March 31, 2012

Annan's Syrian Plan Circles Drain

Kofi Annan is presumably acting with good intentions. When he flatters Bashar al-Assad with the slightest expectations, Annan is speaking from a lack of options to end Syria's bloodshed. He must stay neutral or al-Assad could run off like a frightened deer - except al-Assad is no deer and Syria isn't experiencing a crisis to be resolved ASAP. Annan's conflict resolution has little immediate place in a revolutionary conflict. While Syria's revolutionaries continue to fight for their lives and future, the United Nations and Arab League are fighting to sell their failed proposal.

"The government must stop first and then discuss a cessation of hostilities with the other side," Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told reporters on Friday morning, three days after al-Assad ”accepted" the former secretary-general's six-point initiative. "We are appealing to the stronger party to make a gesture of good faith... The deadline is now."

This reasoning is fatally distorted by the intense nature of Syria's burning revolution. Attempting to counter widespread doubts over the AL/UN proposal, Fawzi insists, "We expect him to implement this plan immediately." Where their expectation comes from (beyond propaganda and desperation) is a mystery. al-Assad's regime has intentionally scuttled the Arab League's diplomacy and "negotiations" with Annan were paired with assaults on oppositional territory. The Local Coordination Committees estimated that upwards of 50 people were killed on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. al-Assad is speaking through violence and has no intention of "making a gesture of good faith."

The Annan plan "specifically asks the government to withdraw its troops, to cease using heavy weapons in populated centers," Fawzi said. "The very clear implication here is that the government must stop first and then discuss a cessation of hostilities with the other side and with the mediator."

According to various media sources, al-Assad will deliver a speech next week that offers a ceasefire on the condition that Syria's rebels halt their operations first. He is almost certain to blame the opposition for all of the state's woes and vindicate the regime's "leadership." Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdessi gave a preview on Friday night, saying that military units won't withdraw from "any zone" until it "returns to normal life." Normal, to Makdessi, means the killing and taking of hostages by opposition forces, but his slander transcends the physical. Normal is simple code for prerevolutionary - the thought that Syria's revolution doesn't exist. In comments that are sure to be echoed by al-Assad, Makdessi declared on state TV, "The battle to bring down the state in Syria has already ended and the battle of reinforcing stability has started."

"The regime wants to send a message to the Friends of Syria that all is well and they have control of the situation, to break the morale of the revolution," said Wadi Jamal, a coordinator between the Syrian National Council (SNC) and Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Foreign powers are clearly stalling for time just as al-Assad is. Although many Western and Gulf officials doubted the sincerity of his latest response, the UN's rhetoric is gashed by a major disconnect with al-Assad's personality. The international community is currently adding to the opposition's division by pushing a divisive political initiative upon them, one that stipulates a dialogue with al-Assad despite his brutal insistence to remain in power. SNC chairman Burhan Ghalioun has yet to solidify his standing with local Syrians, but the exile may speak for many revolutionaries when he announced, "We have no illusions over the possibility of the mission's success because Bashar Assad and the Syrian regime have no credibility to engage in a political process. It will soon become obvious the regime won't even implement the first clause of the agreement."

The opposition's problems also distract from the reality that Western and Gulf states are divided on a course of action - they might not be able to decide on their scale of intervention even when given a transparent opposition. Meanwhile al-Assad remains flanked by a unified Moscow and Beijing, who supported Annan's shuttle diplomacy as a means of relieving pressure on al-Assad and themselves. They also expect to subvert Annan's proposal by shifting the burden of responsibility to Syria's opposition and involved foreign powers - a classic counterrevolutionary tactic. Before al-Assad had done anything at all, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told reporters on Tuesday, "this is a step forward... Now it's the opposition's turn."
"We'd like to call on Syria's opposition to make responses as soon as possible to create conditions for opening dialogue and stopping violence," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei added on Friday.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is presently highlighting the divisions between Western and Gulf capitals as she attempts to close the gaps before Sunday's "Friends of Syria" conference. Stopping over in Riyadh en route to Istanbul, Clinton fulfilled one of al-Assad's stipulations by applying her brakes to King Abdullah's suspected arming of the opposition. Whether Washington genuinely or only publicly opposes a weaponization process remains unknown; a double game with Riyadh and its hegemonic arm, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), is easily playable. According to media reports, Clinton responded "very well said" after Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told her, "The arming of the opposition is a duty, I believe, because it cannot defend itself without weapons."

Washington and Riyadh have succeeded if their objective is to manufacture a legitimate cause to intervene. Otherwise a massive amount of pressure to arm Syria's revolutionaries is due to erupt on Sunday. Unimpressed with Annan's diplomacy and the international proposal that he represents, Ghalioun considers al-Assad's "acceptance" to be "another lie and a maneuver" to disguise his crackdown. Similarly, the Syrian Revolution's activists on Facebook reported to the Arab League's "national dialogue" by posting, "The Muslims and the Arabs have abandoned us ... but God is with us ... and our determination will carry us to victory."

Ghalioun says the council and its allies have "repeatedly called for the arming of the Free Syrian Army. We want the 'Friends of Syria' conference to live up to this demand."

Implementation of a "safe no-fly zone" into Turkey forms the other half of an asymmetric struggle to oust al-Assad's regime. His flirtation with Annan indicates an organized drive to pit his foes against each other, and the strongman will feed on discord if the SNC and its alleged friends cannot reach an agreement on Sunday. Syria's current narrative in the media is focusing on the lack of a "Plan B" and accompanying low expectations hovering over Istanbul, but the summit is packed with significance: the potential to force a strategic review in Washington.

March 30, 2012

Neoliberal Egypt: The Hijacked Revolution

By Dr Jason Hickel, published in Al Jazeera:

London, United Kingdom - The ouster of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 set off a spate of political reforms in Egypt culminating in the recent parliamentary elections and the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. Yet the meaning of the 2011 "revolution" remains far from decided.

When Egyptians rose up last year, it was not only against tyranny and political repression, but also against the neoliberal economic order - designed by the United States - that has generated hunger, poverty and inequality in Egypt since the 1980s. For most people, these latter concerns were at least as pressing as the former, though they have been completely obscured in the prevailing media discourse. Now the tragedy is that, when it comes to economic policy, Egypt’s new rulers seem set to reproduce more of the same.

Khairat el-Shater - multimillionaire businessman, deputy chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood, and likely candidate for prime minister of the coalition government - has been forthright about his economic ideology. He promotes a version of Islam that explicitly valourises free-market capitalism. He has clamped down on dissent among those within the Brotherhood who hold different ideas about how the economy should be run. El-Shater's partner, Hassan Malek, the Brotherhood's next most influential businessmen, has advocated for policies along similar lines.

While hoping to train a higher-skilled workforce and build the country's manufacturing base for import substitution (two concessions to the economic left within the Brotherhood), el-Shater has openly espoused free markets, deregulation and other policies geared toward attracting foreign direct investment - the pillars of neoliberal economics.

The Brotherhood's new position on economic policy has delighted the United States. US lawmakers have pushed hard since the beginning of the uprising to foster a form of political Islam compatible with US economic interests and the ideology of the Washington Consensus. When Senators John Kerry and John McCain opened the Egyptian Stock Exchange in a made-for-TV moment last June, it was clear to all that the US would seek - in a characteristically cynical move - to hijack the cries for freedom echoing from Tahrir Square in order to promote the "freedom" of deregulated market capitalism.

