Reuel Marc Gerecht

Reuel Marc Gerecht

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies specializing in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Islamic militancy, and terrorism. His most recent publication is The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East (Hoover Institution Press, 2011). Other books include A Spy's Journey into Revolutionary Iran and The Islamic Paradox. Gerecht was a case officer in the Central Intelligence Agency's Clandestine Service focusing on the Middle East. Previously, he was a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the director of the Middle East Initiative at the Project for New American Century. Gerecht is a graduate of Johns Hopkins, Edinburgh, and Princeton Universities.

Not Really About Syria


The Geneva Syrian talks, like the President’s speech on Syria, have left out many things, but most importantly several inescapable truths about this conflict:

(i)            At least 70 percent of the Syrian population is Sunni; Alawite Shiites, the power base of Bashar al-Assad, probably account for no more than 15 percent of the country.  Although regime-loyal Sunni soldiers have probably been critical to Assad’s survival, the vast majority of Sunnis surely now hate the regime and Alawites.

(ii)          The kill/casualty rates in this war favor the opposition—the regime ‘s forces are falling in larger numbers than are opposition fighters, who have a vastly larger pool of young men to draw from.   The research done by Jeffrey White, the military analyst at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy, gives a casualty rate (combining killed with wounded) of 213,000 combatants for the regime, compared to 90,000 for the opposition.   Even if we assume that medical care is much better on the regime’s side, and more wounded regime soldiers retake the field, the opposition is still experiencing a significantly lower loss of men.  This conjecture is backed up by the available killed-in-action figures, which as of late June, 2013, were, according to White, 13,539 dead rebel combatants, 2,518 unidentified and non-Syrian rebel fighters, and 2,015 defected soldiers and officers.  Compare those figures the regime’s KIA:  25,407 regular soldiers, 17,311 combatants for regime-loyal popular defense committees and the irregular shabbiha  units, plus an addition 169 Lebanese Hizbollah.

(iii)         The killed/wounded rate has been rising steadily for the Alawite irregular forces, which now approaches the loss rate experienced by regular, primarily Alawite, military units.  In other words, the regime has been drawing increasingly on young male Alawite irregulars for frontline combat duty.

(iv)          This path is unsustainable for the regime unless it can significantly increase the kill/casualty rate for the opposition with much smaller losses for its forces.  A protracted conflict always favors the opponent with a greater population to draw on; the Sunnis have a decisive advantage.  The Alawites have used all of the conventional weaponry at their disposal—with the exception of napalm—as aggressively as they possibly could and the opposition has taken it and inflicted ever-higher casualty rates on the Alawites.

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An Islamist Moment?


Fifty years ago, the historian Elizabeth Monroe published a beautifully written book with a dismissive title:  Britain’s Moment in the Middle East, 1914-1956.  Although one can quibble with the description—the British impact in the region really should be clocked from Admiral Horatio Nelson’s checkmating the French in 1798 at the Battle of the Nile—and the book’s weighing of the beneficent with the baleful, Ms. Monroe did capture well the British interlude between two more culturally transformative powers:  the Ottoman empire and secular Arab militarism.

If one has been reading the Egyptian press or talking to Egyptian liberals since the coup d’état against the country’s first freely-elected president, Muhammad Mursi, one might have the impression that the Muslim Brotherhood’s “moment” in Egypt lasted 12 months, after an eighty-four year prelude. The Brethren, who rose to prominence in opposition to British imperialism and Westernizing secular dictators, have, so the story goes, immolated themselves in just a year of grossly incompetent government. Grossly incompetent governance has been the norm in Egypt; popular sovereignty is new.  There is no denying that millions of Egyptians who’d five times voted for Brotherhood candidates and its constitution, turned against the Islamist group in massive demonstrations.  There is also little doubt that many among the Brethren were shocked by the size of these rallies.

