Putting ducks in a row seems to be the new trend in the Middle East during the week from Sept. 28, to Oct. 4, 2012. All the regional players rearranged their winning cards while waiting for the outcome of the U.S. presidential elections to deal with the man in the White House.
On the Syrian front, it seems that Qatar’s initiative on Sept. 25 to form an Arab military force in order to intervene in Syria, didn’t gather enough Arab and regional support. While Turkey shelled Syrian areas on Oct. 3 in response to a Syrian mortar shell that killed five Turks, the fight for key positions inside Syrian witnessed intensified between the “free Syrian army” and the regime’s forces in order to take control of Aleppo, the largest strategic city of the North. Amidst the attacks and retreats of both sides, the historic market of Aleppo was destroyed in a blaze Sept. 29, and both parties blamed each other.
As for the Arab spring countries, it seems that political Islamic movements sought to regain their eroding popularity due to their short term in office in Tunisia and Egypt, where a new coalition of Arab Muslim Brotherhood leaders emerged during the conference of the Turkish “justice and development” party between Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 as a forum to analyze the regional situation and exchange ideas in order to achieve quick results that help them regain the lost popular momentum.
On another front, the regional and international players showed their support to the Yemeni president Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi and his government, in an attempt to win the tough game against al-Qaeda in Yemen, and bring stability to this strategic country, in the back yard of the GCC countries…. This has coincided with a significant success in Somalia against al-Chabab Islamist Rebels who were forced to retreat from Kismayo, which might contribute to bringing some stability to this country, which witnessed the election of a new president two weeks ago.
Away from the Arab Spring countries, Jordan started an arm-twisting competition between the regime and the Islamists, while all observers are waiting for the outcome of Friday’s demonstrations on Oct. 5 with both parties well-prepared, which might threaten to start the fire in a bad timing.
Things were moving in the region as well, as scores of middle class Iranians took on the streets of Tehran on Oct. 3 in protest over the inflation and the hike in prices due to the depreciation of the Iranian Riyal by 75 percent in one years. Washington saw in these protests a proof of success of the economic sanctions against Iran while the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused Western countries on Oct. 2 of launching an economic war against Tehran to humiliate it. On the other hand, during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 27 the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, seems to have decided to postpone speaking about the preventive strike against the Iranian Nuclear Program until the end of the U.S. presidential elections.
As for the race to the White House, the first debate between the two presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on Oct. 4 (GMT) concentrated on the economy, mainly the issues of unemployment and taxes, and it seems more likely that President Obama will win for a second term on Nov. 6.
Syria: the military intervention “not for now”
The regional players weren’t unified in their response to Qatar’s suggestion to form an Arab Military force to intervene in Syria, as the Gulf countries were clear that they don’t want to be involved, for the time being, in a military intervention, where the odds of losing looked higher than the chances of success, with a busy Washington in presidential elections and in the absence of a “logistical” basis for this force. This decision was echoed by the Egyptian position at the United Nations General Assembly where President Mohammed Mursi refused any military intervention in Syria, although the hesitation of his adviser Seifuddin Abdul-Fattah caused some speculations about a potential change in the Egyptian position, which was completely denied by Cairo, to align with the Arab’s agreement on postponing the decision of military intervention for the time being.
On the battlefield between the armed rebels and Assad’s regime forces, the confusion was clear among the regular forces who failed again in winning the battle of Aleppo, described by the Lebanese pro-Syrian “al-Diyar” on Oct. 2 as being “a difficult battle” with claims that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited the troops in Aleppo with the Chief of Staff and ordered him to send 30 thousand troops to the city in order to reinforce the capabilities of his forces, with rumors about the presence of 5,000 armed foreigners ready to commit suicide attacks against Assad’s army.
Like Beirut during the civil war (1975-1990), Aleppo is divided into two parts: the Eastern part controlled by the rebels and the western part controlled by the regime’s forces. While Assad’s forces tried to progress East in adopting the “scorched Earth” principle to get hold of the historic citadel of Aleppo, and their attempt to infiltrate the areas of al-Arkoub, Suleiman al-Halabi, Sheikh Khodr, al-Sakhour, Sheikh Fares and Hanano compound, the armed rebels orchestrated explosions by booby-trapped cars near the officers’ club at Saadallah al-Jaberi square (west of the city), one of the key squares used by Assad supporters’ demonstrators. At the same time, Assad’s regime attempted to operate the “mass killing machine” in Reef Damascus to block any advancement of the armed opposition near the capital while the regular forces were busy with the battles in Aleppo.
In parallel, the rebels brought a tangible proof about the direct involvement of “Hezbollah” in the armed conflict, supporting Assad’s regime at the war he launches against his own people, as a battalion of the free Syrian army succeeded in the past days in killing three Hezbollah fighters, including the commander Mohamad Husain Al-Hajj Nasseef (Abou Abbas) near Al-Kussair Syrian village on Sept. 30, and as Hezbollah couldn’t hide this fact, he organized public funerals for Abou Abbas, claiming that “he was killed while performing his Jehadi duty.” This incident has indicated to which extent is Assad’s regime supported by Hezbollah and Iran which announced officially the presence of fighters from the revolutionary guards in Syria.
And it seems that the two allies (Iran and Hezbollah) are the only remaining supporters to Assad’s regime after being deserted by his other regional allies, as the official Syrian TV attacked openly Khaled Meshaal, head of Hamas political bureau who was hosted by Damascus for many years, and Iraq’s decision to fetch Iranian airplanes heading to Damascus.
