Germany Acts to Tame Facebook, Learning From Its Own History of Hate

By Katrin Bennhold

A country taps its past as it leads the way on one of the most pressing issues facing modern democracies: how to regulate the world’s biggest social network.

BERLIN — Security is tight at this brick building on the western edge of Berlin. Inside, a sign warns: “Everybody without a badge is a potential spy!”

Spread over five floors, hundreds of men and women sit in rows of six scanning their computer screens. All have signed nondisclosure agreements. Four trauma specialists are at their disposal seven days a week.

They are the agents of Facebook. And they have the power to decide what is free speech and what is hate speech.

This is a deletion center, one of Facebook’s largest, with more than 1,200 content moderators. They are cleaning up content — from terrorist propaganda to Nazi symbols to child abuse — that violates the law or the company’s community standards.

Germany, home to a tough new online hate speech law, has become a laboratory for one of the most pressing issues for governments today: how and whether to regulate the world’s biggest social network.

Around the world, Facebook and other social networking platforms are facing a backlash over their failures to safeguard privacy, disinformation campaigns and the digital reach of hate groups.

In India, seven people were beaten to death after a false viral message on the Facebook subsidiary WhatsApp. In Myanmar, violence against the Rohingya minority was fueled, in part, by misinformation spread on Facebook. In the United States, Congress called Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, to testify about the company’s inability to protect its users’ privacy.

As the world confronts these rising forces, Europe, and Germany in particular, have emerged as the de facto regulators of the industry, exerting influence beyond their own borders. Berlin’s digital crackdown on hate speech, which took effect on Jan. 1, is being closely watched by other countries. And German officials are playing a major role behind one of Europe’s most aggressive moves to rein in technology companies, strict data privacy rules that take effect across the European Union on May 25 and are prompting global changes.

00fbgermany-2-jumboGerd Billen, the secretary of state for Germany’s Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection, says that data protection is a fundamental right.

“For them, data is the raw material that makes them money,” said Gerd Billen, secretary of state in Germany’s Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection. “For us, data protection is a fundamental right that underpins our democratic institutions.”

Germany’s troubled history has placed it on the front line of a modern tug-of-war between democracies and digital platforms.

In the country of the Holocaust, the commitment against hate speech is as fierce as the commitment to free speech. Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” is only available in an annotated version. Swastikas are illegal. Inciting hatred is punishable by up to five years in jail.

But banned posts, pictures and videos have routinely lingered on Facebook and other social media platforms. Now companies that systematically fail to remove “obviously illegal” content within 24 hours face fines of up to 50 million euros.

The deletion center predates the legislation, but its efforts have taken on new urgency. Every day content moderators in Berlin, hired by a third-party firm and working exclusively on Facebook, pore over thousands of posts flagged by users as upsetting or potentially illegal and make a judgment: Ignore, delete or, in particularly tricky cases, “escalate” to a global team of Facebook lawyers with expertise in German regulation.

Some decisions to delete are easy. Posts about Holocaust denial and genocidal rants against particular groups like refugees are obvious ones for taking down.

Others are less so. On Dec. 31, the day before the new law took effect, a far-right lawmaker reacted to an Arabic New Year’s tweet from the Cologne police, accusing them of appeasing “barbaric, Muslim, gang-raping groups of men.”

The request to block a screenshot of the lawmaker’s post wound up in the queue of Nils, a 35-year-old agent in the Berlin deletion center. His judgment was to let it stand. A colleague thought it should come down. Ultimately, the post was sent to lawyers in Dublin, London, Silicon Valley and Hamburg. By the afternoon it had been deleted, prompting a storm of criticism about the new legislation, known here as the “Facebook Law.”

“A lot of stuff is clear-cut,” Nils said. Facebook, citing his safety, did not allow him to give his surname. “But then there is the borderline stuff.”

Complicated cases have raised concerns that the threat of the new rules’ steep fines and 24-hour window for making decisions encourage “over-blocking” by companies, a sort of defensive censorship of content that is not actually illegal.

The far-right Alternative of Germany, a noisy and prolific user of social media, has been quick to proclaim “the end of free speech.” Human rights organizations have warned that the legislation was inspiring authoritarian governments to copy it.

Other people argue that the law simply gives a private company too much authority to decide what constitutes illegal hate speech in a democracy, an argument that Facebook, which favored voluntary guidelines, made against the law.

“It is perfectly appropriate for the German government to set standards,” said Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s vice president of communications and public policy. “But we think it’s a bad idea for the German government to outsource the decision of what is lawful and what is not.”00fbgermany-3-superJumbo

Richard Allen, Facebook’s vice president for public policy in Europe, leaving a meeting at Germany’s justice ministry in March.CreditSean Gallup/Getty Images

Richard Allan, Facebook’s vice president for public policy in Europe and the leader of the company’s lobbying effort against the German legislation, put it more simply: “We don’t want to be the arbiters of free speech.”

German officials counter that social media platforms are the arbiters anyway.

It all boils down to one question, said Mr. Billen, who helped draw up the new legislation: “Who is sovereign? Parliament or Facebook?”

Learning From (German) History

When Nils applied for a job at the deletion center, the first question the recruiter asked him was: “Do you know what you will see here?”

Nils has seen it all. Child torture. Mutilations. Suicides. Even murder: He once saw a video of a man cutting a heart out of a living human being.

And then there is hate.

“You see all the ugliness of the world here,” Nils said. “Everyone is against everyone else. Everyone is complaining about that other group. And everyone is saying the same horrible things.”

The issue is deeply personal for Nils. He has a 4-year-old daughter. “I’m also doing this for her,” he said.

The center here is run by Arvato, a German service provider owned by the conglomerate Bertelsmann. The agents have a broad purview, reviewing content from a half-dozen countries. Those with a focus on Germany must know Facebook’s community standards and, as of January, the basics of German hate speech and defamation law.

“Two agents looking at the same post should come up with the same decision,” says Karsten König, who manages Arvato’s partnership with Facebook.

The Berlin center opened with 200 employees in 2015, as Germany was opening its doors to hundreds of thousands of migrants.

merlin_117793349_d26d81ce-8420-4fe5-88d6-47ad51fcf23d-superJumboAnas Modamani, a Syrian refugee, with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany in Berlin in September 2015.

Anas Modamani, a Syrian refugee, posed with Chancellor Angela Merkel and posted the image on Facebook. It instantly became a symbol of her decision to allowing in hundreds of thousands of migrants.

Soon it also became a symbol of the backlash.

The image showed up in false reports linking Mr. Modamani to terrorist attacks in Brussels and on a Christmas market in Berlin. He sought an injunction against Facebook to stop such posts from being shared but eventually lost.

The arrival of nearly 1.4 million migrants in Germany has tested the country’s resolve to keep a tight lid on hate speech. The law on illegal speech was long-established but enforcement in the digital realm was scattershot before the new legislation.

Posts calling refugees rapists, Neanderthals and scum survived for weeks, according to, a publicly funded internet safety organization. Many were never taken down. Researchers at reported a tripling in observed hate speech in the second half of 2015.

Mr. Billen, the secretary of state in charge of the new law, was alarmed. In September 2015, he convened executives from Facebook and other social media sites at the justice ministry, a building that was once the epicenter of state propaganda for the Communist East. A task force for fighting hate speech was created. A couple of months later, Facebook and other companies signed a joint declaration, promising to “examine flagged content and block or delete the majority of illegal posts within 24 hours.”

But the problem did not go away. Over the 15 months that followed, independent researchers, hired by the government, twice posed as ordinary users and flagged illegal hate speech. During the tests, they found that Facebook had deleted 46 percent and 39 percent.

“They knew that they were a platform for criminal behavior and for calls to commit criminal acts, but they presented themselves to us as a wolf in sheep skin,” said Mr. Billen, a poker-faced civil servant with stern black frames on his glasses.

By March 2017, the German government had lost patience and started drafting legislation. The Network Enforcement Law was born, setting out 21 types of content that are “manifestly illegal” and requiring social media platforms to act quickly.

Officials say early indications suggest the rules have served their purpose. Facebook’s performance on removing illegal hate speech in Germany rose to 100 percent over the past year, according to the latest spot check of the European Union.

Platforms must publish biannual reports on their efforts. The first is expected in July.

At Facebook’s Berlin offices, Mr. Allan acknowledged that under the earlier voluntary agreement, the company had not acted decisively enough at first.

“It was too little and it was too slow,” he said. But, he added, “that has changed.”

He cited another independent report for the European Commission from last summer that showed Facebook was by then removing 80 percent of hate speech posts in Germany.

The reason for the improvement was not German legislation, he said, but a voluntary code of conduct with the European Union. Facebook’s results have improved in all European countries, not just in Germany, Mr. Allan said.

“There was no need for legislation,” he said.

Mr. Billen disagrees.

“They could have prevented the law,” he said. YouTube scored 90 percent in last year’s monitoring exercise. If other platforms had done the same, there would be no law today, he said.

A Regulatory Dilemma

Germany’s hard-line approach to hate speech and data privacy once made it an outlier in Europe. The country’s stance is now more mainstream, an evolution seen in the justice commissioner in Brussels.

00fbgermany-7-superJumboVera Jourova, the European Union’s justice commissioner, deleted her Facebook account in 2015 because she could no longer stand the hate.

Vera Jourova, the justice commissioner, deleted her Facebook account in 2015 because she could not stand the hate anymore.

“It felt good,” she said about pressing the button. She added: “It felt like taking back control.”

But Ms. Jourova, who grew up behind the Iron Curtain in what is now the Czech Republic, had long been skeptical about governments legislating any aspect of free speech, including hate speech. Her father lost his job after making a disparaging comment about the Soviet invasion in 1968, barring her from going to university until she married and took her husband’s name.

“I lived half my life in the atmosphere driven by Soviet propaganda,” she said. “The golden principle was: If you repeat a lie a hundred times it becomes the truth.”

When Germany started considering a law, she instead preferred a voluntary code of conduct. In 2016, platforms like Facebook promised European users easy reporting tools and committed to removing most illegal posts brought to their attention within 24 hours.

The approach worked well enough, Ms. Jourova said. It was also the quickest way to act because the 28 member states in the European Union differed so much about whether and how to legislate.

But the stance of many governments toward Facebook has hardened since it emerged that the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of up to 87 million users. Representatives of the European Parliament have asked Mr. Zuckerberg to come to Brussels to “clarify issues related to the use of personal data” and he has agreed to come as soon as next week.

Ms. Jourova, whose job is to protect the data of over 500 million Europeans, has hardened her stance as well.

To be Continued….. Source: NYTimes

Reluctant Stakeholder: Why China’s Highly Strategic Brand of Revisionism is More Challenging Than Washington Thinks


To compete in geopolitics—as in sports, business, and life—one needs to actually compete. Washington has to outperform the Chinese competition, not just belittle it.

At the end of 2016, as Donald Trump prepared to take office as President, I penned an essay for Foreign Affairs magazine on “China and the World.” The editor, my friend Gideon Rose, had asked me to respond to two straightforward questions: Is China a “revisionist” power? And in particular, does not Beijing’s championing of a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) demonstrate its revisionism?

Feigenbaum’s work focuses principally on China and India, geopolitics in Asia, and the role of the United States in East, Central, and South Asia. His previous positions include deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, deputy assistant secretary of state for Central Asia, and member of the secretary of state’s policy planning staff with principal responsibility for East Asia and the Pacific.

Evan A. Feigenbaum

Nonresident Senior Fellow
Asia Program

More from this author…

Well, much has happened since I published that essay in December 2016.

