Sunday, April 24, 2011

Three major shifts

Things seem to be picking up speed once again, and the last few days have seen some significant milestones for three of the countries we've been paying close attention to.

Yemen: frankly, my coverage of Yemen has been fairly weak compared to some of the other countries. Unfortunately, aside from some research I did several years ago concerning the reunification of North and South Yemen, it's not a country that I've really immersed myself in. Despite its small population, it is extremely diverse, with cultural influences coming from North and East Africa, Arabia, and South Asia, thanks to its advantageous location near the horn of Africa, the southern entrance to the Red Sea, and the coastal Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina.

Its glory days as a major link in both overland and sea trade are long past, and now it's largely known for his poverty and fractious infighting. two days ago, the GCC put forth a proposal whereby Saleh, the current president/dictator of Yemen would step down within the next 30 days, and free and fair elections would be held shortly thereafter in exchange for guarantees of immunity for himself and his people. Saleh seems to have accepted the plan (although that may not stand)  As encouraging as this news might be, there are some issues that do concern me.

1. The most obvious is the simple question of “will he leave office in 30 days?” It is, of course, entirely possible that he will abide by the GCC agreement, but he could also use the 30 day long to marshal his forces, eliminate key opposition members, and strengthen his position vis-à-vis the protesters in preparation for a major crackdown a month from now.

2. Then, there is the issue of the rest of the country. The idea of immunity from prosecution will likely stick in the craw of many who were on the receiving end of his brutality. Not only that, the protests in Yemen have been far less unified in any coherent sense than those in Egypt, Libya, or even Syria. Rather than a cohesive body of protesters, instead there are an abundant number of individual factions all of whom are interested in Saleh's departure from office, but with little shared objectives beyond that. A variety of post-election worst-case scenarios can be imagined, ranging from 1980s style Lebanese civil war to straight up Somalian style anarchy outside of a few controlled urban centers. As I've said from the beginning, I'm not all that optimistic about Yemen's potential for positive outcomes.


Libya – Things are definitely moving forward, but unfortunately this means that the regime is getting more desperate in its actions. For the last three days the people of Misrata have been steadily cleaning buildings full of mercenary snipers, with a wide range of foreign nationals being taken into custody by freedom fighters. Captured merc units include Sudanese, Syrians, and Algerians (including an Algerian Colonel) as well as many Libyan soldiers (including a pro-Qaddafi General). As the pro-Qaddafi forces have been eradicated from their strongholds in the city, their support outside the city has taken to shelling the city more heavily.

The NATO strikes have certainly been moving things forward, taking down several of the Libyan state television stations and destroying two of the main buildings in Ghaddafi’s main compound in Tripoli Bab Al-Azizaya today. Additionally, the gas shortage in Tripoli has escalated to the point where there is none left for nonmilitary usage - this is bad news for everyone in the city, but ultimately it moves us that much closer to angry mobs dragging brother leader out into the streets.


While Libya is moving closer to conclusion, Syria is ramping up. Blood in the streets. Tanks, live ammo. I highly recommend this piece Body count is past 200, and still climbing. Not much to say. It’s awful.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Ynetnews editorial - Ignorance or Ideology?

Bad ideas...

As I’ve said before, I’m a generalist when it comes to the Middle East. There are some areas that I know better than others, but there’s no one aspect or region that I can point to as a singular area of expertise. My primary interest is synthesis – making sense of broad aggregates of data on a variety of topics. This means that I will sometimes come to rather different conclusions than those reached by people with a narrower but deeper view of specific area.

Case in point - this FP piece on the Syrian uprising. The author reads it as much less of a genuine people’s movement at work, and instead sees the fingerprints of the MB and other insurgent militant elements all over it. Frankly, I think some of what she’s seeing is what she wants to see, and much of her interpretation doesn’t jibe with what I’ve been following online, but her conclusions are not unreasonable, and she certainly has some windows into the situation that I don’t have.

So I read the article, make some mental notes, maybe follow up on a few things, and continue about my day.

Sometimes, however, I read material that is so shockingly idiotic that it gnaws at me for days. Not the casual ignorance of a YouTube “comments” section, or the absurd conjecture of buffoons like Joseph Farah at World Net Daily – I can laugh at things like that, shake my head, and move on.

No, I’m referring to material like the following editorial, which reveals a staggering degree of willful ignorance and ideological blindness by someone who should know better.

