Published: November 23 | Updated: Saturday, November 24, 3:30 AM
CAIRO — A stark new divide appeared to be emerging in Egypt on Friday after the nation’s first democratically elected president asserted nearly unlimited powers, as rival crowds of demonstrators poured into the streets of the capital to express disgust and admiration for the move.
With Islamists lining up behind President Mohamed Morsi and secular leaders rallying against him, the development threatened to wipe away once and for all the unlikely joining of the two forces that brought down Egypt’s longtime leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
In a thunderous speech in front of a presidential palace in Cairo, Morsi told thousands of cheering supporters that the sweeping decrees he issued Thursday were intended to defend the revolution that led to Morsi’s election this June.
But just a few miles away in Tahrir Square, thousands more people, most of them well-educated and secular, said that they were resolved to press for another revolution, this time against the Islamist leader who won 52 percent of the presidential vote. Many people said Morsi’s actions were verging on dictatorship.
The Obama administration expressed dismay over Morsi’s action. Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, noted that a core aim of the upheaval that toppled Mubarak had been to “ensure that power would not be overly concentrated in the hands of any one person or institution.”
Having congratulated Morsi earlier in the week for his statesmanship in fostering a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, State Department officials said the United States was seeking an explanation for the new move, which removed all judicial checks over Morsi’s actions.
In his speech, Morsi used harsh language in denouncing judges and prosecutors for doing too little to address the corruption and abuses of the Mubarak years. “There are weevils eating away at Egypt’s nation,” Morsi said.
“It is my duty to move forward with the goals of the revolution and eliminate all of the obstacles which are linked to the past that we hate,” he said.
Clashes broke out across the country in response to the move. The offices of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing were torched over Morsi’s close links to those organizations. A Morsi adviser who is a Coptic Christian resigned.
“We have been living in a dictatorship for a very long time, but not like this,” said Yehia el-Gamal, a constitutional law expert who served as a deputy prime minister early in the post-Mubarak era. He said the move went well beyond anything that Mubarak or his predecessors Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser had attempted in the years since 1956 when the monarchy was toppled.
Morsi and his supporters, who include the ultraconservative Nour Party and other groups of political Islamists, have said that the moves were necessary at a time when obstacles erected by judges and prosecutors installed under Mubarak have blocked the new president’s agenda.
His supporters say the action was intended in large part to protect the work of a committee appointed to write a new constitution at a time when Egypt’s highest court had signaled that it might disband that squabbling body. Morsi has said he will relinquish his extraordinary powers after the constitution is written and a new legislature elected.
Egyptians were not alone in questioning Morsi’s actions. In Geneva, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said that the decree raised serious concerns, while Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said the move had “raised concerns for many Egyptians and for the international community.’’
“The current constitutional vacuum in Egypt can only be resolved by the adoption of a constitution that includes checks and balances, and respects fundamental freedoms, individual rights, and the rule of law consistent with Egypt’s international commitments,’’ Nuland said.
Washington Post's reporter in Gaza has been capturing scenes from the war using her mobile phone.
The crowd at Tahrir Square, while large, had little of the pulsing feel of possibility of the January and February 2011 protests that brought down Mubarak. Those demonstrations were bolstered by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose mobilization was the key factor in ending the leader’s 30-year reign in a matter of weeks. It was the inclusion of many segments of society that gave the opposition its legitimacy.
This time, the Muslim Brotherhood was gathered in front of the ornate Ittihadiya Palace, the seat of an executive branch that once forced them underground. Morsi, one of their own, was delivering his fiery address from a temporary stage that had as its backdrop an enormous banner reading, “The People Support Mohamed Morsi.”
“The people want the implementation of the sharia of God,” the crowded chanted at one point, a reference to laws derived from the Koran and Islamic traditions. “The people want to dissolve the constitutional court.” For the most part, the audience listened attentively to the 45-minute speech.
