Abdel Bari Atwan Speaks About Peace Process in Amman

Here is a link to report about Abdel Bari Atwan’s 22 February 2014 speech to an audience of thousands in Amman, Jordan.

http://bit.ly/OxD1eJ

 

 

Interview with Abdel Bari Atwan on Life After Al-Quds

Gulf states and Israel won’t silence me: journalist Abdel Bari Atwan

Submitted by Asa Winstanley on Thu, 12/05/2013 – 20:39

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Abdel Bari Atwan

(Asa Winstanley / The Electronic Intifada)

 

Abdel Bari Atwan is one of the world’s best-known Palestinian journalists.

His editorials are influential and widely-read and his appearances on many news stations in both Arabic and English have gained him a large following over the years.

Since 1996, when he interviewed Osama bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora in Afghanistan, he has also been internationally recognized as a leading expert on al-Qaida. He has written two books on the subject, in addition to his evocative memoir, A Country of Words.

Born in a Gaza refugee camp, he rose up through the media ranks of several Arabic papers before establishing in London his own pan-Arab newspaper.

This was al-Quds al-Arabi. Unlike the majority of pan-Arab papers, owned by the Saudi royal family and sycophantically toeing their political lines, al-Quds al-Arabi developed a reputation for independence and freedom of expression, and was particularly supportive of the Palestinian struggle.

But in July, after 25 years at the helm, Abdel Bari Atwan suddenly announced on his blog and on Twitter (where he has more than 300,000 followers) that he was stepping down. It seemed he was retiring.

“Events and the requirements of third parties pushed” him into the departure, he enigmatically wrote. Many suspected the hand of the Gulf oil monarchies, of whom he had been critical over the years.

I ran into him at the recent MEMO Palestine book awards, where he won a lifetime achievement award. He told me about his new project, Rai al-Youm.

I asked, and he granted me a long and wide-ranging interview at his new office in west London.

This first part is edited for length. The second part, focusing on what he calls the “hijacking” of the Arab uprisings that began in 2011, will appear exclusively on the next Electronic Intifada podcast.

The Electronic Intifada: Lets start off by talking about your new project.

Abdel Bari Atwan: [At al-Quds al-Arabi] I was always thinking of going to the online [platform]. I realized that 95-98 percent of our readers are online. We are a global newspaper, a diaspora newspaper.

On the Internet it was a very very successful venture. So I decided to do it. We started [Rai al-Youm on] 2 September. The first month we had two million unique visitors. Now the third month it could be two-and-a-half to three million.

EI: Weren’t you supposed to retire?

AA: I don’t think I will retire. Sorry to say that! You know my wife always asks me the same question: “You know, you are now over 60 so you have to slow down.” How can I slow down?

My colleague told me [Rai al-Youm] is worth about $400,000. I said, my God, that’s fantastic, so should I sell it and take the $400,000 and go to Hawaii, enjoy my retirement there?

EI: What do you have in the way of staff?

AA: I have one full-time staff [member]; she’s my managing editor. I have also four or five stringers.

I am back again as if I am 25 years of age as a young journalist. I work about 14 hours a day, so if I drop dead suddenly you know what the reason was.

EI: Don’t say that!

AA: Really, I work very hard. And I don’t need people: social life is nil. By the end of the day I’m exhausted and I want to sleep, so yes: a very small group, mainly the minimum of the expenses.

The reputation of online newspapers or websites is not really great in the Arab world. So when I said I want to produce an online newspaper people [said] “Abdel Bari Atwan, you are belittling yourself!” I said look … we have to look at the other side, there are very successful experiences: the Guardian is spending about £15 million to improve their website because this is the future.

Really the reaction, the response of people is fantastic. I am flooded by articles from young people, free of charge. The people who are against us are the people who are old, and expired!

EI: How are you generating income?

AA: Until now, I spent from my own savings, to be honest, hoping after six months when we have a good history that the advertising will come.

I received a lot of offers from people who would like to be a partner, people wanted to buy the newspaper. And I said to them look, it’s too early now … I don’t want to be an employee of anyone, and receive orders and be part of any political agenda.

Now I’m more independent. I’m not really a captive of this money, or of states. It is nice to be free.

But if somebody want to volunteer and help us and offer us with money without any strings, why not? But until now they want to buy it – maybe to silence me. But I wouldn’t be silenced.

EI: So you can’t tell me who those offers were from?

AA: Well they came from the Gulf, from Gulf states. It’s very very obvious. Because who’s got the money?

EI: Which ones?

AA: I’ll keep it secret! [laughs] They wanted it to be secret, so I don’t want to disclose.

EI: So you think that those offers might be coming to silence you?

AA: Oh yes. I was actually forced to leave al-Quds al-Arabi because they didn’t like my editorial line. Many people did not. I received a lot of threats –

EI: Many people from the Gulf?

AA: From the Gulf, from Zionist organizations, Arab intelligence services also. The Syrians threatened to kill me at a certain stage. Because I was very critical of them, talking about their bad record of human rights. Jordanian intelligence, they also threatened me.

This is life if you want to be straightforward, if you want to speak your mind. We have to take the risk [as journalists].

EI: When you resigned from al-Quds al-Arabi, you mentioned writing a book.

AA: My al-Qaida books were very very successful. For example, the first one was translated into 32 languages. But when I wrote my memoirs, no American publisher wanted to touch it. They said no way, they don’t want anybody to write about Palestine. It’s unbelievable, even the media here; I didn’t have a single review in a major newspaper.

With The Secret History of al-Qaida, for example, it was reviewed by everybody. So it shows you the censorship, direct or indirect, on anything written about Palestine. That’s why I honestly admire The Electronic Intifada. It’s fighting against this tsunami of censorship, of actually shutting up people like you and myself.

When it comes to America, they shut their door completely – my publisher did their best. But when I came out with my third book, After bin Laden: al-Qaida, the Next Generation, immediately they [clicks fingers].

We [Palestinians] are not human [to them]. We are terrorists, guerrillas, suicide bombers, yeah that’s fine, fantastic. But if you want to tell a human story, my story in the refugee camp, they don’t want it.

EI: What is your advice to journalists like us at The Electronic Intifada, when confronting Israeli propaganda?

AA: You cannot imagine the hate campaign against me that I faced for the last, say, twenty years in particular since I became a prominent speaker on the BBC and Sky News. The whole of the Zionist lobby [are] against Bari Atwan as they call me. Why? Because I managed to penetrate the media.

Yes: they would like us [Arabs] to be in the media, but we have to be stupid, or we have to be like [jailed Islamic fundamentalist] Abu Hamza al-Musri or Omar Bakri – they don’t want people who can influence the people.

As a producer, if I want to have a debate about Palestinian issues, I have to have an Israeli and a Palestinian. They [the Israeli side] said immediately, no I don’t want to appear with Bari Atwan. By this way, they reduce my appearances – because if you are a producer, you want the program [to air].

EI: What does it mean that Israel has these flack groups and blogs like MEMRI, Honest Reporting and CiFWatch?

AA: The significance is the cowardice of the British media. For example, they come and select a line of an hour interview in Arabic media and they send it to the BBC, to Sky News, to the Guardian – “he is a terrorist, he is supporting suicide bombers, he saying something in Arabic and something else in English,” and you know this propaganda.

And the problem is they intimidate the media in this country, they intimidate the universities. They bombard people with letters with emails, and they are scared. You don’t have brave people who say, look, this is rubbish and throw it in the bin.

They plant a story in The Jerusalem Post, and then it is quoted by the Jewish Chronicle, and then it is sent to Sky News, to CNN, to the BBC – “look at Abdel Bari Awtan” or “look at Asa” for example. This is the problem.

EI: They said that you “justified” one of the shootings that took place in 2008 in an [Israeli] religious school.

AA: Yeah. And this is rubbish.

EI: The thing is you can tell even reading that that it’s obviously rubbish because they don’t put the whole quote, they just put the word “justified” in quotes.

AA: Exactly. But the problem is – you’re aware of this, but someone [less aware] in the BBC – “oh my God, no, the killing of children.” That’s the problem.

I admit they are not as successful as they used to be, people are fed up from them.

EI: How did it make you feel to leave al-Quds al-Arabi after a quarter of a century?

AA: It was the saddest moment in my life. Because it was like giving my baby up for adoption. I was very very depressed and very, very stressed. I cried.

EI: And you were really forced out?

AA: Yes. By financial problems, because I couldn’t save the newspaper. The only option for me was either to shut it down or to leave in order for other of my staff about fifty people – fifty families – to actually survive.

You cant imagine, those people were very kind to me, very nice, very dedicated – and in certain stages they were not paid their salaries.

I was offered a lot of money to stay as director, as editor-in-chief, but [I would have been forced] to change my editorial policies. I said no: I wouldn’t. Many people thought I was stupid. I was even offered a salary for life. I said no, I want a clean break.

EI: So they had to bring in new management to try and save it financially.

AA: Yeah definitely it was new management, they got money.

EI: How did they want you to change your editorial [line]? They must have had specific things.

AA: I didn’t go into details with them, because I realized that I wouldn’t survive. I realized that this is the end of the journey so I had to quit.

[At the beginning of al-Quds al-Arabi] my house was to be repossessed by the bank because I didn’t pay the mortgage. I do regret losing a huge pyramid [in my life], but what shall I do?

EI: The new funders from the Gulf, were they from – was it a Qatari?

AA: No comment.

EI: They never told you anything specific you had to change in your editorial policy to bail it out?

AA: I could continue if I actually accepted their new editorial policy.

EI: Whereas the whole time you were there, you were the one deciding the editorial policy, but they would have had someone above you.

AA: Yes. I was responsible for every word on the newspaper. Nobody never imposed any journalist or anybody on me. Nobody ever asked me to write editorial to support this, or not to support this – never. Until the last –

EI: Nobody even tried?

AA: They tried. Definitely. I always said no to any interference. I never published anything in the paper which was planted. I never fabricated the news. I never put anything [in the newspaper] which I believed was wrong.

When you have a newspaper, sometimes there will be some sort of self-censorship in order to keep the newspaper going. Saudi Arabia blocked our website, the same thing in Syria, the same thing in Bahrain for example.

I’m trying now to wash off the remnants of self-censorship. Definitely there are some from al-Quds after 25 years. Sometimes you have be soft here, to be harsh there, to be moderate there. Now I am trying to get rid of it gradually.

EI: Why does that kind of self-censorship happen?

AA: The problem is al-Quds al-Arabi is a pan-Arab newspaper. If you are banned across all of the Arab countries, it is useless – I want to reach the people. I don’t want just the people in diaspora to read it. There are 400 million [Arab] people, I want to reach them.

EI: What would you say you are most proud of in your time at al-Quds al-Arabi?

AA: Al-Quds al-Arabi became a brand: a brand of freedom, professionalism and courage. The second thing I’m proud of: I never sacked anybody from the newspaper.

Third, nobody could twist my arm. I was offered a lot of money. I wasn’t able to pay the salaries of my staff … if I couldn’t save the newspaper and those people [were] suddenly on the streets, and my family also, I would be blamed for that, I would be guilty of wasting this opportunity.

EI: In the end they twisted your arm to force you out.

AA: Yes. If I submit to arm-twisting, I wouldn’t be Abdel Bari Atwan. This is my reputation, this is my asset. My asset is to be as free as I can.

EI: It is twenty years since the Oslo agreement was signed. What do you make of the Palestinian Authority now?

AA: Before Oslo, the Palestinian cause was on the top of the agenda in the Middle East. Wherever Yasser Arafat went in that time, he was the headline. After twenty years of Oslo, Mahmoud Abbas visits a lot of countries: there is not a single line in any newspaper about it. This summarized to you the huge difference.

