Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Syrian 'Opposition' Does Not Have To Prove Itself

Syrian political society will show its real face only after the regime is gone – and it needs support to get to that place
By Nadim Shehadi

Syrian protest in Greece
Syrians living in Greece wave a Syrian flag as they shout slogans against President Bashar al-Assad during a protest in Athens. Photograph: Petros Giannakouris/AP
We do not do justice to the Syrian people when we use the term "opposition" to describe those who are in revolt against the Assad regime. What is now being called the opposition is in reality Syrian political society that has been hijacked for decades – and it is from this society with all its rich diversity that a new government and its opposition will emerge after the fall of the regime.
Using the terminology of a regime in power and an "opposition" against it ultimately legitimises the regime itself and puts the onus on that opposition to prove its own legitimacy. This is not just an academic or semantic distinction; it is easy to become trapped in a framework that lends a sense of normality to what is happening in Syria.
The regime is keen to present a certain narrative: that there is no viable alternative to its rule; that beyond it is total chaos with Islamic fundamentalism, sectarian tension, partition, violence and civil war. It accuses the protesters of being manipulated and armed by foreign powers, and claims, on its part, to be pursuing stability and reform.
By normalising the situation we impose the burden of proof on the protesters who assert that they are united, non-sectarian, nonviolent and independent. No matter how many such peaceful demonstrations occur, all it takes is for a couple of incidents of violence or a sectarian interpretation of tension to be reported for the world to start buying into the regime's narrative.
Moreover, we cannot require protesters to confirm their unity; it is natural that they are not united. Diversity is their strength, not their weakness. Nor can we expect them to prove that they are a viable alternative; the Syrian regime has survived by allowing no such alternatives to emerge or to seem viable. It is precisely because of this that the regime is being opposed. If it had allowed for a credible opposition to be visible, there would be no need to change it.
The simple fact is that any person who had the potential to constitute a challenge to the power of the regime has been eliminated, is out of the country, in jail, or dead. Many have been forced to compromise or were co-opted through blackmail or to protect their family. The security services have often created their own alternatives as decoys to trap opponents of the regime.
The result is an atmosphere of extreme suspicion and intrigue. Thus one cannot accuse the exiles of being exiles, nor those who have stayed of being collaborators. They are all victims of the same system and we are imposing on them impossible conditions if we ask them to prove that they are a viable opposition.
Regional powers are also making the situation worse by competing to create opposition conferences which they sponsor. This has opened the door for regional rivalry which confirms the regime's accusation of external intervention. The regime participates in this game by creating its own "dialogue", calling for stability and pretending to reform while continuing to raise the spectre of violence, civil war, sectarianism, external intervention and partition.
The real drivers of the revolts are the local co-ordination committees (LCCs) led by courageous youth with very little means and who operate in secrecy using social media. It is not uncommon for western policymakers to be heard asking for a list of the leaders of the LCCs, wanting to know who they are and if they constitute again a viable "opposition" to the regime. If these names were to be known, these local leaders would be already dead and indeed many have paid with their lives when they can be identified and others have taken great risks to participate in meetings. For these youth, the success of the revolt is a matter of life and death and they know very well that there is no turning back.
Thus by using the dichotomy of the regime versus the opposition a number of expectations are raised as to what we understand should be the characteristics of a viable opposition – and these are contrasted with the regime's narrative. The net result is that we are playing the game according to rules set by the regime: we are putting the protesters in an impossible position to counter the regime's narrative.
Syrian political society will emerge and show its real face only after the regime is gone, and not before. This will not be a phoenix rising from the ashes, rather a battered society that will be trying to find its way after a long and dark period.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 01/10/2011- Nadim Shehadi is an associate fellow of Chatham House's Middle East and north Africa programme

Abbas Is Punished By $200m Cut In Aid From US

Congress makes Palestinians pay for seeking UN recognition
By Donald Macintyre in Jerusalem
The United States Congress has blocked nearly $200m in aid for the Palestinians, threatening projects such as food aid, health care, and support for efforts to build a functioning state.
The decision to delay the payments runs counter to the wishes of the Obama administration and reflects Congressional anger at Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's so far unrealised pursuit of Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and statehood recognition at the UN.
The freezing of the funds, which were to have been dispersed in the US fiscal year that ends today, is the most tangible sign yet of the seriousness of Congressional leaders' threats of an even wider halt to funding in the coming year if Mr Abbas continues with his actions at the UN. It was strongly condemned yesterday by the Palestinian Authority.
There have been persistent demands in Congress to withhold up to $600m – the average amount given by the US in bilateral assistance to the West Bank and Gaza every year since 2008 – in the next financial year over the issue.
The administration remains, as does Congress, opposed to the Palestinians' application for full UN membership, which Mr Abbas submitted last week. But it argues that assistance to the Palestinian people is what a US official described as "an essential part of the US commitment to a secure future and two-state solution for Palestinians".
Former President Bill Clinton, among others, this month warned legislators to leave the issue of aid to the administration, adding: "Everybody knows the US Congress is the most pro-Israel parliamentary body in the world. They don't have to demonstrate that."
This article was published in the Independent on 01/09/2011

How Close Is Iran To The Bomb?

