Russia seeks to fill vacuum in the Middle East
ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images – Buoyed by events in Syria, Russia is wooing some traditional U.S. allies in the Middle East.
BEIRUT — Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union affirmed the United States as the dominant power in the Middle East, a resurgent Russia is seeking ways large and small to fill the vacuum left by the departure of American troops from Iraq and the toppling of U.S. allies in the Arab Spring revolts.
Key Syrian Rebel Groups Abandon Exile Leaders
Smoke rose after an airstrike in a village in Hama Province on Wednesday.
Largest Syrian rebel groups form Islamic alliance, in possible blow to U.S. influence
Anonymous/AP – Rebels from al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra sit on a truck full of ammunition after capturing an air base in Idlib province in northern Syria.
BEIRUT — American hopes of winning more influence over Syria’s fractious rebel movement faded Wednesday after 11 of the biggest armed factions repudiated the Western-backed opposition coalition and announced the formation of a new alliance dedicated to creating an Islamic state.
Syria crisis: In sacred Maaloula, where they speak the language of Christ, war leads neighbours into betrayal
Muslims and Christians had lived together in this town of churches and caves. Now it is empty
ROBERT FISK WEDNESDAY 25 SEPTEMBER 2013
The Diab family can never return to Maaloula. Not since the Christians of this beautiful and sacred town saw their Muslim neighbours leading the armed Nusrah Islamists to their homes. Georgios remembers how he peered over his balcony and saw Mohamed Diab and Ossama Diab and Yasser Diab and Hossam Diab and Khaled Turkik Qutaiman – all from Maaloula – walking in the street with men whom he said were dressed in Afghan-Pakistani clothes. “One of them had a Kalashnikov rifle in one hand and a sword in the other,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief.
Twenty years ago, identical tragedies destroyed the villages of Bosnia. Now they are being re-enacted in Syria. “We knew our Muslim neighbours all our lives,” Georgios says. He is a Catholic. “Yes, we knew the Diab family were quite radical, but we thought they would never betray us. We ate with them. We are one people.
“A few of the Diab family had left months ago and we guessed they were with the Nusra. But their wives and children were still here. We looked after them. Then, two days before the Nusra attacked, the families suddenly left the town. We didn’t know why. And then our neighbours led our enemies in among us.”
It is a terrible story in this most beautiful of towns, with its 17 churches and holy relics and its great cliff-side caves. Now the fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra – a rebel group with links to al-Qa’ida – are surviving in the caves and shooting down at the Syrian soldiers in Maaloula’s streets with Russian sniper rifles. You have to run from house to house, and one bullet smashed the windscreen of a parked car scarcely 10 metres from the balcony on which Georgios was telling his awful story. Up the road, a mortar round – apparently fired by Nusrah men – has torn a hole in the dome of a church. The Syrian army says it has driven the Islamists from Maaloula, which is technically true; but to leave the town, I had to ride in the back of a military armoured vehicle. It is not a famous victory for anyone.
Not one of the 5,000 Christian residents – nor a single member of the 2,000-strong Muslim community – has returned. Maaloula is, almost literally, a ghost town. Only Georgios and his friend Hanna and a few other local Christian men who joined the “national defence” units to defend their homes, are left. At least 10 Christians were murdered when the Nusra militia began its series of attacks on Maaloula on 4 September, some of them shot – according to Hanna – when they refused to convert to Islam, others dispatched with a knife in the throat. And there is a terrifying historical irony about their deaths, for they were slaughtered within sight of the Mar Sarkis monastery, sacred to the memory of a Roman soldier called Sergius who was executed for his Christian beliefs 2,000 years ago.
Hanna says that before the war reached Maaloula this month, both Christians and Muslims agreed that the town must remain a place of peace. “There was a kind of coexistence between us,” Georgios agrees. “We had excellent relations. It never occurred to us that Muslim neighbours would betray us. We all said ‘please let this town live in peace – we don’t have to kill each other’. But now there is bad blood. They brought in the Nusra to throw out the Christians and get rid of us forever. Some of the Muslims who lived with us are good people but I will never trust 90 per cent of them again.”
Could there be better evidence of Nusra’s desire – and that of almost every side in this conflict – to sectarianise the war? Georgios joined his armed government unit when Nusra gunmen returned two days later – on 6 September – and now carries a huge 75mm Czech pistol strapped to his chest. He fought alongside the Syrian army’s 3rd Armoured Division, which took three days to recapture Maaloula because, the soldiers say, they could not risk damaging the churches and shrines. And therein lies a major problem. A Syrian Second Lieutenant called Talal told me that the caves had now been surrounded and that the Nusra snipers would run out of supplies. But if this is true – given the number of bullets cracking down the streets during my visit – the insurgents still seem to have plenty of ammunition.
The problem, of course, is that there’s a simple military solution to Maaloula’s present agony: for the army to use shellfire from their Russian-made tanks to blow the caves to pieces. But that would only continue the destruction of the heritage of Maaloula, whose people still speak Aramaic, the language which scholars believe was spoken by Christ. Only five months ago, in an untouched Maaloula, I stood next to the church of Mar Taqla while a Catholic girl recited the Lord’s Prayer’s in Aramaic. No prayers now.
It is impossible, amid the bullet-whizzing streets of the town today, talking to armed Christians whose emotions are incendiary, to gather up the full – even accurate – story of the Maaloula tragedy. They say that the church of Mar Taqla has been badly damaged, the altarpiece smashed, Byzantine pictures destroyed, but even Syrian troops will not approach the monastery today. When they briefly tried to help some nuns return after the battle, they told me, Nusra snipers cut them down, many shot in the legs as they helped the nuns to run away.
Almost every soldier I met had been wounded. Lt Talal, who comes from Sweida, had been hit in both legs during the battles. Two Syrian soldiers were hit on Monday, one in the legs, another in the shoulder. From an earlier skirmish with Nusra men – apparently with another Diab brother – Georgios had been shot in the arm, legs and ribs, and one of his fingers had been torn off by a bullet.
The Nusra men seemed to take a perverse pleasure, not only in destroying Christian icons, but household beds and chairs, perhaps in a search for cash.
Even the exact number of deaths cannot be confirmed. But it is impossible to believe, after these sectarian wounds, that Maaloula can return as it was, a place of worship for Orthodox and Catholic but also, intriguingly, for Shia Muslims, many of them Iranians who used to visit the town to see its monasteries and Christian shrines.
A Syrian general tried to explain to me later that I was not witnessing a civil war, merely a “war against terror” – the stock government quotation – and that Syrians were not sectarian. “In Latakia, we have 200,000 Sunni Muslim refugees living among Christians and Alawites and there are no problems between them,” he said. This is true. And outside Maaloula, several civilians claimed that the Nusra forces which invaded the town – and which numbered 1,800 men, according to the Syrian army – also killed local Muslims.
For several days, the Nusra gunmen held out in the wreckage of the Safir Hotel before taking to the caves. The Christians are now all refugees, some in the Christian Bab Touma district in the old city of Damascus, others in Lebanon. But some statistics, however loosely gathered, speak for themselves. Sixty per cent of the Christians of Syria are now believed to have fled their country.
Defiant: As most people ran away, one man remained standing directly in front of a tank with his arms raised
Gunned down: The demonstrator (seen in background) appears to be struck repeatedly struck by bullets, and then falls down
How Morsi, Brotherhood Lost Egypt
A man with his face painted in the colors of Egypt’s national flag attends a rally held by anti-Morsi protesters at Tahrir Square, July 4, 2013. (photo by REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah)
By: Bassem Sabry for Al-Monitor Posted on July 4.
CAIRO — I was in Tahrir when they announced Mubarak was ousted. I was in Tahrir when they announced Morsi had won. And I was also in Tahrir as they announced Morsi was ousted.
Each time was a remarkably different experience for me, only united by roaring crowds, waving flags, fireworks, hugs from strangers and a big sense of relief. This time, the cheers were even more deafening. They were not just in Tahrir, but in other squares around Cairo and the country, all packed without any real organizational power behind them. The floods of people in the streets around Cairo appeared to me bigger than before, people seemed to genuinely believe they “took back their country,” and that the military was a hero doing all the right things. But perhaps what characterized this time in Tahrir for me was my sense of worry, deeper than ever before.
I believe that Mohammed Morsi had won his election, despite the more hardcore of the anti-Morsi camp’s claims of fraud and voter intimidation by the Muslim Brotherhood, and that the Brotherhood had secretly threatened violence if they lost (likely, this narrative will be intentionally magnified now to make the new order even more acceptable). I believe in democracy and I have always argued in favor of the democratic process taking its course in Egypt, and always argued against any political exclusion. I consistently called for national reconciliation and compromise as the most sustainable way forward. Having said all of that, I cannot shake my conviction that Morsi, and the Brotherhood, had it coming. It was inevitable that an explosion was coming.
Until November, many had held on to the idea that Morsi and the Brotherhood were wise enough not to overplay their hand, that they knew how complicated the situation in Egypt was and that unilateralism would only bring them down. Many believed that the Brotherhood would learn from the poignant history of deposed president Hosni Mubarak and the National Democratic Party, from which they suffered perhaps the most. Many felt Morsi would be wise enough to realize he was barely elected (51.7% of the vote) against a candidate who many viewed as representing the former regime, and with the vital aid of a strong, multi-ideological revolutionary coalition that supported him based on promises of inclusion and unity.
But the problem was that it became more and more apparent that the Brotherhood was intent not on building a democratic administration, but a new regime.
