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Syriasly?

Despite the Syrian ambassador’s claims, India does not have a horse in the ongoing Syrian civil war.

The Syrian ambassador to India ruffled a few feathers when he commented during an interview with The Indian Express that Indian jihadis were involved in battling al-Assad’s regime in Syria.  Excerpts from the interview follow:

“Indian fighters are waging Islamic jihad, along with fighters from Chechnya, Afghanistan and other countries,” the ambassador, who was handpicked by Assad for the India job two years ago, said.

Asked who these Indian fighters were, Abbas said, “They are Islamic people, not Hindus, because Hindus don’t wage Islamic jihad… Why are you surprised?

“There are people in India who support Muslim brotherhood’s ideology… They are very dangerous,” Abbas said.

According to Abbas, the fighters traveled to Turkey from India before entering Syria. “Some of them have been killed, some have been caught alive,” he said, adding, “One of them has been shown on Syrian TV, caught with an Indian passport.” [Indian Express]

The ambassador’s claims appear incredulous considering that there has simply been no historical precedent to suggest that Indian citizens sympathize with pan-Islamist causes to the extent that they would move to foreign countries to participate in conflict. The ambassdor’s statements appear even more incredulous considering that the ongoing civil war in Syria has significantly limited his ability to communicate regularly with the embattled al-Assad regime.  Given this, how exactly did the ambassador ascertain that some combatants involved in the conflict held Indian passports?

Dr. Abbas’ comments have surprised Indian officials who have said that Syria has failed to provide details of these Indian “jihadis” battling the regime in that country.  One “senior official” is reported to have told the Hindustan Times:

Abbas’ statement is most irresponsible and mischievous as we have checked our records and found no Indian national involved in jihad in Syria. We are cross-checking facts before we formally take up the matter with Syrian ambassador… [Hindustan Times]

Once the Syrian ambassador’s statements hit mainstream media, he attempted damage control by claiming that he had been approached by families of persons of “Indian origin” in repatriating citizens and that some of these persons held UK passports.  He then very conveniently chose to blame media propaganda for wrongly characterizing his statements.

Based on publicly-available information, we can deduce that two very separate efforts are underway to seek Indian support for either of the two belligerents in the ongoing  civil war (i.e., the Syrian regime or their rebel antagonists).  The British prime minister, David Cameron, in seeking support for military operations in Syria claimed in his address to the parliament that India was among those countries that pointed the “finger of blame” for the situation in Syria to al-Assad’s regime.  India, rightly, pointed out to the UK that it articulated no such position to the prime minister.

The anonymous “senior official” of the government of India made absolute sense in pointing out that India was investigating the Syrian ambassador’s claims and that it would formally take up the issue with him.  If India’s investigation finds that Dr. Abbas’ statements are without merit, it should publicly disavow his claims.

Let’s be clear: India’s interests in Syria are limited.  We have already abandoned the oil fields in that country that we once had a stake in.  Short of seeing an end to the ongoing conflict in Syria purely on humanitarian grounds, we have no horse in this race.  India should be prepared to work with whoever ultimately emerges as being in charge of affairs in Syria.  We will rebuild relationships if necessary, or forge new ones as warranted.  The U.S. appears to be inching towards some sort of military operation while many of its allies (primarily the UK) have voted against it.  It is not India’s place at this point in time to pick a side in the civil war.

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Bloodbath in Egypt

The House of Saud picks a side.

There is chaos in Egypt.  The Muslim Brotherhood and their leader Mohammed Morsi were ousted from power by the Egyptian military in a soft coup last month.  The Brotherhood hasn’t taken kindly to being deposed from power.  This week has seen violence of an unprecedented scale in recent history in Egypt.  Over 750 civilians have been killed since Wednesday.  Without the active intervention of the U.S. and regional powers, that number will rapidly increase and the possibility that Egypt will descend into a long, protracted civil war isn’t far-fetched.

What we’re seeing is a battle between the Old Guard and resurgent Islamist groups in Egypt.  The military-security apparatus’s decades-long dominance is being challenged and neither the Islamists nor the Old Guard are ready to back down.  The victims of the ensuing confrontation are, unfortunately, the ordinary Egyptians.

In the midst of turmoil, Saudi Arabia appears to have picked a horse:

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has called on Arabs to stand together against “attempts to destabilise” Egypt.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its people and government stood and stands by today with its brothers in Egypt against terrorism,” he said in a statement read on state TV on Friday, backing Egypt’s military leadership.

