Monday, January 1, 2007

The Middle East in 2007

Its really hard to know where to start, 2006 has been a turbulent year in the middle east(1 2 3). And it does not appear that 2007 will be any less turbulent, if anything, more so.

The main proponent of instability, or "change" depending on your point of view, has been the United States. And with pressure mounting on the United States to produce tangible results in both Iraq and Afghanistan (anywhere for that matter), and with time running out for President George Bush, I believe that the US administration will probably be more willing to go for a much higher risk strategy regionally and globally in an attempt to salvage republican chances in the 2008 presidential elections. The US Administration is also well aware that it's allies and enemies (both in and out of the United States) are watching developments very closely.

The most recent development that can be seen as a clear victory for the Administration are it's maneuverings in the Horn of Africa and the defeat of the Islamic Courts in Somalia. However, it is also just as clear that this has been an operation which was a cut and paste of Afghanistan 2001. The only difference being the use of proxy forces i.e. Ethiopia. The real test will now come and we need to ask, has the US learned anything about what to do after changing a regime? How long can Ethiopia afford to carry the load? Will the Islamic Courts promised insurgency be as potent an option in the Horn of Africa as it has been in Afghanistan, Lebanon or Iraq?

In other events we saw the previous ruler of Iraq executed, which is a probably the event which needs coverage. However, as Saddam became a non-player the moment he lost power, his death is an issue for moral or legal discussions, and not politics. I think his execution has not changed any of the basic variables already impacting the region, but has only provided an opportunity for all sides to reiterate there already well known positions.

What to look for in 2007

In 2007, I believe the 14 century old rift between Shia and Sunni Islam will be America and its allies main point of attack. This fault line was only identified by the Americans only after invading Iraq. I don't mean they did know of it, but only that they did not realize it's potency to create divisions within the Muslim World, more specifically to isolate Iran and its brand of political Islam. I have no doubt that the United States would greatly like to sideline political Islam and the first rule of empire building is that one must divide to conquer. Once Iran is out of the way, Sunni Islam's brand of political Islam will be the next target, no one should have any doubt about that.

Currently America faces two distinct forces within political Islam. Shia Islam's resistance to the US and its interests with its standard bearer being Iran. Equally, Sunni Islam has an array of forces resisting the US and its interests, embodied in the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood and the myriad of other Salafist movements(Al-Qaeda, FIS, Taliban, Hamas, Islamic Jihad etc). Also, the US is well aware that within Sunni Islam there are also fault lines which can be attacked, but when faced with a large project, you usually tackle it in small sections. Iran is an easier target as it is represented by a single entity, plus America's allies in the region are familiar with the Sunni forces and have been combating them for several decades already.

In Iraq...

In 2003, after conquering Iraq, the US was faced with a challenge, to work with Iranian supported groups such as Dawa and SCIRI or try to create a new force within Iraq. The US chose to attempt to build up the likes of Allawi and Chalabi as political forces and failed miserably. Even though they knew that these people had no constituency within Iraq and only limited support within the Iraqi Diaspora. No one should doubt that the US had clear preferences and plans for Iraq after Saddam's fall, but clearly as with the WMD intelligence it was a house of cards which collapsed the moment it faced the harsh realities on the ground.

The Shia Islamists bided their time, generally did not challenge the United States, with the notable exception of Muqtada Al-Sadr. They kept America to its word, and knew that democratic elections would work in their interests. They continue to bide their time, knowing that the US cannot challenge their legitimacy, waiting for the moment they can start demanding that the US withdraw from Iraq. The Sunni insurgency continues to grow ever more bloody, and it is still not completely clear to me what the insurgents hope to achieve. However, it is important to note that the Sunni insurgents fall into two main groupings, Salfists and Baathists. Recent developments have demonstrated that the Baathists are willing to talk after realizing that the insurgency can only be a means to an end, which would have to be securing the interests of their constituency. As for the Salafists, the insurgency seems to be the ends itself, in the greater war against the US and its interests. So some form of reconciliation developing through 2007 between the government and the Baathists is not unreasonable. However, the Salafists are interested in creating as much damage to the US project in Iraq and the region as possible and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. As to US plans for a "Surge", it will only provide more targets for the insurgents. Ironically, the US needs the insurgency to continue so that it can continue to justify its occupation. You would think that the Sunni insurgency is the greatest threat to the US in Iraq, however if you listen to the Administration and pay close attention to its actions, it would seem that the Mahdi Army is the greatest threat to the US. Although, the Sunni insurgency is a greater threat to the US armed forces, the growing power of Moqtada Al-Sadr seems an even greater threat to US interests. For he has repeatedly demonstrated his anti-US positions time and again.

The greatest chance for the US to achieve its goals in Iraq, is for it to break Iran's grip of influence, which can only be realistically done by cutting Iran down to size. Unfortunately for the US, it does not currently hold a winning hand and Iran knows it.

In Lebanon...

