The Middle East Channel

Yemen’s president orders military shake-up

Yemen's President, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has removed the commander of the elite Republican Guard from his position. Hadi announced that Brigadier General Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, son of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, will become ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. Hadi has vowed to unify Yemen's military, which has been fractured since the former President Saleh stepped down in 2012 after a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) brokered deal aimed to quell an uprising that began in 2011. Regardless, the Saleh family has retained significant influence, and Hadi's move is seen as an attempt to exert control over the armed forces. Retired Yemeni General Mohammed Sarei Shaye said the order shows the military is under Hadi's control. He continued, "It is a strike by a master. It uprooted all centers of power in the army." The president's long list of decrees issued Wednesday included the removal of dozens of other military officials, including two nephews of the former president.

Syria

The Syrian government has been carrying out "indiscriminate and in some cases deliberate airstrikes against civilians" according to a Human Rights Watch report released Wednesday. HRW said it documented 59 unlawful attacks after visiting 52 sites of government airstrikes in opposition held territory in northwestern Syria. The advocacy group reported 152 civilian deaths from these sites, while opposition groups have said that airstrikes have killed 4,300 civilians since July 2012. HRW called for action by the United Nations, including targeted sanctions, an embargo, and to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court. Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to authorize additional aid to the Syrian opposition. According to U.S. officials, this will likely include body armor and night-vision goggles for specific opposition groups. The assistance falls short of the weapons supplies opposition forces were looking for, but suggests a move by the United States toward greater direct involvement in the Syrian conflict. According to a senior Obama administration official, "Our assistance has been on an upward trajectory, and the president has directed his national security team to identify additional measures so that we can increase assistance." Additionally, in a meeting in London between G8 representatives, it appeared as if Britain and France intend to allow a European Union arms embargo on Syria to expire by the end of May, so they can ramp up assistance.

Headlines

Arguments and Analysis

Did We Get the Muslim Brotherhood Wrong? (Marc Lynch, Foreign Policy)

"The deterioration of Egyptian politics has spurred an intense, often vitriolic polarization between Islamists and their rivals that has increasingly spilled over into analytical disputes. Some principled liberals who once supported the Muslim Brotherhood against the Mubarak regime's repression have recanted. Longtime critics of the Islamists view themselves as vindicated and demand that Americans, including me, apologize for getting the Brotherhood wrong. As one prominent Egyptian blogger recently put it, "are you ready to apologize for at least 5 years of promoting the MB as fluffy Democrats to everyone? ARE YOU?"

So, should we apologize? Did we get the Brotherhood wrong? Not really. The academic consensus about the Brotherhood got most of the big things right about that organization ... at least as it existed prior to the 2011 Egyptian revolution. U.S. analysts and academics correctly identified the major strands in its ideological development and internal factional struggles, its electoral prowess, its conflicts with al Qaeda and hard-line Salafis, and the tension between its democratic ambitions and its illiberal aspirations. And liberals who defended the Brotherhood against the Mubarak regime's torture and repression were unquestionably right to do so -- indeed, I would regard defending the human rights and political participation of a group with which one disagrees as a litmus test for liberalism.

But getting the pre-2011 period right doesn't let us off the hook for what has come since. How one felt about questions of the Brotherhood's ability to be democratic in the past has nothing to do with the urgency of holding it to those commitments today. Giving the group the chance to participate fully in the democratic process does not mean giving it a pass on bad behavior once it is in power -- or letting it off the hook for abuses of pluralism, tolerance, or universal values.  That's why I would like to see Egypt's electoral process continue, and for the Brotherhood to be punished at the ballot box for their manifest failures."

Staying the Course on Diplomacy with Iran (Matt Duss, Center for American Progress)

"While frustration over Iran's intransigence is understandable, it's unclear whether applying more pressure can accomplish what a considerable amount of pressure has thus far failed to achieve. A recent report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace examining Iran's behavior over the past decades determined that economic pressure is unlikely to halt Iran's nuclear work, which "is entangled with too much pride-however misguided-and sunk costs simply to be abandoned." The report concluded that, "The only sustainable solution for assuring that Iran's nuclear program remains purely peaceful is a mutually agreeable diplomatic solution."

As for next steps, it's important to remember that there is time to deal with the problem. In an Israeli television interview in March, President Obama, citing U.S. intelligence data, said it would take Iran a year or more to build a nuclear weapon in the event that it chose to do so-which U.S. intelligence services believe it has not yet done.

As President Obama said in his speech in Jerusalem on March 21:

Strong and principled diplomacy is the best way to ensure that the Iranian government forsakes nuclear weapons. Peace is far more preferable to war, and the inevitable costs, the unintended consequences that would come with war means that we have to do everything we can to try to resolve this diplomatically. Because of the cooperation between our governments, we know that there remains time to pursue a diplomatic resolution."

The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi‘a-Sunni Divide (Geneive Abdo, Brookings)

"In today's Arab world, all politics is local.

This paper examines the rise of the new sectarianism within the Arab world, specifically looking at Bahrain, Lebanon and Iran, and offers key policy recommendations for the United States. In the midst of the Arab Awakening, there is a new Sunni-Shi'a divide which has greatly complicated the diplomatic and geopolitical challenges facing the United States by demanding that serious consideration be given to religious difference in its own right, and not simply as an epiphenomenon stemming from social, economic, or political contestation. Religion, gender, and ethnicity play a far more prominent role in determining social and political interaction than in the past.

While analysts, scholars and decision-makers are quick to observe that the Shi‘a-Sunni conflict is a battle within Islam, the broader geo-political implications from the rise in sectarianism should be of great concern to the United States as it seeks to preserve its interests in the Middle East. (In Bahrain, for example, the lack of reconciliation between the Shi‘a-dominated opposition and the U.S.-backed Sunni government is radicalizing both sides.)"

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA

The Middle East Channel

Talking about reform in Bahrain

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.

MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images