5. Middle East Followups

Dec-20-2012 | Comments Off

Bird’s Eye: A quick last look around the Middle East. In Egypt, we’ve heard all sorts of rhetoric about Morsi being bad, with surprisingly little discussion of the actual proposals he’s made for the constitution. Harron Siddiqui has a fine piece (with a stupid and racist title from the Toronto Star), while the Guardian follows up with a major change. Juan Cole looks at the increasingly inevitable fall of Assad, while War Tard both analyzes brilliantly the forces that push Assad towards chemical weapons, and the forces against. He is also very good on what will happen after Assad goes. The Bloat and Flail  looks at the positive reasons for hope in the UN recognition of Palestine as a state, while three different commentators look at the utter failure of the West’s invasion of Afghanistan.

* Haroon Siddiqui on the Egyptian ConstitutionToronto Star

The constitution is problematic, though it’s not all that different from Anwar Sadat’s 1971 constitution.

His said that “Islam is the religion of the state and the principles of sharia are the main source of legislation.” Sharia already governs family and property matters. But the new draft ties sharia doctrine to “Sunni Islam,” as interpreted by “the majority of Muslim scholars,” raising fears that it could be interpreted any which way.

The draft restricts freedom of religion to “monotheistic religions.” Thus Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, etc., get no rights. The old constitution had no such exclusion.

On women’s rights, the draft has as much gobbledygook as the old constitution. It says the state should “guarantee co-ordination between the duties of the woman and her public work,” vs. the old formulation that women are equal “without violating the rules of Islamic jurisprudence.” Many hijabi women oppose this new draft.

The draft concedes too much power to the military — perhaps as quid pro quo to the army staying out of politics or helping the Muslim Brotherhood.

Societies in transition need Nelson Mandelas. Morsi has failed to be a conciliator. In fact, he has polarized Egyptians, notwithstanding the undemocratic machinations of the opposition.

 * Egypt: Mohamed Morsi cancels decree that gave him sweeping powers The Observer

The Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, has scrapped a decree that had generated widespread unrest by awarding him near-absolute powers. But he insisted a referendum on a new constitution would go ahead as planned this week.

The announcement, which is unlikely to placate Morsi’s opponents, came after Egypt’s military warned that failure to resolve a crisis over the drafting of the constitution would result in “disastrous consequences” that could drag the country into a “dark tunnel”.

* Obama Recognizes Syrian Opposition as Government Juan Cole Informed Comment

President Obama announced on Tuesday that the US now formally recognizes the Syrian opposition as the legitimate government of Syria:

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Tuesday that there were no further indications of the Syrian regime priming itself to deploy chemical weapons. (My own suspicion is that Israeli intelligence planted that story in the first place, because it wants the US to militarily secure the chemical weapons lest they are transferred to Hizbullah. The Obama administration dealt with Netanyahu by saying deployment of chemical weapons would be a red line for the regime, and then declaring that the warning worked.)

Obama’s recognition comes as the momentum is turning slowly against the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his Baath Party. Alarabiya reports on how the Free Syria Army has reorganized itself, assigning each sector of the country to a rebel general. 

* Syria: Will Assad go full chemical? War Tard

Anyone who’s ever played a hand of poker knows that you double down on the bluff when your credit line just got cut off. Maybe someone will believe that crazy look in your eye. So you push all your chips into the middle of the table. That’s Assad right now. Chemical weaponry is a way of breaking the bank.

Personally, I can’t believe Assad is serious here.

It’s certain death multiplied by the destruction of your country.

But you know what?

Wounded animals are more dangerous. Dictators are prone to shitty decision making when confined to a bunker. When you know you’re about to die and you’ve got nothing else to lose, sometimes it’s fun to just sit back and set the ignition fuse on the firework.

* Three Good Things That Came From The Palestinian Statehood Vote  The Globe and Mail

One of the Israeli government’s key ambitions is to join the European Union, which is its main and crucial trading partner. By ending complacent acceptance of Israel’s lassitude, the Middle East analyst Juan Cole notes , Europe now has “the opportunity to play the kind of honest broker between the two sides that the U.S. pretended to be but almost never did.”

In other words, writes Sharon Pardo of Ben-Gurion University, “Europe could offer Israelis and Palestinians the sweetest carrot in its arsenal in the form of a European vision, including perhaps eventual EU membership. Europe would have to condition such a vision on a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.”

Even some conservatives who sometimes support Mr. Netanyahu saw the declaration as a minor breakthrough. “It was striking to me,” David Frumwrote , that Mr. Abbas’s speech to the UN “was conciliatory, not provocative… it is a much more explicit statement of co-existence than was ever offered from a UN rostrum by Abbas’s predecessor… Abbas spoke for legality and democracy in a future Palestinian state.”