By Fredrik Dahl
Either Iran could build a nuclear bomb in a matter of months or it is unlikely to get such a weapon any time soon - depending on which Western expert you talk to. The differing estimates show the difficulty in trying to assess how long it could take Iran to convert its growing uranium stockpile into weapons-grade material and how advanced it may be in other areas vital for any bomb bid. The answers to those questions could determine the major powers' room for manoeuvre in trying to find a diplomatic solution to a dispute over Iran's nuclear ambitions which has the potential to spark a wider conflict in the Middle East.
Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Western-based analysts generally agree with their governments that Tehran is developing technology that could be used to make a bomb, but they disagree about just how close it is to success. US defence analyst Greg Jones gave one of the more urgent warnings this month, arguing that if Iran decides to make a bomb it could produce enough highly-enriched uranium (HEU) in about eight weeks.
The timeframe will shrink to only about four weeks by the end of next year as Iran's enriched uranium stockpiles and enrichment capacity continue to increase," Jones, of the conservative Non-proliferation Policy Education Center, said. Iran "needs to be treated as a de facto nuclear power simply by virtue of being so close to having a weapon", he added in an article in US political magazine New Republic.
Other experts say such estimates are unrealistic, given the hurdles Iran must still overcome. "I think that we tend to overstate sometimes how close Iran is to being able to develop a nuclear weapon," said senior researcher Shannon Kile at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think-tank based in the Swedish capital. "I just don't see how you can credibly say they are going to be eight weeks away or even 18 months away.
Jones is not the only expert to suggest that Iran may be very close to producing the refined uranium material necessary for a weapon, should it decide to do so. A paper published by the US Bipartisan Policy Center think-tank said Iran could make 20 kg of HEU - a quantity it said would be enough for one device - in two months. It said it remained unclear if Iran had mastered the technology to turn the HEU into a weapon, but that history suggested this could be achieved in less than six months.
But another Washington-based think-tank, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), said Jones's calculation method was "unreliable" and a breakout in such a short time at Iran's Natanz enrichment site was not realistic. Other experts stressed that Iran would also need to turn any weapons-usable uranium into the core of a nuclear missile if it wanted more than a crude device, adding to the timetable. Mark Fitzpatrick, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), said he now believed Iran could make a nuclear weapon in less than two years' time.
Suggestions that Iran will be able to produce weapons in a matter of months are irresponsible," Fitzpatrick, a director of the IISS Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme, said. But, "just as exaggeration is irresponsible, so too is complacency," he added. Iran's refusal to halt its enrichment activities has drawn four rounds of U.N. sanctions since 2006. Refined uranium can be used to fuel nuclear power plants or provide material for bombs if processed much further.
The West fears that Iran's move last year to enrich uranium to a fissile purity of almost 20 percent - up from the 3.5 percent normally needed for reactors - takes it significantly closer to the 90 percent level needed for arms. Iran says it needs this higher-grade material for a reactor producing radioactive isotopes to treat cancer patients. ISIS said that in the fastest scenario, Iran could have enough of the 20 percent material for a nuclear weapon in 2012 if it refined more. But even if Iran were to produce bomb-grade uranium, it would also have to transform it from gaseous into metal form, miniaturise it to squeeze into the nose cone of a missile and fit it with a trigger system.
Sanctions and possible sabotage - such as the Stuxnet computer virus and killings of nuclear scientists that Tehran blames on Israel - may have slowed Iran's atomic work, but its stockpile of uranium is steadily growing. Iran "is moving ahead in all of the ways that you would need to if you wanted a nuclear weapon," Fitzpatrick said. Raising the pressure, UN nuclear watchdog chief Yukiya Amano this month said he was "increasingly concerned" about possible work in Iran to develop a nuclear missile. He hoped to give more details soon about the basis for those concerns.
Israel and the United States, Tehran's arch foes, have not ruled out military action if diplomacy fails to resolve the row. Israel bombed an Iraqi reactor in 1981 and launched a similar sortie against Syria in 2007. "Israel has no doubt that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons," the head of the Jewish state's atomic energy commission, Shaul Chorev, told member states of the U.N. nuclear agency last week. Israel's chief of military intelligence, Aviv Kochavi, said in January that Iran could produce bombs with in two years. Iran and Arab states say Israel itself has an atomic arsenal that threatens regional peace and stability. Israel neither confirms nor denies that it possesses nuclear arms.
Diplomatic efforts to seek a negotiated outcome with Iran have been deadlocked since a fruitless meeting in January. Tehran now says it is prepared to resume the talks. Western countries are sceptical, but the six powers involved - the United States, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany - may once again test its readiness to engage on issues of substance.
They have offered economic and political incentives for Iran to drop enrichment, so far in vain. Iran's says it is its "inalienable right" to develop the nuclear fuel cycle. Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the US-based Arms Control Association, stressed the importance of using the time available to influence decision-making in Tehran: "A nuclear-armed Iran is neither imminent nor inevitable." - Reuters
This analysis was published in The Kuwait Times on 29/09/2011

Where The Palestinians Will Go From Here ?

