Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Bahrain teargas stockpile plan faces international opposition: Government insists weapon is legal after activists condemn tender for vast quantities of gas and grenades

    Wednesday, October 30, 2013   No comments
Bahrain's government is striking back at an international campaign to prevent it from buying huge amounts of teargas to repress protests in the Gulf island state.

Officials and pro-government media in Manama insist that the use of teargas is within international legal norms.

Activists and human rights watchdogs, however, say the gas is used indiscriminately and lethally against demonstrators.

Pressure to prevent deliveries has been growing since the publication of a leaked document showing that Bahrain is seeking to purchase more teargas canisters than its entire population, of 1.2m.


The interior ministry document, dated 16 June, invited tenders from companies to supply police with 1.6m teargas canisters, 145,000 sound and flash grenades, 45,000 CS hand grenades and 45,000 teargas hand grenades.

Manufacturers in South Korea, from where DaeKwang Chemical exported around 1m units of teargas to Bahrain between 2011 and 2012, are under pressure to explain their position. The government in Seoul, facing protests and petitions by campaigners, has not said whether it will grant an export licence.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Islam belongs in people's lives, not in politics, says Karima Bennoune: Author of Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here says the politicised version of Islam peddled by fundamentalists is dangerous and misrepresentative

    Tuesday, October 29, 2013   No comments
Writing a book about Muslim fundamentalism, the subject of Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, felt like dancing in a minefield, admits Karima Bennoune. The law professor, who describes herself as a secular person of Muslim heritage, set out to capture the voices of those battling fundamentalism on the front lines of countries such as Algeria, Afghanistan, Niger, Russia and Pakistan.

Bennoune lays out a critique of Muslim fundamentalism, not from a crude "war on terror" viewpoint, but from a human rights perspective that, paradoxically, does not always sit well with rights groups in the west. She grew up in Algeria and the US, and is an ardent critic of Islamism; those three letters at the end make an enormous difference, she argues. "Being a devout believer has nothing to do with purveying political Islam. The vast majority of Muslims are not fundamentalists, though, of course, many are," she writes.

Bennoune prefers the phrase Muslim fundamentalism to Islamism and radicalism, because she feels fundamentalism crosses religious boundaries. Muslim fundamentalism, however, stands out for her by dint of its transnational nature, the ubiquity of its adherents, and the sophistication and reach of its armed groups. Muslim fundamentalists believe in the imposition of "God's law" or sharia – and only their version of it. Beyond the law, Bennoune says, fundamentalists denounce secularists and seek to bring politicised religion to all spheres.

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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Saudi women filmed defying driving ban in October 26 protest

    Saturday, October 26, 2013   No comments
Activists have begun posting videos of women in Saudi Arabia driving cars, as their one-day campaign to defy a ban on female drivers in the conservative kingdom gets under way.



Thursday, October 24, 2013

What money cannot buy long term: Saudi Arabia’s Image Falters among Middle East Neighbors

    Thursday, October 24, 2013   No comments
Each year, the world is reminded of Saudi Arabia’s influential status as the birthplace of Islam, as hundreds of thousands of Muslims from across the globe make the Hajj, or pilgrimage, to the city of Mecca. Perhaps owing to its pivotal role within the Islamic faith, Saudi Arabia tends to be viewed favorably in countries that are home to large or majority-Muslim populations.

However, a Pew Research Center survey reveals that Saudi Arabia’s standing has slipped substantially among key Middle Eastern publics, including in Lebanon
where favorable opinion has plummeted 31 percentage points since 2007. In contrast, opinion of Saudi Arabia has not soured in other predominately Muslim countries outside of the region.

The reasons for Saudi Arabia’s worsening image in the Middle East are likely multiple. Criticism of the influence the Saudis wield in the Middle East is significant in Lebanon, Tunisia and Turkey. And substantial disapproval of the Saudi government’s track record on protecting the personal freedoms of its citizens is evident in Turkey, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Tunisia, as it is in much of the world.

