Friday, March 23, 2012

Despot Love

The middle eastern despots that we all love to hate have, for nearly fifty years intrigued, appalled, threatened and entertained us have come and gone, but by far the two that stand alone at the top of the list of "World Class Despots" are Bashar al Assad and Mahmoud Amadinejad, So in this editorial I'm going to marry these guys to one another and show case their accomplishments.
President Bashar al Assad 

President Assad; You're up first, So step up and do your father proud.

In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak's long-trusted military helped force him from office. In Libya, top officials scrambled to distance themselves from Moammar Gadhafi almost from the start. Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled his country within weeks, while in Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh took his time. But he, too, prodded by neighboring countries, is now in exile.
Hafez ai-Assad

Syria's President Bashar al Assad, on the other hand, shows no signs of going anywhere. As his military routs rebel forces in Homs and Idlib, intercepted emails appear to reveal his wife furniture shopping for their Damascus home. Assad may derive some of his confidence from a system built by his father, Hafez al-Assad,  that has let the family stay in power for the past 40 years.

This regime came about as a result of a coup in 1970 and was designed from the beginning to resist rebellion, to resist coups, the elder Assad established an intricate web of often overlapping intelligence services, and separate entities that means even the watchers are being watched. Like his son, he staffed key positions with members of his Alawite minority, warning them, as well as minority Christians and Druze, of the perils of an unleashed Sunni majority.

The result, so far, has been a coherent center, with the highest civilian defection being a deputy oil minister this month, nearly a year into the uprising. Its internal intelligence service keeps an eye on officers and officials that might defect, and tries to prevent them or to block that from happening. So, indeed, the defections are still quite minor.
The Free Syrian Army
composed of defectors from the government  

Where there have been defections is from the lower ranks of the military, often Sunni conscripts unwilling to shoot civilians in villages and cities much like their own. These defectors make up the bulk of the rebels' Free Syrian Army, a group that leading opposition member Haitham al-Maleh said is the only one capable of taking on the government.

They want to defend themselves and there is no way Assad's regime will not stop by politics, by peaceful means. He must be stopped by force. With the international community at odds about even political condemnations of the Assad regime, the chances of a U.N.-backed intervention as in Libya appear slim. The least the international community can do is give the Free Syrian Army weapons.

Abdul Aziz Saqr, head of the Gulf Research Council, said weapons are important, but are only part of the equation. "You can't fight an organized military with a Kalashnikov [Russian rifle, AK-47] or a pistol. You need to have anti-tank missiles, you need to have real reconnaissance and intelligence information," says Saqr. "If the Russian satellite reconnaissance has been supplying the Syrian military with a lot of reconnaissance, the Free Army needs to have real intelligence information to be able to help them organize their movements."

The role of Russia, a major arms supplier to the Syrian government, highlights what is likely one of the biggest differences in Syria's uprising - the heightened stakes of players both regionally and globally. Syria is one of Russia's last allies in the region, and is loathe to let the U.S. or Western powers take the lead again as they did in Libya.

Washington, while supporting the opposition with words, has been slow to act, warning of the complexities of intervention, including the lack even of front lines. The conflict also comes as the U.S. tries to deal with nuclear and other issues with Iran, which supports Syria as a linchpin of non-Sunni influence in the region and a gateway to Iranian proxy Hezbollah.

Vested interests in the status quo can be found in other nations in the region, including Israel, which fears a fundamentalist takeover in Syria should Assad go. 

“Syria is a strong military domestic security regime with a neighborhood that is not willing to take a position against it, like Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey. So the geopolitics and the relations with the neighborhood have also played a significant role for not making it easy for any military or external effort.

Last year, predictions that Assad's government would go the way of his counterparts in Egypt and elsewhere were common: “inevitable” and “imminent” were words often bandied about. Inevitable is still used by many, but imminent has all but disappeared.

Mahmoud Amadinejad
The Iranian president has declared that Israel is a "hotbed for cancerous cells".
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad marked International Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, with a speech at Tehran University, in which he said there would be no room for Israel in the Middle East after a Palestinian state was established.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, who previously called for Israel to be "wiped off the map", repeated his denial of the Holocaust during the speech and said the goal of all "believers" should be "the disappearance of the Zionist regime".

