Saturday, June 9, 2012

In Its Unyielding Stance On Syria, Russia Takes Substantial Risks In Middle East

By ELLEN BARRY from Moscow

                          Russian President Putin with his Prime Minister Medvedev

The international deadlock over Syria has, in a dreadful way, provided balm for old grievances in this city. After years of fuming about Western-led campaigns to force leaders from power, Russia has seized the opportunity to make its point heard.

This time, its protests cannot be set aside as they were when NATO began airstrikes in Libya or when Western-led coalitions undertook military assaults in Iraq and Serbia. Instead, the international community has come to Russia’s doorstep.

On Friday, a top State Department official visited Moscow, presumably seeking to persuade the Kremlin to reconsider its stance and contribute to an effort to engineer a transition from the rule of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, a longtime Russian ally. In remarks after the meeting, Russia’s top negotiator was implacable, telling a reporter that Moscow’s position was “a matter of principle.”

Russia’s leaders have said repeatedly that their goal is to guard against instability, not to support Mr. Assad. They have signaled that Russia would accept a change of leadership in Syria, but only if devised by Syrians and not imposed from outside, an unlikely prospect in a country riven by violence.

Alongside the satisfaction of putting its foot down, Russia is incurring substantial risks. Having positioned itself as a key player in the conflict, the Kremlin is under pressure to present alternatives. Moscow faces frustration in Western capitals, where it is seen as complicit in the killing of civilians by forces loyal to Mr. Assad, and a deepening alienation among Russia’s partners in the Arab world, who see Moscow as coming to the aid of dictators.

“In most Arab countries, the majority of the population, of course, supports the rebels and opposes the dictator, so our reputation has suffered badly,” said Georgy Mirsky, a leading Middle East scholar at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. “If Bashar Assad manages to win the war, if he remains in power, the majority of the population in Arab countries will blame Russia for this, of course, and our reputation will suffer. But if he is overthrown, also, many people will blame Russia anyway.”

The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia were portrayed in Russia as largely organic, driven by young people frustrated by their economic prospects. But the Syrian conflict is seen completely differently, as orchestrated by other countries in the West and the Arab world and aiding the rise of radical Islam.  As the death toll has mounted in Syria — the United Nations estimates that more than 10,000 people have been killed — Russian officials have consistently argued that the fall of the Assad government would usher in something much worse.

“You know, when we had the war in Chechnya, what we heard was that we were using excessive force, that civilians perished,” Aleksei K. Pushkov, the head of Russia’s parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, said in a recent interview. “But what was at stake was whether we will follow the Yugoslav scenario or not, and the Yugoslav scenario was far more bloody.”

However, a recent upsurge in violence by the government’s security forces, frequently aimed at women and children, has put Russia on the spot to offer alternatives.

Friday’s talks between a senior State Department envoy, Fred Hof, and the deputy foreign ministers, Mikhail Bogdanov and Gennady Gatilov, were an attempt to forge a consensus on a transition. One analyst recommended the model of the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, which ended a vicious ethnic war in the former Yugoslavia. Russia could serve an essential role in guaranteeing order during a political transition because it has deep connections with Syrian military officials, many of whom were educated in the Soviet Union.

“What is needed for Syria is something like the Dayton agreement, not just to remove Assad but to work out a new model of rule in Syria, because democracy will not lead to a solution,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “Russia has more influence on Assad than anyone else. The question is whether anyone would be patient enough to try to implement this.”

After emerging from the meeting on Friday, Mr. Bogdanov said he did not foresee moving beyond the six-point cease-fire plan of the former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, which does not call on Mr. Assad to leave power.

Mr. Bogdanov put the onus for the continuing violence on opposition forces and foreign countries, which, he said, “flirt with extremists and radicals of various kinds for the purpose of achieving their own goals.” Asked what would happen if international forces intervened without a mandate from the United Nations Security Council, he said it would be “a disaster for the entire Middle East region.”

If the costs to Russia are mounting, President Vladimir V. Putin also has compelling domestic reasons for refusing to budge. His predecessor, Dmitri A. Medvedev, lost face among hard-liners in the government for his decision not to block the Western intervention in Libya, setting into motion events that culminated in the killing of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, another Russian ally. Agreeing to a transition plan in Syria would risk consigning Mr. Putin to a similar fate. It would also mean backing down from a stand that is still being cheered in foreign policy circles here.

“Without Russia’s support he would have been pulled down, and the intervention would have followed,” said Vitaly V. Naumkin, director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Without Russia’s support he would have been toppled. Thus, Russia has proved that it can prevent certain events in the region, which, in our opinion, are not only not desired — not because we adore Assad — but because we want stability in this region, and we think this kind of political engineering may lead to catastrophic consequences.”

This analysis was published in the New York Times on 09/06/2012

Friday, June 8, 2012

What is Obama’s Game Plan?

The world should support the Annan peace plan and give it time to work

By Patrick Seale

US President Barack Obama’s Middle East policies seem increasingly problematic. His expanded use of missile strikes by Predator drones against targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere — now being launched at a rate of about one every week — seem certain to create more “terrorists” than they kill. They arouse fierce anti-America sentiment not least because of the inevitable civilian death toll. Obama is said to decide by himself which terrorist suspect is to be targeted for killing in any particular week, as if to confer some presidential sanction on operations of very doubtful legality.

Even more worrying is Obama’s apparently wilful sabotage of two diplomatic initiatives, one by Europe’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, the other by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. Ashton has been leading an attempt by the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) to negotiate a ‘win-win’ deal with Iran over its nuclear programme, while Annan has been struggling to find a negotiated way out of the murderous Syrian crisis. Obama seems intent on compromising both initiatives.

Ashton managed to launch the P5+1 talks with Iran in Istanbul on April 14, after having agreed upon the ground rules with the chief Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili. She pledged at that time that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would be “a key basis” for the talks, thus sending a clear signal that Iran, as a signatory of the NPT, had the right to enrich uranium up to 3.5% for power generation and other peaceful purposes. She also declared that the negotiations would “be guided by the principle of step-by-step approach and reciprocity,” thus giving a strong indication that the sanctions would be lifted in stages once Iran gave up enriching uranium to 20 per cent and provided convincing evidence that it was not seeking nuclear weapons. Iran responded favourably to this approach and the talks got off to a good start.

However, at the next meeting on May 23, in Baghdad, the talks ground to a virtual halt. No progress of any sort was made save for an agreement to meet again in Moscow on June 18-19. The early optimism was dispelled because Obama had hardened the US position. There was to be no recognition of Iran’s rights to enrich lower-grade uranium — indeed the P5+1 refused even to discuss the subject — and no easing of sanctions. On the contrary, Iran was faced with the prospect of even stiffer sanctions coming into force on July 1. The only sweetener was an offer of some spare parts for Iran’s civilian aircraft in exchange for an Iranian pledge to freeze 20 per cent enriched uranium. Iran was asked, in effect, to give up its trump card in exchange for peanuts. It was no surprise that Tehran considered the miserly offer insulting.

Obama seems to have been persuaded that Iran, already reeling under crippling sanctions, would meekly submit to American demands if still more pressure was applied. This was a fundamental error of judgement. Far from submitting, Iran reacted defiantly and hopes for a win-win deal evaporated. There are now no great expectations of a breakthrough at the Moscow talks.

So what is Obama up to? He seems to have adopted Israel’s hard-line view that Iran should be compelled to close down its nuclear industry completely — a clear deal-breaker. It is not all together clear whether he is doing so to counter accusations of weakness from his Republican challenger Mitt Romney or whether his hard, uncompromising line is intended to stave off Israel’s much-trumpeted threats to attack Iran in the coming months which, in view of the American electoral calendar, would inevitably suck in the US.

Obama has already joined Israel in clandestine warfare against Iran. In a major article last week in the New York Times, David E Sanger revealed that “from his first months in office, President Barack Obama secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facilities ...” The US and Israel then jointly developed the cyber-weapon Stuxnet, which caused considerable damage to the centrifuges in Iran’s Natanz facility.

By any standards, launching Stuxnet against Iran was an act of state terrorism. That Israel should engage in such practices is not surprising: its entire regional policy is based on subverting and destabilising its neighbours so as to ensure its own supremacy. But how can the US, which claims to be the supreme guardian of international order, justify such lowly behaviour?

