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Current Affairs ( 3 Dec 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Britain rightly follows France into Syria conflict: New Age Islam’s Selection From World Press, 4 December 2015

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4 December 2015

Britain rightly follows France into Syria conflict

By Manuel Almeida

Can Saudi and Iran play ball in Lebanon?

By Joyce Karam

Has there been a soft coup in Pakistan?

By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Putin v Erdogan: May the best man win

By Lamis Andoni

Daesh should not be allowed to get dirty bomb

By Christian Science Monitor



Britain rightly follows France into Syria conflict

By Manuel Almeida

Thursday, 3 December 2015

The UK House of Commons on Wednesday authorized the extension of air strikes on ISIS targets into Syria, with the MP vote count standing at 397 to 223. Six Typhoon and two Tornado jets of the Royal Air Force have already joined the U.S.-led coalition conducting military operations in Syria against the radical group. On Thursday morning, there were reports of British airstrikes in Eastern Syrian against oil installations controlled by ISIS.

This was the second time in the last two years that the House of Commons has considered British air strikes in Syria. In the first vote in the summer of 2013, it was the regime of Bashar al-Assad and not ISIS that was the potential target of the military intervention. Back then, when clear proof emerged that the Assad regime had been using chemical weapons multiple times against civilians, the Obama administration revealed it was considering taking military action to punish Assad for crossing the red line set by the U.S. president. Willing to back the U.S.-led airstrikes, the British government held a parliamentary motion on August 29 that David Cameron lost by 285 to 272.

The British Prime Minister may have felt he wasted some political capital on the matter when the Obama administration eventually abandoned the plan to conduct air strikes, following the Assad regime’s acceptance of a Russian proposition to place the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons under international control and to be dismantled.

But today, due to the growing threat of ISIS on a global scale and the worsening refugee crisis, the war in Syria and its effects feel far closer to Europe than they did two years ago. In particular, the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris last month resonated powerfully in Britain, where the security services have reportedly already foiled several attacks by ISIS.

Providing a key impulse for the British government’s decision was the French and U.S. governments’ call for British support for the ongoing military campaign against ISIS in Syria. Equally important is U.N. resolution 2249, passed last month, which classified ISIS as an “unprecedented threat” and called upon member states to take all the necessary measures to confront the radical group.

A divisive legacy

During the 10 hours’ Commons debate on Wednesday, pacifist and isolationist views were raised by some MPs in both the ruling Conservative Party and opposition, despite the attempts to mask those positions of principle with the difficult questions military intervention inevitably generates.

Among the key concerns expressed by MPs was how to avoid civilian casualties given the presence of ISIS forces among the civilian population in Raqqa and other places in Syria, and whether the airstrikes would be followed by the deployment of British troops on the ground.

Backing those and other concerns was the report of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, prepared earlier this month, which questioned the government’s ISIS-first strategy. “We consider that the focus on the extension of airstrikes against ISIL in Syria is a distraction from the much bigger and more important task of finding a resolution to the conflict in Syria and thereby removing one of the main facilitators of ISIL’s rise”, was one of the conclusions of the report.

But it was the legacy of British involvement in recent interventions in the region that overshadowed the debate, as one of the MPs noted. First among those remains the significant British participation in the disastrous U.S.-led intervention in Iraq which overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003. The UK’s leading role during NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011 against the forces of Muammar Qaddafi, which precipitated the current scenario of various factions and militias vying for power and resources, was also recalled.

The ruinous invasion of Iraq, instrumental in the rise of ISIS, provides some valuable lessons of key mistakes not be repeated in Syria. Pushing for a political transition in Syria while keeping state institutions intact, instead of opting for another de-Baathification process that ruined the already small chances of a managed transition in Iraq, is an obvious example.

What is the strategy?

Ultimately, the parallel between the current intervention against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the Iraq intervention in 2003 is a poor and deceiving one. In contrast to the invasion of Iraq, the legal case for the intervention is clear and the fight this time is against a global threat. Plus, the humanitarian grounds for the intervention are strong and next door in Iraq the involvement of British forces is helping Iraqi forces to produce tangible if slow results in the fight against ISIS.

The truly difficult questions arise when it comes to the strategy of which the air strikes should be a small part. During the Commons debate, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn raised numerous objections to the intervention, many of which were predictable and added little of substance to the debate. But Corbyn and other MPs were right when asking who is going to take up the fight against ISIS on the ground in Syria.

