News roundup — April 27

Fatah and Hamas reconciliation agreement

The rival Palestinian movements Fatah and Hamas agreed Wednesday to reconcile and form an interim government ahead of elections, after a four-year feud, in what both sides hailed as a chance to start a fresh page in their national history.

Israel said the accord, which was brokered in secrecy by Egypt, would not secure peace in the Middle East and urged Abbas to carry on shunning the Islamist movement, which has governed the Gaza Strip since 2007 after ousting Fatah in a civil war.

Forging Palestinian unity is regarded as crucial to reviving any prospect for an independent Palestinian state, but Western powers have always refused to deal with Hamas because of its refusal to recognize Israel and renounce violence.

“We have agreed to form a government composed of independent figures that would start preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections,” said Azzam al-Ahmad, the head of Fatah’s negotiating team in Cairo. “Elections would be held in about eight months from now,” he said, adding the Arab League would oversee the implementation of the agreement. (Reuters)

A separate peace

Zvi Bar’el writes: For the past four years, it has been clear to Fatah and Hamas that they had no alternative but to reach a reconciliation. The controversy was over the price. Even now, when the draft agreement is signed, the portfolio allocation, the type of election, the date of the election and the designated ministers and prime minister have yet to be agreed on.

The successful implementation of the reconciliation agreement is largely dependent on both sides recognizing that they will have to make decisions and cooperate without outside help. There is no certainty that Assad, who navigated Hamas’ diplomatic moves, is in a position to continue setting the Middle Eastern agenda, as he had hoped after Mubarak’s fall. It is clear to Fatah, and especially Mahmoud Abbas, that General Tantawi’s Egypt is not Mubarak’s Egypt and the Egyptian public pressure to open the Gaza border and the regime’s readiness to respond would deprive him of the main leverage over Hamas.

The reconciliation has direct bearing on Abbas’ intention to ask the United Nations to recognize an independent Palestinian state. Such a state would include the Gaza Strip, as had been agreed in the Oslo agreement and as Abbas reiterates constantly. Abbas will not be able to pass himself off as one who represents the Palestinian people without reconciling with Hamas, especially when Gaza has played such a major role in evoking international sympathy, perhaps even more than Abbas’ infrastructure in the West Bank.

Operation Cast Lead, the Turkish flotilla and the prolonged blockade of Gaza, as well as Israel’s settlement policy, helped Abbas persuade world leaders to remove their support from Israel’s position and adopt the Palestinian-state idea.

The reconciliation was enabled, among other things, by the fact that Hamas will not be obliged to recognize Israel, because if the United Nations recognizes the Palestinian state, Hamas’ specific recognition would be meaningless. Hamas will be part of a Palestinian government making sovereign decisions. Hamas has already said in the past it was willing to recognize all the agreements and decisions accepted by the Arab League, including the Arab Initiative.

Even the United States will not be able to object to a united Palestinian government, in which Hamas is a partner. After all, it had agreed to accept and even support, economically and militarily, a Lebanese government in which Hezbollah was partner. Nor will the United States and Europe be able to object to general elections in the territories, or deny their results, when the West is demanding Arab leaders implement democratic reforms.

Israel could find itself isolated yet again if it objects to the reconciliation or the election. (Haaretz)

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Shock in Syria: the messy and unlikely alternatives for Bashar

David W. Lesch writes: Early this year, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad portrayed his country as being different, almost immune from the uprisings that had beset Tunisia and Egypt. The mouthpieces of the Syrian regime consistently echoed this arrogance, even to the point of siding with the protestors in their Arab brethren countries. They pointed out that the septuagenarian and octogenarian leaders of these states were out of touch with their populations. They were also corrupt lackeys of the United States. The implication, of course, was that Asad, a relatively young 45, was in touch with the Arab youth. He also confronted the United States and Israel in the region and supported the resistance forces of Hamas and Hizbullah, thus brandishing credentials that played well in the Arab street.

This may have bought him some time, but it was a misreading of the situation—or denial of it. Having met with Asad a number of times over the past 7 years, I can almost guarantee that he was absolutely shocked when the uprisings in the Arab world started to seep into his own country. I believe he truly thought he was safe and secure…and popular beyond condemnation. But not in today’s new Middle East, where the stream of information cannot be controlled as it has been in the past. The perfect storm of higher commodity prices, Wikileaks, and the youth bulge—and their weapon of mass destruction, the social media—have bared for all to see widespread socio-economic problems, corruption, and restricted political space, and authoritarian regimes can no longer shape or contain this information. In this Syria was no different.

One might recognize the stages of shock in Asad, similar to the five stages of grief. Following his denial, Asad displayed incredulity, even anger that fueled a blatant triumphalism, apparent in his initial speech of March 30 that incorrectly placed the bulk of the blame for the uprisings in Syria on conspirators and foreign enemies, thus ignoring the very real domestic problems that lay at the root of public frustration and despair.

