Tunisia’s Delicate Balance

Beji Caid Essebsi (C), presidential candidate and leader of Tunisia's secular Nidaa Tounes party, holds a presidential electoral campaign rally in Tunis December 13, 2014. Tunisia will hold the run-off of its first democratic presidential election on December 21. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Beji Caid Essebsi (C), presidential candidate and leader of Tunisia’s secular Nidaa Tounes party, holds a presidential electoral campaign rally in Tunis December 13, 2014. Tunisia will hold the run-off of its first democratic presidential election on December 21. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Of the four Arab countries that experienced the Arab Uprising season in 2011 and had their longtime leaders toppled—plus a fifth (Syria) where an armed rebellion still rages—only Tunisia can thus far be considered a success story. Having removed President Ben Ali in January 2011 with relatively minor violence, Tunisians proceeded to elect a constitutional assembly, two successive national assemblies, an interim, and now a fully elected new president (though the final runoff votes have yet to be cast), without any major clashes either between army and populace or between the competing Islamist and secular parties. So far, so good. The real test lies ahead in the ability of the winning party to lead the people, integrate the factions, and balance Tunisia’s need for security and economic progress with the original purpose of the uprising—democracy. President and Parliament will have their work cut out for them in the months ahead.

Four years into the Arab Uprising, and right where the initial spark took place, Tunisia remains a success story, having transitioned from a police state into a budding consensual democracy with minimal violence and, thus far, manageable political polarization. Tunisian’s own pragmatism and ability to compromise have had much to do with this success. This pragmatism, however, was much aided by an army that was kept relatively small (under 40,000 men in arms) and outside of the political arena by both previous regimes, Bourguiba’s and Ben Ali’s. Tunisia’s geographic location also helped. Outside the Levant’s vicious circle of internecine rivalries and wars with Israel, Tunisia was spared both the regional and international interventions that continue to plague its neighbors to the east.

The Road Thus Far Traveled

That said, there have been many conflicts and acts of violence that threatened at times to tear apart the social fabric and destroy the ability of rival factions to work together towards a new political system in the country. To begin with, the uprising was relatively peaceful but not bloodless. Several hundred Tunisians were killed by sniper bullets and clashes with the country’s security apparatus during the early days of the uprising, both before and after Ben Ali had left the country. The combined masses of Islamist Ennahda and secular liberal youth, however, were too numerous and persistent for the police, without army assistance, to overcome. Nor was the violence limited to clashes with the old regime. After a new, Ennahda government was installed based on the results of the first parliamentary election, secular minded Tunisians took to the streets again to protest the Islamist party’s attempts to slowly pass legislation reversing the gains made by women and secularists during the years since independence. Salafi parties also took to the streets from the opposite side of the political spectrum demanding a more rigorous instatement of Sharia law in the country. In both cases, demonstrators clashed with security forces to cries of harsh police tactics and casualties. The Ennahda government was, therefore, attacked from both the right and left for doing too much, or too little, to Islamize the country.

The same symptoms of mutual distrust and desire to reconstruct society according to their own image plagued the various Tunisian factions as it does the other societies in transition in the region. Tunisians, however, have managed so far to step back from the brink of civil war whenever passions boiled and tempers flared and spilled onto the streets. In 2013, with the successive assassinations of secular oppositionists Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, secular oppositionists blamed the government of at best having turned a blind eye to Salafi violence and at worst having actually colluded in the elimination of rival leaders. The country looked to be on the precipice during the summer of 2013 with popular pressure mounting against the government. Finally, in October of the same year, the Ennahda leadership agreed to step down in favor of a government of technocrats tasked with preparing for the next parliamentary and presidential elections in 2014. Secular activists place the credit for the changeover to street protests, while Islamists, and many western observers credit Ennahda’s Islamist leadership with having the pragmatism to step down before things got out of control. One thing is certain, there was no military intervention and no one from Ennahda had to be forcibly removed from office. The fact is, Ennahda, responding to mounting popular pressure, agreed to an early transition into new elections, which would be the practice in any parliamentary democracy where elections could be called before the parliamentary term is over, if it looked like the government in office had lost the confidence of a large portion of the electorate. Kudos are due all around to Tunisians from both sides of the aisle.

The Road Ahead

Much like Egypt, the moderate Islamist party’s short stay in power did not endear them to the secularists with whom they collaborated to bring down the Ben Ali regime. The party also lost ground in the center, with Tunisians who were willing to give either of the two major blocs a chance to prove worthy of the public’s confidence. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia’s military did not step in to remove the Islamists, who read the tea leaves on their own and bowed to the public will. Nidaa Tounes, the main secular power bloc, won a plurality of 85 seats in the latest election and anticipates the election of its leader as the new president, hence securing both executive and legislative power in the country. The challenges ahead are the following:

  1. Caid Essebsi, the leader of Nidaa and looking very much like the president-elect at this writing, is very much old guard, having worked for both founding president Bourguiba and his successor, the ousted Ben Ali. Essebsi is also well into his eighties. He has to make sure the old regime does not make a full comeback on the coattails of his victory, by opening the doors of his party to democratic liberal youth and to middle class Tunisians who do not have the connections to old money and old regime power brokers. If Essebsi fails in this regard, he will alienate the very people who made his victory possible, and Ennahda will be waiting in the wings to take advantage of such failure.
  2. Having failed to secure a full majority in parliament, Nidaa Tounes will have to govern in coalition, either with smaller parties or with in a national unity government with Ennahda. This is something the Islamists, both in Egypt and in Tunisia, failed to do in a convincing manner. The legislative agenda will have to be sensitive to the needs and desires of all Tunisians and not just to the party faithful.
  3. Security will be a huge factor in the months to come. Tunisia’s moderate Islamists and secularists are flanked to the extreme right by Salafi groups and other extremists who are currently exporting young Jihadis to the ongoing war in the Levant. The several thousand Tunisian supporters of ISIS, both inside the country and out, will pose a significant security risk to Tunisia’s political stability in the near future. It is vital that the victors of the latest election not sacrifice democracy in the name of security and stability, unless, as happened in Egypt, they want to end up with neither.

