The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged arms
Sale of U.S. Arms Fuels the Wars of Arab States - NYT

Good report on all the possible upside of regional chaos for the U.S. arms industry:

American defense firms are following the money. Boeing opened an office in Doha, Qatar, in 2011, and Lockheed Martin set up an office there this year. Lockheed created a division in 2013 devoted solely to foreign military sales, and the company’s chief executive, Marillyn Hewson, has said that Lockheed needs to increase foreign business — with a goal of global arms sales’ becoming 25 percent to 30 percent of its revenue — in part to offset the shrinking of the Pentagon budget after the post-Sept. 11 boom.
American intelligence agencies believe that the proxy wars in the Middle East could last for years, which will make countries in the region even more eager for the F-35 fighter jet, considered to be the jewel of America’s future arsenal of weapons. The plane, the world’s most expensive weapons project, has stealth capabilities and has been marketed heavily to European and Asian allies. It has not yet been peddled to Arab allies because of concerns about preserving Israel’s military edge.
But with the balance of power in the Middle East in flux, several defense analysts said that could change. Russia is a major arms supplier to Iran, and a decision by President Vladimir V. Putin to sell an advanced air defense system to Iran could increase demand for the F-35, which is likely to have the ability to penetrate Russian-made defenses.
“This could be the precipitating event: the emerging Sunni-Shia civil war coupled with the sale of advanced Russian air defense systems to Iran,” Mr. Aboulafia said. “If anything is going to result in F-35 clearance to the gulf states, this is the combination of events.”

Remember, this is what Obama recently made quite clear about his Middle East policy: it's about selling more weapons

Syria’s chemical weapons: The other red line
Mr Obama’s other red line—the passing of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) into the hands of jihadist terrorists—is, according to intelligence sources, in real and possibly imminent danger of being breached. According to these sources, the past few weeks has seen a flurry of nervous activity that could result in intervention of some kind but which is also giving new urgency to diplomatic efforts to end the conflict.

 

A day at the gun market

Nour the intrepid intern writes in:

Lately, I have been taking a lot of taxis. Naturally, that means hearing unsolicited political opinions, life lessons, and impromptu stories about women who match my exact physical description and share my sense of style (and, sometimes, my name) getting mugged, raped or murdered, in the hope of scaring me into begging them to my full-time driver and shield of protection. 

Last week, one managed to convince me. Instead of suggesting I promptly take his phone number and call him whenever I need to venture out into the jungle that is Cairo, Reda, my new driver, casually offered me a shotgun for a reasonable LE600.

Being the picky shopper that I am, I refused to simply buy the first gun I hear of and asked for options. Obligingly, Reda decided to call a guy, who knows a guy, to get me a beginner's collection. "Something small for a small lady," he told him.

I had two options, Reda told me: *Fard Kartoush* (a birdshot gun) for LE700, plus an additional LE70 for 10 bullets, or a 9mm for LE2000 (the gun is actually worth LE15,000, but since it stolen from a police department during the revolution, Awad, Reda's friend and dealer, is not too keen on keeping it) or settle for the lowly sound-gun-turned-real-gun for LE1000. 

The latter is known for breaking itself after the third shot, because its transformation into a killing machine was conducted by a underemployed carpenter, looking to make a quick LE200 by changing the gun's barrel.

My second option was to go to Suk al-Salaah (the weapons market), which is part of Suk al-Imam al-Shafa'i in Sayeda Ayesha.

I was given simple directions: "Go to the stolen bedrooms market and ask them to point you to the weapons market."

Realizing that I don't know where the stolen bedrooms market (which, as the name suggests, is a market where stolen bedrooms are sold for prices so low, they are technically being stolen all over again — although some of the beds and dressers were just the natural result of divorce), so I asked Reda to tag along with me, partly out of self-preservation. 

Since it was a Tuesday, and the market is officially held on Fridays, not many people were there, quite unlike Fridays, when the market is so full of people no car, no matter how small, can get in. 

There was a group of idle shoppers chatting rather than discussing prices with dealers selling all kinds of things from old Nokia phones to curtains. There was an argument about an overpriced *matwa mafaragha*, a Swiss knife whose blade is serated and pointy, literally giving it an edge over  all other *matwas*. The young man, who didn't want to pay LE20 for it, was quickly pulled back by another buyer.

Reda said that the oddly peaceful end of the heated argument was very normal in the market, where quarrels are uncommon.

"Both the buyer and the seller come here knowing it's against the law, no point in hassling over prices and making a fuss," Reda explained. "Not that we are scared of the police, they know where we are and what we do, and they do nothing... the point is everyone here is armed (or in the process of getting armed), if someone is provoked enough to shoot; everyone will start shooting," he continued.

However, the buyers are not just shady young men; they are shop owners, worried fathers, car owners, etc. Just people who have lost all faith in law enforcement and don't want to be the defenseless victims of thugs, particularly now that weapons are readily available courtesy of Libyan and Sinai smugglers, and more importantly, the famous January 28 2011 police station raids.