Asad then reached the bargaining stage, where one attempts to do anything possible to postpone one’s fate. There is recognition of problems and attempts to address them, apparent in Asad’s speech to his new cabinet on April 16, when he announced the lifting of the almost 50-year state of emergency law, among other proposed reforms. But the protests and associated violence continued. The most dangerous phase could be if Asad withdraws into seclusion, trying to come to grips with the reality of the situation. This is dangerous because Bashar might cede his leadership role to others, and filling the void could be hardliners who advocate an even harsher crackdown. This may be what is happening now. One hopes that Asad passes through this stage very quickly and reasserts himself toward the final one, that of acceptance. (Syria Comment)

Syrian regime sends tanks to Deraa in further toughening of crackdown

Dozens of tanks have been reported to be en route to Deraa, the Syrian city at the centre of protests against President Bashar al-Assad, as a series of EU nations protested at the increasingly bloody government crackdown that is now believed to have killed more than 450 people.

Deraa remained largely cut off to outside communications but sources reported gunfire again on Wednesday. Amnesty International quoted eyewitnesses who said army snipers were shooting at injured people on the streets and those who tried to reach them.

Witnesses reported seeing a convoy of at least 30 army tanks leave an area near the Golan Heights front line with Israel and head south, apparently towards Deraa, where the protests against Assad’s authoritarian regime began six weeks ago. (The Guardian)

Quelling the revolt: will the opposition take up arms?

Joshua Landis writes: Bashar al-Assad is determined to quell the Syrian revolt, which is why he has sent in the military with tanks and is now arresting the network of opposition activists and leaders that his intelligence agencies have been able to track.

There is an element of “shock and awe” to the operation. Tanks are clearly not useful for suppressing an urban rebellion, but they demonstrate the superior firepower of the state and the determination of the president. It is a classic military strategy – go hard and quick. Take out the opposition before t has a chance to harden and develop a durable command a reliable cell structure. This is precisely what the US military tried to do in Iraq. It is what it failed to do in Libya, when it allowed Qaddafi to regroup and regain control of Tripoli and Western Libya after his initial confusion and weakness.

I do not believe that the regime will be able to shut down the opposition. Unlike the Iranian opposition, which was successfully put down, the Syrian opposition is more revolutionary, even if, perhaps, not as numerous in the capital. The Green movement did not call for the overthrow of the regime and an end to the Islamic republic, but only reform. The Syrian opposition is revolutionary. Although it began by calling for reform, it quickly escalated to demand an end to the regime. It is convinced that reform of the Baathist regime is impossible and Syria must start over. It wants an end to the Baath Party, an end to Assad dynasty, an end to domination of the presidency and security forces by the Alawite religious community, and an end to the domination of the economy by the financial elite which has used nepotism, insider trading, and corruption to monopolize the ramparts of trade and industry. In short, the opposition abhors most aspects of the present regime and is working to uproot it. It is more determined and revolutionary than was the Iranian Green movement that Ahmadinejad and Ali Khamenei successfully suppressed. (Syria Comment)

European leaders threaten Syria with sanctions

Moved by escalating violence in Syria, European leaders warned Tuesday that they will impose new sanctions on Damascus unless President Bashar al-Assad halts his bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters.

The warnings reflected a growing sense of outrage in European capitals since Assad sent tanks and armored personnel carriers into the rebellious southern city of Daraa on Monday, firing at youths in the street and inflicting a death toll estimated by human rights activists at two dozen. (Washington Post)

More than 230 ruling Baath members resign in Syria

Another 203 members of Syria’s ruling Baath party announced their resignation Wednesday in protest of the deadly crackdown on protesters, raising the number to 233, according to lists seen by AFP.

The latest group to step down were members from the Houran region, which covers the flashpoint town of Daraa in the south of the country. Earlier 30 members resigned from the restive city of Banias in northwest Syria. (AFP)

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NATO says it is stepping up attacks on Libya targets

NATO plans to step up attacks on the palaces, headquarters and communications centers that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi uses to maintain his grip on power in Libya, according to Obama administration and allied officials.

White House officials said President Obama had been briefed on the more energetic bombing campaign, which included a strike early on Monday on Colonel Qaddafi’s residential compound in the heart of Tripoli, the capital.

United States officials said the effort was not intended to kill the Libyan leader, but to take the war to his doorstep, raising the price of his efforts to continue to hold on to power. “We want to make sure he knows there is a war going on, and it’s not just in Misurata,” said a senior administration official, who requested anonymity in discussing military planning.

