#Cartoon - #Yemen wants Ali Abdullah Saleh OUT!  on Twitpic

Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh has decided to leave power and hand over the reins of  government to a transitional government  in exchange for immunity from persecution. It seems that Saleh is now, finally , on his way out . What implications this holds for Yemen ? More mayhem perhaps.

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Yemen has long been on the brink of being a failed state . It is an impoverished state which imports most of its food from outside. Its suffers from high population growth and a large unemployed youth population . The sources of revenue for the government are dwindling, with oil reserves running out . Yemen could also be the first state in the world to run out of water. Tribal divisions run deep. Add to that prevalence of widespread Khat intoxication , and you have the prefect socio-economic nightmare .

The problems of Yemen don’t end here. The  country has a large population of Zaidi Shias . These have long been engaged in a bitter conflict with Saleh government . The government has long tried to supress their rebellion , with direct Saudi and covert American help, with little effect.

Al-Qaeda has also been active in Yemen and have frequently attacked government forces. The recent parcel bomb attacks on board FedEx and UPS have originated in Yemen .Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula has publicly identified Yemen as the base for their operations in Saudi Arabia.

Then there is the movement for South Yemen , which aims to create a separate State of South Yemen . This movement, centred in Aden , perceives itself to be exploited and marginalised by the northerners and aims to set it right by creating a separate state of South Yemen.`

This country in short is an almost impossible place to govern. The fact that Saleh was able to hang in for 32 years, is a testimony to the amazing political skills the man possessed. He used every trick in the book to keep these political demons under the lid .Saleh has described his 33-year rule and his power plays with the leaders of the country’s many tribes, as a "dance on snake heads."   But now he is gone and there seem to be nobody on the  Yemeni political scene with the skill and the wherewithal to keep these snakes in check.

The current opposition is held together by a common hatred of the regime and is very likely to disintegrate post Saleh. The various competing interests of the Southerners, the Islamists, the Houthis are likely to ensure a weak government in the days to come.  There are already signs of dissent within opposition ranks . Further none of the opposition leaders have a mass following.

This absence of credible leadership post Saleh would enable the separatist movements to further gain steam . Al-Qaeda is probably already watching with glee the prospect of a weak government at the helm. Yemen with its difficult terrain and proximity to Saudi Arabia will be the perfect base for them .

Regimes like that of Saleh  , for all their brutishness and corruption , have brought stability to historically unstable places like Yemen.  Long entrenched , these have been felled like oaks in a storm by the youth revolt . But the world may soon find out that these youth have little experience in running a country, let alone one as complex as Yemen .

Although this doesn’t justify their continued existence, there is certainly a case for their more orderly phasing out. The sudden demise of these regime might just have left a  vacuum which would be difficult to fill and which ,like all vacuums, would be very destructive to the geopolitical fabric of middle east.

After the bloody killings on “Great Friday “ , the Syrian government has decided to violently nip these protests in the bud. In a heavy handed response reminiscent of Hafez Al-Assad’s brutal crackdown of the Hama uprising in 1982, government forces have entered the city of Dar’a.

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Though there are no definitive accounts, there are reports of at least 25  deaths. The government forces are reported to be using heavy artillery, light mortars and resorting to indiscriminate firing. The twitter is abuzz with reports of many innocent deaths.

An innocent girl killed in Daraa by the bullet of a government sniper

This is one of the defining moments of this Arab Spring. The revolution which started as a genuine outburst of public resentment against corrupt leaders has started to founder on the ground realities of Middle East realpolitik.

A regime which should have long perished by the weight of its own inefficiencies, is managing to ruthlessly repress popular aspirations and hold onto power by cleverly exploiting tribal dissensions and insecurities. On the other hand, a widely inclusive message which was supposed to be secular and democratic in nature has been hijacked by the fundamentalists painting this as a fight between the heretic and the believer.

In my opinion . Dar’a is fast turning into a battle ground between hardliners of Muslim Brotherhood and the Alawite security establishment. These religious tones of the revolution have crystallized the support of the Army and the otherwise anti-Assad and pro-democracy Alawites towards the Assad regime.

Although the Assad regime has not succeeded in markedly improving the lot of the average Alawi . it is widely perceived as a  safeguard against religious persecution by Sunni Muslims who consider the Alawis as heretics and have historically engaged in vigorous persecution.

The recent outbreak of protests in Dar’a and other towns of the Sunni heartland are widely considered in Syria to be a Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy to enforce a Sunni fundamentalist rule in Syria. In view of these events, the army whose officer cadre is largely Alawi has decided to support the regime in what it largely considers as an existential battle for survival.

This heavy handed response by the Alawite army brass has generated even more resentment among the  Sunni populace. There are unconfirmed reports about the refusal of the largely Sunni rank and file to obey orders to fire on coreligionists. Syria, it seems, is moving rapidly down a fast descending spiral of violence and religious acrimony.