For one thing, the Trump Administration has developed its own answer to these questions. In White House and Defense Department strategy documents, the Administration has made clear that it views China not just as a “revisionist” power but as the world’s principal champion of alternative rules, principles, and structures.

In this telling, Beijing has eschewed the institutions and rules that have prevailed since World War II, especially those preferred by the United States. Instead, it aims to lock in a Sinocentric vision of the world through parallel institutions, disruptive bilateral initiatives, and a rewriting of global rules.

Some administration officials have gone further in their public statements. Take former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He displayed a reasonable grasp of history, but absolutely zero sense of irony, when he praised the Monroe Doctrine in a speech about Latin America, then warned the region to beware the “imperial” ambitions of you-know-who.

Treasury Stephen Mnuchin, meanwhile, has cautioned pretty much every country against taking China’s money. Chinese infrastructure lending, he (correctly) notes, lacks transparency. But Mnuchin extends that argument about transparency into something more like a rap sheet: take Beijing’s money, he warns, and risk being trapped in a debilitating cycle of debt—something that has led to asset-stripping by Chinese practitioners of what the National Defense Strategy calls “predatory economics.” This, in turn, could undermine governance principles championed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

In recent weeks, the administration’s nominee for Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, has taken that argument to its logical conclusion. In testimony to Congress, Davidson came pretty close to calling Chinese infrastructure plays a tool of anti-democratic subversion.

In this changed context, it seems like a good time to take a long look back at my 2016 essay. I still see a lot more complexity than these many strategies, statements, and speeches do.

Here are six important things Washington is missing.

Thinking through the implications of these could help the United States to compete more effectively.

1. It’s tough to critique another country’s obvious revisionism when you’re a revisionist yourself.

China is moving in some very troubling directions. But in the 16 months since I wrote my essay, the United States—and for that matter, some of its trans-Atlantic partners—has also changed in at least three notable ways:

First, while much of the pushback against Chinese activism has been framed as a conservative defense of prevailing rules and institutions, there is nothing either conservative or defensive about the political sentiment that now prevails in some Western capitals. Trump’s Washington. Brexit London. A potential Five Star government in Rome. A Berlin that now has the far-right AfD as the third-largest party in the Bundestag. These signal not a doubling down on prevailing institutions, modes, and rules but an underlying desire by some governments—and many more in their electorates—to actually change them.


Second, the United States has long been the principal champion of trade multilateralism and, in recent years, of regional approaches to liberalization too. Now, the US is moving briskly away from both of these, favoring instead a firm preference for bilateral agreements and managed trade. In fact, the politics of trade in Washington now raise serious questions about whether the US can ever again undertake a large-scale multilateral deal.

Bluntly put, this has changed Washington’s trade policy—and perceptions of and reactions to it—very considerably from 16 months ago. It is often noted that the administration has abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in a probably fruitless pursuit of bilateral agreements in Asia. But that isn’t the only thing that has changed. Washington is also re-emphasizing pre-WTO instruments (sensibly, in my view, but nonetheless to the chagrin of most of its partners). And it seeks to impose penalties and offer incentives in a mostly bilateral, not multilateral, context.

Third, this has meant a return to managed trade—a throwback resented by many and encapsulated, most recently, by the multiple separate bilateral negotiations that Washington has conducted with its allies for tariff exemptions. And here’s the irony: the US is pursuing throwback approaches with the very partners it seeks to enlist against Chinese rule breaking. Take Japan: Tokyo shares American concerns about China but has seen the US withdraw from TPP in favor of a managed approach to trade that looks eerily similar to the US-Japan structural impediments initiatives of the 1990s. Nor does Washington favor other approaches that its Japanese ally now champions.

2. China is a revisionist power but not a revolutionary one. This distinction is being blurred but actually matters.

This distinction may sound too cute by half, but it is a distinction with a difference.

China is emerging as a disruptive force on the international stage. For thirty years, it was encouraged to join international institutions and subscribe to their norms. Now, having joined them, it seeks, like most major powers, to leverage its seat at the top table to support its national interests.

But this is not even one iota surprising.

As China’s military, economic, and financial power have grown, it has been patently obvious that Beijing would not accept all global institutions, rules, standards, and norms exactly as they are configured today. And importantly, this would be true even without Xi Jinping in power. China’s sheer size, weight, and self-perception of its interests will invariably lead it to expect changes in the governance of international institutions and, in some cases, to their underlying rules.

Yet the proposition that China aims to construct a “parallel” order of competing institutions, rules, and initiatives to subvert, and perhaps even replace, the postwar international system both misstates and understates the challenge China actually poses.

It misstates the challenge because it lacks historical perspective and institutional memory. A “disruptive”China is not, after all, a “revolutionary” China. And we know this because we have seen precisely such a China in the very recent past.

Less than fifty years ago, in the 1960s, Mao Zedong’s China actually did seek to overturn the architecture of the international system. Beijing opposed nearly every global institution. It promoted internal, often violent revolution against established governments from Bolivia to Borneo. It argued for an “anti-capitalist” order. When it entered the United Nations in 1971, the West’s biggest fear was that Beijing would disrupt and undermine the organization. And China isolated nearly every aspect of its own economic and social systems from outside influences and global trends, restricting flows of goods, capital, people, technologies, and information almost completely.

Americans have largely forgotten what the world was like when China sought—and in many areas, achieved—a functional autarky. But today’s China is, quite obviously, not that China. And in the case of the AIIB, a China-backed institution has, in many ways, ended up aping and adapting practices from existing institutions.

But if many critics overstate what China is not, they also understate what China actually is—a stakeholder in existing institutions and rules but a habitually reluctant, seldom satisfied, and frequently ambivalent one, at best.

This means the challenge to Washington is far more complex than if China actually did seek to overturn the international order wholesale.

To put this pithily, China accepts most forms but not necessarily our preferred norms. And that disconnect between forms and norms means that Beijing’s revisionism and demands for change often play out within the existing international framework.

This, in turn, means we risk misidentifying the problem.

China’s strategy is actually one of portfolio diversification, not the replacement of institutions and systems. Beijing aims to give itself options—and by extension, leverage—not least to push for reform of these various groups and a larger role for itself and its preferred outcomes and standards.

To illustrate, look at the multilateral development banks: Beijing has not only joined but supports with financial muscle all of the prevailing development institutions, both globally and in Asia. It is the number-three shareholder in the Asian Development Bank—the very institution it is said to be “destabilizing” with its sponsorship of the AIIB. When China has endorsed new structures, such as the New Development Bank and BRICS contingency reserve arrangement, it has simultaneously made sizeable replenishment contributions to the IMF, where it now has nearly three times the voting weight of Canada, about a third more than Britain and France, and only a whisker less than Japan. Beijing has joined regional development banks in Europe, Latin America, and Africa. It has transitioned from a net borrower to a net contributor in the International Development Association (IDA) and other institutions. And then there is the AIIB, where China wields a veto—there, Beijing’s “alternative” institution has struck up partnerships and co-finance arrangements with every other leading MDB, including the Islamic Development Bank, African Development Bank, Asian Development Bank, World Bank, and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

To put this somewhat pointedly, China is a revisionist power but one that is both highly strategic and carefully selective in its revisionism.

In the maritime domain, for example, it seeks to advance its territorial claims by challenging international law and customary practice. In the cyber domain, it is promoting a distinctive vision of cyber sovereignty. But in the majority of instances and institutions, Beijing pursues structural change by demanding changes to the existing framework.

And a more ambitious China cannot, by definition, be a “status quo” power, in any case. The same could be said of some other emerging powers. Merely by seeking a greater role, heftier voting weight, extra chairs and expanded shares, Beijing is, by definition, attempting to force structural changes and achieve gains relative to the established powers, especially America’s European partners.

China is no revolutionary, then, yet it is determined to gain leverage in almost every prevailing institution and rule-making body.

3. American policy did not “mistake” the implications of China’s rise.

Frankly, “portfolio diversification,” as opposed to wholesale replacement, will make it harder for America to simply get its way. Washington needs strategy and foresight, above all. But in recent months, I’ve read three-dozen articles that claim America has compounded its own problem by “failing” to anticipate this Chinese challenge and, in effect, missing the boat on China’s desire to undermine and replace the existing order.

Frankly, that, too, is ahistorical.

China’s brand of revisionism is not at all surprising—first, because leveraging structures and rules to own advantage is among the most predictable behaviors of major powers, but second, because China’s intensifying demands were not, in fact, unanticipated by prior administrations. The United States has seen precisely such a Chinese challenge coming. And in the decade of the 2000s, when I served in the George W. Bush Administration, I saw firsthand how Washington tried to get out in front of it.

Let me illustrate with some examples from my own experience:

In September 2005, I was responsible for East Asia on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s Policy Planning Staff. My then boss, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, delivered an important conceptual speech that came to define much of the debate about China’s global role in the ensuing decade, but which has sometimes been misconstrued or misinterpreted.

Zoellick began his so-called “responsible stakeholder” speech by noting that US policy, through seven presidents from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, had sought to “integrate” China into the international system. But with China having acceded to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, that process was largely complete. Structurally speaking, Zoellick argued, China already was “in.” Beijing had joined most of the major institutions, and, on paper, subscribed to the major treaties and protocols from ozone depletion to chemical weapons.


Zoellick’s conclusion was that American rhetoric about China lagged at least five years behind the new realities of Chinese power. So US policy, he argued, needed to change dramatically as a result.

The shift Zoellick advocated was to deemphasize structure and instead emphasize Beijing’s conduct and behavior. The proper question for US policy, he implied, was no longer whether China was “in” or “out”of this or that institution or rule, but rather whether Beijing supported and sustained through its actions, even as it might demand to adapt, those aspects of the international system that had enabled its own success.

Zoellick put this point pretty bluntly, deploying a now famous catchphrase: “It is time to take our policy beyond opening doors to China’s membership into the international system. We need to urge China to become a responsible stakeholder in that system.”

From my vantage point, at least, the Bush Administration clearly sensed from its earliest days an impending challenge from Beijing. So it tried to get in front of, shape, and steer China’s emerging energies.

One reason for this was that Washington faced a gathering problem with China in the mid-2000s: Beijing’s power and capacity for action were growing, yet China was, in many areas, taking a big fat free ride as a consumer of the security and stability the US was working to provide.

One way to think about this challenge is to turn Zoellick’s catchphrase on its head. The logical opposite of a “responsible stakeholder” is an “irresponsible free rider.” And since the administration had no interest whatsoever in encouraging China to be an irresponsible free rider, it made sense to encourage its logical opposite.

By late 2005, as President Bush swung into his second term, China was developing a truly global footprint for the first time since its revolutionary foreign policy of the 1960s. So Washington had every good reason to push Beijing to act as a stakeholder in the system it had joined, not continue to free ride on its benefits.

Operationally, the US confronted specific examples of this challenge from Beijing nearly every day throughout the decade of the 2000s. And since I worked on quite a few of these, I saw how debilitating they could become at the ground level:

In 2001 and 2002, for instance, my boss on the Policy Planning Staff, Richard Haass, was dual-hatted as the US coordinator for Afghanistan policy. As a neighboring country that shared a continental border with Central Asia and was a member of the Six-Plus-Two group on Afghanistan, China derived security and counterterrorism benefits from the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda.

But while China made modest financial contributions at international donors conferences in Tokyo and The Hague, it contributed little to the effort when weighed against its capacity and interests. And it tended to make its contributions unilaterally rather than in coordination with us and other donors.

