April 28, 2012

Latest Evidence of Bahrain's Stalemate

Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa meets with Jeffrey Feltman, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs

Call it a premature victory lap. 

Fresh off a "triumph," Bahrain's monarchy has relished in the nuclear afterglow of its Formula 1 Grand Prix, which concluded on April 22nd without incident. A short-term win-win situation for King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the Grand Prix killed two birds with one stone by publicizing Bahrain's "normality" and slandering the opposition as violent extremists. Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa continued this narrative on Friday during an interview with Der Spiegel, the same publication that his uncle employed to ridicule the opposition before February 14th's demonstrations. 

Some points of Prime Minister Al Khalifa's transcript are factually inaccurate: "It [the Grand Prix] was a happy event for all Bahrainis." On a larger scale, "It simply isn't true that the Shiites in Bahrain are poor and oppressed." Those participating in the reform movement apparently don't count as Bahraini in his mind. They are busy committing terrorism on the scale of two U.S. boogeymen, al-Qaeda and Iran. The Prince believes that Bahrain's movement, "in the modern world," is what "we call a 'terrorist group'... supported by Iran and Hezbollah. What we are facing is exactly what the Americans are facing with terrorism.” 

Asked if he is "comparing serious Bahraini opposition groups like Al Wefaq with a terrorist network?" Al Khalifa responds, "I am specifically talking about all those who are calling for violence and destruction. About those who are burning tires, throwing Molotov cocktails at police and are terrorizing the rest of this country." 

In other words, "the youth." 

When questioned on the nature of Saudi Arabia's intervention in March 2011, the Prince responds with predictable denial: "Saudi Arabia has never put pressure on us. We are members of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf and it was our right to ask our allies for help." King Hamad surely welcomed the GCC's Peninsula Shied across the King Fahd Causeway (its first internal deployment), but Riyadh had already decided to act before he "asked." The Prime Minister then reverses position by arguing, "When the Americans went into Iraq and Afghanistan, they also asked their allies for help and no one said a word about it." Many countries issued statements of caution or criticism when the U.S. government and its allies invaded Iraq. Al Khalifa later asks, "But has the international community ever questioned the opposition or held them accountable for their actions?

He should read a few statement from the Obama administration, which irregularly condemns Bahrain's protesters and equates their violence to the government's. Other pieces of information are twisted with disinformation to reinforce the monarchy's position, highlighting the growing disconnect from Bahrain's oppositional environment. No one can deny the youth's use of low-intensity violence - Molotovs, metal rods, rocks - against Bahraini police and defense forces. For this reason the Prince's criticism of the "Arab Spring" isn't entirely inaccurate because the term fails to capture a revolutionary wave's dynamic properties. However these tools of popular, unarmed revolt don't compare with the organized militancy of governments or established terrorist organizations. Bahrain's younger demographic has been further marginalized by the government's superficial attempts to engage Al Wefaq in a dialogue, escalating the cycle of protests and political gridlock. By refusing the negotiate with Al Wefaq on terms of good faith, King Hamad and his royal circle have driven up the demand for regime change in the streets. 

The Prince claims that his government remains open to dialogue, but his rhetoric manifests the futility of his nephew's outreach by asking what Americans would say "to a dialogue with terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaida..." 

Der Speigel's Souad Mekhennet doesn't let Al Khalifa off easily, clarifying that "Al-Qaida conducted terrorist attacks against the United States" while the protesters "just say they want reforms." The Prince immediately rejects the term before leaning on the crutch that is Bahrain's Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). Ordered by King Hamad in June 2011, the BICI documented a limited number of government abuses and initiated a sweeping round of police reforms, headed by a British-American "supercop" duo. The report also pushed Bahrain's accountability down the chain of command and ignored the extensive parliamentary reforms demanded by Al Wefaq and its allies. Prince Al Khalifa, in turn, blames the political stalemate on Al Wefaq and holds, "the opposition's religious leader, Issa Qassim, responsible for everything that is going on in this country, especially for all the people who have been killed. And Qassim is taking his orders from Iran." 

"The opposition is only looking for excuses, abusing demands for 'more rights' and 'democracy, to turn Bahrain into a second Iran." 

No foreign issue generates more ambiguity and resentment than Tehran's mysterious specter. Ruling Iranian influence out entirely would defy its regional ambitions and public statements of support, but this power is exaggerated by Bahrain's government. Not only does the Prince accuse Tehran of directing the youth coalitions, an accusation that they reject, he ultimately accuses Bahrain's political opposition of "waiting to see what Iran would tell them." Blaming a foreign conspirator for internal revolt is among the most rudimentary propaganda that a government can release - and a strategic error in gauging popular unrest. 

Prince Al Khalifa's interview offers an uninstructed view into a dangerous mindset, and serves as fresh evidence for the continuation of Bahrain's uprising. His position, essentially the same as King Hamad, refuses to engage in a transparent dialogue with Al Wefaq, brands the opposition as terrorists and denies Saudi influence. Everything is the opposition's fault and the burden of Bahrain's street violence lies with the highest authorities, contrary to the BICI's method of burying responsibility.

Bahraini officials routinely criticize outsiders for exaggerating the crisis, but they are more disconnected from their own island than they can imagine.

April 26, 2012

How to Defuse Sudan Conflict

Tensions along the oil-rich border that divides Sudan and recently independent South Sudan have escalated in recent weeks, raising the prospect of a full-scale war between the longtime foes. China, which maintains considerable oil interests in both countries, has called for restraint (Reuters) and vowed to work with the United States to bring both sides back to the negotiating table. Jendayi Frazer, the former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, says while the role of mediation should remain with the African Union, the United States and China are vital players in this conflict that can bring pressure to bear on both parties. However, Frazer says it is "a strategic mistake and it has never worked" for the international community to treat both sides equally, since the northern Sudan is clearly the aggressor in this latest conflict as well as many of those in the past. "The international community should be united against northern aggression," she says.
Is there an "aggressor," or are both parties equally culpable in this conflict? 

I don't think both parties are culpable, and that's where the international community got it wrong last week when they universally condemned South Sudan for going into Heglig. This dispute is really over borders, over oil, over many of the issues that were not finalized before secession. The tension has been rising since the beginning of the year, in which you would have had the north bombing areas in South Kordofan, in Blue Nile--basically bombing the SPLA North [South Sudanese-affiliated rebel forces operating in Sudan]--and continuing to fight with rebels in Darfur. 

The north has continued to be an aggressor for months before this particular conflict over Heglig came up. Yet the international community's condemnation of the north couldn't be heard at all. And so this heavy unified condemnation of the South for going into Heglig seemed to me to be overkill, and in fact, it created a cover for further northern aggression--which is what we are seeing right now with the bombing into Unity state. These aerial bombardments and killing of civilians have been going on constantly. This is the north killing [its] own people--the Southerners of the northern state--and now going into South Sudan and bombing. So there's a very clear aggressor here and it is northern Sudan, continuing to do what it's always done, which is bomb and kill civilians. 

The international community--the position of the United States--is going to try to be the arbitrator and treat each one equally; it is a strategic mistake, and it has never worked. In the past, the United States has been very clear that the north has been the aggressor, and the South has been our ally and our partner--and we need to treat them as such. It's all well and good for the African Union to come in as a neutral arbitrator. In the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement, Kenya was a neutral mediator; the United States was not the mediator and should never be the mediator because we are clearly on one side of the conflict. 

