Will Arab Spring Revolts Spread to Sub-Saharan Africa

by Webster Brooks
Today, Sub-Saharan Africa has two military regimes (Madagascar and Niger) and only one monarchy (Swaziland). Thus, the likelihood of a democratic tsunami sweeping over Sub-Saharan Africa is remote. Based on the political mix of  Sub-Saharan nations, both the scope and pace of future democratic upsurges will be varied and more deliberate.

Understandably, Sub-Saharan opposition forces are impatient with the status quo and frankly envious of the “Arab Spring” revolts that toppled Egypt’s and Tunisia’s dictators in the space of a few short weeks. But their impatience should be tempered with the understanding that in Egypt and Tunisia, the forces of democracy have yet to win democratic rights and the free elections they demanded; they are negotiating for them. The dictators are gone but the old systems are still intact. The work of re-ordering society on a new democratic foundation will prove far more difficult than dislodging authoritarian rule. It is only in Libya that revolutionary forces are attempting to overturn the old order and seize state power by the force of arms.  Continue reading


Obama’s Expanding War In Pakistan: Key to U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan

President Obama took office vowing to strike al-Queda forces inside Pakistan if President Zardari’s government failed to ferret out the nations’ terrorists networks. But after ten months of foot dragging by Pakistan’s military, President Obama’s initial threat to respond to “actionable intelligence” has been replaced by an aggressive U.S. counterterrorist war to change the “facts on the ground.” While international attention has focused on the success or failure of America’s troop surge in Afghanistan, the center of gravity of Obama’s AF-PAC strategy has shifted to Pakistan. The tilt to Pakistan has occurred for two reasons. First Osama bin-Ladin and al Queda’s forces in Pakistan still poses the greatest threat to America’s national security. Thus Obama’s goal of “disrupting, dismantling and destroying” al-Queda calls for sustained air and ground attacks on their base of operations in Pakistan. Second, President Obama is pulling American troops out of Afghanistan. To shorten the war he must force the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table; that means significantly degrading the cross border operations and resupply centers of its two major organizations nesting in Pakistan. To that end Obama has intensified Predator drone attacks and expanded America’s Special Forces operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. 

 The dangers inherent in President Obama’s counterterrorist strategy are far reaching. The air strikes and U.S. military forces operating inside Pakistan are inflaming anti-American sentiment, undermining President Zardari’s brittle civilian government and strengthening the recruiting power of Pakistan’s Islamic extremists groups. The September 30 U.S. helicopter attack that killed two Pakistani soldiers mistaken for insurgents is a case in point. Pakistan’s government protested the incident by closing a major border crossing that supply U.S.-NATO forces in Afghanistan for ten days. Militants then blew up 55 oil tankers stranded at the strategic Khyber Pass. President Obama is keenly aware of the perils of America’s escalation of counterterrorist actions in Pakistan; but his options are limited. He is also running out of time to change the dynamics of the war in Afghanistan and the cancerous spread of Islamic extremism across Pakistan.


Before officially announcing his AF-PAC policy at West Point Academy in December 2009, President Obama had set his counterterrorist campaign in Pakistan in motion on October 7. Obama ordered C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta to: increase the number of Predator drones operating in Pakistan; expand the grid where drone attacks would be permitted; open new secret U.S. facilities in Pakistan and embed U.S. military advisors in operational Pakistani units. Since coming to office Obama has tripled the number of predator drone attacks in Pakistan compared to President Bush; launching 87 attacks from January 2009 to June 2010 that have claimed over 700 lives. The failed May 1, 2010 New York Times Square bombing attempt by Faisal Shazad–a Pakistani-born American citizen–prompted Obama to further expand America’s secret war in Pakistan. Although Shazad’s makeshift bomb failed to detonate, the discovery that he was trained by the Pakistan Taliban (TTP) unsettled the White House.

On May 19, Obama dispatched National Security Director James Jones and C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta to Pakistan to meet with President Zardari and Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Ashfaq Kayani. The two leaders were told that President Obama would be forced to respond to any future attack on America originating from Pakistan. Although it’s doubtful the United States would implement its current Pakistan “Retribution Plan” that calls for bombing up to 150 known bases of Pakistan’s radical organizations, the message was clear. Zardari and Kayani were also warned that if Pakistan was complicit in any future attacks on India–like the Mumbai massacre–the United States would not be in a position to restrain the Indian government. Jones and Panetta backed up their tough talk with President Obama’s demand that Pakistan engage in full intelligence sharing, provide the United States with its airline passenger lists and expedite visa applications for over 150 American military and intelligence personnel. Still, Zardari and Kayani were non-committal and complained about American encroachments on their sovereignty.

Jones and Panetta left Afghanistan convinced that America needed more boots on the ground in Pakistan. Seeking to limit the exposure of U.S. military personnel in Pakistan, Jones and Panetta moved the Counterterrorism Pursuit Team–a 3000-man paramilitary unit of highly skilled Afghan troops that are paid, trained and controlled by the CIA—across the border into Pakistan. American Predator drones also take off and land at secret facilities inside Pakistan. And the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) now runs a not so covert forward operating base in the port city of Karachi. Recently, Pentagon officials and spokesmen from Blackwater—a private security contracting firm now called “Xe”–have confirmed that Blackwater and its subsidiary Total Intelligence Solutions (T.I.S.) employees are operating in a JSOC secret program inside Pakistan. Blackwater contractors are assisting in conducting targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, “snatch and grabs” of high-value targets and helping to gather intelligence for the Predator drone bombing campaign.

Thus far Obama’s secret wars have concentrated on al-Queda operatives and the Pakistan Taliban TTP (Tehrik e-Taliban). American drone attacks have killed high value al-Queda leaders and Baitullah Mehsud, former leader of the TTP. The recent buildup of U.S. clandestine forces in Pakistan aims to increasingly target the two major Afghan Taliban groups (Haqqani forces in North Waziristan and Mulla Omar’s Quetta Shura in Balochistan) while for the moment ignoring Gulbuddin Hetmayar’s Hizb–i-Islami group based outside of Peshawar. The U.S. wants to disrupt the cross-border movement of Taliban forces, supplies and narcotics smuggling operations that have financially sustained their strongholds in Afghanistan’s Helmand and Kandahar provinces. At the same time, by July 2011 President Obama hopes that U.S.-NATO forces will have gained control of larger swaths of Kandahar and Helmand provinces where most of the fighting is occurring in Afghanistan. Obama’s goal is not to destroy the Haqqani and Quetta Shura safe havens or kill their leaders. Instead he wants to significantly degrade their organizations enough to force them to stay at the negotiating table with President Karzai. Over the past month President Karzai has been holding talks with representatives of the Haqanni network and the Quetta Shura. Indeed, their safe passage to travel to Kabul from Pakistan has been guaranteed by the U.S. military.

