Jordanian frustration with U.S., Israel mounting

 While I was in Jordan, King Abdullah gave a lengthy interview to Haaretz about the Israeli-Palestinian situation in which he warned that "We’re sliding back into the darkness."   My conversations with more than two dozen Jordanian officials, political activists, journalists and analysts suggest that on this, at least, the King reflects a widespread Jordanian consensus.  Jordanians are growing increasingly frustrated with the Obama team's approach, alarmed at Netanyahu's unpunished intransigence, and downright frantic about the trend in Jerusalem. If we don't start seeing progress soon, with stronger American leadership, then the "tinderbox" could explode. 

 It wasn't always like this.  When I was last in Jordan about six months ago, I found a great deal of optimism over the appointment of George Mitchell and the high profile Obama gave to the Israeli-Palestinian problem.  But now those hopes seem to have largely evaporated.  The launch of Israeli-Palestinian talks which they had expected by June continue to drift in limbo, while Obama's failure to deliver on the settlement freeze has -- just as so many predicted -- eroded his credibility.  How could the Americans have allowed Netanyahu to not only defy U.S. demands on settlements but to not even pay any significant price?  Again and again, from all sectors of Jordanian political society, I heard the same refrain:  Obama's heart is in the right place and we want him to succeed, but he's just not getting it done. 

 Jerusalem weighed particularly heavily in the Jordanian consciousness.  I heard all kinds of dire warnings about how Israeli provocations there could suddenly spark an uncontrollable escalation back into Intifada.  As the King put it, "we are seeing problems in Jerusalem that will directly destabilise not only the relationship with Jordan...but will also create a tinderbox that will have a major flashpoint throughout the Islamic world." Most Jordanians I talked to agreed.

 While I was there I attended a demonstration focused on Jerusalem after Friday prayers at the Salah al-Din mosque close by the Prime Minister's office.  It was quite small, to be honest (even keeping in mind that it was cross-scheduled with the parade celebrating Amman's 100th anniversary).  But the large scale deployment of security forces across the street suggests that the regime was taking no chances. (Muslim Brotherhood leaders told me that they had led a much larger rally of their own out in Zarqa at the same time; I wasn't there, so can't say how that one went.)

 There was also little optimism about a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation (and this was before the public exchange between Abbas and Meshaal which Daniel Levy wrote about for me this morning).  Nobody thought that the profound gap in interests between the two parties could be bridged, particularly after the devastating impact of the PA's deferral of the Goldstone report on Abbas's popularity.  Beyond that, with no meaningful peace talks in sight there was little reason for either side to make the painful concessions necessary -- whether on elections, on security sector reform, or on the existential issues of identity and commitment to negotiations. 

 Indeed, what I heard from a number of the more hawkish Muslim Brotherhood leaders suggests that at least some in Hamas see a greater interest in staying out.  They generally admitted that Hamas faced tough conditions, with the blockade of Gaza and the escalating PA repression of its cadres in the West Bank.  But that was secondary.  The PA, by their argument, is in a death spiral.  Talks with Netanyahu will inevitably fail, at which point Abu Mazen and the PA will no longer be able to keep up pretences.  Signing on to such a PA would only compromise their own legitimacy and viability, alienating the vast mainstream of the Palestinian people without any commensurate benefits.  Rather than be associated with the impending failure, they suggested, better to stay outside and wait for the fruits of that failure to fall into their lap. 

 So what should be done?  The Jordanians who supported the peace process strongly urged Obama to quickly lay down an American plan, a comprehensive framework for negotiations with specific recommendations  on the most sensitive and controversial points.  The framework should build on previous agreements, not go back to the starting point and re-open previously agreed points.  Given the severe weakness of the Palestinian negotiators, it would take American initiative to make sure that the talks started on acceptable grounds.  And they didn't think it was a good idea for the US to wait for the "right time" to present such a plan, because at this point the right time might never come.   

"Borders first", the idea du jour, would be a disaster.  No Palestinian or Arab, I was told, could accept anything which deferred the refugee issue (presumably in perpetuity). Jordan in particular, of course, is deeply invested in some resolution of the refugee issue.  While Jordanian officials seem satisfied with the assurances they've received from the United States that they rejected the perpetual Israeli "Jordan is Palestine" notion, at the popular level the fears that Israel will impose the final settlement of Palestinians in Jordan resonate deeply and permeate almost every aspect of Jordanian public discourse. And for the same reason, don't expect to see Jordanian troops playing a role in the West Bank. 

 I could go on, but this probably is enough to paint the picture.  Jordanian officials and the public alike are deeply, profoundly worried about the course of Israeli-Palestinian relations.  Worried whispering about (or eager anticipation of) the outbreak of a new Intifada was everywhere.  Confidence in Obama's ability to deliver, especially with regard to Israel, has collapsed.  But most still hope that it's not too late for Obama to reverse course.  His words at the UN General Assembly rallied their spirits briefly.  But it won't last absent clear progress towards resuming the talks based on a clear, mutually acceptable framework for negotiations. If that doesn't happen by the end of the year, then we could be staring at the abyss.  

Marc Lynch

Tough times for the Awakenings -- crisis or opportunity?

 Like most people who follow Iraq, I've been watching the mounting tensions surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence with some concern.   I don't think that we're seeing the "great unravelling" quite yet, nor that we're yet seeing a return to higher levels of violence, insurgency and civil war.   But the increased violence and the growing chorus of complaints about the failures of political accommodation should be a cautionary note to the Iraqi government and to the major political players that time is running out to make the crucial political power-sharing agreements necessary before American troop withdrawals pick up their pace.

