if perhaps social media is simply good for revolution, but bad for democracy.

While resident techno-optimist Clay Shirky certainly sees the benefit of social media for both, saying that social media tools overall “probably do not hurt in the short run, and might help in the long run,” there are a fair few skeptics who feel otherwise. Prior clearly outlines the potential drawbacks of new media for politics, and pundits like Dave Parry point out  that while social media can enable revolutions it “doesn’t necessarily mean that they enable the installation of stable power structure.” He also looks at how social networks are by nature unorganized and without a hierarchy and a clear leader there may be issues post-revolution with a power vacuum. Parry uses Egypt as an example of this, where citizens were concerned with the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood could come into power in the event of a quick election after Mubarak’s departure.

Overall, it remains to be seen what role social media is going to play in our lives. Some dispute the role it played in the Arab Spring; some argue that it caused the world to change with a hashtag. Whether or not you see it as a way for people to simply socialize or organize for lasting change, new media has had a lasting impact on the way people have come to communicate.

The trick is to sift through all the #nowplaying’s and #justinbeiber’s for the salient, world altering patterns and information.  No one saw the rise of Facebook, many still do not understand the nature of Twitter, and few could truly say how it will impact our lives in the years to come, but with the most recent events there may be hope for those techno-optimists yet. 

Elena Johnson is studying American Government and Media at the University of Virginia. She is currently researching social media and regimes at INSS and is also working for the Executive Office of the President. Last summer she worked at Women and the Environment Organization (WATEO) helping to organize educational programs for women in rural Iraq.

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What Drives Iran?

By Judith Yaphe, PhD


For the United States, any consideration of Persian Gulf security must begin with Iran: its ambitions, perceptions, and behavior. For many in the West, Winston Churchill’s famous quip about the Soviet Union—being a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma—could apply equally well to Iran given its complex, opaque, and often turbulent politics. And yet the key to understanding Iran is to figure out what it sees when it looks in the mirror. What are the fundamental influences that shape Iran’s view of its role in the world?

The first, clearly, is Iranian nationalism. It is a means of unifying society while assuring territorial integrity and political power. The second is Islam, which is the country’s source of faith and ethical code. The third is Persia as the basis of its historical identity and cultural pride. Taken together, these factors and the aspirations they embody—to secure Iran’s territorial and political integrity while gaining acceptance of the regime’s legitimacy and the country’s status in international relationships more generally—are deeply rooted in Iranian society. But there is also a fourth, latter-day imperative that wields great influence over Iranian attitudes: the quest for strategic self-sufficiency.

Everywhere they look, Iran’s leaders see their country encircled by real and potential enemies—by Iraq, which used chemical weapons and missiles against Iran in their 8-year war; by the Gulf Arab states, which financed the Iraq War, host the U.S. military presence, and are seen as repressing their Shia communities; by Pakistan, which is occasionally involved in hostile skirmishes with Iran on their common border and has encouraged anti-Iranian activity in Afghanistan; and by Central Asia, once pro-Soviet, now a source of economic opportunity, sectarian risk, and host to U.S. military forces. Above all, the United States, a virtual neighbor since the occupation of Iraq in April 2003, and Israel are viewed as enemies: both threaten Iran’s nuclear achievements and deplore its efforts to derail any peace process between Israel and the Palestinians or Israel and Syria. Washington, in particular, is seen as keen to keep the Persian Gulf as its militarized zone, maintain pro-U.S. regimes in Baghdad and Kabul, and marginalize Iran.

Iran’s leaders—whether moderate Persian nationalists or conservative Islamists—view the world with a mix of confidence and trepidation. Regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum, they most likely share a common view of the threats to the homeland and the measures necessary to protect Iranian interests. This consensus also includes a strong, underlying sense that they may well have to fight alone, again—just as they did from 1980 to 1988—and that Iran must be able absolutely to defend itself without assistance. Thus, Tehran aspires to independence and self-sufficiency in both strategic and operational terms. It believes that it must build its own military industries, reconstitute a modern military force, and have minimal reliance upon foreign suppliers. It also seeks to acquire nuclear technology and, eventually, the wherewithal to produce nuclear weapons, probably as a cost-effective way to compensate for military weakness and relative strategic isolation.