“There was a plan to destroy the country and the president,” said Walaa Ezzedin, 29, a pharmacist and supporter who came to listen to Morsi. “Those who are objecting are simply against the president. If he had taken the opposite position, they would have objected too.”
The distance between the two sides was evident at the palace and in Tahrir Square, where some of the younger, more affluent Egyptians who took part in the revolution that toppled Mubarak said they were surprised to find themselves aligned with former Mubarak supporters in denouncing Morsi’s moves.
“Overthrowing Morsi is a demand of the revolutionaries and also of the remnants of the old regime,” said Mohamed ElBeshlawy, 32, an accountant. “Now it’s going to be the two groups together. Winds do not blow as the ships wish. There’s going to be another angry revolution.”
Whatever the motivation for Morsi’s move, the effort to shield his government from judicial challenge wold remove “whatever checks and balances exist in Egypt at this point,” said Michele Dunne, a former member of the National Security Council staff under President Obama.
“It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Morsi has overreached, and that he did so partly on the strength of his recent diplomatic victory in Gaza,” said Dunne, now director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. She noted that Morsi had previously tried and failed to confront the judiciary in a tussle over the dissolution of Egypt’s parliament.
“He has ended up having to back down, but he keeps trying,’’ Dunne said.
Warrick contributed from Washington. Amer Shakhatreh contributed from Cairo.
By Condoleezza Rice, Saturday, November 24, 8:27 AM
Condoleezza Rice was secretary of state from 2005 to 2009.
The civil war in Syria may well be the last act in the story of the disintegration of the Middle East as we know it. The opportunity to hold the region together and to rebuild it on a firmer foundation of tolerance, freedom and, eventually, democratic stability is slipping from our grasp.
Egypt and Iran have long, continuous histories and strong national identities. Turkey does as well, except for the matter of the Kurds, who are still largely unassimilated, mistrusted by Ankara and tempted by the hope of independent nationhood.
Every other important state is a modern construct, created by the British and the French, who drew borders like lines on the back of an envelope, often without regard for ethnic and sectarian differences. The results: A Bahrain that is 70 percent Shiite, governed by a Sunni monarch. Saudi Arabia was created with a 10 percent Shiite population in its richest provinces to the east. Iraq is 65 percent Shiite, 20 percent Sunni Arab, and a mix of Kurds and others, all ruled until 2003 by an iron-fisted Sunni dictator. Jordan’s population is almost 70 percent Palestinian. Lebanon is roughly divided among Sunnis, Shiites and Christians. And then there is Syria: a conglomerate of Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and others, ruled by the Alawite minority.
The fragile state structure of the Middle East has been held together for decades by monarchs and dictators. But as the desire for freedom has spread from Tunis to Cairo to Damascus, authoritarians have lost their grip. The danger now is that the artificial states could fly apart.
In Iraq, after overthrowing Saddam Hussein, the United States hoped that a fledging multi-ethnic, multi-confessional democracy could do what authoritarians could not: give all of these groups a stake in a common future. To an extent it has, with elections repeatedly producing inclusive governments. But the institutions are young and fragile, and they are groaning under the weight of the region’s broader sectarian explosion. The conflict in Syria is pushing Iraq and others to the breaking point. At the same time, U.S. disengagement has tempted Iraqi politicians to move toward sectarian allies for survival. If Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cannot count on the Americans, he will take no risks with Tehran.
The great mistake of the past year has been to define the conflict with Bashar al-Assad’s regime as a humanitarian one. The regime in Damascus has been brutal, and many innocent people have been slaughtered. But this was no replay of Libya. Much more is at stake.
As Syria crumbles, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds are being drawn into a regional web of sectarian allegiances. Karl Marx once called on workers of the world to unite across national boundaries. He told them that they had more in common with each other than with the ruling classes that oppressed them in the name of nationalism. Marx exhorted workers to throw off the “false consciousness” of national identity.