Doubts continue to loom over what Cameron has described as 70,000 Free Syrian Army moderate troops able to fight ISIS deep inside its own territory. Also the Kurds, another ISIS adversary on the ground in Syria, have given ISIS a hard time in the north but will not go deep into ISIS-held territory to eradicate the group.

Increasingly, the need for the deployment of some kind of ground forces or special forces in eastern Syria is becoming apparent.

On the political front, the Russian intervention in support of the Syrian regime has at least provided a window of opportunity for all parties involved to negotiate a settlement, which culminated in a concrete calendar for the transition agreed in Vienna earlier this month. Yet depending on the unpredictability of Vladimir Putin could well become the Achilles heel of the U.S.-led coalition’s strategy. At the moment, however, there is no better plan.

Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.


Can Saudi and Iran play ball in Lebanon?

By Joyce Karam

Thursday, 3 December 2015

If Lebanon is the bellwether for Middle East politics then the news of a potential breakthrough in its presidential vote will test regional diplomacy and the potential for Saudi-Iranian detente in Beirut and beyond.

The proposed deal to nominate pro-Hezbollah leader Suleiman Franjieh as president and Saudi Arabia’s ally Saad Hariri as prime minister, cannot materialize without the blessing of Riyadh and Tehran, the two most influential outside players in the Lebanese arena.

After more than 550 days of presidential void, Lebanon could be weeks away from electing a new president. Lebanese sources following the negotiations are cautiously optimistic about the agreement, while warning it is “not a done deal” and could be torpedoed from within Lebanon. Key rivals of Franjieh in the Lebanese Christian base – namely leaders Michel Aoun and Samir Gaagaa – are still opposed to it, while others within Hariri’s own party would like to see it fail.

However, the increasing cost of political and security paralysis in Lebanon, and the recognition among opposing camps of the need to step away from the Syrian abyss is the biggest advantage playing in favor of the deal.

Lebanon as testing ground

The deal itself came into the open two weeks ago following Hariri’s meeting with Franjieh in Paris. While the recipe for the deal is purely locally driven by Hariri and Franjieh themselves, it won’t materialize without Saudi and Iranian acquiescence. Such was the case when Lebanon formed a new government in February 2014, with the participation of both the Hezbollah and Hariri camps.

Saudi Arabia and Iran dancing tango in Lebanon would be significant if it succeeds, and could mark a beginning of a larger conversation between the two in places like Syria and Yemen, despite the lower odds of success there. In Lebanon, both Saudi and Iran agree on the need to avert a bigger crisis and are prioritizing stability over political gains in the interim. Maintaining cold peace in Beirut while securing their influence could drive both countries into accepting the deal. In this context, Franjieh would be a safety net for Hezbollah, while Hariri remains Riyadh’s closest ally.

The Franjieh-Hariri deal is also driven by mutual concern over the security situation and paralysis in Beirut, echoed by regional players and the United States. It comes on the heels of ISIS’ largest bombing in the Lebanese capital last month, targeting mostly Shiites. The reach of ISIS inside Beirut, and the sectarian polarization will only fester amidst the presidential void, and stagnation of legislative process.

Following the Beirut bombing, a softer tone was heard from Hezbollah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah, pledging dialogue and calling for “a comprehensive political settlement on various levels within the existing frameworks and based on the Taif agreement.” Accepting Taif, which was negotiated in Saudi in 1989, is a key move from Hezbollah to extend a hand to its political rivals.

From the Hariri side, the absence of a strong Sunni leadership on the helm of government, is backfiring on his party’s popularity and undermining the moderates in the community. Assuming the premiership while giving his rivals the presidency could help Hariri restore some of his lost influence, and ease sectarian tensions.

Franjieh’s resume

If Franjieh makes it as President with a nod from Lebanon’s Walid Jumblatt, it would be a repeat of history when his grandfather ascended to the presidency in 1970 with the support of Walid’s father, Kamal Jumblatt. Like other politicians in Lebanon, an instinct for survival marks Franjieh’s interrupted rise in politics, from the moment his parents and sister were massacred in 1978 while he was in boarding school at age 13, until his nomination to the highest Christian office.

