Sunday, April 28, 2013
Syria's Chemical Weapons are a true "game changer" for international terrorism
The last few weeks have been generous in events and catastrophes, from the Boston bombings to the Iraqi bloodshed, from the attack in Libya against the French embassy to the Somali terror wave and the Iranian devastating earthquake, yet the landmark that has been highly overlooked and is of critical importance is the suspected use of chemical weapons in Syria.
The French, British and Israeli intelligence community were affirmative in proclaiming that Assad’s regime indeed had recourse to chemical weapons against the rebels, and the allegations were soon to be followed by several pictures of Syrian casualties presenting symptoms of chemical poisoning which the White House deemed possible yet not supported by clear and irrevocable evidences.
Deemed a “red line” not to be crossed and a “game changer” by Obama, the systematic use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime seems to be a victorious challenge to the current administration who cannot but push away the red line further, hoping that Assad would deign cross it and save the US another humiliating and embarrassing stance.
As much as it seem that a potential intervention is unlikely giving the cautious rhetoric of Washington, the events on the ground suggest a wholly different approach. The US has witnessed the last week a convening of various Arab leaders who, by coincidence or design, have been scheduled in the oval office for private talks with the president at around the same time period. From the Emirati crown prince of Abu Dhabi to the leaders of Qatar and Jordan, the choice Obama made is highly strategic since these countries are the main regional players in the Syrian conflict, described by Fox News as “believed to be arming or training the rebel forces that are seeking to overthrow the Syrian government” in a recent article tackling the meetings Obama held with the aforementioned leaders.
The timing of the meetings and the announcement of the usage of Chemical weapons by the Syrian government suggest a covert preparation for an imminent action in Syria. If the evidence about a determinate US plan to intervene military against Assad are blurry, the arguments for such action are not lacking with regards to US interests and national security imperatives.
The chemical weapons stockpiled in Syria are significant in numbers, to the extent that it is believed and assessed by various intelligence communities that “The Syrians have one of the largest chemical weapons arsenals in the world.” Chemical weapons are the main source of alarm for the international community when it comes to the Syrian conflict, first because of the prevalent presence of Al Qaeda affiliates in the battle ground and their noted superiority in combat and organization, and second because of the ease of use and deployment of chemical weapons in terrorist incidents as in the 1995 subway Tokyo attacks.
The Al Nusra rebel front, one of the most powerful factions battling Assad’s regime and by far its most radical, didn’t hide its allegiance to Al Qaeda as not only a small part of the network, but as significant enough to rush the Al Qaeda in Iraq into a merger with the Islamist jihadist cell. The merger was announced by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, head of the Islamic state in Iraq, who proclaimed: "We announce the abolition of the Islamic state of Iraq's name and Jabhat Al-Nusra's name and their amalgamation in one state under one name: The Islamic state in Iraq and the Levant."
The news stirred a wide controversy regarding the armament of Syrian rebels, an armament pursued with eagerness by Qatar and Co who cannot wait to see Assad regime falling apart. Yet the issue of channeling the weapons to the right people is of little concern compared to the chemical weapons acquisition. The weapons delivered to the Syrian rebellion are of tactical use and have a low range of destruction, aimed primarily at inducing small-scale, targeted damage, while the chemical stockpile of the Syrian government contains primarily Sarin, a nerve gas agent that can spread over large areas and induce quick death through inhalation. (The Tokyo subway attack stands witness to the deadly effect of Sarin that claimed the lives of 13 Japanese in 1995).
The ambitions of Al Nusra front, and of Al Qaeda de facto, to control and lay hand on chemical nerve agents is no news, yet how close the group is to attain such goal is alarming, and indeed helps explain the sense of urgency the intervention in Syria is prompting in the corridors of the White House.