Nowadays when I write an editorial about Syria, it is the best read [piece]. When I write an editorial about Palestine and peace talks, it is the worst read. If about 100,000 read my editorials about Syria or about Egypt, [and] maybe about 10,000 read my editorials about Palestine, if I am lucky.

People are not interested in our cause any more, because of us as Palestinians. When we actually throw in the towel, when we talk to the Israelis while settlement is continuing, when our leader said I give up my right to return to Safad, when actually we don’t have a proper protest in the West Bank, when there is Arab spring everywhere and we don’t have anything in our territories, it tells you a lot.

We used to ignite revolution all over the world. We used to be respected all over the world.

EI: You sound quite pessimistic.

AA: Our kuffiyeh [traditional Palestinian scarf] used to be the flag of every revolutionary free movement. Now, nobody talks about us. It is our mistake. It is Abbas’ mistake. It is Fatah’s mistake. Actually we are a captive of the salaries at the end of the month.

I feel sick talking about it. It makes me depressed.

EI: Is there anything that gives you hope?

AA: To be honest, no. Unless there is a new generation with new ideas, maybe.

I don’t want to see any of the [Palestinian] Authority [officials] when they come to London. I try to avoid them, because I will explode.

EI: Do you think the refugees are going to return within our lifetimes?

AA: Oh yes. Within your lifetime. Maybe not mine. We will, and they will return. The big lie of Israel is starting to be discovered now.

This agreement between Iran and the United States is a very significant turning point. If this happened ten years ago, [Benjamin] Netanyahu or any of them – or [Ehud] Barak – would have actually prevent America from signing this agreement.

It means Israel lost the power to twist the arm of the west.

EI: That’s something that gives you hope then?

AA: Oh yes. But I believe that I will have hope when our people move. When they make the occupation very costly. Once they do so, I will have hope.

Here we are depending on others – we should be dependent on ourselves.

 

Can the GCC Survive Sweeping Regional Changes?

The two-day 34th annual summit of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) was a lackluster affair with a short agenda. The leaders met briefly, attended a gala dinner hosted by the leader of the host country, and then issued a final communique during a press conference which held no surprises.

The reasons that the meeting was so low-key stem from several major recent events which followed on from the earth-shattering announcement of the signing of a nuclear limitation agreement between Iran and the 5+1 group last month:

  * The first event : Saturday's announcement by Oman's Foreign Minister Yousef Bin Alawi at a high-level Manama Dialogue meeting that Muscat opposed the political and economic union of the GCC countries proposed by  Saudi Arabia. He said that Oman would withdraw from GCC if this was implemented.

* The second event : the worsening Saudi-Qatari rift over the crises in Syria and Egypt which would have torn the GCC apart, had not Kuwait intervened to pour oil on troubled waters.

Anyone following news sites, blogs, facebook and twitter will gain the  impression that thirty years of Gulf summits and any amount of favourable propaganda in the popular media have not managed to achieve unity between the different nations of the Gulf, nor have they crystallized the identity of a unified Gulf, or a comprehensive political and military strategy.

Loosening up border controls has meant that most foreign passport holders and some Arab nationals can walk into most Gulf countries without a visa. That is to be applauded and is a civilized achievement.

Mr. Bin Alawi's rejection of the union is based on fears that it would stoke sectarian conflict throughout the region. Oman has many economic ties with Iran and, with it, controls the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz.

America's  decision to coexist with Iran as a major regional power, and abandon plans topple the Syrian regime in order to focus on the escalating threat of jihadist fundamentalist – particularly in regard to Israel's security – comes as a major jolt to the Gulf Arabs.

It is imperative for the Gulf states to comprehensively review their political, social, cultural and military agendas; what was fit a hundred years ago does not fit today.

The Gulf states have managed to evade the threat of the Arab Spring revolutions largely because of the failure of post-revolutionary governments in the countries where previous regimes fell. These have not been able to come up with an alternative, workable, model. The Arab revolutions have also fallen prey to both internal and external interventions and meddling and have been, in effect, hi-jacked and derailed.

However, the source of, and impetus for, these revolutions remains the fervent desire for freedom, justice and democratic change. Aspirations which, though disappointed, are not destroyed.

Gulf citizens are slowly awakening to the fact that while their rulers control the wealth of these countries, the basis of that wealth – the countries' natural resources -  do not, in fact, belong to them. Therefore they ask for more participation and transparency. In addition, class differences are still very large in some countries – Saudi Saudi Arabia in particular – where the super-rich and extreme poverty share the same country.

This state of affairs is mirrored regionally, where some states are enjoying a financial glut (Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait ), while others ( Bahrain and Oman ) are suffering from budget deficits, high unemployment, lack of investment and declining basic services. It is impossible for there to be stability at both the top and the bottom under these circumstances.

Nor can the Gulf states live in isolation from their impoverished neighbours, an obscenely rich oasis amid an ocean of poverty and suffering composed of Jordan in the north, Yemen in the south, and Iran and Pakistan in the east, Egypt, Sudan , Eritrea and Ethiopia in the west.

There will be 'revolutions' whether in terms of internal politics, or seismic cultural change to usher in values ​​of justice, equality, peaceful coexistence, solidarity and respect for the other countries be they Gulf, Arab or foreign. The current stance of arrogance and condescension is outdated and unpalatable. A good first step forward would be to cancel the sponsorship system, and grant the stateless citizenship rights.

It might, ultimately, be a good idea to turn the GCC into a Union in the light of regional and international changes, and in the interests of maintaining a balance of power. But first, it is necessary to implant the values ​​of tolerance, coexistence and equality between the sons of the GCC countries first, and the Arab and Islamic countries second.

It is unfortunate that many of those who criticize the Gulf States, and Saudi Arabia in particular, seem to be motivated by spite and envy and ignore their many achievements in, for example, scientific and economic terms.

Personally, I was shocked when I read and followed some of the campaigns of defamation and insults suffered by the Lebanese singer Ragheb Alama on social media platforms simply because he expressed his admiration for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai. There are some who say he is hoping for money, that he wants to get a new car, and even that he wants to adopt UAE nationality. They all forget that the man is already a wealthy artist, who has amassed a fortune from his voice, and earns millions for his concerts and television appearances. I have never met Ragheb Alama in my life, nor are we in any way related. It is only that the truth must be told. The Gulf states and their people should not be put in an uncomfortable position among their Arab brothers.

The Gulf governments do not want us , or anyone else , to interfere in their affairs , and this is their right, but they interfere with money and weapons in the affairs of many Arab countries. They have intervened in Syria, Iraq , Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan and Algeria. Fighters from the Gulf are fighting in Syria, Yemen and Iraq; aircraft and troops from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE fought in Libya and helped topple the system, along with aircraft and ships of NATO.  Gulf money is at war in Egypt as well: Qatar back the Muslim Brotherhood while the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait stand in the same trench as the military regime.

It is a difficult path to critique these powerful states 'unarmed', to shed light on the negatives in order to fix them, whether through an article or a television interview. Most other Arab media platforms do not dare take up this task and surrender out of fear or for the promise of a 'sponsor'.

 We want our brothers in the Gulf states to return to the Arab awakening, build  on their own strength, both economic and military, and align themselves with our common causes, with Palestine at the top of the agenda. They could harness their enormous financial resources to back an integrated Arab renaissance, the most effective option to restore the status of the Arabs among the Iranians, Turks, Israelis and Indians.

We already know the reaction this article will receive; it is as predictable as the results of yesterday's GCC summit in Kuwait. What is difficult to predict is, if the situation continues unchecked, what will happen to the GCC itself. It had the chance to be a major regional influence but now the signs of aging have struck at its facade, and cracks are deepening within the entire construct.

 

GCC Under Pressure As Oman Opposes Union

By Abdel Bari Atwan

The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) has long been beset by problems. On Saturday, however, it received a serious knock to its very infrastructure when Oman's Foreign Minister Yousef Bin Alawi told a high-level Manama Dialogue meeting that Muscat opposed the planned political union would withdraw from GCC if this was implemented.

Bin Alawi also complained that the Gulf was awash with weapons, indicating a likely alliance in a new aggression against Iran which, he emphasized, Oman would not support. Oman has many economic ties with Iran and, with it, controls the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz.

Oman's stance was not an emotional, knee-jerk reaction, this is not the nature of the Gulf regimes in general. Bin Alawi delivered his bombshell in the presence of not only most of the Arab Foreign Ministers, but Chuck Hagel US Secretary of Defence, and many other international and European Ministers or their deputies.

Timing-wise, it came just days after Iran's nuclear agreement with the 5+1 major powers in Geneva. Paradoxically, the Sultanate of Oman had hosted secret negotiations between the Americans and Iranians without the knowledge or consent of its fellow GCC states, stage, including Saudi Arabia.

The Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, will host the annual GCC Summit on Tuesday and will no doubt be worried by this development. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are already at odds over Egypt (the former supported President Morsi and the Moslem Brotherhood, the latter, the military junta) and the prospects for peace and unity look decidedly shaky.

 Bin Alwai's bombshell continues to draw reactions, not only in the form of Twitter and Facebook articles and exchanges supporting or opposing the Omani position. It also provoked a scramble of diplomatic activity among the Gulf countries who were trying to contain the crisis as soon as possible so that differences would not go public before this week's  GCC summit.

It was not a coincidence that Bin-Alawi flew from Manama to Kuwait, which will host the GCC summit tomorrow, Tuesday (10 December), and immediately met with his Kuwaiti counterpart. Kuwait sees itself as the Gulf's own 'dove of peace' these days.

Seeking to uncover  the secrets behind this sudden shift in the Omani position, a Gulf source told Ra'y al-Yawm that Muscat had decided to cool its relations
with the GCC ever since Saudi Arabia rejected a proposal by Sultan Qabus two
years before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait to establish a 100,000-strong joint forces Gulf army under the name 'Peninsula Shield' as a first step to defend the
member states in case they came under any aggression.

The source said the people and government of Oman felt insulted when they
were accused of trying to find jobs for their people as soldiers in this army as
a result of high unemployment levels among Omani youths. The source added that even if the accusation was true, it should not have been made. What is
wrong with recruiting some Omanis in this Gulf army? Don't the peoples of
the Gulf make one people? Shouldn't the differences among the Saudis, the
Omanis, the Kuwaitis, the Bahrainis, the Qataris, and the Emiratis
disappear regardless of the equations of poverty and wealth!

A day after Bin-Alawi's bombshell, the main headline of a Saudi newspaper yesterday accused Oman and Iran of working to sabotage
and torpedo the GCC. The London-based Al-Hayat said concern
prevailed at the Manama Dialogue over increasing signs that Iran
and Oman would like to dismantle the GCC, especially since the two
countries together are key controllers of the strategic Strait of
Hormuz.

An Omani source told Ra'y al-Yawm that the Omani leadership is fed up with the hypocrisy of its fellow Gulf countries, the stagnation of the GCC, and the absence of real cooperation among the member states. The source said that three years ago these countries allocated $10bn to support Oman and enable them to create jobs for the unemployed, and another $10bn to support Bahrain against the winds of the Arab Spring revolutions. He added that to date, Oman has not received one dollar from Saudi Arabia. The only country that partially honoured the commitment was Kuwait, which paid an 'extremely small' amount.

 We are embarrassed to mention this at a time when we see billions
flowing in every direction.

The source also told us that Oman is frustrated with the inspections and obstructions that Omani trucks transporting Omani products to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states via the Saudi border crossing are subjected to, which often results in the products being spoiled, especially
fish. This conflicts with the concept of 'cooperation' and 'brotherhood' whihc is meant to underpin the GCC.

The line of trucks at the Saudi border crossings sometimes extends tens of kilometres. Other Gulf states complain of similar treatment.

