It's just over a month since U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon chose Kofi Annan to represent the United Nations and Arab League as their envoy for Syria. Annan has moved quickly to create a diplomatic framework for dealing with the crisis, putting together proposals for a ceasefire and "Syrian-led" talks that both the Security Council and Arab League have endorsed. But the last week has seen mounting criticism of this plan.
At first sight, Annan's proposals don't seem so contentious. The main pillars are an "inclusive Syrian-led political process," an "effective United Nations supervised cessation of armed violence," and "timely provision of humanitarian assistance." Other points include the release of political prisoners, letting journalists move freely, and permitting peaceful demonstrations. While these are unquestionably urgent priorities, however, the plan will ultimately be judged on the implementation of its political and military aspects.
As the brutal crackdown in Syria turns one year old with little sign of a solution on the horizon, skeptics and defenders of invoking the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine can agree: Syria has put the doctrine, which obligates states to be concerned about the welfare of those outside its borders, in crisis. Critics charge that it requires intervention on the Libyan precedent, exposing R2P as a crusading utopianism mandating perpetual war for peace. Supporters worry the doctrine will be made into a discredited farce if Bashar al-Assad is allowed to massacre innocents with impunity. In one colorful phrasing, "R2P, R.I.P."
Both are wrong. Military intervention in Syria would not only be a misapplication of R2P, but would radically weaken the doctrine's role in building both a better Middle East and a better world. Our responsibility to protect both Syrians and the R2P doctrine itself demands that we stay out of it.
SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
The battle of Homs is over and Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have taken control of the besieged city. Yet despite what they viewed as a "tactical defeat," Syria's armed rebels, who are operating under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) -- a group of defected soldiers from the Syrian military -- vowed to continue the fight until the Syrian regime is toppled.
The balance of power tilts heavily in favor of the Syrian forces and, barring unforeseen circumstances, will likely remain so for months to come. But there is an increasing possibility that the governments of Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait could provide financial, military, and logistical assistance to the FSA in the not so distant future, bolstering its overall strength. Yet public statements by senior Qatari and Saudi officials expressing their governments' desire to arm the FSA notwithstanding, there is no evidence yet of substantial amounts of money or weapons being transferred to the rebels.
YEHUDA RAIZNER/AFP/Getty Images
Even before the looming confrontation with Iran, Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu have been engaged in their own related tussle -- more civilized and subdued no doubt, but arguably no less consequential. Their dueling speeches this week were striking in the degree to which they simultaneously mirrored and defied each other. It was no coincidence.
The U.S. president lavished praise on the one Israeli in the audience who most accurately reflects his own pragmatic views (Israeli President Shimon Peres) while bringing up Netanyahu only fleetingly. The Israeli prime minister enthusiastically applauded the many Americans in the room who share his more belligerent stance (members of Congress) while politely referring to Obama. Each paid lip service to his counterpart's central claim -- Obama, by acknowledging that Israel was entitled to its own sovereign security decisions; Netanyahu by conceding that the nuclear standoff would be best resolved by diplomacy. Both then proceeded to ruthlessly tear it apart: the president, by underscoring the imprudence of precipitous military action and the need to give negotiations time; the prime minister by stating flatly that Israel had waited long enough. Finally, the two leaders took aim at statements they argued were either dead wrong, or deadly dangerous -- Obama decried careless talk of war; Netanyahu mocked the endless recitation of war's perils. Neither bothered mentioning to whom they were referring, but there was no need. Not a day goes by without Israeli officials raising the specter of military action; meanwhile, a succession of U.S. officials have warned about the catastrophe such action might provoke.
At least seven young Shiite Muslims have been shot dead and several dozen wounded by security forces in Eastern Saudi Arabia in recent months. While details of the shootings remain unclear, and the ministry of interior claims those shot were attacking the security forces, mass protests have followed the funerals of the deceased. These events are only the latest developments in the decades-long struggle of the Saudi Shiites, which has taken on a new urgency in the context of 2011's regional uprisings -- but have been largely ignored by mainstream media.
The events of the Arab Spring have heightened long-standing tensions in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. Just three days after large-scale protests started in Bahrain on February 14, 2011, protests began in the Eastern Province, which is a 30-minute drive across the causeway from Bahrain. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Saudi interior ministry vowed to crush the protests with an "Iron Fist" and has unleashed a media-smear campaign against protests and the Shiites in general. While protests subsided over the summer, they started again in October and have become larger ever since, leading to an ever more heavy-handed response from the security forces.
