Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Syria: How Sunni-Shia warfare came to dominate the Middle East.

With hindsight one can now see that there has been a growing pattern of Sunni-Shia conflict emerging in the Middle East, which to some degree paralells the Moslem-Jewish conflict and may be far more bitter. Iraq seems to have been the spark that ignited the conflict, and it may well be that it won't extend beyond Syria-Lebanon.
Round I: The Iraq - Iran war (1980 - 1988)
In 1980 the Sunni-dominated Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein invaded Shia-dominated Iran, then fresh from a religious revolution. This lead to the Iraq-Iraq war and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civillians in both Iraq and Iran. The invasion was the product of a long history of tension and border disputes between the two countries, much revolving round Kurdish revolts in Iraq, however the revolution in Iran had radicalized the Shia third of Iraq and led to growing attacks on the regime by Iraqi Shia radicals.
The Iraq-Iraq war was not purely a Sunni-Shia conflict, and the Iraqi regime was not overtly religious, but the creation of a regime in Iran whose ideology was formally religious-national meant that any conflict involving that regime risked escalating into ethno-religous conflict.

Round II: The Iraqi civil war / insurgency (2006 - 2008) 
The Ottoman empire was a religious empire based on Sunni Islam and during the centuries of Ottoman rule in Iraq, the Iraqi Shia were a neglected religious group. The British tapped into existing elites and established a state in which the Sunnis continued to dominate, although Shia were the majority.

The 2003 US invasion and the forcible implementation of democracy in Iraq led to sudden Shia domination, since the Shia are the majority of the Iraqi population.  Religious-nationalism formed a focal point of opposition to the US presence and neatly gelled with the extreme anti-civilian violence of Al-Qaeda whose religious xenophobia turned out to be directed against Shia Moslems no less then non Moslems. As a result Shia and Sunni militias fought each other as they fought the USA, but while they only targeted the US occupying army, they mercilessly attacked each other's civilian population. For both sides the USA was the prime target, but Shia-Sunni warfare was now openly sectarian and extremely bitter.

Round III: War in Syria:  All out Sunni=Shia warfare. (2011 - Present)
When Hizbullah, Iran's Lebanese Shia militia, started fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime, the conflict there turned into an  almost purely sectarian war.  One can now see that each round of conflict since the Iran Iraq war has incorporated greater Sunni-Shia conflict and that this is now becoming the Middle-East's dominant conflict.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Sri Lankan analogy: Why Israel is more like Sri Lanka then South Africa and what that means for the Palestinians

The main problem with the infamous Israeli-Apartheid analogy is that discrimination and conflict in Israel is based on religion and not on race. Zionism does not incorporate race theory and does not hold that the Palestinians are racially inferior which was a basic principle of Apartheid and European colonial societies.  Its not surprising that Zionists did not adopt such doctrines given that most race theorists regarded the Jews as non-European inferiors. Other problems with the Apartheid analogy are that outside the occupied areas there is full democratic procedure in which Arabs/Moslems also participate and that half of Israeli Jews can reasonably considered to be Arabs.

Sri Lanka is similar to Israel-Palestine in that it is also a religious conflict, between Hindus and Buddhists belonging to separate ethnic groups (Tamils are Hindus and Sinhalese are Buddhists). Although Buddhists outnumber Hindus in Sri Lanka, they are massively outnumbered in neighbouring India, just as the Jews are massively outnumbered by the region's Arab Moslems while forming a majority in Israel. The ability of Tamils to find support, funds and arms in India has fueled the dispute just as the Palestinians have been able to leverage their regional majority to sustain their struggle.  The Tamil Tigers who led the Tamil uprising trained in India and negotiations to end the war were often held between India and Sri-Lanka without participation of the Tigers. Until Oslo, Palestinians trained in camps across the Arab world and were not a party to Israeli-Arab negotiations.

Buddhism is a religion with a long history of minority status in India and Sri Lanka is the one place in the Indian sub-continent where it is dominant. Sri Lankan Buddhists have a long history of fighting off Hindu encroachment. This is also similar to Israel, Jews have a long history as a minority everywhere and Israel is the one place where Judaism has been the dominant religion for significant periods. Although they have generally done so passively, Jews have also had to resist encroachment by Islam and Christianity.

The Tamil Tigers were pioneers of suicide bombings, killing both Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and then the Sri Lankan PM in 1993. In both cases the assassins were suicide bombers, used before the Palestinians adopted this tactic.  Unlike the Palestinians, the Tigers managed to liberate territory using military means, but like the Palestinians, they showed complete disregard for the principles of human rights both with regard to their Sinhalese rivals and internally in their management of the Tamil  population.

The end of this conflict was one of the symptoms of the emergence of China as a serious world power, the Chinese have a history of conflict with India and although they have abandoned Buddhism (and fight it in Tibet), China was once a mainly Buddhist county and it has played an important role in Chinese history.  With Chinese support (and yes, the Israelis were also involved) the Sri Lankan government decisively defeated the Tigers and ended the Tamil uprising.  Although thousands of Tamil civilians were killed in the last stages of the war, Sri Lanka faced little international protest.

