Saturday, July 2, 2011

What’s Keeping Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Up At Night?

By Robert Zeliger

President Ahmadinejad: pressure from all sides

Even by Iranian political standards, the last few days have been dramatic. A dozen people close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cabinet have reportedly been arrested since last week on "financial charges." Then on Wednesday, the embattled president came out swinging more directly and forcefully than he has done before -- warning his enemies to back off.

"I consider defending the cabinet as my duty," he told reporters. "The cabinet is a red line and if they want to touch the cabinet, then defending it is my duty.... From our point of view these moves and pressures are put pressure on the government."
Ahmadinejad is in fact getting pressure from seemingly all corners, including the judiciary, the parliament, and most troubling for sure, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei -- the very man who so publicly placed his eggs in the Ahmadinejad basket two years ago.

The pressure is so bad that the summer of 2011 may make Ahmadinejad wistful for the halcyon days of 2009, when all he had to worry about were a few hundred thousand reformists marching in Tehran, demanding his removal.
Below is a guide to Ahmadinejad's many headaches.

The Supreme Leader
Ahmadinejad is Khamanei's golden boy no longer. The Supreme Leader sent a major signal to the president back in April when a dispute over the sacking of the intelligence minister played out in public. Ahmadinejad forced the minister to resign. Khamanei objected and insisted that he stay on. Ahmadinejad responded by staging a mini-boycott, refusing to come to work for 11 days.

All hell broke loose, said Abbas Milani, an Iran scholar at Stanford's Hoover Institution.
"Khamanei unleashed all his forces, so to speak," he said. "There was a ferocious attack on Ahmadinejad in parliament." Talk of impeachment intensified, Milani said. Eventually Ahmadinejad came back to work, chastened.

His enemies took notice -- sensing he no longer enjoyed the unwavering support of the Supreme Leader.
There have even been public indications of a thaw between Khamanei and two other prominent but controversial figures in Iranian society -- former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Seyyed Ahmad Khatami.

Just yesterday, a site close to the Revolutionary Guards and the Supreme Leader did something it hasn't in the past two years since the disputed election -- it referred to Rafsanjani using his honorific, Ayatollah, according to Milani.
Recently, Khatami spoke about the need for forgiveness on all sides in the 2009 presidential dispute, saying both sides have committed mistakes but that they should put it behind them.

The man being left out of this new warmth? Ahmadinejad.
"Khamanei feels isolated," Milani said. If he decided to get rid of Ahmadinejad and bring Rafsanjani back into the fold, he'd get a new boost of clerical support from the men aligned with Rafsanjani.

The Parliament and Judiciary 
Last week, members of parliament actually booed Ahmadinejad -- an act that the Supreme Leader said went too far. The parliament has certainly become emboldened against the president -- launching impeachment proceedings against his foreign minister and rejecting the president's nominee to the newly created (and totally insignificant) post of sports minister.

Meanwhile, the judiciary, which is headed by the brother of the speaker of parliament, has gone after aides and cabinet ministers close to Ahmadinejad.
Critics say Ahmadinejad is trying to groom his controversial chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, to take over for him after his legally mandated two terms are up in 2013 -- a blatant power grab. Mashaei, himself a lightning rod for criticism, has been called everything from a secular nationalist opposed to clerical rule to a "deviant current," who has used spell-casting powers to bewitch Ahmadinejad. He is also hated for saying back in 2008 that Iranians are "friends of all people in the world -- even Israelis."

In both the judiciary and the parliament, things are going to get much worse before they get better for the president, according to Farideh Farhi, a researcher at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.
The chief prosecutor has said there will be more arrests coming. And in the parliament, they are inching closer and closer to impeaching him -- though it's likely Khamanei has given instructions to slow down, at least for now.

The Economy
Ahmadinejad's old foe, the economy, isn't giving him any more comfort these days, despite an upbeat assessment by a recent IMF mission to Tehran, which noted "structural reforms" related to Iran's subsidy program that reduced annual inflation from 25.4 percent in 2008/2009 to 12.4 percent in 2010/2011, according to an IMF press release.  Still unemployment hovers near 15 percent and analysts say the picture is far from rosy.

"There are many, many serious economic problems on the horizon," said Milani. He cited the embargo on trade as having a serious pinch. "And every indication is it's going to get worse."
Ahmadinejad had been able to keep important segments of his constituency happy by doling out healthy subsidies, such as cash payments to the poorest segments of society. But those programs are being cut back, because there's less money to go around.

And some analysts say that as the pie shrinks, the fighting over who gets what slice, is intensifying. The Revolutionary Guards, for example, have a vast business empire that spans the construction, telecommunications, and energy sectors, and gives them financial clout, something they don't want to lose even as Western sanctions targeting their interests continue to pinch harder.
For people looking for someone to blame, Ahmadinejad offers an easy target, due to his past mismanagement of the economy, Milani said.

The neighborhood
Despite the fall of one of Iran's most vocal antagonists in the region -- Hosni Mubarak -- and the ill-fortunes of many others, when Ahmadinejad looks beyond his borders there's not a lot to smile about these days.

 The biggest worry is Syria -- Iran's only real ally in the region -- where the regime of Bashar al-Assad is struggling to survive in the face of a massive, and sustained, uprising.
"If Syria goes then they are really left isolated," said Milani.

A second concern is the increasing assertiveness on the part of Sunni Gulf Arab states, which have become more openly united against Iran.

 "They are challenging them, because they perceive Iran to be in a weaker position," said Milani.
One example is Bahrain, into which the Saudis sent troops to help the Sunni royal family crush a largely Shiite uprising. If Iran was in a more powerful position, Milani said, they would have raised hell.

All this adds up to a lot of headaches for a man who isn't characteristically prone to self-doubt -- at least not in public. Yet, Ahmadinejad's many chickens seem to be coming home to roost.
"My sense is we are already in a post-Ahmadinejad era," said Farhi. "The question is no longer will he become a Putin-type figure. The question is now whether they will let him stay for two more years or get rid of him sooner."

