Author Archives: Sam Michelman

Shameless self-promotion

As some of you may know, I’m spending all of academic year 2010-2011 abroad in the middle east. In an act that can be characterized as nothing else but a total cliche, I’ll be keeping a blog. If you should be so inclined as to follow my travels and regional political commentary, look no further:

Syria: Cold War Cornerstone?

Trying to understand what Syria wants is not the world’s easiest task.  Quite to the contrary, in fact, Damascus’s intentions are downright puzzling.  The last few months have seen a flurry of diplomatic activity between the US and Syria with the restoration of a US Embassy in Damascus and the very recent appointment of Robert Ford as the US Ambassador.  These large overtures to the Assad regime are most certainly intended to try to lure Damascus away from the “Tehran orbital” of the Middle Eastern “cold war” and place them firmly in the pro-western camp.  The US also clearly wants to attempt to restart negotiations between Syria and Israel over the Golan in the hopes of cementing that transition into “our” camp.  Great.  But are diplomatic overtures enough? And more importantly, does Bashar al Assad want to be on our side?

I asked these very questions two weeks ago after picking up Gershom Gorenberg at the airport and driving him back to Middlebury.  His answer was that yes, Syria wants to find a way into the Western-backed bloc along with Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, etc.  I hope this is the case, but evidence lately certainly seems to point to the contrary.  Last week, Damascus played host to a star-studded summit of the West’s favorite personalities: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Hassan Nasrallah (the Secretary General of Hezbollah), and Khaled Meshaal (the chairman of Hamas’ Damascus-based politburo).  This doesn’t seem to be the message one would send to the US, Europe, Israel, etc. if one was serious about peace and switching sides.  Moreover, recent tensions along the border with Israel have increased lately with sharp rhetoric from both Damascus and Jerusalem(read: Lieberman).  See my tete-a-tete with Ali for more on that.  The escalation of bellicose words coupled with Damascus’ apparent contentment with supplying arms to Hezbollah and Hamas sends the signal of intransigence or plain and simple disinterest in pursuing peace with Israel and defecting to the West.  Even this past week, when senior US diplomat Robert Burns visited Damascus, Assad “denied all American claims that that his regime was providing military aid to terrorists in Iraq, or to Hezbollah and Palestinian terror groups.” C’mon Bashar.

Yet, this doesn’t seem to be the only side to the story.  Tonight, Haaretz is reporting a genuine desire on Damascus’ part to re-invigorate a peace process with the Israelis.  So, the answer is most simply that there is no certain answer.

What is unambiguous, however, is the rising importance of Syria in the region.  Tehran sees Syria as a valuable strategic ally and asset for gaining a foothold in the Arab World, which is largely apprehensive about Tehran’s rhetoric and regional ambitions.  Moreover, Syria’s longstanding ties in Lebanon are a perfect conduit for transferring arms and resources to Shi’a groups like Hezbollah.  The US and its bloc equally recognize the huge gains in courting Damascus.  A peace agreement between Syria and Israel would undoubtedly result in a crippled if not severely weakened Hezbollah and Hamas, and a total cessation of arms flowing to Iraq (assuming continued bolstered ties with the US).  A weakened Hamas in turn would aid hopes for Palestinian reconciliation and possibly provide a true Palestinian partner for peace with the Israelis.  Indeed, it is imperative that any comprehensive peace agreement in the Middle East involve Syria as a central player.  As for now, the thaw in relations between Washington and Damascus is an essential step; however, a deep breath and fresh thinking on both sides of the Israel-Syria border would be instrumental in helping the Syrians find a way to move a little closer to the US-backed sphere without compromising their perceived security.

Ayalon at it Again!

In his most recent display of poor diplomacy, Deputy FM Danny Ayalon snubbed an American congressional delegation visiting Israel today with J Street.

After the incident last month with Turkey’s ambassador to Israel, I’m honestly surprised (though I shouldn’t be) that Mr. Ayalon had the chutzpah to essentially give the diplomatic finger to an American congressional delegation simply because he doesn’t agree explicitly with the group hosting them in Israel.  Moreover, the notion that J Street is misrepresenting itself by identifying as “Pro-Israel” is simply ludicrous.  Admittedly, J Street has a specific political agenda, but in plain English in their statement of principles, they declare: “J Street represents Americans, primarily but not exclusively Jewish, who support Israel and its desire for security as the Jewish homeland.”