Almost every single paragraph of this article contains either a gross distortion of fact or a deliberate dismissal of truth (often both). Crass propaganda from top to bottom.

I’m not going to do a point-by-point rebuttal, but I want to point out a few specific things

Israel’s leadership is more loyal to its Arab allies than President Obama. While Israel stood by Mubarak, it took Obama three days to call for Egypt’s president, a long term US friend, to leave office and to threaten him with foreign aid cuts. It seems that Obama only confronts and abandons allies, but prefers not to meddle in the internal revolts of enemies like Syria and Iran.

She says this like it’s something to be proud of. Israel supported brutal regimes in Argentina and South Africa long after almost every other country in the world had turned against them. Why would this be a positive argument for stronger ties to Saudi Arabia?

Not only that, the US state department was meddling in the internal revolts in Syria and Iran since before they were revolts. Israel often boasts of being the only democracy in the region (a statement whose veracity is contingent on some semantic juggling) and yet the author is advocating allying with the least democratic country in the region to strike against one of the countries that is closest to internal revolution. When Saddam Hussein attacked Iran in the 1980’s he gave the unstable fledgling Islamic Iranian Republic an external foe to unify against, strengthening their national identity, and legitimizing Ayatollah Khomeini’s position as the undisputed leader of the Iranian people. Cooperative action by Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran would give their currently unstable regime a means to reunify and would undo years of internal and external work towards Iranian regime change.

Third, Iran is the main danger to Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states, not Israel, as the WikiLeaks cables revealed, with Saudi King Abdullah repeatedly imploring Washington to “cut off the head of the snake” (Iran) while there was still time.
Iran is certainly a danger to Saudi Arabia, primarily to the Saudis’ chokehold on the region through wealth and wealth-based influence. The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, currently being fought through proxies around the M.E. (Particularly in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq) is ultimately about two things – commerce and legitimacy. The Saudis have gotten to where they are through careful negotiation, leverage, coercion and intimidation, but ultimately, they are where they are because they have more oil than everyone else. Their regional religious dominance comes from successful negotiation for authority over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and then spending vast quantities of money to propagate their extremist brand of fundamentalist Islam to the rest of the Muslim world.
Fifth, establishing a Palestinian state is not in the best interest of Saudi Arabia or Israel. As previously happened after Israel withdrew its military forces from Gaza in 2005, Hamas will be able to take over the new state by winning subsequent Palestinian elections, as it did in 2006, or by militarily defeating the PA, as it did in 2007. Such state would become another Iranian base, threatening Israel but also destabilizing Jordan next door and encircling the Saudis from the northwest.

This is just fear-mongering that is rooted in ignorance, denial, or outright deception. An established Palestinian state would be terrible news for Hamas (and for Fateh), an issue I’ve addressed before and one that I’ll probably address again soon.

The essential problem with this piece is that it was written by someone who has confused presenting a convincing-sounding argument with being factually correct – the technical term for this is “Lawyer”.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

More updates...

So here’s where we’re at: the old orders have dug their heels in. They will hold out as long as they can by any means necessary.

It’s been hard to write updates, because although things are happening, they are mostly small advances, or gradual increases in scale.

This is particularly true in Libya, where the freedom fighters have made remarkable strides, none of which seem dramatic to the outside observer. With elements of the former Libyan military leading the anti-Gaddafi campaign the dramatic back-and-forth capture of towns and cities has ended. The rebel army is moving steadily forward in a coordinated fashion, taking and holding key points as they move west.

The pro-Ghaddafi forces have taken a different track, turning their attention to the isolated towns in the mountainous regions, where they have been wreaking havoc outside of the NFZ/civilian defense umbrella. The results have been horrific, but there is little that the rebels can do to assist. Meanwhile, not far from Tripoli the rebel-held city of Misrata has continued in its persistent defiance of Ghaddafi’s repeated attacks. The fact that attacks have continued on the city speaks to its importance as a symbol for bothe sides of the conflict. As long as the rebels hold the city it cannot be said that the rebellion is simply a regional phenomenon, and the longer it holds out, the weaker Ghaddafi looks to his supporters.