Finally, Nidaa Tounes needs to demonstrate a democratic tendency within the party by having a transparent decision making and succession system in order to secure a smooth transition from Essebsi to a younger generation of leaders, and also to prove they are not going to turn exclusivist and try to eliminate their political opponents. Ennahda, for one, having seen what happened to their counterparts in Egypt, will be watching closely to make sure their pragmatism does not lead them to political oblivion.

Will the Real President Obama Please Stand Up?

Shi'ite Houthi rebels ride a patrol truck in Sanaa October 9, 2014. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Shi’ite Houthi rebels ride a patrol truck in Sanaa October 9, 2014. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Mohammed Abdulmalik al-Mutawakil, one of the secular party leaders in Yemen, a scholar and a gentle soul who was admired and loved by many, was assassinated this week as he walked home in Sanaa. Regardless of who perpetrated this senseless crime, it is an ominous sign of the chaos that has already descended on this hapless country and the chaos that is yet to come. There was a time when diplomacy could have prevented the disintegration of Yemen, that time has come and gone.

The Houthi rebels (and the term rebels may not apply for much longer), having gone way past Sanaa in their military expansion, have given Yemeni President, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, 10 days to form a cabinet or face a direct takeover of power by their committee of elders. As the Houthis battle a motley collection of Al Qaeda forces, tribal militias, and remnants of the Yemeni army in southern towns and governorates, the US continues to bombard members of the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters in roughly the same locations, leading to widespread speculation in Yemen and the region that a secret alliance has taken hold between the US and Iran, leading to actual collaboration on the ground between US and the Iran-supported Houthi forces.

In northern Syria and Iraq, US planes have been firing relentlessly at ISIS fighters, particularly in the town of Kobani, where the embattled Syrian Kurds have been valiantly trying to fend off an ISIS invasion. Given that ISIS has turned on the Syrian government and has invited at least the Islamist members of the Syrian opposition to join them, this again puts the US on the side of Iran and Bashar Al-Assad in confronting Sunni extremist factions. The Turks, who could with the proper inducements field ground troops to help defeat ISIS, have insisted that the US turn its fire on the Syrian regime as well, to get at the root of the chaos and mayhem going on in Syria and Iraq. The Obama administration has thus far refused to do so.

I have had a hard time in recent days, in interviews with Al Jazeera (Arabic) and the BBC Arabic service, convincing my interviewers and their Yemeni guests that the US has actually blundered into this seeming alliance and that it is in no way an actual conspiracy between the US and Iran against all Sunnis in the Middle East. Conspiracy theories are indeed commonplace in the Middle East, and suspicions are always rife that the US sees all, knows all, and is behind every nefarious development in the region. I try to convince my interlocutors that the US government is simply not that smart and not that capable to be behind all these developments and that there is in fact no American plan to dismantle the Sykes-Picot agreement (the WWI French-British agreement that drew all the currently challenged borders in the Levant) and divide up the region along sectarian and ethnic lines. The Obama administration’s actions are, nevertheless, at least partially to blame for these wild impressions and accusations. Indeed, despite an army of public affairs specialists and strategic communication experts, the US image in the region is at an all-time low, from Iran itself, to Turkey, Israel, and the entire Arab world.

From a Beleaguered Northern Tribe to a Dominant Force

When the Houthi rebellion started in 2004, the Houthis were simply the largest Zaidi tribe in northern Yemen, leading a protest at the time against the Saudi supported attempt by the central government to spread Salafi/Sunni Islam in their region. Additionally, the northern region felt neglected and left out of development funds and projects given to Yemen by foreign donors. Former president Saleh attempted to subdue the Houthis by summoning Houthi elder, Badreddine al-Houthi, to Sanaa and by stationing troops in Saadah, the capital of the northern governorate. Defiance turned into resistance and led to seven years of war between the Houthis and the central government in Sanaa. After the 2011 uprising, and taking advantage of the political chaos and power vacuum in Sanaa, the Houthis fought off the Yemeni army and defeated and expelled the armed members of a major Salafi school, the Damaj institute, from their midst. Having faced Salafi militias from Sanaa (from the Muslim Brotherhood dominated Islah party) and occasional forays by AQAP, the Houthis, under the guise of fighting off these “invading” forces, continued their war into the governorates of Amran and Shabwa, reaching in the spring and summer of 2014 the outskirts of Sanaa.