Not content with sabotaging Ashton’s efforts, Obama is also undermining Annan’s difficult mission in Syria. The American president pays lip-service to Annan’s peace plan while, at the same time, secretly coordinating the flow of funds, intelligence and weapons to Bashar Al Assad’s enemies.  Numerous sources attest that the US has taken upon itself the role of deciding which among the various armed rebel groups deserve support. One must only hope that in his eagerness to bring about the fall of the Syrian regime, Obama will not fall into the trap of funding and arming jihadis, many of them linked to Al Qaida who have flowed in from neighbouring countries to fight the Syrian regime.

In short, Obama seems to have embraced the argument of Israeli hawks and American neo-conservatives that bringing down the Syrian regime is the best way to weaken and isolate the Islamic Republic of Iran, sever its ties with Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements and eventually bring about a regime change in Tehran.

The puzzle is to understand what has happened to Obama. This former professor of constitutional law was expected to correct the flagrant crimes of the Bush administration, such as the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the water-boarding, the network of secret prisons where torture was routine, the practice of ‘extraordinary rendition’. Instead, by his own violent and questionable acts, he is widening the gulf between the US and the Muslim world.

No less a person than Henry Kissinger has, in a recent Washington Post article, reminded the US of the dangers of humanitarian intervention in Syria. “If adopted as a principle of foreign policy,” he wrote, “this form of intervention raises broader questions for US strategy. Does America consider itself obliged to support every popular uprising against any non-democratic government ...?” If Al Asad is overthrown, he argues, a new civil war may follow as armed groups contest the succession. “In reacting to one tragedy, we must be careful not to facilitate another.”

Kissinger’s main point is that states are sovereign within their borders. The US may have strategic reasons to favour the fall of Al Asad, but “not every strategic interest rises to a cause for war; were it otherwise, no room would be left for diplomacy.” In other words, the world should support the Annan peace plan and give it time to work.

-This commentary was first published in The GULF NEWS on 08/06/2012
-Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs, including ‘Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East’ and ‘Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire’

On Assad's Doorstep

The revolution is finally coming to the once quiet, now tense streets of inner Damascus.

BY JULIEN BARNES-DACEY from Damascus, Syria

The eyes of the world are on Syria's outlying towns and villages, where the rebels are organizing and where the bodies are piling up. As the U.N. Security Council prepares to meet to discuss the crisis, U.N. monitors are rushing to the town of Mazraat al-Qubeir to investigate claims that at least 78 civilians were killed in cold blood by President Bashar al-Assad's militiamen. If true, the attack would be a grim echo to the gruesome massacre in the town of Houla last month.

But as Syria's periphery descends into chaos, observers may be missing a more subtle deterioration of Assad's authority at the center of his regime. The Syrian capital of Damascus, whose commercial center has been seen as immune from the nationwide unrest, is increasingly turning on the Assad regime -- and widening unrest in the heart of the city now appears to be only a matter of time.

An important moment came last week, when security forces opened fire in the center of Damascus to disperse a small gathering of peaceful demonstrators at the end of Hamra Street, located just a few hundred meters away from parliament. Within minutes of the demonstrators gathering, security forces rushed onto the scene, firing into the air to scatter the protesters. The crackdown was notable because it marked an escalation of force by Syrian security services, which had hitherto largely restricted themselves to using batons against demonstrators within the heart of the city.

For 15 months, central Damascus has appeared a bastion of regime support in a sea of unrest. The lack of meaningful protests and violence, the busy cafes and bustling restaurants, and the sight of people apparently continuing their daily lives unaffected by the turmoil have played into the regime's narrative of enduring stability. In contrast to the capital's impoverished suburbs -- home to those most affected by state corruption, brutality, and mismanaged economic liberalization -- those living in the center profited from the last decade of Assad's rule, and did not turn on the regime in great numbers. This section of the population has been emblematic of the so-called "silent majority" -- the middle class that has seemingly sided with the regime out of a desire to maintain its privileged economic position and also out of fear of the violence and chaos that could follow the fall of Assad.

However, according to conversations with old acquaintances, businessmen, shopkeepers, middle-class professionals, and taxi drivers in the capital, the mood has markedly shifted away from the regime over the last couple of months. "Don't be fooled by the cafes and restaurants," an old friend, a businessman who once enthusiastically poured forth about the new possibilities opened up in the country under Assad, told me. He spoke of a city deeply on edge and increasingly hostile to the regime.

Another well-off, middle-class man launched into a tirade over the regime's incompetence and its willingness to push the country to civil war for the sake of preserving power. Syrians with the means to do so -- even including many who had previously made commitments to seeing the conflict through from within the country -- are now making plans to leave, and an exodus of middle-class professionals is expected come the end of the school year.

This hollowing-out of regime support in the capital, which is increasingly visible to visitors and residents alike, suggests the potential dawn of a new phase in Syria's long struggle. The decision by Damascene merchants to go on an unprecedented strike over recent days -- locking their stores shut or sitting outside and refusing to do business in response to the Houla killings -- marked an important escalation of local defiance. Previous calls for strikes, by contrast, had withered out unsuccessfully.

To be sure, many continue to back the regime within the capital, particularly some minorities who fear, as one Alawite told me, being driven out of Damascus. To many in this group, there is a clear solution to Syria's crisis: The Assad regime should be striking back with even more force to overcome foreign-backed "terrorists."

But cracks in the support of former regime stalwarts are increasingly evident. Even one member of the parliamentary opposition -- dismissed by most of Syria's revolutionaries as regime stooges -- told me that "the regime is crumbling" and that change is now inevitable. "We want to keep the state but get rid of the regime," the parliamentarian said.

Foreign observers also think the Assad regime is on its way to collapse. "Everyone here, even the street cleaners, accept that Bashar can no longer be the driving force of the country," one diplomat in Damascus told me. "The regime is finished."

The changing dynamic has not only been sparked by increased support for the opposition -- indeed, many Damascenes struggle to identify their vision for Syria's future -- but by a sense that the regime is no longer able to fulfill its most basic pledges of ensuring security and stability within the confines of the capital. Criminality is on the rise: Bodies are turning up in city morgues, and kidnappings, rape, and petty crime are all appearing in a city that has long been one of the safest capitals in the Middle East. Meanwhile, there has been a noticeable escalation in the clashes between Assad's security forces and Free Syrian Army fighters across Damascus's suburbs, many areas of which fall under effective rebel control at night.

Anti-regime protests are also fast approaching the very heart of power. Whereas they were once confined to the farthest suburbs of the capital -- the likes of Harasta and Douma -- they are spreading to districts like Midan and Kafr Sousa, just minutes from downtown Damascus. One Western diplomat who continues to live in the city center told me that the nightly mortar attacks and gunfire from the suburbs had increased noticeably in intensity over previous weeks.

Some Syrians cite the May 10 attack, where car bombs exploded outside an intelligence building during the morning rush hour, killing at least 55 people, as a turning point, highlighting the threat of violence that regime tactics were bringing upon their heads. "We suddenly panicked," one middle-aged Syrian told me. "Our children were out, and we knew it could be them [killed in the attack]."

International sanctions are also beginning to bite, pushing up prices and creating new shortages and hardships for ordinary Syrians. Passing through the eastern gate of Bab Sharqi, a Christian quarter one afternoon, I came across a line of people several hundred meters long queuing for cooking gas. Tensions were clearly fraying at the front, with people shouting and elbowing their way to the front to demand first access to a truck that plainly didn't have enough supplies for the entire crowd.  Elsewhere, those businesses that haven't closed are suffering unprecedented economic pain: The lobby and restaurants of the Four Seasons hotel, once a hive of business activity, now lie eerily empty -- a lone pianist providing the soundtrack for a city at the end of its rope.

As shown by its use of live fire on Hamra Street, the regime appears to be growing ever more forceful in pushing back, seeking to fall back on its still substantial military advantage to quash the threat. The day after the violent dispersal of the protest, pickup trucks openly loaded with mortars were shown on Syrian TV driving through the restive district of Midan -- a clear warning to the local population. During my visit, security measures for entry into the heart of the city tightened -- including increased barricades and new road closures -- as did precautions outside the homes of key regime figures. These could well be signs of a regime on its back foot.

It is near impossible to truly gauge the balance of power in Damascus and Syria at large today. But the capital gives off the impression of a city on the brink. For many this brings a sense of deep foreboding. The emergence of widespread unrest in Damascus could prove fatal to the regime's lingering pretensions to legitimacy and control, likely provoking a brutal and bloody response. As one man, speaking with a sense of deep trepidation, told me: "We know that it will come our way in the end, of course."

