realclearworld Newsletters: Mideast Memo

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Real estate mogul, television personality, and surprisingly effective U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump came under criticism two weeks ago after an interview with conservative radio host and author Hugh Hewitt. Trump appeared to stumble when asked by the host to expound on Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Quds Force. Trump, who initially confused "Quds" for "Kurds," demonstrated a somewhat skimpy knowledge of key figures in Middle Eastern politics, and would later accuse Hewitt of resorting to "gotcha" journalism.

"Soleimani is to terrorism sort of what Trump is to real estate," Hewitt quipped, allowing Mr. Trump some space to recover and clarify his position on Iran, the Kurds, and everything in between. "Many people would say he's the most dangerous man in the world."

Qasem Soleimani -- dubbed the "shadow commander" in an excellent 2013 The New Yorker profile by journalist Dexter Filkins -- has served as the tip of the spear for Iranian regional interests in recent years, most notably in Syria and Iraq.

While Soleimani is indeed a powerful and highly influential figure both at home and abroad, Trump might be excused for not knowing precisely all of the details about the major general. There is, however, one man Trump must familiarize himself with if, as president, he truly hopes to address the crisis unfolding in Iraq, and that man is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Born in Iran, al-Sistani traveled to Iraq in 1953 to study in the Shiite holy city of Najaf. There, he rose up through the ranks to become one of the most influential and respected Shia spiritual leaders in the world. His ascetic lifestyle and moderate religious philosophy -- often referred to as "Quietism" -- have made him a durable and neutral figure in an ever unreliable Iraq, even during the tyrannical reign of Sunni strongman Saddam Hussein, who merely kept al-Sistani under house arrest for 10 years.

Al-Sistani served as a mollifying force throughout much the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and has long advocated for an inclusive, democratic political system in that country. His work in the Shiite seminary system has allowed him to develop a powerful network in the global Shiite community, with offices spanning the entire globe.

The ayatollah, more importantly, holds a consistent vision for a unified, pluralistic (and most certainly Islamic) Iraq. Seeing the linkage between corruption in Baghdad and the emergence of sectarian militias like the Islamic State group, al-Sistani was quick to lend his voice of support to summertime protests calling for better public services and a crackdown on government corruption.

A quiet kingmaker and astute observer of politics, al-Sistani's edicts helped to expedite the ouster of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, just as his support has enabled current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to pursue a vigorous reform campaign in the capital.

Al-Sistani has also served as a check against Iranian influence in Baghdad, and even lobbied Tehran, through his office in the holy city of Qom, to keep the shadowy Soleimani out of Iraqi politics.

So a humble bit of advice for Mr. Trump: To know what is tearing Iraq apart, study up on Soleimani. But to know who's holding it together, start with Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani.

Around the Region

Iraq feels oil pinch. The ayatollah can only do so much. In order to meet its budgetary demands and pay the soldiers who are taking the fight to the Islamic State, Iraq relies heavily on oil revenues.

But the drop in global oil prices has hit petro-states such as Iraq the hardest, and Baghdad, reports the Wall Street Journal's Kevin baxter, appears to be tightening its belt:

"Iraq has been reeling from crude prices that have fallen to less than $50 a barrel, down from highs of $114 a barrel last year, with no near-term recovery expected until 2016. A dispute with the Kurdistan regional government has resulted in much of the country's oil being exported without any benefit to the central government as it fights a costly war with Islamic State.

In August, Iraq's oil export revenues were about $1 billion lower than in the previous month, at around $3.8 billion, down from $4.9 billion in July and $5.3 billion in June, according to the Iraqi State Organization for the Marketing of Oil."

Are the Saudis winning the oil war? And while countries like Iraq struggle to find their footing in this shifting oil market, OPEC heavyweight Saudi Arabia, argues Leonid Bershidsky, is emerging on top:

"The Saudis are teaching the market that they are the go-to suppliers at any price level and that they're always going to be there, unlike those fly-by-night American operators. They're also teaching investors in U.S. shale that as soon as they plow more money into the sector, they, the Saudis, will boost output and drive prices lower, ruining the economic models on which the investment decision was based. That's a lesson they want to sink in, because there's still a lot of talk about shale's nimbleness in responding to changing price conditions."

Turkey's Syrian shift. The civil war in Syria is taking a heavy toll on neighboring Turkey. Having absorbed more than two million refugees, Syrians are now a steady presence across the country and are very likely to add to the country's already fractious political climate. Turkish journalist Mehmet Cetingulec explains:

"There are frequent clashes between the local population and Syrian refugees in Istanbul, Gaziantep, Hatay, Sanliurfa and Kahramanmaras. With 6 million Turks already unemployed, Syrians are forced to work cheap. When Turks lose their jobs to the refugees, fights break out.

Many Syrians opt to live on the fringes of cities together with their compatriots. While this offers them some level of protection and solidarity, it makes their integration much more difficult and also makes their area a target."


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