Steps Toward Dominance

Despite signing agreements with the National Dialogue Committee, brokered by UN envoy Jamal Benomar, and with the new president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the Houthi’s appetite had been whetted by successes on the battlefield and by growing assistance from Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, into threatening Sanaa under the pretext of seeking economic and political reforms. After establishing street presence via civilian demonstrations, the Houthis eventually sent troops into Sanaa and took the capital with only token resistance from the army. It was widely speculated that troops still loyal to former president Saleh were ordered by the latter not to resist. Saleh, long angered by leading General Ali Mohsen, and the leading Islahi family, the al-Ahmars, struck an alliance with the Houthis and gave orders to military leaders still loyal to him to stand down and allow the Houthis to advance unopposed.

Where Things Stand

After establishing dominance in Sanaa, Houthi forces continued south, taking Hodeida, the important commercial port city, and going East to the Hadramout region, taking Marib, the oil producing region, in the process. Currently, local tribes, army units still loyal to president Hadi, as well as AQAP elements, are putting up a stiff resistance to the advancing Houthi fighters. From Hodeida, the strategic waterway of Bab el Mandeb, is within striking distance, as is Aden, the capital city of the south. If their current string of military successes continues, the Houthis will soon have all of Yemen under their control. Not wanting a war with the southern coalition known as Hirak, the Houthis are attempting to strike an alliance with the southern parties by promising them a large share of any new government formed in Sanaa. As a sign of their growing confidence, the Houthis have declined to name their own prime minister, or indeed to say how many seats in the new government they would like to have. Houthi leader, Abdul-Malik, has instead given president Hadi an ultimatum: form a new government within 10 days or we will establish a council of elders to rule Yemen. Houthi’s militiamen already control the main ministries and government buildings in Sanaa and are ensuring that government officials do not make any decisions counter to their wishes.

So What?

The US has, since 2011, given some economic assistance to president Hadi’s transitional government and lip service to the democratic process underway in Yemen since 2011. The highest investment of attention and money, however, has been given to pursuing AQAP elements with drone and airstrikes. The confluence of US airstrikes, and ground strikes by the Houthis against AQAP, give the impression of connivance. In fact, the USG to date has not had any direct contact with the Houthis, and rhetoric on both sides has been hostile.

While the US has been busy (ineffectively) pounding AQAP members across southern Yemen, Iran’s influence has grown in leaps and bounds over the past few months. Iran has friends and allies all over Yemen, but Iranian funds and weapons have been particularly instrumental in the Houthis’ military successes. When the Obama administration wakes up to the impending domination of the country by a group who’s slogan is: “Death to America, Curse be upon the Jews and Victory to Islam,” it will have become too costly to try to reverse the facts on the ground. Further, should Iran’s guns, via the Houthi militia, reach Bab el Mandeb, they would pose a threat to the entrance to the Red Sea, hence directly impacting the American national interest.

The image problem is no less serious: For three years, the US despite saying “Assad must go,” has refused to do anything to advance that goal. This year, with the sudden takeover of northwestern Iraq by the Islamic State organization (ISIS, ISIL, or simply IS), the US dispatched its air force, striking ISIS forces near the Kurdish regions of Iraq and in an attempt to break the siege in northern Syria of the Kurdish city of Kobani. There has been tacit admission by US officials that Iran, which has troops on the ground in northern Iraq and military advisors to the Assad regime in Syria, has been given advance notice of US/allied airstrikes. While such actions have been individually explained, and possibly justified, little attention has been given to the overall picture that Iran’s influence in the region is being aided and abetted by the US, and that it looks to allies like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, let alone the rank and file Sunni Muslims of the area, that there is actual collusion between Iran and the US. The rationale, as explained to me by Yemeni friends, is that the regular armed forces of Yemen have failed at containing AQAP. The US, according to this narrative, now trusts the Houthis to do the job. Similarly in northern Iraq and Syria, Syrian oppositionists to Assad are saying, perhaps the US has now given the signal to Iran that it no longer cares about Assad’s continuance in power as long as the Sunni extremists in the region are fought and minorities (read, the Yazidis and Kurds) are protected.

It would be one thing if all this were part of a deliberate strategy by the US—via an upfront agreement with Iran that establishes an understanding on stopping the rivalry and proxy wars with Saudi Arabia, and that terrorist plots by Iran and Hezbollah are put in check. Quite another matter, however, when Iran and its allied militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, are gradually acquiring the upper hand in the regional struggle for power, and the US is seen as at best looking the other way and at worst aiding and abetting such takeover. Iran remains to date an enemy of the US. By assisting one’s enemy and causing friends and allies to lose faith, the US is setting itself up for almost universal enmity in the region. After full withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops will no longer be in harm’s way in the region, but our diplomats and friends had better tread very carefully.

Better Late than Never?

US Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the United Nations Palais in Geneva

US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the United Nations Palais in Geneva November 24, 2013. REUTERS/Carolyn Kaster/Pool

The US finally has a strategy to defeat ISIS, or simply the Islamic State (IS) as it now describes itself. The main component of the strategy, involving pushing for political reconciliation in Iraq and getting Kurds and Sunnis to help the central government of Iraq fight the extremists, is something that was urgently needed at least five years ago—years wasted in mollycoddling Nouri al-Maliki when he could have been pressured to do the right thing by his own people or resign much earlier than he did. Better late than never!