In a recent article in the Telegraph, Colin Freeman writes:
The fight for al-Safira is no ordinary turf war, however, and the prize can be found behind the perimeter walls of the heavily-guarded military base on the edge of town. Inside what looks like a drab industrial estate is one of Syria's main facilities for producing chemical weapons - and among its products is sarin, the lethal nerve gas that the regime is now feared to be deploying in its bid to cling to power.
The prospects of the Chemical weapons falling in the hands of extremist groups are recognized to be not only a domestic threat, but also a severe security breach for all regional actors including Israel and the Arab nations. Most probably the chemical weapons would be directed towards the spots where Al Qaeda is mostly present and where the odds for success are in the group’s favor. Iraq, with its weekly ever rising toll of deaths and attacks, would be the first country outside of Syria where the Sarin nerve agent would be deployed given the ability of the Al Qaeda operatives to smuggle the stockpiles into the wrecked country. Securing the chemical weapons is the priority of al Nusra front, and Syria as it stands now is not a safe haven to safeguard the precious prize. The need to move the chemical weapons to Iraq, if ever recovered by extremist cells, is apparent since the deployment of Sarin gas doesn’t need to be in large proportions. The rationing of the Chemical weapons into mobile portable loads carried by individuals for targeted locations is the modus operandi Al Qaeda would adopt given the restricted access it might have to the substance, and from then on the branching out of the chemical agent would take effect until tracking the initial containers becomes a futile intelligence efforts. The network of dormant cells Al Qaeda manages throughout the MENA region and beyond makes from the acquisition of nerve agent a true “game changer” in international terrorism.
Although many would recall the scandal of the “inexistent” Iraqi WMDs to refute the Chemical weapons excuse to intervene in Syria, the difference today is that we are faced with a situation where WMDs existence is not debated but held as a fact. The Syrian Chemical weapon stockpiles and the omnipresence of Al Qaeda affiliates in the battlefield is not debatable, and the recent battles ranging near military bases harboring nerve agents production and stockpiling facilities hint clearly to the possibility that a catastrophe situation might rise at any moment, a catastrophe where later containment is not an option.
Many have started calling for a more strategic approach towards supporting the Syrian rebellion, and it is now more than ever critical to adopt such a strategy if we are to avoid the unpleasant occurrence of a nerve agent attack in an Iraqi mall or a Lebanese public square.
Judging from the available mappings of Syrian chemical facilities, most installations trail along the western border with Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. This geographical occurrence is of high strategic importance: The necessity to control these facilities is easier since most rebel secured areas lay on the western part of the country, and a potential intervention from regional or international corps launched from Lebanon and the Mediterranean shores will allow a quick takeover of the chemical plants to secure and systematically destroy the nerve agents. The establishments of no-fly zone partly over Syria, and specifically over the Western border will enable a constant monitoring of the facilities and an instantaneous response if hostile groups are seen entering the bases.
Moreover, the differing strength of Al Nusra group and the more liberal rebellious factions suggests that the commanders in chief of the free Syrian Army should redirect their efforts and progressions towards the Western border to help secure the stockpiles of chemical weapons, leaving the battle for Damascus and the most costly fights for Al Nusra faction in order to undermine the capabilities of the group and let it bear most casualties and damages in an effort to overtake it financially and logistically in the post-Assad Syria. The redeployment of the free Syrian army fully in the Western part of the country, leaving the Deir Ezor and eastern Aleppo area for the Al Nusra Group will help mildly separate the two rebellious groups and facilitate the directed armament and logistical provision to the Free Syrian army instead of blindly empowering both factions.
The Libyan downfall and the following dispersion of vast amounts of artillery in the region have had a direct effect on facilitating the Malian crisis emergence and AQMI rearmament. Today we are faced with an even more devastating type of weaponry in an area known for its high volatility. The consequences of Chemical weapons falling in the wrong hands will inevitably set new standards for terrorist activities, and will have far reaching impacts regionally and internationally. This is a “game changer” whose significance the US administration and the Arab governments understand very well, therefore the necessity for intervention has turned from a debate into a consensual agreement whose first signals were the series of meetings with Middle Eastern leaders in Washington, and whose ultimate ending will be a dramatic military action in Syria; the road to the final action is and remains convincing an ever skeptical public opinion, a conviction that seems all too well settling down after a tragic set of events that shook the public consciousness and laid a state of fear we have so many times encountered before major military implications in foreign countries.
