Monitoring developments in international security

Archive for May, 2011

Threat of civil war looms over Yemen

Heavy fighting erupted in Yemen’s capital of Sanaa today as the country edged closer to a full-blown civil war. Anti-government protesters have been challenging the 33 year rule of President Saleh for months who, despite several negotiations and agreements regarding his departure, has yet to leave office. The latest outbreak of violence has been between government troops loyal to President Saleh and supporters of tribal leader Sadiq al-Ahmar. Locals reported heavy shelling of residential areas as well as widespread gunfire. Meanwhile, the Sanaa airport remains closed and traffic on roads leading out of the capital was reportedly at a standstill.

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Saleh’s refusal to step down threatens the country with a civil war whose effects on regional security and international terrorist activity could be dramatic. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has a strong presence in Yemen and is the arm of al-Qaeda that many counter-terrorism analysts regard as the most dangerous, particularly in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death. A civil war in Yemen would take pressure off of AQAP. For this reason, the US and Yemen’s northern neighbor, Saudia Arabia, are likely to attempt to circumvent a civil war in the troubled nation. The US was initially slow to say that Saleh should step down, but President Obama today called for the Yemeni President to ‘immediately’ end his 33 year rule. This call for an immediate end to the crisis represented an important step in US policy and signaled Washington’s growing unease with the political stalemate that threatened to undermine counter-terrorism efforts.

American hesitance to specifically ask for Saleh to abandon power – instead merely condemning the violent government crackdown against protesters – was no doubt due to the Yemeni President’s past willingness to cooperate with the US and allow American counter-terrorism operations to take place in his country. Today, in apparent response to Obama’s call for his immediate resignation, Saleh said that ‘[he doesn’t] take orders from outside.’ He also promised to remain in power and to stop the violence from descending into a civil war. Whatever Saleh’s ultimate fate, the path Yemen follows over the days and weeks to come and how the US and Saudi Arabia react to the unfolding events will have important repercussions for the future of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninusla.

News links: Reuters Al-Jazeera Guardian

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US and Israel attempt to find common policy ground

The US and Israel appear to be at major policy intersection following the events of this past week. On Thursday President Obama delivered a speech in which he supported Israel negotiating a peace deal with the Palestinians from the ‘1967 borders.’ These are the borders Israel had before the 1967 Six-Day War in which the Jewish state launched a preemptive strike against Syria, Egypt, and Jordan. Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel criticized the call for Israel to return to its 1967 borders, calling them ‘indefensible.’

  










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While President Obama did put public pressure on Israel to discontinue its illegal settlements and to come to terms with the reality of an eventual Palestinian state, he also sought to reassure America’s ally. He criticized plans later this year to hold a UN General Assembly vote on the creation of a Palestinian State. He also put himself in the shoes of Israeli leaders in light of the recent announcement of the Fatah-Hamas unification by musing, ‘How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?’

Regardless of the protective, reassuring statements the President directed at Israel or even, for that matter, the criticisms; the truth is that Israel is facing a challenging future. The Arab Spring protests erupting around the Middle East serve as a great inspirational backdrop for the Palestinian statehood movement. Indeed, every one of Israel’s neighbors has experienced some form of anti-government action. The UN vote on a Palestinian state, which will likely take place later this year, could serve as a humiliation for Israel, especially if the US is one of only a few prominent nations to vote against it.* So while Israel may show public consternation at President Obama’s speech on Thursday, the fact is that both nations need to rely on some old-fashioned diplomacy to convince states like Britain, France and Germany not to further make a pariah out of Israel.

*(It’s my understanding that the US, regardless of the outcome of the vote, would be able to use its veto power as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to avoid the vote translating into an actual statehood.)

A few relevant links: NYTimes on Obama and Netanyahu, CBS on the legal concerns of a UNSC veto, Al-Jazeera hosts a scathing op-ed on Obama’s speech


Syria on the brink

Syria continues its brutal suppression of anti-government protests as the EU and US consider imposing further sanctions against the Middle Eastern nation. Reports pour in of Syrian forces opening fire against protesters as videos emerge on youtube of the atrocities. It’s interesting to examine what a dramatic role social networking sites have had on the futures of a number of Middle Eastern countries.  The amateur video of the violence in Syria particularly reminds me of the Iranian protests in 2009 following the rigged presidential election. The video below instantly brought up memories of the Neda incident.

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Sending a message

Every year Palestinians protest the foundation of Israel, during which hundreds of thousands were forcibly relocated, dubbing the object of their anger a ‘catastrophe.’ (Note that these protests are unrelated to the anti-government protests discussed above). But while the Israeli borders with Lebanon and the West Bank remain volatile, Syria has traditionally maintained strict control of its border, even preventing its own citizens access to it. Sunday was this year’s date for the protest and thousands of protesters came from the Syrian side.

While the spirit of the protests and ire of its participants was genuinely directed at Israel, the protesters themselves were no doubt serving as pawns for Damascus. Allowing the anti-Israel protesters unprecedented access to the Israeli border, the Assad regime was sending a powerful message that only through its will has the border has remained peaceful for the last 40 years. The message is sure to present an all-too-familiar dilemma to Israel and the US in how to approach the Arab Spring: the choice between the status quo or the risky protesters. While the Middle East can hardly be called peaceful in the traditional sense of the word, there’s at least some degree of confidence in expectations for the future if current governments stay the same. And although Syria is allied with distinctly anti-Israel entities like Iran and Hezbollah, its own Golan Heights border with Israel has seen little action since 1974. So while Israel and its supporters might sympathize with the pro-democracy protests in Syria, the Assad regime sent an important message to its Jewish neighbor on Sunday by allowing the protesters to storm the Israeli border: you might not like us, but you had better hope that we stay in control.

