Friday, May 4, 2012

Turkey Is Drawn Into Iraqi Affairs

By Saban Kardas

                           Tariq al-Hashimi and Recep Tayip Erdogan (Source: AA)
The developments in Iraqi domestic politics, coupled with their regional implications, continue to drag Turkey deeper into Middle Eastern affairs, while its involvement in the Syrian conflict already occupies a large part of Ankara’s foreign policy agenda. The ongoing power struggle between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his opponents on the one hand, and the complicated relationship between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq on the other have taken an interesting turn, creating reverberations for Turkey’s regional policies.
In the wake of the withdrawal of US forces, Maliki has moved to consolidate his power, threatening to undermine the delicate balance between various sectarian and ethnic groups. Maliki, who assumed his current post following a 2010 power sharing agreement, has failed to work toward national reconciliation. On the contrary, in this already fractured country, he has even undermined the governing coalition and also put Iraq on a collision course. His campaign against Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who took refuge in Northern Iraq fearing for his life, crystallized the power struggle. The dispute grew into an impasse, with the increasingly harsher tone of the parties, engulfing Turkey (EDM, January 18). After spending some time in Kurdistan, Hashemi visited Saudi Arabia and Doha and later came to Turkey, effectively beginning his days in “exile.” Calling openly for Ankara’s support, Hashimi also furthered its involvement in his country’s affairs (Anadolu Ajansi, April 10).
A parallel process concerned Iraqi Kurds. The KRG’s relationship to Baghdad is complicated over the status of the disputed city of Kirkuk and the conflict over revenues from the exploration of natural resources in the North. In the ongoing standoff, the leader of KRG, Masoud Barzani, supports Hashimi and has used the leverage he gained to further bolster his position in Iraqi domestic politics. Last month, Barzani suggested he could hold a referendum to redefine ties to Baghdad. In a move that further accentuated this trend, during his trip to the US earlier this month, Barzani urged Washington to reconsider its backing of Maliki. Then, Barzani visited Turkey to meet with Hashimi and Turkish leaders (Anadolu Ajansi, April 20).
Barzani’s visit also underscored the degree to which Turkey has readjusted its regional policies. After years of confrontation with the KRG, Turkey already moved to normalize its relations with the Northern Iraqi Kurdish leadership to solicit their backing for Ankara’s fight against the PKK. In the wake of the latest developments, Ankara has further moved toward Iraqi Kurds to cope with the challenges in Iraqi domestic politics.
In the region, too, Turkey faces a similar fluid environment. With the unfolding of the Syrian uprising, Ankara’s partnerships in the region have gone through a new reshuffling. Faced with Tehran’s support for the Syrian regime and its backing of Iraq’s Maliki, Turkey’s coordination of its policies with the Syrian opposition, Iraqi opposition and the Gulf countries raise interesting questions about the patterns of Ankara’s alignment.
These realignments lead some to suggest that Turkey has been drawn into sectarian groupings but the Turkish government rejects those claims. Ankara justified its support for the Syrian opposition on the principles of human rights and democracy, rather than any sectarian affiliation. In Iraq, Turkey again refrained from framing its support for the Sunni leader Hashimi in sectarian terms and instead underlined the divisive nature of Maliki’s policies.
However, such statements from Turkish officials have far from convinced the Iraqi leadership. Maliki, already critical of Turkey’s policy on Syria, reacted harshly to recent developments and, in a press release, accused Turkey of interfering in Iraqi internal affairs and acting in a hostile manner (Milliyet, April 21). Reflecting the new regional realignment, Maliki then paid a two-day visit to Tehran on April 22-23, where he met with key Iranian leaders. In his first visit after his reelection, Maliki expressed solidarity with the Iranian leadership and vowed to work in tandem on regional issues (, April 23).
Both Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan and Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave a very strong reaction to Maliki’s remarks. On his way back from Doha, where he discussed Middle East issues with his regional counterparts, Erdogan called Maliki insincere and maintained that his oppressive policies threatened to divide Iraq. Suggesting that Maliki himself might have a sectarian agenda, Erdogan insisted that Ankara was in communication with all Iraqi groups including Shiite leaders (Sabah, April 22). The MFA’s statement also referred to Maliki’s attempts to monopolize power and exclude others as the basis of the current crisis in Iraq (, April 21). Both countries summoned each other’s diplomats posted to the respective capitals over the developments.
To Turkey’s credit, concerns over Maliki’s course are indeed shared by a larger number of Iraqi actors, including Shiite groups. Increasingly, the inability of Maliki to build up coalitions with other groups and the weakening of the ties between Baghdad and the provinces, most notably Northern Iraq, are criticized by major Iraqi actors. Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr also visited Northern Iraq for the first time, in an effort to establish bridges between the parties (Anadolu Ajansi, April 26).
For years, Turkey has worked to ensure a smooth political transition in Iraq. Ankara’s policy was based on the understanding that if national reconciliation cannot be achieved, it could deepen the fragmentation and pave the way for an independent Kurdish state, not to mention other damaging repercussions for regional peace. It was for this reason that Ankara supported the Maliki-led government, although its initial preferences after the Iraqi elections had been different. With the ongoing political crisis and tensions in the region, Turkey has increasingly found itself on the same page as the KRG.
For his part, Barzani apparently hopes to deepen his cooperation with Turkey to further consolidate his position in Iraq. This development inevitably raises speculations as to whether the Iraqi Kurds might press for independence or a greater degree of autonomy from Baghdad, which, ironically, will put Turkey in a difficult position. Given Ankara’s own concerns about an independent Kurdish state and the Kurds’ claims over Kirkuk, Turkey’s support for Barzani will be conditional and it will hardly be the midwife to an independent Kurdistan.
-This commentary was published in  Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 84, on 03/05/2012