Following the assassination, his grandfather took him under his wings and helped Franjieh launch his political career, fighting during the war and establishing the “Marada” militia. His grandfather’s role was also instrumental in inviting the Syrian army into Lebanon in 1976, and until it was forced out in 2005 following the Hariri assassination.

The Franjieh-Assad family ties go back as far as 1957. The two families have deep personal and business ties and Suleiman Franjieh is not shy about it. He calls Syrian President Bashar Assad "a brother", and has been a solid ally of Hezbollah and Iran since the 1980s. Following the 2006 war, Franjieh famously said that his generation should “take pride in living in the days of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah”. He also accused former Lebanese President Michel Suleiman of treachery, for turning against Hezbollah in last two years in office. Franjieh told MTV that Michel Suleiman interjected arms shipments to Hezbollah, and betrayed the party by going against its intervention in Syria.

Franjieh himself is promising unwavering support for Hezbollah, calling its military role in Syria “a necessity to counter the existential threat facing the Christians.” While he still refers to Assad as a “friend”, Franjieh has said that “whatever happens in Syria is not up to me or any Lebanese president.” It is fair to expect however, that if Franjieh is voted as president he would go far in defending Hezbollah and its intervention in Syria. His commitment to keep arms flowing to the party and his popularity amongst the Shia of Lebanon, would assure Hezbollah in the event that his forces leave Syria or if Assad is out of power. Franjieh’s defiant Christian rhetoric, calling to arm the minority if ISIS finds its way to Lebanon, and to increase the powers of the presidency, will be used to portray him as a “strong president” for the minority’s highest office in Lebanon.

If the Franjieh-Hariri deal materializes in the weeks to come, it could shake up the internal Lebanese debate, and provide testing ground for a Saudi and Iranian detente. It is however a gamble for all sides involved, and could backfire if it ends up dragging Lebanon deeper into the Syrian war, inflaming sectarian tensions, or boosting Assad and derailing a settlement in Damascus.

Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam


Has there been a soft coup in Pakistan?

By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Pakistan has been ruled by its military for over half its life as an independent nation. In many ways the military is the state, as it is widely recognized as the only functioning institution in the country. There have been experiments with democracy in the past, but they have not generally gone well.

In 2013, Pakistan held elections that marked its first transition from one freely elected government to another. Finally, it seemed as if democracy was taking root. Yet a fundamental problem remained: the army was still the only institution in the country that was vaguely functional.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has always been an incompetent politician propelled to office through nepotism and disinformation against the opposition. He has a long history of civic and economic mismanagement of the country, presiding over alleged large-scale government corruption and the squandering of the country’s limited resources.

Marked improvement

Yet the last couple of years have seen a marked improvement in Pakistan’s domestic situation. In 2013, the Pakistani Taliban and other radical Islamist groups were active, and there would be tens of civilian deaths daily, while the government was too busy fighting in the streets with official opposition parties.

Civil administration was nearly in complete collapse, the economy was suffering, and it would not have been far-fetched to predict a descent into chaos similar to neighboring Afghanistan.

Sharif’s civil administration and management skills may not have improved much, but the security situation today has improved beyond recognition. So far this year, the Pakistani Taliban have only managed to carry out one major suicide bombing. Order has been restored to the large inner cities. Even the remote rural areas have been largely pacified.

Tougher approach

What has happened is that the new army chief General Raheel Sharif (no relation to the prime minister) has taken a much more aggressive role in returning the county to order than his predecessors, especially in the wake of the Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar last December that killed 145 people, 132 of them children. The school catered largely to children from army families.

The army and intelligence services in Pakistan have a long and murky relationship with terrorism and various Islamist groups. It has long pitted various militant groups against each other, and against Pakistan’s strategic rivals India, Afghanistan and Iran.

It is no coincidence that Osama bin Laden managed to live in hiding in Pakistan for 10 years after the 9/11 attacks. Many senior U.S. officials believe he was protected by elements of the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment.

The terror attack against the school, and the domestic outcry that followed, finally focused minds in the Pakistani security establishment, driving it to clamp down hard on all non-state violence. Capital punishment has been reintroduced, official media outlets are now tightly regulated to prevent the dissemination of messages that might “aid the enemy,” and the army has set up a parallel legal system where it processes terrorists and other threats to the state.

Army actions

The civilian institutions that were supposed to perform these functions have been swept aside, and within just a year the results have been dramatic. Almost everyone in Pakistan, except Islamist militants, welcomes this power-grab by the army, and thinks it is a reasonable trade-off for the new security they enjoy. For many, it is hard to argue with the new state of affairs.

