Roula Khalaf

“Aren’t you ashamed?” charged a visibly angry Eric Chevalier, the French ambassador to Syria, as he chastised opposition members for failing to expand the Syrian National Coalition after a week of negotiations.

In the Youtube video clip that was making the rounds of social media sites on Tuesday, the French diplomat goes on to ask how Coalition leaders elected only eight members, when they agreed to add 22. “There is a problem,” he said. 

Roula Khalaf

Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (Getty)

As Algeria’s hostage crisis unfolded last week one man was conspicuously absent from the action: President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Mr Bouteflika wields enormous power and he has dominated the country’s politics since the late 1990s. He also has been at the centre of the diplomacy in the Sahel.

Yet when the going got tough, the 75-year-old president was nowhere to be seen or heard (although he did bother to send a note of encouragement to the national football team, which is competing in the Africa Cup of Nations). Instead he left it to his prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, to field the anxious calls of world leaders and to communicate – rather poorly – with the public. The British government, for example, tried to contact Mr Bouteflika but was told that he was not available. 

Roula Khalaf

It’s too early to pass judgment, said William Hague, British foreign secretary, about Algeria’s handling of the worse hostage crisis in decades. And he might be right.

It is not easy for western governments to strike the right balance between criticism of the Algerian assault on the In Amenas gas plant and the ensuring bloodbath, and the need to appear tough and determined in combating terrorism.

But questions about whether Algeria’s military moved too rapidly on the offensive when jihadi militants took one of the country’s vital gas facilities will have to be asked by governments and by the families of those who died. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.