As far as the US is concerned, it doesn’t much matter if the people in power are tyrannical dictators or political Islamists, so long as they align with US economic policy. This was certainly true under Mubarak, who, with the help of the US, implemented a battery of macroeconomic reforms that shifted wealth and power to the upper socioeconomic strata of the population...

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Dr Jason Hickel teaches Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has contributed political critique and analysis to various magazines, including Foreign Policy in Focus, The Africa Report, Pambazuka, MR Zine and Thought Leader. Currently, he is co-editing an interdisciplinary volume titled Ekhaya: The Politics of Home in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

March 28, 2012

Yemen's Usual Scapegoats: al-Qaeda and Iran

He claims to have come in peace.

In Sana'a to reaffirm Washington's grip on Yemen's two-year transitional period and the country in general, America's Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs needed to point his fingers at someone else. Jeffrey Feltman and his handlers knew just who to blame too. “Iran operations are similar to those (of) al-Qaeda,” he told reporters on Wednesday. "Iran tries to exploit uncertainty and unhappiness in countries of the region."

The Secretary's remarks are likely to be consumed with minimal resistance from Washington and the American public, both of which accept U.S. hegemony in Yemen as the cost of doing business in the war against al-Qaeda. Feltman's calculated statements are also pervaded by the invisible errors of a failed policy, one that has left America nearly as unpopular as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Obama administration placed itself on the wrong side of history by strongly backing Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime just before the revolution took off in January 2011. A billion dollar aid packaged was reluctantly put on hold to create minor distance wit the regime, but the construction of a now-finished drone base was accelerated from two years to eight months. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia then enlisted their powerful friends, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and European Union (EU), to manipulate Yemen's transition, improving on Egypt's original contingency by replacing Saleh with his vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Saleh would eventually sign the GCC's power-sharing proposal in Riyadh, far from Yemen's revolutionary protests, in November 2011. Three months later, the United Nations hailed Hadi's ascension to the presidency following a single-candidate vote.

Of course U.S. officials will never admit that Washington is one of Yemen's leading importers of instability, but most Yemenis cannot be blinded to this reality. Supporting Saleh's regime in reaction to AQAP's expansion has generated a vast amount of chaos, starting with the errant round of cruise missiles that killed dozens of civilians in December 2009. From here the Obama administration justified all of its undemocratic and criminal acts with the threat of AQAP, contributing to the common belief that America values its national security above human rights. Worse still, many Yemenis accuse Saleh of encouraging AQAP's growth as a means of securing Washington's favor, in turn yielding new air-strikes and counterterrorism support. This pattern is vividly imprinted on Abyan governorate, where AQAP took control of the local capital under suspicious circumstances. For months Saleh's U.S.-funded counterterrorism units, the Republican Guard and Central Security Organization, abandoned Zinjibar to a depleted brigade of the military, resulting in an escalation drone strikes.

Throughout this time Saleh's counterterrorism units terrorized Yemen's revolutionaries in the streets.

As part of his plan to retain Washington's protection, Saleh would later commit new forces to Zinjibar after numerous appeals from the Obama administration. Although fighting in the area continues to this day, the strongman and U.S. ambassador Gerald Feierstein emerged the day before 9/11 to declare victory against AQAP. Around the same time John Brennan, the White House's counterterrorism chief and informal ambassador to Yemen, began to tell the media that cooperation with Saleh's regime was "better than it's been in years." By no coincidence a similar takeover of Rada'a followed Hadi's promotion to the presidency; AQAP's attack on a base near Zinjibar also bore evidence of military subversion. The strategy of exploiting al-Qaeda's growth to maintain authority is thus employed by Saleh and Washington alike.

This strategy is further manifested in the GCC's power-sharing agreement, which manipulated a power-starved opposition to isolate Yemen's pro-democracy movement. Although sold as the only alternative to civil war, the U.S.-sponsored initiative was designed to end Yemen's revolution (labeled a political crisis by the international community) as quickly as possible. AQAP cannot be allowed to operate with relative freedom, U.S. officials argue, so Yemen's people again took the blame for Saleh's action. "The details of the restructure and dialogue will be decided by the Yemeni people," Feltmen told reporters, but all available evidence indicates the opposite outcome.

The Pentagon has spent months searching for new middlemen in the Yemeni military and, if Washington gets its way again, the U.S. will function as the real decider.

On top of placing a controllable figure in Yemen's presidential office, Saleh himself remains in the country and is predictably asserting what's left of his authority. His son and nephew - Ahmed and Yayha - still lead the Republican Guard and CSO while his General People's Congress controls half of the government ministries. Saleh sits at the GPC's head and recently threatened to jail the JMP's Mohammed Saleh Basendowah, Yemen's new Prime Minister, after he visited the revolutionaries in Change Square. These developments prompted the Obama administration to task Brennan and Feltman on Saleh's detail, but their mild warnings couldn't even name the strongman. Shortly beforehand, the unpopular Feierstein began to stir the Iranian rumors that Feltman would replay with reporters.

In sum, the Obama administration has pivoted from Saleh's own instability to Iran in a few propaganda steps. Feltman even attempted to defend his active politicking by adding, "Saleh would not be an ordinary citizen, but a former president." Other reports claim that Feierstein signed off on allowing Ahmed to run in 2014's presidential election, a rumor that is as good as truth until conclusively refuted. Feltman concludes with his deadliest fallacy of all, saying the Obama administration is “convinced in the long term, a managed transition plan to a democratic election in February 2014... is the best long-term policy against al-Qaeda.”

America's "best long-term policy" would support the will of Yemen's people, not manage the remnants of a despotic government that survives on AQAP's growth.

March 27, 2012

Another Bloody Step Forward In Syria

After months of haggling with the Arab League and UN powers in the Security Council, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced on Tuesday that he finally extracted an agreement from Syria's Bashar al-Assad. This news verges on the redundant - al-Assad's regime conditionally accepted Annan's international offer last weekend - but his latest reply is perceived as the first step to halting Syria's bloodshed. With Moscow and Beijing encouraging the strongman to accept generous political terms from the UN, Annan met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao before telling reporters, "I indicated that I had received a response from the Syrian government and will be making it public today, which is positive, and we hope to work with them to translate it into action."

If one squints hard enough, al-Assad's "response" could begin to take the shape of real movement towards a ceasefire, especially in the absence of an alternative. On a positive note, media access has gradually improved from quarantine levels and a spokesman from the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) reported some improvements on the ground. "We have much better access than ever before, not only to Homs but to other areas," says Saleh Dabbakeh. "It's easier to get authorization from the authorities than before."

Unfortunately Annan's proposal has yet to transform from a recipe for disaster. Even if al-Assad's security forces pull back in accordance with UN demands, expanding protests are likely to generate a repeat of January's aborted AL mission and the government's corresponding assaults in oppositional territory. Anticipating a potential breakdown, Western officials skeptically welcomed al-Assad's response to a proposal that the U.S., European and Gulf states have advocated for months. William Hague, Britain's Foreign Secretary, called al-Assad's overture "a significant first step towards bringing an end to the violence... if it is genuinely and seriously meant," but "that has not been the case with previous commitments the regime has made." Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, added from Washington, "I have to tell you that my own experience with him is you want to see steps on the ground and not just take his word at face value."

