Archive for July 23rd, 2013

Jordan King in Egypt: First visit by Arab leader since Morsi’s ouster

2013-07-20

After being among first leaders to congratulate Egyptians, King Abdullah II arrives in Cairo amid heightened political tensions.

CAIRO – Jordan’s King Abdullah II arrived in Cairo on Saturday, in the first visit by a head of state to Egypt since ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, state media reported.

The monarch had been among the first leaders to congratulate Egyptians after the army overthrew Morsi following mass protests calling for him to resign.

Abdullah, who faces challenges at home from Islamists, was met at the airport by military-backed interim Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi, the official MENA news agency reported.

Both Jordan and Egypt have been key mediators between Israel and the Palestinians, which the United States says have agreed to lay the groundwork to resume peace negotiations.

Abdullah is likely to discuss the renewed talks with Egypt.

But his visit may also be aimed at conferring legitimacy on the new military-installed regime, which is fighting a public relations war abroad to burnish its credentials as a legitimate regime.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=60232.

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In Jordan, the Arab Spring Isn’t Over

JUL 19 2013

DAVID ROHDE

The country’s leadership must realize that growing authoritarianism won’t foster stability.

Amman, Jordan — After the Egyptian army toppled President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the U.S. Congress expressed the sentiment of many in Washington.

“The army is the only stable institution in the country,” he said.

In the Western media, Arab Spring post-mortems proliferated, including a 15-page special report in The Economist that asked, “Has the Arab Spring failed?” The answer: “That view is at best premature, at worst wrong.”

Here in Jordan, Arab Spring inspired protests demanding King Abdullah II cede power to an elected government has petered out. A crackdown on the media that shut down 300 websites last month elicited little protest.

“We are witnessing a swift return to a police state,” said Labib Kamhawi, an opposition figure accused last year of violating a law that bars Jordanians from defaming the king. “You will find everything controlled.”

Yet analysts, opposition members and former government officials say that the Arab Spring has paused here — not ended. The underlying economic issues which prompted the protests that toppled governments across the Middle East and North Africa remain in place. Arab rulers and U.S. officials are both mistaken if they think they can rely on generals and regents to produce long-term stability.

“The political energy that was released around the Arab world and Jordan in 2011 has not dissipated,” said Robert Blecher, a Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group. “The problems that gave birth to the Arab uprisings have not been solved.”

What, then, is happening in Jordan? Simply put, Jordanians look north to Syria and southwest to Egypt and are frightened by what they see. Brutal civil wars and street clashes have tempered the desire for rapid change. Though Abdullah limits speech here, he is not nearly as brutal as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And events in Egypt have made young, secular Jordanians loathe to live under the Muslim Brotherhood. In short, Jordanians are waiting.

“I’m less aggressive toward the king because I saw what the Islamists could do, I see what is happening in the region,” said Alaa Fazzaa, the editor of one of the shuttered websites. “I’m waiting for the right time to attack.”

In a region where 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30, the economic problems are colossal. And a younger generation bent on economic opportunity and basic political rights will not accept a permanent return to authoritarianism. Jordan is a case in point.

The global economic slowdown halved economic growth in Jordan from 6 percent to 3 percent over the last three years. Jordan’s official unemployment rate is 12.5 percent, with youth unemployment estimated to be twice that. More than 550,000 Syrian refugees have flooded the foreign-aid-dependent, oil- and water-starved desert kingdom of 6 million.

Oraib al Rantawi, the director of the Al Quds Center for Political Studies here, said that the biggest concerns that Jordanians express in opinion polls are not political.

“The top five priorities for Jordanians are economic,” he said. “You will find political reform on number 10 or number 11.”

To his credit, Abdullah, 51, is one of the most liberal monarchs in the Middle East. After he ascended to the throne in1999, he was widely hailed as a modernizer. Yet in recent years, his reforms have slowed and popularity ebbed.