Mohamed Amine Belarbi
Friday, March 29, 2013
Time for the technocrats to take over in the Arab World
For decades Arab politics has been an easy ride for the well-established circles that governed states and countries in the MENA region. Whether it is by virtue of blood as in monarchies, money as in oligarchies or simply heavily organized lobbies with a deceiving democratic penchant, the politics our representatives and god appointed leaders engaged in, or lack thereof, has not seen much trepidations or dynamics that would enact a managerial paradigm shift.
Until the outburst of the Arab Spring…
Dictators ousted, oligarchs lynched and awry political institutions brought to a demise, it is more than ever critical to rethink how political engagement and leadership is meant to operate, not because it is now a privilege the Arab societies can afford, but because a transition post Arab Spring to liberal economies and democratic statehood cannot take effect in such a rapidly changing world as the 21st century.
Many could argue that the MENA region is in a natural phase of adaptation to the new realities the street pulse imposed, others would draw the parallel with the French revolution and the consequential bloody transition it endured before evolving into a democracy, yet that would have been the case if we were witnessing a corporate-like adaptation to new consumerism behavior; the reality is that we are now contemplating a damage-control and crisis-containment situation instead of a painful transition forward.
Politics is deeply linked to economics as Karl Marx rightly pointed out in his “Economic Determinism”, and in today’s world, this is even more true given how international trade, politics, business and domestic state management have all molded a unique and fragile system that can be impaired if one of its component goes bust. What I am trying to explain is that the economic environment the Arab Spring imposed on post revolutionary states has made any attempt for democratization unsustainable and non-viable in the short run. Economic recession, plundered foreign currency reserves, soaring unemployment rates and foreign deposits withdrawal are all a deadly recipe that hinders political success and sends approval rates down the pipes. It might seem as if economic troubles are a core part of a democratic transition, yet in a world where economic development is scoring a two digit growth in most parts of the developing world, financial hurdles coupled with political instability just makes it impossible for a country to recover and catch up in time with the speeding train. The public opinion is strikingly showcasing such phenomenon in Egypt and Tunisia where the economics didn’t add up for the casual citizen, bringing the masses from protest to protest with no clear vision of when it will all work as planned when the uprising was structured in the popular consciousness.
The stigma of political affiliation is not making things any easier for recovery. The ideological identity of the various representatives and institutions makes it hard for the public opinion to objectively assess the actions of the leadership, and to allow the state management to take due course. Whether it is the Muslim brotherhood, the seculars or the old regime affiliates, labels are not failing to bring down political efforts to wrap up the mess left behind the uprising. This leads to a state management that focuses not on credentials building, but on active defense of reputations and records from the stinging criticism of the public and from rapacious political opponents who capitalize on the failures of the state.
This allows us to formulate an understanding of the challenges the post Arab Spring imposes, and the potential nature of the solutions that can address such impediments.
The identity stigmatization is best resolved by the adoption of a technocrat system of governance that strips the decision makers from any political or ideological affiliation. A technocrat, not tied as much to approval rates, ideological bias or future political ambitions, can indeed channel more efforts into drafting legislations and tackling the nation’s most pressing issues. Technocrats also have the ability to better resolve the ongoing crisis given their expertise in their respective fields and ability to exploit their professional networks to stir solutions based on third party involvement and contribution. The educated businessman can indeed reach out to the business community and lay a framework for investment that is not tied to a certain political favoritism. The technocrat also, if drawn from the new school of business executives can take choices that lift the economy, education and health upwards regardless of the short-term discontent it creates. The technocrats in short do their job because they are cashing on managerial efficiency, not on political gaming.