Echoing these statements, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton highlighted, "the initial step that the Assad regime has written the United Nations to accept the Annan plan. Let me just pause here to say, however, that given Assad’s history of over-promising and under-delivering, that commitment must now be matched by immediate actions. We will judge Assad’s sincerity and seriousness by what he does, not by what he says. If he is ready to bring this dark chapter in Syria’s history to a close, he can prove it by immediately ordering regime forces to stop firing and begin withdrawing from populated areas."

al-Assad's regime maintained its assault throughout weeks of communication with Annan and continues to target oppositional elements in the present hour. "The old city of Homs has been under shelling for 18 days," said Saif Hurria, an anti-government activist. al-Assad also visited the decimated Hama neighborhood of Baba Amr to blame its conditions on the revolutionaries, pledging that "life will return to normal in Baba Amr, better than it was before." Annan's proposal was never mentioned.

Due to a combination of political and military factors, the odds of a permanent or temporarily ceasefire are too low to translate into reality. Syria's opposition remains open to exploring any avenue that interrupts a vicious cycle of violence, but the terms of Annan's proposal are heavily skewed in al-Assad's favor. Western powers have already ceded their demand that al-Assad resign in order to secure Russian and Chinese support, an arrangement that undercuts Syria's opposition. Annan claims that Moscow is "prepared... to work with me not only in supporting the approach and the plans I've put on the table but also in encouraging the parties to move in the same direction." Ongoing developments, though, indicate otherwise. Amid high-profile negotiations between President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, President Dmitry Medvedev rejected al-Assad's exit as a “shortsighted” and unrealistic plan to "resolve the country’s conflict."

While his removal by no means guarantees a stale outcome, al-Assad and his foreign allies expect the prospect of civil war to capitulate Western and Gulf powers. The regime's survival will be secured by utilizing cosmetic reforms.

The lack of consensus for dialogue within the opposition is equally problematic. Members of the Syrian National Council (SNC) have emphasized the overriding urgency to end the bloodshed, but the group is justifiably suspicious of al-Assad's intentions. Many public actors vocally expect another trap. One spokeswoman, Basma Kodmani, said the opposition's demand that al-Assad resign "will never change... What we are saying here is that if this can open the way for a peaceful transition of power, this is what we would like to see."

"A peaceful transition means that the regime needs to be changed," she said. "And that starts with the removal of the head of the state."

These types of statements will provide al-Assad with his latest political escape; international pressure is already shifting back to the opposition, giving him additional pretexts to renege on the League's initiative. Last weekend al-Assad demanded that the revolutionaries disarm before entering into a dialogue, establishing the conditions for a future spoiler. Clinton and other Western officials have chosen a similar path for divergent reasons, saying the opposition "must clearly demonstrate a commitment to including all Syrians and respecting the rights of all Syrians, and we are going to be pushing them very hard to present such a vision."

Although unity and coordination is vital during a revolution, foreign capitals on both sides of the power equation have set unrealistic demands for a varied opposition. They understandably seek a transparent party before offering full political and military support, but they should also accept the inherent principles of netwar. The State Department's Victoria Nuland confronted these difficulties on Tuesday, saying, "these groups are, for the first time, coming together and trying to work together. Many of them don’t know each other. They’re having to build trust, they’re having to build common ground. So it’s not surprising that it’s taking time." Nevertheless, Western powers remain guilty of seeking the quickest end to a protracted struggle, viewing the conflict through conventional eyes rather than a revolutionary mind.

UN powers demand that the opposition unify in the near future so that a dialogue can begin with the regime.

Moscow continues to exploit the opposition's disorganization for its own purposes. As Western and Gulf powers encourage the SNC to establish a common vision of Syria during their summit in Istanbul, Russia's Alexander Lukashevich condemned the meeting for not "looking for dialogue that could put an end to the conflict." According to the Foreign Ministry spokesman, "The participants in Istanbul meeting are preparing for foreign intervention and they are not seeking solution for national dialogue or a peaceful settlement to the crisis in Syria." His statements, which are displayed prominently on SANA state media, encompass both the opposition and international community. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov overtly broadcast al-Assad's strategy to scapegoat the SNC: "this is a step forward…now it's the opposition's turn."

As if the strongman has offered anything to the opposition beyond bullets and shells.

Despite its international accolades, the AL/UN's proposal remains an inherently unequal and unstable plan to end Syria's revolution. Both al-Assad and the international community's interests are weighed above Syria's opposition, contributing to the disharmony between its layers. Past experiences aren't required to judge the future of al-Assad's latest political maneuver. The present is its own evidence that Syria just took another step towards a longer, costlier war.

March 26, 2012

Info Battle Rages Over Bahrain's BICI

Seemingly taking their cues from a vintage mafia tactic, many Arab governments under the threat of revolution have attempted to lure their foes into a meeting under false pretenses. Hosni Mubarak reached his hand out just before his presidency crumbled. The "dialogue of death" struck viciously in Yemen and Syria, where the international community has bargained with dictators to contain the spill of civil war. Foreign powers also view a dialogue as their window into influencing a country's revolutionary transition, in turn facilitating each regime's maneuvers and prolonging the conflicts.

Revolutionaries are invariably left out of the political transition that they died to advance.

Bahrain's "National Dialogue" exemplified these failures by inviting only five members of the largest opposition group, Al Wefaq, to attend formulaic meetings with the government. The system of receiving recommendations quickly broke down under political and time constraints, and Al Wefaq withdrew shortly afterward. The group later admitted that it only participated to deflect accusations of playing Bahrain's spoiler. King Hamad's ensuing Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) stumbled without direction for the same reason: a pervasive lack of trust in the monarchy itself. Only King Hamad and his supporters refuse to submit to the opposition's terms, going so far as to combine the two initiatives in the findings of his "National Commission."

The King also praised the Saudi-bankrolled Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for defending Bahrain's sovereignty against a nameless, omnipresent Iran: "Security and stability are a major pillar for growth, progress and reform, and what harms the country's stability affects its sovereignty and opens the door to foreign intervention."

The sum of King Hamad's alleged reforms and his incendiary applause for the GCC's Peninsula Shield have provoked the usual doubts from Bahrain's opposition movement. One Al Wefaq member, Hadi al-Moussawi, countered over the weekend, "The king has repeatedly thanked security forces accused of violations, so what would we expect from a report that was handed over to the king who is thanking those who committed crimes?" The BICI has predictably degenerated into a point of division instead of functioning as source of unity. Beyond covering up its own crimes against the Bahraini people, King Hamad's monarchy commissioned the BICI in order to appease powerful international backers - specifically the United States and Saudi Arabia.

These intentions produced an unavoidably hollow initiative.

Although the government claims to have implemented 75% of the BICI's recommendations, few protesters trust the government's ability to integrate Shias into the police force, or punish high-ranking officials involved in torture cases. Ongoing clashes with street protesters mar announcements from the monarchy. Most importantly, the government's extensive recommendations are void of the political overhaul that opposition groups and protesters demand. Leading activist Nabeel Rajab could speak for many younger protesters when he targeted King Hamad as "the one legally and morally responsible of the violations practiced against the Bahrainis."

“Personally, I am against the use of the Molotov, and so are the political assemblies," he said. "However, some could resort to its use due to the worsening situation."