Finally, two things can be said about President Obama’s escalation of the counterterrorist war in Pakistan. The attacks against al-Queda and Pakistan’s indigenous Islamic extremists groups are strategic and will continue as long as Islamabad’s government and military permits them to occur. However, the buildup of U.S. Special Forces and covert operations to disrupt the Afghan Taliban’s safe havens in Pakistan is more tactical in nature. It is a key element in President Obama’s strategy to accelerate the process of reaching a political settlement to end the war in Afghanistan and withdraw American troops. Nevertheless the risks to Pakistan and the region are enormous. The possibility that America’s secret war in Pakistan could trigger a chain of events that lead to the fall of President Zardari’s weak government, the outbreak of civil war, renewed conflict with India or most likely a military coup cannot be dismissed. One thing is certain; the contingency plans developed by the U.S. military to prevent Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal from falling into the hands of Islamic radicals won’t be far from President Obama’s desk.

Syria’s Four Seas Policy and the New Middle East Quartet


by Webster Brooks 


In 2009 President Bashar al-Assad unveiled Syria’s new “Four Seas” strategy to reposition Damascus as the vital center of Middle East investment, trade and energy transiting. Assad’s vision of Damascus emerging as the “nexus of economic integration” between Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and Iran is arguably grandiose and out of scale with Syria’s role in the region.  Syria’s forced  withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 and its diminished role as a power broker in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has eroded Assad’s standing in the region. It is Iran and Turkey that have filled the vacuum created by America’s declining power in the Middle East and relegated Syria to the backwaters of a second-tier player. Thus it is not surprising that Assad’s “Four Seas” doctrine seeks to recast Syria’s image as a modernizing power and leader of a new “Islamic economic bloc” in the Middle East. But it is Syria’s troubled economy marked by stagnating growth rates, high inflation and unemployment rates that most threatens President Assad’s  presidency. Compelled by necessity to jump start Syria’s beleaguered economy, Assad’s economic revolution must deliver enough expansion, growth and jobs to pacify a nation whose patience with a collapsing economy and the existing order is growing thin. 

It was not an accident that Assad first presented his “Four Seas” strategy at a joint conference in Ankara with Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul last year. Assad stated that “Once the economic space between Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran becomes integrated, we would link the Mediterranean, Caspian, Black Sea, and the Persian Gulf to become the compulsory intersection for the whole world, in investment, transport and more.” Since articulating his vision Assad has been aggressively building the architecture of Syria’s new economic initiative. At the center of Assad’s strategy is Syria’s economic relationship with Turkey and connecting the nation’s oil and gas infrastructure to the region’s expanding energy pipeline networks.  

Since 2005 Syria’s economy has flat-lined at a two percent growth rate; its unemployment rate has hovered above ten percent and its inflation rate is a crippling 14.5 percent. In addition, Syria’s four-year drought has raised profound questions of food security as three million people have been pushed to the brink of “extreme poverty.” Confronted with an economy that is not sustainable Syria’s economic opening with neighboring Turkey has taken on a critical dimension. Since signing a free trade agreement with Ankara in 2007 Syrian-Turkish trade is set to climb to $5 billion by 2012. Recently, Turkey’s Minister for Foreign Trade Zafer Ça?layan told reporters that 250 Turkish businesspeople have invested over $700 million in Syria. Forty agreements in the fields of health, education and transportation between the two countries are also slated to be signed. In addition, Syria and Turkey concluded a “no-visa” open borders initiative to increase trade and tourism exchanges across their 870 kilometer border.

These agreements paved the way for Ankara and Damascus to launch a joint energy project to integrate their gas grids and connect them with the Arab Gas Pipeline that originates in Egypt and serves Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. Assad also visited Armenia and Azerbaijan where he signed 19 cooperation agreements including a deal under which Azerbaijan will export a billion cubic meters of gas annually to Syria via Turkey. Further, to support Syria’s role as a strategic transiting hub, Assad has revived talks with Iraq to open two oil pipelines between Kirkuk, Iraq and Syria’s port city of Banias that would transit 1.4 million barrels per day. Assad’s enlarged vision of Syria’s energy transiting role is to link the nation’s oil and gas pipeline network to the Nabucco pipeline that will carry oil from the Caspian Sea to Turkey and on to Europe. With the Syrian government committed to spend $50 billion in infrastructure development by 2015, Assad’s aim is for Syria to be a net oil exporter in the near future. The obvious crack, if not deception in Assad’s big vision is that the success of his “Four Seas” energy strategy hinges on Turkey serving as the critical regional energy hub, not Damascus.  

Similarly, in July 2010 Turkey’s state-backed company Turk Telekom announced an unprecedented deal to install a 2,500-kilometer, state-of the-art fiber-optic network in Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia linking the countries through Turkey to European networks. Once at odds with the House of Saud over his ties to Iran and Syria’s alleged links to the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Assad has been scrambling to mend fences with Riyadh. Europe’s role in Assad’s “economic breakout” was underscored in his May visit to Vienna. Insisting that Syria can serve as a critical access point for EU countries to Arab markets Assad urged “joint European-Syrian” investments in energy, manufacturing, mining, agriculture, information technology, telecommunications, banking and financing.” Although Syria never joined the TWO, Assad has now initiated the process to conclude an Association Agreement with the European Union.

President Assad’s “Four Seas” initiatives clearly demonstrate his intention to modernize and diversify Syria’s economy that is overly dependent on agricultural and oil exports. In particular Syria wants to expand investments in tourism, natural gas and its service sector. But the “Damascus Road” to economic recovery will be long and difficult. Assad has rejected privatization of government enterprises and has no intention of dramatically expanding opportunities for Syria’s private sector. In Assad’s view an open market economy, a strong private sector and an entrepreneurial middle class pose a threat as a competing power center to his rule. Unlike Turkey’s “Anatolian Tigers” who cracked the mold of inefficient and corrupt state-dominated capitalism, Assad’s “Four Seas” projects will channel the lion’s share of domestic and foreign investments into government run transportation, communication, infrastructure and energy projects. Creating a raft of government jobs, contracts and state funding programs that he can use to prop up his minority Alawite base and bribe high profile Sunni personalities is critical to Assad shoring up his regime. At the same time Assad’s attempt to revitalize Syria’s economy will fail if it doesn’t raise the standard of living of the working class and low-income strata of society. 