Ironically enough, many of those much-feared thugs also shop in Suk al-Salaah too. So the future victim and criminal rub shoulders while calmly arming themselves against each other.

"Is your girl buying or not?" an exasperated Awad asked Reda, purposefully ignoring my presence and interrupting our conversation. "I am not his girl," I corrected him. Awad already knew that, but was presumably trying to get to buy something, anything.

Having had no real intentions of buying weapons, I simply pretended to be unimpressed by all of them. At one point, I half-jokingly complained about the lack of color variety.

I felt somewhat safe in doing so, because both my gender and looking the way I do (i.e. not looking poor), gave the few people I spoke to, the impression that I am easily fooled bag of money that would cough up double the desired amount. So long as I paid Reda his promised LE200 for his time and implied that I was going to be back later to buy; I was safe.

Meanwhile, the gun market for the upper class is booming too. The only difference is that the gun you would get for LE3000 in Suk al-Salaah is sold for continously-increasing prices, which can easily reach up to LE20,000, in an air-conditioned store in Heliopolis or in the vaulted corner of a fancy gas station, like the one in the beginning of the Ismailia road. Also, they have color variety.

Other than getting a chic shade of gold, the only advantage to buying these guns is that one would be forced to first get a license. However, Reda argues, that the ubiquity of weapons and indifference/incompetence of the police force makes getting a license, which is a hassle in and of itself that drives many to Suk al-Salaah, is hardly a necessity, yet alone an advantage.

While knowledge of the growing illegal, and legal, markets of weapons is as common as the weapons themselves, the market continues to fly under the radar of both the police and the media.

That being said, here is one of the few reports about illegal weapons. It's an interview with a smuggler and a weapons dealer, who is preparing for his Masters in International Law, and sometimes buys weapons by entering the name of the gun he wants into Google to look for someone who has it. Once found, he would add that person on Facebook to discuss the details of their transactions (those who send late replies or ask for too money are mercilessly poked to deactivation, I imagine). He likes to have a three-year-old kid fire the guns.

Do arms transfers represent breakthrough for Syrian rebels?

FSA fighters being instructed in the use of the ex-Yugoslav M79 anti-tank rocket launcher (YouTube)

The New York Times reported last week that “Saudi Arabia has financed a large purchase of infantry weapons from Croatia and quietly funneled them to antigovernment fighters in Syria.” The effort was reportedly known to the US, but nothing was said for or against it so that it might proceed under the radar of a European Union arms embargo on Syria.

Palettes of former Yugoslavian weapons are not game-changers in and of themselves, and the way they’ve been secured by the rebels shows that the US still refuses to place its bets on any specific group. That said, the arrival of planeloads worth of small arms is significant in that it demonstrates a greater investment in the rebels by their foreign backers. According to the Australian small arms expert Nic Jenzen-Jones, it is the quantity of the weapons that is the most significant development for the rebels: “a lot of people are discussing, ‘is x system effective against y armoured vehicle?’. What’s more important in this conflict is that we’ve seen an initial dearth of weapons and only recently have we seen supplies of anti-armour weapons significantly increase.” 

“It’s a long term thing, but I’m sure we’ll see the situation in Daraa look very similar to that in Aleppo in the coming months,” the Times’ Eliot Higgins told me, as Aleppo and other parts of northern Syria are falling under rebel control due to the capture of multiple Syrian military bases in the region. According to Higgins, the new weapons have given the rebels an "extra edge that has allowed them to start attacking checkpoints and bases, resulting in the capture of heavier equipment” from the Syrian Army.

Jenzen-Jones explained that three types of Eastern bloc anti-tank weapons – the M79 “Osa,” the M60 recoilless gun and the RPG–22 – now in use in Syria are “suitable for the type of hit-and-run urban warfare the rebels are conducting.” Suitable, but not “game-changing.”

Indeed, the conspicuous absence of a certain type of handheld weapon suggests that the supply effort is not quite an all-out effort on behalf of the rebels by foreign benefactors. “If we see [anti-air missile systems] being provided, I think that would suggest a shift in thinking in Washington,” Higgins explained, noting that rebels still mainly rely on captured Syrian Army stockpiles and a handful of heat-seeking Chinese-made missiles of unknown origin.

The rebels’ lack of air defenses in the face of aerial bombardment is partly why they have risked their columns to besiege Syrian military bases: capturing the airfields around Aleppo and in Idlib Province have reduced the scale of air attacks on targets in these places. Even if those jets and attack helicopters were grounded, however, the rebels would still lack the heavy weapons to exploit the situation.

The area where these weapons have been observed most is known as Daraa province, along the Jordanian border, and the weapons may help the rebels there carve out an enclave under their control. But where do the rebels go from Daraa, whose capital city they have already lost once before? That is less clear, because the flow of the Croatian pipeline is not and has never been a sure thing for the rebels.

