Friday, October 5, 2012

The Middle East

The Middle East is a powder keg and the situation gets more complicated and confusing by the day.  NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel’s recent article, "The Arab Spring is dead--and Syria is writing its obituary" at least identifies some of the major players in this ever shifting dynamic. (Click here to read Engel’s article in its entirety.)
NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel

Things have changed since “The Arab Spring” saw Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen undergo relatively peaceful revolutions led primarily by students and intellectuals.  These uprisings successfully ousted repressive, corrupt military strongmen who primarily came to power as a result of the Israeli military victories of 1948 and 1967, according to Engel.  The Middle East spring upheavals didn't start out as religious power struggles but they have morphed into such a scenario, Engel says, citing the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood that has taken control of the Egyptian revolution and more moderate Sunni Islamists who have risen to power in Tunisia. 

Struggles between the Islamic factions, the Sunni and Shiites, are occurring in country after country in the Middle East.  The Sunni consider Shiite Muslims infidels who veered from the true path of Mohammad over 1,000 years ago.  This is an epic struggle for power, Engel emphasizes, and that has gone on for centuries between the Sunnis and Shiites for control of the Middle East and the Prophet Muhammad's legacy.  The situation is not new.

This renewed conflict, however, can be traced back in recent history to Iraq and the American invasion in 2003, which pitted Sunnis against their rival Shiites.  As a result of George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, Iraq is now controlled by a corrupt Shiite government.  Until the U.S. invasion, Saddam and the Sunni minority controlled Iraq, which was the continuation of a 14-century history of Sunni controlling Mesopotamia despite Shiite being the majority.  Iraqi Sunnis are still angry and sometimes fighting in their stronghold cities of Ramadi and Fallujah.  To say the war in 2003 destabilized the region would be accurate but it is an area long plagued by religious power struggles (Engel, 2012).

A major player in the region now is Iran, a major Shiite controlled country, where 89% of the populace are Shiite. Now Iran is no longer an isolated Shiite country, and because it has wealth, technology and weaponry, Iran has emerged as a key supporter of Shiite initiatives in the Middle East (Engel, 2012).

Just to the northwest of Iraq is Syria and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family actually isn't Shiite but Alawite, a Shiite-linked offshoot that makes up just under 13 percent of the population.  In Syria, 70 percent are Sunni, 3 percent are Shiite and another 12.8 percent are Alawite.  Iran and Syria are allies and have been since Assad's father's regime (Engel, 2012). 

And it is in Syria where a major battle rages between the Shiite and Sunni factions--most of the rebel forces fighting against Assad's government are Sunni.  The radical Sunni group Al-Qaida weighed in heavily in the Iraq war but underestimated the US military. Al Qaida lost in Iraq, but they are trying to make up for lost time in Syria. They are moving into Syria to help their Sunni brethren, the rebels. Engel feels the chaos of Syria could make it a safe base of operation for Al-Qaida.  However, Al-Qaida make bad bedfellows because they have a habit of killing their hosts if they don't adhere to their strict interpretation of religious doctrine.

The previously isolated Shiite regime in Iran is now empowered by a Shiite government in Iraq. The Sunni are concerned about the Shiite interlopers from Iran and Iraq, with their weaponry and wealth of oil resources. The Sunnis are determined not to lose Syria, too.  Most of the fighting is currently in Sunni areas, with over 20,000 people dead.  The Sunni number one billion world-wide, whereas the Shiites comprise about 150-200 million, with about 75% living in just four counties--Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and India (Engel). But right now the Shiite seem to hold the upper hand.

The Syrian government  has helpful allies in Hezbollah and Iran. Iran is technologically advanced and provides markets for Syrian goods. Hezbollah, a radical Shiite militia, essentially controls Lebanon. Syria maintains ties to Lebanon and claims that Lebanon "belonged to" Syria before the region was divided up by France and Great Britain after WW I.  Iran and Hezbollah are starting to exert more influence in Syria as Assad's position weakens.

