Reading Through the Syrian “Outcry”

My take on the big uproar over the US raid into Syria is that it  will blow over in a few days.    While Syria probably didn’t sit down with US troops and say “gee how can we plan a joint operation against the targets,” I suspect Syria probably turned a blind eye, knowing that the raid carried out one of their stated security objectives.   Scroll down a few posts to read my theory in greater depth.  Borzou of the LA TIMES looks at the possibility that Syria green-lighted the attack: 

Everyone’s still scratching their heads about Sunday’s dramatic U.S. attack on a Syrian village five miles from the Iraqi border.

Plenty of unanswered questions remain, like why didn’t the Syrians do anything to thwart the Americans, such as launching anti-aircraft batteries deployed along their border?  Ronen Bergman, an Israeli intelligence expert and author of the recent “The Secret War with Iran,” speculates that Syria green-lighted the U.S. operation.   In an interview with an Israeli newspaper and in a chat with Britain’s Sky News, Bergman cites two senior American officials who he says told him the Americans went after an alleged Al Qaeda leader in Syria only after getting Damascus’ OK.

He says the Syrians were at first reluctant to appear to be submitting to U.S. pressure by going after the guy themselves. In the end, they discretely gave the Americans permission to cross their border and hunt him down …   According to Bergman, Syrians told Washington they wouldn’t block their way if  commandos entered their country in broad daylight:

“If you want to do this, do it. We are going to give you a corridor and carte blanche. We will not harm your troops. … The Syrians have invested so much in aerial defences, especially against choppers and the Americans go in in daylight and nothing is being done.”

According to U.S. officials, the target of the raid was a man named Abu Ghadiya, an Al Qaeda figure responsible for funneling guns and fighters through Syria and into Iraq. But journalists who reached the site quoted villagers as saying the only people killed were innocent civilians.  Does it make sense that Syria would OK such a dramatic U.S. attack?  There’s been a slight thaw in relations between Syria and the U.S. over the last few months. Syria’s secular leadership has been fighting radical Islamists for decades.  From a Syrian point of view, why not let the U.S. take care of the region’s Abu Ghadiyas?   And as for the timing, it’s better for Damascus to let the U.S. finish the job now and blame the Bush administration, whose reputation in the Middle East could hardly get worse, and make a fresh start with the Obama or McCain teams.

My Commentary
The comments accuse the post’s writer of merely following a right-wing agenda, trying to disguise or legitimize American agression.  Ok, but how do we explain that this mission just happens to fit in with Syria’s stated security goals? 

 Governments, almost by definition, say one thing and do another.  There wouldn’t be anything especially unusual about the Syrian government making a public show about “US agression” while having had full knowledge of it all along.  No government’s statements can be taken at face value.  Could Italy’s protests following the 2003 CIA kidnappings in Milan be taken at face-value?  I don’t think so. 

Also,  if in fact the raid was green-lighted, there is the possibily (even likelihood) that only the Security apparatus and highest level political people would know about it and  therefore the people bitching up the biggest storm could genuinely think that Syria got shafted when in fact it didn’t. 





Is Pope Shenuda Violating the Concept of Citizenship?

  A few days ago Ibrahim Eissa, editor of Egypt’s  Al-Dostor newspaper, had an interesting op-ed  questioning whether Pope Shenuda, leader of the Egyptian Christians, was violating the concept of citizenship with his (alleged)  interference in political affairs.  Is he a Pope or a Zaim ( political leader)?  asked Eissa.

The Copts consist of at least 7 million of Egypt’s 78 million and generally adhere to the principle of secularism and citizenship, in the sense that they try to play down religious differences under the law.  They know that numerically they can never compete with the Muslims, so for the most part they espouse secular citizenship.   This is understandable as some Islamist parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, argue as part of their official platform that neither Copts or women should be eligible to run for President.  

Pope Shenuda (mid-80s) , the leader of the Coptic Church since the early 1970s has been in Ohio for the last couple months receiving medical treatment.  Upon his return to Cairo he was greeted at the airport by an official government delegation.  Eissa article addresses this.