Indeed, even if Assad’s economic stimulus measures result in rising incomes, increased access to consumer goods and opportunities for modest private sector growth it may not be enough to pacify the Syrian people’s demand for more political power. Since the September 2008 car bombing that killed 17 people in Damascus the government has cracked down on Sunni Islamists.  After blaming the attack on Fatah al-Islam the government required imams to record their Friday sermons. Restrictions on influential Muslim women’s groups teaching Islamic studies were instituted and the Qubaisiate underground women’s prayer group was barred from meeting at mosques. After the Muslim Brotherhood left the National Salvation Front [an alliance of Islamists, Kurds, Christians and secular dissidents] in January 2009 Damascus briefly opened back-channel negotiations with the MB at Iran’s request. When Assad refused to repeal Law 49 that makes membership in the Muslim Brotherhood a crime, the talks broke down. Assad has all but ignored the MB since then. Whether an expanding economy and higher standard of living can serve as a buffer against Syria’s radical Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood and Kurdish dissenters remains to be seen? It’s a high wire act that requires Assad to move faster across the beam to avoid tumbling into the chasm.

With Assad’s regime approaching a critical juncture, President Obama’s focus on getting Syria to break with Iran, cut its ties to HAMAS and Hezbollah and recognize Israel lacks relevancy and imagination. Iran provides Syria with military assets, security agreements and diplomatic leverage with the West and other Arab countries. Assad’s orientation is not going to change in the short run. Notwithstanding Syrian Accountability Act sanctions that limited U.S.-Syrian trade in 2010 to $88 million, the Obama administration has not leveraged  opportunities to expand trade or other initiatives to promote further dialog. Washington’s diplomacy with Syria seeks acquiescence to the imperatives of Pax Americana, not meaningful engagement.

While Assad’s “Four Seas” doctrine shamelessly inflates Syria’s role as the center of Middle Eastern economic growth, the integration of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria’s economies is a significant development. Iran is Turkey’s major energy supplier and both countries have substantial security and economic investments in Iraq. Iran is the guarantor of Syria’s security and Turkey is emerging as Syria’s most significant investor and trade partner. Should Iraq’s political leadership stabilize, the nation’s formidable energy resources will greatly enhance the economic and political clout of the new Middle Eastern Quartet. Increasingly this constellation of Arab, Persian and Turkic Middle Eastern nations are evolving into a formidable economic bloc; not just a “rejectionist front” opposed to America’s imperial ambition in the region. The Obama administration should open its eyes and take note of the rising tide between the four seas.

Obama’s “Ghost Wars” in the Middle East and Central Asia

by Webster Brooks

Those who think President Obama’s combat troop withdrawal in Iraq and the 2011 drawdown of forces in Afghanistan signal America’s retreat from the region should think again. Quite the opposite President Obama’s escalation of secret Special Operations in the Middle East and Central Asia mark a shift in America’s military doctrine to pacify the region; it is an aggressive and long-term strategy. The emerging “Ghost Wars” foreshadow the transformation of America’s military from a conventional force to a counterinsurgency (COIN) centered leviathan. Since taking office President Obama has approved an unprecedented number of assassinations of al-Queda and jihadist leaders. Special Operations missions across the region have been scaled up and the new “Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order” allowing U.S. military commanders to launch intelligence gathering operations are well underway. As the vector of a new counterinsurgency strategy President Obama’s “Ghost Wars” are being buttressed by more U.S. military bases in Central Asia, advanced weapons sales to U.S. allies and NATO enlargement in Southern Eurasia. In short, President Obama is reconfiguring American hard power to prevail in the “Long War” in the Middle East and Central Asia’s epic “Great Game.”  

Under the veil of waging a war to disrupt, dismantle and destroy al-Queda President Obama’s secret wars constitute a far reaching project. Its three central objectives are: the pacification of anti-American Islamists and militant forces; containing Iran, China and Russia’s regional influence and securing a share of the area’s abundant energy resources. As evidenced by recent events in Kyrgyzstan, Somalia and Yemen the region and its authoritarian regimes are increasingly vulnerable to popular upsurges, succession movements, non-state militia challenges, inter-ethnic and religious conflicts and proxy armies sponsored by foreign governments. These flashpoints of instability call for a new American military response–one that is ubiquitous, mobile, stealth and capable of striking quickly with deadly force. Thus President Obama has already approved Special Operations in Georgia, Ukraine, Pakistan, Somalia, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran and Yemen. Obama’s “Ghost Wars” are forward-leaning and preemptive as America attempts to shape the outcome of events rather than continuing to react to them.    

How to move forward with the “Shadow Wars” has become an intense point of debate with the Obama administration. Since coming to office Obama has tripled the number of predator drone attacks in Pakistan compared to President Bush; launching 87 attacks from January 2009 to June 2010 and claiming over 700 lives. Faulty intelligence rather than inaccurate laser-guided strikes inevitably have resulted in the death of innocent civilians and created sympathy for the very jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan that America seeks to kill and isolate.

Yemen is another case in point where four drone attacks have been launched against al-Queda targets since the failed Christmas day bomber’s attempt to detonate a explosive on a flight from London to Detroit. In May, U.S. drone attacks in Marib Province killed the provincial deputy governor–a personal friend of President Saleh—who was negotiating with AQP members to put down their weapons. The Yemen strikes were conducted under the U.S. military’s Special Access Program, which unlike C.I.A. operations required no presidential authorization or notification to the Congressional intelligence committees. White House officials are now debating whether the Yemen campaign should be taken over by the C.I.A. as a “covert operation” which would allow secret operations to be conducted without the central government of Yemen’s approval. In Somalia, after months of official U.S. denials, it was also confirmed that drone attacks against al-Queda and al Shaabab forces have been launched from neighboring Kenya; expanding Obama’s Ghost Wars to continental Africa and the birthplace of his Muslim father.     

The success of Obama’s new counterinsurgency strategy will be heavily dependent on America retooling its intelligence operations. The CIA’s failure to anticipate the Taliban’s comeback, the explosive Shi’a-Sunni divide in Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program and al-Queda’s rapid expansion in Yemen are just a few examples of the agency’s inability to grasp the region’s changing dynamics; they underscore the level of ignorance informing America’s foreign policy blunders in Southern Eurasia’s “Islamic Ark of Instability.” Under the new “Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order” signed in September 2009 by General David Petraeus (then CENTCOM Commander) intelligence Special Operations are now being conducted by the U.S. military, private contractors, foreign businesspeople, academics and other “non-traditional” assets. These Execute Orders for reconnaissance missions, the identification of militants, creating “situational awareness” reports and intelligence gathering on strategic targets reflect the military’s desire to lessen its dependency on the C.I.A. General Petraeus’s message to Washington’s was clear; America can no longer prosecute wars like Iraq and Afghanistan or quell insurgencies in nations whose history, culture religions, movements and leaders we know nothing about.

