Across the Bay

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Geopolitical Context of the Iraqi Elections

Here's my piece in NOW Lebanon today. It briefly goes into the converging interests of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria in defeating Nouri al-Maliki. However, contrary to their calculations -- including the Syrian campaign of violence designed to destroy Maliki (as Syrian regime mouthpieces like Sami Moubayed in effect openly and gloatingly say) -- Maliki remains the favorite to return as Prime Minister.

This is the third in my recent Iraq-focused pieces, and the three could be read together to get a broader picture of the regional dynamic in Iraq. The first two are here and here.

For more on Maliki, see this recent piece by Hussain Abdul-Hussain in The National.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Hezbollah's "Lebanonization" Once More

Here's a short interview I did with Manuela Paraipan of The Middle East Political and Economic Institute on Hezbollah and its so-called "Lebanonization" (a subject I've covered repeatedly here and elsewhere).

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Cold Water on US Amb. to Syria Speculation

Laura Rozen writes:

Just fyi, since lots of speculation around. Have been very reliably told by two senior administration officials that U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain Adam Ereli is not going to be nominated to be the Damascus envoy. If you want to see him, you will have to go to Bahrain.

And separately was told by a third source that the speculation on Syria envoy is all a bit premature, and that nothing has been forwarded to the White House yet.

This shoots down the nonsense story by the oh-so-intrepid Joe Macaron in As-Safir, which he based on his "very trusted sources"! Mmm, yes indeed.

I recently wrote in the same vein about this issue when two other names were floated. Check out my NOW Lebanon piece from last week on the subject and on the rumors around Imad Mustapha (which I first blogged here).

Regime-Driven Violence

Here's my piece today on the recent violence in Iraq. Bottom line:

These powerful statements by Iraqi and US officials ought to force us to reconfigure our entire thinking about so-called “non-state actors” and their behavior in Iraq, as well as on how to approach counterinsurgency there. Clearly, those killing Iraqis are doing so in conjunction with, and under the patronage of, outside states working to shape political outcomes through violence. In other words, this violence is mainly regime-driven.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Petraeus: Izzat al-Duri is Living Freely in Syria

In addition to the strong statements made by Gen. Ray Odierno (see here and here), Gen. David Petraeus made some statements of his own in an interview with Al-Arabiya today.

Petraeus said, "What is worrisome about what's happening there [in Syria] is the presence of people like Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri and Muhammad Younis Ahmad, and these are persons who were close to Saddam, and they are now allowed to openly call for the toppling of the government of Iraq." He added, "they live freely in Syria, and some of them own satellite stations, and this creates an atmosphere of tension between the two countries."

Furthermore, Petraeus downplayed any Syrian role in the decrease in the numbers of fighters crossing the Syrian border into Iraq. Instead, he attributed this to the decrease in the capabilities of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and its desire to only recruit suicide bombers, whose numbers are much fewer, even if they cause a lot of damage. Moreover, Petraeus noted, the fighters' countries of origin have made it more difficult for them, prohibiting, for example, the travel of young males with one way tickets to Damascus.

Recently, Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal, the Iraqi Interior Ministry's chief of intelligence and investigations, was quoted as saying:

Iraqi officials suspect the Aug. 19 and Oct. 25 bombings, which targeted the Foreign, Justice and Finance ministries, among other entities, were planned at a secret meeting in Zabadani, a city in southwestern Syria, close to the Lebanese border. He said al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders met with former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party on July 30 to chart out a new strategy.

"They made a plan to carry out major joint operations in central Baghdad targeting important buildings," Kamal said in an interview.

In a statement that seemed to support the Iraqi official position, Gen. Odierno noted that AQI and Baathists were essentially merging:

He said al Qaeda in Iraq has teamed up with remnants of the Baath Party -- a statement that gave more weight to the Iraqi government's claims.

"We have been able to significantly reduce the capability of several groups to include al Qaeda and some of the Sunni rejectionist groups, so what I think we have seen happen over the last year or so is that these groups have started to work together. And so they have started to coalesce, especially at the local level. ... So it blurs the lines sometimes. And I think sometimes it's semantics. Some people say al Qaeda, some people call them Baathists. I would argue that they are probably both involved, they are coordinating at the local level," Odierno said.

When asked if the investigations had indicated any links to Syria, he added, "My experience is there probably was some movement of fighters or explosives coming from Syria."

Update: From AFP: Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad Bolani told parliament on Monday that a suicide bomber who attacked the foreign ministry in August made a phone call to Syria before detonating his payload, an MP said.