But because Washington pressed, changes happened. So where Beijing had made its Afghanistan pledges unilaterally, its initial pledges to Iraq, by contrast, were made multilaterally and in coordination with the US and others donors, as was Beijing’s participation in the process of Iraqi debt forgiveness.

By 2006, I had become the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia, the principal day-to-day official for the region. Among other challenges I inherited was the bitter taste left by China having most unhelpfully joined Moscow and fellow members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in a 2005 statement that called for a “final timeline”to end coalition operations in Afghanistan.

From Washington’s perspective, this highlighted Beijing’s propensity to mouth empty slogans while enjoying the benefits of a free ride on the security and stability America was spending blood and treasure to provide. In that instance, too, Washington sat on Beijing (and countries in Central Asia), urging them never again to repeat this statement—and, better yet, to step up to the plate with tangible or enhanced contributions to the international effort.

A third example from this period was Beijing’s quixotic effort to “lock up” energy supplies through equity hydrocarbon investments in Africa and Central Asia by Chinese state-owned firms. China was hardly the first power to embrace neo-mercantilist energy investments overseas. But amid volatile global oil and gas markets, it held the potential to disrupt global stability—a point Zoellick specifically highlighted in his speech.

4. Domestically, China’s Leninism matters. Externally, its traditionalism may matter more.

Looking back on all this a decade later, this adjusted way of thinking about China still strikes me as ahead of trend.

For one thing, Zoellick’s speech focused on China’s global role before that role grew exponentially in the late 2000s and the decade of the 2010s. In that sense, he was prescient.

But China today is a changed country. It has more problems, but also a lot more capacity. Despite a growth slowdown and a crying need for structural reform, its $1 trillion economy upon entering the WTO in 2001 has become a $14 trillion behemoth (measured in nominal GDP). Its $220 billion in foreign exchange reserves in 2001 have ballooned over the same period to a staggering $3 trillion. Xi Jinping has injected a sharper edge and greater ambition to Chinese statecraft, not least through his advocacy of new institutions, such as the AIIB, and the massive “Belt and Road” infrastructure scheme.

In this context, US efforts to adapt—but also defend—the existing architecture are surely going to be more difficult than many in Washington presume:

One reason is that China rejects the trans-Atlantic preference for a liberal bias to the existing system but not “international order” per se. In other words, it subscribes to much of the existing order but not our desire to lock in a liberal bias.

It is often argued that China rejects these liberal norms internationally because it has an illiberal, Leninist government at home. But that is just one part of the story.

In fact, the Communist government’s skepticism of the application of liberal ideas internationally reflects not just its Leninism but also its deep-seated foreign policy traditionalism. The roots of this lie squarely in the 1990s—fully two decades before Xi Jinping, a committed Leninist, took power.

Post-Cold War shifts, especially the NATO intervention in the Balkans, caused China and the West to diverge on many of the bread-and-butter issues of international relations: How should the international system be organized? Can states legitimately intervene militarily in another state—as for instance, the US and NATO did through humanitarian interventions in the Balkans and elsewhere? What is the proper role of security alliances in a post-Cold War world? Does globalization erode the role of the state and, especially, of sovereignty? Who gets to decide how to interpret and apply international law?

On these questions, Beijing’s preferences in the 1990s began to diverge sharply from the American view of international statecraft, especially in its post-Cold War variant. And one issue in particular shaped and defined these evolving Chinese preferences—Beijing’s preoccupation with its territorial claims, especially to Taiwan.

When the US intervened in the Balkans, Panama, and Haiti, Beijing’s preoccupation with its own territorial claims hardened into a view of sovereignty and non-intervention that many in the US and Europe view as antique. Likewise, when the US relied on NATO in the Balkans, bypassing the UN Security Council where China (and Russia) could wield the veto, Beijing’s inherent skepticism of alliances seemed to grow.

Much of China’s revisionism, therefore, is aimed squarely at a trans-Atlantic version of international order. But on sovereignty and territoriality China is speaking the language of many other countries, particularly the “global south.”

A second example of China’s traditionalism is what I earlier termed “portfolio diversification.”

The decade of the 2000s was an inflection point. By 2010, China had begun to embrace a handful of “parallel” structures, such as the SCO and the BRICS. These groups assembled members, such as China, Russia, and the Central Asian states, that lack a commitment to liberal values at home. But these countries are also suspicious of it as an organizing principle abroad. And in that particular aspect, they are joined by some democracies, including, I would argue, even democratic India, that do not view it as thesingular organizing principle of international statecraft.

And yet ironically, even as Beijing embraced these parallel structures, its enthusiasm for the more traditional groups—groups that are core institutions of the liberal order—actually grew, not lessened.

China pursued bigger stakes in the World Bank and IMF at the 2009 Pittsburgh G20, and joined more of regional multilateral developments banks in Latin America and Africa. Beijing developed a $2 billion co-financing fund with the Inter-American Development Bank and ramped up its role in UN peacekeeping operations.

As I argued in 2016 in Foreign Affairs, China’s goals in shifting to this more diverse approach are presumably fourfold: to (1) hedge its commitment to existing groups and rules lest they turn against Beijing; (2) give China leverage to demand faster and deeper reforms to existing structures; (3)“democratize” international governance by working with India and other emerging powers to establish groups not led by the G7 industrialized democracies; and (4) put Washington on notice that Beijing has the capacity and will to generate alternatives if its calls for reform and change are not respected.

The AIIB, in some sense, exemplifies this more diverse Chinese strategy.

A third example of Beijing’s traditionalism is its frequent argument that institutions should reflect current power realities, not the legacies of decades past.  It is obvious enough that China and India have risen while Belgium and the Netherlands have declined in relative terms. But here’s the rub: enhancing China’s role while reducing the “Western” footprint has significant implications for the effort to lock in a liberal bias within structures and rules.

The fact is, by reducing the European footprint to ensure that various groups better reflect the power realities of 2018 not 1948, they inevitably become less reliant on the trans-Atlantic powers.

As a result, Washington has faced a growing contradiction between its strong preference for liberalism and its growing need for functionalism—the more “Western” an institution, the more liberal it is but the less representative and thus potentially less functional it may be. The transition from the G7 to the G20, and the failure to adjust the membership of the International Energy Agency (IEA) (whose voting shares have been weighted to 1973 consumption) well illustrate this challenge.

5. China has leveraged pan-Asian ideas that others actually invented first. That makes it harder for Washington to push back.

So much for global institutions. Then, there is Asia, where the US has withdrawn from TPP and rejected regional approaches even as efforts have been underway for decades to organize some of those approaches on a pan-Asian basis, excluding the United States.

China is not the only country to have been implicated in that effort. Asia has repeatedly flirted with preferential trade and financial arrangements, as well regionally based regulations and standards, without American participation.

It has become fashionable to ascribe efforts to build pan-Asian groups to rising Chinese assertiveness—or, more precisely, to Chinese ambition. But once again, that captures just one part of a more complex story.

China’s advocacy of pan-Asianism has been effective precisely because it draws off a deep well of sentiment and experience across Asia. The region boasts long traditions of pan-Asian ideas, ideologies, pacts, and negotiations—the subject of a Council on Foreign Relations monograph I co-authored with my friend, Bob Manning, in 2009. And this was well underway before China is said to have become “assertive” in Asia, indeed when Xi Jinping himself, that great champion of assertiveness, had only recently been promoted up from the provinces.

Contemporary Asian regionalism—the desire to forge at least some cohesion out of the region’s enormous diversity—has deep roots. It has found expression across Asia, in many countries, and over several decades.

Japan, for instance, is a close US ally, suspicious of the rise of Chinese power, and has a strong trans-Pacific identity. Still, Japan’s bureaucracy has incubated a variety of pan-Asian ideas, especially with respect to monetary integration. Before there was an AIIB, there was Japan’s proposal of an Asian Monetary Fund, which helped give rise to today’s Chiang Mai Initiative of bilateral currency swaps among Southeast and Northeast Asian countries.

In the 1990s, the US could squash such incipient regionalism. But relative power balances have changed considerably since then. Worse, the US withdrawal from TPP has fueled perceptions across Asia of American protectionism. Viewed through this frame, Beijing’s proposal of the AIIB (and probably other ideas yet to come) cannot be so easily squashed since they lie squarely in a longer pan-Asian tradition.

American policymakers make much in speeches today about indebtedness to China and the potential for Beijing to exact a steep price in exchange for its loans. But the IMF itself was hardly popular in Asia not long ago. Many in the region, especially in Southeast Asia, reacted badly when Washington refused to bail out Thailand in 1997, just three years after bailing out Mexico. And for many Asians, the most enduring image of the crisis is a photograph of IMF managing director Michel Camdessus standing, arms crossed over a seated Indonesian president Suharto, his head bowed, as he was compelled to sign onto the IMF’s terms for financial support.

The biggest takeaway is that when Washington absents itself (or merely shows disinterest in the region’s concerns), Asians will grope for their ownsolutions.

This is precisely what happened with the TPP after American withdrawal. The US frequently argues that Asia will pay a big price for failing to confront China. Actually, the US stands to pay a far steeper price for creating, and then abetting, a vacuum. It is no surprise that the eleven remaining TPP parties completed the agreement without Washington: for all their tensions with one another, forging agreement on pan-Asian rules beats both “Chinese” rules and no rules.

6. Whining isn’t competing.

Finally, that brings us to the Belt and Road (BRI) infrastructure initiative that has become the principal target of Mr. Mnuchin’s and Admiral Davidson’s ire.

BRI is widely viewed as an attempt to foster dependence on China’s economy, with potential strategic and even military effects. And there is something to that argument. Still, Beijing is succeeding, in part because it is borrowing and adapting ideas long advocated by others, including the United States.

Ironically, in the 2000s, the other foot wore the shoe. Instead of the US condemning China’s BRI, it was Beijing that bombastically condemned Washington as a “schemer.” America’s “crime”? Daring to envision a “Greater Central Asia” and making efforts to connect Asia’s sub-regions through infrastructure, policy coordination, and project finance.

This context strikes me as very important. The regrowth of economic connections across Asia’s disparate sub-regions is a function of the choices, actions and capabilities of many states, including Japan, South Korea, and India. It is not a Chinese invention, did not begin only in 2013, and did not spring from Xi Jinping like Athena from the head of Zeus. Indeed, China was part of this connectivity effort even before it launched the Belt and Road, breaking Russia’s monopsony on Central Asian oil and gas with pipelines from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, an onshore production sharing agreement in Turkmenistan, and dozens of projects around the world.

Why do others’ efforts matter? Well, the ADB and the World Bank, for instance, have undertaken longstanding efforts on roads and power lines in Asia. The ADB’s CAREC program (which happens to include China) has been promoting six connectivity corridors—”linking the Mediterranean and East Asia”—for two decades. Does the idea of “linking the Mediterranean and East Asia” sound anything like Beijing’s sloganeering on behalf of the BRI? It does.

Here’s another example from my own experience: The Bush Administration actually reorganized the State Department around a connectivity concept in 2005, when it moved the countries of Central Asia out of a westward-facing European bureau into an Asian-facing bureau that included India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. During those years, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her team developed a variety of US-backed ideas for regional infrastructure integration, most of them premised on leveraging the strengths of the international financial institutions and the ongoing efforts of many partners.

This included Japan, whose role remains notable—it has been Tokyo, not Beijing, which is playing the dominant role in project finance in India, for example, including building the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, the Delhi Metro and the development of high-speed rail for Indian Railways.

