Terrorism & Security
Protests in Bangkok aimed at forcing the government to step down may be dwindling after four days, reports Reuters. But the political crisis is a fast-moving target with many forces in play – including a decision unveiled Thursday by an anti-corruption commission to investigate a government rice-subsidy scheme. The investigation will focus on the role of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and 15 others in administering the subsidy program.
The street protests are the latest chapter in a long-running struggle between the middle class and traditional elite in Bangkok and the largely poor and rural supporters of Ms. Yingluck and her brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Demonstrations flared in November, and reached another critical point on Monday, after opposition firebrand Suthep Thaugsuban led supporters to occupy parts of Bangkok.
Protesters want the prime minister, whose allies have won the previous five election cycles, to resign over charges of corruption, nepotism, and vote-buying. Yingluck dissolved parliament and called for fresh elections on Feb. 2 but demonstrators reject those polls and want her to resign unconditionally.
RECOMMENDED: A New Age of Street Protests
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, told Time magazine that “Thais grudgingly accept a certain level of graft, but the protesters believe Thaksin went beyond mere nest-feathering to the pursuit of 'a monopoly on power and wealth.'”
Protesters Thursday continued to march on government offices, this time the government revenue office, but reporters on the ground say that their numbers appears to have decreased. "People see that the requests of the protesters are impossible under the (law) and constitution," Yingluck told Reuters. "That's why the number of supporters is getting less."
"Popular Demonstrations against democracy are becoming an unfortunate trend in developing countries where elections have challenged long-established elites. The latest case is Thailand, where thousands of people took to the streets Monday to demand that the country’s freely chosen government step down, that an unelected council take its place, and that elections scheduled for next month be canceled,” notes the Washington Post. So far the government has stood firm but it could “use more support from the United States in rejecting an undemocratic outcome to the crisis.”
It is unclear how the demonstrations will play out. The protests could be reinvigorated by the anti-corruption panel's investigation. At the same time, the government has called for the arrest of opposition leader Suthep. "It's the duty of the police to arrest Suthep because he is wanted for insurrection, otherwise police will face malfeasance charges," Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul told the AFP after meeting with the country's national police chief.
A daily update on terrorism and security issues
Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki reiterated his call for international support to stem the rising violence in Iraq after bombings across the country killed at least 40. Although the United Nations and US have expressed concern about the growing insecurity, leaders have been firm that it is the Iraqis' job to bring calm.
Violence in Iraq has been on the rise, with the 2013 death toll reaching levels not seen since the height of the Iraq civil war in 2006-07. According to the BBC, nearly 8,000 civilians and just over 1,000 security forces were killed in Iraq last year, with 759 deaths tallied so far this year.
Today's targets included a bombing at a funeral tent north of Baghdad. The victims were mourning the death of an anti-Al Qaeda Sunni militiaman, reports the Associated Press. Another attack took place in a market in the capital, among other bombings this week.
Reuters reports that the Army is “locked in a standoff with Sunni militants who overran Fallujah, a city west of Baghdad, more than two weeks ago in a challenge to Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki's government.”
They are led by the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is fighting in western Iraq and Syria to carve out a cross-border Islamist fiefdom.
"The battle will be long and will continue," Maliki said on state television on Wednesday ... "If we keep silent it means the creation of evil statelets that would wreak havoc with security in the region and the world."
Earlier this week, United Nations’s Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Iraq, calling for the government to address the “root causes” of its conflict. Mr. Ban encouraged the strengthening of Iraq’s “social fabric,” through political participation, respect for the law and human rights, and democratic processes.
In response, Mr. Maliki said, "what is happening in Anbar has no relation to Iraqi problems," ruling out an attempt at dialogue with jihadists, according to Agence France-Presse. Maliki, a Shiite, has vowed to end the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), but says residents in the occupied, largely Sunni areas must force the group to leave.
Iraqi forces have surrounded Fallujah, about 45 miles west of the capital, but Maliki said on Sunday he is searching for a way “to end the presence of those militants without any bloodshed, because the people of Fallujah have suffered a lot.”
According to The Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy, this comes down, in part, to politics in Iraq – which may not be a bad thing.
Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki from the Dawa Party, a Shiite Islamist political movement with close ties to Iran, has governed Iraq with intolerance and arrogance, stubbornly refusing to reach out to Iraq's disenchanted Sunni Arab majority and dismissing almost all of the community's political leaders who stand up to him as terrorists or friends of terrorists.