Some highlights from the past 12 hours:

  • NATO 18 Apr: 1 building destroyed near #Brega #Libya (nature of building not given)
  • NATO 18 Apr: 3 tanks, 1 anti-aircraft weapon system and 1 armoured vehicle destroyed near Zintan
  • NATO 18 Apr: 6 SAMs, 4 tanks, 3 air defence missile sites and 1 mobile rocket launcher were destroyed near Misrata
  • NATO 18 Apr: 3 ammunition storage bunkers destroyed near Sirte
  • NATO 18 April: 9 ammo bunkers and HQ of 32nd brigade destroyed in Tripoli
  • CONFIRMED: NATO hit "Khamis Brigade" Gaddafi 's son HeadQuarter 10km South of Tripoli several times last night

As I’ve said before, despite the persistence of those who predict a Libyan stalemate the pro Ghaddafi forces are losing ground steadily. For more on the situation in misrata and Libya in general I will again direct you to


Some regimes elsewhere have had some success in making concessions while controlling the protests – particualry Morocco and to a lesser extent Oman (though some things seems to be brewing there). Jordan and Lebanon seem to be far more concerned with issues of ethno-national self-identity than the otherwise prevalent issue of simple dignity (not because they aren’t concerned with dignity, but more because their very existence as nation-states is intimately intertwined with issues of ethnicity and self-identity)


Syrian protests have grown continually since last week – Assad seems weirdly paralyzed by ambivalence, probably a result of his delay in responding to the situation quickly enough. This response-delay has been one of the hallmarks of the “Arab Spring” – the Arab leaders repeatedly ignored or neglected the stirrings of discontent, or answered them with half-assed measures to placate very serious concerns. Of course, now that the angry mobs have toppled two long-standing dictators the Middle Eastern regimes are taking them much more seriously.

Be that as it may, things might have already gone too far too fast for Assad. The Syrian regime was one of the few that was initially deemed safe from upheaval due to the regime’s chokehold on society in general, but even despite the brutality evidenced by his military and police force (who may be under the authority of one of his cousins) he still hasn’t taken a decisive step in any direction yet.

Slight side note - Friends who spent any amount of time in Syria always commented on the security that they felt while living and traveling there.

“There’s no crime!” they said. “I never felt unsafe the whole time I was there!”

Their enthusiasm reminds me of a comment by an older Italian man that I used to know who would regularly reminisce about Italy’s fascist era. “Under Mussolini, if someone would steal even a cabbage from your garden, he would leave a coin on the stem where he cut it off with his knife. ”

So, anyway, Syria’s protofascist era seems to be seriously at risk.

Yesterday one of the leading Sunni religious leaders publicly condemned the Assad regime for their indiscriminate actions against protesters and every day the protests grow steadily. Interestingly, the Syrian regime has set up several twitter accounts to flood the twitterverse (twittersphere?) with random minutia under the #Syria hashtag. This piece identifies some of the more prominent twitter spammers, but if you’re looking for a few reliable Syrian tweeters here are a few that I’ve been following:

Just an hour or two ago it was announced that the long-standing "Emergency Law" has been revoked (accompanied by an order outlawing the protests)
Too little too late, most likely.


Yemen unfortunately hasn't been at the forefront of my radar, but here's a good timeline if you need to figure our where we're at: 


Bahrain continues to be brutal. The government has been employing vicious tactics to hold the protests at bay – bloggers and twitterers are being detained continually, brutality abounds, and dozens have died. I must emphasize that the death toll is deceptively small – Bahrain is a country with a population of a little over a million. The approximately 30 reported deaths in Bahrain are equivalent to 600 deaths in a country the size of Syria, or 2400 in a country the size of Egypt.

Saudi Arabia seems to have chosen Bahrain as a line in the sand, as though to say “political unrest will come no closer”, and given their ridiculous quantities of money they may be successful in quelling the uprising on behalf of the Bahraini royals, but I expect the cost to be terrible. This is a situation that desperately calls for a stronger voice from both the UN and the US, but any political wrangling that takes place will be messy and fraught with seriously negative outcomes for the US.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Bringing you up to speed...

Sorry for the rather substantial drop in output on my part. In the absence of any reasonable excuses, I’ll blame twitter. (You have been following my twitter feed, right?)

Well, there’s a lot to cover, so let’s get to it…

Libya still leads in the news, and at this point it seems as though the only thing holding the Libyan government together is utter terror. In addition to the defection Moussa Koussa on Sunday, another high profile defector got out of the country two days ago. As the article mentions, we aren’t seeing more defections because anyone who leaves the country without their family is endangering their lives.