The Article
Its great that Pope Shenuda is greeted like this… but its evidence that the Egyptian state is distancing itself from the principle of citizenship.  This was clearly a political delegation.  The Pope is being treated as political leader of the Copts and not as their religious symbol (which Eissa views is a mistake)

Before anyone misunderstands, let me reiterate my deep respect for the Pope.  I only wish Egyptian Muslims had a leader they could love and respect so much, instead of the state appointed clerics who lack any legitimacy or credibility.

However, this doesn’t prevent me from saying that Pope Shenuda has turned the Coptic Church into his personal monopoly.  Coptics have transformed from people of his Church to citizens of his church.  Notice how delegations were sent to his Hospital bed in Ohio, not to discuss trivial religious affairs, but things much more important.  ..Notice how everyone was saying “wait till the Pope returns” before we can settle these affairs.   It goes to the extent that we don’t know if he is the Coptic religious guide or political guide.

This is a dangerous game and a violation of the principle of Citizenship that Copts and Muslims both call for.  And the NDP plays right along in their treatment of Pope Shenuda.    Note the recent announcement of a major Bishop that he and most of the Church leadership would be supporting Gamal Mubarak in future presidential elections is a  clear intervention in politics. 

Closing the article:  “Thanks be to God that the Pope has gotten better, but now we call on him to open the doors of the Church to let the Copts act as citizens of the state and not as citizens of the Coptic Church.”

As a non-Egyptian its not my place to comment on what “should” or “should not” be happening in Egypt. 

But Eissa brings up a lot of good points, and it does seem that the Pope’s behavior and especially the recent endorsement of Gamal Mubarak by a major Bishop is not consistent with the principle of citizenship or secular separation of religion and state that the Copts often call for.

Give them some Goggles!

Robert Worth has an EXCELLENT article  in the New York Times on recent efforts to strengthen the Lebanese Army.  

A few weeks back I posted about the rising Salafi presence in the Levant which are thriving post-2005 Syrian withdrawal because of the power vacuum that emerged after the most powerful force suddenly disappeared.  Ie these groups can move around almost at will, at least in Lebanon, because there is noone to stop them.  So the question then that I posed is 

 I argued in this post that perhaps a Syrian reoccupation (or at least a strong presence in)  of Lebanon is the best option for the long-term stabilization of Lebanon.  Its the most “natural” arrangement and the Syrian presence puts a check on Sunni ambitions in Lebanon and keeps a lid on the kind of Sectarianism we see today.

BlackStar disagreed with my arguement and made a solid case that this would only further increase political tension inside Lebanon.  She argued that the best thing the US could do is focus on strengthening the Lebanese Army.   Basically, the difference here is over how to best bring Security to Lebanon. 

I think they best possible way to do this is have a strong Syrian presence in Lebanon but with Joe Biden bragging about his accomplisments in kicking Hezbollah out of Lebanon (wait he meant Syria right?), the US is not likely to support such a policy any time soon. Not unless someone with the foreign policy Vision of BUSH THE FATHER were to reoccupy the White House but that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Therefore,  I agree with Blackstar that strengthening the Lebanese Army is the most logical option.   And this is what US policy official is:

“United States policy is that Lebanon be sovereign and independent and the Lebanon government and its institutions govern all of Lebanon’s territory and disarm militias,” said Christopher C. Straub, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. “We recognize that is not going to happen overnight, but that is our policy.”

Worth and Eric Liption  provide a run-down of efforts to rearm the Lebanese Army.  The only way that the Lebanese Army can govern effectively Lebanon’s territory  is if it has a monopoly on the use of force.  Traditionally it has not, but it seems to be getting closer with the aid of the US.

1) Choppers-  probably going to have to wait a bit on that one

An important moment for the army came in the summer of 2007, when it fought and won a three-month battle with Islamists in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in the northern city of Tripoli. That struggle, in which 168 soldiers and an unknown number of militants were killed, vividly underscored the need to re-equip the army. With no combat helicopters or precision weapons, the army had to resort to dropping bombs by hand from its Vietnam-era Huey helicopters, a hopelessly inaccurate method that resulted in the near-leveling of the camp.