But it’s highly doubtful that the Islamist critique of Egyptian society has been routed by marches that we now know were planned by the tamarrud (“rebellion”) movement and the military.   The Westernization of the Egyptian poor has been in retreat for over forty years.  The vast slums of Cairo—the broken-concrete-and-cracked-brick neighborhoods of low-rising apartments with open sewers, where only mosques and local clerics offer a sense of community and order—are hothouses for Islamism.  This is not Facebook Cairo, where alienated, deplorably-educated, unskilled youth express their anger digitally and their community through demonstrations.  Local clerics, let alone the cultish, secretive godfathers of the Brotherhood, do not command Cairo’s slums—though local imams and popular preachers are certainly more influential than any representative of a state institution.   The faith, with its traditional, “natural” fusion with politics, profoundly matters among the poor and the lower middle class.  Among them the Egyptian army, the security services, and the police—all unreformed since the fall of Mubarak—are viewed suspiciously, if not hostilely.  The new-found love affair between the army and Egypt’s secular liberals, who have in twelve months come to the conclusion that they need the military to check Islamist power, will likely do nothing to diminish the skepticism that Egypt’s devout have for army officers and their cohorts.

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Obama’s Greater Middle East


It’s difficult to recommend a new approach to the Greater Middle East when the overarching philosophy of Barack Obama’s first term lingers on. In 2008 the Illinois senator sincerely believed that the United States was disliked in Muslim lands primarily because of George W. Bush, American aggressiveness, and Israeli right-wingers. He was convinced that as president he could reset America’s image because he had, in his own words, the “credibility of someone who lived in a Muslim country for four years” as a child and thus had “a sense of that culture that…[would allow him] to more effectively bring about the kinds of cooperation that we need to go after terrorists and isolate them and bring the Muslim world together with the Western world to pursue the kinds of strategies that make everyone prosperous.”

Mr. Obama wanted the United States to do less (minus the drones) and thus be liked more. The president’s attempted engagement in 2009 of Ali Khameneh’i, the Iran’s supreme leader, and Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s Alawite dictator, naturally followed. So, too, his coolness towards Israel and the quiet awkwardness during the enormous pro-democracy street demonstrations in Tehran in the summer of 2009 and the Tahrir pro-democracy demonstrations in Cairo in 2011. This less-is-more leftwing cautiousness also gave us the president’s last-minute decision to follow French president Nicolas Sarkozy into Libya, but do next to nothing in country once Muammar Qadhafi fell. It lies behind the president’s continuing resistance to intervening in Syria, and his firm plans to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014.

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Engaging Fundamentalists

Given the growing strength and electoral triumphs of fundamentalists in the Middle East, many in Washington fear that the administration just can’t handle Islamists. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has been the intellectual mother ship of virtually every radical Islamic movement, including al-Qa’ida. Comments by senior American diplomats and intelligence officials about the Brotherhood’s “moderation” are certainly worrisome. Could Barack Hussein Obama’s naiveté, so apparent in his early desire to engage Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khameneh’i, manifest itself again among the Arabs?

Probably, but it won’t matter. Engagement isn’t likely to go far. Muslim fundamentalists fear us more than we fear them. Our touch—especially the West’s unstoppable and intimate focus on women—is poisonous, if not lethal, to their vision of a good Muslim society. Even if President Obama and his minions believe and act as if there is considerable common ground between the United States and electorally triumphant fundamentalists, Islamists will put severe limits on how much American officials can be “duped.” Political correctness may at times cripple American counterterrorism (the case of Major Nidal Malik Hassan at Fort Hood, Texas, is a good example), but its foreign-policy equivalent—mirror-imaging American views upon foreigners—has been unable, even under Mr. Obama, to reshape fundamentally the relations between the Islamic Republic and the United States.

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Although Bashar al-Assad could still kill off the revolt against his tyranny, it seems increasingly unlikely. The rebellion today is far larger—geographically and numerically—than the rebellion of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982. Two past massive revolts can still give Bashar hope:  the triumph of the Algerian military junta over Islamists in the 1990s and the crushing victory of Saddam Hussein over Iraq’s Shiites following the First Gulf War.  In both cases, the regimes slaughtered tens of thousands of people, as well as tortured thousands more, to quiet the eruptions.   Given the increasing ferocity of the government onslaught against civilians, the Syrian regime is obviously now betting that the outside world will not intervene.  It’s probably a bad bet, however, since outside powers really don’t have to do that much—the apparent sine qua non of foreign assistance—to topple the Assad family and the Shiite Alawite forces behind it.