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Dumb Idea Hall Of Fame

There's much more where this came from, but here are five terrible ideas to get us started.
                                     U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
In my 25 years of government service, I came up with more than my fair share of bad or just plain dumb ideas (see Arafat, Yasir, invitation to the Holocaust museum). In fact, I consider myself something of an expert on the subject.
But life's about learning, right? And like Justice Potter Stewart's famous 1964 opinion on pornography, these days I've come to know a bad idea when I see one.
The Middle East provides a particularly fertile ground for both the birth and demise of dumb ideas. And they come in varying shapes and sizes. Here are five candidates for some of the most inconsequential, ill-advised, or potentially dangerous dumb ideas proposed during the past year or so.
I'm grandfathering them in as potential nominees for the Dumb Idea Hall of Fame, a new feature to which I intend to devote at least one column a month.
Dumb Idea No. 1: Palestinian statehood at the U.N.
The most woolly-headed and inconsequential idea goes to the Palestinians for pretending (they actually may not really believe it themselves) that action at the United Nations might help their cause for statehood. Having tried this idea once last September with predictable results -- a big, fat nothingburger -- the PLO may be gearing up again for another run.
One can only wonder why. The Palestinians are desperate, to be sure, and the U.N. statehood gambit (like faux unity talks with Hamas) plays well on the street. But their lack of strategy and penchant for bad timing are breathtaking. So far, the U.N. initiative has produced implacable American opposition, U.S. congressional constraints on funding for the Palestinians, and America's withdrawal from UNESCO.
The last thing a U.S. president is going to do in an election year is support such an initiative. And it gives the Israeli government, already uninterested in real negotiations, just another reason to blame the impasse on the Palestinians. But hey, the Palestinians are going to do what they're going to do whether it makes sense or not. The best thing that can be said about the U.N. gambit is that it really doesn't matter.
Dumb Idea No. 2: Safe zones in Syria
Dumb ideas are one thing; potentially dangerous ideas are quite another. And that distinction goes to the idea of creating safe zones in Syria in an effort to pressure, if not topple, the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The proponents of this idea are either interminably obtuse or quite calculating and see the creation of such zones as a way to sucker the United States or other external powers into military action against the Assads. Either way, this approach has every sign of being half-baked, ill-advised, and open-ended. Indeed, it's driven by the most dangerous idea of all: that America needs to act and do something, regardless of the consequences.
Safe zones or humanitarian corridors have at least three purposes. The most obvious is to offer sanctuary to Syrians fleeing the fighting and the regime. The Turks would have the most incentive here, if cross-border refugee flows get out of control.
The other objectives -- providing a safe haven to train and organize rebels who oppose the regime, and hoping to further cause splits in the regime by occupying Syrian territory -- are far more dubious. These areas would have to be defended, which would mean more boots on the ground over time (remember: it took eight months to bring down Muammar al-Qaddafi's rinky-dink army). Syrian air defenses would need to be suppressed to avoid regime attacks. And poof -- before you know it, we have an open-ended escalation. This kind of piecemeal intervention is the worst outcome of all -- getting involved militarily without getting results. Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security has it right on this one: When it comes to military options, either the United States intervenes decisively -- as a matter of vital national interest -- or it stays out. Half-measures and incremental efforts to increase the pressure will likely result in additional costs without real results.
Dumb Idea No. 3: Bombing Iran Now
Nobody can or should blame a tiny country living on the knife's edge with a dark past -- even one with an estimated 200-plus nuclear weapons -- for worrying deeply about a mullah-controlled Iran with the bomb.