What's China's role in all of this? As a long-time ally of Khartoum, but also a large purchaser of oil from South Sudan, can it play a mediating role? 

 No, it shouldn't be a mediator--no more than the United States should. The mediation should stay within the African Union. But China and the United States are two of the most important players here, from the point of view that they can bring pressure to bear on both parties. They can bring coercive pressure--i.e, sticks, sanctions--and they can also bring incentives to bear. They could bring the goods that would actually deliver parties to the mediator. So China has an essential role to play, as does the United States. And the United States and China working hand in hand is even better. 

April 25, 2012

How Long Will Syria's Pseudo Ceasefire Hold?

Considering the near-term and potential long-term futility of "his" plan, Kofi Annan should almost be happy that Syria's pseudo-ceasefire has lasted as long as it has. For two weeks Bashar al-Assad's forces have limited their crackdown to intimidation and selective violence, dropping their high intensity to seemingly tolerable levels. "Taken as a whole," Annan said on Tuesday, "the level of violence has decreased" since April 12th's deadline went into effect. "This, however, does not cover the spike in violence reported yesterday," he continued, referring to nationwide attacks on oppositional territory. The Local Coordination Committees (LCC) estimated that 50 of the 80 deaths recorded on Monday came from Hama's war zone. 

More casualties followed on Tuesday and Wednesday, joining those already killed in the last two weeks and the thousands who perished during Annan's month-long negotiations with al-Bashar. Now even he is forced to concede a "bleak" situation.

The fundamental question before and after April 12th remains unchanged: how will al-Bashar's foreign opponents respond when their ceasefire is partially implemented, or when it sinks into a new cycle of violence. Some capitals are complicating an analysis of their coordination by speaking more forcefully than others. Saudi Arabia and France in particular have not backed away from their offensive-minded rhetoric, with President Nicolas Sarkozy expressing his desire "to strengthen the Arab countries... around Syria who want to act." For a variety of reasons - indecision, fear of endangering Syria's opposition, the consequences of regional warfare - the Obama administration has attempted to keep its cards tucked out of view. U.S. officials such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially refused to comment on the possibility of failure, telling CNN's Wolf Blitzer that she doesn't "think it's useful to do anything other than focus on the six points of the plan."

More to the point, White House spokesman Jay Carney told inquiring reporters, "we are not prepared to announce an additional step or a new step to be taken either by the United States, by "Friends of Syria," or the United Nations Security Council at this time." However Carney finished by telling his audience, "you can be sure that we are discussing next steps and options with our allies and partners," and Clinton has since softened her position in response to Syria's fallout. Explaining that Washington must "keep Assad off balance by leaving options on the table,'' the Secretary urged international powers "to continue to work and move toward a Security Council authorization so that we have the authority to proceed when the times are right."

"We need to start moving very vigorously in the Security Council for a Chapter 7 sanctions resolution, including travel, financial sanctions, an arms embargo, and the pressure that that will give us on the regime to push for compliance with Kofi Annan's six-point plan."

So what is about to transpire in Syria? Although the scale of violence and number of casualties has dropped significantly from February and March, both sides of the conflict are angling towards their own ends rather than a common outcome. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently told reporters that al-Bashar's partial implementation "does not amount yet to the clear signal expected from the Syrian authorities," but his signal is crystal clear. Many Western officials even acknowledged that al-Bashar is likely stalling for more time, a reality that is now certain. He never intended to cease all of his fire, just a portion of his guns, and a breakdown in all six points appears inevitable.

"We have credible reports that when they leave, the exchanges start again, that these people who approach the observers may be approached by the Syrian security forces or the Syrian Army or even worse, perhaps killed, and this is totally unacceptable,” Annan's spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, told United Nations television.

The other five points - the right to protest, UN monitors, humanitarian corridors, media access and political dialogue - have barely moved since April 12th. Unable to avoid the presence of UN monitors, al-Bashar's regime is employing the same tactics used to disrupt the Arab League's mission. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem would comply with the UN's recommended figure of 300 after suggesting 250, an irrelevant concession given Syria's urgent demands. He also ruled out the possibility of aircraft operating independently in Syria airspace, saying "we have the capabilities in our air force to carry this out." UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous expects 100 observers to land within a month, far quicker than most missions, but this time-gap is already adding to Syria's friction.

One local activist in the Damascus suburb of Arbeen retold a common scene: "We started walking with the observers thinking that they'd protect us, but then the Shabiha (Ghosts) started shooting at us, even when the observers' cars were at the front of the march. Once the committee was gone, there was no one else to see what they were doing." Annan's joint Arab League-UN plan also calls for accelerating "the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons," but UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that "no significant release of detainees" has taken place. The same goes for media access and the state of negotiations between al-Bashar and Syria's revolutionaries - which rest at zero and may be impossible to lift off the ground. In their attempt to compromise with Moscow and Beijing, Western and Gukf powers continue to support an "inclusive national dialogue" with a murderous, untrustworthy regime. They may hope that negotiations can eventually evict al-Bashar's regime through a "transitional period," but Syrian officials claim that he will only step down if the people vote him out of office in 2014.

Having already employed this strategy in Yemen and Bahrain's counterrevolutions, Washington should be intimately aware that "dialogue" functions as a stalling/salvage mechanism for decayed governments Conversely, any Western or Arab calls for al-Assad to resign are immediately reflected back as a breach of their own initiative. This hedged position could represent the "least bad" option available to foreign powers (an uncertain possibility), but its polarizing effects are extending the conflict's time-line.

"As a matter of principle, we believe that the U.N. Security Council is not about regime change," Russia's UN Ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told CNN's Christiane Amanpour on Monday. "We believe that ... if there is crisis in a country, the role of the international community should be to help the parties involved to find a political, peaceful way out of this crisis."

In the event that Annan's plan formally collapses, the next phase leans towards the dual establishment of an arms embargo and humanitarian corridors. Although U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ruled out an existing plan to conduct air operations or land "boots on the ground," secured pathways into southern Turkey will allow foreign powers to deploy their forces on humanitarian grounds. European and Gulf states in particular view these corridors as the "solution," but they will likely form the initial platform to scale up a wider campaign. This scenario would begin by arming Syria's revolutionaries and, for better or worse, accelerate the organization of a long-term insurgency. A large section of Syria's opposition is expecting such a response from the international community.

General Mustafa Ahmed al-Sheikh, the highest ranking defector thus far, is hastily calling for "the formation of a military alliance of countries friendly to the Syrian people, without UN Security Council approval, to carry out surgical strikes on key installations of the regime."

On Monday President Barack Obama authorized new sanctions against the Syrian government to obstruct the technological tracking of dissidents. "It's one more step that we can take toward the day that we know will come: the end of the Assad regime." Sadly this day is far from guaranteed by the international community's current strategy, and years will be needed to organize an insurgency capable of eroding al-Bashar's politico-military network. Despite assurances that America and its allies possess the means to act, the lack of credible force has led al-Bashar to believe that he can outlast the opposition - and turn the region into a inferno if Western and Gulf states intervene. Whatever course they decide on, they must alter the direction of their existing trajectory in order to help break Syria's stalemate.