This, Mr. Frum noted, puts Israel in a corner, one that is best escaped by reciprocating the gesture: “Israel, too, has reason to show a friendly face to the word. If Abbas talks peace, let Israel talk peace. If Abbas expresses a wish for a two-state agreement, let Israel do the same.”

* Dereliction of Duty: The Sequel  Stephen M. Walt

According to the New York Times, the Pentagon has just issued a gloomy new report suggesting that we’ve made far less progress in the war than is often claimed. Money quotation:

“A bleak new Pentagon report has found that only one of the Afghan National Army’s 23 brigades is able to operate independently without air or other military support from the United States and NATO partners.”

The Times continues: “The report, released Monday, also found that violence in Afghanistan is higher than it was before the surge of American forces into the country two years ago, although it is down from a high in the summer of 2010

 * Insurgency Encroaching On Central Afghanistan   The Long War Journal

The increasing danger associated with traversing the once-dependable road system linking Bamyan with Kabul has prompted provincial officials to demand additional resources from the Karzai regime for safer modes of transportation.

“We have asked the central government to provide us with helicopters,” Ahmad Alia, a spokesman for the Bamyan police chief explained to the New York Times in late October. “Local government officials are not traveling by ground anymore, and they want to have helicopters so they can go to Kabul or other provinces.”

* Doonesbury on Afghanistan

click on strip to enbigify



3. What’s Going to Happen in Syria?

Sep-14-2012 | Comments (1)

Bird’s Eye: Obviously, no one knows. But here’s a useful primer: Uri Avnery reviews the history of the Middle East, the Guardian looks at what the situation now is, and Saren Schmidt looks at the way out. And in a piece that applies to both Syria and Iran (above), Simon Tisdall looks at the fascinating performance of Mohamed Morsi in Tehran.

* Bloody Spring Uri Avnery counterpunch

When the French were finally kicked out of the region at the end of World War II, the question was whether and how Syria and Lebanon could survive as national states.

In both there was an inbuilt contradiction between the unifying nationalism and the dividing ethnic/religious tendency. They adopted two different solutions.

In Lebanon, the answer was a delicate structure of a state based on a balance between the communities. Each person “belongs” to a community. In practice everyone is the citizen of his community, and the state is but a federation of communities.

…The Lebanese system is a negation of “one person – one vote” democracy, but it has survived a vicious civil war, several massacres, a number of Israeli invasions and a shift of the Shiites from last to first place. It is more robust than might have been supposed.

The Syrian solution was very different – dictatorship. A series of strongmen followed each other, until the al-Assad dynasty took over. Its surprising longevity arises from the fact that many Syrians of all communities seem to have preferred even a brutal tyrant to the breakup of the state, chaos and civil war.

No more, it seems. The Syrian Spring is an offspring of the Arab Spring, but under very different conditions.

The Point Of No Return The Guardian

The fight for Syria has become a struggle for the destiny of the region. It is also now a clash of ideologies and orders, of sects and societies. The battle for regional influence runs straight through Damascus and none of the region’s main players are willing to yield ground. “It’s Sunni versus Shia, Arab versus Persian, America versus Russia, the list goes on,” says a western diplomat. “This is unfinished business on many levels.”

What will emerge from Syria’s civil war will likely take many months to determine. A rapid end to the regime would not mean an end to crisis. The vacuum that would follow the end of strongman rule would take some filling – the recent experience of Iraq to the east, another sectarian state bound together by an autocrat, clearly demonstrates that.

 * The West Will Have to Compromise on Syria Saren Schmidt  Informed Comment

First of all, the Alawites (and the other minorities) must have guarantees that the fall of the regime will not be at their expense. Words and paper are easy, but the only actor who may credibly guarantee that minority interests will be secured after the fall of Assad is the Syrian military. Not the civilian security apparatus, but the part of the Syrian Army that still sees itself as a national institution and not just as an extension of the regime. The Syrian military should therefore be a party to any agreement concerning a transition from the present to a new government (as was also the case in Egypt and in Tunisia whose militaries also played an instrumental role in the transition). The only influence on the military apart from the present regime is Iran (and to some degree Russia).