Indeed President Obama’s adoption of the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy has been largely influenced by General Petraeus, now serving as Commander in Afghanistan. Lionized as the “American Caesar,” Petraeus authored the new U.S. Army/Marine Corp Counterinsurgency Manuel in 2007 and spearheaded the 2008 troop surge in Iraq. He is the chief architect of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in the region. Following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq it was Petraeus who led his own rear-guard insurgency of Army generals against President Bush and President Obama to transform CENTCOM from a conventional to a counterinsurgency (COIN) centered force. Former Afghanistan Commander Stanley McChrystal, Former Iraq Commander Ray Ordierno, Iraq’s new Commander Lloyd Austin and Australian military specialist David Kilcullen whose book “The Accidental Guerrilla” articulated counterinsurgency warfare principles are all apostles of Petraeus’s (COIN) school. His disciples held press conferences, published books, engaged in media leaks and went behind the backs of their superiors in Iraq to implement their counterinsurgency strategies. McChrystal’s interview in Rolling Stone magazine which blasted President Obama and the State Department reflected the frustration driving the “General’s Revolt” and their push to re-order military priorities to pursue their counterinsurgency doctrine. Despite McChrystal’s firing for his insubordinate remarks the general’s public relations campaign succeeded in pressuring President Obama to surge an additional 50,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. 

The politics of the “General’s Revolt” also has profound implications for the future. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars demonstrated that effective counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy require significant military involvement in political assessments, negotiations with insurgent forces, reconstruction projects and other nation building components. Thus far the extension of the military’s power into the President and the State Department’s political domain has created confusion, infighting and the lack of a coherency in both wars. Whether General Petreaus can craft a couunterinsurgency strategy that degrades the Taliban’s forces enough to negotiate a political settlement in Afghanistan remains to be seen. Irrespective of the outcome in Afghanistan the strategic shift to a long-term regional counterinsurgency strategy is moving forward.   

In many ways Pax Americana is confronting its “British Moment.” As England learned after World War I the burden of maintaining empire is a costly and bloody enterprise. Great Britain took control of most of the Middle East following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Wracked by economic crisis and public weariness with Great Britain’s  overseas ventures Winston Churchill withdrew most of England’s troops from Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia in 1922; cutting the cost of maintaining England’s overseas deployed forces by 75 percent. Instead, Churchill  expanded England’s intelligence operations, destabilized countries, assassinated Arab leaders, organized coups in Iran and Iraq, installed pliant regimes, sponsored proxy forces and conjured up oil pipeline routes.  President Obama’s Ghost Wars bear all the markings of Britain’s failed global project that ended after World War II. Ironically, the same Middle Eastern and Central Asian nations that Britain literally created by drawing lines on maps to dismember the Ottoman Empire irrespective of ethnicity, culture, language and religion are erupting anew. Fully cognizant of England’s failed fifty year struggle to subdue Afghanistan in order to secure its imperial writ in India, Obama is maneuvering to avoid meeting his Waterloo in Kabul on the Central Asian steppes. With the unleashing of President Obama’s Ghost Wars the U.S. is now fully immersed in the three-dimensional geo-political chess match known as the “Great Game.” However, if history serves as a guide, the next decisive moves may not come from Iran, Russia, China or the United States but the people of Central Asia and the Middle East whose stake in the game makes them far more than sacrificial pawns.  

Iraq’s Shi’a Leadership Crisis & the Iranian End Game


Iraq’s “Shi’a House” (Al-Bayt Al-Shi’i) is in a state of political turmoil. After enduring 1300 years of subjugation before their ascent to power in 2005, Iraq’s Shi’a are on the brink of losing their governing majority. In March’s parliamentary elections the Shi’a split their 60 percent voting majority between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law (SOL) list and the “Islamists” Iraq National Alliance (INA), allowing Ayad Allawi’s “Iraqqiya’ slate of Sunni parties and secular Shi’a to score a narrow victory. Since the elections the Shi’a have compounded their leadership crisis by failing to convert the 159 seats its two factions won into a governing majority of the 325 seat parliament. The Iraq National Alliance’s refusal to form a majority bloc with State of Law unless al-Maliki resigns as Prime Minister has fractured the Shi’a governing coalition. With the specter of political stalemate looming over Baghdad discontent with al-Maliki’s government is growing. Mounting tension between Kurds and Arabs over the status of Kirkuk, June’s “Electricity Riots” and a spate of terrorist attacks by Salafists forces is destabilizing the country. Coming on the eve of America’s drawdown to 50,000 “support troops” in August the Iraqi government’s leadership crisis is creating a perilous situation on the ground. Against this backdrop Iran has dramatically stepped up its intervention in Iraq to fill the power vacuum it helped to create. Tehran is now transitioning to a post-U.S. occupation end game strategy—the transformation of Iraq into an Iranian proxy state.  

Since America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 Iran’s strategy called for waging a proxy war using Shiite and Sunni military and political assets to prevent the consolidation of a hostile pro-American government in Baghdad. American troops in Iraq posed an existential threat to the survival of Iran’s clerical elite and its principal client state–Syria. In league with Damascus and working through various surrogate forces Iran sought to bleed U.S. armed forces on the battlefield; inflicting sustained casualties over time to frustrate America’s goal of establishing a permanent U.S. military presence on its border. But it was Abu Musab Zarqawi’s transformation of the Sunni insurgency against the U.S. into a civil war against the Shi’a that ultimately lanced America’s Iraq project. With the scheduled withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, Iran has all but won the proxy war. However, as the current political deadlock over forming a new government suggests, establishing a pro-Iranian proxy state in Iraq will be a difficult and complex enterprise.  

In June Tehran replaced its political point man Qod’s Force Commander Qassim Suleimani with the powerful Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani and sacked Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi in favor of former Qod’s Force foreign operations commander Hassan Danafor. Iran’s diplomatic offensive has three central goals in brokering a new Iraqi power sharing arrangement: First to prevent Ayad Allawi (Iraqiyya) and Nouri al-Maliki (SOL) from forming a new coalition government; second to reposition Shi’a political assets to control critical areas of Iraq’s new government and third to prevent the outbreak of a Shi’a-Sunni sectarian war. The key to Iran’s short-term success is removing Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister and co-opting Ayad Allawi in a leadership role that minimizes his ability to threaten Iran’s strategic interests. For all these reasons Iran is leaning toward supporting a new coalition government between Iraqiyya and the INA led by its two main Islamists parties—Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi forces and Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).  