A parallel with this situation can be drawn from the NATO and UN intelligence failures going into the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre in Bosnia. The international mission was divided against itself, with Western allies keeping secrets from one another, and of middlemen pocketing some of the spoils meant for the war effort. Small arms were shipped in en masse by international Islamic charities and the governments of several Middle Eastern countries with the official knowledge, (if not always actual complicity), of the US and several of its allies: Jordan, Turkey, Germany and the UK.

Indeed, the US embassy in Croatia was hit by backbiting over these arms transfers in the 1990s, with the CIA station chief and ambassador there falling out over the CIA man’s suspicious the State Department was keeping quiet about other nations’ (Iran) arms transfers in Bosnia because of an “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” rationale. 
Or rather, nothing was said for or against it because it armed a group the West wanted to see armed but didn’t want to associate with. Through Jordan, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, that seems to be the policy of the US, France and the UK.

So far, no amount of pro-opposition lobbying in these three nations has led to them granting the rebels substantial armed assistance, though trainings programs for Free Syrian Army soldiers and anti-Assad propagandists are reportedly ongoing in both Jordan and Turkey under US direction.

When the US moved to reorganize the Syrian National Council as the “Syrian National Coalition,” it was thought that Washington was signaling greater investment in Syrian opposition forces. Despite rumors that the White House will receive leaders of both the FSA and Syrian National Coalition, no one has demonstrated direct arming of the rebels … though Secretary of State John Kerry has revealed that the White House is far more “involved” with overseeing the Gulf states’ arms deliveries than previously admitted. 

Though the decision to increase “non-lethal” to US$60 million and to supply it directly to the FSA is being marked as a decisive change in policy, it will be at least three months before the arms embargo imposed on Syria by the EU is up for renegotiation, with the UK in the lead to have it relaxed. If there is one military benefit from it for the rebels, it is that now they are freed up to spend more on weapons with their consumables and medical kits being better taken care of.

According to Syria Comment’s Joshua Landis, one of the main reasons the US government continues to demonstrate great reticence in openly backing any rebel force diplomatically, let alone militarily is because “the sort of received wisdom in Washington today is that Syria is going to become Somalia because all of these groups are going to end up in an extended civil conflict once they get through Assad.” Landis explains that “the main groups from the Islamic front [rivals to the FSA, and likely the preferential recipients of aid from the Gulf states] are trying to find [more] common ground, and these Salafists are willing to push aside Jahbat al-Nusra” despite a burst of initial support for it when it was designated a terrorist organization by the US. The foreign fighters’ haughty disdain for their Syrian brothers-in-arms, it appears, are playing a large part in the increasingly negative response to their presence in Syria.

The Beltway calculus is, he says, that “to pick an effective winner in Syria, you need to be able to pick an Islamist” and the White House does not think it can sell anyone in Syria that way to justify a more direct role. Meanwhile, rebel supporters lampoon the US’s hesitancy, and representatives of the Free Syrian Army openly blame the Obama Administration for holding back Saudi arms transfers to them. At the same time, the FSA leader Salim Idris, “who is supposed to be heading all of these things,” says Landis, "denies that [arms transfers] are happening.”

“I don’t think he’s being sincere, but clearly, he’s trying to make a point that this is a drop in the bucket,“ Landis added, noting that making that point was probably the driving reason for Idris’s remarks, rather than an effort to distance the FSA from the Saudis. C.J. Chivers, the lead author of the Times report, has speculated on his blog that “[t]hese newly arrived weapons in Syria may well have been intended for nationalist and secular fighters,” ones favored by FSA top “commanders” who have very limited authority within Syria. That, believes Chivers, is how the operation might have been sold to US policymakers.

The Guardian’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad has written that foreign efforts to influence the course the FSA’s “officers” would take as the “armed opposition” began to come apart early on due to rivalries and the strength of Assad’s military: these failures to hold group in major cities such as Homs and Hama highlighted their limited popularity and poor supply situation. Jenzen-Jones notes that one of the biggest problems (and future challenges) for the rebels has been of ammunition supply and standardization: "you’ve got a lot of different calibers, and then within that you’ve got a lot of different types of ammunition, and you want to make sure the right ammunition is available so that you’re able to employ this range of weapons most effectively.”

The Salafist Ahrar al-Sham militia and the FSA’s “Farouq Brigades” were both named by Higgins as beneficiaries of the Croatian pipeline and seem well-placed to use and distribute the ex-Yugoslavian weapons to other groups.

