Another Gaza War

Palestine Chronicle, November 28, 2012

Bombing Gaza

It is important to dismiss some fallacies surrounding the recent Gaza war before we examine the significance and fallout of Israel’s eight-day bombing campaign. One of those fallacies is that Hamas started the fighting by firing hundreds of rockets into Israel, the other that Israel was targeting “terrorists.” A careful analysis of the sequence of events leading to Israeli bombardment proves the former to be untrue. The latter fails scrutiny in view of available reports and casualty figures released by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights based in Gaza City. The vast majority of the more than 150 killed and 1000 injured were civilians, though the Israelis claimed the opposite.

Assuming new powers

President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt was widely praised for playing a key role in negotiating the truce between Israel and Hamas. Riding the crest of popularity, Morsi immediately issued a presidential decree giving himself sweeping powers which would be impossible to challenge. He appointed a new prosecutor-general of his choice, granted the Constituent Assembly and the Shura Council,  the upper consultative house of parliament, protection from dissolution by the judiciary. He also ordered the retrial of Mubarak-era officials who were accused of killing and injuring protestors during and after the Tahrir Square demonstrations last year.

The presidential decree has stunned the population and sparked a fierce debate in the country. Supporters have hailed it as “revolutionary.” Opponents have condemned it as a “coup.” From now on, all presidential declarations, laws and decrees will be immune to appeal “by any way or by any entity.” There now exists a climate of anger and frustration in Cairo and other cities. Judges, liberals and secularist politicians and activists outside the Muslim Brotherhood circle are furious and offices of Morsi’s party have been ransacked.

On the BBC’s Today program on November 23, Fawaz Gerges, a leading Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, compared President Morsi’s move with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s “power grab” in the 1950s, paving the way for dictatorial rule under Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Professor Gerges warned of a “dangerous” situation in the country. For a while it had looked as though Egypt under Morsi would retake its role as the most powerful and effective Arab nation in the Middle East. However, his move to grant himself sweeping powers has upset the delicate political balance in the post-Mubarak era. For Egypt without internal stability cannot play its proper role in the region and beyond.

The roots of conflict in the territory called Palestine are as ancient as an interested party would profess. But claims that Hamas rockets began the latest Gaza war are false. The blockade, the humiliation of Palestinians who must pass through the Israeli crossings regularly, the Israeli army’s incursions and rockets from Gaza are part of everyday life.

What appears to be true is that for about two weeks there had been a lull, broken on November 8 when Israeli soldiers entered Gaza. In the ensuing fighting a 12-year-old Palestinian boy playing soccer was killed. In retaliation, Palestinian fighters blew up a tunnel along the Gaza-Israel frontier injuring one Israeli soldier, followed by the firing of an anti-tank missile which wounded four Israeli troops.

On the same day, an Israeli tank shell landed in a field killing two teenagers. Thereafter, an Israeli tank fired on a funeral. Two more Palestinians were killed and many more injured. On November 12, Palestinian factions offered a truce provided Israel ended its attacks. Two days later, the Israelis assassinated Ahmed Jabari, the Hamas military chief, and at least eight others, including two Palestinian children. It was this sequence which triggered the war. Was it self-defense on Israel’s part, or provocation?

Itching for war

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been itching for war with Iran in recent years. He may have succeeded in launching a military campaign which could lead to a broader Middle East conflict but for President Obama’s reluctance to go down that route. This is why Netanyahu wanted a victory for his friend Mitt Romney, who appeared eager to take military action against Iran and its allies, Hezbollah and Hamas.

President Obama’s opposition, Romney’s failure to win the American presidency and serious doubts from influential voices within Israel’s own military and political establishment thwarted Netanyahu’s ambition to attack Iran for the time being. But Netanyahu was not happy with his present grip on power. He would like to strengthen it further and for that he called fresh elections. A war would show him to be Israel’s “strong man,” improve Likud’s election prospects and a win would give him a longer period in office. However, those who play the game of Russian roulette must be ready for unexpected consequences.

In the aftermath of another Gaza war, two realities confront each other. On one hand, Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has taken the lives of more than 150 Palestinians, many of them innocent civilians, for a handful of Israeli lives. Netanyahu can continue to display hubris; his offensive in Gaza may improve his prospects in the coming elections, or may not; and President Obama has to go on expressing public support for Israel, though his private views may be different.

Escaping for cover

On the other hand, Hamas rockets of Iranian design have travelled longer distances than before; thoughstill crude and incapable of precisely targeting anything, they are enough to cause more alarm in Israel than before; Hezbollah has shown that its drones can fly over Israel now; and the movement’s leader Hasan Nasrullah openly taunts the Israelis and the Americans in his speeches. One side, all powerful, is struck by fear and paranoia. The other, armed with primitive rockets, professes its willingness to make whatever sacrifice there is to be made. No ceasefire can last.

