Friday, November 27, 2015

Turkey, Russia, and the US in Syria

The tensions between Russia and Turkey, publicly revealed following Turkey's shooting down of a Russian fighter jet, raise a number of important questions about the aims of different states in the Syrian conflict.

It has long been known that Turkey has supported groups fighting against the Syrian government in the civil war of that country. Most of those groups are political Islamists. They idea that they are "moderate Islamists" is laughable, unless moderate describes any group left of ISIS. Many of these groups, however, are locked in their own battles with ISIS. Turkey and some of the Gulf States have invested in these groups as part of their aim of bringing down the the Iran-aligned government of Syria under Bashar al-Assad.

Russia's intervention in the Syrian conflict, coordinated with Syria, and having a tacit green light from the international community, has so far focused precisely on these types of Islamist groups. Whether for strategic or tactical reasons, the priority for the Syrians and Russians has been on fighting these various fragmented opposition groups, including what remains of the Free Syrian Army. That provides at least part of the Turkish decision to shoot down the Russian plane.

What are the policy aims of the U.S. in the Syrian conflict? It is very difficult to read White House efforts as reflecting any coherent policy, unless it is a policy of deliberate disengagement combined with tacit support for the efforts of other states.

If the policy aim is to bring down the Assad regime, the U.S. appears to be failing at the moment. One also wonders what the interest would be for the U.S. in such an outcome, given the alternatives.

If the aim is to defeat ISIS, it is hard to see how the U.S. plans to achieve that aim with the policies embraced so far.

If the aim is humanitarian, the policy has been disastrous. Measured in loss of life, injury, and destruction of civilian property in Syria, the prolonged civil war in the country, surely abetted by support (direct or indirect) of opposition groups on the part of the U.S., the outcome of American efforts (if any have been made) is entirely negative.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Two-and-a-half years ago, I wrote the following in a post on the uprising in Egypt:

Unless higher-level officers in the Egyptian army turn against the government, this protest wave will not turn into a revolution. Mubarak has shown that he's willing to go far - as far as the Iranian regime did - in crushing the protests. There cannot be regime change without the army losing faith in Mubarak or the president himself stepping down. And I don't know that the army has a party or a leader it would back beside Mubarak.

In the wake of that post, the "Arab Spring" seemed to unfold quite differently from what I had predicted. People everywhere celebrated the arrival of democracy in the region. But today, everything looks more like what many skeptics at the time predicted. In Syria, Libya, and Egypt, we have seen the weakness of civil society vis-à-vis the state or the armed thugs operating in its stead. Law-bound government, not to mention parliamentary democracy, is impotent in such circumstances.

The Egyptian army never lost its grip on power. Although it bowed to the popular movement at the time and backed the deposition of Mubarak, the army took the intervening time to undermine the Muslim Brotherhood government or allow the latter to undermine itself. The military regrouped and emerged as the only stable institution after a period of economic near-chaos and ineffectual government. It is now crushing the remaining opposition to its rule.

Much of the interesting discussion about the region - analysis which ignores the moralizing beloved by the ideologues in the West and elsewhere - is taking place on Facebook these days. It is carried out by tireless sifters, such as Un Monstruo Muy Monstruoso (also known as "Nobody" or simply "N.B.") and fearless scholars such as Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, not to mention countless other important bloggers (e.g., Brown Moses) who make data collection their primary aim.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Haifa's Tent City

Though Haifa's "tent city" can't compare to Tel Aviv's, it has grown from three tents to about 50. But not only has the number of tents increased - a real culture has sprung up, along with hierarchies and role divisions, and local norms. The infrastructure has expanded to include chemical toilets, an ecological dish washing system, a living "room" and kitchen, and other amenities.
The kitchen includes a full-sized refrigerator which is constantly stocked with donated goodies from local cafes, restaurants, and bakeries. Trash is sorted into compost, plastic, paper, and waste.
In the living room area, discussions are held, as well as spontaneous jam sessions. A stocked bookshelf contains literature on socialism and other topics.

Some of the alternative values that have taken hold at the tent city are reflected in this "free market." People leave items they no longer want and may take whatever they want ("freecycling").
There's even a "playroom" for the young protesters, though I haven't seen too many of those. Most of the tent city inhabitants seem to be in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties.

Information in the tent city is transmitted through several vehicles: on-site leadership, detailed bulletin boards (including a dynamic events-calendar which lists extra-curricular activities, lectures, and more), and Facebook groups.