Following a mixed start with ups and downs, Morsi and the Brotherhood suffered a massive blow after his November constitutional declaration. This was followed by continued and gradual erosion of faith for months. In his most infamous act, Morsi astonishingly saw it justifiable to give himself the power to unilaterally amend the constitutional declaration. He officially declared himself, albeit temporarily until his specific purposes for the time were achieved, immune to any judicial review in an act reminiscent of cartoonish fictional takes on autocrats.
He assaulted the separation of powers by handpicking an allied prosecutor-general in a manner that defied the post-revolution national consensus of letting the judiciary nominate the candidate to such a role, and whose removal remained a strong divisive point in any attempt at national reconciliation. This controllable prosecutor-general, against which almost the entire prosecutorial corps protested and nearly succeeded in firing, was used quite clearly at will to go after the private media and the opposition as a direct extension of Morsi and the Brotherhood, while substantially legally shielding the Brotherhood at the same time.
The president, the Brotherhood and its allies, continuously tried to assume an unfairly tight grip over the constitution-drafting process. They also broke promises to ensure a constitution that garnered sufficient national consensus. Instead, and under the cover of the November constitutional declaration, Morsi and the Brotherhood rushed a referendum on a disappointing and dangerous draft without real proper national debate (in a country with substantial illiteracy and areas with little access to anything but state media, which was also under Brotherhood influence), against the walkout of all opposition members, the church, civil and human rights organizations and others.
The constitution, which was supposed to be the crowning achievement of Egypt’s transition, became one of its most divisive elements and deepest causes for national conflict. The opposition holds that its claims over voting violations never got any real consideration. The Brotherhood later acknowledged some of the holes in the constitution, but the road for its rectification remained a thorny issue.
In another breach of revolutionary consensus, Morsi and the Brotherood tightened control over state media and retained the nationally rejected role of information minister, already abolished briefly after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak. State-owned papers and channels were subjected to appointments of allied or controllable leaderships. The media often ran familiar propaganda-esque headlines that seemed taken out of the Mubarak days. Furthermore, state press and television did not provide neutral and balanced coverage of events, and state TV was almost always forced to host a Brotherhood guest on every talk show, or at the very least not host an opposition figure on his own.
Reports of guest blacklists also began to surface once more. Charges of “insulting the president” and “contempt of religion” began to pile up against media figures, often made by Brotherhood allies rather than directly by the Brotherhood (though the presidency did press some charges before retracting them under local and international pressure). Morsi and the Brotherhood seemed to care very little about fixing the problematic legislative framework for media, and gradually appeared to find it handy, especially with a prosecutor-general that was under full control.
The Brotherhood was also widely seen to be working on the “Brotherhoodization” of the state, even to the outcry of its former Islamist allies such as the Salafist Al-Nour party. Increasingly, the Brotherhood and Morsi began appointing loyalist figures in key state positions. While the appointments of political allies and fellow party members to key positions is a part of democracy, the Brotherhood’s actions were widely seen as an attempt to solidify their grip on the state in a manner that threatened any modicum of neutrality by the state institutions, especially while the national mood was still strongly in favor of greater unity. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood continuously defied unanimous demands to subject itself as an organization to full government or public oversight of its activities and resources.
The Brotherhood and Morsi also used the upper house of parliament as an ultra-active legislative house. The Brotherhood-dominated institution was originally an advisory body elected by only 7% of the electorate and whose elections were somewhat ignored by the opposition. Although the original claim was that the Shura Council would only rubber stamp consensus legislation until the lower house would be elected, it was turned into a full parliament. It discussed far-reaching and controversial drafts, including: a non-governmental organization law that was widely seen as capable of stifling civil society in Egypt; divisive electoral and political rights laws that were criticized as favoring the Islamists; and even a disastrous judicial reform law that would have axed around 3,500 existing judges in an already choking legal system. The latter draft was openly seen as a move to get rid of judges that were problematic to the Brotherhood’s plans (though significant politicization of the judiciary could not be denied), while there were wide fears of intentions to replace them with a new generation of more sympathetic judges or outright Brotherhood members.
Already, Morsi and the Brotherhood had antagonized much of the judiciary through his constitutional declaration in November, the appointment of the prosecutor-general, the downsizing of the constitutional court to get ride of specific judges, and more. They remained seemingly defiant on passing their most controversial move against the judiciary, despite wide rejection.
Then there was the Brotherhood’s handling of the Egyptian state, which drew the ire of a vast swathe of the population (not that the opposition-aligned media did not fan the flames, and sensationalist reporting was substantially prevalent). For a year, the country lacked economic vision and governmental transparency or even managerial aptitude. The Qandil government was unanimously criticized by the country’s forces as inept and failing, remarkably (and confusingly) even by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. The country was subject to increasing electricity blackouts, growing foreign debt, the availability of bread and fuel became a deep concern, and more.
Of course, not all of it could be blamed on Morsi and the government, but it was clear that the current policies and government were failing. Morsi, nonetheless, hung on to Qandil despite everyone’s demands to replace him, and refused calls for either a neutral technocratic or a genuine national coalition government to oversee the country until elections. When a government reshuffle did take place, Morsi only brought it more allies, some of whom seemed incapable for their posts, infuriating much of the public and the country’s forces.
There was also the question of Morsi and the Brotherhood’s loss of credibility, a strong factor given the banner of the Islamic-based project. The Brotherhood and the president had repeatedly reneged on several key promises and claims. For example, there stunningly turned out to be no “Renaissance Project,” a campaign centerpiece allegedly many years in the making. The project promised a full plan with defined resources to help Egypt grow and prosper. The Brotherhood had promised to run for no more than 30% of parliament, then ran for all seats. They promised not to run for president, and fielded two candidates. While there were public calls for dialogue, behind the scenes the Brotherhood directly rebuffed many of the opposition’s core demands as virtually non-negotiable, according to opposition sources.
Christians increasingly felt marginalized under Morsi. Brotherhood-allied media regularly used sectarian language and claims. Many Christians felt unprotected from sectarian violence and that official moves were meant as decorative and to appease international opinion. Many also were deeply perturbed by Morsi’s failing to show up for the pope’s enthronement. Few Christians were appointed to high-ranking positions in the state, and claims that the president would appoint vice presidents and include a Christian were not fulfilled.
By the time June 30 neared, Morsi had alienated and antagonized everyone but his most radical allies.
He had earned the strong disapproval of the leaderships of Al-Azhar and the church, the country’s Christians, the largest Salafist (and overall second) political party, civil society, most of the military and the police (pre-existing biases put into consideration), the judiciary, the opposition, the media, his former revolutionary and election partners, much of the business community, and clearly a large majority of the Egyptian population.
Even the president’s Islamist culture minister antagonized much of the intelligentsia. Although people widely agreed that the ministry and its activities needed reforms and were filled with corruption as well as an understanding that the ministry should be open to wider cultural directions, there was an outcry against seemingly arbitrary firings of people in key positions. In one case, a firing occured a couple of days after he promised not to fire the subsequently sacked manager of the Cairo Opera House. The previously unknown minister was being accused of having little qualification for the role, except for having written an article denouncing the opposition and the media months earlier. Two sit-ins defiantly ensued by artists and the intelligentsia, against what they believed to be an aggressive plan to staff the state’s cultural institutions with Brotherhood allies and to forcefully change the Egyptian identity, at least as they saw it..
In his speech, days before the June 30 protests, in which Morsi was expected to appeal for national dialogue and reconciliation, Morsi gave two speeches, moving back and forth between them. The first was an official written speech in which he seemed to be making some overtures, written in classic Arabic. The second, a long list of side and largely spontaneous colloquial commentary, was filled with ludicrous and dangerous name-calling of opposing figures, including touting taxation and bank problems for the named owners of opposition TV channels, effectively calling his still popular electoral opponent a criminal despite ongoing investigations, directly accusing a judge of forging previous elections.
Morsi then stunningly began arguing that “one year was enough” for his patience with the media and opposing forces. Immediately after his speech, the investment authority and the prosecutor’s office began to move against the opposition media again, including putting the owner of an opposition channel on a no-fly list, reportedly restarting investigations against media figures. One channel was even taken off the air, and there was wide acceptance that other private media channels and figures were going to be decisively pursued once the June 30 protests would amount to nothing. There were even considerable leaks within the opposition before the uprising that the prosecution was planning to crack down on them after the June 30 protests, though that is a claim more difficult to substantiate. The lead management of a government-run conference center, which had recently hosted opposition news conferences, was also sacked the following day.
One can write even more on the subject, but instead, I wish to move to the other side of the discussion.
I profoundly wish Morsi had just either accepted real reconciliation earlier or had just called early elections given the massive public pressure that built from June 30 onward, even while recognizing a large base demonstrated in support of him. I repeatedly argued that reconciliation was key, beginning with a wiser and a more tactful opposition (whose disorganization, strategy and polarizing tactics were undeniably a genuine part of the problems in Egypt) and a less arrogant Brotherhood.
Egyptian democracy, the stability of the country and the peaceful coexistence of its groups are right now in a deeply worrying place. With the former president and his staff’s liberty under control, the recent moves to arrest Brotherhood leaders and allies, and the immediate blackout of allied religious channels, there is reason to be deeply concerned, and many are worried of a witch hunt against Islamists. What is also troubling is that the return of a police state in this current scenario is a very likely possibility, and potentially with the large blessing of a public that is now worried of Islamist violence and is in desperate need for stability.
As the reign of the military from 2011 to 2012 had demonstrated, the military is not exactly a paragon of freedom. An analyst, tweeting yesterday, rightly argued that the local feeling of mandate for a crackdown on Islamists now was possibly much bigger than anything that might have existed under Mubarak in recent times. But Egypt will never find stability, and its democracy will never thrive, without inclusiveness, fairness, due process and separation of powers. The Brotherhood and its big base cannot be excluded or treated outside of due process. Repression, especially of a genuinely sizable, believing and passionate public group, will only lead to an explosion.
