Thursday, June 07, 2007

What's going on

I'm back again after ten days or so away from everything, and the question is: How an I supposed to summarize in English any of the Arabic reports and commenaries on the crises?

There is an intensification of the crises, but these are really cases of more of the same, without much additional "investigative"-type enlightenment, instead with noticeable deepening in the level of criticism and concern. To wit:

I. Iraq

This morning (Thursday June 7) reports of an attempted coalition to topple the Maliki administration are the top stories in both Azzaman and Al-Quds al-Arabi. This represents a promotion from the earlier rounds of news about this alleged scheme, because the earlier reports were less prominent and vaguer.

The Azzaman report (in its UK edition but not in its Baghdad edition) stresses new developments including the alleged participation in the Allawi-Hashemi discussions of a Kurdish group that isn't one of the two mainstream Kurdish parties (and that in fact has a history of fighting them), and talks with the Shiite Fadhila party (recently split from the Supreme Council). Azzaman says Maliki appears to have taken the new developments seriously enough to visit Kurdistan to confirm support of the two main Kurdish parties for the current administration.

Al-Quds al-Arabi, by contrast, stresses the critiques and criticism of the recent developments, along two lines: (1) In its top news story this morning, Al-Quds leads with a statement by Hakim's Supreme Council (formerly called SCIRI) pointing out that the main names involved in the maneuvers to topple Maliki are for the most part people who had an important role in setting up the current political system in the first place. For instance, the statement notes that the first Iraqi administration to set up militias as an integral part of government and society was none other than the 2003 Allawi administration. The implicit point is that the only issue these people would be interested in would be a struggle for bigger pieces of the pie, not any actual political change. (2) In his regular front-page op-ed piece, Abdulbari Atwan notes that Tareq al-Hashemi, the main Sunni-party participant in these talks with Allawi, has threatened at least five times in recent months to leave the government and the political process, but it has become abundantly clear that his only real ambition is to cling to his current position (vice-president of Iraq) for as long as possible. Hashemi leads the Islamic Party of Iraq, and is currently on a tour of Arabic capitals to try and encourage Arab leaders to get involved to protect the Arab character of Iraq. "I can assure Mr Hashemi," Atwan writes, "that these Arab leaders will not respond positively to these invitations," for three reasons: First, they don't have any presence in Iraq in the first place; secondly, it is too late to talk about protecting an Arab character of Iraq given the American and Iranian inroads; and thirdly, it is these same Arab leaders who assisted or at least failed to oppose the Americans in their invasion and continued occupation. It is more than a little bizarre, he adds, for Hashemi to be the one urging this, since he was the leader of the Sunni politicians who lent their support to the American scheme, on the basis of promises that have not come about, and who nevertheless continue to participate in it.

Atwan's concluding point is that while the behavior of Hashemi and his ilk can't be said to be surprising any more, what is surprising and worth noting is the silence of the mother-group behind Hashemi's Islamic Party of Iraq, namely the Muslim Brotherhood. Where do they stand in this, asks Atwan, or do they intend to continue ignoring this issue?

II. Lebanon

With the resumption or continuation of Lebanese Army attacks on the Narh al-Barid camp, historian Bashir Nafie, in an op-ed piece in Al-Quds al-Arabi, focuses on the weirdness of having an all-out war on a couple of hundred individuals, asking if this is really an Army operation, and not perhaps a political one; if this is really something for the benefit of Lebanon and not perhaps part of the so-called War on Terror; if the result will be more stability, or if this isn't rather the prelude to an all-our Lebanese security-collapse. In trying to sort through the issue, Nafie isolates two separate issues, one the question of the role and responsibility of the Lebanese political establishment for the poor Palestinian-Lebanese relationship, including refugee policy and so on. For instance he points out that whatever else may be going on, there isn't any doubt that the military reaction would have been a lot different had the Fatah al-Islam group been based anywhere but in a Palestinian refugee camp. This is one of the ugly faces of the current situation. But there is a second ugly face of the phenomenon, and that is the nature of the membership of Fatah al-Islam, and of all of the other similar extremist groups in the region. Nafie says the Fatah al-Islam phenomenon shouldn't be seen in isolation from other groups like the Jund al-Sham that has been involved in skirmishes in Damascus and elsewhere, the Palestinian groups responsible for recent kidnappings in the occupied territories, the groups in Iraq that engage in attacks that don't discriminate between Iraqis and occupiers, groups in North Africa, and so on. Their strategies, such as they are, are without hope of success because they lack broad public support, but they grow and proliferate as a result of the sense of hopelessness created by the political class throughout the Arab world. He says Arab governments and the political class generally have a tendency to want to just let these movements take their course on the idea that eventually they will collapse as a result of failure. This is handy for the ruling class, because it lets them intensify their reliance on arbitrary power and point the finger at parties other tham themselves. This is another abdication of responsibility, and one in which not only politicians, but clerics and intellectuals and others are also implicated. There is a need to come to grips with the phenomenon via reconstructed national aims, which would include a determination to end the foreign intervention that started the whole process.

