The Middle East Channel

U.S. suspends the delivery of fighter jets to Egypt

The Obama administration announced it is delaying the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt. Pentagon spokesman George Little said, "Given the current situation in Egypt, we do not believe it is appropriate to move forward at this time with the delivery of the F-16s." The fighter jets are part of a deal with Egypt for 20 F16s in total, eight of which have already been delivered. Since the Egyptian military's removal of Mohamed Morsi from the presidency on July 3, the United States has maintained the shipment would go forward, but U.S. officials said they were disturbed by the recent course of events. The move is the first interruption of military funding to Egypt and a sign that the United States is rethinking its decision not to withhold military assistance to Egypt. The U.S. administration has hesitated designating the ouster of Morsi a military coup, which would require the United States to cut off aid, estimated at $1.3 billion per year. U.S. administration officials said President Barack Obama wanted to send Egypt's military rulers a signal of U.S. displeasure with the current chaotic situation, the detention of Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leaders, and the transition process that has not included the MB.

Headlines

  • The conflict in Syria has cut the country's wheat harvest by more than half in a blow to President Assad's policy of food self-sufficiency while under severe international sanctions.
  • Kuwait will hold parliamentary elections on Saturday, for the sixth time since 2006, and prominent opposition members are expected to boycott.
  • Israeli energy minister, Silvan Shalom, said he believes Israeli and Palestinian talks will begin Tuesday in Washington, however the date has not been confirmed.
  • The UAE embassy in the Libyan capital Tripoli was hit with a grenade Thursday, causing no injuries, but adding to several attacks recently on foreign, mainly western, targets in the country.
  • The crackdown on Islamist militants in Sinai by Egypt's new military rulers is causing a significant decline in Gaza's economy with the closure of nearly 80 percent of the tunnels used for smuggling.

Arguments and Analysis

'Saving Egypt's Third Democratic Revolution' (Bassem Sabry, Al-Monitor)

"The new administration must make it abundantly clear that the days of the Mubarak regime and what it represented are truly over, as many worry that Egypt will end up returning to a more evolved and polished version of pre-January 25. One area in which it can strongly send this message is police reform, something that never truly got the attention it needed after the revolution and still seems unlikely to be addressed in today's environment, especially given that many hail the police as heroes.

Media reform is another area in need of care. State-owned media must be freed of political influence, the body of media legislation dusted off and the much-anticipated new national media regulatory agency brought to life in a manner that inspires optimism. Furthermore, the Information Ministry can only be abolished. The new cabinet announced its intention to do so, but thus far has not. Morsi had retained the position of information minister during his time in power despite earlier promises to abolish it as well. The government will now also need to address the situation of the 'suspended' Islamist channels. 

The length of the transition should not be stretched out for no good reason, and the steps taken must proceed briskly, but without compromising the quality of the output. Amendment of the constitution comes before everything else, despite some calls to the contrary. The new, ten-strong amendment committee, composed of members of the judiciary and legal experts, has already begun its work, and there have been voices calling for revisiting how its work can better be influenced by national stakeholders. Their proposed amendments must in the end represent a broad national consensus, making theirs a very difficult, but not impossible task."

'Containing the Fire in Syria' (Ryan Crocker, Real Clear World)

"Much has been said about a political settlement. The conditions are simply not present. Neither the opposition nor the regime is ready to deal seriously with each other, and the opposition is too divided in any event to develop a coherent position. Nor will a meeting between regime representatives and opposition elements in exile produce meaningful outcome, even if it could be convened. The influence of the exiles on those actually doing the fighting is approximately zero.

So what are the options? First, to recognize that as bad as the situation is, it could be made much worse. A major western military intervention would do that. And lesser steps, such as a no-fly zone, could force the West to greater involvement if they proved unsuccessful in reducing violence. The hard truth is that the fires in Syria will blaze for some time to come. Like a major forest fire, the most we can hope to do is contain it. And it's already spreading. Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria have merged, and car bombs in Iraq are virtually a daily occurrence as these groups seek to reignite a sectarian civil war. The United States has a Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq. We must use it to engage more deeply with the Iraqi government, helping it take the steps to ensure internal cohesion. This was a major challenge during my tenure as ambassador, 2007-2009, and the need now is critical.