This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 01/07/2011

Libya: Assassination Is A Two-Edged Sword

By Evan Thomas
Is the United States government trying to kill Moammar Gaddafi? Not officially. For the record, the United States issupporting a NATO mission to protect civilians from Gaddafi’s forces. NATO jets are bombing Gaddafi’s command and control centers. If Gaddafi dies, it may be from a French bomb. But the United States pays more than a fifth of NATO’s costs and provides at least some of the high-tech intelligence used in bombing runs. If Gaddafi is killed in one of those raids, America will have a hard time convincing the world that Gaddafi was not the target.
President Obama would never be so crude as to say “dead or alive,” and he has told Congress that he has no plans to use the American military to assassinate Gaddafi. But by making clear that he wants regime change and signing off on the NATO strikes, he is, however indirectly, taking on responsibility for attempting to kill a head of state.
That is no small step for an American president. Yet there has been little discussion of assassination in Congress or in the media. There should be more. It is worth looking at the history of assassinations and asking whether the president and Congress really want the United States to support efforts to kill heads of state, even wicked ones such as Gaddafi. Aside from the moral questions, assassination invites instability and blowback.
In the West, assassination was a fairly common tool in international relations until the late 18th century. Then nation-states pulled back. The rules of war recognized that while states could make war on each other, heads of state should be protected. In 1789, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison, “Assassination, poison, perjury. . . . All of these were legitimate principles in the dark ages which intervened between ancient and modern civilizations, but exploded and [were] held in just horror in the eighteenth century.” In 1938, the British government rejected a proposal by the British military attache in Berlin to assassinate Adolf Hitler on the grounds that it was “unsportsmanlike.” As late as 1944, the British government was divided over a plan by the British Special Operations Executive to liquidate the Nazi leader.
As Ward Thomas, a professor at the College of the Holy Cross, writes in “The Ethics of Destruction,” the norm against assassination gradually loosened after World War II. It was recognized that heads of state could be terrorists and war criminals — if not human monsters. In 1986, after Gaddafi was held responsible for a terrorist attack that killed American servicemen in a nightclub in Berlin, the United States bombed Gaddafi’s tent in Libya, killing some of his relatives. In the opening blow of the 2003 Iraq war, American bombers attempted to kill Saddam Hussein, believing, thanks to faulty intelligence, that he was at a location outside Baghdad. The U.S. executive order banning assassinations, adopted after earlier CIA plots against Cuba’s Fidel Castro and others were exposed in 1975, does not apply in wartime. “The laws of war clearly permit states to use lethal force against the chain of command of military forces who are engaged in armed conflict,” says former CIA general counsel Jeffrey H. Smith. “But we need to be very careful how we use that force, to make sure we are not setting a dangerous precedent.”
As was much discussed last week, technology such as “smart” bombs and aerial drones allows the United States to zero in on individuals. Drones are effective and, for the most part, reduce civilian casualties. But they are turning a crude bomb into a sniper’s rifle. America is far ahead in the race to build better drones, making them small and in the future probably even tiny, like sinister birds and insects. But other nations (and terrorists) will catch up. I can’t help thinking of that not-so-distant day when they may use such weapons; after all, Gaddafi blew up an American airliner after U.S. warplanes bombed his tent in 1986.
It has never been clear whether President Dwight Eisenhower gave the CIA the go-ahead to try to assassinate Castro and Congo strongman Patrice Lumumba in 1960. But Ike surely had it right when he scolded a staffer for making a joke about “bumping off” Lumumba. “That is beyond the pale,” Eisenhower said, according to his staff secretary, Andrew Goodpaster. “We will not discuss such things. Once you start that kind of business, there is no telling where it will end.”
-This opinion was published in The Washington Post on 02/07/2011
-Evan Thomas is an author and professor of journalism at Princeton University

How Iran Wages Its Own Global 'War On Terror'

By Robert Fisk
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (left) at the 'anti-terrorism summit' in Tehran
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (left) at the 'anti-terrorism summit' in Tehran (EPA)

The Iranians know how to do these things.

Dr Masoud Ali Mohamedi's car is a shocking sight, its twisted Tehran registration plate 53Y392 – still attached but the bodywork laced with shrapnel holes, punched through with steel, the driver's seat tossed over. Dr Mohamedi was one of Iran's most prestigious nuclear scientists when a motorcycle exploded beside his car as he left home for Tehran University.

Iran inevitably blamed Mossad; the Israelis predictably denied all responsibility. No proof ever emerged that Mohamedi worked on Iran's nuclear projects although he must have known he was a target. Only months earlier, his colleague Dr Majid Shahriari met a similar fate. And there was Mohamedi's shredded Peugeot this week, at the entrance to the Islamic Conference centre, providing a special "welcome" for delegates from 60 nations to the "anti-terrorism" get-together in Tehran.
Above the hall, there floated in the sulphurous air a white balloon with the logo "A World Without Terrorism". Terrorism, terrorism, terrorism. The all-purpose hate-word was being used by the Ahmadinejads and the Muslim leaders at the podium with Bush-like frequency, the pledges to join the "global fight against terror" an echo chamber of Hillary Clinton's tirades.

Of course, this was not quite the same "terror" which the Bushes and the Obamas and the Clintons rage about. Resistance against oppression, a foundation of the Islamic revolution in Iran, was not "terror". State "terror" was. And, I suppose, uncontrolled (Sunni) "terror" of the Osama bin Laden variety. True, there were pictures of the burning World Trade Centre, but Israel inevitably came up trumps in the "terror" stakes, though not as frequently – and here's the rub – as the Mojahedin-e Qalq.
This cultish group waged war against the Shah, achieved considerable support in the immediate post-revolutionary Iran and then, deprived of any participation in its first elections, turned with venom on Ayatollah Ruhollah's Islamic Republic. The Iranian authorities, who, of course, have never – ever – practiced anything as sordid as "terrorism" (a great drawing-in of breath by your correspondent here), attribute 17,159 innocent deaths to their enemies; around 12,000 of these are blamed on the Mojahedin, the rest on assorted communist, leftist and royalist groups.