The predicament that all this poses for Iran’s neighbors and the larger international community is not only how military self-sufficiency is defined by Tehran, but also how this self-sufficiency impulse plays into an already strong sense of Iranian exceptionalism—specifically, that the country is endowed with the natural right and historic destiny to dominate the greater Middle East as well as to lead the world’s Muslims.

Iran’s ambitions to be the preeminent power in its neighborhood are longstanding. The quest for regional hegemony began under the shahs and has been continued by the clerics of the Islamic Republic. Iranian foreign policy has always been designed to protect a nation and an empire that were long coveted by more powerful neighbors—Ottoman Turkey and tsarist Russia—and divided into spheres of influence by the great powers of the 20th century—the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States. Viewed through this historical prism, these ambitions have little to do with exporting its Islamic revolution or expanding its borders, although occasional reminders to the Gulf Arabs of the Shia and Persian-origin communities within their borders prompt those Sunni Arab–led states to recall their vulnerability.

Iran assumes it is by right the preeminent power in the Persian Gulf and the greater Middle East region. It has the largest population, largest land mass, largest military, and oldest culture and civilization. It believes it is the economic engine of the region and the most innovative in application of science and technology. In the Iranian worldview, that “region” is more than the Gulf or Central Asia. It extends from Afghanistan through the Gulf, Iraq, Turkey, and the greater Middle East (especially anything affecting Syria, Lebanon, Palestinians, and Israel). As the preeminent power, Tehran expects to be consulted on all issues affecting the region, in much the same sense that Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad interpreted his and Syria’s role. Iran believes that all the roads to a U.S. exit strategy from Iraq, to a peace settlement in the Arab-Israeli context, and to stability in the Gulf run through Tehran. Without Iran, according to this view, the country’s leaders believe, there can be no peace, no resolution of conflict, and no “justice.”

Iran wants to expand its influence and authority in the region, but it is not interested in territorial expansion. Rather, it seeks to build its clout through a policy of aggressive outreach short of war—by building and backing support networks throughout the region; providing political support and economic assistance to key actors; bolstering trade and commercial ties with neighboring countries; and signing security and defense agreements. In implementing its policies, Iran operates on two intertwined principles that underwrite its ability to build networks of surrogates, intimidate opponents and critics, influence governments, and make foreign policy: the first of these is plausible deniability, and the second is deliberate ambiguity.

This post is an excerpt from Strategic Forum No. 237, “Challenges to Persian Gulf Security: How Should the United States Respond?”

The document in its entirety may be found here.

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Are there Lessons for the Military in the Arab Revolts?

By Judith S. Yaphe, PhD and Michael Eisenstadt


Egyptian Protesters in Cairo in front of flagMany Middle East observers professed great surprise at the virtually bloodless but sudden removal of Husni Mubarak as President of Egypt. Why, they asked, was there no warning? Is this another intelligence failure? Their attention then shifted to comparisons. It must have been the military which, seeing the growing and unstoppable challenge from the streets of Cairo, withdrew its support from Mubarak and thus secured a relatively peaceful transfer of power. Just like Iran in 1978-1979, they say, when the military tilted the balance in Tehran by refusing to obey the Shah’s orders to shoot on the crowds demonstrating against him.