The strategy also involves a role for Saudi Arabia, in concert with the new government in Iraq—again, a reconciliation, perhaps, which has been sometime in coming. The strategy also has a Syria angle, promising to finally work with the Free Syria Army (FSA), after three years of having promised but failed to do so. The strategy makes sense on paper but ignores the elephant in the room: Iran and its unholy alliance with the Assad regime in Syria. Additionally, the dozen or so states that have agreed to contribute to the fight have separate and often conflicting agendas. Finally, the FSA is on its last leg and may at this point be unsalvageable. The fight against ISIS is beginning to look like an orchestra whose disparate members have never trained together, trying to play on a stage the maestro has already abandoned.

Sometimes, the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy. Iran and the US have conflicting strategic interests that reflect on the futures of Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, and the Israel-Palestine conflict, not to mention Saudi Arabia and how the broader Middle East should interact with the United States and Europe. The US needs a broad understanding with Iran if the campaign against ISIS is to succeed and if an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program is to be worth the combined efforts of the P5 + 1. Iran’s leaders, having committed men, material, and funds to the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, have taken the US airstrikes in Iraq gladly but have already denounced plans to carry out strikes inside Syria, worried that once over Syrian skies, US planes could change targets and attack the Assad regime’s military machine—a machine which has wreaked havoc and destruction on its own people over the past three years. This naivety of coordinating with Iran (and, yes, a certain amount of necessary coordination is taking place) on narrow security interests while ignoring the larger questions has happened before under the Bush administration, when we discussed security issues with Iran’s military and IRGC leaders in Iraq, 2007-2009. Iran took full advantage of the talks, specifically gaining reassurance that its borders and fighters would not be targeted by coalition forces, all while forging ahead with its own policies of working with the Assad regime in Syria who was funneling Jihadi fighters into Iraq, sending arms, and funding the construction of an arms industry to serve Hezbollah and other Shia militias in the region and plotting against Gulf regimes and planning terrorist activities internationally. There is no reason to assume the same behavior is not currently ongoing as we work in tandem against ISIS in Iraq.

In practical terms, specific areas of conflict with Iran include the role of Shia militias, in both Iraq and Syria, armed and trained by Iran and Hezbollah. Such groups as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), have committed atrocities against Sunnis all over Iraq, including recently in Baghdad. The behavior of such elements in the field is highly problematic, especially as the new government is trying to win back Sunni communities to its side. Additionally, although the new cabinet in Iraq has already drawn praise from the US and Europe, it remains incomplete while the critical posts of Minister of Defense and Minister of Interior are still unfilled. The Sunnis have long demanded that security positions be filled by Sunni personalities, as long as Iraq’s security forces remained centralized. AAH and KH are pushing for these positions to remain in Shia hands. This is not a mere conflict over seats in the cabinet; both sides see the matter as vital to their security interests. Iran has allowed the transition to a new prime minister, albeit one from the same political party as Nouri al-Maliki. Iran, however, has not necessarily given the new PM a free-hand in appeasing and drawing in Sunni leaders in his own country. In Syria, the problem is much the same, as Shia and Alawite militias continue to do the dirty work for the Assad regime, ensuring the virtual impossibility of reconciliation between the different communities under current circumstances.

As for the other members of this new coalition of the willing, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, problems of coordinating with Iran are made even more difficult. Iran would certainly not welcome Saudi forces anywhere near its borders, this is assuming Saudi Arabia wants to send them. Saudi forces have rarely ventured outside their own borders, and when they have done so it was for a minimal police role in neighboring Bahrain, and a disastrous campaign against the Houthis in northern Yemen. The experience of Saudis and Emirati fighter-bombers is not much better than that of their ground forces, especially that it is not clear, without a NATO mandate, who exactly would be coordinating all these strikes over Iraq: the US or France?

The lack of clarity of the Syria side of the equation in the President’s strategy has been amply commented on by others. Suffice it to say, the Free Syria Army has lost ground, fighters, and commanders in three years of virtually no funding and of creeping ascendance of Islamist forces. While training those that remain in Turkey or Jordan would make the most sense because of the proximity to the fight, their training in Saudi Arabia makes no sense, especially if the idea is that Saudi forces would be doing the training. The fact that Saudi Arabia has no common borders with Syria, the backgrounder by a senior White House official notwithstanding, makes the logistics of sending them in and out of Syria as needed very complicated to say the least.

Finally, and as the President rightly notes, solving the ISIS problem is necessarily a long term venture. The Arab regimes that have joined the coalition are part of the problem, not the solution. ISIS has appealed to Sunni youth all over the Arab world based on their frustration with being marginalized in their own societies. ISIS has cleverly been using social media to appeal to and recruit young fighters from across the Arab/Islamic world and beyond. A recent Twitter message says to young Sunnis, “you have tried monarchies and socialist government and they have failed you. It is time to go back to an authentic Islamic government.”

President Obama, at the outbreak of the Arab Uprising in 2011, said that the US wants to be, indeed, has to be, on the right side of history. Young reformers in the region thought at the time that US policy would shift away from its security alliances with governments that consistently abused their human rights, to at least rhetorically supporting the rights of people of the region to rulers that practiced good governance. The US strategy against ISIS, compared by the President to the war against terrorism in Yemen and Somalia, is a return to the Global War on Terrorism of a decade ago, and to a coalition of the willing, consisting of governments that have been the cause of alienating their youth right into the arms of ISIS in the first place.