I was in Lebanon recently, where the outgoing prime minister gloomily predicted a renewed civil war of which there are already signs with clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in the northern city of Tripoli, in the northeast and attacks on Hezbollah-controlled areas in Beirut. If the violence spreads, the Palestinians will join forces with the Lebanese Sunnis against the Shia, and that in turn will radicalize Palestinians in Jordan's already fragile monarchy. Both countries need our security and economic support, for the refugee influx and their security forces.

This will be a long war. There is little the United States can do to positively influence events in Syria. Our focus must be on preventing further spillover beyond its borders. There may come a point where exhaustion on both sides makes a political solution possible. We are nowhere near that point. And my fear is that at the end of the day, the Assad regime prevails. We must be ready for that too."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

Cherie A. Thurlby/U.S. Air Force/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Leave Hezbollah Alone!

On Monday, European Union foreign ministers reached a unanimous decision to classify the military wing of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. On the face of it, supporting efforts to rile anti-Hezbollah sentiment in Lebanon might also appear to be in U.S. interests. However, the civil war that might ensue, and the empowerment of radical Sunni elements that it would engender, would quickly reverse any short-term gains.

Between the continued bloodshed in Syria and the military takeover in Egypt, it might be easy to overlook recent events in Lebanon. But Middle East watchers need to keep a sharp eye on the current turmoil in Lebanon because spillover from Syria could cause the security situation to flame up quickly into a full-scale sectarian civil war. Several stabilizing factors have kept the situation in Lebanon from escalating out of control, one of these being Hezbollah's resistance to being drawn into conflict with other Lebanese. However, recent attacks on Hezbollah interests, coupled with the EU's decision this week to blacklist the organization, are backing Hezbollah into a corner. Feeling its position in Lebanon to be under threat, the organization may change course, and decide to take up the fight against its domestic rivals. 

Lebanon is frequently characterized as being on the brink of civil war, a description that has been applied more frequently since the start of the Syrian civil war. Lebanese are increasingly taking sides in the Syrian conflict: many Sunnis support the Sunni-led Free Syrian Army (FSA); while Lebanon's Shiites and small community of Alawites (a sect loosely associated with Shiism) back Syria's Alawite-dominated government. Some Lebanese, especially in the border areas, are crossing into Syria to join the fight. However, several brazen attacks over the last two weeks have even war-hardened Lebanese fearing a return to sectarian strife.

Earlier this month a car bomb detonated in a Shiite neighborhood of Beirut, injuring dozens. The little-known Syrian rebel group that claimed responsibility said the attack was in retaliation for Hezbollah's stepped-up fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Though Hezbollah fighters have been unofficially fighting in Syria since early on, the Shiite organization's "official" entrance into the war in May has helped the Syrian army make significant gains against rebel forces.

Just a week earlier, in the suburbs of the southern Lebanese city of Sidon, followers of a radical Salafi cleric and outspoken critic of Hezbollah and the Assad regime, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, opened fire against a Lebanese army outpost. By the time soldiers secured the area, the sheikh was on the run, his mosque complex was destroyed, and 46 people were pronounced dead, including 18 Lebanese soldiers. Fighting between pro- and anti-Assir forces had taken place in other areas of Lebanon prior to events in Sidon, therefore it was unsurprising that the attack on his mosque sparked renewed gun battles in Tripoli and Beirut. Although the battle in Sidon was subdued by Lebanese army units, it appears that there was participation by Hezbollah fighters -- a worrisome turn of events since it brought Hezbollah into direct conflict with fellow Lebanese and raised questions about the army's neutrality.

