Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Iranian Connection

What's the link between the plot to bomb the Saudi ambassador and the Gilad Shalit release deal? Iran's looking weak -- and that's scary.
By Martin Indyk
While it may not be immediately obvious, there is an important connection between the two big Middle East stories that broke Tuesday, Oct. 11 -- the negotiated prisoner transfer agreement between Hamas and Israel for the release of Gilad Shalit and the arrest of Iranian Quds Force agent Manssor Arbabsiar -- a connection that demonstrates Iran's fading influence since the emergence of the Arab Spring.
Seldom is the Iranian hand in terrorism revealed as clearly as it was Tuesday in the careful details provided by the U.S. Justice Department. The Iranian regime, operating through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), does its best to operate without fingerprints as it deploys terrorism as a tool of its own brand of statecraft. But here in phone transcripts and wire transfers is evidence that "elements of the Iranian government" -- specifically senior officers of the IRGC's Quds Force -- were responsible for ordering and orchestrating a brazen terrorist assassination against the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, in a downtown Washington restaurant.
The Iranian hand in Hamas's terrorist activity has also been revealed in the past, particularly in arms shipments bound for Gaza that were intercepted by the Israeli Navy. But Iran's role in Hamas's holding of Shalit has been less obvious and little remarked. The negotiations for his release have been tortuous and long-winded, mediated by German and Egyptian intelligence officials. At critical moments in the past, Iran intervened via Khaled Meshaal, Hamas's external leader, to scotch the deal. Tehran's motives were fairly obvious: The best way for Iran to spread its influence into the Arab heartland is to stoke the flames of conflict with Israel. Any prisoner swap deal between Hamas and Israel would take fuel off the fire.
But Iran's influence over Hamas's external leadership has been slipping lately. Based in Damascus, Syria, Meshaal and his colleagues have found themselves in an awkward position as the Syrian awakening has raged around them. As kinsmen of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood whose Syrian branch has become a target of President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite thugs, they could not support the regime, even though their Iranian masters demanded they do so. Instead, as the going got tough, Meshaal got going, opening talks with the Egyptian interim military government about relocating from Damascus to Cairo (where, as a result of the revolution, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood had gained new influence). The price: reconciliation with Abu Mazen (Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas) and acquiescence in a prisoner swap deal with Israel.
The Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal was announced in Cairo in May. In mid-July, Egyptian mediators conveyed a new, more reasonable Hamas offer to Israel that triggered negotiations that culminated in Tuesday's prisoner swap announcement. In short, the Hamas-Israel deal may be a victory for Hamas, for Egypt-Israel relations -- and for the Shalit family, of course -- but it's also a blow to Iran. It indicates that the Iranians have lost control of one of their key Arab terrorist proxies to Egypt, their archrival for influence in the Arab world.
Iran's other Arab archrival is Saudi Arabia. Americans tend to view Tuesday's revelation of an Iranian terrorist plot through the prism of a brazen attempt to promote an attack on American soil. But the IRGC clearly designed it as a twofer, assassinating a symbol of the Saudi regime at the same time as it murdered American diners in downtown Saudi Hezbollah killed 19 U.S. soldiers on Saudi soil.
What can we conclude from the byzantine connections between Tuesday's two events? Contrary to the confident predictions that Iran would be the beneficiary of the Arab Spring, its efforts to spread its influence into the Arab heartland are now in trouble. It is losing its Hamas proxy to Egypt. Its Syrian ally is reeling. Turkey has turned against it. When the Iranian regime finds itself in a corner, it typically lashes out. Perhaps that explains why Arbabsiar's Iranian handlers told him to "just do it quickly. It's late...."
-This commentary was published in the Foreign Policy on 12/10/2011
_Martin Indyk is vice president and director of thr Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution

Holding Accountable Those Who Engendered Violence In Egypt

By Michael Jansen
                                                 Egyptian Copts protest in Cairo
The eruption of violence in Egypt on Sunday was predictable. The clashes were part and parcel of the protracted struggle for Egypt, waged by the country’s democratic revolutionaries and the army high command, which has been in power for nearly 60 years and is determined not only to stay on but also to protect its political and commercial interests.
Several thousand Copts and liberal Muslims were assaulted by “thugs” - armed men in civilian clothing many Egyptians suspect belong to the internal security apparatus - Sunday evening during a peaceful march from the Shubra district of Cairo to the state television headquarters on the Nile corniche. The march had been called to protest the torching of a Coptic church in the southern province of Aswan on September 30.
As the Shubra marchers joined hundreds of Copts and Muslim supporters holding a candlelight vigil in front of the television building, armoured vehicles charged them, troops opened fire, and extremist salafists attacked with staves and broken bottles. At least 26 were killed and more than 300 wounded, some critically.
There were disturbances in Alexandria and two other Egyptian cities as well. This was the worst violence seen in Egypt since the uprising ousted president Hosni Mubarak on February 11.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which assumed presidential power after Mubarak’s removal, condemned the violence and called for an investigation, and Prime Minister Essam Sharaf hinted about the involvement of dark external forces and internal meddlers when he spoke of a “despicable conspiracy against Egypt”, instigating Muslims against Christians and the people against the armed forces.
However, many Egyptians argue that the conspiracy is, in fact, being hatched against the revolution by the SCAF, which has managed the transition to democracy according to a schedule that could keep the generals in charge at least until 2013 and perhaps beyond.
Egyptians who hold to the second conspiracy theory point out that Sunday’s clashes were carefully orchestrated. The “thugs” were pre-positioned to attack the Shubra marchers as they walked under a flyover and the official media was put into play. State television laid the blame for the violence squarely on the shoulders of the Copts.
But Copts were not alone in the protest. They were joined by moderate Muslims who agree with the Copts that since the ouster of Mubarak, the military has failed to reimpose order and to tackle rising ultra-orthodox salafist extremism.
Muslim-Christian cooperation seems to be viewed with suspicion by the SCAF, particularly because Egypt’s revolutionaries from both communities have grown highly critical of the military’s handling of the transition.
By making common cause, Copts and Muslims foil efforts undertaken by remnants of the Mubarak regime and, perhaps, some elements in the military, to sow sectarianism and divide the country’s two main communities, a strategy long used by Mubarak himself, one the revolutionaries had hoped had been abolished since his overthrow.
During the clashes, state television announcers also called upon Egyptians (Muslims) to go down to the streets to defend the troops who were not really in need of protection. Bikers from the slum district of Boulaq joined the mayhem, worsening the violence and prompting attacks on Coptic businesses and the Coptic hospital where many of the dead and wounded had been brought.
Some Egyptian commentators hold that the army will use the clashes to keep the 1981 emergency law in place and, perhaps, even to elaborate on its provisions. The military has already made clear that those charged with inciting riot and committing violence on Sunday will face military trials, although SCAF head, Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, had promised these would come to an end. SCAF had also said that the emergency law would be lifted ahead of the parliamentary election campaign which began with the registration of candidates yesterday.
Egyptian human rights activist Gamal Eid pointed out: “The army was very violent in dealing with these demonstrations… and [the soldiers] were being very violent as they know they will not be held accountable and will use such protests to increase repression in Egypt.”
It is significant that Alhurrah television channel was ordered to halt live coverage of the clashes since they showed armoured cars targeting protesters, some of whom were run over and crushed to death while others died of gunshot wounds.
The arson attack on St. George’s church, one of several since the uprising, was followed by a statement from the Aswan governor who said that the church had been built without the appropriate permits. This is a burning issue with Copts, which should have been resolved long ago - and certainly since the uprising.
During British colonial rule, a measure was adopted specifying that churches - but not mosques - had to have permits from the executive as well as planning permission from the local authorities. Since the Egyptian president rarely signed such permits, the Copts were compelled to build churches without permits or to camouflage churches as community centres. St. George’s was a shopfront which had a congregation of some two dozen families.
Copts, however, have not always been the wronged parties in confrontations with Muslims and communal confrontations have often sprung from family quarrels and land disputes which, if between members of the same faith, would not result in sectarian problems.
Egypt’s democratic politicians renewed the demand, made soon after the uprising, for power to be transferred to a civilian council until parliamentary elections and presidential elections are held, and the constitution is rewritten. It can be expected that this call will become a clarion call if no independent investigation is made into Sunday’s clashes and officers who ordered the soldiers at the television headquarters to use force against protesters are not made accountable for their actions.
This should be true also for the “thugs” and armed elements who infiltrated the peaceful protesters or attacked them.
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 13/10/2011

Hamas Steals Abbas Thunder

By Tom Perry
                                              Leader of Hamas Khaled Meshaal
Hamas has jumped back into the Middle East spotlight with a prisoner swap deal with Israel that will score points over President Mahmoud Abbas and steal some of the thunder he generated by pushing for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations. But the deal hailed by the Islamist group which governs Gaza as a national victory was dimmed by Israel's refusal to free some prominent prisoners from rival factions, chief among them Marwan Barghouti-a leading figure in Abbas' Fatah movement.
Hamas had repeatedly pledged to secure Barghouti's release in any deal to set free Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured in 2006. Israel is now set to free more than 1,000 Palestinians for Shalit in the deal announced on Tuesday. "They would have given up on an important person in Barghouti. Someone important to the national movement," said Hany al-Masri, a political commentator based in Ramallah in the West Bank. "It's still a victory, but not such a great one.
The exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, announcing the deal from his Damascus headquarters, said the prisoners included more than 300 serving life terms in Israeli jails. They were drawn from members of all the Palestinian factions. But he did not name any of them, fuelling early speculation that Barghouti and Ahmed Saadat, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation Of Palestine, had been left out of the deal.
Meshaal described the lopsided swap as "a national achievement" for the Palestinians, whose struggle for statehood has been crippled by the divide between the Hamas-run Gaza Strip and Abbas' West Bank-based Palestinian Authority. "This deal embodies and strengthens the unity of the people by including all the factions," Meshaal said. Though lacking Saadat and Barghouti, the swap will resonate with Palestinians, who regard the 6,000 or more prisoners held by Israel as national heroes and freedom fighters.
From a domestic perspective, the timing comes at a good moment for Hamas. A hunger strike among Palestinian prisoners whose demands include an end to solitary confinement is making daily headlines in the Palestinian media.
The prisoner swap switches attention back to the Islamist group that has appeared eclipsed in recent weeks by Abbas' drive to secure full UN membership for a Palestinian state in the face of stiff U.S. and Israeli opposition. Hamas' criticism of the diplomatic move had appeared out of tune with public support that peaked with a strong speech Abbas delivered to the UN General Assembly on Sept 23.
Hamas proves again that it has cards and they can pull them out at the speed of light," said Zakaria Al-Qaq, a Palestinian political commentator. "It's about scoring goals. It isn't a matter of elections, it's about credibility." For now, the opinion polls are of little consequence to either Fatah or Hamas: neither is likely to face an electoral test any time soon because of the division between Gaza and the West Bank. The split has persisted, despite an agreement announced in May designed to end it.
But credibility matters to both. Abbas, 76, a believer in peace negotiations despite a deadlock that has lasted over a year, has enhanced his standing in recent months, showing a more defiant approach towards Israel and the United States. He has stuck by his commitment not to return to talks with Israel without a full halt to its settlement construction on land where the Palestinians aim to found an independent state.
And his attempt to secure UN membership, though doomed to failure by the prospect of a US veto, has won support as a welcome change after two decades of negotiations. Hamas' critics, meanwhile, say the movement has been facing a credibility crisis, struggling to reconcile its commitment to armed struggle against Israel with the responsibilities of governing Gaza, where it seized power from Abbas in 2007.
They have pointed to a contradiction between Hamas' words and deeds as it has sought to rein in militants whose rocket attacks into Israel have drawn punishing reprisals. In his televised address, a defiant Meshaal promised to secure the release of more prisoners. "We met our promise to you today, and we will do so tomorrow, God willing," he said. Talal Okal, a Gaza-based commentator, said: "This has restored the shine to Hamas." Qaq added: "The Hamas movement is sending a message: that negotiations are not worth it, and its method, resistance, is the one that produces results." – Reuters
This analysis was published in The Kuwait Times on 13/09/2011

Will The Washington Bomb Plot Force Obama Into War With Iran?