And 17,159 fatalities come to more than five times the total dead of the World Trade Centre attacks, as the various victims' groups point out to every foreigner who examines the gruesome exhibition at the back of the Islamic Conference Hall. The pulverised faces of the dead, the amputated legs and headless torsos – a speciality picture display first created after the 1979 revolution, and then developed into a fine art during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war – have become a kind of ghastly art form. The lists and photographs resemble a kind of pictorial mortuary, a vast volume, the pages turned each day like a Biblical text or a bloody Book of Kells, to reveal a three-year-old child torn to pieces by a car bomb.
But this room of death has a political message. In their heyday, the Mojahedin would go for the jugular, blowing up the headquarters of the Islamic Republican Party in 1981, killing more than 70 of Khomeini's most faithful adherents, including his justice minister Ayatollah Mohamed Beheshti. The face of Saddam Hussein glowers down on us, shaking hands with the Mojahedin's leader, Masoud Rajavi, after he agreed to fight alongside Iraq against his own countrymen in the 1980-88 war.

Masoud's wife Maryam – for the Mojahedin, they are a kind of divine duo even though ordinary members were instructed to divorce their wives to ensure the "purity" of the organisation – stares from other photographs. We know she is still alive. Masoud Rajavi has not been seen since the Americans and Brits stormed into Iraq in 2003 and unwisely gave the Mojahedin prisoner-of-war status in their largest Iraqi barracks at Camp Ashraf, even though the US government was to put them on their "terrorist list".
A sign of just how much the Iranian government wants to nail the remnants of the Mojahedin comes when officials at the Islamic Conference hand me copies of a 2009 Rand Corporation report on the Mojahedin-e Qalq – the US Rand institution is, after all, hardly a handmaiden of the Islamic Republic – which lists its sins, its cult-like status and the American desire to wash their hands of the whole political mess by handing Ashraf over to the Iraq authorities. This they did a few months ago, Iraqi troops entering the camp and killing 27 inmates in the process. The Iraqis claimed that many of these men and women in fact committed suicide.

"Terrorists" they may be by America's and Iran's own definition – and there's a strange moral alliance – yet within hours of arriving in Tehran last week, I took lunch with a man who assassinated one of the Islamic Republic's principal opponents and chatted on the phone to another whose hit-team killed two innocent French citizens in a failed attempt to blow away another enemy of the revolution. Long ago, I interviewed them about these events. Yet today – after Abu Ghraib, after Haditha, after Guantanamo and the "black" prison of Bagram and rendition and the massacres of Palestinians and Lebanese – the initial reaction to my luncheon companion's murder (for that is what it was) begins to pale.
It's not that the Islamic Republic has any reason to seize the moral high ground. Its vicious execution of Mojahedin prisoners and thousands of other opponents of the regime, men and women, in 1988, hanged like thrushes on mass gallows on the orders of Khomeini, remains a grotesque bloodstain on the whole necrocracy that Iran had become. But Mohamedi's vehicle looks like any other "terrorism" victim's death car, and the 17,159 Iranian men, women and children remain part of the "martyrdom" portfolio of what may soon be a regional nuclear superpower.

This commentary was published in The Independent on 02/07/2011

Some Killers Are More Equal Than Others

By Rami G. Khouri  

This has been a bad week for killers in the Arab world. The indictments now being handed down by the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) in the case of the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) arrest warrant for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, represent two important steps on the road to corralling criminals who have plagued the modern Middle East for decades.

The case for moving these cases into trials is compelling, on moral and political grounds. Fair trials for the accused might achieve three things: hold accountable those who now stand accused of grievous crimes, so that justice can be achieved at last for those who have died or suffered; send a message to others in the region and abroad that they cannot kill and terrorize with impunity; and, send the important message to the ordinary people of the Arab world that perhaps they can look forward to a future of more normalcy and security.
But is justice divisible? Can it be selective? I ask because it seems clear that a lesser standard of accountability is applied in the case of crimes committed in the region by people other than Arabs, especially Americans, British and Israelis. Simultaneously with the STL and ICC indictments this week we have had the release of an extraordinary piece of collaborative research by more than 20, mostly U.S.-based, economists, anthropologists, lawyers and political scientists, providing new estimates of the total war cost as well as other direct and indirect human and economic costs of the United States’ military response to 9/11.

The Costs of War project, conducted by the Eisenhower Study Group co-directed by Professors Neta Crawford of Boston University and Catherine Lutz of Brown University, is the first comprehensive analysis of all U.S., coalition, and civilian casualties in these conflicts, including U.S. contractors. The study also provides the most detailed look of the effects of the 12-year sanctions imposed on, and the 2003 American invasion of, Iraq, and specifically the impact on the country’s health system, the displacement of populations, and the resulting transformations in ethnic and sectarian compositions of neighborhoods and cities. It makes for stunning reading.
It is fascinating that these early days of the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign include no mention of Iraq and Afghanistan. The political reality in the U.S. is that these wars are history, because Americans are on their way out of them. But the real and total costs of those wars and other military and security responses to 9/11 should not be allowed to pass into history simply because fickle Americans are focused elsewhere. Enormous damage has been done to many parts of the Middle East and South Asia, with human suffering on a monumental scale. Is anyone to be held accountable for this? Or do only Arab criminals get sent to trial and to jail?

The Costs of War project aimed to outline a broad understanding of the domestic and international costs and consequences of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Its extensive findings include, for example:
While just over 6,000 U.S. soldiers have died in these wars, the levels of injury and illness in those who have returned from the wars is unknown;

Over half a million new disability claims came into the U.S. Veterans Administration as of last autumn;
At least 137,000 civilians have died and more will die in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan;

The conservative numbers of war dead, in uniform and out, is 225,000; millions of people have been displaced indefinitely and are living in grossly inadequate conditions. The current number of war refugees and displaced persons is 7.8 million;
The human and economic costs of these wars will continue for decades, some costs not peaking until mid-century. Conservatively estimated, the war bills already paid and obligated to be paid are $3.2 trillion in constant dollars. A more reasonable estimate puts the number at nearly $4 trillion;

The ripple effects on the U.S. economy have also been significant, including job loss and interest rate increases, and those effects have been underappreciated;
Afghanistan and Iraq both rank low in global rankings of political freedom, with warlords continuing to hold power in Afghanistan with U.S. support, and Iraqi communities more segregated today than before by gender and ethnicity as a result of the war;

Serious and compelling alternatives to war were scarcely considered in the aftermath of 9/11 or in the discussion about war against Iraq.
It seems reasonable to ask for political and legal accountability for 225,000 deaths, 7.8 million displaced people and refugees, and some $4 trillion wasted. Or is this unrealistic, because angry white men in Washington and London enjoy immunity from accountability, and can respond with impunity to the crimes of 9/11 with their own much larger and more costly crime spree? Is this imperfect justice, or neo-colonialism, or a bit of both?