Though it may seem strange, this is good news. Because what's happening in Iraq at the moment is not some atavistic expression of "ancient" hatreds and irreconcilable cultural differences. Instead, it's a function of the failure of politics and power sharing in the modern era. And that's the kind of failure that can be rectified if Iraq's leaders, starting with Mr. Maliki, decide to change course from the politics of marginalization and exclusion.
To be sure, there's been no sign of dawning wisdom yet.
Mr. Murphy goes on to note that when ISIS successfully ambushed Iraq’s Army north of Anbar Province in late December, the killings of senior officers “shocked the nation, with Sunni tribal figures in Anbar and elsewhere condemning the attack and vowing to stand with the Iraqi state against ISIS.”
It was a rare opportunity for the Maliki government to capitalize on a sense of national unity brought about by the death of the officers at the hand of Al Qaeda, Murphy notes.
The problem? Maliki used the attack as a pretense to go after Sunni Arab political protesters and political leaders.… All this had the thoroughly predictable result of infuriating Anbar's tribes and clans, and saw many make common cause with ISIS, which made its gains in Fallujah and Ramadi [last] week….
But this sad state of affairs also points to a way out. In 2007, after years of futilely trying to beat fiercely independent Sunni Arab tribes into submission, the US realized that encouraging cooperation with jobs, money, and promises of national respect was a better course. The Sahwa was born. That's a course that remains open to Maliki.
According to a separate Monitor story, some former US military officials are arguing that Al Qaeda's return to the region could offer a valuable opportunity to take on the group. A retired colonel claimed that Al Qaeda "has been kind enough to come out of the shadows and present themselves as a target.”
"This is their fight, but we’re going to help them in their fight,” Mr. Kerry said earlier this month.
A daily update on terrorism and security issues
Turkey was an early supporter of the Syrian opposition, keeping its border open for refugees and aid, allowing the formation of camps along the border, and even allowing the Free Syrian Army to use the border region as an organizing base. But Turkey has also been accused of allowing foreign fighters allied with the opposition, including those from Al Qaeda-linked groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, to set up shop within its borders and is under international pressure to crack down.
Today police raided a satellite office of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), which came to prominence in 2010 as the organizer of the first Gaza flotilla, which was seeking to break the Israeli naval blockade on Gaza.
Police officials told Reuters that the raid in Kilis was part of an operation in six cities to arrest individuals suspected of links to Al Qaeda. IHH rejected the accusation.
RECOMMENDED: Think you know Turkey? Take our country quiz.
"IHH aid is delivered to Syrian babies, children and those who freeze in the cold ... This is an operation to change perceptions (about IHH) and stop aid from being delivered inside Syria," the group said in a statement, according to Reuters.
Turkish news outlet The Daily Hurriyet reports that 25 people were detained, including those taken in the raid on IHH, and that raids were carried out in Istanbul, Van, Kilis, Adana, Gaziantep, and Kayseri Provinces.
"They are trying to show the İHH as if it is related to terror organizations,” General Secretary Yaşar Kutluay said, calling the operation an "attack" on the NGO, reportedly the biggest organization in Turkey sending aid to Syria.
The Daily Star reports that the group has also been accused of smuggling arms into Syria. On Jan. 1 Turkish media reported that a truck loaded with weapons and ammunition had been stopped at the border and that the drivers said they were transporting for IHH. The group called the claim "slanderous."
Turkey has repeatedly denied any involvement in channelling weapons to the Syrian rebels, but in December local media, citing UN documents, reported it had shipped 47 tons of arms since June 2013, according to The Daily Star. And on Friday, two buses were seized that were carrying weapons and ammunition in the baggage hold.
Turkey has been under pressure to prove that it is monitoring its border closely and not allowing Turkey to become a safe haven for terrorists. The Christian Science Monitor reported in December that Western officials were skeptical that Turkey was willing to take action against such groups.
Last weekend, the BBC reported that foreign fighters are using safe houses in the border town of Reyhanli as a base from which to enter Syria, citing interviews with a French jihadist and a man running a safe house.
One Western diplomat expressed doubt that the Turkish government was fully cooperating with Western efforts to staunch the flow of fighters. "We are still experiencing operational difficulties, although we have seen signs that it is improving. As to whether a ‘shift’ ever occurred, that is still an open question,” the diplomat says.
Analysts and journalists familiar with the situation say Turkey has long been facilitating the arming and support of these groups by third parties as part of a policy of indiscriminately assisting rebels groups fighting in the Syrian civil war regardless of ideology.
Turkey's open-border policies were based on the belief that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would fall quickly, and that if he didn't, the US would intervene, Aaron Stein, a fellow at the Royal United Service Institute in London, told the Monitor.