 By Tony Karon

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivers his speech under portraits of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) and Iran's founder of Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (R) on the eve of the 22nd anniversary of the revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Khomeini's death on June 3, 2011. (Photo: Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty Images)

"We are not talking to Iran, so we don't understand each other," outgoing Joints Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen told the Carnie Endowment for International Peace last month. "If something happens, it's virtually assured that we won't get it right -- that there will be miscalculation which could be extremely dangerous in that part of the world."

Mullen's warning of the perils arising from the two sides inability to communicate and understand each other's intentions -- "even in the darkest days of the Cold War, we had links to the Soviet Union" --  seems especially prescient amid the fallout from the alleged plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to Washington blamed by the U.S. on "elements of the Iranian government".  Claims that  officials within the elite Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps initiated a bizarre scheme, via an Iranian-American used car salesman -- described by his former business partner as "a sort of hustler" -- to enlist the services of a Mexican drug gang for a terror strike in the U.S. capital, have been seized on by the Administration press for tougher international action against Tehran.

"We see this as a chance to go out to capitals and around the wrold and talk to allies and partners about what the Iranians tried to do," an unnamed official told the Washington Post. "We're going to use this to isolate them to the maximum extent possible." Vice President Joe Biden added, darkly, that when it came to responding to Iran's behavior, "Nothing has been taken off the table."

U.S. officials fanned out Wednesday to enlist the support of foreign governments for further sanctions. (The U.S. has banned Iran's airline from operating in the U.S. and has frozen its assets.) And the Administration plans to approach the U.N. Security Council, seeking action to "hold Iran accountable" over the plot. While Britain and France have signaled support, it's difficult to imagine that Washington's revelations will persuade countries skeptical of U.S. Iran policy to change their positions. As National Iranian American Council President Trita Parsi told TIME, "They have to be sure the evidence of involvement by the government of Iran is very solid, because they can't afford another Colin Powell moment at the Security Council." (The former Secretary of State in February of 2003 briefed the Council on U.S. claims about Iraq's weapons programs, on which it justified its invasion,  but his claims later proved to be unfounded.) "And the evidentiary bar is going to be set pretty high at the Security Council precisely because of the Colin Powell experience," Parsi added.

Accepting at face value the claim that this plot is the work of the Iranian government requires a suspension of disbelief.  "This plot, if true, departs from all known Iranian policies and procedures," wrote Dr. Gary Sick, former National Security Council Iran aide now at Columbia University. Despite its animus towards the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, Iran always relied on trusted proxies such as Hizballah to carry out assassinations, giving Tehran plausible deniability. 

"Iran has never conducted — or apparently even attempted — an assassination or a bombing inside the U.S," Sick noted. "And it is difficult to believe that they would rely on a non-Islamic criminal gang to carry out this most sensitive of all possible missions. In this instance, they allegedly relied on at least one amateur and a Mexican criminal drug gang that is known to be riddled with both Mexican and U.S. intelligence agents."

Terror attacks have long been part of Iran's playbook in its three-decade battle for regional supremacy with Saudi Arabia, and that battle has intensified in recent years as the two sides play out proxy wars in Iraq and Lebanon, while Tehran's key Arab ally, Syria, is in mortal danger, and the Saudis flex their muscles by cracking down violently on Bahrain's Shi'ite majority and on its own Shi'ite minority. Riyadh appears to be orchestrating events in Yemen, too.

But Iran-Saudi tensions don't explain the choice of Washington as the venue for an attack. The Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir is not a key player in the Saudi regime. And not only is the U.S. capital probably one of the world's better protected cities since 9/11, but an act of terror there would certainly provoke relation by the Americans. The Washington bomb plot only made sense if the goal was, in fact, to provoke the U.S. into attacking Iran.

Some have suggested that Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei might do just that, seeing a confrontation with the U.S. threat as a way of consolidating his regime. But the challenge of the Green Movement has been largely suppressed, for now, and even the uppity President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had his wings clipped. It's not hard to see why so many Iran watchers doubt that  Khamenei would have signed off on such a harebrained scheme, even if some speculate that a rogue faction within the Quds force may have been responsible.

But Tehran is not the only power center whose hard liners might like to provoke an outbreak of hostilities between Iran and the U.S., prompting further speculation abroad over the nature and possible authorship of the plot.

Details of the scheme raise further doubts: The deadly professionals of the Quds force are said, in this instance, to have broken with the habit of using its own disciplined professionals and or trusted proxies such as Hizballah, with plenty of cutouts and plausible deniability. Instead, it ostensibly turned to a used car salesman to engage the services of a Mexican drug gang with no history of mounting attacks outside of Mexican borders. My colleague Tim Padgett  has highlighted the absurdity of imagining the Zetas, a multibillion dollar criminal operation, would be willing to court the wrath of the United States through an act of war in Washington, and this for a measly $1.5 million.

If the conception of the plot was hokey; the tradecraft -- communications by phone, money wired from a Quds force bank account -- wasn't worthy of the name.