As threatened governments often do, Bahrain's Interior Ministry holds Al Wefaq responsible for the street movement's independent acts of violence. In doing so, the
government has trapped itself in a fatal circle refusing to sincerely cooperate with the opposition and rejecting blame for the consequences. This policy represents a breeding ground for civil disobedience and the low-intensity spectrum of fourth-generation warfare (4GW).

On Monday Al Wefaq released an official response to the King's statements, countering and dispelling many of his findings line by line. The continual and widespread application of force, which undermines the entire BICI, is a dominant theme. Both sides clearly view the report as a battle line, not a neutral area of compromise, and monitor any possibility of dialogue with a similar mindset. King Hamad's government perceives all of these tools as a means of ending the uprising without caving to a political overhaul. Al Wefaw, Waad and their allies, on the other hand, view the monarchy's outreach as a formality that cannot be rejected outright.

The opposition is already blamed for destroying the negotiating process - even though Al Wefaq has supported a dialogue at the cost of its own street appeal.

Absent concrete confidence-building measures, Bahrain's trust gap is too far to bridge with government-initiated commissions. Instead of fostering a peaceful atmosphere to grow his initiatives, Bahrain becomes particularly unstable during Hamad's outreach and the accompanying police crackdown. The King's attempts to secure his island have aggravated Bahrain's political and ethnic fault lines, pushing the country deeper into an economic crisis and prolonging the conflict's time-line. As long as he manipulates his commissions as instruments of authority, King Hamad's monarchy will spend years gassing marches and funeral processions in the name of stability.

March 25, 2012

Afghan Victims Forgotten in Washington's Blame Game

Mohammed Wazir, the newest face of America's war in Afghanistan

The remorse came flooding into Panjwai as quickly as it drained into oblivion. Condolences, promises to hold a swift investigation and, most importantly, assurances that the cold-blooded shootings of one U.S. soldier don't speak for Afghanistan's entire foreign military presence. Just as he had done following Bagram's Quran bonfire, President Barack Obama phoned Hamid Karzai to assure him that Robert Bales' actions won't be repeated. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta soon told reporters in Kabul, "we extended our deepest condolences to the families, to the villages and to the Afghan people over what occurred. And I again pledged to him that we are - we are proceeding with a full investigation here and that we will bring the individual involved to justice."

Except the idea of swift justice has more to do with clearing Bales from the news cycle than anything else. Now all Washington and Bales' lawyers are interested in is pointing fingers at each other.

Given the accessibility gap between an individual's history and two unsecured Afghan villages, the world began to consume the murky details of Robert Bales before Balandi and Alkozai came into clearer view. Thousands of reports have attempted to uncover Bales's background after his profile was illuminated by leaks from the Obama administration: alcohol use and "domestic problems." These angles are designed to simultaneously explain why he "snapped" and deflect attention away from his over-deployment, and thus draw attention away from the war itself. The administration then sprayed another layer of propaganda over Panjwai, deploying-ranking officials such as Panetta, CJCS Martim Dempsey and commanding general John Allen to laud NATO's progress on the military front.

Panjwai is an inconvenience, another "incident" that Washington and Kabul need to move forward from.

Responding to questions about the connection between Bales's massacre and reports of a recent IED in the area, U.S. Army spokesman Gary Kolb answered with a universal statement: "we won't speak to any specifics of what some of the villagers are saying." That's left the villagers themselves to fill the information sphere even though Afghans are more likely to believe themselves. Those who perceive Bales's actions as retaliation for the alleged IED include Mohammed Wazir, the man who lost his mother, wife and all but one child in the shooting - 11 family members in total. He also keeps an open kind to the multiple-gunman theory that proliferated in the villages, despite Kabul's public conclusion that no witness saw a second gunman with their own eyes.

In either case, the Obama administration will be unable to force its version of the massacre on Afghans who complain of being left in the dark. Wazir points to U.S. claims that only one shooter committed the shootings, saying, "It shows that they are not interested in the truth. At least they should wait for an investigation." He added that no U.S. officials "have come to investigate, or to talk to us, or seen the village." The truth could be equally defeating; two U.S. investigators said that Bales likely returned to base before continuing his personal night raid. That leaves the base itself to be viewed as complicit in the attack or else incompetent - something that wasn't supposed to happen after U.S. soldiers charred a box of Qurans.

“When we got to my home," Wazir says, "more than 1,000 people were standing with sticks and hunting guns, saying they wanted to attack the American base."

This animosity is further compounded by witness testimony that U.S. military officials had encouraged villagers to return to the area. After losing his brother, Mohammad Dawood, to one of Bales's first bullets, Mullah Baran captured the all-encompassing breakdown within U.S. "The Americans said they came here to bring peace and security, but the opposite happened. Now, this village is a nest of ghosts."

In regards to the conditions of Bales's trial, Panetta claimed that Karzai accepted the administration's decision to fly him out of the country and hold "a transparent process" for Afghans - as if Karzai had a choice. Livid at being undermined once again, Karzai travelled to the villages and condemned Washington's failure to cooperate with his own investigation. A demand that U.S. troops withdraw from village areas by 2013 soon followed. Karzai knows too well that a failure to punish Bales to the maximum extent will land on his desk, and seems to expect the inevitable. Pulling Bales out of the country represents the fastest motion by the Obama administration. Now that the Pentagon's legal charges are being handed down, Bales's lawyer said he expects the government to face "a very difficult case to prove."

John Henry Browne predicted, "All my cases start out with the government making as many charges as they can and then we spend months, years sometimes - in this case it will be years - whittling them down hopefully."

Afghans affected by the massacre have a closer, speedier trial in mind. They view Bales's return to America as evidence that he will be prosecuted more leniently than his crime warrants; raw distance manifests in the two countries' sense of justice. If Bales isn't put to death immediately, his trial should be held in Afghanistan in order to bring a brief measure of closure to the families. A U.S. trial "is not acceptable to us," Wazir warned during a Friday interview from the border town of Spin Boldak. "We want him to be tried in Afghanistan, in our presence."

Instead of being treated with respect after losing nearly all of family, Wazir has been left on the side of America's war path: "Like anyone, I wanted my children to be doctors, engineers — important people. All my dreams are buried under a pile of dust now."

Other relatives of the deceased complain of similar mistreatment and demand the same justice. Haji Samad, an elder whose family members were among those killed, expressed his feelings in simple terms, saying, "If this man is prosecuted in Afghanistan, we will be relieved. If he is prosecuted in the US, we will be angry and it will remain a pain in our hearts." Naturally the Taliban have incorporated this doubt into their ongoing propaganda. Another man who lost his wife, cousin, brother and 3-year-old granddaughter feels that Washington is intentionally offending Afghans by continuing NATO patrols in the area.

"There is still blood in our houses," said Sayed Jan. "It hasn't been removed. And they are moving through our streets again. It's like they are pushing us, just showing that they can."

According to various reports, all Afghans scarred by Bales's shootings have received compensation for their losses. Karzai immediately distributed $2,000 to the families and later invited them to the Kandahar governor's office, where U.S. military officials handed out additional U.S. payments. Wazir confirmed that he had received $50,000 for each family member, a figure that attempts to reflect the magnitude of his losses, but the current father of one doesn't "consider the money as compensation for human loss." Other Afghans, including Kandahar council member Hajji Agha Lalai, expressed the same opinion.