“This led them to make a number of short-sighted policy decisions intended to put as much pressure on the regime as possible, including opening the border,” Mr. Stein says. “As the foreign fighter problem became more acute, they did nothing to prevent it, and were an active participant in the transfer of arms and money to rebel groups.”
RECOMMENDED: Think you know Turkey? Take our country quiz.
Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters have taken to the streets in a so-far peaceful demonstration in Bangkok, the Thai capital, to press for the removal of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Reuters reports that "police and soldiers kept a low profile" Monday as protesters occupied the streets of Bangkok as part of the opposition's "Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand" movement. The protest movement, led by Suthep Thaugsuban, an opposition leader, has rejected parliamentary elections due on Feb. 2, and is instead demanding a "people's council" seize power and revamp Thailand's democracy. Protesters claim that elections simply entrench the interests of Ms. Yingluck and her family, especially her self-exiled brother, billionaire ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was removed in a military coup in 2006.
RECOMMENDED: A New Age of Street Protests
Reuters writes that "the mood among protesters was festive, with many singing and dancing in the streets" on Monday.
Although major intersections that normally teem with cars and trucks were blockaded, city trains and river ferries were operating, most shops were open and motorbikes plied the roads freely.
But protesters said they were prepared for a long haul to tighten the noose on the capital, suggesting the crisis could drag on for days, if not weeks, threatening to inflict substantial damage on Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy.
At the same time, notes the BBC's Jonathan Head, the protests were "wearily familiar," and while certainly charged by strong emotion against the Shinawatras, may not be representative of much more.
Protesters "know about the idea of an 'appointed committee' to fix Thai politics, and they can all mouth the slogans 'Reform Before Election', and 'Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand'," he writes, "But asked what would happen if the prime minister resigned, but her own substantial support base outside Bangkok refused to accept this, no one had an answer."
"Well, it doesn't matter, because we are going to win anyway", was one woman's hopeful answer.
The longer these debilitating protests continue, the more likely a dramatic, perhaps violent, showdown between the two irreconcilable sides of Thai politics. ...
In a conversation with Anchalee Praireerat, one of the more hard-core protest leaders, she would not say exactly what she expected to happen. But she assured me it would all be over in three days, and that the protesters would win.
Despite their strong showing in Bangkok, protesters have far less traction outside the cities, The Christian Science Monitor's Simon Montlake noted recently, highlighting the urban-rural fault lines of the dispute.
The protesters are drawn from Bangkok’s middle classes, Democrat Party strongholds in southern Thailand, and elements of the bureaucracy. They represent a minority voice in Thailand that is used to having its way in how the country is run and where the spoils lie.
The protests have not spread outside the capital, unlike in 2010 when pro-Thaksin activists in northeast Thailand stormed town halls and blocked roads. The campaign has no traction in the north and northeast Thailand, underlining the country’s north-south fault line, as well as the urban-rural divide that has long been a factor in electoral politics.
The 800-pound gorilla in the scenario is the Thai military and the possibility of a coup – an all-to-familiar occurrence in Thai politics. United Press International reports that while the Army's deployment around Bangkok in anticipation of today's protests has heightened worries about a coup's likelihood, Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha denied a coup was in the works and asked the media to stop raising the possibility, according to comments made to The Bangkok Post.
He said posing the question of a coup every time reporters saw him could worsen an already tense situation.
"[A coup] isn't a topic we should be talking about every day," he said. "I don't know what that solution is, but we soldiers will do our best to ensure safety for the people."
Chan-ocha said he was concerned about possible violent confrontations between rival political groups during the rally which is expected to bring widespread disruption to the city.
A daily update on terrorism and security issues
Angered by sectarian strife and government inaction to curb it, Pakistanis have hailed a teenager who died after wrestling a suicide bomber to the ground and averted a likely mass killing at his school.
Journalists, bloggers, community members, and observers are calling for the student to be awarded top honors in Pakistan for his bravery, and some have even compared him to Malala Yousafzai, the teen girl in Pakistan who was shot and almost killed by the Taliban for attending school and later became an international household name. Many had expected she would win this year's Nobel Peace Prize.
Aitzaz Hasan was running late for school on Monday when he and friends were interrupted by a stranger in school uniform who was asking for directions. Suspicious of the query, Aitzaz tackled the man as he walked away. The man then blew himself up, taking both lives.
“The other students backed off, but Aitzaz challenged the bomber and tried to catch him,” his cousin Musadiq Ali Bangash told CNN. “During the scuffle, the bomber panicked and detonated his bomb.”
RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about Pakistan? Take this quiz.