This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 02/07/2011

Confusion About Arab Revolutions

The likelihood of the Middle East producing fully democratic regimes in the next 10-15 years is remote
 By Marwan Al Kabalan
Despite what appears to be genuine democratic movement in the Arab world, the fear of instability in various parts of the Middle East provides the champions of the status quo with a lifeline to advance their argument which has always favoured stability over democracy.
Scholars and analysts, who have never believed that the Arab world can ever embrace democracy as a political and economic system, are exploiting the difficult transition to democracy in Libya, Yemen and Syria to make their voice heard in US academic and political circles.
Through lobbying, publicity and media coverage they have been trying to influence US policy in the Middle East at a time when the Obama administration is struggling to establish a clear strategy to deal with the unexpected developments in the Arab region. "The fact that a state is despotic does not necessarily make it immoral. That is the essential fact of the Middle East that those intent on enforcing democracy abroad forget," Robert Kaplan, a distinguished US writer, argued in an article published in the Washington Post.
A few years ago, such voices were eclipsed by the shock of 9/11. At the time, the real threat for America seemed to be coming from undemocratic regimes and ‘failed states' in the Middle East. The rationale behind this argument was that there are ‘failed', ‘rogue' and ‘weak' states in the world that are, in varying ways, brutalising and killing their own people, disrupting regional stability, developing weapons of mass destruction, engaging in acts of terror or are linked with violent anti-western terrorist organisations. In such cases, it is the moral duty of democratic states to intervene in a variety of ways, including militarily, and even pre-emptively, to ensure that humanitarian crises are brought to an end, that good government is restored or implanted and that order reigns.
Global strategy
In the early years of the George W. Bush administration, democratic imperialists gained the upper hand, wherein their ideas served as the guiding principle for the US global strategy.
"In a world where evil is still very real, democratic principles must be backed with power in all its forms: political and economic, cultural and moral, and yes, sometimes military", former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice suggested once. Iraq was the first step in a long process to implement this strategy: overthrow Arab autocrats and replace them with democratically elected governments.
This optimism, which accompanied the drive for democracy in the Arab world, did not last long, however. The failure of the Iraq venture and the rise of Islamist movements in Iraq, Egypt and the Palestinian territories through the ballot box undercut the influence of this school, giving way for a rival argument to emerge.
So-called traditional realists argued that pressure for democracy will present the US with a number of immediate dangers and few clear advantages.
The likelihood of the Middle East producing fully democratic regimes in the next 10-15 years is remote; it enjoys none of the recognised prerequisites for sustaining democracy: its elites are not committed to democracy, its population is not homogeneous, its national institutions are extremely weak and its per capita GDP is lower than the level commonly viewed as the democratic tipping point.
Furthermore, the transition to democracy would almost certainly lead to the disintegration of state institutions, such as the army and police and Arab countries would slip into chaos and inter-confessional violence. Worse still for this school was that the likely alternative to the existing Arab regimes are Islamic governments run by the Muslim Brotherhood. When the Obama administration came to power a couple of years ago, developments on the grounds in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed to be approving the argument of this school. He therefore dumped the democracy promotion thesis and decided to focus instead on stability through strengthening relations with the autocrats of the Arab and Islamic world. The belief that America must support authoritarian regimes or else face a chaotic situation gained momentum in Washington. The relatively smooth transition in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year must have disappointed traditional realists.
 It is early to suggest, though, that the pro-stability school has completely lost ground inside the Obama administration. What is clear; however, is that a titanic intellectual conflict over the direction of US foreign policy and the future of the Arab world is taking place in Washington. Alas, this happens while the Arab world needs all the assistance required to get through the transformation process from autocracy to democracy.
 -This commentary was published in The GULF NEWS on 02/07/2011
-Dr Marwan Al Kabalan is director of the Damascus Centre for Economic and Political Studies

Yet Again In Sudan

By Wide Angle Lens

The world capital for crimes against humanity this month probably isn’t in Libya or Syria. Instead, it’s arguably the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, where we’re getting accounts of what appears to be a particularly vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing, murder and rape.

In its effort to preclude witnesses, the Sudanese government has barred humanitarian access to the area and threatened to shoot down United Nations helicopters. Sudanese troops even detained four United Nations peacekeepers and subjected them to “a mock firing squad,” the UN said.
An internal UN report says that Sudanese authorities are putting on uniforms of the Sudanese Red Crescent — a local version of the Red Cross — to order displaced people to move away from the United Nations compound. They were then herded into a stadium in the town of Kadugli, where their fate is uncertain.

Western aid workers have been forced to flee, and there are credible reports of government troops and government-backed Arab militias systematically hunting down members of the black-skinned Nuba ethnic group and killing them.
“Door-to-door executions of completely innocent and defenceless civilians, often by throat-cutting, by special internal security forces,” a Westerner with long experience in Sudan recounted in a terse e-mail that I posted on my blog.

The writer, who was on the scene but has now left, does not want to be named for fear of losing access.
The Rev. Andudu Elnail, an Episcopal bishop for the Nuba Mountains area, told me that the Sudanese government has targeted many Nuban Christians. Armed forces burned down his cathedral, said Bishop Andudu, who is temporarily in the United States but remains in touch daily with people in the area. “They’re killing educated people, especially black people, and they don’t like the church,” he said.