 The arrest of a leading Awakenings figure by Iraqi Security Forces which led to a highly-publicized military standoff a few weeks ago is only one instance of a wider pattern.  Tensions surrounding that arrest were exacerbated by an inflammatory blizzard of statements by Maliki and others warning that the Awakenings had been infilitrated by Baathists and al-Qaeda.  A series of attacks by unknown groups have added to the tension.  It all adds up to a general sense of apprehension, with members of the Awakenings worried about their future and many others worried that the security situation may be on the brink.

 The situation is extremely murky, and it's hard to really know anything with confidence.  What I've been seeing in the Iraqi and Arab media, and hearing from the people I've spoken with, is a wide range of competing interpretations and arguments over everything from the identity of the attackers (al-Qaeda? rival Awakenings groups? Shi'a militias looking to stir things up?) to the intentions of the Iraqi government (eliminate the Awakenings?  weed out the 'bad elements' within them? force the U.S. to take sides, and test the U.S. implementation of the SOFA?).  The high level of uncertainty and confusion is itself a significant point -- the impact of fear and uncertainty on strategic calculations should never be underestimated.

 Given all that uncertainty, it would be unwise to offer a confident assessment of what's really going on.  But the emerging crisis surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence do both seem to be primarily driven by the continuing refusal of Maliki and the Iraqi government to make meaningful political accommodations and their decision to move against at least some of the Awakenings groups at a convenient moment.  

 The official moves against the Awakenings look like salami tactics, divide and rule rather than a full-scale assault. Maliki, as in the past, seems quite happy to work with parts of the Anbar Awakenings (talk of a political deal with Ahmed Abu Risha is in the air again) even as he moves against Awakenings elsewhere.  Maliki's government sees very clearly how fragmented, mutually mistrustful and competitive the Awakenings are.  They are likely gambling that this fragmentation creates such intense coordination problems that they can take out a few of their most dangerous potential enemies here and there without triggering a widespread Sunni uprising.  Watching the reaction of the various Awakenings thus far -- as some protested angrily but others cheered -- suggests that they are right.  It's a dangerous game, though.  The question would be whether there is some tipping point, at which a large number of uncoordinated and self-interested small groups suddenly switch sides (as arguably happened in the other direction in the spring of 2007).

 It would not take a revolt en masse for a change in the status of the Awakenings to have an effect on security.  In a recent interview with al-Arabiya, Salah al-Mutlaq warned that the government's failure to deliver on its promises of security and civil jobs to the Awakenings and the arrest of a number of Awakenings leaders were spreading fear and uncertainty through their ranks. Members who aren't getting paid, see their leaders targeted, and see diminishing prospects of future payoffs could begin to fade away. They could stop performing their local security functions, allowing violent groups easier access to areas which had been off-limits for the last year or two.   Or some could return to violent action in an individual capacity -- and even if only 10% went that route, that could put 10,000 hardened fighters back into play (in addition to people recently released from the prisons, another issue which factors in here).

 The crackdown on the Awakenings has regional implications as well, particularly with the ever-skeptical Saudis who have generally supported the Awakenings movements.  The Arab press has taken careful note of their reversal of fortunes, which Adel al-Bayati in al-Quds al-Arabi calls Maliki's coup against the Awakenings.  Tareq al-Homayed, editor of the Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat (which usually reflects official Saudi thinking), complains bitterly today that recent events have made his warnings from last August about the coming betrayal of the Awakenings come true.  The Awakenings were not bearing arms against the Iraqi state, argues Homayed, but rather were protecting the Iraqi state against al-Qaeda and assisting its stabilization ahead of the American withdrawal. But, he warns, narrow, sectarian perspectives in Baghdad are winning out over the Iraqi national interest with potentially devastating consequences. 

 This reflects a theme which extends beyond the Saudi sphere. Most Arab writers (for example, the Kuwaiti Shamlan Issa in al-Ittihad yesterday) point the finger at the continuing lack of progress on political accommodation and national unity -- which for them, generally means the accommodation of Sunni interests and the integration of the Awakenings.  The "resistance camp" paper al-Quds al-Arabi has been covering the "coup against the Awakenings" as closely as have the Saudi-owned media (though with a bit more schadenfreude). Many of them are reading the crackdown on the Awakenings through as unmasking the "true Shia sectarianism" of Maliki's government -- reinforcing their pre-existing, deep skepticism about the new Iraq.  

 I'm obviously worried about all of this.  I've been warning about the potential for trouble with the Awakenings project for a long time, and it would be easy to say that those predictions are now coming due.  But I think it's way too early for that -- there is still time for these troubles to demonstrate the costs of political failure and to become the spur to the needed political action. 

 That's why it's really important that the United States not now begin to hedge on its commitment to the drawdown of its forces in the face of this uptick in violence.  It is in moments like this that the credibility of commitments is made or broken.  Thus far, the signals have been very good -- consistent, clear, and tightly linked to continuing pressure on political progress.  President Obama reportedly pushed hard on the political accommodation front during his stopover in Baghdad last week, and General Odierno did very well to emphasize on CNN yesterday that the U.S. is firmly committed to removing its troops by the end of 2011.    Maliki and everyone need to take deep breath and strike power sharing deals before things go south, and understand that they will pay consequences if they don't.