At least 1,000 students attend the school targeted by the suicide bombing, reports the New York Times, in an area of northwestern Pakistan, which is a hotbed of sectarian violence. Pakistanis have rallied around the boy whose community includes many Shiites and has been frequently attacked by Taliban militants and Sunni extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
“We must honor him,” Nasim Zehra, a Pakistani journalist and talk show host, told the Times, calling earlier on her Twitter account for him to receive Pakistan's top military award. “This courageous teenager attempted to battle death. What gave him this confidence? Outrage? Parenting? Faith? From the bloodletting terrorism in Pakistan are emerging uniquely inspiring and iconic individuals like Malala and now Aitzaz Hasan.”
The case underscores the daily threats and government incapacity to stem violence along sectarian lines, despite continued efforts to stabilize the country. The Christian Science Monitor reported recently about an effort to crack down on hate speech to curb intra-faith violence, which was up 71 percent in 2012 from the previous year. In December, the CSM notes, "32 groups representing the major Islamic sects in Pakistan signed on to a code of conduct that prohibits hate speech against other sects, restricts the use of mosque loudspeakers, and bans incendiary literature and graffiti."
But, as Monitor correspondent Umar Farooq says, enforcement of the code is a challenge and intra-faith violence a daily threat: since the new year, a suicide bomber on Jan. 1 killed two Shia pilgrims on their way home from Iran; and two senior Sunni leaders were killed in Islamabad on Jan 3.
Many Pakistanis fed up with violence have channeled their energies into honoring Aitzaz. In today's Nation in Pakistan, an editorial is dedicated to the boy:
Most of us have already surrendered to the Taliban, at least in our hearts because we believe that nothing can stop an attack from taking place, unless fortune is on our side. The precious few that are still fighting are dropping like flies,” the editorial notes. “How many more children have to sacrifice themselves before we get a reality check? For the sake of Aitzaz and all the countless children that have been taken before their time, somebody from the government needs to take a page out of Aitzaz’s book and resist terrorists till they can no longer harm Pakistan.
Aitzaz has two sisters, according to local reports, and was well-loved in his village. The Express Tribune quoted his father, who works as a driver in United Arab Emirates, who said he returned home not to mourn his child's death but celebrate his life. “My son made his mother cry, but saved hundreds of mothers from crying for their children,” he told the paper.
RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about Pakistan? Take this quiz.
A daily update on terrorism and security issues
Thai protesters marched in Bangkok today to rally support for a planned citywide shutdown that the government says it will counter with the deployment of nearly 15,000 police and soldiers.
Protesters, who have been trying to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government since November, plan to block main intersections and cut power and water to state buildings in a mass rally starting Jan. 13. Protest leaders say they will occupy Bangkok until the government falls, Agence France-Presse reports.
In response, the national police spokesman announced today that 14,800 police and soldiers would be in the capital on Monday to “to prevent any violence or clashes,” according to the AFP. The Transport Ministry also published plans for five parking zones around Bangkok where commuters can leave their cars and take public transport to the city center.
Adding to the political drama, a court is investigating pro-government lawmakers over a failed attempt to reform the upper house of parliament. The anti-corruption court has the power to impeach the 308 lawmakers, casting a shadow over their political future, the BBC reports.
RECOMMENDED: Think you know Asia? Take our geography quiz.
Political unrest has rocked Thailand since November, when Ms. Yingluck’s ruling party tried to pass a wide-ranging amnesty bill that would have paved the way for Thailand’s former prime minister, and Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra to return from exile.
Although the government dropped the amnesty bill, the attempt provided the trigger that revived a deep divide between Bangkok’s middle class and opposition-party strongholds in the South and the mainly rural, northern supporters of Yingluck and Thaksin, who was toppled in a military coup in 2006.
Opposition leaders gatherered as many as 200,000 people for massive street protests in Bangkok that led Yingluck to call for early elections on Feb. 2.
But protest leaders are not satisfied with the offer of a new election since Thaksin-financed parties have won every election held since 2001. Opponents accuse the Shinawatra clan of taxpayer-funded policies – such as a government rice-buying program that pays above the market price – that amount to vote buying.
Instead, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has called for an unelected “people’s council” that would establish electoral reforms. The political party of Mr. Thaugsuban, who resigned his seat in parliament in order to lead the street protests, has not won an election since 1992.
The Christian Science Monitor explained last month why the Shinawatra family is such a lightning rod in Thai politics:
Thaksin, a former police colonel, made a fortune in telecommunications in the 1990s. He parlayed his fortune into building a political party that swept the polls in 2001 and became the first prime minister to serve a full parliamentary term in Thailand, where unstable coalitions were the norm.