This was a popular and genuine uprising against Morsi. These were undeniably the largest ever and the most self-driven protests in Egypt’s history. Nonetheless, the role of the military and its actions surely give us cause for concern, and what became of the first civilian and democratically elected president is troubling.
I wish all of this was different, and it would have been better for Egypt. The current transition has to move wisely, but quickly. Inclusion and civil cohesion must become the cornerstone of this process. Right now, I am of greater worry than I was in February 2011.
Still, there is something utterly inspiring in seeing people rise up once more and show that they will not be taken for granted or intimidated. Of course, one has to wait and keep a vigilant eye before any final conclusions can be made about where Egypt is going.
Let us hope Egyptians never have to rise up a third time.
9/1/2013 10:13 AM EDT
deposing of Morsi was the best thing hat ever happenned to Egypt.
Make no mistake, morsi was hell-bent to transform Egypt into some deformed islamic state like the Sudan. Bashir of Sudan came to power through a coup. The US did object Bashir ‘s coup but allowed him to the worst genocide in Africa: 3 million southern sudanese were killed, tortured, maimed by islamic amputations and housands taken as slaves under the very eyes of the UN, OAU, while the Arab League financed and encouraged the extermination of the southern christain south.
I remember the Muslim brotherhood in Cairo waging a smear campaign against southern sudanese who took refuge in Egypt. Food shortages were blamed by them against the sudanese refugees, any crime was blamed on the sudanese. The daily racial harassment- “ya abid”, inhumane treatment like killing young sudanese women for their organs were as common as he cabbage on Egyptian streets!!!. And I witnessed the attempted burning of the catholic church in Abbassiya by supporters of the muslim brotherhood. It was only the intervention of GOD Almighty and Holy Son and the courage of less than four Southern, who fought back the muslim brotherhood terrorists that saved me and the thousand worshippers!!!.
That Sunday night, the most criticized Egyptian Police and security did their duty and prevented a shameful massacres of fellow sons of the nile…..wad el nil……they protected us the southern sudanese and enforced the LAW. FOR IAM ever grateful to HOSNI MUBRAK A TRUE EGYPTIAN STATEMENT, WITH WISDOM, HUMILITY and Islamic COMPASSION for HUMANITY IN THE TRUE TRADITION OF THE HOLY PROPHET.
HOSNI MUBARACK was EGYPT AT ITS BEST AND WORST!!!.
I remember that humane Egyptian Grandma who helped after getting so hopelessly lost; and she strangely could understand my Sudanedse Arabic and helped me get home. You see before western colonialism, sudan and Egypt were one people one nation under tthe Caliphate. VOTE FOR MODERNITY and “MOTHER OF NATIONS, EGY
Radicalization in the Sinai Peninsula
In Egypt’s Sinai, insurgency taking root
By Abigail Hauslohner, Published: July 28
EL-ARISH, Egypt — More than three weeks after the military coup that ousted this nation’s first democratically elected — and Islamist — president from power, the roots of a violent insurgency are burrowing fast into the sands of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
The rapid thud of machine-gun fire and the explosions of rocket-propelled grenades have begun to shatter the silence of the desert days and nights here with startling regularity, as militants assault the military and police forces stationed across this volatile territory that borders Israel and the Gaza Strip.
The emerging Sinai crisis gives Egypt’s military a pretext to crack down on Islamist opponents across the country, including in Cairo, where at least 72 people were killed over the weekend when security forces opened fire on demonstrators rallying in support of ousted president Mohamed Morsi.
Egypt’s interim government issued a decree Sunday that granted the military the power to detain civilians, state media reported. Analysts and rights activists said the decree suggested that a state of emergency, a tool that the regime of now-deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak had used for decades to silence opponents, might soon follow.
But in the Sinai, where the reaction to Morsi’s ouster turned deadly within days of the coup, such state-sponsored violence and repression is likely to only feed the conviction of militants, who see themselves as waging a war against a despotic and irreligious military regime.
In the Sinai, long Egypt’s most elusive and neglected region, a familiar cycle of repression has already taken hold.
The military has clamped down hard on all routes in and out. And Saturday, the armed forces launched Operation Desert Storm in the peninsula, according to the state-run al-
Ahram newspaper. The operation got underway after millions of Egyptians took to the streets Friday to heed the military’s call to give it the popular “mandate” to crack down on violence and “terrorism.”
Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said Egypt’s security forces have been given permission to confront those who threaten the state’s “stability.”
“The people have given the army and the police a popular mandate to stand firmly against anyone who shakes the stability of the nation with terrorist or criminal acts,” Ibrahim said Sunday at a graduation ceremony for police recruits.
Backlash over coup
Bedouin leaders and Islamists in the Sinai say locals have been angered by the coup because it brought an end to Egypt’s nascent democracy — a concept that was slow to catch on in this deeply conservative territory that has long been suspicious of Cairo.
Many others, particularly Bedouin smugglers, in a population long accustomed to sweeping arrests, state-sanctioned discrimination and torture under Mubarak, say that they tasted freedom in the anarchy that prevailed under Morsi and that they are determined to avoid a return to the past even if it costs them their lives.
Sinai residents say “operations” under Morsi were more propaganda than action. But local leaders and rights groups fear that the military’s ongoing operation could target the Bedouin as a whole, rather than the 100 or so militants residing among them.
Since Egypt’s armed forces ousted Morsi on July 3, militants have launched dozens of attacks on military and police checkpoints and bases across North Sinai, killing dozens, according to state health officials, and underscoring the potential for widening violence across the country as Islamist anger grows.
Lawlessness, smuggling and militancy have thrived on the peninsula since the 2011 fall of Mubarak’s regime.
Bedouin arms dealers who are sympathetic to the militants said in recent days that fighters have launched shoulder-fired anti-aircraft Stinger missiles (known to the U.S. intelligence community as MANPADs) at military aircraft, laid improvised bombs along roads traversed heavily by troops, and fired barrages of bullets and RPGs at security personnel stationed here.
On Sunday, a police commander who spoke on the condition of anonymity said police had located a fourth bomb outside the Sheik Zweid village police station in less than 48 hours. The first three exploded, injuring several police officers, the official said.
Both police commanders and Bedouin leaders say the militants are a minority in the desert peninsula; the latter group says the militants consist mostly of locals who operate in small cells, with little to no command structure. But Bedouin leaders fear that the territory’s population may soon get swept up in the military’s crackdown, escalating the conflict into a wider war.
On a night last week, militants struck the Hay al-Safa military base near Rafah with an RPG and then gunfire. Hours later, they struck again — with what local arms dealers said were armor-piercing bullets. Families living in the area said they have grown afraid to transit through security checkpoints at night, lest they get caught in the crossfire or get targeted by nervous troops. At least 10 civilians have died in the violence this month.
‘Back to square one’
Unlike mainland Egypt, where Morsi supporters have staged thousands-strong protests that have shut down major roads and convulsed cities from Cairo to the Nile Delta, the Sinai has quickly taken its dissent to a more violent level.
Local Bedouins say it is the route borne of the territory’s cyclical history of state repression and a natural response from a local population flush with weapons and budding extremist groups.
“Protests aren’t really in our nature,” Abu Ashraf, a powerful tribal leader and smuggler in North Sinai, said last week using his nickname. “Our nature is . . .” he said, then stopped, smiled and pantomimed firing a gun.
In the wake of the coup, Egyptian security forces locked down the single bridge that connects the peninsula to the mainland and set up a battery of checkpoints along the highways that link Cairo to the Suez Canal, and onward across North Sinai, where soldiers check IDs and sift through luggage in the trunks of cars. They shine strobe lights into vehicles at night. The Sinai Bedouin feel as if the state is targeting them — again.
Analysts and local political leaders in North Sinai interpreted the call by Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, Egypt’s military commander, for a mandate to fight terrorism as a signal that a Mubarak-style crackdown was imminent. “I think Sissi wants public cover for his bloody work,” said Ahmed Salem, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood in el-Arish, capital of North Sinai.
As much as the Sinai insurgency derives from militant anger at Morsi’s ouster, it is also a preemptive backlash rooted in fear, say Bedouin leaders who sympathize with the militants.
“People here have gotten some freedoms, and they will not allow those to be taken away now,” said Mohamed, a fundamentalist sheik in North Sinai who requested that his last name not be used. “The coup took us back to square one,” he said, and the Sinai’s Islamists are expressing anger at the military “in any way they can.”
“If the state does not reverse al-Sissi’s mistake, there will be more for them to endure,” he said.
Morsi’s rule offered some respite from the repression — a new kind of freedom, some Bedouin leaders said. He didn’t deliver the roads, schools or hospitals that local leaders say would help break the territory’s cycle of violent resistance. But he left them alone.
“Nothing happened the year that Morsi was in power,” said one Bedouin smuggler who spent eight years in prison under Mubarak. “Morsi had no control here. But at least he didn’t insult or arrest anyone. When you would pass by the checkpoints, they would respect you. Now we’re back to the way it was before.”
Steadily increasing violence
The military says its crackdown is necessary to fight terror, but the Bedouin here say it only adds fuel to their rebellion, in a cycle that may soon spiral out of control.
Security officials say they have seized Syrian, Palestinian and even Russian fighters in the Sinai since Morsi’s ouster. They have accused the Muslim Brotherhood, which backs Morsi, and the Islamist militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, of orchestrating the violence, and say that many of the Sinai’s fighters are well-trained jihadists.