Saudi Arabia is viewed favorably in many countries outside the Middle East where Muslims make up a substantial percentage, if not a majority, of the population. In Pakistan, for example, 95% express a favorable opinion of the Saudi kingdom, while six-in-ten or more in Indonesia, Senegal and Malaysia share this view. However, among its Muslim neighbors, opinions of Saudi Arabia are more varied. Only in Jordan and Egypt is opinion of the desert kingdom overwhelmingly positive (88% and 78%, respectively). Elsewhere in the Middle East, views are mixed or even decidedly negative, as in the case of Turkey (26% favorable vs. 53% unfavorable).

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Why Did Saudi Arabia Refuse to Join the UN Security Council? The nation seems to be refusing the opportunity to vote on the very issues it’s concerned about

    Wednesday, October 23, 2013   No comments
In an unprecedented move last Friday, Saudi Arabia turned down an offer by the United Nations to sit on the Security Council for two years as a non-permanent member. No country has ever been offered this opportunity and refused to accept.

Why did Saudi Arabia turn down the seat on the Security Council?

Saudi Arabia rejected the offer claiming frustration at United Nations’ ineffectiveness regarding the Middle East and solving conflicts around the globe. In a revelatory statement released by the Saudi Foreign Ministry, they accused the UN Security Council of “double standards” that “prevent it from carrying out its duties and assuming its responsibilities in keeping world peace.” Calling for reform, they highlighted the United Nations’ “failure to find a solution” for both the Palestinian cause and the current civil war in Syria. 

The Saudis had supported the American plan for a retaliatory military strike after the Syrian government’s deadly chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians in August. However, the United States opted for a diplomatic option that resulted in a UN Security Council resolution that did not involve military intervention. Saudi Arabia was disappointed and expressed their anger through this denial of Security Council membership.

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Foreign jihadists surpass Afghan-Soviet war, storm Syria in record numbers

    Monday, October 21, 2013   No comments
Foreigners fueled by Islamic fury are rushing to Syria to fight President Bashar Assad at a faster rate than the flow of rebels into Afghanistan in the war against a Soviet-backed regime in the 1980s, analysts say.

An estimated 5,000 to 10,000 foreign fighters have come to Syria since the outbreak of the uprising in March 2011.

“This is probably one of the biggest foreign-fighter mobilizations since it became a phenomenon in the 1980s with the Afghan jihad against the Soviets,” said Aaron Y. Zelin, a Washington Institute researcher who studies al Qaeda and Syria.

The number of foreigners in Syria has not reached the level in Afghanistan three decades ago, but that civil war lasted nine years, while the Syrian rebellion is 2 years old.
Mr. Zelin said the rate of foreign recruits streaming into Syria is “unlike anything else.”
The foreign fighters — called jihadists, or holy warriors — come from at least 60 nations. Most are Arabs from Saudi Arabia, Libya and Tunisia, but a few dozen are from Western Europe, particularly Britain, Belgium, France and the Netherlands, Mr. Zelin said. Ten to 20 fighters have come from the United States, he said.
Analysts say fighters join the rebellion out of a sense of religious duty to help fellow Sunni Muslims, but they become radicalized because the most powerful rebel groups are affiliated with al Qaeda.
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Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Sinai Peninsula is both a vacation paradise and a haven for jihadists and gangs of thugs. The military and the police are trying to regain control over the region. But a new class of haughty warlords and a resentful public mean the state's chances are remote

    Sunday, October 20, 2013   No comments

On the day of his departure, warehouse manager Hussein Gilbana packed his five best shirts and pairs of pants into a black suitcase, together with books and photos. He embraced his wife and kissed his five-year-old son, Omar, and his little boy, Assar.

He told the children that he would return soon, and that he would come to get them and take them to a new home as soon as possible. Then he got into his old Fiat and drove away. He was leaving his home in al-Arish, on the Sinai Peninsula, which he had grown to hate.

Gilbana and his wife had recently taken to calling their city "signa," or "prison." Al-Arish, a city on the northern coast of Sinai, had been sealed off militarily.

