Roula Khalaf

Tomahawk missile being fired from a US warship. Photo: US Navy (Roderick Eubanks)

Syrians’ pleas for western military help to stop the Assad regime have gone unanswered for the past three years, no matter how brutal the government’s methods of repression.

More than 200,000 deaths later, the US has entered the Syrian fray with the first air strikes as it also prepares to begin training and equipping a rebel force in Syria. The goal, in this case, is not to take on the regime, but to confront a jihadi menace that has spread spectacularly to Iraq, and has begun to pose a broader threat to the region.

But if fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the group known as Isis, might just prevent Iraq from breaking up, the chances of this campaign bringing peace to Syria are more remote than ever. 

Roula Khalaf

 

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (Getty)

Has Qatar’s luck run out? Just a year ago the small, rich Gulf state was at the top of its game, well on its way to establishing itself as a regional political and global financial force.

Splashing its gas-fuelled wealth across the globe it accumulated a multibillion-dollar portfolio of assets, and spread its influence in an Arab world in turmoil, setting itself as the champion of rising Islamist powers.

So confident was its emir of his own standing that in June 2013 he abdicated in favour of his son, in an attempt to demonstrate that Qatar is the most progressive among Gulf states stubbornly attached to the status quo.

 

Roula Khalaf

Happiness is a threat in the Islamic Republic, especially to conspiracy-minded hardliners. 

Roula Khalaf

 

Egyptian policemen standing guard outside the courthouse in Minya during the trial of some 683 Islamists on March 25, 2014. AFP/Getty Images

That Egypt’s judiciary is politicised is nothing new. Usually, though, at least it goes through the motions of a trial, allowing some form of defence and taking its time in issuing controversial verdicts.

A court in the southern city of Minya, however, has dispensed with all formality, opting instead for an absurd and outrageous miscarriage of justice. On Monday, it delivered the biggest mass death penalty in the country’s modern history, sentencing 529 Muslim Brotherhood followers to death for an August attack on a police station, in which the deputy police chief was killed. The defendants’ lawyers were not allowed into the proceedings – which lasted a mere two days. 

Roula Khalaf

As western leaders prepare to strike Syria, many ordinary people and observers, inside and outside the Middle East, are inevitably drawing parallels between this attack and the US-led war on Iraq a decade ago. Whether in its complicated ethnic composition and its prospects for further violence, in the weapons of mass destruction as a trigger for military action, or in the questions of legality and the likely diplomatic bypassing of the UN security council, a growing perception is that we are about to witness a repeat of recent history.

The Middle East is such a complicated place that these perceptions are not unreasonable. It’s not easy to make sense of Sunni versus Shia, Alawite versus Sunni, regime versus jihadis. Also complex is the debate over legality versus legitimacy of intervention. Western shifts of policy can be confusing, from watching tens of thousands of Syrians slaughtered to declaring the death of hundreds in an alleged gas attack a moral obscenity that cannot go unpunished. 

Roula Khalaf

Police arrest a supporter of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi at a protest camp in Cairo last week. (Getty)

Saud al-Feisal, the veteran Saudi foreign minister, delivered a strident warning to Europe and the US this week as western nations consider suspending financial assistance to Egypt’s new military-backed government.

Slamming what he said was a refusal to recognise reality, in which Islamists alone were to blame for the violence and chaos spreading in Egypt, he warned that Cairo had friends in the region who would make up any reduction in aid.

He went further, hinting at potential consequences for western relations with Saudi Arabia itself. If the “strange” international policy on Egypt continued, he said, “we will not forget … and will consider it hostile attitude towards Arab and Muslim security and stability”.

Riyadh had already shown its commitment to Egypt’s new government, rushing in after the July coup with billions of dollars of assistance. Saudi officials argue that western reluctance to embrace the new government in Cairo runs against the demands of the popular majority and encourages the Islamists’ defiance, thereby provoking more violence.

Although often indecisive, and sometimes shy, Riyadh appears to be acting on Egypt in the same resolute way it handled Bahrain two years ago. 

Roula Khalaf

In a rambling weekend statement, Egypt’s state information service complained of “severe bitterness” towards some western media coverage, which it deemed “biased” in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood. Forget that the Brothers had won legislative and presidential elections and are now facing one of the most brutal crackdowns in their more than 80-year history; they are, says the statement, terrorizing citizens, killing innocent people, and attacking the police. And they are being aided in their devious acts by al-Qaeda.

The police and army, meanwhile, are the heroes who have rushed to protect the people and their revolution and are now standing in the face of “terrorist” attempts to “fling the country into violence.”

Expressing dismay that several western media have been focusing on the outraged reaction of some western governments, the statement recommends that they pay closer attention to the support in Egypt’s war against terrorism delivered by the likes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (the autocratic supporters of the anti-Brotherhood campaign.) 

Roula Khalaf

Egyptians in Tahrir Square celebrate the army's 48-hour ultimatum to President Morsi (Getty)

In the surreal world of Egyptian politics, the embattled president, Mohamed Morsi, issued his response to the army’s ultimatum at 2 am on Tuesday morning. You’re too confusing, he told the generals, and why didn’t you consult me before?

The army itself, shortly after telling Mr Morsi that he had 48 hours to fix Egypt’s irreconcilable political differences — a threat that looked very much like a creeping coup –went on to post a clarification. It’s not a coup, said the second military statement, only an attempt to push politicians to reach consensus.

Instead of consensus, though, Egypt’s divided camps were digging in their heels on Tuesday, Tahrir roaring with anti-Morsi crowds and the Muslim Brotherhood staging its own show of support for the president. 

Roula Khalaf

Qatar’s outgoing ruler likes to be known as a maverick in a conservative Gulf apprehensive of change. True to his reputation, he becomes the first Arab leader to abdicate in favour of his son, Crown Prince Tamim.

More changes are expected in Doha this week, not least the departure of Hamad bin Jassim, the powerful prime minister and architect of the country’s controversial foreign policy.

Whether he is ill, as many believe, or simply wanting to get ahead of the curve, the 61-year-old Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani has undoubtedly annoyed his neighbours with his move. 

Roula Khalaf

John Kerry and William Hague discuss Syria (Getty)

It’s comforting to see that there is a flurry of diplomacy on Syria. But it not the Geneva peace conference sponsored by the US and Russia that had been expected this month. The conference plan has run into a few problems, including that the regime’s gains on the ground have made it even less likely that Bashar al-Assad would hand over power to a transitional government, which is supposed to be the basis of peace negotiations. There’s now talk that the conference could take place in early July, starting just before the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. Or it might be delayed until the end of the summer. Or it might never happen.