Ayalon’s narrow world view and petty politics are getting old as far as I’m concerned.  Its time to get some fresh blood into the most important chairs of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

An aside:

J Street, a relatively new lobby in Washington, describes itself as Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace.  For those interested (and I’m plugging my own group here a bit), check out J Street U Middlebury, an affiliate group here on campus.

A Glimmer of Optimism

For those who follow the ins and outs of the Middle East peace process, the past 13 months have been certifiably depressing.  Since Israel’s military operation in Gaza last January, no progress whatsoever has been made in making peace with the Palestinians, Syria, or any one else.  The year has been replete with pre-conditions, freezes, blockades, declarations, and even good will gestures, but there has been a severe drought of actual peace and progress.

In that light, I was pleasantly surprised to read Joel Rubin’s commentary and analysis of the Herzliya Conference last night.  The conference is Israel’s largest annual global policy forum and is a perennial gathering of political heavyweights from the region and diplomats stationed in Israel.

Left and Right, those who spoke in Herzliya such as Opposition leader and Kadima Chair MK Tzipi Livni, Deputy PM Dan Meridor, and Deputy FM Danny Ayalon (of Turkish sofa incident fame) all stressed the essentiality of striking a two-state solution.  As Rubin puts it, “none of [them] declared this for sentimental reasons.” That is the essential point.  In today’s world, a comprehensive peace agreement is a strategic necessity for all parties involved.  The balance of power in the Middle East is rapidly changing, and overwhelming American preponderance is slowly eroding into a thing of the past.  That isn’t to say that the US has become irrelevant in the Middle East.  It still will play a central role in forging a future for the region, but the game has certainly changed.  The rising threat of Iran is an undeniable reality, and a regional peace agreement in the Middle East is invaluable in suppressing that threat as it will undoubtedly quell the flow of arms and money from Iran to other actors in the region like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Syria.

Consensus on a two-state agreement is not enough to make a stable, peaceful, and prosperous Middle East a reality.  It will require tough decisions and compromises from both sides of the negotiating table, and today we have not even returned to the negotiating table.  Despite the setbacks of 2009, Joel Rubin gets it right here:

There may not yet be peace…but this day may well have granted Obama a subtle victory, as the broad political recognition in Israel of the importance of a two state solution was made urgently clear.

My hope is that broad political recognition can be transformed into sweeping political action that delivers.

The Stuff of Hollywood Spy Thrillers

The Arab and Israeli Press have both been reporting this week on the death of Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in Dubai, UAE.  Initially, Emirati authorities pronounced him dead after a heart attack, but after subsequent blood tests trace elements of poison were found in his blood.

Hamas, for their part, immediately and publicly accused the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, of committing the deed, but the case remains unresolved.  Here are the latest updates.

Haaretz is reporting that the Dubai police Chief Dhahi Khalfan has narrowed the list of suspects down to 7 individuals carrying “various European passports.”

The Times of London is also claiming that Al-Mabhouh was injected with a poison that induced cardiac arrest in his hotel room, that the assassains photographed all the documents in his briefcase, and left the room with the “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging on the door.

This murder  harkens back to the 1997 assassination attempt of Hamas Chairman Khaled Meshaal in which Israeli intelligence agents  failed to murder him in Amman, Jordan.  Avi Shlaim, in his book The Iron Wall elaborates on this attempt:

Mossad prepared a plan to kill Khalid Meshaal…by injecting a slow-acting poison into his ear as he entered his his office in Amman…Meshaal was injected bu not killed, and his bodyguard captured the two Mossad agents, who were disguised as Canadian tourists…King Hussein [of Jordan]…said that he felt as if somebody “had spat in his face.”  Great was his surprise…when he learned that Netanyahu himself had ordered the bizarre operation in Jordan’s capital.  (pg.585-586)

That assassination attempt occurred just days after Hussein and Netanyahu had met in Jordan to discuss cooperation on the issue of Islamic terrorism.  Similarly, the UAE had just  hosted an Israeli cabinet minister, an unprecedented gesture, as part of a broader conference on energy in Dubai.  The UAE generally  refuses entry to all Israelis regardless of the purpose of visit.