Today’s Karl Marx is Iran. It envisions the spread of its influence among Shiites, uniting them under the theocratic flag of Tehran — destroying the integrity of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Lebanon. Iran uses terrorist groups, Hezbollah and the Shiite militias in southern Iraq to do its bidding. Syria is the linchpin, the bridge into the Arab Middle East. Tehran no longer hides the fact that its security forces are working in Syria to prop up Assad. In this context, Tehran’s sprint toward a nuclear weapon is a problem not just for Israel but the region as a whole.
In response, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other neighboring powers arm and support Sunni factions. The Turks are being drawn into the conflict, desperately fearful that the Kurds will break away in Syria and push their brethren in Turkey to do the same. Missile and mortar strikes are increasingly common across the borders of Israel and Turkey. Ankara’s cries to NATO for help last month should have gotten our attention.
But where is the United States? America has spent months trying to get the Russians and the Chinese to agree to toothless U.N. resolutions to “end the bloodshed,” as though Moscow will abandon Assad and Beijing really cares about chaos in the Middle East. Vladimir Putin is not a sentimental man. But if he believes that Assad can survive, he will do nothing to undermine him.
In recent days, France, Britain and Turkey have stepped into the diplomatic vacuum to recognize a newly formed opposition that is broadly representative of all Syrians. The United States should follow their lead and then vet and arm the unified group with defensive weapons on the condition that it pursues an inclusive post-Assad framework. The United States and its allies should also consider establishing a no-fly zone to protect the innocent. America’s weight and influence are needed. Leaving this to regional powers, whose interests are not identical to ours, will only exacerbate the deepening sectarianism.
Certainly there are risks. After more than a year of brutal conflict, the most extreme elements of the opposition — including al-Qaeda — have been empowered. Civil wars tend to strengthen the worst forces. The overthrow of Assad could indeed bring these dangerous groups to power.
But the breakdown of the Middle East state system is a graver risk. Iran will win, our allies will lose, and for decades the region’s misery and violence will make today’s chaos look tame.
War is not receding in the Middle East. It is building to a crescendo. Our elections are over. Now, America must act.
During his campaign and the early part of his administration, Barack Obama offered a theory about the disorders of the greater Middle East. One explanation, he argued, was the intervention in Iraq, which “fans anti-American sentiment among Muslims, increases the pool of potential terrorist recruits.” Another was the failed Arab-Israeli peace process, which his administration would finally give some emphasis (as though other presidents had not really tried). Obama would refocus the war on terrorism more narrowly on Afghanistan and al-Qaeda and dispense with the Bush Doctrine, which sought to “impose democracy with the barrel of a gun.”
The president’s June 4, 2009, speech in Cairo summarized this critique, while adding an element of soaring ambition. With American combat troops still on the ground, Obama dismissed Iraq as a “war of choice.” He catalogued various criticisms of U.S. policy during the Cold War and the Bush administration — if not an apology, then certainly an aggressive distancing. And he offered an antidote to anti-Americanism: himself. He had, after all, “known Islam on three continents” and had “heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk.”
It was to be a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect” — implying that insufficient American respect had been part of the problem. Obama’s persona would be the bridge between civilizations.
After pumping up expectations to the size of a Thanksgiving Day parade balloon, the deflation has not been dignified. Large historical challenges do not yield to changes in tone and personality. And the matters that obsess liberal foreign-policy experts — Iraq, the Arab-Israeli peace process, various policies in the war on terror — have little relation to the current chaos in North Africa and the Middle East.
This is a region of dysfunctional societies, run into the ground by corrupt and oppressive autocrats. Leaders such as Hosni Mubarak undermined legitimate opposition, forced dissent into the radical mosque, produced economic misery and vast unemployment, and drew attention away from their failures by blaming outsiders and feeding conspiracy theories. It is hard to imagine a political system better designed to produce resentment, radicalism and riots with minimal provocation.
The collapse of the old order has released dangerous forces, exploited by sophisticated and unappeasable Islamist groups. But preserving the status quo ante was not an option — as though Mubarak or his unimpressive son could have survived indefinitely if only provided with a few more truncheons. The autocrats fell because they failed. For many years to come, the United States will deal with the resulting disorder — attempting to preempt threats and promote more reasonable political actors. The stakes are high and the levers are limited.