At some point they must abandon a political process that has been twisted into loops, and they must be prepared to act when Annan's ceasefire officially dissolves into another pool of blood

April 24, 2012

al-Bashir Dares World Powers In Heglig

On the list of "Things Nobody Needs Right Now," another open war in the middle of Sudan ranks high on the international community's agenda. Western and Eastern officials alike have scrambled to avert full scale hostilities between Sudan and the freshly-declared South Sudan. In one hemisphere, U.S.officials in Washington are nervously watching years of political negotiations play out on Heglig's disputed battlefield, a scenario laced with al-Qaeda's growth in Africa. They're joined by their counterparts in Beijing, who require stability to expand China's economic infrastructure across the region and through Heglig's oil fields. Of course the inhabitants of both countries and their neighbors don't need another war either.

"This is not the time for war," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters last week. "This is a time for leadership, for engagement, for negotiation — in the name of humanity, and in the interests of the people of both countries and the region. The last thing the people of these two countries need is another war — a war that could claim countless lives, destroy hope and ruin the prospects of peace and stability and prosperity of all Sudanese people."

The problem is that Sudan and South Sudan's governments don't necessarily agree. After speaking to representatives from each side, U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan Princeton Lyman claimed, "virtually everyone I have talked to has said, 'Look, we don't want to go to all-out war with the other. We need to find a way." Lyman also admitted that "emotions are running very, very high," but his cautious statements conceal a major slight of hand in the word "all-out." Theoretically, the two governments do intend to avoid a war that would destroy each other's economy. Neither "wants" to go to war. They do, however, want what they believe is theirs and are willing to employ force to get it.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in particular believes that Heglig is his to develop and cash in on. al-Bashir's words and actions speak for themselves; Sudanese artillery and air power has formed the crux of his response to Southern movements in the area. During his send-off ceremony for a "popular defense" brigade, al-Bashir declared that South Sudan's "capture" of Heglig "revived the spirit of jihad and martyrdom among the Sudanese people" and threatened to "cut off the hand that harms it" by toppling Juba. al-Bashir has patiently awaited an opportunity to strike after January 2011's referendum, when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) left Heglig's status to be determined at a later date (the process was frozen after repeated clashes). The South's new movements in Heglig, which President Salva Kiir attributed to self-defense, finally offered the perfect scenario to "legally" retake the area.

al-Bashir may not seek a war now that he's done so, but he was looking for a battle with his new neighbor.

The international community must decide what to do based on these factors. Too little energy was applied to Heglig's negotiations over the last year and Western powers are suffering the consequences. President Barack Obama's calls to ceasefire and begin a dialogue have traveled straight through al-Bashir's ears, and the strongman appears convinced that America will shirk military action. Meanwhile China has nurtured both sides for its own benefit and ultimately encouraged al-Bashir to flex his muscles. Being the dominant international powers, Washington and Beijing must combine their own strength with the African Union and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to extinguish Heglig's fires. They must decide how much to confront al-Bashir and how much to cooperate with him.

For its part, the South Sudanese government also believes that no crime has been committed since Heglig's status is undefined (British colonial borders are similarly invoked). Juba has reportedly offered to withdraw from Heglig if the African Union can guarantee a ceasefire, evict Sudanese forces from the area and complete the deployment of Ethiopian forces to Abyei region. These terms are unlikely to satisfy al-Bashir after his forces displaced the South's from Heglig, leaving the international community to navigate through a stalemate in the middle of Africa.

Step one to averting total war is not assuming that one or two parties don't seek a near-war outcome. Although neither government has issued a formal declaration of war, each side claims that the other has declared war on them. Both governments are prepared to apply force at a relatively high scale and this mindset could spin out of control. The Obama administration and other Western governments seem to have been lulled to sleep by al-Bashir's long-term plots.

Ferocious urgency is critical to politically resolving the crisis in Sudan's stomach.

April 23, 2012

U.S., Yemeni Air Raids Interrupt Hostage Negotiations

In order to justify the lethal use of military drones and counter their potential violation of international law, the U.S. government has compiled a list of benefits to outweigh the drawbacks. Some are impossible to argue against in a vacuum: cost-effective drones save American lives and limit the need for U.S. combat troops in foreign nations, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of occupation. Many officials, pundits and analysts believe that a hybrid policy of Special Operations and drone warfare guarantees success in the future war against "al-Qaeda 2.0."

However this strategy remains predominantly militaristic, with political and economic reform assuming a secondary priority behind security operations. Beyond the raw damage of civilian casualties, U.S. airstrikes are known to generate localized conflicts and dump America on the side of a corrupt, unstable government. Even when air strikes avoid collateral damage, the local interaction that drives COIN operations is lost in the process. These risks are calculated as the price of "doing business" against al-Qaeda - a far cheaper price than occupation - but a foreign nation's long-term political trajectory is often sacrificed for immediate military gains. 

U.S. policy in Yemen vividly illuminates the flaws in "offshore" counterterrorism. Perceiving the Arabian state as Pakistan-lite, the Obama administration has spent the last three years scaling up operations with Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime. The administration hooked one big fish in September 2011 - cleric Anwar al-Alwaki - and has scored hundreds of kills since May 2011. Yet Washington's escalation and ongoing manipulation of Yemen's government has only increased AQAP's troop strength, territorial reach and international profile. Along the way, the Obama administration became permanently entangled in Saleh's regime and fueled anti-Americanism in Yemen. 

Ambassador Gerald Feierstein insists that Yemen's new president, former vice president Abdu Rabbuh Mansour al-Hadi, is now applying "a strategy to challenge al-Qaida in ways they have not done in the past months." Such a statement unintentionally reveals the duplicitous strategy employed by Saleh, who exploited AQAP's presence to acquire Western aid and crack down on independent political movements. John Brennan, the White House's counterterrorism coordinator and personal liaison with Saleh, recently added that "several more years of hard work" are necessary to defeat AQAP. Washington's current strategy, though, is doomed to prolong AQAP's lifespan and Yemen's instability.

The alienating influence of U.S. counterterrorism is presently manifesting in Jaar, where AQAP militants and tribal mediators are attempting to bargain the release of Saudi diplomat Abdallah al-Khalidi. Abducted on March 28th, the deputy consul in Yemen's port city of Aden is awaiting his release while AQAP demands the release of 15 jailed members. "Negotiations are ongoing and should result... in (Khalidi's) release in AQAPless than a week," Tariq al-Fadli, a tribal chief and former jihadist, told AFP on Sunday. Less than 24 hours later, al-Fadli expected al-Khalidi to be freed "within the coming hours" only to lose contact with the militants following a government air-raid.

"We are having difficulty contacting the militants because of the intensifying air strikes on their sites," he said. 

Regardless of whether these strikes are responsible for interrupting AQAP's negotiations, al-Khalidi's scenario reinforces Washington's need to exercise a greater degree of caution. One deputy governor, Jaber al-Shabwani, has already been killed by a cruise missile (U.S. officials later accused him of collaborating with AQAP); after suspending operations until more accurate intelligence could be acquired, U.S. operations restarted in the middle of a revolution against Saleh. Many civilians have fallen victim to air-strikes, many more have been displaced by a seemingly-endless battle for Zinjibar, and anyone on the ground is subject to the indirect terror of drone overflights. 