Yemen, the Forgotten Front

Followers of the Shi'ite Houthi movement shout slogans as they erect tents along the Airport road to extend their protest camp as part of a civil disobedience campaign staged by the movement in Sanaa September 7, 2014. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

Followers of the Shi’ite Houthi movement shout slogans as they erect tents along the Airport road to extend their protest camp as part of a civil disobedience campaign staged by the movement in Sanaa September 7, 2014. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

Seemingly unrelated to the turmoil further north in the Levant, a quiet war has been going on in Yemen since the conclusion last January of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), orchestrated by UN special envoy, Jamal Benomar. The Houthis, a Zaidi tribe in the north of Yemen, at war with Yemen’s central government since 2004, have now taken the war to Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and are in a position to dictate the terms for the formation of a new government, or to take Sanaa by force of arms, precipitating a civil war that promises to be both long and very destructive. The main reason the US should be paying attention, despite its preoccupation elsewhere in the region, is that the struggle for Yemen is related to the overall struggle for power in the region, and what happens in Yemen will have an impact on the balance of power between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The 500+ NDC members succeeded, over the past year, in laying the groundwork for a new constitution for the country and the principles for a new social contract between the various parts of the country. Two things were missing, however, at the end of that laborious process: A handshake between the principal faction leaders on the basic principles upon which the new Yemen is to be founded, and a genuine end to the war in the north between the Ansar Allah party (the Houthis’ political arm) and an odd assortment of forces arrayed against them, composed of Sunni Salafis from Sanaa, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and occasional participation by the Yemeni armed forces. As a result, the NDC achievements are crumbling and the country is on the brink of civil war.

There are many indications as to why Yemen developments are related to the cold war going on between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the past decade.[1] Of those, one stands out as the most relevant: The Houthi campaign is strikingly similar to the Iran-supported Hezbollah campaign in Lebanon in 2005, following the assassination of Rafic Hariri and the victory of the opposing March 14 Alliance at the polls that followed.

In the Lebanese case, Hezbollah’s civil disobedience campaign and threat to use arms if thwarted, allowed the party and its allies, the March 8 group, to reverse election results which gave Hariri and his March 14 a majority of seats in parliament. Hezbollah, by pulling its Shia ministers from the cabinet formed by March 14, and threatening to paralyze political life in the country, succeeded in obtaining a veto power in the government, thereby denuding the March 14 victory of any political value. High on the agenda of that new cabinet was pushing for full support of the international tribunal investigating the Hariri assassination and the implementation of UN Resolution 1701, calling among other things for the disarmament of all militia groups, including Hezbollah. The acquisition of a veto power on all cabinet decisions in effect prevented the Lebanese government from implementing any policies “of national import” without the express approval of the group. In 2008, when the Lebanese cabinet tried to dismantle a Hezbollah security communications network discovered at Beirut’s international airport, party militants stormed West Beirut, occupying it in just a few hours, burning down Hariri’s party headquarters in a demonstration of strength, before handing back the Sunni majority section of Beirut to the Lebanese army—the message of that military move was not lost on the March 14 group and the Lebanese government, which rescinded the decision to move against Hezbollah’s communications network.

Hezbollah Tactics

  1. Much as Hezbollah was emboldened by its repelling Israeli attacks in 2006, the Houthis, emboldened by having successfully repelled a Saudi armed incursion in 2009, pushed back Yemen’s Islah party fighters and Yemeni armed forces and, after 2011, reached the outskirts of the capital, Sanaa, practically surrounding it and putting the country’s principal airport under siege. Having demonstrated their military strength, the Houthis then set up camps around and inside the capital and adopted a national reform agenda, claiming they are pressuring the government towards political and economic reform on behalf of all Yemenis.
  2. Houthis have latched on to the recent plan by the government of Yemen to drop fuel subsidy, as demanded by IMF and suggested by donor countries. The Houthis, claiming this is indicative of corruption and insensitivity to the suffering of the majority of Yemenis who are poor, have demanded the rolling back of gas and other consumer prices, and the replacement of the current government by a more representative one. In a similar vein, Hezbollah has often claimed that their military power is used on behalf of all Lebanese and that their political goal is to ensure a truly representative and reform oriented government.
  3. Much as Hezbollah did before them, the Houthis launched their civil disobedience campaign inside the capital to give themselves the ability to paralyze the government and, in the Houthis’ case, block airport traffic. While not admitting publicly to the presence of Hezbollah trainers among them, the choice of yellow headbands—the same shade yellow as Hezbollah’s flag, does raise the question.
  4. The Houthis’ threat to escalate should their demands not be met clearly implied the threat to take over Sanaa by force. As if reading from Lebanese Hezbollah’s playbook, the Houthis’ military plans include dividing Sanaa into a grid and the occupation of the capital, square by strategic square, allowing them to take control with a relatively small force, freeing up the bulk of their fighters for strikes that would inevitably be launched against them elsewhere in the country.

President Hadi has responded diplomatically to the Houthis’ advance on Sanaa, accepting their demand to change the government and promising to launch political and economic reforms, demanded in any case by the NDC but derailed so far by bureaucratic lethargy and tough security conditions. The Houthis promptly rejected Hadi’s plan and organized a large demonstration blocking the roads leading to Sanaa international airport. Their rejection of a patently reasonable offer by Hadi reveals that their publicly announced demands belie their real goal of securing a dominant role in a new central government in Sanaa.