Gilbana and his wife had looked on as outsiders invaded al-Arish: petty criminals, Islamists and former felons. They had seen how these people tried to take over the city, and how the Egyptian government had responded with brute violence. They had become familiar with two types of murderers, says Gilbana, "murderers with long beards and murderers in polished military boots."

Gilbana, 32, is a slim and energetic man. He's a Sinai native, and a member of a Bedouin tribe called the Aulad-Suleiman. Life in al-Arish wasn't bad. He worked as a warehouse manager in a cement factory and made a good living. But then his city turned into a war zone, says Gilbana.

The entire country has descended into violence since the military coup in July, but nowhere in Egypt is the fight being waged as bitterly and violently as on the Sinai Peninsula, which is roughly the size of the Republic of Ireland.

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Thursday, October 17, 2013

The forgotten story of Iran Air Flight 655

    Thursday, October 17, 2013   No comments
If you walked into any high school classroom in the United States and asked the students to describe their country's relationship with Iran, you'd probably hear words like "enemy" and "threat," maybe "distrust" and "nuclear." But ask them what the number 655 has to do with it, and you'd be met with silence.

Try the same thing in an Iranian classroom, asking about the United States, and you'd probably hear some of the same words. Mention the number 655, though, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the students would immediately know what you were talking about.

The number, 655, is a flight number: Iran Air 655. If you've never heard of it, you're far from alone. But you should know the story if you want to better understand why the United States and Iran so badly distrust one another and why it will be so difficult to strike a nuclear deal, as they're attempting to do at a summit in Switzerland this week.


What to Make of Saudi Hand-Wringing: Troubling and uncertain times for Saudi diplomacy

    Thursday, October 17, 2013   No comments
These are troubling and uncertain times for Saudi diplomacy. A string of regional upsets and friction with the United States has cast the kingdom into rocky, uncharted waters. Washington’s support of the Islamist government in Egypt and its response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria elicited outrage and accusations of U.S. unreliability and even betrayal from Riyadh. Then came the slight warming in U.S.-Iranian relations—highlighted by the unprecedented phone call between U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. That mild rapprochement brought to the fore an old specter: an U.S.-Iranian breakthrough that marginalizes the Gulf states and erodes their long-standing position as beneficiaries of U.S.-Iranian hostility.
On the editorial pages of Saudi newspapers, columnists have sounded familiar themes with new levels of intensity: The Gulf is being shut out of regional negotiations. The United States was duped on Syria and Iran. The Gulf needs to adopt a more muscular, unilateral approach to safeguard its own interests, and it should cultivate new security patrons to compensate for U.S. capriciousness, perfidy, and retreat from the region.

But what does this latest round of hand-wringing, protest, and introspection really mean in terms of new directions in Saudi foreign policy?


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Thursday, October 10, 2013

US President Barack Obama reportedly confronted Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during a "difficult meeting" in May about what Washington saw as indiscriminate support for fighters seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

    Thursday, October 10, 2013   No comments
US President Barack Obama reportedly confronted Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during a "difficult meeting" in May about what Washington saw as indiscriminate support for fighters seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a sign of disagreement between the two NATO allies over how to respond to the crisis in Syria.
Erdoğan met with Obama during a visit to Washington in May, and the two had talks focusing primarily on Syria. The two leaders projected a united front after the talks despite disagreement over how much the US should intervene to end the Syrian crisis. Turkey has pressed the US for a more aggressive stance to bring down the Assad regime while the Obama administration, partly out of concern over radical Islamist groups within the opposition, has refrained from military action or more active support for the opposition.
Behind closed doors, Obama complained about Turkish dealings with the Syrian opposition, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday. According to the report, Obama delivered “what US officials describe as an unusually blunt message: The US believed Turkey was letting arms and fighters flow into Syria indiscriminately and sometimes to the wrong rebels, including anti-Western jihadists.”

At the White House meeting, the Turkish side pushed back at the suggestion that they were aiding radicals and sought to enlist the US to aggressively arm the opposition, the report said, citing US officials briefed on the discussions.