What Israel does about the prospects of a nuclear Iran and when is a more complex matter. Striking Iran anytime soon -- even if the nuclear talks don't produce a deal quickly -- would be dumb. It's a different thing to assume grave risks if success is likely and you have broad support even if you fail.
An attack now will not prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear capacity. It would be tantamount to mowing the grass; Iran would accelerate its nuclear program, most likely with greater international support. The world would be furious with the Israelis (see: higher oil prices, financial markets tanking, regional tensions), and nobody -- not even the United States -- would really understand why Israel struck when Iran didn't have enough fissile material to make a bomb and hadn't mastered the assembly of components, let alone tested a nuclear weapon. The Israelis' claim that they needed to strike because Iran's nuclear sites were now immune from attack would not be judged compelling by anyone.
It's much smarter -- though hardly easy -- for the Israelis to allow more time for sanctions to take their toll, see whether some deal on enrichment is possible, and if not, press the Americans to do what the president in March publicly articulated he would: not just contain Iran but prevent it from acquiring a weapon.
Knowing the Israelis, they've likely built extra time into their assessment regarding when and how Iran's nuclear sites will be immune from attack. If sanctions and diplomacy can't stop Iran from acquiring a weapon, a military option can't and shouldn't be ruled out. The dumb idea is exercising it now.
Dumb Idea No. 4: Obama's push for a settlement freeze
Rarely has any U.S. president committed more of a stumble during his first year than when Barack Obama decided to make Israeli settlements the focus of his approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking.
In one fell swoop, the president set himself up for failure, turned his relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into a macho contest of who had bigger cojones (Obama lost), and alienated the Palestinians and the Arabs because he backed down. And for all this, the United States succeeded in getting no real freeze, no deal, and no negotiations. The president's tough rhetoric on settlements only made the problem worse as the gap between words and deeds swallowed his credibility whole.
Fighting with the Israelis is an occupational reality for any president or secretary of state who wants to do serious peacemaking. The fight, however, needs to be at the right time and on the right issue. If done correctly (i.e., with a strategy), it can actually be productive and benefit not only the United States, but the Israelis and Palestinians too.
The fight worth having, with both sides, is over the actual substance of an agreement. But given the gaps that separate the two sides and Obama's own indecision about what he wants, that fight isn't worth having. Yet.
Dumb Idea No. 5: A bad idea is better than no idea
Dumb ideas come along for many reasons. Sometimes they result from bad analysis, imperfect policy options, or desperation. They can also arise from wishful thinking or from an obsession with fixing things.
It's a variation of that last notion that represents the dumbest idea of all: that action -- any action, no matter how harebrained and ill-advised -- is better than no action. This idea is quintessentially American and results from the unique blend of idealism and pragmatism that cuts to the core of who Americans are as a people and how they see the world.
The fact is, Americans can't help themselves. America isn't a potted plant. Americans believe they can always make a bad situation better. This fix-it mentality is in our DNA. If it's harnessed and rigorously controlled, the United States can actually accomplish some things, particularly if it actually thinks through a strategy. But if not, it leads to what my friend Gamal Helal, an Arabic-language interpreter and confidant of presidents and secretaries of state, calls the United States' rush toward disaster. America is headed that way on Syria, I'm afraid.
My fondest hope would be to avoid dumb ideas altogether. This may not be possible. The need to act is just too strong. Perhaps we can at least limit the damage. But based on a couple of decades or so of government experience, I'm not holding my breath.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 02/05/2012
-Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His new book, Can America Have Another Great President?, will be published this year

