Friday, July 20, 2012

The Middle East Media Sampler 7/20/2012: Major Setbacks For Syria's Assad

1) "And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command"

In Assassination in Damascus, the editors of The New York Times write:
For 17 months, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has waged bloody war against his people from his redoubt in Damascus, convinced that he could weather the storm. A bombing on Wednesday that killed at least three of his most senior aides — including the defense minister and Mr. Assad’s powerful brother-in-law — shows that the war can reach deeply into the capital.
There were conflicting news reports about the cause of the explosion. State television reported that it was carried out by a suicide bomber, while the main armed opposition group said explosive devices were detonated remotely. 
There is no condoning such tactics, and it is impossible to know whether the assassination is any kind of a turning point.
 In Syria's war reaches the house of Assad, Fouad Ajami describes the men whose  killing was not condoned by the New York Times:
Asef Shawkat, the ruler's brother-in-law and deputy chief of staff of the armed forces, was a big player in the regime. He was of a piece with this sordid lot. He had risen from poverty, an Alawite soldier who came to power and fortune when he married the late dictator Hafez Assad's only daughter. In the politics of this secretive cabal, it was said that Shawkat was a rival of Maher al-Assad, the younger brother of the ruler, who commands its killer brigade.
A maternal cousin, Hafez Makhlouf, was also struck down. The specialty of the Makhlouf cousins was large-scale plunder. They sat astride the crony economy, greedy caterpillars of the realm and bag-men of the House of Assad. 
The killing of the defense minister, Daoud Rajha, is of a lower order of importance. A Christian, he was a figurehead in a regime that exalted and trusted only the dominant sect, the Alawites.
According to another source, the commander of Iran's Quds force, Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani was also killed in the blast.  Michael Ledeen describes Suleimani:
General Suleimani has, or perhaps had, an awful lot of blood on his murderous hands. From the 1990s bombings in Argentina to the Iranian operations against American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, to hand-in-mailed-glove coordination with Hezbollah in various killings, his name should be at or near the very top of any Western “most wanted” list of mass murderers.
If true, Ledeen describes the general's death as a major blow to Iran and Hezbollah.

Citing opposition sources, Reuters reports that Bashar Assad has fled to Lakatia:
"Our information is that he is at his palace in Latakia and that he may have been there for days," said a senior opposition figure, who declined to be named. 
The palace, which Assad has used before to conduct official business, is located in hills near the city, Syria's main port. 
The diplomat, who is following events in Syria, said: "Everyone is looking now at how well Assad can maintain the command structure. The killings yesterday were a huge blow, but not fatal."
Since the bombing, the only appearance of Assad was at a televised swearing in of his new defense minister at an undisclosed location.

If Assad has left Damascus, there could be a "foreclosure sale" of his presidential palace. (With commentary by Martin Kramer h/t Michael Rubin)

2) Hezbollah did it, but ...

The New York Times reports Hezbollah Is Blamed for Attack on Israeli Tourists in Bulgaria:
One senior American official said the current American intelligence assessment was that the bomber, who struck Wednesday, killing five Israelis, had been “acting under broad guidance” to hit Israeli targets when opportunities presented themselves, and that the guidance had been given to Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group, by Iran, its primary sponsor. Two other American officials confirmed that Hezbollah was behind the bombing, but declined to provide additional details. 
The attacks, the official said, were in retaliation for the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, for which Iran has blamed Israeli agents — an accusation that Israel has neither confirmed nor denied. “This was tit for tat,” said the American official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was still under way.
While I'm happy to read that the Americans are agreeing with the Israeli assessment (and despite what Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv have recently written)  I'm not happy with the motive the American official provided. Michael Ledeen has argued that the claims that Israel was behind the hits, don't match the facts.

3) There goes the neighborhood

Barry Rubin surveys the Middle East and offers a cautiously optimistic outlook, Islamists Are Generally Winning But Not Everywhere and Not Inevitably:
  • Islam and revolutionary political Islamism are not identical. Islamists have a real advantage over liberal reformers in recruiting Muslims but Muslims often choose not to be Islamists. They can give their loyalty to a tribe, state, ethnic group, the idea of a moderate democratic alternative, or a traditionalism that mistrusts Islamism.

  • Islamists are not fated to win everywhere. Each country is different.

  • The weakness of reformers–including political incompetence, factionalism, and lack of funding—is as big a factor as the revolutionary Islamists’ strength.

  • The next era in the Middle East will be dominated by the debate over whether Islamism is the way to go. Islamists will radicalize the regional scene, carry out terrorism at home and abroad, and inflict repression on their own people wherever they get power. But remember that even at the height of Arab nationalism—in the 1950s and 1960s—that movement inevitably produced Arab Muslim enemies, people who didn’t want to knuckle under to President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt or the Ba’th Party that ruled in Iraq and Syria.
Looking at the borders closest to Israel Daniel Pipes notes a concerning trend, Anarchy surrounds Israel.
If this is the case, then the only two borders left with any security are those of Jordan (where the monarchy has its own troubles) and the West Bank (where the IDF continues to patrol).
So how the new regimes decide to govern will affect Israel tremendously.

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