A March profile of the king published in The Atlantic provoked fury in Jordan. In the piece, which the palace disputed, the king was quoted as disparaging intelligence chiefs, the Muslim Brotherhood, tribal elders, U.S. diplomats, regional leaders and his own family. He said local politicians had failed to take advantage of reforms he enacted and mocked one nascent party’s social and economic manifesto.

“It’s all about ‘I’ll vote for this guy because I’m in his tribe,'” the king said in the Atlantic story. “I want this guy to develop a program that at least people will begin to understand.”

But critics insist Abdullah’s reforms are illusory. Jordan has a prime minister and an elected lower house of parliament, but the regent can fire the prime minister and dissolve parliament at will. In the past five years, he has sent six prime ministers packing.

Luckily for Abdullah, Jordan’s wing of the Muslim Brotherhood is proving as politically clumsy as its Egyptian brethren. The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood boycotted legislative elections this year. A decent turnout allowed Abdullah to declare the elections credible and left the country’s largest opposition group without a voice in parliament.

At the same time, as fighting rages in Syria and Secretary of State John Kerry pushes for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Washington needs Abdullah. Calls for reform from Washington have grown muted of late.

“In 2011, they were saying do reform and do it quick,” said Blecher, the ICG analyst. “The message is much weaker now.”

Vast economic problems remain in Jordan. Next month, the government will carry out a long delayed, International Monetary Fund-mandated increase in electricity prices. When an IMF required cut in fuel subsides was enacted last fall, riots erupted.

Believing that kings and generals can bring instant stability to today’s Middle East is fanciful. Abdullah must enact sweeping economic reforms, crackdown on corruption and begin to cede power to an elected government. And Washington should encourage him every step of the way.

The clock cannot be turned back in the Middle East. In the short term, more turmoil lies ahead. In the long-run, growing economies, not growing authoritarianism, will foster stability.

Source: The Atlantic.

Link: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/07/in-jordan-the-arab-spring-isnt-over/277964/.

Syrian Islamist rebel leader freed after clashes among rival rebels

By Erika Solomon

BEIRUT | Sun Jul 21, 2013

(Reuters) – The local commander of a Syrian rebel group affiliated to al Qaeda was freed on Sunday after being held by Kurdish forces in a power struggle between rival organizations fighting President Bashar al-Assad, activists said.

However, the pro-opposition activists gave conflicting reports of how the Islamist brigade commander in the Syrian town of Tel Abyad near the Turkish border had come to be free.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Islamist rebels had exchanged 300 Kurdish residents they had kidnapped for the local head of their group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). Other activist groups challenged this account, saying Islamist fighters had freed Abu Musaab by force, with no Kurdish hostages released.

Sporadic fighting over the past five days in towns near the frontier with Turkey has pitted Islamists trying to cement their control of rebel zones against Kurds trying to assert their autonomy in mostly Kurdish areas.

The trouble highlights how the two-year insurgency against 43 years of Assad family rule is spinning off into strife within his opponents’ ranks, running the risk of creating regionalized conflicts that could also destabilize neighboring countries.

The factional fighting could also help Assad’s forces, who have launched an offensive to retake territory.

BELT OF TERRITORY

Assad has been trying to secure a belt of territory from Damascus through Homs and up to his heartland on the Mediterranean coast and, with the help of the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, has won a string of victories in Homs province and near the capital.

On Sunday his forces ambushed and killed 49 rebels in the Damascus suburb of Adra, the Observatory said.

The town was once a critical point along the route used by rebels to bring weapons to the capital, but Assad’s forces recaptured it a few months ago and have been working to cut off rebel territories in the area.

To the north, activists reported Turkish troops reinforcing their side of the frontier near Tel Abyad, but the army could not be reached for comment. Turkish forces exchanged fire with Syrian Kurdish fighters in another border region earlier in the week.

The Observatory said the alleged prisoner exchange was part of a ceasefire agreed after a day of fierce clashes in Tel Abyad, but other activists said there was no deal and reported that many Kurdish residents were being held by ISIS fighters.

The Observatory said the fighting in Tel Abyad started when the local ISIS brigade asked Kurdish Front forces, which have fought with the rebels against Assad, to pledge allegiance to Abu Musaab, which they refused to do.