"You can't make this stuff up," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But unfortunately, since the Iraq invasion, much of the international community is unlikely to easily accept claims being made by Washington against rival states whose regimes it would like to be rid of.

Still, even though the plot was thwarted, it could yet provoke an escalation, or even a confrontation between the U.S. and Iran. The poisoning of the atmosphere will, in all likelihood, further dim the already diminished hopes for any diplomatic progress on the nuclear standoff. And if the Administration fails to win support for a significant escalation of sanctions or other forms of punishment for the Tehran regime after presenting evidence of the latest allegations of Iranian malfeasance, the ball will land back in Obama's court. Having made the case that Iran has crossed a red line, he will be under growing pressure to act -- or risk entering a highly polarized election season haunted by a "soft on Iran" charge.

This commentary was published in Time on 12/11/2011

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

In Tunisia, Waiting For The Morning After

By H.D.S. Greenway in Tunis
The political ads are entitled “The Morning After,” and one shows a waiter in an empty seaside restaurant. The tourists have all fled and business is off, suggesting the fate of the country should the Islamists come to power. Another shows a mother with a head scarf comforting her children, complaining that her husband has left her and now may want four wives, whereas Tunisian men are presently limited to one.
Yet another spot shows a decidedly secular young lady whose job will now be filled by a man, she fears, and another shows a student regretting that he slept through the elections that the Islamists have just won.
With an constituent assembly to be elected on Oct. 23, these negative ads, aired on TV and the Internet, clearly target the Islamist-leaning Al Nahda (Renaissance) party, led by the 70-year-old Rachid Ghannouchi, who returned here from exile following the fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
The ads are the Tunisian equivalent of the famous spot that Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign aired of a little girl picking daisy petals with a mushroom cloud rising behind her, suggesting what might happen if Barry Goldwater were elected president in 1964.
The liberal and secular parties are clearly worried that Al Nahda, with a substantial lead in the polls, will garner the most votes in Tunisa’s first real election since independence from France in 1956. For Al Nahda is much better organized than its secular rivals.
Tunisia’s electoral process appears more chaotic than the more staid expressions of the people’s will in Europe and America. Some 11,000 candidates in more than 100 political parties, some of them hardly more than parties of one, are competing for 217 seats in a constituent assembly that will draw up a new constitution, form a parliament and choose a president. This is democracy in the rough, “and whoever wins decrees the fate of Tunisia for many years go come,” says a political scientist, Hamadi Redissi.
With 50 percent undecided, almost anything could happen. But this is not a winner-take-all election. Assembly members will be seated according to which party lists receive the most votes, and even if Al Nahda wins, the secular parties, in coalition, could outnumber the Islamists. Tunisia is the most industrialized country in Africa after South Africa, and people seem more worried about high unemployment and a faltering economy than they are about social issues.
Tunisians living abroad will be allowed to vote, and secularists worry that Tunisians living in Europe may be more Islamist than their countrymen here.
The hand of Islam lies more lightly on the land in Tunisia than in many Muslim countries, with wine grown and consumed and women decidedly emancipated. What, then, explains Al–Nahda’s popularity? Some say it is that the Islamists have suffered more, having been jailed and their political activity banned so harshly under Ben Ali. Others say it is that the Islamists stand for values and are less corrupt then their secular brothers.
Najib Chebbi, a soft-spoken and dignified man who heads the leading secular party, the Progressive Democratic Party, told me that although Tunisians in their hearts may admire the Islamists, in their heads voters believe that the secularists can do a better job creating jobs and modernizing the country. Or so he hopes.
Ghannouchi has been painting himself and his party as Islamic moderates similar to the Justice and Development Party of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Al Nahda says it won’t introduce Shariah law or polygamy, or enforce head scarves, or unravel the equality of women. But the secularists fear that Al Nahda is only hiding its Islamic agenda.
American political consultants flock to elections such as these nowadays, and I ran into John Aristotle Phillips, chief executive of Washington-based Aristotle, a company that has advised political clients in fledgling elections from Eastern Europe to the Khyber Pass. But Aristotle and the others have their work cut out for them here because Tunisia’s election commission, in an effort to guarantee a level playing field for all the candidates, has severely restricted how political parties can get their message out.
For a while parties could advertise on TV and radio, but then that was banned. Billboards were allowed, then banned. Posters are restricted to certain size and they can only be posted on designated walls.
For all of that, democracy has more chance of succeeding in Tunisia than almost anywhere in the Arab world because of its well-developed middle class, high literacy rate, civil society and relatively homogeneous population. Laws protecting women’s rights are the strongest in the region.
Yet if the polls are anywhere near the mark, it is also clear that Islamists will have more to say here on the morning after than they’ve ever had before.
This report was published in The New York Times on 12/10/2011