As an analogy for religious conflict Sri Lanka is a better model for understanding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict then either of the two popular models, Northern Ireland and South Africa and it is perhaps significant that the end of this conflict was the total defeat of the Tamils.

Finally one should remember that while analogies may be useful as models, they are in the end just analogies and not genuine analysis.

The South African analogy is particularly problematic in that there is little resemblance between the ANC, which always sought equal and human rights for all South Africans while Palestinian organizations were frequently anti-Semitic  (sometimes virulently) and never even pretended to accept ideals of Human Rights.  The similarity of the Palestinians to the Tamils is one of the elements which make Sri Lanka a better model.


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Deaths in Palestine and Syria compared.

Wikipedia quotes a UN estimate of 80,000 for the deaths in the current conflict in Syria.
A further 10,000 - 40,000 were killed in an uprising in Hama in 1982.

There are, I think, no reliable figures for deaths in the Lebanese civil war in the 70's and 80's, but Wikipedia has an estmate of 150,000.

About the same number of people have died in the current Syrian civil war as in all the Arab-Israeli wars put together. If you just take Palestinians killed by the Israelis, then far more Syrians have been killed then all the Paelstinians ever killed by Israelis.

So how many Palestinians have died?  There are a number of figures to take into account here, first Palestinians killed by peoples other than the Israelis: Thats mainly the British, the Jordanians and the Lebanese. Second, Palestinians killed by other Palestinians and finally those killed by Israelis. For purposes of convenience I am not making a combatant-civillian distinction because when you deal with non-regular forces and civil wars, its impossible to make that distinction.

Using figures quoted in Wikipedia I took rounded estimates and totalled the higher estimates to give totals.

killed by
killed by
killed by
killed by
killed by Palestinians
3,500 – 20,000
6,000 – 10,000
(including Sabra and Shaltila)
1,000 (pre-1948)
4,000 – 5,000

3,000 – 4,000 (1948)

3,000 – 6,000 (1949 – 1975)

4,000 (invasions of Lebanon)

10,000 (intifadas and Gaza invasions)
700 colaborators + 600 Hamas vs Fatah

In all about 25,000 Palestinians are thought to have been killed  by the Israelis since the Thirties' and 65,000 to have died in various conflicts. Much less then the dead in Syria or the Lebanese civil war.  The total Arab dead in wars with Israel since the twenties, including non-Palestinians, are estimated at about 90,000. See

By way of contrast, if we take the Second World war as having been 2,000 days in duration (from September 1939 to May 1945), then every day of the war 3,000 Jews were killed, for six years. So the total number of Paelstinians killed by the Israelis, although reprehensibly high, is equivalent to just over a week of the Holocaust.  In fact of course, the Nazis began exterminating Jews in 1941, which makes it close to 4,000 Jews a day for four years and less then a weeks work.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Ba'ath regimes in Iraq and Syria both used chemical weapons against their citizens

Every so often in the past year, we hear a dull rumble late in the evening.  Its the unmistakable sound (at least to us Israelis) of war planes flying overhead. Sometimes we read the next day about a bombing in Syria and sometimes it just reflects growing tension in the North.
Until a few weeks ago it seemed certain that Assad was due for a rapid exit, but now, with help from his three allies, Russia Iran and Hezbullah he seems to be hanging on, at least for the moment. He has suddenly woken up the the fact that Israel was bombing with impunity in Syria and threatened to retaliate. I'm inclined to believe him, because without a response his credibility will be zero, though he will probably try and prevent escalation.  This raises the spectre of Hezbullah fighting Israel using Syria as a proxy - instead of, as was true for so many years, the reverse.

The nightly news analysis on Israel's channel two now says that Assad may survive. As a political scientist I have this to say: He may survive this time,  but the next uprising will be better organized, better funded, will fight harder and sooner or later he will go.  Its still over for Assad.

There now seems to be clear evidence that the Syrian "regime" has used chemical weapons during the fighting. There is a kind of irony in this: Both Syria and Iraq under Saddam shared a common ideology: Ba'athism (renaissance in Arabic), an ideology formed by a man called Michel Aflaq. Both used chemical weapons against their own civillians.
Now that chemical weapons are out there in use, I wonder how long before some poorly educated, moronic Islamic group gets hold of them and how Israel should respond if we are attacked with chemical weapons, even if it is a small-scale localized attack.

It is not often discussed but I have for many year felt that Ba'athism is a form of Fascism. To give a few pointers it shares an intense nationalism, sexism and corporate government with limited free trade, worship of the leader and no commitment to equality. And is, of course, intensely violent towards dissenters. The issue is discussed on the Wikipedia page:'athism, on the Jewish Agency website: and also in the New Republic:  It has also been suggested that this description applies to Gaddhafi's Libya.

Incidentally a number of far-left groups in England were instrumental in supporting Saddam in the Eighties, including Corin and Vanessa Redgrave. Plenty has been written about their immoral support for Arab Fascism and you can see it here:

Recreating ancient kingdoms: Arab Nationalism vs Zionism.

Although Zionism and Arab Nationalism are at loggerheads over Palestine (or perhaps Southern Syria), the two have a certain amount in common...