Reacting to the situation in Yemen's southern governorates is complicated enough with known factors. The mere consideration of expanding U.S. operations into nameless territory reinforces a chronic disconnect with Yemen's environment and the principles of asymmetric warfare.

April 21, 2012

Bahraini King Challenges Opposition To Open Battle

Depending on the respondent, Bahrain's Grand Prix is about to be a raving success or a public relations disaster. To King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's monarchy, the Formula 1 race represents a simultaneous break from the island's 14-month uprising and proof that the country is moving forward. "Unified: One nation in celebration" reads the race's slogan as government officials assure F-1 teams and international allies of Bahrain's stability.

"The Formula 1 race allows us to build bridges between communities, get people working together," explained Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, who holds a majority stake in Bahrain's international race. "It allows us to celebrate our nation as an idea that is positive, not one that is divisive."

Unfortunately Bahrain's most tangible sign of unification is found between the foreign muscles supporting King Hamad's government. With the opposition geared up to politicize the race, Bahraini state media has published a continuous flow of optimistic reactions from F-1 teams, all describing limited or no signs of unrest. F-1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone seems bent on topping his own inflammatory rhetoric, telling reporters that Bahrain's protests are "a lot of nonsense. You guys love it. What we really need is an earthquake or something like that now so you can write about that." British Prime Minister David Cameron also signaled his loyal to the King by arguing, "Bahrain is not Syria – there is a process of reform underway."

Translation: Bahraini protesters and those who support their cause are delusional.

The prevailing opinion in the global media contends that King Hamad's strategy is backfiring into instability. Unable to sustain their international attention, opposition leaders and protesters have welcomed the race as a much-needed political lighting rod - Western powers wouldn't be talking about Bahrain at all without F-1. Large-scale protests culminated throughout last week, resulting in dozens of injuries, and a fresh death just marred Sunday's "celebration." Leading activist Nabeel Rajab commented, "The government are using the Formula One race to serve their PR campaign. It's not turning out the way they wanted."

The New York Times captured King Hamad's ludicrous thought process in the opening paragraph of a recent report: "The Sunni monarchy has been hoping that the Formula One Grand Prix, its showcase annual event, would restore Bahrain’s stature as a stable Persian Gulf kingdom, blighted after months of antigovernment protests by the Shiite majority that led to the cancellation of the race last year. Instead, the opposite seems to be happening."

This assessment isn't completely accurate though. While King Hamad keeps a low profile through the skillful utilization of low-intensity tactics, his overall strategy to stop Bahrain's uprising is prolonging the conflict. The Trench has already concluded that Hamad is seeking confrontation on Sunday in order to demonstrate Bahrain's "normality," or else scapegoat the political opposition through the youth coalitions. The monarchy will exploit a loophole in the chaotic streets by holding a Grand Prix that is "absolutely safely and without incident," just as Manama's protests are displaced into the suburbs by a massive security presence. Speaking on behalf of many government loyalists, Shura member Dr. Abdulaziz Abol said, "It is important to study events and incidents first hand and ensure that it is not blown out of proportion. It is there for all to see that Bahrain has returned to normal and life goes on without any hiccups."

In the event a hiccup or two, the monarchy plans to direct its full energy towards slandering the opposition. Canceling the race, according to Crown Prince Salman, would "empower extremists" and any incident on or near Bahrain International Circuit will be attributed to these same "thugs." One prominent member of Al Wefaq, the previously jailed Matar Matar, remarked that King Hamad's government has "decided to control the situation just by excess of force and by using more violence," a statement that applies equally to Bahrain's information sphere. Here the tools of civil disobedience and revolution are twisted into criminality by Western governments and lobbyists.

"We condemn violence in all of its forms," the U.S. State Department's Victoria Nuland said on Friday. "These are unproductive, unhelpful acts in building the kind of meaningful trust and reconciliation that is needed in Bahrain, and we’re calling for, again, Bahraini Government respect for universal human rights and demonstrators’ restraint in ensuring that they are peaceful."

What's unhelpful to Bahrain's prosperity is King Hamad's resistance to change and the non-intervention of Western benefactors. Nuland would follow her false standard between the government and protesters by adding, "You know that we have expressed our support for a large number of measures that the Bahraini Government has taken to implement the independent commission’s investigation, but we’ve also been quite clear about the work that remains to be done." In reality, the monarchy has doomed reconciliation prospects by refusing to hold comprehensive and inclusive negotiations with the opposition, then applying force to Bahrain's demonstrations and funerals.

King Hamad and his allies view Sunday's race as a win-win scenario, but this thinking is leading his country deeper into stalemate.

April 20, 2012

UN Stages New Show In Yemen

The latest "showdown" in Sana'a is scheduled to occur when UN envoy Jamal Benomar sits down with Ahmed Saleh. Their conditions of engagement aren't as lopsided as they may appear; although Ahmed has spearheaded his father's bloody crackdown on Yemen's revolution as commander of the Republican Guards, Benomar carries the unanimous weight of the UN Security Council and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). According to the Yemeni Post, Benomar plans to "inform him that the countries overseeing the GCC deal are discontented about the involvement of the Republican Guard in supporting rebellion of some military commanders against Hadi's decrees."

Since Ahmed's father and resident tyrant, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is using his son's office as his new command post, maybe Benomar can alert both of them when he stops by.

The envoy's trip to Sana'a simultaneously forms the latest muscle flex of GCC and UNSC powers, and exposes their ongoing imperialistic agenda in "post-Saleh" Yemen. Two weeks ago the country's new president, former vice president Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, met Saleh's resistance when he attempted to reassign a handful of regime loyalists. Mohammed al-Ahmar, the strongman's half-brother and Air Force chief, received the majority of international attention when his troops briefly shut down Sana'a International Airport under the orders of Saleh. Media advisor Ahmed al-Sufi then described Hadi's orders as "unjust" and "hasty" before asking a loaded question: "does President Hadi wants us to hand over the power to Islah which represents the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen?"

"Yemen will not see stability without an effective role for the leadership and the bases of the General People's Congress party," Saleh said in his own statement, referring to the party that he still leads.

The "Ten Ambassadors" - the UNSC and GCC - released two statements during this political turbulence, each warning "all sides" to obey Hadi's decrees and thus eschewing Saleh's name. For the moment he has complied by sending Ahmed's unit to the airport and into the southern governorates, where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has raided multiple army bases over a period of weeks. Only Saleh isn't close to letting go of his remaining strings, and foreign powers expect another potential confrontation when Hadi formally replaces Mohammed with the newly-appointed Rashid Al-Janad. While Hadi previously announced his intention to restructure the military before a "national dialogue committee" is formed in the coming weeks, the "Friends of Yemen" need more progress on the security front to highlight during their May 23rd conference.