Many see the necessity for well-established frameworks, figures and institutions as a pre requisite for state management, yet the importation of the business executives modus operandi to legislative decision making can prove to be a successful undertaking given its enormous impact on actually achieving results, regardless of the ethical reasoning one might have about its collaterals. What the Arab world needs right now are parachuted technocrats, business minded executives who will not stem from the political infertile cultivation fields, but from the likes of Harvard Business school or NYU stern.
What the people want and will always look for is not decent political etiquette, but rather palpable results that can ensure the growth of a prosperous middle class and thriving investment and entrepreneurial ecosystem, although both tend to converge at a certain point. Dubai is a good example of how business minded state management and state capitalism does lead to a prosperous society. Nothing ensures stability and socio economic development like beaming business confidence. If a country knows how to conduct business, then investments, international loans, deposits, economic growth and foreign currency reserves beautifully play along.
Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and hopefully Syria, when the massacre comes to an end, ought to follow the governance trend that is driving the developing world into a surge of growth and progress.
Politics today means business, and those who still want to run countries in the old fashioned way are doomed to a slow and painful death. The train of development doesn’t wait for political reform or ideological fights over power; neither does it choose which stations to stop at. The most critical part is that todays’ train is not the old steam powered vehicle of yesterday, but is a supersonic piece of engineering that cannot be caught up with if missed. What seems to be a right and virtuous struggle for political justice in various Arab countries is an economic suicide in the making, because if one cannot afford a job that puts a piece of bread on his table, little would he earn from going to the street protesting his right for political inclusion in the decision making. There is a moral in labor division, and that is efficiency. If we cannot let the people most qualified for a job take on their responsibilities, and attempt to indulge in fields we have no credentials for, then all we are doing is luring ourselves into a big deception. Stigmatizing technocrats as neo-oligarchs, heartless businessmen, financiers or top down executives is a hobby most of us are good at, but getting the job done is duty we fail at terrifically.
It is time for politics to be conducted like a business, not like a Machiavellian art of alchemy that needs not to be stained with modern world ways of operating. It is time for politicians in the Arab world to go out from their ivory towers and excel in public speaking, pitching, business planning, languages mastery and deals closing the same way their western counterparts are doing… Because those who write bills are Bain Capital, Exxon and JP Morgan, not some old Winston Churchill smoking a cigar and gazing at a massive globe next to his desk.
Mohamed Amine Belarbi
Friday, March 15, 2013
Roman Catholic Church on the crossroads of Continuity and Reform:
With the announcement of the new head of the catholic church, now is the time to reflect on what are the signals the Vatican is giving to its followers and observers through the new appointment, and what are the policies that will be enacted in order to seal a new chapter in the long turbulent history of the 1.2 billion adepts strong borderless empire.
The start of a new page in the life of the Catholic Church cannot be discussed without a quick review of the period preceding it, namely the numerous scandals that rocked the very foundations of the Vatican. From the sex scandals involving priests and cardinals, to the financial fraudulent transactions undertaken by the “Bank of God”, to the shady disclosures of the relationship between the Vatican and Mussolini, the Catholic Church has had its share of downturns that didn’t go without impacting its credibility and reputation. It is thus understandable that a radical change was a critical necessity to re-brand the Church, and that the best way to go about such venture is to ultimately change the very icon of it: the pope. This reminds the casual observer of a similar undertaking in the US, where the election of a new African American president with an appealing charisma to the minorities, the Muslims and the East in general helped reconcile the US with the international community, and allowed it to regain its attractiveness on the world stage.
