Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Has the West joined Syrian arms race?

American Secretary of State John Kerry says he is exploring new ways of giving more support to Syrian rebels in the hope of bringing an end to the country’s bloody, two-year civil war.

However, it appears the forces opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are already getting help from an unlikely quarter – Croatia.

At least it is weapons sourced in Croatia that are increasingly turning up in the Syrian flashpoints of Damascus and Aleppo in defiance of an arms embargo observed up to now by the United States and the European Union. The identity of the actual suppliers is shrouded by a complex network of middlemen.

But the fact the armaments are finding their way into the hands of groups seen as secular nationalists, rather than the jihadists with terrorists associations, suggests Western Governments are involved in a carefully targeted transfer.

And it does seem the extra military support is having an effect. After months of stalemate in which they failed to build on advances made in the middle of 2012, the rebels are again beginning to make small tactical gains against Assad’s better-equipped forces.

Meanwhile Russia continues to openly supply Assad, its last ally in the Middle East, with all sorts of weaponry. Iran is also a major supporter to the Syrian Government, airlifting military equipment into the country on almost a daily basis. Persian Gulf Arab nations have been trying to counter this with their own supply lines to the rebels for more than a year but their efforts have been totally outstripped.

Croatia is an obvious source of surplus weaponry. During the civil wars that erupted from the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s arms poured into the country. While these armaments made regular appearances on the black market in the years immediately following the conflict, Croatia, now looking to burnish its credentials for entry into the European Union, stoutly denies that any transfers to Syria are taking place.

However, if European and US agencies are involved as intermediaries, the Croatians might not feel so restrained from doing some secret and lucrative trading.

This might be just what Kerry means when he says “new ways” of support for the Syrian opposition are under consideration.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Troubled times in Pakistan

Pakistan will go to the polls later this year against a background of deadly bombings, mounting inter-Islamic tensions and continuing strains with its big neighbour, India.

Target for the bombings are the minority Shi’ite Muslims with the chief perpetrator being the Sunni extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangyi, or LeJ.

In the middle are the Pakistan security forces and the Pakistan People’s Party Government of Asif Ali Zardari who have faced mounting outrage over their failure to protect the civilian population.

The latest attack, in which more than 80 died, took place in Quetta, capital of the Balochistan Province, prompting the Governor, Nawab Zulfikar Ali Magsi, to demand to know why law enforcement agencies were not doing their job.

“They are either too scared or too clueless even to know who they are dealing with,” Magsi was reported as saying.

The death toll brings to more than 400 the number of Shi’ites killed in Pakistan in the past 12 months, and already reprisals have begun, with attacks on Sunni clerics.

The split between Sunnis and Shi’ites goes back to the earliest days of Islam and has been a constant source of violence down the centuries.

A sectarian war is the last thing Pakistan needs as it faces a continuing battle with al-Qaeda-backed extremists in the north of the country.

In addition, the long-standing dispute with India over the future of Kashmir Province is no closer to resolution, while a decision to hand over control of the strategic port of Gwadar to a state-owned Chinese company has alarmed New Delhi, which sees it as part of Beijing’s plan to expand its naval reach into the Indian Ocean.  

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Obama visit pointless – Hamas

The Hamas-led Government in the Gaza Strip has voiced total opposition to the visit of United States President Barak Obama to Israel and the West Bank next month, saying that a return to the negotiation table was unacceptable and the only way forward was through ‘resistance’.

References to Israel as the Zionist occupier leaves no doubt that Hamas will continue its policy of not recognising Israel’s existence and claiming all Israeli territory for Palestine.

Spokesman Yusuf Rizqah said two decades of negotiations had produced nothing.

“The Palestinian people are fed up with these meetings which only result in lost ground because of settlement activity, whether in the West Bank or Jerusalem,” Rizqah said.   

He accused the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank of being weak and prone to blackmail as it was receiving substantial funds from the US.

In fact no one - whether in Jerusalem, Ramallah or Washington – believes Obama’s visit will achieve any significant breakthroughs. Some minor extensions to the land on the West Bank actually under the control of the PA and the release of a few political prisoners are the best that can be reasonably expected.

Suggestions out of Washington that there could be at least a partial freeze on settlement construction are a dead duck. Under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu new settlements and extensions to existing ones have been routinely sanctioned regardless of protests by the US and European leaders. Even if a partial freeze were on the table, it would be rejected by the Palestinians who want nothing less than a total halt and a timetable for rollbacks.

Adding to the difficulties is the current state of distraction in both Israel and the West Bank. Netanyahu, who lost ground in the recent Israeli elections, is still trying to cobble together a coalition that, depending on its membership, could be anything between centrist and far right, while PA President Mahmud Abbas is facing increasing criticism of his leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, recognised as the one legitimate voice of Palestinians throughout the world. 

In a sad commentary on the situation one Israeli commentator believed Netanyahu would put forward proposals for a partial settlement in the sure knowledge they would be rejected, simply to stave off international criticism of his actions.

From this it appears Hamas’s policy of resistance – meaning armed resistance – is likely to hold sway in the foreseeable future.        

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Kachin insurgency crumbling

The military campaign against the Kachins, the most intransient of Burma’s restless ethnic minorities, appears to be approaching a decisive stage.

Earlier this month Burmese Government forces took the key fortress of Hka Ya, the last stronghold on the road to the Kachin capital of Laiza. However, it is still not certain whether there will be a further advance on the city, which would probably involve bitter street-by-street fighting.