The Iran Connection

Iran’s media, which had ignored Yemen and the Houthi movement for years, has taken fresh interest since 2011. On Twitter, the English service Press TV, and the Arabic service al-Alam, Iran has pushed the theme of Zaidi Yemenis as a downtrodden and oppressed minority rising against Saudi funded oppression by the central government and by Salafi Jihadis in Yemen. The demands of the Houthis are described as the demands of the people of Yemen. The public affairs campaign, and the timing of it, link events in Yemen to what’s happening in the region further north. In its cold war with Saudi Arabia, Iran already has the upper hand in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. With a Shia rebellion still simmering in Bahrain and a potential Shia rebellion in eastern Saudi Arabia, a Houthi-dominated government in Yemen gives Iran the ability to squeeze the Saudi monarchy from north and south. Iran’s growing influence in the region also gives it the upper hand in any negotiations with the Saudis over the settlement of regional conflicts.

The time for the US and the west to play a leading role in determining Yemen’s future has come and gone. The only thing left is to draw the right lesson: in allowing coordination of strikes against ISIS in Iraq with the US, Khamenei is being anything but generous. The defeat of ISIS is totally to Iran’s advantage and the US strikes come at no cost to Iran, since he is now assured of no American boots on the ground. US agreement to coordinate with Iran, in the absence of any political discussions on Iran’s broader agenda in the region, is a total cave-in. US policymakers would do well to keep their eyes on the broader picture: ISIS is a passing phenomenon, bound to be defeated ultimately by regional players with some international help. Iran, on the other hand, is in the region to stay and its dominance of the Middle East is not to the advantage of the US and its allies.

[1] Nabeel A. Khoury, “Yemen, in Search of a Coherent U.S. Policy,” Middle East Policy, Summer, 2014.

Reality Check

A Palestinian girl, who medics said was wounded in Israeli shelling, is treated at a hospital in Gaza City July 20, 2014.  (REUTERS/Suhaib Salem)

A Palestinian girl, who medics said was wounded in Israeli shelling, is treated at a hospital in Gaza City July 20, 2014. (REUTERS/Suhaib Salem)

I must apologize to my friends for being so unsociable these days, but I’m walking around in a daze and trying hard to pretend this is not happening. Every day I wake up and say to myself, surely this is just a bad horror movie otherwise the world would be falling over itself trying to put a stop to it. It is surreal, bizarre, and bloody awful, and that’s just what the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza says about the world we live in.

Reality Check I

The air, land, and sea bombardment of two million people crammed and trapped on a strip of land 25 miles long and five miles wide is not, by any stretch of the imagination, self defense. Supporters of Israel, including those in the White House, need to stop parroting Netanyahu and start speaking the truth (instead of mumbling it when they think they’re off camera), no matter what the political cost. Successive US administrations since the creation of Israel have affirmed and reaffirmed US friendship and commitment to Israel and its security. This has not changed, nor should it, but this friendship should not be held hostage to the predilections and political constraints in which this particular right wing government of Israel finds itself.

To begin with, the kidnap and murder of three Israeli settlers is a crime, as is the burning alive of a 16 year old Palestinian youth at the hands of Israeli settlers. The way to deal with crime is simple: you investigate, arrest the perpetrators, and try and punish them in a court of law. Admittedly, this is not a normal law and order case, given the political reality and history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Palestinians are divided, and Gaza is controlled by Hamas—an organization listed as terrorist by Israel and the United States. Point of order, however: Hamas is not Al Qaeda or the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS). Those guys are totally crazy and irredeemable. Hamas is maximalist in its demands (as is the Israeli right wing) and not averse to using violence, but it is also not averse to negotiating and being part of the broader political picture.

Mahmoud Abbas, who has put his Palestinian police force at the disposal of Israel (this was the condition of the creation of the force from the start), is now the president of a unity government that includes Hamas. Hamas could have been induced, one way or another, to cooperate in the arrest of the perpetrators. Barring that, the arrest could have been affected without their cooperation—a difficult proposition, yes, but a path well worth pursuing, especially when the alternative is the collective punishment of an entire people. Israel chose to bomb several homes of suspected Hamas leaders—suspected in turn of having ordered the murder of the Israeli settlers. Israel, acting as judge, jury, and executioner, used F-16s and hellfire missiles to execute this bit of justice, which in turn unleashed Hamas rockets on the Israeli mainland.

Reality Check II

Launching rockets randomly on any country is an act of war, true. The way to stop that is not simple, but it is possible. It’s called peace. Palestinians, in Gaza and elsewhere, want to live and want to be treated with dignity. The cease-fire offered by Secretary Kerry, and accepted in principle by Israel, does not offer that. Gaza residents, who have not lived in peace and dignity since 1948, have had ceasefires before, most recently in 2008 and 2012. Neither of those agreements lifted the siege around them; neither cease-fire granted them a sovereign and independent state. When one looks at the way the Kerry peace train derailed, the entire effort looks full of sincerity and energy, but in the end amateurish and inconsistent. The Obama administration invested one year of its first term in the Middle East Peace Process, and one year at the start of the second. In each case, and after the passing of a self-imposed deadline, the peace efforts stopped. Surely, Israel and the US, with all the advanced technology, economic resources, and ingenuity in solving problems at their disposal, could come up with an offer Hamas can’t refuse!