This repressive response, with distinct rhetorical echoes of Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime, poses an awkward challenge to recent Saudi foreign policy. The protests of the people in the Eastern Province are as legitimate as the protests in Syria. If Saudi Arabia does not respond to these calls for reform at home how can it seriously claim to rise to the defense of democracy in Syria? The crackdown in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain has given the Iranian and Syrian regime, as well as Shiite political movements in Lebanon and Iraq, a useful rhetorical gambit to push back against their regional rivals.
JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images
Seldom has it been as justified to be pessimistic about developments between the United States, Israel, and Iran. This dysfunctional state of affairs is getting so out of hand that the danger of war is no longer just a remote possibility but instead looms large on the horizon. David Ignatius reported on Feb. 2 in Washington Post that "[Secretary of Defense Leon] Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May, or June," though he does not believe that the final decision has been taken yet.
In a couple of days Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will arrive in Washington to reiterate the Israeli position that keeping up the pressure on Iran requires a credible threat of war. In effect he will argue that President Barack Obama must toe the Israeli party line both for the sake of keeping a united front against Iran but also, ironically, because he does not want his own decision-making process on a possible war on Iran influenced by Washington.
The recent crackdown on foreign-funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Egypt has sparked a new round of diplomatic hand wringing over Washington's long-standing military aid program. Despite tepid threats from the White House and Congress, the United States is unlikely to end official military assistance -- not because of concerns over Egypt's peace treaty with Israel or Washington's desire to maintain influence over Cairo -- but because the aid benefits a small and influential coterie of elites in both capitals. In the United States, the aid program provides a large and predictable source of demand for weapons exporters, while in Cairo, collaborative military production with U.S. firms help subsidize the army's commercial economic ventures.
ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Image
As tensions escalate between the West and Iran over the country's nuclear program, some Western analysts cannot help but be excited that Turkey's relationship with Iran also seems to be deteriorating. Indeed, the two neighbors, who only recently appeared to be forging a close friendship, now find themselves on opposite sides of conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Bahrain, with Turkey's decision to host a NATO missile shield as yet another point of divergence. But to suggest that these tensions will lead to a complete breakdown in the Turkey-Iran relationship is to sensationalize the rift, just as earlier fears of an anti-Western Turkish-Iranian alliance misunderstood Ankara's engagement with Tehran.
To be sure, Turkey and Iran's battle for regional hegemony has intensified recently amidst historic changes in the Middle East. In Syria, Turkey has abandoned its close friendship with President Bashar al-Assad, and is leading international efforts to bolster the Syrian opposition and end the humanitarian crisis there. Iran, by contrast, remains one of the few supporters of the Assad regime, and continues to provide arms, surveillance, and training to Syrian security forces as they brutally crush protests.
The escalating bloodshed in Syria has rapidly become the center of regional and international attention. While the United States and its allies struggle to find ways to effectively help the Syrian people, the body count mounts and the prospects of a negotiated transition grow dim. Meanwhile, a growing chorus calls for a military intervention to protect Syrian civilians or to accelerate the fall of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The response to the Syrian crisis is shaped by its unique combination of humanitarian crisis and strategic significance. The horrifying death toll and the political failures of the Syrian regime are real, urgent, and undeniable. So are the strategic stakes of a potential regime change in a long-time adversary of the United States and its allies, and the key Arab ally of Iran. The Syrian crisis has revealed and exacerbated the profound tension between the narrative of "Resistance" which has long shaped regional discourse and the narrative of the Arab uprisings.