Burmese President Thein Sein is reportedly reluctant to order a final assault given the inevitable casualties that would result. He favours a negotiated settlement, but in 50 years of insurrection there have been many attempts at diplomacy and numerous ceasefires – the last only a few days before the assault on Hka Ya – all have failed.

Even the capture of Laiza would probably not put an end to the conflict as leaders of the Kachin Independence Army have promised to retreat into the jungle and fight a guerrilla war if they are forced to abandon their capital.

Many civilians are not waiting for that, with reports that tens of thousands are on the move preparing to flee across Burma’s northern border into China.

That is the last thing China wants – and not just because it would be reluctant to cope with a refugee crisis. As the Government in Nypyidaw finally begins to open up to the world, Beijing is in the box seat to develop the country’s vast natural resources, especially its rich gas fields.

It is currently in the final stages of building an overland oil and gas pipeline directly into Yunnan Province, in the long run a cheaper proposition than tankers through the Straits of Malacca.

However, to do this it needs a stable country, free from the ethnic violence which has plagued Burma since independence in 1948.

Politically, China would like to draw Burma more firmly into its orbit, as a counterbalance against other Western-leaning South-East Asian nations. In pursuit of this it has embarked on a charm offensive, building hospitals, roads and other infrastructure – although there are the usual complaints about the small number of local workers employed on these projects.

Whether China’s so far highly successful engagement with Burma will become a poisoned chalice remains to be seen.


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Hamas official pushes for PLO leadership

A move to unseat Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as chair of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, (PLO) would have far-reaching implications for Israel and the United States – and could be a severe, if not fatal blow to any further peace moves in the region.

The person reportedly interested in succeeding him is Khaled Mashaal, who heads the political bureau of Hamas, a faction currently in rivalry to Abbas’ Fatah Party – and there lies the problem.

While the PLO is recognised by the US and Israel as the legitimate negotiating partner on behalf of the Palestinians, Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is branded as a terrorist organisation by those countries (and a number of others as well) and they will not negotiate with terrorists.

Neither Washington nor Jerusalem make any distinction between Hamas’ armed wing, which periodically fires rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel, and its political wing, even though Syrian-based Mashaal does not reside in the Gaza Strip and has reportedly visited there only once.

Pressure to remove Abbas is coming from some Gulf states and more worryingly for Fatah, from Jordan, which in the past has been its strongest backer. Mashaal has reportedly held three recent meetings with Jordanian King Abdullah II, who believes that direct negotiations with Israel and a two-state solution are the only ways to achieve peace and stability in the Middle East.

The situation is complicated by questions over whether Abbas has any real legitimacy as head of the PLO. He was elected to the position in 2005 and his term officially expired in 2009, but since then no election has been held. In fact he has a rival for the job in Azis Duwaik, the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, who is recognised as the chairman by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Mashaal is believed to be ready to resign his Hamas position if he gains the PLO leadership, but whether that would satisfy Israel and the US is doubtful. However, an American source within Israel believed he would not succeed in the attempt.

“Abbas is a known figure around the world and his prestige has increased since he gained international recognition for Palestine as a state at the United Nations last year. After all, Yasser Arafat headed the PLO for years without elections,” the source said.

The moves come as the British Consul General in Jerusalem, Sir Vincent Fean, in an interview with the Palestinian news agency, Ma’an, said 2013 would be the decisive year for the two-state solution.

“The Palestinian National Authority has the right to have full control over the Palestinian territory,” Ma’an quoted Sir Vincent as saying, adding that the British diplomat expressed “deep concern” over Israel’s policy of expanding settlements on the West Bank.



Monday, February 4, 2013

More casualties in a vicious little war

A Taliban attack on an isolated army outpost in Northwest Pakistan is just another incident in a vicious little war that has largely slipped from the world’s attention.

At least 35 people were killed in the attack, including 13 soldiers and 12 militants. The remaining casualties were civilians, presumably caught in the crossfire.

A Taliban spokesman said the attack was a reprisal for an American drone strike last month which killed two of its commanders.

The comment highlights the fact that while politicians in Islamabad routinely denounce American ‘violations’ of Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty, the armed forces of the two countries are quietly cooperating in eliminating the Taliban, which is in both their interests.

Pakistan needs American technology to pinpoint insurgent positions and, where possible, disrupt the enemy through remote drone attacks. The US, under pressure and with a time deadline to clear the Taliban from Afghanistan, wants an efficient and effective Pakistan force on the ground to ensure the tribal areas are not used as training and recruiting areas which Americans themselves cannot reach without creating an international incident.

It should be remembered that in 2009 the Taliban had advanced to within a few hours’ drive of Islamabad itself, with the very real possibility that the country’s nuclear facilities, including its store of nuclear weapons, could fall into rebel hands.

That threat has been largely removed with a slow but steady army advance into the Taliban heartland in the northern tribal areas. The army has been aided by disputes between the militant factions themselves with reports that recent clashes involving the Taliban and Ansar al-Islam over a disputed base had resulted in almost 60 deaths.  

Meanwhile militants continue to attack health workers trying to administer polio vaccine to children in the tribal areas. In the latest incident two polio workers travelling to a village were killed when their motorcycle hit a roadside bomb. This comes less than a week after a policeman protecting polio workers was gunned down.

While Pakistan is one of the few remaining countries where polio is endemic, militants claim the vaccination program is just a front for a US campaign to sterilise Muslim children.

The latest fighting comes as a report by Pakistani and Indian economists reveal that there is a massive untapped potential for trade between the two countries, raising the value from its current $2.5 billion annually to possibly as much as $50 billion.

Clearly a peaceful, stable Pakistan has much to gain.