Enter Jamal Binomar, who arrived in Sana'a on Wednesday to keep Saleh's tree in relative order. The message to him and his son: accept Hadi's terms or face possible sanctions and revocation of UN-approved immunity. Hadi and company are admittedly caught in a strategic dilemma, unable to remove Saleh's extensive network at once without destabilizing the country. Their behavior, though, suggests that Saleh and his intimate family will be allowed to stay in Yemen so long as they don't cause an excessive amount of trouble. The Obama administration already patched up Saleh in New York City and sent him back to lead his party, which retains half of Yemen's cabinet, and U.S. oFficials remain on semi-friendly terms with him. If Hadi "decides" to keep Ahmed and his cousin Yahya, the intrusive head of Saleh's Central Security Organization, in power, the UNSC will have no problem with this arrangement as U.S. assets target AQAP. Washington may prefer that Ahmed eventually leave his post after May's political calendar, but he's obviously playing along for as long as he can.

"We have great hope on the wisdom and capability of Marshal Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is backed by the Gulf and international community, to take the country to the future and build the new Yemen, " he told a televised audience of senior RG officials on Tuesday. "Once the new president was elected, we declared our allegiance to the new political leadership and will honor our commitments and responsibility."

Local rumors allege that U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein has signed off on Ahmed's presidential run in 2014.

Meanwhile popular demonstrations continue to demand a trial to exorcize Saleh's 33-year regime. Many have accepted Hadi's temporarily rule as a necessary placeholder to remove Saleh's decayed network, but they also expect more of him. They expect him to challenge Saleh personally, prosecute his relatives instead of reassigning them to the Defense Ministry and initiate a clean break with the old regime. Problematically, Hadi's nomination to the presidency represented a compromise between Saleh, the GCC and UNSC, not the various segments of Yemen's populace.

Instead of supporting Yemen's revolutionaries and the overall populace, the UNSC's current efforts continue to nurture a backbone of counterrevolution.

April 18, 2012

Petraeus Seeks Wider Authority In Yemen

The CIA is seeking authority to expand its covert drone campaign in Yemen by launching strikes against terrorism suspects even when it does not know the identities of those who will be killed, U.S. officials said.

Securing permission to use “signature strikes” would allow the agency to hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior, such as imagery showing militants gathering at known al-Qaeda compounds or unloading explosives.

The practice has been a core element of the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan for several years. But Director David H. Petraeus has requested permission to employ the tactic against the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, which has emerged as the most pressing terrorism threat to the United States, officials said.

If approved, the change would probably accelerate a campaign of U.S. airstrikes in Yemen that is already on a record pace, with at least eight attacks in the past four months.

For President Obama, an endorsement of signature strikes would mean a significant, and potentially risky, policy shift. Until now, the administration has placed tight limits on drone operations in Yemen to avoid being drawn into an often murky regional conflict and risk turning militants with local agendas into potential al-Qaeda recruits.

A senior Obama administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations, declined to discuss what he described as U.S. “tactics” in Yemen but said that “there is still a very firm emphasis on being surgical and targeting only those who have a direct interest in attacking the United States.”

U.S. officials acknowledge that standard has not always been upheld. Last year, a U.S. drone strike inadvertently killed the American son of Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaeda leader. The teenager had never been accused of terrorist activity and was killed in a strike aimed at other militants.

Some U.S. officials have voiced concern that such incidents could become more frequent if the CIA is given the authority to use signature strikes.

“How discriminating can they be?” asked a senior U.S. official familiar with the proposal. Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen “is joined at the hip” with a local insurgency whose main objective is to oust the country’s government, the official said. “I think there is the potential that we would be perceived as taking sides in a civil war.”

U.S. officials said that the CIA proposal has been presented to the National Security Council and that no decision has been reached. Officials from the White House and the CIA declined to comment...

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This informative propaganda contains numerous topics and strategic errors that have been and will continued to be covered by the Trench:
  • The Obama administration has worked tirelessly to replicate Pakistan's counterterrorism matrix in Yemen amid the collapse of another U.S.-supported dictator.
  • One former U.S. official describes the situation in Pakistan’s tribal territory as ”far less ambiguous than in Yemen," yet this complex environment is currently supervised by a selection of military/intelligence heads. The Pentagon's top-down command is the antithesis of COIN and a main driver of the instability/unpopularity that plagues U.S. policy.
  • The former official speculates that John Brennan, the White House's counterterrorism coordinator, may reject an expansion into nameless targets. He also claims, “Brennan has been deliberate in making sure targets we hit in Yemen are terrorist targets and not insurgents.” However U.S. airstrikes have taken the lives of AQAP personnel, local militants and civilians alike. Although high-profile incidents are reported internationally - Abdulrahman's death is a permanent lighting rod - many civilian casualties have gone unannounced in Washington or the Western media. Brennan counts himself as a friend of Ali Saleh, at least in public, and has been instrumental in expanding U.S. counterterrorism operations throughout Yemen's revolution.
  • Another U.S. official highlights the Obama administration's insensitivity to Yemen's political environment by not being able to tell the difference between AQAP and "a local insurgency." This official is likely referring to the Southern Movement even though its militia is not "joined at the hip" with AQAP"; SM leaders have repeatedly disavowed any connection. AQAP is known to capitalize on the SM's actions, as al-Qaeda is designed to do, and many types of militants roam southern Yemen - one more reason to exercise a greater degree of caution. America is already perceived (and justifiably so) as taking the government's side against the Southern Movement. Saleh exploited the group's actions to secure U.S. funds and technology that were then deployed against them. The ensuing GCC agreement, co-drafted by Washington and Riyadh, isolated the southern cause and escalated the current appetite for secession. Washington firmly supports Yemen's "unity," one of Saleh's main buzzwords during his crackdown.
In general, many Yemenis believe that Washington is searching for a new war after Afghanistan - and that their country is becoming that front.

April 17, 2012

The Omar Hammami Saga Continues

Hammami sits right of Mukhtar Robow during al-Shabaab's post-bin Laden conference

Roughly a month after tumbling into a hazy situation, Omar Hammami finds himself at the center of fresh media speculation. al-Shabaab's most visible and successful American recruit landed in Mogadishu in 2006 and established himself as a propagandist/field commander during Ethiopia's occupation. Now he's engulfed by propaganda, with no concrete information available since Hammami first posted a YouTube video claiming that his life was in danger. This silence broke two days ago when the Gedo Times reported an April 5th execution, but al-Shabaab has issued no comment (or Tweet) and Washington is still searching for evidence.

"I have not heard anything other than what I’ve read in the newspaper,” Hammami's father, Shafik, said from his home in Daphne, Alabama. “We are like anyone else. We haven’t had any confirmation."

Bill Roggio, founder and editor of the Long War Journal, counts himself amongst the skeptics. Hammami has survived two near-death experiences and the lack of publicity is abnormal for Somalia's intense information sphere. Roggio also cites a “very well-connected” who "doesn’t believe it’s true." Regardless of his current situation, Hammami will continue to be monitored by those probing for divisions within al-Shabaab's structure. Beyond the mysterious circumstances surrounding Hammami's alleged death, no one is sure where the execution order came from or who carried it out. Earlier speculation postulated that Hammami had angered al-Shabaab's nationalist core, led by Mukhtar Robow, after siding with its al-Qaeda faction, but the latest reports have Muktar "Godane" Zubeyr ordering the execution.