Other activists said the clashes were an extension of fighting that broke out last week in other parts of the northern border zone.

Opposition activists also reported the killing of at least 13 members of a family in the Sunni Muslim village of Baida on Sunday, in what they described as a second sectarian massacre there.

FIGHTING NEAR THE COAST

The killings followed a rare eruption of fighting between Assad’s forces and rebels in the coastal province of Tartous, an enclave of Assad’s Alawite minority sect that has remained largely unscathed by the civil war.

Syria’s marginalized Sunni majority has largely backed the insurrection while minorities such as the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, have largely supported Assad, himself an Alawite.

The Observatory said four women and six children were among those killed in Baida.

“A relative came to look for them today and found the men shot outside. The women’s and children’s bodies were inside a room of the house and residents in the area said some of the bodies were burned,” said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Observatory.

In May, pro-Assad militias killed more than 50 residents of Baida and over 60 in the nearby town of Banias. In those killings, some bodies, many of them children, were found burned and mutilated.

The anti-Assad revolt has evolved from its origins as a peaceful protest movement in March 2011 into a civil war that has killed over 100,000 people and turned markedly sectarian.

The ethnic Kurdish minority has been alternately battling both Assad’s forces and the Islamist-dominated rebels. Kurds argue they support the revolt but rebels accuse them of making deals with the government in order to ensure their security and autonomy during the conflict.

The Kurdish people, scattered over the territories of Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria, are often described as the world’s largest ethnic community without a state of their own.

(Additional reporting by Isabel Coles in Arbil and Jonathan Burch in Ankara; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Source: Reuters.

Link: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2013/07/21/us-syria-crisis-idUKBRE96J06D20130721.

Russia subs military with civilians at Syrian base

June 27, 2013

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia has withdrawn all military personnel from its naval base in Syria and replaced them with civilian workers, the Defense Ministry said Thursday.

The ministry did not say when the switch at the base at Tartus took place or how many personnel were deployed there. The minor facility is Russia’s only naval outpost outside the former Soviet Union. It consists of several barracks and depots used to service Russian navy ships in the Mediterranean.

The ministry statement said that Tartus has continued to service the Russian navy ships. “They are continuing to work in a regular mode, and there is no talk about their evacuation from Tartus,” the statement said. “Tartus remains the official base and repair facility for the Russian ships in the Mediterranean and is continuing to fulfill its mission.”

The ministry didn’t explain why it was replacing military personnel with civilians, but the move could be part of efforts by Moscow to pose as an objective mediator trying to broker Syria peace talks.

Moscow, however, also has an unknown number of military advisers in Syria who help its military operate and maintain Soviet- and Russian-built weapons that make up the core of its arsenals. Russia has been the main ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, shielding his regime from the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions and continuing to provide it with weapons despite the two-year civil war that has killed more than 93,000 Syrians, according to the U.N. estimates.

The ministry’s statement followed reports Wednesday in the Al Hayat newspaper and Russia’s business daily Vedomosti, which claimed that Moscow had withdrawn all of its military and civilian personnel from Tartus along with all military advisers.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell refused conjecture about the Russian move, but pointed at the “deteriorating security situation.” “I just can’t speculate if that’s their reasoning,” he added.

Russia announced earlier this month that it will keep a fleet of about dozen navy ships in the Mediterranean, a move seen as an attempt to project power and protect its interests in the region. Russian navy ships have been making regular visits to the Mediterranean in recent months, but the latest announcements by President Vladimir Putin and other officials mark an attempt to revive a Soviet-era practice, when Moscow had a permanent navy presence in the area.

But experts say the current plan will stretch the Russian fleet capability and note that the base in Tartus can’t provide a sufficient backup for a permanent navy presence in the region. The base is also too small for big ships.

Military officials have said in the past that Russian navy ships in the Mediterranean could be used to evacuate equipment and personnel from Tartus. Previous Russian deployments in the area have invariably included amphibious landing vessels, which could serve the purpose.

AP writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.

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