The Arab Spring countries: the new Middle East
Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Turkish foreign affairs minister, talked about the quest for a new Middle East while speaking about the strategic relations between Cairo and Ankara. The importance of this speech lays in its context, as it was said during the heavy presence of Brotherhood leaders from the Arab Spring countries at the conference of the Justice and Development ruling party in Ankara, gathering the Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi, Rashid al-Ghannoushi, the leader of the Tunisian al-Nahda movement and Khaled Meshaal, head of Hamas political bureau. The “optimist” views of Davutoğlu might reflect the will of Brotherhood lead Arab spring countries to revive with Turkey the Brotherhood program for the region to oppose the fading popularity of the political Islam, referred to by al-Ghannoushi in an interview with Al-Hayat newspaper on Oct. 2 when he said that “power is a deteriorating element,” noting that “there is a difference between those who preach values and those who live by them… there is a difference between those who are asked to give a jesting speech and those who are requested to create employment opportunities and provide food, security and treatment.” These statements diagnose the real trouble facing the Brotherhood in power, in Tunisia, Egypt and Gaza strip, as it is clear that socio-economic problems reduce the popularity of this movement which is a real threat to their “easy” success in any upcoming elections.
In Egypt for example, successive strikes in different fields of production and services are an indicator of escalating popular anger from Mursi’s government, coupled with the lack of sufficient government resources, which is forcing it to restructure the subsidy scheme to petroleum products, as the Egyptian petroleum minister told Reuters, in addition to the economic crisis, there is also the pressing issue of drafting the new constitution, with the conflict between the intransigence of the hardliners and the requests of the Civil society to adopt the principles of public freedoms, human rights and women’s rights.
On another front, there was a clear regional and international support for Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi in his attempt to put things in order, and win the battle against al-Qaeda and have a tighter control over the military, which was clear in Washington’s position to support reforms in Yemen and the declaration of the joint meeting between the United States and GCC ministers of foreign Affairs, reaffirming the support of the transition period in Yemen, economically and politically, and value the Yemeni government efforts to achieve stability.
The retreat of al-Shabaab Islamic rebels in Somalia is another good news for Yemen which suffered a lot from the repercussions of the Somali chaos, as the Kenyan forces succeeded on Sept. 28 in pushing Shabaab rebels out of the strategic city of kismayo, the main source of funding and arming the movement through coal exports and arms imports by sea. Al-Shabaab was a movement created in 2007 from the defeated “Union of Islamic Courts” that pushed by the Ethiopian army out of Mogadishu. In 2010, Al-Shabaab movement was very close to overthrowing the government and assuming power in Somalia. Some see in the retreat from Kismayo as an end of game for al-Shabaab movement in the favor of the new elected President Hasan Sheikh Mohamad, who was elected three weeks ago. But the situation isn’t that bright as the hardliners still control a vast area of the southern mountains and some small cities, especially Jouhar, which represents the last stronghold of Al-Shabaab movement.
Away from the spring, the political fog covers the Jordanian scene, with two demonstrations expected on Friday Oct. 5, one organized by the Islamic movement and another supporting the ruling regime. While the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan reaffirm the pacifist nature of their demonstration, they confirmed that they aim at gathering the biggest number of participants to express their opposition to the electoral law, and their demands of combatting corruption and amending the constitution in order to have elected government, parliament and senate. This show of force is an indicator of disparity between the ruling regime and the Islamic movement in Jordan, which pushed those loyal to the regime to call for an opposing demonstration, fearing that the Brotherhood will benefit from the public uproar in protest of the hike in prices because of the financial crisis.
In this tense situation, the Jordanian regime should read carefully the results of a survey published on Sept. 29, with 56 percent confirming that they will participate at the upcoming legislative elections in spite of the boycott call of the Brotherhood. But this same survey revealed that 33 percent didn’t register yet to vote, which is a high percentage, and 23 percetn will not participate as they are neither convinced in the parliament nor in his members. These percentages are clear signs about the urgency of seeking alternative methods for political reforms, which will put an end to conflicts in this small and poor country, suffering from big financial challenges and a decrease in foreign aids, in addition to the burden of hosting tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.
Iran: the economic wind blows the cards of Ahmadinejad
On Oct. 2, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced at a press conference on TV that Iran has a healthy economy and that the central bank has enough foreign currencies to finance imports, accusing Western countries of launching an economic war against Iran in the aim of humiliating it. By doing this, Ahmadinejad was trying to curb a public uproar against the price hike, due to the fact that the Iranian riyal lost 75 percent of its exchange value in one year, and 20 percent in three days. But it seems that the Iranian president failed in easing the anger of the middle class, as he failed in stealing the show at the United Nations General Assembly as he used to do in the past.
The failure of the Iranian regime in controlling the exchange rate of the Riyal proved that it doesn’t care about the public anger, except in empty slogans, while it gives priority to its controversial nuclear project as a strong source of legitimacy and internal stability. But it seems that the magician is becoming victim of his own tricks, as the Iranians didn’t seem to be buying the slogans of the president about “the economic war,” and the Western’s attempts to put Tehran under pressure, and even when he said “the enemy thinks that he can break the will of the Iranian people but he is wrong.”
The demonstrations of Oct. 3 prove that the Iranian people are not fully endorsing the nationalistic speech of Ahmadinejad, which may encourage his allies to think twice about the priorities of the next period, and the importance of caring about solving the social and economic problems, after the failure of Ahmadinejad’s policy and supremacy vocabulary, founded on the principle of “opposing the west,” which doesn’t seem to be as attractive as it was in the past few years.