The US is trying to further empower the pro-US forces in order to spin Lebanon further out of the Syria-Iran Alliance's orbit. With the assassination of Rafik Al-Hariri, the US attempted to capitalize on this crime by supporting the so-called Cedar revolution. However, despite being successful in rolling back Syria it still failed to deal with the political power of Hizbollah, which only grew with Syria's withdrawal. Hence, the US worked to have Israel deal with Hizbollah militarily, but only succeeded in destroying Lebanon's infrastructure and furthering Hezbollah power within its own confessional community and giving it greater political power in the region. America's allies within the region were the biggest losers, by being seen as supporting Israeli aggression against Lebanon.

The current political deadlock in Lebanon is a direct result of the pro-US cabinet trying to use the conflict to damage Hizbollah's interests within Lebanon. Thus forcing Hizbollah to challenge the pro-US forces openly in the political field. Nobody should have any misconceptions about what is going on in Lebanon, it is not about a Shia-Sunni rift, it is exactly what is going on in the rest of the Middle East and to a lesser extent the world, people are choosing sides. They are either with the United States or against it, and this choice has very little to do with 9/11. We are seeing the same alignments in Latin America, which cannot be said to be related to whats happening in the Middle East. When George Bush challenged the world to choose sides, many lined up with the United States, however, as soon as people began to suspect that the War on Terror was nothing more than a cover story for advancing US interests, they re-evaluated the decisions made and realized the greater danger to their own interests lay in Americas play for total global domination.


The US has run out of answers here. They fought for years to get Arafat sidelined by demanding more powers for the elected prime minister, only to have a Hamas prime minister elected after his death. Arafat was the only one able to give the concessions required for a settlement favorable to Israel, and he was so close to doing that at Wye River. Both they and the Israeli's now realize that they got greedy and wanted it all, and all he needed was a fig leaf.

Now with Arafat's passing, the Hamas controlled government will settle for nothing less than a solution based on the 1967 borders. Arab Allies of the US have been telling the US to pressure Israel into a settlement, any settlement. If the Palestinians accept it, then they can safely be ignored after any "historic" agreement. The Israeli's would be able to safely dominate any state stripped of much of the trappings of sovereignty as any settlement is sure to insure as long as it is the Americans who are the "even-handed" broker.

Palestine will continue to simmer, as their is no possibility of Hamas either as the government or opposition accepting anything less than full sovereignty over the pre-1967 borders. 2007 will see continued siege of the Palestinian people and continuation of the low intensity conflict.

Advancing US interests in 2007

The three countries which have done more to advance US interests in the region than any others are Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. All are facing challenges internally from Sunni Islamist forces. All are very familiar with these foes and how to combat them (or any internal threats for that matter). And all are playing a significant role in advancing US interests in the region as a whole, be it in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine or most recently Somalia.

All three countries are desperately trying to maneuver the US into openly confronting the threat of Iran's growing influence to their interests, this is not to say that the US is not already doing this, but it was clear that after the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group
released its report the talk in Washington was serious about the possibility of "working" with Iran in order to stabilize Iraq instead of working against it.

It seems that Saudi Arabia was the first Arab ally to panic, no surprise there, as it has the most to lose. Nawaf Obaid, a close associate of HRH Turki Al- Faisal, set off a tremor with his article in the Washington Post
warning that Saudi Arabia was ready to support Sunni insurgents in Iraq if the US decided to carry out a dialogue with Iran i.e. recognize Iran's interests. It is well known that Saudi Arabia is already allowing a certain amount of support to flow to the insurgents, with US knowledge. This is mostly in order to allow the United States to claim that it cannot withdraw until the Iraqi government is stable. At the same time, the US itself is inexplicably not making very good progress in training Iraq's armed forces or not even allowing them the required weapons and training elsewhere. Which seems odd, but not if we look into the motivations for this. Afterall, millions of men were trained and fought in WWII, it is hard to believe that the US has not managed to train a force of several hundred thousand for Iraq, maybe I should be more specific, it has not trained a force it can trust.

In any case, US VP Cheney quickly made a trip to the Middle East to put minds at ease about the US Administrations intentions and not to confuse domestic political positioning with policy changes.

And so it looks like 2007 will be another exciting year...

Expect much turmoil, death and destruction. If I missed anything, be sure to let me know and I will follow up on it asap. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Saddam's execution

It's odd to see so many different views on this man, even though no one disagrees that he was a tyrant. It seems there are four basic reactions, which range from strongly against to strongly for:

- He did not deserve this, and that his trial was highly politicized.
- The choice of timing was questionable, and it would have probably been prudent to wait until after the Eid al Adha.
- Don't care, he is no longer playing any role.
- Good riddance! too bad he can only be killed once.

I would also quickly add that, the view held by a person was not necessarily aligned with the same persons opinion on the War on Terror.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Inauspicious start ....

I've been toying with the idea of starting a blog for quite some time now. I've put it off partly because I am afraid that nobody would care to read what I have to write and partly because... well mostly that :)

I have been using the excuse that I don't have time between work and my life to fit in a blog. but, as I am on vacation, I really have no excuse not to.

I decided yesterday that I have put it off long enough. Just my luck! All the news today is about Saddam's execution... oh well.

I never thought they would go through with it... I mean the Americans, Iraqi's would have killed him long ago!

I am hoping to update the blog every couple of days, or at least whenever there is something worthwhile to talk about, which shouldn't be a problem when your talking about the middle east these days...