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Ill Omens from the East

Liban
©EPA-EFE/WAEL HAMZEH  |   Gun holes are seen on a window at a building a day after clashes in the area of Tayouneh in Beirut, Lebanon, 15 October 2021.

The coronavirus pandemic as well as a number of other crises – the energy crisis in the Taiwan strait, the military withdrawal from Afghanistan, etc. – have drawn the limelight away from the Middle East recently, all the more so as things have been pretty quiet on the ground. However, several events reported this week show that the situation is still far from being settled and could blow over at any point in time. The United States has again hardened its tone against Iran, warning that all options are still on the table, considering Teheran continues to enrich uranium beyond the limits accepted under the agreement. There have also been a number of incidents in Teheran’s sphere of influence, in the so-called Shia crescent: in Iraq, pro-Iran militias lost the parliamentary election, but announced they do not recognize the official results, whereas in Lebanon, Hezbollah, another major ally of Iran, might be drawn into a violent conflict in the wake of a series of armed clashes that invited recollections of this country’s civil war. Finally, just to note that whatever happens in the East doesn’t always stay in the East, Europe too this week saw two attacks by Islamist radicals.

Iraq: Shiite militias take a step back

This week the Iraqi hit the polls as part of the fifth parliamentary election organized since the toppling of Saddam Hussein. The election was called in response to the far-reaching anti-government protests of 2019. Back then, the people took to the streets to express their disgruntlement with the endemic corruption of their political class, the collapse of infrastructure, the harsh economic predicament of a large segment of the population, as well as opposition to the influence of Iran-affiliated Shiite militias. The latter have tens of thousands of fighters at their disposal, and have managed to infiltrate the administrative structures of the country ever since the mid-2000s. When the 2019 protests broke out, Fatah was the most powerful political force, bringing together the political representatives of the most influential militias – the Badr Organization, Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata'ib Hezbollah and Kata'ib al-Imam Ali. The first three were involved in the Iraqi civil war of 2000, Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah also took part in the insurrection against the Americans and the civil war in Syria, and all four fought in the campaign against the Islamic State, helping take down jihadis. Over the years, they each posed as defenders as the Shiites and even Iraqis in general. 2019, however, confirmed what many Iraqis already knew – the Shiite militias were primarily interested in defending their own position of power and privileges, but also in attaining the goals set by Iran. An estimated 600 protesters were killed by the militias who opened fire on the crowds of civilians. On the other hand, by order of Qassem Soleimani, the military commander of the dreadful Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Shiite militias launched a number of missile strikes on US military bases in Iraq and organized an event at the end of which an angry mob stormed the US Embassy compound in Baghdad. As a result, on January 3, 2020, Kata’ib Hezbollah commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was also the deputy chief of the Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi, a state-sponsored umbrella organization composed of a number of military groups, was killed along with Soleimani in a US air strike at Baghdad International airport.

The apathy displayed by Baghdad authorities in organizing the early election, in addition to a string of kidnappings and assassinations, also attributed to Shiite militias, aimed at discouraging the independent and reformist candidates from running in the election, ended up deterring voters themselves. Many Iraqis boycotted the ballot, reflected in the lowest voter turnout reported in the country’s history in a parliamentary election. Those who did cast their votes punished Fatah severely, the alliance losing two thirds of the seats won back in 2018. Unsurprisingly, Fatah did not recognize the result. It remains to be seen just how far they are willing to go, considering the largest number of seats were secured by another Shiite faction, the bloc of the populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr primarily banks on the vote of poor Shiites, many of whom are clustered in Sadr City, a huge suburb district of Baghdad, renamed after his father, a reputed ayatollah killed by order of Saddam Hussein. In recent years, Sadr embraced an anti-corruption discourse and took an active stance in certain large-scale protest movements. In the 2000s, Muqtada al-Sadr also commanded a military force of his own, the Mahdi Army, which fought the American troops, got involved in the civil war and came into conflict with the government in Baghdad. Sadr was defeated at the time, and fled to Iran for a few years to continue his studies. His popularity remained intact and actually continued to grow over the years, meaning that it would be extremely risky if Shiite militias (or Iran) moved against him, all the more so as the grand ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential spiritual leader of Iraqi Shia, is unlikely to give his blessing.

Another factor that might deter the militias from staging a full-blown military action right now is the presence of US troops in Iraq, although most are expected to withdraw by the end of the year.