On social media platforms, many Omanis are complaining that Saudi Arabia wants to impose its hegemony on its neighbours. But Saudi Twitter activists denounced the Omani position and called for establishing the proposed Gulf union without Oman's participation.

Prince Turki al-Faysal, former Saudi intelligence chief, who participated in Manama Debate, said: 'Oman has the right to express its views, but I do not think this will prevent the establishment of the union.' One can infer that his
country will go ahead with its plan without Oman, which would further
escalate the tension.

Farewell Nelson Mandela, Our Resistance Role Model

 

Nelson Mandela

Mandela’s struggle has shown that the South African example can be a template for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, except that international political will is lacking

    • By Abdel Bari Atwan | Special to Gulf News

    • Published: 20:00 December 6, 2013

    • Gulf News

It was with a heavy heart that I learned of Nelson Mandela’s death last night. His patience, dignity, and unwavering smile, his moral – and political – triumph over the most brutally oppressive regime was a constant reminder of the human soul’s indomitable drive for justice and freedom.

In 1991, just one year after his release from prison, I was part of a Palestinian delegation that went to meet Nelson Mandela and his then wife, Winnie, when they came to London.

Our purpose was simply to show Mandela our appreciation for his years of struggle, our respect for his endurance, and our joy that the African National Congress (ANC) had prevailed over the apartheid regime.

It was quite overwhelming, and not a little surreal, when South Africa’s resistance hero entered the restaurant in a Mayfair hotel to join us for afternoon tea.I was amazed by how humble and modest Mandela was, and I was charmed by his warmth.It was poignant, too, that he was sitting with us, Palestinians, a people still under the heel of a brutish, cruel and racist regime. He told us that he believed an independent Palestinian state would be established, and “soon”. Sadly that has not yet come to pass. Mandela had long identified the ANC’s struggle with that of the Palestinians and was close to Yasser Arafat. The latter once confided to me that he had secretly helped Oliver Tambo (Mandela’s deputy) receive medical treatment in London during the 1980s. Mandela returned the favour when, as newly elected president, he funded the PLO Embassy in Johannesburg at a time when Arafat’s coffers were empty.


In 1997, having been president for three years, Mandela placed our cause at the top of his agenda and announced to the world: “Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” He told John Pilger that, “Justice for Palestine is the greatest moral issue of our time” and highlighted the similarities between the former apartheid regime in South Africa and that operated by the Israelis.

When Mandela’s Jewish ANC colleague, Denis Goldberg, fled the Afrikaner regime’s clutches after 22 years in prison, he briefly sought refuge in Israel. Traumatised by “the many similarities between the oppression of Blacks in South Africa and that of the Palestinians in Israel”, he stayed just a few months before relocating to London.

Effectively concealed from much of the international community by a combination of Israeli hasbara [media manipulation] and American diplomatic muscle, this equation is now firmly embedded in the South African political vocabulary. The editor-in-chief of the (South African) Sunday Times, Mondli Makhanya, said of a trip to Israel: “Nothing can prepare you for the evil we have seen here…the level of apartheid, the racism and the brutality are worse than the worst period of [South African] apartheid…I do not think the Israelis see the Palestinians as human beings at all.”

Under Mandela’s presidency, Tshwane (Pretoria) completely severed all diplomatic and economic ties with Israel.

This African leader has often trodden where Arab counterparts lacked the courage to venture.

In 1997, when Muammar Gadaffi’s Libya was under strict sanctions and an air embargo, Mandela flew by helicopter to the border town of Ras Adjir, travelling thence by road to visit his “dear brother leader”, Gadaffi, who had always been among his most stalwart supporters.

Most outspoken critic

Mandela also intervened on Lockerbie, urging the UK government to allow two Libyan nationals accused of the Lockerbie bombing to be tried in a neutral country. Amazingly, Mandela had himself been accused of the 1988 bombing by then South African president Pik Botha…despite the fact that he was under house arrest at the time.Mandela was a most outspoken critic of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, stating unequivocally that “all Bush wants is Iraqi oil”. He put in a furious telephone call to number 10 Downing Street in an attempt to dissuade Tony Blair from following the Pentagon’s lead.

Just as Nelson Mandela became the role model for resistance, he produced, too, a new blueprint for statesmanship. How many world leaders have demonstrated such courage, integrity, genuine care for the people and absence of self-interest?

How unlike the many Presidents we have witnessed, laughably clinging to power at any cost, was his quiet announcement that he was stepping down in 1999.

How much we can learn from his political example, too. He showed that resistance and tolerance can walk hand in hand. In little more than a decade, South Africa has been transformed into a state where former enemies and diverse peoples live peaceably side by side.

The innovative Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established a year into Mandela’s term to “Enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation.”

The South African example could be a template for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, except that international political will is lacking. As Mandela put it: “The UN took a strong stand against apartheid, and over the years an international consensus was built which helped bring to an end this iniquitous system.” That consensus has yet to be reached over Palestine.

Mandela will remain in the Palestinians’ hearts and memories, and in those of all oppressed people, as a hero and a standard-bearer.

In this era of Arab revolutions, and as the Palestinian struggle enters its 65th year, we recall Mandela’s words on his release in 1990: “Our march to Freedom is irreversible. We must not allow fear to stand in our way.”

Abdel Bari Atwan is the former editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. His latest book is After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation.

Pragmatic Erdogan Makes a U-Turn

Discovering at the eleventh hour that Turkey was about to be marginalised over Geneva II and regional diplomacy in general, the prime minister has thrown himself whole-heartedly into the thick of it

    • By Abdel Bari Atwan | Special to Gulf News

    • Published: 20:00 December 2, 2013
    • Gulf News


  • Image Credit:

  •  

What a difference 24 months can make. In November 2011, Tehran was fuming over Turkey’s agreement to host a Nato missile shield designed to protect Israel from retaliation if it attacked Iran. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s head of aerospace vowed that any foreign attack would see Iran strike Turkey.

In October 2012, Turkish fighter jets intercepted a Syrian passenger plane suspected of carrying weapons for the Bashar Al Assad regime, as it flew from Moscow to Damascus. Although the plane was subsequently allowed to continue its journey, the incident greatly angered the Russian federation.

Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Turkey has been the most outspoken and pro-active supporter of the opposition, driving an even bigger wedge between Shiite allies Tehran and Damascus and Sunni Ankara.

Last week, however, Turkey appeared to look around at the rapidly changing regional scenario and begin a determined diplomatic U-turn.

 

First, a top-level Turkish delegation — comprising Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Energy Minister Taner Yildiz — arrived in Russia for an official two-day state visit and a meeting of the Turkish-Russian high-level cooperation council. Erdogan asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to organise a seat on the Shanghai Cooperation Council — a snub to the European Union which has littered Turkey’s accession to its ranks with obstacles. On Syria, Putin boasted of Russia’s role in ‘persuading the regime’ to attend the January 22 Geneva II peace conference and asked Turkey to convince the opposition to do likewise. Markedly absent was Turkey’s former insistence that Al Assad’s departure was a nonnegotiable precondition for the talks, although Erdogan suggested that the conference might “buy time” for the regime.

Last Wednesday, Davutoglu went to Tehran to meet his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. It was all-smiles and handshakes as the two men announced that Iran and Turkey would “cooperate to defuse the crisis and stop the bloodshed in Syria”. In a major breakthrough, they jointly called for a ceasefire ahead of Geneva II and pledged that “both sides will work … to encourage the opposing sides in Syria to agree”. Davutoglu was also granted a tete-a-tete with the new Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, who announced his intention to visit Ankara in January.

Clearly, all of the above represent a major change of attitude in Ankara.

Erdogan’s position on Syria initially afforded him many powerful allies, but one by one, they have dropped off. The US and Europe have stepped back from the frontline to reconsider their strategy and loyalties — Washington’s shock rapprochement with Tehran, in particular, reset the whole region’s political paradigm. In addition, Erdogan’s support for deposed president Mohammad Mursi in Egypt has alienated the Gulf states — whose investments helped Turkey become the regional economic miracle — and led to Cairo’s military junta expelling the Turkish ambassador.

Other developments have also pushed Erdogan on the back foot:

First, the de facto liberation of Syria’s Kurdish regions, which Ankara sees as a threat to its own national integrity and security. Eighteen million of the region’s 38 million Kurds live in Turkish territory. Ankara views the independence movement, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), as “terrorist” and its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, is currently languishing in a Turkish jail.

Second, the Barack Obama administration’s surprise bilateral agreement with Moscow on Syrian chemical weapons disarmament, which put a halt to the military strike everyone believed was imminent. Coupled with Washington’s volte face on Iran, it is now clear that Obama favours political, rather than military, solutions in both theatres.

Third, Turkey’s internal situation is experiencing some turbulence: The Alevi minority, a Shiite sect with links to Al Assad’s Alawite sect, has been taking to the streets in the thousands following the death, in police custody, of one of their members, Ahmet Atakan. Protests over environmental issues too have become a focal point for opposition groups in Turkey.

Fourth, jihadist groups have been able to recruit Turkish youths to fight in their ranks in Syria. Turkish intelligence puts the number of Turks currently fighting with Al Qaida affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Shams (ISIS) and Jabhat Al Nusra at around 500. A ‘blowback’ — when radicalised youths return home after jihad — is of concern to all governments.

It is not surprising, then, that Ankara has been casting around for new alliances and greater security. Apart from visits to Iran and Russia, Turkey has signed new arms deals with China and instigated rapprochement with Iraq, which Davutoglu visited two weeks ago.

Turkey’s A-list Russian charm offensive testifies to Moscow’s upward trajectory on the international stage, largely due to its diplomatic triumphs on Syria. Erdogan arrived in St Petersburg a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left Moscow, having unsuccessfully tried to disrupt last week’s historic agreement between Iran and the 5+1 group of powers (US, Britain, France, Russia, China + Germany).

Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar Bin Sultan has also called on Putin in recent months and it appears to be the season of pilgrimage to the Kremlin by Washington’s veteran allies who suddenly find themselves alone.

Erdogan is a pragmatic leader, who is prepared to change course when circumstances and national interests so dictate. Discovering at the eleventh hour that Turkey was about to be marginalised over Geneva II and regional diplomacy in general, Erdogan has thrown himself whole-heartedly into the thick of it. We would not be surprised if the coming days or weeks see Davutoglu packing his suitcase once more and heading for Damascus to meet Al Assad.

Abdel Bari Atwan is the former editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. His latest book is After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation.

Arab League Should Share Blame For Syria Crisis

Abdel Bari Atwan

Finally waking up from its coma, the Arabic League has decided to invite the Foreign Ministers of member countries to an emergency summit to discuss the Syrian crisis.

This call to action followed a meeting between UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and  Ahmed Ben Hilli, Deputy Secretary General of the Arab League about the forthcoming Geneva 2 conference.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal refused to give his speech the United Nations General Assembly earlier this month, and rejected a two-year rolling membership of the Security Council on behalf of his country in protest, as he said, at the UN's failure to support the Syrian people, solve the Palestinian issue and rid the region of weapons of mass destruction.

Will Prince Al-Faisal, adopt the same stance and boycott the Arabic League Foreign Ministers' meeting next Sunday? The Arab League has failed as much – if not more – in all these respects.

We could argue that the Arabic League's failures are more serious than those of their international counterparts, because they represent the Arabic States and their Governments, a deeper and longer-standing bond than that with the United Nations.

We do not believe that Prince Saud Al-Faisal will boycott the meeting, nor will any other Arab Foreign Minister, even though the time is surely right to conduct a comprehensive review of the League's policies and positions which have become a burden to the entire Arabic people.