“I call on the honest men of Egypt and the Arab and Muslim nations … to stand as one man and with one heart in the face of attempts to destabilise a country that is at the forefront of Arab and Muslim history,” he added.

Saudi Arabia “has stood and stands with its Egyptian brothers against terrorism, deviance and sedition, and against those who try to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs… and its legitimate rights in deterring those tampering with and misleading” its people, he said. [al-Jazeera]

The House of Saud’s endorsement of the Egyptian military may appear odd given Saudi Arabia and the Brotherhood’s commitment to conservative strains of Islam.  However, it is important to distinguish between Wahhabism as a religious and philosophical movement that the Saudis promote (for example in Afghanistan or Pakistan) and the political movements that draw inspiration from Wahhabism.

The Saudis are happy to promote Wahhabism, but have always been very cautious about political Wahhabism.  It should not surprise us then that they are very uneasy with the Brotherhood because they see the movement as a threat to monarchy in the Gulf.  Other Gulf monarchies also endorse the distinction.  The UAE, for example, arrested 30 Egyptians and Emiratis in June on suspicion of ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.

This also explains why Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have ensured that the Muslim Brotherhood hasn’t gained the kind of foothold in the Gulf that it has in Egypt and the Islamic maghreb.  The absence of the Brotherhood’s mass participation in the politics of the Gulf is not by accident, it is by design.  None of the Gulf monarchies are eager to see the Brotherhood operate in their neighborhood.

Further, where Egypt is concerned, the Saudis have always been among the military-security establishment’s most important supporters.  Gen. Nasser and Mubarak drew strength from Saudi Arabia’s backing.  In fact, it should be surprising that Saudi Arabia’s endorsement of the military-security establishment wasn’t made apparent sooner.

In India’s neighborhood, similar parallels can be drawn with regard to Pakistan, though for different reasons.  The Saudis are likely to always back the Pakistani army over political parties such as the JUI (that draw inspiration from the Muslim Brotherhood).  This is unlikely to change as long as the Saudis see nuclear Pakistan as a bulwark against Iran.  Of course, the Saudis will continue to support the proselytizing of puritanical Wahhabism by religious jamaats in Pakistan, but not to the extent that they begin to pose a challenge to the Pakistani army’s primacy in dictating policy in that country.

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India and the Golan Heights

India’s peacekeepers are at risk as the security situation deteriorates amidst UNSC’s squabbling.

Things aren’t looking all that great in Syria.  The UN now estimates that 93,000 people have been killed in the two year-old civil war.  The Alawites and their allies, propped up by Iran and Russia, and the various Sunni Islamist factions are butchering themselves to oblivion.

But the prolonged bickering in the UN Security Council and the Council’s inability to pass a resolution to bring this war to an end and prepare for an inevitable post-Assad Syria is extending the political and humanitarian crisis in that country.  The U.S. drew “red lines” for intervening if the al-Assad regime used chemical or biological weapons against its people.  But when it turned out that Bashar al-Assad had ordered the use of sarin on rebel forces, the U.S.’s response was muted: it held joint military exercises with its ally in Jordan along the Syrian border.

Russia, other the other hand, has consistently threatened to veto resolutions at the UNSC to enforce a no-fly zone.  So the UN has been ineffectual and bodies like the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Conference have done little more during this period than underscore the irrelevance of their existence.

Meanwhile, the  risk of the war spilling over into the Golan Heights along Syria’s border with Israel has increased.  The UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which has historically been supported by contingents from the Philippines, India and Austria charged with maintaining the peace in the buffer zone, has come under attack from Syrian rebel forces. Peacekeepers from the Philippines were detained (and subsequently released) by Syrian rebels in March 2013.  But the very structural composition of the UNDOF, as envisioned in the 1973 UN Agreement on Disengagement between Israeli and Syrian Forces is problematic under the circumstances (emphasis added):

The function of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) under the agreement will be to use its best efforts to maintain the Ceasefiie and to see that it is scrupulously observed. It will supervise the agreement and protocol thereto with regard to the areas of separation and limitation. In carrying out its mission, it will comply with generally applicable Syrian laws and regulations and will not hamper the functioning of local civil administration. It trill enjoy freedom of movement and communication and other facilities that are necessary for its mission. It will be mobile and provided with personal weapons of a defensive character and shall use such weapons only in self-defence. The number of the UNDOF shall be about 1,250, who will be selected by the Secretary-General of the United Nations in consultation with the parties from members of the United Nations who are not permanent members of the Security Council. [United Nations]

Effectively, this means that non-UNSC members are entrusted with maintaining the peace in a volatile region while having no influence in bringing about conditions for peace.  The Austrians have already withdrawn their contingent from Golan.  The Indian contingent is the second-largest in the Golan Heights (after the Philippines), with about 200 peacekeepers. The Philippines has already warned that it may pull out its peacekeepers as well.

