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Archive for July, 2012

Syrie: Les 10 implications/conclusions de l’attentat de Damas et de l’assassinat du ministre de la Défense

July 19, 2012 9 comments

Great analysis, as always, from our friend Juan Cole.

Courtesy of Juan Cole

Top Ten Implications of the Damascus Bombing

Posted on 07/19/2012 by Juan

The bombing of the Security Headquarters of the Baath government of Syria on Wednesday killed the Minister of Defense, the deputy Minister of Defense, and the Assistant to the vice-president and head of crisis management office Gen Hassan Turkomani. It wounded the Minister of the Interior (i.e. head of the secret police) and a member of the national security council. Some reports said that also wounded was Hafez al-Makhlouf, a cousin of the president on his mother’s side of the family and a key security figure. The Makhloufs, especially Ramy, are the business wing of the al-Assad cartel, and their billionaire ways were among the sources of discontent that provoked the uprising.

What does this bombing mean for Syria and the Middle East?

1. It demonstrates that the rebels have sympathizers in high positions within the regime. The bomb had to have been planted by an insider. This situation reminds me of the American dilemma in Vietnam, where we now know that many high-ranking Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) officers were in fact sympathizers with the Communists and basically double agents.

2. It follows upon this conclusion that the al-Assad regime is unlikely to be able to emulate the Algerian military, which crushed the Islamic Salvation Front in a brutal civil war from 1992 through the early zeroes of the present century. Some 150,000 Algerians are said to have died in the dirty war, with atrocities on both sides. But when the smoke cleared, the junta was still in control, and its favored secular civilians were in office. In all that time, the Muslim fundamentalist opposition never laid a glove on any of the high officials or officers. But the Algerian elite closed ranks against the Islamic Salvation Front, having a cultural set of affinities and a common source of patronage in the state-owned oil and gas sector.

If the rebels in Syria can reach into the Security HQ this way, and assassinate the highest security officials of the regime, that ability does not augur well for Bashar al-Assad’s ability to win the long game, as his counterparts did in Algeria.

3. The targets of the bombing were likely intended to send a message to Syria’s minorities. The minister of defense, Daoud Rajha, was a Christian. The Christian minority, which could be as large as 14% of the population, has been on the fence during the revolution, and some actively support the secular nationalist regime because they fear Muslim fundamentalists will come to power. Rajha’s assassination was intended to warn them to join the revolution or at least get out of its way. Likewise, Assef Shawkat, the deputy minister of defense, was an Allawite Shiite and was married to Bushra, the sister of Bashar al-Assad. If it is true that Hafez Makhlouf was wounded, he was another prominent Allawite. The rebels are largely (with significant exceptions) Sunni Muslims, from the majority community that has not typically held its fair proportion of high office.

4. The rein of terror unleashed by the Allawites on the Sunni rebels, using Ghost Brigade death squads, has backfired big time. Many Sunnis formerly allied with the regime have turned on it, including at the highest levels. The defection of the Sunni Tlass family, who had dominated the ministry of defense and regime business interests for decades, is a straw in the wind here.

5. The rocket-propelled grenades smuggled to the opposition by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as part of their proxy war against Iran, are allowing the rebels occasionally to kill tanks and take down helicopter gunships. The more such weapons they have, and the more sophisticated they are, the more they help level the playing field for the rebels.

6. Defections and desertions of Sunni enlisted men and low-level officers could accelerate in the wake of the bombings, as soldiers become convinced that the regime will eventually fall. They won’t want to risk their lives fighting for a ship that is anyway sinking, and won’t want to risk being seen as war criminals in the aftermath.

7. The economic disruptions in the capital could be decisive. With the rebels now fighting in districts like Midan and Tadamun, the Syrian business classes are not going to be making any money for a while. Since for them, the purpose of the Baath Party is to throw them licenses and government contracts, they will turn on it if it is unable to satisfy their needs.

8. The fall of the Baath regime in Syria would leave Hizbullah high and dry. Its rockets and other weapons, and some of its communications and code-breaking abilities, depended on Syrian help. The leader of the Hizbullah Shiites of south Lebanon (a neighbor of Syria), Hassan Nasrullah, gave a speech Wednesday unapologetically supporting the Baath regime and sending condolences to the families of those killed. If the regime does fall, the new government is likely to have a grudge with Hizbullah for a while. The downside of any weakening of Hizbullah is that it could encourage Israeli expansionism in South Lebanon, as in the 1980s and 1990s (Israel’s leaders have long wanted to steal the water in south Lebanon’s rivers).

9. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood is a significant force among the rebels, and it likely will play an outsized role in a post-Baath Syria. It has ties to the Muslim fundamentalist party, Hamas, which dominates the Gaza Strip. Hamas could therefore become and more formidable adversary for Israel, if it is supported by both the Egyptian and Syrian branches of the Muslim Brotherhood.

10. Given the proliferation of medium weapons among the rebels, the longer the civil war goes on, the more likely these arms are to flow into Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, enabling small guerrilla groups in those countries to challenge the status quo. If the Baath hangs on for years rather than months, the whole region could see more decades of instability. That is why Jordan just declared martial law and has begun turning back refugees at the Syrian border, why Israel’s security establishment had an urgent meeting Wednesday, and why Syria’s other neighbors are watching developments there with anxiety and suspicion.

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Syria: Human Rights Watch–Une Vidéo sur les Centres de Torture du Gouvernement Syrien

July 13, 2012 1 comment

This is a Human Rights Watch video documenting the Syrian government torture methods and torture centers. In it, you will hear testimonies from several opponents to Bashar Al-Assad describing what they endured during their stay in those centers of horror.

I still maintain that the Syrian regime and Bashar Al-Assad are done. He’s toast, and there is no future for him or for his regime in Syria. It is only a matter of time. However, the longer this struggle continues and the bloodier it gets, the more radical the opposition will be, which does not represent a good omen for the post-Bashar Al-Assad period.

Libya: How did the elections go? And what can we learn?

July 8, 2012 1 comment

Courtesyof Juan Cole

Top Ten Surprises on Libya’s Election Day

Posted on 07/08/2012 by Juan

Most Western reporting on Libya is colored by what is in my view a combination of extreme pessimism and sensationalism. It has been suggested that because most reporters don’t stay there for that long, many don’t have a sense of proportion. It is frustrating to have faction-fighting in distant Kufra in the far south color our image of the whole country. Tripoli, a major city of over 2.2 million (think Houston), is not like little distant Kufra, population 60,000 (think Broken Arrow, OK)!

In the run-up to the elections held on Saturday, a lot of the headlines read ‘Libya votes, on the brink’ or had ‘Chaos’ in the title. But actually, as the Libya Herald reports, the election went very, very well (which did not surprise me after my visit to three major cities there in May-June). The NYT post-election headline of ‘Libyans risk violence to vote’ is frankly ridiculous; in most of the country that simply was not true, though it was true in parts of Benghazi. Even then, how many people died in violence in this election? I count two, but in any case it is a small number. In Tripoli, the election was described as a big family wedding, with lots of loud celebration and tears of joy. Here are the top ten surprises of the election for Libya watchers:

1. Turnout was about 60%, with 1.6 million casting their ballots. This high turnout is especially impressive given how confusing the election procedures were, with 3,000 candidates and only 80 seats out of 200 set aside for political parties (most newly formed and not well known).

2. There was relatively little election violence, certainly compared to South Asia, where election day often entails dozens, sometimes hundreds, of deaths. The Libya Herald piece quotes the High Electoral Commission as saying, “…of 1,554 polling centres across the country, 24 were unable to operate, including two in Kufra, six in Sidra and eight in Benghazi.”

3. The remnants of Qaddafi supporters made no trouble, and many went to vote enthusiastically. One of the many wrong predictions made last year by opponents of the revolution was that after it was over, there would be an Iraq-style pro-Qaddafi resistance. It turns out that Qaddafi wasn’t actually popular, and now that he is gone no one is interested in making trouble in his name.

4. One of the last cities to fall to the revolutionaries was Bani Walid, and it was alleged for a long time after the revolution to be in the hands of Qaddafi loyalists. This allegation was always a vast exaggeration. There were only a few militiamen there, who made demonstrations downtown. In fact, if anything, it was the revolutionary militias that controlled a city that somewhat resented them because of their high-handedness. Luke Harding of The Guardian, who bothered actually to go to Bani Walid, found people there as excited about the elections as elsewhere, and eager to combat their city’s reputation as a refuge of former regime loyalists. 46,000 had registered to vote, out of 85,000 inhabitants– i.e. most of those eligible to vote must have registered.

5. The formerly upscale city of Sirte, which had been seen by the revolutionaries as favored by Qaddafi, and near which he made his last stand, decided not to boycott the vote after all, according both to Agence France Press and to the following:

Rena Netjes ‏@RenaNetjes
Corresp alHurraTV in ‪#Sirte‬: “Turnout 70%, women 35-40%. Ppl very very happy to be able to vote for the 1st time” ‪#Lyelect‬.

There are genuine resentments toward Sirte on the part of the revolutionary cities, and locals complain about discrimination of various sorts. They clearly feel that being well represented in the new parliament is a way of gaining a voice and being reintegrated into the new Libya. It was places like Bani Walid and Sirte from which trouble on election day had been expected, and it did not happen.

6. The Muslim fundamentalist parties that were expected to dominate the new parliament may not do so. First of all, only 80 of the 200 seats are allocated to parties, and the liberal party of former head of Qaddafi’s National Economic Development Board, Mahmoud Jibril, is said to be doing well in early returns and exit polls. Because of the large number of independents and uncertainty with whom they will caucus, predictions about the shape of the government are premature. The West is more secular than the east or the south. In Libya, the remnants of the old regime are called ‘seaweed’ or ‘algae’ (tahallub), i.e. the flotsam left behind when the tide recedes. As in Tunisia and Egypt, there has been a lot of debate around what to do with them. They often have a lot of money, and are regrouping to succeed in the new system. Since a lot of prominent Libyan technocrats had been lured back to the country in the past decade, with Qaddafi’s and his son Saif al-Islam’s attempt to open to the West, leaders like Mahmoud Jibril (al-Warfalli) are considered by some to be leftovers, while others see him as someone who went over to the revolution and served as its first transitional prime minister.

7. Despite the faction-fighting that has plagued some desert cities, such as Zintan and Kufra, in southwest Tripolitania and the Fezzan region of Libya, respectively– its third traditional region after Tripolitania and Cyrenaica– went to the polls quietly and peaceably for the most part. Two of the polling stations in feud-ridden Kufra could not open because of tension. Here’s what my Jabal Nafusa and Fezzan twitter feed looked like:

Women crowds in Zintan for voting
9:16 AM – 7 Jul 12 via Twitter for iPhone ·
22h Libya.elHurra Libya.elHurra ‏@FreeBenghazi

July7: Election observers at a Zintan polling station. Reports of good turnout from women but no pics yet ‪#Libya‬

20h AC Tripolis AC Tripolis ‏@david_bachmann_
Very big crowd in front of voting room for people from ‪#Ghadames‬ – quite noisy, but relaxed ‪#LyElect‬ ‪#gheryan‬ ‪#Libya‬”

8. A big surprise is that what little election day trouble there was came from the East, from the center of the revolution. Thus, small crowds or small militia contingents attacked or tried to attack polling stations in Ajdabiya, Sidra, Ras Lanouf and Benghazi itself. But aside from a few stations in Sidra and 8 in Benghazi, all of them reopened and some stayed open till midnight to make up for having been closed in the morning. In one incident in Benghazi, pro-election crowds actually drove off a group of states’ rights protesters who want decentralization.

9. Women registered to vote, ran for office, and went to the polling stations in surprisingly high numbers. In some small cities, eyewitnesses thought the women’s lines were much longer than those of the men.

10. Among this generation of Libyans, democracy is really, really popular.