“We are grateful to the United States government for its help with the grieved families," he said. "But this cannot be counted as compensation for the deaths."

Wazir and his shell shocked neighbors don't want to hear about America's "progress" in their country. They want the justice that they feel has already been robbed from them.

March 24, 2012

Phasing Out the Taliban

When chasing the light at the end of a tunnel, a given individual or party becomes unavoidably susceptible to tunnel vision.

To keep pace with the backlash over a series of "incidents" in Afghanistan, Washington and its allies have relied upon an unchanging script to maintain disciple in their political ranks. "That's the nature of war, and these incidents are going to take place," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reasoned as he briefed reporters on Afghanistan's "significant progress." Among their many soundbites, some U.S. officials resort to the temporal defense that each incident, for lack of a better word, ultimately passes into memory. U.S.-Afghan relations, they argue, can stand the test of time and "build a stable, secure and peaceful Afghanistan." No matter the speaker, each official has been tasked to move on, "stay the course" and retrain America's focus on war fighting - all while promising a speedy withdrawal.

"I wish I could tell you that this war was simple, and that progress could easily be measured," General John Allen, the war's commanding officer, told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. "But that's not the way of counterinsurgencies. They are fraught with success and setbacks, which can exist in the same space and time, but each must be seen in the larger context of the overall campaign. And I believe that the campaign in on track."

This universal optimism should raise its own red flag next to the war's bleaker assessments. Allen would later tell war-weary Senators, "If I think that [plan] is coming off the rails, I will let you know that," but modern history suggests otherwise. He also recommended keeping 68,000 troops - America's pre-surge level - in the country through 2013, with a post-2014 force to be hammered out in the future. Repeatedly questioned about Karzai's various anti-American statements, his proposed limitations on night raid and the effects of NATO's strategy, White House spokesman Jay Carney separately refused to answer: "Look, I think we’re focused on our strategy." He subsequently dodged a line of questions on Allen's 68,000 figure and its effects on a war-weary populace.

Although the administration has fired an enormous amount of propaganda at the American and NATO publics, Carney's statements give the impression that the White House has grudgingly accepted the war's disapproval - when domestic approval is integral to the mission.

In conjunction with Allen's testimony, Martin Dempsey enlisted Washington insider Charlie Rose to spearhead the latest operation within the administration's information counterattack (dating back to Bagram's Quran burning). The new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Afghanistan's ranking general couldn't avoid talking Taliban, so Allen opts for public hyperbole: “I can tell you, unequivocally, three things. First, we remain on track to ensure that Afghanistan will no longer be a safe haven for al-Qaida and will no longer be terrorized by the Taliban,” he said. “Second, as a coalition… we are well along in our progress to meet our 2010 [NATO] commitments to transition security lead to the Afghan national security forces by December 2014. Third, our troops know the difference they are making, and the enemy feels it every day."

Dempsey, on the other hand, shifts from the Taliban to al-Qaeda at the soonest opportunity, adhering to the Obama administration's pattern of phasing the Taliban out of Afghanistan's narrative. The Chairman briefly mentions the Haqqani network, but only within the context of Islamabad's reputed links, and ignores Rose's single question on the suspension of preliminary negotiations. Dempsey instead focuses on "helping Afghans build a national identity" and highlights his objectives: "Ensure that Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for terror operations, leave a government that can defend security and lead to economical development." The insurgency is both everywhere and nowhere - not unlike a guerrilla - but primarily treated as an afterthought for the Afghan army to clean up.

The Taliban isn't mentioned in the Pentagon's write up, nor does the insurgency make an appearance during Panetta's recent press conference in Kabul.

Scrubbing most traces of the Taliban from Afghanistan's script is clearly designed to tone down the war's objectives while still keeping expectations high. With many Americans wondering why U.S. troops must continue to fight for years after Osama bin Laden's death, the administration is poorly positioned to single out the nationalistic Taliban as enemy #1. U.S. officials initially argued that they must kinetically pressure the Taliban's leadership into accepting Washington's negotiating terms, but resilient insurgents and numerous political setbacks have since depleted this explanation's credibility with Americans. Reducing the insurgency's presence in Washington's rhetoric is one of the quickest methods to downplay the reality that U.S. troops are fighting Taliban, not al-Qaeda, for the foreseeable future.

If NATO and Afghan commanders are to be believed, they expect the Taliban to target Kabul as the focal point of summer's annual offensive. Speaking with the Haqqanis in mind, Regional Command East's Maj. Gen. Daniel Allyn told the media, "What most of the insurgent networks share in common in our part of the country is a desire to disrupt the stability of Kabul." Expecting the same "spectacular" attacks that undermined the perception of Afghanistan's security in 2011, Afghan and coalition forces are working to shore up any holes in their layered defense around the capital. General Allen says he wants the Taliban to encounter "at every step of the way resistance of an offensive nature." This information works both angles regardless of the outcome: U.S. officials will minimize the attacks as a sign of weakness or, if few materialize, highlight Kabul's security.

While the capital's perception influences its surrounding area and the international audience in particular, the war's trajectory is more likely to be decided in the east - where the bulk of U.S. casualties will be flown away from. Fighting in the mountainous east, General Allen says, will be "much tougher" than the coalition's southern campaign. The Pentagon had envisioned surging into the south and east before President Barak Obama ducked below its "middle" option of 40,000 troops, a number that Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus supported at the time. Naturally attacks in the east are rising as the Taliban shifts away from NATO forces in the south, creating a vacuum that few outside the Pentagon expect to last.

The Wall Street Journal even reported that "senior American commanders initially planned to reinforce the east" with upwards of a brigade from the south, but "this plan has now been scrapped, in part because of concerns that achievements in the south aren't sustainable enough."

The current plan will attempt to replicate 2011 and 2012's aborted strategy on a smaller scale, utilizing an Afghan presence to guard the southern provinces and relieve American muscle to "take the fight east." Interestingly, media sources would twist the WSJ's original headline from "spring" offensive to "final fighting season," an inaccurate headline for both sides of the war. 2012 represents the last chance for NATO to deal a backbreaking blow to the Taliban; the insurgency's real counteroffensive should begin after Obama's surge exit in October and continue through 2014. The looming withdrawal of NATO forces will also provide new opportunities for the Taliban, and spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid expressed the insurgency's strategy in classic guerrilla terms

"Wherever the enemy boosts its numbers we move to another part where they are outnumbered," he said.

Obama's "compromise" of deploying 33,000 troops cleaved a gap between the Pentagon and GOP that has yet to heal, and he now stands to lose more Democratic support by maintaining a relatively high troop presence through three more fighting seasons. Robert Bales and his four deployments are the temporary face of this reality, surely not the last - eastern Afghanistan may yield more than one downed helicopter over the next two years. The White House and Pentagon are capable of indefinitely avoiding questions on the Taliban, troop withdrawals and declining popularity, but the time remaining on their "stay the course" strategy will eventually expire.

March 23, 2012

U.S. State Department Approves Egyptian Military Aid

The script of counterrevolution:
Today, Secretary Clinton has certified to Congress that Egypt is meeting its obligations under its Peace Treaty with Israel. The Secretary has also waived legislative conditions related to Egypt’s democratic transition, on the basis of America’s national security interests, allowing for the continued flow of Foreign Military Financing to Egypt. These decisions reflect America’s over-arching goal: to maintain our strategic partnership with an Egypt made stronger and more stable by a successful transition to democracy.

