Israeli air strikes add to fog of Syrian war

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By Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security, IISS-Middle East

Israel’s recent air strikes on Syria were intended as a warning to both Syria and Iran, and to stop weapons falling into Hizbullah’s hands – but they have increased the likelihood of a regional conflict.

Last week, the Israeli air force struck two targets inside Syrian territory. The first seems to have been a shipment of surface-to-surface missiles destined for the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah (the Fateh-110 is more accurate than anything Hizbullah is known to currently possess, and with a 300-kilometre range has much of Israel within its reach). The second was a major research centre and important storage facility near Damascus, which is administered by units of the elite Republican Guard. Israel had already struck this installation – the Centre of Scientific Studies and Research in Jamraya – in January, allegedly destroying shipments of anti-aircraft missiles destined for Hizbullah.

These strikes add to an already complex political and military landscape in Syria. The Assad regime has deployed its full arsenal of conventional capabilities against the Syrian rebels – and may have even used chemical weapons on a small scale. The rebels are consolidating their hold over much of Syria, but remain too ill-equipped and poorly organised to win the struggle on the battlefield.

The rise of Islamist and jihadi factions has further complicated the picture: better organised and funded, they often spearhead rebel attacks on key regime facilities across the country. They may eventually seize some of the regime’s advanced weaponry.

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The battle for Damascus

Douma district of Damascus. Freedom House Photo

Emile Hokayem, IISS senior fellow for Middle East security, has a piece in Foreign Policy on the ‘grand battle for Damascus’ currently gathering in the two-year-old Syrian uprising. Hokayem admits that this isn’t the first time that rebels have attempted to wrest control of the Syrian capital from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad; there were earlier concerted efforts in July and December 2012, which were repelled or contained by the regime’s greater firepower. Nor can further ups and downs in the battle be ruled out. However, Hokayem argues, there is a lot more opposition to the Assad regime within Damascus than is generally understood, and the government will put up incredibly stiff resistance in the life-and-death battle to hold on there.

Hokayem sketches out the political geography of a city where the president can count on a large base of support from bureaucrats, others with ties to the regime, religious minorities and middle- and upper-class Sunni urbanites, but not on Christian and Alawite dissidents from the ‘suburbs’ (or the outlying towns that have been incorporated into the capital). Other areas that have not benefitted from the regime’s largesse or the growth of the previous decade – from the conservative, middle-class neighbourhoods of Barzeh and Midan to the poor Sunni area of Qaaboun – have joined the uprising.

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No surrender from Syria’s Assad

Bashar al-Assad addresses supporters in Damascus
Some political commentators may scrutinise Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s words over the weekend for a glimmer of hope. They might argue that he used defiant language during his speech at Damascus Opera House on Sunday – calling his opponents ‘murderous armed criminals’ and ‘Western puppets’ – to place himself in the best possible position ahead of any negotiations.

Unfortunately, that’s too optimistic, says IISS’s Emile Hokayem in a new piece in Foreign Policy magazine. Nearly two years into the uprising in his country, Assad still believes ‘that he will prevail and that any dialogue can only occur on his terms’.

Hokayem reports meeting regime sympathisers in Beirut who believed in a ‘2014 strategy’.

‘Assad’s objective was to survive militarily and hold key cities, roads, and infrastructure until then. In the meantime, the regime could at best propose an improbable multi-year process designed to keep internal and external actors distracted by hollow politics rather than the fate of Assad himself.

‘The “peace plan” laid out by Assad in his speech seems designed to do precisely that,’ Hokayem believes.

Read the full article in Foreign Policy


Arm Syrian rebels to enable a political solution

Rebels use an old Nissan jeep in their fight against Syrian security forces

Rebels use an old Nissan jeep in their fight against Syrian security forces. Photo Credit: Flickr/Freedom House.

By Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security, IISSMiddle East

International lethargy has allowed the once-upbeat Syrian uprising to morph in profoundly dangerous ways. The picture is grim. The humanitarian toll is increasing, with a monthly death count now on par with the worst months of the sectarian war in Iraq. Syria’s civil war has spilt across the region in ways that Iraq’s never did. The long-feared radicalisation of segments of the Syrian opposition is happening.