As Thaksin amassed more influence, old-money families and royalist elites pushed back. His premiership was tainted by several corruption scandals and brutal tactics for drug suppression, but his policies proved popular with many Thais, including in the northeast, where one in three voters live.
Amid protests, the military seized power in 2006 and a constitutional court dissolved Thaksin’s party, but his allies have contested and won all subsequent elections. By contrast, Suthep’s Democrat Party, which has not registered for the upcoming poll, has not won an election since 1992.
In 2011, Yingluck campaigned on a platform that explicitly linked her leadership to her brother’s. Critics say the family has created a corrupt, nepotistic dynasty.
As for whether the protest movement is likely to bring significant change, the Monitor's Simon Montlake reports:
The movement’s anti-democratic arguments are unpalatable to a majority of people, so any move to suspend democratic rule could tip Thailand into chaos. Many protesters would welcome a coup that removes Yingluck and drives out her family and allies.
Notwithstanding the ambiguous comment by Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, the military is reluctant to wade into the political conflict.
A more sustained focus on corruption and good governance that goes beyond the fixation on the Shinawatra family may emerge and become a more potent force, but not under the movement’s current leadership.
A daily update on terrorism and security issues
Overcoming inclement weather and fierce fighting, the first shipment of chemical weapons has left Syria on an Danish ship – missing a Dec. 31 deadline but keeping the process moving forward.
The highway connecting Damascus and Homs to the Syrian coastline was at the center of a months-long fierce battle between regime forces and rebels. Although the Syrian regime still does not control the entire Qalamoun region -- a mountainous region between Damascus and Homs, adjacent to the Lebanese border (see map) -- it has expelled rebels from enough towns to make the highway passable for convoys.
The only option for removing Syria's estimated 1,300 tons of chemical weapons is to go overland to a Syrian port, because transporting them across a border with a neighboring country would violate international conventions. The disarmament process is led by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
As The Christian Science Monitor reported in December, international monitors had to put their work on hold because of the threat of ambush from rebel forces who controlled parts of Qalamoun. For weeks, the route was considered too dangerous for the first shipment.
The Monitor detailed the makeup of this first, crucial shipment:
Under the agreement, Damascus is responsible for dismantling its chemical weapons program and removing all its components. That includes the 500 tons of “priority” chemical agents, consisting of up to 22 tons of sulphur mustard, a blistering agent, and two precursor chemicals each for sarin and VX nerve agents.
The priority agents are required to be out of the country by Dec. 31 and destroyed no later than Mar. 31.
The remaining 800 tons of the inventory consists of mainly industrial chemicals that are due to be removed and destroyed by Feb. 5. Some 35 private companies have tendered bids to destroy them.
“These are, for the most part, run-of-the-mill industrial chemicals, and a lot of them would not even have to be removed and destroyed had they been in Syria for legitimate purposes,” says Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the OPCW. "But it’s because they are there as part of the production chain for chemical warfare agents that they have to be removed and destroyed."
The Wall Street Journal reports that the biggest transportation obstacle, after the fighting and snowstorm, was a shortage of armored vehicles for safe transport, which Russia recently provided. The Danish ship that picked up the weapons will take 156 tons of the chemicals to Britain, which has agreed to destroy them. The remaining 560 tons will be taken to an Italian port, where a US vessel will be waiting to transport them out to international waters for "neutralization."
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told The Wall Street Journal, "Today's news is extremely good. It shows that the Syrians are capable of moving the material on the road or roads north of Lebanon to the port, apparently without incident."
In the neutralization process, known as hydrolysis, chemicals are combined with hot water or caustic agents to destroy the toxicity of the agent, according to the Monitor. They can then be incinerated or treated similarly to waste water.
According to the BBC, which illustrated the process in a graphic, the Syrian government is responsible for collecting chemical weapons agents from 12 different sites across the country. Russia is providing security at the loading area in Latakia, while the US has facilitated the loading and transportation equipment. China is providing ambulances and security cameras, while Finland has an emergency response team on hand in case of accidents. Denmark, Norway, Russia, and China are providing cargo ships and naval escorts for the shipment.
The Obama administration cautiously welcomed the news. "Much more needs to be done," State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said. "As the international community has made clear, it is the Assad regime's responsibility to transport these chemicals to Latakia safely to facilitate their removal."
But, she said, the US had "no reason to believe that the regime has gone back on any aspect of their promise" to destroy the weapons.
A daily update on terrorism and security issues
Iran denounced the US suggestion that it play a role on the sidelines of the second United Nations Syria peace conference this month because the minimal role “does not respect its dignity,” a foreign ministry spokeswoman said Monday.