Last week, the Interior Ministry said a “car accident” in the South Sinai resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh led to the arrest of a jihadist who had fought in Syria. On Sunday, a police official said security forces had killed 10 “jihadists” and arrested 20 others over the weekend.
The police also have blamed the Brotherhood for the deadly weekend clashes in the Egyptian capital, sparked by police attacks on demonstrators.
The Brotherhood says it does not condone violence. “We do not support, and we do not accept it, even if it seems like the violence is in support of us,” said Salem, the spokesman.
But the Sinai, he said, was beyond the group’s control. “We had tried to tell them that democracy would give them another chance to be good people and to be involved in society,” he said of the region’s smugglers and fugitives. “But this coup made them lose faith.”
And the violence is steadily increasing. Last week, a car exploded on a rural road through the sand dunes that armored vehicles regularly transit to carry supplies to troops stationed at a gas pipeline that had come under repeated attack in the year before Morsi’s presidency.
Local villagers speculated that the three men in the car — all killed in the blast — were in the process of laying a roadside bomb when it exploded prematurely. State media reported that the “terrorists” were driving a car containing a bomb that detonated near a police training camp.
“The military is afraid that what’s happening here will spread to the rest of the republic — from clashes to car bombs,” Abu Ashraf said. And if Morsi isn’t returned to power, Abu Ashraf and other tribal leaders said, car bombings probably will ensue.
Others said sectarian violence also would flare in the absence of a political solution. Militants fatally shot two Christians in North Sinai this month. Egypt’s state-run Middle East News Agency said Sunday that a third had been kidnapped. “There is a sense here that the Christians played a big role in the coup,” said Mohamed, Abu Ashraf’s brother. “I expect there to be more Muslim-Christian violence in the future.”
At a police station that has come under attack almost every day in the center of el-Arish, plainclothes officers huddled in the main corridor on a recent day, fearful of the next attack. Their two armored vehicles sat abandoned outside.
“The biggest problem that we’re facing is that the people are not helping us,” a police commander said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Sometimes the attacks are directed from neighboring rooftops, he said.
At the door, an officer paced nervously with a Kalashnikov. The commander held up a twisted piece of metal that appeared to be the tail of an RPG — one of two missiles to strike the station the day before. In a separate attack the same day, an officer was fatally shot on the roof.
When a call came in that the station might soon come under attack, the officers quickly grabbed more Kalashnikovs and strapped on old flak vests. “You have to leave here now. There are armed men on the way,” the officer told a visiting reporter. Then they locked the gate.
Analysts: Egypt coup weakens Hamas, may help peace talks
Lawless Sinai Shows Risks Rising in Fractured Egypt
A Christian church’s gate in El Arish, in Sinai, was chained shut recently.
But what is the “political process” in Egypt? If you can take part in an election and win – and then be deposed by a general (a guy called Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi) – what is the future of politics in Egypt? The West may want to love Egypt, but it is now being run by a very tough general who doesn’t seem to care very much what we think. He realises that Egypt’s relations with Israel are far more important than any coup d’etat in Cairo and that the preservation of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel is worth far more than any pretence at democracy in Cairo.
8/1/2013 10:29 PM EDT
So Hitler was freely elected !
Morsi and his fanatic cult are the ones who ambushed the new democratic process and put himself above the law by presidential decrees that undermined the state institutions making it possible to turn the state into a radical Islamist one. Furthermore, his decrees would concentrate all the power in the MB hands and makes it impossible for the future candidates to win presidential elections.
The military only responded to the revolting 30 million Egyptians who realized the danger of the forming of the theological dictatorship. Now we have a transitional civilian government that over sees the process with a time table for all the coming elections.
In Egypt, security state is resurrected after provoking fear in 2011 revolution
By Michael Birnbaum, Published: July 29
CAIRO — The brutality of Egypt’s once-feared security state helped spark Egypt’s 2011 revolution. Now those security forces are swinging back into action, and this time they are being hailed as heroes by many of the secular activists and liberals who once campaigned against them.
The reversal started when police in crisp white uniforms joined the successful effort to oust President Mohamed Morsi four weeks ago, drawing cheers from crowds. Since then, police officers who were chased off the streets after the 2011 revolution have been back in force. Meanwhile, the interim government has restored the mandate of the domestic counter-terrorism agency to scrutinize religious and “extremist” activity. Those powers were stripped after the revolution because they were widely interpreted as justifying the torture of Islamists and other government opponents.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which backs Morsi, called on its supporters Monday to protest the revived power of the security forces by demonstrating in front of Interior Ministry offices around the country, raising fears of further violence after police and their plainclothes allies killed at least 80 Morsi supporters Saturday.
Egyptian authorities detained two leaders of the moderate Islamist al-Wasat party on Monday, in an apparent broadening of a crackdown on Islamist political activity. The arrests occurred even as the Obama administration condemned the violence and called for Catherine Ashton, a top European Union official visiting Cairo, to be granted access to Morsi. He has been held incommunicado since the Egyptian army deposed him on July 3.
In a striking sign of the widening split in Egyptian society, many of the liberal and secular groups that revolted in 2011 are welcoming the resurrection of the forces they had once joined the Islamists in condemning.
Some of the secularists said they were worn out from more than two years of rising crime, and feared a burgeoning insurgency in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which they said justifies the revitalization of the counterterrorism force.
“It’s a reconciliation,” said Ehab Samir, a top official of the Free Egyptians Party, a secular political party that supported Morsi’s ouster. “You can’t stay at odds with them. Your security is dependent on having a strong police force.”
The possibility of a vastly expanded security state initially appeared to unsettle Tamarod, or Rebel, the movement that organized the June protests leading to Morsi’s exit. Last weekend, the group said on its Web site that “there is no way to accept the return of [former president Hosni] Mubarak’s State Security.”
But by Monday, the criticism had softened.
“We appreciate the burden on the Interior Ministry and the state, because they are facing an 80-year-old organization” — the Muslim Brotherhood — “that is ready to drag the country into a civil war,” Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, a Tamarod spokesman, said in an interview.
The Muslim Brotherhood has said it simply wants the return of the democratically elected president.
Some human rights activists say that security forces were never fully reined in during Morsi’s year-long rule but that police and national security had stopped targeting Islamists, who had been one of their major targets.
Still, the plan to re-establish the old powers of the security forces is a “significant shift,” said Heba Morayef, Egypt director for Human Rights Watch,
“It goes beyond the Islamist-secular divide to something much bigger,” she said. “I don’t like using the word ‘counterrevolution,’ but the police feel they’ve been vindicated, and they have been able to use the last few months to put themselves in a position of power again.”
In 2011, the police and state security forces defended Mubarak, the long-ruling autocrat, and the military ultimately did not. Many of the investigations in the aftermath of the 18-day uprising focused on police violence against revolutionaries. Police officers known for their swagger under Mubarak became a subdued presence on the streets, declining even to enforce traffic laws. The top leadership of State Security was dismissed, and the force was given a new name, National Security.
But on Saturday, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim suggested that the reshuffle might have been a mistake.
“You cannot have security in a country without political security,” Ibrahim said at a news conference, blaming some of Egypt’s turmoil on the abolition of departments in the domestic counterterrorism agency that monitored religious and extremist groups. Ibrahim said he was reinstating some officers who had been dismissed and had “started rebuilding” the departments.
He said that he would soon move to clear away large Muslim Brotherhood-led sit-ins that have been taking place in Cairo since Morsi’s departure.
The Obama administration on Monday urged Egypt’s interim leaders to refrain from using violence. It again declined to label the removal of Morsi a “coup,” a characterization that could force a halt to the $1.5 billion that the United States sends Egypt every year, much of it military aid.
“The United States strongly condemns the bloodshed and violence in Cairo and Alexandria over the weekend,” White House deputy spokesman Josh Earnest said. “Egyptian authorities have a moral and legal obligation to respect the right of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.”
Inside the vast, fortified state security headquarters, which was burned and ransacked by protesters in the chaotic weeks after Mubarak was forced from power in February 2011, security officers said Monday that they welcomed the changed attitudes. Human rights groups and critics have said that some of the Mubarak era’s worst torture took place inside the compound.
In a drab, windowless reception room inside the compound, three security officers in plainclothes said that they had simply been misunderstood after the revolution.
“People say that this place is only for torture,” one officer said. “This is not going to be a place of torture. We are here just to collect information and to combat terrorism. That’s it.”
Clashes: Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted president Mohamed Morsi fighting with opponents to Morsi in the distance
The choice in Egypt
Eerie calm: Brick barricades stand along the main street of Nasr City, a district of eastern Cairo, the day after a ferocious crackdown on supporters of deposed president Mohammed Morsi
As Foreign Fighters Flood Syria, Fears of a New Extremist Haven
Syria: nearly half rebel fighters are jihadists or hardline Islamists, says IHS Jane’s report
Nearly half the rebel fighters in Syria are now aligned to jihadist or hardline Islamist groups according to a new analysis of factions in the country’s civil war.
Opposition forces have fragmented into as many as 1,000 bands Photo: Rex Features
By Ben Farmer, Defence Correspondent, and Ruth Sherlock in Beirut
7:17PM BST 15 Sep 2013
Opposition forces battling Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria now number around 100,000 fighters, but after more than two years of fighting they are fragmented into as many as 1,000 bands.
The new study by IHS Jane’s, a defence consultancy, estimates there are around 10,000 jihadists – who would include foreign fighters – fighting for powerful factions linked to al-Qaeda..
Another 30,000 to 35,000 are hardline Islamists who share much of the outlook of the jihadists, but are focused purely on the Syrian war rather than a wider international struggle.