The most substantial change In Libya has been General Abdel-Fattah Younis’ return to a military leadership role for the Liberation forces. Younis, a former Libyan Interior Minister, was one of the early high-profile defections from the pro-Ghaddafi camp. He initially assumed a leadership position, commanding a brigade of other Libyan army defectors. This created some conflict among the rebel forces, many of whom questioned his fitness for command (given his long career as a Libyan government insider). Additionally, the rapid initial success of the rebels had bolstered their confidence in their own ability to overcome Gaddafi’s military, and they wanted to preserve the spontaneous nature of the uprising, rather than rely on military assistance (this is also why they initially opposed the idea of a no-fly zone).

General Younis stepped back from his leadership role, and the anti-Gaddafi military forces took a backseat in the fighting until the rebels began to lose in a spectacular fashion a few weeks ago. Even with the advent of the NATO no-fly zone/civilian protection order, there seems to have been continuing debate over the military’s role in the revolution. It was only a few days ago that Younis was restored to his leadership role, something that probably should have happened some time ago.

With Younis in command, the rebels on the front lines (recklessly courageous, but under-equipped, untrained, and unguided) have been supplemented and/or replaced by actual soldiers. Facing stronger opposition, Gaddafi’s forces have redirected some of their attention to the small undefended southern towns that are opposing him but have not yet been integrated into the resistance.

As the Libyan conflict has unfolded, it has caused some major strategic realignment in both Africa and the Middle East. This can be seen in the recent actions of Algeria, Turkey, Jordan, and Qatar.

Algeria has been serving as a main conduit for the arms and mercenaries flowing towards Ghaddafi, a fact that will probably soon bite Algerian president Boutiflaka's regime in the ass. Like Libya, (and unlike Tunisia and Egypt) Algeria’s military serves as an enforcement wing of the ruling party, and Ghaddafi’s failure to stop the Libyan uprising with brute force means that Algeria may have a similar fate in store for them. Not only that, their actions in support of Ghaddafi will not likely be forgotten in a post-Gaddafi state.

Turkey’s role in the Libyan situation has been deeply ambivalent, which has created a great deal of frustration towards turkey on the part of many Libyans. Although they initially opposed intervention, they followed that by assuming a prominent role in NATO’s actions in the Med. They have tried to position themselves as potential interlocutors between Qaddafi and the rest of the world, while decrying his brutality but they don't seem to have been successful with either side of the conflict.

Jordan, on the other hand, has conclusively settled itself on the side of the Anti-Ghaddafi forces by becoming the third Arab country to contribute planes to the NFZ/civilian protection action. This may be a move by the King to strengthen his support among his base. Jordan is fairly unique, demographically - close to 2/3 of its population is ethnically Palestinian, which creates a very odd power dynamic. (Anyone who says that Palestinians are really Jordanians is slinging BS or playing semantic games). For a better understanding of the Jordanian situation (and why there won’t be a revolution in Jordan any time soon) I highly recommend this blog post. King Hussein of Jordan is a sharp guy, and the advantages of having good relations with the emerging new Libyan state are pretty clear.

Qatar, more than any other Arab nation, has recognized the opportunities that a new Libya represents. Their enthusiasm for the NFZ/civilian protection action was evident from the start. I get the impression that the Qatari government sees the future of the Arab world more clearly than any of their neighbors, and has been taking bold steps to ensure their place in it, despite their small size and limited oil resources. Towards this end, they have already signed agreements with the provisional government in Benghazi to purchase a tanker full of oil. (Note – most Libyan oil is what they call “Light Sweet Crude” - extremely high-grade oil that requires less refinement and purification than most other types of crude oil.)

All of these Libya-centered power struggles can be seen as expressions of a larger struggle – the push for stronger standing on the international stage and in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Saudi Arabia is probably the strongest player in the GCC, given their close ties to every US administration since Nixon and their staggering oil wealth. For the past 30+ years Saudi Arabia has been furthering its interests in a number of ways, and one of the most notable is the promulgation of its own distinctive Wahabist brand of Sunni Islam. Wahabism is a particularly conservative strain of Salafism, a strict back-to-basics rigidly fundamentalist form of Islam. Salafism, especially the Wahabist variations, has little tolerance for alternate interpretations of Islam and the Quran, which has created some serious conflicts within the Muslim world – especially with Shi’a and Sufi Muslims.

