Friday, April 8, 2011

Another Turbulent Friday in the Middle East

It's common knowledge that Fridays in the Muslim Middle East are especially ripe for political protests, as people congregate in mosques, listen to sometime inflammatory sermons, and then spill back out onto the streets.  And as the Arab Spring continues to unfold, protesters are gaining in numbers - and in some countries, such as Syria, being confronted by security forces lying in wait or even bussed en masse to the scene.  Reports from Daraa (the Syrian city that has been a major focus of anti-regime protest) vary in the number of those reported killed, but the larger point is that Assad's security forces are still cracking down hard on protests - even as the regime tries to curry favor and buy time by sacking the cabinet of Prime Minister al-Otari,  eliminating restrictions against the burka, and extending rights of citizenship to Syria's previously disenfranchised 300,000 Kurds (in events nicely detailed by Sami Moubayed in the Asia Times).

Meanwhile, the NYT reports on Yemen and Egypt:
In Yemen, more than 100,000 people converged on the capital, Sana, for rival demonstrations on Friday as the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, appeared to dig in and reject an offer from the regional Gulf Cooperation Council to mediate the terms of his departure.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands gathered in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, waving flags and demanding the prosecution of the ousted president, Hosni Mubarak, and his family in a sign of Egyptians’ growing frustration with the slow pace of change under the new military rulers.

If Dexter Filkins' post at the New Yorker is on the mark, though, President Saleh in Yemen will not be departing soon, or easily, even though the US, the Saudis, and the Gulf states want him gone:
For all the discussions, he is not behaving like a man who preparing to leave office. Quite the contrary; on Monday, security forces in the city of Taiz shot and killed twelve protesters. Indeed, many Yemenis believe that Saleh is buying time—until the opposition fractures, until Obama’s diplomats run out of energy. As a Yemeni professor said to me in Sanaa, “I’ve known Saleh for thirty years, and believe me, if he can find a way, he’ll stay.”

Libya continues to swirl toward the drain, with Qaddafi still ensconced in Tripoli and his forces more than holding their own against NATO-supported rebels, who now have another beef with those patrons.  In addition to what they see as diminished air support from NATO, the rebels are justifiably upset . . .

after warplanes strafed rebel forces and killed at least five people, including two doctors. Rebels first accused NATO of targeting them but later said the attack probably came from Gaddafi’s forces. By Thursday night, it was still unclear who attacked the rebels from the sky.

Abdul Fattah Younis, the rebels’ commander, told reporters that if NATO had attacked their tanks, it was a mistake, and if Gaddafi’s airplanes had been allowed to strike them, it was an “even bigger mistake.”

Either way, NATO’s credibility among rebel forces, already battered since the United States took a back-seat role, appears to have sustained another blow. Rebels are questioning NATO’s resolve to help them.
And, on this Friday, the credibility of the West may soon be challenged on another front: Gaza, where an upsurge in rocket attacks from Islamists has set the stage for the usual disproportionate Israeli response, in which militants and (as Israel admits) "uninvolved civilians" were killed and wounded.  Some of the heightened activity from Hamas may be a result of the broader Arab Spring, which has touted the importance of popular self-determination.  The Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy fears also that Richard Goldstone's recent retraction of a portion of his conclusions in his now famous report may have cleared the way for a new Israeli attack into Gaza.  Some of the broader rationales underlying both Hamas' and Israel's actions of late, as well as possible repercussions, are analyzed very astutely by Victor Kotsev in Asia Times, where he brings in Hezbollah, Lebanon's destabilized situation, and the Libya and Syria uprisings as factors.  Moreover,
The situation is further complicated by political overtures and the interests of external powers. According to some analysts, Syria and Iran may be trying to provoke a showdown in Gaza in order to divert world attention from other crises (the protests in Syria; the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia over Bahrain).

In addition, there is a flurry of diplomatic activity coming from the Palestinian Authority, including an initiative to reconcile with Hamas (which apparently ran into a dead end, but is not yet clearly over) and a gradual movement to declare an independent Palestinian state some time later this year. There are indications of major developments related to the latter project to come at the meeting of the Quartet on the Middle East (the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia) later this month.

. . . .  Hamas may also have an independent interest in provoking a confrontation, in order to embarrass Egypt and to strain its ties with both Israel and the Iranian-Syrian camp. Hamas has played Egypt and Syria/Iran off of each other in the past, and arguably has little interest in the detente that is shaping up between these two sides. Additionally, a war would put pressure on the Palestinian Authority, Hamas's long-standing rival.

Recently, the United States showed suspicious signs of warming up to Israel. Israeli President Shimon Peres was met with exceptional warmth in Washington ("our task together is to deepen and broaden our friendship, our relationship," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, while Obama reaffirmed his commitment to Israel's security). Moreover, in recent days American officials spoke out against the unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood, which Israel seeks to avert. . . .

There are two more likely interpretations of the American overtures. On the one hand, it could be that Washington shares Israel's persuasion that a grave threat is shaping up against the Jewish state. In this scenario, the United States would pull out all the juicy carrots in order to reassure Israel and to hold its hand against a preemptive strike.

On the other hand, however, the Obama administration might be preparing a new round of pressure on Netanyahu, and the show of support could be part of a public relations spin of its own (a statement that it supports Israel, a prelude to a claim that it is even ready to uphold Israel's ‘true' interests against the will of its government). On closer examination, these two scenarios do not appear to be mutually exclusive.

Currently, both the political leadership of Hamas in Gaza and the Israeli government claim that they do not want a major escalation. "The army is apparently not preparing for a second Operation Cast Lead that would include a major incursion into the Strip," Israeli journalist Hanan Greenberg writes in Ynetnews. "Officials said that they wanted to avoid further escalation in the south that will disrupt the lives of residents."

At the same time, however, more attacks are possible on both sides, and there is always a chance that violence will spiral out of control. An attack inside Israel with multiple casualties could sway Israeli public opinion and force the Israeli leaders to embark on a sequel of Cast Lead. Netanyahu claimed that he was not excluding such a possibility. . . .

In an analysis published on Sunday, before the most recent developments, prominent Israeli analysts Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff argue that
A month passed between the first and second clash; only a week between the second and third. The conclusion is that the checks and balances that had influenced the sides with some success are no longer working as well as they used to. The road to Cast Lead II is getting closer, despite both Israel and the Hamas loudly proclaiming that they have no intention of going there.
Thus, while neither of the two main players - Israel and Hamas - seems to really want an escalation, we should not be surprised to see a full-scale military campaign in Gaza in the near future. As Israeli analysts have repeatedly cautioned in the last months, it is only a matter of time.
If you recall, in the first Operation Cast Lead, the IDF killed 1500 Palestinians and devastated Gaza's infrastructure - results laid out in detail in Goldstone's report.  The then-departing Bush administration did, in essence, nothing to try to yank the IDF's chain, but most of the West was outraged, and on the whole, Israel's image took a devastating hit, one from which it has yet to recover.  How the US - and the West - responds to a second Cast Lead will have huge impact on its image in a post-Arab Spring world.

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