Five things that Palestine could do to push forward the quest for statehood.
By Hussein Ibish
In a perfunctory meeting on Wednesday morning, Sept. 28, as expected, and per its usual procedure for dealing with would-be new United Nations members since the late 1960s, the Security Council referred the Palestinian application to one of its standing committees. The committee -- which meets and votes in secret and requires unanimity to refer the matter back to the Security Council -- is scheduled to begin considering the application on Friday morning. The membership process usually takes weeks, but can take only days (as with the most recent U.N. member, South Sudan) or years (as in the case of Kuwait). Neither the committee nor the Security Council is under any specific obligation to act on the request in a limited time frame, so the process theoretically could drag on indefinitely.
Because the required nine-vote Security Council majority is by no means yet ensured, and because the United States is publicly committed to vetoing a Security Council vote if one ever takes place anyway, full U.N. membership is effectively barred for the Palestinians under the present circumstances. Therefore, the application will have to serve as leverage to achieve something else if it is to produce anything meaningful. So what options does this leave the Palestinians? Let's take a look at five, moving from the least to the most confrontational:
1) Declare moral and political victory and move on.
The Palestinians have made their moral and legal case for statehood in President Mahmoud Abbas's speech and their formal application. And if the established international peace process should decisively fail, they do have other options, no matter how risky. The Security Council referral to the committee buys everyone time to look for compromises, particularly given that the Palestinian membership bid cannot succeed. If they choose not to press the issue in the Security Council, the Palestinians could seek advantages in other venues, as follows.
2) Work with the Quartet on more advantageous language for renewed negotiations. It is highly significant that the Middle East Quartet -- the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the U.N. Secretariat -- issued a statement in conjunction with Abbas's address and the Palestinian application. The statement showed that the Quartet has not resolved the differences that emerged in its ranks this year, particularly over whether Palestinians should be required to recognize Israel as a "Jewish state." But it reasserted the importance and viability of the established processes.
Working with the Palestinians and the Israelis separately, the Quartet could issue a statement laying out the framework for new negotiations, timetables, and even clearer terms of reference that might provide the Palestinians with a significant diplomatic achievement -- even if the renewal of direct talks with a reasonable prospect of success has to wait until political circumstances in the United States, in Israel, and among the Palestinians become more favorable.
3) Pursue a General Assembly resolution in cooperation with the EU.
The Palestinians are well positioned to win almost any of a number of possible resolutions they could bring before the General Assembly, but they can do this in either a cooperative or a confrontational manner with Western states. They could work with the European Union, which is badly and uncomfortably divided on the issue, to craft language that Europeans could unite behind and that would protect them from the most serious American and Israeli retaliation, as well as provide them significant diplomatic advances. Many important EU member states, particularly France and Spain, are supportive of Palestinian nonmember U.N. observer status, but others are concerned that this would provide Palestinians' with access to the International Criminal Court and other law enforcement mechanisms to pursue charges against Israel. Some Europeans have been working on a new legal status for Palestine that would be an upgrade from the PLO observer mission but would protect Israel from potentially facing such charges.
4) Pursue a General Assembly resolution independently.
Palestinians could independently pursue nonmember observer-state status, and they would no doubt have a majority to secure that. But this could precipitate a crisis not only with the United States -- which has threatened to cut funding to the Palestinian Authority (PA) -- but probably with some important European countries as well, the two main reliable external donors to the PA's annual budget. A crisis in relations with the Americans would also greatly complicate the resumption of negotiations, which Abbas and other Palestinian leaders acknowledge will be essential for the actual realization of an independent Palestine.
The least aggressive independent action the Palestinians could pursue in the General Assembly would be a resolution acknowledging their right to statehood, but not securing nonmember state status. The most aggressive would be a resolution under the "Uniting for Peace" formula laid down in General Assembly Resolution 377A (1950), which was designed to overcome differences among Security Council permanent members on urgent matters. This would have to be tabled following a U.S. veto in the Security Council and would authorize member states to take coercive measures "to maintain or restore international peace and security." This might be interpreted as authorizing sanctions and other coercive measures against Israel. However, numerous countries have had sanctions and boycotts against Israel and, indeed, the Palestinians for decades without the authorization of Resolution 377. More importantly, a 377 resolution would not address or enhance the question of Palestinian statehood or U.N. membership, and in that sense is completely off topic.
5) Try to force a vote in the Security Council.
The Palestinians are trying to secure commitments for a nine-vote majority and could try to force a vote on their application in the Security Council, even though they know this will ultimately be vetoed by the United States. Palestinians believe they have recently won over Gabon and Nigeria, meaning that, in addition to Brazil, China, India, Lebanon, Russia, and South Africa, they have eight commitments to vote yes. The rest of the members are likely to vote no or abstain. The Palestinians are focusing their efforts on Colombia and Bosnia, both of which will be difficult to convince. Alone among South American countries, Columbia does not recognize Palestine, and it has an important security relationship with Israel. Bosnia, which is a confederation of three ethnic communities, is divided on the matter, with Muslim Bosniaks and Croats supporting Palestinian membership but Serbs opposing it because of a potential similar application by Kosovo.
If Palestinians cannot secure a nine-vote majority, then there is virtually no rationale for pressing their case in the Security Council. But if they can, some Palestinians and their allies argue that they could achieve a "moral victory" by forcing the United States to use its veto to block Palestinian membership. Such a moral victory, however, could come at a tremendous cost -- loss of U.S. and other Western aid, a souring of relations with the United States, and unspecified harsh retaliation threatened by numerous Israeli leaders, including potentially withholding Palestinian tax revenues that make up the bulk of the PA's annual budget.
For the moment, the Security Council has bought everyone time by referring the matter to the committee and has averted but not foreclosed a universally damaging confrontation. The various compromise tracks are very much in the Palestinians' interests, and there are promising signs they understand this. In defiance of all expectations, while the Israeli cabinet was unable to agree on any unified response to the Quartet's statement, by contrast, following a meeting of its executive committee, PLO Secretary-General Yasser Abed Rabbo welcomed the statement, though he also reiterated the Palestinian demand for a settlement freeze.
If they play their cards right, Palestinian leaders will have made the moral case for their statehood, demonstrated that they do have options outside the established peace process, and secured new diplomatic leverage and political capital at home. But if they mishandle diplomacy in the coming weeks and months, they could face a very dangerous crisis in relations with the West, and especially with the United States, which they can ill afford.
-This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 30/09/2011
Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine

Turkey Seeks Price Cut On Russian Gas

By Vladimir Socor

Turkish Energy Minister, Taner Yildiz
Turkey has joined the growing ranks of claimants to revision of their contracts with Gazprom. On September 29, Turkish Energy Minister, Taner Yildiz, warned that Turkey would end a 25-year-old supply agreement with Gazprom, unless the latter reduces the price of gas. Taner issued this warning through the media, moving ahead of the state company Botas, Gazprom’s Turkish partner. In Moscow, Gazprom retorted that it was only dealing with Botas in Turkey, not with the Energy Ministry (Anatolia news agency, Interfax, September 29).
According to Yildiz, the price of Russian gas has risen by 39 percent in the last 29 months, apparently driven by the link to the world price for oil in the Gazprom-Botas contracts. For Turkey, a price cut it is not a matter of “saving,” but of containing losses. Turkish Prime Minister, Regep Tayyp Erdogan, raised this issue with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during Erdogan’s latest Moscow visit in March of this year. The Russian side did not budge, however.
Immediately at stake after Yildiz’s warning is the delivery of 6 bcm of Russian gas per year to Turkey through the “Western pipeline,” which enters Turkey from its Balkan neighbors. This contract between Gazprom and Botas, dating back to 1986, runs out in December 2011. Moscow wants to renew the contract, with minimal re-negotiation. The Turkish government will allow the contract to expire and seek other solutions, unless the Russian side makes a better offer. Ankara is prepared to remove the state-owned Botas from these negotiations, and invite several Turkish private companies to take over any new contract for Russian supplies through the Western pipeline.
Ankara apparently feels that it holds some negotiating leeway, despite Russia’s overwhelming dominance in the Turkish market. This leeway might prove effective in the short term. Turkey is potentially oversupplied with gas under multiple contracts that, in the aggregate, exceed Turkey’s current demand. This explains Yildiz’s confidence that Turkey would not experience a gas deficit, in the event of a [temporary] halt in Russian supplies through the Western pipeline. The Turkish economy and consumers would not be affected in that event (EurActiv, Anatolia news agency, September 29).
 Turkey is currently committed to importing 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Russian gas per year, under several long-term contracts. Most of that amount is covered by take-or-pay guarantees to Gazprom (importer’s obligation to pay for the full contracted volume, even if the importer does not take the full volume on offer) and by the gas price-oil price indexation. According to Gazprom, it only sold 18 bcm of gas to Turkey in 2010. Turkey intends in 2011 to take delivery of at least 75 percent [23 bcm] from the contracted volume, so as to avoid take-or-pay penalties (EurActiv, September 29).
On top of Russian supplies, Turkey currently imports 6.6 bcm per year from Azerbaijan, and can choose to import some 10 bcm annually from Iran through the existing pipeline. Additionally, Turkey imports 4 bcm from Algeria and 1.2 bcm from Nigeria via LNG shipments (Mert Bilgin, “Energy and Turkey’s Foreign Policy: State Strategy, Regional Cooperation, and Private Sector Involvement,” Turkish Policy Quarterly, September 2011).
Thus, Ankara might negotiate effectively with Russia in the short term; and provided that it isolates negotiations over that 6 bcm contract from the other contracts with Gazprom. For example, Moscow and Ankara are considering an increase in supplies through the Blue Stream pipeline, on the seabed of the Black Sea. Blue Stream currently operates at 8 bcm annually, which is one half of its design capacity.
Turkey’s overall supply picture may allow some tactical flexibility vis-à-vis Russia, but little if any strategic leeway. Turkey is Russia’s second-largest gas customer in terms of volume (after Germany), and the biggest customer in proportionate terms at 64 percent of the national gas consumption. Thus, overdependence on Russia remains a long-term challenge to Turkey.
Gazprom seems willing to negotiate for some adjustment to the contract terms, ahead of the December expiry. Russian Gas Society president Valery Yazev (who is also a vice-chairman of the Duma, and dubbed “Gazprom’s chief lobbyist”) predicts that “we will bargain, and the contract will be signed.” In the same breath, however, Yazev portrays Turkey as an unreliable partner for seeking to change contract terms, and he warns the European Union against relying on Turkey as a transit country for energy supplies (Interfax, September 29). The two situations are hardly comparable, however. Yazev’s reaction resembles Russian attempts to discredit Ukraine as a transit country.
This report was published in Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume: 8, Issue: 180, 30/09/2011

A Look At Abd Al-Hakim Belhadj’s Transformation From Jihadi to Libyan Revolutionary