Obama’s grand ambitions were naive. But how has he reacted to realities that resisted resetting?
On security matters, Obama is hard to fault, and hard to distinguish from his predecessor. Threats to the U.S. homeland are magnified by terrorist safe havens — places to gather, plot and train. Terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere have been given every reason to feel unsafe by American drones and Special Operations forces. For the most part, Obama has continued to treat the global war on terror as an actual war, not primarily a law enforcement operation.
On aid to democratic transitions, Obama’s record is mixed. In a May 19, 2011, policy address, the sworn opponent of the Bush Doctrine proclaimed “tyrants will fail” and declared the promotion of democratic reform a “core” American interest. Efforts in Tunisia and Libya have been relatively strong. Reaction to the Egyptian government’s persecution of pro-democracy organizations has been limp. The promotion of reform in the Gulf States — where political transition won’t be delayed forever — is weak.
The largest failure of Obama’s approach to the Middle East is its apparent geopolitical randomness. Support for Iran’s Green Revolution was late and grudging — as though courageous reformers were intruding on Obama’s engagement of the regime. The president dramatically escalated the Afghan war before conveying an impression of heading for the exits. After wringing its hands, the administration took needed action in Libya. After wringing its hands, it has remained on the sidelines in Syria. The main consistency has been the wringing part.
In the absence of an organizing principle, flexibility becomes ambiguity. Other nations know exactly what Iran is after, what Russia is after, what Israel is after. They are left to guess at American intentions. The risk is that they will cease to care.
Iran shows no hesitation about intervening in Syria
By Editorial Board
Published: September 21
IT’S BEEN MORE than a year since the Obama administration began describing the downfall of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad as a matter of time. He’s defied White House predictions in part because of his ruthlessness — more than 20,000 Syrians, most of them civilians, have died during the uprising — and in part because of political and military weakness of his opposition.
But the Assad regime also has been bolstered by the imbalance of foreign intervention. While the United States and other Western powers hang back, and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar offer weak and poorly coordinated aid, Iran has mounted a concerted and escalating campaign to prop up the government. Iran has sent men as well as arms, cash and technical support.
Could President Obama have provided more relief?
White House aides are frequently described as worrying that direct U.S. aid to the rebels would intensify the war — which is now bloodier than Iraq at the height of its sectarian fighting — or prompt other countries to jump in. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s regime has no such scruples. The commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guard, Mohamad Ali Jafari, acknowledged at a news conference last weekend that members of the elite Quds force have been training a 50,000-member civilian militia modeled on Iran’s own Basij force. Those fighters, known to Syrians as shabiha, have been guilty of some of the war’s worst atrocities, including the mass murder of civilians in several villages.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the Revolutionary Guard general leading the training effort, Hossein Hamedani, commanded the assault on Iranians who revolted against the regime in 2009. Hundreds of rank-and-file members of the Guard and Basij are in Syria to bolster government forces, the Journal said. A busload of 48 was captured by the Free Syrian Army last month.
Even as the Obama administration was rejecting appeals from Turkey, France and other allies for more robust action against the Assad regime, Tehran was escalating. In July it resumed direct cargo flights to Damascus across Iraqi airspace. U.S. officials, who believe that the planes carry military equipment, appealed to the Iraqi government to stop them or at least inspect them. But the flights have continued. U.S. officials told the New York Times that Iran has even provided the regime with a cargo plane for transporting fighters and supplies around the country. Meanwhile, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, an Iranian client, has been sending its own trainers into Syria.
Some administration officials dismiss the Iranian effort as futile support for a lost cause. But Iranian backing for the regime, matched against Western passivity, could keep Mr. Assad in power indefinitely. Even if the government in Damascus collapses, Iranian commanders and the militias they’ve trained will likely stay on to compete in what could be a chaotic struggle for power that could spread from Syria to Lebanon and Iraq. Al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups will be part of that fight; so will the rebel groups backed by the fundamentalist Saudis and Qataris. If it continues its present policy, the United States will go on watching from the sidelines as the future of the Levant is decided.
