As Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits Washington this week, he will prod the White House to increase its support for the Syrian opposition and will likely encourage President Barack Obama to consider enforcing a no-fly zone. The powerful prime minister has been a forceful advocate for multi-lateral intervention in Syria, arguing that the international community has a collective responsibility to help oust President Bashar al-Assad and bring the conflict to an end.
Erdogan's request will almost certainly take on a more urgent tone after tragic bombings in Reyhanli -- a refugee filled town on the Syrian border -- killed nearly 50 people. Despite Erdogan's close relationship with Obama, Turkey's requests are not likely to gain much traction with the White House. And, in fact, the meeting is likely to focus more on U.S. requests of Turkey, rather than the other way around.
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Mr. Hassan al-Yafa'ei, head of the secessionist "Hirak" in al-Houtta South of Yemen, spoke with passion and grief about his region. He is filled with indignation over the unfair discrimination of the South. He is completely convinced, however, that the 1986 civil war is a historical incident that will not be repeated. In his view, the almost 10,000 deaths that occurred in a single month is just an "aberrant phenomenon." Al-Yafa'ei, just like many other Southerners, underplays the possibility of violence occurring if a Southern secession should take place. Such incessant denial of the possibility of the past repeating itself is convenient for many Southerners who want to become an independent Southern nation -- putting the chapter of "Unity gone bad" behind them.
The question of "What will happen to the South if a secession takes place?" has rarely been probed by Hirak. The mechanisms of this desired disunion are left to the same politicians who plunged the South of Yemen to its previous fate of wars and instability. And once again, sentiments of people in the streets are high on "self-determination" rhetoric, without adequately thinking through how this step would resolve their political differences and leaders' penchant for popular exploitation.
Fatima Abo Alasrar
Last week's attack on the French Embassy in Tripoli was the first significant terrorist attack against foreign interests in the Libyan capital since the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi. More crucially, it marks an escalation in the covert war being waged to determine the future orientation, institutions, constitution, and very soul of the new Libya. At the same time the conflict between the government and militias has escalated, with the latter besieging the ministries of defense, interior, and foreign affairs, demanding the resignation of the ministers and the immediate application of the political isolation law, which is in the process of being debated and voted on. Collectively, these events show a decrease in the legitimate political institutions' capacity to guide the transition process successfully and an increase in the attempts of armed elements to alter the rules of the political game in their favor.
For the international community the attack against the French Embassy and the radicalization of the conflict between militias and government institutions must serve as a wake-up call, and remind them that the gains of the NATO-led intervention are at risk of being undone. The countries that helped overthrow Qaddafi should redouble their efforts to support the creation of professional armed forces and police, vocational training, and constitution writing. If greater support is withheld, the French Embassy attack may prove to be the start of a trend, in which case Libyan -- and by extension North African -- instability would become a permanent status quo. The crisis in Mali and the growing instability in Algeria -- and most recently Tunisia -- offer clear evidence in support of this conjecture.
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Life rarely gives you second chances. But if handled deftly, the Arab Peace Initiative (API), discussed yesterday at a Blair House meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and an assembled group of Arab foreign ministers, could help form the basis of a serious reconstituted peace process. The delegation came to Washington under the guise of the Arab Peace Initiative Follow-up Committee -- a group charged with securing acceptance of the API by Israel and others.
The API was proposed over a decade ago by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah at a 2002 Arab League Summit in Beirut that convened amidst raging Israeli-Palestinian violence. Endorsed by the Arab League, the proposal offered Israel the prospect of peace, security, and normal relations -- a goal Israel has sought since its independence in 1948. In return, the Arabs called on Israel to agree to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital.
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Anniversaries of invasions, occupations, and cease-fires are reminders that wars never end. The 10th anniversary of the U.S. led-invasion of Iraq prompted discussions about the damage that long-term occupation and violent conflict cause. Yet with few exceptions, these debates lack a willingness to engage with the psychological afterlife of wars for Iraqi civilians or recognition of international responsibility toward the psychological burden that awaits Iraqi society. When the subject of mental health is part of the debate, it is mostly from the military perspective: the mental wellbeing of veterans and soldiers has been a focus of media, academic, and governmental attention, whether noting increases in violent behavior among soldiers or rising rates of suicide (with 349 active member suicides in 2012, a 16 percent increase since 2011), depression, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But, as with estimates of more easily quantifiable physical casualties, journalists, researchers, and policymakers do not seem to have a reliable estimate of civilians' and displaced persons' psychological state.