In Tripoli, the Syrian civil war has exacerbated tensions between the Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbana and the adjacent Alawite enclave of Jabal Mohsen. While the area has experienced sporadic gun battles for years, the influx of Syrian refugees and the introduction of radical Salafi groups have ramped up violence across the "red line" separating the two communities. The roots of the conflict harken back to the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). Sunnis subjected Alawites to violence and harassment in the 1970s, causing many to leave Lebanon for Syria. For Sunnis, the touchstone event occurred in December 1986, when the Syrian army cordoned off Bab al-Tabbana and massacred hundreds of residents (estimates vary from 200-800 deaths). Sunni residents blame the massacre on residents of Jabal Mohsen, who they claim assisted Syrian forces. The withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005 created an opportunity for communal reprisals. With the civil war in Syria becoming increasingly sectarian, the Alawites of Jabal Mohsen see their future as tied to the fate of the Syrian regime and there are some credible reports that members of the community are working with the Syrian army to thwart rebel activities inside of Lebanon. Meanwhile, Salafi clerics in Tripoli are encouraging young men to fight jihad in Syria and are preaching that the Alawites are heretics who should be cleansed from Jabal Mohsen. The mutual distrust has created a tinderbox that erupts in violence whenever there is a major event in Syria. For instance, in May, the intense battle in Syria's Qusayr region, pitting Hezbollah and Syrian army troops against rebel fighters, prompted fierce fighting between the two communities leaving 28 people dead, and 250 wounded.

Lebanese territory is increasingly becoming an extension of the Syrian battle zone: the Syrian army is firing on villages along the border and the FSA is firing rockets into Shiite areas, including Hezbollah's stronghold in southern Beirut. There are inter-communal kidnappings both for profit and revenge for actions occurring in Syria. Assassinations, especially of Hezbollah members and Assad supporters, have become commonplace.

Given all of the provocations and reprisals, it is in many respects surprising that Lebanon's sectarian infighting has not already boiled over into a civil war. It appears that radical Sunni groups and the FSA are specifically targeting Hezbollah interests and the Lebanese army in order to provoke counterattacks that would discredit the military and spark broader resentment of Hezbollah within the Sunni community. This strategy makes it increasingly difficult for the Lebanese army to intervene when it might be seen as benefiting Hezbollah without risking damage to its veneer of neutrality. It could also make it harder for Hezbollah to maintain political coalition partners. Aware of the costs, Hezbollah has avoided rising to the bait, but if it continues to stand by as its soldiers and supporters are assassinated it could quickly take a toll on the resistance group's morale and internal cohesion at a time when Hezbollah leaders are already asking members to make huge sacrifices by fighting in Syria. 

While the United State has taken a clear stance in support of the FSA in Syria, in Lebanon the Obama administration has strongly advocated neutrality. Yet, if Hezbollah's participation in the Syrian civil war begins to clearly tip the balance in favor of the Assad regime, the administration could face pressure to adjust its position and support efforts to minimize Hezbollah's position in Lebanon. But the benefits of increasing anti-Hezbollah sentiment in Lebanon, or in diverting Hezbollah resources and attention away from Syria, would likely be quickly outweighed by the spread of radical jihadism and a descent into civil war. Radical Sunni elements would be strengthened in part because the prospect of fighting Hezbollah -- a Shiite organization aligned with the Islamic Republic of Iran and advocating the establishment of Shiite clerical rule -- is even more attractive to jihadists than fighting the quasi-Shiite, ostensibly secular, Assad regime. Open conflict would likely ensue because an embattled Hezbollah would be forced to use its primary advantage over all other Lebanese groups -- its sizable arsenal -- and doing so would force other Lebanese groups to mobilize for a showdown.

The Obama administration is already torn over how to supply arms to the FSA. If a broader civil conflict broke out in Lebanon, it is doubtful that the United States could commit the type of support required to tip the scales in favor of anti-Hezbollah groups, especially if Salafi jihadists are manning the frontlines. It is also unlikely that either Israel or Iran could sit on the sidelines if such a conflict occurred, and their involvement would both raise the stakes and further complicate matters for the United States. Hence, even though the United States has designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization, and finds itself supporting those battling Hezbollah in Syria, at this time it would run counter to U.S. interests to seek to openly undermine Hezbollah in Lebanon. 

Julie E. Taylor is a political scientist who focuses on the Middle East at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. 

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