What Ambassador Chris Stevens would have wanted us to do in the Middle East
By Robin Wright
Published: September 15
The last time I saw Chris Stevens was in May, at his swearing-in ceremony for his first post as ambassador, in Libya. We’d been friends since he was a junior diplomat on the Iran desk, when we used to gab for hours about Tehran’s cryptic politics. We later met up in Mideast hot spots, from Syria and Saudi Arabia to the Palestinian territories. He always had funny tales about diplomatic mischief.
During an earlier tour in Tripoli, when Moammar Gaddafi was still in power, Chris once grabbed the camera off a Libyan intelligence goon on his tail, turned and, with a big smile, took the guy’s picture. Then he gave the camera back. The lanky Californian could be both charming and disarming, even as he made his point.
Chris was posted in Jerusalem during the second intifada, when Palestinians were blowing themselves up on Israeli buses and Israeli troops were raiding West Bank villages. In a bit of unorthodox public diplomacy, Chris and a junior officer went outdoors during a rare snowstorm and started lobbing snowballs at each other. Young Palestinians and Israeli border guards on opposite sides of the divide joined in. It broke the tension, at least temporarily.
His antics were misleading, however. Chris fast became one of America’s savviest envoys.
In April 2011, two months after the Libyan uprising erupted, he was dispatched on a cargo ferry from Malta to Benghazi to set up a U.S. liaison office to the rebels, working out of a hotel room. Colleagues dubbed him the expeditionary diplomat.
“He very quickly developed these amazing circles of contacts,” recalled Jeffrey D. Feltman, a former colleague and now an undersecretary at the United Nations.
More than anyone else, Stevens soon convinced Washington that the Transitional National Council (NTC) had the political bona fides to pick up the pieces after Gaddafi’s 42-year rule.
His assessment has so far proved accurate. When Libyans went to the polls in July, the majority rejected hard-line Islamists as well as separatists. And many NTC officials won the popular vote.
Most colleagues thought Chris was daft for taking the ambassadorship, in what would be his third Libyan tour. But he was excited. “You’ve got to come out,” he told me. “It’s going to be fascinating. Wild, but fascinating.”
A week before his murder in Benghazi, we exchanged e-mails about my plans to visit Libya in a few weeks. A State Department travel warning last month cited increasing assassinations, car bombs and gunmen abducting foreigners. Clashes among militias “can erupt at any time or any place in the country,” it cautioned.
Yet Chris saw the potential over the peril. He was not among those declaring that the Arab Spring had only made the region worse. Quite the reverse. He understood that the Middle East is moving into the second phase of its traumatic transition as Arabs vie to define a new order.
So as the United States deployed gunships and drones this past week to track his killers, I started thinking about what Chris would have wanted the United States to do — about his death, the latest turmoil and in the years ahead. I suspect his message would have been: Waver not.
But he was less an advocate of U.S. influence than of U.S. enabling. Two days after his murder, Chris was supposed to inaugurate the first “American Space” in Libya. That’s why he went to Benghazi. The center would offer a library, computers with free Internet access, language classes and films.
In prepared remarks he never got to give, Chris was going to say, “An American Space is not part of the American Embassy. It is owned, operated, and staffed by our Libyan partners, while the United States provides materials, equipment, and speakers. An American Space is a living example of the kind of partnership between our two countries which we hope to inspire.”
In this fragile phase, as Libyans and other Arabs reclaim control of their lives from autocrats and colonial rule, Chris was pressing Washington to let the newly empowered take the lead.
He was famous for his “pleasant silences,” Feltman said. “He would sit there as if he had all the time in the world. Yet it was comfortable enough in ways that the interlocutor started talking more.”