There are also at least a further 30,000 moderates belonging to groups that have an Islamic character, meaning only a small minority of the rebels are linked to secular or purely nationalist groups.
The stark assessment, to be published later this week, accords with the view of Western diplomats estimate that less than one third of the opposition forces are “palatable” to Britain, while American envoys put the figure even lower.
Fears that the rebellion against the Assad regime is being increasingly dominated by extremists has fuelled concerns in the West over supplying weaponry that will fall into hostile hands. These fears contributed to unease in the US and elsewhere over military intervention in Syria.
Charles Lister, author of the analysis, said: “The insurgency is now dominated by groups which have at least an Islamist viewpoint on the conflict. The idea that it is mostly secular groups leading the opposition is just not borne out.”
The study is based on intelligence estimates and interviews with activists and militants. The lengthy fighting has seen the emergence of hundreds of separate rebel bands, each operating in small pockets of the country, which are usually loyal to larger factions.
Rebels from Jabhat al-Nusra at Taftanaz air base, Idlib, in 2011 (AP)
Two factions linked to al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – also know as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) – have come to dominate among the more extremist fighters, Mr Lister said. Their influence has risen significantly in the past year.
“Because of the Islamist make up of such a large proportion of the opposition, the fear is that if the West doesn’t play its cards right, it will end up pushing these people away from the people we are backing,” he said. “If the West looks as though it is not interested in removing Assad, moderate Islamists are also likely to be pushed further towards extremists.”
Though still a minority in number, ISIL has become more prominent in rebel-held parts of Syria in recent months. Members in northern Syria have sought to assert their dominance over the local population and over the more moderate rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The aim of moderate rebel fighters is the overthrow of their country’s authoritarian dictator, but jihadist groups want to transform Syria into a hard-line Islamic state within a regional Islamic “caliphate”.
These competing visions have caused rancour which last week erupted into fighting between ISIL and two of the larger moderate rebel factions.
A statement posted online by Islamists announced the launch of an ISIL military offensive in the eastern district of Aleppo which it called “Cleansing Evil”. “We will target regime collaborators, shabiha [pro-Assad militias], and those who blatantly attacked the Islamic state,” it added, naming the Farouq and Nasr factions.
Al-Qaeda has assassinated several FSA rebel commanders in northern Latakia province in recent weeks, and locals say they fear this is part of a jihadist campaign to gain complete control of the territory.
As well as being better armed and tougher fighters, ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra have taken control of much of the income-generating resources in the north of the country, including oil, gas and grain.
This has given them significant economic clout, allowing them to “win hearts and minds” by providing food for the local population in a way that other rebel groups cannot.
ISIS has also begun a programme of “indoctrination” of civilians in rebel-held areas, trying to educate Syria’s traditionally moderate Sunni Muslims into a more hard-line interpretation of Islam.
In early September, the group distributed black backpacks with the words “Islamic State of Iraq” stamped on them. They also now control schools in Aleppo where young boys are reportedly taught to sing jihadist anthems.
“It seems it is some sort of a long-term plan to brainwash the children and recruit potential fighters,” said Elie Wehbe, a Lebanese journalists who is conducting research into these activities.
…Well, here is a question we need to start posing: There are reportedly thousands of Arab and Muslim youths who have come from as far away as Australia to join the jihadist militias in Syria fighting to create a Sunni Islamist state there. But how many Arab and Muslim youth have flocked to Syria to fight with the decent elements of the Free Syrian Army for a multi-sectarian, pluralistic, democratic Syria — that is, the kind of Syria we hope for and envisage? I have not read of any. Arms purveyors, yes, but not people putting their own lives on the line.
One Great Big War
By DAVID BROOKS
Published: August 29, 2013
What’s the biggest threat to world peace right now? Despite the horror, it’s not chemical weapons in Syria. It’s not even, for the moment, an Iranian nuclear weapon. Instead, it’s the possibility of a wave of sectarian strife building across the Middle East.
The Syrian civil conflict is both a proxy war and a combustion point for spreading waves of violence. This didn’t start out as a religious war. But both Sunni and Shiite power players are seizing on religious symbols and sowing sectarian passions that are rippling across the region. The Saudi and Iranian powers hover in the background fueling each side.
As the death toll in Syria rises to Rwanda-like proportions, images of mass killings draw holy warriors from countries near and far. The radical groups are the most effective fighters and control the tempo of events. The Syrian opposition groups are themselves split violently along sectarian lines so that the country seems to face a choice between anarchy and atrocity.
Meanwhile, the strife appears to be spreading. Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq is spiking upward. Reports in The Times and elsewhere have said that many Iraqis fear their country is sliding back to the worst of the chaos experienced in the last decade. Even Turkey, Pakistan, Bahrain and Kuwait could be infected. “It could become a regional religious war similar to that witnessed in Iraq 2006-2008, but far wider and without the moderating influence of American forces,” wrote Gary Grappo, a retired senior Foreign Service officer with long experience in the region.
“It has become clear over the last year that the upheavals in the Islamic and Arab world have become a clash within a civilization rather than a clash between civilizations,” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote recently. “The Sunni versus Alawite civil war in Syria is increasingly interacting with the Sunni versus Shiite tensions in the Gulf that are edging Iraq back toward civil war. They also interact with the Sunni-Shiite, Maronite and other confessional struggles in Lebanon.”
Some experts even say that we are seeing the emergence of a single big conflict that could be part of a generation-long devolution, which could end up toppling regimes and redrawing the national borders that were established after World War I. The forces ripping people into polarized groups seem stronger than the forces bringing them together.
It is pretty clear that the recent American strategy of light-footprint withdrawal and nation-building at home has not helped matters. The United States could have left more troops in Iraq and tamped down violence there. We could have intervened in Syria back when there was still something to be done and some reasonable opposition to mold.
At this late hour, one question is whether the sectarian fire has grown so hot that it is beyond taming. The second question is whether the United States has any strategy to limit the conflagration.
Right now, President Obama is focused on the imminent strike against the Assad regime, to establish American credibility when it sets red lines and reinforce the norm that poison gas is not acceptable.
But the president does have the makings of a broader antisectarian strategy. He has at least three approaches on the table. The first is containment: trying to keep each nation’s civil strife contained within its own borders. The second is reconciliation: looking for diplomatic opportunities to bring the Sunni axis, led by the Saudis, toward some rapprochement with the Shiite axis, led by Iran. So far, there have been few diplomatic opportunities to do this.
Finally, there is neutrality: the nations in the Sunni axis are continually asking the United States to simply throw in with them, to use the C.I.A. and other American capacities to help the Sunnis beat back their rivals. The administration has decided that taking sides so completely is not an effective long-term option.
Going forward, there probably has to be a global education effort to reduce anti-Sunni and anti-Shiite passions. Iran could be asked to pay a higher price not only for its nuclear program, but for its mischief-making around the region.
But, at this point, it’s not clear whether American and other outside interference would help squash hatreds or inflame them. The legendary diplomat Ryan Crocker argues in a recent essay in YaleGlobal that major outside interventions might only make things worse. “The hard truth is that the fires in Syria will blaze for some time to come. Like a major forest fire, the most we can do is hope to contain it.”
Poison gas in Syria is horrendous, but the real inferno is regional. When you look at all the policy options for dealing with the Syria situation, they are all terrible or too late. The job now is to try to wall off the situation to prevent something just as bad but much more sprawling.
Stunning Images of Destroyed Syrian City
Destruction: This aerial view shows the destruction in the al-Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting as government forces bid to flush rebels into the open
Fire and smoke: Smoke and flames rise in the Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs after an attack by Syrian forces
Ghost town: Many of the roads in Homs are completely empty giving this once great city the look and feel of a ghost town, populated only by the thousands of souls who died here
Worries Mount as Syria Lures West’s Muslims
By ERIC SCHMITT
Published: July 27, 2013
WASHINGTON — A rising number of radicalized young Muslims with Western passports are traveling to Syria to fight with the rebels against the government of Bashar al-Assad, raising fears among American and European intelligence officials of a new terrorist threat when the fighters return home.
More Westerners are now fighting in Syria than fought in conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia or Yemen, according to the officials. They go to Syria motivated by the desire to help the people suffering there by overthrowing Mr. Assad. But there is growing concern that they will come back with a burst of jihadist zeal, some semblance of military discipline, enhanced weapons and explosives skills, and, in the worst case, orders from affiliates of Al Qaeda to carry out terrorist strikes.
“Syria has become really the predominant jihadist battlefield in the world,” Matthew G. Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told a security conference in Aspen, Colo., this month. He added, “The concern going forward from a threat perspective is there are individuals traveling to Syria, becoming further radicalized, becoming trained and then returning as part of really a global jihadist movement to Western Europe and, potentially, to the United States.”
Classified estimates from Western intelligence services and unclassified assessments from government and independent experts put the number of fighters from Europe, North America and Australia who have entered Syria since 2011 at more than 600. That represents about 10 percent of the roughly 6,000 foreign fighters who have poured into Syria by way of the Middle East and North Africa.
Most of the Westerners are self-radicalized and are traveling on their own initiative to Turkey, where rebel facilitators often link them up with specific groups, terrorism experts say. Many have joined ranks with the Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front, which American officials have designated as a terrorist group.
“The scale of this is completely different from what we’ve experienced in the past,” Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union’s counterterrorism coordinator, said at the conference in Aspen.
So far, terrorism experts say, there have been no documented terrorist plots linked to European or other Western fighters returning from Syria, but France’s interior minister, Manuel Valls, recently called the threat “a ticking time bomb.” Security services across Europe are stepping up their surveillance efforts and seeking ways to make it more difficult for people suspected of being jihadists to travel to Syria.