Then there is the sheer “Asianization” of Central Asia, which owes as much to the retreat of Russian economic power and relative ebbing of Moscow’s primacy as it does to the arrival of Chinese trade and capital.

What I’m trying to say is that the “challenge of China’s new activism” is more complex than the BRI being some sort of binary counterpoint to the United States. Rather, we need to enlarge our framing of the strategic problem:

The United States risks being marginalized by an organic process through which numerous Asian states, including but not limited to China, are reintegrating East, Central, and South Asia through the direction of trade, capital flows, infrastructure, and new pan-Asian pacts and agreements. More often than not, this is happening without American involvement.

Gradually, but inexorably, the region is becoming more Asian than ‘‘Asia-Pacific,’’ especially as Asian economies look to one another, not just the trans-Atlantic West, for new economic and financial arrangements; more continental than sub-continental, as East and South Asia become more closely intertwined; and, in its continental west, more Central Asian than Eurasian, as China develops its western regions and five former Soviet countries rediscover their Asian roots.

Insufficiently, in my view, the US response to this has mostly been to complain about the Belt and Road. Even without the Belt and Road, the US was already increasingly out of the picture.

My own view is that Washington can and must do better.

For one thing, American policymakers need greater discretion and better judgment about when and where to pick their fights. In the case of the AIIB, for example, the US went to the mat, contesting a Chinese initiative in a functional area where existing structures were clearly insufficient and the US itself offered no distinctive model. It turned China’s proposal of a multilateral bank into a bilateral test of wills but without the leverage to stop Beijing from moving forward. Worse, Washington badly misread the sentiment of some of its allies.

Here are some final takeaways:

One, like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, it is futile for the United States to try to write China out of Asia’s story. And this would be true of any China, not just Xi Jinping’s assertive and nationalistic China.

One reason for this is cartographic: China borders every sub-region of Asia—Northeast, Southeast, Central, and South. The United States does not. Neither does any other big Asian player.

Another reason is financial: even if China cannot ultimately deploy the billions of state-backed project finance it has pledged to the Belt and Road, it can still drop plenty of meaningful money into countries all over Asia where the United States and its firms are largely invisible. To reject and battle against every instance of China’s effort to foster connectivity, then, would require Washington to fight both geographic and economic gravity.

A more realistic way to counterbalance the spread of Chinese power, especially in Asia, is to be more successful at bolstering America’s ownpower, presence, initiative, role, relationships, and arsenal of military, economic, and technological tools. And it can best do this in concert with other partners who have stepped into the vacuum created by US absence, disinterest, protectionism, and worse.

That is why the recent Trump Administration effort to coordinate infrastructure priorities among the US and Japan and the US, Japan, and India is so welcome. So, too, is a development finance reform bill making its way through Capitol Hill, which aims to make it easier for US firms to manage and mitigate risk in tough business environments.

To compete in geopolitics—as in sports, business, and life—one needs to actually compete. Washington has to outperform the Chinese competition, not just belittle and whine about it.

There is certainly a deep suspicion of Chinese intent across Asia today. But I have seen enough from every sub-region of Asia to know that the US will not get far by telling third countries that they should forestall deepening their economic relationships with China. For nearly every country, and especially the smaller ones, that is an impractical choice, and therefore will be rejected.

And that is not all. Trashing China’s initiatives while failing to counter and compete with them signals other capitals that their countries are of little interest to the United States on their own terms. Their takeaway will surely be that the United States pays attention to them only in the context of its strategic competition with China. That is a poor message indeed.

The recent US approach, whether to BRI or to AIIB, risks inviting comparisons, both implicit and explicit, between what Washington is offering and what Beijing is offering. The US is diplomatically challenged and commercially weak in around two-thirds of the Eurasian continental landmass—including many countries in Central Asia, South Asia, and mainland Southeast Asia. Sadly, then, the comparison will often benefit Beijing not Washington.

I have written elsewhere about how the US could be more proactive in Asia, not reactive. But in responding to BRI, at least, it’s important when designing US policies not to compare American apples to Chinese oranges. America isn’t China. For instance, it doesn’t have state-backed firms that it can leverage through billions channeled through state-backed policy banks.

So Washington should be better leveraging its uniquely American strengths—technology, innovation ecosystems, STEM education, connections to the global capital markets, best in class services and other firms, and so on.

It will be harder to deploy that leverage in the context of messages that say “America First.” American business remains crucial, especially in East Asia. US companies have invested more than $200 billion into the ten ASEAN countries of Southeast Asia alone. But what is at stake is not just business but rules, norms, standards, and strategic momentum.

Ultimately, at the political level, Washington spends far too much time playing defense against Beijing. As Asia becomes more integrated, the US will become progressively less relevant in many parts of the region—in Central Asia, in most of South Asia except India, and in mainland Southeast Asia, as noted above.

Within a generation, Americans could find their firms at a competitive disadvantage in a part of the world that will constitute as much as half of the global economy. Americans could become bystanders to the economic and strategic dynamics quickly reshaping this region.

The fact is, China is going to continue proposing initiatives like the Belt and Road. So the US needs to get off its back foot and onto the initiative.

The US can work with China but that needs to happen in the broader context of strategy and policy in Asia. And this includes leveraging the many initiatives and partnerships from Japan to Singapore that should also aim to promote economic expansion and connectivity.

I wrote in 2016—and I still believe—that the best adaptation to China’s new activism is a stronger offense, not perpetual defense.
This article was originally published in MacroPolo.


Hamas: Constrained or Nimble?


While other Palestinian institutions are in crisis, Hamas has maintained its integrity and survived political turmoil. But to capitalize on this, it will need to revise its strategy.

n 2017, the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas made news by taking three major steps that did not involve firing a single shot: it issued a new charter; it elected a new leadership; and it allowed the administration in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to answer to the ministries of the Palestinian Authority (PA) based in the West Bank, a relationship that had been sundered a decade earlier.

These measures were interpreted by observers as having been brought about by external political constraints. There were good reasons for reaching such a conclusion, since Hamas was, and to an extent still is, hemmed in from all sides. However, focusing solely on external considerations misses a great deal and is hardly sufficient for explaining why and how Hamas behaves as it does. The movement’s ability to take observers by surprise was dramatically illustrated in April 2018 with a series of marches on the fence surrounding the Gaza Strip.

Rather, three additional factors must be taken into account. First, Hamas’s leadership does not passively respond to outside conditions, but actively evaluates them in order to optimally manage its responses. Second, international pressure does not so much directly affect Hamas’s calculations as it has an impact on domestic public opinion, which in turn shapes the group’s understanding of opportunities and constraints. And third, Hamas is distinctive on the Palestinian scene in that it has developed an institutionalized rather than a personalized organization, one with mechanisms linking its leadership with the rank and file.

Understanding Hamas’s internal dynamics helps to show how its actions reflect strategic choices, allowing for a better comprehension of the way the organization interacts with political realities, makes concessions, and capitalizes on these to maximize its gains. This, in turn, allows observers to grasp how Hamas achieves its goals, manages challenges, maintains its integrity, and survives, despite the formidable obstacles it has encountered in recent years. Such resilience has particular resonance at a time when Hamas’s main rival, Fatah, is showing signs of incoherence and decay, when many Palestinian political structures are in crisis, and when the Palestinian national movement is facing an uncertain predicament.


Hamas was founded on the eve of the First Palestinian Intifada (1987–1993) as an “Islamic resistance movement.” While it has long sought to join the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), this has never happened. Fatah has dominated the PLO since 1969 and is unwilling to cede to Hamas any part of its power. Hamas rejected the Oslo Accords of 1993 and the negotiations with Israel that followed. When this process led to the election of a Palestinian president and parliament in 1996, as part of a supposedly temporary Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas refused to go along with it.

In 2000 the Second Intifada broke out, following the failure of the Oslo process to establish a Palestinian state. Hamas was active in the protests, solidifying its standing in Palestinian society. When new parliamentary elections were scheduled for January 2006, Hamas decided to participate, even though it continued to reject the Oslo process. The organization quickly showed a remarkable capacity for mobilizing in opposition to the PA, and this helped propel it to a stunning electoral triumph.

A picture and its story: Smoke clears and photographer captures momentÊof protest

That triumph, which led to Hamas’s entering government for the first time, was met with a harsh international response. The Middle East Quartet—an ad hoc body created to mediate in Middle East peace talks, made up of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations—sought to impose conditions on Hamas for negotiations to continue. These involved recognizing Israel, accepting past agreements with Israel, and renouncing violence. When Hamas demurred, Israel and the United States took steps aimed at generating popular discontent with the Hamas government in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel ceased transferring tax revenues to the new Hamas-led Palestinian government while Western backers stopped providing it with budgetary support. Even private banks, fearing sanctions, put an end to their dealings with the new government. Under such pressure, Hamas did agree in principle with Fatah to form a national-unity government in 2007, but the efforts to unseat it continued. These efforts, spearheaded by the Palestinian security forces loyal to Fatah, failed, showing Hamas’s significant ability to maneuver domestically.

Power struggles between Fatah and Hamas over control of PA institutions escalated during that period, until there was a major outbreak of violence in June 2007, when the two groups engaged in a military showdown in Gaza. The ensuing Hamas victory allowed the organization to take over PA institutions in the territory. This provoked a rift in Palestinian areas, with Hamas ruling over Gaza and Fatah over the West Bank, from where it retained control of the PLO. While Hamas’s refusal to comply with the Middle East Quartet’s conditions had led to a momentary increase in its popular support, this did not help Hamas to overcome growing public dissatisfaction with the tightened blockade on Gaza imposed as a result of its victory, which began eating away at its popularity.

Hamas’s leaders justified their military takeover in 2007 as a reaction to what they said was a planned coup by Fatah, but their actions placed them in a difficult position. The organization had crossed its own self-imposed redlines of never killing Palestinians or attacking other Palestinian groups. Hamas imposed a tight grip on power in Gaza, but it also lost its reputationas a more principled movement in the eyes of much of the population.

Even if the situation was corrosive to Hamas’s status, it was manageable. The PA deposed the Hamas-led cabinet after its takeover of Gaza, but this came with a decision to continue funding the salaries of PA employees in the territory, allowing it to retain a base of loyalists there. In response, Hamas set up a parallel administration, hiring thousands of people, whose salaries the PA refused to pay. To counter the stranglehold on Gaza by Israel and Egypt, Hamas encouraged the growth of a “tunnel economy,” whereby economic activity took place through hundreds of tunnels dug under Gaza’s border with Egypt. This provided Gaza’s inhabitants with work and cheap goods, generating renewed satisfaction.

As a result of the tunnels, Hamas’s revenues rose, so that by 2009 they totaled $150–$200 million annually, a figure that would rise to about $375 million in 2011, when the regime of Egypt’s then president Hosni Mubarak fell. During the same period, unemployment in Gaza dropped from 45 percent to 32 percent. This led to the increased stability of Hamas rule and a bigger regional role for the organization after the election of Mohamed Morsi as Egypt’s president in 2012. All this seemed to promise an end to Hamas’s isolation.

Periodically, the rival Palestinian leaderships would pledge to reconcile, and at times specific steps were taken to further this, such as extensive negotiations in 2011. Generally, it was the weakness of one side or the other at a particular time, and sometimes both, that led to efforts to appear to favor unity. However, neither side was willing to risk surrendering authority in its respective realm and international actors remained guarded, with some even hostile to such attempts.

