The diplomatic and military uncertainties besetting the Middle East this week attained a pitch the region has not experienced for more than half a century. As regimes caved in and foreign powers kept to the safe fringes, no new forces capable of dominating the region’s next stage were anywhere in sight.
In July, 2013 the mayhem is absolute.
This issue of DEBKA Weekly will try and track and analyze what is happening in the various arenas of conflict.
Although the Obama administration has pulled back from engagement in the region’s troubles, two US diplomats were sent out this week to try and imprint its concepts of order and democracy in two arenas:
US Secretary of State John Kerry, to rev up Israel-Palestinian peacemaking – an irrelevance in the current climate, and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who arrived in Cairo Monday July 15, and was joined Wednesday by European Union foreign policy executive Catherine Ashton.
They came for the daunting and delicate task of mending US-European fences with Egypt for the third time in the two-year aftermath of Egypt’s “Arab Spring” revolt of January 2011.
After President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, the US administration toiled to cultivate working relations with the Egyptian generals who removed and replaced him, then worked to bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power through a convincing process of democracy.
This was managed in July 2012. And so, Washington turned to fence-building with the Brotherhood regime.
The Egyptian general is oblivious to US arguments
In October and November 2012, Barack Obama pulled off what appeared at the time to be a smart move to draw Egypt, Turkey and Qatar into a new pro-US Mideast Sunni Muslim-led alliance, with Israeli military backing.
In the space of months, the new bloc melted away in the heat generated by the unpopularity of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Cairo, the abdication of the pro-Brotherhood Emir of Qatar, and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s inability to win the favor of Muslim leaders in the Arab world.
The last vestige of this bloc disappeared when Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was unseated n a military coup earlier this month.
The task Burns undertook was to persuade the generals, now top dogs in Cairo, to set in motion a democratic process for bringing liberal groups to power while also reinstating the Muslim Brotherhood as part of a national reconciliation administration.
William Burns has enough diplomatic nous to know his limitations: He quickly realized that the current military elite were a lot less amenable to American persuasion than were their predecessors just a year ago when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power.
Not surprisingly, his conversation with Gen. El-Sisi on Monday, July 15, turned vocal, DEBKA Weekly's sources in Cairo report.
When Burns talked democracy, the Egyptian retorted that President Morsi had been removed in response to the will of the people.
When the US official tried to press his case, voices were raised.
Egyptian generals staunchly committed to new allies
El-Sisi bluntly advised the Obama administration it would cut no ice by trying to impose its will by threatening to suspend military aid to Egypt, because the Persian Gulf states had pledged to make up for any assistance funds withheld by Washington.
The Egyptian general went on to argue that the US ought to be “more keen than Egypt on keeping the military aid program as an assurance of the continuation of military ties between the two countries.”
By this comment, El-Sisi turned the implied US threat around and made it an Egyptian warning that if they were pressed too hard, the generals might decide to cut off military ties with Washington.
Egyptian strongman, Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, made it clear where he stood by having himself sworn in by interim President Adli Mansour as deputy prime minister Wednesday, July 17, while the US official was still in Cairo.
He did not bother to reply to the appeal made by Ashton, after she met senior Muslim Brotherhood figures, to release the deposed president.
Morsi will most probably next show up in court standing trial along with other Brotherhood figures.
The US and European officials found Egypt’s military rulers implacably committed to their new Middle East allies, primarily Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.
However, this alliance is still in its infancy. Until it starts spreading its wings and is fully functional, its influence is limited to Cairo. There, too, the bloc’s survivability depends on how the generals handle the unpredictable events, some extremely violent, awaiting the country around every corner.
Syrian rebels abandoned and torn by strife
Syria’s foreseeable prospects are far murkier.
The opposition rebel movement is crumbling fast, its leaders holding the United States and Europe responsible for their setbacks by ditching them just when their hopes were highest for defeating Bashar Assad’s army.
Free Syrian Army commander Gen. Salim Idris, interviewed by the London Daily Telegraph Tuesday, July 16, bitterly accused the West, and British Prime Minister David Cameron of betraying their cause.
"The West promises and promises… This is a joke now," he said. "I have not had the opportunity to ask David Cameron personally if he will leave us alone to be killed. On behalf of all Syrians, thank you very much."
Other Syrian opposition figures pointed the finger at Washington, accusing the Obama administration of stabbing them in the back.
The Syrian rebel movement is bedeviled not only by its desertion by the West but by the savage infighting among its component groups and militias – notably between the Free Syrian Army and Al Qaeda affiliates.
One of those affiliates executed two FSA officers in a grab for key positions in the rebel movement.
On July 11, they captured Kamal Hamami, known as Abu Basir, a member of the rebel Supreme Military Council, in a clash over a checkpoint he set up on the Jabal al-Turkoman mountain in the coastal province of Latakia. The Islamists decapitated their captive and another fighter, leaving their severed heads on the ground as a lesson to any rebel groups challenging them in turf battles.
Both Syria and Egypt stand in the path of advancing jihadis
Not only have the US and Europe turned their backs on the Syrian arena, so too has Russia, which has reduced its presence in the country to a small number of military advisers attached to President Assad and his high command.
The Syrian army is now girding up for a second war. The first two and-a-half years were fought against a popular uprising followed by a mixed rebel insurgency, which is close to being vanquished. Now, Syria is invaded by intensely warlike groups of Al Qaeda and other Islamist groups, including Pakistani Taliban fighters, pouring in for jihad (more about which in a separate article).
The Syrian Kurds have managed to stay clear of the civil war until now and they are determined to stay safely out of the way. Wednesday, July 17, after an all-night battle, Kurdish fighters expelled jihadist interlopers who took control of the strategic border crossing to Turkey in their territory. The jihadis lost nine men in the fight, while two Kurds died.
To the southwest of Syria, in the Sinai Peninsula, the Egyptian army is gearing up to get rid of the mounting terrorist scourge of aggressive Al Qaeda networks, their local Salafist allies and radical Palestinian groups.
With little else in common, the powers-that-be in Egypt and Syria find themselves in the same boat insofar as both are in the throes of a life-and-death struggle with the marching jihadis of al Qaeda and its allies, as we shall see in the next articles in this issue.