Although the United States rushed them 40 loads of C-17 transport planes full of ammunition and other gear, army commanders bitterly resented the failure to provide them with more sophisticated arms.

“Nahr al-Bared lasted 105 days,” said one high-level Lebanese officer involved in procurement issues, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “If we had had attack helicopters, it would have been over in 15 days.”

It does seem that this kind of attack helicopter would have made a serious difference.  If they were dropiing bombs by hand out of Helicopters, real combat Helicopters probably would have made a decisive difference.  I see no reason why in the future, they can’t get some serious upgrades in this area.  The biggest problem is the US buracracy, which is really really slow. 

2) Night-vision goggles:  Whats the hold-up here? 

Another stark illustration of Lebanon’s new military ambitions, and its gaping needs, is visible right now on the country’s northern border with Syria. In recent weeks, after a string of bombings in Tripoli that left 20 people dead — most of them Lebanese soldiers — the military sent 8,000 soldiers to the border to monitor smuggling routes across the northern mountains.

That effort alone was a measure of Lebanon’s new independence from Syria. But the border control force was too small, and it lacked necessary equipment, Lebanese military officials say.

“They have no U.A.V.’s, no night-vision equipment, none of the sensors they use in other countries to tell if what you’re seeing is a threat or just an animal,” the Lebanese procurement officer said, using the abbreviation for unmanned aerial vehicles. “Let’s say you have 50 valleys in one area, and you have soldiers posted on hilltops. They can watch during the day, but at night they can do nothing.”

We know that Lebanon is, to some extent, used as a way station for Al-Qaeda affiliated militants.  Smugglers must be laughing knowing that the Lebanese Army doesn’t have Nigh-Vision Goggles. Any anti-smuggling operation is virtually useless if one is only capable of being effective during the day as anyone who has stood in a rural area at night can attest.   So whats the hold-up here?  There is nothing especially politically  sensitive about providing night-vision goggles.

3) Air-defense system-   your probably not going to get one:

And it is heavier weapons that are most needed, Lebanese officials say. In particular, they want an air defense system, which would allow them to argue that they could completely replace Hezbollah as a warding force against Israel in the south.

“It’s the ABC of any army to have the capacity to defend itself,” the Lebanese procurement officer said. “During the 2006 war, Israeli aircraft were shooting from 300 meters up.”

The US State Department might talk about disarming Hezbollah but they know that this is just lipservice.  Its not going to happen.  At least not any time soon.  Any US aid to the Lebanese army that might allow them to “argue that they could completely replace Hezbollah as a warding force against Israel in the south” should probably be avoided. Any effort to do the physical “replacing” would be explosive politically.  I see know reason why a strong Hezbollah militia (who can be used as a buffer zone in the South, preventing any confrontation between Israel and Jihadists) and a strong Lebanese Army has to be mutually exclusive. 

But even more importantly, I find it extremely unlikely that the US woudl even consider giving Lebanon, a nation technically still at war with Israel, an air defense system is hard to fathom.  Congress, under pressure from pro-Israeli groups, is highly unlikely to ever go along with that.   I’m not sure its a good idea at all any way as it would take Lebanon to “the brink” as far as a showdown between the Army and Hezbollah and that’s something to be avoided.

Still, I see no reason why they couldn’t be provided with Night-Vision Goggles.  All in all,  a very well researched article on an important strategic issue.

Yeah I Agree.

Loyal MediaShack reader Blackstar sent me an email today complaining about  the site’s recent focus exclusively on Al-Qaeda and Salafism (apparently she’s not a Salafist).  I hadn’t really thought of it like that but when I looked at the themes of the last 40 post I realized she had a point.  MediaShack does not aim to focus exclusively on Islamist movements  but on Middle Eastern politics.  Another goal of MediaShack is to reflect the contents of the Arabic press  so readers who don’t know Arabic can get a sense of what people are talking or thinking about on the “Arab Street.”  Recently this might not be happening.  So to restore some balance, for the next seven days MediaShack will not be covering Al-Qaeda or Salafism.

