The Syrian revolution’s Kuwaiti supporters

Through the lens of a new Orientalism with which many on the Left now view the Middle East, the war in Syria is an old fashioned proxy war in which the forces of Western imperialism, using their local autocratic allies are engaged in the latest phase of a struggle against the “axis of resistance” which unites Hezbollah, the Assad regime, and Iran.

Even if there is an element of truth in that perspective, it contains a fundamental distortion in the degree to which it discounts the roles of individuals. Syrian civilians along with Syrian and non-Syrian fighters, are all viewed as pawns whose fates will be determined in the real centers of power: Washington, Jerusalem, Paris, London, Riyadh, Qatar, Ankara, Amman, Beirut, Tehran, and Moscow.

In a report on Kuwaiti private support for the opposition, Elizabeth Dickinson provides a much more granular view of who has been funding the war, why this support arose and is now waning. Her account shows why the view of Syria at the center of a geopolitical chessboard is so limited.

Jamaan Herbash used to smile when he talked about Syria. When I met the former Kuwaiti parliamentarian, a year ago, just outside Kuwait City, he scrolled through snapshots of Syria on his iPhone as if they were vacation pictures. One showed him with Free Syrian Army fighters in Aleppo, another was of an F.S.A. hospital that he had helped to fund. He told me that he was even conducting human-rights training for moderate rebel brigades. He was evidently proud of his work, and his face softened as he talked about his most recent visit to Syria. He said that other countries should be doing more to help the rebels, like supplying anti-aircraft weapons to the F.S.A. In the meantime, he explained, private donors were trying to make up the difference: “People pay for their own travel and make sure they convey their donations hand to hand, so the money is disbursed in a very clean manner, untainted by any corruption.”

When I saw Herbash again, nine months later, in October, he looked weary. His beard, scraggly and untrimmed, in the style of strict Islamists, framed exasperated eyes, and his feet fidgeted as we talked about the deteriorating state of the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad. “It’s clear that there is a war of exhaustion in Syria now,” he said, reversing his earlier prediction that the rebels were only months away from victory. More extreme fighters had taken control, and the rebels were so disorganized that many of them were primarily fighting among themselves. Herbash was still raising money—a poster outside his home urged people to contribute: “THEIR CHILDREN ARE BEING KILLED WHILE OUR CHILDREN ARE ENJOYING THE BOUNTIES OF LIFE”—but his optimism had faded.

On Wednesday, Kuwait hosted an international donors’ conference, chaired by Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. Secretary-General, which aimed to raise some of the $6.5 billion that the U.N. estimates will be needed for humanitarian relief in Syria in 2014. The Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Sabah, made the largest pledge, five hundred million dollars; the United States added three hundred and eighty million. In all, the conference generated $2.4 billion, well short of its goal. But, even before the event began, Herbash was convinced that it would make little difference. Last year, the Kuwaiti government’s donation was channelled through the U.N., which under international law must work with the Syrian government—the al-Assad regime—to coördinate relief efforts. That aid hadn’t helped the refugees, not even a little, Herbash wrote on Twitter on Wednesday morning. So, he asked, why not give the money to private Kuwaiti charities to disperse?

Since the Syrian revolution began, in 2011, private Kuwaiti donors like Herbash have been among its most generous patrons, providing what likely amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars to the armed opponents of Assad. The majority of Kuwaitis—like most of the rebels—are Sunni; the Syrian regime and its Army are predominantly Alawites, a small Shiite sect that counts Assad among its members. With its open political atmosphere and its weak terror-financing laws, Kuwait also serves as a hub for private donors across the Gulf.

At the beginning of 2013, Herbash still thought that the moderate rebels of the F.S.A. could win the war. At that point, the Syrian conflict had produced fewer than five hundred thousand refugees, and, he believed, the opposition controlled seventy per cent of Syrian land. Today, there are at least 2.4 million Syrian refugees, with another 6.5 million Syrians displaced inside the country itself. The regime has reclaimed territory, and bitter fighting has erupted between mainstream-opposition fighters and the Al Qaeda affiliate called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), whose reputation for ruthlessness has shocked even the strictest of the Islamist rebels. Earlier this month, ISIS ceded territory that had come under assault from other rebel groups—including Jabhat al-Nusra, another brigade linked to Al Qaeda—but regained some of it in fierce fighting in the past week, which has claimed over a thousand lives.

As the war took a more sectarian and extremist turn, so, too, did its private funders. As the grandmothers, wives, brothers, and even children in Kuwait who had donated to the rebels watched as the conflict turned fratricidal, they wondered what they had given their money to. But the funding didn’t stop—instead, it simply flowed in more extreme directions. Moderates like Herbash have essentially been eclipsed by donors who have fewer qualms about the tactics of the most violent jihadist groups. When I spoke to Herbash in October, he lamented the emergence of hundreds of new rebel brigades, each one accountable only to its own funders. [Continue reading...]

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Arab states show cautious optimism on nuclear deal

The Wall Street Journal reports: Saudi Arabia maintained a pointed silence Sunday on the new nuclear pact between world powers and Saudi Arabia’s top rival, Iran, while other Gulf and Arab states gave a cautious welcome to a deal hoped to ease tensions in a region bloodied by proxy battles between Shiite Iran and Sunni Arab states.

Saudi political commentators voiced persistent fears that Iran would now see itself as freed to advance on other, non-nuclear fronts against its Middle East rivals.

By early Monday in the Middle East, most of the region’s Muslim powers — Turkey, Egypt, and at least four of the six wealthy Arab Gulf countries — had issued statements expressing support for the deal. The United Arab Emirates., a commerce-minded nation that traditionally has thrived on doing business with both Iran and Arab states, welcomed the deal as one it hoped would protect the region “from the tension and danger of nuclear proliferation,” the emirates’ council of ministers said.

Saudi Arabia, the most powerful of the Arab states and the most intensely suspicious rival of Shiite Iran, made no public comment on the pact Sunday, and its foreign ministry didn’t return requests for comment. [Continue reading...]

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Kuwait’s turmoil brings rare protest partnership

The Associated Press reports: For Kuwait’s embattled rulers, clashes earlier this week with anti-government protesters were more than just a sign tensions may be mounting. The crowds themselves showed the widening nature of the Gulf nation’s political crisis: Stirrings of a rare alliance of convenience between liberals and Islamists against Kuwait’s Western-backed leadership.

While it’s not the first time Middle East protests have brought together political foes — Cairo’s Tahrir Square last year and Iran’s postelection unrest in 2009 had a full spectrum of voices — Kuwait’s tiny size means that the coalescence of such varied groups could make for an opposition that punches far above its own weight.

Despite the rising unrest, the ruling family appears in no imminent danger of an Arab Spring-style revolt such as Bahrain’s 20-month-old Shiite Muslim-led uprising against the Sunni monarchy.

But the emerging alliance underscores the complicated challenges for Kuwait’s ruling family as the oil-rich country moves toward Dec. 1 parliamentary elections.

Simultaneous pressure from liberals and Islamist conservatives could push Kuwait deeper into a political morass that has already disrupted the economy and raised questions about stability in one of Washington’s most critical military footholds in the region.

Kuwait’s importance to the Pentagon rose sharply after the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq in December. It is now the hub for American ground forces in the Gulf, where the U.S. and its Arab allies seek to counter Iran’s military buildup.

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Kuwaitis protest electoral law changes

Al Jazeera reports: Police in Kuwait have used teargas, stun grenades and baton charges to disperse tens of thousands of demonstrators protesting against changes to the electoral law, which the opposition has called a “constitutional coup” by the government.

Protesters gathered in various parts of the capital, Kuwait City, on Sunday to march towards the government’s headquarters, but riot police swiftly surrounded some groups and used teargas and stun grenades to disperse them, witnesses said.

The opposition decided to take to the streets after the government – which is dominated by the ruling al-Sabah family – announced last week it was calling elections for December 1 and would change the electoral law.

The opposition called for a boycott of the poll, which follows the dissolution of the parliament elected earlier this year in which it had held a majority.

The announcement was the latest move in an intensifying power struggle between the ruling establishment and parliament that has seen eight governments come and go since the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, came to power in 2006.

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Bahrain regime promoting sectarian division

Marc Lynch writes:

While the American and international debate over Libya continues, the situation in Bahrain has just taken a sharp turn for the worse. A brutal crackdown on the protestors followed the controversial entry of security forces from Saudi Arabia and three other GCC states. Media access has been curtailed, with journalists finding it difficult to gain entry to the Kingdom (I was supposed to be in Bahrain right now myself, but elected not to try after several journalists let me know that they were being denied entry and several Embassies in Doha warned me off). The road to political compromise and meaningful reform now appears to be blocked, which places the long-term viability of the Bahraini regime in serious question.

The response of the Bahraini regime has implications far beyond the borders of the tiny island Kingdom — not only because along with Libya it has turned the hopeful Arab uprisings into something uglier, but because it is unleashing a regionwide resurgence of sectarian Sunni-Shi’a animosity. Regional actors have enthusiastically bought in to the sectarian framing, with Saudi Arabia fanning the flames of sectarian hostility in defense of the Bahraini regime and leading Shia figures rising to the defense of the protestors. The tenor of Sunni-Shi’a relations across the region is suddenly worse than at any time since the frightening days following the spread of the viral video of Sadrists celebrating the execution of Saddam Hussein.

The sectarian framing in Bahrain is a deliberate regime strategy, not an obvious “reality.” The Bahraini protest movement, which emerged out of years of online and offline activism and campaigns, explicitly rejected sectarianism and sought to emphasize instead calls for democratic reform and national unity. While a majority of the protestors were Shi’a, like the population of the Kingdom itself, they insisted firmly that they represented the discontent of both Sunnis and Shi’ites, and framed the events as part of the Arab uprisings seen from Tunisia to Libya. Their slogans were about democracy and human rights, not Shi’a particularism, and there is virtually no evidence to support the oft-repeated claim that their efforts were inspired or led by Iran.

Mohammed Ayoob writes:

The real reason for the establishment of the GCC in 1981 was not defense against external enemies threatening the security of GCC states but cooperation against domestic challenges to authoritarian regimes. Its main task was and continues to be coordination of internal security measures, including sharing of intelligence, aimed at controlling and suppressing the populations of member states in order to provide security to the autocratic monarchies of the Persian Gulf. The establishment of the GCC was in large measure a reaction on the part of the Gulf monarchies to the Iranian revolution of 1979 in which people’s power toppled the strongest autocracy in the neighborhood. The Arab autocracies of the Gulf did not want to share the Shah’s fate.

That ensuring the security of autocratic regimes was the principal reason for the existence of GCC has become crystal clear with the military intervention by Saudi-led forces in Bahrain to put down the democracy movement and prevent the freedom contagion from spreading to other parts of the Gulf. It is true that the Saudis are apprehensive of the Shia majority coming to power in Bahrain because of the impact it could have on its own restive Shia minority in the oil-rich east of the country. Riyadh is also worried about the impact of a change in regime in Bahrain on the balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the region. (One can, however, argue that Saudi military intervention in Bahrain’s affairs will in fact redound to Iran’s benefit in the long run by further de-legitimizing the al-Khalifa rule in Bahrain).

But these are secondary explanations. The primary concern of the Arab autocracies in the Gulf is the suppression of democratic movements regardless of the sectarian character of the populations engaging in democratic struggles. They are worried that if any of the autocracies fall or even reach a substantial compromise with democratic movements it will have a domino effect in the entire Gulf region consigning all of them to the dustbin of history. The GCC was established as an instrument to protect and prolong autocratic rule on the Arabian littoral of the Gulf. Its military operation in Bahrain has clearly shown this true colors.

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A great change is sweeping Arab political culture

Issa Khalaf writes:

As soon as news emerged that the Libyan protestors were also planning to take to the streets, I was horror-struck. This wasn’t going to be Egypt or Tunisia, or even frightened emirs, sultans, and monarchs. Libya has neither Egypt’s vibrant civil society nor developed institutions, nor a military that can easily challenge Qadhafi’s rule. Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi – variously, Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Arab Republic, great leader of the al-Jumhuriyya al-‘Arabiyya al-Libiyya, the General Commander of Libya’s Armed Forces, the Head of [every] Council of State and of the Arab Socialist Union, the learned author of the al-kitab al-akhdar (Green Book), the Brotherly leader and Guide of the Revolution, Africa’s King of Kings, Supreme Leader regally surveying his kingdom or majestically visiting abroad accompanied by an elite, armed female bodyguard corps, ubiquitously, honorifically titled leader without official state title – was not about to take rejection lightly. Nor is this eccentric megalomaniac, a caricature of himself, about to let go of power after four decades, his son essentially in the same breath raising the spectre of social disintegration without the Leader and unleashing the full, bloody fury of the state.

True, permanent rulers everywhere don’t easily let go of one of life’s foremost aphrodisiacs, power, and can’t conceive that anyone else can rule their subjects like them, with their benevolent patriarchy. They all crave the attention and revel in the whimsical arbitrariness that accompany being number one, including hobnobbing with world leaders. Qadhafi’s flamboyance, including his romanticized ‘tent’ outings and a costume for every occasion and genre, was once curious, with an air of populism about it. But his African-style personal rule has not been a laughing matter for decades, and his endless speeches on TV and lectures to foreign audiences, including western women on converting to Islam, have nauseated his people. This ageing, narcissistic, deluded man, ruling over merely 5-6 million people in a petroleum-rich country the size of Alaska, cannot possibly accept the reality of letting go of all this, or that his people don’t want him, hence his rage and violence against them.

Qadhafi, like his now absent Egyptian counterpart, is symptomatic of Arab rulers’ stunning, unenlightened failure to pay any regard to placing their people’s future and well-being, much less encourage institutional inter-Arab cooperation for the sake of social and economic development, over their own immediate self-interest. (Whatever criticism one reserves for Egypt’s Jamal ‘abd al-Nasir, his attempt to live by principle, humbly refusing to enrich himself or his family, is admirable by today’s kleptocratic standards.) The Libyan dictator is what old Arab nationalism-turned-authoritarianism – including its ‘radical’ versions found in the regimes of Algeria, Syria, Iraq and the now hapless PLO, or ‘socialist republics’ such as Tunisia or Egypt – has wrought. This amounts to bureaucratic or tyrannical one party or no party states, violently crushing civil society, suffocating public space, privately owning and enriching themselves on state resources.

That insistent, ancient character of élite Arab political culture – the reliance on narrow social groups and classes, those with wealth and economic power to sustain an unwritten contract maintaining the dictator’s rule and circulating power within the state – has not yet disappeared. If anything, it has been supplemented in the last fifty years by secretive, shadowy, Qadhafi- and Saddam-like personality cults and intelligence services. All Arab regimes, regardless of regime type, have essentially behaved like dynasties.

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Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt reveal potent challenge to Middle East seats of power

The New York Times reports:

As protesters in Tahrir Square faced off against pro-government forces, they drew a lesson from their counterparts in Tunisia: “Advice to the youth of Egypt: Put vinegar or onion under your scarf for tear gas.”

The exchange on Facebook was part of a remarkable two-year collaboration that has given birth to a new force in the Arab world — a pan-Arab youth movement dedicated to spreading democracy in a region without it. Young Egyptian and Tunisian activists brainstormed on the use of technology to evade surveillance, commiserated about torture and traded practical tips on how to stand up to rubber bullets and organize barricades.

They fused their secular expertise in social networks with a discipline culled from religious movements and combined the energy of soccer fans with the sophistication of surgeons. Breaking free from older veterans of the Arab political opposition, they relied on tactics of nonviolent resistance channeled from an American scholar through a Serbian youth brigade — but also on marketing tactics borrowed from Silicon Valley.

As their swelling protests shook the Egyptian state, they were locked in a virtual tug of war with a leader with a very different vision — Gamal Mubarak, the son of President Hosni Mubarak, a wealthy investment banker and ruling-party power broker. Considered the heir apparent to his father until the youth revolt eliminated any thought of dynastic succession, the younger Mubarak pushed his father to hold on to power even after his top generals and the prime minister were urging an exit, according to American officials who tracked Hosni Mubarak’s final days.

The defiant tone of the president’s speech on Thursday, the officials said, was largely his son’s work.

“He was probably more strident than his father was,” said one American official, who characterized Gamal’s role as “sugarcoating what was for Mubarak a disastrous situation.” But the speech backfired, prompting Egypt’s military to force the president out and assert control of what they promise will be a transition to civilian government.

Now the young leaders are looking beyond Egypt. “Tunis is the force that pushed Egypt, but what Egypt did will be the force that will push the world,” said Walid Rachid, one of the members of the April 6 Youth Movement, which helped organize the Jan. 25 protests that set off the uprising. He spoke at a meeting on Sunday night where the members discussed sharing their experiences with similar youth movements in Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Iran.

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The National Security State of America

An American teenager, forced into temporary exile and then tortured in Kuwait– almost certainly with the knowledge of the Obama administrationhas been freed.

A Northern Virginia teen who had been barred from flying home from Kuwait landed in Washington on Friday morning, four weeks after being detained, allegedly beaten by Kuwait authorities and questioned by FBI agents about possible terrorist connections.

Gulet Mohamed, dressed in a worn hooded sweat shirt and sweat pants, was embraced by his family after he arrived at Dulles International Airport, the end of an ordeal that he said had “made me stronger.”

The United States “is built upon fighting for your rights,” Mohamed, 19, said in an interview.

Civil liberties groups charge that his case is the latest episode in which the U.S. government has temporarily exiled U.S. citizens or legal residents so they can be questioned about possible terrorist links without legal counsel.

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the U.S. government on behalf of 17 citizens or legal residents who were not allowed to board flights to, from or within the United States, presumably because, like Mohamed, they were on the government’s no-fly list. Of those stranded overseas, all were eventually told they could return, often after they agreed to speak to the FBI. None was arrested upon their return.

The ACLU suit, filed in Portland, Ore., alleges that Americans placed on the no-fly list are denied due process because there is no effective way to challenge their inclusion. The government does not acknowledge that any particular individual is on the no-fly list or its other watch lists. Nor will it reveal the exact criteria it uses to place people on its list.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports:

The drone technology that has revolutionized warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan is entering the national airspace: Unmanned aircraft are patrolling the border with Mexico, searching for missing persons over difficult terrain, flying into hurricanes to collect weather data, photographing traffic accident scenes and tracking the spread of forest fires.

But the operation outside Austin [described at the beginning of this report] presaged what could prove to be one of the most far-reaching and potentially controversial uses of drones: as a new and relatively cheap surveillance tool in domestic law enforcement.

For now, the use of drones for high-risk operations is exceedingly rare. The Federal Aviation Administration – which controls the national airspace – requires the few police departments with drones to seek emergency authorization if they want to deploy one in an actual operation. Because of concerns about safety, it only occasionally grants permission.

But by 2013, the FAA expects to have formulated new rules that would allow police across the country to routinely fly lightweight, unarmed drones up to 400 feet above the ground – high enough for them to be largely invisible eyes in the sky.

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Obama administration apparently complicit in the torture of an American teenager

Glenn Greenwald writes:

Gulet Mohamed is an 18-year-old American citizen whose family is Somalian. His parents moved with him to the U.S. when he was 2 or 3 years old, and he has lived in the U.S. ever since. In March, 2009, he went to study Arabic and Islam in Yemen (in Sana’a, the nation’s capital), and, after several weeks, left (at his mother’s urging) and went to visit his mother’s family in Somalia, staying with his uncle there for several months. Roughly one year ago, he left Somalia and traveled to Kuwait to stay with other family members who live there. Like many teenagers who reach early adulthood, he was motivated in his travels by a desire to see the world, to study, and to get to know his family’s ancestral homeland and his faraway relatives.

At all times, Mohamed traveled on an American passport and had valid visas for all the countries he visited. He has never been arrested nor — until two weeks ago — was he ever involved with law enforcement in any way, including the entire time he lived in the U.S.

Approximately two weeks ago (on December 20), Mohamed went to the airport in Kuwait to have his visa renewed, as he had done every three months without incident for the last year. This time, however, he was told by the visa officer that his name had been marked in the computer, and after waiting five hours, he was taken into a room and interrogated by officials who refused to identify themselves. They then handcuffed and blindfolded him and drove him to some other locale. That was the start of a two-week-long, still ongoing nightmare during which he was imprisoned for a week in an unknown location by unknown captors, relentlessly interrogated, and severely beaten and threatened with even worse forms of torture.

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