Abdullah’s dilemma


The images of watching another tyrant being toppled last week are probably still fresh in any news following person in the world. The images shown were very graphic of a leader who was once carrying himself arrogantly and confidently being pulled out of an underground hole like an animal, only to be at the mercy of the people he once ruled over with an iron fist. Gaddafi in the footage didn’t look very different to Saddam Hussain, although Saddam had the benefit of being captured by the American soldiers and therefore stood trial before being executed.

    These clips shown over and over on the different websites as well as news channels must be especially alarming to the leaders of the Arab world, who know that the wind can blow the other way at any moment. While Iran has quite a resilient ruling system, which would be hard to topple (as seen after the previous botched elections), it knows that if the US pushes tougher economic sanctions, this could be the catalyst that would undermine their control. Bashar El-Asad knows that he is probably the next in line, as his country is already engulfed in mayhem and even if he manages to work a miracle, his rule would most probably never again be as absolute as it was.

    In the article https://middleeastinterpreter.wordpress.com/2011/06/16/arab-spring-or-western-winter it was discussed that the countries most likely to undergo a successful Arab Spring revolt were not the monarchies, rather the countries that are being ruled by the aftermath of a military coup (Egypt, Libya, Syria and to some extent Turkey). Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bahrain, Kuwait…etc. have so far all been spared a genuine overthrow threat and it seems that they might be see it safely to the other side this time around.

    However despite being also being a monarchy, Jordan is a special case and it has reasons to worry.

    Jordan is currently ruled by King Abdullah, who took the reins from his father, King Hussain.  Hussain ruled the country from the 1950s to 1999. Under the last two kings many political reforms were made and the country enjoyed relative advancement as it has always “played ball” with the US and UN, especially noticeable in 1994, when it signed a peace agreement with Israel.

    Despite the relative stability and the fact that Jordan does not fit the mold of a country vulnerable to the Arab Spring, Jordan has always had strong undercurrents of revolution. Jordan’s ethnic groups include more than 50% people of Palestinian decent. Out of the population of roughly 6 million, this is more Palestinian than currently in the Palestinian territories taken by Israel in1967. Moreover, had Jordan not returned the West Bank to Israel, there would have been more Palestinians than Jordanian’s in the land, which would have led to a minority rule (similar to the Alouwaites ruling over Sunnis in Syria).

    Throughout Jordan’s history the Palestinian Liberation Front, which resided in its borders grew stronger with time and apart from dragging the fighting with the Israeli Defense Force into Jordanian land, it also challenged the rule of King Hussain. The Palestinians almost created a state within a state and there are also reports of failed assassination attempts of King Hussain. All these events led to establishing a couple of agreements between the PLO and the Monarchy, in an attempt to reach a workable system. However, when those failed to maintain order, King Hussain launched an operation known as Black September (in 1970), in which the Palestinian militants were crushed, killing thousands and driving the PLO out of Jordan.

    During the years of 1970 and 1971, King Hussain’s throne was at a genuine threat as the Palestinians leaders called for a revolt against the ruler. While Hussain managed to successfully destroy the mutiny (at the price of estimated thousands of dead), the potential for a resurrection of the conflict was never completely obliterated.

    King Abdullah has followed his father’s way by keeping the peace with Israel and avoiding getting stuck in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However due to the strong historical connection between the Palestinians and Jordan, while keeping out, he has a vested interest to keep the Palestinian attention away from his country.

    So unlike some of the country heads in the Middle East, who are quietly joining the Western opposition to global Jihad, which may one day undermine their rule, as it attempts to achieve one Caliphate rule across the Middle East, Jordan has a much more imminent threat of its rule being undermined by Palestinians.

    The best possible outcome for Jordan would be a long lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, in which most Palestinians’ demands would be met, in order to satiate their appetite for more land but also to restrict their right to arm themselves, in order to avoid them becoming a regional threat.

    The worst case scenario would be a weak position against Israel, which may turn the Palestinians’ efforts to Jordan or make Jordan on the receiving end of more fallout, i.e. more displaced Palestinians settling in its borders. While not imminent, both scenarios are not impossible and at a time when the winds of change are blowing in the Middle East, paranoia is not an irrelevant consideration in determining foreign policy.

    Another possible gloom scenario for Jordan would be the ethnic awakening of Palestinians in Jordan, wishing to do away with the monarchy and go to democratic elections. It is apparent to every ruler these days that technology can provide a platform to revolt and organize, while the violent methods employed in the past could no longer be hidden or tolerated for a length of time due to that same technology.

    It is no surprise, therefore, that the message coming from Jordan is criticizing the Israeli government for not wanting real peace and demanding that they make more concessions. King Abdullah has recently stepped up the pressure in the media, calling for more leniency from the Israeli government, openly doubting Netanyahu’s genuine interest to compromise for peace as well as questioning the stability of Israel’s peace agreements with its neighbors. All in an effort to make sure things are moving in the right direction to serve Jordan’s interests with no sudden turns. There are also indications that Jordan is giving the head of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, more maneuvering room by allowing him into Jordan (although officially for humanitarian reasons), this perhaps could indicate that there is a level of communication and influence happening between Jordan and Hamas away from the eye of the media.

    As for Jordan coping with the internal upheaval, so far the protests have been around corruption and mainly the poor economic situation, prompting King Abudllah to dismiss the cabinet and replace the PM. There has, so far, not been a real threat to the monarchy and none of the usual worrying symptoms, such high ranking generals defecting, have been on the cards.

