Iraq PM Warns Sunnis Could Be Shut from Power

December 29, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Suadad al-Salhy and Aseel Kami

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority rejected a call for all-party talks on Wednesday, ignoring U.S. pressure for dialogue to resolve a sectarian crisis that has erupted since American forces left the country this week.

With fears mounting that the nation of 30 million might one day fragment in chaos in the absence of the U.S. troops who toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki warned Saddam’s fellow Sunnis they faced exclusion from power if they walked out on his ruling coalition.

The main Sunni-backed party, furious at terrorism charges leveled by the Shi’ite-run authorities against Iraq’s Sunni vice president on the day Americans left, rejected Maliki’s call for all-party talks in the coming days and vowed to try and unseat the prime minister in parliament, a move unlikely to succeed.

Having stuck by a decision to withdraw U.S. forces in 2011, a return of the kind of sectarian blood-letting that killed tens of thousands of Iraqis after Saddam fell could embarrass President Barack Obama as he campaigns for re-election.

Vice President Joe Biden called Maliki and the Sunni speaker of parliament on Tuesday to press for urgent talks among Iraq’s leaders. But there was little sign of a thaw on Wednesday, although it remained unclear how far the rhetoric reflected a real threat to the fragile coexistence of Sunnis with the majority Shi’ites and ethnic Kurds, both oppressed under Saddam.

Maliki, calling on the Kurds to hand over Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi who has taken refuge in their autonomous region, said he wanted Hashemi’s Sunni-backed Iraqiya block to end a boycott of parliament and of his year-old power-sharing government.

“But,” he warned, “If they insist, they are free to do so and they can withdraw permanently from the state and all its institutions.”

SUNNIS SLAM MALIKI

Iraqiya said it would not attend talks with Maliki, “since he represents the main reason for the crisis and the problem, and he is not a positive element for a solution.”

As well as Hashemi, who stands accused of running death squads based on televised confessions by men claiming to be his bodyguards, the other most senior Sunni politician, deputy prime minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, is also under fire from Maliki, who has asked parliament to remove Mutlaq from office.

Hashemi has dismissed the charges against him as a fabrication, a denial that has credibility in Washington, where one U.S. official said he believes the charges were unfounded.

The White House on Tuesday said it was “obviously concerned” about the arrest warrant issued for Hashemi. In his calls to Baghdad, Biden had “stressed the urgent need for the prime minister and the leaders of the other major blocs to meet and work through their differences together.”

Shi’ite leaders insist there is no political motive behind the case against Hashemi. But Sunnis, outnumbered about two to one by Shi’ites, see it as proof that Maliki, now freed of the trammels of U.S. occupation, is determined to tighten his personal grip on government and to marginalize the Sunnis.

In a system devised under U.S. occupation to divide power, Iraq has a Shi’ite prime minister with Sunni and Kurd deputies, a Kurdish president with Shi’ite and Sunni vice presidents, and a Sunni parliament speaker with Shi’ite and Kurd deputies.

Having long shunned the U.S.-backed institutions set up when Saddam’s decades of one-man rule ended, Sunni voters propelled Iraqiya into first place in a fragmented parliament last year. But Maliki was able to draw on other Shi’ite and Kurdish groups to build a coalition, in which Iraqiya eventually took part.

Tensions among the major groups has, however, hamstrung the government, leaving key posts such as that of defense and interior minister unfilled and obstructing legislation that could clarify rules for investing and exploiting Iraq’s vast oil and gas reserves.

Iraq sits astride a Sunni-Shi’ite faultline running through the Middle East, fuelling mutual accusations of foreign influence, whether from Shi’ite Iran to the north or from the Sunni-ruled Arab states to the south.

In an interview with Reuters, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, an ethnic Kurd, said that the country’s domestic schisms risked inviting more interference from outside:

“As long as your internal front is fragmented and not united … others who want to interfere will be encouraged,” he said. “That’s why it is very important to deal with this crisis as soon as possible.”

(Additional reporting by Serena Chaudry in Baghdad; Writing by Alastair Macdonald)

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Saudi Says Iran Will “Pay the Price” for Alleged plot

October 13, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Parisa Hafezi and Jeremy Pelofsky

TEHRAN/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia vowed on Wednesday that Iran would “pay the price” for an alleged plot to kill its ambassador in Washington and U.S. officials said there could be a push for a new round of U.N. sanctions.