With the security situation deteriorating and no end to the UNSC’s internal squabbles, it is time we considered a full pullout or at the very least, a substantial reduction in our footprint.  This will not, in and of itself, hasten the UNSC to act decisively in Syria, but there is no need for India to put its troops in harm’s way while the situation deteriorates in the region.

 

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Not your grandma’s al-Qaeda

Don’t ignore the possibility that attacks against the U.S. in Egypt and Libya were coordinated.

On Tuesday, the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya and the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt came under attack.  In Cairo, an enraged mob, numbering — at first, about 50 — and later, hundreds, breached the embassy compound, took down the American flag and supposedly replaced it with al-Qaeda’s flag.  In Benghazi, the attack turned far more serious and resulted in the deaths of the U.S.’s ambassador to Libya, a consulate staffer, and two U.S. marines.

We are told that the reason behind the attacks was a movie entitled “Innocence of Muslims” by one Sam Bacile, an Israeli living in California, which depicts the Prophet Mohammed in poor light.  Excerpts of the movie have been published on Youtube, from where the attackers apparently first viewed its contents.  The film is being promoted by controversial pastor, Terry Jones, who was involved in the very public burning of the Quran, two years to the day of these recent attacks.

But mystery surrounds the person who is said to have directed the movie.  By some accounts, Sam Bacile has gone into hiding following the violent reaction to this film.  However, no current or historical records of the existence of an individual named Sam Bacile exist in the state of California or anywhere else in the U.S.  There are some suggestions that Sam Bacile might be a pseudonym of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a resident of Los Angeles.

News media in the U.S. has focused much of its energy on the Benghazi attack.  But earlier this morning, this blogger had tweeted that coordination between the attacks in Libya and Egypt cannot (and must not) be ruled out.  My contention was that these were per-meditated attacks against U.S. interests abroad on the anniversary of 9/11 and that the film itself may have offered an excuse to inflame passions, but was not the motive behind the attack.

Over the past many hours, U.S. officials have confirmed that they believe that the attack was planned in advance, and that protests merely offered a diversion.  The use of RPGs against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi makes this a distinct possibility.  In Egypt, Mohamed al-Zahwahiri, brother of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zahwahiri, claimed responsibility for the attack.  Mohamed al-Zahwahiri had only recently been released from prison, as part of the political upheaval following the so-called “Arab Spring” freedom movement in that country.  The irony is lost in the tragedy.

The attack in Benghazi is being linked to Ansar al-Shariah (AS), a group that has historically been affiliated with the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) umbrella.  AS continues to be active in Yemen and played a defining role in political realignments in Tunisia (as part of Asar al-Shariah in Tunisia, or AST), post the fall of the Ben Ali regime.

It could be likely, therefore, that militants from AST, already involved in the ouster of Muammar al-Qaddafi, were responsible for the attack, given the geographic proximity to Tunisia.  Both attacks bear the signature of al-Qaeda, or its affiliated groups.  Osama bin Laden may be long gone, but this isn’t the al-Qaeda of yore.

These events pose new challenges to the U.S. and other countries.  The threat vector of jihad is evolving.  A decade ago, al-Qaeda relied on a dedicated core of foot-soldiers to attack the U.S. and U.S.-interests — even at the cost of their own lives — around the world.  Today, a voluntary cadre of foot-soldiers, ready to forsake their own lives, may not be a necessity.

There is a growing trend of utilizing social media and the Internet to inflame public opinion, which can then be employed as the agent of attack.  Indeed, in India last month, the use of websites and SMSs to, at once, highlight the plight of Muslims in Myanmar and Assam, and terrorize Northeast Indians into leaving their adopted cities without over having to employ direct force indicates the evolving mindset of extremist organizations and state sponsors of terrorism.

The U.S., India and other like-minded countries would do well to take cognizance of these changing attack vectors and co-operate to address mutual and evolving threats.

 

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