But with skyrocketing sectarian violence throughout the region, particularly in Syria and Iraq, and the US beginning to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, Iran’s active involvement in the region is seen as increasingly important, The New York Times reports, describing Iran as an "island of stability."
The Geneva II conference is set to begin Jan. 22, and will include more than 20 countries invited by the UN as well as representatives from Syria’s opposition. The UN special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, supports Iran’s participation in the Syrian peace process, and on Sunday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Tehran could “participate very easily” in the talks if they accept that the Assad regime must be replaced by a transitional government.
"If Iran doesn't support that, it's difficult to see how they are going to be a ministerial partner in the process," Mr. Kerry said, noting that there are ways they could “conceivably” contribute from the sidelines.
Despite warming ties between Washington and Tehran in recent months – most notably with the November agreement to temporarily freeze Iran’s nuclear development – the two nations have been on opposite ends of the Syria fight. Over the course of the three-year conflict in Syria which has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people and displaced millions more, Iran has provided military assistance and manpower to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. According to The Christian Science Monitor:
Since its 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has used Syria as a conduit for weapons, cash, and support for the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, and later Hamas and Islamic Jihad, all of which form a frontline against Israel. If Assad falls, Iran could lose that channel.
Reuters reports that the US State Department spokesman said that for Iran to have a role in the Syria peace talks, “they would have to demonstrate that they would do things that would be less destructive in Syria."
The New York Times reports that while the US and Iran “quietly continue to pursue their often conflicting interests, they are being drawn together by their mutual opposition to an international movement of young Sunni fighters, who with their pickup trucks and Kalashnikovs are raising the black flag of Al Qaeda along sectarian fault lines in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.” On Monday, Iran offered to join the US in sending military aid to the Iraqi government, which is engaged in a fierce struggle to oust Sunni militants from Iraq's Anbar province.
With Iran as an island of stability in a region plagued by violent protests, sectarian clashes and suicide bombers, there are not that many options left for Washington, experts here say.
“We face the same enemy, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” said Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a prominent Iranian reformist journalist who closely follows the Arab world. He recalled how Iranian intelligence operatives gave reliable information to American Special Forces troops battling Iran’s enemy, the Afghan Taliban, in 2001.
While the Obama administration acknowledges that Iran has the potential to be an influential player on regional issues from Afghanistan to Syria, senior officials have said they are keeping their focus tightly on the nuclear negotiations. Cooperation on any other issues, they said, hinges largely on coming to terms on Iran’s nuclear program.
On Monday, an unnamed senior State Department official told reporters that “There are ... steps that Iran could take to show the international community that they are serious about playing a positive role [in Syria]."
"Those include calling for an end to the bombardment by the Syrian regime of their own people. It includes calling for and encouraging humanitarian access." The official told Reuters that Iran hadn’t shown any evidence of taking these types of steps.
“The Americans are confessing Iran stands for peace and stability in this region,” Hamid Reza Tarraghi, a hard-line political analyst told The New York Times. “But when they invite us for a conference on Syria we are ‘allowed’ to be present on the ‘sidelines.’ This is insulting.”
A daily update on terrorism and security issues
Iraq's prime minister today called upon the residents of the Al-Qaeda-occupied city of Fallujah to oust the militants, spurring speculation that Iraqi military forces are set to retake the city imminently.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in a statement released today, asked "the people of Fallujah and its tribes to expel the terrorists" in order to ensure that "their areas are not subjected to the danger of armed clashes," BBC News reports.
The gunmen overran the predominantly Sunni city and parts of the surrounding Anbar Province, including nearby Ramadi, last week, prompting hundreds to flee amid ongoing artillery and air strikes by government forces. The militants, members of the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also commonly known by the acronym ISIS), made their move amid ongoing protests in the region against the Shiite-dominated central government, which Sunnis say has marginalized them.
The situation in Fallujah has drawn offers of support for Baghdad from both the US and Iran. The Washington Post reported yesterday that Secretary of State John Kerry said the US would do “everything that is possible" to support Iraqi forces against ISIL, though he said that did not include US troops on the ground.
“This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis,” Kerry said toward the end of a visit to Jerusalem. “We are not, obviously, contemplating returning. We are not contemplating putting boots on the ground. This is their fight, but we’re going to help them in their fight.”
The Washington Post notes that Fallujah has a particular resonance for the US military, being the site of a major US offensive against Sunni militants in 2004 during the US invasion of Iraq. The Post writes that the offensive was "the most deadly confrontation of the Iraq war for U.S. forces and some of their bloodiest fighting since the Vietnam War."