By Murad Batal al-Shishani
                                        Abd al-Hakim Belhadj
“Demonstrating the continuation of the battle against the apostate regime of [Mu’ammar] al-Qaddafi through deliberate and planned action, and with the emphasis on the principle of strategic action, [we carried out an operation] against the tyrant Qaddafi in the city of Barak…last month, which had almost achieved the dream that long-awaited by our oppressed and the wretched poor people for more than twenty-seven years. The people will always wait for the day to punish the tyrant Qaddafi for the crimes he committed.” [1]
The above statement was made by a Libyan Islamist fighter called Abd al-Hakim Belhadj in early 1997. Belhadj was claiming responsibility for an assassination attempt on Qaddafi by his now defunct organization, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Belhadj is now the leader of the newly established Tripoli Military Council, which was instrumental in the final toppling of the Qaddafi regime.
At the time of this writing, Belhadj is pursuing the now former Libyan dictator and remaining loyalist regime members after anti-Qaddafi forces gained control of much of the Libyan capital in late August. Belhadj recently rose to prominence in the Libyan conflict after it was reported that he led the assault on the heavily fortified Bab al-Aziziya compound, which acted as a command and control headquarters for the now deposed regime.
Abd al-Hakim Belhadj should not be confused with another Islamist Libyan veteran of Afghanistan with a similar name hailing from Derna called Abdel Hakim al-Hasadi whom the New York Times incorrectly reported as being one and the same in a report that was later retracted (New York Times, August 31; for a profile of Abdel Hakim al-Hasadi, see Militant Leadership Monitor, April 2011).
A.K.A. Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq
Since his appearance as military leader of Libyan opposition forces, he has been at the center of news coverage. Belhadj, who is better known among Islamists by his nom de guerre ‘Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq’ is the leader and one of the core founders of LIFG, which was founded in the early 1990s by a group of Libyan ‘Afghan-Arabs.’
Belhadj, 45, was raised in Tripoli’s Souk al-Juma’a area. He graduated from Tripoli University with a degree in civil engineering. He is also believed to have two wives; one Moroccan and the second Sudanese. Belhadj traveled to Afghanistan via Saudi Arabia in 1988 to participate in the end of the anti-Soviet jihad against the Red Army and its Marxist Afghan proxies (Asharq al-Awsat, August 25).
The LIFG, relying on returnees from Afghanistan, began to engage in open confrontation with the Qaddafi regime in 1995. By the end of the decade, the Libyan authorities largely crushed the movement. Belhadj then returned to Afghanistan after being on the run in an array of Islamic countries. At this point the LIFG was proscribed internationally as a terrorist organization in the context of the post-9/11 period. He alleges he was a victim of torture and rendition by the CIA after he was detained at Bangkok’s Don Muang International Airport when he was en route from Malaysia to London to seek asylum. He claims he was held in a CIA ‘black site’ at the Bangkok terminal where he was kept in brutal conditions, abetted by Thai authorities. He had migrated from Afghanistan to Malaysia in 2004, perhaps encouraged by Malaysia’s lax immigration policy for nationals from Muslim majority countries.
Belhadj was extradited to Libya in the same year and ended up in the notorious Abu Salim prison (Asia Times Online, September 21). He was released before the start of the war in Libya, supposedly as a gesture of goodwill toward the Islamists that Seif al-Islam al-Qaddafi was trying to reconcile with on behalf of his father’s regime. Following his release, Belhadj announced his renunciation of violence. Belhadj says that he wants an official apology from the British government for the role its intelligence services played in his rendition when his travel itinerary was passed from British to American intelligence (Reuters, September 19).
Belhadj and his Islamist brothers-in-arms have consistently downplayed suggestions that the Libyan revolution could be overtaken by jihadis. The LIFG was once one of the largest Arab jihadi groups, but from the early beginning the LIFG rejected al-Qaeda's concept of a borderless, global jihad and focused narrowly on establishing an Islamic state in Libya. Paris, as the National Transitional Council’s most ardent Western backer, does not appear to be phased by Belhadj’s background. General Benoit Puga, Special Chief of Staff to President Nicholas Sarkozy, reportedly met Belhadj and was not troubled by his LIFG past (Ennahar, August 31).
Into Revolution
Prior to the outbreak of hostilities in Libya, former LIFG members formed the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change (LIMC) in 2010, which has operations in London. They renounced violence and launched a peaceful political opposition campaign against the Qaddafi regime. LIMC literature – published on their website – suggests that there are vast differences with al-Qaeda’s literature. [2]
Anis al-Sharif, a key member of the political committee of the LIMC and currently spokesperson of the Libyan Military Council, told Jamestown that the Islamists in the 2011 revolution chose not to confront the Qaddafi regime under a separate jihadi banner. [3] Al-Sharif stated that the Islamist commanders and fighters were part of a unified revolution that aimed to create a civil society that respects Libyan identity based on a separation of powers and an independent judiciary system.
According to al-Sharif, these fighters resorted to armed struggle as the only legitimate option left to them to confront Qaddafi’s vast atrocities against the Libyan people. “That comes in line with Libyan jihadi “Muraja’at” [4], who emphasizes that although they were written in different circumstances, LIMC members believe in them genuinely.
The recent developments of the Libyan jihadi movement and its leader Belhadj seem to indicate a sort of metamorphosis from militant group with strictly jihadi aims into a political group, which might inspire other national jihadi groups across the Arab world. At this time, al-Qaeda’s weakened core and its franchises are attempting to localize jihad by attracting local militants in various regions. This could serve as a counter-argument to al-Qaeda’s rhetoric. The Libyan jihadis fighting under the leadership of the NTC are not willing to take on this inspirational role as they are more interested in state-building of their homeland, according to al-Sharif.
It is likely that Abd al-Hakim Belhadj will play a political role in the future of Libya. In regard to a possible role for Belhadj in Tripoli, al-Anis told Jamestown: “all options are open and we do not know yet how things will go as we are still in a transition level.” It is possible that Belhadj could now serve as an example of jihadi transformation – more than the “Muraja’at” (revisions) under the coercion of Seif al-Islam al-Qaddafi were able to do. Concurrently, Belhadj must brace for being the target of al-Qaeda’s criticism in light of his denunciation of any link to al-Qaeda in recent interviews. In a recent interview, Belhadj stated what he purports as the conflation of al-Qaeda, the LIFG and himself: “Regarding what people say about ties with al-Qaeda: We have never been in a relationship with them or joined them in any kind of activity, because we could never come to an understanding of [philosophies]” (al-Jazeera, September 20).
-This article was published in Personalities Behind The Insurgency, Volume: 2, Issue: 9, 29/09/2011
Murad Batal al-Shishani is an Islamic groups and terrorism issues analyst based in London. He is a specialist on Islamic Movements in Chechnya and in the Middle East. He is a regular contributor to several publications in both Arabic and English. He is also author of the book “The Islamic Movement in Chechnya and the Chechen-Russian Conflict 1990-2000”, Amman, 2001 (in Arabic), and “Iraqi Resistance: National Liberation vs. Terrorism: A Quantitative Study,” November 2005 Iraqi Studies Series, Issue 5, Gulf Research Center-Dubai.
1. For the 1997 statement made by Abdel Hakim Belhaj, see “Statement Number 8 of [Libyan] Islamic Fighting Group” (Arabic):
2. To view the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change website, see (Arabic):
3. Author telephone interview with Anis al-Sharif, September 18, 2011
4. In September 2009, the LIFG published a 417-page document entitled “Corrective Studies in Jihad, Hisbah and judging people,” which was published after more than two years of intense talks between incarcerated LIFG leaders and Libyan officials, including Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi

Carpe Annum, Israel. Seize the Year!

