Tag Archives: Syria

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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The Failure of Diaspora Elites and Implications for the Syrian Crisis

Syrians carrying flag and protesting on top of car

By Michael Lynch, Research Intern, Center for Strategic Research
Edited by Dr. Denise Natali, CSR

Many would argue that the Arab Spring failed. This assumption of a squandered movement is largely based on differing perceptions of what the Arab Spring sought to bring about. If one were expecting liberal secular democracies emerging in the Middle-East, then disappointment is certain.

The reality is that the Arab Spring was never about democracy. It was about overthrowing the government that the general populous perceived as ailing them. Any confusion lies in the rhetoric of the leaders that emerged during the revolution and suggested that they were the champions of the movement. What seems to repeat itself is that in a power vacuum diaspora elites, who have been residing in the west until the uprisings, emerge from the political rubble and return home touting ambitions of western style democracy and governance. As the dust settles, the reality of the situation on the ground is much different than as advertised.

This emergence of diaspora leaders and their subsequent failures occur for several nearly universal reasons. The new leaders were educated in the west, speak very good English, and dress as proper western elites. The familiarity is comforting. These elites tell the US and its officials exactly what they want to hear. These propositions are the fantasies of a pro-west, democratic, and most importantly economically liberalized new state.

The problem; however, is that  that these leaders may have the backing of western institutions but, they have little or no legitimacy on the ground. They did not fight alongside the revolutionaries, they did not endure the hardships under the former leader, and when they grew tired of their situation, they abandoned their homeland only to return at a rather opportunistic time.

The crisis of elite legitimacy was the case not just during the Arab Spring but also in the reconstruction of Iraq and most post-conflict state building operations. (see;Afghanistan). Maliki and Allawai fled Iraq only to return after the invasion and other prominent figures have tended to go to schools in Western Europe. They are the antithesis to Muqtada al-Sadr, a Islamist and arguably militant leader who is from Baghdad, fought against western forces, and oversees several massive social programs in the slums of Iraq, which are now known as Sadr city.

This scenario has repeated itself in the aftermath of Arab Spring where exiled, traditionally western educated men, have returned to oversee the new government. Specific examples include:

  • Moncef Marzouki- Interim Tunisian President, fled to France in 2002. Studied medicine in Paris
  • Moncef Marzouki- Egyptian Opposition Leader possible presidential candidate, returned from Vienna where he was director of IAEA, Doctorate in International Law New York University
  • Abdurrahim al-Keib- Libyan Prime Minister, former engineering professor at University of Washington
  • Burhan Ghalioun- President of Syrian National Counsel, professor University of Paris Sorbonne

These diaspora leaders will not become the power brokers in the country for several reasons.  First, they are not able to distance themselves far enough from the former regime. While many had been long time activists, it appears longevity of polite resistance (op-eds in the New York Times) does not garner respect from the general populous in the Souks.  Rather, what the movements that did manage to gain the most momentum appear to the embodiment of the opposite ideology of the former regime.  In Tunisia and Egypt, formerly outlawed Islamist parties replaced secular, pro-western, modern, and highly militarized governments. In Libya, Ghadaffi’s rival tribal region Cyrenaica ousted him and the rest of his emplaced Tripolitania elites.

In each case, the opposition movement rallied around a direct opposing identity. Looking to throw off the shackles of the past and begin a new more prosperous era, they distanced themselves from the former system. This has happened in the Middle-East before, yet in the opposite direction. When Mustafa Kemal and the Young Turks ousted the Ottoman Empire, they wanted to establish a new governance that was as anti-Ottoman. Kemal replaced the Arabic script, moved the capitol from Istanbul and its Islamic architecture, and installed an entrenched secular ideology that still exists (however eroding) today.

The most prominent voice of the Syrian opposition movement is the Syrian National Counsel. The group was formed in Turkey, is composed of western elites, and was first conferred international legitimacy in Tunisia. The recognition of the SNC at the Friends of Syria Conference is problematic in itself. One would assume that the revolutionary factions would be too busy fighting in the streets of Damascus or under siege in Homs to take an international flight to attend a conference in at the La Palace hotel in Tunis.

The militant opposition, the Free Syrian Army, is also disadvantaged. First, it has no connection to the SNC, despite the SNC’s claims. The FSA is more of a network of lightly armed revolutionaries rather than an army as its name suggests. It has neither organizational hierarchy nor method of command and control. Unlike the armed opposition in Libya, the FSA lacks control over a geographic space and lacks a strategic stronghold like a Benghazi. Therefore when the question emerges about arming the opposition, it appears there is no consolidated military opposition to arm.

As the UN, United States, and other Western governments examine their options in Syria, there is a significant push to aid the Syrian opposition. The amount of fault lines the outcome of this conflict has is enormous.  It is a situation that will not just affect the Syrian people but the entire region.  It is worth noting that these perceived simple solutions such as “No-Kill Zones” or “Buffer Zones” or every ones favorite “Technical and Humanitarian Support” are never simple.  These simple plans never seem to include a “what happens next” (see; Afghanistan) or contingency guidelines.

It should be worth noting that the staple of low level conflict, a truck mounted machine gun known as a “technical”, got its name from aid workers in Africa arming militants using “technical assistance” grants.  Until there is a more unified and identifiable opposition as well as solidified power sharing agreements on what comes after Assad, the US needs to be cautious.

While the situation in Syria is grim, we need be weary that any misstep by the international community could escalate the situation to levels of violence far beyond what they are now. Any action in Syria risks crossing the Rubicon of Damascus.

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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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Damascus Meets Caracas: Syria in Latin America

By Eva Silkwood, Research Assistant, and Walter Rodriguez, Research Intern to Latin America Senior Fellow John (Jay) Cope

Should the U.S. government be concerned with Syria’s foray into Latin America?

This past weekend, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made his first official visit to Venezuela, as part of a larger tour of Latin America to include Cuba, Brazil and Argentina (President Chavez had previously visited Syria in 2006 and 2009). The two presidents discussed speeding up Syrian-Venezuelan cooperation and signed trade, tourism, and energy MOUs, including plans for the construction of an oil refinery in Syria which will begin operating in 2013 with a production capacity of 145,000 barrels per day of Venezuelan crude oil. President al-Assad said that Syria is seeking “a strategic relationship with Latin America, which starts from the strategic relationship between Syria and Venezuela.”

However, this is not necessarily a new relationship – President Chavez has cultivated diplomatic ties with Syria since 2000. It should be no surprise that Syria wishes to engage more with Venezuela since a small but influential community of Muslim Arabs of Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian descent lives there. However, of greater concern is the growing presence of Hezbollah in Venezuela. Ties between Iran and Venezuela in the form of weekly flights linking Caracas and Tehran via Damascus are also worrisome as some analysts have suggested the poorly regulated flights may be aiding the unrestricted flow of money and agents from Middle Eastern terrorist groups.

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