What is even more interesting is that despite having completely overshadowed the democratically elected civilian government - both in terms of running the country and of domestic popularity - army leaders have not so far felt compelled to take over the civilian administration, as they have often done in the past.

They seem happy to carry on governing the country, and letting politicians be democratically accountable without much power. The army denies that a ‘soft coup’ has taken place, but for most practical intents and purposes, the post of prime minister is today largely ceremonial.

Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim


Putin v Erdogan: May the best man win

By Lamis Andoni

03 Dec 2015

The showdown between Russia and Turkey has pitted Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the main contenders for Arab and Muslim hearts and minds - depending on which camp one supports in the many conflicts affecting the Arab world.

Each of the two leaders has been portrayed in social media, the press and in ordinary people's chat as either a hero or a villain. Putin is described as the saviour of secularism against the rising threat of extremist self-styled "Islamists"; while Erdogan is painted as the saviour of an Islamic world against all kinds of threats and infiltrations.

Putin's supporters see him as a daring challenger of US hegemony over the region, thus reviving hopes that a strong Russia can break the post-Cold War unipolar world. He is seen not as the heir of the Czars but of the former Soviet Union and its role as a counter-balance to US-led Western influence and control.

Strong Muslim leader

Erdogan supporters see him as a strong Muslim leader who puts Arab leaders to shame and does not bow to regional or mighty powers, and for many he is the only Sunni Muslim leader who can put an end to the Iranian Shia influence.

In other words, the rift between Russia and Turkey, even though it is unlikely to lead to a military confrontation, plays into the polarisation narrative in the Arab world.

The sad reality is that Syria, more than any other country in the region, has become the laboratory, the nesting ground and the ultimate victim of the conflicts that result from a vicious struggle over influence among Arab, regional and Western (including Russian) powers.

If anything, the perceived Putin-versus-Erdogan competition is largely determined by the division in positions over the Syrian crisis: If you support the Bashar al-Assad regime, you are likely to support Russia, its military intervention, and see the downing of the Russian plane as a Turkish attempt to foil Moscow's endeavour to stop lifeline supplies to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

If you belong to the diversified camp who still believe in a legitimate revolution in Syria, or support one or more factions of the Syrian opposition, from the secular to the Islamist, then Russia's intervention is more about asserting its power and interests than about supporting the welfare of Syria.

No illusions

The voices of the many people who have no illusions about either Russia or Turkey are almost eclipsed by the frenzy of rhetoric that tries to crown either Putin or Erdogan.

But this has been characteristic of the debate over Syria from the beginning, and in a sense the "Arab Idol" contest is an extension of the discourse over Syria - an almost fanatical discourse that does not leave room for debate.

It is not a discourse that can easily be termed "political left" versus "political right". As the intelligentsia from both political spectrums especially sense, the emergence of a fearsome force capable of seizing territories has loosely united pro-Western regimes with leftist and liberal opposition in the renewed "war on terror".

In this diversified camp, the majority, including officials in Jordan and Egypt, as well as leftist political parties, are cheering for Putin - the man who might be able to put an end to ISIL as well as prevent the break-up of Syria.

But to many, it is Erdogan who has shown courage and bravery in condemning atrocities committed by the Assad regime against the Syrian people. Moreover, not only has Turkey become home to Syrian refugees and a transit point to Europe, its border towns have become a centre for the opposition, NGOs and exiled Syrian journalists.

Cheerleaders for both men, assessing their respective performances, appear to ignore several important facts about the records of both leaders. Human rights violations are rampant in both countries. Turkey's membership in NATO, and both countries' burgeoning trade and military relations with Israel are either omitted from discussion or used selectively by one side against the other.

The video of Erdogan lashing out at then Israeli President Shimon Peres for trying to justify Israeli crimes against Palestinians and storming out of the panel discussion at the Davos World Economic Forum in 2009 did capture Arab minds and hearts - making it a memory revived by his supporters' camp and minimised by his detractors.

Continued ties with Israel

But Turkey's continued ties with Israel as well Russia's consolidation of relations with Israel, including the setting-up of a bilateral coordination committee to prevent clashes of the country's respective fighters over Syrian skies, are again details that are either brushed aside or used as incriminating evidence by opponents.