Secondly, the West has to distance itself from the regional conflict between Iran and Israel, which has as its root cause that the Israelis continue to relate to their neighbours by means of military domination rather than finding a solution that all parties can live with. Said in another way: Israel has yet to accept the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state. As long as that remains the case, Israel will be seen as an enemy by Hamas and Hezbollah, which Iran for its part will insist on supporting. But there is nothing forcing the West to be hitched to the Israeli wagon in the conflict with Iran. After all, the West wants democratization in the Middle East and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. The conflict between Israel and Iran ought therefore not to be allowed to hinder the inclusion of Iran in the attempt to find a solution for Syria.

The Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi, has recently suggested that Egypt, Turkey, Saudi-Arabia and Iran get together to find a solution to the Syrian tragedy. The West ought to support Morsi’s initiative and replace romantic, revolutionary notions with a pragmatic approach to the Syrian people’s wish for democracy, and at the same time decouple its policy from Israel’s self-inflicted conflicts with its regional neighbours.

* Egypt underlines Iran’s isolation at Non-Aligned Movement summit   Simon Tisdall The Guardian

Iran’s leaders clearly hoped this week’s gala summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran would serve as an antidote to the diplomatic isolation imposed on them by the US and Britain. But Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s wonderfully unpredictable new president, making the first visit at this level since the 1979 Iranian revolution, had other ideas.

Morsi’s fierce condemnation of the Syrian regime, Iran’s close ally, was as eloquent as it was piercing, and it came like a bolt from the blue. …The Syrian delegation walked out. The Iranians did not have that option – they could hardly boycott their own meeting. Instead they were forced to listen as Morsi, a Muslim Brother, an Arab, and lifelong critic of western policy in the Middle East, thumped out an uncompromising speech..”

“We should all express our full support to the struggle of those who are demanding freedom and justice in Syria and translate our sympathies into a clear political vision that supports peaceful transfer (of power) to a democratic system,” Morsi told the 120-country summit….

Despite 20,000 Syrian dead and the maiming and traumatising of generations of young people, the civil war shows no sign of stopping, may even be getting worse. “The bloodletting in Syria is the responsibility of all of us… the Syrian crisis is bleeding our hearts,” Morsi said. He is right – and when was the last time an Egyptian president spoke for the world? But after his speech, significant and stirring though it was, the world is no nearer to finding a solution.



5. Followups

Jul-20-2012 | Comments Off

Bird’s Eye: Is the TSA tragedy or farce? Tough call, that one. The opening infographic underlines the amount of money spent without any increase in safety. But we salute John Brennen, “naked American hero” for his stark act of resistance to the TSA. Juan Cole updates us on Syria, the Guardian brings some good news from Libya, and a fascinating look at a whole new way of news reporting: twitter aggregating. Do look at that: I guarantee you’ve never seen any news story quite like it before.

* Infographic: TSA – Grope & Pillage   The FloorGem Blog

* “Naked American Hero” on Trial—Not Guilty! Blogtown, PDX

Not guilty! The judge ruled this afternoon that protester John Brennan is not guilty of incident exposure charges for stripping down at the PDX security station. The issue basically came down to whether Brennan’s striptease was meant to be a protest or whether, as the state’s prosecuting attorney argued, he retroactively claimed it was a protest to get off the hook for whipping off his clothes. Since “symbolic” nudity is protected as free speech under state law, the judge determined that Brennan’s derobing was a legitimate protest.

* Top Ten Implications of the Damascus Bombing Juan Cole Informed Comment

What does this bombing mean for Syria and the Middle East?

1. It demonstrates that the rebels have sympathizers in high positions within the regime. The bomb had to have been planted by an insider. This situation reminds me of the American dilemma in Vietnam, where we now know that many high-ranking Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) officers were in fact sympathizers with the Communists and basically double agents.

2. It follows upon this conclusion that the al-Assad regime is unlikely to be able to emulate the Algerian military, which crushed the Islamic Salvation Front in a brutal civil war from 1992 through the early zeroes of the present century. Some 150,000 Algerians are said to have died in the dirty war, with atrocities on both sides. But when the smoke cleared, the junta was still in control, and its favored secular civilians were in office. In all that time, the Muslim fundamentalist opposition never laid a glove on any of the high officials or officers. But the Algerian elite closed ranks against the Islamic Salvation Front, having a cultural set of affinities and a common source of patronage in the state-owned oil and gas sector.

If the rebels in Syria can reach into the Security HQ this way, and assassinate the highest security officials of the regime, that ability does not augur well for Bashar al-Assad’s ability to win the long game, as his counterparts did in Algeria.