    King Abdullah probably wasn’t lying when he said in his CNN interview “what keeps me up at night… is actually poverty and unemployment and the economic crisis.” But he didn’t go into detail about what this situation may bring to Jordan and his rule.  If King Abdullah is not successful in maintaining the peace in his country, we could expect a ripple effect on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as he takes action to keep the plague away from his country.

Shalit’s Release and Other Symptoms


    When astrophysicists investigate the stars they rarely get to witness an event. Sometimes the events are too slow or two fast, but often they do not possess the right tools to give them a clear vision of the object. Despite the limitations, the worlds’ scientists have still made far reaching discoveries. The method they employ is looking at the effect on the other objects. For example by investigating the path of visible surrounding stars they can estimate where gravity is applied and therefore can determine whether there is  star hidden from view or an event such as a supernova has taken place that distorted the expected alignment.

    The Middle East is not so different in this respect. Many of the events are not witnessed, since there is no free press and certainly no access to private meetings between the leaders. Therefore, to decipher what is going on behind the false facade, one must look at the events around and extrapolate the root cause.

    Perhaps the most significant event to take place this week was the agreement of Hamas to release the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit in return for the release of some 1000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons. Shalit has been in Hamas’ custody for over five years and talks have never progressed to the stage of release. There have been many reports about the negotiations and the involved parties, such as the German negotiator, however always resulting in a breakdown and both sides blaming the other.

    So what has changed this time? Certainly not the negotiation terms, but it seems that everything else that is happening around. Israel published a strong stance on not releasing any prisoners who have been convicted for murder of Israelis. This was most likely a negotiation tactic, as Hamas would not be able to politically afford releasing Shalit without getting in return some of their prisoners, who have been convicted for life, however Israel did not release prominent figures such as Baragouti and Saadat, who could become key people back in Gaza or the West Bank. Hamas, no doubt, was pushing very hard to release those prisoners, but decided to give up this claim. There has also been a dispute on how many prisoners would be banished from the Palestinian territories, reportedly this was a major dispute in the last round of talks, it is apparent now that Israel conceded slightly, but not gave away that demand.

    The events of the negotiation are directly related to Asad’s rule. Since the Arab Spring reached Syria, Asad’s status has been grossly undermined. The two major factors that are contributing to him staying in power are the fact that most of his generals are still in support of him, unlike in Egypt or Libya, where the close generals turned on their leader, which marked the end, and that Russia and China have been protecting him from any veto in the UN, which would result in a possible NATO attack or more likely sanctions imposed on the regime globally (rather than just US and EU currently).

    Asad’s undermining has consequently damaged Hamas’ status, which he supports heavily. Hamas’ leadership sits in Syria and enjoys freedom of movement as well as an open route used to coordinate support from Iran. The price Hamas pays for Asad’s patronage is unequivocally supporting his regime. This support has already backfired, when Hamas organized for Palestinian refugees to flood the Israeli border in order to create a distraction from the internal Syrian conflict. This unfortunately for Hamas and Asad led to many Palestinian deaths, which in return caused an uprising and subsequently violence between Syria’s army and the Palestinians. So much so, that Hamas in Gaza openly criticized Asad, a gesture that was not well received by its strategic ally Iran.

    Had things stayed as they are Hamas would have probably still been playing the stalling game in regards to Shalit’s release, since time actually was on their side. In Israel the government was under increasing pressure to release Shalit with various gestures aimed to remind the politicians that he is still in captivity. This pressure played straight into Hamas’ hands, who were seen by the Arab world as defiant to Israel, while playing psychological warfare on the Israeli public, by publicizing paintings of Shalit in captivity and often making reference to the government’s reluctance to progress the deal. However, this week Hamas has decided to end this episode and play their most powerful card in the pack. A very likely reason could be that Hamas is seeing the end of their operation in Damascus and are now seeking to boost their support and legitimacy before they find a different regime that would allow them to operate from its territory. If this assumption turns out to be true, then it is definitely a sign of Asad’s regime volatility and vote of no confidence from the Hamas’s leadership.

    Although less in the limelight, but also significant was the reported tensions within the Lebanese coalition, mainly between Hezbollah and Jumblatt, as reported by local Lebanese newspapers. Jumblatt is the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), which is secular and mainly representing the Druzes ethnicity in Lebanon. The party’s ideology is in great conflict with the religious Syrian supported party Hezbollah, which is why it was a shock to learn that Jumblatt lent his support to Hezbollah, when they voted Saad Hariri’s government out of power, after his insistence of supporting the UN’s investigation of the assassination of his father (STL).

    Jumblatt starting to make demands on Hezbollah is a clear indication of his belief that their position has been significantly damaged. Other than the pending UN investigation, which will no doubt have some consequences in the international community and internally, the most likely reason would be a weakening of the Syrian government, who currently supplies them with arms, which has made them effectively stronger than Lebanon’s national army.

    These symptoms both show a significant shift away from Asad’s rule and it is leaving less and less doubt that Asad’s time is limited. One of his officers, Colonel Riyad El-Asad, has already started an opposition army and it seems that it is only a matter time until senior officers would follow suit. What is not surprising is that Asad keeps fighting and will do so until the end. Considering he is of the Alawaite faction, which is a clear minority in a predominantly Sunni country, means that the Alawaites are likely to lose their status for a long period of time (nothing is forever in the Middle East) and the tactics used by his father, to violently crush down on any attempt of revolt, cannot be done internally and quietly as in the past, since now every person with a phone can easily upload uncensored images to the web.

    Perhaps only a frivolous man would put a timeline on Asad’s fate, but a reasonable one would predict his demise. The next steps to watch out for is for more allies distancing themselves from Asad and more army personnel defecting or turning against him, but until that happens, we will keep getting reports about tenths of opposition demonstrators being killed almost on a daily basis.