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Wednesday, October 09, 2013

In a SPIEGEL interview, Syrian President Bashar Assad discusses his fight for power, his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and the special expectations he has for Germany

    Wednesday, October 09, 2013   No comments
Editor's note: The following is the version of the interview with Syrian President Bashar Assad that ran in the Monday edition of SPIEGEL. Earlier on Monday, the Syrian state news agency Sana published its own version of the interview. There are minor differences that reflect changes made by our fact-checkers.



Monday, October 07, 2013

Turkish Shias in fear of life on the edge: Sectarian hatred is moving from Syria into the mainstream of Turkey’s political life

    Monday, October 07, 2013   No comments
The poison of sectarian hatred is spreading to Turkey from Syria as a result of the Turkish government giving full support to militant Sunni Muslims in the Syrian civil war.

The Alevi, a long-persecuted Shia sect to which 10-20 million Turks belong, say they feel menaced by the government’s pro-Sunni stance in the Shia-Sunni struggle that is taking place across the Muslim world.

Nevzat Altun, an Alevi leader in the Gazi quarter in Istanbul, says: “People here are scared that if those who support sharia come to power in Syria, the same thing could happen in Turkey.” He says that the Alevi of Turkey feel sympathy for the Syrian Alawites, both communities holding similar, though distinct, Shia beliefs and the Alevi oppose Turkey’s support for rebels fighting to overthrow Syria’s Alawite-dominated government.

Sectarian faultlines between the Sunni majority and the Alevi, Turkey’s largest religious minority, have always existed but are becoming deeper, more embittered and openly expressed. Atilla Yeshilada, a political and economic commentator, says that “anything [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan says against the Alawites of Syria is full of sectarian innuendoes for the Alevi”.

Alawites who have fled to Turkey to escape the violence in Syria often find they are little safer after they have crossed the Turkish border. They say they dare not enter government-organised refugee camps because they are frightened of being attacked by the rebel Free Syrian Army as soon as it is discovered they are not Sunni.

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Sunday, October 06, 2013

In an interview with SPIEGEL, Syrian President Assad: "West Is More Confident in Al-Qaida than Me"

    Sunday, October 06, 2013   No comments
In an interview to be published in the Monday issue of SPIEGEL, Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks out about inspections of his country's chemical weapons, possible new elections and the role of Germany, the United States and Russia in his country's crisis. He also continues to vehemently deny any role in chemical weapons attacks on civilians and the armed opposition.


"We did not use chemical weapons," he tells the magazine. "This is a misstatement. So is the picture you paint of me as a man who kills his own people."
He also expresses doubts about the United Nations report on the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack. "No one can say with certainty that rockets were used," he says. Instead, he accuses the rebels themselves of using Sarin gas.

Addressing the chemical weapons inspections now beginning in Syria, he says: "We're very transparent. The experts can go to every site. They are going to have all the data from our government." Until the weapons are destroyed, they will remain "under full control," he adds.

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Saturday, October 05, 2013

CIA ramping up covert training program for moderate Syrian rebels

    Saturday, October 05, 2013   No comments
By Greg Miller

The CIA is expanding a clandestine effort to train opposition fighters in Syria amid concern that moderate, U.S.-backed militias are rapidly losing ground in the country’s civil war, U.S. officials said.

But the CIA program is so minuscule that it is expected to produce only a few hundred trained fighters each month even after it is enlarged, a level that officials said will do little to bolster rebel forces that are being eclipsed by radical Islamists in the fight against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The CIA’s mission, officials said, has been defined by the White House’s desire to seek a political settlement, a scenario that relies on an eventual stalemate among the warring factions rather than a clear victor. As a result, officials said, limits on the agency’s authorities enable it to provide enough support to help ensure that politically moderate, U.S.-supported militias don’t lose but not enough for them to win.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the agency has sent additional paramilitary teams to secret bases in Jordan in recent weeks in a push to double the number of rebel fighters getting CIA instruction and weapons before being sent back to Syria.

The agency has trained fewer than 1,000 rebel fighters this year, current and former U.S. officials said. By contrast, U.S. intelligence analysts estimate that more than 20,000 have been trained to fight for government-backed militias by Assad’s ally Iran and the Hezbollah militant network it sponsors.

