Thursday, January 29, 2009

I hope Abul Ghayt gets some beachfront property in Martha's Vineyard for this since he just crucified himself and his government on behalf of the US

Egypt attacks Iran and allies in Arab world

Reuters North American News Service

Jan 28, 2009 10:06 EST

CAIRO, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Egypt aired its grievances against Iran, the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas and the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah, saying they worked together in the fighting over Gaza to provoke conflict in the Middle East.

"(They tried) to turn the region to confrontation in the interest of Iran, which is trying to use its cards to escape Western pressure ... on the nuclear file," Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in an interview with Orbit satellite channel broadcast on Wednesday.

Aboul Gheit also said that Egypt undermined Qatar's attempts to arrange a formal Arab summit on Gaza earlier this month, arguing that it would have damaged "joint Arab action".

"Egypt made the summit fail... This summit, if it had taken place as an Arab summit with a proper quorum, would have damaged joint Arab action. We can see what others do not see," he said.

The interview was broadcast on Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning and the state news agency MENA carried excerpts.

The comments are the first acknowledgement by Egypt that it actively sought to prevent the Doha summit on Jan. 16, which was the subject of a bitter tug-of-war between rival Arab states.

It also indicated that a reconciliation meeting in Kuwait last week between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on one hand, and Qatar and Syria on the other, had only a short-term effect.

Qatar failed to win enough support to hold a formal Arab League summit on Gaza but it went ahead anyway with an informal consultative meeting of Arab leaders.

The wrangling reflected deep divisions between Arab governments. On one side Saudi Arabia and Egypt, wary of the Islamist group Hamas in Gaza, favoured discussing Gaza at a separate economic summit in Kuwait a few days later.

Diplomats say Egypt resents the Qatari challenge to its traditional role as leading Arab mediator and dislikes the influence of the satellite television channel Al Jazeera, which is based in Doha and owned by the Qatari government.

"Some people imagined that a satellite channel could bring down the Egyptian state, without realising that Egypt is much stronger than that," Aboul Gheit said.

"Egypt is very big and has extensive influence despite attempts to influence this stance and role, whether in the Al Jazeera channel or other channels," he added.

The Egyptian minister also criticised Hamas for what he called its coup against the forces of the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip in 2007. (Writing by Jonathan Wright; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)

The Rationalization of the Syrian Firewall?

Sasa from Syria News Wire reports:

Blogging unblocked in Syria
21 January 2009

One step forward, one step backwards. It looks like Blogger has been unblocked but WordPress has been blocked in Syria.

But the picture is very confusing. It doesn’t seem to be a national ban. Different ISPs are doing different things. SCS is currently providing free access to Blogger. But some WordPress blogs are blocked, and other WordPress blogs are free.

The revolving door of blocking and unblocking has happened before.

It makes a mockery of the ‘ban’. Why have a ban for some subscribers and not others? And anyway, the ways around the restrictions are easy even for the technophobe.

And if different ISPs are doing different things, it does raise the question - is this ‘ban’ coming from officials, or is this the companies making the decision? It’s a bit like self-censorship among journalists - there is no official list of banned subjects, just the list made up by every writer.

A few years ago Syria went through access bans on Hotmail and Yahoo Mail. It was a similar revolving door. One would be banned, another would be freed. But in the end, someone realised the restrictions were based more on paranoia than policy, and everything was un-blocked.

Let’s just hope this is the beginning of the same thing for Syria’s blogs.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Has the dialogue already begun?

The Jerusalem Post reports that President Assad of Syria, in an interview with Al-Manar, stated that indeed some sort of dialogue has been initiated between the US and the Syrian regime:

"I believe that the dialogue began seriously weeks ago through officials close to the administration. They were sent by the administration for dialogue with Syria."

Read the rest of the article here.

BBC: Syria and the new Arab 'Cold War'

Another sign that the vacuum created by the contraction of US legitimacy in the Middle East is being replaced by those Arab states NOT allied with the US. The Gaza offensive has done more to legitimize the Syrian regime than decades of "land and sovereignty" speeches. This may be the best time for the US to approach the Syrian regime, when the latter no longer feels isolated and reactionary. Although the US is unlikely to get everything it asks for in a negotiation, the Syrian regime has been relatively cooperative even without carrots (taking in Iraqi refugees, cooperation in the aftermath of 9-11, reacting peacefully to the Israeli strike last September and the more recent US attack near the Iraqi border with Syria). Damascus is again becoming a center for Pan-Arab sentiment, weakening the 'moderate' Arab states allied with the US. But this isn't necessarily bad news for the US, which might benefit from a more domestically legitimate partner in the Middle East peace process.

Syria and the new Arab 'cold war'

By Catherine Miller
BBC News, Damascus

It was standing room only at Damascus Opera House this week. Middle class Syrians packed the hall for a concert called We Shall Endure - a message from Damascus to Palestine.

Many had come for the star attraction, Marcel Khalife, one of the most famous musicians in the Arab world.

But they were also there to express their grief and anger about the war in Gaza.

"We have the same blood as the Palestinians," said one young woman. "Any drop of blood they shed, we feel it too."