Related links:

Spotlight Syria

Message for Israel


North Korea and Iran trading ballistic missile technology

The countries presenting two of America’s biggest diplomatic challenges have been trading ballistic missile technology according to a new UN report leaked to the media. The trans-shipment occurred through ‘a neighboring third-party country’ the report says. Some diplomats identified that country as China and notably the paper, which represents the findings of an international panel, lacks the signature of the Chinese expert assigned to the panel. While there has long been speculation about illegal trade between the two countries, this report represents the latest official allegation of a violation of UN sanctions.

The Iranian Shahab 3, whose warhead design similarities with a recently-showcased North Korean missile prompted further speculation that the two countries had been sharing ballistic missile technology.

Importantly, the developments further complicate matters involving diplomatic efforts to convince Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program and increase pressure on Tehran to avoid pursuing one. Russia and China, two permanent members of the UN Security Council, have traditionally proven reluctant to enforce sanctions on Iran and North Korea and have recently stifled the publication of UN expert reports on the two countries. The unofficial word that China served as a transfer point is sure to embarrass Beijing and no doubt lent weight to the decision of the Chinese expert to remain unsupportive of his panel’s findings. According to UNSC diplomats, China was unlikely to allow the report to be published. Nonetheless, the findings will add further evidence to inefficacy of the current sanctions against North Korea and the need to reestablish negotiations surrounding its nuclear program. And while Iran remains, by all accounts, at least a few years from a nuclear test, the report should also serve as a reminder of the need to keep diplomatic pressure on Tehran from continuing down the path towards a weapon.

News story links: Reuters China Post BBC


‘Reassessing The Cost Of The Post-9/11 Era’

Dan Froomkin of The Huffington Post has an interesting look at the economic and human costs of the response to the 9/11 attacks. He includes the war in Iraq in his calculations and I won’t dispute that the atmosphere in post-9/11 America didn’t exactly loan itself to cautioned diplomacy with regards to Iraq, but it should be noted that President Bush never actually asserted that Saddam Hussein had a hand in the September 11th attacks. Again, Froomkin is speaking of the era as a whole not just the US’s actions in direct retaliation for the attacks, I just wanted to be clear about the facts. Speaking of which, here’s a brief summary (although the whole article is really worth reading):

6000 Americans dead, ‘several hundred thousand’ wounded

100,000+ Iraqis and Afghanis dead, 3.4 million+ remain displaced

Total financial cost: $4-6 trillion. That’s $6,000,000,000,000 or just over 40% of the US’s current national debt.

Colin Powell at the UN, presenting the American case for going to war with Iraq.

Obviously not all of that money could have been saved. For one, the war in Afghanistan actually was directly linked to 9/11. And while we should recognize that aspiring terrorists‘ incompetence probably had more to do with the high-profile failed plots over the last few years, one would encounter difficulty in arguing that absolutely none of the new homeland security measures implemented after 9/11 were a necessary response. Regardless, Froomkin ends on a ‘what if’ note by imagining a world where that $6 trillion was spent on eliminating extreme poverty or providing primary education for children. I found it difficult not to wonder what the consequences of forgoing the two wars would have been for the US and, indeed, the world as a whole.


Lessons of Libya


Coalition action against Libya

In October 2003, the US intercepted a German-flagged freighter bound for Libya. Onboard the ship were thousands of parts for uranium enrichment centrifuges. Two months later Libya announced that it was discontinuing all of its WMD programs and would comply with the NPT. The announcement was seen as a diplomatic victory for the UK and US, who had been working for months in secret negotiations with Libya.

Just two months ago a NATO-led force began air strikes against Libyan forces loyal to Gaddafi. Although UN resolution 1973 specifically authorizes member states to act in order to protect civilians, the air strikes have served as de-facto support of the rebels. Across the Middle East, protests continue. Indeed, there are daily reports of protesters being killed by government forces in Syria and Yemen. Yet forces have only intervened in a country that not 10 years ago dismantled its WMD program.

Countries such as North Korea and Iran are sure to take notice of this. North Korea in particular has taken paranoid indoctrination against the West to a national level. If the six party talks ever do resume, how can the North negotiate in good faith when the US is now bombing a country that less than eight years ago it was praising for abandoning its nuclear program? Meanwhile Iran is facing a popular movement against its government while seemingly remaining ambivalent about the future of its nuclear program. What lessons will it draw from the coalition action in Libya?


US-Pakistan drama continues

In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, tensions between Washington and Islamabad continued to rise. The New York Times is reporting that Pakistani officials have released the name of the CIA station chief in Islamabad. His name was published in a conservative newspaper earlier today, spelled phonetically. This marks the 2nd time in 5 months that a CIA station chief station in Islamabad has been outed by Pakistani authorities. The previous station chief was identified in the media and court papers after a lawsuit was brought against him which alleged wrongful death in a CIA drone strike. He subsequently fled Pakistan after receiving a number of death threats.

Meanwhile today, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, said that ‘allegations of complicity or incompetence are absurd.’ He further warned that any additional US unilateral action within Pakistan would be met with ‘full force.’ While both the US and Pakistan say they want to continue their strategic partnership, the recent public volleys mark a low point in the relationship between the two governments.