Women are also being routinely raped, Bishop Andudu said, estimating that the death toll is “more than a few thousand” across the Sudanese state of South Kordofan.
This isn’t religious warfare, for many Nubans are Muslim and have also been targeted (including a mosque bombed the other day).

The Sudanese military has been dropping bombs on markets and village wells.
The airstrip that I used when I visited the Nuba Mountains has now been bombed to keep humanitarians from flying in relief supplies; the markets I visited are now deserted, according to accounts smuggled out to monitoring groups.

At least 73,000 people have fled their homes, the United Nations says.
A network of brave people on the ground, virtually all locals, have been secretly taking photos and transmitting them to human rights organisations in the West like the Enough Project.

My hard drive overflows with photos of children bleeding from shrapnel.
Samuel Totten, a genocide scholar at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, visited the Nuba Mountains a year ago to gather historical accounts of the mass killings of Nuba by the Sudanese government in the 1990s. Now, he says, it is all beginning to happen again.

“As I watch the international community dither as the people of the Nuba Mountains are being killed, impunity reigns,” said Professor Totten.
The Sudanese government signed a framework agreement on Tuesday that could be a step to end the violence in South Kordofan, but there has been no deal on cessation of hostilities.

Sudan has a long record of agreements reached and then breached (by the South as well as the North).
Sudan is preparing for a split on July 9, when South Sudan emerges as an independent nation after decades of on-and-off war between North and South.

The Nuba Mountains will remain in the North when the South secedes, but many Nuba sided with the South during the war and still serve in a rebel military force dug into the mountains.
Most of the violence in the Nuba Mountains has been by northern Arabs against the Nuba, but there are also reports of rebel soldiers attacking Arab civilians.

There is a risk that violence will spread to the neighbouring state of Blue Nile and ultimately trigger a full-blown North-South war, although both sides want to avoid that.
It’s critical that the United Nations retain its presence.

Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, already indicted for genocide in Darfur, is now visiting China, and Chinese leaders need to insist that he stop the killing of civilians and allow the UN to function.
The appeals from Nubans today feel like an anguished echo of those from Darfur eight years ago.

Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian organisation that has long worked in the Nuba Mountains, said it received a message from a Nuban pastor: “With grief today, I want to inform you that the new church is burned down. We have lost everything. The house where my staff lives was looted, and the offices were burned. Many people fled from town, but some stayed. There is no food or water now.”
This commentary was published in The Qatar Tribune on 02/07/2011

Bahrain: The Investigation Committee Is Not Enough

By Husam Itani
The measures adopted by the Bahraini authorities to contain the crisis were neither sufficient nor successful. They appeared to be an attempt to place the incidents witnessed during the last few months in the context of the protesters’ violation of the law, a defiance that was responded to by the security apparatuses with excessive harshness.
Any perceptive person would realize that the crisis in Bahrain is much deeper and wider than this. It is related to the demographic structure and the way it is handled by the authorities, the confusing intertwinement between the local and regional situations and the escalation of the tensions in the Gulf.
One would say that the formation of an independent investigation commission into the February and March incidents, the improvement of the security situation in the Kingdom of Bahrain, the partial withdrawal of the Peninsula Shield Force, the release of some detainees and the annulment of the trials of the accused before military courts, are steps falling in line with the political and security appeasement undertaken by the rule to reintroduce the idea – which might be revised – of national dialogue that was obstructed three months ago when it was rejected by some opposition forces.
There is a series of obstacles which might reemerge in the face of any new dialogue in Bahrain. Some of them will be impossible to overcome or resolve by Manama, namely the Iranian role in the Gulf, the fears it is raising and Bahrain’s presence on the front lines of any military confrontation that might erupt between Iran and the American troops deployed in the Gulf. Moreover, we are in the presence of the media and promotional pressures exerted by Iran on the Bahraini government which are raising the level of sectarian tensions in the country.
Among these obstacles are also ones linked to the limits reached by the reform process that was launched ten years ago and heralded the instatement of an authority in which the citizens would be able to participate. Oppositionists and observers placed a lot of hope over the success of the constitutional and political reforms in Bahrain, following years of stalling that affected the handling of the reasons that pushed the country - during the first half of the nineties - toward a series of clashes and incidents and were not settled as they should have by the authorities.
And it was clear since the second half of last century, that the halting of the reforms was accompanied by the resumption of the protests and the disgruntlement among the Shiite population, vis-à-vis what was being said about the naturalization of foreigners among the Sunnis to secure sectarian balance in the country. At the same time, no serious solutions were reached to the problems of unemployment, poverty and the lack of opportunities to climb up the social ladder, although the state administrations and institutions – in addition to the public sector – are filled with foreign employees.
In light of this situation, the protests against segregation turned into political tensions with which the policy of the autonomous and neutral investigation committees (especially since this type of committees requires guarantees of neutrality) is no longer useful.
It is no secret that the demonstrations witnessed in some Bahraini regions during the last few weeks - although they failed to establish pits in the capital as it happened on Pearl Square last March - actually reflect the existence and continuation of the crisis without a political settlement to extinguish the acuteness of the tensions and prevent the voices of instigation from resonating throughout the country.
In other words, the promised investigation committee will not end the crisis. At best, it might be able to appease the feelings and bridge a few gaps. However, the handling should first and foremost be political.
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 01/07/2011

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Cult Of Bashar al-Assad

As a teacher in Syria the writer saw the effect of Assad's culture of fear, but his regime is pandering to social sensibilities