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Qatar Bubble

Can this tiny, rich emirate really solve the Middle East's thorniest political conflicts?
Sultan Al Qassemi, the Emirati commentator and prolific tweeter, jokes that he tries to post one article every day on the rise of Qatar, the tiny Gulf sheikhdom at the heart of the Arab Spring. There's a formula, he says. Nearly all articles express the same points: Qatar is rich, small, hosting the 2022 soccer World Cup, underwriting the pan-Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera, and cheering on protesters across the Arab world -- yet it's hardly democratic at home.
Often the headlines venture into rank hyperbole: The Economist called Qatar a "Pygmy with the punch of a giant," while the New York Review of Books hailed its "strange power." Various outlets have dubbed the country's ambitious emir, 60-year-old Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the "Arab Henry Kissinger." Last year, in an off-mic moment with political donors, U.S. President Barack Obama called him a "pretty influential guy."
There's no question the Qatari royals have parlayed their small country's extraordinary wealth into outsized if utterly unlikely clout, whizzing from one conflict zone to another and inviting dissidents and diplomats to the capital, Doha, to kibitz, negotiate, and plot against one another -- usually at the Sheraton, the pyramid-shaped, 1980s-era hotel overlooking the city's palm-lined corniche. (Think Star Wars bar scene for the Persian Gulf crowd, with French paratroopers strolling by as djellaba-clad Darfuri rebels and Western oil executives sip tea in the hotel's towering lobby.) Over the past decade, secured by one of the most massive U.S. air bases in the world, Qatar has inserted itself into conflicts in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, positioning the emirate as a disinterested mediator, trusted -- or at least tolerated -- by all parties.
It helps that there's little to worry about at home. Qatar is the richest country on the planet, with its 250,000 or so native citizens floating comfortably on a per capita income estimated at well over $400,000 a year. Another million and a half guest workers from all over the world toil at its mammoth construction projects and copious megamalls, while a smaller cadre of Arab and Western expats files the paperwork and keeps the trains running on time. Opinion polls find that Qataris evince little interest in political reform, and no wonder: Aside from having to live in dowdy Doha -- a dusty, sweltering inferno half the year -- they've got it pretty good.
Until 2011, the emir seemed largely content with his role as a mediator, though Al Jazeera's critical coverage of politics (everywhere outside Qatar and the Gulf, of course) sometimes riled his fellow Arab autocrats. And his influence had certainly grown as leaders of the region's traditional powers, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, slipped into their dotage. But Sheikh Hamad's ambitions ballooned even more last year as his popular satellite channel became an unabashed cheerleader for the uprisings in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen (though not neighboring Bahrain), while the minuscule Qatari military joined the fight against Libyan tyrant Muammar al-Qaddafi. Even the mighty United States started looking to Qatar for help in bringing the Arab League along with its transformational agenda -- quite the turn of events given that Washington had long seen Qatar primarily as the backer of Al Jazeera, with its anti-American vitriol and al Qaeda snuff films.
This was heady stuff for a tiny "thumb" sticking out from the Arabian Peninsula, as Qaddafi once described Qatar. The country is, after all, not much more than a city-state the size of Connecticut, surrounded by some very heavily armed neighbors. In seeking to fill a vacuum -- and ignoring his own vulnerabilities -- had the emir finally gone too far?
FOR MOST OF its short history, Qatar has been an afterthought of an afterthought in global politics, an impoverished backwater that had often fallen prey to the schemes of stronger powers, from the British struggle with the Ottoman Turks for control of the Persian Gulf in the 19th century to the rise of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia next door in the early 20th. Like many leaders of small states, the Al Thani ruling family possesses a certain knack for survival, sometimes appeasing Qatar's larger neighbors, at other times irritating them and inviting outside protection, as Qatar did when it built the gigantic, billion-dollar al-Udeid air base in 1996, anticipating the closure of U.S. facilities in Saudi Arabia -- before the emirate even had an air force of its own.
The discovery of oil in 1940 allowed the Al Thani family to forge a collection of squabbling tribes and pearl fishermen into a small -- and wildly rich -- state. But it wasn't until 1995, when Sheikh Hamad ousted his father in a bloodless coup, that Qatar began building its little patch of desert into a force in the region and beyond. Under him, Qatar has become an expansionary power, a sort of latter-day Venice -- only its strength lies not in trade or maritime prowess but in the flow of natural gas. In this, Qatar has been more than merely lucky, making big, bold bets on the rise of liquefied natural gas and reinvesting profits in massive infrastructure projects at home and high-profile assets abroad like Harrods in London and the French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain. Eventually, the government hopes the interest on Qatar's $85 billion sovereign wealth fund alone will be able to fund its operations in perpetuity.