We will not address the Arab League's failures with regard to the Palestinian issue because we do not wish to repeat ourselves. What we will consider, however, is the long backlog of shameful actions and attitudes it has accumulated with regard to the Syrian crisis. These can be summarized by the following points:

First: Just a few months after the start of the crisis in 2011, the League decided to suspend Syria's membership and imposed an economic and political blockade, with Tunisia, Egypt and the Gulf States closing their embassies in Damascus and expelling Syrian ambassadors from their capitals. These actions immediately conferred legitimacy upon the opposition as representative of the people of Syria in their view.

Two years later, we have a very different scenario with Uncle Sam himself negotiating with the Assad regime, begging it to attend Geneva 2 and inviting its main ally (and America's erstwhile regional nemesis) Iran to join in too.

Not only that, on September 30th we witnessed Assad's foreign Minister, Walid Al-Moualem, ascend the rostrum of the UN General Assembly and deliver one of the most talked-about speeches delivered at the session. Moualem reminded the UN of the legitimate rights of the Palestinians and criticized it for not having implemented the zone-free of weapons of mass destruction due to be put in place in 2012 and impeded, he said, by the US and Israel.

Second: All the Arab League countries were betting on the collapse of the Assad regime within a few weeks or months; the rebellion is nearly three years old now and Assad's days no longer seem numbered. In addition, he is gradually breaking the diplomatic and media blockade the international community imposed upon him.

Third: The League decided to back a military solution to the crisis and approved the provision of modern weapons to the opposition to accelerate the fall of the regime. This directly contributed to the militarization of the struggle, and paved the way for the entry of jihadist groups to battle fields. Now that the jihadi presence is so dominant, everyone is panicking and Mr. Brahimi is racing round trying to bring all sides together in search of a political solution.

Fourth: Certain countries believed that they could influence the UN Security Council to back a military intervention to overthrow the Assad regime, just as it did in regard to Libya. A united front by Russia (which refused to be bribed with the offer of arms deals and billions of dollars worth of investment) and China who both wield vetoes prevented any such developments and now the UN is firmly behind Syrian chemical weapons disarmament and a negotiated settlement.

Fifth: The American administration had previously gone along with the regional policies of the oil-rich Gulf countries; it was a major blow to the latter when they learned that the Obama administration had unexpectedly begun process of rapprochement with Iran – their major regional rival – and had agreed with Russia to offer the Syrian regime a way out from an imminent US strike by implementing chemical weapons disarmament. Ironically, these governments only learned of these developments via on television news because they had been neither consulted nor informed by America.

Sixth: In April, UN-Arab League peace envoy Brahimi decided to drop the dual role and simply operate under the UN banner. He said the Arab League's determination to back the opposition at all costs undermined his role as a neutral negotiator. Brahimi also snubbed the Arab League when he invited Tehran to participate in the Geneva 2 – an invitation that has not been extended to any League members.

At their meeting on Sunday, the Arab League's Foreign Ministers should admit that their many failures are shameful; they should acknowledge their errors and their poor understanding and analysis of the situation in Syria and elsewhere. They have to stop selling their illusion to the Syrian people, providing cover for the slaughter of more than 200,000 of its citizens through ongoing acts of political and media disinformation by their Governments.

As they meet, they should be aware of the anger of the Syrian people, and other Arabic peoples, that they have allowed the ship wreck of a great country, sinking her with their plots in seas of blood, shattered on the rocks of sectarianism, ethic strife and all out civil war.

Arab Foreign Ministers, or those who have been implicated in the crisis, are war criminals and must be held accountable on an equal footing with the Syrian regime; the repercussions of their unwise interventions and their failure to pursue justice and peace are as criminal as the actions of the regime itself.

Why Are Arab Leaders Silent on US Wiretap Scandal?

Abdel Bari Atwan

 German Chancellor Angela Merkel is known for her cool nerves, restraint and muted emotions but even she was visibly rattled when it was revealed that US National Security Agency (NSA) had been spying on her and recording her mobile calls, emails and text messages. She immediately contacted President Obama administration demanding clarification and, in a 20 minute telephone conversation, made her displeasure clear. The American ambassador in Berlin was called to account by the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle.

 Ms. Merkel had even greater cause for anger when the magazine Der Spiegel and other media outlets confirmed claims by Edward Snowden – currently a refugee in Russia – that the NSA had also tapped the phones of at least 35 world leaders and spied on millions of digital communications between high profile European citizens.

 French President Francois Hollande also called Obama over wire tapping allegations of French leaders – including himself and foreign minister Laurent Fabius -.and citizens.

 In her first public comment on the scandal Merkel made it clear that 'Wiretapping among friends is not on at all.'

 Every day brings news of another scandalized European leader making an angry phone call to the White House but oddly enough we did not hear that any Arab leaders are among these high level protestors. Yet it is certain that they are among the 35 world leaders whose phones – and those of their sons and wives – are tapped and who are likely spied upon by cameras from all angles and positions, both in their private mansions and hotels suites during visits to America or other western countries.

 The US Administration has not denied the espionage, and has not apologized. It has only made promises that its security agencies will keep the balance between security considerations and privacy, affirming that spying is normal.

And what's more provocative, the leader of the free world has sent personnel in to many countries around the world, to change their surveillance and policing systems in flagrant violation of the sovereignty of these friendly States, under the banner of the war on terror.

It isn't at all clear how spying on Angela Merkel – one of America's closest allies in the war on terror – can possibly serve American interests in this regard. Unless Ms Merkel is in fact the real leader of al-Qaeda and Francois Hollande her deputy, like Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri!

America, whatever its leader, white or black, has become a State that does not respect its friends or their sovereignty. It has killed about 4,000 Pakistani nationals with drones even though the Pakistanis were meant to be another ally in the war on terror, at home and in neighbouring Pakistan.

 The US Administration has been challenged by its strategic ally, Saudi Arabia, which fought all its wars against terrorism in Afghanistan, toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and presented a peace initiative to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Saudis were stabbed in the back when Obama opened a dialogue with Iran without informing them, and having sold them more than 100 billion dollars to buy weapons in preparation for supporting a US-led war with Iran.

It is not possible to ignore US perfidy against Colonel Gadhafi who agreed to pay three billion dollars in compensation for families of victims of the Lockerbie crime, and agreed to nuclear and chemical disarmament, leaving his regime helpless when the US later intervened militarily to topple him in 2011.

 The list of American treachery is long but the Arab world largely continues to trust it and does its bidding without proper thought or consideration.

 We honour and respect  Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff who called off her planned visit to the United States in protest. Why can't all those male, Arab leaders behave in a similarly brave and courageous manner?

We anticipate specific revelations concerning surveillance of Arab leaders, although wire-tapping and spying may not have been considered necessary in most cases because their secrets are well known and often repeated.

 In conclusion we want to say that the very real threat to homeland security from actual jihadi groups has increased exponentially with the burgeoning, off-target, security measures the US has deployed at a cost of many billions of dollars of its citizens taxes, its own reputation, and the friendship and trust of its allies round the world.

 

 

 

Lamenting the Death of the Friends of Syria

Read more articles in English at http://www.raialyoum.com/?cat=25

Abdel Bari Atwan

On Tuesday, the foreign ministers of the remaining (down to eleven from 114) Friends of Syria nations held a meeting in London. They must have considered not only where they can go with their mission in the light of various diplomatic and military developments, but also if it is still appropriate for them to operate under their current moniker.

To explain: there are actually two international groups who call themselves friends of Syria. The first supports the Assad regime and consists of the Russian Federation, China, Iran and Hezbollah; the second supports the opposition and consists of Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

The two camps have experienced opposite fortunes. The first has grown into a cohesive and increasingly influential diplomatic force; the second has gradually weakened, losing 90 percent of its membership and all of its sense of direction.

Those who back the Assad regime seem to be in full agreement while the group which met in London was still reeling from the shock announcement by Saudi Arabia that it would not take up its two year seat on the UN security council because of its disappointment with the West in its handling of the Syria crisis.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence Chief, told the Wall Street Journal that his country wished to send a stern message to the US that its sluggishness over Syria may lead to a decline in cooperation between the two countries.

Saudi-US relations aside, the Syrian conflict is also causing rifts between Arab nations which are meant to be on the same side.  There is a semi-public war between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for example, who both support Islamist groups within the opposition which are sometimes in conflict with each other.

The Saudis and Qataris are also at odds over Egypt where the former support the military junta led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, while the state of Qatar insists on the return of President Mohammed Morsi and supports the Muslim Brotherhood.

To return to the London meeting: the aim here was to persuade the 'moderate' Syrian opposition to participate in the Geneva Conference, which offers the "best opportunities" available to it, according to UK foreign minister, William Hague, speaking during a press conference at the end of the meeting.

Hague told the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) delegation that there can be no military solution to the crisis, and that a peaceful political solution in Syria cannot be achieved without the participation of the opposition.

Our question to Mr Hague – who was one of the leading hawks when military intervention looked likely – is how he defines 'moderate' and what is he going to do about the non-moderate, radical Islamic groups which now constitute more than 80 percent of the number of fighters battling the Assad regime?

Most of these Islamic/jihadi groups have announced that they will not accept the SNC as representing their views at any peace conference. Worse still, elements among the 'moderate' Free Syria Army have also withdrawn its support from the SNC and de-recognized its legitimacy. Some have joined forces with the jihadis.

The final statement by foreign ministers attending the London meeting included the following phrase: 'President Al Jarba attended lunch and made clear, as in New York, his support. We are as clear as he is that Assad has no part in the future of Syria'.

Strange words indeed: how will there be a political solution if a pre-condition is the departure of President Al-Assad? And who has crowned Ahmad al-Jarba with the Presidential title without elections?

President Al-Assad has made it clear in recent interviews that he will run in next year's presidential election.

Assad's position has been completely transformed – more by unintended consequences of foreign and opposition developments than by his own efforts. However, he is canny enough to see that foreign priorities on the ground in Syria have changed and that they now share an understanding of the need to counter the growing strength of jihadis among the opposition. Here, Assad and the US itself are on the same page and will likely be forced to co-operate on this issue.

President Al-Assad has the satisfaction of knowing that his regime can be represented at Geneva 2 while neither the Friends of Syria nor the opposition itself know who will represent the other side. This is the predicament for the West and all who seek an end to the bloodshed in Syria.

 In effect, we are back to square one… meanwhile the 'Friends of Syria' are rapidly being re-branded 'the London 11' in communiques emanating from the British Foreign and Commonwealth OfficeLamenting

Saudi Arabia: The Real Reason For Refusing UN Seat

Abdel Bari Atwan

Saudi Arabia has turned overnight into a State of political shocks and surprises.

Last month, Prince Saud Al-Faisal refused to deliver a scheduled speech at the UN General Assembly.

Now, the Saudi Foreign Ministry has announced that the country will not be taking up its place as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. It was the first time that Saudi Arabia had been elected to the two-year rotating membership which most countries use to highlight issues of particular concern to them and to influence world leaders.

The stated reason for this rejectionism is that the Saudis feel annoyed by the international community's failure to resolve the Palestinian issue, to stop the conflict in Syria, and to make the Middle East free of nuclear weapons.

The Saudi regime is famous for refraining from public displays of emotion but over the past three days we have witnessed full stops and exclamation marks painted all over their faces.

So what is going on?

Saudi Arabia's war on the United Nations represents angry letters to both the United States and Russia. The Saudis support the Syrian opposition and are furious about the chemical weapons agreement which saved President Assad from a devastating American military strike.

Equally, if not more, galling is the totally unexpected rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. The latter is Saudi Arabia's regional nemesis and they clearly believe they should have been consulted before Presidents Obama and Rouhani started chatting on the telephone.

For the Saudis this covergence of devastating news is a diplomatic earthquake.