By Joseph Willits

Bashar al-Assad
A protester holds a picture of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad during a demonstration in support of the regime held in Lebanon. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
The events now happening in Syria seemed a remote prospect when I arrived to teach English at an international school in Homs last year. Even when regime change came to Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year, few expected anything of the kind to occur in Syria.
Looking at my students, I could scarcely imagine them as revolutionaries. They seemed so bound to the 40-year-old Ba'athist ideology, emasculated by the cult of Bashar al-Assad while monitored by social sensibilities.
In school each day, we pledged our allegiance to Ba'athism, to Assad and to a sense of unique Arab nationalism. One line of the national anthem always stuck with me: "Our den of Arabism is a sacred sanctuary."
Yes, Syria was a sanctuary. In this sanctuary's educational institutions dissent was frowned upon and a culture of fear flourished. What might revolution mean to these teenage Syrians, and how would they respond to it?
On the surface, for many of my students it would mean nothing. They were mostly from the top shelves of Syrian society – Alawite, Christian and Muslim – the products of politics and business rather than defined by sectarianism. Their hopes would lie mostly within the system and for them the struggle for bread was an alien prospect. A year later, though, the profiles of similar young Syrians are all over Facebook – some frightened, others more hopeful, proud, naively and deliberately deluded. Sometimes a black screen replaces a photo of them with friends, for anonymity, for mourning, or just out of caution, wisely hedging their bets. Other profiles feature a "pray for Homs" poster, or a picture of the president himself.
Their comments range from tentative to accusatory – directed at the "terrorists" who are said to be destroying Assad's Syria. One compares the sounds of shooting with the celebratory sounds of Eid in the early hours. Another remarks: "I simply cannot sleep."
Those who originally posted controversial, apparently anti-Assad sentiment, have withdrawn in fright. Their Facebook protests have become dormant and their daily facade is basketball, friends and Ba'athism. Their resistance, however, remains.
I would never have imagined, while teaching in Homs, and even in the beginning of protests in the city, that my students would become directly affected. Like the majority of my students, Ameen al-Khateeb was a declared fan of the president and his wife on Facebook, and proud to be Syrian.
"In Bashar we trust" was a dictum that resonated for him, yet the bullets of the regime hit his school bus, killing his 10-year-old sister. Still he appears loyal to the president, as do many others, but a wariness of online activity and dissent has encouraged more engagement in street protests.
The culture of fear, which generations of Syrians have grown up with, can never be underestimated. Assad's speech on 20 June, heaping blame upon foreign "saboteurs", angered so many, prompting more protests, yet reassured others with familiar statements. Those who were brave protested on the streets; those who were fearful maintained their silence, perhaps waiting for the tide to blow over.
I questioned an Alawite friend of mine about the situation in Homs when serious protests first began. "You know we live in a peaceful country," she said, accusing al-Jazeera of heading a media ambush against the regime. Her words, like those in Assad's speech, and so many I knew in Homs, simply echoed one another and the party line. I knew Syria was peaceful; a wonderful example of a prison camp fit for tourists, teachers and Lawrence of Arabia wannabes – and all overlooked by images of Assad in various poses.
As I walked daily around the streets my eyes were always drawn to the posters of the regime's propaganda, mesmerised myself by the cult of Assad. I quickly learned the boundaries of conversations about the president.
My joking insinuation that Assad could be my lookalike if I only had a moustache sparked controversy. Foreigners are told to be careful when mentioning the president, since any hint of disrespect can be construed as mocking and spiteful. In an attempt to relate to and share with my students, I told them that both Asma al-Assad (the president's wife) and I attended King's College London. This was met with deathly silence – as if I had been trying to put myself on a par with her.
In a sense, however, I felt that the cult of Assad disguised the real issue – that Syria was a society made up of various and contrasting social sensibilities, heavily exploited by the Ba'athist regime.
In Damascus, over the past five years, an arts scene had begun to flourish, and yet a performance of Romeo and Juliet was censored at a school in Homs: on stage, the loving couple looked at one another gormlessly, their kiss having been taken away from them. In this case it wasn't Ba'athism stifling expression, but society itself.
Through education the regime could both pander to social sensibilities and alienate the more socially conservative elements. Those who displayed symbols of faith, contrary to the regime's secular image, could become targets. A colleague of mine (choosing to wear the hijab, against the wishes of her exiled father who recognised the implications of this symbol) became the subject of gossip, initiated by the school itself.
Fears of the Muslim Brotherhood and paranoia stemming from the 1982 massacre in Hama were seemingly ingrained into the Ba'athist machine. Students are still being taught to fear repercussions. In Hama in 1982, internet dissent was not an issue. In Homs today, teenage Syrians are logging on, sometimes as themselves, sometimes as products of the regime – mostly we shall never know which.
I cannot condemn those who put pictures of Assad on to Facebook, whether out of pride or self-preservation, nor can I demand that the revolutionaries of whatever cause come clean and stand tall. I was there, among them. I know how it feels.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 01/07/2011
- Joseph Willits spent a significant time teaching in Syria. He studied English literature at King's College London, focusing on perceptions of Persia and the Middle East in travel writing of the early modern period

Syria: Realpolitik Or Folly?