The transnationalist-minded Zubyer was demoted from al-Shabaab's top position in December 2010 but maintains command of al-Shabaab's foreign branch. He's also responsible for transmitting the group's two oaths to al-Qaeda, and several Somali analysts claim that Zubeyr was promoted to regional commander after Fazul Abdullah Mohammed's death in June 2011.

Why Zubeyr would turn on Hammami isn't readily discernible, but his potential death appears have upset Zubeyr's opposition instead. Gedo Online reported that the insurgency's leadership became collectively aware of his death after he missed a high-level meeting. The group's third seat, Fuad Mohamed Qalaf (Fuad Shongoole), reportedly fled to the Galgala Mountains and is attracting militants to northern Puntland (a trend that Somalia's Transitional Federal Government attributes to the group's disarray). Qalaf has accused Zubeyr of harboring "hidden agendas" in the past, warning him that "fighting everyone is not part of the solution," and counts himself as Robow's ally. His speech followed a series of cannibalistic clashes between al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam, whose commander was soon coerced into the group. Hassan Dahir Aweys and Robow both left their meeting in protest, according to Gedo Online, and Aweys would later condemn the group for assassinating two government ministers.

The veteran politician/jihadist has battled Zubeyr for control of Somalia's militancy since al-Shabaab broke off from the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in 2007, only to be brought into the group at gunpoint and demoted.

Abdi Aynte, a Somali journalist with Al Jazeera English, has raised the possibility of Robow and Aweys splintering off to challenge Godane outright, in addition to opening a dialogue with the TFG. This split impairs a more coherent insurgency and could generate major disruptions in the group's defense of its remaining territory. However these tensions have also persisted for years and could be maxed out until a formal split occurs. Just like Hammami's status, African commanders and regional observers alike must allow time to reveal the extent of al-Shabaab's fractures.

April 15, 2012

Haqqanis Trap U.S. In Taliban's Netwar

With U.S. and Afghan forces grinding their way into Kamdesh's mountains in search of militants affiliated with the Haqqani network, the Taliban announced the beginning of its spring offensive by targeting a list of government and foreign installations. Among those fired upon (but not necessarily hit): a market close to Kabul's presidential palace, the parliamentary building and intelligence headquarters, the U.S., British, German, Russian and New Zealand embassies, and multiple NATO bases and Afghan police stations.

Anticipating the Taliban to focus its resources on Kabul, along with the immediate media comparisons to last September's rooftop siege of the capital, NATO and Afghan officials stood ready with their updated scripts. On one level a rhetorical counterattack offers the best response to militarized propaganda. Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Seddiqi ridiculed the attackers for getting "nothing," while U.S. General John Allen used the opportunity to highlight the swift response of Afghan soldiers and policemen. The commanding officer in Afghanistan was careful to add that "no one is underestimating the serious of today's attacks," but the rest of his statement is unabashedly optimistic.

“If this is the best they can do to start their fighting season," said Colonel Daniel J. W. King, spokesman for NATO’s joint command, "then obviously the Afghan security forces and others are having a significant impact."

It may be tempting to view the military aspect of the Taliban's attack as a failure. Some parts of the four suspected teams were disrupted before they could stage their assaults, no bases were breached and 36 insurgents were killed by Afghan forces. 15 of 19 suicide bombers were stopped before they could detonate, including the two who planned to assassinate Vice President Karim Khalil. The Taliban's physical attacks are meaningless outside of the lives they destroyed and affected, and the propaganda they drive. At the same time, underestimating the meaning of Sunday's assault and the Taliban's overall intelligence is unwise. The insurgency's trend of "spectacular" attacks is difficult to gauge due to the complexities of guerrilla warfare. Insurgencies are rarely "broken" when beaten down by superior military forces.

Instead they bend, wait, shift, reorganize and adapt to the increasingly concentrated effort of a government or governments.

The Taliban have suffered relentless man losses and forfeited prized territory in the face of NATO troops, but headline-grabbing attacks are more than a sign of weakness (as U.S. officials claim). Employing this strategy until its ground forces can seize the offensive initiative - sometime in 2013-14, when NATO forces withdraw in bulk - is the Taliban's only sensible course of military action. Multiple assaults must be strung together in place of a territorial offensive, which would risk too many lives and weapons for no material or psychological reward. By attacking high-profile points, even unsuccessfully, the insurgency undermines the perception of security across the southeastern swath of Afghanistan.

A more fundamental dilemma also resides Washington's "weakness" narrative. Not only are the Taliban unable to retake lost territory - they aren't even responsible for Kabul's assaults. Speaking to CNN's "State of the Union," U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said that his "guess, based on previous experience here, is this is a set of Haqqani network operations out of north Waziristan and the Pakistani tribal areas. Frankly I don't think the Taliban is good enough."

Decoupling the Taliban's sub-networks is a cheap trick to discredit the insurgency's strength; the Haqqanis rarely disobey Mullah Omar's shura and act as intermediaries with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). When Sediqqi tells reporters that, "the initial findings show the Haqqanis were involved," he is expressing the basic theory of fourth-generation warfare. The Taliban and Haqqanis could coordinate less and still operate within the same network, and a division of labor appears to work well for both groups. Interestingly, the Daily Beast quoted several Taliban commanders on the topic while digging for the latest assault's origins. Qari Talha attributed Kabul's attacks to Hajji Lala, the Taliban's shadow governor in the capital, and ruled out a significant Haqqani presence in his logistics. The Daily Beast reports that, "a fierce rivalry has clearly developed between the Taliban and its supposed eastern partner in insurgency," but iron is said to sharpen iron.

Another field commander said the Taliban wants "to show other networks and groups that we too can carry out attacks in Kabul," and Talha hopes to increase the level of coordination with the Haqqanis.

Analyzing the various hubs of an insurgency or terrorist network is necessary to disrupt the whole system, but viewing Afghanistan's parts in isolation will complicate any political negotiations with the Taliban shura. Since U.S. and Afghan officials admit that the war cannot be won militarily, only politically resolved, this dilemma leaves Washington to withdraw U.S. forces from another political vacuum. The Obama administration currently plans to entrench a large contingent of U.S. Special Forces to battle Taliban into the indefinite future, possibly beyond 2020. Washington may consider this outcome to be a success, but most outsiders will see either stalemate or defeat.

The effects of misjudging the Taliban's connectivity are visibly manifested in NATO's interpretation of the Taliban's goals. Sunday's attacks weren't designed to "impact the NATO/Lisbon timeline" because "they are not operational or strategic successes," as one U.S. official told Reuters, or bring down Hamid Karzai's government. They are meant to discredit the government's security nationwide, flaunt their own reach, attract new recruits, reinforce Mullah Omar's negotiating position with Washington and, if his commanders are to be believed, kickstart a competitive rivalry with the Haqqanis. Each bullet and bomb is aimed at the 60-70% of American and European voters who allegedly oppose the war's continuation. The next four months of attacks won't alter NATO's time-line but will pile pressure on its capitals, and any friction is good for the Taliban.

The insurgents cannot defeat coalition forces in a set battle or by rushing heavily-fortified bases. They must outlast their stay, inflict as many cuts as possible within that time-frame and hold their ground in the information sphere. This process is simplified by the nature of net warfare and by U.S. officials who choose to minimize its properties.

April 14, 2012

Days Go By In Egypt's Counterrevolution

They're allowed to be shocked in the moment, but only the most politically ignorant Egyptians would be surprised by Saturday night's unfolding events.