That sentiment has prompted an overwhelming response from Syrians.

The opera house audience paid five times the normal price for a ticket with all proceeds going to Gaza.

And the Syrian Red Crescent has gathered more donations than any other Arab country.

Regimes out-of-step

The Syrian Government is authoritarian, and critics say it has little regard for the opinions of its citizens.

But during the war in Gaza it spoke for people here and many across the Arab world when it threw its weight behind the militant group Hamas and denounced Israel as a terrorist state.

That put it at odds with so-called moderate Arab countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Some say the bitter dispute between Arab governments made it easier for Israel to pursue its own agenda.

"The Arab people are more developed than the Arab governments and regimes," said Khalife after the performance.

"There is no problem with any Arab from the Gulf to Morocco. The problem is with the regimes not with the people."

On their knees

Syria is home to about 500,000 Palestinian refugees, who were displaced in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967.

In Palestine Camp, the neighbourhood where the majority live, the green banners of Hamas flutter over the market place and the walls are plastered with posters of Palestinian gunmen brandishing their weapons.

"The Europeans and the other Arab states hate Syria because it stands with the resistance," said one man, seething with anger.

"They want Syria to be on its knees like those other Arab countries who eat and drink with the money of the West."

A crowd gathers and everyone agrees.

"If the rest of the Arab world was like President Assad," said another, "the Palestinians would have won long ago."

Proven wrong

Egypt is seen as the villain here. It is condemned for failing to open its border to Gaza and relieve the besieged people there.

"They cannot understand why Egypt has no leadership in the region and is choosing to go against the wave," says Tarek, an Egyptian working in Damascus.

He says he tries not to give away his accent to avoid discussions about Egypt's perceived betrayal.

The political elite is in tune with the street.

Samir al-Taqi, director of Orient Centre for International Studies, a think tank close to the Syrian government, says Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other countries who put their faith in the good intentions of Israel and the US have been proven wrong.

He believes Syria's role in the region has been strengthened.

"The Israelis and the Americans have weakened the arguments of their allies and empowered those of their enemies.

"There is disappointment from those regimes who had followed them and there's a certain hope about the resistance."

Whipped up

But others say it is too early to say who has won what has been described as an Arab Cold War.

"This struggle is far from over. It's a vicious and bitter struggle being played out," says Peter Harling, an analyst in Damascus for the International Crisis Group.

In recent months, Syria has been working hard to come in from the diplomatic cold and had opened indirect negotiations with Israel. After the war in Gaza, it suspended those talks.

"It's very difficult having whipped up the Arab street and Syria's population in particular to move back towards any kind of dialogue with Israel."

Arab governments have now made some attempts to patch up their relationships. But the mood in Damascus is uncompromising.

For people here, the ruins of Gaza are proof that the Syrians and their militant allies who kept their weapons and their distrust of Israel were right.

Sooner or later, they feel, the rest of the Arab world will have have to join them.

Friday, January 9, 2009

"Sick Soldiers Point Finger at US Contractor"

If Cheney is in fact the anti-christ, what does that make KBR?

France 24 reports:

"According to Eller’s complaint, KBR dug an open air burn pit at Balad (airbase in Iraq) and burned hazardous medical waste from a camp hospital in open air close to the lodgings of US soldiers. “The pit was less than half a mile from my lodging and even closer to the hospital,” said Gogel."

I say we throw Cheney in there too - although he would undoubtedly add to the toxicity levels.

The Media and the Middle East

I think most analysts would agree that the American media is one of the largest obstacles to a reasonable US foreign policy in the Middle East. The conflicts (Palestinian-Israeli, Lebanese-Israeli, Iraq, the Kurdish question, etc) and national governments (notably overly sympathetic coverage of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) are portrayed so differently to Americans that it is nearly impossible for citizens to make informed decisions or judgments on Middle East issues.

It's shameful that in a such a wealthy country, with a well-educated population, people should still be denied the basic tools necessary to make their own informed decisions - and even worse that the majority of them will never know that this has been denied them in the first place. It's impossible for US citizens to demand more comprehensive coverage of international issues if they don't know what comprehensive coverage looks like in the first place. Just one day of live streams from Al Jazeera or even a European station such as France 24, would change the way most Americans understand global affairs.

Here's some recent articles on media and the Middle East:

The Atlantic's Goldberg on why Al Jazeera shouldn't show pictures of dead Palestinians

Israel's leftist media under fire

Why Al Jazeera viewers get better coverage of conflict

Monday, January 5, 2009

Add one part failed politician to one part right-wing legal expert and you have a recipe for a NYTimes op-ed!

Will someone please explain to John Bolton that international law and diplomacy do serve some purpose other than hamstringing US unilateralism. The fact that someone involved in the Bush administration is even TALKING about curbing executive power makes me want to dedicate the rest of my academic life to blogging about how poorly qualified this man is to speak on issues of politics. Every time he opens his mouth a new black hole is formed somewhere in the void to slowly begin sucking reason and rationality out of the dialogue of humankind.

At the LATimes, the real enemy is bad op-ed page editors

Yesterday's LATimes has an op-ed by two Israelis (Yossi Klein Halevi and Michael B. Oren) entitled: In Gaza, the real enemy is Iran: Israeli attacks must not stop until Iran's proxy, Hamas, is defeated.

