Monday, December 10, 2012

Middle East Update

First, Egypt:  Last week Pres. Morsi had backed down on his proclamation of absolute power that would have excluded his decrees from judicial review, he apparently gained back his chutzpah by declaring what essentially is martial law. From the Telegraph:
The decree, published in the government gazette, takes effect on the eve of mass rival protests on the referendum and follows street clashes that have left seven people dead and hundreds injured.
It orders the military to fully co-operate with police "to preserve security and protect vital state institutions for a temporary period, up to the announcement of the results from the referendum," according to a copy of the decree obtained by AFP.
The Egyptian military has, according to news reports, sought to stay neutral in this matter, so this type of decree will test whether the military is willing to bend its will to that of Morsi's.

Also, this AP story (h/t Weasel Zippers) discusses why the Muslim Brotherhood is so anxious to pass the draft Constitution before Egyptians have a chance to debate it:
One of Egypt's most prominent ultraconservative Muslim clerics had high praise for the country's draft constitution. Speaking to fellow clerics, he said this was the charter they had long wanted, ensuring that laws and rights would be strictly subordinated to Islamic law.

"This constitution has more complete restraints on rights than ever existed before in any Egyptian constitution," Sheik Yasser Borhami assured the clerics. "This will not be a democracy that can allow what God forbids or forbid what God allows."
(Underline added). I never thought they wanted a democracy (well, republic, to be accurate), but at least Borhami had the honesty to admit it.

Second, Syria: Lest anyone forget, this is turning into another al-Qaeda run conflict. From the New York Times:
The lone Syrian rebel group with an explicit stamp of approval from Al Qaeda has become one of the uprising’s most effective fighting forces, posing a stark challenge to the United States and other countries that want to support the rebels but not Islamic extremists.
Money flows to the group, the Nusra Front, from like-minded donors abroad. Its fighters, a small minority of the rebels, have the boldness and skill to storm fortified positions and lead other battalions to capture military bases and oil fields. As their successes mount, they gather more weapons and attract more fighters.

The group is a direct offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Iraqi officials and former Iraqi insurgents say, which has contributed veteran fighters and weapons.

“This is just a simple way of returning the favor to our Syrian brothers that fought with us on the lands of Iraq,” said a veteran of Al Qaeda in Iraq, who said he helped lead the Nusra Front’s efforts in Syria.

The United States, sensing that time may be running out for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, hopes to isolate the group to prevent it from inheriting Syria or fighting on after Mr. Assad’s fall to pursue its goal of an Islamic state.

As the United States pushes the Syrian opposition to organize a viable alternative government, it plans to blacklist the Nusra Front as a terrorist organization, making it illegal for Americans to have financial dealings with the group and most likely prompting similar sanctions from Europe. The hope is to remove one of the biggest obstacles to increasing Western support for the rebellion: the fear that money and arms could flow to a jihadi group that could further destabilize Syria and harm Western interests.

When rebel commanders met Friday in Turkey to form a unified command structure at the behest of the United States and its allies, jihadi groups were not invited.

The Nusra Front’s ally, Al Qaeda in Iraq, is the Sunni insurgent group that killed numerous American troops in Iraq and sowed widespread sectarian strife with suicide bombings against Shiites and other religious and ideological opponents. The Iraqi group played an active role in founding the Nusra Front and provides it with money, expertise and fighters, said Maj. Faisal al-Issawi, an Iraqi security official who tracks jihadi activities in Iraq’s Anbar Province.

But blacklisting the Nusra Front could backfire. It would pit the United States against some of the best fighters in the insurgency that it aims to support. While some Syrian rebels fear the group’s growing power, others work closely with it and admire it — or, at least, its military achievements — and are loath to end their cooperation.
The goal is not necessarily to keep the Nusra Front out of the fighting, but to make sure that they don't have a place at the table afterwards, and are too weak to usurp the revolution like the Bolsheviks did in Russia. Blacklisting the group is merely a weak attempt at a strategy of using the group militarily now, but cutting them off from the spoils later. I suspect it is too late if the Nusra Front is already playing a key role, however. They obviously have the military strength and popularity.The other groups won't simply be able to ignore them, and may be powerless to keep them from taking a part in a post-Assad government (assuming the rebels win).

