Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Manufacturing outrage, part deux: the role of Syria and Iran 

We are beginning to understand that the "cartoon crisis," however severe in fact, has been engineered from the get-go. The cartoons were actually published in October, but the Muslim world did not go bananas until radical imams from Denmark toured the Middle East with a portfolio of the original drawings plus three deeply offensive additional drawings. Apparently the radicals who spent three months promoting this story didn't think that the actual Danish cartoons were sufficiently hot to light the tinder.

Gateway Pundit links to new evidence that fairly effectively demonstrates that the original Jyllands-posten drawings would not have done the job all by themselves. Freedom for Egyptians is reporting that the cartoons were republished by an Egyptian newspaper on October 17, 2005. Precisely no riots ensued, no flags were burned, no buildings were firebombed and no editors were sacked. FoE has the masthead details and has reproduced the headline and captions in both Arabic and English, and reports that she is trying to get the actual newspaper scanned.

Point is, Egypt didn't burst in to flames in October because the cartoons in and of themselves were not sufficiently inflammatory.

So, who is fanning the flames -- both literally and figuratively -- and why?

First, radicals are all about polarization, and there are a lot of radicals out there. European radical Muslims know that their arguments only have force if they can provoke a backlash, so that is what they try to do. Al Qaeda knows that it cannot win on the battlefield. Its only hope, if it has one at all, is to polarize the world and force Muslims to choose between its extreme ideology and Western secularism. Only by eliminating the moderate middle can al Qaeda and its allies thrive. Since terrorism within the Arab Muslim world does not seem to be accomplishing its intended effect, engineered riots look like the next best tactic to chill the moderates.

Second, Syria and Iran have a keen interest in keeping the cartoon crisis going. From Stratfor's letter($) yesterday:
Syria and Iran have a growing incentive to use the cartoon backlash to illustrate the sweeping effect of Islamic fury to the West should the latter make any aggressive moves in the region. The motivation for this strategy has only increased in the context of Washington's threats of sanctions and/or military action against Tehran -- especially since Washington managed to shore up enough support to get the International Atomic Energy Agency to vote to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council. Regardless of Washington and Tehran's rhetoric, the Iranian regime's interests are served by railing against Western interference for domestic consumption. Tehran's idea is to signal to Washington that any action against Syria or Iran will only aggravate raw tensions in the region, and that the United States would not find it in its interest to isolate Iran, Syria, Hamas or Hezbollah through unilateral steps.

Tehran could certainly look to its allies in Syria to carry out such an objective by spreading the riots to the Levant. For its part, Syria has an interest in designing large-scale protests on its own territory to exhibit the potential consequences of breaking the al Assad regime and allowing radical -- or even moderate -- Islamist groups to rise in influence.

Syria's intentions toward Lebanon were much more obvious. The rioters were concentrated in the Christian areas of Achrafieh and Gemmayze, where they stoned private property and the St. Maroun Church, one of Beirut's main Maronite churches. Since Syria was forced to withdraw its forces from Lebanon in the wake of the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, Syrian intelligence and security operatives undertook a mission to target Lebanon's Christian population in a bid to exacerbate the country's existing sectarian rifts and to keep Lebanon in its usual state of instability to ensure Syria remains the power broker in -- and "protector" of -- its western neighbor. It is therefore no coincidence that the spate of bombings targeting Beirut's majority-Christian neighborhoods has tapered off as the Syrian regime has sought to keep out of Washington's gaze in order to deal with its domestic issues while the Iranian nuclear controversy and Hamas' election victory take the spotlight.

The cartoon controversy has provided Damascus another opportunity to reassert its dominance in Lebanon. What the Syrian regime might have failed to realize, however, is that Damascus' directing role in its latest drama is all too obvious to the audience.

And how do we know that Syria has a hand in it? The circumstantial evidence is just too obvious:
Almost 20,000 demonstrators arrived by bus to Beirut with identical green signs reading "shahadah," Arabic for "testimony of faith." The signs did not indicate affiliation with a specific political party, and were likely printed just prior to the planned demonstration -- despite claims that the demonstration spontaneously arose and evolved into a violent rampage. After a few hours of stone throwing, fire setting, window breaking and other mob-related activities, the streets were deserted by 3 p.m. local time after the protesters left the Danish Consulate in flames.

In contrast, while the Danish and Norwegian embassies burned in Damascus on Feb. 4, Syrian security forces strategically prevented protesters from storming the U.S. and French embassies. This likely reflects the regime's unwillingness to go too far and risk reviving the U.S.-led pressure campaign against Syria.

Syria is a police state, so any such demonstrations are unlikely to occur without the regime's sanction. Though Syrian security forces could very well have prevented the embassy attacks in Damascus, these incidents likely reflect part of Syria's overall design toward using the cartoon controversy for its own ends.