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A two-day conference at the University of Bahrain in the capital Manama last week was intended to show the United States and the region that the Bahraini government is making progress toward democratic governance and addressing the grievances of the country's majority Shiite population. But the discussions were less than convincing because there was no empirical data or other direct evidence to support the participants' claims.
Many participants -- Bahraini academics, some government officials, and even U.S. congressmen -- declared that there has been real progress in the ongoing national dialogue, which began anew this winter between the government and factions within the opposition. The majority Shiite opposition is demanding political and economic rights. The dialogue first began in the spring of 2011, after an uprising by the Shiite-led dominated opposition erupted, and has come and gone since then. [BREAK]]
At the conference, while participating on a panel about Bahrain's political situation, I asked several participants to describe in detail the progress they were referring to between the government and the opposition. None of them provided any substantive answers. After the conference was over, I checked in with a few opposition leaders who told me that there have been approximately 10 sessions with relatively low-level government participation, but the government has offered no concessions to meet the opposition's demands and the dialogue has been virtually ineffective.
A second topic that dominated the conference involved whether opposition groups, such as al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, has close ties to, or is even manipulated by, Iran. The consensus was that the group takes orders from Iran when organizing demonstrations against the Bahraini government; some participants even accused some Shiite opposition factions of attempting to establish an Iranian-style theocracy in Bahrain with a cleric as the head of state. At least one participant claimed the opposition was collaborating with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards to try to overthrow the Bahraini government.
Congressman Dan Burton, a Republican from Indiana, and former diplomat John Bolton chimed in to warn of the Iranian threat. "Iran is trying to undermine the government of Bahrain and we need to make sure Iran's aims are not achieved," Burton said. Bolton warned that the threat from Iran is not only Tehran's potential to develop a nuclear weapon, but "the regime has made it clear it aims for hegemony" in the region. A Bahraini participant said he did not blame al-Wefaq for its actions because it "gets its instructions from Iran."
There is little doubt that for more than 30 years Shiite Iran has tried to assert its influence through military force and soft power throughout the Middle East. And nearly every week, leading figures in Iran, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, chastise the Bahraini government for its repression of its Shiite population and call for the regime to be toppled. And true, there were attempted, but failed, coups plotted by Iranian agents in the 1990s against the Bahraini government.
But to date, there is no evidence -- at least based upon public information and my own research of the country -- that Iran is working to topple the Bahraini government, even though Tehran would welcome a change in Manama. A member of the royal family agreed with me that a distinction needs to be made between Iran's direct intervention in countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, and its indirect influence in Bahrain. For example, Iranian state-owned media broadcasts its programming into Bahrain on an estimated 30 media outlets in Arabic. The message is generally that the Sunni Bahraini government represses the Shiite population, and Iran is the guardian of all Shiites.
A distinction should also be made between Iran's religious influence on the Arab Shiites, not only in Bahrain but across the Arab world, and its political influence. Many Shiites, including some in Bahrain, follow the teachings of clerics in Iran as well as those in Lebanon and Iraq.
In addition, even if Iran were trying to destabilize Bahrain, this has nothing to do with the grievances of the opposition. The Bahraini government should not try to cast aside the legitimate demands of the opposition by playing the card of the Iranian threat. If the Bahraini government wants to convince Washington and the region that reforms are underway, officials should provide details instead of focusing on Iran, which only sidelines this discussion.
As part of an attempt to show the Bahraini government is enacting reforms in order to address the marginalization of the Shiites, conference participants stated that most of the 24 recommendations in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), an over 500-page report authored by the renowned international law expert, Cherif Bassiouni, have been implemented. In fact, Congressman Burton said that 18 of the recommendations have been enforced, but he did not say where he got his information.
The BICI report, issued in November 2011, confirmed that thousands of people were detained and tortured during the heat of the uprising in 2011, and some were killed by government security forces. The report also confirmed that many Shiite had been removed from their jobs for discriminatory reasons. The report called for sweeping reforms, including a restructuring of the police and security forces, an independent media (which in Bahrain is controlled by the state), and an end to repression.
Looking for confirmation on Burton's statement, I asked at the conference if anyone knew which of the BICI recommendations have been implemented. According to U.S.-based human rights organizations -- which have been very vocal about Bahrain's reluctance to take the report seriously -- only a handful of the 24 recommendations have been implemented.
There is much talk these days in Washington of progress between the Bahraini government and opposition groups toward reaching reconciliation. The promotion of the crown prince, considered the reformer in the family, to deputy prime minister has made some in the United States hopeful that the reform process will pick up speed.
Stability in Bahrain is of great importance to the United States. Manama is the home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, whose presence in the Gulf ensures the flow of oil and other energy exports through the Strait of Hormuz, the waterway connecting the Gulf to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Because of significant U.S. strategic and economic interests in a stable Bahrain, the Obama administration has declined to adopt a hard line on the Bahraini government's human rights abuses and institutionalized discrimination.
If the conference was any guide, the Bahraini political elites do not want to be perceived as presiding over a repressive state. Therefore, the moderates within the Bahrain government -- those in the crown prince's inner circle -- should seize upon the moment and push for reform. This would be far more effective at improving Bahrain's image and showing a commitment to reform than conferences in which there is little or no talk about addressing the grievances of the opposition.
Geneive Abdo, a fellow at the Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author of the forthcoming, The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi'a-Sunni Divide, to be published in April by Brookings.
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The growing reports of increased U.S. support for the armed opposition in Syria with the training of Free Syrian Army (FSA) militias in Jordan and the facilitating of arms shipments into the country through Turkey mark an increase in overall U.S. assistance over two years into the conflict. While such actions are tempting in efforts to bring an end to Syria's deepening civil war, a military solution for either side has not been achievable these past two years. What is needed, instead, is to combine military assistance with a coordinated strategy of capacity building within the opposition, which can then have measurable results and reinforce international efforts to find a political solution to the crisis.
A better-trained, organized opposition that is able to make political and military gains could change not only the situation on the ground, but also the perception of the crisis in Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle. Based on our conversations with former senior members of the Assad regime and individuals in contact with the regime presently, Assad is still confident that he can manage to suppress the uprisings and bring the opposition to the table to negotiate on his terms.
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After a three-year rupture, one of the most important relationships in the Middle East is on the cusp of repair. It will be a long while before Turkey and Israel can go back to business as usual, and the relationship will remain hostage to Israeli policy toward Palestinians. Nevertheless, last month's Israeli apology to Turkey has far-reaching implications for the region. It clears a path for the two countries to work together, albeit behind-the-scenes, on their most urgent common concern -- Syria -- as well as a host of other issues, including military technology and NATO-Israel cooperation.
The impasse broke two weeks ago when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to his Turkish counterpart, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for a 2010 Israeli raid that resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish citizens. The two countries' relationship had been strained in the preceding years, in part because of Israel's war in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, in December 2008 to January 2009. In the summer of 2009, Erdogan famously stormed off a stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland after a clash with Israel's President Shimon Peres over the war. But the 2010 raid gave Erdogan an opportunity to curry favor at home with the MHP, the Nationalist Action Party, and raise his regional stature further.
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"Freedom of The Press" is often referred to as the fourth pillar of any modern democracy. Democratizing the media has been one of the achievements of the United States in many state-building experiments around the world -- but this was not the case in Iraq. After the U.S. intervention in 2003, Iraqi media was transformed from being a heavily controlled state propaganda tool, to a plethora of political, ethnic, tribal, and sectarian mouthpieces.
When Saddam Hussein assumed power on July 17, 1979, the Iraqi press was mostly government-owned. The former Iraqi dictator used the media to promote his ideas and to control the country in a style reminiscent of the Nazi regime in Germany. His propaganda machine was active until the end. Remarkably his official newspapers were still being distributed on April 9, 2003 -- the day his brutal regime was toppled.
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In many cases, the deluge of Iraq-10-years-on commentary seems to be preoccupied with apportioning blame and delving into questions that cannot but deteriorate into adolescent moralizing or ideological one-upmanship such as "was it worth it?" Or "was it right to invade?" The subject of "sectarianism" (here identified with the Sunni-Shiite divide), a morally charged and confused one at the best of times, has featured prominently in these polemics. This is particularly unfortunate given that a subject as complex and as multi-layered as sectarian identity cannot be reduced to the confines of an ill-conceived U.S. military adventure in 2003.
Since the invasion, many people in Iraq and beyond, repulsed by the ugly manifestations of sectarian entrenchment and ultimately sectarian violence have tried to find someone to blame. Such efforts have often been linked to views regarding the war: blame "sectarianism" on the Americans and their partners if you were against the war and blame it on any and everyone else, not least Arab Iraqis, if you were for it. However, whilst it is undoubtedly a momentous turning point in the story of sectarian relations, 2003 is by no means the first chapter. Suggesting that 2003 marks the definitive line between a sectarian and a non-sectarian Iraq is as misleading a view as one insisting on viewing sectarian entrenchment as the status quo ad infinitum of Iraqi society.
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Following the successful ousting of the Baath regime on April 9, 2003, Iraq began its transition toward a process of democratization that gradually achieved important gains in transferring some powers to the previously disenfranchised population. This transition has progressed from direct U.S. rule to partial Iraqi participation, and finally full Iraqi administration of the country. Since Iraqis reclaimed sovereignty in 2004 they have managed to write and ratify a constitution, hold regular provincial and general elections, and begin to establish a tradition of peaceful transfer of political power and parliamentary life. This is a very significant reversal of the authoritarian rule in Iraq between 1958 and 2003, when governments were only replaced by violence and coups.
However, the slow transition to democracy and the many setbacks in the process are still frustrating to many Iraqis. This is mainly because Iraqis have no consensus on the shape of their future regime. They are divided on the questions of federalism and the scope of the central government's powers; a majority government versus a power-sharing arrangement; the identity of Iraq as a neutral state with policies driven by its national interests or as a part of some larger regional context (Arab, Islamic, etc.); among many other disputes.
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While observers of the Iraq War anniversary argue over the scale of the mistake -- a colossal folly rooted in imperial ambition and hubris, or simply an error based on faulty intelligence and misplaced fear -- the devil is in the details. These numbers, assembled by some of the 29 contributors to the Costs of War Project based at Brown University, help put the past 10 years in perspective.
0: Al Qaeda had no presence in Iraq before the 2003 U.S. invasion. But a new organization, known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, has since formed and has attacked U.S. and Iraqi forces, and wages regular attacks on Iraqi civilians. Additionally, by 2013, AQI had spread offshoots and technical know-how to Syria, Jordan, and Libya. If Iraq became a "front" in the war on terrorism, as Jessica Stern, former member of the National Security Council and current fellow at the Hoover Institution, and her co-author Megan McBride, say "it is a front that the United States created."
2 plus 2: Conflicts exacerbated by the Iraq War. Iran and North Korea were apparently not intimidated by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, nor deterred from pursuing weapons of mass destruction. Conversely, the war in Afghanistan was arguably prolonged by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and has escalated into Pakistan, with a corresponding increase in military spending and loss of life.
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This March is a critical month in Yemen's political transition since 2011, when millions of peaceful street protesters ended 33 years of rule by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In the coming week, the country's transitional leader, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, is scheduled to inaugurate the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). Beginning on March 18, the NDC is expected to hold a series of meetings with more than 500 representatives, who will attempt to find solutions to several pressing problems for Yemen. What hangs in the balance is nothing less than Yemeni national unity. The conference was supposed to start last year after Hadi was elevated to the post of president by public referendum in February 2012. For the sake of a successful national dialogue, it was recognized the NDC had to take place under a large tent encompassing all the major political parties and social factions. Building this tent has proven difficult. The process was postponed more than once because some parties refused to accept a predetermined number of seats, while others refused to participate under any circumstances.
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Two years after the Police Day demonstrations that forced former President Hosni Mubarak from office, Egypt's political transformation has only just begun. The uncertainty that necessarily accompanies this change presents particular dilemmas for the United States, for whom partnership with Egypt has been a bedrock of regional policy for decades. Bedeviled by uncertainty and mutual mistrust, U.S.-Egyptian ties have been fraught since the revolution -- and on both sides there are those who say it's time to cut the cord. Yet these two countries still have many core interests in common and, as the November 2012 Gaza crisis proved, they can work together effectively to advance them.
For the United States, Egypt's revolution presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a more robust and reliable strategic partnership than was ever possible before, based on mutual interests with a government rooted in the consent of the Egyptian people and accountable to them. But realizing this opportunity will require an adroit, long-term approach, one that eschews transactional bargains with specific Egyptian actors in favor of a consistent commitment to supporting the emergence of a pluralistic Egyptian political system.
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During its erratic and tumultuous transition Egypt has lurched from crisis to crisis, muddling its way through to a series of sub-optimal resolutions. Throughout this uncertain period, the United States has sought to maintain a low-key engagement, cognizant of its longstanding association with the autocratic regime of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, its eroded regional prestige, and its inability to dictate domestic political outcomes in another country. As President Barack Obama recently stated, "We are not going to be able to control every aspect of every transition and transformation." Following the misguided bluster and hubris of recent years, this humility is a laudable and needed corrective.
However, in post-Mubarak Egypt, entreaties to restraint now mask a more enduring reality: in dealing with the country's newly-empowered Islamists, U.S. policy in Egypt remains trapped in the old ways of thinking that produced a bet on authoritarian stability.
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As the United States and its allies continue to debate intervention in Syria, the example of NATO's air campaign in Libya is frequently marshaled -- often carelessly. Most arguments against drawing unwarranted analogies cite the size of the Syrian military, the robustness of its air defenses compared to Libya's, as well as obvious differences in the countries' sectarian makeup and topography. But no one has bothered to ask Libya's revolutionary fighters and their commanders what they thought of the NATO air campaign and how it affected their strategy, tactics, and morale on the battlefield.
In March and July of 2012, I traveled to Libya to conduct over two dozen interviews with anti-Qaddafi commanders who fought on the war's four main fronts: the Nafusa mountains, Tripoli, Misrata, and Benghazi. The results are surprising, with important implications for current deliberations on Syria. Nowhere is this more evident than in Misrata, the central coastal city that was the location of the Libyan war's most pivotal battle. Anti-Assad forces in Syria have long boasted of making Aleppo their Benghazi -- a haven from which to topple the regime in Damascus. But perhaps a closer analogy is Misrata where, after months of grinding, urban combat, Libyan revolutionaries pushed out Muammar al-Qaddafi's troops and paved the way for the liberation of Tripoli. Precision airpower, combined with the presence of foreign ground advisors working alongside the city's defenders, helped in this crucial battle, but in ways that were dependent on a number of other factors -- all with important implications for Syria.
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images; Misrata Military Council
The worsening violence and repression in Syria has left many analysts and policymakers in the United States and other western countries scrambling to think of ways our governments could help end the bloodshed and support those seeking to dislodge the Assad regime. The desperate desire to "do something" has led a growing number of people to advocate for increased military aid to armed insurgents or even direct military intervention, as the French government has said it will consider doing unilaterally.
While understandable, to support the armed opposition would likely exacerbate the Syrian people's suffering and appear to validate the tragic miscalculation by parts of the Syrian opposition to supplant their bold and impressive nonviolent civil insurrection with an armed insurgency.
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The Arab League Ministerial Council that convened in Doha Sunday to review the Arab Peace Initiative and reevaluate the peace process concluded without any decisive action. Qatar's Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani maintained that the initiative would "not be on offer for ever." Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas objected saying, "It is not permissible to talk about sidelining the Arab Peace Initiative. It should stay." Abbas went on to warn that withdrawal of the initiative could lead to regional war. From press reports, there is no sign that the ministers undertook an in-depth evaluation of the initiative itself to better understand why it has not been successful, or to consider how to revitalize it.
The initiative, adopted by the League of Arab States in March 2002, was an historic opening that could have made a major contribution toward resolving the Israeli- Palestinian as well as the Israeli-Arab conflicts. When the initiative was put forward, Ariel Sharon was Prime Minister of Israel, and there was no likelihood that the architect of Israel's settlement policy would agree to the withdrawal to the 1967 lines called for by the Arab states. The primary audience for the initiative was not the Israeli government, but the Israeli people. The message to Israelis essentially was: In the context of a comprehensive peace, with your neighbors and the Palestinians, the entire Arab world will "consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended" and "establish normal relations with Israel."
For decades, "human rights in the Middle East" was a subject of scrutiny, debate, and mobilizations spearheaded from outside of the region. Western governments including successive U.S. administrations frequently took up the region's dire human rights conditions and funded a variety of human rights initiatives to remedy them, in many ways as a substitute for forgoing economic and military alliances with highly repressive regimes. These foreign governments' human rights talk was heavy in its emphasis on women's rights and other violations for which backward cultural and religious belief were designated as the key culprits and light on its emphasis on civil and political rights violations. During the post-9/11 era, as highlighting the Middle East's deplorable human rights conditions added a veneer of moral purpose to military interventions in the region, the "human rights in the Middle East" line of inquiry took on a life of its own and created a cottage industry of Western-driven human rights assessments and prescriptions. All the while, local voices promoting human rights were largely silenced by authoritarian rulers simultaneously paying lip service to human rights and undermining it by arguing that it served foreign, Western, imperialist agendas. Cumulatively, there dynamics resulted in minimal Middle Eastern agency in defining the nature and scope of its own predicament vis-à-vis the human rights paradigm.
Today, the region's myriad of human rights mobilizations and contests are increasingly being spurred from within the Middle East, not abroad.
During his recent visit to the United States, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi of Yemen expressed his concerns that if the National Dialogue -- a forum supposedly representing the major political players in Yemen -- fails, Yemen could slide into a civil war that will be worse than those in Somalia or Afghanistan. Part of this rhetoric was strategic, intended to nudge the so-called "Friends of Yemen" to commit to much needed (although potentially pernicious) aid. Nevertheless, Hadi is only slightly exaggerating the dangers Yemen could face, and recent developments -- such as the delay of the National Dialogue -- make his predictions more worrisome.
Hadi, who ran unopposed in February, was elected after a prolonged stalemate since January 2011. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-engineered compromise that ensured the transfer of power from then President Ali Abdullah Saleh to Hadi helped avert the civil war that Yemen was dangerously skirting at that time. Many groups in Yemen, however, view the GCC deal as a failure and an imposition that ensured that formal and informal power remain in the hands of old elites. As the International Crisis Group (ICG) reports, Yemeni elites have kept their hold on power as they continue to play musical chairs with government positions. Meanwhile, the Houthi rebels in the North, the Hiraaki separatists in the South, as well as various youth groups who were the backbone of the early days of the revolution, are left out of the deal.
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Iran this week marked "Ten Years of Nuclear Resistance," a celebration at the University of Tehran to commemorate Iran's nuclear program, despite international efforts to limit it. The central message that emerged from this event was articulated by Iran's Deputy Secretary of the National Security Council, who said that the "dual strategy based on pressure and diplomacy the West insists on is failed and illogical."
It is time for the United States and its Western allies to realize, as the official, Ali Bagheri, stated, that the policy of more sanctions, intimidation, and pressure is counter-productive to the stated goal of changing the regime's behavior on the nuclear issue. Not only is the Iranian government becoming more belligerent, but according to polling data collected in recent weeks, the Iranian public overwhelming supports many of the government's positions on the nuclear program and related issues.
When a presidential campaign is in full swing, we probably should not be surprised that the challenger's team throws everything and the kitchen sink at the incumbent. Still, it seems strange that Republicans want to remind voters that President Barack Obama extricated the United States from a difficult and unpopular war in Iraq. But that is just what Peter Feaver did in the Foreign Policy blog Shadow Government on October 12. He said that the president had opened up a "civil-military problem" for himself, because "significant portions of the military believe the administration abandoned them on Iraq." He went on to accuse the administration, and Vice President Joe Biden specifically, of blowing the chance to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq, either through incompetence or a lack of serious commitment, that would have permitted the United States to keep tens of thousands of troops in Iraq. Those are some pretty stiff charges. (Full disclosure: Feaver and I went to graduate school together. He is a great guy, but just plain wrong here.)
We can set aside, for this discussion, the big question about whether keeping that many U.S. troops in Iraq would have been a good thing. It is pretty clear what the American people think the answer is. The interesting thing about Feaver's thumbnail account of the supposed failure of the administration on this issue is the utter absence of Iraqis from the story. When the United States fails to achieve a goal, it must be either because we really were not committed to it, or we messed up. The other guys just are not that important. It really is all about us.
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The United States must shift the paradigm on Syria. Escalating tensions between Syria and Turkey are the latest indicator that Syria's crisis is spiraling out of control. With Russia now pulled into the fray, the conflict has the potential to escalate significantly. Horrific violence inside Syria has dramatically increased civilian death tolls and sparked an exponential rise in refugee flows. The current policy debate largely focuses on the relative merits of providing (directly or indirectly) more sophisticated weapons to the opposition versus the establishment of a protected safe zone in northern Syria. Yet, these tactical military interventions carry significant downside risks. The deepening crisis between Syria and Turkey amid Syria's worsening civil conflict presents an important opportunity for U.S. leadership and diplomacy. Washington should seize on these latest developments to build a coalition for bringing an end to the violence and establishing a political solution to the Syrian crisis.
Further militarization of the Syrian conflict would exacerbate an already volatile situation on the ground, deepening and protracting Syria's sectarian civil war. Far from providing relief for innocent civilians, fueling the conflict with more arms risks further endangering civilians. The armed opposition's inability to unify and its continued radicalization as well as enduring divisions between key patrons, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, underscore the inherent risks of this option. Differences among Syria's various armed opposition groups, not to mention between Arabs and Kurds, could erupt into open hostilities in Syria's mounting chaos. Meanwhile, jihadist elements, while still a distinct minority, appear to be gaining influence.
Salafis, or Sunni puritans, have been much in the news since they sparked riots at U.S. embassies throughout the Arab world protesting film clips lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. A television personality on a Saudi Arabian-funded Salafi satellite channel in Egypt first fanned the flames, and Salafis ranging from the militant Mohamed al-Zawahiri (the brother of al Qaeda's chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri) to the mainstream Salafi political party al-Nour fueled the blaze when they blamed the U.S. government and called for protests against U.S. embassies. Salafis in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and elsewhere took up the torch, resulting in attacks on U.S. and other Western diplomatic installations across the Middle East.
Others were involved, of course, and the protests were small compared to the protests over the Muhammad cartoons several years ago. Nevertheless, the Salafi-driven protests are one more sign the ultra-religious right is asserting itself as the guardian of the moral order in Sunni-majority countries revolting against the ancien régime. Their noisy performance on the public stage poses a major challenge to emerging democratic systems, fueling polarization inside and fears abroad. But the new political realm also poses challenges to the Salafis who are on unfamiliar ground politically and ideologically.
While most media attention focused on the cartoon bomb presented by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, something even more newsworthy passed almost without notice: Netanyahu made it clear that he has endorsed U.S. President Barack Obama's policy on Iran. By literally drawing a red line to show how far he could tolerate Iran's nuclear program, Netanyahu in effect approved of the international efforts led by the Obama administration to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
In fact, while he would never admit it in the midst of a campaign, even Mitt Romney picked up on this view and has, in practice, endorsed Obama's approach. That sudden outbreak of unspoken consensus is the real story of the last week of diplomacy. The real question now is what can be done with the broad agreement that there is both time and space for a diplomatic solution to the crisis over Iran's nuclear program that has created a new window of opportunity. And that depends on two big wildcards: what Netanyahu's red lines really are, and Iran's real intentions and capabilities.
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Historically, Washington has been more comfortable extolling democracy than accepting its consequences, particularly in the strategically important Middle East. Algerian democracy had no place in the "new world order" of former President George H.W. Bush. His administration backed a military coup against an elected Islamist parliament in Algeria. Palestinian democracy did not fit in the "Freedom Agenda" of George W. Bush, who refused to deal with the Hamas-led government Palestinian voters elected in 2006. Now, as Egyptians build their own democracy, the Obama administration is struggling to synch its policies with its early hopes for "A New Beginning" in U.S.-Muslim relations, particularly evident in this week's New York visit by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi for the U.N. General Assembly.
Morsi's predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, was elected in 2005 with 6.3 million votes. No independent observers considered the contest free or fair, and Mubarak's landslide 88 percent victory said more about his iron-fisted rule than his popularity. Prior to being ousted in February 2011, Mubarak met multiple times with U.S. President Barack Obama: in Egypt, before Obama delivered his speech at Cairo University, as well as at the White House for bilateral and multilateral discussions.
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In the pre-dawn blackness of September 12, I hurtled toward Tunis Carthage airport en route to Tripoli. I was looking forward to seeing my friend Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador who had invited all nine members in our delegation representing the International Crisis Group (ICG) and the Canadian government to his home for a Saturday night reception to talk about Libya's turbulent transition.
The high-speed Tunisian taxi driver, who doubles as a freelance currency trader, told me, "More Libyans are coming every day. I'm making lots of money. It's getting worse." I thought for a minute about his unscientific sample and wondered, "How bad is it?" At Tunisian customs, I was all alone. The immigration official spent too much time half-heartedly scrutinizing my passport, then looked up and said, "You came in yesterday?" "Yes," I replied. "It was not a good day for you."
As pressure increases on western governments to bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria, "non-lethal" assistance has become the promise of the hour. The term is ubiquitous, cropping up in White House press briefings and the European Union's arms embargo on Syria.
Yet despite the pervasive nature of the term, it does not yet have a widely accepted legal definition. Broadly speaking, it is used to describe equipment and intelligence that cannot be directly used to kill. This can encompass anything from helmets and body armor to more facilitative assistance such as encrypted radios and satellite imagery. In practice, the lines between non-lethal equipment and its lethal counterparts are more blurred. In fact, both are required for a soldier to maximize the use of his weapon. As Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, points out, "a guy with a helmet and a radio is more likely to use his gun effectively because his protection increases his survivability and his radio [improves] his targeting through better communication."
The death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. officials in Libya last Wednesday should serve to draw much-needed attention to an increasingly untenable contradiction in U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Even while it seeks to recover from this latest attack by Islamic radicals, the United States continues to support or tolerate the mobilization of adherents of that very same ideology elsewhere in the region, most clearly in Syria and in Bahrain. There, U.S. policymakers should expect equally frightening results.
The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was carried out by suspected members of Ansar al-Sharia, or Partisans of Islamic Law, a group adhering to the same Salafi (or Wahhabi) religious interpretation more commonly associated with Saudi Arabia. And while the popular anti-American protests that have continued to spread across the region cannot be painted with a single brushstroke, and doubtless have roots in local political grievances, still one feature they share is the conspicuous presence -- and organizational power -- of Sunni Islamists.
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It was a YouTube movie trailer that no one knew about. That is, until radical Salafis decided to draw everyone's attention to it. Already, people have died who had nothing to do with the film -- and the repercussions of all of this will go on for years to come. It's a tragedy -- one that can either be harnessed for good, or can continue to wreak havoc.
From the outset, a few facts need to be clarified in order to place this into its correct context. An Israeli real-estate developer in California, Sam Bacile, produced the little-known film, for which a 14-minute trailer was posted on YouTube. In a telephone interview with the Associated Press, Bacile said, "Islam is a cancer" and claimed that the film was intended to be a "provocative political statement condemning the religion." These are the facts as we have them at present, although questions are being raised about precisely who this filmmaker is.
None of that is going to really matter today, however. What will matter is the reaction: in Benghazi on Tuesday, the U.S. consulate was attacked, reportedly led by the same radical Salafi elements that have been going on a rampage in the past few months (and longer) against the mausoleums of Muslim saints in Libya. The attack resulted in the deaths of three U.S. embassy staff members and the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens. There is no confusion in that characterization -- these elements were armed.
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