The difference between the US presidential election and the papal appointment is that, unlike in the US, the pope indeed exercises vast power and command over the policies of the Roman Catholic church, with not much constraints posed by the complex of cardinals and priests scattered inside the Holy See or throughout the globe. It is thus uncontestable that the election of a new head of church is not an aesthetic change but a true shift in the direction of the Christian Institution, a shift that will ultimately reflect the hopes, fears, beliefs and ideological biases of the new pope Francis.
A quick look at the background of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio already sends a wave of disappointment among the advocates of a 21st century liberal Church. The Argentinian cardinal’s position on same sex marriage for example leaves the growing numbers of Christian reformists with a bitter taste for the future of their God appointed government. In a letter dated June 2010, the cardinal doesn’t hide his resentment for the changing legal meaning of marriage, extended to include homosexual marriage, and makes it clear to his network of churches and priests in Argentina that fighting the popularization of the LGBT rights ought to be a divine quest.
The New York Times correctly pointed out the conservative nature of the Pope Francis in a recent article:
“A doctrinal conservative, Francis has opposed liberation theology, abortion, gay marriage and the ordination of women, standing with his predecessor in holding largely traditional views.”
The background check, led by various journalists, does unveil more about the convictions and deeds of Pope Francis. Not only isn’t the new pope a great fan of homosexuals, but he isn’t either a fan of human rights delegation if we believe the rumors and the article Hugh O'Shaughnessy wrote in the Guardian in 2011. Pope Francis, according to the author, allegedly participated in hiding political prisoners victims of the “Dirty War” from a visiting commission of human rights.
Although Pope Francis’s past might convey a gloomy picture, it is nonetheless irresponsible to make precipitated judgments on the likelihood of the path the new pope will drive the church into. The papacy will ultimately affect the stances of the new pope given the enormous responsibility it imposes on its leader, and given the growing liberal aspirations of the Church followers without whom the Holy See would be pointless, and note, go bankrupt.
The decision of the conclave to elect Jorge Mario Bergoglio is indeed a reflection of the new image the Vatican is trying to paint to the world, and what better way to do that than to appoint the first non European, Latino pope in the history of the Roman Catholic church?
Prior to the decision, the very resignation of the pope Benedict was a clear sign of the new currents unraveling in the Vatican, and his emphasis on “so many rapid changes” and “shaken” in his resignation speech streamlines the life crisis the Catholic Church is going through:
“I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
It is thus unmistakable that the reformative prophecy Pope Benedict envisioned for his institution had to be enacted in order to preserve the “relevance” of the Vatican in today’s world. This relevance was sustained through the election of a Latin American cardinal, sending a strong message that the Church values its adepts in the South, which accounts for a great deal of the Christendom. This point didn’t go unnoticed, and even Obama made sure to reiterate its relevance and importance in a congratulatory note to the pope:
“As the first pope from the Americas, his selection also speaks to the strength and vitality of a region that is increasingly shaping our world, and alongside millions of Hispanic Americans, those of us in the United States share the joy of this historic day.”
The internationalism of the Roman Catholic Church reverberates a strong belief that the Vatican is now stretching its appeal beyond the European fortress, and is indeed enlarging its reach in a geographical spot where loyalty to the Catholic Institution was challenged by various evangelical churches. This not only boosts the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America, but also attends to its financial crisis that pushed its bank along Banco Ambrosiano to fall prey to the appeal of fraudulent activities linking it to money laundering and early financial entanglement with the Italian Fascist leader Mussolini.
Another signal the pope Francis sends to the world is the cutting with financial elitism inside the walls of the Vatican. The speculated wealth of the Holy See, its banking activities, its corruption scandals and the excessive luxury and overspending charges against its personnel didn’t fail to create an outrage against the Catholic Church, an outrage that the Humble and modest Francis will surely silence given his background, and surely his name significance.
All in all, the conservative approach of the pope Francis to sensitive matters, along with the grand reformative, if not strategic vision that his election bears to the outside observer sets the Roman Catholic Church in an interesting path of Continuity and reforms. Amen.
Mohamed Amine Belarbi