-This commentary was first published in Foreign Policy on 07/06/2012
-Julien Barnes-Dacey is a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and was based in Syria from 2007 to 2010

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Maliki's Manuevering In Iraq

By Judith S. Yaphe

                                                            Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

In the 2010 parliamentary elections in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his State of Law Coalition emerged as the head of government over rival Ayad Allawi and the Iraqiyya Party, which had won the election by a slim majority of two seats. Since then, Iraqis and Iraq watchers have been tracking Maliki's efforts to strengthen the authority of the central government at the expense of parliament, provincial governments, and other independent checks and balances of post-Saddam governance. Most see Maliki's actions as intended to consolidate his personal power while containing his weaker and fractious opposition, whether it is secular or sectarian. This being post-Saddam Iraq, Maliki's moves carry an uncanny resemblance to the manner in which Saddam Hussein gained power.

Much of the current dilemma in Iraqi politics dates back to the post-Saddam coalition crafted out of the opposition movement led by Iraqi exiles -- primarily the Iraqi National Congress (INC) constructed by Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi National Accord led by Ayad Allawi, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an umbrella Shiite organization created in Iran and composed of factions led by the al-Hakim family and the Dawa movement, and the two Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani. The SCIRI, KDP, and PUK were part of the INC but acted independently of Chalabi, especially after the fall of the Baathist regime. Along with representatives of Iraq's tiny Turkman and Christian communities, they came together briefly in the 25-person governing council appointed by Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer. It formed the core of the factions involved in succeeding transitional governments and the committee chosen to write the 2005 constitution.

The constitution reflects the fears and hopes of Iraq's populations not favored by Saddam -- the disenfranchised and mistrusted Shiite (approximately 55 percent of the population), the Kurds (20 percent), and other Islamic, pre-Islamic, and Christian ethnic and religious groups, as well as Sunni Arabs who had shared the benefits and risks of serving Saddam. Their goal was to prevent a return to dictatorial autocratic power by a sole leader and strictly limit the powers of the central government.  The federal government was vested with power to defend the state and protect its people but real authority for decision making on control of resources, distribution of wealth, and local security was to lie with the provincial governments that controlled local politics and security services. Provinces could veto national laws and decide to form regional governments, such as the Kurdistan Regional Government, should a number of them choose to do so. Issues too difficult and divisive to decide in 2005 -- such as provincial boundaries, disputed territories (such as Kirkuk), and control of Iraq's oil resources -- were kicked down the road to be resolved at a later and more auspicious moment.

The constitution did not create a confederation as the desired form of government. Rather, it designed a central government with few powers and weak authority and assigned greater authority to provincial governments. The structure is somewhat akin to the Articles of Confederation that formed the first Constitution of the United States, but it is the Kurds who insist that the Iraqi Constitution created a confederal form of government. Embedded in this assumption is a second Kurdish aspiration -- that the government and the allocation of power be shared according to Iraq's primary sectarian and ethnic divisions of Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab, and Kurd, similar to the Lebanese model of government. By this plan, Iraq's Kurds would have ownership of the presidency, the foreign ministry, and a guaranteed presence in cabinet, parliamentary, and military posts. It is a vision not shared by the non-Kurds of Iraq and strongly opposed by Prime Minister Maliki.

Most of the current controversy involves the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki had survived more than 20 years of exile in Tehran and Damascus as a functionary in the banned Dawa Party. He was a discreet and seemingly unthreatening presence in the short-lived government of Ibrahim al-Jaafari. From his base in the Dawa Party, he first marginalized his opponents within the party and then moved against Prime Minister Jafaari, also a Dawa Party member, replacing him as prime minister in 2006. At first, Maliki seemed to be the right ruler for the times -- he moved against the Sadrist militia in Baghdad and contained feuding among rival Shiite factions in Basra. His government moved to bring oil contracts and distribution of oil revenue under control but other moves have a much darker side. During a presentation at the National Defense University in May, British scholar Toby Dodge described Maliki as "muscular" and as "a grey functionary," a man who has long known he has many enemies and now has moved to consolidate power both brutally and efficiently. The prime minister, Dodge said, is "consolidating an authoritarian regime, the ramifications of which are rather stark" and he urged the United States to "adopt a policy to combat this rising dictator." He has gone from the last man standing to a direct and profound threat to any remnants of Iraqi democracy."

Maliki began by targeting the military, the courts, and the ministries. As the U.S. military, in particular the U.S. Special Forces, transferred responsibility to their Iraqi counterparts, Maliki created several special brigades within the army as counter-terrorism brigades and moved them out of the defense ministry to report directly to him. The office of commander-in-chief was moved to the prime minister's office and staffed with friends loyal to him. He then consolidated the police and army into one office under one general in order to control all security functions. His special operations forces, which Iraqis refer to as Fedayeen al-Maliki, a term reminiscent of Saddam's infamous fedayeen Saddam, number approximately 4,200 and are under his direct control.

Dodge and others note that by retaining the title and role of defense and interior minister, moving special security units out of the defense ministry, streamlining the military hierarchy, and controlling high-ranking appointments, Maliki has circumvented the military chain of command and, in effect, coup proofed the military. He has also moved to tighten control over the intelligence and security services. As in Saddam's time, Iraq now has six separate intelligence services overseeing each other and everyone else. According to Dodge's figures, 933,000 people are employed in the Iraqi Security Forces, an estimated 8 percent of the Iraqi workforce and twelve percent of the male population.  Other sources describe Maliki as targeting midlevel intelligence-officers to drive them out if they are seen as threats to him. The effect has been to undermine the coherence of the chain of command and fracture the ability to produce and utilize actionable intelligence. Shiite security forces masquerading as militias maintained secret prisons, conducted kidnappings and targeted killings with apparent impunity. Dodge estimates that given Maliki's control over special security, intelligence, police, and prisons, no one in Iraq's growing security apparat would dare challenge him. Dodge is almost certainly correct.

Maliki has made similar moves toward political consolidation. Borrowing Allawi's popular tactic of building a secular, Iraqi national coalition, Maliki tried to build a pan-Iraqi coalition in the months leading up to the March 2010 election and wooed disaffected Sunni Arab leaders unhappy with Maliki's chief rival Ayad Allawi's secular and cross-national Iraqiyya Party. When this proved insufficient to win over Sunni Arab and secular supporters, he turned to sectarian rhetoric. He moved closer to Shiite extremist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia he had previously shut down and leaders arrested, and accused his rivals of supporting the return of the Baathists and the purge that would follow their return. When the Iraqiyya Party with Sunni Arab support won 91 seats and Maliki's State of Law party only 89, Maliki rejected the results and as commander-in-chief declared that without a recount there would be a return to violence. Although the constitution said the party winning the majority in the elections had the first right to form a new government, the court decided that a post-election coalition could take that right from the party winning the most seats. Sadr's joining Maliki gave the prime minister the authority to move forward and ignore Iraqiyya and its leaders.

In April 2010 in an effort to paper over the bitterness of the "lost" election, Maliki went to Irbil, capital of the Kurdistan Regional Authority, to negotiate with the Kurds and prominent Sunni Arab politicians, including parliamentary leaders Nujayfi and Salih al-Mutlak and Iraqiyya leader, Allawi. He agreed to a 15-point agenda which promised a new degree of power-sharing among Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Arabs and Kurds and the appointment of a Sunni Arab and a Shiite Arab to head the defense and interior ministries. He also promised to create a National Council of Strategic Policies to oversee, approve or veto any major legislation after the prime minister signed it. Leadership of the council was promised to Allawi. Maliki, however, reneged on his commitments. He refused to name a defense minister or an interior minister or establish the special commission and Allawi in turn refused to compromise.

By late 2010, Maliki had brought the supreme federal court under his direct control. In January 2011, the judiciary, described by Toby Dodge as "pliable," ended the independence of several agencies established during the U.S. occupation that were supposed to oversee elections, protect human rights, and fight corruption under his control and placed them under direct control of the prime minister's office. For example, the courts found the Independent Higher Education Commission's (IHEC) link to the legislative branch of government to be a violation of the separation of powers. Several months later, its chairman, who had worked to preserve the integrity of elections from Maliki's manipulation, was arrested and charged with corruption. Dodge also claims that in 2010 the Higher Judicial Council ruled that new legislation could only be proposed by the cabinet, giving the prime minister and not parliament the ability to propose legislation. The right of parliament to question ministers was also ended. If true, then this would be a major set-back for the institutional checks and balances the United States hopes to ensure in post-Saddam Iraq. On the day of the U.S. withdrawal ceremony in Baghdad in December 2011, Iraqi security forces surrounded the residences of several prominent Iraqi Sunni Arab politicians, including Deputy Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, to arrest him on charges of coup plotting in 2006 to 2007. Maliki also threatened Iraqiyya leader Salih al-Mutlak and Speaker Osama al-Nujayfi.