By Shamez Babvani and Samreen Hooda
A view of the settlement Bat Ayin in Gush Etzion                            
 A view of the settlment Bat Ayin in Gush Etzion 
On Tuesday September 27, the Israeli government announced it would be building 1,100 new settlelement units in occupied East Jerusalem. The fact that the announcement came as the world powers are scrambling to save the peace process in the UN suggests that Israel may not be serious about its desire to abide by the promise of a Two-State Solution. Meanwhile, there has been growing protests across Israel as the country’s citizens are increasingly voicing their frustration with a government that no longer listens to their needs. As tensions continue to mount both domestically and abroad, Israel faces rebuke from most of the world powers, with the sole exception of its blindfolded ally, the United States.
After the fiery attack made by Israeli forces on the Turkish aid flotilla heading to Gaza last year, the country lost hope of forging stronger alliances within the Middle East and the wider Arab world. When asked to apologize for a preemptive strike on a Freedom Flotilla carrying only activists, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, responded by saying Israel should not be apologetic for protecting itself. Of course, every sovereign nation has a right to protect itself from bandits, terrorists, and attacks, though it’s hard to recall the last time activists were secretly employed to attack a nation. Israel’s strike killed 9 Turkish activists and injured over 50 others over international waters in a ship that clearly had the Turkish flag waving above it. We may never know what the Israeli government was thinking when it refused to simply step up and apologize for an attack it admittedly took credit for. Besides the clear humanitarianism of an apology for killing innocent people, some of them shot multiple times and at close range, Israel also made a huge political blunder. Turkey has now expelled the Israeli ambassador and cut all military cooperation, meaning Israel has lost its most important ally in the Middle East.
With the reign of Mubarak over in Egypt and with last week’s news of Egyptian locals storming the security wall in front of the Israeli embassy, you would think that Israel would be anxious about its future relationships in a predominately Arab world. Especially now when even local Egyptians who were previously supportive of or at least neutral toward Israel are protesting against any support the new Egyptian government may lend to its erstwhile ally. Yet Israel seems to sidestep all the rules of international diplomacy and play by those of its own game. This is not the wisest of decisions especially as the United Nations General Assembly is considering a vote on the issue of recognizing a Palestinian state. With Israel alienating the only allies it has, the vote may very well circumvent the default American veto by sidestepping the Security Council and going straight to the general assembly, where the Security Council vetoes don’t stand up, and Israel has earned little political capital.
Israel has a very short window in which to make a major decision. With the fervor of the Arab Spring changing the regional landscape, the key world players are beginning to avert their gaze from Israel’s monopoly over the contested region. At the same time, the renewal of Islamic leadership in the Arab World and the resurgence of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, will show little, if any, interest in Israel’s security. In this strenuous time, Israel’s decisions will prove critical to the future environment of the Middle East, and to its own future security. Will Israel support the international community and do what everyone knows needs to be done, or will it continue down the path of pundit politics and play the injured victim card yet again? Only time will tell. We can merely hope that this time Israel won’t repeat the mistakes of it’s past.
Whether Israel, and Netanyahu, realize it or not, abiding by the commitment to continue peace talks with Palestine is more in Israel’s favor than ever before in history. If the Israeli government is able to quickly commit to a treaty of peace with Palestine before the freshly placed Arab leaders have a chance to commence on the issue of Israel and Palestine, it might just save itself from the onslaught of Arab resentment and save the region- perhaps even the world- from yet another war of worldwide proportions. As an Auschwitz survivor famously once said, “If we forget our past, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes.” The power to save itself from self-destruction is now in the hands of Israel’s government. Will it repeat the mistakes of its past by turning back on its word to extend peace talks or will it take the path less trodden and set the stage for a newer, freer world order? Time is running out. Carpe Annum, Israel. Seize the year!
-This article was published first on Aslan Media blog on 30/09/2011-Shamez Babvani and Samreen Hooda are Aslan Media Contributors