This video purportedly shows Syrian soldiers executed for refusing to obey orders

This is deplorable. The Assad regime has done little good for the common Syrian, Alawi or Sunni . It should have gone long ago. But in in the middle east , the regressive politics of tribe, religion , and ethnicity have long propped up the most brutal tyrants even when they have bled their nations dry.

Syria: Ethnic Questions

April 24, 2011

Syria has entered into a tailspin of political chaos. The Assad regime has brutally cracked down on the protests of “ Great Friday “ causing much bloodshed and a lot of resentment among the populace.

This brutal repression has been widely condemned by the world community. But what is missing in the misty eyed analysis of the Syrian revolution is a proper understanding of the sectarian nature of the revolt.

Syrian population is composed of various ethnicities and religions . The Sunni Arabs dominate the population but there are sizeable numbers of Alawites, Druze , Christians and Kurds.

This is a mainly Sunni revolt against the minority Alawites. The revolt has thus far been restricted to mainly Sunni towns and has found little or no resonance in the Alawite , Kurd or Druze areas of the country .

The below map is a map of the old French protectorate of Greater Syria. During those times the boundaries of the various governorates corresponded with ethnicities. The State of Damascus and the State of Aleppo were predominantly Sunni Arab whereas the Druze and the Alawite had their own separate provinces , the State of Jabal ad-Druze and the state of Alawites respectively.

And this is a map showing the location of the protests currently happening of Syria.

map_of_revolustion 15.04.2011

As is plainly visible , that most the blood is spilled in the area of the old provinces of State of Damascus,  the Sunni heartland of the country. This essentially Sunni nature of the revolt is bad tiding for a country like Syria. If the regime falls, there could be widespread jockeying for power between the various ethnic groups which might very quickly descend into strife or worse, civil war.

It would be wrong to see the various uprisings in the Arab world as identical uprisings of the disgruntled youth against corrupt leaders. These revolts had very different meanings in different places. In Syria , it is about a natural correction in a distorted power structure. A correction which is propelled by the vested interests of people who have very different aims than the idealistic youths of the Arab street.

 

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Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad is in trouble. Widespread  protests have engulfed the country and are spreading from city to city. The opposition has called for even bigger protest on Friday . These protesters who are fighting against the draconian regime , swear by their democratic credentials. But reality could be murkier , and  for India and the world , even dangerous.

The current Syrian regime has been reprehensibly tyrannical and guilty of severe human rights violations. But this regime has brought stability and peace to land which has been traditionally wrecked by violent conflict within the various sects and sub sects that inhabit these lands. In fact, present day Syria is a wholly artificial construct created out of colonial necessity .

The current regime ideologically inherits from the Baath party’s Arab socialist political movement and still professes the Baathist ideals of secularism and socialism . Although it exclusively has its power base among the minority Alawites, it also initially had a wide degree of support from the middle class progressive Arabs of Syria who wanted a progressive alternative to Islamic fundamentalism.

Much of that support base has been eroded , largely due to the Assad’s regimes clannish power structure , widespread corruption and most importantly due to its inability to provide the burgeoning young population with a political platform to voice its concerns. However, substantial as this erosion in public approval of Assad regime was ,it could not possibly explain the sudden eruption of such widespread protests . 

And I cannot possibly buy the arguments that these protests are largely spontaneous. That happens only in a democratic utopia. In real world, these protests have to be financed, organized and directed , even if loosely. And in societies like Syria, where there was never a vibrant political sphere , there is no expertise or initiative available with the common citizens to direct such protests.

So what or who could be behind these protests? Certainly not the Iranians who have a deep interest in ensuring the survival of the regime . Certainly not Hezbollah , who is a large recipient of tacit and material aid from the current regime and a staunch supporter of the regime.

And contrary to what the current Syrian government claims , it could not be the Israelis or the US . Israel would prefer to have a deal with a firmly in control Syrian despot than a fractious diplomatic government, And the United States also does not want to further murky the situation in Middle East.

It could be possibly the Lebanese 14th of March movement, but they don’t have the resources . nor the reach to create something of this magnitude.

Than it leaves only one another actor, the Muslim Brotherhood. They have the motive as well as the means to do so. Brutally suppressed by Bashar’s father Hafez-Al Assad, they hate the current regime not only for denying the Brotherhood of its legitimate role in Syrian politics. but also for being hated apostates.

The situation reminds me of the Iranian revolution of 1979. The revolution , started by students and communists, was soon hijacked by the religious right . Brutal suppression by the Shah has paradoxically helped in strengthening the organizational structure of the right wing fundamentalists by enforcing the espirit de corps . Not only that , the elimination of the first and second level leadership by the dreaded SAVAK, indirectly helped in splintering of the movement into tiny autonomous cells. These when activated were very hard to suppress because of their very distributed nature.