Dodge blames lack of interest by the international community, the long months of negotiation between Maliki and Iraqiyya, and the bizarre Supreme Court intervention which gave the 2010 election to a post-election coalition of Maliki plus the Sadrists for the prime minister's success. That may be, but a more serious shadow falls over the prospect for free and fair elections in 2014. The court case against Hashemi and the Irbil Agreement had been clever strokes by Maliki as was the arrest on charges of corruption in 2012 of the director of the IHEC, which had produced the fair and open 2010 election. The charges were old ones (payment of $125 bonuses to IHEC workers) but were alleged to be payments made to local bosses. Maliki's message must have been clear in leaving the director in prison on questionable charges and claiming that these new institutions were not included in the constitution. Who would challenge him?

Maliki is seen by many Iraqis -- mostly Shiite and perhaps some Sunni Arabs -- as a brave nationalist willing to move against sectarian extremists, including militias loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr or the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (the Hakim organization). A National Democratic Institute (NDI) poll taken in April shows that Maliki's approval rating has jumped to 53 percent from 34 percent in September 2011. Others view Maliki as the new Saddam. This view is held primarily by Iraq's Kurdish leaders, especially KRG President Masoud Barzani, Sunni Arab politicians whose tribes were favored by Saddam's regime and sided with U.S. forces in support of the surge of 2006 to 2007, and by Americans and British who worked closely with the Sunni Arabs during the U.S. occupation.  In a political style reminiscent of Saddam, Maliki has become increasingly skilled at using nationalist rhetoric when it suits him and sectarian manipulation when he perceives it the more useful tool. He is artful in fashioning political compromises, such as the Irbil Agreement, to co-opt his rivals and in using constitutional arguments to defend his refusal to implement previous political concessions while he moves to isolate, intimidate, and arrest opponents. He has been helped by the split last year in the Iraqiyya movement, and the reluctance of Sunni Arab parliamentary leaders to break with him openly. According to Iraqi sources, prominent Sunni Arab politicians who had been discredited by Maliki -- including Salih al-Mutlak, Osama al-Nujayfi and probably Mishan al-Juburi -- have apparently reached a modus vivendi with Maliki that permits the first two to remain in their positions and allows Juburi to return from exile in Syria. If there were to be a push for a vote of no confidence in parliament -- as Muqtada al-Sadr and others have threatened -- some question whether Maliki would permit his opponents to reach Baghdad. Even the Kurds are not fully on board with a vote of no-confidence. President Jalal Talabani in early June at a conference in Dokan that included Kurdish parliamentarians appeared to urge participants not to support a vote of no-confidence in the prime minister. Muqtada al-Sadr, however, is pressing ahead with his demand for a vote.

Maliki has made clear his view that power sharing or the creation of more autonomous provincial regions will not solve Iraq's current problems. The 2005 Constitution is not suitable to resolve these problems but more important, the state is weak. Maliki argues that in a democratic state the winner has the right to form the government with ministers and officials of his choosing. In a state with a history of free and fair elections, acceptance of the rule of the law, and a system of checks and balances among government institutions, this would apply. But Iraq is not that state, Maliki is not that leader, and Iraqis are too scarred by past decades of oppression and dictatorship to accept Maliki as a "muscular democrat" or to protest his actions openly.

Maliki is not solely responsible for Iraq's political stagnation. State institutions are profoundly weak due to rampant corruption, interest groups that purchase ministries using money, violence, or wasta (influence), reliance on patronage networks, or playing on blatant sectarian fears. Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Iraq as the 8th most corrupt country in the world.

Would Iraq be better under a national unity government? Probably not. So long as governments reward loyalty with ministry positions and there is no independent civil service or other means of imposing accountability on government and its exercise of power, there can be little hope of change. Maliki praises and targets the parliament and anti-corruption committees and has forced their leaders to resign. At the same time, the central government has only marginally improved people's lives. Unemployment is high, job security uncertain, and electricity still an unreliable commodity in a country now entering its long summer with temperatures in Baghdad and most of southern Iraq averaging 125 degrees Fahrenheit.

Dodge believes that the purpose of Maliki's forces should be measured by their size. By this standard and with an internal security force nearly twice the size of the national military, the purpose of Iraq's security force is to impose order on the population and not provide national security. Maliki has established security forces that are numerous and ready to impose his will on the populace. He has not created or strengthened a state ready and able to provide much needed services like electricity and water for its people. Dodge sees a fractured, angry, alienated state whose ideological underpinning is part nationalism, part sectarianism, part ethnicism. He predicts that violence will increase in this fractured state, perhaps not to the level of another insurgency, but it will be bad. Dodge believes these factors could potentially be a flashpoint for an uprising. I think this is doubtful. Iraqis are weary of the long years of war and sanctions under Saddam followed by more years of violence, deprivation, and political wrangling.

Like many critics of U.S. policy, Dodge blames the United States for much of Iraq's woes. The United States, he says:

... is becoming a victim of its own inaction. [It] should not treat Iraq like a broken toy, but as a repressive and unstable block on the landscape that merits attention since it was made in the USA.  We have a malfunctioning unstable state that we are somewhat responsible for. The U.S. administration needs to look at this critically, it does not appear to be, but it should do this.

Historian Phebe Marr is skeptical of the ability of the United States to step in and fix anything. She believes the answer lies in fixing the culture and not in fixing the constitution. Iraqi scholar Adeed Dawisha agrees. In Dawisha's view, Maliki seems to consider the system of checks and balances "not as an essential element of democracy, but as an irritant political imposition that he would gladly discard or circumvent." This should come as no surprise, Dawisha notes, since Maliki came of political age in the shadow of Saddam, as a member of a clandestine and hierarchical Islamist party, and in long years of exile in the Islamic Republic of Iran and under the watchful eye of the Assad regime in Syria. So long as personal interests and greed dominate the Iraqi political sphere, the system will be dysfunctional, the government unable to provide services, and elections or a new prime minister unable to overcome obstacles. Marr believes that U.S. programs that deal in education, professional exchanges and business could help move Iraq past sectarianism and change the political culture, although she admits it "will be tough." Others who watch Iraq raise the lack of a strategic framework agreement, which was supposed to set relations between the governments of the United States and Iraq after the withdrawal of U.S. forces. The only visible indicator of relations appears to be the arms sales under consideration, including F-16s, tanks, and other equipment. The new technology will enable the Iraqi security services to quell most disturbances but with no strategic agreement how will the United States hope to influence any bad behavior by the Iraqi government against its people?

Many of the groups encouraged and funded by the United States -- including non-governmental organizations active in Iraq and Washington -- are losing their funding and at the same time face pressure from the Maliki's government, sectarian civil society factions and extremist leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr to curtail their activities. In light of the U.S. withdrawal, these groups have been left without a shield and are now targeted as collaborators. They are at risk if they try to continue their efforts, or must try and function from exile in Kurdistan or elsewhere.

Iraq's political elites are also being influenced by other developments. All Iraqis are watching Syria with great concern. Syria no longer is a safe haven for Iraqi exiles and Syrian refugees are reported seeking protection in tribal areas of northwestern Iraq, which once saw an influx of Syrian-backed terrorists and arms smugglers. Some Sunni Arabs worry that Iran's position and that of Maliki will be strengthened should Assad survive. Other Iraqis -- Sunni and Shiite -- worry that should the Assad regime fail, Saudi-backed religious extremist factions (Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi extremists) will be strengthened and threaten Iraq's tenuous stability. In either scenario, Iraq will be more vulnerable to outside manipulation, either from a Sunni-dominated Syria or as Iran's new line of defense or strategic depth against its enemies on the west. Either scenario could place Iraq at greater risk of civil war.