The debate over the merits and costs of direct intervention may gain new momentum after the US presidential election, but in truth there is little appetite for it. This is not for a lack of imagination: a proposal put forward by the French strategic expert François Heisbourg calls for a no fly-zone over an 80-kilometre area stretching from the Turkish border to Aleppo, enforced solely by air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles and not necessitating deployment of air power over Syrian territory. But even such a limited intervention is proving too much for risk-averse western and Turkish policymakers.

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Hassan’s death leaves Lebanon more uncertain

Mourning the deaths of Wissam al-Hassan and Rafik Hariri. Photo from Gregg Carlstrom on Flickr via a Creative Commons licence

Mourning the deaths of Wissam al-Hassan and Rafik Hariri. Photo from Gregg Carlstrom on Flickr via a Creative Commons licence

The car-bombing that killed intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan last week has shaken Lebanon. Shortly beforehand, Hassan had warned that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would try to spread his country’s sectarian conflict, and neighbouring Lebanon had already been experiencing gun battles and running clashes. We asked our Middle East expert, Emile Hokayem, what Hassan’s death means for his homeland’s immediate future.

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Timely questions on Libya attacks, Middle East at Strategic Survey 2012 launch

By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant Editor

The recent attacks on US consulates in Libya and Egypt may shift the western perspective of what’s happening in the Arab world, but how things will play out within Libya and Egypt is a far more pressing question, argues Emile Hokayem, IISS Senior Fellow for Regional Security-Middle East.

On 11 September, US Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three others were killed in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi – possibly part of a pre-planned strike by a militant group – amid protests over a film about the prophet Mohammed. Protesters also stormed the US consulates in Cairo and in Yemen, and unrest continues to spread.

Hokayem, speaking at the press conference for the Strategic Survey 2012: The Annual Review of World Affairs launch in London, noted that while the details of the attack are still unclear,  it was worth considering what Stevens himself would have said about the situation:‘[He] would not want revenge or disengagement; he would have argued for renewed investment and attention in these critical periods.’ But what matters most in a strategic sense, Hokayem argues, is the reaction from the Libyan and Egyptian governments: ‘This will be the real test, especially for Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, in terms of their international credibility.’

Hokayem said the Libyan government was very clear in its condemnation, but Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi waited some time before making a statement. Whether the political elites in Libya and Egypt can effectively combat extremist sentiment is crucial for their international legitimacy. ‘This is the tragedy of mainstream Islamist movements,’ said Hokayem.  ‘They can easily be outflanked by more extremist factions that frame everything in terms of identity, and not in terms of public governance choices and not in terms of the need for international recognition.’

Hokayem responded to several questions on Libya and other regional security issues at the launch, where opening remarks by Dr John Chipman, touching on significant security themes in the volume, were followed by a Q & A session addressed to a panel of regional experts. Issues discussed included Middle East security – including Syria, Iran and Israel – terrorism in North Africa, China and Japan’s maritime tensions and the Eurozone crisis.

Another timely question dealt with the likelihood of a strike by Israel against Iran: ‘There is a possibility of an Israeli strike this autumn,’ said Mark Fitzpatrick, Director of the IISS’s Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme, in response. ‘But it is a reduced possibility, given the divergence of views in Israel.’

Fitzpatrick explained that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak seems to be acknowledging Obama’s commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, while Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu still maintains that Obama’s commitment is not credible.

‘There’s not a consensus in the inner Israeli security cabinet for a strike, and so it’s unlikely,’ said Fitzpatrick.

Watch the full press conference here.


Sectarian narrative simplifies and obscures

Lebanese protesters warn of the dangers of sectarianism.. Photo from the Lebanese Laique Pride Group
By Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security, IISS-Middle East

These days, there is a dark meta-narrative spreading in parts of the Arab world and beyond: if the previous decade was that of Shia ascendancy, this one will be about the revenge of the Sunnis.