Tehran angrily rejected the charges laid out by a number of top U.S. officials on Tuesday as “amateurish,” but a threat nevertheless to peace and stability in the Gulf, a region critical to global oil supplies with a number of U.S. military bases.

“The burden of proof is overwhelming… and clearly shows official Iranian responsibility for this. Somebody in Iran will have to pay the price,” senior Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal, a former ambassador to Washington, said in London.

Vice President Joe Biden echoed those hawkish sentiments, telling U.S. network ABC Iran would be held accountable. He said Washington was working for a new round of international sanctions against Iran, warning that “nothing has been taken off the table.”

U.S. authorities said on Tuesday they had broken up a plot by two men linked to Iran’s security agencies to assassinate Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir. One was arrested last month while the other was believed to be in Iran.

The motive for the alleged plot was not clear. Iran has in the past assassinated its own dissidents abroad, but an attempt to kill an ambassador would be a highly unusual departure.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are bitter regional and to some extent sectarian rivals, but they maintain diplomatic ties and even signed a security agreement in 2001. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Riyadh in 2007.

The United States has led a global effort to isolate Iran and pile on United Nations sanctions in recent years over Tehran’s nuclear energy program which Washington and its regional allies including Israel and Saudi Arabia fear is a front for developing nuclear weapons. Iran denies nuclear arms ambitions.

Those allies fear Washington could take its eye off the ball on Iran. US diplomatic cables from Riyadh leaked by Wikileaks over the past year — in which Jubeir features prominently — show Riyadh repeatedly pushing the United States to take a tougher stand, including the possible use of military force.

Tensions rose between Riyadh and Tehran when Saudi Arabia sent troops to help Bahrain put down pro-democracy protests let by the island state’s Shi’ite majority that both governments accused Iran, a non-Arab Shi’ite state, of fomenting.

This month Riyadh accused some among its Shi’ite Muslim minority of conspiring with a foreign power — a reference to Iran — to cause instability, following street clashes in the Eastern Province.
But Iranian analyst Saaed Leylaz said it was hard to see why Iran would risk involving itself in such a plot.

“Killing the Saudi envoy in America has no benefit for Iran,” he said. “The consequences of this plot are dangerous … It could cause military confrontation in 2012 between Iran and America.”

ACTION AT U.N.

A Western diplomat in Riyadh said the charges would likely be discussed at the UN Security Council.

“The U.S. and Saudi Arabia and other allies are discussing the possibility of taking this to the Security Council because this is an assault on a foreign diplomat in the U.S,” he said.

President Barack Obama, who seeks reelection next year, called the alleged conspiracy a “flagrant violation of U.S. and international law.”

The United States said Tehran must be held to account and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she hoped countries hesitant to enforce existing sanctions on Iran would now “go the extra mile.”

But also seeking recourse in the world body, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations voiced outrage and complained of U.S. “warmongering” in a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. “The U.S. allegation is, obviously, a politically motivated move and a showcase of its long-standing animosity toward the Iranian nation,” Mohammad Khazaee wrote.

Ali Larijani, Iran’s parliament speaker, said the “fabricated allegations” aimed to divert attention from Arab uprisings Iran says were inspired by its own Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah — though Islam has not been the overt driving force for unrest across the Arab world.

“America wants to divert attention from problems it faces in the Middle East, but the Americans cannot stop the wave of Islamic awakening by using such excuses,” Larijani said, calling the a “childish, amateur game.”

“These claims are vulgar,” he said in an open session of parliament. “We believe that our neighbors in the region are very well aware that America is using this story to ruin our relationship with Saudi Arabia.”

The State Department issued a three-month worldwide travel alert for American citizens, warning of the potential for anti-U.S. action, including within the United States.

“The U.S. government assesses that this Iranian-backed plan to assassinate the Saudi ambassador may indicate a more aggressive focus by the Iranian government on terrorist activity against diplomats from certain countries, to include possible attacks in the United States,” it said in a statement.

At a news conference, FBI Director Robert Mueller said a convoluted plot involving monitored international calls, Mexican drug money and an attempt to blow up the ambassador in a Washington restaurant smacked of a Hollywood movie.