Mr. Kerry did not specify the sort of support that the US would provide Iraq, though the Post adds that Washington has supplied Baghdad with missiles and promised to send drones in recent months.
And Iran has also offered military support to Baghdad in its operations in Anbar, reports Deutsche Welle. Iranian Brigadier-General Mohammad Hejazi told local media on Sunday that Iran was ready to provide Iraq with "military equipment or consultation" should Iraqi officials ask. Iran's Shiite government is closely allied with its counterparts in Iraq, and is a prime opponent of Al Qaeda and its various affiliates.
Despite the ongoing fighting around Fallujah and Anbar Province – which left at least 34 people dead on Sunday, according to Voice of America – ISIL's high profile may belie the group's weakness in Iraq, writes Deutsche Welle in a separate analysis. While ISIL has been prominent first in Syria and now in Anbar, where it declared an "Islamic state," it has been experiencing setbacks as of late.
Günter Meyer, head of the Centre for Research on the Arab World at Mainz University, notes that in the past few days, ISIL has suffered severe setbacks, especially in Syria, and he thinks that has stopped their drive forward for now. Their occupation of Fallujah and Ramadi was a "short-term push," he told Deutsche Welle.
And he doesn't take reports about the declaration of an Islamic state in Fallujah too seriously: "Wherever ISIL takes control, it's going to declare an emirate with a local Emir who's in charge of the troops. Ultimately though, this doesn't carry a lot of weight."
And while Jochen Hippler, a political scientist at the Institute for Development and Peace at the University of Duisburg-Essen, told Deutsche Welle that "there are areas in both countries where the ISIL militants are the strongest military force," Mr. Hippler adds that most people don't support the group. ISIL "is notorious for the brutality it employs to maintain its regional power," he says.
Capitalizing on building Sunni Arab resentment of the Shiite-dominated central Iraqi government, Al Qaeda-linked militants have swept into two cities in Iraq's western Anbar province that the US fought fiercely to wrest from insurgents during the war.
The two cities, Fallujah and Ramadi, were the focus of near continuous US military efforts between 2003 and 2010, but insurgents - among them militants who share the world-view of Al Qaeda and came to call themselves the Islamic State in Iraq - proved impossible to root out.
Anbar is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab and the toppling of Saddam Hussein began a process in which their community has felt more and more politically and economically marginalized relative to the country's majority Shiite Arab community. While that process of disenfranchisement paused briefly towards the end of the US occupation of the country, when a US military strategy of outreach to Sunni Arab tribes with promises of jobs and a seat at the political table paid huge dividends, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has persistently antagonized Sunni Arab politicians and citizens alike since the US military's departure at the end of 2011.
Many of the Sunni Arabs of Anbar now view Maliki much as they did Iraq's interim American rulers and with a civil war in Syria raging next door, the local Al Qaeda franchise is finding the wind at its back once more. The Islamic State in Iraq, which incorporated many Syrian jihadi fighters during the battle against US forces, formally merged with Al Qaeda supporters in Syria last year to form the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also commonly referred to as ISIS) which has become one of the most powerful groups fighting against the Syrian regime.
The cross-border movement is far from supported by all in Anbar - its heavy-handed treatment of citizens of towns it controls and contempt for the local culture, tradition and tribal notables saw to that - but the number of people willing to join up, and almost as importantly willing to turn a blind eye rather than informing the authorities about militant movements, has swelled.
Anbar shares a lengthy and porous border with Syria, and has been the focus of concern about Syrian war spillover since the early days of the Syrian uprising. Smuggling routes were well-established during the US-led sanctions regime against Saddam Hussein, and after 2003, Syria became an important transit point for foreign fighters and weapons flowing to the Sunni insurgency. When Iraqi forces worked with over 100,000 US troops in the country, they never managed to shut the border or control the province. Since the US departure, the job has hardly gotten easier.
The militants have taken advantage of local unrest. The New York Times reports that Fallujah and Ramadi were the site of year-long antigovernment sit-ins by Sunnis frustrated with their treatment by Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government. Mr. Maliki sent in government forces to dismantle the protest encampments in the two cities earlier this week, and the confrontation erupted into violence between armed tribesmen and the government forces that took days to calm. (Agence France-Presse reports that Maliki had dubbed the protest site in Ramadi a "headquarters for the leadership of Al Qaeda.")
The prime minister finally withdrew the army from the area on Tuesday, after striking a deal with the local tribal leaders - but as soon as government forces withdrew, Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters "swarmed" the cities, The New York Times reports. Maliki immediately dispatched the Army once again, and tried to bring the local tribesmen onto the government side with offers of guns and money, reaching an agreement Thursday.