Lebanon, located west of Syria, is where many people think the next outbreak of sectarian violence will occur. Lebanon is Sunni in the north, Christian in the middle and Shiite in the south, with each making up about one third of the population. This dynamic mixture has resulted in a lively cultural mix and recurrent cycles of civil war.  Emerging on top in Lebanon are the Shiites, shored up by their powerful and well-financed militia, Hezbollah.  Hezbollah is heavily armed and has thousands of rockets pointed at Israel.  The rockets come from Iran and Syria.  Hezbollah is the tail wagging the dog in Lebanese politics (Engel).

Summing up the players, according to Engel: in Syria, we have government forces loyal to Assad (Shiites and Alawites) fighting mostly Sunni rebels who are trying to oust Assad’s regime.  In Iran we have a well-financed and relatively stable Shiite government that is a major sideline participant in the sectarian violence. In Lebanon we have Hezbollah, a well-financed and vehemently anti-Israeli military force that is weighing in on the side of the Shiite government forces in Syria. The Sunni rebels in Syria are now accepting help from foreign fighters who are part of the militant Al-Qaida. The only thing for sure in this turbulent region is the violence won't end soon.

Against this backdrop, I read the most recent Daniel Silva spy novel, The Fallen Angel, set against the volatile Middle East situation and the precarious position of Israel in the area's politics.

The Fallen Angel, by Daniel Silva
HarperCollins Publishers, 2012
405 pages, suspense spy novel

Gabriel Allon is an art restorer, a former Israeli spy and sometimes assassin who now working on a famous art restoration at the Vatican.  He is there because of his old friend, Monsignor Luigi Donati, private secretary to Pope Paul VII and keeper of Vatican secrets. When a Vatican museum curator is found dead in St. Peter's Basilica, the police believe it is suicide but the Pope and Monsignor Donati suspect otherwise. Allon is brought in by the Pope and Donati to do an independent investigation.

Gabriel learns that the dead woman had discovered a grave secret--one that led her to her grave.  She knew the identity of a kingpin in a professional antiquities theft ring with ties to the Vatican.  Gabriel is supposed to quietly investigate her death but soon discovers the curator's death is only the tip of the iceberg.

The Vatican and the Italian police know much more than they were telling Gabriel, but with the help of his old friends in the Israeli services, he soon uncovers another dead body and plots by Hezbollah to fund their militia operations through illegal operations of many kinds--"Gambino's on speed"--or so Hezbollah has been called.

Gabriel and his current wife, Chiara, must scramble to stay alive and ahead of the various deadly intrigues.  Gabriel's investigation eventually leads back to the Middle East powder keg, literally, as efforts are uncovered that will cause a major religious disaster and start an armed conflict to end all others. Gabriel and his friends in the Israeli service must find a way to avert catastrophe.

In all aspects of this complicated plot, with its many subplots, the actual events in the book are much different than the spin story that is released to the public.  You start to realize anew that this happens everyday in our world.  It goes without saying that Silva is an apologist for the Israeli's, and this doesn't take away from his writing at all.

While in some ways the novel's plot is convoluted, Silva manages to bring the reader right along with him. I didn't find Silva difficult to follow, although I have started with book 12 in this series.  Silva is an excellent writer, writing well-plotted and crafted books.  When I attended the recent used book sale, I made sure to purchase several of Silva's Gabriel Allon spy novels.

I read Daniel Silva's The Fallen Angel against the background of the article I summarized above, which made Daniel Silva's novel much more compelling for me.   Silva also provides some background at the end of his book and give sources and the rationale for his perspective.  As former journalist, Silva is also a researcher with credible sources, which lend his stories the ring of truth.  My reading list currently contains more books about the Middle East.


  1. A frightening region, the Middle East, because our cultural views are so different. Sometimes novels help us understand cultural differences in a way that nonfiction cannot. I love having a combination of fiction and fact when reading a novel-- fiction adds a personal touch that facts cannot always communicate.

    1. And, of course, there are many perspectives. Ricky works with someone who was in Egypt recently. In US the media was showing protests that looked massive and ugly. The women who were in Egypt said the protesters were a small minority and didn't make them uncomfortable. I think this was over the anti-Muslim film. This novel I reviewed really showed how information is disseminated to the public with a spin or information withheld.