Even if the militias don’t take any action for the time being, Iraq’s problems are far from over – economic difficulties, subpar infrastructure, the people’s waning confidence in their political leaders, the reconstruction of the cities destroyed by the war with the Islamic State, rebuilding trust among the country’s main Muslim communities – Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Radicals have not been entirely eradicated, but have rather gone into hiding following the defeat sustained by the jihadis. 

The stability of Iraq remains very fragile. Sooner or later, a strong government will need to disarm the militias, the hot potato that no one seemed to be willing to solve until now due to their military might and their close ties with Iran.

Lebanon and the scenes recalling the civil war

On October 14, the Lebanese were reminded of the civil war that ravaged the country in the 70s and 80s. At least 6 Shiites were killed when a group of unidentified individuals opened fire against a crowd of demonstrators, rallied by Hezbollah and Amal, its political ally, calling for the demise of the judge investigating the huge blast that occurred in 2020 in the port of Beirut. Over 200 people were killed at the time, when nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been improperly stored in the port warehouse for years exploded. The blast, whose radius was felt as far as Cyprus, 260 kilometers away, left devastation in its wake. Over 200 people were killed, over 7,000 were injured, and the blast wiped out whole districts, causing billions of dollars in damage.

A tragedy such as this cannot be too easily swept under the rug by finding a scapegoat, preferably someone who died in the explosion and who can no longer defend himself. The disaster was the direct effect of decades of systemic corruption, negligence and incompetence going all the way to the top of the Lebanese government. The judge assigned to probe the incident, Tarek Bitar, deposed current and former officials, high-ranking politicians, and even issued arrest warrants for two deputies, one representing Amal, Hezbollah’s political ally, and another party close to former prime minister Saad Hariri, who is the most important Sunni political leader in Lebanon. The political class did not respond well to Bitar’s investigation. By far the most vehement reaction came from Hezbollah. The very leader of militant group, Hassan Nasrallah, called for Bitar’s replacement on public television, claiming his investigation was biased and highly politicized. Members of Hezbollah have so far not been directly eyed by the investigation, but the group has been involved in top-level politics in Lebanon for far too long and far too deep not to feel targeted.

Bitar, on the other hand, is quite popular with the Lebanese population, which has shown a profound distrust in the political class, blaming it for the country’s collapse. For the last two years, Lebanon has been facing one of the most severe economic crises in its history, which has led to a sharp decrease of living standards. The pound plummeted, a large part of the population lacks the resources to cover its most basic needs and relies on assistance and help sent by their relatives living abroad. Severe shortages of numerous products are reported, in particular fuel, along with extended blackouts. Besides, the country’s infrastructure, run down for years, is also starting to cave in. The economic crisis was made worse by pressure from the waves of Syrian refugees that flooded Lebanon, the collapse of tourism in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and particularly by the extended political deadlock.

It is against this highly tense backdrop that the October 14 clashes took place on the border between the Shia and Christian districts of Beirut, not far from the place that witnessed the 1975 violent events that led to the outbreak of the civil war. For that matter, Hezbollah accused the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party that commanded a powerful militia during the civil war, of orchestrating the attacks on the crowd of protesters. The Lebanese Forces denied any involvement in the incidents. Shortly after the news broke out, France, Iran and Saudi Arabia, which still exert greater or lesser influence in Lebanon, called for a de-escalation of the situation, whereas Hezbollah has ruled out the possibility this would lead to a new civil war.

Also worth noting is that political and inter-confessional tensions continued in Lebanon long after the end of the civil war. They were fueled by a string of assassinations and bomb attacks, by the involvement of external powers that sought to expand their influence in the area – first Syria, as an occupation force, then Saudi Arabia and Saad Hariri, and later Iran and Hezbollah. More recently, the tensions were rekindled by the Syrian civil war, where Hezbollah played an active role supporting Bashar al-Assad, which led to terrorist attacks perpetrated by jihadis and stirred discontent among those Lebanese who rooted for the rebels.

Given all the political and social tension on the ground, as well as the country’s history of violence, fears of a new civil war possibly breaking out don’t seem that far-fetched, no matter how unlikely a new conflict really is.

