Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Weapons-Laden Ship for Gaza Marks A Big Transformation of the Middle East

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By Barry Rubin

The story of the Liberian-flag ship Victoria is dramatic enough but few will understand, at least immediately, that it opens a new era in the region’s history. It is a period when, for the first time in more than thirty years Egypt will not be a reliable force for regional peace and stability.

The Victoria was loaded with a large shipment of weapons in Latakia, Syria. Note that Syria is a dictatorship where nothing happens without government approval. Thus, the Syrian regime decided to provide arms to the terrorist group Hamas. It did so fairly openly because the Asad dictatorship has no fear of individual punishment, censor, or even bad publicity.

The Syrian government also supplies arms to Iraqi insurgents who murder Americans as well as Iraqi civilians. Nevertheless, the current U.S. government has engaged Syria diplomatically and has made a series of concessions to it. The Syrians have made clear that they view these thing as concessions showing that they are strong, America is weak, and that Syria can get away with whatever it wants to do.

Question: Will the U.S. government and European governments change their policies when presented evidence of open Syrian sponsorship of terrorism and destabilizing the region? Will the U.S. engagement end? Will the European Union censure Syria the way it has so frequently treated Israel? Will the media spend anywhere near as much time criticizing Syria, exposing its human rights’ violations, and international misbehavior as it does in finding reasons to vilify Israel?

Answer: You know the answers are all “No.”

By the way, the photos (see links at the end of this article) show some official Iranian documents were captured. It is likely that Iran paid for the weapons and supplied some or even most of them directly. You see, Iran is at war with America. It backs terrorism generally, kills Americans in Iraq, trains the Taliban, shelters al-Qaida (according to U.S. intelligence documents), and tries to foment war on Israel.

Question: Will U.S. policy under the current administration recognize these (non-nuclear) threats and take up the competition seriously?

Answer: You know already that it's "No."

The Victoria then proceeded to Turkey as a way to launder the true purpose of its voyage. Next, it headed for Alexandria, Egypt, where the arms were to be unloaded and shipped to Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

This operation would not have happened three months ago, before the Egyptian revolution because Syria and Hamas would have faced two problems:

First, under the Mubarak government the ship would have been checked and the cargo confiscated. Israel would have informed Egypt about the cargo and purpose. But even if that had not happened, for its own interests the then-government of Egypt would not have wanted a large-scale arms shipment to Hamas.

Second, under the Mubarak government even if the weapons had been unloaded there is a good chance they would have been seized at the Egypt-Gaza border. Even though many weapons are smuggled across, the chance of being caught has kept the level of smuggling below a certain point. Now, emboldened, Iran, Syria, Hizballah (there are now Hizballah advisors in Gaza), and Hamas itself believe that either the Egyptian forces don’t care, are ideologically supportive, or can be even more easily bribed.

However, the gates are not completely open. A much more blatant arms smuggling effort to Hamas through Sudan has been reportedly intercepted and stopped by the Egyptian military.

Events in Egypt teach us once again that while countries pursue their national interests it is up to governments to define those interests. The previous sentence is the key to international affairs. It provides all the international relations and political science theory you will ever need. A new regime--as we saw with the overthrow of the shah and his replacement by Islamists in Iran--has a new view of national interests.

The old Egyptian government knew Hamas wanted to destabilize it and help replace it with an Islamist regime. That Egyptian government also understood that an escalation of Hamas-Israel war could draw in Egypt as well and destabilize the region. The old Egyptian government was angry at Hizballah, which tried to carry out terrorist operations on its own soil. That regime viewed its interests as diametrically opposed to those of the Iran-Syria axis that wishes to seize hegemony in the Middle East and drive out Western interests.

Egypt is in the process of redefining its national interests.

Ladies and gentlemen, everything you have been told by most Western governments and virtually all the world’s media was wrong. Egypt has gone from being a force for stability in the region and the strengthening of Western interests to—at best—a neutralist state that is indifferent on the key issues. The next step could well be into the negative category.

With the U.S. government unreliable and the Europeans even more so, Israel is going to look after its own defense. Israel’s government is going to be very polite about all of this. It will make protests that it knows will go unheeded. It will prepare detailed dossiers of its assertions that it knows will go unpublished. It will offer potential compromises that it knows will go unmet by counterparts.

And at the same time it will go about the business of protecting itself and its people.

As everyone is watching the results of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, there is a man-made earthquake and tsunami in the Middle East.

Note: It is interesting to compare the Victoria to the ship Karina-B, carrying weapons from Iran to Fatah with the deal being arranged by Hizballah. This showed that Yasir Arafat wanted to escalate the fighting into a major Israel-Palestinian war. Under a previous president, U.S. policymakers reacted strongly, though only very temporarily, against the Palestinian Authority.

For details on the Victoria ship affair see video on boarding of shipPast Attempts of Weapons Smuggling by Sea; and Israel's interception of arms ships - Background. And here's a slide show.

Update: A list of the weapons aboard and photos are here.

Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His books include Islamic Fundamentalists in Egyptian Politics and The Muslim Brotherhood (Palgrave-Macmillan); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East, a study of Arab reform movements (Wiley). GLORIA Center site: http://www.gloria-center.org His blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com/.

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