The Middle East Channel

Tensions increase in Bahrain after death of teenager

Tensions in Bahrain have increased after the death of a teenage boy during protests marking the second anniversary of Bahrain's uprising. According to the main opposition group, al-Wefaq, the 16-year-old boy was killed by injuries sustained from close range birdshot. The Bahraini government has announced an investigation into the boy's death. Rioters have blocked roads and clashed with security forces, while opposition groups have called for a general strike. The protests could jeopardize reconciliation talks that began Sunday between opposition groups and the government. Meanwhile, Amnesty International has called for the release of 22 activists, including human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, who were detained by the government. A government spokesperson responded to Amnesty International's allegations saying "The Government has reiterated several times that there [are] no political prisoners currently in Bahrain. The Government supports the right to express oneself freely, as long as the mode of expression does not violate the freedoms of others as stipulated in Article 29 of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights."

Syria

Fierce clashes have been reported as opposition forces work to overtake Aleppo international airport. Fighting has been occurring at the airfield for weeks and on Wednesday opposition fighters took control of most of the "Brigade 80" military base protecting it. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, regime warplanes have bombarded rebel positions near the airport with airstrikes. If opposition fighters overtake the airport, it will be a major setback for the regime, cutting off supply lines to Aleppo. Beginning his term as U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry said he will utilize his past relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a strategy to get the ruler to leave power. Kerry said he understands the "calculations" that drive Assad and believes there are methods that can change them. He said, "Right now President Assad doesn't think he's losing -- and the opposition thinks it's winning." Additionally he reaffirmed that the U.S. administration is seeking a political solution to the Syrian conflict rather than arming opposition forces. Meanwhile, U.N. special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi's deputy Mokhtar Lamani traveled to the country for the first visit of the team in months, meeting with the leader of the opposition Revolutionary Military Council as well as civilian and Christian leaders. They all expressed support for the recent initiative by the head of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Moaz al-Khatib, to hold direct talks with the government.

Headlines

  • Israel has released some details on "Prisoner X" believed to be Australian born Ben Zygier, saying a dual nationality citizen had been imprisoned under a pseudonym for "security reasons."
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency said it did not reach a deal with Iran in talks on Wednesday on its nuclear development program, with Iran continuing to block access to its Parchin military complex.

Arguments and Analysis

Tunisia: Violence and the Salafi Challenge (International Crisis Group)

"The assassination of Chokri Belaïd, a prominent opposition politician, has thrown Tunisia into its worst crisis since the January 2011 ouster of President Ben Ali. Although culprits have yet to be identified, suspicions swiftly turned to individuals with ties to the Salafi movements. Founded or not, such beliefs once again have brought this issue to the fore. Many non-Islamists see ample evidence of the dangers Salafis embody; worse, they suspect that, behind their ostensible differences, Salafis and An-Nahda, the ruling Islamist party, share similar designs. At a time when the country increasingly is polarised and the situation in the Maghreb increasingly shaky, Tunisia must provide differentiated social, ideological and political answers to three distinct problems: the marginalisation of young citizens for whom Salafism - and, occasionally, violence - is an easy way out; the haziness that surrounds both An-Nahda's views and the country's religious identity; and the jihadi threat that ought to be neither ignored, nor exaggerated.

As elsewhere throughout the region, the Salafi phenomenon has been steadily growing - both its so-called scientific component, a quietist type of Islamism that promotes immersion in sacred texts, and its jihadi component, which typically advocates armed resistance against impious forces. It made initial inroads under Ben Ali's authoritarian regime, a response to the repression inflicted on Islamists in general and An-Nahda in particular. A new generation of young Islamists, relatively unfamiliar with An-Nahda, has become fascinated by stories of the Chechen, Iraqi and Afghan resistance."

Toward a New American Policy (Daniel C. Kurtzer, Cairo Review of Global Affairs)

"The United States has invested heavily in Middle East peacemaking for decades. While the strategic goal has been to achieve a peace settlement, the United States has tended to focus on the essentially tactical objective of bringing about face-to-face negotiations between the parties. With some exceptions-for example, the Clinton Parameters in 2000 and the George W. Bush letter to Ariel Sharon in 2004-administrations have eschewed articulating positions on the substantive outcome the United States seeks. Because of the serious problems confronting the region and the peace process today, it is time for the United States to adopt a new policy, a new strategy, and new tactics.

Why Tilt at Middle East Windmills?

This essay argues for the development of a new, comprehensive American policy and a sustained strategy for advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It advocates for American creativity, flexibility, and initiative in crafting the tactics required to engage the parties and help them approach the required mutual concessions. This argument does not rest on either the inevitability or even the likelihood of early success, nor on the readiness of the parties to overcome legitimate concerns and powerful internal opposition to confront the tough decisions required to make peace. Indeed, there are strong reasons to avoid working on the peace process at all.

However, doing nothing or continuing down the same path that the United States has traveled before-simply trying to get to negotiations-not only will not succeed, it will deepen the challenges the United States faces in the Middle East and it will exacerbate the very conflict that the United States has tried to resolve over many decades. There are hard realities in the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that some try to ignore or argue away. It is time to confront those realities and develop a reasonable but also bold policy and diplomatic strategy worthy of American values and interests. Developing a sound policy, a sophisticated strategy, and appropriate tactics to advance the peace process is not tilting at windmills. It is doing what the United States has shown itself capable of doing in the past to advance prospects for peace."

 --By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Questions are raised after Australian report of Israel’s “Prisoner X”

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr has ordered a review of his ministry's handling of a 2010 case in which an Australian man, allegedly a Mossad agent, reportedly hanged himself in a secret Israeli jail. On Wednesday, Carr admitted that the Department of Foreign Affairs knew about the detention of the man referred to as Prisoner X, who the report revealed is likely Ben Zygier. He changed his name to Ben Alon in Israel. Initial reports of his death were leaked in 2010, but the story was highly censored by Israel. On Tuesday, Israeli news organizations were forced to remove content concerning the case, but the ban was partially lifted on Wednesday after Knesset members raised questions. Israel's prime minister's office has declined to comment. According to ABC, Zygier was 34 when he died, and was married to an Israeli woman with two young children. It is unclear why he was incarcerated. He was held at the Ayalon high security prison in central Israel, in a wing constructed to hold Yigal Amir, the Israeli who assassinated former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, with a surveillance system installed to prevent suicide.  

Syria

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay addressed the U.N. Security Council Tuesday calling for action to resolve the conflict in Syria, saying the death toll is approaching 70,000. Severe fighting has continued in Damascus. The government has targeted opposition positions in the neighborhood of Jobar as well as the suburb of Daraya. Russia said it will continue its weapons supplies to the Syrian regime, saying "in the absence of sanctions" it will fulfill its "obligations on contracts for the delivery of military hardware" which it maintains are not offensive weapons, but mainly air defense systems. Meanwhile, Qatar has decided to hand over the Syrian embassy in its capital Doha to the opposition Syrian National Coalition.

Headlines

  • Iran has announced it is upgrading its centrifuges ahead of renewed negotiations on its nuclear development program set to begin Wednesday.
  • Hundreds of Egyptian police began a strike protesting against President Mohamed Morsi on Tuesday, shutting down headquarters at about seven provincial capitals in a rare case of open dissent.
  • Egyptian security forces have flooded smuggling tunnels between the Sinai and the Palestinian Gaza Strip in efforts to shut them down, angering Hamas leaders.
  • Debt stricken carrier Bahrain Air has announced it will shut down amid political unrest while leaders enter into a new round of reconciliation talks. 

Arguments and Analysis

How to Start a Battalion (in Five Easy Lessons) (Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, London Review of Books)

"In the cramped living room of a run-down flat near the Aleppo frontline, two Syrian rebels sat opposite each other. The one on the left was stout, broad-shouldered, with a neat beard that looked as though it had been outlined in sharp pencil around his throat and cheeks. His shirt and trousers were immaculately pressed and he wore brand-new military webbing - the expensive Turkish kind, not the Syrian knock-off. The rebel sitting opposite him was younger, gaunt and tired-looking. His hands were filthy and his trousers caked in mud and diesel.

The flat had once belonged to an old lady. Traces of a domestic life that had long ceased to exist were scattered around the room and mingled with the possessions of the new occupiers. A mother of pearl ashtray sat next to a pile of walkie-talkies. Small china figurines stood on top of the TV next to a box of cartridges. Guns and ammunition lay on the rickety wooden chairs and a calendar showing faded landscapes hung on the wall. In the bedroom next door clothes were piled on the bed next to crates of ammunition. The stout rebel was shifty, on edge and keen to finish what he came to say and leave quickly. The other looked like a man waiting for a disaster to unfold.

But like a couple trying to conduct the business of their divorce with civility they spent a long time on pleasantries: each asked the other about his village and praised the courage and strength of his people. Outside a machine gun fired relentlessly down the street, interrupted only by the occasional thud of a mortar shell."

Al-Qa'ida and the Jihadi Dynamics in the Sahel (Jean-Pierre Filiu, Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore)

"Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) was launched in 2007 as the last offshoot of Osama bin Laden's organization. It has therefore attracted significant international interest, especially after murderous suicide attacks in Algiers and repeated abductions of Western nationals in the Sahara. But AQIM media exposure could not mask its failure to live up to its commitment to strike Europe from North Africa. Hence AQIM increasingly bet on its commandos operating in the Sahel region to upgrade its jihadi profile.

In order to understand the complexity of the jihadi dynamics in the Sahel region, one must take into full consideration four specific and interlinked dimensions of those groups and networks:

  • They are led by veterans from the "black decade" of the 1990s in Algeria, who escaped both repression and purges, therefore developing a strong resilience in an extremely inhospitable environment.
  • Those "survivors" were initially smugglers who were in charge of the logistical needs of the jihadi hierarchy in northern Algeria before reaching a militant capacity of their own, enhanced by the extreme mobility of their commandos.
  • This trans-Sahara mobility nurtured increased cooperation with criminal networks active in the region, with repeated exchanges of favors and services, blurring the lines between gangsterism and jihadism.
  • After one generation of activity, Algerian "veterans" and "survivors" are still firmly in command, fueling the popular feeling of a "foreign" occupation in Mali that paved the way for the recent French rollback in Timbuktu and Gao.
The Sahel region became only recently a focus for jihadi escalation. During the 1990s, the jihadi insurgency of the Islamic Armed Group (Groupe Islamique Armé, or GIA) focused on the main cities of coastal Algeria, with the support of activist cells in the countryside and the mountain ranges. The Sahara katiba (battalion) of the GIA was led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, nicknamed "the one-eyed" (Belaouar) because of the wound he claimed to have suffered fighting in Afghanistan from 1991 to 1993 (suspiciously two years after the Soviet withdrawal).  But this katiba was not involved in active combat; its priority was the channeling of weapons and funds to the GIA heartland."

 

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/JACK GUEZ