This is the wrong comparison. The situation in Egypt in 2011 is not the same as Iran in 1979. Contemporary Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad resembles Mubarak’s Egypt in that both had weathered periods of protest and political violence. Mubarak was accused of rigging the 2005 presidential election, when he received nearly 90 percent of the votes, and the 2010 parliamentary elections, when all of the Muslim Brother candidates who were running for a seat lost.(1)   Ahmadinejad was accused of rigging the 2009 presidential election to insure for himself a landslide victory. In Egypt the crowds chanted “Enough”; in Iran anti-regime demonstrators demanded “Where’s my vote?” The difference would seem to be that Iran’s military elite in 2009 moved quickly and harshly to suppress any sign of opposition, believing that any sign of weakness would result in the fall of the regime. In 1978, they did nothing. In Egypt, however, the military elite were willing to discard Mubarak to placate the crowds and survive.

Iran’s military in 1978 was not the same cohesive and determined force as its 2009 successor nor as Egypt’s in 2011. The armed forces were the main pillar of the Shah’s rule and were believed by many inside and outside the country to be strong, well-trained, and effective. The Shah carefully cultivated the loyalty of the officer corps through lavish gifts of land, promotion, and wealth and the latest military equipment. Senior officers received generous salaries, subsidized housing and commissaries, free education for their children, generous pensions, and in some cases, plum jobs in retirement as provincial governors, in government ministries, or as managers of state enterprises. Promotion was generally based on loyalty rather than competence.

The Shah also exercised tight control over the armed forces. All promotions above major needed his approval and he required all service chiefs to report directly to him. He prohibited coordination among the service chiefs (they rarely met together in any venue), and he fostered rivalry and mistrust among them to prevent them from plotting against him. He periodically reshuffled and cashiered officers to prevent power blocs from emerging within the military. Anybody with decision-making authority was closely monitored by military and civilian intelligence and security services. Finally, the Shah had to approve all troop movements and military flights, thereby stifling initiative among his commanders. This system of control served the Shah well in normal times, but proved fatal for him during the revolution.

The Shah’s goal was the transformation of Iran into the dominant regional power in the Gulf. As a result, he oversaw a dramatic expansion of the armed forces. By 1978, the Iranian armed forces had surpassed Egypt as the largest in the region and the most sophisticated after Israel.(2)   They lacked, however, proper training and equipment to deal with domestic unrest. They used overwhelming force in 1978 to dispel demonstrators against the Shah, killing or wounding hundreds. Over the next year, the military was used to quell anti-Shah demonstrations using violence while the Shah alternately tried threats of repression and vague attempts at reconciliation to end the confrontations. He was increasingly seen as ineffective and weak, and the protests grew. In December 1978 during the holy month of Moharram, with millions of people protesting in the streets of Tehran and other cities, the military staged its first act of rebellion when army conscripts killed or wounded a number of officers at the Lavisan Barracks in Tehran. This incident inspired mutinies and acts of rebellion elsewhere, and many units were confined to their barracks.

With the departure of the Shah, the senior military leadership was unable to decide what to do: continue their support for Prime Minister Bakhtiyar’s government, throw their support behind the Islamic opposition, or launch a coup and impose military rule? Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran on February 1, 1979; four days later he appointed a provisional government under the leadership of Mehdi Bazargan. The military did not attempt to block Khomeini’s return, and on February 11 the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces declared its neutrality in the struggle between the government and the opposition, in order to preserve the integrity of the armed forces. The revolution was over.

The new regime used the military to suppress unrest among Iran’s Kurd, Turkman, Baluch and Arab minorities while it consolidated its power. Never completely trusted by the new regime because of their suspected loyalty to the Shah and the United States, military leaders were arrested, purged, tried, and executed or fled to exile in Iraq and Turkey. The rest of the military underwent Islamicization. In March 1979 Khomeini ordered the formation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); their mission was and remains protection of the regime and the Islamic revolution. They cooperated with the regular military after Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980 and after the war expanded to become the primary military force, security and intelligence service, superseding the regular army, navy and air force. Within a decade, the IRGC had become a major political and economic power in Iran, overshadowing the regular armed forces as well as many traditional merchants and bazaaris who had once been the backbone of the government.