Could it be the case in Syria too ? If yes, then it is a frightening scenario. Frightening for me, frightening for India, and indeed frightening for the world.

The New Silk Route

October 3, 2010

A cursory look at a map of Eurasia will shortly reveal a very interesting fact. All the major centres of civilization ( and power) are on its periphery. Whether it is India in the South, China in the East, Russia in the North or Western Europe in the West .  And for millennia these civilizations have traded and communicated with each other through that vast thoroughfare of humanity : the Central Asian Steppes.

Ever since the dawn of humanity , Central Asia has been crisscrossed by caravans laden with exotic items bound for distant lands.  These trade routes, sometimes collectively called the Silk Route have served as arteries of trade and also , and perhaps more importantly, conduits for exchange of ideas .

Silk Route in the first century AD( Courtesy : Wikipedia)

As networks connecting nodes of civilizations and wealth, they hade immense geopolitical significance.  Nations had vied for their control and much blood has been spilled on the steppes to decide who can tax the rich caravan trader . Some of the world’s most ferocious conquerors, Ghenghis Khan, Tamerlane started their careers with a desire to become the master of this lucrative trade route.

For India, participation in and control of these trade networks was always vital.  Through the millennia, access to and control of the southern part of this route was essential for the vibrancy of our economy and the safety of our country .In fact , the patterns in decline of Indian power and trade closely corresponds to loss of our ability to project power on the southern branch of the silk route.

This trade route eventually lost its importance with the Portuguese and Spanish discovery of sea routes to Asia. Soon, the Silk Road was forgotten and relegated to the history books as an exotic relic of a bygone era.

Now in the twenty first century, these trade routes are once again been revived.  And not just for trade.

From Kashgar to Constantinople, from Lhasa to Tehran, the Chinese are quietly reactivating these old trade routes that once served  not only as channels for the export of Chinese goods but also Chinese power projection.

And this time , it is not  silk that is the principal commodity and it is not the caravans of  two humped Bactrian camel , it is a motley collection of Chinese manufactured goods travelling on shiny new  railway lines that the  are being laid down to connect most of Central Asia and beyond with China.

The proposed extension of Qinghai- Tibet railway line and the proposed Kashgar- Gwadar railway line, would help integrate the Chinese rail network with that of Pakistan.  The Pakistanis on their part are in talks with the Turks and the Persians to create an Ankara- Islamabad link.  This network could eventually be extended all the way to Europe.  There are already talks of a Berlin to Beijing network .

For the Chinese, such a project would be immensely beneficial. Their goods would be able to find markets in not only Europe but also in the rapidly growing and populous economies of Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Uzbekistan etc.  This will also help them in securing direct access to the oil rich Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, thus reducing their vulnerability to disruption of their sea-borne oil imports.

The Middle kingdom could leverage this to integrate Central Asia more tightly into its sphere of influence. And combined with the dual nature of these projects, they will give China an unmatched ability to project power anywhere in Asia.

The ramifications of this project would be far-reaching and would change the whole structure of world trade and politics.  And if succesfully executed could indeed make China as the dominant world power of the 21st century.

There is no denying that this reactivation of the old Silk Route will be a seminal event in world trade and geopolitics. Sadly, India once again doesn’t have any means to participate or project power on this new avatar of Silk Route.

I would first of all like to apologize for not being able to post anything new on this blog for almost a month. My MBA program had just started and the schedule was hectic .

It has been quite an interesting month. The Iranian Revolution fizzled out , Indian Union Budget was announced, Uighurs went on the rampage in Xinjiang , Google came up with another nail intended for Microsoft’s coffin, Michael Jackson died , McNamara finally got a chance to meet God and ask Him forgiveness for Vietnam , Sarah Palin resigned and President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras was ousted in a coup.

A month is indeed a long time in today world . As the Chinese say , “We are cursed to live in interesting times”.

Our world today is fluid .We live in a constant sate of flux, of power, economical and political, demographics , technology and climate changes. Our world is being fundamentally and irrevocably altered. Fifty years from now, you and I will marvel at how completely different the world was once upon a time. However at the same time , we have no clue as to what that change will look like. It is naive , nay outrightly foolish ,to predict anything at this moment. It is not guaranteed that China will rule the world, it is not guaranteed that America’s decline is inevitable, it is not guaranteed that Sarah Palin will always seek publicity . The World could turn out to be very different.

Let us embrace  change. Only those who can embrace the change, only those who can qucikly adapt themselves to the changing scenarios will survive.

The grass , which bends the way the wind blows, and not the proud tree which fights a gallant but ultimately futile battle against the storm is the symbol of the age. The proud tree stands no change, the storm of change is just too strong.