In certain situations, such as when a weak power is trying to persuade a strong power that it must not be defied, there is rationality in irrationality. The weak power tries to sell the notion that it is willing to risk annihilation rather than back down, but since the risk of annihilation is the basis of the strong power's leverage, the weak power can only win the confrontation if the strong power thinks that it might be crazy.

The current government of Iran is clearly enamored of the rationality of irrationality. President Ahmadinejad hopes that his crazy talk regarding Israel and the United States will rattle enough people in the West that the alliance against it backs down. Damascus and Tehran also know that Westerners will think twice about confronting the Muslim world if we believe that it will go completely bezerk over the slightest perceived offense. Looked at this way, the uncontrolled -- although not uncontrollable -- mobs of the Muslim world are a strategic asset.

Once, the Arab street struck fear in the hearts of meddling Occidentals, and remained the reason why every Arab despot would resist Western invitations to reform. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and so forth always cited the risk that the "street" would rise up to deflect our half-hearted complaints about their internal governance. This fear was justified back in the day -- Jordan's King Hussein attacked Israel in 1967 only because Egypt's Gamel Abdul Nasser had such huge cred with the "street" throughout the Arab world that the king worried for his own life if he did not join Nasser's war.*

In recent years, the strategic value of the fabled "Arab street" has seemed to degrade. We heard lots of warnings about it during Arafat's September 2000 intifada, and it was, supposedly, a big reason not to invade Iraq in 2003. In neither case did the "street" give a rat's ass. But then the radicals discovered that claims of desecration or sacrilege got people jumping up and down. Last year, radical Pakistani clerics exploited the now discredited "toilet Koran" story to incite big demonstrations. This year we have the much larger and far more organized cartoon riots. The "street's" credibility is back.

Since the radicals always scratch where it itches, gird yourself for the next manufactured outrage. You can be sure that it's coming.
*See Michael Oren's Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. As I've written before, Oren's book is the most interesting way that I know of to understand the forces that still animinate the Levant.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Feb 07, 11:52:00 PM:

There's a NEW Mohammed cartoon coming out in France Wednesday. I believe to have the first English post and translation.

Your readers may be interested:


All the best,
D. Ox.

p.s. why not add us to your blogroll and we'll reciprocate, to all readers...  

By Blogger honestpartisan, at Tue Feb 07, 11:58:00 PM:

I think the real audience for Ahmadinejad's rhetoric is people in places like the Gulf states or Egypt. Leaders there have good reason to dislike the Iranian government and might otherwise support international non-proliferation efforts but would think twice if it created (additional?) political problems for them among a restive population.

Not sure about Assad's interest in whipping this up domestically (I understand his interest in Lebanon), since he's the member of a small sect regarded by Islamic extremists as heretical ... maybe it's to detract attention away from that.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Wed Feb 08, 03:20:00 AM:

There's more to those "radical Danish imams" than meets the eye.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Wed Feb 08, 05:37:00 AM:

Dawnfire82! Great to have you back in the conversation. And yes, methinks you are right.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Wed Feb 08, 05:41:00 AM:

honestp: I'm sure that Ahmadinjejad has multiple reasons for saying what he is saying, including the fact that he is trying to position himself as the ideological discendant of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who (for reasons nobody truly understands) was deeply anti-Semitic even by the standards of Iran.

Assad is looking to distract the West, but he is also making a point: "don't destabilize Syria, because it is a miracle we've been stable this long." He is once again raising the fear of the Arab street in the West to ward off pressure to reform. Old trick.  

By Anonymous davod, at Wed Feb 08, 06:11:00 AM:

If the Arab street was enraged there would be millions marching in the street.

This is a manufactured issue designed to get the media to report it and build momentum.

The media should report the suspicians that Danish imams defiled Mohammed's to create a controversy. The media shoudl be pushing for punishment.

Tutn this back on the perpretrators.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Wed Feb 08, 10:04:00 AM:

This whole 'cartoon crisis' has seemed suspect from the beginning, given the rather benign nature of the original "offending" cartoons.

Now we know the backstory. And it is a story whether the NYTimes or Newsweek or any other Western media outlet chooses to recognize it or not.

I hope for their sakes (and ours) someone who makes the decisions at the NYTimes et al remembers they have a duty to inform and enlighten before they get too far behind this story and only end up making themselves look both ridiculous and irrelevant. They could start by publishing the original cartoons and then, if they feel up to the challenge, report what's really going on.

This struggle has entered the information phase, and the truth shall set us free.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Feb 10, 06:22:00 PM:

Professor Juan Cole dismisses the notion that the cartoon thing was manufactured by Syria or Iran.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Nov 09, 11:52:00 PM:


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