* User in r/Toronto uses social media to give in depth analysis of a major shooting via reddit

Analysis: It’s interesting to look at the Reddit report, and then compare that to a traditional news report from the CBC (the publicly-funded broadcaster in Canada). The one on Reddit doesn’t look or read anything like a normal news story — instead of names, it has links to tweets and individual Twitter accounts, and there isn’t much of a story at all, just a recitation of facts or alleged facts. The CBC story has the names and ages of the victims, as well as some quotes from the police about gang violence, a quote from a friend of one of the deceased, and some eyewitness reports from the scene.

That said, however, the Reddit version also has a lot of things the CBC version doesn’t: for example, it has some tweets from people attending the party about the potential for violence — before the shooting even occurs. It also uses messages posted by those involved to talk about the shooting being part of a possible gang war, including links to individual tweets from people threatening more violence, as well as tweets and YouTube videos posted by members of a gang that one of the victims was apparently associated with.

While the format of the Reddit story may be more difficult to read, it also makes the story a lot easier to fact-check while you are reading, since any reader can simply click on a link and see the message or user profile that the author is basing their statement on (in one case, the Reddit post has a link to a screen-capture of a tweet that has since been removed). The CBC story has no links whatsoever. And while the traditional news story simply makes statements without providing any evidence other than an interview with police, the Redditor uses words like “apparently” and “I can’t be sure.”

* Mahmoud Jibril, A Force For Moderation In Libya  The Guardian

Sitting in a cafe across from the square’s imposing Ottoman palace, Saad Kamur explained that he had voted for Mahmoud Jibril in Libya’s historic election. Jibril, a 60-year-old US-educated political scientist, appears to have won a landslide victory in the poll on Saturday, defying predictions that Islamists would sweep to power in Libya, as they have done elsewhere.

“He’s moderate. And experienced,” Kamur said. “I don’t think the others were capable of running a government.” Kamur, a Tripoli businessman, said observers who predicted that Libya would go the way of Egypt and Tunisia – now run by religious parties – had misinterpreted the national mood, and Libya’s prevailing centrism.

“Libyans are open to the outside world. Many have studied abroad. They haven’t seen anything positive yet from Islamist governments,” he suggested. As for the election, in which he cast his first ever vote at the rather belated age of 52, he said: “Nobody imagined it would go this smoothly.”



April 27th, 2012 :: Year 9, Issue 16

Apr-27-2012 | Comments Off

1. Followups

Bird’s Eye: Another “View from the Other Side”, this one from Africa by Mama Hope. As the tragic civil war in Syria goes on, Western realists such as Stephen Walt argue increasingly against Western involvement (TL:DR Libya) leaving Turkey as the only relevant outside power. And in Canada, a panicked Conservative Government argues that independent scientists really want to be controlled: Environment Minister Peter Kent claims, “Many of our younger scientists seek advice from our departmental communications staff.” Pull the other one, Peter….

* African Men, Hollywood Stereotypes (video) -via Boing Boing

Wouldn’t it be better if African men weren’t always depicted as warlords or victims? 

* Europe Has Left Syria To A Distinctly Ottoman Fate  Timothy Garton Ash  The Guardian

US president Barack Obama and French president Nicolas Sarkozy have elections to win. British prime minister David Cameron is too busy eating cold pasties and drumming up trade in the Far East. They will express outrage, and try to ratchet up economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure through the UN, but don’t expect any Libya or Kosovo-type intervention any time soon.

In these circumstances, it is other powers that will determine the fate of the Syrian people. In the near future, Turkey will be more important than Britain, Iran than Germany, Saudi Arabia than France, Russia than America. In Syria, all these regional powers pursue their own national interests, defined not just in economic and military but also in cultural and ideological terms. So there’s a struggle between Shia, post-revolutionary Iran and Sunni, reactionary Saudi Arabia, post-imperial Russia and neo-Ottoman Turkey, not to mention distant but mighty China – a vital swing vote among the permanent members of the UN security council.

* Environment Canada To Monitor What Scientists Say

Government media minders are being dispatched to an international polar conference in Montreal to monitor and record what Environment Canada scientists say to reporters.The scientists will present the latest findings on everything from seabirds to Arctic ice, and Environment Canada’s media office plans to intervene when the media approaches the researchers, Postmedia News has learned.

…“Until now such a crude heavy-handed approach to muzzle Canadian scientists, prior to a significant international Arctic science conference hosted by Canada, would have been unthinkable,” says a senior scientist, who has worked for Environment Canada for decades. He asked not to be identified due to the possibility of repercussions from Ottawa. “The memo is clearly designed to intimidate government scientists from Environment Canada,” he says. “Why they would do such an unethical thing, I can’t even begin to imagine, but it is enormously embarrassing to us in the international world of science.”



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