Fear of either ISIL's expansion or true anger at the Assad regime, or hopes for a strong Islamic world or for the re-emergence of Russia as a superpower make all facts irrelevant in the current discussion, which is like one between angry football fans arguing over whose team is better.

An underlying nostalgia for either the Ottoman Empire among Islamists or the Soviet Union among many leftists has also made the discussion murkier. We have witnessed an attempt by the first camp to write a revisionist history of the Ottoman rule of the Arab World, deleting episodes of suffering and oppression, while the second camp appears blind to the new reality of Russia's foreign policy.

When the Russian raids on Syria began, words hailing the "Red Army" or "the storm of the Sokhoys", complete with photos filled social media posts, while words singing the praises of the "great Islamic leader" Erdogan also circulated in cyberspace.

Ladies seem to favour the "fit and cool" Putin and share photos of him on social media, either singing, dancing or exercising. Their admiration is not simply for a "manly superstar" but rooted in their fear of Islamists ending their lifestyle.

In contrast, photos of Erdogan and his veiled wife are often posted, reflecting religious commitment and the wish to make Turkey a more conservative Islamic society.

This contest for an Arab Idol is also marked by the absence of competition among Arab leaders and the lack of a strong leadership that drives the majority to find solace in the ability of Putin or Erdogan to protect their present as well as their dreams for the future.

Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.


Daesh should not be allowed to get dirty bomb

Christian Science Monitor

December 4, 2015

Some of the best minds on nuclear nonproliferation on Tuesday considered a chilling prospect: What if the Paris attackers had had a dirty bomb?

To prevent that scenario, the international community urgently needs to come together to safeguard against both the spread of nuclear and "radiological" materials and illicit access to them, says former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn.

In particular, that means a return to sustained and fruitful dialogue for two countries that don't currently seem to have much use for one another: the United States and Russia.

"To use dialogue as a bargaining chip between the two countries that have 90 per cent of the nuclear weapons and 90 per cent of the nuclear materials in the world makes no sense from a strategy point of view," says Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI).

Nunn says he doesn't paint horrific scenarios simply to frighten people, but rather to convey the urgency of the task at hand.

"A dirty bomb made with cesium-137," a radioactive isotope produced for use in common medical devices, could cause more widespread loss of life "and deny access in areas of large cities where the weapon exploded for 30 to 40 years," Nunn says. "And Daesh has claimed they have that kind of material."

Nunn was part of a gathering of American and Russian arms-control experts in Washington Tuesday, where the consensus view on keeping weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) out of the hands of terrorists echoed the former senator: Revived and expanded US-Russia cooperation will be key.

"In the context of noncooperation [between the US and Russia], the potential for terrorist organizations getting access to nuclear materials and even nuclear weapons is on the rise sharply," says Alexei Arbatov, a nuclear weapons expert with the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow and a deputy chairman of the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe, which organized the conference with NTI.

A more conventional view might be that terrorist groups seeking WMDs and related materials would be more likely to turn to non-state actors - for example, crime gangs - to gain access to controlled materials. WMD experts acknowledge that this avenue poses a problem.

But they also point to the bilateral efforts by the US and Russia to rid Syria of most of its chemical weapons stockpile - an experience they say illustrates how cooperation between powers otherwise at loggerheads with each other can pay big dividends.

It was former Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar who first came up with the idea of the US and Russia working together to devise a plan to destroy Syria's chemical weapons, Nunn said - telling journalists of comments made by Andrew Weber, a former assistant secretary of Defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs. A year before the August 2011 crisis over Syria's chemical weapons use, Senator Lugar and Weber met repeatedly with Russian colleagues to discuss the issue and formulate how a chemical weapons destruction plan would be carried out.

Because of that in-depth and high-level cooperation "a plan was on the shelf for the leaders [of the two countries] to take a look at" when the issue of Syria's [chemical weapon] stockpile was about to explode, Nunn said. "Perhaps there might not have been an agreement if those discussions hadn't taken place beforehand."

Other key steps should be taken to bar terrorist access to WMDs and related materials, experts say, including:

All of these measures are important, but none will advance in any significant way without a return to closer cooperation between the US and Russia, says Arbatov.

"Everything is at a stalemate, for example there is no longer [US-Russia] cooperation on the safety of fissile materials," he says. "That is not the way to prevent nuclear weapons from ending up in the hands of the terrorists."


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