Roula Khalaf

Islamist militant leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar. (AFP/Getty)

A breach of the security at gas and oil installations was the Algerian regime’s nightmare back in the 1990s, when the country was wracked by an Islamist insurgency.

Under intense financial pressure at the time, and desperate to attract foreign investment into its energy sector, installations in the southern part of the country were heavily guarded exclusion zones that seemed a world apart from the heavily populated north.

There are two Algerias, people would say at the time, one soaked in blood, the other peaceful and bursting with oil and gas. Read more

Roula Khalaf

American policy-makers sometimes lack creativity. That, at least, is the sense one gets from the latest move on Syria — the blacklisting of rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra as an alias of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

There is no doubt that the group has established itself as the jihadi front in Syria and that, if left unchecked after the fall of the Assad regime, it would become a threatening al-Qaeda franchise in the Levant that also bolstered its Iraqi affiliate.

“Al-Nusra has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes,” US state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.

Memories of the blowback from Afghanistan are still fresh in the minds of American officials. Back in the 1980s, the US and Saudi Arabia backed the Mujahideen’s fight against the Soviet Union and, along the way, sowed the seeds of what became Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist organisation. No one wants to repeat the same mistake. Read more

Roula Khalaf

Missing: Jihad Makdissi (Getty)

Every defection, or assumed defection, from the Syrian regime heartens its opponents and gives fresh impetus to the “this is a big blow to Bashar al-Assad” comments from western capitals desperate for a collapse of the government – and desperate not to be forced into military intervention to get rid of it.

But defections often come with a measure of disinformation, which is designed to protect the official or general until he or she is in safe hands and properly debriefed by whichever intelligence service assisted him. Families back home also have to be protected because there is no limit to the cruelty that could be inflicted on relatives of a defector.

So it is no surprise that the whereabouts of Jihad Makdissi, the suave, English-speaking mouthpiece of the foreign ministry, are still a mystery two days after the first report of his departure from Damascus emerged. Read more

Roula Khalaf

In Israel and the Gaza Strip, there might be no real winners from the week-long conflict that ended last night. But there is already a clear loser, writes Roula Khalaf – he is Mahmoud Abbas and he is the president of the Palestinian Authority. Read more

Roula Khalaf

In the process of undermining the Obama administration’s record during the Monday night debate, Mitt Romney painted a distorted picture of the Middle East, writes Roula Khalaf. Read more

Roula Khalaf

Mit Romney delivers his foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute. (Getty)

The Middle East is an easy target for an aspiring US president on the attack against an incumbent rival. You can bet that there are enough unresolved crises that affect America in one way or another, and I don’t mean just the perennial Arab-Israeli conflict.

And, since the region has something of a love-hate relationship with the US, there will always be a sufficient number of critics within the Middle East to back up the American presidential candidate’s arguments, however flawed they might be.

Which brings us to Mitt Romney’s foreign policy speech today at the Virginia Military Institute in which he first tore apart Barack Obama’s Middle Eastern policies, but then proceeded to outline a rather similar approach couched as fundamental change. Read more

Roula Khalaf

US embassies stormed, American flags burnt, diplomats assassinated. These images have played on our television screens over the past week, giving the impression of a region in deep turmoil, its rage targeted violently at the US.

Predictably, the unrest has damaged Barack Obama, the American president who has made outreach to the Muslim world a cornerstone of his foreign policy. Worse, the fury exploded in the midst of a heated presidential campaign, giving Mr Obama’s opponents fresh ammunition to portray him as a weak leader. The president had already been under fire for supposedly being too soft on Islamists rising to power in north Africa and not tough enough on Iran and its dogged pursuit of a nuclear programme.

 Read more

Roula Khalaf

Last week, as the battle for Aleppo got under way, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said territorial gains made by Syria’s rebels would eventually result in a “safe haven” inside the country. And she called on the opposition to start preparing for a transition of power.

The rebel commanders too have been talking about Aleppo as their Benghazi ( the wellspring of last year’s Libyan uprising),  insisting that with much of the rural countryside in Idlib already under their control. Taking Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, would mean they could control territory all the way to the Turkish border. Read more

Roula Khalaf

AFP/Getty Images

In the scramble for ways to address Syria’s spiralling violence UN envoy Kofi Annan and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad agreed on an approach earlier this week: work from the bottom up on local ceasefires in the most devastated areas of the country. The approach was discussed during Mr Annan’s trip to Damascus, but immediately raised questions in western capitals, according to diplomatic sources. Read more

Roula Khalaf

Fighters loyal to the Free Syrian Army prepare their weapons (Lo/AFP/GettyImages)

Fighters loyal to the Free Syrian Army prepare their weapons (Lo/AFP/GettyImages)

Activists close to the Free Syrian Army say that recent defections from the regime include a general who was associated with non-conventional weapons, adding that he is the most senior military official to join the opposition thus far.

Syria has an arsenal of chemical weapons, allegedly including significant stocks of nerve gas, that has been high on the list of concerns of western governments and Israel.

The activists say they expect the general will now help them restructure the leadership of the rebels. “He has a lot of information about the deployment of security forces and the regime’s assets,” one activist says. The general, whose name is likely to be made public in the next few days, is thought to have left his post a month ago and gone into hiding before being smuggled to Turkey. Read more