Our new POMEPS briefing, "The Syria Crisis" -- to which this post is the introduction -- surveys the issues posed by the ongoing struggle in Syria. The the ninth in our Arab Uprising Briefing series, "The Syrian Crisis" collects recent analysis and commentary from the Middle East Channel on these urgent questions.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
There is a near-consensus among those grappling with the crisis in Syria on the urgency of unifying the Syrian opposition. But 11 months into the uprisings, the Syrian opposition remains divided and fragmented. Such disunity complicates military and non-military strategies alike, makes arming the Syrian opposition a daunting proposition, and strengthens the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Amidst growing calls in the U.S. Congress for arming the Syrian opposition, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff pointed out that "I would challenge anyone to identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point." There is no more urgent task for the international community today than working to help Syrians overcome their internal divisions.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
The most prominent and most troubling of the trends that have shaped the Syrian uprising over the past year is the militarization of the uprising and its transformation from a largely peaceful protest movement to a low-level insurgency dominated not by citizen activists but by a dangerous and uncoordinated array of armed opposition fighters. Dealing with this trend is the most urgent task facing the United States, the Arab League, the European Union, Turkey and the rest of the "Friends of Syria" group scheduled to meet in Tunis on Friday. If the militarization of the Syrian uprising is not managed, the hope for meaningful change in Syria may be lost.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
With daily massacres in Homs and prosecution of U.S. non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Cairo, the simmering conflict in Sanaa has faded into the background. Yet on February 21 attention will turn again to Yemen on the occasion of its presidential election. The election might seem hollow, as there is only one candidate in the race, however, it is still a pivotal step in Yemen's political transition -- and the United States should use this moment to press for a real shift away from the former regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The national vote could be more aptly named a referendum, as the current Vice President Abed Rabbo Hadi Mansour, who assumed temporary authority via a deal advanced by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), will be anointed Yemen's next leader barring any catastrophic outbreaks of violence.
While on the surface the election might seem like window-dressing at best, the psychological impact for Yemen of moving into the next phase is powerful. At a minimum, the election turns the page on decades of disappointment, despair, and disillusionment. And definitively removing Saleh from power could pave the way for opening new space for real political competition and accountable governance. He is a man who has ruled Yemen for 33 years, in his own words, "by dancing on the heads of snakes," through masterful skill in manipulating tribal alliances, political allegiances, and patronage networks. After prior pledges to leave power were reversed -- and months of hand-wringing when Saleh agreed to sign the deal and then three times reneged -- just having this official exit stamp is a relief.
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
Critics are right to interpret the decision by the government of Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri -- to refer 43 pro-democracy activists, including 19 Americans, to trial before a criminal court, where they will be charged with distributing illegal foreign funds "with the intention of destabilizing Egypt's national security" -- as a blatant attempt to intimidate pro-democracy forces in the country.
Nor can there be the slightest doubt that Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is directly behind the attempt. The evidence is twofold. None of the three interim cabinets that have taken office since the SCAF assumed power in February 2011 has been able to undertake policy initiatives in any public sphere without military approval. Additionally, no mere civilian would be allowed to jeopardize United States military assistance worth $1.3 billion annually on his or her own initiative, as Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul-Naga has seemingly done.
Episode 4 of Abu Aardvark's Middle East Channel Video Blog, guest starring
Timothy Mitchell of Columbia University. In this week's installment, I talk
about why arming
the Free Syrian Army is a dangerous option and weigh in on the standoff
between the Egyptian government and the United States over democracy NGOs. The
heart of the episode, though, is a ten-minute conversation between Mitchell and
me about his new book, Carbon
It's a special treat to be able to present the conversation with Mitchell, who is one of the most innovative and original minds in academic Middle East Studies. His earlier books, Colonizing Egypt and Rule of Experts, were path breaking intellectual works that reshaped entire disciplines. Carbon Democracy, selected as one of The Middle East Channel's Top Five Books on the Middle East for 2011, offers a radical new reading of how coal and oil have shaped not only the Middle East but also Western democracy, the international system, and the discipline of economics. You can watch Mitchell and me talk about his book, about the meaning of an "oil crisis," and about how Middle East Studies has responded to the Arab uprisings. If you enjoy the discussion, let us know -- we'd like to do more of this kind of extended conversation on the Video Blog.
I hope you enjoy the show!
Welcome back to Episode 3 of Abu Aardvark's
MEC Video Blog! In this week's installment, I discuss the potential for a
U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria. I was at the United Nations for
Tuesday's debate, and had the chance to talk to a number of key players. On
Wednesday I posted my thoughts about what such a resolution
might accomplish, and on the video blog I answer a number of questions that
have been posed about those efforts. I also talk about Kuwait's
Parliamentary election, with a special appearance by former U.S. Ambassador to
Kuwait Edward "Skip" Gnehm, and about what the horrible violence at a
football game in Port Said might mean for Egypt's political transition.