The chasm between Islam’s two main branches, many believe, already shapes internal Arab politics and mirrors a great regional competition that pits Iran against the Gulf states, in particular Saudi Arabia.

The story reads this way: Iran won the first rounds, when it helped Shia parties grab Iraq from Sunni clutches, groomed Hizbollah into a powerful force in Lebanon, and consolidated its alliance with the Alawite House of Assad in Syria. This drive has now been stopped and is being reversed, starting in Syria.

This view, as narrow, simplistic and offensive as it may be, has come to colour the perception of the uprisings that have shaken heterogeneous Arab societies. It helps some people to find a pattern amid the chaotic uncertainty brought about by the massive changes unfolding in the region. It is also circular and self-serving: the more sectarian one is, the more one is likely to subscribe to this reading. Interestingly, many Arabs on both sides of that divide propagate it to mobilise their allies.

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Syria’s troubles rub off on Lebanon

Poster of Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Hizbullah's Hasan Nasrallah. Photo Flickr/Christopher Wilken

‘Lebanon’s own pathologies have been exacerbated by the bloody crisis next door’ in Syria, writes Emile Hokayem in Foreign Policy, as he examines a deadly conflagration this weekend in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. Sunni-dominated northern Lebanon has been a welcoming haven for refugees and opposition rebels fleeing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime. However, Lebanon has a small Alawite minority concentrated in Tripoli, a city also plagued by poverty and state neglect.

Sectarian clashes have been erupting in Tripoli for months, and tensions flared again this weekend when Lebanese authorities arrested a Sunni activist whom they claimed had just returned from taking part in the rebellion in Syria. The General Security Directorate that arrested activist Shadi al-Mawlawi is, Hokayem explains, ‘one of Lebanon’s many competing security agencies, and it is perceived as the internal arm of Hizbullah’. Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni native of Tripoli, was among those criticising the arrest for lack of due process. However, Mawlawi and five others were still charged on Monday with belonging to an armed terrorist organisation.

There is much enthusiasm in northern Lebanon for the rebellion across the border. Smugglers carry medicines into Syria, and Syrian Free Army fighters cross in the opposition direction to regroup. Meanwhile, there are differences on Syria within the government in Beirut. Shia Hizbullah (whose leader Hasan Nasrallah is pictured in a poster with Assad) wants to see a more forceful state crackdown on anti-Assad activities, while Prime Minister Mikati has been treading a thin line trying to placate both his Sunni constituency and his pro-Assad allies in government.

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Fact or fiction: jihadis in Syria?

Burying victims of those killed in Damascus car bombings. Photo: Sana

By Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security, IISS-Middle East

Despite efforts by many peaceful Syrian activists to regain the upper hand under the cover the UN-endorsed Annan plan, the uprising in Syria is growing in complexity and violence. This downwards spiral is plainly illustrated by the rise in car bombs, including those which exploded in Damascus last week, killing dozens. This may well be an ominous sign.

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Egypt’s eventful presidential election

Salafi Islamists rally in Cairo's Tahrir square protesting the disqualification of Hazem Abu Ismail from Egypt's presidential race (Photo: Jonathan Rashad CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

By Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security, IISS-Middle East

No one expected Egypt’s first ever free presidential election to be boring, but it has turned out to be much more eventful than anyone would have expected. A little more than a month before the first round, Egypt is in major political turmoil. The fate of the revolution and the trajectory of the country are far from certain.

Contrary to what it first announced, the Muslim Brotherhood will field a candidate for the presidency, Khairat al-Shater. The movement’s top strategist and a successful businessman, al-Shater has already launched his campaign, deploying the awesome political machine that has turned the Freedom and Justice Party into the country’s key political player. However, reneging on a major promise after a series of other reversals has made the Brotherhood the target of widespread secular criticism. Al-Shater has reportedly offered clerics an oversight role on legislation which has only deepened concerns about the Brotherhood’s real intentions.  Read the rest of this entry »


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