Attorney-General Eric Holder tied it to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), guardian of Iran’s 1979 revolution, and the Quds Force, its covert, operational arm.
“I think one has to be concerned about the chilling nature of what the Iranian government attempted to do here,” he said.

QUDS FORCE CONNECTION

The primary evidence linking Iran to the alleged conspiracy is that the arrested suspect is said to have told U.S. law enforcement agents that he had been recruited and directed by men he understood were senior Quds Force officials.

The Quds Force has not previously been known to focus on targets in the United States.

A plot against targets inside the U.S. “would be a first for the Quds Force,” said Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA and National Security Council analyst who now heads the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“I do want to hear more about what evidence (U.S. authorities) have and why they believe” that the Quds Force was involved, Pollack said.

U.S. officials said there had also been initial discussions about other plots, including attacking the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington, but no charges for those were brought.

There are no formal diplomatic ties between the Islamic republic and Washington, which accuses Tehran of backing terrorism and pursuing nuclear arms, charges Iran denies.

Iran already faces tough U.S. economic and political sanctions and Washington slapped further sanctions on five Iranians, including four senior members of Quds.

U.S. SAYS AMBASSADOR NEVER IN DANGER

U.S. officials identified the two alleged plotters as Gholam Shakuri, said to be a member of the Quds Force, and Manssor Arbabsiar, who was arrested on September 29 when he arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport from Mexico.

Arbabsiar, 56, a naturalized U.S. citizen with an Iranian passport, initially cooperated with authorities after being arrested. He made calls to Shakuri after being arrested and acted as if the plot was still a go, court documents said.

Arbabsiar appeared briefly in a Manhattan courtroom on Tuesday where he was ordered detained and assigned a public defender. He appeared in blue jeans and a dress shirt, with thinning gray hair and a scar on the left side of his face.

Officials said the Saudi ambassador, who is close to King Abdullah and has been in his post since 2007, was never in danger. Obama was briefed in June about the alleged plot.

Court documents say a plot began to unfold in May 2011 when Arbabsiar sought help from an individual in Mexico who was posing as an associate of an unidentified drug cartel and who was in fact a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant.

The unidentified paid informant tipped off law enforcement agents, according to the criminal complaint. Arbabsiar paid $100,000 to the informant in July and August for the plot, a down-payment on the $1.5 million requested.

LIKE A “HOLLYWOOD MOVIE”

Shakuri approved the plan to kill the ambassador during telephone conversations with Arbabsiar, the complaint said.

As part of the plot, the informant talked to Arbabsiar about trying to kill the ambassador at a Washington, D.C. restaurant he frequented, but warned him that could lead to dozens of others being killed, including U.S. lawmakers.

The criminal complaint said that Arbabsiar responded “no problem” and “no big deal.”

In a monitored call, Shakuri told Arbabsiar to execute the plot, saying “just do it quickly, it’s late,” court papers say.

After Arbabsiar’s arrest in New York, he gave U.S. authorities more details of Tehran’s alleged involvement, Holder said.

Mueller, the FBI director, said that “individuals from one country sought to conspire with a drug trafficking cartel in another country to assassinate a foreign official on United States soil.”

He added: “Though it reads like the pages of a Hollywood script, the impact would have been very real and many lives would have been lost.”

The men face one count of conspiracy to murder a foreign official, two counts of foreign travel and use of interstate and foreign commerce facilities in the commission of murder for hire and one count each of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism.

Authorities said no explosives were acquired for the plot and the weapon of mass destruction charge can range from a simple improvised device to a more significant weapon. The two men face up to life in prison if convicted.

(Additional reporting by Basil Katz in New York, James Vicini, Mark Hosenball, Tabassum Zakaria, Matt Spetalnick and Andrew Quinn in Washington and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

Dissent and Defiance in Damascus

April 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Ali Khan

13 April 2011–Young people in Syria are talking about their future. While Bashar al-Assad makes concessions that fail to convince, what is clear is the growing divide between government and people – however anxiously the world looks on.

JORDAN/

A Syrian girl in Jordan in a protest in front of the Syrian embassy in Amman 4/24/11.

REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

Dictatorships are built on myths. When people begin to see the lies for what they are, the psychosis of fear melts away. Living in Damascus, one could not help but notice the intricate tapestries of illusions that the government had so carefully woven. The ever-present posters of various potentates across the Arab world are not just the machinations of arrogant and egotistical men but rather serve as daily reminders of the fact that everyone is under constant surveillance. I remember sitting in a coffee shop in Damascus with some friends when the owner came and sat with us because we had begun to discuss Arab politics. The café was empty and we were sitting at the back. The owner asked us if we had switched off our mobiles and taken the battery out. I, being the only foreigner, asked why, to which he replied that the Syrian government could listen into the conversation even if the phone is not making a call.

Obviously not all Syrians believe in these kind of stories but it is helpful in illustrating how the ostensibly mysterious and the brutal nature of regimes compels people to take part in creating these myths, thereby strengthening the hold of the regime over people. Another more popular ‘fact,’ which many foreign visitors write about, is how a large percentage of taxi drivers work for the mukhabarat or the intelligence service. Of course, there will always be people who are willing to provide information to the government that they deem to be important. Much of it in reality is inconsequential, but again it helps perpetuate the mystery of tyranny. Although the Syrian intelligence services have a fearsome reputation, largely because of their reliance on a massive network of human and not electronic intelligence, the recent events in Syria have started to show fissures and cracks forming in the regime.

Revolutions are unpredictable and hundreds of people can be killed before a small act ignites everyone into taking to the streets. As we saw in Egypt, the ‘uprisings’ built up momentum for many weeks before finally exploding, although it remains to be seen if the revolution is over yet. There seems to be a similar momentum building up in Syria. There has been much speculation about the role of electronic media, facebook and twitter in catalysing the various movements across the Arab world. Although there can be no denying the fact that facebook and twitter allow for instant dissemination of news and important information, I have also seen them being manipulated by some people. One friend posted a video of a ‘protest’ at a mosque in Syria with a short clip of people shouting “Allahu Akbar – God is great”. However, when another friend found a longer version of the same clip, it turned out to be a group of people who were chanting the takbir (Allahu Akbar) after the Friday sermon of one of the state-vetted clerics.

Over the last few weeks I have watched with great interest a debate take place amongst my friends in Syria about their future. Some people made their profile pictures black as a sign of protest, others have used a Syrian flag and yet others have put up a picture of Bashar al-Assad. When I was living in Damascus, opposition to the government was not as widespread as one might have expected and indeed Syrians might be slower than others about coming out to protest.

Indeed, there was even an implicit understanding about what was perceived to be a trade-off between rights and security. However, high corruption and the brutal crackdowns are fast depleting any goodwill that Bashar al-Assad has.

Fadi as-Saeed, a chemistry student at the University of Damascus, was beaten to death on Monday and it seems the administration is now pointing their guns at students, often the most vocal demographic in protests.

Heading for civil war?

Syria is wracked with internal divisions, which have often been exacerbated by the heavy-handedness of the government. The largely secular ruling Ba’ath party has been at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1940s. After a particularly violent few years of assassination attempts and car bombs, in 1982 Hafez al-Assad’s brother Rifaat, who now lives in exile in London, surrounded and bombed Hama. The town was known for being a base of the Muslim Brotherhood and the bombing killed thousands of people. Subsequently, the Brotherhood and indeed all other opposition have effectively been stifled while the Alawi minority has strengthened its position.

The Alawis are the spiritual progeny of a movement started in the 9th century when Ibn Nusayr announced himself as the bab or the hidden gateway to truth (God). Very close in terms of practice to Christians, Alawis or as they also known Nusayris believe in a kind of holy trinity comprised of Mohammad, Ali and Salman al-Farisi, one of the first Persian converts to Islam. The reason they are viewed as non-Muslims is because of their belief in the divinity of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, who was the fourth Caliph and the first Imam for Shi’as. In a bid to consolidate their power the Alawis managed to secure recognition from the Shi’a leader, Musa as-Sadr, in 1972, declaring them to be Muslims. As early as 1936 they procured a decree from the Sunni Chief Mufti of Palestine, al-Haj Amin al-Husaini, recognizing them as Muslims.

However, many Sunnis and some Shi’a ulama, or scholars, continue to view the Alawis as non-Muslims, or even sometimes as apostates.

Apart from the Alawis, the Christians are a sizeable minority and form about 10% of the population and the Druze constitute about 3%. The Sunnis form the majority of the population. Syria also has a large Palestinian refugee population of 500,000 and more than a 1,000,000 Iraqi refugees.

The problems in Syria today are therefore exacerbated by the fact that Syria could be heading for a civil war, due to these old ethnic and sectarian tensions, and might follow the Libyan scenario rather than the Egyptian or Tunisian model. One factor however, that might hold back an all-out war is that there are a multitude of links between the regime and society through army, government and non-official ties. Bashar al-Assad, although seen by some to be a moderate and a reformer is still presiding over institutions that were created during his father’s time. This means that often the ‘old guard’ is the biggest obstacle to implementing reform. However, there have been some token gestures of reform from the President.

Among the small number of concessions that the regime has made are a few that were pushed for by a group of imams, headed by Ramadan al-Buti, perhaps Syria’s most famous cleric. A casino has been shut down and a ban on wearing the niqab, a veil that covers the face as well as the body, in educational institutions is being reversed just as France is implementing its own ban. In other ‘concessions’ the infamous 1963 Emergency Law is now finally to be lifted, but an ‘Anti-terrorism’ law is to be passed instead. About 200,000 Kurds who have hitherto not been granted any rights have been given citizenship. But a majority of the Kurds who form 11-14% of Syria’s population still suffer from various institutional biases. The Kurds have responded by protesting in Qimishli, in the north-east of Syria, under the interesting slogan, ‘we want freedom not citizenship.’

Foreign stakeholders and high stakes

The stakes that many foreign actors have in Syria are also crucial in determining the next steps in the Syrian uprisings. Iran and Hezbollah will fear the loss of an important regional ally and the possible rise of a predominantly Sunni government. Apart from this, even Shi’as who are not ideologically aligned with Iran will be afraid of the loss of the comfort in which the community lives. In particular, the network of religious schools around Sayyid Zainab’s shrine in Damascus are already fearful of what may happen if the Alawis lose power. Israel must worry because at the moment it has an enemy that it ‘knows’ whereas it will be harder to predict whether the new government shall be even more anti-Zionist.

As it is, there is already an air of uncertainty in Israel about what might happen on its western borders, in Egypt. Unlike in Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood were social activists and not involved in politics (until now perhaps), the Brotherhood in Syria has been in exile for nearly thirty years – which means that they have little support on the ground and will need time to carve out a political space. Confessions on Syrian state TV from alleged Brotherhood members stirring up trouble seem manufactured so that the crackdown on protesters can be blamed on ‘outsiders.’ The Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia have had a deep interest in promoting Sunni interests and in the case of Saudi Arabia, their brand of Wahhabism. The growth of this school of thought in Syria has been aided by the fact that a large number of Syrian migrants live and work in the Arabian Peninsula. In the last few years, America has reached out to Damascus and sent various envoys and feelers in order to improve relations, but often with limited success. It is evident then, that current events and any change in Syria will have a far larger geo-political impact on the Middle East than Libya, though of course Libya might be more important to Europe financially.

History, repetition and farce

Following the killings and crackdown on various protests from the Southern town of Deraa to the coastal cities of Tartous and Lattakia, Bashar al-Assad has attempted a reshuffle of his government by firing various provincial governors and appointing new people to his cabinet. However, it seems that superficial changes coupled with a completely disproportionate clampdown on protesters will only exacerbate the situation. Although regarded as more sensible than his father, it seems that like all other dictators, Bashar is also out of touch with ordinary Syrians.

Vogue magazine, which seems to make a business out of glamorizing the lives of the wives of various Arab potentates, writes in a recent interview of the president and his wife that, “the household is run on wildly democratic principles.” It goes on to explain how Asma al-Assad – ‘we all vote on what we want, and where’ – and her husband are often ‘out-voted’ by their three children. This in turn explains the chandelier made of comics that hangs above the dinner table. To talk of democracy in their household while a large percentage of people are often detained without any recourse to the law is nothing more than an insult to all Syrians. It is precisely this kind of insensitive, indeed farcical, attitude that might catalyse the current uprisings into a revolution.

About the author: Ali Khan is a PhD student in history at the University of Cambridge whose areas of interest are South Asia and the greater Middle East.

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Analysis: Syria Neighbors Fear Future Without Assad Family

April 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Samia Nakhoul

BEIRUT (Reuters) – From Israel to Iran, Syria’s neighbors are starting to contemplate the possibility of a future without the Assad family as Lords of Damascus, and, whether friends or foes, some don’t like what they see.

Indeed, some are in denial about what they are witnessing.

Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite movement widely seen as an Iranian proxy in the Middle East, purports to believe the government of President Bashar al-Assad is putting down an insurrection by armed gangs of Salafi or Sunni Muslim fanatics.

In its report of the Syrian army’s assault on the southern city of Deraa, epicenter of the revolt which began last month, Al Manar, Hezbollah’s television, stuck to the official version that the army responded to citizens’ pleas to put an end to “killings and terrorizing operations by extremist groups.”

Hezbollah greeted with glee uprisings that overthrew dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt and championed the rights of Bahraini protesters against Saudi military intervention to quash Shi’ite demonstrations.

But it is distinctly unenthusiastic about the risk of losing the support of a Syrian government which is not only its main protector but the conduit for arms supplies from Iran.

Tehran, which regards Syria as a close ally in a mainly Sunni-dominated region suspicious of non-Arab Shi’ite Iran, has called the revolt in Syria “a Zionist plot.”

Yet Israel too seems deeply uneasy about any change in the status quo.

Although they are still formally at war, Syria under the current president and his late father, Hafez al-Assad, has maintained a stable border with the Jewish state since 1973 even though Israel still occupies the Golan Heights.

Fear of Islamists

Israel’s fear — voiced more openly by commentators plugged in to its security establishment than by politicians — is that a successful uprising might replace firm Baath party rule with a more radical government, or one less able or willing to keep radical forces on a leash.

Although Assad sponsors Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, he has played a cautious hand.

Behind the strident Arabist rhetoric and ties with Tehran he has kept the option of peace with Israel in play and sought acceptance by Western powers.

“The implications are enormous and totally unpredictable,” said Lebanon-based Middle East analyst Rami Khouri.

“What makes Syria distinctive is that the regime and the system have close structural links with every conflict or player in the region: Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, Lebanon, Israel, America, Iraq, Turkey. In all these (cases) there is a Syrian link.”

Demonstrations have spread across the country and grown in intensity, he said, and protesters who began calling for reform of the system were now demanding “the overthrow of the regime.”

At the back of many minds is the experience of Iraq, plunged into years of chaos and sectarian savagery after the US-led invasion in 2003 and removal of Saddam Hussein.

“Everybody in the region is concerned about the destabilization of Syria, even those who don’t like Assad, because there is one thing he brings to the region: a certain kind of predictability and stability,” Khouri said.

“He maintained the truce along the Syrian-Israeli border, people know how his government behaves. Nobody knows what will happen afterwards.”

Alex Fishman, a military affairs journalist for Israel’s best-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth, summed up Israeli apprehension after the Syrian army stormed into Deraa.

“However odd it may sound, the Israeli establishment has a certain sentiment for the Assad family. They kept their promises throughout the years and even talked about an arrangement with Israel on their terms,” he wrote.

“It’s hard to part with a comfortable old slipper, but the top members of the political and security establishment believe that the Syrian regime, in its current format, will change within weeks or months,” Fishman said.

He added: “The sole interest guiding Israel’s conduct is: if what is happening in Syria will ultimately weaken the Damascus-Iran-Hezbollah axis — we’ll come out ahead.”

For Hezbollah and Iran, losing Assad would certainly be a big blow.

“If it (Syria) splits into mini-satellite states that will be bad news for everybody,” Khouri said, suggesting that as in Iraq this might provide an opening for al Qaeda militants.

Across the border in Lebanon, arena of a sectarian civil war in 1975-90 that sucked in regional and world powers and left Syria in control for 29 years, people are also worried.

Any prospect of a new sharpening of tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites, Arabs and Kurds, or Christians and Muslims, all simmering across the region after being brought to the boil by Iraq, produces shudders.

“I don’t think any wise man is not worried about what happens in Syria because it is a neighbor,” said Talal Salman, editor of Beirut’s daily as-Safir.

“Any earthquake in Syria will shake Lebanon with its fragile make-up. Syria’s stability is in our interest.”

For now, Assad has decided to follow in the footsteps of his father and resort to military force, not reform, to put down the protests at a cost so far of more than 400 lives, according to human rights groups.

Monday’s deployment of tanks in Deraa looks like an indicator of what is to come. A source close to the Syrian military said Assad and his security establishment had taken a decision to wage war on protesters across the country.

But Ali al-Atassi, a prominent Syrian activist whose father was a former president jailed for 22 years by the elder Assad, said “another Hama” was impossible.

In 1982, Hafez al-Assad sent in the army to crush an armed lslamist uprising, killing of up to 30,000 people.

“Syria has reached a turning point. It cannot go back to where it was,” said Atassi.

He said the Western habit of accommodating dictatorships in return for stability was no longer valid.

“In Tunis, Egypt and elsewhere for years, Arab leaders and the West gave the Arab people a binary choice: stability or chaos; despotism or Islamism.

“After what happened in Tunis and Egypt, we discovered that there is a third option which is the democratic way. Sure, the Islamists will play a role in it, but they will not have the leading role,” Atassi said.

While many analysts argue that life after Assad would be hazardous or that he may prove impossible to remove, others say a relatively smooth transition is imaginable over time because Damascus has institutions that can shoulder responsibility.

They include the army, whose backbone is Sunni although key posts are controlled by members of Assad’s Alawite minority.

What most observers now dismiss is the possibility of reforms substantial enough to meet popular demands.

Even if Assad wanted to enact wide-scale reforms, they argue, he lacks the power to prevail over entrenched interests in the security forces and military intelligence.

“He is the prisoner of a certain structure and at the same time part of it,” Atassi said.

“The next 2-3 weeks are really critical. They will determine whether he will remain in power or whether his regime will collapse,” Khouri told Reuters.

(editing by Paul Taylor)

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Saudi Arabia Detains Bloggers over Protest: Activists

April 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

JEDDAH (Reuters) – Authorities in Saudi Arabia have detained two Shi’ite bloggers this week for taking part in demonstrations in the country’s oil-producing Eastern Province, a Shi’ite website and activists said on Wednesday.

The Sunni Muslim monarchy of Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter and major U.S. ally, does not tolerate any form of dissent. It has not seen the kind of mass uprisings other countries in the region have over the past few months.

But minority Shi’ite Muslims in the Eastern Province, who have long complained of discrimination — a charge the government denies — have staged small demonstrations, which have led to some protesters being detained.

Shi’ite website, www.rasid.com, said on Wednesday police had stormed the houses of Mustafa al-Mubarak, 26, and Hussein al-Hashem, 25, arrested them and confiscated their computers,
The website also said a 58-year-old man named Samir Aldahim was also detained for taking part in the demonstrations.

A spokesperson for the Eastern Province police could not be reached for comment.

“The series of arrests are still continuing today,” said one activist who declined to be named for fear of being detained.

“Even ordinary people have been detained for taking part in demonstrations. They are summoned while at work or taken from their homes,” he said.

A Human Rights Watch report issued this month said Saudi Arabia had arrested over 160 activists since February.

“In this last week there were no less then 10 detentions, and they were all transferred to jail. Their families believe it is because they have participated in demonstrations,” the activist said.

(Reporting by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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US Moves to Seize Four Mosques, Claiming Secret Iranian Control

November 19, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Jason Ditz

In a move being touted as “a sharp blow against Iran,” the United States government is attempted to seize four Shi’ite mosques across the United States, calling it the largest `anti-terror’ seizure ever and claiming the non-profit which operates them is secretly a front for the Iranian government.

The four mosques are located across the United States, in New York City, Houston, Carmichael California, and Potomac, Maryland. The non-profit Alavi Foundation faces formal charges of violating 1995 sanctions signed by President Clinton.

The group is funded principally through rent collected at a New York City skyscraper it owns, which the government also intends to seize. They provide funds to a myriad of Shi’ite religious institutions in the US and Canada and support for Farsi language education programs in US schools. They also provide interest free loans for Iranian-Americans to attend college in the US.

The seizure of the mosques by the federal government will be a serious hardship for worshippers, of course, but the capture of the 35-year old foundation’s assets and its dissolution will be devastating for America’s tiny Shi’ite community, which amounts to only about one tenth of one percent of all Americans.

Though the seizure of churches by the federal government is not unprecedented, it is extremely rare and fraught with controversy. The seizure of private religious institutions on the premise that they are covertly controlled by an “enemy state” only makes this move all the more controversial and will likely prove troubling to many Americans, Shi’ite or otherwise.

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