While they can and do work together, the fact is that they belong to different militia alliances – al-Sham is part of an Islamist coalition and works with the extremist al-Nusra Front. They have been rivals for recruits and materiel because: “the fighters arm themselves and fund themselves as individuals or small groups,” Nir Rosen observed after several months inside Syria last year. While this is changing due to the influx of new weapons, and some groups do seem more interested in forming a centralized fighting front, there is a catch. With the Islamists the preferential choice of Saudi patrons, they may be in a stronger position to spread their influence in the FSA: as one of Higgins’ colleagues has remarked that ”if they’re making ideological conditioning [a prerequisite] for weapons training, would help explain growth of Salafists" – albeit those still loosely affiliated with the FSA.

Cordesman: Give Syrian rebels weapons with off switch

A Technological Fix for Safely Arming Syria's Rebels

Strategic studies wonk Anthony Cordesman advocates giving Syrian rebels advanced weaponry that is time-limited or can be remotely shut off to prevent it falling into the wrong hands. It's a Dr. Strangelove of insurgency moment:

At the same time, the risks of transferred weapons falling into the wrong hands are clear. Iraq, Afghanistan, and the evolving patterns of modern terrorism have shown all too clearly the risks that such weapons could pose in the hands of extremist groups-as has the U.S. inability to control the leakage of Stingers to Iran and outside Afghanistan. The leakage of such weapons to extremist groups in Libya and outside it is a major ongoing threat.

Another clear risk is that extremist networks centered around al Qaeda or the Iranian Al Quds Force could rapidly transfer such weapons far outside the region in which they were originally supposed to be used: allied territory or that of the United States. The risks that such weapons could be turned on the United States and its allies are critical, and we and our allies are far less willing to bear the political costs or casualties of "incidents" than extremists and dictators if things go wrong.

There do, however, seem to be technological solutions that could largely reduce the risk of transferring such equalizers. As pocket cameras with a global positioning system (GPS) show, a small chip can be inserted into these weapons that could continuously read their location once activated. If such a chip was tied to a device that disabled the weapon if it moved to the wrong area, it would greatly reduce the risk of its falling into the wrong hands.

Advanced encryption chips can be equally small and cheap and could perform a number of additional functions. They could have a time clock to disable the weapon at a given time, with the option of extending the life if a suitable code was entered. Activation codes could be built in so the weapon was never active without a code restricted to moderate elements and timed so that such elements had to keep entering a different code over time.

The equivalent of an identification friend or foe (IFF) capability could be built into that disabled the weapon in the presence of U.S. and allied forces or civil aircraft. A similar enabling code could be tied to the presence of a U.S. or allied adviser or covert partner.

Given today's solid-state technology, all of these functions could be built into an MANPAD or ATGM. A rocket or mortar might be somewhat more difficult to modify, but building in such capabilities seems possible. The same seems true of remote triggering devices that can be used in bombs or the equivalent of IEDs or in providing antiarmor capabilities like explosively formed penetrators.

I'm not sure how you make these tamper-proof, or produce them fast enough to be useful, or what it means about the future of  warfare by proxy. Imagine weapons with a GPS tracker: you could arm the rebels, no matter how nasty they are, and then track and kill them once they are no longer useful. So not happy with the current government of South Sudan, for instance? Just arm the Lord's Resistance Army with these and let them at it until you change your mind. Handy to see Bashar al-Assad go because it hurts Iran? Give al-Qaeda fighters MANPADs (which are not a hygiene product for men) that can be turned off when they're done wrecking the kind of havoc you don't have too much of a problem with. If they don't sell them to an unknowing PKK fighter who wants to use them in Turkey first! It'll be turned off eventually, right? 

In his last paragraph, Cordesman writes:

One thing is clear. The United States should not remain trapped in the dilemmas it faces in Syria or remain forced into the kind of hollow posturing both U.S. presidential candidates now bring to dealing with this issue. We need practical answers for both the military and political dimensions of what promises to be a decade of "expeditionary diplomacy," and these are tools that would be cheap and often help do the job.

 Why does it have to be a decade of "expeditionary diplomacy" at all? If the lesson of the last decade of interventionism is that it's better to develop technologies that allow us more control over the mercenaries, proxy groups and occasional loonies we get to do the job, we are in trouble.

U.S. triples arms sales, mostly to GCC

U.S. Foreign Arms Sales Are Most of Global Market

Thom Shanker in NYT:

Overseas weapons sales by the United States totaled $66.3 billion last year, or more than three-quarters of the global arms market, valued at $85.3 billion in 2011. Russia was a distant second, with $4.8 billion in deals.

The American weapons sales total was an “extraordinary increase” over the $21.4 billion in deals for 2010, the study found, and was the largest single-year sales total in the history of United States arms exports. The previous high was in fiscal year 2009, when American weapons sales overseas totaled nearly $31 billion.

A worldwide economic decline had suppressed arms sales over recent years. But increasing tensions with Iran drove a set of Persian Gulf nations — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman — to purchase American weapons at record levels.

These Gulf states do not share a border with Iran, and their arms purchases focused on expensive warplanes and complex missile defense systems.