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The Struggle for Egypt’s Soul

CounterPunch, October 15, 2012

When the official announcement of Mohamed Morsi’s election as Egypt’s president was made following a tantalizing period of uncertainty, I had raised some questions about the country’s constitutional future. I had also suggested that a multilayered battle between the military and civilians, Islamists and secularists, and conservatives and liberals was likely (Palestine Chronicle, July 3, 2012). An example of such conflict has been witnessed at Tahrir Square in recent days. Clashes between liberals and Muslim Brotherhood supporters show simmering discontent in a polarized society as Morsi walks a political tightrope.

In his first hundred days in office, President Morsi has exercised caution, but also made some bold moves in a bid to keep many sides happy. On October 8, he announced a “blanket pardon” for all political prisoners arrested since the beginning of the uprising which overthrew Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and finally led to free elections in which Morsi won the presidency. The announcement said that all those serving prison sentences or still awaiting trial on charges to do with supporting the revolution would be released and charges against them would be dropped. The decree excludes those convicted of murder, but pointedly includes military officers arrested for taking part in demonstrations against Mubarak’s dictatorship.

Pressure had been growing on Mubarak’s successors to announce an amnesty and Morsi could hardly have ignored it after his election as the candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party formed by the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of the anti-Mubarak uprising. That he was careful to address wider sections of society, including the military, was hardly surprising. The move was aimed at helping the new administration in several ways. For forty years under Hosni Mubarak’s and his predecessor Anwar Sadat’s rule, mostly with American support, Egypt’s military-dominated ruling elite had alienated the opposition and much of Egyptian society. The new administration must demonstrate different priorities.

On closer scrutiny, however, his “blanket pardon” was described by some commentators as insufficient. The presidential decree’s first article said that the pardon was “for all felony convictions and misdemeanor convictions or attempted crimes committed to support the revolution and the fulfillment of this goal.” Amnesty International has now said that “all Egyptians tried in front of military courts need retrials, including those whose offenses did not relate to the revolution.”

Morsi’s political base is the Muslim Brotherhood, a major force in Egyptian society for decades. But his narrow victory in the 2012 election against Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister of the Mubarak era and regarded as the military’s favorite, was made possible with support from moderate and secular voters. Morsi cannot shake off the Muslim Brotherhood label, perhaps he does not need to, but he was careful enough to declare that he was going to represent all Egyptians.

The task of a president in post-Mubarak Egypt is extraordinarily delicate. He has to establish civilian control over the military, which has dominated the country’s power structure for decades. Yet he has to work with the generals. He must not alienate other sections of the population as he remains a Muslim Brotherhood figure above all. He must respond to raised expectations following the old regime’s demise and his election. At the same time, he should ensure continuity and avoid a dramatic break from the past, for Egypt lives in a volatile environment.

President Morsi’s move against the military top brass, particularly ordering the retirement of Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi from his posts as commander of the armed forces and defense minister in August, seemed to have been executed with remarkable ease. But recent clashes at Tahrir Square highlight the continuing tensions between secularists and minorities on one hand, and Muslim Brotherhood supporters on the other. It is too soon to say that the task of reshaping the military into a force compliant to the democratically-elected government is complete. For the middle ranking and junior officers are bound to take longer to change. Meanwhile, the president needs their help to maintain order.

If Morsi’s move to change the military’s top leadership was executed with ease, his attempt to remove the state prosecutor general, Abdel Meguid Mahmud, has run into difficulties. The president announced Mahmud’s removal and appointment as Egypt’s envoy to the Vatican after a court acquitted more than twenty senior Mubarak era officials of organizing an attack on protestors during the uprising. Mahmud’s office was held responsible for presenting “weak evidence” against the accused. But the presidential order resulted in an outcry from the judges, who complained that Morsi had exceeded his powers in dismissing the state prosecutor general. In a setback to the president’s authority, the prosecutor general said that he was going to stay in his job. And the president was forced to back down.

Another controversy is brewing over the draft constitution released for discussion. This time, Human Rights Watch has called on the Egyptian Constituent Assembly to “amend articles in the draft constitution that undermine human rights in post-Mubarak Egypt,” The draft, it said, provides for some basic political and economic rights but falls far short of international law on women’s and children’s rights, freedom of religion and expression, and torture and trafficking.

The fall of Hosni Mubarak was an historic victory for the people, but the outcome of the struggle for the soul of the Egyptian nation is far from certain.

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American Stingers’ First Casualty is Diplomacy: Syria’s Parallels with Afghanistan

CounterPunch, August 13, 2012

The revelation about President Barack Obama’s decision to provide secret American aid to Syria’s rebel forces is a game changer. The presidential order, known as an “intelligence finding” in the world of espionage, authorizes the CIA to support armed groups fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s government. But it threatens far more than the regime in Damascus.