Reality Check III

Criticism of Israel is not an assault on its sovereignty, independence, or its right to live in peace and dignity. Quite the opposite. A serious turn-around in this cycle of violence is critical for those very reasons. For 65 years, Israel has used overwhelming force to punish acts of violence against it, all while settlements continued to grow and spread across Palestinian land. Hamas, with all its rockets, cannot defeat Israel in battle. It cannot even inflict serious harm, given the huge imbalance in power. Israel can, by contrast, level Gaza completely, killing every living soul on it in the process. Hamas knows this, but has chosen to fight on despite the odds, at the risk of total annihilation of its  people. Doesn’t seem very rational, does it? There is the will for political survival at the bottom of this, to be sure, but the political survival of Hamas depends on some social, political, and economic deliverables to their population. This latest round of violence, far from getting Palestinian militancy to stop, will only create more desperate young men. A ceasefire may be reached in a few weeks, after Israel has bombed all the targets on its list and Hamas has exhausted its rocketry and its ability to ambush Israeli soldiers. A ceasefire, however, will not suffice. If no long term political agreement is reached, it wouldn’t be long before we witness another round of violence, and more misery on both sides.

The strategy of “this will teach them not to attack us again” has not worked in 65 years. Israel has always been bold in war, it is time we leaned on our friends to be bold in peace—for their own good, as well as for the Palestinian children, frightened and dying in droves.

Only in Lebanon

Bitter Friends and Rivals, Aoun and Geagea

Bitter Friends and Rivals, Aoun and Geagea (REUTERS/ Khalil Hassan)

I was on the phone with my sister in Lebanon recently when sounds of gunfire (from her end, of course) interrupted the conversation. Not being able to ascertain the cause right away, my sister called me back after we hung up to reassure me that the gunfire was “only celebratory” on the part of those happy with the announced victory of Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian presidential elections. We both chuckled and made jokes, but the irony stayed with me: the pro-Assad Lebanese were celebrating the victory of a reelected president next door, while failing to elect one for their own country–the process having stalemated after four aborted attempts, leaving the post vacant for the time being. Continue reading

Obama’s West Point Speech: Less than Meets the Eye!

U.S. President Obama hands a diploma to a graduate during commencement ceremony at the United States Military Academy at West Point (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

U.S. President Obama hands a diploma to a graduate during commencement ceremony at the United States Military Academy at West Point (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

In his May 28 speech at West Point, President Obama outlined yet again his foreign policy vision, including specific references to his Syria policy. His speech, though it included a reference to “working with Congress to help those who fight dictatorship and terrorism in Syria,” has already drawn a less than enthusiastic reaction from the Syrian political opposition and a skeptical reception by Middle East analysts. The speech was first and foremost political, responding to his critics at home to the left and right of the political spectrum—placing his policy squarely in the middle, in between isolationism and unrestrained military intervention. On specifics concerning Syria, it left those looking for new initiatives wondering, “where’s the beef?” Continue reading

From Kiev to Damascus and Back

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah (L) chats with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (C) and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) while on their way to an official dinner in Damascus February 25, 2010. REUTERS/Sana

Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah (L) chats with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad (C) and Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) while on their way to an official dinner in Damascus February 25, 2010. REUTERS/Sana

Some within and outside of the Obama administration who were flummoxed by the Syria crisis and repeatedly used phrases like, “too complicated” and “no easy answers,” seem to now be on board with the call for a “robust response” to Putin’s moves in Crimea and the Ukrainian mainland. While many analysts and advisors were not sure if US interests were at stake in Syria, they now seem certain that US and NATO interests are being challenged in Europe. The Ukraine and Syria dilemmas are both complicated, and there are no easy answers in either case. Nevertheless, American and Western national interests are involved in both of these theaters, and the linkage between these two cases has to do with geopolitics, the global power balance, and the strong possibility of a return to Cold War power dynamics. Continue reading

What’s Showing in Middle East Theaters This Week

Three Middle East issues of note this week: The Lebanese presidential election/selection process has kicked off, almost unnoted by US media; Bandar Bin-Sultan, former Saudi Ambassador to Washington and, until recently, the Kingdom’s intelligence chief, was retired from his post, almost certainly against his will—a rarity in Saudi royal protocol; and, last but certainly not least, the Palestinians have announced a reconciliation between Hamas, more or less in control of Gaza, and Fatah, in control of the West Bank, or at least those parts of it that Israel allows Mahmoud Abbas to control. These are three important events, pregnant with nuances and implications.

The first round of voting took place this week in the Lebanese parliament for a new president of the republic. Since no candidate received a two-third majority required for a first ballot victory, the vote now goes into a second round next week, where the successful candidate could win by a simple majority—half the full membership plus one. A quorum still requires the presence of two-thirds of the members for the vote to count. The failed vote highlighted two political facts: One, there is no consensus between the two main political blocs on a way forward in Lebanon and, two, Lebanese Hezbollah (LH), long the dominant military force in Lebanon, has demonstrated that it is also the dominant political force in the country.

The constitution requires a two-third majority for a first round victory in the Lebanese presidential race. Out of a total of 128 potential votes, the only officially declared candidate with an actual platform, Samir Geagea, received 48 votes–almost the full vote of the Saad Hariri March 14 bloc. March 8, led by Hezbollah, did not field a candidate, but the 52 members of their coalition put in blank pieces of paper for their ballots and walked out of parliament before the votes were counted. Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader who normally carries the 10 swing votes in parliament, fielded another Christian candidate, Henri Helou, definitely a non-serious candidate meant to siphon away votes from Geagea.