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Syria: No Fly Zone Or Not

By Micah Zenko

Syrian National Council spokeswoman Basma Qadmani gives her address during a meeting in Istanbul on October 2, 2011 (Stringer Turkey/Courtesy Reuters).
In mid-August, talk show host Stephen Colbert asked U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice why the United States had not intervened to save the lives of Syrians as it had in Libya. Ambassador Rice replied that Syrian opposition members had told U.S. diplomats, “What they want from the United States is more leadership, political pressure, and sanctions, but very clearly no military intervention.”
Since then, opposition forces who seek the fall of the Bashar al Assad regime have increased their demands for an international military intervention in the form of a no-fly zone (NFZ) over all or parts of Syria. However, as was true in Libya, the military mission that is actually required is one of close air support. It is important for the international community to correctly assess the situation on the ground and understand the distinctions between NFZs and close air support before exploring the use of military force in Syria.
Three things have happened in Syria in the past few months that explain the increased demands for a NFZ intervention:
First, the use of violent repression by state security forces against overwhelmingly unarmed protestors has continued unabated. According to the United Nations, from mid-August to last Thursday, October 6, the estimated number of civilian casualties has increased, from 2,200 to over 2,900. In addition, opposition forces have faced arbitrary arrests, detentions, and systematic torture, while political activists living abroad have been monitored and harassed by Syrian intelligence agents operating out of diplomatic outposts.
Second, political condemnation and economic sanctions have not compelled the Assad regime to stop its brutal crackdown. World leaders have condemned the regime’s systemic human rights abuses, and have called for Assad to step down from power. The United States has imposed three sets of economic sanctions—April 29, May 18, and August 17—against specific Assad regime officials and the Syrian government, and other countries have followed suit. However, as the Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe told the Security Council three weeks ago, the Syrian regime “appears determined to pursue its policy of violent repression despite international and regional calls to change course.”
Third, the previously disparate opposition groups have coalesced around the unifying message of regime change. On October 2, the formation of the Syrian National Council (SNC) was announced in Istanbul, which will reportedly include a twenty-nine person general secretariat representing the seven largest Syrian opposition factions.  Following the model of the Libyan Transitional National Council, the SNC has created a website that lists “toppling of the regime” as one of its founding goals.
SNC Chairman Burhan Ghalioun recently stated that “the council rejects any outside interference that undermines the sovereignty of the Syrian people.” Yet, other SNC members are demanding that the international community—with NATO usually specified—should impose a NFZ over all or some of Syria.
There are two reasons put forward for why a NFZ is needed in Syria. First, some opposition members contend that it will protect civilians. Senator Joe Lieberman, who already supported a Syrian NFZ six months ago, more recently endorsed “safe zones inside Syria, particularly along the Turkish and Jordanian borders,” which would be enforced through a NFZ.  Second, as one Syrian activist claimed yesterday, a NFZ would compel more members of the army to defect and “would allow them to organize.”
However, there are a few points to bear in mind before the international community proceeds toward imposing a NFZ over Syria.
The overwhelming number of civilian casualties are not the result of strikes from above. As was true in Libya, the vast majority of deaths are in urban areas, and are caused by soldiers on the ground, tanks, short-range artillery, and snipers. While the International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that the Syrian Air Force has 555 combat capable aircraft—including 150 fighters and 289 fighter ground attack planes—they have not yet been used against civilians. Given that the real problem for civilians is persistent oppression from ground forces, a NFZ would have little or no impact in protecting the vulnerable.
On a handful of occasions, Syrian security forces have unleashed helicopter gunships against civilian protestors, or in coordination with armored ground forces against rural villages. Enforcing a NFZ against helicopters is an operational challenge, which would require a significant commitment of surveillance and strike aircraft, since helicopter gunships can quickly take off, fly low, launch airstrikes, and land. Regime-directed helicopters repeatedly violated the NFZs over Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq, and to a limited extent in Libya, without being attacked because it was difficult to distinguish between civilian and military helicopters, and there was insufficient air assets or political will.
Lastly, the NFZ in Libya did not protect civilian populations; it was actually the use of close air support against Qaddafi regime forces on the ground. The Pentagon defines close air support (CAS) as “air action by fixed-and rotary-wing aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces and that require detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces.” To successfully implement CAS against Syrian ground forces, boots will be on the ground as well, since western air forces generally will not provide CAS in contested, urban environments without on-the-ground assistance from trusted forward air controllers and intelligence agents, as was true in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Libya.
When Syrian opposition members, exiled activists, and U.S. Senators call for a no-fly-zone over Syria, what they are actually proposing is close air support. CAS is a different military mission from NFZs, and requires a different campaign plan, detailed mission plans, personnel, ordinance, and surveillance and attack assets. Furthermore, CAS is a tactic that can be used to protect civilians, or to support regime change that requires an armed opposition on the ground. Neither the Syrian opposition, nor anybody else, has adequately explained how a CAS military mission will be integrated into a broader strategy of either civilian protection or toppling Assad.
Nine days before the international community intervened in Libya, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton testified before the House Appropriations subcommittee, warning: “I want to remind people that, you know, we had a no-fly zone over Iraq.  It did not prevent Saddam Hussein from slaughtering people on the ground, and it did not get him out of office.” Secretary Clinton’s words of caution were prophetic. It was not a no-fly-zone, but rather close air support that played the decisive role in getting Moammar Qaddafi out of power. If that military mission is required in Syria, we should identify it appropriately, and consider the operational requirements and political will that will be required.
This commentary was published in on 11/10/2011

Egypt’s Misleading Media Machine

By Ali Ibrahim
One of the features of the current Egyptian scene- which has witnessed the tragedy of the bloody events in front of the Maspero building, and which has taken on a dangerous sectarian dimension threatening the national fabric and the relationship between the nation’s elements; the Muslims and the Christians- are the rumors and reported statements that today declare the opposite of what is said the next day, and in the process straying from the truth. Everyone is skeptical of everyone, political positions change from one moment to the next, whilst the public remains confused. No one knows what really happened or the reasons behind it, as if there is a misleading media machine seeking to mess with people’s minds.
Approximately 25 died in bloody clashes after Christians marched in protest against the burning of a church or guest house in Aswan. There were several stories reported yesterday, alongside contradictory witness testimonies. The media presented different accounts; we do not know who started shooting, or what the story is with the thugs who appear at every opportunity to turn a peaceful protest into a bloody, violent one. Why was the crisis not remedied from the start in Aswan, and resolved by law to put everyone’s minds at rest? Why were nerves allowed to fray in this way, taking us back in time? What is the story with the media’s policy of confusion, having attempted in some moments to incite without any responsibility, instead of calming the situation?
An example of this misleading media machine was the strange statement that was posted on websites and circulated by the Egyptian media amidst the bloody events witnessed the night before last. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, in an alleged statement to CNN, was reported to have warned the ruling military council against prejudicing minorities, and offered to send American troops to Egypt to protect places of worship and important facilities. This news was circulated and commented upon without any attention paid to the denial by US officials yesterday. Furthermore, these words were not published by any respected media outlets, or even the television network which was claimed to have received the statement.
The alleged words seem illogical because they suggest foreign military intervention, which inevitably would provoke Egyptian public opinion and lead to angry reactions. It appears that this was the intention of the websites that carried and promoted the news, whether they knew it was incorrect or were fooled by it. It was more fuel to the sectarian fire amidst an inflamed crisis with considerable history, and a means of promoting the idea that there are those who want to put Egypt under international protection. If someone thinks for a second they would find these words to be absurd, because no one can put a country of 85 million under international protection and bear that responsibility.
Egypt is experiencing a state of transition like a ship passing through storms, and it needs much wisdom and reasoning in order to reach its mooring. It is natural that after a revolution such as the one which occurred on the 25th of January, demands are coming forth in every form and from every type of group that felt it had been wronged or denied its rights. Among these groups are the Christians, who feel there has been an injustice with regards to the laws that govern the establishment of houses of worship. It is natural that they have concerns when they see the rise of Islamic currents that can move freely after January 25th, and are now talking about an Islamic state. The Christians want the strict application of the law, and strong legislation to criminalize sectarian incitement, ensuring against the escalation of tensions in the manner which we saw.
The road is difficult and it will require facts and transparency. If the task is too daunting and confusing for the current authority, which is running affairs faced with a torrent of demands and protests while the country is undergoing an economic slide that threatens bankruptcy, as international indicators warn, then there is nothing wrong with the government and the military council declaring frankly that their mission is a transitional one, represented in the safe transfer of power through elections, and that the major issues and demands must wait for the forthcoming government and elected president, a condition which would accelerate the handover of power.
-This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 11/10/2011
-Ali Ibrahim is Asharq Al-Awsat's Deputy Editor-in-Chief, based in London

Monday, October 10, 2011

Egypt's Coptic Christians Face An Uncertain Future

The army's violent suppression of a Christian protest in Cairo reflects the growing threat to Egypt's Coptic minority
By William Dalrymple
Egyptian Coptic Christian protest in Cairo
Coptic Christian protests such as this demonstration in March 2011 have faced a brutal response from Islamists and the Egyptian army. Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images
Yesterday's violence in Cairo marks an ominous development in the story of Egypt's unfinished revolution. It is very bad news for several reasons. First, it demonstrates more starkly than ever the dubious role being played by the army. Eyewitness reports are clear that it was firing by the army, followed by the repeated crushing of unarmed demonstrators by an armoured car, that turned a peaceful demonstration for justice into a violent altercation that left 24 people dead. Twitter and Facebook networks are alive with conspiracy theorists speculating whether this is the army looking for excuses to delay the elections, or just clumsy crowd control by heavy-handed officers, but it marks a more direct face-off between army and demonstrators than we have seen for several months.
More specifically, the violence is very bad news for Egypt's beleaguered Coptic minority – the ancient Christian community that makes up between 10 and 15% of a population of 82 million, and is by far the largest Christian community in the region. The Copts stand to lose more than any other group in Egypt's current drift following the fall of an unpopular autocracy, and now face an uncertain future with a wide spectrum of possible outcomes, from a liberal democracy to an Islamic republic, or most likely of all, a continuation of army rule with different window-dressing.
That sectarian violence was likely to follow the end of Mubarak's regime was something that the Copts have been fearing for decades. Three years ago I attended some workshops organised by the Coptic newspaper editor Youssef Sidhom, intended to prepare his people for the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, something many Copts believed was inevitable. Sidhom, editor of Watani, Egypt's leading Coptic newspaper, believed that dialogue between the two faiths was a pressing necessity and that the Copts would have to learn to live with the Islamists and reach an accommodation with a political grouping they have long feared.: "After the success of the Muslim Brothers in the elections we can no longer ignore them," he told me in 2008. "We need to enter into dialogue, to clarify their policies towards us, and end mutual mistrust."
The Copts have long suffered petty discrimination. But the revival of the Islamists over the last few years made the Copts' position more uneasy, and their prospects more uncertain, than they had been for centuries. Throughout the 1990s the Copts, especially in upper Egypt, were targeted by the Islamist guerrillas of the Gama'a Islamiyya. Since then, the Gama'a have renounced violence, and the Islamists concentrated on reaching power through the ballot box, something the Mubarak regime's passive policy towards Salafism encouraged. The Copts reacted by retreating ever deeper into a sectarian laager, further polarising the country. A generation ago, most Egyptians chose names for their children which could be either Christian or Muslim, such as Karim or Adel. Now they tend to give their children names such Mohammed or Girgis (George) that immediately define their sectarian affiliation. Likewise, the near-universal adoption of the hijab by Muslim women has left Coptic women exposed and sometimes subject to threats and abuse. In the face of growing polarisation and discrimination, the Copts have tended to form their own schools and social clubs, keeping their distance from the Muslim majority. This is something the Coptic clergy – every bit as conservative as their Muslim counterparts – have often encouraged.
At the same time, the Copts have seen their political influence slowly diminish: under Mubarak's last government there was still one Coptic provincial governor and two Coptic ministers. But in contrast to the situation at the time of Nasser and Sadat, no senior policemen are Copts, nor judges, nor university vice chancellors, nor military generals.
Yet if the Copts faced a certain amount of institutional discrimination, Mubarak was himself largely sympathetic to the community, and he made some significant gestures such making Christmas a national holiday and freeing up the rules on building new churches. Certainly, the Copts were well aware that things could get much worse for them.
Initially, the Tahrir Square demonstrations were a model of sectarian amity, with Muslim and Christian demonstrators protecting each other from the violence of the police and the regime's thugs. But in the growing uncertainty and violence that followed the fall of Mubarak, a spate of anti-Coptic riots of growing violence broke out in both Cairo and Alexandria which the army did very little to stop. In March a small clash in a Cairo suburb ended with the army sending in a Salafist sheikh to bring about reconciliation. In May, churches were attacked by Salafist mobs in the Cairo suburb of Imbaba, after rumours spread that a Muslim woman had been kidnapped by Copts, and Salafists called on Twitter for their supporters to mass "and free a Muslim sister". The army looked on as the churches burned, encouraging radicals to take the law into their own hands elsewhere. Yesterday the army-controlled media went a step further, encouraging patriotic citizens to defend the beleaguered army against what it described as "a Christian mob".
The dilemma and fears of the Copts mirror that of Christian minorities across the Middle East. Just as the elderly Coptic Pope Shenoudah supported Mubarak right up until the moment of his fall, whatever individual Copts were doing in Tahrir Square, so the churches in Syria are still publicly supporting the Asad regime, even if many Christian activists are at the forefront of the opposition.
At the back of their minds, the Christian hierarchies are aware of the devastation of the Iraqi Christian community after the fall of Saddam, when over half the Christian population – some 400,000 people – were forced to leave the country in a wave of Islamist pogroms. The Arab spring, it is widely feared, could yet mark the onset of the final Christian winter for the forgotten faithful of the Middle East. Only elections and the advent of sympathetic and stable democratic governments across the region is likely to allay such fears. Sadly, at the moment this outcome seems less likely with every passing day.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 10/10/2011- William Dalrymple's most recent book is Nine Lives: in Search of the Sacred in Modern India (Bloomsbury)

Tunisia’s Journalists Must Replace Illusion With Reality

By Mourad Teyeb
Immediately after the Jan. 14 uprising, Tunisians experienced the illusion of a free and prosperous society. Tunisian journalists have enjoyed newfound freedom in print and broadcast media, which under President Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali had been tightly controlled. Although we accomplished much to be proud of, the illusion of what this newfound freedom meant for media lasted mere days.
The media interpreted freedom literally: to say what they liked when they liked. Criticizing officials, even insulting them, has become quite common in television and radio talk shows, and newspapers have become full of provocative, indecent content. Nobody understands that freedom requires a sense of responsibility.
In fact, today we often hear people saying that media are not telling them the truth about the political reality on such key issues as the country’s security, unemployment figures or political parties.
Nearly a hundred publications – daily and weekly newspapers and magazines – and a dozen local FM radios have been authorized to publish and broadcast since January. More than 30 licenses for new television channels have been issued. Two high commissions were created to review the press codes that, under ben Ali’s regime, shaped coverage, and stipulated fines and prison sentences against violators of the old media legislation.
These are some positive steps forward in terms of media freedom, but many opinion polls show that people are not satisfied with the emerging trends in media because they believe that the changes have not been for the better. The poll conducted by SIGMA Conseil, a market research firm based in Tunisia, revealed in late July that 85 percent of Tunisians “are not satisfied” with the country’s media.
Even after the fall of the regime, most journalists in Tunisia are still unable to tackle real issues like corruption and the economy, to differentiate between freedom and chaos, and to assess those businesses and investors who are corrupt but who, through advertising and buying large numbers of subscriptions, help their companies survive and thus keep journalists and editors in their jobs. In fact, 80 percent of media magnates are still there and, though many enterprises once owned by the Ben Ali clan have been shut down, it is impossible to put everybody in jail.
Ridha Kefi, a senior journalist and member of the Commission on Media Reform, which was formed to investigate administrative and financial corruption in the media sector, thinks it is “very difficult” for Tunisian journalists “to get rid of habits and practices, such as corruption and lying, that they have been used to for more than three decades.”
Kefi, whose magazine L’Expression was prevented from advertising publicly before being obliged to close down in 2009 under the Ben Ali regime, also thinks that “the poor background of journalists, their reluctance to develop capacities, the pressure of everyday work and bad working conditions oblige the Tunisian media to just cope with these trends and avoid any clashes with their employers that might cost them their jobs.”
Similar experiences in other countries, such as Georgia, Bulgaria, China and South Africa, show that weak transitions toward democracy hindered the development of free media. After 50 years of oppression, a single voice and political party are very difficult to overcome overnight. Tunisia’s political elite and civil society have no experience dealing with transition requirements, and media suffer so much from internal pleas that addressing the real questions of censorship and corruption become absurd.
Today, internal and public debates show that more journalists realize it is time to start anew with greater self-criticism and more in-depth self-assessment. Refusing to submit to any pressure compelling them to work in a corrupt world is a first step toward reform. Rejecting any form of government interference in their job is the beginning of their war against censorship. Taking the initiative and tackling the real problems of today’s Tunisia are essential for keeping media free of outdated issues and old-fashioned techniques.
Democracy cannot ensure free media, but free media can help create a more successful democracy. One hope is that the market will eventually weed out incompetent journalists, thus creating Tunisian media that are not only free, but also informative.
The January 2011 popular revolution in Tunisia created an opportunity to use bottom-up pressure for enabling legislation and an appropriate framework for unrestricted but responsible media at a time when there is urgent need to break with the past.
-This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 10/10/2011
-Mourad Teyeb is a Tunisian journalist for Assabah and Kapitalis. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (

A New Palestinian Intifada?