With Iraq’s governing crisis entering its fifth month the emergence of an Allawi-Maliki governing coalition is increasingly unlikely but not impossible. While an Iraqiyya-SOL government would not be fatal to Iran’s design to become Iraq’s default power it would constitute a real setback. Allawi and Maliki would control parliament with a majority of 180 seats and have maximum political leverage to name the Prime Minister, President, Speaker of Parliament and heads of the powerful “sovereign ministries.” But talks between Allawi and al-Maliki have failed to make progress. Allawi insists that as the winner of the parliamentary elections Iraqiyya has the right to form the new government. Nouri al-Maliki has argued that Allawi cannot form a majority coalition  thus he should be allowed to form a new government  with the INA—a cynical argument given that the INA’s Moqtada al-Sada has adamantly refused to support him as Prime Minister. Moreover al-Maliki’s failed power play to steal the election has poisoned the well of reconciliation between Iraqiyya and the State of Law list.  Al-Maliki’s demand for an election recount to nullify Iraqiyya list candidates failed to change the election results. Similarly, his directive to Ahmed Chalabi’s Commission for Justice and Accountability to purge 500 Iraqiyya candidates under de-Baathification laws was overturned by Iraqi courts. Not only is al-Maliki looked upon with distain and suspicion by Allawi and his Sunni partners, he is equally despised by his Shi’a and Kurdish brethren.    

Since being named as a compromise Prime Minister to replace Ibrahim al-Jafarri in 2006 al Maliki has emerged as a self-serving strongman with an appetite for tyranny. His decision to take the Dawa Party out of the Shi’a governing alliance in the 2009 provincial elections and form the State of Law list created a major crack in the foundation of the Shi’a House. Determined to consolidate his own power, he sought to wrest control over Iraq’s military from Shi’a militias, opposed ISCI proposals to create a Shi’a autonomous region and opportunistically embraced secularism as the fount of Iraqi nationalism. At the insistence of the U.S. and to diminish his Shi’a rivals he directed a series of Iraqi army’s attacks against Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army and ISCI Badr militia in Basra and across southern Iraq. Resentful of Kurdish regional autonomy and consonant with his mission to preside over a ‘unitary Iraqi state” in 2008 al Maliki dispatched 3000 Iraqi soldiers to drive Kurdish pesh merga forces out of Mosul and the predominantly Kurdish border town of Khanaqin. As a result of the confrontations Kurdish Regional Government Prime Minister Massoud Barzanni and al-Maliki did not speak for over a year. It is al-Maliki’s selfish quest for power that could lead him to cut a deal that substantially diminishes both Shi’a and Iran’s influence. Therefore it is not surprising that Tehran is edging toward supporting an INA-Iraqiyya governing coalition.          

Iran’s opening to Iraqiyya began in April when Iraqiyya sent messages to Iran stating “Iraq’s territory will not be used by the Americans to attack Iran.” Iran then agreed to receive a delegation from Iraqiyya and in July the resurrected Moqtada al-Sadr convened a meeting with Ayad Allawi in Damascus hosted by Syrian President Assad. After the meeting al-Sadr said Iraqiyya was “ready to make concessions to put an end to Iraq’s political crisis. Given Iraqiyya’s strong election showing Iran and its INA supporters have conceded that attempting to cut Allawi and his Sunni list out of power could renew sectarian war. Iran’s problem is how to maneuver Allawi out of the Prime Minister’s post or to strip the premier’s portfolio of some of its powers.  

As Prime Minister Allawi would be Commander-in-Chief of Iraq’s armed forces and appoint the Minister of Interior and Defense which also control the intelligence services. It is the concentration of the coercive instruments of state power in the hands of Ayad Allawi that the Shi’a and Iran fear most. Since Allawi first formed the Iraqi National Accord in exile in 1990 he was the consensus choice of the CIA and Britain’s M-16 intelligence community to replace Saddam Hussien. An ex-Baathist officer with extensive ties to key military and intelligence figures Allawi argued that organizing a coup to topple Hussien would allow the Baathist bureaucracy to maintain control in Iraq and eliminate Iranian-backed Shi’a Islamists from seizing the portals of state power—which is precisely what happened. As Iraq’s interim government Prime Minister in 2004-05 Allawi maintained former Baathists military and intelligence officers in high level defense and security positions until he was swept out of office in Iraq’s 2005 elections. Allawi’s ability to unite the Sunni’s major political parties and former Baathists under Iraqiyya’s banner remains the source of his political power.  

What happens next in Iraq will likely be a replay of the four-month power struggle after the 2005 elections that culminated in Ibrahim Jaafari narrowly winning the Prime Minister’s post. However, sectarian bloodshed, Iraq’s faltering economy and charges that Jaafari was bent on consolidating Shi’a control at the expense of the Sunni and Kurds eventually created a political firestorm that made his selection as Prime Minister untenable. Today’s prolonged post-election power struggle, widespread dissatisfaction with Nouri al-Maliki’s government and his own dictatorial actions are fueling a similar consensus among the Shi’a, Sunni and Kurds that he step down as Prime Minister. Thus far Iran has been content to let the leadership crisis fester in the hope that an “Iraqi consensus” emerges to dump al-Maliki. An inter-Shi’a war to remove al-Maliki would further divide “The Shi’a House” and make it much more difficult to bring wavering members of the Dawa Party back into the Shi’a fold.  

While there are many contentious issues involving an alliance between the INA and Irraqiyya, Iran’s primary concern is who will control the military, internal security and intelligence forces. It’s worth noting that in 2005 the most pro-Iranian party–the Islam Supreme Council of Iraq– had the votes to place Abdel al Mahdi in the Prime Minister’s post. Instead they dumped Jafaari and agreed to seat al-Maliki to placate Moqtada al-Sadr and gain control of the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense and the intelligence services. These “sovereign ministries” were critical to the Shi’a victory in the sectarian war with the Sunni and provided Iran with strategic depth inside Iraq’s military and security establishment.  

It remains to seen whether Iran can maneuver al-Maliki out of the Prime Minister’s post and strike a deal with Ayad Allawi that leaves Iraq’s armed forces, security and intelligence arms under Shi’a control. What is clear is that Iran’s ability to shape the outcome of the power struggle is substantial. The withdrawal of U.S. troops has greatly diminished Washington’s clout on the ground in Iraq as was evidenced by cool reception Vice-President Biden received in July from all the contending factions. Iran has also been helped by the Kurd’s decision at this juncture not to further complicate matters by using its 43 parliamentary seats to play kingmaker. The Kurds will present thier list of demands once a potential governing coalition emerges. That said, Iran has multiple players and options to orchestrate its post-U.S. occupation strategy.  