European and other Western intelligence agencies are rushing to work together to track the individuals seeking to cross the border into Syria from Turkey, though several American officials expressed frustration that Turkey is not taking more aggressive steps to stem the flow of Europeans going to fight in Syria.
Hans-Peter Friedrich, Germany’s interior minister, is pushing for an European Union-wide registry for all foreigners entering the bloc as one of the measures that will help better track returning radicals.
While such a registry will take time to create and put in place, the move reflects the level of concern and the understanding among German security leaders that an individual country’s efforts will be ineffective without the assistance of its European partners, given the open borders across much of the Continent.
The German authorities have so far focused domestic efforts on preventing people suspected of being radicals from leaving the country. In the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, the security authorities this month identified 12 people thought to be radicals, who they said had given “concrete indications” that they were planning to leave for Syria.
Public prosecutors in the Netherlands have said that while the authorities cannot stop would-be jihadists from leaving the country, they can combat recruitment, which is against the law and carries a sentence of up to four years in jail or a fine of more than $100,000.
A precise breakdown of the Western fighters in Syria is difficult to offer, counter-terrorism and intelligence officials said, but their estimates include about 140 French citizens, 100 Britons, 75 Spaniards, 60 Germans, and as many as a few dozen Canadians and Australians. There are also fighters from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands, according to a study in April by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, a partnership of academic institutions based in London, which estimated that 140 to 600 Europeans had gone to Syria.
Only about a dozen Americans have so far gone to fight in Syria, according to American intelligence officials. Nicole Lynn Mansfield, 33, of Flint, Mich., a convert to Islam, was killed in May while in the company of Syrian rebels in Idlib Province.
Eric Harroun, 30, a former Army soldier from Phoenix, was indicted in Virginia by a federal grand jury last month on two charges related to allegations that he fought alongside the Nusra Front. In February, he bragged about his involvement, posting a photo on his Facebook page saying, “Downed a Syrian Helicopter then Looted all Intel and Weapons!”
About 30 French citizens have returned from the front lines in Syria, according to Mathieu Guidère, a professor at Université Toulouse II and an expert on Islamic terrorism. He said most had been stopped by the domestic intelligence service and held for lengthy questioning under a law passed last year that allows charges to be brought for having traveled to terrorist training camps or combat zones where terrorist groups are involved.
Some returned because they were unable to reach the front or find fighters to arm them or train them, Mr. Guidère said. Many end up lost among the refugees on the Turkish and Jordanian borders, and after waiting around for a while come home. Others are rejected by the Free Syrian Army, which does not want them, he said. Many who end up staying join the Nusra Front, which often divides them into groups by nationality.
Recently, the Dutch authorities arrested a 19-year-old woman suspected of recruiting young Dutch Muslims to fight with Islamic extremists in Syria.
In April, the Belgian authorities raided 48 homes across the country and detained six men implicated in what prosecutors described as a jihadist recruitment drive for the insurgency in Syria. Some of the men have since been released, Eric Van Der Sypt, a spokesman for the federal prosecutor, said by telephone on Friday.
Mr. Van Der Sypt said that the Belgian authorities had recently arrested another man after he returned to Belgium from Syria, but he declined to provide more information, citing the continuing investigation. “We’re still following the phenomenon of people going to Syria from very close by,” he said, referring to residents of places in Belgium like Antwerp and Vilvoorde, a community north of Brussels, who had become involved in a group known as Sharia4Belgium.
Reporting was contributed by Melissa Eddy and Victor Homola from Berlin; Alissa J. Rubin, Scott Sayare and Steven Erlanger from Paris; and James Kanter from Brussels. Kitty Bennett contributed research.
Obama’s Syria policy has jihadis sitting pretty
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
by Trudy Rubin
Anyone who doubts the dangerous consequences of White House waffling on Syria should note some startling statements by U.S. officials in recent days.
Let’s start at the top. After two years of insistence that Syrian President Bashar Assad must go, the White House started publicly hedging. No doubt that was a reaction to the fact that Assad — armed and aided by Russia, Iran, and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah — has been scoring major victories against the Syrian rebels.
The new White House language, as stated by press secretary Jay Carney on July 18, claims that Assad “in our view, will never rule all of Syria again.” This apparently means the administration thinks Assad will continue controlling at least some or even much of the country.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was even more pointed at his confirmation hearings. When asked by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) whether Assad would be in power a year from now “if we don’t change our game,” Dempsey replied: “I think likely so.”
These admissions reflect a critical failure of U.S. policy, which was supposedly intended to help more moderate rebels and organize them into a coherent fighting force. The goal was to isolate jihadi militias, while weakening Assad enough militarily to push him into serious peace talks.
But the administration refused, until last month, to give military aid to relatively moderate rebel groups, even those vetted by the CIA. Obama vetoed a plan put forward last summer by then-CIA chief David Petraeus, and backed by Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and Dempsey, to arm such groups — apparently fearing military aid might be diverted to jihadis.
Yet the most militant jihadis had no trouble getting arms and funds from wealthy Arab supporters. Even Arab Gulf allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar often armed Islamist militants. The upshot: Better-armed radicals flourished.
“The reality is that, left unchecked, they will become bigger,” said David Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, at the Aspen Security Forum last week. “Over the last two years they’ve grown in size, they’ve grown in capability, and ruthlessly have grown in effectiveness.”
In other words, the U.S. policy of withholding heavy weapons from more moderate groups has led to the opposite of what was intended — the strengthening of radical jihadis.
The humanitarian catastrophe continues to build. What’s especially surprising is the U.S. failure to give strong backing to a Syrian umbrella military organization it helped set up last December. Known as the Supreme Military Council, the group is headed by a moderate Syrian defector, Gen. Salim Idriss.
The idea was for Washington to ensure that Saudi and Qatari military aid went through Idriss and the council, thus bolstering non-jihadi forces and molding disparate militias into a more effective fighting force. Instead, the delivery of even nonlethal aid was delayed for months. Then, last month, the White House finally decided to permit the CIA to deliver small arms and train a limited number of rebels — a move that experts agree is likely to have little impact against a regime using bombs, missiles, and heavy artillery.
Even this limited aid (OK’d last week by House and Senate intelligence committees) has yet to be delivered.
A bitter Idriss asked, in an interview with a British newspaper: “What are our friends in the West waiting for? For Iran and Hezbollah to kill all the Syrian people?”
It’s understandable that the White House doesn’t want to involve U.S. military forces directly in the Syrian war. But it’s hard to understand a policy that has enabled a new al-Qaeda base to take root in Syria and endangers Arab allies. The way things are going, Syria may wind up divided between Assad forces and radical Islamists.
“Soon there will be no Free Syrian Army to arm. The Islamic groups will take control of everything,” Idriss complained.
Does the White House have a plan to prevent an Assad victory that benefits al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Iran?
Kurdish Struggle Blurs Syria’s Battle Lines
Kurdish fighters in Qamishli, in northeastern Syria.
By BEN HUBBARD and an EMPLOYEE of THE NEW YORK TIMES
Published: August 1, 2013
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Street names in Syria’s far northeastern corner have been changed from Arabic to Kurdish, schools openly teach the Kurdish language, and the country’s most powerful Kurdish militia flies its flag from checkpoints on main roads.
Across northeastern Syria, the Kurds, the country’s largest ethnic minority, have taken advantage of the vacuum left by the civil war to push for the autonomy long denied them by the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Their struggle does not fit neatly into the war between Mr. Assad’s government and the rebels seeking his ouster, and different parts of the scattered Kurdish population have allied at times with forces on either side.
The fight for a measure of autonomy by Syria’s Kurds is the newest conflict in a broader struggle in which Kurds, spread across Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran and oppressed for decades, are trying to take advantage of the chaos in the Middle East to achieve longstanding ambitions for self-government and democratic rights. Most Kurds say their ultimate aim is an independent state, which was first promised to them, and then denied, by the victors of World War I. That perceived betrayal has sown deep grievances in the collective Kurdish psyche.
But for now Kurdish leaders say their goal is more autonomy within existing countries, with Kurdistan in Iraq as a model.
Recently, Kurdish assertiveness in Syria has set off rounds of clashes, pitting Kurds against rebel groups that accuse them of collaborating with Mr. Assad, and against fighters linked to Al Qaeda who see Kurdish control as a challenge to their plan to establish an Islamic state.
Scores of fighters from both sides have been killed, and new violence is shaking Kurdish areas long considered quiet. This week, a car bomb killed a prominent Kurdish politician, Isa Huso, in Qamishli, and rebel forces took over a Kurdish village in Aleppo Province, detaining about 200 Kurds, activists said.
The fighting highlights the further shattering of battle lines in the Syrian civil war as rebel groups focus their efforts on local struggles only loosely connected to their declared goal of toppling Mr. Assad.
Kurdish political leaders say they are not seeking an independent Kurdish state in northern Syria, but are only pushing for greater Kurdish rights. They model their struggle in part on the status achieved by Kurds in Iraq, who run a region in the north that is essentially independent from Baghdad, conducting its own foreign policy, controlling its ports of entry and fielding its own armed forces.
Although for now that region relies on Iraq’s central government for much of its budget, it has sought deals with Turkey and foreign companies to sell its oil in a bid for economic independence. Meanwhile, Syrian Kurdish militiamen have traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan for training, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., which is negotiating its own peace with Turkey, has provided support to its brethren in Syria.
A recent trip by a reporter through the Kurdish area of Syria revealed many steps toward Kurdish autonomy as well as fighters who have taken up arms to obtain it.
“The Kurds will take their right to self-determination under any political regime, with President Assad or without him,” said Haval Mahmud, a militiaman with the Democratic Union Party, known by its Kurdish-language abbreviation, P.Y.D., in Qamishli. “We are gaining our rights with our blood, not as a gift from any side.”