Tripling of arms sales in 2011, with a good half of them going to the GCC. Under the administration of a president who received a Nobel peace prize partly in expectation of future work towards peace.

Swift boat to Bahrain

If it looks like an arms deal, walks like an arms deal and quacks like an arms deals, is it an arms deal? The State Department says no:

“Today, officials from the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs and State’s Legislative Affairs office briefed select congressional offices about their decision to transfer seven rigid-hull inflatable boats and 12 32-foot Boston Whaler boats from the U.S. Navy in Bahrain to the Bahrain government. Offices briefed ahead of the Friday formal notification included aides to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the offices of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-WY) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), two lawmakers who have been leading the congressional opposition to continued U.S. arms sales to Bahrain.”

“This isn’t a new package or policy decision. This is part of what was briefed to Congress in January. We are still maintaining a pause on most security cooperation for Bahrain pending further progress on reform,” a State Department official told The Cable today. “The transfer of these boats are necessary to protect U.S. naval personnel and assets based in Bahrain. None of these items can be used against protestors. The transfer does not include any arms and the boats are intended for patrol missions, which is critical for ensuring a robust and layered defense of Bahrain’s coast and for enhancing Bahrain’s ability to counter maritime threats to U.S. and coalition vessels.”

The real story out of Bahrain these days, though, is not the gift of some old PT boats, but with the vagaries of the dialogue going on between the pro-government camp and the predominantly Shia opposition groups, increasingly splitting between the leading pro-dialogue al-Wifaq group and younger demonstrators opposed to al-Wifaq’s stance.

According to Justin Gengler, the pro-government camp is starting to list some “reformist” demands of its own:

Once again, then, we hear two separate arguments from members of Bahrain’s Sunni political movements: (1) the state should not negotiate with terrorists; and (2) the state needs to take better care of those who are loyal to it, specifically by clamping down on corruption and other wastes of state resources. As I’ve written previously, whereas the first argument is sure to further complicate the search for a solution to Bahrain’s present political impasse, the second is much more worrisome to the country’s rulers. It implies that Sunnis are beginning to connect the state’s percieved leniency with the opposition with its larger (perceived) neglect of the pro-government faction generally.

In other words, they’re asking the Al Khalifas where are their welfare checks?

Gengler continues:

“It is one thing, in other words, for Sunnis to disagree with the government’s approach in dealing with the opposition; it is another if they begin to suspect that this approach is not simply short-sighted but actually belies a coherent government strategy of checking Sunni ambitions through its dealings with the opposition. Put more bluntly, some Sunnis are beginning to feel duped.”

“Notably, one increasingly-prominent feature of this Sunni movement toward greater political participation and influence is the notion that behind the Bahraini government’s manipulation of citizens is a second, even more sinister puppet-master: the United States.”

Given that the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, and the tepid response of the State Department to the Bahraini protests, this suspicion is already well-founded among the demonstrators, but apparently, it is taking a very nasty turn among Sunni critics of the government thanks to the arrival of some very questionable, anti-American firebrands from Kuwait in their forums.

So there is, according to anonymous Congressional staff, another rationale for this PT boat deal: “‘state is trying to show appreciation for them changing but every time there is a step forward there is also one step backward,’ said a senior Senate aide close to the issue.”

And considering that this aide then snarked that the State Department was essentially saying “Have a nice day, thank you for your interest in Bahrain. It’s just boats so it’s no big deal,” I think it’s likely that said aide hails from an office in the Congressional bloc led by Wyden and McGovern that is holding up a much larger US$53 million arms deal. As for the one step forward, one step backward situation, the aide could be referring to the announcement that the controversial U.S. and UK ex-police chiefs the royal family has brought in are setting up an accountability office for Bahrain police force as questionable trials and protestor-police clashes continue.


PS: Gulf watchers Sultan al-Qassemi and Justin Gengler have both reported on rumors about the KSA and Bahrain forming some sort of political union (the United Arab Autocracy?). Outlandish, yes, but it’s not like there wouldn’t be a precedent: after a popular uprising in Poland in 1848, the “Year of Revolutions,” was put down by the Prussian Army, Berlin formally annexed the region where the revolt took place. Perhaps the deployment of the Peninsula Shield Force has given Riyadh similar ideas. As professor Toby Jones told the AP, “Bahrain can be looked at as something of a Saudi colony now in the sense that policies are merged.” Might as well make it official.

Tuaregs, climate and guns in the Sahel

Strife in the Sahel: A perfect desert storm | The Economist:

"Low precipitation may seem normal near the Sahara. In fact, much of the Sahel normally gets enough rain to allow modest farming. But a rise in water temperatures in the nearby Gulf of Guinea has shifted the flow of rain clouds southwards, meteorologists say. Livestock have died in droves. Long-term overgrazing and fast population growth have made the problem worse.