Riyadh's justification for its rejection of the chance to shine on the international diplomatic stage is not convinving. The 'double standards' its spokesmen have accused the UN of are not new. The Palestinian issue has remained unresolved for over sixty years, and the failure to keep the region free from nuclear weapons began decades ago too.

The only file that is new is the Syrian one, and the Saudis clearly feel they are not going to get what they want in this respect which would be a security council resolution invoking chapter 7 of the charter which would endorse athe use of force against Assad.

This Saudi position would have been strong and bold, if taken three years ago, before the war in Syria erupted. If it had really sought to expose these double standards this would have been admirable and would have garnered the regim much respect in  Arabic and Islamic circles.

The fact that it came as a reaction to America's failure to drop bombs on Syria and its rapprochement with Iran greatly reduces itsimpact.

The question now is will the Saudi regime continue with its mission for truth and peace?

Palestine is reeling as the Israelis continue to build more settlements and the divide between Hamas and the Ramallah Palestinian Authority (PA) appears to widen daily. What will the Saudis do about this?

Will Saudi Arabia now call on the Israelis to give up their nuclear weapons and insist on region-wide disarmament?

It will be fascinating to observe whether or not the current occupation of the highest moral ground will be a lasting phenomenon or if it is in fact the result of a fit of pique because the US did not do as Riyadh wished with regard to Syria and Iran.

Unconfirmed estimates suggest that Saudi Arabia has spent $5 billion arming and supporting the Syrian opposition, just as it supported and armed the mujaheddin in Afghanistan from which the most extremist Islamist groups subsequently emerged. The Saudis urged the militant Islamist groups in Syria to merge under the umbrella Islamic Army and would like to see its man, Ahmad al-Jarba, head of the Syrian National Coalition, replace President Assad.

We do not, then believe, that the Saudi's rejection of a role in the UN will lead to it fiercely defending the al-Aqsa mosque and campaigning against Israel settlement building.

If it did, though, it would unify and strengthen the Arabs and Muslims and a large part of the developing world.

 

Hamas: caught in the crosshairs

Besieged on all fronts and aware of his increasing isolation, Hamas leader Mesha’al has been attempting to repair the damage, but that is turning out to be an uphill task

 

  • By Abdel Bari Atwan | Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 20:00 October 18, 2013
  • Gulf News

 

  • Image Credit: Hugo A. Sanchez/©Gulf News
  •  

In February last year, Khalid Mesha’al, head of the Hamas political bureau, relocated the group’s Damascus headquarters to Qatar.

The move was an unambiguous declaration that Mesha’al no longer supported his erstwhile ally, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, who appeared to be on the brink of defeat by the opposition. By abandoning his ties with Damascus, Mesha’al also cut loose from Hezbollah and major Hamas funder and trainer Iran.

Mesha’al has now aligned Hamas with the so-called ‘Sunni Moderate’ camp — Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — which supported the Syrian opposition. He also strongly embraced former president Mohammad Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt — Hamas has long-standing historical ties with the Brotherhood, having emerged from its Palestinian branch in 1987.

Unfortunately for Mesha’al, the unpredictable tides of war and the shifting sands of politics and diplomacy have conspired to wash him ashore on an island of his own making.

First: the military coup in Egypt dealt Mesha’al a heavy blow. The junta, led in all but name by Defence Minister General Abdul Fattah Al Sissi, harbours a deep antipathy for the Brotherhood and is systematically eliminating it in Egypt.

Saudi Arabia backed the coup and shares Al Sissi’s view that Hamas is an extremist, military branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, Qatar — which supported the Mursi regime — also found itself diplomatically compromised by regime change in Cairo.

Second: Al Assad, whose demise at one point seemed inevitable, appears to have come through the bottleneck. He has washed his bloody hands, smoothed his hair, put on an immaculately tailored suit, adjusted his silk tie and presented himself to the world’s media for rehabilitation. At the same time, Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, is fronting a surprise rapprochement with the White House. Both Al Assad and the Iranian regime have adopted an unforgiving stance towards Mesha’al, whom they now accuse of treachery.

Third: The Egyptian military junta’s anti-Hamas stance has caused an economic catastrophe in Gaza. The army has destroyed around 1,200 smuggling tunnels which were a lifeline for the population, and for Hamas, which levied taxes on this clandestine industry. Telephone calls with my family in Gaza testify to increased hardship: Lack of subsidised fuel — which they used to obtain via the tunnels from Egypt — means that electricity generators cannot run and the Strip is mostly dark. My brother, a taxi driver, cannot work and my cousins, who have a small agricultural business, cannot water their fruit and crops because the pump, which extracts water from their underground well, runs on petrol too.

Hamas employs some 60,000 administrative and public sector staff which it cannot currently pay. In the past, cash to pay their $36 million (Dh132.4 million) monthly salary bill was smuggled in via the tunnels too. Unsurprisingly, the population of Gaza blames Hamas — and Mesha’al in particular — for their present suffering.

More radical young leaders

Fourth: Hamas itself is riven with power conflicts and two separate camps are emerging: One led by Mesha’al and a more hawkish one led by Mahmoud Zahar. The latter did not support Mesha’al’s move from Damascus to Doha and his camp perceives Mesha’al, ensconsed in a luxury hotel, as having forgotten Hamas’s raison d’etre: Resistance to Israel.

In addition, Hamas’s military wing, the Al Qasam brigade (responsible for most suicide bombings and firing rockets into Israel) is gaining power and influence under a new generation of more radical young leaders.

Besieged on all fronts and aware of his increasing isolation, Mesha’al has been attempting to repair the damage.

He has been engaging other Palestinian groups (such as Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) in power-sharing talks, apparently to no avail. On the eve of Eid Al Adha, Hamas Prime Minister Esmail Haniyah telephoned Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah to urge ‘national unity’ and the renewal of reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas.

Mesha’al has also sought to appease the Egyptian junta with a U-turn on his opposition to Abbas’s presidential guard being redeployed at the Raffah crossing, which is an Egyptian pre-condition for allowing it to stay open.

In an attempt to return to the Syrian/Iranian fold, a Hamas delegation was dispatched to Tehran earlier this month, headed by political bureau member Mohammad Nassar. The visitors were received warmly and the Iranians offered to pave the way for the organisation to return to its Damascus base — a suggestion that Al Assad agreed to, with the caveat that Mesha’al would not be welcome.

Attempting to explain his support for the Syrian opposition, Mesha’al told the pro-Iranian Al Mayadin satellite channel that he believed peaceful protests to achieve “reform” were acceptable, but that “all guns should be directed at Israel”.

Sadly for the Hamas leader, this provoked Al Assad to reiterate (in an interview with a Lebanese paper) that Mesha’al had stabbed him in the back and the increasingly powerful Islamic Army in Syria to announce that they knew better than “a fighter from a five-star hotel” how to liberate Al Aqsa mosque.

I would be surprised if rumours of an impending visit by Mesha’al to Tehran are true. It is more likely that Tehran did not wish to offend by an outright refusal of the suggestion.

Mesha’al is still on his desert island and no ship flying the flag of Iran or Syria or Hezbollah or Egypt or Saudi Arabia is going to rescue him.

Sources suggest that Mesha’al was ready to hand over the reins of power for some time, but Mursi and the previous Emir of Qatar persuaded him to continue.

It now seems certain that his only exit from isolation will be on board a ship flying the flag ‘resignation’.

Abdel Bari Atwan is the former editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. His latest book is After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation.

 

Westgate Attack: Al-Zawahiri’s Al-Qaeda is Hardline and Expanding

The atrocious attack by Somali al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi points to a renewed emphasis on internationalizing 'jihad', and a closer co-operation between the various 'branches' and al-Qaeda 'central' led by Ayman al-Zawahiri.

While al-Qaeda remains horizontal in structure, with its many branches and affiliates largely maintaining their autonomy, al-Zawahiri appears to have become more assertive since the Arab Spring afforded the organization so many new opportunities.

In August the CIA intercepted a conference call between Zawahiri and 22 leaders from affiliates in Africa, Middle East, Southwest and Southeast Asia – an event which occasioned the immediate closure of several US embassies around the world.

During the intercepted call, a planned attack was referred to and al-Zawahiri confirmed that a team, or teams, were already 'in place'. Whether or not this was the Westgate massacre, the call demonstrated the central involvement of al-Zawahiri in affiliated groups' planning and stategy.

The Mall atrocity bears remarkable similarities to the 2008 Mumbai attacks which were planned in Pakistan (where al-Zawahiri is based) and carried out by al-Qaeda affiliate Lashkar-e-Toiba.

During the Westgate attack, an al-Shabaab commander speaking from Somalia told al-Jazeera that the attackers were taking orders from al-Qaeda: 'they are our leaders and we are all engaged in a single conflict against the international Christian crusade'.

The re-emergence of al-Zawahiri should ring alarm bells. He was always more hardline than Osama bin Laden and it was al-Zawahiri who internationalized al-Qaeda with the 1998 'World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusader' which brought together several like-minded jihadist groups in a coalition under the al-Qaeda umbrella.

Al-Zawahiri is a highly intelligent strategist who has been carefully building on the opportunities offered by the 'Arab Spring'.

Syria's al-Nusra Front pledged their allegiance to al-Zawahiri in April this year, subsequently merging with al-Qaeda's powerful Iraqi wing, the Islamic State of Iraq. The extremists' goal here is to establish an Islamic Emirate across Iraq and Syria, consolidating strategic control over the heart of the Middle East. Jane's Defence and Security warned in their latest issue that at least half of the 100,000 rebel fighters in Syria are either members of al-Qaeda or hardline Islamic extremists and recent reports point to elements of the 'moderate' FSA crossing over to the jihadi brigades.

Al-Zawahiri has a willing accomplice in al-Shabbab's notoriously ruthless current emir Ahmed Adbi Godane (aka Mukhtar Abu al-Zubeyr).  Godane fought with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and sought a merger with the group from 2008 onwards.

Al-Shabaab was established in 2006 when US-backed Ethiopian troops swarmed into Somalia to topple the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which had ruled the country for a few short months.

Al-Shabaab was originally the youth wing of the ICU and the group quickly succeeded in gaining control over large swathes of central and southern Somalia.

The leadership was soon divided between the hardliners who wanted to join the wider, global, jihad and merge with al-Qaeda (led by Godane) and a more moderate wing, who saw their struggle as local, led by al-Afghani and Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys.

This difference in opinion was reflected in al-Qaeda central where, in 2010, Osama bin Laden cautioned against al-Shabaab officially merging with al-Qaeda telling Godane that that enemies would "escalate their anger and mobilize against you: this is what happened to the brothers in Iraq or Algeria."

Al-Zawahiri took the opposite point of view and urged bin Laden to reconsider. 'I see it to be very essential for al Qaeda to confirm and declare its linkage with its branches' he said.

When al-Shabaab announced its merger with al-Qaeda in February 2012 it was in a video featuring al-Zawahiri and Godane.

Al-Shabaab became increasingly dominated by its radical tendency and lost much of the popular support it had previously enjoyed with Taliban-style punishments, including the horrific stoning to death of a 13 year-old rape victim.

With the advent of AMISOM troops in 2010, al-Shabaab lost its Mogadishu stronghold. It also lost much of its domestic revenue with the international clamp-down on piracy which al-Shabaab had been 'taxing'.

It is in the context of these problems that the group's radical wing turned its attentions outside the country and began to internationalize its activities. The first attack outside Somalia was in 2010 when people watching the world cup in a restaurant in Kampala, Uganda, were blown up by al-Shabaab. The attack was master-minded by Godane and was in revenge for Uganda's participation in AMISOM.

Like al-Qaeda 'central', Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS, al-Shabaab has many foreign nationals in its ranks including white Westerners – Samantha Lewthwaite, widow of one of the London bombers being the most remarkable. It has actively recruited online and in the English language – a precedent set by the late Anwar al-Awlaki of AQAP.