Tensions with the Kurds are also having unintended consequences for Arab Iraqis. Despite Masoud Barzani's stand, Iraq's Kurdish parties will not support a vote of no confidence because Maliki has given them a great deal. The Iraqi army is strong and coherent enough to stabilize an uprising at least in central Iraq, but it is probably not strong enough to put up a fight with the Kurds in the north. Dodge believes that a decision to move against Barzani would lead to a long and protracted conflict. He is probably correct for the short-term, but in the longer term and with new arms and resources, Baghdad will be stronger and better able to deal with security problems in the disputed territories.  Iraq's Arabs are growing increasingly concerned with the levels of anti-Arab rhetoric coming from the Kurdistan Regional Government and several recently returned leaders give as their reason for return from exile their frustration with Kurdish demands for territory long held by Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen. It would behoove the Kurds to work their relations with Baghdad to protect their advances but Barzani's rhetoric and intransigence on cooperation with Baghdad during his visits to Washington and Turkey in April have alarmed many in Iraq and abroad. Some analysts note that the KRG "cannot survive as freeloaders for long when $10 billion annually flows from oil sharing revenues from Central Baghdad to their coffers."

For many observers in and outside Iraq, the country's situation is almost impossible. Outsiders like Dodge and Marr believe the structures created by the United States are still in place in the ministry of defense and elsewhere, but they are irrelevant. Oversight mechanisms are in place but are subverted or overlooked. For Dodge and others, the United States needs to re-ignite a peer-to-peer attempt to save and bolster professional autonomy. The U.S. military still has influence in military affairs because of equipment sales, exchange programs, and training. Iraqis have a different perspective. Others believe that the only outcome will be political chaos or a return to the anarchy of 2006 to 2007 should Maliki continue on his present course. Wiser Iraqis take a longer view. One Iraqi opined that the present uncertain state of affairs will probably continue for the next year or more, perhaps until the 2014 election for a new parliament. He believes fair and free elections are still possible and that Maliki has had to restrain whatever instincts he may have to move relentlessly and ruthlessly against his real and imagined enemies. He admits his disappointment in Maliki's actions but, like many Iraqis, hopes to avoid a return to the anarchy that prevailed before Maliki assumed power.

One final question remains and it was asked when Saddam was removed. Was he, Saddam, an anomaly or a product of his time and political culture? If he was an anomaly, then the chances of another era of repression under a patriarchal autocrat would be slim. But if he was a product of his political culture and history, then Maliki could represent the next Saddam. Let us hope this is not the case.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 06/06/2012
-Dr. Judith S. Yaphe is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies. The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Egypt Rings in the Old

Why Voters Went for Mursi and Shafiq

The first round of presidential elections in Egypt pushed the revolutionary and populist candidates out of the running. The only options left are representatives of the old order -- the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, which have been battling for power for more than half a century.

By Jon B. Alterman

                                     Election posters in Egypt (Jonathan Rashad / flickr)

A powerful sense of innovation and possibility surrounded the February 2011 protests that pushed Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak from office. If the results of the first round of Egypt's presidential elections last week are any guide, that sense has all but disappeared. The old guard is back, and the revolutionary youth and the populists are out. The two remaining candidates, Muhammad Mursi and Ahmed Shafiq, represent the most hierarchical institutions in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. These institutions have been battling each other for more than half a century, and they won the first round not by finding creative ways to attract the center but by energizing their traditional bases.

Earlier this year, it seemed that things might turn out differently. One contender for power was the ad hoc youth coalition that pushed the revolution forward in January and February 2011. The young revolutionaries, including the Google executive Wael Ghoneim, shunned political hierarchy. Instead, they sought to establish a rhizomatic organization that stressed peer-to-peer communication.  Disdainful of smoke-filled rooms and political intrigue, they asked supporters in May 2011 to submit questions via Facebook that they should ask the military (they got 850 suggestions), and they posted summaries of their meetings with the country's top brass on the Internet. In a world of political transition, they were giving postmodern politics a try.

But as postmodern politicians they could not bargain with powerful interest groups in Egypt, including the military. Tahrir Square had been great theater, but when the stage lights switched off there was no way to keep the attention of the masses. In fact, the revolutionaries' first defeat came more than a year ago in March 2011, when less than 25 percent of Egyptian voters joined them in opposing a slate of constitutional amendments meant to set the terms of Egyptian politics going forward. The group was defeated even more soundly in parliamentary elections last winter, when avowedly pro-revolutionary parties won just a handful of seats. Their disdain for formal leadership cost them influence; as one analyst put it in a private meeting, "It's unclear if the revolutionary youth dislike politics or they're just bad at it."

So if Egypt wasn't ready for postmodern politics, what about just plain modern politics -- the kind one might find in any other country? Two candidates who bore that standard in the recent election were Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fatouh, an independent moderate Islamist, and Hamdeen Sabahi, an opposition leader since the days of Anwar Sadat.

In the run-up to the elections, Abou el-Fatouh had assiduously courted a diverse coalition by, among other steps, employing a Marxist political adviser and a secular media expert and stressing the importance of citizenship and personal freedoms. In doing so, he managed to win the confidence of conservative Salafis and liberal secularists. He also seemed willing to have measured confrontations with the military. For example, he insisted that the budget for the armed forces be transparent and part of the overall national budget. He also argued that the military needed to restrict its role to defending the country. In part, what was so refreshing about Abou el-Fatouh was that he was a normal politician. After decades of politics based wholly on loyalty -- to religion, region, or institution -- Abou el-Fatouh was different. His speeches were both vague and charismatic. His style allowed diverse constituencies to project their own views onto him.

Meanwhile, longtime opposition leader Sabahi ran as an unabashed nostalgist who sought to return to the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser and resurrect Egypt's role as regional leader. Sabahi's populist politics -- his election slogan was "One of us" -- resonated with tens of millions of Egypt's poor. He called for boosting the minimum wage by more than 50 percent and for strengthening social welfare programs. In poor neighborhoods and villages, his posters were everywhere. His message also found favor among some revolutionaries looking to upend the status quo.

But, in the end, normal politics were not enough, either. In part, too many postmodern and modern candidates were competing for the same disaffected voters, diluting their power. Further, new candidates were relatively unskilled at get-out-the-vote efforts, so turnout favored the old guard. Now Egypt will return to the days of traditional patronage networks.

In a race between Mursi and Shafiq, the edge likely goes to Mursi, whose advantage is not so much personal charisma as the Muslim Brotherhood's countrywide network of activists. He is likely to draw the totality of the Islamist vote -- bringing conservative Salafis under his wing in addition to the modernist Muslim Brotherhood -- along with revolutionaries and others who feel an urgent need for change.

Meanwhile, Shafiq enjoys support among Christians who fear an Islamist government, Egyptians yearning for normalcy after 15 months of tumult, and the clients of the old security state. He has the tacit support of many of the Gulf monarchies, the military, and others who seek to preserve as much as possible of Egypt's Mubarak-era order. Yet his mere presence on the ballot incenses many of the revolutionaries. Much of the public fears that his thugs will wreak havoc before the election so as to boost the vote for the stability he claims to represent. Others worry that the military and intelligence organs of the government will steer the election results in his favor.

Many Egyptians seem disgusted by the choice and are likely to sit out the election. Turnout for the parliamentary elections was close to 60 percent, but in the first round of presidential polling, turnout was below 50 percent. If many of Abou el-Fatouh and Sabahi's supporters stay home, as they threaten to do, turnout will be lower still. That would favor Mursi, whose well-oiled political machine excels at get-out-the-vote operations among his supporters. The Brotherhood faces strong opposition, it is true, but animus toward the ancien regime runs even deeper.

It is too early to know what Egypt's exact future will be, but it is relatively clear what issues will shape it. The first is the relationship between civilian and military authority. The press had emphasized the financial side of this equation, positing that the military will be loath to give up any influence, given its considerable economic holdings.

Yet something even more important is at stake for the military: civilian oversight in general and the autonomy to decide promotions. Since the 1952 military coup that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power, Egypt's military has controlled its own budget and been able to shape its own officer corps. The military had reason to pay special attention to the makeup of this body; Egypt's civilian government had changed the nature of it in 1936, when it decided to open admission to the military academy to the sons of non-aristocratic families. In so doing, it created the cadre that, sixteen years later, overthrew Egypt's monarchy.

Mubarak, a former Air Force general, was careful to cultivate senior officers who did not evince much interest in change. Rather than being creative and strategic, the officers who got ahead in Egypt tended toward the obsequious and exacting. As Mubarak aged, so, too, did the leadership on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The average age in that body is well over 60. Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the former minister of defense and, since 2011, the chair of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of Egypt, is 76. Without the octogenarian president to preside, retirements are imminent. And in the absence of either a president or a constitution, Egypt's factions are set to battle over the shape of its officer corps.

If today's military has a free hand on promotions, the new senior flag officers will be in the SCAF's mold. If the parliament or an Islamist president is able to influence promotions (or if both are), the officer corps will increasingly reflect change and dynamism. Sympathies toward the Muslim Brotherhood had been enough to blacklist an officer in the past, but that may change with Egypt's new political map.

