Middle East Strange Things of the Day


Posted: 30 Mar 2011 07:56 PM PDT

By Barry Rubin

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has hinted that the United States and Britain might arm the Libyan rebels. Don’t you think it’s important to know who these people are before arming them and putting them in power? U.S. officials are basically admitting that they simply don’t know the political composition of the opposition so how can they be given full backing?

Oh, right, that’s just what they did in Egypt.

Now it is being reported that two weeks ago President Obama authorized covert operations on the ground in support of the rebels. Consider this scenario: The rebels attack and perhaps capture a pro-Qadhafi town (Sirte, for example), levelling it in the process, and killing civilians either through indifference to casualties or murder of those considered tribal enemies and supporters of the dictatorship.

How would this compare to a mission defined as protecting civilians?

At the same time, though, the use of covert operations makes sense and the CIA will be able to get a better picture of the rebels. But the CIA has been the U.S. government institution that seems to believe that if an Islamist isn’t in al-Qaida then he’s moderate. So the quality of the reporting is a concern. And what if operatives are worried about the rebels but are ignored or overruled by the White House?

I hope we get some good leaks on what they are finding out in Libya.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the “target dates for reaching an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on permanent status issues and completing the Palestinian Authority’s two-year state-building program are fast-approaching.”

What target dates? This notion that the conflict must be settled right away (or else what? Egypt and Tunisia will have revolutions? Libya will have a civil war? Iran will launch a campaign to get nuclear weapons? Hamas will take over the Gaza Strip?) on the Palestinian Authority’s terms is absurd.

And since when did the PA’s claim that it would be ready for a state in two years become internationally accepted as the framework for global action?


Flash: Bashar al-Assad to Demonstrators: Surrender or Die 

Posted: 30 Mar 2011 07:42 PM PDT

By Barry Rubin

Nowadays, Western officials and journalists seem to think that if you are a Middle East dictator and people start demonstrating you might give up, pack your bags, let your Swiss banker know to get the money ready, and make a run for it.

That’s an illusion. The question is really: Who are the people with the guns supporting?
In Egypt and Tunisia, revolutions were easy because the armies supported them. In Algeria, Iran, Jordan, and Syria things are rather different.

And so faced with large demonstrations, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad took a traditional approach, which in American cultural terms might be described by a quote from “Dirty Harry”: “Think you’re lucky, punk? Make my day!”

Assad’s message is this: No concessions. American and Zionist agents are attacking me because I’m such a great Arab nationalist and friend of Islam. Rally around me and we’ll repress them no matter how many I have to kill.

I’m not saying I admire this approach but, frankly, it still works, as long as you have a strong base of support and the backing of those with the guns. Assad apparently has both.

To begin with, the Alawite minority community to which he belongs is behind him because it knows that a revolution would mean the end of its wealth, privileges, and even lives. The Christians also back the regime because they fear Islamism. That’s about one-quarter of the population. And the Alawites control the elite armed forces’ units.

Then there are the Sunni Muslims who make up about 60 percent of the population. Some of them are attracted to democratic reform; some to revolutionary Islamism; some to both. Yet many do back the regime because of its record of being so Islamist in its foreign policy: anti-American, anti-Israel, and pro-Iran, Hamas, Sunni Muslim insurgents in Iraq, and Hizballah.

A lot—but by no means all—of the demonstrations have been in the poor south. The other big bloc of opposition is the Kurdish minority. But they have been cautious since the last time they revolted the Arabs didn’t help them. They don’t want to take a risk. Assad’s hardline is more likely to make them play it safe.

My sympathies are with democratic reformers, but my analysis says that from his own standpoint Assad did the right thing. This is the precise opposite of how Westerners look at the situation. They assume that a hardline policy will make the people angrier and intensify the revolt. In fact, if the regime is serious about repression and has a large base of support, a tough stand it will put down the opposition.

Iran had a revolution in 1978-1979 not because the shah was too tough but because he was too soft—that’s an analysis, not a value judgment. Iraq didn’t have a revolution after the 1991 defeat in Kuwait because Saddam Hussein used his iron fist. In Egypt, the message that the military is for change and the regime is vacillating led to a flood of opposition and the fall of the regime. This is what President Husni Mubarak meant when he said that President Barack Obama didn’t understand Arab culture.

If you show weakness, you’re as good as dead. Needless to say this is a major problem with current U.S. Middle East policy. In the Middle East, nice guys don’t just finish last, they don’t finish at all.

To complete the picture, Assad appeared relaxed during the speech and laughed at several points. The image he’s building is: I’m not worried at all. If he were to show fear and weakness, his allies would start deserting him and going over to the other side. (That’s sentence also applies to U.S. policy.)

True, he gave some lip service to reforms and fighting corruption. But basically that’s what Assad has been saying for 11 years and he has changed nothing. With the U.S. government labeling him a “reformer” with such a record, there’s no pressure to do anything different. From the standpoint of the Syrian dictatorship—and I don’t say this lightly—it has U.S. support. Even to talk as if Assad might actually reform anything is a joke.

His father killed between 10,000 and 20,000 people in a minor revolt in Hama in 1982. So far in this upsurge he’s only killed 60. And Bashar is trying to be his father. He knows that he has nothing to fear internationally no matter what he does. One can almost see Bashar looking up (though looking down would be more accurate!) and saying, “Are you proud of me now, dad?”

The key factor that could prove this analysis wrong is whether Sunni Arabs desert the regime in large numbers. If they do so, they could go toward either Islamism or a moderate pro-democratic stance. Another indication is if the Kurds rise up that will be because they think the Sunni Arabs are likely to make a revolution.

But for the time being my analysis is that this regime is going to survive by being brutal.


Egypt Leaves the Anti-Iran Bloc 

Posted: 30 Mar 2011 10:09 AM PDT

By Barry Rubin

Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil el-Arabi said, “The Egyptian government doesn’t consider Iran to be an enemy state. We’re opening a new page with all countries, including Iran.” President Anwar al-Sadat cut relations with Iran in 1979, at the time of the Islamist revolution.

For three decades, Egypt’s government has seen Tehran as a threat and a rival on many levels:

–Persian versus Arab.

–Shia versus Sunni.

–A challenge to Egypt’s national interest and leading role in the region.

–A destabilizing factor, producing war, terrorism, and revolution in the region.

–In line with Egypt’s alliance with the United States–albeit for its own interests–Egypt opposed the spread of Iranian influence.

But now, as I pointed out at the beginning of the revolution, this has all changed. Obviously, Egypt’s government has the right to do what it wants in its relations with Iran. But equally obviously this is a big setback for U.S. interests in containing and combatting Iran’s power.

The next step will no doubt be Egypt’s rapprochement with the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip.

All of this was completely predictable, but nobody in the U.S. government and very few in the media, saw it coming.