The CIA effort was described as an urgent bid to bolster moderate Syrian militias, which have been unable to mount a serious challenge to Assad or match the growing strength of rival rebel factions that have hard-line Islamist agendas and, in some cases, ties to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
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Friday, October 04, 2013

Iran Opens Its Fist

    Friday, October 04, 2013   No comments
He came to New York. He saw almost everyone. Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, may not have conquered, but at least he seems to have persuaded John Kerry and Barack Obama that his proposals for negotiating an end to the US-Iran conflict deserve to be taken seriously. When President Obama picked up his phone in the Oval Office on Friday to bid farewell to President Rouhani with the Persian phrase Khodahafez (“God be with you”), there was the sense that a tectonic shift between Washington and Tehran was taking place.

The Rouhani blitz was regarded by many cynics as nothing but a charm offensive. Of course, in one sense that is what it was. Rouhani dominated the media, with half a dozen one-on-one interviews, a well written and conciliatory op-ed in the Washington Post, a seemingly endless series of meetings with curated groups of journalists, scholars, former US government officials, business executives, and a throng of his fellow Iranians, many of whom had taken refuge in the United States from the regime he represents. He spoke to the UN General Assembly (the ostensible purpose of his visit), to the Non-Aligned Movement (which Iran chairs), and to a collection of some two hundred members of the Asia Society and the Council on Foreign Relations at a midtown hotel.

I watched him in the two meetings that I attended and in most of his televised appearances. Rouhani is a man of considerable gravitas. He is serious, businesslike, and fully in command of his brief. Except for the formal speeches, he spoke without notes and responded directly and thoughtfully to the many questions directed at him. He spoke in Persian, except for an occasional English phrase, but he listened to his English-speaking audience without simultaneous translation, and his responses indicated that he grasped not only the words but also the nuances. Rouhani is a cleric, and he wears the robes and turban appropriate to his status. But he prefers to be addressed as Doctor Rouhani, in recognition of his PhD in law from Glasgow Caledonian University. Addressing members of New York think tanks, he reminded them that until recently he was one of them, running the Center for Strategic Research in Tehran. That, however, is only a small part of his résumé.

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Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Syria: massacre reports emerge: Villagers from president's Shia sect are fleeing their homes, recounting gruesome tales of executions and other atrocities

    Wednesday, October 02, 2013   No comments
For more than two years, as fighting has escalated throughout Syria, a group of villages peopled by government supporters in the mountains above this coastal city has been spared any attacks.

In spite of their proximity to the Turkish border, across which rebel fighters are armed and financed, farmers continued their lives as normal, even though as Alawites who come from the Shia sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs they could have been obvious targets.

At dawn on 4 August their peace was shattered. Armed rebels,
led by local jihadis as well as members of Jabhat al-Nusra and the al-Qaida linked group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, left their headquarters in the largely Sunni town of Salma. They sneaked into the al-Akrad mountains, taking control of five Alawite villages. The rebels called it Operation Liberation of the Coast and the aim was to send the government a message that even the Alawite heartland was no longer safe.

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Tuesday, October 01, 2013

How Turkey blew its chance to lead this troubled region: The country could have enhanced its influence and saved a lot of lives. It did the exact opposite

    Tuesday, October 01, 2013   No comments
Erdogan's blunders in the sectarian political swamp that stretches between Iran and the Mediterranean remind me of Tony Blair's misadventures in the Middle East. Blair, like Erdogan, was a consummate politician on his home turf with sure political instincts and, again like the Turkish Prime Minister, won three elections in a row. He was accustomed also to dealing with US and EU leaders. But when it came to Iraq and Lebanon, his judgement deserted him and hubris misled him.

The picture Blair presents in his autobiogaphy of Iraq post-invasion shows astonishingly little understanding of what was happening. Al-Qa'ida and Iran appear out of nowhere like aliens from a neighbouring planet, as agents of disruption. Erdogan, likewise, seems baffled about why his venture into the Middle East has gone so very wrong

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