Osama bin Laden and Awlaki both urged foreign recruits to go to the 'university' of Somalia to 'learn the ways of jihad'. Somalia's porous borders facilitate entry and departure. The ongoing violence between warlords, between insurgents and government forces provides an ideal environment for recruits to train and gain real battle experience. Al-Shabaab fighters are particularly adept and survivors of Westgate spoke of the alarming accuracy with which the attackers gunned down their victims. On Twitter, al-Shabaab bragged of the 'sang-froid' exhibited by its fighters in CCTV footage as they 'strolled around' the mall.

In June this year, Godane seized power within al-Shabaab, executing four fellow leaders, including al-Afghani. Aweys fled for his life and was arrested by government forces. US-born commander Omar Hammami tweeted 'Godane has gone mad' and 'Godane is like a dictator' shortly before he too was gunned down.

The extreme violence and ruthlessness which Zubeyr is now exhibiting is reflected in the activities of fellow African al-Qaeda affiliate Boko Haram. No wonder the US is increasingly concerned about the 'Africanization' of al-Qaeda especially as the region is awash with arms liberated from Gadaffi stockpiles during the 2011 Libyan revolution. Mali was recently overrun, and the Sahel and Sinai are no-go areas. Post-revolutionary Libya is also home to thousands of jihadis and there are active affiliates in Algeria, Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria. Kenya has its own emerging al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Hijra, which is closely linked with al-Shabaab making the country extremely vulnerable to future attacks. In July, a UN report noted that al-Hijra was developing ties with similar groups appearing in Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi.

The US has few military outposts in Africa, largely due to resistance from local governments. Djibouti, Somalia’s tiny northern neighbour, houses America’s only permanent military base, camp Lemmonier, whence drone strikes inside Yemen and Somalia are launched. The US has some facilities in Kenya which is why marines were so quickly on the scene in Westgate.

On the other side of the Gulf of Aden, Yemen is also an al-Qaeda stronghold, causing great anxiety to international shipping and the oil-producing nations of the Gulf since between them, Somalia and Yemen – both partly under the control of al-Qaeda affiliates – effectively control traffic to and from the Bab el Mandeb – the narrow (30 km) strait between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden through which more than 3.3 million barrels of oil are shipped every day en route, via the Suez Canal, to Europe and the US.

While the causus belli of the Westgate attack is Kenya's 4000 soldiers in AMISOM, it contributes to the ongoing build-up of a wider al-Qaeda 'network of panic'. This is generated by small attacks (like the slaughter of a soldier in Woolwich), attacks on iconic events and institutions (Boston Marathon) and what the groups refers to as 'spectaculars' (9/11, Mumbai 2008 and now the atrocity in Nairobi).

In 2005 I received an al-Qaeda document at my office at al-Quds al-Arabi – it was its 'strategy to 2020' and described the various stages the groups would construct on its route to 'the global caliphate'. Stage 5 sees America, the West, and their regional allies 'stretched beyond their limits' as they seek to contain wars and attacks on many fronts. 

As al-Zawahiri re-asserts his role and influence, and the new generation of al-Qaeda leaders are encouraged in brutality which would have made their predecessors pale, we are witnessing the ascension of the hardliners in a regenerated and still expanding al-Qaeda.

 

Syria: Seeking Common Ground [Gulf News]

Any settlement in Geneva, which excludes any member of Syria’s multi-faceted opposition, will likely prove worthless

  • By Abdel Bari Atwan | Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 20:00 September 21, 2013
  • Gulf News

 

  • Image Credit: ©Gulf News
  •  

Speaking to the Guardian newspaper on Friday, Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister, Qadri Jamil, suggested that the regime might call for a ceasefire at the — as yet unscheduled — Geneva 2 conference.

Jamil was recruited to the government from the ranks of the secular opposition last year in a bid to rehabilitate the image of the Bashar Al Assad regime. That Jamil was tasked with delivering this news suggests a diplomatic sub-text from the regime and reflects the new reality on the ground, where a third party to this war has emerged — the international jihadist movement.

From the outset, a major obstacle to a negotiated, political settlement in Syria has been the fragmented nature of the opposition and its consequential inability to represent itself or control events on the ground. The problem has been compounded by a summer ‘surge’ of internecine battles between the ever-growing contingent of international jihadists and their ostensible comrades-in-arms, the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

According to a report this week from Jane’s, the defence and security analysts, jihadists and hard-line Islamic extremists now account for more than 50 per cent of the 100,000 armed men involved in the Syrian resistance movement. Reporters on the ground in Syria confirm that the latest Al Qaida affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS), is rapidly emerging as the most feared, efficient and dominant player among the opposition. Now numbering around 10,000 — many of them foreigners who entered Syria via Turkey or through the porous border with Iraq — the ISIS arrived with an opportunistic strategy. In the past few months, they have seized control of the oilfields round Raqqah — which the FSA had taken in January 2013 — assassinated “traitors”, including FSA commander Kamal Hamami, and battled “apostate” FSA units for control of several towns. Last week, they overcame the ‘Northern Storm’ brigade to take Azaz, a key strategic town near the Turkish border, where they have established a Sharia court.

The civil war in Syria has produced the environment that Al Qaida thrives in — chaos and destruction. While burgeoning sectarian hatred will ensure that ISIS will continue to seek the demise of Alawites (a Shiite sub-sect), it will be a mistake to imagine that this is its only intention in Syria. The ultimate goal of ISIS is to establish an Islamic emirate in Iraq and Syria, thereby controlling the heart of the Middle East.

Jane’s analysts suggest that the armed opposition now consists of around 1,000 different, fractured — and sometimes competing — brigades.

Meanwhile, on the political and diplomatic front, the Syrian opposition, largely in exile in Istanbul, has been riven by in-fighting for three years. At the end of last year, the opposition umbrella, the Syrian National Council (SNC) enjoyed the support of 114 nations, calling themselves the ‘Friends of Syria’ and the SNC took the national seat at the Arab League summit in Doha. Just six months later, however, the number of ‘Friends’ had dropped to less than a dozen, reflecting widespread disillusionment with the ability of the SNC to form a national unity interim government or to quash the extremists. How then, in the search for peace in Syria, can the SNC alone discuss disarmament or send a representative delegation to the much talked-about Geneva 2 conference? And more importantly, how can such a team of politicians or diplomats, however well qualified, guarantee that they can control or direct actors on the ground — especially the ISIS?

Paradoxically, the secular opposition has been weakened by the Russia-US initiative.

First, militarily. The FSA will have gained some leverage, and possibly taken back some of its lost ground, under cover of US air strikes. Second, diplomatically. SNC president Ahmad Jarba told a press conference last week that Al Assad’s agreement to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was a diplomatic victory for the regime. As he put it, the deal suggested that Al Assad could continue to kill thousands of Syrians with heavy weapons, under cover of his agreement not to use chemical weapons. As a result, it is quite possible that ‘moderate’ opposition fighters, tasting humiliation, will embrace extremism and join the more ‘successful’ ISIS. Jamil’s message to the international community contains a bid, by the regime, to quash the ascendance of the extremists by tentatively holding out a (bloodied) hand of friendship to the secular opposition. The regime and the secular opposition now have common ground: ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’. This new mood for a diplomatic solution offers a window of opportunity that should not be missed. The Syrian people have surely suffered enough, but for negotiations to be realistic, the opposition has to create a united, inclusive front.

Last week, the SNC’s General Assembly acknowledged the necessity to involve all Syrian minorities in negotiations over a post-Al Assad state, which is a step in the right direction.

However, the SNC continues to exclude significant groups such as the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change Abroad, headed by Haitham Manna and, of course, the Islamists who themselves have to learn from the experiences of their confreres in Tunisia and Egypt and adapt to democratic imperatives.

A settlement in Geneva, which excludes any member of Syria’s multi-faceted opposition, will likely prove worthless. How to bring them to the table is the greatest challenge ahead.

Abdel Bari Atwan is the former editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. His latest book is After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation.

 

Hamas Facing Crisis in Gaza

We do not know whether the rocket fired from the Gaza Strip which landed in an agricultural area near the city of Ashkelon is a warning to Israel to be followed by more, or if it is a strong message to Hamas, which governs the strip, stating that the period of restraint to which the resistance factions committed has reached an end, and that a new, more radical phase of resistance will now begin.

What we do know is that Hamas is in trouble these days – politically and economically – and that their situation is increasingly difficult as the siege on the strip is tightened, largely by the Egyptian Military junta .

The Egyptian army closed the Rafah crossing completely for several days, allowing passage only for humanitarian reasons, destroying the strip's regular economy.

Egypt has also set up a buffer zone on the border with Gaza to put a stop to the smuggling of goods and people, destroying the strip's black market economy.

In addition, the Egyptian media has launched a campaign against Hamas, accusing it of supporting 'terrorism' in Sinai which has targeted Egyptian soldiers.

Hamas has made efforts to better its relationship with Egypt's military rulers.

It has asked Imams not to criticize the Egyptian regime or its leader, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi; it has stopped all demonstrations in support of the Muslim Brotherhood; it has encouraged Dr. Moussa Abu Marzouk, a leading figure in the movement, to appear on Egyptian television stations praising 'team Sisi', and the efforts of the Egyptian army to fight terrorism in the Sinai; he has also written articles in the Egyptian press, asserting that Hamas will not interfere in the internal affairs of Egypt.

All of these attempts have fallen on deaf ears. There has been no improvement in relations, and more dangerously for Hamas, a new rebel movement has emerged in the Gaza Strip similar to the Tamarod movement in Egypt. It was set up with financial help from the Egyptian army and the Gulf. The new Gazan Tamarod movement has been able to exploit the worsening situation in the strip and the suffering of its children to recruit large numbers of young people to its ranks.

There is freely available documentary evidence that the military regime in Egypt supports the overthrow of the Hamas government because it sees it as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas was supportive to President Mohamed Morsi during his tenure, which did not last more than a year before he was overthrown by the military coup led by 'team Sisi'.

The question is, who would rule Gaza if Hamas is ousted? President Mahmoud Abbas and his authority in Ramallah? Or Colonel Mohammed Dahlan, who was one of the big supporters of the Egyptian opposition and rebel movement to oust President Morsi?

Hamas is also on the verge of bankrupcy having lost  about $15 million worth of trade.

The movement's leadership committed several fatal blunders in the past two years which have led it into this dangerous impasse that it may no be able to emerge from for years to come – if it succeeds in holding on to power.

The biggest error was when it laid all its eggs all the Moslem Brotherhood's basket in Egypt. Hamas forgot that it is a resistance movement, and must remain open to everyone.

A second error was made over the Syrian crisis. Hamas stated it was morally obliged to side with the opposition given the regime's violence and murder of more than 100,000 of its sons. It is true that this is morally repugnant, but the same regime under Assad senior, committed the massacre of Hama in which 20,000 Moslem Brotherhood members and their families were slaughtered. That was in the 1980s and did not prevent Hamas then from pitching its tent in the heart of Damascus at a time when most other Arab capitals had rejected it.

As a result of its outspokeness, Hamas has severed its ties with Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, the axis that gave it arms, training and financial support to confront Israel, gaining nothing in exchange since the  Gulf Arabs are not interested and now Egypt is ruled by 'team Sisi'.

Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, is currently holed up in Doha and has not appeared on any television station, including al-Jazeera. This seems to me a political and strategic miscalculation.

Hamas needs to launch an in-depth critical review of its policies and leadership.

The sons of Gaza cannot endure the current situation for much longer, where there is no reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, no resistance, no money and no friends.

 

Syria: Who Represents The Opposition Now?