The attacks that reminded how Europe is still exposed to Muslim extremism

British MP David Amess was stabbed to death on October 15 while holding one-to-one meetings with his constituents. The police announced they are treating the murder as a terrorist incident, and that the killer is a British citizen with Somali heritage – an element which might suggest this was an Islamist attack. Equally labeled terrorist was the bow and arrow attack of October 13 in the Norwegian town of Kongsberg. Police initially said the perpetrator was a Danish citizen who had converted to Islam and was being monitored for increased radical behavior. Subsequently, the authorities announced the man had a history of mental illness.

Irrespective of the outcome of the investigations, initial assumptions prove that fear of Islamist terrorism continues to grip to Europe – it’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear of an explosion or an armed attack. And the fear is not ungrounded. The attacks in Norway and Great Britain occurred the same week France marked one year since the beheading of middle-school teacher Samuel Paty by a Chechen Islamist. In early November, Austria too will commemorate the victims of the terrorist attack in Vienna committed by an Islamic State sympathizer. Restrictions imposed to combat the pandemic and the defeats sustained by jihadis in recent years in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Libya, also doubled by certain measures taken by the governments of numerous countries to combat radicalism, have led to a decrease in the number of attacks. This doesn’t mean, however, that there are no more jihadis left in Europe, that extremists have stopped circulating their ideas or that we won’t be witnessing more terrorist attacks. The capture of Afghanistan by Taliban fundamentalists – which Islamic media perceive as a victory against the United States and NATO – as well as the developments in Sahel, where France intends to reduce its military presence, are likely to encourage jihadists and bring them new followers to Europe. Possible conflicts in Iraq or Lebanon would also serve them well, just as the wars in Iraq and Syria did.


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  • The United States has again hardened its tone against Iran, warning that all options are still on the table, considering Teheran continues to enrich uranium beyond the limits accepted under the agreement. There have also been a number of incidents in Teheran’s sphere of influence, in the so-called Shia crescent: in Iraq, pro-Iran militias lost the parliamentary election, but announced they do not recognize the official results, whereas in Lebanon, Hezbollah, another major ally of Iran, might be drawn into a violent conflict in the wake of a series of armed clashes that invited recollections of this country’s civil war. Finally, just to note that whatever happens in the East doesn’t always stay in the East, Europe too this week saw two attacks by Islamist radicals.
  • The apathy displayed by Baghdad authorities in organizing the early election, in addition to a string of kidnappings and assassinations, also attributed to Shiite militias, aimed at discouraging the independent and reformist candidates from running in the election, ended up deterring voters themselves. Many Iraqis boycotted the ballot, reflected in the lowest voter turnout reported in the country’s history in a parliamentary election. Those who did cast their votes punished Fatah severely, the alliance losing two thirds of the seats won back in 2018. Unsurprisingly, Fatah did not recognize the result. It remains to be seen just how far they are willing to go, considering the largest number of seats were secured by another Shiite faction, the bloc of the populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
  • The stability of Iraq remains very fragile. Sooner or later, a strong government will need to disarm the militias, the hot potato that no one seemed to be willing to solve until now due to their military might and their close ties with Iran.
  • On October 14, the Lebanese were reminded of the civil war that ravaged the country in the 70s and 80s. At least 6 Shiites were killed when a group of unidentified individuals opened fire against a crowd of demonstrators, rallied by Hezbollah and Amal, its political ally, calling for the demise of the judge investigating the huge blast that occurred in 2020 in the port of Beirut.The disaster was the direct effect of decades of systemic corruption, negligence and incompetence going all the way to the top of the Lebanese government. The judge assigned to probe the incident, Tarek Bitar, deposed current and former officials, high-ranking politicians, and even issued arrest warrants for two deputies, one representing Amal, Hezbollah’s political ally, and another party close to former prime minister Saad Hariri, who is the most important Sunni political leader in Lebanon. The political class did not respond well to Bitar’s investigation. By far the most vehement reaction came from Hezbollah.
  • The attacks in Norway and Great Britain occurred the same week France marked one year since the beheading of middle-school teacher Samuel Paty by a Chechen Islamist. In early November, Austria too will commemorate the victims of the terrorist attack in Vienna committed by an Islamic State sympathizer. Restrictions imposed to combat the pandemic and the defeats sustained by jihadis in recent years in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Libya, also doubled by certain measures taken by the governments of numerous countries to combat radicalism, have led to a decrease in the number of attacks. This doesn’t mean, however, that there are no more jihadis left in Europe, that extremists have stopped circulating their ideas or that we won’t be witnessing more terrorist attacks.
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