The disclosure took its first casualty immediately. Kofi Annan, the special envoy to Syria, promptly announced his resignation, bitterly protesting that the UN Security Council had become a forum for “finger-pointing and name-calling.” Annan blamed all sides directly involved in the Syrian conflict, including local combatants and their foreign backers. But the timing of his resignation was striking. For he knew that with the CIA helping Syria’s armed groups, America’s Arab allies joining in and the Security Council deadlocked, he was redundant.

President Obama’s order to supply CIA aid to anti-government forces in Syria has echoes of an earlier secret order signed by President Jimmy Carter, also a Democrat, in July 1979. Carter’s fateful decision was the start of a CIA-led operation to back Mujahideen groups then fighting the Communist government in Afghanistan. As I discuss the episode in my book Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism (chapters 7 & 8), the operation, launched with a modest aid package, became a multi-billion dollar war project against the Communist regime in Kabul and the Soviet Union, whose forces invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. In the following year, Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan, who went for broke, pouring money and weapons into Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation forces to the bitter end.

Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski later claimed that it was done on his recommendation, and that the motive was to lure Soviet forces into Afghanistan to give the Kremlin “its Vietnam.” The Soviets’ humiliating retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, the collapse of Soviet and Afghan communism and the rise of the Taliban triggered a chain reaction with worldwide consequences. President Obama’s decision to intervene in support of Syria’s rebels, who include fundamentalist Islamic fighters, points to history repeating itself. Brzezinski, now in his 85th year, still visits Washington’s corridors of power. And General David Petraeus, a formidable warrior, is director of the CIA.

Three decades on, it seems likely that President Carter’s motive behind signing the secret order to provide aid to the Mujahideen was to entice the Soviets into Afghanistan’s inhospitable terrain, thus keeping their military away from Iran in the midst of the Islamic Revolution which overthrew America’s proxy, Shah Reza Pahlavi, in February 1979. If that was indeed the plan, then the Soviet leadership fell right into the Afghan trap.

China was then part of the U.S.-led alliance against the Soviets. Now Beijing and Moscow stand together against Washington as the conflict in Syria escalates. Otherwise, the U.S.-led alliance has many of the old players––the much enlarged European Union, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others in the Sunni bloc in the Arab world. And Turkey, which is now the base for the anti-Assad forces, channeling help to them. Turkey’s Islamist government plays a crucial role in Syria, like Pakistan in the 1980s during America’s proxy war in Afghanistan.

In Washington, an American official told Reuters that “the United States was collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey and its allies.” And a few days before, the news agency reported that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey had established a “nerve center” in Adana in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border, to coordinate their activities. The place is home to America’s Incirlik air base and military and intelligence services.

According to NBC News a few days ago, the rebel Free Syrian Army has acquired American MANPAD Stinger missiles via Turkey, clearly to target Syrian government aircraft. It reminds of President Reagan’s decision in the mid-1980s to supply Stingers to Mujahideen groups for use against Soviet aircraft. Their use was first reported in 1987 and it soon emerged that the heat-seeking weapons were so accurate that they were hitting three out of four aircraft in Afghanistan. As I have discussed in my book Breeding Ground, some of the hundreds of Stingers were likely to have been passed on to the Taliban and their allies after the Soviet forces left Afghanistan and the last Communist government in Kabul collapsed in 1992.

In recent months, American and European officials have been busy feeding information to media outlets that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the main sources of weapons to rebels in Syria through Turkey. The pattern is consistent with the long-standing Saudi policy to keep Islamists out of Saudi Arabia itself, lest they challenge the ruling family. Long-term lessons of proxy wars remain unheeded for immediate perilous “gains.”

Reports of the Obama administration sending Stinger missiles to Syrian rebels carry the first indication that non-state players now have advanced U.S. weaponry in the Middle East. That Washington is in such a cozy alliance with forces including Islamists soon after the killing of Osama bin Laden on Obama’s personal order is as incredible as it is consistent with follies of the past. The present will define the future again.

The situation in Egypt is becoming explosive. The killing of 16 Egyptian border guards in the Sinai Peninsula by “suspected Islamists,” and violence thereafter, represent challenges on several fronts for the new president Mohamed Morsi. Israel has been quick to blame Islamic militants in Gaza, ruled by Hamas, which has close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, the party of the Egyptian president. For its part, the Brotherhood has pointed the finger at Israel’s secret service Mossad, claiming it is a plot to thwart Morsi’s presidency. These developments cast a shadow over Morsi’s relations with Hamas and, at the same time, increase his dependence on the Egyptian armed forces to quell the unrest, thereby undermining his authority. Murderous optimism of powerful and suicidal pessimism of victims in an oppressive environment blight the lives of many.

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