Why did the military fail to prevent the revolution or protect the short-lived moderate government led by Bakhtiyar, Bani Sadr, or Bazirgan? The failure of the Iranian armed forces to quash the Islamic revolution can be attributed to a number of factors:

The Shah’s weak and vacillating personality: The military was psychologically dependent on the Shah, and was therefore unable to act without direction from him. Moreover, for their entire careers, the Shah had barred cooperation among his service chiefs, and had fed petty personal and professional jealousies among his officers in order to preclude such cooperation. With or without the Shah, they were unable to act as a cohesive, unified group.
Dysfunctional and inept military leadership, which was forced to confront the demonstrators without proper training and equipment, without an effective strategy, and without permission to use the most effective means they had at their disposal except in extremis. And when they did so, they were savagely criticized in the media and by the Shah. When the Shah left Iran, the military was paralyzed by indecision and unable to act on its own either to preserve the regime or to promote its corporate interests. In the end, it tried to ride out the storm as best it could, in the hope of preserving the institution of the armed forces and their privileges.
Social divisions in the armed forces that were effectively exploited by the opposition through a successful propaganda campaign. Like Egypt’s military in 2011, the most senior officers in Iran’s Armed Forces were mostly loyal to the Shah due to their privileged status and benefits; the middle ranks were drawn primarily from the middle and lower-middle classes and split between upwardly mobile officers who identified with the armed forces and those who identified with the general population or the opposition; and the junior officers, who had attended university in Iran in the 1970s, had been exposed to the various political currents present on campus and may have been influenced by opposition propaganda. The enlisted ranks were split between the professional NCO corps, which was largely loyal to the Shah, and the technical specialists and conscript force, which was drawn from the peasants and urban poor, and contained the largest number of opposition sympathizers.
Successful co-optation of members of the Armed Forces by the clerics. Soldiers were urged not to open fire on demonstrators and promised a warm reception if they joined the opposition. They were also constantly reminded of Khomeini’s religious decrees providing religious sanction for opposition and threatening punishment for those who refused to break with the regime.

Are there lessons in the Iranian military’s experiences for Egypt and the other Arab governments now in various stages of revolution? Egypt’s military, like Iran’s military in 1978-1979, appears to be a strong, united, and cohesive force whose decision on where to put its support is critical to regime survival or regime change. It is a key social and economic institution in that it is based on conscription and provides employment, food, housing, and other humanitarian benefits for a significant proportion of population. A decision to support Mubarak could have led to a sustained violent confrontation with the street and still might do so if the crowd demands removal of the senior military officers Mubarak appointed to take control in his absence.(3)   The decision of the military not to fire on demonstrators in late 1978 and not to defend the Shah or his successors in 1979 sealed its fate under Khomeini’s Islamic Republic. Similarly, strong and precipitate action by the IRGC to squelch rebellious students in 1999 and government critics in 2009 were key to the regime’s ability to contain massive street protests.

Dr. Judith S. Yaphe is a distinguished research fellow in the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University. Mr. Michael Eisenstadt is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Comments and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or any other government agency.

(1) Egypt held its first multi-party presidential election in 2005. The results were Mubarak (National Democratic Party) 88 percent, Ayman Nour (Tomorrow Party) 7 percent, and Nouma Gumaa (Wafd) 3 percent. Before parliamentary elections were held in Egypt in 2010, Muslim Brothers held 88 seats out of 454. After the first round of the election, the Brothers had no seats; they chose to boycott the runoff round of elections and, as a result, no members of the Brotherhood are in the current parliament.

(2) Iran’s armed forces included 413,000 men (285,000 in the army, 100,000 in the air force and 28,000 in the navy).

(3) Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, who was appointed by Mubarak when he left office, resigned on 3 March 2011. Protestors are demanding the removal of all Mubarak-era ministers; Shafiq’s replacement served as Health Minister in the previous Cabinet. www.nytimes.com/2011/03/04/world/middleeast/04egypt.html?_r=18ref=world .

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