After weeks of presidential-level speculation over the legal status of two heavyweight Islamist candidates, Egypt's Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission (SPEC) dropped the ax on 10 candidates scheduled to run in May 23rd's election. Among the casualties: Khairat el-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood's deputy and leading strategist, the Salafi-minded Hazem Abu Ismael and centrist-styled Ayman Nour. el-Shater and Nour were both disqualified due to the residue of political charges from Mubarak's rule, while Abu Ismael is barred by complications over his mother's U.S. citizenship. Omar Suleiman, Hosni Mubarak's intelligence chief of 18 years, was also disqualified for failing to acquire a sufficient number of real signatures.

Many candidates have declared the intent to challenge the SPEC's ruling within 48 hours. If the situation remains unchanged, though, Egypt's Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) has appeased and angered a large segment of the population. el-Shater and Abu Ismael possess the capabilities to organize fervent popular demonstrations and have already hinted at this scenario. Alaa Ayad, one of el-Shater's spokesmen, undersold the possibility by saying the decision "may cause tension on the streets." Nizar Ghorab, a lawyer retained by Abu Ismael, bluntly warned that his "followers are angry and will take to the streets until he is allowed to run." Both men accused the SCAF of handing down a decision to SPEC chairman Farouk Sultan.

"We are convinced that Abu Ismael is targeted and that there are external and internal conspiracies against him," Ghorab said, referring to Abu Ismael's opposition to Egypt's treaty with Israel. "I expect a major crisis to happen in the next few hours."

Given the SCAF's cross-spectrum disqualifications, some Egyptian analysts predict that the fallout will be contained to the affected parties. Other (overlapping) segments of the population, such as the revolutionary movement, liberals, secularists and Christians, hope to avoid an Islamic dominance in Egypt's transition, and theoretically welcome the SCEP's ruling. These forces do have no reason to protest the individual losses, but they might not be fooled so easily either. Youthful and civil-inspired revolutionaries especially won't be blinded to the SCAF's intrusion. They've already learned the hard way that their military will employ any means necessary to assert hegemony in Egypt's new government, and few expected the SCAF to stay out of the presidential selection process. The generals would just as quickly cut down a leading revolutionary candidate in favor of someone with a smaller, less active power base. In targeting the election's frontrunners, the SCAF is playing numerous layers of society - competing Islamists, the old regime, revolutionaries, neutral Egyptians - against each other to maintain its politico-economic dominance.

"We will not give up our right to enter the presidential race," promised Murad Muhammed Ali, Shater's campaign manager. "There is an attempt by the old Mubarak regime to hijack the last stage of this transitional period and reproduce the old system of governance."

April 13, 2012

Mali's Future Increasingly Uncertain

Already wary of injecting themselves into another regional quagmire, the foreign backers of Syria's National Council (SNC) are now watching their fears spring to life in the western end of Africa.

A complex web of historical struggles and ethnic causes, northern Mali is viewed as a worst-case scenario through Western and African eyes alike. On top of a Tuareg independence movement that has ensnared over half a dozen ethnicities, the parallel conflict involving Ansar Dine is generating a vast amount of information and disinformation to process. Concrete predictions are scarce, but a handful of scenarios can guide strategic expectations of Mali's future. All of the appear to contain an unavoidable element of violence.

Three weeks ago - and less than two months before late April's presidential election - a group of Mali soldiers took control of the capital in a coup de tat. The officers offered many grievances to explain their actions, including the corrupt rule of President Amadou Toumani Toure and a mismanagement of affairs in northern Mali. A fraction of the military's anger is rooted in Aguelhok, where a vicious battle ended after the army ran out of ammunition (Ansar Dine later took credit for the ambush). Perceiving the enhanced threat of heavily armed Tuareg insurgents, recruited by Tuareg leaders and former Gaddafi officials following "the Colonel's" downfall, the military announced that it needed to restore a functioning chain of command. Only the insurgency has since claimed all of the territory its leadership sought for decades in a span of weeks. Following the seizure of Kibal and Gao, insurgents emerged victorious in another battle for Timbuktu and seized government buildings, military posts and the airport.

Mayor Ousmane Halle soon announced, "The city is totally under their control."

Days later the Tuareg-led Azawad National Liberation Movement (known by its French acronym MNLA) delivered on pledges made after the capture of Timbuktu. Hama Ag Mahmoud, one of several spokesmen for the group, spoke in peaceful but forceful terms, unequivocally dividing northern Mali (Azawad) from the western half of the country. He said the MNLA doesn't want to "give anyone the impression that we're gung-ho for war, so from the moment we have liberated our territories, our objective is achieved, we stop there. Our objective is not to go further than the Azawad borders."

"We don't want to create problems for the government of Mali, and even less create problems in the sub-region."

The MNLA is speaking truthfully in regards to its territorial and military ambitions. Rearmed with the fallout of Libya's revolutionary war, the Tuareg insurgency has enough manpower and weapons to organize a fierce defense of the land now under its loose authority. With no reason to advance into western Mali, the group is attempting to preempt a counteroffensive and keep its acquisitions without fighting new battles. Mahmoud claims that the MNLA is "open to all... means of negotiations through [the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) bloc]" or other regional powers."

Problematically, the MNLA cannot deliver on its declaration of independence since Mali's next government and international blocs aren't prepared for Mali to follow Sudan's uncertain future. The compromise of autonomy may be inedible to both sides. Many actors, including ECOWAS President Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, express interest in a peaceful solution, but the hammer is always quick to follow. Ouedraogo told Al Jazeera that "in case they don't accept the offer of negotiations, then ECOWAS will use any other means to protect the territorial integrity of Mali." ECOWAS hopes to avoid deploying an emergency force, as it did during Ivory Coast's recent conflict, except northern Mali's two visions of "peace" sound like a collision in the making. While ECOWAS would enjoy logistical and intelligence support from Western nations, experienced Tuareg fighters hold the strategic advantage and must be dislodged from a range of environments. Limited roads make helicopters more vulnerable to SAMs, which the insurgency allegedly looted from Libya.

Both ECOWAS and Western capitals prefer to keep their ground forces out of northern Mali's complexities, and acknowledge the possibility of local resentment. Yet Mali's military may be helpless to retake "Azawad," a territory equivalent to a large American state, without the support of foreign armor and air power.

Most of these problems are strategic or tactical in nature, and thus subservient to the political dominance in COIN. In order to retake control of the country, the future government and foreign powers must politically "defeat" the MNLA and its grievances. That task is hindered by an obscured understanding of the situation. Although ECOWAS has reportedly brokered a transition with Toure and the coup's leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, the interim government will be challenged to hold elections in the territory that it still controls. Establishing unification between Burkina Faso, ECOWAS, the African Union (AU) and Western nations is essential to before turning north, because the insurgency is likely to prove difficult to negotiate with. The MNLA claims that all ethnic groups in Azawad will be represented, but no one is sure of their final objectives or how many groups they speak for. Tuaregs aren't the most numerous group in northern Mali, only the most organized and weaponized. This power equation gives their leadership a disproportionate amount of political influence and comes with the potential cost of ethnic strife.

In a conflict full of wild cards, al-Qaeda remains the likeliest source to amplify a transnational conflict: a force multiplier that feeds on the stronger insurgency in a given area. Ansar Dine, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), has already sown discord in the mediating process by raising its black flag over Timbuktu and hassling residents. Females, Christians and foreigners fled a newly-instated Islamic law and Mayor Halle later told the Associated Press, "I do not know who our master is."

On Saturday France's Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, said that Paris considered the MNLA to be a credible political movement. Various officials within ECOWAS have speculated on negotiating with both groups, but Juppe drew the line at Ansar Dine's objective "to establish an Islamist regime in Mali and the Sahel as a whole."

"The advance of the National Liberation Movement of Azawad, associated with terrorist groups like AQIM and Ansar Dine and others, gives sufficient reason to the entire region to be put on notice," added Gen. Soumaila Bakayoko, chief of Ivory Coast's army.

The split between Ansar Dine and the MNLA is unlikely to be solved in the near future. Ansar's Tuareg leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, resents being denied a leadership position within the MNLA but uses the group for his own military purposes. Soon after the MNLA declared independence, the "Defenders of Faith" announced that its global jihad doesn't stop at Azawad. Ag Ghaly is acquiring power by making noise in the name of jihad, but his combination of words and actions have put a scare into Western and African capitals, adding to the Sahel's existing urgency against AQIM. Ansar Dine threatens the MNLA's territorial claims, suggesting that the two groups may be irreconcilable, and the international community must guard against an overreaction that would multiply the conflict as al-Qaeda's ideology envisions. Cooperating with the MNLA is useful in this particular case, but the cost of autonomy or independence may be too high to stomach.

Mali's chaos breaks down into a simple two-step process: restore order to the government, then address the MNLA in as non-lethal methods as possible. "Total war," in the words of interim president Dioncounda Traore, is doomed to stalemate. However weak the Tuaregs are perceived, the foreknowledge of a bloody and protracted conflict offers a realistic deferent to secure their political ambitions.

April 12, 2012

Unraveling al-Assad's Mind Games

Any silence is worth its own weight to people that have been shelled and shot at continuously for weeks. Syria's guns fell relatively silent on Thursday as 6 A.M. passed into uncertainty, with Bashar al-Assad's regime and the political opposition both taking credit for a nebulous ceasefire. The hazy situation has left everyone to anticipate what follows a rare moment of calm in Syria's revolutionary storm.

“A tentative or less than complete cease-fire is better than no cease-fire at all, but we could not call the current situation on the ground a full cease-fire,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters in Washington.

Even a brief ceasefire is somewhat surprising given al-Assad's recent behavior and psychological makeup, but the strongman was motivated to stop shooting at the very last moment. Viewing April 12th's international deadline an opportunity to kill over 1,000 Syrians in a span of weeks, al-Assad's regime continues to stake its claim as the only party to abide by Kofi Annan's diplomatic mission. This duplicitous plan has contributed to the regime's survival throughout months of negotiations with the Arab League, but al-Assad's schemes will begin to erode if a UN monitoring team can inject itself into the conflict. Any obstruction of the mission will push a UN peacekeeping force closer to reality, a possibility that the Arab League couldn't deliver.

Unfortunately Annan's six-point initiative is ripe for exploitation and al-Assad hasn't exhausted his tactics or desire to cling to power. Adib al Shishakly, a member of the Syrian National Council (SNC), criticized the regime and international community for diluting "the whole initiative into one thing: into the cease-fire only. What happened to the other five?" One of these five remaining conditions is the right to peacefully protest, which the opposition will test to its limit on Friday.

“We call on the people to demonstrate and express themselves," SNC chairman Burhan Ghalioun told the AFP on Thursday morning, "because the right to demonstrate is a principle point of the plan."

According to Syria's Local Coordination Committees (LCC), anti-government protesters have already emerged in the hotspots Idlib, Homs, Hama, Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, Aleppo and Damascus. Some were greeted with gunfire, while tanks and snipers continue to assert their presence as a means of deterrence. Having cheated the idea of a ceasefire by maintaining his forces' positions, al-Assad is now awaiting any sporadic attack to justify a disproportionate response. Manufacturing a bombing on an army checkpoint, oil pipeline or government building could be a possibility. Whatever the case, Syrians expect al-Assad to use every tactic available to impede mass demonstrations against his rule.

"While we call on the Syrian people to protest strongly," Ghalioun added, "we ask them to be cautious because the regime will not respect the ceasefire and will shoot."

al-Assad can also renege on the other components of Annan's plan, including the release of political detainees, by tying the issue into a legal knot and maintaining the status quo. Access for the international media remains limited and the ultimate end of a "political transition" is a powder keg waiting to detonate. Bashar Jaafari, Syria's ambassador to the UN, highlighted these discrepancies when he spoke with PBS's Charlie Rose on Wednesday. Fixated on Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, France and the U.S. as the source of Syria's instigation, Jaafari's rhetoric offers one of many reasons to doubt the long-term prospects of Annan's plan. The fundamental dilemma is that al-Assad's regime, the opposition and foreign powers still express contradictory versions of a political transition.

"We're encouraged that we do now have a cessation of violence in Syria," Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said. "We hope it holds. Everybody needs to behave with maximum prudence for that to happen. Frankly, there is one thing which Mr. Annan, I hope, is going to accomplish very soon — clear-cut agreement by opposition leaders to enter into dialogue with the Syrian government. This so far has not happened."

Meanwhile Syria's opposition demands that al-Assad step down before any dialogue is initiated with the government, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mixed the two options following the G-8's latest ministerial in Washington. Telling al-Assad that Annan's plan "is not a menu of options," she placed "the burden of fully and visibly meeting all of these obligations" on the regime. For a ceasefire to be "meaningful," Clinton says, "this apparent halt in violence must lead to a credible political process and a peaceful, inclusive, democratic transition." She then concludes by declaring "Assad will have to go, and the Syrian people must be given the chance to chart their own future." Still hoping to avoid military intervention while simultaneously influencing the political process, Western and Gulf countries envision al-Assad stepping down into Yemen's two-year transition "model" (even though the Arab League's original condition to delegate power to a vice president was scrapped from Annan's plan).

Conversely, Jaafari told Rose that al-Assad will accept the people's decision if he is voted out of office in 2014's presidential election. "The credibility of the Syrian government has been confirmed," he told reporters on Thursday, offering a mere taste of the vicious political battle to come. In the event that a military ceasefire does hold, the next round of political warfare will intensify and offer al-Assad all the reason he needs to restart his crackdown. The regime still doesn't accept the fact (at least publicly) that a revolution is occurring and governments only negotiate to avoid a total collapse (as Yemen's revolution demonstrates). Jaafari repeatedly blamed Syria's "crisis" on external factors, a common counterrevolutionary error that underscores the regime's resistance to Annan's proposal.

The pervading skepticism of Syria's ceasefire is unlikely to free the international community from the military hook. Another waiting period will be unacceptable to Syria's revolutionaries and Ghalioun, who urged "the countries that back the Annan plan to monitor its implementation in full, mainly the right to demonstrate... and to provide the means to protect the people if the regime violates the plan."

The UNSC must be ready to act, not talk, if Syria's ceasefire shatters.