Two Weeks At The United Nations: A New Regional Order Taking Shape

By Raghida Dergham in New York
                                 UN General Assembly
Over the past two weeks, the UN General Assembly witnessed a historic event that soon became the focus of diplomats and the media equally. The event was none other than the address by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the international community, demanding full membership for Palestine at the United Nations, in what has proven to be a stand for pride and one that has changed the balance of power at numerous levels, both regionally and internationally. Yet the Palestinian episode did not alone engross the heads of state and ministers. The bilateral meetings also reflected tremendous interest in what is taking place, in terms of the birth of a new regional order in the Middle East as a result of the Arab Awakening and the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, in addition to the events in Bahrain.
Turkey and Iran are also both essential when it comes to determining the fate of the new regional order, but this does not mean that Arab countries, and in particular the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), are absent in this vein either. Lebanon, too, is important for the genesis of this new order, inasmuch as it is affected by the Syrian regime surviving or collapsing. This is not to mention the impact such a collapse would have on Damascus’s main ally, i.e. the Islamic Republic of Iran, which will in turn decide the fate of Lebanon through its intimate ties with Hezbollah.
While Palestine is the shining star at the United Nations these days, the issue of Syria is returning strongly to the Security Council this week, and will reveal the nature of the developments taking place in terms of the relations among major powers and key regional powers in the Middle East. Such new developments carry important implications, especially as Syria is the crucial part, or the linchpin, of the new regional order in the Middle East.
But first, a few important moments from the day Mahmoud Abbas addressed the General Assembly, on September 23: That day, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in a semi-secret location, disclosed only in the 11th hour, anticipating the press to rally to his annual press conference. But Ahmadinejad was compelled to postpone his event, as the international press was not preoccupied with him this time, but rather with the Palestinian President. Ahmadinejad had been the star of past General Assembly sessions, and had enjoyed the limelight, but his stardom has been seriously undermined at the 66th session, and this shows two things: One, that Iran influence and role at the regional and international levels are on the decline, and two, that international focus on Iran’s nuclear program is waning.
On that day, an unfortunate incident also took place in the General Assembly Hall, while Mahmoud Abbas was giving his historic speech, and almost ended up with shots being fired there, something that has never happened before. What happened was that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was rushing from a bilateral meeting on the fourth floor of the General Assembly building to the General Assembly Hall, accompanied as usual by a massive number of private guards, in order to listen to the Palestinian President who had just begun his speech. It happened that the UN guards blocked the way for Erdoğan and his guards, advising them to head to the second floor, since there isn’t an entrance leading from the fourth to the first floor, where the heads of delegations were seated. However, Erdoğan’s guards thought that their UN counterparts were trying to prevent the Prime Minister of Turkey from entering the hall, and the situation escalated to a standoff. An altercation ensued, prompting some speculation that anti-Palestinian elements were trying to disrupt the Palestinian President’s speech from the fourth floor, a floor reserved for guests, not official delegations. Turkish arrogance thus resulted in three UN guards, including a woman, being hospitalized. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who wished to avoid a diplomatic crisis, rushed to apologize before finding out the truth about what happened, prompting reservations and criticism, especially as he had acted before investigating the incident.
The Turkish delegation also attracted attention during this session when Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu asked the Secretary-General for the Turkish language to be adopted as one of the UN’s official languages. This is while bearing in mind that Arabic is an official language at the UN alongside English, French, Russian and Chinese. In short, what took place in the General Assembly Hall while the Palestinian President was giving his historic speech came close to ruining Palestine’s day, if a shot had been fired.
Before delving into an analysis of the roles played by Turkey and the stardom of its Prime Minister at the 66th session, let us return to what took place on September 23 outside the UN, when surprisingly, the Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh left the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where he was undergoing treatment, and returned unexpectedly to Yemen.
The prevailing belief among various official parties, in the region and beyond, was that Saleh had been under near house arrest in Saudi Arabia, with a view to avert the bloodshed his return to Yemen could result in, and also as a way of forcing him to implement the Gulf initiative. The latter requires him to step down and his Deputy Abd Al-Rab Mansur Al-Hadi to take charge of running the transitional period and overseeing the elections.
The account given by one major leader of the regime, who is from the diplomatic corps, is that Ali Abdullah Saleh has returned to Yemen in order to prevent his two sons from harassing his Deputy. His son Ahmed, who heads the Republican Guard, succeeded in excluding Al-Hadi from the Presidential Palace, forcing him to work from his home, so as to make it clear to all those concerned who is truly in charge in the country. The story is that Ali Abdullah Saleh has returned to stop his sons from harassing the Vice President, before returning to the KSA to continue his treatment.
There are numerous holes in this story, yet that is not what is most important. What is most important is the Saudi role in Saleh’s return to Yemen. It is said that the values of hospitality made Saleh’s departure a decision he was free to make, but the fact of the matter is that there are political factors that contributed to the decision of allowing him to return. Some of the most prominent of these include: First, increased fears from Al-Qaeda in Yemen and the belief that Saleh’s return would keep Al-Qaeda in check at the military level; second, fear of the Vice President’s weakness and inability to control the situation at this delicate stage, which could lead to frightening chaos; third, the fragmented state of the opposition and fears of the repercussions of such fragmentation. All of this does not negate the possibility that the story might be true, which would mean for the Yemeni President the major achievement of reining in his sons, then returning to the KSA for treatment, and later implementing the Gulf initiative. Yet today, it seems most plausible that Saleh is still stalling and that his stay in Yemen is aimed at reducing the pressures being put on him. This begs the following question: did the US Administration sanction in advance the Saudi decision to allow Saleh to leave, for the same reasons, or was Washington truly shocked by this development?
On the issue of Libya, the difficult hour has come, after the celebrations of the victory of the opposition and the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) over the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. The time for the big test has come. The Libyan experiment will not be completed successfully as long as mechanisms of monitoring and accountability have not been put in place, mechanisms that would ensure that corruption will not return, especially in oil and construction contracts. There is also the element of foreign– including Arab – interference in shaping the nature of government in the new Libya. Some want it to be Islamic and others want it to be secular. Yet there are complaints of the “heavy-handedness” of some Gulf countries, which have helped and contributed to getting rid of the Gaddafi regime in a greater, more profound and more prominent way. Qatar denies having interfered to such an extent, yet it must be aware that there are complaints of its “heavy-handedness” in managing Libya.
Regarding the Palestinian issue, a major Gulf country is working on helping Palestine avoid being embarrassed, if it truly emerges that it will not obtain the nine votes necessary for the Security Council to adopt the resolution granting it full membership in the United Nations, as requested by the Palestinian President. At the outset of the Palestinian bid, it was clear that the United States would use its veto to preclude the Security Council adopting such a resolution. Yet today, there is an increasing belief that the Palestinian application will not even obtain the nine votes needed, sparing the United States the need to cast its veto. And this, in the opinion of several countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), will represent an insult and a setback for Palestine.
Efforts are therefore underway to convince the Palestinian President of accepting to postpone a draft resolution requesting Palestine’s membership at the level of the Security Council, until the General Assembly votes on a resolution with a secured outcome, granting Palestine “non-member observer status” at the United Nations.
It should be pointed out here that Mahmoud Abbas is not limiting the scope of his entire strategy to obtaining membership or “observer” status for Palestine at the UN. He in fact has a much broader political horizon, and he has placed the US Administration, European governments, Russia and the UN before difficult challenges.
As for the Syrian issue, it has engrossed a large part of the movement of Gulf countries in bilateral and multilateral meetings, on the sidelines of the General Assembly at the United Nations, including the meeting that brought together Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Foreign Minister of the UAE Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
The latter is an expert diplomat who is difficult to deal with and who is forceful in his opinions and stances. Among his most prominent complaints about how the Syrian issue is being dealt with, is that European governments had not taken his opinion into account and did not inform him of the bilateral sanctions imposed by the European Union against Syria. He also wants the Security Council to place equal responsibility on the government and on the opposition for the violence.
Turkey for its part is stepping up its rhetoric as well as its actions on the ground, and there is increasing talk of taking tangible steps to support the opposition across the Turkish-Syrian border with weapons and equipment. The Turkish leadership, though Erdoğan himself, has warned Iran of the consequences of its support for the Syrian authorities and their crackdown on the protesters.
The new regional order is taking shape at several levels and in different milestones. It could take six months or a year, but there is no going back to what the old regional order was in the Middle East.
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 30/09/2011