The most recent edition of Jane's Defence and Security magazine reveals that at least half of the estimated 100,000 fighters battling the Assad regime in Syria are either Salafi jihadis or hard-line Islamists. How, then, can the Syrian National Council (SNC) claim that it is the sole, legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition?

Yesterday, the SNC's General Assembly in Istanbul ended with an announcement that the group had signed an agreement with the Kurdish national Council (KNC) to include more of Syria's Kurdish minority in the leadership of the umbrella coalition.

The two groups also discussed autonomy for the Kurdish population in  Northern Syria and the possibility of changing the name of the country from the 'Syrian Arab Republic' to the more inclusive 'Syrian Republic'.

Interestingly, the Kurds in Iraq only established full autonomy after Saddam Hussein had been ousted by the US invasion; the promise of that autonomy ensured Kurdish support for the allies and forced the two previously warring groups (the KDP and PUK) to join forces against Saddam.

This essentially sectarian concept was urged and encourage in Iraq by Paul Bremer, the first Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority of Iraq, and  envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi.

Syria is for all the Syrians in terms of equality and the expectation of justice and the Kurds are an integral part of Syria demographically and geographically. We must disagree, however, that the SNC is in a position to sign agreements on behalf of the Syrian opposition, especially when the agreement in question has strategic and political implications which could change the course of Syria's future and even  see the nation dismantled or divided according to ethnic or sectarian factors.

Nor does the Kurdish National Council represent all the Kurds in Syria; it does not include the most powerful group, the Democratic Party Union, which controls many towns and villages in the Kurdish region of Syria.

Neither of these bodies should be assuming authority to bring about constitutional changes which deal with the composition and identity of the state. Such sensitive matters should be left to an elected parliament and its legal experts. We have to wait until there is national reconciliation and free and fair elections determine the establlishment of a civil democratic state.

Six months ago, the SNC enjoyed the support of more than 150 nations who were members of the friends of Syria. The SNC represented its country at the Arab summit in Doha then, but now the picture has completely changed. The coalition no longer has even a quarter of this support, even from its American and Western allies who have lost faith in it. This explains their obvious  hesitation in supplying the FSA with weapons which they now fear will fall into hands of jihadi groups.

I wasn't surprised by the Jane's report which also identified over 1000 brigades among which the fighters are distributed, half of them Islamist or jihadi and claimed that 10,000 fighters are specifically associated with al-Qa'ida through membership of al-Nusra or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

These facts on the ground will make the representation of the Syrian opposition at the coming Geneva 2 conference extremely difficult and problematic. Certainly the jihadi groups will not be invited to Geneva for the time being at least. But it is not only extremists who are excluded from representation, groups like the National Co-ordination Body for Democratic Change Abroad, headed by Haitham Manna are not under the SNC coalition umbrella.

The Taliban was accused of being a terror group but, given that it controls 2/3 of Afghanistan, the US has already established the diplomatic infrastructure required to start negotiating with them. And Israel (many of whose leaders have their roots in terror groups such as Haganna and Irgun)  talks to PLO.

Any settlement in Geneva which is not approved by Syria's numerous, excluded groups and individuals will likely prove worthless.

The Russian-American agreement which was recently reached in Geneva to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons capability did not mention the future status of Bashar al-Assad; it did not question his legitimacy and did not talk about his departure.

It was noticeable, too, that the Syrian opposition was completely excluded from this agreement.

All of this suggests, to me at least, that the West no longer absolutely favours regime change – as it did even six months ago.

Assad's chemical weapons will be removed and destroyed – either partly, or fully, but it seems his regime will stay at least until the elections in the middle of next year.

It will be whoever wins the decisive hour on the ground, whether he stands with the regime or against it, that will draw the face of the new Syria.

We have mentioned Iraq already, but the Libyan experience also deserves to be studied carefully by the regime and the opposition to draw lessons from it.

Where is Colonel Gadaffi now? Where is Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the leader of the Libyan National Council, where is Mahmoud Jabril, where is Abdel Rahman Shalqan.

And most importantly, where is Libya and what does it look like these day?

Look at ‘Liberated’ Libya and Despair

Welcome to the new Libya, a country 'liberated' by NATO which now finds itself without the oil revenues which could make it rich, with no security, no stability and assassinations and corruption at unprecendented levels.

Last Friday, the Economist magazine published a report about the implosion of Libya. My attention was caught by the pictures that illustrated the piece – particularly one of some graffitti on the wall of a sea front cafe in the capital Tripoli. 'The only way to Heaven is the way to the airport' it read.

The joke is indicative of the troubled state of Libya nowadays following 'liberation' by NATO warplanes in the sky and the revolution on the ground which toppled the dictatorial regime of Muammar al-Ghadaffi.

Recently I have met many peope who are visiting London from Libya and they tell stories of life there which are hard to believe.

The capital Tripoli had no water or electricity for a whole week.

The armed militia dominate and rule the streets in the absence of a workable government, a national security establishment and basic municipal services.

Onoud Zanoussi, the 18 year-old daughter of Abdullah Zanoussi, the former chief of Ghadaffi's security establishment, was kidnapped on her release from prison following seven months behind bars accused of entering her country illegally. She was abducted in front of the prison gates and the abductor was one of the guards!

Two years ago, the British and French business community sharpened their teeth and rubbed their hands with glee in anticipation of their share of Libyan reconstruction. Now there isn't a single foreign businessman in Tripoli, all of them ran for their lives after the assasssination of the American Ambassador and attacks on several foreign Embassies and Consulates.

During the NATO bombardment, news from Libya dominated the front pages and was the first news item on every Western and Arabic television station. There was 24-hour coverage about the Libyan Liberation miracle and the great victory achieved by NATO and the revolutionaries. Nowadays it is very rare to find a Western reporter there and even more rare to read a decent report about Libya and what is really going on there.

Oil was the main objective and the real reason for the NATO intervention; but oil producation has all but ceased due to a strike by security guards on the oil fields and export terminal. The ostensible reason for this strike is the demand for a pay rise but there is another, equally powerful, motive – they are protesting the demands of various separatist movements who are calling for self-rule for oil-rich Barca (Cyrenaica) with its capital in Benghazi. Most of Libya's oil reserves are situated here.

Rather than the local or national government, a militia is in control of most of the oil fields and the export terminal; it has started to sell huge amounts of oil on the black market and is trying to expand these activities leading Ali Zidan, the Prime Minister, to threaten to bomb any unauthorized oil tanker going anywhere near these sites.

The irony is that the same thing is happening now in Eastern Syria where the militia and local tribes are in control of the oil fields in Deir Al-Zour, refining the oil themselves by hand and selling it on illegally. The same thing is still happening in the south of Iraq.

Iraq and Libya, of course, have 'benefitted' from Western intervention and Britain and France have been proud to repeat what the mother of the West (the US) used to say about Iraq; first in Libya and now – of negotiations fail – in Syria. That is: intervention will bestow great sophistication on the affected country which will immediately become a model of prosperity and stability and lead the way for other Arab countries, which are ruled by dictators, to invite and welcome military intervention. In fact, this model has produced the worst kind of anarchy, failed security, political collapse and disintegration of the state.

Chaos rules in Libya. The assassination of politicians and journalists has become normal news in today's Libya to the extent that Colonel Yussef Ali al-Asseifar – who was charged with investigating a rash of assassinations and arresting the people behind it – was himself assasinated on the 29 August when men from an unidentified group put a bomb under his car.

On the anniversary of 9/11 last week, a huge bomb ripped through the Foreign Ministry building in Benghazi.

Human Rights Watch has highlighted another atrocity in Tripoli on August 26, 2013, at the Main Corrections and Rehabilitation Institution, known by its former name al-Roueimy, where around 500 detainees, including five women, were being held. The prisoners were on hunger strike to protest the fact that were detained without charge and in the absence of a fair trial. Unable to produce its own security detail, the government called in the Supreme Security Committee – composed of former anti-Gadaffi militiamen – to put down the uprising. Militia forces stormed the prison and shot the prisoners with live ammunition, wounding 19 people.

The Prime Minister of Libya – Awadh al-Barassi resigned on 4 August and was replaced by Ali Zeidan. Then, on 18 August, the interior minister, Mohammed al-Sheikh, resigned after only three months in post. He cited lack of support from Ali Zeidan and the government's failure to deal with widespread unrest and violence, to gain the people's trust, or to adequately fund state agencies to provide the most basic services.

Libya is simply disintegrating along tribal and geographical fault lines. Most of its people are in state of fury, including the Berbers in the south, and national reconciliation is a distant prospect.

Popular frustration is at its peak; yet when demonstrators took to the streets outside the barracks of the powerful 'Libyan Shield Brigade' to protest the unwarranted power of the militia, 31 people of their number were shot dead. The militia act completely outside the law. 

Suleiman Kjam, a member of the parliamentarian committee for Energy, told a  Bloomsberg reporter that the government is now spending its financial reserves after the production of oil dropped from 1.4 million barrels per day earlier this year to less than 160,000 bpd. He warned that if this situation continues, in the next few months, the government will not be able to pay the salaries of its employees.

The Gadaffi regime – and we say this for the millionth time – was an opressive dictatorship but Libya nowadays, with corruption at it peak and security non-existent, is difficult to understand or accept. Especially when we remember that Libya was liberated by the most sophisticated and advanced countries on the planet, according to Western criteria.

Mr Mohammad Abdel Azziz, the Libyan foreign minister, surprised many in the West and Arab world alike on 4 September when he objected to imminent US air strikes on Syria at a special meeting of the Arab League he was chairing to discuss possible intervention.

Maybe Mr Abdel Azziz, like many of his Libyan people, has formed his opinions as a result of the experiences of his own countrymen after Western military intervention

We hope that the people of other Arab countries, and particularly Syria, will learn from the Libyan example.

It is true that some suggest that this is a temporary state of affairs for Libya and that following this transitionary period, stability will reign. They advise us to be patient.

We hope their prophecy will prove to be correct but remain extremely skeptical with Iraq and Afghanistan also before our eyes.

Oslo and an unfulfilled dream

It is clear that the Israelis will like ‘peace’ talks to go on for another 20 years, by which time there will be nothing left of the original Palestine

  • By Abdel Bari Atwan | Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 20:00 September 12, 2013
  • Gulf News

 

  • Image Credit: Seyyed de la Llata/©Gulf News
  •  

The 1993 Oslo Accords between Palestine and Israel were the fruit of the Madrid Peace Conference, which took place two years earlier. In Madrid, the then Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, told an Israeli journalist: “I came to start talks which will last for 20 years.” His prediction was correct.

Among Shamir’s 14-strong delegation was current Israeli leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was equally cynical about the peace process.

In 2001, Netanyahu was caught on camera boasting that he would pretend to endorse Oslo but, “Interpret the accords in such a way that would allow me to put an end to this galloping forward to the ‘67 borders”.

For 20 years, Israel has used the peace process as a means of deferring international criticism; embarking on fruitless talks whenever a smokescreen is required to obscure yet more settlement building or the encroachments of the apartheid wall. Since 1993, illegal colony building in the West Bank has trebled and more than 660,000 Israelis now live in colonies built on Palestinian land.

Colonies are not the only way that the Israeli government has turned the Oslo Accords to their advantage. The establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), headed first by Yasser Arafat and currently by Mahmoud Abbas, was perceived by Palestinians as the first stepping stone towards statehood. Now, the PNA is perceived by many as an Israeli proxy and its security forces — funded by foreign aid and trained by the West — are of great use to the Israeli state.

In 1994, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin assured cabinet colleagues that using PNA security forces to police internal check points, carry out arrests, interrogations, searches and imprisonments would not only save the Israeli state large sums of money, but liberate Israeli soldiers previously engaged in these tasks for military training for “future war”. Today, the PNA’s ‘security co-ordination’ with Israel sees it actively suppressing protest and resistance while protecting Israeli colonists.

Israel’s leaders were not alone in seeking to profit from the Oslo Accords. Yasser Arafat’s star was waning in 1993 and he seized this chance to shine. I met him often during that period. Accused of supporting Saddam Hussain during the first Gulf War, he had been ostracised and financially cut-off by Arab leaders. Israel and the US were intent on replacing him with the more pliable present incumbent, Mahmoud Abbas, who actually signed the Oslo Accords documents. Arafat, however, insisted on wielding the pen during the signing ceremony on the White House lawn, calculating that this image would restore his leadership credentials. He told me that he would use this renewed prestige to re-ignite an armed struggle. “Not in my lifetime, but in yours, you will see the Israelis run from Palestine,” he assured me. Arafat believed the peace process could become part of a repertoire of trickery and deceit. Instead, he himself was tricked and deceived by the Israelis, besieged in his Ramallah headquarters and then poisoned. Arafat’s promise to liberate the Palestinians ended with him joining them under occupation.

The Oslo Accords saw the excision of a PNA out of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) — a procedure which greatly weakened the resistance by making it part of a cycle of economic dependence. The PNA’s annual $3.8 billion (Dh13.97 billion) budget derives from the US, other Arab nations and the European Union; its tax revenue is collected by the Israelis. Since Hamas won the 2006 elections in Gaza, all foreign aid has been paid directly to Mahmoud Abbas’s office in Ramallah.

Security accounts for 32 per cent of the PNA’s budget and 41 per cent of its public sector employment. Meanwhile, 160,000 staff members depend on the PNA for their income. It is very easy for the Israelis and the US to exert political and diplomatic pressure on such a fiscally constrained administration and explains why Mahmoud Abbas is currently at the negotiating table for renewed “peace talks” with none of his preconditions met.

Not that Abbas, or the PNA, has a current mandate to represent the Palestinian people. ‘Unity’ remains a distant prospect; while reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas were ratified in 2012, they have not been implemented due to remaining differences and fall-out from the Arab Spring. In the absence of new elections, Abbas’s term expired in January 2009 and that of the parliamentary Palestinian Legislative Council in January 2010. The PLC had been unable to meet since 2006 in any case; when elections produced a Hamas majority in the ‘Unity Government’, Israel arrested and imprisoned MPs in the West Bank while others, based in Gaza, were prevented from travelling to Ramallah to take up their seats.

The Oslo Accords produced a Palestinian power structure which is ultimately untenable. By limiting the functions and authority of the PLC, the agreement increased the power of the president (who is also Chair of the PLO’s executive committee) by concentrating political and fiscal power in his hands. The potential for self-interest and corruption is obvious.

In the 20 years since Oslo, I have also observed how international interest in the Palestinian cause has waned.

For all his flaws, Arafat was a great politician and understood the media. I remember (in 1990) being among a small group of journalists he led through the back streets of Calcutta, now Kolkata, and into a small house where Nobel laureate Mother Teresa rose to greet him. The next day, pictures of Arafat in his trademark keffeyah, deep in conversation with the global peace icon, dominated the world’s media.

By contrast, when Abbas came to London this week for a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, not even the Arab press wrote about it.

It is clear that the Israelis will like ‘peace’ talks to go on for another 20 years, by which time there will be nothing left of the original Palestine.

Betrayed by Israel, by the international community and by their own leaders, we should not be surprised if the Palestinians take their future back into their own hands and mark this anniversary with a third intifada.

Abdel Bari Atwan is the former editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. His latest book is After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation.

 

Amazed by Accuracy of My Predictions in Books About Al-Qaeda

On the 12th anniversary of 9/11 even I am amazed by how accurate the predictions I made in my 2012 book, After bin Laden: al-Qa'ida, the Next Generation have proved to be, especially in Syria, the Sahel, and in regard to the opportunities afforded by the Arab Spring.

I also wrote a backgrounder on al-Qaeda in 2006, which is now a set text on many university courses The Secret History of al-Qa'ida. (Saqi 2006)

I also recommend the recently published (in English translation 2013, Thin Man Press) memoir of Osama bin Laden's personal bodyguard's memoir, Guarding bin Laden: My Life in al-Qaeda' (by Nasser al-Bahri) which reveals a great deal of important information which is not in the public domain.

You can find all these books on Amazon and Kindle.

For more information about Guarding bin Laden  you can also visit www.thinmanpress.com

 

On Twelfth Anniversary of 9/11 Al-Qaida Stronger Than Ever

Wednesday marks the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that changed the course of world history and dragged the US into wars in the Middle East which have brought her to the brink of bankruptcy, both financially and morally, and rocked her foundations.

The prestigious British  Economist said, in an editorial commenting on the attacks, that the United States and its allies were used to dominating Arab and Islamic countries, but that al-Qaeda had hit at the heart of the West's financial capital (New York).

US President George w. Bush used the attacks that killed nearly 4,000 to declare a 'war on terror' and sent B-52 giant bombers to Afghanistan, in order to avenge the attack, and remove the Taliban regime and Al-Qaida from the map.

That initial response, in November 2001, ousted the Taliban regime and destroyed the military infrastructure of Al-Qaeda. Now, having spent more than a trillion dollars on the war on terror in Afghanistan, and Iraq, and having lost 5,000 soldiers, the US now finds itself begging the Taliban to negotiate with them in order to save face and arrange a safe exit.

Al-Qaeda prior to the September 11 attacks, had just one address: the Tora Bora caves in Afghanistan. Now it has more than ten branches, increasingly powerful and vigorous, from Iraq to Yemen to Syria, not to mention the Islamic Maghreb, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.

The new generation of Al-Qaida is more dangerous than the first, it inhabits Arab countries, not distant, Pashtun Afghanistan. Most of its cadres hail from the countries such as Yemen, Iraq and Syria and Morocco. In addition, it has drawn in fighters from Islamic countries such as Chechnya and Bosnia. It is a multinational, decentralized organization, whose independent branches share a common cause and help each other out when they need money or arms.
 

Al-Qaida has a variety of income sources, depending on weher it is located – from syphoning off oil in Libya to taking hostages off the coast of Somalia and in the Sahel.
 
US military interventions in Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan led to those countries becoming failed States, which is the ideal environment for Al-Qaida and jihadist groups that espouse AQ ideology but do not share its name – susch as the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria.
 
In addition, the intervention in Libya provided the jihadists with hundreds of tons of weapons from Gaddafi's abandoned arms warehouses and these have found their way into the Maghreb, the Sinai and the Gaza Strip.

The biggest dilemma facing America and its regional allies is the growing presence of jihadi groups in Syria, where most estimates confirm that they represent about 30 percent of the size of the armed opposition fighting on Syrian territory to topple the Assad regime.

The Syrian regime, America and Russia all agree on the risk this poses to regional stability and on the need to eliminate them before talking about any political or military solution to the crisis.
 
The US fears chemical weapons falling into the hands of jihadi groups who would use them against Israel much more than it is concerned their use against the Syrian people.
 
Reading the literature of jihadist groups in Syria, one finds a fierce attack on Maj. Gen. Salim Idris, Commander of the FSA; he is accused of treason by them because he is supporting an Iraqi-style, US-sponsored  'Awakening' campaign to eliminate these groups.
 
Yet the awakening campaign, and even the 100,000 strong, salaried, 'Sons of Iraq' militia, sponsored and paid for by the US, failed to eliminate Al-Qaeda in Iraq, although it weakened it briefly and liquidated many of its leaders. It has now returned to the peak of its power as the recent bloodbath and carnage in Iraq demonstrates.
 
The US war on terror which was launched from the rubble of the World Trade Centre and theother horrific events of 9/11 has weakened neither al-Qaida or the Taliban. Instead, the organization has become stronger after the assassination of their leader, Osama bin laden, and the Taliban still control two-thirds of Afghanistan and is certain to return to power within the year.
 
The magic has turned against the magician!

Syria: What Next as US Military Threat Recedes

In an interview in London, a city he liked to frequent and where he was awarded a Phd from the London School of Economics, Said al-Islam Gadaffi discussed the voluntary non-conventional weapons disarmament his father, Muammar al-Gadaffi, agreed in 2003. Chemical weapons were neutralized, and advanced nuclear facilities were dismantled in exchange for diplomatic and economic 'normalization' with the international community.

Saif revealed that his father initially attempted to conceal some binary precursor stock – which could have been used to make chemical weapons -  but the US was already in possession of lists of stock and where they were hidden. All the items on the lists were delivered up without delay.
 
(This story gains credence when we learn that the new Libyan regime has recently discovered a cache of undeclared chemically armed shells hidden by the Gadaffi regime in the desert).

At the time, Colonel Gaddafi understood that his regime was beginning to crack and saw the deal as a way of preserving his power with the support of the international community. The US, Britain and France, in particular, had promised him a security guarantee, help with developing a civilian nuclear programme, assurances that no other country could attack LIbya with non-conventional weapons and extra provision of conventional military equipment and weapons. According to Saif al-Islam, they were greatly disappointed when these promises were not fulfilled. The greatest blow came when the US did not invite Gadaffi to the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit.


The Syrian regime is also beginning to crack. Last week saw the defection of former Defence Minister, General Mohammad Habib and several high ranking military colleagues. Escaping house arrest, Habib and his companions were spirited away and met on the Turkish border by a fleet of armoured vehicles which carried them to safety. The escape was organized by the US and undoubtedly, these Syrian military insiders have been able to give a great deal of useful information to US and European intelligence agencies.

I mention all this in the context of the "deal" reached at the weekend between Russia and the United States, to persuade Bashar al-Assad to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and surrender all actual chemcial weapons and precursor ingredients, for supervised destruction.

This surprise deal came as the region geared itself for a US airstrike on Syrian military targets and saves face for some international actors (including the US). It also offers an exit strategy to the Assad regime and opens the door to a negotiated settlement with the opposition.
 
The armed opposition (the Free Syrian Army) are extremely unhappy about the possible deal and have warned the West to beware of Assad's possible treachery in this matter. The Governments of the GCC countries, who had been banking on a US strike in Syria, and were prepared to foot the bill, expressed their strong opposition to the deal at their recent Foreign Ministers Council and are likely to start attempts to derail it by all ways and means.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is the big winner of this deal, not because he is its sole engineer, but because he has saved his ally Bashar Al-Assad from the imminent US strike and its consequences, which likely would include regime change. Putin also swerved to avoid a head on clash with the US which could even have led to a third world war.
 

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Several observations can be made about the proposed deal for Syria:
 
1 – If Assad agrees to the offer, it will be a recognition that he does indeed possess chemical weapons and, by implication, that he authorized their use in the August 21st attacks on Damascus suburbs.
 
2 – Following the defeat of a motion to intervene militarily in the UK parliament, Obama realized that the US is no longer able to enlist the help of its European allies in military adventures. Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the global recession, have left the general public with no appetite for more wars. Nor was Obama particularly confident that he would get the backing from Congress he needed to validate a military strike.
 
3 – The deal was cooked up on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg, during a private  meeting between President Putin and President Obama. They then gave their Foreign Minsters the go-ahead to leak the offer with John Kerry making the apparently throw-away remark a few hours later that President Assad could avoid a strike if he abandoned chemical weapons.

4 – The deal sends a clear message to Iran, and is perhaps a "rehearsal" for how to address the crisis of its nuclear program; 'if you accept the terms of the International Atomic Energy Agency, dismantle and abandon enrichment, you too may avoid a US/Israeli military strike'.

 
The prospect for a US strike on Syria has lessened significantly, but is not completely at an end. The Devil's in the details, as they say, and the Assad regime may simply be stalling for time while it reshuffles its cards.