Although the Alawite units in the army and the Alawite-dominated security services have stayed steadfastly loyal to Bashar, they appear to be just too few in number to kill enough Sunnis in enough places quickly enough.  Although the vast majority of Syrian Sunni military units have not risen against the government, they have not been used in front-line assaults against the rebellious cities and towns.  The regime is probably loath to risk such a deployment as it might cause a rapid and decisive crack in discipline, changing overnight the regime’s odds of survival.   Unlike his father in 1982, Bashar hesitated to bring the full force of his power against the opposition last year.  The regime has since had to deal with uprisings everywhere. Alawi forces have repeatedly cleared towns yet failed to hold them.

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Don’t Give Up on Sanctions

The release last week of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report on Iran’s progressing nuclear program has to make one wonder whether more than 30 years of sanctions have helped to thwart — or even stall — the country’s nuclear designs. There is no evidence to suggest that economic coercion has ever made Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, rethink the risks-versus-rewards calculus for developing atomic weapons. And the truly crippling sanctions that might have more of an effect would never be accepted by Western politicians, who are fearful of higher oil costs and of being seen as too harsh on the Iranian people.

But giving up on sanctions is not the answer. Instead, we have to make sanctions smarter, more mutually reinforcing.

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Iran’s Act of War

There is still much to learn about the Iranian-directed plot to blow up the Saudi ambassador in a Washington, D.C., restaurant. But if the Justice Department’s information is correct, the conspiracy confirms a lethal fact about Iran’s regime: It is becoming more dangerous, not less, as it ages.

Since the 1989 death of Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Western observers have hunted for signs of the end of the revolution’s implacable hostility toward the United States. Signs have been abundant outside the ruling elite: Virtually the entire lay and much of the clerical intellectual class have damned theocracy as illegitimate, and college-educated youth (Iran has the best-educated public of any big Middle Eastern state) overwhelmingly threw themselves into the pro-democracy Green Movement that shook the regime in the summer of 2009.

But at the regime’s apex—Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, his praetorian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the clergy who’ve remained committed to theocracy—religious ideology and anti-Americanism have intensified.

The planned assassination in Washington was a bold act: The Islamic Republic’s terrorism has struck all over the globe, and repeatedly in Europe, but it has spared the U.S. homeland because even under Khomeini Iran feared outraged American power.

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Obama, American liberator?

Libya was not a robust showing of liberal-internationalist conviction: The single greatest factor behind the West’s armed intrusion was the surreality of Moammar Gaddafi. If the “colonel” had not been such a nut, if he had bothered to maintain the armed forces on which he squandered his country’s oil wealth, Western concern for the Libyan people would probably have been much less muscular.

Nevertheless, President Obama used American power to liberate a Muslim people. Like George W. Bush, Obama came into office with a narrower, “humbler” conception of America’s interests abroad. In his first visit to the region, he confused the majesty of Islam with the dignity of Muslim potentates. Sept. 11, 2001, transformed Bush. We must wait to see whether the Great Arab Revolt has permanently changed Obama.

Continue reading Reuel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz…

The Syrian Challenge

The administration’s policy toward Syria is shaping up to be the greatest missed opportunity of Barack Obama’s presidency. His failure of vision and nerve, paired with an acute Republican fatigue with the Middle East and foreign policy in general, has allowed Syria to drop off Washington’s radar screen. But if Syria were to break the right way and the regime in Damascus were to fall, the most tenacious state-sponsor of terrorism in the Arab world​—​Tehran’s strongest ally and the lifeline to the terrorism-loving Lebanese Hezbollah​—​would be taken out. Alas, an administration that came into office only a little less eager to engage Damascus than Tehran seems stuck in its stillborn Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the turmoil of the Great Arab Revolt.

There is some reason to believe that the White House now knows Bashar al-Assad’s Syria is not essential for solving the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio. And clearly, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton want to help Syrian protesters; both give the impression, however, that they don’t really think they can.

Continue reading Reuel Marc Gerecht in The Weekly Standard