Things changed for the worse for Hamas after July 2013, when Egypt’s military overthrew Morsi and the political system led by the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s sister organization. The military-dominated regime in Cairo put an end to the tunnel economy, exacerbating the impact of the blockade on Gaza. The ensuing economic strains forced Hamas to accept the Shati Agreement of April 23, 2014, an unprecedented development in the Fatah-Hamas relationship that was aimed at allowing the Fatah-led PA to govern Gaza again. The accord collapsed following the war between Hamas and Israel in summer 2014, as both Palestinian groups focused on retrenchment rather than reconciliation. However, the brief opening revealed that Hamas was looking for a way out of the Gaza straitjacket in a manner that would strengthen its domestic popularity.


In early 2017, amid the continuing stalemate in Hamas-Fatah relations, Hamas once again faced a crisis. In an attempt to raise the heat on Hamas, the PA cut the salaries of some of its own employees in Gaza as well as other forms of support for the territory, because such revenues facilitated Hamas’s continued rule by reducing discontent. The organization concluded that, despite widespread dissatisfaction with the PA, “popular agitation would turn against [Hamas] rule,” as one activist put it.1 The collapse of the tunnel economy and the PA’s punitive measures had pushed Gazans to their limit, given the misery in which they lived. Hamas’s stark choice was either “reconciliation at any cost” and handing Gaza’s administration over to Fatah, or accepting an “inevitable catastrophe.”


This new reality forced Hamas and its electorate to be pragmatic with regard to the internal and external challenges the organization was facing. Hamas elections in February and October 2017 brought in Saleh al-Arouri, as deputy head of the Hamas Political Bureau, and Yahya al-Sinwar, as the movement’s head in Gaza. While both were seen as hardliners, they moved forward on a reconciliation agreement with the PA. The difficulties all around seemed insurmountable, but the two new leaders’ status as former Israeli prisoners and the fact that they represented new faces gave them the latitude to take Hamas in a new direction. As Sinwar stated in a meeting with Gaza trade unions in October 2017, reconciliation was a collective decision by the movement at home and abroad.

Under the reconciliation agreement that ensued, ministers from the PA in Ramallah are supposed to take formal control of political structures in Gaza, with Hamas ending any governing role there. However, full implementation seems unlikely at present. A unified cabinet in Ramallah nominally governs Gaza, but its effective control of the bureaucracy there is shaky and untested. Several outstanding issues, such as Hamas’s insistence on retaining an armed wing, will likely remain unresolved. But even if parts of the agreement remain frozen, it has allowed Hamas to cede governing responsibility without losing influence over much of what goes on in Gaza. Even a bomb attack in Gaza in March 2018 targeting visiting PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, though it raised tensions, failed to bring about a collapse of the accommodation between Fatah and Hamas.

Why was Hamas willing to discontinue governing Gaza? And how did the election of seemingly uncompromising figures lead to its more relaxed grip on power and a more flexible ideology? External constraints, acting on public discontent in Gaza, had generated enormous pressure on Hamas, making its leaders realize that they could no longer govern, let alone wait out the blockade. However, Hamas also had choices, and in 2017 it showed that it could react not by accepting defeat passively but by turning crisis into opportunity.

Hamas was able to do this because its internal deliberations are conducted in such a way as to allow for the emergence of a broad consensus. The organization has always striven to have in place mechanisms allowing it to sustain itself, maintain links between the leadership and the base, and ensure that its members are united around party structures and a common strategy. That is why when Hamas faced external challenges, geographical isolation, a lack of allies, and rising popular discontent in 2017, it reacted by electing a new leadership. During this period it also altered its charter in a protracted, movement-wide process that suggested a willingness to compromise without formally repudiating past positions. These moves, aimed at giving new momentum to the organization, came as part of Hamas’s preparation to disengage from its governing role in Gaza.

While Hamas has decisionmaking institutions, it gains by being able to anchor its choices in interactions between these institutions and local activists on the one hand, and between the organization and the broader public on the other. Hamas activists emphasize that all members were involved in deciding on a number of strategic choices in recent years, through forums providing for intense discussions—including whether to participate in local or legislative elections, to approve of a truce with Israel, or to endorse reconciliation talks with Fatah.2

A mechanism that Hamas uses for internal dialogue is monthly gatherings that it calls lailat katiba (or “battalion night”), in which its leaders share the movement’s ideas with all members in each region.3 Hamas also depends upon local bodies to create informal networks based on kinship, friendship, and neighborhood ties. In addition, these local bodies build a profile of the population by conducting surveys and registering people in the organization’s database of inhabitants.4 This allows Hamas to get a sense of the public mood about issues, in particular its standing and general attitudes toward its behavior and political choices.


Were the measures Hamas adopted in 2017 anything more than a quick fix? Hamas’s ability to reestablish its position will depend on regaining the popular support it once enjoyed in Gaza, as well as on its success in rebuilding regional alliances to mitigate its political and geographical isolation. Achieving breakthroughs on these fronts depends on Hamas’s organizational potential and its strategic choices.

Hamas’s support dropped sharply as a result of its military takeover of Gaza and preservation of order through the heavy hand of its security forces. The organization realized it had to pursue conciliation as the violence had led to the death of dozens of people, leaving influential local families embittered. Hamas’s social and political interaction with the public had shifted its initial approach, from direct and largely unrestricted access toward more limited contact suiting an autocratic governing authority. Hamas sought to reverse course and once again position itself as the protector of the population, rather than as a force policing society and suppressing the political opposition.

Hamas does have a history of reviving itself. During the Second Intifada between 2000 and 2005, after years of repression by the PA at a time when Palestinian-Israeli negotiations were ongoing, Hamas was able to persuade many of its compatriots that the arrest of its cadres and the torture of some of its top leaders had been necessary to defend popular interests.5

However, while the post-2007 period allowed the movement to organize freely at the local level throughout Gaza, its current quest to regain public support could prove more difficult. Hamas’s decision to abandon governance in the territory and work in favor of Palestinian reconciliation, particularly societal reconciliation in Gaza, might facilitate this task. However, the organization’s enemies will not make it easy for Hamas to regain its previous stature.

Regionally, Hamas is attempting to revive its past relationships in a highly contested environment. The Middle East is polarized between a Saudi-led coalition that includes Egypt, Jordan, and the PA, and an Iran-led alliance that includes Syria and Hezbollah. Hamas is caught between the two poles. To bridge the gap with the Saudi-led camp, Hamas accepted some ambiguity about a two-state solution in its amended charter. It also dropped any mention of its links with the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt and Saudi Arabia consider a terrorist organization, a contrast with how Hamas had presented itself in the past. However, such efforts will be complicated by the fact that Sinwar and Arouri come from Hamas’s military wing, whose primary supporter has long been Iran.

It is unlikely that Hamas will be able to navigate the regional split for long. The divisions are too strong and bitter for the organization to succeed in retaining a foot in both camps. Today, Egypt and Iran are the main rivals for Hamas’s allegiance, each important with regard to the organization’s specific political priorities, which are themselves a reflection of its multifaceted identity.

Hamas’s relations with Egypt deteriorated after Mohamed Morsi’s removal from power. However, the organization cannot afford to be on bad terms with the largest Arab country and the neighbor that controls Gaza’s major lifeline, its twelve-kilometer southwestern border. Egypt is also the one actor that can persuade the PA to implement a reconciliation agreement with Hamas, and push Israel to go along with it. For its part, Egypt needs Hamas’s cooperation to combat the Islamic State, a common enemy that has been effectively contained in Gaza, but not on the Sinai Peninsula, where an insurgency continues.

At the same time, there are strong forces attracting Hamas to the Iranian camp, even if the relationship worsened in 2012. Khaled Mishal, then the head of the Hamas Political Bureau, publically supported the uprising against the Syrian regime, Iran’s major regional ally. Yet Hamas needs Iran’s financial support, which was suspended following that fissure, to pursue its social and political activities. Rebuilding the alliance would allow Hamas to resume providing services to the population and would help it regain regional standing as a major opponent of Israel. Iran, in turn, believes that renewed ties with Hamas would permit the Islamic Republic to recover its reputation as leader of the regional “resistance axis,” rather than just as the sponsor of a sectarian Shia coalition.

The regional context suggests that the Iranian pull may be stronger since it is based on a longer-term, strategic concurrence of views. Arouri has described the relationship as being built on “solid ground.” By contrast, the connection with the Saudi-led coalition seems to reflect détente more than any strong alignment. However, the lesson that Hamas learned from the failure of its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood after the Arab uprisings in 2011 is that it is better not to be tied to an ideological framework, but, instead, to pursue Hamas’s interests according to circumstances. A Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, has emphasized this, arguing, “We are not at a stage where we are comfortable with ideological alliances [as they involve us in] regional [political] games.”

But the cold pursuit of Hamas’s interests may prove tricky today. Regional polarization between the Saudi- and Iranian-led camps leaves little room for the organization to maneuver as it pleases. Hamas is also at its weakest internally and regionally since its establishment in 1987, which means that it is not in a position to play each side off against the other. Any attempt by Hamas to generate advantage from one camp will provoke problems with the rival camp.


Hamas has stood out among Palestinian groups for its ability to maintain its power and effectiveness over time, while remaining united and cohesive. But if the organization is strong, its strategy has been more problematic. Hamas’s control over Gaza highlighted the contradiction between the organization’s resistance role, intended to defend Palestinians, and its governance tasks, which frequently meant imposing strict, unpopular control over the population.

Against this backdrop, Hamas and its electorate reacted in 2017 by bringing in a new leadership, introducing hints of compromise into its charter, and showing a greater readiness to adjust to internal Palestinian and regional political realities. In a comparison that Hamas leaders would find distasteful, the organization had to manage the same tensions faced earlier by Fatah in the period after each Palestinian intifada, when it sought to prioritize a political strategy over armed resistance. Fatah’s unpersuasive performance led directly to its electoral defeats in local elections in 2004 and legislative elections in 2006.

As an organization, Hamas may fare better than Fatah, because it has a greater ability to deliberate, decide collectively, and even vote internally. But while the organization is likely to survive and renew itself, it faces a real problem down the road. The new leadership of Hamas has no clear solution to the strategic vacuum lying at the heart of the Palestinian national movement that it seeks to lead.

Source: Carnegie ME Center

Bracing for an Israel-Iran Confrontation in Syria

 By Ehud Yaari

Despite the recent escalation, the United States has options for preventing, or at least limiting the scope of, a regional showdown in Syria.

Israel and Iran are on course for a collision in the near future. Indeed, a military clash that could expand well beyond Syrian territory appears almost inevitable. In particular, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is determined to transform Syria into a platform for a future war against Israel, whereas leaders of the Jewish state have sworn to prevent what they often describe as the tightening of a noose around Israel’s neck.

The past five years have already seen a series of direct clashes between the two powers. These include more than 120 Israeli Air Force (IAF) strikes against weapons shipments to Hezbollah, Iranian attempts to instigate cross-border incidents along the Golan Heights, and Israeli targeting of arms-production facilities introduced by Iran. In early 2018, these exchanges have escalated to include Israeli airstrikes on Iranian UAV facilities established deep in the Syrian desert, at the T-4 Air Base, and a first Iranian attempt to stage an armed drone attack in Israel.