About 9 percent of Syria’s 22 million people are ethnic Kurds, most of them living in communities scattered near the Turkish border, with greater concentrations to the east, near Iraq.
They have long complained of discrimination by the state, which suppressed their language and invested little in their areas despite the region’s richness in oil and agricultural land.
While many Kurdish youths joined the anti-Assad uprising that started in 2011, Kurdish political parties mostly charted a neutral path, feeling that neither side had much to offer.
But since the uprising became a civil war and the government withdrew from many isolated areas, Kurdish militias have filled the void in their communities.
Turkish leaders worry that a strengthened P.Y.D., which is linked to the P.K.K., could embolden its Turkish counterpart or lead to cross-border attacks.
The head of the P.Y.D., Saleh Muslim, sought to reassure Turkish officials during a visit last week to Ankara, the capital, that his group would establish only temporary administrations in its areas.
Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, praised Mr. Muslim’s approach, while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned against any “wrong and dangerous steps” toward Kurdish autonomy in Syria.
Recent visits to Kurdish areas in northern Syria revealed that the P.Y.D. is the strongest Kurdish force on the ground and that it has formed a patchwork of local alliances to defend its areas, teaming up with Arab tribes in some places while reaching accommodations with the government in others.
“The P.Y.D. is a pragmatic party that has its own project to administer Syria’s Kurd-populated areas, establishing political, social, cultural and security institutions,” said Maria Fantappie, a researcher with the International Crisis Group who has studied Syria’s Kurds. “This is their project, and we can expect them to make all the alliances they need as a temporary compromise.”
The recent spike in violence has pitted P.Y.D. militias against rebels and fighters from two extremist groups with links to Al Qaeda: Al Nusra Front and the Islamist State in Iraq and Syria.
In mid-July, clashes broke out between the two sides in Ras al-Ain in Hasaka Province, and Kurdish fighters quickly seized control of the ethnically mixed town with help from the local Arab tribes that distrust the extremist groups.
“We are Sunni Muslims, but this is not Afghanistan,” said an Arab resident, Hajj Omar, 50. “I am a Sunni Muslim, I pray five times a day, my sons pray, my wife is covered and we observe all the Islamic rituals, but we cannot live under these radical Islamic groups.”
Since then, clashes have spread throughout the ethnically mixed region along the border, with each side erecting checkpoints to control roads and kidnapping civilians to put pressure on its foes.
After Kurdish fighters failed to seize the mixed town of Tal Abyad farther west along the border, extremist fighters blew up a Kurdish administrative building and the homes of Kurds believed to be supporting the fighters, activists said.
“They don’t want to finish the Assad regime like we do,” said a rebel fighter who goes by Abu Abdul-Rahman, 30. “They want to establish their own independent state.”
The largest Kurdish stronghold is the eastern city of Qamishli, near the border with Iraq, an ethnically mixed city with a large Kurdish population.
The government withdrew its forces from the city center last year, leaving only a contingent at the airport and allowing the P.Y.D. to take over.
At a checkpoint near the city’s southern edge, Mr. Mahmud, the P.Y.D. fighter, denied that his group received support from the Syrian government, recalling its decades of neglect of Kurds.
“A new government will be established to fill the gap until the end of the Syrian crisis,” he said, near a poster of the jailed P.K.K. leader Abdullah Ocalan. He said that no matter who ended up governing Syria after the war, the Kurds would protect their gains.
“Surely, the clock will not be turned back,” he said.
Updated September 18, 2013, 7:50 p.m. ET
Rebel-on-Rebel Violence Seizes Syria
By NOUR MALAS
Free Syrian Army fighters in Raqqa, in north-central Syria, on Friday. In mid-August, extremists from ISIS drove an FSA unit from the city
An al Qaeda spinoff operating near Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, last week began a new battle campaign it dubbed “Expunging Filth.”
The target wasn’t their avowed enemy, the Syrian government. Instead, it was their nominal ally, the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army.
Across northern and eastern Syria, units of the jihadist group known as ISIS are seizing territory—on the battlefield and behind the front lines—from Western-backed rebels.
Some FSA fighters now consider the extremists to be as big a threat to their survival as the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.
“It’s a three-front war,” a U.S. official said of the FSA rebels’ fight: They face the Assad regime, forces from its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, and now the multinational jihadist ranks of ISIS.
Brigade leaders of the FSA say that ISIS, an Iraqi al Qaeda outfit whose formal name is the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, has dragged them into a battle they are ill-equipped to fight.
Some U.S. officials said they see it as a battle for the FSA’s survival.
In recent months, ISIS has become a magnet for foreign jihadists who view the war in Syria not primarily as a means to overthrow the Assad regime but rather as a historic battleground for a larger Sunni holy war. According to centuries-old Islamic prophecy they espouse, they must establish an Islamic state in Syria as a step to achieving a global one.
Al Qaeda militants from central command in Pakistan and Pakistani Taliban fighters have also set up operational bases in northern Syria, people familiar with their operations said.
The spread of ISIS illustrates the failure of Western-backed Syrian moderates to establish authority in opposition-held parts of Syria, some of which have been under rebel control for over a year.
The proliferation of the Sunni jihadists and extremists has brought a new type of terror to the lives of many Syrians who have endured civil war in the north. Summary executions of Alawites and Shiites, who are seen as apostates, attacks on Shiite shrines, and kidnappings and assassinations of pro-Western rebels are on the rise
Estimates on the size of ISIS range from 7,000 to 10,000 fighters. Fighters from ISIS—though it shares the goal of toppling Mr. Assad’s Shiite-linked Alawite regime—have frustrated Sunni communities that until recently embraced the military prowess and social services of Islamist rebels, local residents said.
The FSA’s fight with extremists is spurring new rebel calls for Western help, after the U.S. put on hold what had looked like imminent strikes on the Assad regime. Instead, diplomacy has taken over, after a U.S.-Russian deal to disarm Syria’s chemical weapons.
A parallel effort continues by Gulf states—and to a much lesser extent by the U.S.—to strengthen select rebel units viewed as moderate, according to Western officials familiar with the arms flow to Syrian rebels.
The FSA’s Supreme Military Council, and other rebels who want the U.S. to intervene on their behalf, see the rise of ISIS as an opportunity to firmly separate themselves from al Qaeda militants, whose presence they believe is holding the U.S. back.
This account of the growing influence of ISIS and its backlash is based on interviews with FSA rebels fighting ISIS, Syrian jihadists who have fought alongside the al Qaeda group or are familiar with its operations, and Western officials.
Representatives of ISIS, a group also known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and in Arabic as al-Dawla, couldn’t be reached for this article.
“There’s been a real shift in focus [among Syrians in the north],” a Western official working with the opposition said. “A sense of ‘We can’t get rid of the regime without getting rid of Dawla first.’ “
U.S. officials said one reason for the delay in funneling small quantities of light arms to rebels, which began this month, is the difficulty of creating secure pipelines of delivery to intended recipients.
The chaos of the Syrian battlefield, where those fighting to overthrow Mr. Assad sometimes fight side-by-side with those who see Syria as a springboard for global jihad, has compounded U.S. concerns over this process.
U.S. and other Western officials said they were aware of a local backlash and localized FSA counteroffensives against ISIS. They welcomed FSA efforts to draw a line between al Qaeda fighters and the rebels who Western states back.
The extremists post a threat to the ability of the political opposition, too, to gain legitimacy on the ground and better coordinate with the Free Syrian Army.
In the past half-year, as the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the main opposition body, deliberated over forming what it calls an interim government, extremists have gained ground across the north.
“It’s an uphill struggle for the coalition’s interim government to establish itself inside Syria in the face of threats from the regime, and extremists, but there is still an opportunity to be missed here,” a senior Western diplomat said. “It’s still the case that a majority of Syrians are not up for Talibanization. Given a moderate alternative, they will choose that.”
The other alternative: A lawless north becomes a launchpad for jihadists, akin to areas of Pakistan and the Arabian peninsula.
“The roots of Waziristan, of southern Yemen have been planted in northern Syria,” a Western official working with the opposition said.
The group has moved quickly. In mid-August, ISIS pushed a well-known FSA unit, the Ahfad al-Rasoul brigades, out of the city of Raqqa in northern Syria after tit-for-tat killings and bombings between their fighters.
On Wednesday, clashes broke out in the town of Azaz, near the Turkish border, between ISIS fighters and rebels from an FSA-allied group, leading to some casualties on both sides, opposition activists in the town said. Clashes continued past midnight, activists said.
Along Syria’s border with Turkey, ISIS fighters are trying to wrest the four major crossings from other rebel units, in a bid to control supply routes, according to rebels battling the extremists, and Western officials.
In recent weeks, ISIS fighters have adopted a strategy of dropping back—taking rear positions—as rebels with the FSA alliance leave for front lines to fight government forces, allowing ISIS to build a presence in towns and villages left without security or services.
Some Syrians in the villages that dot the Turkish border have changed their lifestyles to dodge persecution by followers of ISIS’s fearsome brand of Islamic extremism.
Local men grow beards to pass without scrutiny through ISIS checkpoints. Many Syrian activists and aid workers, wary of their affiliations with Western aid agencies and governments, now say they prefer to work in Turkey and avoid cross-border trips, many border residents and aid workers said.
These jihadists see a long-term mission in Syria. Foreign fighters have begun to move their families to Turkish border areas, locals said.
The trickle of families picked up after the possibility of a U.S. strike on Syrian government targets emerged late last month in response to an Aug. 21 chemical attack near Damascus. U.S. officials said they saw indications the militants hoped they could seize on a U.S. strike to shift momentum against the regime.