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Sunni-Shiite Divide Shapeshow Arabs Are Addressing Iraq

By Christopher R. Hill
Yemen’s renewed violence is just the latest sign that the Arab Spring may be joining the list of those historical contagions that, in the fullness of time, did not turn out well. Indeed, its effect may be reaching countries in ways that we did not expect.
Israel, in particular, can be forgiven for curbing its enthusiasm over the effect of the Arab Spring on its own security. On Aug. 19, Israel absorbed an attack in the Negev Desert, through an increasingly dangerous border with Egypt, which left eight civilians dead. Just a few weeks later, a mob attacked Israel’s embassy in Cairo, forcing the evacuation of Israeli diplomats and creating a major row with Egypt’s fragile interim government.
In Syria, nobody is prepared to predict the outcome of what is turning into a bloody battle with sectarian overtones. And in Libya, while getting rid of Moammar Gadhafi is a good first step, democracy and the rule of law are, to be optimistic, years away.
Meanwhile in Shiite-led Iraq, the black sheep of the Arab world, attention has focused on the question of a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States to replace the one that expires on Dec. 31. Negotiations are proceeding on a post-2011 agreement to ensure some kind of U.S. military presence that contributes to Iraq’s continued (relative) political and social stability and economic growth. After all, Iraq now has something to protect: 11 oil contracts, with more to come, hold out the possibility that within a decade, oil production could be on par with that of Saudi Arabia.
This year has seen an increase in violence – Sunni attacks on the government and on Shiite civilians, and, more rarely, but also deadly, Shiite extremist attacks on U.S. soldiers. Indeed, while the latter is rare compared to the former, such attacks have made this year one of the costliest years for U.S. troops since the “surge” of 2007-08.
Many Middle East observers see Iranian support behind the attacks by Shiite militant groups. The Iran-Iraq border – like many borders in the region – is long and porous. The weapons confiscated from militant groups are very often Iranian-made, and recently exported. Shiite militants, supplied by Iran and egged on by its propaganda, are likely unconvinced that U.S. forces are indeed leaving.
But what about the more frequent Sunni attacks? Where is their support coming from? Think-tank pundits, obsessed with the permutations of issues surrounding U.S. forces’ deployment in the world’s trouble spots, have concluded that the rising Sunni violence, too, is related to the U.S. troop withdrawal. Sunni groups are supposedly trying to prove that they still matter, that they have been neither defeated nor deterred by U.S. troops.
Americans, not unlike many outside the Middle East, regard the struggle in Iraq as pitting those who supported democracy against those who somehow supported the dictatorship (“dead-enders,” as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once described them at a Pentagon press conference). But, for many people in the region, the Iraq war involved something else: the transfer of power in what had been a Sunni-led country to the Shiite majority. Shiite-ruled Iraq has not been well received in the Sunni Arab world. Indeed, some extreme Sunnis in the Arab world consider Shiite power a mortal threat.
The 1,300-year-old Sunni-Shiite divide was not what the U.S. had in mind when it invaded in 2003. After all, such sectarian identities are not the sort of basis for politics that a 21st-century democracy should embrace. The U.S. had high hopes that identities would be forged on more secular ground. It is hard to say what that ground was supposed to be – the welfare state? Taxation? Regulation? – but somehow, in the U.S. mindset, secular political identities would emerge, and Iraq would be welcomed and perhaps emulated in the Arab world.
Of course, that did not happen, and when Sunni and Shiites alike came to understand de-Baathification as vengeance against the Sunni, the insurgency was on.
Today, the insurgency, violent as it can be from time to time, is not supported by anything close to a majority of Iraqis, if it ever was. Insurgents hold no land or cities, unlike before; and, while many Sunnis chafe at life under a prime minister who leads a Shiite-based political party, they have for the most part accepted the new reality and have focused on getting as much as they can from it. Can this be said of all Sunnis in the rest of the Arab world?
Indeed, in the rest of the Arab world, where Sunni governments or monarchs prevail, the unprecedented “Shiitification” of Iraq has never gone down well. Many countries in the region have refused to open embassies in Baghdad, often citing “security concerns” as the reason.
The Saudis have been particularly unimpressed by progress in Shiite-led Iraq to date, and have taken the lead in sounding the alarm about the danger that Iran poses to the Arab world’s only Shiite-led country. Indeed, one wonders how much more progress Iraq would have made had the Saudis spent more time and money supporting Iraq rather than denouncing it.
During the height of the Sunni insurrection, U.S. forces devoted considerable efforts to closing borders and otherwise seeking to monitor and interdict elicit money flows from extremist groups in Sunni states to Iraq. Perhaps, given the ongoing turmoil in the Arab world, security services that had previously – though sometimes reluctantly – shut down these money flows are now distracted by other, more immediate, problems. It might be worth checking again.
-This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 29/09/2011
-Christopher R. Hill, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia, was U.S. ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia, and Poland, U.S. special envoy for Kosovo, a negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords, and chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea from 2005-2009. He is now dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver