The Middle East Channel

Syrian pro-Assad commentator killed in southern Lebanon

Suspected rebel gunmen reportedly killed prominent pro-regime political analyst Mohammad Darra Jamo early Wednesday. Jamo, a Syrian Kurd, was a commentator who worked for Syrian state media. He appeared often on Hezbollah TV and radio broadcasts defending Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He was reportedly shot outside his home in the predominantly Shiite town of Sarafand, on the southern Lebanese coast. The incident was the first assassination of a pro-Assad figure in Lebanon since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011. However, the killing has followed several attacks in recent weeks in Lebanon against Hezbollah, which has become increasingly involved in fighting in Syria. On Tuesday, a Hezbollah convoy traveling from Lebanon was hit by a roadside bomb and ambushed near the Syrian border, killing one security official and wounding two other people. Meanwhile, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told the U.N. Security Council the conflict in Syria has caused the worst refugee crisis in 20 years. He said refugee numbers had not risen "at such a frightening rate" since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The U.N. has estimated that over 93,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, with about 5,000 people being killed per month, and an average of 6,000 people flee the country each day.

The Muslim Brotherhood plans protests against Egypt's new interim government

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has called for more mass protests on Wednesday as Egypt's interim government begins its first day of work. The new cabinet was sworn in Tuesday after a night of fierce clashes between supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi and security forces. Hazem el-Beblawi will head up the government as prime minister, and General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will remain defense minister but additionally gains the post of first deputy prime minister. Of the 35 ministers, there is no representation from Islamist groups including the MB, which refused to participate, and the Salafi Nour Party, which originally supported the army's transition plan. The list includes many secularists who held posts under Morsi, as well as members of the Mubarak regime and officials from the military-led government that ruled after Mubarak's removal. It also includes three women, while most of Egypt's past governments have had two at most. The MB has planned demonstrations in Cairo's Rab'a El-Adawiyya Square to protest the interim government in what it has called a "day of steadfastness."

Headlines

  • Israel condemned a new EU policy against funding entities in West Bank settlements as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry returned to Jordan for his sixth trip to the region in efforts to reignite peace talks.
  • Yemen's al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has confirmed its second in command, Saeed al-Shihri, was killed in a U.S. drone strike, however the group has reported his death two times previously.

Arguments and Analysis

'For a New Approach to Iran' (William Luers, Thomas R. Pickering, and Jim Walsh, The New York Review of Books)

"Could this be the year for an engagement with Iran that 'is honest and grounded in mutual respect,' as President Obama proposed over four years ago? That goal seems unlikely without a shift in Iranian thinking and without a change in American diplomatic and political strategy. But two developments, one in Iran and one in the region, provide reason to think that diplomatic progress might be possible.

The first is Iran's recent presidential election, which Hassan Rouhani won thanks to an alliance between Iran's reformist and moderate camps. Together with the departure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this may provide the Obama administration the chance to start a new phase of relations with Iran. The second development is the war in Syria, which has the potential to grow into a region-wide Shia-Sunni conflict. This poses a direct threat to Iran's vital interests, giving Tehran an incentive to reduce tensions with the international community.

Iran and the United States have many important differences, but an agreement on Iran's nuclear capability should be a critical priority. This could open the door to conversations with Iran regarding Iraq and Afghanistan. A functioning US-Iranian relationship could also help advance diplomatic efforts on Syria.

Despite the new opportunities and incentives, the US and Iran have deep-seated and justifiable suspicions about each other. Their shared history has been one of missed opportunities and misperceptions. To overcome this distrust will require strong leadership at a time when the stakes are growing larger. Iran's nuclear program continues to advance, and events in Syria could well move further out of control. Without a change in direction, the US could find itself in another war in the Middle East that would further weaken its economy and its political influence."

'The Scourge of Mideast Skepticism' (Jeremy Ben-Ami, The New York Times)

"Secretary of State John Kerry has run into a buzz-saw of negativity as he strives to jump-start diplomacy to reach a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Critics claim he's on a fool's errand with little chance of success and call on him to spend more time on other matters.

The Israeli daily Haaretz says Kerry is a 'freyer' -- Israeli slang for sucker or dupe. A front-page New York Times analysis questions Kerry's focus on Israeli-Palestinian peace as 'chaos in the Middle East grows.' Reuters calls his efforts 'quixotic.' The 'expert class' seems united in its belief that the chances of success are so low the secretary shouldn't bother trying. The timing isn't right. The leaders aren't ready. The secretary should focus on Asia or engage more on Syria and Egypt.

I'm not surprised when such negativity comes from those who oppose a two-state solution. They don't see resolving the conflict as either an existential necessity for Israel or an American national interest. But it irks me when so much of the intense negativity and cynicism comes from those who otherwise purport to share the secretary's end goal."

'Kuwait's Hidden Hand in Syria' (Daniel R. DePetris, The National Interest)

"Private donors in Kuwait are proving to be a lifeline for Syria's rebels.

It is often assumed that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been the most adamant about arming Syria's fractious rebel movement. But there is growing evidence that clerics and opposition politicians in Kuwait have also been stepping up their own efforts in an attempt to collect as much cash for Bashar al-Assad's opponents as possible. Millions of dollars in Kuwaiti dinars have reportedly been flown from Kuwait to Turkey and Jordan, where the cash is then distributed to the various branches of the Syrian resistance movement.

'There is a great amount of sympathy on the part of the Kuwaiti people to provide any kind of assistance to the Syrian people whether inside or outside Syria,' Kuwaiti foreign minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Sabah told Reuters.

Along with tens of millions of people in the Arab world, the conflict, which has crossed the threshold of one hundred thousand dead, including women and the smallest of children, has torn at the heartstrings of ordinary citizens in the small Gulf Arab sheikhdom. The only difference, it seems, is that the Kuwaiti government is perfectly content with going its own way instead of following the lead of its Saudi and Qatari neighbors. Why rely on other states, they reason, when one can contribute independently and with no strings attached?"

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

STR/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Not an Iraqi civil war

Iraq is, quite simply, on the receiving end of a major al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) offensive. AQI remains one of the most capable of the al Qaeda affiliates or regional franchises. As a percentage of the population, Iraq has lost more of its citizens to al Qaeda explosives in each of the past three months than the United States did on September 11, 2001, according to AFP statistics, which show there were more than 400 casualties in each month of April, May, and June. The AQI offensive targets both the Shiite populace in general and Sunni moderates in particular. One would think that the reaction of the United States, despite its desire to forget all things Iraq, would at least be one of deep sympathy. 

Instead, the reaction of the U.S. political class has been to bemoan "sectarian violence" and to conflate the attacks with grievances by the Sunni minority against their Shiite-dominated government. Several commentators have taken the occasion to actually blame the al Qaeda violence on the policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, dissatisfaction with whom is reflected in large scale in long-term Sunni protests in Anbar and elsewhere. Such comparisons and diagnoses reflect a serious misunderstanding of the situation. The comparisons to the Iraqi civil war that peaked in 2006 and 2007 may seem appropriate if looking at the raw numbers. However, when one pushes another level down and realizes this is not two communities fighting each other (as did occur in the civil war) but instead a nihilist al Qaeda franchise attacking both the Shiite community randomly and the Sunni community strategically, the resemblance quickly fades. As for the attacks on Maliki, these echo those who blamed the United States's Middle East policies for the 9-11 attacks. Whatever the faults of Maliki's policies, Iraqis are not responding with sectarian violence nor plunging toward civil war. The Iraqi casualties are simply more victims of al Qaeda terrorism.

To be sure, however, AQI is successfully exploiting Iraq's weak security posture. Its success is rooted in four factors. First, upon the departure of the United States, large numbers of "security detainees"--suspected or confirmed terrorists against whom there was no legally sufficient case file -- were released into the Iraqi populace. Among them were large numbers of low and mid-level AQI leaders, who have since injected renewed energy into the organization. Further, the Iraqis continue to release likely terrorists in order to appease the Sunni community. Second, the Iraqi security forces simply do not have the precision intelligence capability necessary to root out the bomb-making networks that the U.S. military employed prior to its withdrawal. We should remember that in the early days of the Iraq invasion and occupation, the United States had no such capability either, and it is unreasonable to expect the Iraqis to develop their own without significant growing pains -- particularly given the relative youth of their security service institutions. Third, while it is hard to estimate the resources that are now flowing to AQI via their presence in Syria (the AQI "emir," Abu Baqr al Baghdadi, is widely reported to have relocated to Northern Syria, we can assume that they are significant. The chaos in Syria is spilling into Iraq through a more capable AQI, armed with superior weaponry, with better training, and with more money for recruiting and operations. Finally, a minority of Iraq's Sunni population is giving aid and succor to this nihilistic terrorist group, perhaps driven by dissatisfaction with the Baghdad government. That they would translate their political frustrations into attacks on innocent civilians is both regrettable and disturbing.

But save for this sanctuary, the violence is largely independent of the ongoing Iraqi Sunni protests, now in their seventh month. While the protests may have begun with legitimate grievances, the movements have now been largely hijacked by the Salafist and Baathist elements in Sunni society. These protests have two root causes. First, the Sunni population resents the blunt and indiscriminate anti-terrorism tactics that the Government of Iraq (GoI) uses in the absence of a precision capability. The use of these tactics is regrettable, but, short of alternatives, one must ask what the GoI could do otherwise. The Iraqi Government would love to have back the capabilities it enjoyed while the United States was embedded in its security agencies. With the United States gone, it is left using a less refined approach that strongly resembles the actions of the U.S. Army during the early years of the occupation. It will still be years before equipment, training, and experience will begin to provide the necessary tools for it to better overcome the deadly enemies that tear at the fabric of Iraq. In the meantime, the government's constituents are, reasonably, demanding that something be done, particularly given the high recent death rates from car bombings.

Another, more fundamental cause of the protests is a lack of acceptance by the Sunni population, and its leadership, of its minority status in the new Iraq. Part of this is demographic ignorance or deception. The spokesman for the ongoing Ramadi protests has asserted, in public debates, that Arab Sunnis constitute over 50 percent of the Iraqi population. In the absence of a recent census, estimates of the Arab Sunni population of Iraq range from 20 to 25 percent.

But another, darker factor is deep Sunni sectarianism amongst some key leaders. Some more charitable Sunni speakers refer to the Shiites as Iran's pawns. But deeply offensive sectarian terms for the Shiites -- the regional equivalent of racial epithets -- are also being used at the protest sites. In some ways, the Sunni protests have less the character of the "Occupy" movement or even Arab Spring, and are being manipulated to have more the flavor of a supremacist movement. This combination of demographic error and racist-like sectarian bigotry is hijacking the common democratic expression of the average demonstrators and introducing a new dangerous and disturbing combination, as the reactionary former elite tries to regain the status it once held under Saddam's Baath Party. Indeed, the armed militia of the former Baathists, the Naqshabandi movement, or JRTN, is widely viewed to control several of the protest sites (including the Hawija camp where the abortive raid by security forces to arrest JRTN militants occurred. And beneath the manipulation of opportunistic leadership, the average Sunni citizens of Iraq who have largely coexisted peacefully with their Shiite countrymen, are caught in the middle.

Again, the tragedy in Syria acts as an accelerant of violence and chaos, as that conflict has now also taken on a significant sectarian character. The mixture of real grievances in Syria with Salafist ideology, AQI nihilism, and the surfacing of the basest sectarian hatreds creates a toxic mix, which is now infecting -- to an extent -- much of the region.

The actions of the Maliki government in trying to solve these two conflated issues have produced some well-intentioned moves and other miscalculations, none of which are as effective as could be hoped. Maliki has, in cooperation with the (Sunni) Arab Iraqiya party of Saleh Mutlaq, attempted to create a package of reforms addressing de-Baathification and pensions for some of Saddam Hussein's paramilitary units. Regrettably, the prospects for this compromise package are uncertain, as the more hardline Sunnis find that it does not go far enough, while the more extremist Shiite parties (which commentators often ignore when suggesting Maliki's removal) have no taste for reforming de-Baathification in any form, let alone pensioning what they view as Saddam's personal army, responsible for many regime abuses. The most disturbing sign for long-term peace in Iraq is the apparent electoral punishment (in the recent provincial elections) of both Mutlaq's Arab Iraqiya and Maliki's State of Law parties for attempting to reach a compromise.

In addition, it appears that the prime minister is beginning to shake up the security services. Whether this has the desired systemic effect in tightening security or simply rearranges the chairs has yet to be seen. More encouraging is the advocacy of the Ministry of Interior (MOI) Inspector General Akil al-Turehi that helped jail the British seller of infamous "explosive detection wands" on charges of fraud. It will be interesting to observe whether other MOI officials (Turehi was recently named the governor of Karbala) can continue to trace the people responsible for the fraud on the Iraqi side -- not to mention whether a real detection capability can be acquired. Other military capabilities -- including a wide array of sensors -- should arrive in the coming year, both through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system and direct procurement by the Iraqi government. These capabilities represent perhaps the best hope to blunt AQI successes.

In short, cooler heads appear to be prevailing. Iraq is nowhere near the brink of civil war -- primarily because the Sunni have so much to lose. Sunni elites distinctly recall finding this out the hard way in the civil war of 2006 to 2007. The lethal success of the AQI terror campaign admittedly hints at the reappearance of war, but again, on closer examination this violence is almost exclusively one-sided. The Shiite militias that fought (and won) the last civil war have not -- at least yet -- rearmed or remobilized.

Iraq continues to be a weak state and immature, transitional democracy and the effect of the AQI offensive on its nascent capabilities is not insignificant. Many things could still go wrong -- and some almost certainly will. But the smart bet continues to be on Iraq holding together -- both because it has the resources to avoid civil war, and because it has no desire to revisit the terror that would involve.

Douglas A. Ollivant, Ph.D., is the Senior Vice President and a Managing Partner of Mantid International, a strategic consulting firm with offices in Washington D.C., Beirut, and Baghdad. A former NSC Director for Iraq, he is also a Senior National Security Fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @DouglasOllivant.

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