In addition to the various lectures, the diversity of the activities is pretty amazing: poetry night, acrobalance, professional massages, workshops on stress and other topics, guerilla gardening...
One thing that has characterized the protests until now (including the tent city and the demonstrations that have been taking place up to three times a week) is their peaceful nature. I haven't heard of any incidents of violence or looting, which is reflected in the atmosphere at the tent city: quiet but determined, respectful but opinionated.
It's been 23 days since the tent protests began in Haifa. The protest grew quickly from three tents to an almost functioning microcosm of a (tent) city.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tent Protests Spread to Haifa

About a week ago, "tent cities" sprung up in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to protest the lack of affordable housing. The tent protests were also planned for other cities in Israel such as Be'er Sheva and even Kiryat Shmona. Haifa wasn't mentioned in the news, but starting today around 17:30, young people have set up shop in the Carmel Centre. By late evening, the three tents had grown to four with more tents planned for tomorrow in the neighbourhood's "Gan HaEm" (Mother's Garden). The "tent city" in Haifa is tiny compared to the scenes around the country, and it will be interesting to see if the organizers can get it going.
And it may all be related to cottage cheese.

Friday, January 28, 2011

More Thoughts on Protests

Comparing the photographs from Egypt in 2011 to those from the post-election demonstrations in Iran in 2009 - there are almost no women demonstrating in Egypt. In the Iranian protests, women were front and center, at least on the documentary record. Says quite a bit about the differences between these two societies and the protest movements.

Some people are worried that Egypt might turn into another 1979. I think it would be hard to repeat an Islamic Revolution in Egypt today. Even if Mubarak were to fall, it's unlikely that a militant cadre of Islamists would be able to turn the whole protest movement into a revolutionary transformation of Egyptian society, eliminating other opposition movements and cutting off ties to the West.

The Intifada against Arab Authoritarianism


Unless higher-level officers in the Egyptian army turn against the government, this protest wave will not turn into a revolution. Mubarak has shown that he's willing to go far - as far as the Iranian regime did - in crushing the protests. There cannot be regime change without the army losing faith in Mubarak or the president himself stepping down. And I don't know that the army has a party or a leader it would back beside Mubarak.

These protests were only possible because of the relative liberalization of Egypt and the comparatively free access of so many educated young people to new media and communications (until Mubarak shut the internet down!). By way of contrast, see how quiet Syria is in comparison; this kind of popular and sophisticated grassroots organization simply would not have been possible there.

Nevertheless, this is a new political dynamic in the Arab world. Tunisia and Egypt are seeing true popular upheavals. And because these states never achieved the kind of modern, mass mobilization of their populations built up by the Iranian regime since the Islamic revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, Tunisia and Egypt depend (in Tunisia, depended) on their military and security apparatuses in the face of opposition. In Iran, you had ideologically-motivated popular militias and activists fighting on behalf of the Iranian state against the opposition protesters. In Egypt, you only have paid soldiers, loyal to the institution of the army and, for now, to the president.But as long as they remain loyal, the regime will not fall - at least not in the short-term. Tunisia's police and army were ultimately too weak and too unwilling to fight for the dictator there. But Egypt's army is much larger and Mubarak's support there seems deep enough for it to continue to side with him.

Another comparison: The violence in Lebanon following the fall of the government represents a much more familiar phenomenon. Basically thuggery along sectarian lines.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Galgalatz History?

I'm really not sure, but I think history may have just been made on Galgalatz, a popular IDF-operated radio station. Today at 15:10, a complete song in Arabic was played on the airwaves. I didn't catch the name of the artist or the song, but if I had to make a guess based on the voice and style, it sounded like Amir Benayoun, a Jewish-Israeli artist of Moroccan descent.

Amir Benayoun, who sings in Hebrew as well as in Arabic

ADDENDUM: I found the song. It's actually by Dudu Tassa, a Jewish-Israeli artist of Iraqi origin. Enjoy.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Erdogan - More to Laugh About

This is almost as funny as Prince Andrew's analysis of anorexia and his paean to British geography teachers
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the leaked documents “suspicious,” but refused to comment on their substance. According to the semi-official Anatolian News Agency, Mr. Erdogan said that Turkey will “wait until WikiLeaks spill all the beans,” before evaluating the seriousness of the revelations, “because the seriousness of Wikipedia is doubtful” (NYT).
WikiLeaks contains a number of very negative assessments of Erdogan and the Turkish government by the U.S.

Arab Positions on Iran in WikiLeaks and Juan Cole's Efforts to Downplay their Significance


For me, the biggest story of the latest WikiLeaks release so far is the documentation of active Arab lobbying against Iran and repeated calls for aggressive American intervention. In the leaked reports, Saudi and several other Gulf state officials repeatedly urge America to keep the military option on the table. It's interesting to see Juan Cole and others downplay the significance of these revelations. For Cole, it's all about Israel, even though Saudi and other officials hardly mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in these cables (see here, for example):
It is no secret that the Sunni Arab leaders in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf have been alarmed by the rise of Iran as a regional power. That rise has taken place for three reasons. First, the worrisome deterioration in the condition of stateless Palestinians under rightwing governments of Israel since 2001, and that country's increasing belligerence toward neighbours, as with the 2006 Lebanon war, have inflamed passions throughout the region, allowing Iran to position itself as a champion of the weak.
The rise of Iran as a regional power has very little to do with the alleged deterioration in the condition of the Palestinians since 2001. There is nothing new about rejectionist (anti-U.S.) powers in the region supporting the cause of the Palestinians, rhetorically and financially. Egypt did this under Nasser and the Syrians have presented themselves as the patron of radical Palestinian factions for a long time. Neither regime owed its rise to Israeli policy or the conditions of the Palestinians.

Cole wants to minimize the real fears of the Gulf states about Iran's ambitions and its pursuit of nuclear weapons to achieve them. Of course, he's right that the "street" in the Arab world supports Iran for its virulent stands against Israel. But the people do not rule in any of the Gulf states. They are far from positions of political responsibility, which might actually make them to identify with the interests of their states in the global arena or to articulate realist political stances.

Lastly, Cole makes an argument from absence about Egypt's position on Iran:

Despite the breathless headlines they generated, the yield of the documents is actually thin. The most populous and militarily most important Arab state, Egypt, appears not to have been among those urging military action. There is no sign in the diplomatic cables of any practical steps toward an Arab attack on Iran, no evidence of logistical or military preparations. At most there is high-level gossip in Arab capitals that something should be done, and by someone else. In any case, if this is the anti-Iranian Arab axis, Tehran can sleep peacefully at night.

In fact, the cables show great Egyptian concern over Iranian meddling in Arab affairs, especially closer to home. I think the jury is still out on Egypt's position. Cole somehow wants to continue to insist in the face of the leaks that only the Americans and the Israelis are bothered by Iran. He believes that the leaders of the region should share view that there is "no evidence" that Iran has a nuclear weapons program or that it aspires  to achieve this capability. Ergo, everyone should rest easy. Those who disagree, he implies, are either trying to manipulate the situation to advance their imperialist interests in the Middle East.(the U.S. and Israel) or being manipulated by imperialist powers.

What's really funny is that Juan Cole is so obsessed with Israel that on his blog he highlighted a cable from January 2007 as one of the most revelatory documents released. He interprets the following passage
Thoughtful Israeli analysts point out that even if a nuclear-armed Iran did not immediately launch a strike on the Israeli heartland, the very fact that Iran possesses nuclear weapons would completely transform the Middle East strategic environment in ways that would make Israel’s long-term survival as a democratic Jewish state increasingly problematic. That concern is most intensively reflected in open talk by those who say they do not want their children and grandchildren growing up in an Israel threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran.
 as evidence that Israel sees an Iranian nuclear program as a threat to Jewish immigration and the demographic balance of the country. He then goes on to sound the trumpet about the inevitability of a binational state or the Lebanonization of Israel "in the next five decades." Cole is still convinced by the old story of low Jewish birthrates and the specter of net migration out of the country. Lastly, he wants to blame Israeli lobbying for the Iraq war and for a potential American invasion of Iran.

Not wanting your children and grandchildren to grow up in an Israel facing a nuclear Iran does not mean that you plan on emigrating from Israel. The kind of declaration cited in the cable simply underscores the resolve of Israelis not to allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. We don't know how ordinary Israelis would respond to a nuclear Iran; I am not convinced that there would be an exodus.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Ahmed Tibi's Contradictions

I always marvel at MK Ahmed Tibi's willful distortions of the truth. Now, the doctor from Taibeh has seized the stage of the New York Times op-ed page to capitalize on Lieberman and Bibi's latest loyalty oath mischief. That business - a law that applies only to non-Jewish immigrants - is indeed shameful and another expression of the evil and stupidity currently residing in the foreign ministry. But Tibi's argument consists of a lie and a calculated one at that. According to Tibi,
there is far more wrong with the loyalty oath than simply the original intent of applying it only to non-Jews. Swearing allegiance to an Israel that is Jewish and democratic is logically inconsistent and an attempt to relegate Palestinian citizens of Israel to inferior status.

Palestinian citizens of Israel comprise 20 percent of the population. The insistence of some Jewish leaders on the state being “Jewish” is a punch in the gut to Palestinians who for more than 60 years have struggled to achieve equal rights in Israel.
There is racism and discrimination against Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in Israel. But the definition of the state is not the problem and in itself cannot be called racist. Furthermore, there is nothing new about that definition. Tibi apparently is trying to turn back the clock of history with some sleight of hand.

Israel's Declaration of Independence and its Basic Laws already define the country as a "Jewish State." Indeed, the United Nations itself called for its establishment in 1947. There are many people who want to distort the meaning of this simple description. In part, the word "Jewish" lends itself to such distortions because, unfortunately for the Jews, it describes both a confessional identity and a cultural, ethnic, or national one (this apparently confuses many people in the modern world; 300 years ago, few people would have recognized any sort of problem). But the original intent was quite simple: Israel is the "nation-state of the Jews," which means that any person who is "Jewish" may immigrate there. And 62 years later, this continues to be one of the guiding principles of the state. Is there a problem with that? Let Ahmed Tibi say so straight up: I don't believe that there should be a Jewish state.

The problem of course is that Tibi seems to have no issue with the nation-state or with nationalism per se - if he did, he would object to any number of Arab states in the region and nation-states elsewhere. He also would not be suggesting that
The international community could address our situation by calling on Israel to recognize us as a national minority.
Tibi, in other words, wants Kosovo or Bosnia. This is not the game of liberal democracy but of nationalist secession - in other words, exactly the game that Lieberman wants.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Syrian Economy

Please take a look at this excellent post by Ehsani for Josh Landis's Syria Comment on the economic reforms in Syria. The process described in this post are much more important than the blips on Zvi Bar'el's radar.

The Awakening Councils and the Future of Iraq

The New York Times reported today that Sunnis in Iraq formerly allied with the U.S. appear to be (re)joining the Qaeda-led insurgency. The article cites militia leaders in Salah ad Din, Diyala, and Baghdad governorates. The Awakening Councils played a critical role in defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq, initially in Anbar province. (For a compelling interpretation of how this actually happened, see John McCary's The Anbar Awakening: An Alliance of Incentives.) Although the Iraqi central government politicians interviewed in the article deny that such defections are taking place, there seems little reason to doubt that fighters are leaving the employ of the government or threatening to do so. Apparently, the tribal militiamen and their commanders have had enough of the Iraqi central government refusing to pay them or grant them immunity from prosecution. They see little reason to co-operate with the Shi'i-dominated federal government. With American forces leaving Iraq, the Sunni tribes in places like al-Anbar are now renegotiating their role in the Iraqi order. It is unlikely that they will want to surrender their sources of income to al-Qaeda, as they almost did in the bad years of the insurgency. But they need more assurances than they have been getting from Baghdad and from the U.S. The Iraqi security forces are not strong enough to govern areas dominated by the tribes in western Iraq and in the Sunni governorates. Whoever ends up taking charge in Baghdad will have to make concessions to them.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hanin Zuabi the Flotilla Heroine

Footage released by Israel Army Radio seems to contradict claims by Balad MK Hanin Zuabi that she saw "no people carrying clubs" aboard the ship. It also shows her arguing with Israeli soldiers attempting to evacuated wounded activists. She can be heard insisting to an army soldier several times that the activists "want to stay here [on the ship]." Zuabi, who became the darling of flotilla fans in Israel, credited herself with having assisted in the evacuation of wounded activists from the ship.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Guardian on Lebanon-Israel Border Clash

Nearly six hours after UNIFIL acknowledged that IDF troops were removing trees on the Israeli side of the border, the Guardian still has a video on its web site in which the newspaper's caption claims that
the fighting broke out after Israeli soldiers tried to uproot a tree on the Lebanese side of the border.