Alternatively, an unreconstructed military is likely to seek to sustain its autonomy in Egyptian politics. If it were in the current mold, it would also likely see itself as a firewall against Brotherhood control of Egyptian politics and an antagonist to the Islamist civilian leadership.

The other fulcrum for Egypt's future is the economy. It was already slowing at the time of Mubarak's fall, in part due to a decline in foreign direct investment (much of which came from the Gulf). In addition, the sluggish global economy has cut into tourism and tolls from the Suez Canal. Political change in Egypt has accelerated the drop in each of these areas, and capital flight has set in. Indeed, many of the Gulf monarchies that helped propel Egypt's economy in the past are now playing passive roles.

The concerns of those countries' leaders are twofold. First, as one observed to me, "It's easier to put money into Egypt than to get money out of Egypt." Decisions now, as under Mubarak and his predecessors, are squeezed through an opaque and ponderous bureaucracy. Second, the Gulf monarchies are deeply disturbed by Egypt's current course. Over three decades, they had grown to appreciate Mubarak for his deference, reliability, and caution. They mourned his fall and shudder at the humiliation of his trial. Meanwhile, they have no truck with the political Islamists coming to the fore. These countries are religious, but religion, as they see it, should be used to reinforce rulers' power, not to challenge it. Gulf kings and emirs carefully cultivated their own clerical establishments to stress religious teachings that preach obedience to the ruler.

Since most Gulf states are interested in Egypt's return to secular authoritarian governance, they quietly support Shafiq. Although countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have pledged billions of dollars in aid to Egypt, the money has been slow in coming. If Shafiq loses the general election, as most predict, few of those funds will come to Egypt at all.

Similarly, many Western powers have proclaimed an interest in Egypt's economic success, but have been slow to promote it. Their own weak economies are one cause for their caution, but they, too, are concerned about what an Islamist-leaning Egypt might look like. For its part, Egypt has been unable to agree on the terms of a needed International Monetary Fund loan, as political parties battle over who should set those terms and who should get the credit.

At some point, after the presidential election and constitution have been settled, Egypt's new leadership will seek to renegotiate its relations, including its economic ties, with the rest of the world. The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party has talked about attracting more than $50 billion in investment by 2014, once the military has left power. Doing so would require spectacular creativity on the Egyptian side and spectacular confidence on the investor side. But if the presidential race is any guide, the political class is becoming less innovative, not more so.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Affairs on 05/06/2012

A Queen For A Queen

If the West really wants to halt Iran's uranium enrichment, it needs to get serious about scaling back sanctions.


In January of this year, Olli Heinonen declared that "it would take half a year [for Iran] to go from 3.5 percent enriched uranium to weapons-grade material for the first nuclear device." Well let's sound the all-clear: there is no hint whatsoever that Iran will have a nuclear device this summer, and its enriched uranium stockpile continues to be under the watchful eye of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In a new but equally breathless and alarmist account, Heinonen parades a litany of technical facts about Iran's uranium enrichment to 20 percent that worries him. Oddly, he then goes on to characterize Iran's offer to suspend enrichment to this allegedly highly dangerous level as Iran only offering a "pawn ... in exchange for the queen -- the lifting of oil sanctions."

Which is it? Is 20 percent enrichment merely a "pawn," or is it the imminent and mortal threat that Heinonen describes?

If it is merely a pawn, why bother negotiating about it?

If, however, Iranian enrichment is seen as a serious issue -- a "queen," say, in chess parlance -- then it requires serious reciprocity such as some significant relief on sanctions, perhaps even involving the EU oil embargo that is set to begin in July.

Heinonen makes a big deal about the IAEA's recent detection of uranium particles enriched to 27 percent at the Fordow underground enrichment plant in Iran. While this is well above the declared 20 percent enrichment level at the facility, the discovery is, in all likelihood, a technical glitch and not indicative of any sinister ploy. Indeed, the very detection of these particles is heartening in a way; that the IAEA could pick up "trace" amounts of such material should lend great credence to the IAEA's role as the "tripwire" for any serious diversion or over-enrichment of nuclear materials in Iran. As Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies recently stated, "There are good reasons to worry about Iran's enrichment work but this probably isn't one of them."

But how could such a technical glitch have happened? There are several possibilities. When a cascade of centrifuges is started up, only a small amount of uranium hexafluoride gas is fed through the system at first. Because the system is only doing work on a small amount of gas, this material gets over-enriched, but only temporarily. When the remainder of the gas is added, the overall enrichment level gets blended down to the target figure -- in this case 20 percent (19.75 percent, to be technically precise).

Importantly, this issue has cropped up before in Iran, and also wasn't a big deal then. In 2010, the IAEA detected "a small number of particles" at Iran's Natanz facility enriched as high as 7.1 percent when the target level there was 5 percent. At that time, the IAEA noted that the detected over-enrichment refers to "a known technical phenomenon associated with the start-up of centrifuge cascades."

Of course, such transient anomalies need not occur only when firing up centrifuges. In fact, the possibility of over-enrichment exists any time the uranium hexafluoride gas feed is reduced, or any time centrifuge speeds are increased beyond normal levels. This latter scenario, of course, is exactly what the Stuxnet virus is reported to have brought about in the hopes of destroying the centrifuges. Just recently, a new and powerful virus called Flame was detected in the Middle East. While it's unlikely, we can't rule out the rather ironic possibility that viruses that alter centrifuge speeds may also play a role in producing such over-enrichments.

Heinonen is also, evidently, very concerned about the possibility of conventional high-explosives testing at Iran's Parchin military facility, which may have taken place ten years ago and may have had nuclear weapons applications. The Iran-IAEA Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, however, only qualifies the diversion of nuclear material from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons as being a legal breach of agreement. Conventional explosive testing in Iran ten years ago, however worrying, was not restricted by law. Unfortunately, there is a great gulf between the non-proliferation ideal and what is legal.

If such conventional explosives testing took place with nuclear weapons applications in mind -- a matter on which there is much serious dispute -- it would most certainly be against the spirit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But getting into perceived violations of the spirit of the NPT is a lengthy and convoluted subject that implicates all nuclear-weapon states -- which were required to get going on nuclear disarmament at an "early date" back in the 1970s -- as well as some non-nuclear-weapon states.

Returning to the chess game: During the recent talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany), Iran indicated that it was willing to suspend enrichment to 20 percent in exchange for some significant sanctions relief. But by refusing to ease sanctions on Iran in any meaningful way, the P5+1 offered no serious reciprocity in return for Iranian compliance. By not striking a deal, these global powers are, in effect, helping Iran stockpile even more enriched uranium.

One gets the feeling that keeping sanctions and pressure on Iran is more important to the West than resolving the nuclear issue.

Heinonen seems to want to raise the negotiating stakes beyond just the 20 percent issue and settle for nothing less than a "more intrusive and timely inspection system, as well as Iran's agreement to follow the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty" (the Additional Protocol allows the IAEA to conduct more intrusive inspections than are normally permitted). While that would be an ideal outcome, the adoption of the Additional Protocol is a voluntary step for signatory states of the NPT -- not something that is forced upon them under threat of force or sanctions. Importantly, both Argentina and Brazil enrich uranium but also have not adopted the Additional Protocol, and both pursued clandestine nuclear weapons programs in the past.

The successful implementation of the Additional Protocol requires great cooperation and goodwill between the IAEA and signatory nations, and the protocol is unlikely to be effective when threats of force are on the table. The recent assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and the apparently ongoing cyberattacks against Iran's nuclear facilities further poison the atmosphere. The possibility that IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano has been less than apolitical in dealing with Iran is also likely to hurt chances that Iran easily accepts the protocol. Robert Kelley, an ex-IAEA inspector and nuclear engineer, went so far as to characterize parts of Amano's November 2011 report on Iran as trying to misdirect opinion "towards their desired outcome," adding, "that is unprofessional."

Indeed, since the Additional Protocol would grant the IAEA free rein to carry out inspections in Iran, there may be a legitimate fear among Iranian officials that the IAEA could pass on a list of targets for a future military campaign to the United States or its allies. After all, close cooperation between the IAEA and Western intelligence has existed in the past. If the Additional Protocol is ever broached as a subject of future negotiations, as Heinonen suggests, it should be tied to the firm and permanent removal of military threats against Iran. In any case, such threats of force are against the U.N. Charter and specifically contravene U.N. Security Council Resolution 487, which "[c]alls upon Israel to refrain in the future from any such acts [of force] or threats thereof" (emphasis added).