According to a later New York Times report, the local tribesmen are fighting alongside government troops only "reluctantly, making the calculation that, in this case, the government is the lesser evil than Al Qaeda."
Sheikh Hamed Rasheed Muhana echoed what many Sunnis in Iraq feel when he complained that the government had alienated Sunnis with harsh security crackdowns and mass arrests of Sunni men, militants and ordinary civilians alike. He said the government had worsened matters by “creating more depressed people willing to join Al Qaeda because of the sectarian behavior and ongoing arrests.”
Overnight calm Thursday was shattered as Friday prayers, which local imams held in a public park away from the worst of the fighting, came to a close. The New York Times reports.
... As services were concluding large numbers of masked militants affiliated with Al Qaeda appeared and took the stage. Waving a black flag, one fighter shouted to the crowd: “We declare Falluja as an Islamic state and we call on you to be on our side.”
“We are here to defend you from the army of Maliki and the Iranian Safavids,” the fighter continued. “We welcome the return of all workers, even the local police, but they have to be under our state and our rule.”
Also on Friday, gunmen blew up several government buildings in Falluja, including the police headquarters, the local council and the office of the mayor, according to a security official.
As fighting spread, the militants recaptured that had been liberated by security forces and their tribal allies. Fighting was also said to have picked up again in Ramadi, and one official said four soldiers had been killed.
AFP describes ISIL as the "latest incarnation" of an Al Qaeda affiliate that the US and local tribesmen banded together to drive out in 2006. The US withdrawal from Iraq and the Syrian war sowed the seeds for a comeback of the group, and the Sunni grievances of the past year, which created tension between the local Sunni tribes and the government, created a situation ripe for this takeover.
ISIL's "strength and territorial control and influence has been expanding in Anbar for some time, but has primarily been focused on rural desertous terrain," Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, told AFP. ISIL "has ridden this wave of popular Sunni anger," he said.
Anger has been simmering in Anbar for a long time. The Christian Science Monitor observed Al Qaeda efforts to rally support during protests there in February, which were the largest since the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
The Anbar demonstrations began in December, with protesters demanding an end to perceived targeting of Sunni Muslims after the arrest of the Sunni finance minister’s bodyguards on terrorism charges. But it is the arrests of dozens of Iraqi women that have infuriated many in this fiercely tribal area. That anger has spread to Sunni areas in Baghdad and to provinces farther north, and both Al Qaeda in Iraq and mainstream political figures have been quick to join the fray.
The Al Qaeda umbrella group, the Islamic State of Iraq, appealed to Sunnis this week to arm themselves against the Iraqi government and security forces. Hard-line Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Thursday, meanwhile, threatened to withdraw cabinet ministers from Mr. Maliki's coalition government if the protesters' demands weren't met.
Unrest has surged in Iraq in the last year - 2013 had the highest death toll since 2008, as a sectarian civil war was waning. Over 7,100 civilians were killed in attacks last year, more than double the death toll in 2012.
Fallujah and Ramadi were two of the most critical cities in the US fight against the insurgency during the war in Iraq. The New York Times details their significance:
For the United States, which two years ago withdrew its forces from Iraq as officials claimed the country was on track to become a stable democracy, Anbar holds historical significance. It was the place of America’s greatest losses, and perhaps its most significant success, of the war. Nearly one-third of the US soldiers killed during the war died trying to pacify Anbar, and Americans fought two battles for control of Fallujah, in the bloodiest street-to-street combat US troops had faced since Vietnam.
As Iraq descended into civil war during the US occupation, the epicenter of the unrest was in the desert region of Anbar, a restive cradle of Sunni discontent where swaggering tribesmen defied authority even under Saddam Hussein. A US pact with those Anbar tribesmen in 2007 — to pay them to switch sides and fight alongside the United States against Al Qaeda — became known as the Awakening. That pact was credited with turning the tide of the war.
Local Sunni tribesmen told Reuters yesterday that they were talking with the militants in hopes of keeping them away from the fighting.
"We are looking to prevent the government from using excessive power against us by using the excuse of Al Qaeda's presence," a senior Anbar tribal leader familiar with the negotiations told Reuters by phone.
In the midst of the tribal-army clashes, tribal fighters banded together to form the Tribal Revolutionaries, placing snipers on top of houses to keep the army from returning after they drove them out.
A prominent local sheikh defended the tribal fighters' resistance, saying the government troops did not represent or defend Anbar residents. "We cannot let this army enter our cities. They are (Shi'ite) militias, not a national army, and they are loyal to Maliki, not to the Iraqi people," he told Reuters.