By Elliott Abrams
In the last week the news has brought reports of additional repression in Syria, and of the American response: to urge Syrian dissidents to negotiate with the Assad regime.
This Washington Post account describes typical events on the ground in Syria:
“Around 100 peaceful protesters calling for freedom were met with police and baton-wielding security forces Thursday at Damascus University.  Students gathered outside the faculty of economics in the Baramkeh area of Damascus minutes after 3pm today calling for freedom. Dozens more students joined together with the small group as the chanting became more forceful. One female protester managed to unfurl a flag before police and security forces charged on the crowd.”
On June 23, The New York Times reported that “Syrian forces backed by snipers and tanks stormed into the border town of Khirbet al-Jouz…sending hundreds of refugees fleeing to Turkey from the informal camp where they had sought shelter from a violent crackdown on protests in the country’s rural northwest.”
The Assad regime has adopted a diplomatic and propaganda plan so clear in its duplicity that I had assumed no one would fall for it.  While the killing and jailing continue, the regime has also allowed one single meeting of dissidents in Damascus.  In response, according to the Guardian newspaper in London, “The US is pushing the Syrian opposition to maintain dialogue with Bashar al-Assad’s regime as details emerge of a controversial ‘roadmap’ for reforms that would leave him in power for now despite demands for his overthrow during the country’s bloody three-month uprising.”
The Guardian account continues: “Quiet US interest in the roadmap dovetails with public demands from Washington that Assad reform or step down. Robert Ford, the US ambassador, has been urging opposition figures to talk to the regime, said Radwan Ziadeh, a leading exile, who insisted the strategy would not work. ‘They are asking Bashar to lead the transition and this is not acceptable to the protesters,’ he said. ‘It is too late.’”
The State Department denies that it is pushing the opposition into compromising its objectives and principles, but the Guardian then reports this: “A state department spokesman said: ‘We are encouraging genuine dialogue between the opposition and the regime but we are not promoting anything. We want to see a democratic Syria but this is in the hands of the Syrian people.’”
So, it is in the hands of the Syrians—but just in case they don’t get the message it is again clarified: the United States wants the regime to talk, not to fall.  In recent trips to the Middle East and in conversations with Arab democracy activists, I have often been asked why the United States is backing Bashar.  After months of denying it, I can only conclude they were right.  How else can one read these news reports?
It is not possible to have “genuine dialogue” with a regime that has murdered roughly 1,400 peaceful protesters, jailed up to 10,000 more, and continues to shoot and imprison anyone it pleases.  The American call for such “dialogue” is an act of realpolitik that abandons all claim to morality.
That is bad enough, but realpolitik must then be judged by its logic and its fruits.  There are none, except for undermining the moral position of the United States.  To repeat what has been written here before, the Assad regime is an enemy of the United States.  It has the blood of tens of thousands of Syrians on its hands but also of thousands of Americans, killed in Iraq by jihadis it led into Iraq for that purpose.  It is Iran’s only Arab ally, and provides Iran with a Mediterranean port, a border with Israel through Hizballah, and an arms trafficking route from Iran to Hizballah.  It supports and houses Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups.  The fall of the Assad regime would be the greatest blow we can strike against Iran and its terrorist allies today.
 “Encouraging genuine dialogue” is a pitiful position for the United States to take when our interests—and those of our enemies—are so clear, and when astonishingly courageous Syrians keep risking their lives to bring down the Assad regime.  Our interests and our values coincide in Syria, and both are undermined when our policies have the effect of prolonging in power a vicious, anti-American regime allied to terrorist groups and to Iran.  This policy is folly, not realpolitik.
-This commentary was published on CFR blog on 01/06/2011
- Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies in The Council On Foreign Relations

Lebanon’s Hariri Tribunal Hits Its (Anti?) Climax

By Mona Yacoubian
Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah

The United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) delivered its long-anticipated indictment to Lebanese prosecutor Said Mirza yesterday, reportedly naming members of the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. By accusing Hezbollah of murdering a prominent Sunni leader, the sealed indictment and accompanying arrest warrants could spark renewed sectarian unrest during a time of broader regional instability. Lebanese authorities have 30 days to execute the arrest warrants, while Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has previously warned that his organization would "cut the hands" of anyone who tries to detain a Hezbollah member. Nasrallah will deliver a speech tomorrow evening, surely slamming the indictments. New indictments naming Syrian elements may also be issued in the coming weeks, adding to the tension.

Taken together, these developments present Prime Minister Najib Miqati and his new government with their most significant challenge yet, potentially putting Lebanon on a collision course with the international community, in addition to the threat of domestic violence. Developments related to the tribunal have toppled previous cabinets, most recently in January when the government collapsed following the withdrawal of Hezbollah and its allies from the cabinet. Yet, some mitigating factors may blunt the indictment's impact, resulting in something more than a non-event, but less than the cataclysm long-expected to accompany the indictment's release.
Lebanon's fractious population is deeply divided over the UN-backed court. As with so many issues in Lebanese politics, the STL is refracted through the sectarian lens of each confession. For the Sunnis, the tribunal embodies the instrument that ensures Hariri's killers are brought to justice. For Hezbollah and the Shiite community, the STL lies at the heart of an "American-Israeli plot" to neutralize, if not destroy, the organization. Beyond that, Hezbollah seeks to manage the indictment's fallout to minimize the damage to their standing not only within Lebanon, but in the Sunni Arab world more broadly -- a priority that may assume greater urgency amidst the Arab uprisings.

For its part, the Christian community is divided, with key leaders staking positions both for and against the UN court. The division reflects deeper angst within the community as it struggles to contend with its waning power. Finally, Walid Jumblatt -- feudal leader of Lebanon's small yet important Druze community -- has vacillated between staunch support and outright derision of the tribunal based on his calculation of where the prevailing political winds blow. Signaling his continued support for Hezbollah, Jumblatt emphasized the need to preserve stability over justice.
Yet, while concern over Lebanon's stability is certainly warranted, the STL indictments may not serve as the violent flashpoint that previously seemed inevitable. Several developments suggest a more muted reaction is possible. First, over the past two years since falling under the international spotlight as the "prime suspect," Hezbollah has worked assiduously to discredit the STL in the court of Lebanese public opinion. Through multiple speeches and press conferences, Hezbollah leader Nasrallah repeatedly railed against the tribunal as politicized and a tool of the Americans and Israelis. Citing numerous press leaks and raising the issue of "false witnesses" who reportedly misled the initial UN investigation, Nasrallah's attempts to shape the narrative, while not convincing all Lebanese, may have sown enough popular doubt to provide appropriate cover against the charges. Hezbollah has certainly prepared its supporters for the indictments, so they are less likely to respond with violence.

Even among those whom Hezbollah's sophisticated PR campaign fails to convince, the "shock and awe" of the UN indictments likely has been deflated. In advance of their release, the indictments were discussed and dissected endlessly, rendering the actual announcement somewhat anti-climactic and possibly disarming its potential to provoke large-scale demonstrations and unrest. Of course, a violent reaction emanating from radicalized elements within the Sunni community is always a possibility.
Second, Lebanon's newly-formed cabinet is dominated by Hezbollah and its allies in the March 8th coalition. Together, they hold 18 of the 30 cabinet portfolios, providing them with a majority that likely will ensure against any successful attempts to undermine Hezbollah via the STL.  Hezbollah's maximalist demands regarding the STL center on ceasing all cooperation with the court and withdrawing Lebanese funding (Lebanon is responsible for 49 percent of the budget) and judges from the tribunal. While Prime Minister Miqati may finesse these demands, Hezbollah nonetheless has some guarantees -- for now -- that the Lebanese government will not use the STL to go after it. Indeed, nobody, including the United Nations, has any illusion that Hezbollah will relinquish any of its operatives named in the arrest warrants. In recognition of this reality, the STL provides for holding the trial in absentia -- a first for international justice since the Nuremberg Trials.

