In early August, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) arrested Abu Ahmad Jumaa, the leader of Liwa Fajr al-Islam (Islamic Dawn Brigade), which had been loyal to al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat an-Nusra but which had then-recently defected to the Islamic State (I.S.). In response, Nusra and I.S. fighters poured across the border into Arsal, Lebanon, where Jumaa was being held, and after five days of clashes the Salafi jihadists withdrew, taking with them thirty Lebanese security personnel. Five of the thirty are now dead: one from his injuries, the other four murdered—at least two of them beheaded. Continue reading
Writing about Ukraine in April, I said that if then-pending sanctions from the United States and Britain ever arrived it would be “much too little, much too late.” Those sanctions did arrive, but I still stand by this judgment.
There has been much gloating in the last few weeks about the damage the sanctions have done to the value of the ruble, including a rather strange episode when President Obama adopted the third person to deny that he had been “rolled” by Vladimir Putin, and to take credit for the “financial crisis” Putin was now faced with.
The damage is real enough. There had been a joke going around about the ruble, the oil price, and Vladimir Putin hitting 63 next year. While the ruble is not quite there yet—it has lost a fifth of its value in the last three months and is trading at just over fifty to the dollar (it had been thirty in the spring)—the price of oil has fallen below this. The inflation rate in Russia is now above nine percent, and the Putin government has itself announced that the economy will retract by close to one percent next year.
The problem is that for the Kremlin, politics comes before economics, and calculations on that front do not at all lead in the direction of de-escalation. Continue reading
In the last few days I’ve been asked a lot about my longstanding view that the beginning of a Western strategy in Syria is the removal of Bashar al-Assad. The question has come from various angles and been phrased in various ways but it always boils down to: “What comes next?”
The best response I have seen to this comes from Thomas Nichols: “When someone says ‘tell me how it ends,’ it’s another way of saying: ‘I just don’t happen to like this particular case for intervention,’ for whatever reason.” Continue reading
Sam Dagher at the Wall Street Journal has identified the July 18, 2012, bombing, which killed four senior Assad regime officials, most seriously Assef Shawkat, as the turning point in Syria, reversing the rebellion’s momentum, bringing the scale of the killing above where it had been before, closing the ranks of the minorities around the regime, and opening the country up to Iran.
Dagher certainly has the timing correct. It was the late summer, and most noticeably the fall of 2012, when the death toll in Syria markedly increased. 5,000 people had been killed in all of 2011, and another 5,000 by May 2012. By September 2012, 30,000 people were dead, the kill-rate now reaching 5,000-per-month. By January 2013, 60,000 people were dead, a kill-rate of 10,000-per-month. Nobody really knows what the total, let alone the rate, is now, but this was when it spiked. This period is also concurrent with the massive operation mounted by Clerical Iran to rescue the Bashar dictatorship.
Given how beneficial this bombing was to the regime, there have long been rumours it was an inside job. A recent report by Naame Shaam said exactly this, that this was an Iranian-orchestrated counter-intelligence operation to snuff-out the softliners within the regime who were trying to reach a deal with the protesters and rebels inside the country and their Gulf Arab patrons, which would have involved some concessions from the regime on its absolute control. Continue reading
Last night, Sony Pictures pulled its planned release of The Interview. The film, a satire starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, had been based around a plot to kill the North Korean tyrant. About a month ago, Sony was hacked, and there is every indication that the North Korean regime was behind it. Under threats of further hacks, Sony backed down, apparently prepared to liquidate a forty-million dollar investment. Continue reading
In June, Samuel Helfont published a paper for the Middle East Institute entitled, ‘Saddam and the Islamists: The Ba’thist Regime’s Instrumentalization of Religion in Foreign Affairs’. Relying on “newly released Iraqi state and Ba’th Party archives,” Helfont’s central argument is:
“Saddam maintained deep reservations about Islamism until the end. However, this did not prevent his regime from working extensively with Islamists and Islamic activists outside Iraq. Indeed, religion played a leading role in the country’s foreign policy throughout the 1990s.”
On October 30, the United Nations peace envoy Staffan de Mistura presented an “action plan” for Syria, which included a plan for a “freeze zone” in Aleppo to give “an opportunity for some type of humanitarian improvement”. De Mistura wanted this to re-focus efforts of fighting units on all sides against the Salafi-jihadists of the Islamic State and Jabhat an-Nusra (al-Qaeda). Small wonder then that Assad’s U.N. envoy, Bashar Jafaari, said the regime was giving the proposal “due consideration”.