Egypt has made significant progress toward democracy in the last 15 months, including: free and fair parliamentary elections and the transfer of legislative authority to the new People’s Assembly, and a date announced for complete transition to civilian leadership. However, Egypt’s transition to democracy is not yet complete, and more work remains to protect universal rights and freedoms. The Egyptian people themselves have made this clear to their own leaders.

The Secretary’s decision to waive is also designed to demonstrate our strong support for Egypt’s enduring role as a security partner and leader in promoting regional stability and peace. Egypt has maintained thirty-plus years of peace with Israel. It contributes to efforts to stop proliferation and arms smuggling and facilitates missions from Afghanistan to counterterrorism in the Horn of Africa.

We are committed to supporting the Egyptian people as they strive for the dignity, opportunity, rights and freedoms for which they have already sacrificed so much. That includes protection for civil society and NGOs, which have a critical role to play in building Egypt’s democracy. We remain deeply concerned regarding the trials of civil society activists—non-Egyptians and Egyptians alike—and have raised these concerns at the highest levels, urging an end to harassment.

The political transition underway is bringing about a new, more democratic Egypt. As this process continues, we look forward to engaging with Egyptians on how we can best support and advance the interests we share. We will, of course, consult closely with the Congress about these issues.

Egyptians are living through one of the most remarkable periods of their thousands of years of history. Today we reaffirm our support for Egypt, for its historic accomplishments to date, for the democratic journey it is on and for our enduring partnership.
The State Department's Victoria Nuland later rejected the notion that the Obama administration is putting national security ahead of human rights. Her lengthy response is cut and pasted from the original script utilized by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Status Quo Rules U.S.-Egyptian Relations

Why would a cadre of generals feel threatened when so many perceive the hollow nature of Washington's stick?

After weeks of debate and speculation within the U.S. Congress, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is finally prepared to clarify the status of military aid to the Egyptian government. All that's left to be reported, though, is the Secretary's self-defense after Senator Patrick Leahy's office preempted her announcement. Leahy is responsible for the democratic conditions that Clinton is obliged to meet and the national security clause that allows her to waive these standards. Naturally information and disinformation is flowing rapidly in all directions as the White House, State Department, Pentagon and Congress compete for Washington's narrative. One "senior State Department official" informed the press on Thursday, "Tomorrow, Secretary Clinton will certify that Egypt is meeting its obligations under its peace treaty with Israel."

This wording translates into the waiver that Leahy's office received on Thursday, along with an admission that Egypt hasn't progressed with a speed acceptable to its people or Washington itself. Of course U.S. officials will disagree with this assessment, and Clinton has distributed her messengers across both sides of the fence.

"On the democracy side, Egypt has made more progress in 16 months than in the last 60 years," another official said of Clinton's decision. "Yet Egypt's transition to democracy is not yet complete, and more work remains to protect universal rights and freedoms, and the role of NGOs and civil society."

"Business as usual"

The idea that Clinton made the final decision on U.S. military aid is almost as unbelievable as Washington's "support" for Egypt's revolutionaries. Many reports have documented the struggle between the State Department, Pentagon and the defense contractors that middleman Egypt's hardware - and the State Department's eventual defeat. Clinton's officials continue to downplay this outcome by advocating a tiered system and tighter controls, but reality is dominated by the Pentagon's shadow.

The predictability of Clinton's waiver and Washington's inter-department battle is matched by the impending political collateral. The unresolved issue continues to divide America's instruments of power, complicating the formulation of a strategically sound and morally sustainable policy. Leahy himself demands an end to Egypt's emergency law before releasing military funds, putting his party at odds with Cairo's powerful backers. Some individuals accuse the Obama administration of compromising their only solid leverage, when Egypt's Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and various political actors turned Washington's aid against itself.

Although the SCAF wants its paycheck, the generals are aware that domestic support for conditional U.S. aid hovers in the 20s. They didn't need to cave even if they were solely responsible for raiding over a dozen NGO offices. Now that Washington is caving instead - after the controversial release of foreign NGO employees - Egyptians have a new angle to look negatively upon the American government. Not that the revolutionaries are unaware of Washington's deep collusion with the SCAF, but a chain of perpetuating crises has spread throughout the Obama administration's response to Egypt's revolution.

David Kramer, the president of Freedom House (and thus a symbolic target in the NGO raids), reacted to the latest news by saying that Washington cares, "only about American NGO workers (who were allowed to leave), not about the aspirations of the Egyptian people to build democracy."

March 21, 2012

More Russian Mind Games In Syria

Nearly five months have elapsed since Abu Dhabi hosted the first annual ministerial between Russia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Billed as a stepping stone to greater integration with Gulf nations, the ministerial is already yielding mixed results amid the war between revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces. Beyond supporting Bahrain's monarchy in anonymity, Moscow would approve Yemen's GCC deal in the UN Security Council (UNSC) shortly before Abu Dhabi's November summit.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is also partly responsible for attempting to duplicate the U.S. brokered power-sharing agreement in Syria, proliferating the "Yemeni model" into the media sphere.

At least one parallel of the GCC deal remains on track in Syria - a long waiting period. Western and Gulf officials needed eight months to extract a signature from Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, who viewed the deal as a last resort to preserving his authority. At one point Saleh's backtracking left Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani empty handed in Sana'a, forcing the infuriated GCC Secretary-General into an embarrassing retreat. A similar breakdown in Syria has added friction to Moscow's collaboration with the GCC; Russia's UNSC veto obstructed the Arab League's push for a Yemeni-inspired transition.

Led by Riyadh, the GCC has since suspended its embassy missions with Damascus and publicly toyed with the thought of arming Syrian revolutionaries.

Now Lavrov is attempting to shrink Syria's waiting period by returning to the "model" that he first promoted in November. Building of his previous critique of Bashar al-Assad's regime, the Minister told local radio station Kommersant-FM that, "the Syrian leadership reacted wrongly to the first appearance of peaceful protests and... is making very many mistakes. This, unfortunately, has in many ways led the conflict to reach such a severe stage." To this end Lavrov voiced his government's support for Kofi Annan's joint AL-UN proposal, which calls for a immediate ceasefire, humanitarian access, release of detainees, freedom of the press, freedom to protest peacefully and an "inclusive Syrian-led political dialogue."

Beneath this half-smile lurks a host of shadows. Rather than pressure al-Assad, Lavrov's has kept Moscow's weight behind the strongman by echoing his own "acceptance" of Annan's plan. Both continue to demand conditional "guarantees" to unconditional talks - starting with the disarming of Syria's rebels - a stalling tactic employed by none other than Ali Saleh. Lavrov is lobbying for a deal that he advocated nearly five months ago, minus the original clause to transfer executive power to a vice president. He now rejects calls for al-Assad's resignation as "unrealistic," while SANA state media reported the UNSC's statement as an affirmation of Syria's sovereignty.

Unfortunately for Syria's revolutionaries, Western and Gulf capitals are temporarily compromising to avoid what is perceived as a costlier and deadlier repeat of Libya's intervention. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indirectly addressed al-Assad on Wednesday, telling reporters, "we say, along with the international community: Take this path, commit to it, or face increasing pressure and isolation." Her spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, later explained, "since the Secretary had a chance to talk to Foreign Minister Lavrov in New York, that we felt that our positions were converging with regard to what needs to be done in Syria, and that we were hopeful that Kofi Annan could play a productive role in bringing the council together."