Third, in many ways, the impact of neighboring Syria's uprising has eclipsed concerns about potential fallout from the STL indictment. Should violence in Syria continue to escalate leading the Assad regime to unravel, Hezbollah will face a far more serious existential challenge than that posed by the indictment. It will lose a key ally and an invaluable supply line of sophisticated weapons. Even if Assad prevails over the protests in the short to medium term, Hezbollah must contend with the multiple challenges of a weakened and isolated Syria, potentially confronting its own re-defining moment of truth.
Nonetheless, in the coming days and weeks, Prime Minister Miqati will face significant challenges as the tribunal process moves forward. Given Lebanon's inherent volatility, sectarian violence could still flare up, particularly if Syria falls in the court's crosshairs. The prime minister will need to strike a delicate balance on Lebanon's response to the STL. He must find a compromise that sufficiently respects Lebanon's international commitments thereby deflecting domestic criticism from STL supporters and the threat of international isolation, without drawing the ire of Hezbollah and its allies. The cabinet's policy statement, slated to be presented next week to parliament for approval, suggests exactly this approach. It states Lebanon's respect for international commitments while underscoring the need to preserve civil peace. Miqati has warned against attempts to exploit the indictment to destabilize Lebanon. While significant threats to Lebanon's peace and stability remain, the indictment may not unleash the catastrophic violence that had long been feared.

-This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 01/06/2011
-Mona Yacoubian is director of the Lebanon Working Group at the U.S. Institute of Peace

Algerian 'Reforms' Are All Smoke, But No Real Substance

By Abdelkader Cheref
While the international media focuses on events in Libya, Syria, Yemen and to a lesser extent Morocco's referendum today, efforts to address sociopolitical grievances are continuing in Algeria as well.
Unfortunately, the early sense of optimism among reformers in Algiers is giving way to a sense of disillusionment and the perception of broken promises.
Almost from the beginning the Algerian opposition viewed talks - which came after months of street demonstrations - as stall tactics and political manoeuvres designed to shield the system from further citizen revolt.
According to the Algerian League of Human Rights and the National Coordination for Change and Democracy, the regime has just been "papering over the cracks" with pledges of reform. Needless to say, gaps - from high unemployment to soaring inflation - will need more than promises.
When the National Commission for Consultations on Political Reforms first met in May, change looked possible.
Everything from constitutional reform to press freedoms was said to be on the table as the process got started.
But trouble became evident when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika appointed the Algerian senate president, Abdelkader Bensalah, to chair the National Commission.
Observers say the political-military elites, or le Pouvoir - "the Power" - are attempting to present the illusion that political negotiations are taking place across the board.
Yet as one source close to the government told me, at the end of the process any "change will not be radical; it is planned by the system".
The objective of this National Commission was to log the various suggestions and submit a synthesised version of concerns to Mr Bouteflika.
He and only he would then offer a road map for amending the constitution and the electoral system, and upgrading regulations on political parties, media freedoms and women's political participation. But based on his past performance, it appears doubtful he will go out on a limb.
For a month, the senate president and his co-chairs, General Mohamed Touati and Mohamed Ali Boughazi, collected the suggestions of over 250 statesmen, political party members, and leaders from state associations.
This commission also met with former defence minister Khaled Nezzar; former prime ministers Sid Ahmed Ghozali and Mokdad Sifi, and current premier Ahmed Ouyahia.
The trouble is, none of these players have real credibility among average Algerians. The commission's make-up looks as if the system is speaking with itself, and to itself.
Mr Bensalah, General Touati, and Mr Boughazi do represent the three dominant factions in the system, but their allegiance is not to the people. It's no secret that the National Liberation Front (FLN), the National Democratic Rally (RND) and the domesticated Islamist party (MSP), are merely appendages of the ruling elite.
Having come out in full support of the reform process none of these parties would have put forward proposals that are out of sync with the agenda of the regime. The semblance of talks is but a smoke screen, for domestic and international purposes.
The government's approach in Algeria, and the public's response, is similar to what is happening in Morocco. There, pro-democracy activists are dubious about the Makhzen (Morocco's governing elite) enacting far-reaching constitutional reforms.
Many in Morocco's youth-led February 20 movement are wondering whether the measures pledged by King Mohammed VI, who has ruled Morocco for 12 years, and expected to be ratified in a referendum today, will really establish democratic institutions, considering that he remains the commander-in-chief of the army and the undisputable supreme religious authority.
Algerians are asking similar questions. Most of Algeria's opposition parties boycotted the recent talks. Some denounced the exclusion of union representatives and civil society activists.
For Ali Yahia Abdennour, the honorary president of the Algerian League of Human Rights and a member of National Coordination for Change and Democracy, the problem has been a lack of public participation. "We must be close to the people to hear what they're saying," he said.
"And we have to talk to the real people," he went on, "not to a supposed elite which has betrayed the people and decided to back up tyranny to the detriment of the rule of law."
World powers such as the US and the UK have offered mixed messages on Algeria's political reform process. Alistair Burt, the UK's minister for Middle East and South Asia, has enthusiastically welcomed these talks. The US has been more tepid.
Washington views Algeria as a key ally in its global fights against extremism and would like to maintain this co-operation with the current regime.
Still, many in Algeria believe that those who have depleted the country's resources and ruled with an iron fist for almost half a century are the problem and cannot provide the solution.
Their removal from office is necessary, but would not represent a sufficient move toward genuine democratisation.
Indeed, empty calls for constitutional reform - promises Mr Bouteflika has made before - will not suffice this time.
-This commentary was published in The National on 01/07/2011
-Dr Abdelkader Cheref is an assistant professor of comparative literature and cultural studies at the University of Connecticut