All that gas money has turned Doha into an unlikely entrepôt of political intrigue, a sort of Turtle Bay on the Persian Gulf. I lived in Qatar for a little more than a year, until last December, and the city offered a front-row seat as the Arab Spring unfolded -- masterminded, it sometimes seemed, from Doha. In October, I went to Souq Waqif, the Disneyfied market along the city's corniche, to attend a victory party Qatar was throwing for Libyan expats. The souq was festooned with banners celebrating the recent rebel triumph over Qaddafi, who had just been summarily executed and then grotesquely displayed in a strip-mall meat locker. The highlight of the party -- a sort of mosh pit filled with Libyans dancing to the revolutionary anthem "Raise Your Head High, You're a Free Libyan" -- proved too much for the authorities, and it was broken up in favor of a traditional Qatari sword dance.
For months, Doha had teemed with Libyan exiles, not so secretly funded by Qatar, which put up the rebel leaders at expensive hotels and bankrolled their satellite channel. Qatari cargo jets ferried tens of millions of dollars' worth of humanitarian supplies, weapons, and special-operations troops to rebel headquarters in Benghazi on regular flights; nearly the entire Qatari air force helped enforce NATO's no-fly zone. In August, when Libyan rebel fighters stormed Qaddafi's Bab al-Aziziya complex, they raised a Qatari flag in appreciation. Asked in an Al Jazeera interview just how much Qatar spent on the Libyan revolution, the prime minister simply said, "It's a lot. It cost us a lot."
Qatar insisted its only interest in Libya was freedom for the Libyan people. But a nationalist backlash over perceived Qatari meddling in Libyan affairs soon ensued. Abdel Rahman Shalgham, Qaddafi's former U.N. ambassador whose dramatic defection helped seal the dictator's fate, appeared on television to denounce Qatar as an alien, malign force. "Qatar might have delusions of leading the region," he said. "I absolutely do not accept their presence at all." Qatar's secular allies were soon forced out of the interim government, while its main Islamist proxy in Libya, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, was detained and humiliated at Tripoli's airport by rival militiamen. One year on, it's hard to see what Qatar gained from its North African adventure.
If Libya represented the apotheosis of Qatari power, Syria represents its limits. More than a year since their revolution began, Syrians are still braving bullets to protest the rule of President Bashar al-Assad -- and firing back with a few of their own. So far, all outside attempts to end the conflict peacefully have failed, including repeated Qatari-led efforts to come up with a diplomatic solution. If Assad survives, Doha will have aggravated the Syrian regime's biggest supporter -- Iran -- with which Qatar shares the world's largest gas field and maintains officially friendly ties, to little end.
Meanwhile, even opposition Syrians complain that Al Jazeera's coverage of the conflict has become unprofessional -- maudlin, biased, and often untrustworthy. Ali Hashem, a highly regarded Al Jazeera reporter, resigned in March, alleging that his reporting on armed fighters had been squelched in favor of the official narrative of a peaceful uprising. And with a member of the Qatari royal family now directly in charge after the ouster of longtime head Wadah Khanfar, the satellite network's credibility and independence are now widely questioned.
SYRIA IS NO exception. For all the media attention, few of Qatar's diplomatic initiatives have actually borne fruit. Lebanon's 2008 political settlement, brokered in Qatar, looks like a rare success story, but the others remain question marks. In May 2011, Qatar walked away from its peacemaking efforts in Yemen, while Bahrain that same month brushed aside a Qatari offer to mediate its internal conflict. Doha has volunteered to house the Taliban-U.S. peace talks aimed at resolving the decade-long war in Afghanistan, but the Taliban have yet to open their office there and the U.S. Congress spiked a prisoner-swap deal that might have built confidence for further negotiations. The Darfur agreement, negotiated at the Sheraton over the course of more than a year, didn't even include all the warring parties. Qatar's promising efforts to wean Hamas away from Iran haven't earned it any goodwill from its neighbors, either: A recent meeting of Arab leaders in Riyadh, focused on Iran, pointedly excluded Sheikh Hamad, distrusted for his warm(ish) ties to Tehran.
Nor is Qatar's cash cow -- natural gas -- by any means secure. A global supply glut has sent prices plunging. Australia is projected to surpass Qatar in the production of liquefied natural gas by 2020, and the shale-gas revolution in the United States and Eastern Europe (not to mention out-of-the-way places like Mozambique and potential new players like Libya) threatens to extend the bear market far into the future.
As for the World Cup, perhaps the crown jewel in Qatar's ascension to the global big-boy party, it is far from clear that Doha will be basking in soccer glory a decade from now. Not only are questions being raised about the viability of hosting a tournament in temperatures that reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, the limited availability of alcohol, and Qatar's risky, heat-busting stadium designs, but FIFA, soccer's international governing body, may soon launch an investigation into allegations that Qatari officials bribed their way to victory in the selection process. In any case, Qatar needs to import millions of tons of raw building materials -- including, of all things, sand from Saudi Arabia -- to make the World Cup a success. That will give the Saudis, with their retrograde foreign policy and their long history of meddling in Qatari politics, leverage for years to come.
So let's hold the accolades for Qatar. There's a reason most city-states throughout history have avoided provoking their larger neighbors -- sooner or later, they strike back. And isn't being incredibly rich good enough?
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy for its issue for May/June 2012
-Blake Hounshell is managing editor of Foreign Policy