U.S. sanctions, it seems, will be enforced no matter what Iran does with its nuclear program. By designing the sanctions in this way, the U.S. Congress is playing the role of spoiler in the talks between Iran and the P5+1 nations. They may as well kick the chess board.

By contrast, the removal of the EU oil embargo -- enacted but not yet implemented -- could be a useful quid pro quo for the suspension of Iranian 20 percent enrichment: a queen for a queen.

However one characterizes the chess pieces, let's not forget that chess originated in Persia.

-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 05/06/2012
-Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, serves as a scientific consultant for the Federation of American Scientists

In Syria, Foreign Intervention Will Only Shed More Blood

The US and its Gulf allies are already fuelling sectarian conflict in their proxy war with Iran. The fallout could be disastrous

By Seumas Milne

editorial cartoon for june 6

As Syria descends deeper into civil war and human misery, pressure for yet another western military intervention in the Arab world is growing. Last week, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, declared that the US might take the "military option" in Syria if it was "asked to do so". Barack Obama's Republican rival Mitt Romney is meanwhile demanding that the US government arm the Syrian opposition.

Today, Russian and Chinese leaders reaffirmed their opposition to forced regime change and support for UN envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan. But Susan Rice, US ambassador to the UN, has made clear western powers might act alone and take action "outside the authority" of the UN. Even the new French president François Hollande has said military intervention in his country's former colonial territory was "not to be ruled out".

The latest calls for action against Bashar al-Assad's regime follow the slaughter of 108 people, including 49 children, in Houla less than a fortnight ago. Opposition activists have blamed pro-regime "shabiha" sectarian militias for the massacre; the government al-Qaida terrorists. But there's no doubt that atrocities such as Houla – let alone killings on a larger scale – have the potential to turn intervention grandstanding into the real thing.

That's what happened in Kosovo 13 years ago, when contested killings in Racak led to Nato's bombing campaign outside the authority of the UN. The US administration continues to resist demands for open intervention in Syria. But Hillary Clinton says the case for intervention is getting stronger "every day", while the opposition Free Syria Army has now declared itself "free of any commitment" to the UN peace plan.

The reality is that intervention in Syria by the US and its allies has already begun. The western powers have backed the fractious opposition Syrian National Council since the early days of last year's uprising. So have the Gulf autocracies led by Saudi Arabia, who have stepped up the flow of weapons and cash to favoured Syrian rebel groups in recent months, while Turkey has provided a cross-border base. That is co-ordinated with the US, which supplies the same groups with "non-lethal assistance" and "communications equipment".

In other words, the US and its allies are sponsoring regime change through civil war. And while paying lip service to the Annan plan for demilitarisation and negotiation, they are making sure it won't succeed. The results can be seen on the ground. Overall, lethal violence is estimated by human rights groups to have dropped by 36% since the plan was supposed to come into effect, but government casualties have increased sharply over the same period (953 reported killed since mid-March). Rebel fighters claimed to have killed 80 government troops last weekend alone.

Syria is reported by the western and Gulf-controlled Arab media through the prism of a popular uprising against an authoritarian regime. But that is only one vital dimension of the conflict. And as brutal repression by a government which retains significant support has been met with a growing armed campaign, grassroots opposition has been displaced by foreign-backed groups whose strategy to win power is based on engineering outside intervention.

It has also increasingly morphed into a sectarian conflict, as the Alawite-dominated regime has used minorities' fears of a Sunni-dominated opposition to bolster support. The latest phase of Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East owes its virulence to the occupation of Iraq, where the US ruthlessly played the sectarian card to prevent the emergence of a genuinely national resistance. It has also been a knife at the heart of the Arab revolution and the linchpin of the Saudi-led strategy to prevent uprisings engulfing the conservative Gulf regimes.

Anti-Shia incitement has been central to Saudi propaganda against reform in the kingdom itself, the crushing of democratic protest in Bahrain and the drive to focus opposition across the region against Damascus (Alawites being a quasi-Shia sect), rather than Amman or Riyadh. It's also what has attracted al-Qaida and other Sunni volunteers to join the fight against the Assad regime, as tit-for-tat confessional killings multiply. For Syria and neighbouring Lebanon, with their precarious ethnic and religious makeups, that is a disaster.

But it is the third dimension of the crisis – Syria's role as Iran's principal ally – that gives it the potential to set the region on fire and draw the outside world into a devastating conflict. The internal struggle in Syria, whose territory has been occupied by Israel for the last 45 years, has already become part of a western and Saudi proxy war against Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. As James Rubin, US assistant secretary of state under Bill Clinton, claimed this week, US intervention in Syria would be a "risk worth taking" because Iran "would no longer have a Mediterranean foothold from which to threaten Israel and destabilise the region".

In fact, Iran's alliance with Syria is one more reason why increasing western and Gulf dictators' intervention in Syria would escalate the conflict, not end it. Last year's Nato intervention in Libya increased the death toll by a factor of 10 to 15 and left a country of lawless warlords, torture and ethnic cleansing. Intervention in Syria, whether by fully arming the opposition or using air power to create "humanitarian corridors", would have a far more devastating impact.

That's partly because the Syrian regime has significant air defences and large-scale armed forces and the conflict is being fought out in heavily populated areas. But it's also because of the sectarian schisms and the risk of spreading the conflict further into countries such as Iraq and Lebanon. Why the states that brought blood and destruction to Iraq and Afghanistan should be thought suitable vehicles of humanitarian deliverance to Syria is a mystery. But full-scale foreign intervention would certainly lead to a far greater civilian death toll and many more Houlas.

Right now, lower-level intervention is bleeding Syria in a war of attrition. Short of an internal coup, the only way out of a deepening sectarian and regional conflict is an internationally guaranteed negotiated settlement that allows Syrians the chance to determine their own future. That means the US and its allies giving the Annan plan a chance, as much as Iranian and Russian pressure on Damascus. The consequences of the alternative – full-scale military intervention – would be incalculable.

-This commentary was published first in The Guardian on 05/06/2012
-Seumas Milne is a Guardian columnist and associate editor. He was the Guardian's comment editor from 2001-7 after working for the paper as a general reporter and labour editor. He has reported for the Guardian from the Middle East, eastern Europe, Russia, south Asia and Latin America. He previously worked for the Economist and is the author of The Enemy Within and co-author of Beyond the Casino Economy