By this logic, the real enemy of Israeli settlers are the Jewish diaspora (and fundamentalist Christians) living outside Israel that send them money and other resources to colonize Israel for the coming of the messiah. It's the same process: if we assume that Hamas doesn't represent the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians, but is rather just a proxy of Iran to destabilize the region, then we cannot conclude differently when it comes to Jewish settlers and their co-religionists outside the region who encourage illegal settlement growth. Thus, what Oren and Halevi should have said (but didn't) is that "In the world, the real enemy are religious extremists: and financial support for those extremists must be made illegal, WHEREVER it happens."

A New Middle Eastern Cold War

A New Middle Eastern Cold War
Michael Young

I think Young’s take is largely correct (click the link above for his article), and I’m sure if he had space he would have elaborated on many of his statements. Here’s what I would add:

Egypt has little credibility with Hamas (or Palestinians in general) since their separate peace with Israel made it more difficult for other Arab regimes (notably the Palestinians themselves) to negotiate the return of their territories. Egypt also has little credibility with democratic activists in the Arab world since, despite their glowing reviews in the US media, Mubarak’s regime is just as despotic as any other in the region. The Egyptians may have gotten peace with Israel and money from the US, but they’ve lost most of their credibility with their Arab neighbors. Instead, much of their foreign policy now looks Southward – toward Sudan and the rest of their African neighbors.

Young also states that, “By most accounts, Iran and Syria pushed Khaled Meshaal, the Damascus-based head of Hamas's political bureau, to undermine any accord by continuing to fire rockets at Israel, making the Gaza confrontation virtually inevitable. The idea was not only to discredit the Egyptians, but also to welcome Barack Obama with a crisis making any American opening toward Iran and Syria more costly for the United States.”

I had to read this statement a few times, thinking I was misunderstanding Mr. Young, since it’s irrational for either Syria or Iran to desire to make it MORE difficult for Obama’s administration to reach out to their respective regimes. Young’s theory does make sense, however, if we assume a power struggle within the Iranian and Syrian regimes between the old guard hardliners (in Syria the old bureaucratic elite and the military and in Iran I’m assuming this would be Ahmadinijad and the Ayatollah) and a nascent group of moderate technocrats (in Syria this would include President Bashar and a number of his ministers – in Iran this would probably include only opposition figures outside the government without any real political weight).
If this is a correct reading, and indeed there are struggles within Iran and Syria for control of their countries’ foreign policies, this is even MORE reason for Obama’s administration to engage in talks, since a rapprochement with concrete benefits would weaken the hardliners in both regimes.

Young also states, “As Arabs watch events in Gaza, their first impulse is to condemn their own leaders. For decades, Arab regimes diverted valuable resources to build up vast security apparatuses justified as necessary to combat Israel. Yet Israel won all its wars, some Arab states made peace with it, but the security apparatuses remain.”
I would agree, with the caveat that this is probably their second impulse – rather they would first blame Israel and the international community for failing to make peace, which has given their regimes the necessary scapegoat for maintaining bloated security sectors. The Egyptians, who have made peace with Israel (at great domestic political costs that still resonate 30 years later) must still maintain a large security presence at Israel’s behest to stop smuggling across their border. Arabs can see through their regimes’ rhetoric, but Israel still bears most of the blame in their calculus.

What I find striking in both Young’s analysis and the analysis of most other Middle East observers is their insistence at singling out Iran and Syria as the most powerful backers of movements like Hamas and Hizbullah. To this duo of states I would also add the entire Arab population, which while mostly disenfranchised and powerless, are still a force that must be reckoned with sooner or later. Focusing on states like Syria and Iran at the expense of the region’s people is symptomatic of the failures of US policy. By engaging with the movements that Arabs see as the last front fighting against complete US/Israeli tutelage, more powerful actors like Iran and Syria could more easily pursue reasonable foreign policies while abandoning empty rhetoric about ‘sovereignty’ and ‘resistance’ and their massive militaries.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Rubin: "The Arab-Israeli Conflict is Over"

Professor Barry Rubin writes in the Ottowa Citizen: "Resistance" is a favourite code word coined by Syria's regime for a program of battling for decades, sacrificing many thousand lives, using terrorism, fighting wars, and staying intransigent until final, total victory is achieved."

Replace "Syria" with "US" and "Resistance" with "War on Terror" and I actually agree with most of Rubin's article.

He points out, truthfully, that all the Arab leaders exploit the Palestinian situation to paint themselves as besieged moderates, fighting off invading armies of Islamic radicals from neighboring 'rogue' states. Predictably this gets their regimes lots of money from the West, and lets them off the hook on reforms, since stability is paramount.

Rubin's main point is that the Arab-Israeli conflict is no longer Arab in character, but includes only the Palestinians and the Israelis. It's true, most Arab regimes have abandoned the Palestinians to their fate - but their populations haven't. Arab citizens continue to demand justice for the Palestinians - perhaps democracy in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia would be the first step toward solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Thanks to Ricardo for the link!