He said Israel had no place in the region and added: "The Zionist regime is the hotbed for germs and cancerous cells. "If they persist even in a very small parcel of the Palestinian land, they will move again... and harm everyone in the region." He went even further with his usual rhetoric, "Death to Israel" and "Death to America."

Ahmadinejad has a record of hurling insults at Israel when he addresses world leaders at the UN General Assembly. The Jewish state has reason to expect more of the sameAhmadinejad referred to Israel as a “fake regime” whose “oppressive preconditions” to peace talks would doom that nation, then added he said it is a “dreadful party, a feared party, the party that was behind the first World War and the second World War.”

The Iranian regime has been deeply divided ever since the disputed 2008 elections and the rise of the Green Movement. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used to be Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s protégé. The two are now clearly at odds. One could clearly sense that there were two rival centers of power with Khamenei's clearly being the more powerful one.

The result of the external pressure - sanctions, rhetoric against Iran, and threats of military strikes - has been to shift power to the hardliners. You can see Ahmadinejad’s power has weakened. It’s weird to call Ahmadinejad the moderate but in this context he is. Khamenei is far less willing to strike any deals with the West. Ahmadinejad, in contrast, has wanted to be the man who delivered some kind of negotiated settlement to Iran’s problems.

Today, Ahmadinejad is weak and getting weaker. Ayatollah Khamenei is strong and getting stronger. The people who have been most empowered the past few years have been the Revolutionary Guard - the military. Iran is in the process of morphing from a theocracy to a military dictatorship. It’s not clear what impact this will have on foreign policy - but it is an interesting consequence of all the external pressure on Iran, not to mention Iran's hope of developing nuclear weapons.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faced demands for his impeachment after delivering a caustic defense of his record during an unprecedented public interrogation by Iran's parliament. The Iranian president outraged MPs with a theatrically abrasive display in which he made light of becoming the first leader in the country's post-revolutionary history to be subjected to an official summons by the legislature. Mr. Ahmadinejad's ordeal, broadcast live on state radio, offered a rare public glimpse into his increasingly bitter feud with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei 

The president has undoubtedly come off worse in the power struggle, with his power base significantly weakened by a parliamentary election this month that resulted in a decisive victory for the supreme leader's acolytes, known as "principalists". With just over a year to go before his final term in office expires, Mr. Ahmadinejad has been left increasingly isolated and weak. 

His hopes of handpicking a successor have also been dented after Ayatollah Khamenei announced that the post of president would be abolished at the end of his rival's term and replaced with a figurehead appointed by parliament.

Although the interrogation was designed to be humiliating, Mr. Ahmadinejad chose to fight back by belittling his questioners with a series of mocking responses. He was questioned by the outgoing parliament over a series of economic policy issues, in particular his drive to end costly food and fuel subsidies, and a banking fraud that implicated some of his closest allies, further weakening his position.
Intelligence minister, Heidar Moslehi

There were questions too about his decisions to sack the country's foreign and intelligence ministers in defiance of the supreme leader. The dismissals, seen as part of an attempt to wrest control of security and foreign affairs from Ayatollah Khamenei, initiated the feud with the supreme leader.

After making a series of jokes, Mr. Ahmadinejad berated MPs for not making their questions tough enough before making a sneering reference to new rules requiring MPs to have a master's degree."It was not a very difficult quiz," he said, adding that he expected to be given top marks for it."Any grade of less than 20 (out of 20) would be rude."After the session, MPs said they were furious with the president's casual manner.

Ahmadinejad's answers to lawmakers' questions were illogical, illegal and an attempt to avoid answering them," Mohammad Taqi Rahbar was quoted as saying. "With an insulting tone, Ahmadinejad made fun of lawmakers' questions and insulted parliament."A number of legislators said they would now seek the president's impeachment, a step they are entitled to take if they found his answers unsatisfactory.

For the moment, however, Ayatollah Khamenei is unlikely to go that far for fear of provoking an open rift that would be mutually damaging.

Though weakened, Mr. Ahmadinejad retains support among more moderate conservatives, who back his lack of diligence in imposing Islamic strictures on women. He also remains popular with the rural poor and could seek to forge an alliance in the new parliament with independent MPs representing countryside constituencies, which could make any attempt to remove him a protracted and unseemly affair.

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