Washington's ultimate message: "do the right thing." Since when has that happened in the last year?

Moscow's policy may pay a future price for Lavrov's rhetoric, and a government can only walk back so far before it hits a wall. As for the other side of that wall, Western and Gulf powers are forced to take what they can get from Russia and China. This process is similar to mountain climbing: improving the international position through a series of elevating base camps until the summit is reached. However the Arab League's proposal stands a high chance of generating new instability. Despite expressing their desire to end their revolution as soon as possible, most parties within the Syrian opposition rejected Annan's conditions when he arrived in Damascus - a move that drew Lavrov's ire. They have no interest in negotiating with al-Assad's regime or giving up their weapons before his exit. Syrians have launched a revolution, not the "political crisis" that the UN keeps referring to (as it does in Yemen), and they intend to finish their mission.

Political leaders and regular activists only need to look south to glimpse a vision of the Arab League's proposal. Although open civil war had been temporarily averted in Yemen, people continue to die in the south's twisting conflicts involving the Southern Movement and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Saleh remains in the country and is actively subverting the transitional government in preparation for a future re-takeover. Negligible dialogue has taken place between the new government, various political movements and the popular revolutionaries. The unstable arrangement is predictably absurd and conducive to indefinite hostilities, a price that Washington and the GCC are willing to pay in order to maintain influence.

This is the reality of the Arab League's mirage in Syria, and Western capitals are too knowledgeable to plead ignorance.

March 19, 2012

Fog of War Surrounds al-Shabaab's American Commander

Omar Hammami didn't travel across the world - from Alabama to Toronto to Cairo - and survive five years of warfare just to be killed by his own side. A veteran of Ethiopia's 2007-2009 invasion, Hammami had monitored the rise of Somalia's Islamic Courts Union (whose hardliners later assumed the name of their military wing, al-Shabaab) and landed in Mogadishu amid the first waves of diaspora. Hammami quickly joined the movement's pursuit of an Islamic state and used his charisma to rise through al-Shabaab's ranks. He's also defied two death notices and one airstrike while taunting Washington through propaganda videos and crude raps.

Now Hammami, known as Abu Mansoor al-Amriki to his followers, sits at the crossroads of al-Shabaab's disinformation and foreign recruiting.

On Saturday Hammami released a new video to "whomever it may reach" on YouTube, alleging that his life "may be endangered by Harakat Shabab al-Mujahideen due to some differences that occurred between us regarding matters of the Sharia and matters of the strategy." From one media to the next, al-Shabaab utilized it's Twitter feed to inform Hammami and "our Muslim brothers that Al-Amriki is not endangered by the mujahideen, and our brother still enjoys all the privileges of brotherhood." This process repeated itself on Sunday after al-Shabaab supposedly raided Hammami's house in Merca, an insurgent base located 70 miles south of Mogadishu.

Other reports claim that he was arrested near Kismayo, 200+ miles south of Merca. Either way, al-Shabaab's Twitter feed again rejected this news as "false propaganda" and warned its fighters, "Beware of such inaccurate reports."

False as they may be, Somali journalists and observers see something tangible to the latest crack in al-Shabaab's hierarchy. Hammami's current situation may not symbolize any fresh divisions within the insurgency's chain of command, but he does highlight the established gap between national and transnational factions. Hammami has served as al-Shabaab's international face, attracting dozens of foreign fighters to Somalia, and allegedly supported the group's merger with al-Qaeda. The emerging theory, outlined by Somali-American reporter Abdi Aynte, predicts that the nationalist faction seeks to remove him from the battlefield and keep the conflict internalized.

Whether or not Hammami has overstayed his welcome in Somalia, the struggle between al-Shabaab's factions continues to exert an influence on the insurgency, Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its foreign allies. The merger between al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda is the formal work of Moktar Ali "Godane" Zubeyr, who pledged allegiance in 2010 and again in 2012. A Somaliland native, Godane led al-Shabaab and oversaw al-Qaeda's integration before being replaced by Ibrahim Afghani in December 2010. He was later promoted to the head of al-Qaeda's cadre after the death of Fazul Mohammed; Aynte cites "firsthand knowledge" that Godane setup Mohammed at an Afgooye checkpoint.

An unnamed intelligence agent from al-Shabaab has since told Somalia Report that Godane remains the leader after Afghani resigned in December 2011. Although this information cannot be verified, Godane's February missive to Ayman Al-Zawahiri went unchallenged by the insurgency's nationalist commanders.

Like Hammami's own fate, the long-term effects of this national-transnational split remain to be seen. Division within an insurgency's leadership and ground forces can expose the force to widespread vulnerabilities, impairing its fighting ability, recruitment and message to the local population. Conversely, a divided network can be more difficult to assess, militarily eliminate and negotiate with. Taking these factors into consideration, Hammami's future could shed light onto a strategic blind spot or merely add a new chapter to his history as a propagandist.

March 18, 2012

Bahrain Burns at Low Intensity

Located at the opposite ends of the intensity spectrum, Syria and Bahrain's pro-democracy uprisings share one overarching similarity as they struggle for greater political freedoms and representation. An accumulated estimate of the dead has now passed 8,000 in Syria, with countless thousands wounded and deprived in Bashar al-Assad's onslaught. Using the more violent counterrevolutions as a shield for his smarter, more practical use of crowd control measures, Bahrain's King Hamad has kept his casualties below 100 and eluded unsustainable media attention - along with the political collateral that could follow.

Except both countries are snowballing down different paths to the same end: neither conflict is near a conclusion because the fundamental injustices remain uncorrected.

Bahrain may be entering a new period of stalemate following the polarizing February 14th demonstrations. Since then protesters have made fewer headlines as the monarchy diverts energy from their pro-democracy movement, although the government and its supporters claim to be treated unfairly by Western media. They ignore or refuse to concede the reality that false reforms, stalling mechanisms, and political slander are destroying any remaining bridges with a sizable portion of the Shia opposition. They accuse a youthful minority of provocative actions and slogans, prejudicing the wider opposition while holding themselves to the rebel's standard - an ominous sign in counterinsurgency. A wise king would have enacted the desired reforms within the year and relieved the tensions within his kingdom. Instead Hamad perpetuated the conflict into an uncertain future, telling Der Speigel on the eve of February 14th, "In a sense there is no 'opposition' in Bahrain, as the phrase implies one unified block with the same views."

Sheikh Isa Qassim, the Sunnis' public enemy number 1, responded by holding a massive rally with Al-Wefaq to prove that the opposition is real and organizing. Possibly exaggerating in the moment, leading activist Nabeel Rajab told Al Jazeera that the March 2nd protest was the largest in the history of the country.

