Saturday, July 24, 2010

Briefing in a Minute: The Middle East Right Now

By Barry Rubin

Snippets on the latest developments and themes in the region:

--Israel will deploy Iron Dome defense against rockets, mainly from the Gaza Strip, in November.

--EU "foreign minister" Ashton and--separately--Turkey and Syria--call for complete end of any blockade on the Gaza Strip. Ha! Great minds think alike. Why shouldn't Hamas have all the weapons it wants?

--Syria bans face veils in universities. Promoting revolutionary Islamism is fine as a foreign policy campaign but we wouldn't want them to take over our country and shoot the rulers, right?

--U.S.-Israel relations are quite good, the best at any time during the current presidency, and this could be expected to continue into early 2011 at least.

--The U.S. government has upgraded the Palestinian Authority representatives in the United States to the level of a general delegation, allowing them to fly the Palestinian flag in Washington DC. If this had come after the PA accepted direct negotiations with Israel that might have been understood. But once again we see the fatal pattern: first give a unilateral concession in hope that the other side will reciprocate. Shall I list the occasions on which that approach has failed during the last 18 months? You can develop your own list. That's not the way to do foreign policy.

--The new sanctions against Iran are definitely causing some pressure on and within the country though short of stopping the nuclear campaign it should weaken Tehran's ability to carry out its policies to build up militarily and advance further in regional influence.

--Have Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hizballah signed a secret mutual assistance and alliance

--President Husni Mubarak's illness and the potential change of power in Egypt bears close watching. It is not official but does seem likely that Gamal Mubarak will be the next president. He has some good characteristics--pragmatism and moderation--but his age, lack of military experience, and limited charisma are against him. What Gamal would have to do, then, is to form a close partnership with key members of the elite and get the top people behind him.

There would then follow a period of several years in which either the elite would stand together behind Gamal or split, thus endangering the regime's future. If Gamal did not rule well and consolidate his support, there could be some kind of coup against him. In addition, the Brotherhood could gradually grow in power to fill the vacuum and exploit the discontent. The Brotherhood cannot take over for some years to come. The danger is a longer-term one.

Events could go either way and we will have to watch them closely. It is clear, though that Egypt's regional power is at about the lowest point in 60 years, though its determination to oppose Iran, Syria, and Hamas--if it feels American support is firm--is strong.

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