"He told us that the security services found the SIM card of the bomber in the attack on the foreign ministry, and that the last number that appeared was a number in Syria," Shiite MP Abbas al-Bayati told AFP.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Guardian Hearts Mukhabarat Media

Roy Greenslade, a professor of journalism and blogger for The Guardian, is celebrating "the latest stage in the liberalisation of the Syria's [sic] media." If your head spun in bewilderment, unable to recollect when the "first" stage of "liberalization" even began, or if your sides split with uncontrollable laughter, wait till you hear the rest. Greenslade wrote:

An English-language daily newspaper is being launched in Damascus tomorrow and will circulate throughout Syria. Baladna English, the country's first English-language paper, marks the latest stage in the liberalisation of the Syria's [sic] media. The publisher, United Group, already publishes the Arabic-language Baladna.

Yes, indeed. The United Group. After all, what better harbinger of liberalization than the group's chairman, Majd Suleiman? Who is he, you ask? Don't worry, Professor Roy Greenslade didn't have a clue who he was either.

Majd Suleiman is the son of Bahjat Suleiman, the Alawite former head of the internal security division of the General Security Directorate. Nothing says "liberalization" better than the Syrian mukhabarat.

Somehow, this already pathetic mess of a graph was made even funnier when The Guardian's Brian Whitaker intervened in the comments section to correct his colleague's factual mistake:

I think you mean it's the first non-governmental English language paper.

For many years there was a government-run daily, Syria Times, but it closed last year.

That's right, Mr. Whitaker: it's "non-governmental." Just like Al-Watan is Syria's first "independent" daily... owned by Assad's cousin, Rami Makhlouf. It's Syria's version of the MSM: Mukhabarat Security Media.

Keep that in mind the next time you read items in The Guardian or elsewhere about the "latest stage" of the "liberalization" of the media, the economy or whatever in Syria.

Addendum: Here's another little anecdote that I was told about Suleiman and the "liberalization" of Syrian media. You know Ibrahim Hamidi, the Syrian messenger/reporter for al-Hayat? Suleiman had bought him a Jaguar when Hamidi was his guy. Then, in a typical inter-mukhabarat power play, Asef Shawkat put Hamidi in jail, just to show him (and his sponsor) who's boss. After that, Hamidi became Shawkat's guy. Suleiman was also later transferred from his position at the internal security division.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Is the Syrian Ambassador being Recalled?

Imad Moustapha's days in DC might be numbered. Rumor is that once the US sends an ambassador back to Syria, Imad Moustapha will be sent home.

A very well-informed source in Washington tells me that they've heard State Department officials declare openly that Moustapha has "zero credibility in this building" and that "all meaningful diplomatic communication [with Syria] is through [Syrian FM Walid] Moallem." It is in this context that Moallem's deputy, Faysal Mekdad, was invited to DC a few months ago.

I had noted before that rumors had it that Moustapha's standing in Damascus was shaky, especially for his mischaracterization of the Obama administration's approach to Syria, which he portrayed to his boss as a fait-accompli walk in the park. To that effect, my source adds that they think that Moustapha staying in DC was allowed by Assad "at Moustapha's repeated requests to remain" and "over Moallem’s repeated objections."

The rumor mill is now churning that the State Department has finally sent the name of the new US ambassador to the White House for approval. However, from what I've heard, the names listed by Josh Rogin in this report are inaccurate, though obviously I cannot say for sure. They are indeed names that are making the rounds in Washington, but a number of good sources tell me that neither Walles nor Khoury is the actual pick.

If the rumor of Moustapha's recall is true, then there is no telling how this will affect the standing of Moustapha's American circle -- the various analysts, journalists, bloggers (e.g., the "Friday Lunch Club") and academics, the Syrian ambassador has used over the past few years to put through the Damascus regime's message. Presumably, some frequent visitors to the Syrian embassy, like Seymour Hersh or Robert Malley, have their own outlets to the Assad family (including the ICG's Peter Harling's office in Damascus), but others, like University of Oklahoma professor Joshua Landis are wading in deeper water. Since Landis' position in Washington policy circles was a function of his proximity to Moustapha, as the Syrian ambassador's stature sunk so did Landis' and the invitations to speak around town became much less frequent (especially when it was realized that Landis had no added value, as he merely brought what Moustapha fed him). Now with Moustapha's departure possibly imminent, it's not clear if Landis is going to be making an exit as well, or if Moallem's new charge will find a use for the Norman, OK-based blogger.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Hezbollah's "New" Political Document

In case you haven't seen it, here's my commentary on Hezbollah's "new" political document.

I will come back with a lengthier post to touch on some other points I wasn't able to include in the NOW Lebanon piece.