To be sure Iraq’s “Shi’a House” is not a monolithic group, nor do they march in lockstep with Iran. But Tehran’s supple strategy of providing aid and support to all the Shi’a factions without isolating or relying on any one faction gives Iran great flexibility on the ground. Iran was well served by Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army directly confronting U.S. forces in Southern Iraq and providing the muscle for the Shi’a’s deadly sectarian battles with the Sunni. Despite their differences with Tehran, both Shi’a Prime Ministers—Jafaari and al-Maliki of the Dawa Party were also heavily dependent on Iranian largesse. And the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq has been instrumental in extending Iran’s influence over Iraq’s clerical establishment and its pious Shi’a Muslim community. Qom slowly but surely seeks to displace Najaf as the global center of Shi’a scholarship and jurisprudence while containing Ayatollah Sistani’s political clout within Iraq. 

Finally, the $4 billion of trade that Tehran now conducts with Baghdad has added a new dimension to Iranian soft-power that will be critical to its long-term enterprise of establishing a proxy state in Iraq. Iraq will be the first real test case of Iran’s capacity to become a legitimate regional hegemon. Iran’s influence in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Syria have largely hinged on providing financial aid, political support, weapons transfers and training of security and military personnel as part of building the anti-American rejectionists front. However, Iran’s capacity to become a serious regional power iwill ultimately turn on developing the requisite economic muscle to sustain its influence over time. Having emerged as an economic force in Baghdad capitalized by diverse hard and soft power assets, Iran appears ready to move from condominium with the United States over Iraq to consolidating Iraq as a strategic proxy state. Bridging the divide in Iraq’s “Shi’a House” and shaping the next governing coalition is the locus of Iran’s transition to its end game strategy.      



HAMAS Should Call for Palestinian State in Gaza Now

HAMAS now has its greatest opportunity to advance the cause of Palestinian self-determination by shifting the centerpiece of its strategy to establishing a sovereign Palestinian nation-state in the Gaza Strip. With the Obama administration’s efforts to restart the peace talks hopelessly stalled and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s leadership in disarray, HAMAS should reject the failed “Two-State Solution” and seek a new path to Palestinian statehood. Only by establishing a fully constituted Palestinian state that wins recognition in the international community can HAMAS ensure the survival, growth and self-sufficiency of Gaza’s 1.5 million citizens. Having been  democratically elected as the Palestinian Authority majority in the 2006 elections and functioning as the governing authority in Gaza, HAMAS must now transform its organization into an instrument of Palestinian self-governance that consolidates the institutions of a modern nation-state. Winning national sovereignty for Gaza is the most effective path to defeat the Obama administration and Israel’s attempts to politically isolate HAMAS as a “terrorist organization” and reduce Gaza to an island of economic desolation. Ultimately, HAMAS cannot survive as long as Gaza remains an “occupied territory” in which Israel controls its tax revenue, territorial waters, airspace, its northern and eastern border crossings and its population registry. Thus HAMAS must alter the political dynamics on the ground by affecting a strategic shift focused on winning national sovereignty to thwart U.S-Israeli condominium over Gaza. Statehood for Gaza would not only be a critical “test case” for Palestinian self-rule and HAMAS’s leadership but a strategic enterprise that accelerates HAMAS’s struggle for an expanded Palestinian state inclusive of the West Bank.

      A shift in HAMAS’s strategy to win nationhood for Gaza will require a comprehensive plan to recalibrate its political, diplomatic and economic assets. The template of HAMAS’s new strategy must be anchored by five core components: 1) Holding a successful national referendum in support of nationhood for Gaza, 2) launching an international diplomatic offensive to win recognition of Gaza’s national  sovereignty, 3) declaring a unilateral cease fire with Israel, 4) eliminating Israeli control over Gaza’s tax revenue, territorial waters, airspace, its border crossings and population registry, and 5) developing a comprehensive economic development plan for Gaza’s 1.5 million citizens.  

      Call for Referendum on National Sovereignty 

      Gaza’s road to statehood must begin with a call for a national referendum of its citizens to affirm support for creating a sovereign Palestinian nation-state. A strong victory in a transparent national referendum would mobilize support and legitimacy in Gaza and throughout the Palestinian Diaspora for national sovereignty. The referendum campaign would also provide HAMAS with a platform to articulate its long-term agenda for nationhood and shift the debate in the international community concerning a new path for Palestinian self-determination.  

      International Diplomacy in Support of a Palestinian State in Gaza

      Building on the momentum of a successful referendum HAMAS must launch an aggressive international diplomatic offensive to argue its case for national sovereignty. HAMAS’s approach must be directed toward achieving two critical goals; persuading countries to formally recognize its demand for sovereignty and building international pressure to eliminate Israel’s control over Gaza’s tax revenue, territorial waters, airspace, border crossings and population registry. Gaza is currently designated by the United Nations as an Israeli “occupied territory”–a claim Israel disputes because its troops are no longer stationed in Gaza. But Gaza cannot be an “occupied territory and “non-occupied territory” at the same time. As the legitimately elected leadership and governing authority in Gaza HAMAS has every right to assert the aspirations of its citizens for nationhood. As the United States, Israel and the PA President Mahmoud Abbas refuse to recognize HAMAS as the elected Palestinian Authority leadership in violation of the Oslo Accords, HAMAS should not be bound by the agreements signed in Oslo. If HAMAS and Gaza’s citizens approve a referendum for statehood, they should have the right to exercise self-determination in Gaza separate from the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority. What is of paramount importance is that HAMAS wins recognition by some countries of its sovereignty–even if it is only a handful of nations initially. By taking its case before the United Nation’s and other international bodies, HAMAS has the potential to convert the widespread international support for its self-determination into a successful global diplomatic campaign. Moreover, HAMAS can leverage the support of key European nations that in the past have supported its participation in the peace process.     

           Ending Israel’s “Effective Control over Gaza

          Israel continues to exercise control over Gaza’s airspace, territorial waters, its governmental functions and administrative functions, such as the population registry of Gaza and West Bank residents, electromagnetic fields (which impact Radio, TV and telecommunications), migration, trade, tax system, currency policies, water and electricity supply. Israel claims these actions do not constitute “effective control” over Gaza because its troops don’t occupy Gaza. Further Israel insists its extended authority in Gaza was agreed to by the Palestinian Authority as part of the Oslo Accords. Israel also argues that Gaza is not a sovereign state, therefore the Geneva Conventions and Hague standards that clearly designate its “effective control” over Gaza as actions of an “occupying power” are not applicable to a non-state territory. HAMAS must take the position that it is not a party to the Oslo Accords and therefore not bound by its provisions. Furthermore, once Gaza claims its national sovereignty, Israel’s effective control over Gaza will clearly constitute violations of Gaza’s sovereignty. While the legalities of international law concerning Gaza’s status will be argued ad infinitum, only substantial international political pressure on Israel will force Tel Aviv to roll back its span of control over Gaza. Nevertheless, HAMAS must take the critical first step toward proclaiming its own sovereignty to change the terms of the debate.        