Is the Taliban About to Turn Zawahiri Over to the US?

Dia Rashwan, the noted Egyptian Al-Qaeda analyst, said at a recent conference in Cairo that the Afghan government is negotiating with the Taliban.   The potential deal:  The Taliban turns over Ayman Zawahiri in exchange for Taliban participation in the political process and an end to the war with the government.   The negotiations are being carried out under Saudi oversight and the US wants them to end before Bush leaves giving him a victory in the war against terrorism.  

Source here is  Al-Dostor (10/24, p4) which  apparently does not get the concept of putting today’s news on the net the day it comes out.  IslamOnline also has good coverage of the conference and notes that Rashwan could see the Taliban sacrificing Zawahiri but not Bin Laden because that relationship is deeper: 

 ويقول رشوان: باعتقادي أن طالبان من الممكن أن تضحي بالظواهري لكنها لن تضحي ببن لادن لعلاقته الوثيقة بطالبان

As for the source- remember this is not AHMED CAFE CHAIR. Dia Rashwan is one of the most respected Arab commentators on Al-Qaeda and is often cited by Western researchers. 

If the US were able to pull this off, it would be a tremendous coup and should take the deal in a second. 

As I’ve said all along, the Taliban is not_a_natural_and_permanent enemy of the US.  They are an unsophisticated group of local Afghan Islamists who care first and foremost about local Afghan rule.  Afghanistan is only a threat to the US when it is ungoverned, allowing Arab fanatics (Al-Qaeda) to use it as a base to plan operations against the US.  Mullah Omar was willing to discuss turning over Bin Laden in the late 1990s.  Only after 9/11 did the Taliban become_an_enemy of the US.   A Taliban that turns on Al-Qaeda is not an enemy of the US, and if they are the only force that is capable of effectively governing Afghanistan than so be it. 

Secondly, to the extent that AQ is a  central organization (which is doubtful)  Zawahiri and not Bin Laden is the guy that makes things happen. So if he were turned over it would be a serious blow to the organization’s operational capacity, not to mention a major PR victory for the US.

Can We Stop Calling These Guys Members of Al-Qaeda?

Rafa Taha and Mustafa Hamza are two  members of the Egyptian Islamic Group (Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiya).    In American terrorism literature, however, these two names, are often held up as members of Islamic Group that joined al-Qaeda.  Or the discourse is framed as “the group splintered into two, and the overseas group joined Al-Qaeda.”  Islam Online reports that the Egyptian government gave them special permission to go home for Ramadan which ended a few weeks ago:

وأضافت المصادر التي فضلت عدم ذكر اسمها أن: “حمزة الصادر بحقه حكمان بالإعدام، حصل على إفراج مؤقت في شهر رمضان الماضي قام فيه بزيارة أهله، وهو ما تكرر في عيد الفطر”، مؤكدة أن هذا الإفراج جاء بعد قبول حمزة بمراجعات الجماعة الإسلامية ومبدأ المصالحة مع الدولة الذي تبنته الجماعة بعد مبادرة وقف العنف 1997.

وفي السياق نفسه أكدت المصادر الأمنية ذاتها أن رفاعي طه رئيس مجلس شورى الجماعة الإسلامية السابق، والذي تسلمته مصر من سوريا في 2001 بعد اختطافه وهو في طريقه إلى السودان، قد حصل على إفراج مماثل خلال عيد الفطر الماضي.

If these guys were, in fact, Qaeda members, they certainly wouldn’t be allowed to leave jail during Ramadan.

Good Reads

– I missed this excellent Robert Worth NY Times  article on the brewing_storm in North Lebanon.  Check it out.

-Also, Asharq Al-Awsat, which in my opinion is the best Middle Eastern newspaper, has on the scene reporting about the Pakistani Awakening Forces.  It looks like a solid article although I havent read it yet.   Eventually I will and pass along any relevant info to non-Arabic readers.