The only way to contain the damage would be to destroy the Nusra Front, but how would that play out? Enlisting the other rebel groups would likely be ineffective (i.e., they either won't engage the Nusra Front militarily, or won't be able to do so), and it is unlikely they would accede to such a demand. Even if the other groups, or some of them, were willing to entertain such a policy, it would merely splinter the overall resistance movement. The alternative is to support the Assad regime, and hope he doesn't lose (this actually might have been the best option ...). That, however, is not going to happen. The U.S. could attempt to engage the Nasra Front directly, but that would again only wind up splintering the resistance.

Assuming that the U.S. is going to continue to support the rebels, the Nusra Front could be used to spearhead offensives against Assad's forces, enough to severely weaken it, so that the other groups could simply arrest or eradicate them after the conflict is over.

Here is another article that explains a bit more about the Nasra Front's worldview (h/t Weasel Zippers):
Mahmoud al Ahab, who described himself as a Palestinian Syrian, told me he was in the al Nusra Front which he said was an al Qaeda group. He had sworn an oath of allegiance to al Nursa but now felt this was a mistake.

Ahmed al Rabido, a 48-year-old Syrian, said he was a religious leader, a Mufti, in the Free Syrian Army.

"I joined because I wanted to demolish the secular state... I don't believe in this anymore because the country is being ruined," he said.

Bahar al Basah, 35, another Palestinian Syrian, told me he was influenced by the writings of Abu Qatada, the radical cleric currently under house arrest in the UK.

The men only became animated when I showed a little knowledge of Salafist ideology and brought up the works of Islamists such as the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb.

This led to a question about the future of Syria's minorities such as the Christians. Ahmed, Basah, and Hamid Hassan all agreed - Christians could only live there if they either converted, or paid the 'Jizyah' - a special tax levied on non-Muslims in previous centuries in the Middle East. If not said Bahar, they could be killed.

When asked why, the answer was, to them, quite simple - because the Prophet Mohammed said so. I was then invited to become a Muslim.

. . . The interview ended with Ahmed volunteering that eventually Muslims must reclaim Andalucia in Spain for the Islamic Caliphate.

His logic, that it was justified because Spain used to be under Islam, was somewhat undermined when he went on to say that Islam should move on to bring the UK under its control and indeed, eventually, the whole world.
 The crusades were essentially a defensive war.

Finally, the Syrians may have started using chemical weapons. From the Times of Israel:
Syrian rebels on Saturday uploaded to YouTube a clip purportedly depicting victims of a chemical weapons attack perpetrated by the regime. The video shows Syrian civilians, some apparently dead and others injured, whose faces were disfigured in a manner that could be caused by a chemical agent.

The rebels claim that the video was filmed in a suburb of Aleppo, where the Syrian regime reportedly maintains its largest depot of chemical weapons.
That the occurrence was near the chemical weapons depot makes me wonder, if there were actually injuries, it might not have been the result of the rebels trying to mix some of the ingredients.... Anyway, the article goes on to state:
Citing intelligence reports, British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Saturday warned that the Syrian government might use its sizable stockpile of chemical weapons against the rebels fighting to overturn Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, AFP reported.

“We are extremely concerned about the stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and we are also concerned about evidence during the last couple of weeks that the regime could use them,” Hague said on the sidelines of a regional security conference in Manama, the capital of Bahrain.

The London-based Sunday Times reported that Israeli commandos were on the ground in Syria, monitoring the regime’s chemical weapons depots.

“For years we’ve known the exact location of Syria’s chemical and biological munitions,” an Israeli source said was quoted as saying. “But in the past week we’ve got signs that munitions have been moved to new locations.”

On Saturday, the Free Syrian Army announced that it had captured trucks belonging to the regime on the road leading to the Damascus international airport. The rebels claimed that some of the equipment they captured was meant to protect Syrian army soldiers from the effects of chemical weapons.

On Wednesday, the London Times reported that the US, along with several key allies, was prepared to launch a military intervention in Syria should the Assad government resort to using chemical weapons against the rebels.

A military source told the Times that US forces could be ready “rapidly, within days,” if Syrian chemical weapons were activated, and implied that the necessary forces were already in the region.
 Obama would love that. He likes sending in the troops to kill people.

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