Opinion

The Great Debate

Assad’s terror farce at the Geneva talks

Just days before the most recent Syrian peace talks in Geneva began, a report detailing “industrial-scale” killing in President Bashar al-Assad’s prisons revealed the nature of his government. Despite this setback, the regime continues to claim that it is only fighting terrorists.

While their rhetoric is convenient, the reality is that only one side of the Syrian negotiations is actively fighting al Qaeda – the opposition. Though Assad has the capacity to attack extremists, from the spring of 2011 until today he has chosen to target civilians instead.

During two weeks I just spent interviewing Syrians in the southern border towns of Turkey, I found nearly universal opposition to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the army of foreign jihadists backed by al Qaeda that has now taken over many liberated areas across Northern Syria.

Syrians decried ISIS’s brutal campaign to target aid workers, journalists, respected leaders and moderate clerics. They describe the dual terror of Assad’s airborne bombs and al Qaeda’s guns on the ground. Citizens risked their lives earlier this month to march in protest against ISIS, and the poorly-armed opposition began to push al Qaeda out of key parts of the north and reopen communities to aid.

Assad knew that the enemy of his enemy could be his friend, at least for now. His cynical but effective logic was that if he could convince the world he was fighting terrorists, we would live with his war crimes. He sowed the seeds for this in his widely mocked first speech addressing mass protests at the end of March, 2011. He then set to work making it more reality than rhetoric, releasing extremists from his own prisons to become the face of the opposition.

Iran: More than Persia

When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was campaigning, he promised the country’s many ethnic minorities to expand the use of their languages. Rouhani recently signaled his intent to keep that promise, by appointing Iran’s first presidential aid for ethnic and religious minority affairs, acknowledging the country’s minority challenges.

In the multi-ethnic state that is Iran, the political meaning of the population’s diversity will have serious consequences as political normalization with the West continues. Both the United States and the European Union should understand the significance of Iran’s multi-ethnic makeup and prepare policies that can address it.

Washington and Brussels should view this process as similar to when Mikhail Gorbachev began opening the Soviet Union to the West, it quickly became apparent that the Soviet Union was –not only composed of Russians. Later, it became clear that what the West had considered to be “Yugoslavians” or “Czechoslovakians” were, in fact, many different ethnic groups.  Few of these peoples shared a civic-state identity.

U.S. Mideast policy: Keeping our friends closer

It is time for Washington to change the parameters of the debate on its foreign policy toward the greater Middle East. It is not a choice between human rights and security — rather, the two goals should go hand in hand.

The United States does not need to lose its longtime allies in the Middle East and beyond in order to promote human rights and democracy. In fact, U.S. allies will be more likely to undertake political reform if they feel that Washington is a close partner.

A number of U.S. allies in the Middle East have recently expressed concern regarding Washington’s frequent flips in policies toward the region. The Obama administration’s policy toward the challenges arising from the Middle East has indeed been a series of zigzags: bold moves and initiatives, accompanied by retreats and withdrawals.

Time for action on Syria

The Syrian civil war now threatens to split the Middle East along a Sunni-Shia chasm. The horrifying news reports Wednesday about the Assad government’s possible chemical attack on civilians, if proven true, mean that the Obama administration’s “red line” has been crossed yet again.

Thursday, both France and Turkey called for stronger action — including a possible use of force. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) renewed his call for a no-fly zone.

But does all this mean that the United States and the European Union will now follow a more assertive policy in Syria?

For Russia, Syria is not in the Middle East

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with (clockwise, starting in top left.) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, British Prime Minister David Cameron, next Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. REUTERS/FILES

A string of leaders and senior emissaries, seeking to prevent further escalation of the Syria crisis, has headed to Moscow recently to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. First, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, then British Prime Minister David Cameron, next Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and now, most recently, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon These leaders see Russia as the key to resolving the Syria quandary.

But to get Russia to cooperate on any stabilization plan, the United States and its allies will have to take into account Russia’s significant interests in the Mediterranean region.

Can Obama inspire youth vote in Israel?

President Barack Obama’s message to Israel last week was both powerful and urgent: You can’t go on like this. The status quo is not a viable option.

That is a direct challenge to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who acts like Israel can go on like this for the foreseeable future. Many Israelis are strongly tempted to believe, with Netanyahu, that the threat of terrorism and the occupation of the West Bank are manageable problems.

“It can be tempting,” Obama said when addressing an audience of Israeli students in Jerusalem, “to put aside the frustrations and sacrifices that come with the pursuit of peace, particularly when Iron Dome repels rockets, barriers keep out suicide bombers [and] there are so many other pressing issues that demand your attention.”

Obama faces only hard choices in Mideast

The conventional wisdom in Washington these days is that a newly empowered president, freed from the political constraints of reelection, will have more discretion, drive and determination to take on the Middle East’s most intractable problems.

Don’t believe it. This looks a lot more compelling on paper than in practice. Should President Barack Obama be tempted to embrace it, he may well find himself on the short end of the legacy stick.

Once again many on the left are summoning up the spirit of Obama unchained. Those who saw a new kind of American president in the Middle East – tough on Israel; sensitive to the Islamists and the Arabs (see his March 2010 Cairo speech), and bent on engaging the world in a spirit of mutual tolerance and respect – hope for his return.

Mideast’s dynamic opportunity for peace

The Arab world may be in turmoil, but its leaders actually need an enduring peace—now in Gaza and long-term with Israel—because regimes across the region are vulnerable as never before.

Whether they like it or not, that’s true for newly elected Islamists. And old-order autocrats need resolution to prevent protests at home from turning against them.

The challenge for Washington is taking advantage of the vulnerability to work with the new political roster — including players it doesn’t know all that well. The tectonic political shift over the past two years offers a dynamic opportunity.

The key to understanding the ‘Arab Spring’

The United States has been unable to develop a clear national policy about the Arab Spring largely because Washington does not fully understand what’s happening in the Middle East.

The term, “Arab Spring” is itself misleading. The changes over the past 20 months have produced a fundamental transformation of the region – but not in the way most outside observers anticipated: They reflect the replacement of the dominant Arab national identity by a more Islamic identity.

This change has been evolving for more than 40 years and did not begin in January 2011 with the demonstrations across the Middle East.

from Ian Bremmer:

G-zero and the end of the 9/11 era top 2012 risks

In a video for Reuters, Ian Bremmer discusses the biggest risks facing the markets in 2012 and says the next phase in the Middle East and the post-9/11 environment pose the greatest uncertainty:

Top Risks of 2012

As we begin 2012, political risks dominate global headlines in a way we’ve not experienced in decades. Everywhere you look in today’s global economy, concerns over insular, gridlocked, or fractured politics affecting markets stare back at you. Continuation of the politically driven crisis in the eurozone appears virtually guaranteed. There is profound instability across the Middle East. Grassroots opposition to entrenched governments is spreading to countries such as Russia and Kazakhstan that were thought more insulated. Nuclear powers North Korea and Pakistan (and soon Iran?) face unprecedented internal political pressure... Read the full top risks report here.

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