      Unilateral Declaration of Cease Fire with Israel

      HAMAS must unilaterally declare and observe a cease fire with Israel. A unilateral cease fire monitored by the United Nations and the European Union is absolutely critical to give legitimacy to HAMAS efforts to persuade the international community to recognize its demand for national sovereignty. It is also a key precondition to gain international support to end Israel’s blockade of Gaza’s airspace, territorial waters and borders. HAMAS needs time and stability to consolidate its government, institutions and economy. If Gaza is to achieve nationhood, it cannot provide Israel with a convenient excuse to invade Gaza and visit devastation on its fragile state. Thus a cease fire is paramount to HAMAS and Gaza’s survival. A unilateral cease fire is also a necessary political trade off for HAMAS given its leaders will not likely recognize Israel’s right to exist.              

      A Comprehensive Economic Plan for a Palestinian State in Gaza

      HAMAS must develop a long-term economic plan to deliver vital economic development projects, infrastructure and social services to improve the lives of Gaza’s citizens. With a total land mass of only 360 miles and a population of 1.5 million people, the Gaza Strip’s economy currently ranks 164th in the world with 80 percent of its population living below the poverty line. In 2009 Gaza’s per capita income was only $3,100.  In 2010 Gaza’s parliament passed a budget of $540 million of which only $55 million are comprised of local revenue and taxes. The balance of the remaining $485 will likely be covered by contributions from the Gulf oil states and Iran. HAMAS must make an authentic effort to develop a national economic development plan that builds on its current strengths and assets and develops Gaza’s core national infrastructure to support sustained growth. A comprehensive economic plan will serve as Gaza’s blueprint to attract and coordinate international support for vital economic development projects and diverse NGO activities. HAMAS must also agree to provide unprecedented access and transparency to all its economic and financial activities in order to build trust and confidence with its potential international partners. As a nation whose land mass and population is equivalent to Luxemburg or Monaco, creating a viable nation-state in Gaza is both feasible and manageable. What is needed is a new mindset by HAMAS’s leadership that views Gaza as a nation-state and not simply a transitional liberated territory.


      That HAMAS will pursue a separate path of national sovereignty for the Gaza Strip is extremely unlikely. HAMAS remains fully vested in the framework of a “Two-State Solution,” in the hopes that Al Fatah’s collapse in the West Bank will result in HAMAS gaining political and military control of both Palestinian territories. Al Fatah’s downfall would leave Israel, the U.S. and the Arab world with little choice but to recognize HAMAS as the only legitimate leadership of a Palestinian state. HAMAS’s is also playing for time. If frustrated Palestinians completely reject a Two-State Solution Tel Aviv’s only alternative might be the annexation of the West Bank into Israel, thereby transforming the Israeli people into a minority in their own nation—a One-State Solution Israel desperately seeks to avoid. For these reasons time is running out on Israel to reach an agreement on the establishment of a provisional Palestinian state based on the armistice boundaries, while deferring final agreements on the status of Jerusalem, the right of return of Palestinian refugees and the assignment of permanent borders.

      HAMAS is in a race against time as well. Short of another Israeli invasion, the U.S., Israel and Egypt are tightening their chokehold on Gaza’s economy in an attempt to turn Gaza’s citizens against HAMAS’s leadership. At the same time Fatah and the Obama Administration is working hard to disenfranchise HAMAS in the West Bank. Al Fatah’s failed attempt to overthrow HAMAS in the 2007 Gaza civil war (backed by Israel and the U.S.) and Israel’s 2008 invasion of Gaza that killed 1,500 Gaza citizens should leave no doubt as to the lengths Washington and Tel Aviv will go to neutralize HAMAS. Waiting for Al Fatah to collapse in the West Bank or for the Palestinian movements to abandon a Two-State Solution in deference to achieving a Palestinian majority in an annexed Israeli state is a passive and losing strategy that plays into its adversaries hands.  What HAMAS needs now is a forward leaning “breakout strategy” centered on its own One-State Solution for Gaza’s national sovereignty. Raising a successful Palestinian state in Gaza is the most potent weapon HAMAS can wield to extend its leadership in the West Bank and convert the vast reservoir of international support for Palestinian self-determination into a powerful force for change. As the legendary HAMAS leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin once said “A Palestinian state must be established on any inch of Palestine we liberate.”       

Al Queda’s New Strategy in Yemen Threatens U.S.-Saudi Arabia Axis

Brooks Foreign Policy Review


by Webster Brooks 

Al Queda’s shift in global strategy to transform Yemen into a platform to destabilize Saudi Arabia represents the most serious national security crisis the Obama administration has confronted. Saudi Arabia is the strategic lynchpin of energy security powering the U.S. dominated global order. Any chaos, instability or leadership change in Riyadh that disrupts Saudi oil production could trigger price shocks, a global economic downturn and enhance Iran’s status as the dominant regional hegemon in the Middle East. Osama bin Ladin’s escalation of attacks against the House of Saud comes at a time when U.S. military forces are overstretched in Afghanistan and Iraq and American public opinion is staunchly opposed to another military intervention. Given the constraints on his administration’s capacity to commit ground forces to the region, Obama must now rely on President Ali Saleh’s faltering regime to eliminate Al Queda’s growing presence in Yemen’s vast ungoverned spaces. AQAP’s sudden emergence as a serious threat to U.S. interests in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia is not accidental; it is product of Osama bin Ladin’s long-term strategic planning. 

Over the past year Osama Bin Ladin has merged his Saudi Arabia and Yemen operations into Al Queda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Led by Nasser Wahayshi and his Saudi deputy, Saeed al-Shihri, AQAP includes veterans from its defeated insurgency in Saudi Arabia two years ago, along with recruits from Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. The new franchise has established command structures, communications lines, base areas and bomb making factories that fabricated new stealth PETN explosives recently tested in Saudi Arabia and the United States. By claiming responsibility for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s Christmas Day attempt to blow up the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit and the August 2009 suicide bomber attack on Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohemmend bin Nayef, AQAP has signaled that its presence in Yemen will be permanent, lethal and have global reach.  

Al Queda’s strategy in Yemen seeks to leverage the current crisis of President Saleh’s weak regime into a “state of controlled chaos” that will facilitate AQAP’s a long-term presence to conduct operations that undermine the Saudi government. To that end Bin Ladin’s forces are not necessarily seeking the overthrow of President Saleh’s regime. Quite the opposite, as long as President Saleh’s government remains weak and isolated AQAP’s capacity to expand its base in Yemen will grow. This explains why Al Queda is content with operating “in the seam” of the two insurgencies buffeting President Saleh’s regime; one led by the broad-based Southern Movement to secede from the central government, and the other a tenacious Shiaa-based Al Houthi insurgency backed by Iran along Yemen’s northern border with Saudi Arabia. Both movements serve AQAP’s tactical and strategic goals in Yemen, but in different ways.