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Turning Point In Lebanon

The open invitation Syria once had to dictate its will in the country has ended, much to the dismay of Hizbullah
By Sami Moubayed
A turning point in Lebanon
Lebanese President Michel Sulaiman’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, his meeting with King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz and his lunch with Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal speaks volumes about how Lebanon is struggling to escape Syrian tutelage at a time when pro-Syrian Lebanese parties are aggressively trying to drag Lebanon into Syria’s current mess. Had Syrian officials got their way, then this meeting would have never happened at a time when Syrian-Saudi relations are at an all-time low. Syrian officialdom, no doubt, would have preferred that the Lebanese President visit Damascus instead to hammer out the recent crisis in Lebanon — as customarily done since 1975.
The luncheon hosted by the Saudi minister, which was attended by ex-prime minister Sa’ad Hariri, was also a source of alarm for the Syrians, and of course, so was Prime Minister Najeeb Mikati’s visit to Istanbul where he discussed the Lebanon file with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The declared objective of the Lebanese-Saudi Summit was to prepare for the National Dialogue Conference that Sulaiman had called for at Baabda Palace, which is due to kick off on June 11. This is aimed at preventing Lebanon from sinking into sectarian strife after deadly fighting took place in Tripoli between the Jabal Mohsen neighbourhood, which is pro-Syrian regime, and the Sunni Bab Al Tabbaneh neighbourhood, which supports the Syrian revolt. From Saudi Arabia, Sulaiman headed to Kuwait, another Gulf country that has turned against the Syrian regime over the past year, with the aim of convincing its leaders to revoke their travel warning to Lebanon, ahead of the summer season that is reliant on Gulf tourists.
Coinciding with the Lebanese president’s efforts was a speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, on the 23rd anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, delivered at the Unesco Palace. Earlier last week, Nasrallah had shown rather striking moderation, thanking his political opponent Hariri — rather than bashing him as Hezbollah has customarily done — while calling on his followers to refrain from street violence after the abduction of 11 Lebanese hostages, all Shiite pilgrims, in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. On Friday, however, Nasrallah addressed the captors — without identifying them — saying military action was an option if a peaceful solution was not found for the crisis. The National Dialogue, which was called for by Saudi Arabia, was accepted by Hezbollah, and Nasrallah even went a step further, hoping that no party would boycott it. Then came the clashes on Saturday, between pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian Lebanese, which left at least 15 people dead and which threatened to bring all reconciliation attempts back to square one.
All of this means something remarkable is happening in Lebanon and it plays out in favour of the Lebanese, if invested in wisely. The open invitation Syria once had to dictate its will on Lebanon has apparently come to an end, much to the dismay of Hezbollah and its allies. What then will the Lebanese discuss at the National Dialogue Conference and to what extent — if any — does Syria want this conference to succeed if it won’t have a final say on its outcome? The list of “high-priority topics” is long indeed. They have the hostages to deal with, the security situation in Tripoli, the distance from Syria that the international community is imposing on the Lebanese state, the future of the Najeeb Mikati cabinet, Lebanon’s controversial electoral law and, of course, the issue of Hezbollah’s arms.
Near paralysis
An estimated 60 to 70 per cent of the country’s public posts are vacant, leading to a near paralysis of the state, as most of these appointments have to abide by the delicate rules of sectarianism and political affiliations between Hariri’s March 14 and Hezbollah’s March 8 Coalition. In the past, Syria used its influence in Lebanon to make sure that Hezbollah’s arms were not mentioned at any Lebanese round-table talks, but today it no longer has the leverage to make things happen at will in Lebanon. No dialogue would be complete if Hezbollah’s arms are not on the table, and no reconciliation is possible in Lebanon if these arms remain autonomous from the Lebanese state, regardless of what Syria and Iran want for Lebanon.
This is a golden opportunity for Lebanese political figures to sit down and solve their problem just like the Palestinians did in early 2011, when they invested in the reality that both Egypt and Syria — the traditional patrons of Hamas and Fatah respectively— were too busy to meddle and obstruct the internal politics of the Palestinians. The real problem for the Palestinians was Syria and Egypt, not Fatah and Hamas. As a result, freed from outside Arab pressure, the Palestinians struck a historic deal, and the Lebanese can (if they pull the right strings) do the same next week at Baabda. Lebanon deserves a better future, no doubt, and that can only happen if and when its politicians start acting as Lebanese statesmen, rather than proxies or stooges for the Saudis, Iranians and Syrians.
-This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 05/06/2012
-Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian,
university professor, and editor-in-chief of ‘Forward’ magazine

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Real Reason To Intervene In Syria

Cutting Iran's link to the Mediterranean Sea is a strategic prize worth the risk.


We're not done with the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran. Given that the current round of negotiations with the world's major powers will not fundamentally change Iran's nuclear program, the question of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is likely to return to center stage later this year. In addition to hard-headed diplomacy and economic sanctions, there is an important step the United States can take to change Israel's calculations -- helping the people of Syria in their battle against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Iran's nuclear program and Syria's civil war may seem unconnected, but in fact they are inextricably linked. Israel's real fear -- losing its nuclear monopoly and therefore the ability to use its conventional forces at will throughout the Middle East -- is the unacknowledged factor driving its decision-making toward the Islamic Republic. For Israeli leaders, the real threat from a nuclear-armed Iran is not the prospect of an insane Iranian leader launching an unprovoked nuclear attack on Israel that would lead to the annihilation of both countries. It's the fact that Iran doesn't even need to test a nuclear weapon to undermine Israeli military leverage in Lebanon and Syria. Just reaching the nuclear threshold could embolden Iranian leaders to call on their proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, to attack Israel, knowing that their adversary would have to think hard before striking back.

That is where Syria comes in. It is the strategic relationship between the Islamic Republic and the Assad regime that makes it possible for Iran to undermine Israel's security. Over the three decades of hostility between Iran and Israel, a direct military confrontation has never occurred -- but through Hezbollah, which is sustained and trained by Iran via Syria, the Islamic Republic has proven able to threaten Israeli security interests.

The collapse of the Assad regime would sunder this dangerous alliance. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, arguably the most important Israeli decision-maker on this question, recently told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that the Assad regime's fall "will be a major blow to the radical axis, major blow to Iran.... It's the only kind of outpost of the Iranian influence in the Arab world ... and it will weaken dramatically both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza."

The rebellion in Syria has now lasted more than a year. The opposition is not going away, and it is abundantly clear that neither diplomatic pressure nor economic sanctions will force Assad to accept a negotiated solution to the crisis. With his life, his family, and his clan's future at stake, only the threat or use of force will change the Syrian dictator's stance. Absent foreign intervention, then, the civil war in Syria will only get worse as radicals rush in to exploit the chaos there and the spillover into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey intensifies.

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has been understandably wary of engaging in an air operation in Syria similar to the campaign in Libya, for three main reasons. Unlike the Libyan opposition forces, the Syrian rebels are not unified and do not hold territory. The Arab League has not called for outside military intervention as it did in Libya. And the Russians, the longtime patron of the Assad regime, are staunchly opposed.

Libya was an easier case. But other than the laudable result of saving many thousands of Libyan civilians from Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime, it had no long-lasting consequences for the region. Syria is harder -- but success there would be a transformative event for the Middle East. Not only would another ruthless dictator succumb to mass popular opposition, but Iran would no longer have a Mediterranean foothold from which to threaten Israel and destabilize the region.

A successful intervention in Syria would require substantial diplomatic and military leadership from the United States. Washington should start by declaring its willingness to work with regional allies like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to organize, train, and arm Syrian rebel forces. The announcement of such a decision would, by itself, likely cause substantial defections from the Syrian military. Then, using territory in Turkey and possibly Jordan, U.S. diplomats and Pentagon officials could start strengthening and unifying the opposition. Once the opposition knows real outside help is on the way, it should be possible over time to build a coherent political leadership based on the Syrian National Council as well as a manageable command and control structure for the Free Syrian Army, both of which are now weak and divided. This will be difficult and time-consuming, but we should remember that the Syrian civil war is now destined to go on for years, whether the outside world intervenes or not.

A second step worth serious consideration is to secure international support for a coalition air operation. Russia will never support such a mission, so there is no point operating through the U.N. Security Council. And given the reluctance of some European states, NATO may be difficult as well. Therefore, this operation will have to be a unique combination of Western and Middle East countries. Given Syria's extreme isolation within the Arab League, it should be possible to gain strong support from most Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. U.S. leadership is indispensable, since most of the key countries will follow only if Washington leads.

Some worry that U.S. involvement risks a confrontation with Russia. However, the Kosovo example -- where NATO went to war against another Russian ally, while Moscow did little more than complain -- shows otherwise. In that case, Russia had genuine ethnic and political ties to the Serbs, which don't exist between Russia and Syria. Managing Russia's reaction to outside intervention will be difficult but should not be exaggerated.

Arming the Syrian opposition and creating a coalition air force to support them is a low-cost, high-payoff approach. Whether an air operation should just create a no-fly zone that grounds the regimes' aircraft and helicopters or actually conduct air to ground attacks on Syrian tanks and artillery should be the subject of immediate military planning. And as Barak, the Israeli defense minister, also noted, Syria's air defenses may be better than Libya's but they are no match for a modern air force.

The larger point is that as long as Washington stays firm that no U.S. ground troops will be deployed, à la Kosovo and Libya, the cost to the United States will be limited. Victory may not come quickly or easily, but it will come. And the payoff will be substantial. Iran would be strategically isolated, unable to exert its influence in the Middle East. The resulting regime in Syria will likely regard the United States as more friend than enemy. Washington would gain substantial recognition as fighting for the people in the Arab world, not the corrupt regimes.

With the Islamic Republic deprived of its gateway to the Arab world, the Israelis' rationale for a bolt from the blue attack on its nuclear facilities would diminish. A new Syrian regime might eventually even resume the frozen peace talks regarding the Golan Heights.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah would be cut off from its Iranian sponsor, since Syria would no longer be a transit point for Iranian training, assistance, and missiles. All these strategic benefits combined with the moral purpose of saving tens of thousands of civilians from murder at the hands of the Assad regime -- some 12,000 have already been killed, according to activists -- make intervention in Syria a calculated risk, but still a risk worth taking.

With the veil of fear now lifted, the Syrian people are determined to fight for their freedom. America can and should help them -- and by doing so help Israel and help reduce the risk of a far more dangerous war between Israel and Iran.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 04/06/2012
-James P. Rubin was assistant secretary of state during the Bill Clinton administration