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Abbas's Police State

The Palestinian Authority is taking aggressive new measures to squelch dissent -- and the White House is missing in action.

President Barack Obama's administration has loudly touted its efforts to protect peaceful activists across the globe from regimes that would oppress them. On April 26, the White House issued an executive order to stop technology companies from helping Iran and Syria commit human rights abuses. The two countries have become what members of Congress have called "zones of electronic repression," where the regimes use modern technologies to crush those seeking democratic reforms.
But amid all this, Obama is missing an opportunity to promote positive change in a government over which the United States has much more leverage: Mahmoud Abbas's increasingly repressive fiefdom in the West Bank. On the same day as the White House issued its executive order, the Palestinian Ma'an News Agency reported an explosive story detailing how Palestinian officials have "quietly instructed Internet providers to block access to news websites whose reporting is critical of President Mahmoud Abbas."
This wasn't a rogue operation. All signs suggest the order to shut the website came straight from the top. The Ma'an article, citing a Palestinian official, claims that Palestinian Authority Attorney General Ahmad al-Mughni personally delivered the order but that he "was acting on instructions from higher up in the government -- either from the president's office or an intelligence director."
Mughni had already come under fire for other draconian efforts to muzzle free speech. In January 2012, Palestinian security forces arrested Al-Ahram reporter Khaled Amayreh for criticizing Abbas and referring to Hamas strongman Ismail Haniyeh as the "legitimate Palestinian prime minister." They also detained several journalists and bloggers for critical writing. Among them was Jamal Abu Rihan, a Palestinian blogger who ran the Facebook page "The people want an end to corruption."
The arrests go on. According to al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights group, "It is difficult to know exactly how many people have been detained in violation of the right to freedom of expression because victims, in many cases, are charged with or accused of penal offenses to mask the political motivation behind their arrest." In some cases, arrests appear to be roundups of Hamas supporters. In others, they appear to be aimed at non-violent political opponents or critics of the Abbas regime.
The repression also extends beyond Palestinian outlets. In July 2009, the Palestinian Authority banned Al-Jazeera from operating in the West Bank after the news channel reported on allegations that Abbas and former Gaza security chief Mohammad Dahlan were accomplices in the death of Yasser Arafat. In January 2011, following its publication of internal documents related to Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations known as the "Palestine Papers," Palestinian security officers (among others) attempted to storm Al-Jazeera's Ramallah offices.
These and other incidents have had a chilling effect on reporting. As former Palestinian intelligence official Fahmi Shabaneh remarked in 2010, "al-Jazeera and other Arab media outlets... are afraid to publish anything that angers the Palestinian Authority."
Amid such accounts, in April 2011, Human Rights Watch issued a 35-page report titled "No News is Good News: Abuses Against Journalists by Palestinian Security Forces." It revealed that Palestinian journalists in the West Bank "have had their equipment confiscated and been arbitrarily detained, barred from traveling abroad, assaulted, and in one case, tortured, by Palestinian security services."
The watchdog conceded it couldn't identify clear "instructions from PA leaders to the security services" but noted that the "utter failure of the PA leadership to address the prevailing culture of impunity" seemed to reflect official policy.
Given the recent revelations from Ma'an, we can now be more definitive. It is clear that Mahmoud Abbas's government is pursuing a policy of quashing critical media coverage and stifling free speech on the Internet.
It appears that the PA has not only quashed critical voices through official channels, but at times has also resorted to using extrajudicial means. On Jan. 28, hackers took down InLightPress, a website that alleged that Abbas had ordered his security forces to tap his political opponents' phones. When InLightPress returned online, its editors claimed the cyber attack "came from the Palestinian Authority with the approval of President Abbas." The site further alleged that Abbas had created a "crisis cell" headed by Sabri Saidam, former head of the PA's ministry of telecommunications and information technology, to coordinate the attack.
A week later, on Feb. 3, InLightPress was hacked again. When it returned, its editors stated , "[W]e now know who [the hackers] are, and why they did it, and they know that we will not stop." In defiance, the site continued to publish scathing criticism of Abbas. In response, the Palestinian leadership blocked access to InLightPress in the territories. Days later, the Gaza-based website Amad, which also is critical of Abbas, reported that Palestinian users could not access its website because the Palestinian government had blocked it.
In an apparent confirmation of this campaign, an official from the Telecommunications and Information Technology Ministry was quoted by InLightPress as saying that the site was spreading "sedition and lies to break up the structure of Palestinian society." As a result, he claimed, the PA had the "right to defend... against this malicious and suspicious campaign."
Having a right is not the same as being in the right. The West Bank has now erupted in scandal. On April 25, the Palestinian Telecommunications Company (Paltel) issued a statement admitting it had "no choice except to abide by" orders from Palestinian officials to block websites. On April 26,  Palestinian Minister of Communication and Information Technology Mashour Abu Daka resigned, citing "personal reasons" for his departure. And on Saturday, long-time Abbas loyalist Hanan Ashrawi came out and publicly condemned the actions of her government.
But as InLightPress and Ma'an have both noted, Palestinians have no recourse here. There appears to be no law criminalizing what the PA has done. And Abbas conveniently deflects all criticism toward the Israelis, claiming that their presence makes him unable to introduce democratic reforms. As a result, the political environment in the West Bank looks increasingly like the Gaza Strip, where the Iran-backed terrorist group Hamas rules with an iron fist.
Obama's new executive order, which is designed to prevent human rights violations involving technology, may provide Palestinians with their best recourse for combating Abbas's attempts to dominate the political space in the West Bank. But the president has so far failed to live up to his lofty rhetoric. Just days after the scandal erupted, the president signed a waiver releasing $192 million in aid for the Palestinians that had been frozen by Congress on the grounds that it was "important for the security interests of the United States."
The president, however, issued the waver without first demanding that Abbas take measures to guarantee free speech in the West Bank. This was a lost opportunity. Only direct intervention by the United States will ensure greater freedom of expression for Palestinians engaged in this important struggle.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 30/04/2012
-Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of P@lestinian Pulse: What Policymakers Can Learn from Palestinian Social Media and Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine

Monday, April 30, 2012

Principled Intervention In Syria

By Adil E. Shamoo
Young protester in Homs
                                                          Young protester in Homs
Progressives must seriously consider intervention in Syria despite our misgivings. Such an intervention, however, need not impose hegemony on Syria. Unfortunately, so far no one advocating intervention has pledged to abide by fundamental moral principles of respecting Syrians, their independence, and their future government.
For over a year, Bashar al-Assad’s regime has savagely killed and wounded Syrian civilians.  The regime has also targeted international journalists when they manage to enter the country. The number of civilian deaths has topped 9,000. Armed opposition forces as well as ordinary civilians are struggling to keep the battle going against a well-equipped military and security forces. The United Nations recently reached a consensus to send 300 additional monitors to Syria. Violence has decreased but not stopped.
The country is divided along many religious, ethnic, and sectarian lines. Minorities fear that a new Sunni majority government might commit atrocities against them, similar to what happened in Iraq after the U.S. invasion. Islamic fundamentalists, and even al-Qaeda, have made their presence known in Syria. These groups operating in Syria raise the specter of a wide-ranging and brutal civil war.
Unfortunately, the U.S. television media, and to a lesser extent the print media, does not delve into the important fact that Assad receives support from a significant portion of the Syrian people, such as Alawites, Kurds, Christians, Druze, the merchant class, and part of the middle class. In a rare exception, Stephen Hadley, former national security advisor for President George W. Bush, acknowledged the extent of Syrians’ support for Assad in an op-ed in The Washington Post. Furthermore, Hadley had some reasonable suggestions on how to resolve the Syrian conflict, such as having the Syrian National Council — and not the United States — lead the removal of the regime, and formulating beforehand a concrete economic plan to help Syria.
The Western powers and the Arab League, with the exception of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, claim that there is not sufficient consensus to intervene militarily in Syria. Although the Western powers, including the United States, talk a great deal about helping Syria, they have been reluctant to do so for many reasons, including the lack of oil in Syria. Instead, Western officials speak about the inevitability of Assad’s downfall, as if it will happen without any additional outside pressure.
So far, I’ve opposed any military intervention in Syria for moral as well as practical reasons. Syria is in a civil war, and there is no unified popular uprising as there was in Tunisia and Egypt. Instead, a divided country is at war with itself. The opposition could suddenly seize power with the assistance of a foreign military forces and a slaughter of civilians by both sides could ensue.
Principles of Intervention
Any serious plan for foreign military intervention in Syria must be fully transparent and strictly adhere to the following principles.
The intervening forces should be composed of personnel from the following entities in a descending order of preference: the UN, India, the Arab League, and the Scandinavian countries. The force magnitude of the intervening force should be sufficient to achieve the goals set by the UN. The Syrian National Council, in conjunction with the leadership of the UN and the intervening countries, should pledge to abide by these principles. Syrian civilians should not to be armed. The arms should go to the newly reconstructed military under the leadership of the National Council. The first mission of the intervening forces must be to protect minorities at risk of abuse.
Once the intervening forces have secured the country, the Syrian National Council is to form a secular transitional government lasting one year. This transitional government must pledge to abide by the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, guarantee freedom of the press, and ensure free access to Syria by international journalists. The intervening forces must pledge non-interference in Syria’s domestic and foreign policies. The transitional government, along with the intervening forces, must ensure the safety and security of all Syrians and treat them equally regardless of religion, sect, or ethnicity.
The intervening forces must withdraw within one year, though part or all of the intervening forces can be renewable for an additional year. However, the Syrian National Council should have a veto power over this extension. The Syrian people will be the sole conveners and writers of their constitution and hold elections after one year. The UN will send observers to monitor the intervention and the election. If the UN does not provide observers, international human rights organizations will serve as observers. The intervening forces are to use peaceful means to resolve conflicts if at all possible.
The Syrian Difference
In the recent military interventions in Iraq and Libya, the intervening forces refused to abide by any principles. Iraq as a result was a calamity. In Libya, NATO interpreted its UN mandate for its own political convenience. Moreover, the UN should never have surrendered its power and functions to a specific military alliance (NATO). If the Western powers and the UN are as altruistic as they claim, they should be willing to abide by these principles.
I understand and appreciate the objections raised by my colleague and Middle East expert, Stephen Zunes, to any military intervention in Syria. I too was against any military intervention in Syria. However, how long must we wait to stop the slaughter? Yes, intervention produces its own risks. But we have to consider the risks of non-intervention.
In addition to the slaughter of innocent civilians in Syria, the relative stability of the whole region is at stake. The continued violence in the region can engulf the whole Middle East with incalculable consequences. This is why I challenge the UN, the United States, and Western powers to abide by the suggested strict principles for the military intervention and by neutral or nearly neutral organization such as the UN.
In the 21st century, the world needs to turn its back on  naked hegemony in the name of humanitarian assistance to a truly altruistic intervention for the sake of saving thousands of human lives.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy In Focus on 27/04/2012
-Adil E. Shamoo is an associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, a senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, and the author of Equal Worth – When Humanity Will Have Peace