I do not mean for this post to be a defense of Hamas or Al-Mabhouh. Nor do I intend to scathingly indict Netanyahu.  It does seem, however, that Bibi does have a penchant for timing his intelligence activities in a very careless way or he is clearly sending a message.  What that could be and how it is constructive in building diplomatic relations in the region…I have no idea.


It appears that the Mossad or Israel may not have been involved at all, and is likely that Egypt, Jordanian GID, or Palestinian Autority Security Services were involved.

There are also conflicting reports of Al Mabhouh’s cause of death.  In today’s article, Haaretz is reporting that local authorities attribute the cause of his death to asphyxiation, most likely with a pillow, and there was evidence of electrocution behind both of his ears.

In case you weren’t sick of hearing me talk about Yemen

Well, Yemen seems to be slowly fading from the forefront of public consciousness in the past ten days or so, but nevertheless, I feel it pertinent to continue talking about some of issues related to American foreign policy and response in that particular corner of the world.

Last week, the US Senate foreign relations committee held a hearing on Yemen and heard testimony from a number of Yemen “experts.”  Among them were former US Ambassador Hull and Princeton PhD candidate Gregory Johnsen (and thank goodness for that because these two were able to squash some of the fear-mongering and inflammatory rhetoric being bounced about).   Get Johnsen’s (and anyone else’s) testimony from that hearing here.

As policymakers decide the best way to handle Yemen, bombing attacks have been suggested numerous times.  This has been a standard US response for almost half a century.  This is a tactic which gives us the sensation that we have responded appropriately to our enemies, but almost always requires follow up.  Read more on this over at the New Atlanticist.  With so many of our security forces and resources committed elsewhere, putting troops on the ground in Yemen is both infeasible but more importantly the  wrong choice.  The Yemeni government has repeatedly asked the US not to send troops and insists it can handle AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) on its own.  To be sure, American presence in any way, shape, or form will not win us friends among the Yemeni people.  Mohammed Vall at Al Jazeera reported last week on the Yemeni government’s bombing activities in the north and how these attacks have been in fact turning civilians caught in the crossfire towards AQAP rather than against it.

Its important in this country of all places, I believe, not to throw our unconditional support behind the government.  More than anything, the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh is focused on self-preservation.  The government in Sana’a is attempting to lure Western military aid and funding by portraying itself as attacked on all sides.  Its important to remember though that of the three enemies to the Yemeni government (AQAP, the Houthis, and the secessionists of the south), only one is AQAP.  The government is not distinguishing between the three and truly only seeks to exert its power over the entire territory.  At the upper echelons of government, a succession crisis is underway behind closed curtains as Saleh tries to position his son as heir to the “throne,” while other members of the ruling al-ahmar clan are vying for power as well.

So, what is the best way to respond? As I mentioned in a previous post, massive development aid is essential, but not a cure to Yemen’s problems.  We should aid Saleh in tackling AQAP by providing intelligence, but I believe providing arms or drones to Saleh’s government will only come back to haunt us.  The government could easily use those newly acquired toys against its Houthi rebels or the secessionists, and both of these are conflicts that the United States has no place in getting involved.


A Few hours after I wrote this post yesterday, the Washington Post published an article about the US intelligence agencies and JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) planning anti-AQAP raids in Yemen.  It seems the administration has taken a similar approach to the one prescribed here yesterday.  It seems that the bit to take away is this:

The operations, approved by President Obama and begun six weeks ago, involve several dozen troops from the U.S. military’s clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), whose main mission is tracking and killing suspected terrorists. The American advisers do not take part in raids in Yemen, but help plan missions, develop tactics and provide weapons and munitions. Highly sensitive intelligence is being shared with the Yemeni forces, including electronic and video surveillance, as well as three-dimensional terrain maps and detailed analysis of the al-Qaeda network.