June 19 - June 25
Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for June 18 - 25!
It’s been a busy week, so let’s get right to it:
In a surprise move Tuesday, the Pakistani Supreme Court forced the dismissal of Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani, citing the contempt of court conviction the court leveled against him earlier this year. The ruling Pakistani People’s Party nominated Makhdoom Shahabuddin as the new Prime Minister the following day, but mere hours later, the Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Shahabuddin over drug charges, blocking his nomination. The PPP responded by nominating and electing Raja Pervez Ashraf as the new Prime Minister. Mr. Raja’s election is particularly notable as he is the former minister for water and power - Pakistan earlier this week faced several days of riots due to widespread power outages and a soaring heat wave.
The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, has a long-standing grudge against the head of the PPP, President Zardari, which is the underlying reason for this spate of judicial activism. That said, Chaudhry has been aggressive, but he hasn’t had to overstep the law: Zardari has an outstanding corruption charge in Switzerland, which provided the opening for the contempt charge against Gilani, and the fact is the man they nominated to replace him already had a drug charge awaiting a warrant. The new Prime Minister is also facing allegations he took kickbacks on the construction of power plants during his tenure - a charge all the more damning given the terrible state of Pakistan’s power grid.
Zardari, the Pakistani President, came to power after his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated. Before he took office, he was known as “Mr. 10 percent” for taking kickbacks on government contracts. It’s difficult to really fault the Pakistani Supreme Court’s activism given the apparent difficulty the PPP is having finding people without pending corruption charges to proffer as Prime Minister.
The third round of nuclear talks between Iran and a group of six nations (the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China) ended in disappointment this week as the negotiators failed to even commit to another meeting, deciding instead to have “technical experts” meet to determine whether there is enough common ground for new talks.
The talks were handicapped from the outset by both a lack of trust and fundamental misunderstandings on both sides. The Iranian’s key demand is a recognition of its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, but the six powers believe the Iranian nuclear program is ultimately a weapons program. The proposal by the West was almost laughable, though: in return for stopping enrichment, shipping out their uranium, and shutting down their nuclear facility, the Iranians would get parts to repair their civilian airplanes and fuel for their nuclear reactor. There’s something to be said for starting negotiations with a lowball bid, but you do run the risk of insulting your negotiating partner if you go too low.
After an early victory announcement last week, Egypt’s election commission announced Wednesday they would need more time to review charges of fraud before announcing an official winner. After several days of escalating tensions, including large scale street protests, the commission declared Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood the President of Egypt. Morsi is Egypt’s first civilian president, though he comes into a severely weakened presidency: the Military dissolved parliament and issued an interim constitution giving itself widespread power last week.
Egyptian politics have been rather difficult to read. It’s clear there’s a large amount of back room dealing between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and this week’s delay in announcing the winner was almost certainly due to ongoing power jockeying between SCAF and the Brotherhood. SCAF has the guns and the power, but the Brotherhood can put people in the streets. The deal right now seems to be that the Brotherhood gets the Presidency, but the military keeps control of national security and foreign relations. That leaves Morsi to deal with the economy and the rest of the internal situation in Egypt - a challenge whose prospects for success don’t bode well for the Brotherhood in the next elections.
In response to airstrikes on Gaza, Hamas launched its first attack against Israel in over a year, firing more than 100 rockets into Israel over three days before acceding to Egyptian efforts to broker a cease-fire. Violence flared again on Saturday following Israeli airstrikes, though by Saturday evening, a new truce had been struc k.
(Many an analyst has run aground on the rocky shores of the Israel/Palestine conflict, so I encourage you to take my thoughts here with a larger grain of salt than usual.)
Hamas as an organization is undergoing some rather large changes. Amid evidence of some internal power struggles this year, they’ve broken ties with Iran, and until this week, they’ve managed to keep relative calm in Gaza. My suspicion is this is closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascension in Egypt. Hamas was born out of the Muslim Brotherhood, and when they announced their split from Iran, they did so in Cairo - their new patron is almost certainly the Brotherhood. If this is true, it means stability in the Gaza Strip is now tied to the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Despite hand-wringing about the rise of the Islamists in Egypt, this could wind up working rather better for Israel. Hamas’s former patron, Iran, was solely interested in causing problems for Israel. The Brotherhood, on the other hand, is both interested in peace in the region and concerned with the fate of the Palestinian people themselves. If this past year’s cease fire is indicative of the direction Hamas’s political wing would prefer to go, the Brotherhood’s ascent may wind up being the best thing to happen to the Israel-Palestine peace process in years.
On Tuesday, a Russian ship apparently transporting refurbished attack helicopters to Syria turned back mid-journey after its insurance contract was revoked by its British issuer at the behest of the British government. Two days later, a Syrian pilot became the first defector from the Syrian Air Force, flying his jet into Jordon seeking asylum. Also this week, the New York Times and the Guardian published a pair of articles shedding light on efforts to supply weapons to the Free Syrian Army: the Guardian reported on the weapons sales, including a transfer of two Shabiha prisoners from the Free Syrian Army to their Arab weapons suppliers, while the New York Times reported on the CIA’s presence in Turkey, where they are attempting to make sure the supplied weapons are not diverted to the growing extremist and Al-Qaeda aligned groups. The biggest event of the week, though, was the downing of a Turkish fighter jet by Syrian air defense. Turkey, a NATO member, has asked for a consultation with NATO to determine its response.
This is the first time I’ve seen insurance contracts used as a coercive force, though I doubt it will be the last. The defection may help explain why the Syrian government has been reluctant to involve the Air Force in putting down the uprising: the Air Force has been seen as a stalwart pro-Assad group so far, so a defection among their ranks is a sign of more widespread weakness in the regime.
The most consequential event this week by far was the downing of the Turkish fighter jet. Turkey is a member of NATO, which means that if it is under attack, it can invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter - the mutual defense clause - which would oblige the rest of NATO to help the country defend itself. Turkey has yet to do this, but the fact that it now has reason to do so dramatically changes the situation around Syria. Until now, the West has been trying to maneuver the Security Council into supporting some sort of intervention, but it has been stymied by Russia. The downed Turkish fighter now gives NATO all the justification it needs for military intervention in Syria. It’s hard to overstate how much this changes the diplomatic landscape: until now, there’s been no legitimate threat of force against Syria, and Russia has been able to veto any strong action against the country. Now that Syria has attacked a Turkish jet, there’s an opening for legitimate military action against Syria that bypasses Russia. The next round of diplomatic proposals to both Assad and the Russians will no doubt press this point home.
Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!