The NATO campaign, some officials said, arose in part from an analysis of Colonel Qaddafi’s reaction to the bombing of Tripoli that was ordered by President Ronald Reagan a quarter-century ago. Alliance officials concluded that the best hope of dislodging the Libyan leader and forcing him to flee was to cut off his ability to command his most loyal troops.

“We don’t want to kill him or make a martyr out of him in the Arab world,” said a senior NATO diplomat familiar with the evolving strategy. “But if he sees the bombing happening all around him, we think it could change his calculus.” (New York Times)

All the tribes of Libya are but one

A statement in French by 61 Libyan tribal leaders, delivered to Bernard-Henri Levy. Automated translation by Google Translate.

We, heads or representatives of the tribes of Libya, met today in Benghazi, around Daihoum Doctor, member of the National Transition Council. Faced with threats to the unity of our country, facing the maneuvers and propaganda of the dictator and his family, we solemnly declare this.

Nothing can divide us.

We share the same ideal of a Libya free, democratic and united.

Every Libyan has certainly had its origins in a particular tribe. But he has complete freedom to create family ties, friendship, neighborhood or fellowship with any member of any other tribe.

We train, we, the Libyans, a single tribe, the tribe of Libyans free, fighting against oppression and the evil spirit of division.

It is the dictator, trying to play the Libyan tribes against each other, dividing the country and rule. There is truth in this myth, it has fed an ancestral opposition today to a rift between tribes of Fezzan, of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania.

Libya tomorrow, once the dictator gone, will be a united Libya, including the capital Tripoli and will be where we are finally free to form a civil society according to our wishes.

We take this message, told a French philosopher, to thank France and through France, Europe: it is they who have prevented the bloodshed that we had promised Gaddafi, it is thanks to them and with them that we build Libya free, and one tomorrow.

Rare view from Libya’s western mountains shows rebel gains against Qaddafi

Evidence of the ferocity of the fighting in Libya’s western mountains was clear Monday at the Nalut central hospital. One young rebel lay dead under a shroud; nobody yet knew his name. Some were too badly injured to talk. One said a battle that day – in which loyalist troops were forced to retreat six miles with heavy losses – was a “big victory.”

“It is the heart that is fighting,” said the fighter as he lay in a hospital bed. He refused to be pictured wearing an oxygen mask “because they will say Qaddafi is winning.”

Few journalists have so far crossed into these western mountains, but the picture now emerging is that of a heavily outgunned militia – perhaps better organized than the rag-tag rebels in the east – that has leveraged local knowledge, international support, and deep-seated anger at Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi into unlikely victories. (Christian Science Monitor)

Gadhafi’s grip on western Libya may be slipping

Moammar Gadhafi has suffered military setbacks in recent days in western Libya, a sign that his grip may be slipping in the very region he needs to cling to power.

His loyalists were driven out of the center of the city of Misrata, a key rebel stronghold in Gadhafi-controlled territory. A NATO airstrike turned parts of his Tripoli headquarters into smoldering rubble. And rebel fighters seized a border crossing, breaking open a supply line to besieged rebel towns in a remote western mountain area.

Front lines have shifted repeatedly in two months of fighting, and the poorly trained, ill-equipped rebels have given no evidence that they could defeat Gadhafi on the battlefield. The Libyan leader has deep pockets, including several billion dollars in gold reserves, that could keep him afloat for months. And his forces continue to bombard Misrata from afar, unleashing a fierce barrage Tuesday on the port – the city’s only lifeline to the world. (AP)

NATO initiatives not seen decisive in Libya war

The Western bombing campaign in Libya is now in its sixth week but despite a series of eye-catching NATO initiatives there is little sign of a decisive military shift that will bring a quick end to the war.

And there are few signs either of significant divisions within Muammar Gaddafi’s government that would hasten a political solution to the conflict.

NATO, which took over the air campaign from a coalition led by France, Britain and the United States a month ago, can point to some successes in protecting civilian populations in eastern Libya from attack including in Benghazi and Ajdabiyah.

But the siege of Misrata continues and the commander of the NATO operation, Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, conceded on Tuesday that the alliance had yet to remove the threat posed to civilians by Gaddafi’s forces. (Reuters)

From a Qaddafi daughter, a glimpse inside the bunker

Aisha el-Qaddafi, the daughter of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, likes to tell her three young children bedtime stories about the afterlife. Now, she says, they are especially appropriate.

“To make them ready,” she said, “because in a time of war you never know when a rocket or a bomb might hit you, and that will be the end.”

In a rare interview at her charitable foundation here, Ms. Qaddafi, 36, a Libyan-trained lawyer who once worked on Saddam Hussein’s legal defense team, offered a glimpse into the fatalistic mind-set of the increasingly isolated family at the core of the battle for Libya, the bloodiest arena in the democratic uprising that is sweeping the region.

She dismissed the rebels as “terrorists” but suggested that some former Qaddafi officials who are now in the opposition’s governing council still “keep in touch with us.” She pleaded for dialogue and talked about democratic reforms. But she dismissed the rebels as unfit for such talks because of their use of violence, hurled personal barbs at President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and, at one point, appeared to disparage the basic idea of electoral democracy. (New York Times)

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Secret case against detainee crumbles

The secret document described Prisoner 269, Mohammed el-Gharani, as the very incarnation of a terrorist threat: “an al Qaeda suicide operative” with links to a London cell and ties to senior plotters of international havoc.

But there was more to the story, as there so often is at the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba. Eight months after that newly disclosed assessment of Mr. Gharani was written by military intelligence officials, a federal judge examined the secret evidence. Saying that it was “plagued with internal inconsistencies” and largely based on the word of two other Guantánamo detainees whose reliability was in question, he ruled in January 2009 that Mr. Gharani should be released. The Obama administration sent him to Chad about five months later.

The secret assessment of Mr. Gharani, like many of the detainee dossiers made available to The New York Times and other news organizations, reflected few doubts about the peril he might have posed. He was rated “high risk,” and military officials recommended that he not be freed. But now, a comparison of the assessment’s conclusions with other information provides a case study in the ambiguities that surround many of the men who have passed through the prison at Guantánamo Bay. (New York Times)

These Guantánamo files undo the al-Qaida myth machine

Jason Burke writes: Hidden deep in the leaked Guantánamo files is a small but important trove of information, too historical and too technical to have commanded much space in newspapers keener on hyperventilating about “nuclear al-Qaida hellstorms” this week. Each of the 700-plus files includes a short biography of its subject. These cover his “prior history” and “recruitment and travel” to wherever he became fully engaged with violent extremism and, with brutal if unintended efficiency, demolish three of the most persistent myths about al-Qaida.

The first is that the organisation is composed of men the CIA trained to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan who then turned on their mentors. In fact among the bona fide al-Qaida operatives detained in Guatánamo Bay there are very few who are actually veterans of the fighting in the 1980s, and none of these were involved with groups that received any substantial technical or financial assistance from the US, even indirectly via Pakistan.

The second is that an “international brigade” of Islamist extremists was responsible for the Soviet defeat. The records make it clear that their combat contribution was negligible.

The third myth is that most of those currently waging “jihad” against the Crusader-Zionist alliance or the “hypocrite, apostate regimes” of the Muslim world were actively recruited by al-Qaida and brought, brainwashed, to Afghanistan to fight or be trained. The descriptions of almost all those in Guantánamo genuinely associated with al-Qaida shows that in fact they spent much time and money overcoming many difficulties to find a way to reach al-Qaida. They were not dumb or vulnerable youths “groomed” to be suicide bombers; they were highly motivated, often educated and intelligent, men. (The Guardian)

Sinai explosion cuts Israel gas supply

An explosion early Wednesday on a gas pipeline in the northern Sinai Peninsula cut supplies of Egyptian natural gas to Israel for the second time this year, according to Israeli and Egyptian officials, in what many here suspected was an act of sabotage by local Bedouin or possibly Palestinians.

The blast came as the authorities in Cairo began to investigate public suspicions of corruption and mismanagement by the former Mubarak government in its gas export deal with Israel. It also prompted renewed calls in Israel for the country to reduce its dependency on outside sources and speed up development of its own newly found gas fields.

“Regional instability is likely to continue in the near term, and we must attain energy independence,” Danny Ayalon, the deputy foreign minister of Israel, said in a statement.

Details of who carried out the attack remained unclear. Egyptian security officials said a package containing TNT caused the blast. There were no immediate reports of casualties and it was not known how long repairs would take. (New York Times)

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  1. As spectators, we can only watch as events unfold in the various Arab countries today. Lessons will be learned if anything. Though the entrenched powers resort to violence, it’s turning out to be more of a stalling tactic than stopping the change sweeping through each country. The fear that has been used to quell the frustrations of the people is no longer working, nor is the violence. These changes in their various forms, give others a menu of what to use in the challenges they face. The one “Q” I have, concerns the situation here in the U.S., with the unemployed, the Government siding with the T.B.T.F. looters, giving business incentives to avoid paying taxes while sending jobs out of country, Union busting and tearing down of the social advances made over the years. There is more, but this country is just as ripe for an American spring or what ever name one might use, as that which is taking place in the Arab world today.

  2. Fatah and Hamas together…FINALLY.

    As most of us knew and said for several years now, this is what had to happen for Palestine to get it’s s*** together for statehood. Suppose Fatah has finally wised up and quit playing the ISR-USA road map to no where game?

    But I am certain the US will still fight tooth and nail against Palestine statehood.
    Our Israeli congress has no shame…and is beyond being shamed….and beyond reformable. The world will have to overide us on this….let’s hope they can and do.