Some of the independent members of parliament apparently cast protest votes, using the names of people who were killed during Lebanon’s civil war, and for whose death Geagea was convicted and received 12 years in prison when the war ended in 1990. Hezbollah blocked Geagea’s candidacy, not for anything he did during the civil war but because his platform clearly opposed LH on its policy of intervention in Syria, its taking matters into its own hands in questions of war and peace with Israel and, most importantly, on its retaining weapons and militia and refusal to submit to the principle that only the state could legitimately exercise the use of force. That the party did not field a candidate of its own–and presumably, if they did, that would be their Maronite ally Michel Aoun – is testimony to their inability to contribute anything positive to the current political, social, and economic stalemate in Lebanon. They have been content, thus far, to play the spoiler, and show that any presidential candidate who does not respect their red lines shall not be elected. Full stop!

On the second story, one that has quickly passed from the front pages of most media, national or international, is Bandar Bin-Sultan’s second demise. Second, because he passed through a period of political limbo after leaving Washington in 2005, despite being appointed head of the then newly created Saudi National Security Council, and particularly during the first two years of the Obama administration. Bandar resurfaced as Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief in 2012, seemingly already deeply preoccupied with the Syria file. His replacement last week as intel chief has been linked to his having lost the Syria file to his cousin Mohammed Bin-Nayef. Ironically, the speculation has centered mostly on the princely rivalry between the two, and on the control of the Syria file, as one of the most important on the Kingdom’s foreign policy agenda these days. What the analysts have glossed over is that Bandar has not so much lost the file as he has lost the war! From his perch as intelligence chief, Bandar ran the war in Syria much like an underground activity, coordinating illicit funds, foreign fighters with uncertain missions, including perhaps some assassination plots, using tactics somewhat reminiscent of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Iran-Contra affair, as well as cloak and dagger intrigue of the kind Israel and Hezbollah operatives engage in, the one against the other from time to time. Trouble is, this is a different era from the 1980s, and Syria is a different war from Afghanistan.

Ultimately, Bandar is an amateur plotter when he doesn’t have big powers behind him. With Iran and Hezbollah throwing their full weight behind Bashar al-Assad, and the west staying out of the fray, Bandar’s mismanagement of the Syria war looked amateurish indeed. His decommissioning is a recognition that the Assad regime is winning the war, but it is not a clear sign that Saudi Arabia now has a new strategy.  Much like the Obama administration, Saudi Arabia still wants Bashar out but seems to be in between strategies when it comes to finding a way to make their wish come true.

Finally, Palestinian reconciliation. We’ve seen this movie before: it doesn’t end well. Theoretically, it makes sense for all concerned parties to believe in it and help make it happen, using the new energy and optimism it would inevitably produce on the Palestinian side to reenergize the peace process. Why would anyone negotiate Palestinian-Israeli peace with Mahmoud Abbas when he can’t even speak for the organization that spawned him, Fatah? He is often derisively referred to by his own people as the mayor of Ramallah. Hamas, despite heavy odds, has held on to leadership and control of Gaza, despite a harsh Israeli siege and despite challenges by Palestinian factions more eager than Hamas for another war with Israel. Abbas has been trying to appear tougher with the Israelis, and has therefore opted for pressing ahead with UN committee memberships. Hamas has been trying to appear more moderate and more in control of the harder line factions in Gaza to appeal to the new military leadership in Egypt–whom they vitally need to obtain relief from time to time at the Rafah crossing. A reconciliation between the two organizations would challenge them to unify their strategies and allow them to present a unified position on a peace agreement with Israel, one that would  then have the approval of the majority of the Palestinian population behind it.

That would be far too logical and rational though, and we do not live in a rational world. Palestinians have reconciled before, only to be foiled by the people who helped them reconcile – often the Egyptian military intelligence establishment – or by their own rivalry and plotting against one another, or by outright hostility and threats by both Israel and the United States–and both have now threatened to impose sanctions and further restrictions of access to the outside world on a people who are already living like so many mice in a mousetrap. If you think this movie has a happy ending, I have some scenic property to sell you right on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, real cheap.

Kerry’s Peace Train Derailed

John Kerry  (Photo by Niki Nikolova/FilmMagic)

John Kerry (Photo by Niki Nikolova/FilmMagic)

Something happened on the way to Secretary Kerry’s Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) victory lap this month: Palestinians and Israelis got off the train and he was left looking more than a little crestfallen as he drove the empty train into the station. I wasn’t surprised. Despite his heroic efforts, and the optimism expressed by several observers for whom I have always had the highest respect, I doubted from the start that this round of peace talks would go the distance any more than the George Mitchell effort did during President Obama’s first term in office.

Mitchell’s efforts five years ago sank into the morass of negotiating the meaning of “natural growth” of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and never seriously grappled with the real issues of a final peace settlement. John Kerry, to his credit, grappled with the big issues from the start, and succeeded in negotiating away from the camera lights, hence avoiding the political posturing that both negotiating parties have been known to succumb to, but towards the end the process sank back into the morass of goodwill steps and confidence building measures–exchanged, delayed, and ultimately withheld. Continue reading