Bahrain's monarchy later countered with a new "code of conduct" for police and security forces, a condition of the superficial independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). The "principles enshrined in international police codes" haven't trickled down to the lowest ranks of Bahrain's nebulous security apparatus, where imported security personnel have added muscle to the King's riot police. Interior Minister Shaikh Rashid announced that his code (taught by former Miami chief of police) "represents a new social treaty between members of the Bahraini society and the police which will mark the start of a new era"

Meanwhile protesters clashed with security forces around the outskirts of Manama, including the Shia areas of Sitra, Diraz, Malkiya, Saar, Jidhafs, Tubli and Bilad al-Qadeem. Both sides reported an increase in intensity as protesters condemned the violent March 15th intervention from the Saudi-bankrolled Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), another counterrevolutionary move that ultimately prolonged the conflict. Although a minority in the total number of incidents, these low-intensity battles of year gas, rubber bullets and Molotovs keep the conflict hot and influence non-violent demonstrators. Many opposite figures and parents have appealed to the more agitated youth, but their voices are drowned out by the many funerals and peaceful protests that have violently dispersed. As a result, the opposition as a whole loses its collective trust in the government.

Already stalemated by the February 14th and March 15th demonstrations, Bahrain's next big clash is penciled in for April 22nd's F-1 stop. Boss Bernie Eccestone has belittled the uprising since 2011's postponed race, telling the Guardian that he "expected there was going to be a big uprising with the anniversary. But what happened was that there were a lot of kids having a go at the police. I don't think it's anything serious at all." The King is determined to prove that his country has returned to normal by any means necessary, and the opposition intends to prove the opposite.

Several days ago Eccestone received a letter from the February 14th Coalition - the "lot of kids having a go at the police" - urging him to cancel the race because "the situation has not eased but exacerbated. Your statement has done much wrong to the F1 race and given a bad impression the F1 races." The coalition's sensible letter belies the label of extremist, which only applies relatively to Bahrain's non-violent demonstrators. Civil disobedience is often inevitable during an asymmetric political conflict, especially when the government wields force against non-violent protesters.

Interestingly, Eccestone responded with advice by telling protesters, "they don't need to resort to violence. All they need to do is stand on the road on the way to the circuit, with placards, and they would get their message out there. Nobody's going to shoot them. If I was the organizer I would wait until 4pm, or whenever the race starts, blocking the road, a few thousand of them, and then go home. And if they successfully delay the race then they would get more coverage than they could dream of."

However these niceties don't limit the probability that Bahrain F-1 race will further divide the island.

King Hamad could have avoided a long-term struggle through parliamentary reforms and the employment of his own security forces, but must now suppress a tangible movement to oust his royal family. By refusing to enact political reforms and applying constant force to demonstrations (often through Sunni mercenaries), the monarchy continues to push Bahrain's street movement away from the opposition. Private negotiations with Al-Wefaq then induce more friction at the popular level, generating an endless political cycle. Matar Matar, a prominent Al-Wefaq member who allegedly experienced the government's torture policy firsthand, offered an optimistic assessment of the latest backchannel talks.

"We said openly that we are willing to enter negotiations to end this conflict and we are confident that the majority of people will accept it," he said.

These types of comments, issued by Al-Wefaq's leadership over the last month, have perpetuated the belief that Bahrain's opposition cannot control the street movement. At the same time, Al-Wefaq is clearly attempting to hold the moral high-ground while avoiding blame for a political stalemate (the monarchy regularly accuses the group of failing to engage). The island's formal opposition would likely accept a political overhaul in order to reenter and ultimately change the system, but many elements could be harboring Rajab's endgame at the back of their minds. As this AP reported noted, the head of Bahrain's Center For Human Rights (BCHR) has become a moral compass in the process of organizing non-stop demonstrations.

Two weeks ago Rajab sent an unambiguous message to the King: "You captured the capabilities and resources and the territory of the country and without having the right, you distributed them on your family and while the people are living in poverty - I demand you to leave. You have brought all the armed forces and monsters of the world to kill, rob, humiliate, and torture the people and now your system is based on them and not on any local support - I demand you leave... I'm not claiming to overthrow the government because I do not have weapons nor do I believe in violence. This is a diagnosis of the situation and I'm saying it here to exercise my right of expression – Leave!"

At the minimum, King Hamad should realize that non-lethal force and half-measures still add fuel to a low-intensity conflict. Placing the burden to respond on the opposition contradicts the reality that Shia Bahrainis, having nothing left to offer the King, are demanding action from him. The monarchy must preemptively announce a time-line for political and judicial reforms in order to rebuild confidence, then use any lull in the demonstrations to pull back and retrain its security forces. Foreign hands must then be shipped out to restore trust in the national police force.

Otherwise the length and scale of Bahrain's current uprising could exceed the previous one.

March 17, 2012

UN Aids Syria's Setup Against Opposition

Desperate to halt Syria's bloodshed without military intervention - an urgency that Bashar al-Assad has exploited throughout the revolution - Kofi Annan and the powers that he represents have fallen back into the strongman's traps. After waiting out another violent week to negotiate a UN-assisted observer mission, the former UN Secretary-General finds himself twisting in the wind of al-Assad's duplicity. Annan received an inadequate response to his peace proposal before addressing the Arab League on Friday, and Syrian media subsequently used his statements to validate a non-interventionist policy.

Now al-Assad has given his formal reply to Annan, the UN and Aaron League: Syria's regime demands that Annan pass along orders for the opposition to disarm and give up their weapons "in exchange for a full pardon." He must also provide "guarantees" from Syria's neighbors to seal the border and cease the foreign debate over arming the opposition. Only then will the regime "discuss with him the idea of putting in place a neutral monitoring system." A national dialogue would begin at an undetermined point in the future.

Moscow quickly backed these terms, undermining its increasingly tough rhetoric against al-Assad. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters: "We believe the Syrian government should quickly, without delay, support (Annan's) approaches. We will expect the same from the armed and political opposition. Only by receiving agreement in principle with what (Annan) is promoting in his contacts with the Syrians can the process of a truce begin - and after that the start of a Syrian dialogue."

al-Assad's resignation isn't part of the equation.

Annan has pleaded for unity between the UN and Arab League in order to "shift the dynamics of the conflict," but the envoy's interactions with al-Assad are contributing to the status quo. "Wait until Sunday and you will have good news," Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, said of a "comprehensive political process" with the body - as if anything good follows the regime's politicking. What did follow is another double-suicide bombing nearly identical to the previous attacks in Damascus: early morning, government headquarters, rapid media reaction during high-level international contacts. An organized power is clearly orchestrating these precise attacks and, if al-Qaeda cells were truly responsible for Syrian territory, they could be allowed to produce the regime's desired effects.

Further demonstrating his lack of sincerity, al-Assad's regime is already using a potential UN-monitoring team to criticize the Arab League's previous mission in January. "Guarantees" are needed because of "the lessons" learned from the AL's mission, implying that the League was responsible for the ongoing violence. In al-Assad's world, his security forces withdrew from all urban hotspots and were forced to fight back when armed militias "terrorized" the populace. During this time local activists and conscious Arab League monitors documented the regime's crude use of camouflage to hide or disguise military vehicles within Syria's cities.

The regime is currently contracting its dirty work to Annan, demanding that he facedown Western and Gulf powers before offering the slightest cooperation in return. Syrian state media would pick up unverified reports that Saudi Arabia is delivering "military equipment" to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a potential development that corresponded with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)'s embassy closure. The temporary endgame is unforgiving to Syria's revolutionaries. Now al-Assad's regime can stall even longer without punishment from the international community, attack in the name of self defense and blame the final political breakdown on the opposition and foreign powers, thus triggering a new cycle of political and military maneuvering.