By Wendy Pearlman
Mahmoud Abbas captured the world's attention with his controversial bid for U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood. As the world awaits the outcome of that diplomatic contest, one of the key wild cards is the potential for mass nonviolent protest in the Palestinian territories. Some fear the failure of the bid will spark massive unrest and even the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. Others hope that Palestinians will rally en masse behind Abu Mazen's strategy, using non-violent protest on the ground to supplement official Palestinian pressure on Israel at the United Nations.
Both will be disappointed. The thwarting of the U.N. bid is unlikely to be a sufficient spark for protest. Few Palestinians expect the diplomatic maneuver to lead to concrete changes, so they will not be galvanized by disappointment when it does not. Furthermore, the political, institutional, and territorial fragmentation in the Palestinian national movement today curtails its capacity to establish a single goal and strategy to guide popular resistance. As I explore in a new book on the Palestinian struggle, movements need national unity in order to muster the sweeping participation that fuels nonviolent protest, as well as the collective restraint to keep it from being provoked into violence. Political cohesion is critical for mobilization to be mass in scale and sustainable over time. That cohesion is currently lacking on the Palestinian scene, though one never knows when the tenacious vibrancy of Palestinian civil society might create it anew.
It may seem odd to argue that Palestinians are unlikely to engage in mass protest, given their deep history of popular mobilization and the many examples of creative grassroots activism on the ground today. These include West Bank villages' ongoing protests against Israel's separation wall, demonstrations against home demolitions in East Jerusalem, and the rallies last March demanding reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, among numerous other undertakings that do and do not attract notice in the West.  But there are several reasons why such instances of localized or single-episode actions do not add up to national mobilization akin to the revolts seen elsewhere in the Arab world.
First, other uprisings in the region were propelled by the unleashing of frustrations that had been pent-up for decades. Palestinians, on the other hand, have had an uprising every generation. In this respect, the devastating toll of the second Intifada cannot be overstated. With more than 4,000 deaths and more than 5,000 prisoners in Israeli jails --apart from colossal economic losses, ravaging political and territorial fragmentation, and incalculable social suffering -- Palestinians are wary of another uprising. Moreover, they are skeptical about its chances for success. A recent poll asked, "If a peaceful popular revolt like in Egypt or Tunisia were to erupt against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, would it be capable of ending occupation?" Of Palestinian respondents, 64 percent said no, as did 72 percent of Israeli respondents. In contrast to other Arab publics, therefore, Palestinians are not alight with the thrill of reclaiming a long-suppressed voice. Rather, they are hoarse, and disillusioned, from shouting for so long.
Second, different dimensions of space carry different implications for tactics. In Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain, pro-democracy movements occupied a central square. In Tunisia and Libya, protest began in the periphery of the country and gained power as it moved toward the capital. In Syria, the protest movement still seeks to do likewise. The political geography of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, is distinctive. If Palestinians have demonstrations in major towns in the West Bank of Gaza, Israelis will neither see nor care. Alternatively, Palestinians might have peaceful marches to Israeli checkpoints or settlements in the West Bank or toward Israel's crossing-points into the Gaza Strip. These are militarized spaces, however, and Israel will treat them as breeches of sovereign borders. Even if approaching crowds of Palestinians are completely unarmed, Israel is likely to respond with force. And as cases from Palestinian history and across the world suggest, there is no surer way than repression to transform nonviolent protest into violent protest.
Third, a different relationship between society and leadership is at play. The Arab Spring has seen populations revolt against unelected and ineffective leaders. Palestinians are also very critical of the Fatah and Hamas-led governments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, respectively. Unlike the hollow ruling parties in Tunisia and Egypt, however, Palestinian factions have deep roots in society. They also have their own long histories of leading grassroots resistance that they can summon when political imperatives require. Fatah and Hamas might welcome popular mobilization as pressure on Israel, but they will go to lengths to ensure that it neither slips from their control nor evolves into a challenge against them. In fact, they might seize upon popular protest as a resource to co-opt and use to further their own ambitions within Palestinian politics. In this sense, any major Palestinian mobilization is less likely to resemble the unity on display in Tahrir Square than the divisions that bogged down Lebanon's 2005 Cedar Revolution. In the latter, calls for reform of the sectarian system were stymied when sectarian parties themselves corralled adherents back to the bunker of factional loyalties. They thereby blocked street protests from becoming a threat to the domestic political status quo.
To complicate matters further, the Palestinian Authority has a distinct interest in constraining popular resistance within the limits of its own political agenda. While it would like popular protests that increase its leverage in meaningful negotiations with Israel, it does not want any escalation that could jeopardize such negotiations. Even if the PA encourages demonstrations, it will try to prevent them from taking any form that might provoke Israel to respond with military force. It is not clear what a mass-scale renewal of Palestinian people's power would look like if it becomes influenced, managed, or manipulated by the PA or any other of the parties competing for leadership of the Palestinian struggle. Certainly, it would be a different phenomenon than the grassroots resistance that unfolded elsewhere. Officially sanctioned rallies in Ramallah in support of the PA's strategy might have the outward form of the Arab popular uprisings, but few will confuse them.
In sum, we ought not expect an eruption of the Arab spring in Palestine any time soon. More fundamentally, it would be unfair of us to do so. Many who support Palestinians' U.N. bid do so in the hope of (re)internationalizing the conflict. Primarily, this means taking the conflict to the international realm, as opposed to that of U.S. hegemony and bilateral negotiations. Yet "internationalization" in this case should carry another meaning, as well -- that of placing expectations with the world leaders, as opposed to the Palestinian grassroots.
Palestinian society has been engaging in various kinds of protest for nearly 100 years. It is rightfully exhausted. Over the course of the twentieth century, whenever the question of Palestine reached a point of stagnation, it was typically Palestinian civilian men, women, and children who shook things up by mobilizing the meager resources at their disposal. We should stop wondering if or when they will do so again. Rather, it is time for the international community to use the resources at its disposal to help bring about a just and lasting peace, once and for all.
-This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 10/10/2011
-Wendy Pearlman is Assistant Professor of Political Science and the Crown Junior Chair in Middle East Studies at Northwestern University. Her second book on the Palestinian struggle, "Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement," will be published by Cambridge University Press this month