Iran has committed publicly to conducting a forceful retaliation for the Israeli strike in January that killed eight Iranian officers, including UAV unit commander Colonel Mehdi Dehghani. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has threatened vaguely that a confrontation in Syria could prompt Israel to target Iranian territory. He has also presented an ultimatum of sorts to Bashar al-Assad, suggesting that continued acquiescence by the Syrian President to the establishment of Iranian military bases across his country would compel an end to the Israeli policy of noninterference in the Syrian war. This switch would entail direct military hits on the regime, the preservation of which has been Tehran’s prime objective in the region. Such a shift in Israel’s policy would of course carry the risk of drawing Russian intervention to prevent Assad’s removal. Relatedly, Moscow has already hinted that it may supply Syria with the advanced S-300 air-defense system—probably manned with Russian personnel—which would complicate IAF sorties over the country. In recent weeks, neither Israel nor Iran has signaled an intention to reassess its position, and combative rhetoric from both sides has become an almost daily occurrence.

Outside powers, too, have yet to undertake serious efforts to stop the escalation. The United States is quietly backing Israeli preemptive operations against Iranian forces in Syria, while Russia has restricted itself to advising both parties to refrain from widening the scope of the clashes. President Vladimir Putin, although in close contact with both Netanyahu and President Hassan Rouhani, has never offered to mediate. Moreover, he has not directed his pilots, based mainly near Latakia, to interfere with Israeli strikes or to stop Iran from expanding its military infrastructure in Syria. Putin appears to believe he can still exploit the Israel-Iran rivalry to his own benefit.


Since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in March 2011, Israel and Iran have been on opposing sides of the conflict. Despite harboring deep suspicions about the plethora of Sunni rebel groups conducting the uprising against Assad, Israel nevertheless yearned to see Assad’s downfall. In this view, the removal of the Assad regime would deprive Iran of what Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has called “the golden ring in the chain of resistance” against Israel. The Iranian loss of Syria—following an investment of no less than $20 billion to prop up the regime—could reduce a mighty Hezbollah proxy force to an isolated actor in Lebanon, delinked from its Syria-based sources of support and equipment. Iran would thus be blocked from implementing its regional plan, based on surrounding Israel with Iranian allies and forging land corridors from its borders all the way west to the Mediterranean. Still, the Israeli leadership—with consistent backing from IDF generals—has opted not to act to speed the collapse of the Assad regime, often on the strength of an implied “devil we know” argument.

Netanyahu has nevertheless articulated a set of red lines: the transfer via Syria to Hezbollah of game-changing weapons, specifically precision-guided missiles; and any attempt to open a new front in terrorist operations along the Golan Line of Separation, where Israel intends to maintain calm. Outside these red lines, however, Israel has taken no actions to degrade Assad’s power or threaten regime assets separate from the Iran-Hezbollah deployment in Syria. Both the Israeli security cabinet and the IDF General Staff have repeatedly rejected suggestions to equip certain non-jihadist rebel factions with the weapons they desperately need to fight the remnants of the Syrian army and the Iran-sponsored militias, at some 40,000 strong. This is despite pleas by rebel commanders for anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, heavy mortars, and light artillery. In the minority, a handful of Israeli security officials felt early on that by extending modest military assistance to vetted rebel groups in the Quneitra and Deraa provinces, they could help these fighters overcome the depleted units of the Syrian army’s First Corps, stationed at the nexus of Syria’s borders with Israel and Jordan, with Damascus to the north. The five Syrian army divisions traditionally posted in this area had suffered substantial casualties, defections, and a collapse in recruitment. For those Israeli officials who favored arming the rebels, the idea was to encourage their capture of this space and holding of the line along the southern approaches to the Syrian capital, areas that include the Assad strongholds of al-Kiswah, Qatana, and Kanaker. A strong rebel line in this territory would relieve pressure from rebel brigades active in other sectors surrounding Damascus and force Assad to split his much-weakened forces. Capture of southern Syria by the rebels, some suggested, would create a wide buffer zone between Israel and Iran-sponsored forces. Such a plan, however, never materialized owing to Netanyahu’s reluctance to get drawn into the Syrian quagmire and expose Israelis to retaliatory fire from across the border.

In retrospect, this hesitance by the Israeli security establishment can be traced all the way back to the first Lebanon war in 1982, when Israel failed to facilitate regime change in Beirut and later had to relinquish the security belt established along the border and abandon the local militia operating there—the South Lebanon Army (SLA). From that experience, most Israeli officials absorbed the lesson that adventures outside Israel’s borders must be averted, as well as a skepticism of the effectiveness of investing in proxy foreign militias.

Whatever their resistance to actually funding the Syrian rebels, Israeli officers maintained a continuous dialogue with various such groups and mostly assessed that they were too fragmented and, to varying degrees, also inclined toward jihadist ideology. The bottom line for Israel was that, even in cases where rebel groups from different towns joined together in coalitions such as the Southern Front, they did not warrant the investment.

Still, in an effort to keep the Golan front calm and avoid a flood of refugees, Israel has since 2013 gradually developed a humanitarian-aid program for rebel-held villages close to the border. The program has slowly been expanded so that today it reaches approximately 300,000 inhabitants of the Quneitra and, to a lesser extent, Deraa provinces. This program—clearly the most successful of all similar humanitarian efforts in Syria—consists of medical treatment of thousands in hospitals inside Israel and large cross-border deliveries of food, fuel, clothes, and other supplies. In June 2016, this program was consolidated under a special unit named “Good Neighborhood,” which itself is part of Territorial Division 420, in charge of the border. Both the entry of Syrians seeking medical care and the aid deliveries across the border occur at night and are coordinated by Israeli intelligence officials with an array of rebel commanders and community leaders on the other side.

This effort has helped maintain quiet on the Israeli side of the border, even during periods of intense fighting very close to the front lines. But lacking significant military assistance, the rebels have proven unable to win any important battles against the Syrian army over the past four years, and control of southern Syria hasn’t changed hands during that same period. The governorate capitals—Quneitra and Deraa—are in Assad’s hands, whereas the rural areas are split. The western parts adjacent to the Israeli Golan have become a de facto Israeli zone of influence where the Syrian army and its allied militias avoid embarking upon major offensives and the Russian air force does not fly its planes. The small enclave held by the Islamic State in the southernmost sector of the Golan border, along the western section of the Yarmouk River, remains largely isolated and does not yet constitute a real threat for Israel or the neighboring rebel factions.

The cautious policy pursued by Israel also resulted, to a certain degree, from the understanding in Jerusalem that former U.S. President Barack Obama was adamant in his refusal to adopt recommendations by some of his top advisors to intensify support of rebel groups and adopt a firm anti-Assad stance. The Israelis felt at the time that without U.S. leadership, the objective of toppling the Assad regime was untenable. The Israelis were also aware of Jordan’s halfhearted assistance to tribal rebels in the Hawran area, which has traditional ties to the Hashemite throne. On top of that, funding from the Gulf states to a string of rebel coalitions tended to prioritize those active in central and northern Syria, whereas the modest financing extended to rebel factions south of Damascus was badly coordinated and often had Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar backing rival factions.

Whatever the root causes, Israel has now suffered a major strategic failure with far-reaching implications. Instead of watching the demise of the Assad regime, Israel must cope with the presence of a formidable Russian air force contingent next door and a steady encroachment of Iran toward its border.

By mid-2012, the Iranian General Hossein Hamedani had managed to convince Assad, who was then contemplating going into exile, to stay in office and keep fighting. In the first phase, Iran helped Assad defend Damascus and some other parts of “useful Syria” by operating an air bridge that brought military equipment and munitions, by introducing Hezbollah units to the battlefield, and by deploying hastily recruited militias consisting both of local loyalists and foreign fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. At one point, IRGC Qods Force commander General Qasem Soleimani led 4,000 IRGC troops to the battle for eastern Aleppo, but he ultimately had to send them back to Iran at the insistence of Khamenei, who indicated a low tolerance for Iranian fatalities in Syria. Then, in 2015, came the masterstroke: Soleimani struck a deal with Putin, and the arrival of the Russian air force on the scene since September 2015 has slowly enabled Iran to secure Assad’s control over 60 percent of the country.

Not only has Iran managed to stabilize the Assad regime and pacify much of his territory, it has also obtained a great degree of influence over decision-making in Damascus, become a dominant actor in the war, and begun to solidify its military presence in Syria. It has achieved the latter two ends by acquiring bases and deploying advanced facilities, constructing myriad militias outside the framework of the Syrian Arab Army and its irregular auxiliary forces, and establishing plants for production of missiles, precision guidance systems, and ammunition.

Israel is faced not only with a preserved Assad regime—a vital ally to Iran and Hezbollah—but also with the emergence of Iranian military power next door. In short, Israeli caution has opened the door to future adventures, after all. Israeli inaction came face-to-face with Iranian proactivity, and Israel now finds itself counting its losses even as the Syrian war winds down. Particularly, the Golan Heights, kept calm for decades by father and son Assad, is now, in the view of the regime’s Iranian patrons, a new front for resistance forces. Furthermore, at least five Syrian air bases already accommodate Iranian units, along with their UAVs, missiles, and intelligence facilities. The number of militiamen—Shi’a and others—at Iran’s disposal in Syria is steadily growing, and their training and equipment are improving.


The future scheme envisaged by Soleimani involves at least one land bridge, and likely two, through Iraqi territory, over which reinforcements and supply convoys could be moved. Several leaders of major Iraqi Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) militias have already announced their wish to join a battle against Israel on the Golan. Moreover, once the Iranians modernize their outdated army, they may consider deploying combat aircraft and navy units (for example, submarines) in Syria. This, of course, comes on top of Iran’s impressive arsenal of long-range missiles capable of hitting Israel and its massive—currently dormant—global terrorist network, which can be activated on very short notice.

Iran is in no hurry to have a confrontation. Soleimani, his boss Khamenei, and his lieutenants seem to have abandoned for the moment their earlier plans to deploy Hezbollah and other militias close to the Golan frontier. Prompting this reassessment was a series of pinpoint Israeli strikes against Iran-sponsored groups that had prepared the grounds for terrorist attacks from Syrian-army-controlled areas near Quneitra, including by planting explosive charges and firing Katyusha rockets. In 2015, the commanders entrusted with these missions, including the Lebanese Samir Kuntar and Jihad Mughniyah, as well as Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, the IRGC general in charge, were killed by the IDF. Later that same year, the IDF killed an additional three operatives who were on their way to the border fence, prompting Iran to suspend such attempts. Iran and its proxies still hold a half-dozen or so positions between the slopes of Mount Hermon and the Damascus-Deraa highway, but they have refrained from further provoking Israel.

Since August 2015, Iran has instead focused on its long-term campaign to deepen its offensive capabilities within Syrian territory. From their headquarters at Damascus Airport, known as the “Glasshouse,” Iranian forces, currently led by IRGC General Hussein Kaani, control, among other sites, the al-Kiswah camp, south of the capital, from which operations closer to the Israeli border are supervised. From this headquarters, the Iranians hope to direct, when the opportunity arises, an attack on the rebels in Deraa, with the goal of capturing the entire province and encircling the rebel factions in Quneitra province in a pocket adjacent to the Israeli border.

An Iran-directed offensive toward the south, however, would require Russian consent given Moscow’s 2017 declaration—joined by Washington and Amman—of a de-escalation zone in this region. An offensive would constitute a violation of this agreement, and would likewise probably require Russian air support in order to uproot the rebels from their strongholds. Putin has not in the past hesitated to flout his deconfliction arrangements, but so far he has approved only sporadic strikes by Russian planes around Deraa, where both sides have for months been preparing for an eventual showdown.