After a brief visit to Benghazi in August 2011, Feltman went to say farewell to Ali Tarhouni, the NTC’s minister of oil and finance. Chris suggested that they all “hang out” a bit. During one of Chris’s silences, Tarhouni began to outline the rebels’ military plan for the takeover of Tripoli. Residents in several neighborhoods were going to rise up simultaneously, then militias from other areas would move into the capital. The NTC wanted Tripolitanians to feel ownership, not as if armed gangs from rival provinces were moving in. It all played out the next day, and Gaddafi fled the capital.
Two days after Chris died, President Obama vowed: “We are going to bring those who killed our fellow Americans to justice. . . . No act of terror will go unpunished.”
But Chris would almost certainly have urged his bosses to hold off on extraterritorial intervention.
The trial of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the former ruler’s son and political heir, will be a pivotal test for Tripoli. A former lawyer, Chris was aware of the need for real justice under the government elected this year, rather than a repeat of Ghaddafi’s murder after rebels caught him trying to escape through a sewer pipe last year. But Chris understood the sensitivity about any U.S. attempt to help write a new Libyan constitution. He instead favored American assistance on the basics of the rule of law, such as training police on collecting credible evidence, judges on courtroom procedures, and prosecutors and defense lawyers on honoring the restrictions as well as the responsibilities of the law. He wanted Libya to become a model for a region prone to capricious justice.
Chris was already deep into the kind of nation-building projects that the United States often blew during a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even as he helped develop plans to track missing parts of Libya’s deadly arsenal — including chemical and anti-aircraft weapons — he also pressed for the integration of some militias into a new Libyan military.
“He recognized that they were not all rag-tag ruffians running around with guns,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ray Maxwell. “A lot see themselves as patriotic.”
One of the most striking things about Chris was that he was not afraid of the future, as many may be after the latest attacks on U.S. targets. “I never understood why he never flinched,” his sister Anne Stevens e-mailed me the day he died. “I guess because he always had good relationships with people, he always came out okay.”
Chris would have been heartened by another demonstration in Benghazi the day after he died. A sign held high by a young Libyan in blue jeans declared, in big red letters, “Chris Stevens was a friend to all Libyans.”
The Syrian opposition took a big step forward this month by forming a broad political coalition that includes local activists who started the revolution. But the opposition’s military command is still a mess, and until it’s fixed, jihadist extremists will keep getting more powerful.
As I wrote after my trip inside Syria in early October, a stronger command-and-control structure is crucial in creating an opposition force that can accomplish two essential tasks: defeating President Bashar al-Assad and maintaining order in Syria after he falls. The United States had encouraged the rebels to form provincial “military councils” to achieve better coordination. But the rebel forces have continued to splinter in recent weeks.
Talking with some of the Free Syrian Army activists who arranged my trip into Syria, I’ve heard examples of the chaos caused by bypassing the military council (MC) structure. Maj. Mohammed Ali and Maj. Maher Noaimi, two rebel commanders from Hama, are said to be receiving money directly from gulf nations. “Ali and Noaimi are still serving as middlemen for all sorts of folks, and they’re working outside the MCs,” complained one report last month to the State Department about the confused funding.
Another example is Sheik Adnan Mohammed al-Aroor, an extremist cleric from Hama who receives money from Saudi Arabia and appears often on Arab television. He is said to have undercut the military councils’ coordination in northern Syria. The United States have urged the Saudis to cut support for Aroor, but activists say that his followers remain potent on the ground.
A third example of confusion cited by rebel sources is the Farouk battalion, originally from Homs, which controls major northern border crossings into Syria. This group is said to have especially strong support from Turkey that allows it to operate outside the military council structure.
Most dangerous of all is the continuing growth of extremist Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda-linked group that receives funding from wealthy individuals in the gulf. One example of the destructive, sectarian role played by Jabhat al-Nusra is that its fighters are said to have attacked Kurdish rebels recently in Ras al-Ain, in northeastern Syria. The extremist group’s influence is also growing because its fighters, eager for martyrdom, are the toughest.
Syrian activists warn that chaos will continue until the various governments that support the opposition pool their money and disseminate it through the provincial councils. “Stop asking us to unify until you unify yourselves,” a Syrian activist warned a U.S. official recently.
The United States plans to step up its work with key opposition backers — such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and France — to build a stronger command structure. U.S. officials applaud the efforts of several military council commanders who have tried to foster unity, such as Col. Abdul-Jabbar Akidi in Aleppo, Col. Afif Suleiman in Idlib and Gen. Ziad al-Fahd and Col. Khalid Alhoubos in Damascus.
One key role for these councils is to broaden the opposition beyond its Sunni jihadist roots. Akidi, for example, is said to have twice met recently with a Syrian Christian bishop in Aleppo to assure Christians that they will be safe if the opposition wins. “If this is the future, we can work with it,” the bishop reportedly said afterward.
The political opposition formed a united front this month after a meeting in Doha, Qatar, that created a new group formally called the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. It has since been recognized by France, Britain, Turkey, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the European Union. Political unity followed pressure from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on regional powers that had been backing different groups that were constantly squabbling.
Unfortunately, the rebel military council leadership was not included in the Doha effort. Military leaders such as Akidi thought they would be invited, but the invitations never came. This has added to demoralization.
U.S. and Syrian sources agree that to create military unity, the CIA will have to push friendly intelligence services to pool funding and other support behind a unified command. U.S. officials hope that process will happen over the next month, but rebel leaders fear that this could be too late.
A coherent, non-extremist military structure is crucial, finally, because it could provide the path for an eventual settlement that halts all-out sectarian war. Otherwise, this will be a fight to the death between Assad’s goons and radical jihadists — with poor Syria shattered in the process.
As missiles and rockets exploded in Israel and Gaza, television news was dominated by the tragic violence, and we were warned that the battle between Israel and the Palestinians might spread because we are in a new and much more dangerous Middle East. Islamists are in power, democracies will listen to their people. In fact, as the relatively quick cease-fire between the parties shows, there is a very low likelihood of a broader regional conflict. It’s true that we’re in a new Middle East, but it’s one in which Israel has become the region’s superpower.
In a thorough 2010 study, “The Arab-Israeli Military Balance,” Anthony Cordesman and Aram Nerguizian document how over the past decade Israel has outstripped its neighbors in every dimension of warfare. The authors attribute this to Israel’s “combination of national expenditures, massive external funding, national industrial capacity and effective strategy and force planning.” Israel’s military expenditures in 2009 were about $10 billion, which is three times Egypt’s military spending and larger than the combined defense expenditures of all its neighbors — Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. (This advantage is helped by the fact that Israel receives $3 billion in military assistance from Washington.)
But money doesn’t begin to describe Israel’s real advantages, which are in the quality and effectiveness of its military, in terms of both weapons and people. Despite being dwarfed by the Arab population, Israel’s army plus its high-quality reservists vastly outnumber those of the Arab nations. Its weapons are far more sophisticated, often a generation ahead of those used by its adversaries. Israel’s technology advantage has profound implications on the modern battlefield.
The most powerful Arab military, and the one against which Israel is often judged in scholarly studies, is Syria’s. But of course the Syrian army is now in turmoil as it battles its own people and Bashar al-Assad hangs on to power.
Then there are the asymmetrical threats from groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. The study takes a look at them and analyzes Hezbollah’s huge arsenal of missiles. The authors conclude that these pose no real threat to Israel because the missiles are largely unguided and thus ineffective. Hamas’s rockets are even more crude and ineffective. Israel’s response, its “Iron Dome” defense system, has worked better than expected.
As for terrorism, the other asymmetrical strategy against Israel: Despite Wednesday’s attack on a bus in Tel Aviv, Israel is largely protected from terrorists because of the wall it built in 2003.
As for larger threats, the study points out that Israel is the only country in the region with a sophisticated nuclear arsenal — estimated to be between 100 and 500 weapons, many of them on submarines — and advanced ballistic missiles.
This is why Egypt, despite being under a new Islamist government, is not going to risk war with Israel. Nor are the other Arab states. They will make fiery speeches and offer humanitarian assistance. But they will not fight alongside the Palestinians in Gaza or do anything that could trigger a wider war.
Turkey, another powerful regional player, has a government that has weakened its ties with Israel and clashed with it repeatedly over its treatment of the Palestinians. But these are verbal clashes, unlikely to amount to much more. In fact, Turkey is now facing a situation in which its efforts to become a regional power have backfired. It gambled that it would be able to dislodge the regime in Syria, which has not yet happened. Its relations with Iraq have deteriorated as it shields the Sunni vice president from Baghdad’s Shiite-led government, which wants to arrest him. And since Turkey has frosty relations with Israel, it can only watch from afar as Egypt becomes the bridge between Israel and Hamas. The only real outside broker in the region is, of course, the United States, Israel’s closest ally.
These are the realities of the Middle East today. Israel’s astonishing economic growth, its technological prowess, its military preparedness and its tight relationship with the United States have set it a league apart from its Arab adversaries. Peace between the Palestinians and Israelis will come only when Israel decides that it wants to make peace. Wise Israeli politicians, from Ariel Sharon to Ehud Olmert to Ehud Barak, have wanted to take risks to make that peace because they have worried about Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. This is what is in danger, not Israel’s existence.
ISRAEL AND HAMAS appeared Tuesday to be edging toward the least bad finish to a week of fighting — a cease-fire that would stop the rockets and bombs. Both sides seemed open to mediation by Egypt and the United States because they believed they had achieved some short-term objectives — and because a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip by Israel was the painful and risky alternative.
If that is the outcome, Hamas could emerge with the biggest gains. Having provoked Israel with rocket and mortar fire and a border ambush, the Islamist movement survived what was intended as a strategic coup — the killing of its military leader and the destruction of most of its best Iranian-built missiles in an initial Israeli wave of airstrikes.
On Tuesday, despite the bombing of more than 1,500 targets in Gaza, Hamas was still able to fire scores of rockets, including strikes on the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem suburbs. In so doing, it answered a challenge from rival, Iranian-sponsored groups in Gaza; it won public support from the region’s Islamist governments; it upstaged the rival Palestinian Authority in the West Bank; and it provided Iran and Syria with a badly needed respite from mounting international pressure. If there is a truce, it could win an easing of the blockade on Gaza, by Israel or by Egypt.
For its part, Israel could claim that it had significantly reduced the missile threat from Gaza and, if a cease-fire takes hold, offered its civilians the prospect of a break from attacks. It also demonstrated that it will not be deterred by the turmoil in the Arab world from taking on enemies such as Hamas — and that it can do so with the full, public support of the United States.
For both sides, the biggest prize in the fight was the alignment of Egypt’s new government, which unlike the former military-backed autocracy is sympathetic to Hamas but which also wishes to preserve its peace with Israel and good relations with the United States. To his credit, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood plunged into the crisis, dispatching his prime minister to Gaza and speaking repeatedly by telephone with President Obama — even while lambasting Israel in public. A cease-fire would represent a notable achievement for Mr. Morsi; Israel can hope that it leads to a restraining influence by Cairo on Hamas. In contrast, a breakdown of diplomacy and an Israeli ground invasion could place a dangerous strain on a peace treaty that has been the foundation of the U.S.-sponsored security order in the region.
Mr. Obama was phoning Cairo and Jerusalem from Asia, where he is on a tour designed to underline his strategy of pivoting U.S. attention and resources to China and its neighbors. For her part, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was obliged to leave an East Asian summit meeting to help broker a cease-fire. The disruptions were a reminder that Mr. Obama’s Asia strategy, while attractive in theory, will not spare the United States from the real-world challenges of a changing Middle East. To preserve vital U.S. interests, Mr. Obama will have to stay focused on the region.