That the Sunni dominated AQAP is the beneficiary of the Shia-based Al Houthi’s two-front war against Yemen’s central government and Saudi Arabia is a peculiar irony of the crisis. The Al Houthi’s border war with Saudi Arabia is destabilizing the Saudi royal family, the Saudi army and inflaming the passions of the Kingdom’s oppressed Shia minority concentrated around its  eastern oilfields. For months Riyadh denied that its troops were engaging Al Houthi’s forces on the ground and that Saudi jets were carpet bombing Al Houthi camps. On December 24, the Saudi government reluctantly announced that 70 Saudi soldiers were killed in fierce border clashes. Desperate to liquidate the Al Houthi Shia rebellion on its border, Saudi Arabia has stepped up its bombing campaign and artillery shelling of Al Houthi positions. Riyadh has also tried to deflect the growing political backlash across the Middle East to the atrocities it is committing against the Al Houthi by claiming Iran is supplying funds and weapons to the insurgents–claims that have yet to be substantiated. Thus, the Al Houthi insurgency serves AQAP’s interests on two fronts; destabilizing the Saudi government with its border war on the one hand and draining President Saleh’s government, army and national resources on the other.

AQAP’s relationship to the secessionist Southern Movement (SM) pivots on maintaining friendly neutrality in order to operate and sustain its base camps in eastern and southern Yemen. As a democratic alliance of Nasserites, socialists, labor and business leaders the Southern Movement and Al Queda do not share a common political program or ideology. Nevertheless, the Southern Movement’s anti-American sentiments and its struggle to secede from President Saleh’s U.S.-backed government has positioned the coalition and AQAP on the same side of the political divide. The complication facing the Obama administration in attacking AQAP’s southern bases were evident when U.S. cruise missiles raked the villages of Arhab and Abyan and Shabwah in December. The attacks were not only condemned by local tribal elders but Southern Movement leader Abbass al Asal characterized the strikes as a “genocidal attack on the people of the south, not Al Queda.” The gruesome scenes of 30 dead Yemeni villagers and five AQAP operatives were broadcast across the Middle East on Al Jazeera. The following day, 10,000 people attended a rally held by the SM’s Joint Meeting Parties which condemned “American targeting of civilians.” President Saleh also came under fire as a “U.S. puppet regime” for his army’s role in supporting the cruise missile attacks on Al Queda. The net political effect of the air strikes sparked anti-American rage and further undermined President Saleh’s government while fostering more support for Al Queda. Thus Al Queda is able to use the Southern Movement as a buffer that provides it with political cover and limits America’s freedom to conduct air strikes and Predator drone attacks that invariably kill civilians. In the future, Al Queda will undoubtedly attempt to co-opt elements of the Southern Movement’s diverse coalition in order to broaden its influence and enhance the security of its base operations. Should the Southern Movement formally break away from the Saleh government to re-establish an independent Republic of South Yemen (1967-1990) AQAP’s relationship to the new government will emerge as a crucial issue. A new government in South Yemen could conceivably sanction Al Queda’s presence and further complicate U.S. counter-terrorist operations.         

In response to the AQAP’s offensive, President Obama pledged $70 million to Yemen’s government, increased Special Forces deployments to “train” Yemeni counter-terrorist units and launched cruise missile strikes against Al Queda bases in mid-December. Notwithstanding President Obama’s countermeasures, it’s clear his administration does not have a thoughtful strategy to neutralize Al Queda in Yemen. Indeed, the U.S. intelligence community’s failure to recognize the seriousness of AQAP’s buildup and new capabilities until Abdulmutallab’s failed Christmas bombing attempt has left the Obama administration desperately playing catch-up.

The Obama administration needs a practical strategy to neutralize Al Queda in Yemen. Such a strategy must begin with preventing the collapse of President Saleh’s regime which cannot survive fighting three insurgencies simultaneously. The Southern Movement and the Al Houthi insurgents are not calling for the overthrow of President Saleh’s government; both seek to break away from the Yemen’s corrupt and criminal regime. Therefore, the Obama administration must convince President Saleh that significant concessions must be made to the Al Houthi and the Southern Movement to stabilize his regime, preserve Yemen’s sovereignty and isolate AQAP. In short, both groups will have to be offered some form of regional autonomy and Yemen must be transformed into a federated state with the central government possessing limited powers.

The most critical first step for the Obama administration to undertake is convincing President Saleh and Saudi Arabia’s leaders to agree to an immediate and unconditional cease fire with the Al Houthi insurgents. Further, the cease fire should include a pledge to enter into negotiations on regional autonomy for the Al Houthi’s, a settlement of Saudi border security issues and Al Houthi representation in a restructured national government. President Saleh’s current Six Point plan to implement a cease fire is nothing more than a call for the Al Houthi’s total surrender. It is a non-starter that should be scrapped immediately. A negotiated cease fire will dramatically reduce pressure on Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s government and limit Iran’s maneuvering room to become more deeply entangled in an insurgency on Saudi Arabia’s border.

Similarly, the Obama administration should enlist the services of a skilled mediator (preferably Qatar’s government) to convene talks between Sana’a and the Southern Movement. Qatar negotiated a cease fire between President Saleh and the Southern Movement in 2007 and is considered by both sides as an impartial mediator. Unless the Southern Movement is offered regional autonomy that grants sweeping autonomous powers similar to those enjoyed by Kurdistan today, it is doubtful that reconciliation can be achieved. In addition to a regional autonomy agreement, Southern Movement representatives must be brought into significant leadership roles in Yemen’s central government to ensure that equity, transparency and reforms are implemented. Anything short of giving Southern Movement representatives a significant role in governing a reformed Yemen, including demands that President Saleh step down as President will justifiably be rejected. President Saleh will not be disposed to concede autonomy to the Southern Movement or the Al Houthi, but a partitioned Yemen and the creation of a new breakaway republic in South Yemen will open the door to more instability in the region, particularly from Iran which has the economic largesse and proximate skills to stand-up a proxy state.

The concessions and compromises that President Saleh must make to the Al Houthi’s and the Southern Movement will dramatically alter the nature of Yemen’s embattled government. However, the alternative is more chaos, civil war, the likely breakup of the state and an enlarged presence of Iran and Al Queda on the peninsula. Arguably, it may already be too late for the United States and their allies to prevent the breakup of Yemen and the collapse of the Saleh regime. AQAP has the momentum. Osama Bin Ladin is dictating the time and place of battle, and the choice of weapons. Yemen is now the “new frontline” in the global war between Al Queda and the United States with Saudi Arabia’s security hanging in the balance.