Israel will face a difficult dilemma once an Iran-led assault toward Deraa begins. Sending the air force and employing land-based missiles to stop the advance may well compel Assad and his Iranian patrons to retaliate, thus increasing the danger of a general flare-up. On the other hand, clinging to the current Israeli policy of nonintervention in Syria would enable the Iranians to consolidate their dominance over hilltops along the border, from which they could threaten the Israeli Golan with short-range rockets and mortars. Furthermore, the capture of Deraa province would position Iranian proxy forces on the border with Jordan. Israeli officials believe Soleimani may be planning an effort to subvert the Hashemite regime in Amman, in the expectation that one way or another Jordan will finally join the Axis of Resistance. It is important to remember that for many decades, Israeli governments have regarded foreign intervention with their neighbor to the east as a casus belli. Russian air force participation in such an attack on Deraa would, of course, further complicate Israel’s calculations. The hotline between the IAF and the Russian-operated Hmeimim Air Base in Syria has so far successfully prevented any clash between Russian and Israeli pilots, and the top-of-the-line Russian air defense systems in Syria have not locked their radars on Israeli planes, even while the latter attacked Iranian depots located near Russian military units. Israel would certainly be extremely prudent if faced with the risk of dogfights with the Russians. Putin, as implied thus far, has proven disinclined to get involved in skirmishes with Israel over Syria, although at times he has expressed annoyance at Israeli strikes.

In view of the currently rising tension between Israel and Iran, what measures could be taken to prevent a confrontation, or at least limit its scope?

Contacts between Israel and Iran through a variety of Track II channels, quietly organized in past years, have failed to produce any prospect for near-term tacit understandings. Messages exchanged via European diplomats have likewise resulted once again in deadlock. The Iranian representatives simply refuse to consider any restriction on their activities in Syria or toning down of their calls for the destruction of the “Zionist regime.”

The same goes for the few futile attempts by some Arab and European states to set up a communication channel between Israel and the Assad regime. Syria may be inclined at some future point to curtail Iran’s entrenchment on its soil, but at present the government in Damascus does not feel at liberty to stop the construction of Iranian military infrastructure. Netanyahu’s warning that Israel may be compelled to take direct action against Assad has not had the desired effect on Assad’s conduct.

A more promising option would be a dialogue with Putin, who has privately told Western interlocutors that he does not want Syria to become a “Persian colony” and that he has no interest in watching a war erupt between Iran and Israel. However, the Kremlin still requires the Iran-sponsored militias to complete the destruction of the remaining rebel bastions, especially in Idlib province and some other smaller enclaves. Therefore, it may take time before Putin is willing to rein in his Iranian allies.

The most sensible way to address Iran’s expansion into Syria would be to establish a comprehensive set of understandings between Moscow and Washington on how to shape Syria’s future. Unfortunately, under the existing circumstances, such an agreement does not seem possible for the foreseeable future. Therefore, the 2017 de-escalation agreement reached by the two parties in relation to southern Syria can be further elaborated to consolidate a stable ceasefire in the areas lying between Damascus and the borders with Israel and Jordan. In turn, an upgraded de-escalation deal could prevent an offensive against the rebels in Deraa and then Quneitra provinces. And a ceasefire could potentially allow the rebels to bolster their defensive capabilities. Since both the United States and Russia prefer to avert an Israel-Iran clash and its associated risks, expanded understandings over the south could contain a prohibition on entry to the area of non-Syrian forces, such as Hezbollah, thus diminishing the danger of an eruption along the border. Curtailing IRGC acquisition of a network of bases in Syria also requires that Assad and his mentors be thwarted from capturing the areas east of the Euphrates River—roughly a quarter of Syria’s territory—currently held by the U.S.-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), aided by the presence of 2,000 U.S. soldiers. Control of this region has prevented Iran from activating their two planned land corridors into Syria. One corridor would run through Anbar province in western Iraq and the other through the Kirkuk-Sinjar roads. The IRGC aspires to gain the ability to direct more militiamen and supplies to Syria through friendly areas along these routes in order to accelerate the military buildup inside the country. Experience has taught them that reliance on airlifts is quite vulnerable to Israeli strikes.

To keep districts east of the Euphrates outside the reach of Iran-sponsored forces, the United States must continue its role there so that the SDF, consisting mainly of fighters from the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG), remains confident of continuous U.S. air cover, assistance, and training. Such an arrangement, however, does not necessarily preclude a reduction in the U.S. force count on the ground.

Other elements of a strategy to disrupt Iran’s attempted transformation of Syria into a military platform for a future campaign against Israel should include strengthening the Druze community—with its traditional ties to Jordan and Israel—to resist any Iranian attempt to penetrate Suwayda province, northeast of Deraa governorate. The complicated situation of the Druze during the civil war is beyond the scope of this article, but ambivalent Druze relations with the Assad regime do not in any way suggest an inclination to welcome an IRGC or other Shia presence in their midst. Depriving Iran of the temptation to deploy medium-range missile bases in Druze Mountain should be viewed as an indispensable component of a policy aimed at foiling the Iranian scheme.

Setting aside the United States and Israel, quite a few regional players have a stake in preventing Iran from effectively taking over Syria. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Jordan share the same distaste for what has been termed the “Shia Crescent,” with Syria as its center of gravity. Each of these countries can be induced to contribute in different ways to a “stop-Iran” effort. Whether by extending funds, military assistance, or aid for reconstruction, these states can help deter Assad from total surrender to Iran’s wishes, and reinforce the rebels’ hold in southern Syria and the regions east of the Euphrates.

But, above all, to prevent an all-out Israel-Iran war, which could easily expand to Lebanon and Gaza, the United States must lend its support to a sustained Israeli campaign to destroy—when necessary and possible—Iranian facilities in Syria and continuously raise the cost of the IRGC effort, to the point that both Tehran and Damascus will have to reconsider the viability of Soleimani’s project.

Ehud Yaari is a Lafer Fellow with The Washington Institute and a commentator for Israel TV 12/13. This article was originally published on the American Interest website.

أصوات مهمّشة: ما يحتاجه اللاجئون السوريون للعودة إلى الوطن

مهى يحيَ,  جان قصير,  خليل الحريري

مع استعادة النظام السوري السيطرة على مناطق عدّة، تصاعدت الدعوات، في الدول المجاورة، المطالبة بعودة اللاجئين إلى بلادهم. لكن اللاجئين يرهنون عودتهم بشروط لطالما أُهملت إلى حدّ بعيد في خضم المساعي السياسية الرامية إلى إيجاد حل للنزاع السوري. وفي سبيل فهم مواقف اللاجئين من العودة، أنصت مركز كارنيغي للشرق الأوسط إلى مخاوف مروحة من السوريين- من ذكور وإناث، وشباب ومسنّين – الذين يسعون جاهدين إلى بناء حياة ذات معنى في لبنان والأردن. واللافت أن غالبية اللاجئين، وعلى رغم تفاقم التحديات التي تواجههم – لايرغبون في العودة مالم يتوافر انتقال سياسي يضمن سلامتهم وأمنهم، والوصول إلى القضاء والعدل، وحق العودة إلى مسقط الرأس. وعلى الرغم من أن توفير الفرص الاقتصادية والسكن اللائق يُعدّ من أولوياتهم، إلاّ أنها لا تُعتبر من متطلبات العودة. وفي المرتبة الأولى، أظهرت مواقف اللاجئين بجلاء أن وجود حل سياسي مستدام وعودة جماعية وطوعية هما على السواء رهن عمليات سلام دولية تأخذ أصواتهم بعين الاعتبار.

الاستماع إلى اللاجئين

  • في مواجهة صعوبات اجتماعية واقتصادية متفاقمة، يشعر اللاجئون بأنهم عالقون بين رحى مطرقة بلدان مضيفة لا ترغب فيهم وبين سندان سورية لايسعهم العودة إليها
  • ينظر اللاجئون بتشاؤم إلى آفاق اتفاق سلام سوري. وهم يلفظون أي اقتراحات قد تؤدي إلى تذرر سورية، ويعارضون فكرة إنشاء مناطق خفض تصعيد، ولايثقون في المناطق الآمنة
  • شرط اللاجئين الأولي للعودة يتمثّل في ضمان سلامتهم وأمنهم. لكنهم يرون أنه لايمكن تحقيق ذلك من دون انتقال سياسي، وهم لايعتقدون أن في مقدورهم العيش قريباً في سورية التي يتوقون إليها
  • لايثق اللاجئون باللاعبين السياسيين الضالعين في سورية. ولايرى شطر راجح من اللاجئين المعارضين للنظام أن المعارضة تمثّلهم فعلياً
  • النساء والشباب اليافعون هم أكثر من يخشى العودة إلى سورية. فهم ينظرون بقلق إلى غياب الأمان واحتمال أن يضطهدهم نظام بشار الأسد. ويخشى كثير من الشباب التجنيد العسكري الالزامي
  • مع توالي الحرب فصولاً وتدهور ظروف اللاجئين في البلدان المضيفة، يدرس عدد متزايد من اللاجئين إمكانية التوطّن خارج المنطقة، تحديداً في أوروبا. لكنهم يخشون أن يعجزوا عن العودة إذا ما غادروا الشرق الأوسط
  • يتلاشى ببطء معنى فكرة العودة الطوعية للاجئين. فالسياسات المقيّدة في لبنان والأردن قد تحمل اللاجئين على العودة إلى ظروف غير آمنة في سورية، في حين قد تجعل سياسات النظام في سورية – تحديداً تلك المتعلقة بالإسكان وحقوق الملكية والتجنيد العسكري وإجراءات التدقيق – عودتهم عسيرة أو حتى غير محبّذة.

إرساء إجراءات سياسية مُيسِّرة

  • تقتضي العودة الآمنة والمستدامة للاجئين إرساء إطار عمل يقرّ بالجذور السياسية للأزمة السورية، ولايكتفي باحتساب أبعادها الإنسانية وحسب، وبأن السلام مستحيل من دون العدالة؛ ويعترف بحقّ اللاجئين في العودة إلى مسقط رأسهم.
  • لايمكن ضمان الأمن والسلامة سوى من خلال عملية سياسية ترسي آليات حكم شاملة، وتضع حدّاً لإفلات المجرمين من العقاب، وتيسّر إعادة الدمج ونزع السلاح، وتوفر القدرة على الوصول إلى القضاء والعدل.
  • على الرغم من أن إرساء هذه العملية يتطلّب وقتاً، نظراً إلى أن قوات كثيرة تنشط في سورية، حري بجهود الإعداد لعودة اللاجئين أن تبدأ الآن. وقد تشمل هذه الجهود إعداد أصحاب الكفاءة، من محامين سوريين أو مدربين في الشؤون القانونية لاطلاع اللاجئين على حقوقهم والمساهمة في حل كثير من النزاعات المحلية المتوقّعة. وكذلك قد تشمل المساعي هذه إرساء شبكة من الوسطاء المحليين الموثوقين.
  • ينبغي ألا يساهم تمويل إعادة الإعمار في تعزيز النظام السوري من دون قصد. لذا، قد يكون بدء تمويل إعادة الإعمار على نطاق ضيق في مناطق غير خاضعة إلى سيطرة النظام، بديلاً أمثل في دعم مساعي إعادة الإعمار المحلية.
  • يجب أن يكون التمويل مشروطاً بعودة اللاجئين إلى منازلهم والحصول على ملكياتهم. ولابدّ من إرساء عملية تدقيق تثبت عدم ضلوع الكيانات المحلية التي تتلقى تمويلاً دولياً بجرائم حرب، وتتأكد من أنها ليست واجهة للنظام.
  • في هذه الأثناء، يجب احترام حق اللاجئين في العودة. وفي سبيل تشجيع البلدان المضيفة على التزام سياسات توفر حاجات اللاجئين الأساسية، حري بالدعم الدولي أن يجمع بين المساعدات الإنسانية والاستثمارات الاقتصادية التي تهدف إلى خلق فرص عمل لمواطني البلدان المضيفة واللاجئين على السواء
  • Source: Carnegie ME Center
  • For access to the full text, please write to to us via the contact page

Unheard Voices: What Syrian Refugees Need to Return Home



As the Syrian regime regains territory, there have been growing calls in neighboring countries for refugees to go home. Yet refugees have conditions for a return—conditions that political efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict have largely ignored. To understand refugee attitudes toward return, the Carnegie Middle East Center listened to the concerns of Syrians—both male and female, young and old—struggling to build meaningful lives in Lebanon and Jordan. What is most striking is that despite the increasingly difficult challenges they face, a majority are unwilling to go back unless a political transition can assure their safety and security, access to justice, and right of return to areas of origin. Economic opportunity and adequate housing are important but not requirements. Above all, their attitudes make it clear that both a sustainable political settlement and a mass, voluntary return are contingent upon international peace processes that account for refugee voices.