Enjoy, and as always we welcome your feedback on our ongoing video blog experiment!
When safety regulation makes automobiles safer, drivers (though obviously not all of them) are tempted to drive more recklessly, creating partially or completely offsetting effects on the overall level of safety. Economists have entertained this idea since it was first introduced by Sam Peltzman in the 1970s, some have rejected it while others, some of whom relied on data from NASCAR races, validated it. The "Peltzman effect" was also tested during the Cold War and more broadly in the realm of strategic affairs. Specifically, scholars have sought to understand the effect of the added perceived security a state acquires from nuclear weapons on its behavior in world politics.
Let us assume for a moment that Iran acquires a nuclear weapons capability (which is anything but inevitable given the many technical and political unknowns), a "nuclear seat belt or air bag" so to speak, will it behave like a more reckless driver? It is no surprise that analysts have had disagreements on this issue, some strong, others more nuanced. Most analysts however believe that a nuclear Iran -- whether overtly nuclear-armed or capable of producing weapons quickly -- would present an even greater challenge to Western interests and regional security than it does today, more aggressively protecting its strategic interests, projecting its power, pursuing its ideological ambitions, and meddling in the politics and security of its neighbors. A nuclear Iran could look more like Pakistan, a country that, after its 1998 nuclear tests, was feeling more confident on the regional and international stage and was arguably taking more risks in its policies toward its historical rival, India.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggested recently that Israel's moment of decision on Iran would come not when it obtained nuclear weapons but, instead, how close Iran is to entering what he called "a zone of immunity." Barak's concern was that beyond this threshold it would no longer be possible to halt Iran's nuclear program.
What would comprise such a threshold? Increasingly, this means Iran's shifting of its enrichment activities to the underground facility in Qom as well as with the moving to Qom of more of the uranium previously enriched in Natanz. Barak seemed to imply that a military operation designed to abort Iran's nuclear efforts after the facility in Qom becomes fully operational would be meaningless or irrelevant -- it will be either impossible physically or so costly as to render it prohibitive.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Is there any hope for Yemen's political transition? Is Egypt on the way to a new revolution? And has the Arab Spring really, really vindicated neoconservativism? Those are only a few of the topics that I take up today in the second exciting episode of Abu Aardvark's MEC Video Blog. All that, and some great guest appearances, which I won't spoil here. Enjoy!
As the prospects for negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program dim, and an anxious American public contemplates the grim prospect of military action, attention has turned again to the prospect of changing Iran's regime. But is U.S. regime change in Iran, whether through sanctions or direct action, really a viable prospect?
Reuel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz have argued that the United States should pursue sanctions that lead to regime change. According to them, through sanctions, "a democratic counterrevolution in Persia might be reborn. A democratic Iran might keep the bomb that Khamenei built. But the U.S., Israel, Europe, and probably most of the Arab world would likely live with it without that much fear." The attraction of removing the Islamic Republic may be obvious. Sanctions may slow down Iran's nuclear drive but most likely will not roll back the program. Military strikes would do damage but are hardly guaranteed to destroy major facilities such as the recently opened Qom enrichment plant, buried beneath 300 feet of rock. For many, only a change of the regime would diminish the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
On January 25, 2011 on the Middle East
Channel, Ashraf Khalil marveled from the streets of Cairo about "sheer size of the turnout, which was larger
than anything I've seen in 13 years of covering Egyptian protests." From
Washington, I pushed back against skeptics who doubted that Tunisia's
revolution would spread to Egypt, as I noted that, "the images and
stories of protests today have been impressive, both in numbers and in energy
and enthusiasm. The Egyptians are self-consciously emulating the Tunisian
protests, seeking to capitalize on the new mood within the Arab world."
Over the following 18 days, the Middle East Channel published a remarkable range of analysis and commentary about the unfolding Egyptian revolution. It featured not only outstanding reporting from the ground but also incisive analysis from the Middle East Studies academic community -- who stepped up in a big way to help inform public debate at a critical time. Nathan Brown, Shadi Hamid, Sherif Mansour, Emad Shahin and Daniel Brumberg assessed Washington's response. Vickie Langhor called on the Obama administration to side with Egyptian democracy, as did Tarek Masoud, Ellen Lust and Amaney Jamal. Geneive Abdo pushed back against those who saw echoes of Tehran 1979. Helena Cobban talked to the Muslim Brotherhood, Ellis Goldberg checked in with the business community, while MEC co-editor Daniel Levy surveyed the implications for Israeli-Egyptian relations.
Nathan Brown laid out the Egyptian constitution's rulebook for change, while Tamir Moustafa asked whether Egypt needed a new constitution to have a revolution. Michael Hanna laid out the reasons to doubt Mubarak's intentions. Sheila Carapico shrewdly observed how al-Jazeera's relentless focus on Tahrir framed understandings of the revolution. In one of Foreign Policy's most widely read, and arguably prescient, early contributions, Robert Springborg warned that the military's role in the transition meant that by February 2 the chance for democracy in Egypt had already been lost. Ambassador David Mack warned observers to curb their enthusiasm. I offered a stream of commentary from Washington. And all of this is only a small part of what appeared on Foreign Policy over those critical weeks.
This week, the Middle East Channel is proud to offer a wide range of commentary looking at an Egypt one year after the outbreak of the revolution. Among the highlights, including a few from last month for perspective:
More is coming over the course of the day, and I'll update the post as those pieces go live.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
For months, neither the Syrian regime, the international community, nor the opposition in exile have offered much hope in a dangerously deteriorating crisis. Increasingly, they seem to be unintentionally conniving in bringing about a civil war although it will serve no one's interests, destabilize Syria for years, and suck in the rest of the region. Their enduring pursuit of maximalist demands may sabotage what chance still exists for a negotiated transition.
The regime's vision consists in cracking down decisively against residual pockets of foreign-backed trouble-makers, then opening up politically within sensible boundaries -- similar to Jordan's or Bahrain's promise of limited reforms. Outside players currently bent on its demise, it wagers, ultimately will realize it cannot be destroyed; already hesitant for lack of good options and fear of ensuing chaos, they will grudgingly move to softer forms of pressure and, in time, even resume engagement. The regime's sympathizers and allies are all too keen to believe that it is strong, that the reach of the protest movement is wildly exaggerated by hostile media, that the foreign conspiracy is both all-encompassing and impotent, and that Syrian society is so disease-ridden -- a hodgepodge of fundamentalists, thugs, and third party proxies -- that it cannot but deserve the security services' tough medicine.
Welcome to the Middle East Channel Editors Vlog, or possibly
MECTV, or the MEC-VLOG or -- if I get my way -- Aardvark TV! We're working
on it. Whatever the name, I'm thrilled to announce the pilot episode of what we
hope will be a weekly video blog hosted by me on the Middle East Channel. Hey,
it worked for Justin Bieber, right?
We recorded the pilot episode this week. It touches on Syria (jump to 1:01), Yemen (4:15), and the war debate (7:08); talks about some of my favorite articles on the Channel last week (9:45), including Aili Tripp's overview of the debate on electoral quotas for women and Michael Hanna's fascinating counterfactual on whether the Arab spring would have toppled Saddam; and profiles my book of the week (10:40). As we sort out the tech issues, we'll insert chapter breaks so you can link directly to segments. We had some fun with this one, and I hope you all do too!
Not all the episodes are going to be quite so, um....well you can provide your own descriptor once you've watched it. Each episode will be different, and most will bring in guests to join the conversation. Most weeks I plan to respond to selected questions which readers pose on Twitter, in the comment section, or over email. I'll talk about MEC articles, and when possible get the authors on camera -- or at least on Skype -- to answer questions about them. We'll feature conversations with scholars, authors, policy makers, and folks from the Middle East who come through Washington. We'll feature a book every week, some to recommend and others not so much. We'll have fun.
A big part of the reason for doing this is the opportunity to interact with readers, so do tweet questions or suggestions for the show at me (@abuaardvark) or drop me a line. We're hoping that this will be fun as well as informative. Thanks for watching, and be kind as we work out the bugs!
Yemen seems trapped in an endless political stalemate. More than a year after massive protests erupted challenging the 33 year old regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen seems no closer to achieving a meaningful political transition. The deadlock has persisted despite the outrage over regime violence against civilians, splits at the top of the military, a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the violence and calling for a transfer of power, a Nobel Peace Prize for leading Yemeni protest figure Tawakkol Karman, and the near assassination of Saleh himself. In the absence of a political solution, the humanitarian situation has dramatically worsened and regional conflicts across the country have intensified. Is there any hope for Yemen?
On Wednesday, January 25, from 12:30-2:00 pm, I will be hosting a POMEPS panel discussion at the Elliott School of International Affairs on Yemen's political stalemate, featuring three political scientists with deep experience in Yemen and very different specializations: Stacey Yadav, Sheila Carapico, and Laurent Bonnefoy. When I chose the title "Yemen's Stalemate" for the panel a few months ago, several people commented that this seemed gloomy. I would have loved to have been proven wrong, but here we are. I hope many of you can attend; a video of the event will be posted later. The post which follows is the introductory essay to POMEPS Briefing #8: Yemen's Stalemate, which can be downloaded here.
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
four armed Americans in civilian
clothes in Baghdad who claimed they were there to protect Shiites heading
toward Karbala. The two men and two women were reportedly carrying automatic
weapons and driving a silver BMW with unregistered diplomatic plates. The
Iraqis said that they found this all suspicious, since there had been no prior
coordination and the law forbids such American activities without notifying the
responsible authorities. The U.S. Embassy reportedly stepped in within 15
minutes of the arrest, and the four were released without charge. It isn't
obvious exactly what was going on, but we can all probably guess.
Baghdad governor Salah Abd al-Razzaq told reporters that even if the group were U.S. intelligence operatives, their activities had nothing to do with Iraqi security and were a clear violation of Iraqi sovereignty. He demanded an explanation from the U.S. Embassy and a promise that it not be repeated. A diplomatic crisis seems to have been averted, but the curious episode should be a cautionary tale. Whatever really happened, this could have easily escalated into a major diplomatic showdown and a legal nightmare for the Embassy.
Expect a lot of more of these kinds of incidents in the coming days. While there hasn't been much coverage of the incident in English, it's being heavily covered in the Arab and Iraqi media. Arresting and exposing American operatives in Iraq is going to be politically popular and the local media will eat it up. A lot of ambitious political forces might find it useful to be seen on TV arresting an armed American. Armed Americans traveling around Iraq, whether security contractors or intelligence operatives, are going to be an endless source of potential crisis. And people wonder why the Pentagon staunchly opposed maintaining any U.S. military presence in Iraq without a SOFA which guaranteed immunity from prosecution for American soldiers?
Facing an unprecedented array of sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe, Iran's leaders opened 2012 by announcing that a new uranium enrichment site in the mountains near Qom would soon become operational. The recent assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist -- believed by many to be another strike by Israel in a covert campaign to slow Iran's nuclear program -- has only further raised tensions between Iran, the West, and Israel. The assassination and related sabotage efforts may not ultimately halt Iran's program, and may in fact provoke an Iranian response that would increase the odds of escalation leading to a conventional conflict. Thus begins the latest round in the perennial international guessing game: will this be the year that Israel uses military force to try to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions?
To hear it from U.S. politicians, the Iranian nuclear program is a threat to Israel's very existence. Some urge the Obama administration to publicly support Israel's position by leaving "all options on the table" -- diplomatic speak for a military strike. But before heading down the road of military action, those concerned for Israeli security should understand not only the risks of using force against Iran. They should also take heed of the complexity of Israeli views toward Iran.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
The last American troops officially left Iraq before Christmas, mostly completing an American withdrawal by the end of 2011 which few thought possible when then-candidate Barack Obama promised it or even when then-President George Bush formally committed to it. Critics of the withdrawal have blasted Obama for putting politics over policy, risking the alleged gains of the "surge" in order to meet a campaign promise. Many of those who played a role in the desperate attempt to reverse Iraq's 2006 descent into civil war have entirely legitimate and justifiable fears for Iraq's future. But in fact, Obama's decision to complete the withdrawal from Iraq was probably better policy than it was politics -- and it was the right call both for America and for Iraq.
In many ways, it would have been safer politically for Obama to keep the residual force in Iraq which hawks demanded to insulate himself against charges of having "lost Iraq". But it would have been wrong on policy. It's not just that the U.S. was obligated by the SOFA to withdraw its forces, once it proved unable to negotiate the terms of an extended troop presence with the immunity provisions which the Pentagon demanded. It's that the remaining U.S. troops could do little for Iraqi security, had little positive effect on Iraqi politics, and would have soon become an active liability. This is the lesson of the last two years, when U.S. troops were reduced in number and largely withdrew to the bases under the terms of the SOFA. The American troop presence didn't prevent bombings and murders, didn't force political reconciliation, didn't usher in real democracy, and didn't significantly increase American diplomatic influence in the region. But nor did Iraq fall apart. Obama's gamble is that the same sequence will play out in 2012 and that he will have successfully left behind an Iraq which isn't perfect but which has avoided yet another catastrophe.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
The Arab League has had observers to monitor the violent situation in Syria for less than a fortnight, but they are already a source of derision. The Syrian opposition claims that the roughly 100 monitors, deployed to oversee the army's withdrawal from urban areas, have been manipulated and fed disinformation by the government. There have been accusations that the military has used the observers' presence as a cover for increased violence. Perhaps most notoriously, the League selected a Sudanese general associated with the war in Darfur to lead the mission. The observers, dressed in brightly-colored waistcoats and armed only with digital cameras, often look lost and ineffectual.
In any plausible scenario, the monitors were never going to have a decisive impact on Syria. Although the Syrian government promised that it would halt military operations against civilians in December, few analysts took this promise seriously. A handful of observers were not going to change political calculations in Damascus, especially as they have neither their own guards nor secure communications equipment -- leaving them excessively reliant on Syrian assistance to monitor and report anything at all.
On January 6, 2011, then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Sharm el Sheikh in an effort to resuscitate the flagging peace process. Egypt for many years played the role of regional protector of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which was extremely heavy on process while being ever-more transparently light on delivering peace. It is a role that the new Egypt is unlikely to volunteer for.
Almost exactly one year later, Jordan has gone some ways toward assuming that role by convening Israeli-Palestinian exploratory talks in Amman on Tuesday. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators did not meet officially or publicly throughout 2011 at the Palestinian insistence that Israel first stop settlement activity. It took a considerable effort to make yesterday's meeting happen, given ongoing settlement construction, land seizures, and home demolitions. The meeting, hosted by Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh on behalf of King Abdullah II, brought together Quartet envoys, Yizhak Molcho, legal adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, and the indefatigable chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, awkwardly pictured at the table's head as he presented positions on border and security (proposals well known to his interlocutors). Following the meeting, Judeh sought to manage expectations while announcing that a series of talks will follow. Preserving an old school peace process is going to be very hard work in the new realities of the Middle East.
It's time for the official, Aardvark-certified list of the Best Books on the Middle East for 2011! (See last year's winners here.) Next year's list will undoubtedly be dominated by books addressing this year's uprisings which have transformed the Arab world, but not many significant books on the topic were published in 2011. That'll hopefully change on March 27, when my own book The Arab Uprising comes out -- don't worry, it won't be eligible for the 2012 awards of course! -- and, all joking aside, when a number of great journalists and scholars weigh in with books in the pipeline. In the meantime, you can always go back to Revolution in the Arab World, the eBook based on Foreign Policy articles, which I think remains an outstanding guide to the first few months.
First, the ground rules. The awards are limited to English-language books that were published in calendar year 2011 and which dealt primarily with the contemporary broader Middle East. I read more than 65 books published this year which fit that description, from academic and trade presses alike. The award is entirely subjective, based on what I found impressive or interesting. There's no committee, no publishers sent me free copies or offered up lucrative swag, and I couldn't read everything -- especially if books were published too late in the year or if publishers insisted on releasing them only as $90 hardcovers. If your book didn't make the list, however, then you know what do do (hint: you really can't go wrong by blaming Blake Hounshell).
And with that...the 2011 Aardvark Awards for the Best Books on the Middle East:
After months of public demonstrations and brutal regime-directed violence, Syria appears to be slipping into an all-out insurrection. Anti-government forces have been able to seize pockets of territory and launch raids into Damascus. It may only be a matter of time before, as in Libya, clear front lines emerge and fighting escalates from an insurgency into fully-fledged civil war.
Any such escalation would almost certainly involve a large-scale humanitarian crisis. Thousands of refugees have already left Syria (itself home to hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis and Palestinians). There are nearly 10,000 Syrians being sheltered in camps in Turkey. If the conflict intensifies, the number could jump exponentially: up to a million fled Libya earlier this year.
The Middle East Channel offers unique analysis and insights on this diverse and vital region of more than 400 million.