Oxfam, an aid agency, warns of a humanitarian disaster, with more than 1m children facing severe malnutrition. Villagers in Chad already dig up ant hills to gather grain the ants have stored. But the worst-affected place is now Niger, a landlocked country of 15m people which, even in normal times, accounts for a sixth of global child deaths from malnutrition. Save the Children, another aid agency, says that the situation in Niger has worsened since September, when a lack of rain led to crop failures of up to 80%.

Misery has made the Sahel’s thousands of unemployed an easy target for recruiters from extremist groups. Their main base lies across Niger’s badly patrolled border with Algeria, where the Sahel becomes outright desert. A two-decade-old Islamist insurgency there has adopted the mantle of global jihad and renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Having failed to dislodge the military regime along Algeria’s densely populated Mediterranean coast, these extremists are increasingly focused on the sandy hinterland.

In January they kidnapped a provincial governor near Niger’s border with Libya. They also hold at least 18 Europeans hostage. Several of these are in the custody of a new splinter group that announced itself in December. The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa is led by black Africans, rather than the Arabs who typically dominate jihadi circles. To set themselves apart they strive to be even more radical. Modern weapons flow to them from Libya. After the collapse of its government last summer, some former rebels have been selling off the contents of looted armouries."

Great rare piece on the complex range of factors that are making the Sahel more explosive than ever. If course the spread of weapons from Libya was something many warned about before the civil war there. But impact of climate change may be more serious in the long run.

The military-industrial complex, Bahrain edition

Lockheed Martin goes to bat for oppressive regime — by Justin Elliott in Salon:

A top executive at Lockheed Martin recently worked with lobbyists for Bahrain to place an Op-Ed defending the nation’s embattled regime in the Washington Times — but the newspaper did not reveal the role of the regime’s lobbyists to its readers. Hence they did not know that the pro-Bahrain opinion column they were reading was published at the behest of … Bahrain, an oil-rich kingdom of 1.2 million people that has been rocked by popular protests since early 2011.

. . .

On Nov. 30, the Washington Times published an Op-Ed under the headline “Bahrain, a vital U.S. ally: Backing protesters would betray a friend and harm American security.” It was written by Vice Adm. Charles Moore (retired). Moore was formerly commander of the Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet. From 1998 to 2002, Moore notes in his Op-Ed, he “had the opportunity to develop a personal relationship with His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s leader, as well as many senior officials in his government.” Moore passed through the revolving door and is now regional president for Lockheed Martin for the Middle East and Africa.

Of course the Washington Times did not reveal Lockheed's interest in Bahrain, or that Bahrain lobby firm Sanitas coordinated the op-ed with Lockheed.

The Return to "Normalcy" in the Gulf

The U.S. is not so much ignoring the Arab Spring (since it cannot be ignored), but viewing it in the larger context — i.e., our Cold-Hot War with the Islamic Republic of Iran from 1979 to the present. As one U.S. official told the WSJ when asked how arms sales to the U.S.'s Arab allies were being impacted by domestic unrest, the response was "We in the military are poised to get back to normalcy," i.e., arms sales that send a clear message to Iran (ironically, when Warren G. Harding first used that word in 1920, it was followed up by a major reduction of the U.S. armed forces' strength). 

From Reuters:

"The Pentagon is considering a significant sale of [4,900] Joint Direct Attack Munitions [JDAMs] made by Boeing Co, adding to other recent arms deals with the UAE. These include the sale of 500 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles about which U.S. lawmakers were notified in September."

"The sale of Boeing-built "bunker-buster" bombs and other munitions to UAE, a key Gulf ally, is part of an ongoing U.S. effort to build a regional coalition to counter Iran."

The JDAMs are compatible with the UAE's strike aircraft, specifically the U.S.-made F-16s that comprise a large part (3 squadrons, around 80 aircraft) of the UAE's airforce, which sit astride Persian Gulf waters facing Iran. The U.S. airforce maintains a small logistics base in the UAE. 

The UAE, according to The National and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, was the world's "fourth-largest arms buyer" in 2009, ranking ahead of Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, particurally in purchases of fighter aircraft. The U.S. is the UAE's main source of arms purchases, followed by France.

While neoconservatives are increasingly blasting the Obama Administration for "green lighting" Iranian ambitions by appearing weak and indecisive, the U.S. has expanded arms sales to its Gulf allies since 2008. In 2010, a US$60 billion arms sale with Saudi Arabia went through, the largest single arms sale in U.S. history to a single country. The only stalled measure in this arena is that a US$53 million arms deal with Bahrain announced in October is now being held up pending a human rights commission's report (expected to come out on November 23). The suspension is the result of U.S. embarrassment over the fact that weapons from an earlier US$200 million arms sale might have been used against demonstrators.

In addition to these arms sales, preexisting and forthcoming contracts with the UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia will see more missile defense systems heading to these states. Once the withdrawal from Iraq is completed, the U.S. will retains its important Fifth Fleet naval base in Bahrain, the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar (which the UK also uses), the Indian Ocean Diego Garcia facility, and approxmiately 40,000 soldiers spread throughout GCC states. A planned "CIA drone base" aimed at the Horn of Africa and Yemen, but likely capable of participating in an action against Iran, is reported to be under construction somewhere in the region. 

It's no NATO, but it's got teeth. Whether it bites or not is another story.

 

PostsPaul MutterUS, arms, uae
Sufis vs. Salafists

Love the last line in this story on the emerging feud between Salafists and Sufis in Egypt after a bunch of Salafist neanderthals burned several shrines revered by Sufis (Salafists hate any version of Islam that incorporates mysticism and esoteric beliefs): 

Sufi sheikh warns of sectarian war with Salafis | Al-Masry Al-Youm:

A leading figure from the Azeemia Sufi order has warned of a sectarian war between Sufis and Salafis over the destruction of several shrines connected with revered religious figures.

Sheikh Mohamed Alaa Abul Azayem labeled as “thugs” Salafis who carried out the attacks, and accused them of trying to erase important symbols of Islamic Egypt.

On Tuesday, the Azeemia order held a symposium in which it announced its intention of forming a political party named the Egyptian Liberation Party, which aims to protect Sufis in the event that either the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafis come to power.

Abul Azayem also said he had proposed a meeting with Salafis at Al-Azhar in 2006, but they rejected the proposed venue, and even refused to hold a meeting on their own premises.

However, on Monday, Sufi leaders finally managed to meet with their Salafi counterparts in Alexandria, where Salafis denied responsibility for the demolition of shrines.

For his part, Al-Azhar University Professor Ahmed al-Sayeh said he had asked his relatives in Upper Egypt to send him a machine gun with which to kill those who have demolished shrines.

Bring it on!

Why do the Saudis need so many helicopters anyway?

From the news that the Bush-era deal for the sale of $60bn of weapons to Saudi Arabia:

The arms package includes 84 new F-15 fighter jets and upgrades to 70 more F-15s that the Saudis already have, as well as three types of helicopters: 70 Apaches, 72 Black Hawks and 36 Little Birds. Saudi Arabia would also get versions of a satellite-guided "smart bomb" system, plus anti-ship and anti-radar missiles.

What will they use all of these helicopters for? Future incursions into Yemen? Riot control in Dhahran province? Counter-terrorism in the Empty Quarter? Helicopters, unlike F-15s, are not really for engaging another state (like Iran) in the case of a major regional conflict.

In any case, the US Government Accountability Office thinks the deal has not been justified by the Pentagon and State, notes Matthew Reed at the Mezze:

Just recently a GAO report reached some very disconcerting conclusions about the recent influx of arms sales to the Middle East, particularly the Persian Gulf. As the report stated, ”[The] State [Department] and DOD [Department of Defense] did not consistently document how arms transfers to Gulf countries advanced U.S. foreign policy and national security goals for GAO selected cases.” According to the GAO, US policy in the Gulf is fuzzy and weapons won’t necessarily make it any clearer. One can presume what US policy might be but neither the Bush or Obama administrations have felt compelled to articulate it. Real goals, approved means, and ultimate ends are absent by the GAO’s measure.

The report’s conclusions are surprising because the US has historically prioritized the Gulf more so than many other regions. US presidents have appropriated exceptional—even existential—value to the Persian Gulf because of its prized oil reserves: Eisenhower viewed it as a communist-capitalist chessboard; Carter claimed it was a strategic asset the US wouldn’t let foreigners threaten; and Reagan reserved the right to intervene if local enemies challenged the status quo. Apparently Bush and Obama—whose presidencies were/are consumed by Gulf concerns such as Iran’s nuclear program—never armed governments agencies with a policy that could rationalize massive arms sales. The paradox is obvious: the US certainly has a de facto Persian Gulf policy dedicated to curbing Iranian influence. But, by the GAO’s account, this very real policy remains intangible in Foggy Bottom and Arlington.

I'd be interested to hear what the new threat estimations to Saudi Arabia are — and would argue they are more likely to be about internal dissent and Saudi power projection into Yemen (as during the Huthi uprising) — than about a Saudi-Iran face-off. And, of course, it may be about the bottom line for Boeing and Raytheon more than any of that.

Submit to Mubarak
Once a military man, always a military man.
At a meeting of parliament's national security committee on Wednesday, committee head Mohamed Abdel Fattah Omar urged the Egyptian public to "entirely submit" to the will of President Hosni Mubarak.
"Even if Mubarak chooses dictatorship, we still must obey, since he would act as a benevolent dictator," said Omar.
Omar's comments came as the committee was discussing a draft law on the extension of Law 49 of 1997, which grants the president the right to take unilateral decisions in military issues pertaining to armaments without having to seek parliamentary approval.
Omar's remark came in response to objections to the law raised by Muslim Brotherhood MPs Sabri Amer and Essam Mokhtar. The two MPs also objected to the law on the basis that the president's term was slated to end next year.
Defense Ministry adviser Mamdouh Shahin, for his part, defended the move, noting that "current international and regional threats warrant the extension of the law."
The committee ultimately endorsed the bill, which it will submit to the People's Assembly next week for approval.
There have been some pretty sycophantic paeans to Hosni Mubarak in the past, but never has anything like this been said so explicitly. And this from the man who a few weeks ago was suggesting that Minister of Finance Youssef Boutros-Ghali would be assassinated. We're in Saddam Hussein territory here. I also wonder if M. Omar (or I should say, police general Omar) is inspired by certain Sunni theologians, notably those of the Malekite school, who believe the umma should always submit to the sultan.
In any case, this story does shed light on a little-discussed provision of Egyptian law that has important electoral ramifications and partly explains the regime's panic during the parliamentary elections of 2005. Throughout his reign, Mubarak has been granted by parliament the right to conclude military armaments deals (import and export) without consultation — essentially a fast-track process to carry out these deals. Normally, the deals would have to be reviewed and approved by parliament. But, as long as there was a two-thirds majority in favor, parliament could always give the president the fast track — and it always has.
When the Muslim Brothers looked like they would get up to 120 seats in parliament in 2005, that two-thirds majority was threatened (two-thirds of parliament amounts to about 150 seats). So after the first round the security services began to crackdown and made the sure the Brothers would not get anywhere near that number.
This bill, if I understand it correctly, is either another iteration of the fast track or an actual amendment to the law to permanently enshrine the president's fast track privilege over arms deals — one that provides zero transparency over arms purchases, who gets commissions, and other fascinating aspects of the Egyptian military-industrial complex, its clients, and its major arms suppliers. It is as if Mubarak wanted to make he sure he left that legacy to his successor...
Links for Dec.24.09
LRB · Adam Shatz · Wanting to Be Something Else | Adam Shatz on Orhan Pamuk.
UN gives mud brick huts to Gaza war homeless | I'm not sure Hassan Fathi-style mud brick homes will work in Gaza - doesn't it rain a lot there? This story also does not say whether they are building with mud bricks because the blockade makes other materials unavailable.
Renewed Lebanese drug trade hikes Mideast tensions - Yahoo! News | Return of cannabis and poppy cultivation in the Bekaa (but had it really ever gone away?)
الآراء من الغرب Views from the Occident: 'Ashura Artwork: Part I | Graphic posters from Shia martyrology.
BBC News - Lockheed secures $842m Morocco contract | For a bunch of F-16s.
FT.com / UK - Moussavi sacked as pressure mounts for a trial | Challenger to Ahmedinejad targeted.
Cameron under pressure to explain £100,000 funding linked to Lebanese former arms dealer | Politics | guardian.co.uk | Those European politicians sure love Arab money.

Links for 12.04.09 to 12.07.09
ElBaradei on Zakaria's GPS - CNN | Check in at around 30:50 for his take on Egypt's current situation.
Egypt to re-evaluate subsidies for the poor - The National Newspaper | The debate over subsidies reform in Egypt.
Start the Week: 30/11/2009 | Andrew Marr interviews Eugene Rogan, author of "The Arabs". Also interviews on terrorism, etc.
Cyber Jihadis' LOTR obsession | Super funny post on the use of Lord of the Rings in jihadi propaganda
The Associated Press: Veil's spread fans Egypt's fear of hard-line Islam | I don't like this idea of the government backing a "moderate Islam" vs. some hardcore Islam. The government is as Islamist as anyone else.
AFP: Egypt detains 10 senior Muslim Brotherhood members | 227 Brothers behind bars so far.
Egypt to demand the Rosetta Stone from British Museum - Times Online | Fight to get antiquities back continues.
Why U.S. Mideast Policy is (Still) Screwed Up | Stephen M. Walt | "Every appointee to the American government must endure a thorough background check by the American Jewish community."
Arms smuggling heightens fears Iran may be building arsenal | US-backed UAE crackdown on arms smuggling to Iran. Interesting story, who leaked it and why?
Congress.org - News : Rising military suicides | "More U.S. military personnel have taken their own lives so far in 2009 than have been killed in either the Afghanistan or Iraq wars this year."
The Generals' Revolt : Rolling Stone | Are the generals pushing Obama on AfPak because of Petraeus' presidential ambitions?
Egypt’s opposition misled by fixation with Mubarak’s son - The National Newspaper | Amr Hamzawy,
FT.com / UK - Muslim Brotherhood rifts widen | Habib lays out the divide for the FT.
Reset - Dialogues on Civilizations | Life | Interview with Joseph Massad on his ridiculous thesis of the "invention" of homosexuality ion the Arab world by the West and the "Gay International."
Iran whistleblower died from drug-laced salad - Yahoo! News | Nasty.