  • Facing mounting social and economic difficulties, refugees feel trapped between host countries that do not want them and a Syria to which they cannot return.
  • Refugees are pessimistic about the prospects for a Syrian peace deal. They reject any proposals that could lead to Syria’s fragmentation, oppose the idea of deescalation zones, and have no confidence in safe zones.
  • The refugees’ primary conditions for return are safety and security. But they do not believe they are achievable without a political transition and have little faith that the Syria to which they aspire will soon be attainable.
  • They have no confidence in the political actors involved in Syria, and most anti-regime refugees do not believe the opposition truly represents them.
  • Women and young men are among those most fearful of returning to Syria. They are concerned about the lack of security and possible persecution under President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Many young men fear conscription.
  • As the war drags on and conditions in their host countries worsen, an increasing number of refugees are considering resettling outside the region, particularly in Europe. However, they fear that once they leave the region, they may not be able to return.
  • Essentially, the notion of a voluntary return of refugees is losing meaning. Restrictive policies in Lebanon and Jordan may force refugees to return to an unsafe environment in Syria; while the regime’s policies in Syria—on housing and property rights, military conscription, and vetting procedures—may make it difficult, if not undesirable, for them to return.


  • A safe and sustainable return of refugees requires a framework that acknowledges the political roots of the Syrian crisis rather than just its humanitarian dimension; concedes that peace is not possible without justice; and recognizes the right of refugees to return to their areas of origin.
  • Safety and security can only be guaranteed through a political process that creates inclusive governance mechanisms; ends criminal impunity; and facilitates reintegration, demilitarization, and access to justice.
  • While this process will take time given the many forces operating in Syria, efforts to prepare refugees for a return should begin now. These could include creating a cadre of Syrian lawyers and paralegals to inform refugees of their rights and help resolve the many anticipated local disputes. They could also include establishing a network of trusted community mediators.
  • Reconstruction funding should not inadvertently empower the Syrian regime. Starting on a small scale in regions that are not under regime control could provide a better alternative for local rebuilding efforts.
  • Any funding should also be conditional on the return of refugees to their homes and access to their property. A vetting process should be established to ensure that local entities receiving international funding have not been involved in war crimes and are not regime fronts.
  • Meanwhile, the refugees’ right to a voluntary return must be respected. To encourage host countries to adopt policies that secure the basic needs of refugees, international support must include both humanitarian aid and economic investments geared toward job creation for host country nationals and refugees.
  • For access to the full article, please write to ME Politics via the contact page.
Source: Carnegie ME Center


A Review of Jonathan Brown’s ” Perspectives on Salvation Outside of Islam “

By Mobeen Vaid
A common misunderstanding among Muslims is that criticism is equivalent to denunciation. When people disagree, it must be out of a deep-seated hatred, or an underlying contempt for those with whom they disagree with. This, however, is rarely the case (though of course it sometimes is). Perhaps some of this is due to the WWE/Kardashian/Democrat v. Republican/etc. style of arguing that we have grown accustomed to witnessing and finding amusement in. At its core, there is something satanic about relishing unhinged disputation, and many otherwise kind people absorb this behavior and manifest it in their online persona. I pray to Allah that I am not of them, and welcome any  naṣīḥa (publicly or privately) should it seem that I am headed down that path.
I offer this as a disclaimer for what follows. Below is an admittedly brief reflection and review of Jonathan Brown’s recent Yaqeen Institute piece on Salvation and Non-Muslims. Prior to proceeding, it should be noted that I think very highly of Dr. Brown as a scholar and person. He has an endearing personality (and odd interest in movies!), and his erudition puts him in rare company. Indeed, very few people exist today with his ability to defend the Islamic tradition against those who call into question its foundations. But it is not merely his abilities that are worth noting, but his willingness to employ those abilities in addressing some of the most complex and sensitive topics of the day. Here, he should be lauded for addressing  and rather directly so the hadith tradition, the scriptural integrity of the Quran, the presumption of innocence, Islamic political engagement, homosexuality, slavery, the age of Aisha (ra), and much, much more. These are not easy subjects to broach, and plenty have elected to avoid them altogether.
For that, Dr. Brown should be commended, and readers are encouraged to familiarize themselves with his scholarly works, including, but not limited to, his excellent treatment of the interpretive legacy of Islam in Misquoting Muhammad Given this history, it should come as no surprise that Brown has elected to once again broach a rather delicate and complex subject in attending to the question of salvation and non-Muslims in the hereafter. There are many strengths in the paper, and I will begin by highlighting them. Thereafter, I will address what I consider to be problematic in the paper and conclude with a few thoughts for reflection.

The Islamic Tradition

Brown should be credited for a number of things in this piece. He correctly asserts, and categorically so, the correct position, namely, that salvation is found in Islam alone. This should not be made light of, particularly given the many voices misrepresenting Islamic soteriology, either on account of alternative philosophies/worldviews, or after succumbing to the ‘all paths’ model as cohering more readily with a pluralistic and ecumenical society (a notion Brown discusses well in the piece). Aside from the correct position of salvific exclusivity, Brown attends to two approaches that admit a more expansive notion of salvation. In presenting these two approaches, Brown problematizes key arguments made by their exponents and proceeds to ultimately repudiate them as inconsistent with Islamic teachings found in the Quran and Sunnah.
In addition to this survey of varying approaches, God’s mercy is appealed to, alongside God’s ultimate judgment being just, and that the justice of God is something believers should find comfort in. That said, the article suffers from several problems, some less severe, while others are rather significant. To begin, perhaps the first issue stems from the general framing of approaches, all of which are said to belong to the “Islamic tradition.” However, the two other views, as Brown himself notes, are relatively recent and hold no precedent in what would qualify as the Islamic tradition. Fazlur Rahman, Farid Esack, and Perennialists (exponents unnamed, though tendentious attribution to Ibn Arabi is thankfully rebutted) are all modern advocates of the two heterodox views Brown adumbrates. Accordingly, it would have been better to characterize them as contemporary approaches to make clear their newfangled revisionism, and to describe only the “correct” position, alongside the annihilationism of Ibn Taymiyya, as part of the Islamic tradition proper. Although such a concern may seem pedantic to some, what we construe as representing the tradition is in fact quite serious, particularly insofar as we consider that tradition as meaningful and representing a discourse that we hold fidelity to.

How Important is Islam?

Aside from dubious attribution to the Islamic tradition, Brown’s piece is replete with an attitude of internal conflict. The correct position is outlined briefly and declared correct in the conclusion, but only as an academic, theoretical submission that is then attenuated immediately thereafter. Brown asks his reader in the concluding remarks to consider the following question: Does one believe that accepting the specific religious message of Muhammad , as it has been preserved and transmitted down to our times, is so important that rejecting it means suffering eternally in Hellfire, whether that punishment is physical or a spiritual alienation from God? Put more simply, is believing in Islam so important that you’re willing to declare that non-Muslims have no hope for peace in the Afterlife? In an egregious sleight of hand, Brown imputes blame upon his readership for the position of Islam and the words of Allah.
The problem here is not that Allah has stated unequivocally that shirk is unforgivable, or that Allah and His Messenger (pbuh) have required submission to the Islamic message for salvation, but that obdurate believers have chosen to put themselves in God’s place. Who are you to say which doctrine is salvifically acceptable? What qualifies  you to place judgment, even in conceptual terms (that abstain from individual judgments aside from those designated in scripture and reliable hadiths), on those who refuse the call of Islam and persist in unbelief and associationism? But the rhetorical ask is not merely one of blame, but of inquisition. Is Islam really that important to you? Must Islam be made into the ultimate human pursuit such that unbelief leads to eternal damnation? It is unclear what the alternative would look like.
If following the specific religious message of Muhammad (pbuh), which itself claims to abrogate all pre-Muhammad dispensations, is an inadequate basis for eternal damnation, then why did Allah and His Messenger (pbuh) mention eternal damnation at all? And given that they did, what sin would truly qualify for this ignominious end? The question Brown presents speaks to larger existential questions of existence, the afterlife, human purpose, and devotion. Muslim theologians agreed that the fundamental tenets of Islam had to be rationally apprehensible for this exact reason, and the human condition is such that Allah created in all the primordial disposition recognizing in these tenets Truth. Indeed, the path of Islam is the purpose for which we were created, and it is only through it that we can find complete peace, spiritual fulfillment, and an opportunity for paradise. We ask Allah to forgive us and grant us entry into it.


Though there is much laudable and important in this latest Yaqeen Institute paper, it ultimately falls short in significant areas. Brown’s piece reads with a stream of uncertainty, containing rhetorical asks of whether believing in Islam is “important enough” to declare which doctrines qualify as salvifically efficacious. At times, one feels when reading the paper that finding comfort in God’s absolute justice and mercy is done
as a concession for a belief that doesn’t entirely seem to make sense it seems, or perhaps is too judgmental when taken at face value. Given the stakes, we should be confidently explaining what the consensus-based position of Islam is and offering a full and comprehensive treatment of it as understood and expressed by our tradition, and then defending it against contemporary accusations of arrogance, bigotry, hatred, and the like.
The net result of the paper is to see the question of salvation as a complicated one that requires no direct engagement or reflection for the average Muslim. Who is saved and not saved is beyond our calling, so we shouldn’t worry about it it seems. Yet this is precisely the opposite of what we should be calling our community and youth to be considering – salvation is an essential question for all individuals, and our commitment to Islam’s exclusive salvific efficacy should be something that motivates us to live according to its tenets such that we can faithfully claim Islam on the Day of Judgment and perhaps then find ourselves worthy of Allah’s Mercy and the Prophet’s (pbuh) company.
It should further prompt us to care about spreading this message and teaching it to those ignorant of its teachings and are inundated with misrepresentations. On a final note, I wish here to remind my readers what I mentioned in the outset. Dr. Jonathan Brown is a scholar of the highest order, and this critique should not be construed as a slight in any form or fashion against his scholarship, integrity, piety, or contributions to the community. We are blessed to have him as a voice representing Islam, and I certainly look forward to future writings of his (particularly his forthcoming book, which as I understand is in the works). May Allah bless him, his family, and the Yaqeen Institute for the good that they do, and may He overlook their shortcomings. Ameen.
“Our Lord, pour upon us patience and let us die as Muslims (Q 7:126). Ameen.
Allah Knows Best
Source: Academia