The recommendation is vague, but the main point is clear. Fatah-al-Islam, according to Nafie, isn't just some isolated instance of an extremist group to be dealt with with an eye only on its immediate causes and circumstances. Rather, it is manifestation of the same cycle of violence and political disintegration that is happening throughout the region, and people need to come to grips with this issue in its entirely.

I think it is instructive that the Atwan and Nafie pieces aren't thought out or written along the lines that would be normal in a Western treatement of these crises: Atwan and Nafie aren't searching for the latest specific twist in the story, for instance in the former case who will join Allawi and who won't, how the votes would add up, and so on. Rather, he wants to shine a light on where the Sunni involvement in this went off the rails, and for this he goes back to the parent organization of Hashemi's group, namely the Muslim Brotherhood. Where are they, he asks. Similarly, Nafie isn't in search of an investigative reporter's account of the sudden emergence of Fatah al-Islam. Rather, he wants to understand how this phenomenon of groups based on indiscriminate and what he sees as completely non-strategic violence can be dealt with, or rather he wants first of all top point out that it is a common feature of the current political disintegration, and needs to be recognized as that.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a journalist with access to news wires services, this jumped into my face when I cleaned up my desk yesterday. It is a story Reuters ran on March 20, 2007. I had printed it out, even though the name "Fatah al-Islam" didn't ring a bell with me at the time:

"Gulf Arabs boost aid to Sunni militants in Lebanon.

WASHINGTON, March 20 (Reuters) - Oil-rich Saudis and other wealthy Arabs have increased private contributions to Sunni militants in Lebanon that could fuel new violence in a growing regional struggle between Sunnis and Shi'ites, experts say.
The latest flow of money began in December in an attempt to create a counterweight to the Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah, according to former U.S. intelligence officials and independent analysts who view it as part of a Saudi effort to bolster Sunni Islam in the face of growing Shi'ite activism across the Middle East and in Africa.
"There is Saudi money coming in to Sunni extremist groups with the specific intention of confronting the Shi'ites and Hezbollah in Lebanon," said a former senior intelligence official who closely monitors the Middle East.
The former officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, cited Saudi and Syrian officials but declined to be more specific on the source of their information.
They were also reluctant to quantify the value of the contributions in a country known for smuggling and porous borders. But one analyst said the amounts could run into the millions of dollars.
Sunni Arabs from the Gulf, who have been funding Sunni causes in Lebanon since the 1980s, stepped up support after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, a Sunni leader.
In the latest influx, contributions have gone to Sunni-run charities and institutions. But experts said significant sums have also been given to militant groups in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and Palestinian refugee camps.
The recipients included Usbat al-Ansar, which the State Department describes as a Palestinian terrorist group linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, according to former intelligence officials and independent analysts.
Money has also gone to the Sunni group Fatah al-Islam, which was accused of bombing two buses in a Christian village near Beirut in February, they said.
Experts said loyalty to the Saudi and Al-Hariri family political agendas in Lebanon is expected in return. (...)"

What I find remarkable is the fact that this Reuters piece speaks about PRIVATE contributions to Sunni militants - and not about any government paying them.

What I don't understand, though: Why the standoff with Fatah al-Islam now? What has gone wrong? Why are Hariri/Siniora suddenly turning against them with such vigor? Just because of a bank robbery? I guess we still have more questions than answers.

7:53 AM  
Blogger badger said...

cjk, That's a very interesting piece. On the "what went wrong" question, about the only plausible thing I've seen is in the Counterpunch article from the other week, where the writer said:

So what went wrong? "Why the bank robbery" and the slaughter at Nahr el-Baled?

According to operatives of Fatah el-Islam, the Bush administration got cold feet with people like Seymour Hirsh snooping around and with the White House post-Iraq discipline in free fall. Moreover, Hezbollah intelligence knew all about the Clubs activities and was in a position to flip the two groups who were supposed to ignite a Sunni ­Shia civil war which Hezbollah vows to prevent.

Things started to go very wrong quickly for the Club last week.
FM "stopped" the payroll of Fateh el-Islam's account at the Hariri family owned back.

The link is in the prior post called "A possible explanation", down at the bottom. The idea would be that there was a turnabout in Bush's approach, from the Bandar/Cheney/Hariri idea of supporting Sunni armed groups to deter Hizb and the Shiites, to the idea of hijacking the Lebanese army for that purpose. Because the other new and unprecedented thing was startup of US contributions to the Lebanese army of modern weaponry, something they hadn't done up to then. It's the best I can figure.

8:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You make my brain hurt.

Thank you.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Helena Cobban said...

Badger, I've been away from my desk too. So I thank you for pulling this material together.

Be well!

8:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Apparently, things have moved on, and the question of who financed Fatah al-Islam might not be THAT relevant any more. For the record, I still want to share what Danny Rubinstein writes in today's Haaretz:

"According to a Palestinian journalist from East Jerusalem, there were a number of indications that al-Absi and his people, who had settled into the camp in Lebanon, received financial aid from Saudi elements. The idea was to develop a fanatical Sunni Muslim force in Lebanon that would effectively act as a counterweight to the Shi'ite Hezbollah zealots. Acquaintances of the journalist in Tripoli told him that Saudi Arabia has stopped transferring funds to this group, and its members robbed the bank through which they had received the money in the past."


3:01 AM  

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