This is important to note because expressions of the Salafi vs. Sufi conflict have been flaring up in Egypt lately – in particular several Sufi shrines have recently been destroyed by Salafist mobs. Sufis regard the burial places of their saints and teachers as being somewhat sacred and often use them as places of prayer and pilgrimage, a practice that Salafis regard as tantamount to idolatry or even heresy. (Note – don’t confuse the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood. The MB represents and includes a much more diverse range of Islamic expression.)

I raise this issue because Saudi Arabia heavily funds their Salafist brethren in Egypt and the increasingly aggressive public actions by Egyptian Salafis carries the imprimatur of Saudi interference. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are not known for cordial relationships with each other, but the recent events are likely to drive even more wedges between the two states and push Egypt towards the other big player in the Gulf – Iran.

The Middle East realignment can also be seen in some notable recent events in Syria (though in some rather counterintuitive ways). Shortly after the protests in Daraa started rapidly escalating the King of Saudi Arabia called Bashir Assad to assure him of Saudi Support. This is strange for a number of reasons, but most particularly because for the past 40+ years Syria has been either loosely or tightly aligned with the Baathist/Nasserist bloc of Arab nationalists (particularly Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and to a lesser extent Libya and Algeria). This group has traditionally been locked in competition with the pan-Islamist royalists, especially Saudi Arabia. Not only that, but Assad, his family, and the rest of the Syrian government are Alawites, a sect of Shi’a Islam (remember what I just said about Salafis/Wahabis and Shi’a?).

One of the commonly heard chants in the streets of Syria last week was "No Iran, no Hezbollah, we want a Muslim who fears God." (it's catchier in Arabic) The accusation that Assad is insufficiently religious seems to have struck a nerve, and Assad seems to be trying to get more support from the religious conservatives in Syria by rolling back some of the social reforms of the past few years. (He’s not rolling back political reforms because there haven’t really been any) It could be that he’s backing away from Iran and towards Saudi Arabia to preserve his power structure. He's also taking big steps to gain the favor of Syria's substantial disenfranchised Kurdish population.

More on Syria's tenuous stability here.

Well…that’s plenty for now. Barring some other major upheaval I’ll be getting around to addressing Iraq and Bahrain this weekend.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Friday, April 1, 2011

Are there any good Qaddafi-themed poop jokes?

I feel constipated. Not physically, but creatively. It's not quite writers block, in fact it's almost the opposite. There are so many things that I am poised to write about, but all of them are waiting for a trigger, an event, a green light. There are rumblings, ominous portents, but everything is still half-baked.

I blame Qaddafi.

The message that Egypt and Tunisia sent to the rest of the Arab world was, "This can happen anywhere"

For the past two months, Qaddafi has been trying to send a very different message, "Not here, it can't"

Thankfully, this has not stemmed the flow of uprisings nor has it broken the will of protesters in Bahrain, Syria, or Yemen. Nonetheless, we didn’t get to see a dictator step down this past month.

However, instead of getting one in March, we may get two (or three) in April.

It looks like the endgame is in place for the old president of Cote d'Ivoire. Despite his best efforts, his army has evaporated out from underneath him. This is, presumably, in no small part due to the fact that by most estimates two thirds of the military voted for his opponent in the election. The new president and his supporters have retaken most of the country, and Gbagbo is conspicuously absent.

Yeah, I know, Cote d'Ivoire isn't part of the Middle East, but if you go back and look at the very first posts that I wrote for this blog, you'll notice that the post-election conflict was one of the issues that motivated me to start writing this. Certainly, the circumstances are quite different, but watching a despot fail in his attempts to retain power in the face of a populace whose patience has expired is nonetheless inspiring.

I know my predictions for Qaddafi's departure have so far been overly optimistic, but Gbagbo will very likely be gone by next week.

As far as Qaddafi goes, it is only a matter of time before he reaches the end of his rope. His failure to capture the eastern cities has deprived his forces of the additional fuel supplies they were hoping to seize, thereby mobility severely. Air-strikes on weapons depots have also drastically impacted his military capacity. His attempt to reinforce his weakened forces with additional mercenaries may buy him a few more days, but I think it is unlikely that he will retain control for more than another week. (I've been wrong before, but I think the end is in sight at last.)

Perhaps, once brother leader has been removed from his position this damnable constipation will be relieved.

Qaddafi, you are an impacted stool impeding the natural functions of democracy’s colon. I look forward to seeing you flushed down the toilet of history.