The American Man In Baghdad

Don't look now, but the greatest threat to Middle East stability might just be the "democracy" U.S. has created in Iraq.
Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, has a remarkable ability to make enemies. As Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group puts it, "Personal relations between everyone and Maliki are terrible." This gift was vividly displayed in March, when the annual meeting of the Arab League was held in Baghdad. Although the event was meant to signal Iraq's re-emergence as a respectable country after decades of tyranny and bloodshed, leaders of 10 of the 22 states, including virtually the entire Gulf, refused to attend out of pique at Maliki's perceived hostility to Sunnis both at home and abroad, turning the summit into a vapid ritual. The only friend Iraq has left in the neighborhood is Shiite Iran, which seems intent on reducing its neighbor to a state of subservience.
It's true that Iraq is no longer a threat to its neighbors, as it was under Saddam Hussein. In that narrow respect, the U.S. invasion has made the Middle East a safer place, though at an unspeakable cost in Iraqi and American lives. But the hopes that Bush administration officials once entertained -- that a post-Saddam Iraq, perhaps guided by a secular figure like the émigré opposition leader Ahmad Chalabi, would serve as a stabilizing, pro-American force for the region -- now look patently absurd. Maliki never had much interest in being a friend of the United States, and the departure of U.S. troops has allowed him to forget about it altogether.
What Iraq looks like today is an Iranian cat's paw. At the Arab League meeting, Iraqi diplomats blocked any effort to take robust action against Syria or even use tough language, thus advancing Iran's agenda at the expense of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which advocate arming the rebels seeking to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Immediately after the meeting ended, Maliki dashed to Tehran to confer with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Almost every Iraq expert I've ever talked to agrees that Maliki is an Iraqi nationalist who squirms under the Iranian thumb. But that's where he finds himself today. The question is why.
The most favorable interpretation of Maliki's foreign policy is what I call the Sonofabitch Hypothesis, put forward by Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Alterman argues that Maliki makes enemies because he pursues Iraqi national interests and "isn't afraid to communicate his dislike for people in a region where people prize politeness and solicitude." Alterman thinks that Maliki is in fact navigating a careful course among foes and false friends. An alternate theory is that Maliki is deeply paranoid, as another analyst who knows him and his circle well puts it, and is convinced that rivals at home and abroad are out to get him. Yet another view is that Maliki is a Shiite supremacist who views Sunnis as the enemy (and might also be consumed by conspiracy theories).
But one can be agnostic about Maliki's motivations and still conclude that he is doing harm to Iraq's own interests. No sensible Iraqi leader would pick a fight with Turkey, as he has done. Back in January, when Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, suggested that Maliki should not be waging war against the Sunni opposition at home, Maliki accused Turkey of "unjustified interferences in Iraqi internal affairs," adding for good measure that Erdogan was seeking to restore Turkey's Ottoman hegemony over the region. This in turn led to another escalating round of insults and a mutual summoning of ambassadors.
Iraq needs Turkey more than it needs Iran. Turkey has twice Iran's GDP, and the gap is going to grow rapidly as Turkey continues to expand and Iran contracts under Western sanctions. Turkey has sought to play a mediating role among Iraqi factions, but Maliki persists in seeing his neighbor as a Sunni power seeking to restore Sunni, or Ottoman, control over Iraq. Turkish diplomats probably didn't help matters in the 2010 elections when they supported Maliki's rival, Iraqiya -- including allegedly encouraging Qatar to provide financing for the group -- because they saw the party as a relatively nonsectarian alternative to Maliki's overtly Shiite State of Law coalition. But the underlying problem was Maliki's unwillingness to compromise with his domestic rivals.
Indeed, what really seems to be happening is that Iraq's roiling domestic tensions, driven by the unwillingness of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds to accept the legitimacy of one another's aspirations, is spilling over the country's borders and exacerbating the sectarian tensions that already beset the region. Thus, to take one example, this February Maliki's security forces sought to arrest Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a leading member of Iraqiya, on what sounded like wildly trumped-up charges (though in Iraq you never know) that he had used his security forces as a Sunni death squad. Hashemi fled to Kurdistan, leading to a standoff between authorities in Baghdad and Erbil, and then moved on to Turkey, where he was very publicly received by Erdogan, leading to the exchange of playground abuse between Iraqi and Turkish leaders. Hashemi recently popped up in Qatar, which of course provoked an angry exchange between the two countries.
The breakdown of talks between Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which are fighting over oil revenue and borders, has also raised the regional temperature. After Erdogan reached out to the KRG in 2007, the Kurdish region has been increasingly integrated into the Turkish economy. This could serve as a model for Turkey-Iraq relations, but instead it has become yet another irritant. The Kurds, frustrated at the lack of progress in talks -- for which they, to be sure, are partly responsible -- have threatened to sell oil to Turkey without approval from Baghdad and to build a pipeline between the two regions. Turkey has become a pawn in the struggle between Iraq and the KRG.
Finally, Maliki's relentless marginalization of his Sunni rivals, as well as moderate Shiites like Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister and founder of Iraqiya, has thrown him into the arms of Iran, which alone can adjudicate among Iraq's Shiite groups. It was Iran that broke the deadlock after the 2010 elections by insisting that the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr accept Maliki as prime minister. Maliki knows that he owes his job to Iran; consequently, when he has a problem, he runs to Tehran. Iran's rivals in the Gulf thus inevitably, even if unfairly, view him as an Iranian puppet.
There is a larger, and even more troubling, picture here. One of the effects of the tumult inside Arab countries over the past 16 months has been the rise of sectarian differences to the surface, just as happened with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This, in turn, has further fractured regional relations. Demonstrations in Bahrain by the Shiite majority, and the violent response by that country's Sunni leaders, provoked Saudi Arabia to send troops to Bahrain to guard against what it claimed was an Iranian-inspired insurgency. And the burgeoning civil war in Syria, in which a Sunni majority has risen up against a ruler from the Shiite Alawite sect, has pitted Turkey and the Gulf states against Iran -- and now Iraq. The longer the conflict drags on, the more it is likely to deepen that split.
The long-term interests of the United States in the Middle East are the same as those of Arab peoples: the replacement of autocratic regimes with democratic ones, and the replacement of a sectarian narrative with a nonsectarian -- or less sectarian -- one. George W. Bush's administration imagined that Iraq would serve as the pivot for that regional transformation. Instead, Iraq under Maliki has become a deeply fragmented state with superficial democratic characteristics, and a net exporter of sectarianism. It offers yet another lesson for American policymakers -- in case they needed it -- in the unintended consequences of regime change.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 27/04/2012
-James Traub is a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation