The Sunni-Shiite divide in the Greater Levant

Giandomenico Picco writes: The entire region from Pakistan to Lebanon — what I refer to as the Greater Levant — has been affected by profound, seismic changes during the course of the last three decades. These began in the late 1970s, in the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran triangle.

Pakistan received the political support of Saudi Arabia, both in its tense standoff with nuclear India and in its increasingly intense relationship with the Soviet Union, which had invaded neighboring Afghanistan in December 1979. The Khomeini revolution (February 1979) in Shiite Iran convinced the Sunni “world” of an epochal change in the making. This little-noticed affair was at the very root of a more open confrontation along sectarian lines. In the mess of the first Afghan War of the 1980s, which I witnessed up close and personal, the underlying Sunni and Shiite conflict was barely noticed by the rest of the world, though it was better perceived in the war between Iran and Iraq in the same decade.

In the 1990s, however, events in Afghanistan revealed the true face of the underlying confrontation between Sunni and Shiite throughout the region. By the mid 1990s, the Taliban, with Pakistani support, began to make their run for total victory in Kabul. Soon the Sunni Afghan tribes (i.e., the Pasthun) and the Shiite Afghan tribes (i.e. the Tajiks and Hazaras), were engaged in open sectarian civil war. The Shiite tribes were supported by Russia and Iran, while the Taliban received support from Pakistan, somewhat from Saudi Arabia and, for a while, from the West, though in a very undecided way.

The tragic events of September 11, which had been masterminded by Sunni men who had trained in Afghanistan, resulted in a new understanding between Iran and the United States. The interests of both countries had coalesced. The 2001 Bonn Agreements between Washington and Tehran revealed that both nations had a common enemy in the Sunni extremists. At the same time, Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun Sunni, became president of Afghanistan and the opposing Tajiiks came back to Kabul and entered into a coalition of sorts with Karzai. While this did not end the sectarian conflict, which continued during and after the U.S. military intervention, post-2001 Afghanistan is an example of a country rife with sectarian conflict, yet one in which compromise of a sort can be sought and even found.

But then came Iraq. Iran welcomed the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, seeing it as payback for 1534, an important, sad date in the Shiite narrative. In that year, Suleiman the First (the Ottoman Sultan) conquered Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and “the land of the two rivers” came under the control of the Sunni minority. Iran felt that the West had inadvertently given them a chance to reclaim Baghdad for the Shiites. Again, the ancient Sunni-Shiite conflict structured events but was little noticed by the West.

Despite vigorous efforts, there has been little progress on the Israeli-Palestinian question. Indeed, there has been no progress at all since Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by one of his own fellow citizens in mid 1995. The longest running conflict in the modern Middle East now seems to have little effect on the day-to-day events of the region. Indeed I would submit that the conflict is no longer pivotal in the region.

There are several reasons for this shift in the prominence and perception of the issue: for one thing, the Cold War came to an end and power struggles in the region were no longer proxy conflicts between the superpowers. Globalization, moreover, has weakened national and nationalistic boundaries and created unprecedented economic interdependence. Technology has made the individual more powerful than he or she has ever been before and the very concept of the nation-state is changing. The simple, two-dimensional worldview of decades past has yielded to recognition of a multiplicity of variables in the Greater Levant. Still, the principal, underlying and organizational dynamic of the entire region is no longer the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but the Sunni-Shiite conflict and its cold and hot wars in every country from the Hindu Kush to the Litani River.

The lead actors in this ongoing drama remain Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. If a new architecture for the entire region is going to be found, then these two countries must take on the responsibility. Yet the chess game between Riyadh and Tehran continues: in Iraq, the Shiites have won a victory of sorts in the West’s defeat of Saddam. Yet Saddam’s Sunni backers in the region do not accept this as the last word. This remains the core line of demarcation for both sides. [Continue reading...]

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Israeli military intelligence sees genuine political change in Iran

Summarizing the assessment of Israeli military intelligence, Haaretz reports: Syria is continuing to fall apart, with forces that oppose the regime now in control of nearly half the country, in the north and the east. But the Assad regime continues to cling to the cities that are important to its survival and maintains a fairly wide corridor that includes the Alawite cities in the northwest of the country, as well as Aleppo, Homs, Damascus and the southern city of Daraa. Last March, Assad seemed to be on the verge of collapse, but was able to recover thanks to massive aid from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Since the victory organized for Assad in June by Hezbollah forces in the town of Qusair, on the Lebanese border, the fighting has become static, with no thrust of momentum or victory by either side. Presently, the opposition looks too weak and divided to topple the regime in the near future.

All the signs are that the upheaval in the Arab world will continue into 2014. The worsening economic situation – which the violence has only aggravated – will likely push more young people into the arms of the jihadist organizations, which will increasingly also clash with Israel on the margins of their main activity.

As for Iran, intelligence discerns a genuine struggle over the future image of the country between the spiritual leader Ali Khamenei and his conservative allies, and a more moderate group headed by the new president, Hassan Rohani. Expert analysis does not view Rohani’s election as a deception by Khamenei intended solely to mislead the West, but rather as an authentic leader who is creating an independent power center. The internal struggle between the blocs in Iran has yet to be resolved, but Rohani enjoys broad public support, despite the clout of the Revolutionary Guards and the senior army officers who are loyal to the spiritual leader.

Haaretz reported in September that on the eve of Netanyahu’s departure for the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the head of MI, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, provided him with an assessment holding that a deep strategic change was being played out in Iran, expressed in Rohani’s election victory in June.

Kochavi appears to be sticking to this opinion. Earlier this month, he presided over a ceremony at which prizes for creative thinking were awarded to intelligence officers. According to a report on Israel Radio, a group of officers from the research division who “identified the change in Iran” received a special certificate of appreciation from Kochavi. Officially, senior Israeli figures such as Netanyahu, Ya’alon and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are scoffing at the change in Tehran and saying that Rohani’s “charm offensive” is simply a mask assumed by the regime solely in order to get relief from the international sanctions. It turns out that MI, without for a moment detracting from the dangers of Iran’s nuclear project and its support for terrorism, thinks otherwise.

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Syria’s civil war tests whether borders drawn less than a century ago will last

The Washington Post reports: That half of his farm lies in Syria and half in Lebanon is a source of mystery and inconvenience for Mohammed al-Jamal, whose family owned the property long before Europeans turned up and drew the lines that created the borders of the modern Middle East.

Jamal has mostly ignored the invisible frontier that runs a few yards from his house — and so did the Syrian civil war when it erupted nearby. Relatives were kidnapped, neighbors volunteered to fight and shells came crashing in, killing some of his cows, injuring three workers and underlining just how meaningless the border is.

“I blame Sykes-Picot for all of it,” said Jamal, referring to the secret 1916 accord between Britain and France to divide up the remnants of the collapsing Ottoman Empire. The result was the creation of nation-states where none had existed before, cutting across family and community ties and laying the foundations for much of the instability that plagues the region to this day.

Less than a century after they were drawn, the durability of those borders — and the nations they formed — is being tested as never before. The war in Syria is spilling into Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Israel, sucking in places that for centuries belonged to a single entity and people whose history, faith and livelihoods transcend the nations in which they were born.

Sunnis from across the region are pouring into Syria to fight alongside the rebels, many in pursuit of extremist ideals aimed at restoring Sunni dominion. Shiites from the same countries are flocking to defend President Bashar al-Assad’s Shiite-affiliated regime, compounding the sectarian dimension of a war that no longer is just about Syria.

Civilians are fleeing in the opposite direction, 2.3 million of them to date, transforming communities lying outside Syria in ways that may be irreversible.

“From Iran to Lebanon, there are no borders anymore,” said Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s minority Druze community. “Officially, they are still there, but will they be a few years from now? If there is more dislocation, the whole of the Middle East will crumble.”

Nobody seriously expects existing borders to be formally redrawn as a result of the ongoing upheaval. But as world powers prepare to gather in Switzerland next month for talks aimed at ending the Syrian conflict, this is a moment every bit as profound as the one that followed World War I when the region’s nations were born, said Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics. [Continue reading...]

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With Iran, Obama can end America’s long war for the Middle East

Andrew J. Bacevich writes: What Jimmy Carter began, Barack Obama is ending. Washington is bringing down the curtain on its 30-plus-year military effort to pull the Islamic world into conformity with American interests and expectations. It’s about time.

Back in 1980, when his promulgation of the Carter Doctrine launched that effort, Carter acted with only a vague understanding of what might follow. Yet circumstance — the overthrow of the shah in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — compelled him to act. Or more accurately, the domestic political uproar triggered by those events compelled the president, facing a tough reelection campaign, to make a show of doing something. What ensued was the long-term militarization of U.S. policy throughout the region.

Now, without fanfare, President Obama is effectively revoking Carter’s doctrine. The U.S. military presence in the region is receding. When Obama posited in his second inaugural address that “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war,” he was not only recycling a platitude; he was also acknowledging the folly and futility of the enterprise in which U.S. forces had been engaged. Having consumed vast quantities of blood and treasure while giving Americans little to show in return, that enterprise is now ending.

Like Carter in 1980, Obama finds himself with few alternatives. At home, widespread anger, angst and mortification obliged Carter to begin girding the nation to fight for the greater Middle East. To his successors, Carter bequeathed a Pentagon preoccupied with ramping up its ability to flex its muscles anywhere from Egypt to Pakistan. The bequest proved a mixed blessing, fostering the illusion that military muscle, dexterously employed, might put things right. Today, widespread disenchantment with the resulting wars and quasi-wars prohibits Obama from starting new ones.

Successive military disappointments, not all of Obama’s making, have curbed his prerogatives as commander in chief. Rather than being the decider, he ratifies decisions effectively made elsewhere. In calling off a threatened U.S. attack on Syria, for example, the president was acknowledging what opinion polls and Congress (not to mention the British Parliament) had already made plain: Support for any further military adventures to liberate or pacify Muslims has evaporated. Americans still profess to love the troops. But they’ve lost their appetite for war. [Continue reading...]

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Iran deal could reconfigure the Mideast

Rami G. Khouri writes: The most striking implication of the agreement signed in Geneva last weekend to ensure that Iran’s nuclear industry does not develop nuclear weapons while gradually removing the sanctions on the country is more about Iran than it is about Iran’s nuclear industry. The important new dynamic that has been set in motion is likely to profoundly impact almost every significant political situation around the Middle East and the world, including both domestic conditions within countries and diplomatic relations among countries.This agreement breaks the long spell of estrangement and hostility between the U.S. and Iran, and signals important new diplomatic behavior by both countries, which augurs well for the entire region. It is also likely to trigger the resumption of the suspended domestic political and cultural evolution of Iran, which also will spur new developments across the Middle East.

Perhaps we can see the changes starting to occur in Iran as similar to the developments in Poland in the early 1980s, when the bold political thrust of the Solidarity movement that enjoyed popular support broke the Soviet Union’s hold on Polish political life, and a decade later led to the collapse of the entire Soviet Empire. The resumption of political evolution inside Iran will probably move rapidly in the years ahead, as renewed economic growth, more personal freedoms, and more satisfying interactions with the region and the world expand and strengthen the relatively “liberal” forces around Rouhani, Rafsanjani, Khatami and others; this should slowly temper, then redefine and reposition, the Islamic revolutionary autocrats who have controlled the power structure for decades but whose hard-line controls are increasingly alien to the sentiments of ordinary Iranians.

These domestic and regional reconfigurations will occur slowly, comprising the situations in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Gulf Cooperation Council states led by Saudi Arabia. The critical link remains a healthy, normal, nonhostile relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which I suspect will start to come about in the months ahead, as both grasp the exaggerated nature of their competition for influence in the region and learn to behave like normal countries. They will learn to compete on the basis of their soft power among a region of half a billion people who increasingly feel and behave like citizens who have the right to choose how they live, rather than to be dictated to and herded like cattle. [Continue reading...]

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Even Israel would benefit from a nuclear weapons-free Middle East

Scott McConnell writes: Faced with a contest between an arms-control intellectual—soberly pointing that a deal reducing Iran’s enrichment capacity and placing its remaining centrifuges under international inspection will do far more to ensure that Iran doesn’t build a nuclear weapon than continued sanctions and no deal at all—and a Nentayahuite screaming about Hitler and Munich and making racist comments about Iranians, the most attentive and educated slice of the population will favor diplomacy. But I suspect that more flamboyant arguments register more deeply with more of the American population. Obama risks having diplomats left high and dry without the backing of mass public opinion.

In fact, more emotive arguments to defend an Iran deal are available and shouldn’t be left in the closet. Take the obvious one. It is political malpractice that the administration’s allies, including those in Congress, fail to question the role Israel’s nuclear arsenal has played in the development of the current crisis. What role do Israel’s nukes play in pushing other Middle East states to take massive risks to develop their own nuclear technology? M.J. Rosenberg recently reminded readers of John F. Kennedy’s long and ultimately futile effort to monitor Israel’s nuclear program, constructed with blatant deception and dishonesty by French engineers at Dimona. Kennedy and the diplomats of the era pointed out again and again that by introducing nukes into the region, Israel risked setting off a cascade of nuclear proliferation. JFK was, of course, correct. If you speak to average Americans, there is an implicit assumption that the golden rule is a fair guide to thought and action, and there is something rather odd about Israel, stuffed to to gills with nuclear rockets and submarines, insisting that no one else can ever have them. But no one on Capitol Hill raises this point. What do they fear would happen to them?

(It’s a rhetorical question; I know they would face AIPAC-generated opposition. But I’m not sure AIPAC would know what to do if 40 members of Congress suggested exploring a nuclear free Mideast).

Farah Stockman writes: When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demands that Iran’s plutonium reactor at Arak be completely dismantled because it has “no peaceful purpose,” he is speaking from experience. Israel had built a similar plant, and engaged in similar deception, at Dimona.

That’s what spooks Israeli policymakers: Iran’s nuclear playbook feels all too familiar.

“When Israel looks at Iran, they see Iran as if Iran is like Israel 50 years ago,” said Avner Cohen, professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and author of “Israel and the Bomb” and “The Worst Kept Secret.”

If you look at things that way, the Iranian bomb feels downright inevitable.

But Iran isn’t Israel, Cohen points out. There are plenty of reasons the Iranian program could turn out differently.

Israel had a much deeper reason to seek the bomb. Surrounded by hostile neighbors bent on its destruction, Israel felt that nuclear weapons were the key to the Jewish state’s very survival. Iran faces no such existential threat.

And, unlike Israel, Iran signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iran is therefore subject to far stricter inspections than Israel ever allowed at Dimona. If Iran does decide to try to start producing weapons-grade fuel, the world is likely to discover it in time to stop it.

And while Johnson’s administration pressed Israel to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, he looked the other way when Israel refused. Drawing attention to Israel’s refusal would have doomed the treaty. Arab countries would have jumped ship. At the end of the day, Americans could live with an Israeli bomb, as long as Israelis didn’t advertise it by testing it. Iran can’t expect the same deal.

“I think Iranians know the world is not going to allow them” to have a nuclear weapon, Cohen said.

Instead, he said, Iran appears to be trying to keep its nuclear options open, inching as close to the ingredients for a bomb as the Nonproliferation Treaty allows, while refraining from actually building one. [Continue reading...]

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Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s Gatsby, master spy

Christopher Dickey writes: Prince Bandar bin Sultan, once famous in Washington for his cigars, parties and charm, is now Saudi Arabia’s point man, fighting Iran in Syria and denouncing the Obama administration.

When the prince was the ambassador he was the toast of Washington, and plenty of toasts there were. Bandar bin Sultan smoked fine cigars and drank finer Cognac. For almost 30 years as Saudi Arabia’s regal messenger, lobbyist, and envoy, he told amazing stories about politicians and potentates, some of which, surprisingly, were true. Washington journalists loved him. Nobody had better access to more powerful people in higher places, or came with so much money, so quietly and massively distributed, to help out his friends.

Over the years, Bandar arranged to lower global oil prices in the service of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and both the Bushes. At the behest of the CIA’s Bill Casey, and behind the back of Congress, Bandar arranged for the Saudis to bankroll anti-Communist wars in Nicaragua, Angola and Afghanistan. He was thick with Dick Cheney, and he was so tight with the George H.W. Bush clan—the father, the mother, the sons, the daughters—that they just called him “Bandar Bush.”

Now, the prince is a spy, or, more precisely, the master spy of the Middle East. He is the point man for a vast Saudi program of covert action and conspicuous spending that helped overthrow the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and is attempting to forge a new “Army of Islam” in Syria. Without understanding the man and his mission, there’s no way, truly, to understand what’s happening in the world’s most troubled region right now.

Bandar’s goal is to undermine Iranian power: strip away Tehran’s allies like Assad and Hezbollah; stop the Shiite mullahs from acquiring nuclear weapons; roll back their regional designs; and push them out of office if there’s any way to do that.

At the same time, he aims to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni organization that pays lip service to democracy and is fundamentally anti-monarchy.

The Bandar program makes for some interesting alliances. Never mind that there’s no peace treaty between Saudi Arabia and Israel, in these parts, as they say too often, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and Bandar has become the de facto anti-Iran ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. [Continue reading...]

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America’s diminishing dependence on Middle East oil will be short-lived

The New York Times reports: The boom in oil from shale formations in recent years has generated a lot of discussion that the United States could eventually return to energy self-sufficiency, but according to a report released Tuesday by the International Energy Agency, production of such oil in the United States and worldwide will provide only a temporary respite from reliance on the Middle East.

The agency’s annual World Energy Outlook, released in London, said the world oil picture was being remade by oil from shale, known as light tight oil, along with new sources like Canadian oil sands, deepwater production off Brazil and the liquids that are produced with new supplies of natural gas.

“But, by the mid-2020s, non-OPEC production starts to fall back and countries from the Middle East provide most of the increase in global supply,” the report said. A high market price for oil will help stimulate drilling for light tight oil, the report said, but the resource is finite, and the low-cost suppliers are in the Middle East.

“There is a huge growth in light tight oil, that it will peak around 2020, and then it will plateau,” said Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy Agency. The agency was founded in response to the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74, by oil-importing nations.

The agency’s assessment of world supplies is consistent with an estimate by the United States Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration, which forecasts higher levels of American oil production from shale to continue until the late teens, and then slow rapidly.

“We expect the Middle East will come back and be a very important producer and exporter of oil, just because there are huge resources of low-cost light oil,” Ms. van der Hoeven said. “Light tight oil is not low-cost oil.” [Continue reading...]

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Bob Dreyfuss: American death spiral in the Middle East

When Barack Obama took office, the sky was the limit in the Greater Middle East.  After all, it seemed the U.S. had hit rock bottom.  President Bush had set the region aflame with a raging debacle in Iraq, a sputtering conflict in Afghanistan, and a low-level drone war in Pakistan.  The outgoing president was wildly unpopular in the region and it was hard to imagine just what the new administration could do to make the situation worse.

For all his foreign policy faults, Bush had even left his successor with an ace in the hole.  Obama had campaigned on ending the Iraq War and Bush was kind enough to negotiate the terms for him before he left office.  All the new president had to do was sit back and reap the rewards.

Almost five years later, the administration surely wishes it had a time machine to take America back to the Bush days when Iraq was convulsed by a civil war, the war in Afghanistan was largely forgotten, Egypt and Tunisia were under the thumbs of American-backed tyrants, and Syria and Libya were controlled by detested but stable dictators.

What seemed at the time to be a blood-soaked hell must look more like the halcyon days to the Obama administration, whose national security team now seems content to limp through the remainder of the president’s second term with fingers crossed, hoping desperately that they won’t stumble, bumble, stagger, slide, or inadvertently leap into yet another foreign policy fiasco in the region.  Today, as Bob Dreyfuss indicates, the administration finds itself adrift in the Greater Middle East, chastened by a series of its own foreign policy flubs, stumbles, and mini-disasters, as well as by governments that seem increasingly beyond its power or ability to control, coerce, or cajole.  The only country in the region that seems to bear much resemblance to its pre-Obama self is Iraq, where violence has reached its highest level in half a decade and suicide and car bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and death threats are creeping ever closer to Bush-era levels.

Today, TomDispatch regular and Nation magazine stalwart Bob Dreyfuss wades knee deep in the Big Muddy in the Middle East to offer a vivid portrait of an Obama administration in remarkable disarray. Nick Turse

A field guide to losing friends, influencing no one, and alienating the Middle East
Obama’s Washington is the Rodney Dangerfield of the region
By Bob Dreyfuss

Put in context, the simultaneous raids in Libya and Somalia last month, targeting an alleged al-Qaeda fugitive and an alleged kingpin of the al-Shabab Islamist movement, were less a sign of America’s awesome might than two minor exceptions that proved an emerging rule: namely, that the power, prestige, and influence of the United States in the broader Middle East and its ability to shape events there is in a death spiral.

Twelve years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban and a decade after the misguided invasion of Iraq — both designed to consolidate and expand America’s regional clout by removing adversaries — Washington’s actual standing in country after country, including its chief allies in the region, has never been weaker. Though President Obama can order raids virtually anywhere using Special Operations forces, and though he can strike willy-nilly in targeted killing actions by calling in the Predator and Reaper drones, he has become the Rodney Dangerfield of the Middle East. Not only does no one there respect the United States, but no one really fears it, either — and increasingly, no one pays it any mind at all.

[Read more...]

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A resumption of history in the Middle East

Rami G Khouri writes: Observing the Middle East from the United States, where I have spent the last month, has been fascinating, because historic changes are occurring in some relationships between these two regions. This includes evolving American ties with the five key strategic players in the region: Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran, Turkey and Egypt. The most important changes are taking place in the triangular relationship among the United Sates and each of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Three simultaneous things are occurring here that are intriguing, but their permanent implications remain unclear because events are in their early days.

The first is the United States’ resumption of direct and serious talks with Iran in a more positive atmosphere that seeks to end the dispute over Iran’s nuclear capabilities while also addressing Iranian concerns about American policy toward Iran. Should the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 powers succeed, as I expect, this could mark a revolutionary new era when Iran would slowly resume normal ties with global powers and reshape its relations within the Middle East. This in turn could have major implications for Saudi Arabian and Gulf Cooperation Council policies, as well as conditions in Syria and Iraq, and the status of Hezbollah and Lebanon.

Washington’s evolving perceptions of Iran reflect the second change, which is a rare case of the U.S. pursuing policies in the Middle East that are not fully in line with Israeli fears or wishes. Israel and its influential American mouthpieces in Washington have lobbied overtime in recent months to prevent a U.S.-Iranian dialogue or serious negotiations that could lead to a rapprochement. They have failed to date in this. Washington has tried to placate Israeli concerns with the rhetoric that Israel expects to hear from its friends in the U.S., but President Barack Obama has ignored Israeli exhortations and moved ahead sharply to negotiate with Iran. We can expect major consequences from a U.S. foreign policy that is shaped by U.S. national interests, rather than by Israeli dictates, fears and manipulations. [Continue reading...]

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NSA’s Mideast spying ‘intense’ amid regional upheaval, say experts

Al Arabiya reports: Leaked documents disclosed earlier this week revealed that the U.S. National Security Agency intercepted 125 billion phone calls and SMS messages in January 2013, many of them originating in the Middle East.

The NSA’s attention on the Middle East and the surrounding region is far more “intense than anything comparable in Europe,” according to Matthew Aid, a Washington, DC-based intelligence historian and expert.

Strained relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia over resolving the Syrian conflict could be a possible reason for the NSA’s particularly large targeting of Saudi Arabia – over 7.8 billion times in one month – said Aid.

Saudi-U.S. tension may have also resulted in Obama’s administration being “quite curious” over the kingdom’s thoughts on Syria, as the countries have consistently disagreed on the issue.

Aid, who in 2009 published a history on the NSA entitled “The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency,” said that most of the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks have not focused on the agency’s surveillance in the Middle East.

“We’re waiting for that shoe to drop, but it hasn’t,” Aid told Al Arabiya News, stating that leaks by Snowden’s associates have been largely focused “on those countries which will generate immediate reaction in the press and from the governments in question.”

Saudi Arabia and Iraq witnessed 7.8 billion wiretapping incidents from the NSA each, while Egypt and Jordan saw 1.8 billion and 1.6 billion respectively, according to Cryptome, a digital library that publishes leaked documents.

Additionally, over 1.7 billion wiretapping incidents were recorded in Iran. [Continue reading...]

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Obama’s tired of the Middle East — but is that a policy?

A New York Times report on a major reappraisal of President Obama’s approach to the Middle East tosses this sentence in close to the end:

After vigorous debate, the group decided to make the Middle East peace process a top priority — even after failing to broker an agreement during the administration’s first term — in part because Mr. Kerry had already thrown himself into the role of peacemaker.

Top priority? More like an afterthought.

The actual conclusion of the White House review — and note, this was a foreign policy review that didn’t actually involve the State Department (whose domain is what?) — was that the Middle East is very troublesome and the U.S. has no influence, so let’s just move on.

Each Saturday morning in July and August, Susan E. Rice, President Obama’s new national security adviser, gathered half a dozen aides in her corner office in the White House to plot America’s future in the Middle East. The policy review, a kind of midcourse correction, has set the United States on a new heading in the world’s most turbulent region.

At the United Nations last month, Mr. Obama laid out the priorities he has adopted as a result of the review. The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.

That includes Egypt, which was once a central pillar of American foreign policy. Mr. Obama, who hailed the crowds on the streets of Cairo in 2011 and pledged to heed the cries for change across the region, made clear that there were limits to what the United States would do to nurture democracy, whether there, or in Bahrain, Libya, Tunisia or Yemen.

The president’s goal, said Ms. Rice, who discussed the review for the first time in an interview last week, is to avoid having events in the Middle East swallow his foreign policy agenda, as it had those of presidents before him.

“We can’t just be consumed 24/7 by one region, important as it is,” she said, adding, “He thought it was a good time to step back and reassess, in a very critical and kind of no-holds-barred way, how we conceive the region.”

Not only does the new approach have little in common with the “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush, but it is also a scaling back of the more expansive American role that Mr. Obama himself articulated two years ago, before the Arab Spring mutated into sectarian violence, extremism and brutal repression.

The blueprint drawn up on those summer weekends at the White House is a model of pragmatism — eschewing the use of force, except to respond to acts of aggression against the United States or its allies, disruption of oil supplies, terrorist networks or weapons of mass destruction. Tellingly, it does not designate the spread of democracy as a core interest. [Continue reading...]

A model of pragmatism? Or apathy.

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The scary map of the Middle East is the current one

Rami G Khouri writes: An article and map in The New York Times’ Sunday edition two weeks ago examined the possibility that current upheavals may cause some Arab states to break up into smaller units. Written by the veteran foreign correspondent Robin Wright, the article created lively discussion among Middle East-focused circles in the United States, and in the Middle East it sparked wild speculation that it evidenced a new plan by Western powers, Israelis and others of evil intent to further partition large Arab countries into many smaller, weaker ones. The title of the article, “How 5 Countries Could Become 14,” naturally fed such speculation, as did the immediate linkage in millions of Arab minds of how British and French colonial officials in 1916-1918 partitioned the former Ottoman lands of the Levant into a series of new countries called Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Israel, while their colonial handiwork had also created new entities that ultimately became independent countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and others.

Wright’s article explored the possibility that Libya could fracture into three units, Iraq and Syria into five units (of Druze, Kurds, Alawites, Sunnis and Shiites), Saudi Arabia into five units, and Yemen into two units. Syria might trigger such fragmentation across the region in stressed multisectarian societies. She did not advocate this, but only speculated whether sectarian stresses and conflicts might reconfigure countries that were not designed by the will of their own people.

Most critics of the article and map were horrified by the possibility that foreign powers may once again be at work redrawing the map of the Middle East, reaffirming two of the greatest lived traumas that have long plagued the Arab world: the ability and willingness of external powers to meddle deeply and structurally in our domestic condition, and the total inability of vulnerable, helpless Arab societies to do anything about this.

I understand the harsh reactions by Arabs who fear another possible redrawing of our map by foreign hands, but I fear that this is not really the bad news of the day; the really bad news is the state of existing Arab countries, and how most of them have done such a terrible job of managing the societies that they inherited after 1920.

The horror map is not the one published in the NYT two weeks ago; it is the existing map and condition of the Arab countries that have spent nearly a century developing themselves and have so little to show for it.

Not a single credible Arab democracy. Not a single Arab land where the consent of the governed actually matters. Not a single Arab society where individual men and women are allowed to use all their God-given human faculties of creativity, ingenuity, individuality, debate, free expression, autonomous analysis and full productivity. Not a single Arab society that can claim to have achieved a reasonably sustainable level of social and economic development, let alone anything approaching equitable development or social justice. [Continue reading...]

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How America’s war on terror became a global war on tribal Islam

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes: Last May, a Syrian insurgent told The National’s Phil Sands about a meeting with US intelligence operators in Jordan. The rebel commander was hoping to procure weapons to resist a regime bristling with Russian arms. But he was surprised to learn that the Americans were more interested in the composition and activities of the opposition group Jabhat Al Nusra. Until the regime provoked the US with its use of poison gas, checking its serial atrocities was a secondary concern. The CIA was collecting coordinates of potential targets for its drones.

This hierarchy of concerns might seem at odds with the US rhetorical posture. But Damascus – until recently a preferred destination for CIA rendition flights – has successfully sapped US sympathy for the opposition by deploying the spectre of Al Qaeda. The opposition comprises myriad elements, most of them non-violent; foreign jihadists too have joined its ranks. But the regime and its backers in Tehran and Moscow have consistently exaggerated their strength. Consequently, the US, though not keen to see President Bashar Al Assad triumph, is less keen to see the opposition win and potentially add to the insecurity of Israel.

In the post-9/11 paranoia, many rogues have endeavoured to portray their local adversaries as part of a global terrorist threat. Russia did it with the Chechens; China with Uighurs; Israel with Palestinians – they all claimed to be fighting a “war on terror” against the same Islamist menace that threatened America. Others have followed the template. “Painting their peripheries as associated with Al Qaeda,” writes Akbar Ahmed in his remarkable new book The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, “many countries have sought to join the terror network because of the extensive benefits that it brings. They use the rhetoric of the war on terror to both justify their oppressive policies and to ingratiate themselves with the United States and the international system”.

This failure to distinguish regional struggles from global militancy allowed many states to harness US power to settle local disputes. The conflict between a centralising, hierarchical state and a recalcitrant, egalitarian periphery is not unique to Pakistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). In the multi-ethnic Orient, geography rarely corresponds with identity. Many tribal societies have been left excluded on the margins. In turn they have resisted modernisation, seeing it as the centre’s tool for expanding its authority. Some of these conflicts, as in Chechnya, have simmered for centuries. But in most places, modus vivendi were evolved guaranteeing the autonomy of tribes while upholding state sovereignty.

The war on terror has disrupted this balance. [Continue reading...]

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Beyond Syria: five Middle East stories you may have missed

Brian Whitaker writes: Have you been missing something in the Middle East? As the newspapers are full of Syria at the moment, we are hearing little else from the world’s most turbulent region. For once, that’s probably how it should be. The Syrian tragedy is urgent and important, and the debates in Britain and the US over what to do about chemical weapons, no matter how they end, will shape foreign policy for years to come. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing else happening. Here are five stories you may not have noticed:

1. Remember Libya? They said it was all about oil. Well, it is now. Production in the country’s most vital industry has dropped to around 10% of capacity because of disruption by armed groups, security guards and oil workers – costing $2bn in lost revenue so far.

Part of this is the long-running problem of militias. After the fall of Gaddafi it was hoped they would settle down if given proper jobs, and thousands were recruited into the petroleum facility guards where they have continued causing trouble.

In the past week strikes have spread to the western coastal ports and armed groups have also closed taps on pipelines from major oil fields, Reuters reports. AP adds that the armed men “have no connection to the pipelines and are demanding money and vehicles in return for allowing oil to resume flowing”.

Apart from the attempts to extort money, this is seen as part of a wider tussle for power between the still-fragile central government, tribal elements and those calling for federalism (who some suspect are really aiming for separatism).

2. The big story from Egypt at the weekend was the arrest of a bird – some reports said it was a duck, others a swan – on suspicion of spying. The bird, actually a white stork, was found with a mysterious electronic device attached, hence the belief that it was up to no good.

The stork refused to utter a single word under interrogation and was finally released because it had a perfect alibi. The electronic thing was a tracking device and you can see all the stork’s movements here or read more about them (if you happen to understand Hungarian).

Silly as this story was, there’s a serious point. It’s one example of the paranoia and conspiracy theories swirling around in Egypt at present. Among these are claims that President Obama is not only a secret Muslim (as the American Tea Party asserts) but also a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Since the military takeover, crazy tales have been appearing almost everywhere in the Egyptian media. When al-Ahram, the leading pro-government daily, implicated the US ambassador in one of these conspiracies she sent a stiff letter to the editor which included the immortal line: “This article isn’t bad journalism; it isn’t journalism at all.”

3. News from Iraq is much the same as ever. In August, 804 people were killed and a further 2,030 wounded, according to the UN. That, however, was an improvement on July – the worst month so far this year with 1,057 dead.

Considering the level of violence there, Iraq is probably now the most under-reported country in the region. [Continue reading...]

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Noam Chomsky interview: Sykes-Picot is failing

Al-Akhbar English: Maha Zaraket: What is the title of your [commencement] speech [at the American University of Beirut]?

Noam Chomsky: I do not remember if it has a title, but it is going to be some comments on legitimacy of borders and states and possibilities of eroding them.

MZ: Do you think the Middle East is going through a rewrite of Sykes-Picot agreement?

NC: I think the Sykes-Picot agreement is falling apart, which is an interesting phenomenon. That is a century. But, the Sykes-Picot agreement was just an imperial imposition that has no legitimacy; there is no reason for any of these borders – except the interests of the imperial powers.

It is the same all over the world. it is hard to find a single border that has any justification, including the US-Mexico border and the US-Canada border. You look around the world, just about every conflict that is going on results from the imposition of imperial borders that have nothing to do with the population.

I think as far as Sykes-Picot is concerned, it is beginning to erode. Whatever happens in Syria – it’s hard to imagine – but if anything survives, parts of Syria will be separated. The Kurdish areas are almost autonomous now and they are beginning to link up with the almost-autonomous parts of Northern Iraq Kurdish areas, and may spill over to some extent to southeastern Turkey. What will happen in the rest of the country is hard to say.

MZ: Do you think the new borders will be made by the local population? Or new imperialisms?

NC: I wish that were true, but that is not how the world works. Maybe someday, but not yet, not today.

MZ: What do you think of the Hezbollah intervention in Syria?

NC: They are in a very difficult position. If the rebels win in Syria, they become very exposed. That may mean their demise. There is reason behind it, I am not sure this is the right one, you could argue about it, but it is understandable.

MZ: Are you going to meet Nasrallah this time?

NC: No, I do not know if it is possible. But it is deeply in mind. It is difficult.

MZ: If you meet him again, what would you tell him?

NC: I would like to meet him, but just to find out more about their thinking and their plans. They are not coming to me for advice. You know.

MZ: You called for support of the Turkish protesters. How do you see the uprising in Turkey?

NC: I think the [Taksim demonstrators] are doing a great thing. I think it is extremely important. Of global importance. The initial reaction of the Erdogan regime was pretty similar to Mubarak and Assad: harsh brutal response to a legitimate set of demands. [Continue reading...]

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