As the U.S. threat receded, emboldened ISIS militants ramped up efforts to win local support, said Hamid Ibrahim, a spokesman for FSA leader Gen. Salim Idriss.
“They are telling them: ‘We told you that you can’t depend on America for freedom. Don’t be fooled—you only have us,’ ” Mr. Ibrahim said.
The Supreme Military Council, led by Gen. Idriss leads has been the focus of U.S. efforts to bring a command-and-control structure to rebels—but has now lost to the Islamist extremists most of its ability to operate in some parts of the north.
ISIS fighters recently raided a council arms depot filled with lights weapons and ammunition, funded by the Gulf states and funneled to the council with the guidance of the Central Intelligence Agency, council members said.
From Idlib in the north to Deir el-Zour in the east, Syrian activists are looking for Western help to learn ways to push back against al Qaeda’s influence.
In Aleppo and Hama, local rebel police forces are being trained with U.S. funds to put security in the hands of American allies.
The foreign jihadists have become a problem even for some of the hard-line Syrian Islamists who worked most closely with them on the battlefield. One such group is Ahrar al-Sham.
On Sept. 10, a gunfight that broke out at an ISIS checkpoint in Idlib killed a revered leader, Abu Obeida, as he accompanied Turkish and Malaysian relief workers on a distribution mission, unleashing criticism in Islamist rebel circles against ISIS.
ISIS members, posting on social-media networks, said the delegation was stopped because fighters confused the Malaysian flag for the American flag.
They deny intending to kill Abu Obeida, and said they aimed to shoot him in the legs only to keep him from running away after they had ambushed him and stuck him in the trunk of a car.
The spread of Iraqi al Qaeda groups in Syria
Late 2011 The Islamic State of Iraq, or ISI, al Qaeda’s Iraq branch, moves operatives to Syria to set up a new affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra.
January 2013 Al-Nusra, led by Abu Muhammad al-Golani, announces itself as an official entity in online videos. In the months that follow, al-Nusra becomes a leading Syrian rebel fighting force, attracting thousands of jihadists, including foreigners. It also provides social services in parts of northern Syria—and ends up designated by Washington as a foreign terrorist organization.
April ISI leader Abu Baker al-Baghdadi changes the name of ISI to Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, in an attempt to swallow Jabhat al-Nusra into a broadened entity. Al-Nusra’s leader, al-Golani, rejects the plan, pledging allegiance to central al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Spring 2013 In the months that follow, the two groups separate. Syrian jihadists leave al-Nusra for ISIS. ISIS begins to attract thousands of foreign fighters to Syria.
June 13 At conference in Cairo of regional Sunni clerics, over 100 prominent religious leaders sign a document urging jihad in Syria; more foreign fighters flock to the civil war.
Aug. 15 ISIS pushes FSA unit the Ahfad al-Rasoul brigades out of the city of Raqqa, after detonating several suicide car bombs, including one that destroyed the brigades’ headquarters there.
Sept. 10 A leader of hard-line Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham is killed after a clash at an ISIS checkpoint in Idlib.
Sept. 11 Al Qaeda chief al-Zawahiri urges Islamists fighting in Syria not to work with the secular opposition. He also calls for ‘lone-wolf’ or small-scale attacks to damage the U.S. economy.
Sept. 11 Syrian government warplanes bomb a field hospital in al-Bab, a town in Aleppo under ISIS control. Residents and FSA fighters respond by attacking the ISIS headquarters in the town.
Sept. 12 ISIS fighters take over a base in eastern Hama including a depot with dozens of rockets, rocket launchers and armored vehicles.
Sept. 13 ISIS’s eastern Aleppo unit declares war on its rivals in a campaign it named ‘Expunging Filth,’ identifying two FSA units by name.
Sept. 18 ISIS and an FSA-allied unit clash in Azaz, an Aleppo town 2½ miles from the Turkish border. An opposition activist in the town said ISIS attacked the unit for trying to obstruct the al Qaeda group from arresting a German doctor working at an Azaz field hospital.
—Siobhan Gorman contributed to this article.
Al-Qaeda-linked fighters seize Syrian town of Azaz from more moderate rebels
Al-Qaeda expands in Syria via Islamic State
AFP – A member of the Free Syrian Army opens fire on a government forces helicopter over the Saif al-Dawla neighbourhood in Aleppo, where rebels have warned that they could turn to Al-Qaeda for help.
One-State Dream, One-State Nightmare
Brutality of Syrian Rebels Posing Dilemma in West
Worldwide loss of oil supply heightens Syria attack risk
Libya’s oil output has crashed to a near standstill over the past year as warlords and strikes paralyse the country, tightening the screws on global crude supply as the crisis in Syria comes to a head.
Jitters over Syria have already pushed Brent to $115, near levels that typically erode confidence and inflict serious economic damage Photo: AP
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
“We are currently witnessing the collapse of state in Libya, and the country is getting closer to local wars for oil revenues,” said the Swiss-based group Petromatrix.
The country’s oil ministry said production has slumped to an average of 300,000 barrels per day (b/d) in August, down by more than four-fifths from its peak after the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime two years ago.
“Militia groups are behaving like terrorists, using control over oil as political leverage to extract concessions,” said Dr Elizabeth Stephens, head of political risk at insurers Jardine Lloyd Thompson. Port closures and strikes have compounded the damage but the deeper story is the disintegration of political authority.
Libya is the most extreme example of political mayhem around the world disrupting output and causing a chronic shortfall in oil supply. Production has slumped in Iraq, Nigeria, Iran, Yemen and Syria itself, each for different reasons.
This has cut daily global supply by 1.1m over the past year to 92m, explaining why Brent crude prices have remained stubbornly high despite the slump in Europe and China’s slowdown. To compound the problem, Libya’s oil is some of the highest quality produced in the Middle East and the kind preferred by European refiners. Jitters over Syria have already pushed Brent to $115, near levels that typically erode confidence and inflict serious economic damage.
Bank of America says the “global shortfall” in oil has reached 4m b/d and leaves the world extremely vulnerable to a supply crunch if any missile strike in Syria goes wrong.
The bank said the most likely outcome would be a “short-lived spike” to between $120 and $130 provided the Nato operation is limited to a few days. The bank said a “protracted Vietnam-style boots-on-the-ground proxy war” could lead to a $50 jump, pushing Brent crude to $160.
The warning follows a disturbing report by Societe Generale’s Michael Wittner, a former oil analyst for the US Central Intelligence Agency and an expert on geo-strategic issues.
Mr Wittner predicted a rise in oil prices to $150 if the missile strikes lead a regional spillover, citing retaliatory attacks by Iran on Iraqi oil supply lines as the chief risk. Conflict between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites has returned to levels last seen in 2008.
“Our big worry is Iraq,” he said. The country’s northern pipeline from Kirkuk to Turkey has been attacked repeatedly over the past three months, cutting exports by 40pc. Mr Wittner said the danger is that the attacks will move south to the Basrah port complex that supplies 2m b/d, this time orchestrated by Iranian proxies.
“Iraq is close to civil war,” said Jardine’s Dr Stephens. “Pipelines keep being blown up by al-Qaeda and Sunni militants – it is never quite clear – and this is a huge impediment. On top of this there is still no hydrocarbon law and no legal framework for contracts because they can’t agree on how to carve up the pie.”
Iraq’s output has slipped to 2.9m b/d from 3.2m in April, far short of expected levels.
A report by the International Energy Agency said last year that Iraq’s output would reach 6m b/d by the end of the decade, and 8.3m by 2035, adding almost half of all extra global oil supply. That now looks like a distant dream.
Dr Stephens said an attack on Syria could fly out of control in all kinds of unpredictable ways. “Syria is pivotal to the whole region. Even if the Assad regime is ultimately toppled, it will not solve anything. It will more likely drag in every surrounding state and external powers.”
The US has 710m barrels of oil in its strategic reserves and other OECD states have stocks that could be released to offset any price shock, as occurred during the Western assault on Libya. However, shortfalls in so many countries at once have greatly increased the risk of a supply squeeze.
Nigeria’s output has slumped to 1.9m from 2.5m over the past year as bandits prey on supplies in the Delta region, while scheduled rig maintenance will shave a further 500,000 b/d off output in the North Sea and Canada. United Nations sanctions against Iran over its nuclear enrichment programme have drastically reduced Iranian oil exports by 1.2m b/d.
The slip in supply has come just as China starts to rebound, with imports of crude jumping 20pc in July to an all-time high. The eurozone is also coming back to life, led by a resurgent Germany.
Citigroup said it is far from clear whether Saudi Arabia has the spare capacity to crank up production by up 2m b/d to cushion any shock if necessary, as widely assumed, to help cap any rise in oil prices. “There is no tangible evidence of this,” it said.
There are still pockets of rising oil output, notably in the US where shale oil is rapidly reducing US dependence on energy imports. The geo-strategic effect of shale is double-edged for the US: it lowers the incentive for Washington to commit forces to the Middle East, but it also means the US is better able to handle the consequences of any oil spike.
The biggest losers would be those emerging economies such as India and China that rely on fuel imports and operate inefficient industries. An oil shock could quickly cause the latest emerging market sell-off to escalate into a grave crisis.
Simon Wardell from IHS Global Insight said it is impossible to price the risk of a “nightmare scenario” where any attack goes horribly wrong and turns into a regional conflagration. “There is a very small chance that this occurs, but a massive impact on prices if it did. How do you put an insurance premium on the risk?”
In Israel, no silver linings
In Tunisia, Islamist government paralyzed by middle-class backlash and extremist violence