North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Monday, May 16, 2011

Nakba Day and the "shabiha"

In the dangerous ideologically-convoluted world of the Middle East, a myriad of events and movements swirl on. Two splinters of action coincided on May 15. One was the remembrance by Palestinians and nearly all the Arab world of Nakba - the day of Catastrophe in 1948 when Israel formally declared its existence. On this most recent day of remembrance, unprecedented "people power" protests occurred along Israel's northern borders with two Arab neighbors. Thousands of Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria were given access to the Israeli border by their respective host governments, and unruly protests took place ending with 14 dead.

In Lebanon, thousands took a three hour bus ride from a major Palestinian refugee settlement to the border, where the Lebanese army attempted to control the crowds to prevent violence. Initial media reports were unsettled on where deaths occurred - some point to 10 deaths at the Lebanese border (4 elsewhere), and either attributed to Israeli Defense Forces (the IDF) or Lebanese forces. (Other initial reports place more of the deaths at the Syrian-Israeli Golan Heights site of protests.)
One confrontation took place in Southern Lebanon, along the UN patrolled border with Israel.

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Along the way to the Lebanese-Israeli border, water and food are handed out to protestors.

Individuals of all ages participated

The Lebanese army prevented most protestors from approaching the fence.

In Syria, large crowds of Palestinians (also living in marginal refugee settlements for the past 62 years) converged on the Golan Heights - something that in the past, the Syrian government did not allow. In this situation, the Syrians did not attempt to meaningfully control the crowds, with resulting violence and injuries. (Somewhat mysteriously, reports are that IDF soldiers were instructed that if need be, shoot at protesters legs, no lethal aiming. A hobson's choice for ground troops. Why were IDF officers taken by surprise or not better prepared with modern crowd control equipment.) Regardless of the IDF response, many observers concluded that Assad's government encouraged the incident to divert attention to their own internal repression of protesters. The US later delivered a note of rebuke to the Assad government for allowing this incident to occur.

A sorting out of the incidents is likely to take some time amid charges and counter-charges.

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Another Nakba Day protest occurred in the UN patrolled Golan Heights

Israeli soldiers eyeing an unprecedented number of Palestinians converging on the fenced border

Protestors climb the Israeli-Syrian border fence

The Western press has been quick to link these mass protests with what is also called the "Arab Spring." This movement (if one discounts the 2009 chaos in Iran when hundreds lost their lives protesting Ahmadinejad's governance) began 4 months ago in Tunisia, where a decades old government was toppled by common people seeking a new voice and democratic reforms. The movement swept into Egypt, topping Hosni Mubarak from power, then erupted in a number of other countries: Libya, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, Yemen, Gaza, Iran, and Syria. As it turns out, the movement has faltered, with especially bloody responses in Libya, Yemen, and Syria.

The second action of note also has to do with borders. While Syrian authorities allowed Palestinian access to the Israeli frontier, other Syrians were fleeing their country for the "relative" safety in Lebanon. In one report, following the pattern set in Daraa, Homs, and Latakia, tanks moved in to Talkalakh, a town of about 70,000 residents, leaving behind a scene of destruction and death. Residents interviewed by The Associated Press as they crossed into Lebanon said their town, which has held weekly anti-government rallies, came under attack by the army, security forces and shadowy, pro-regime gunmen known as "shabiha." In contrast to the Israeli predicament of holding back Palestinians crossing the frontier, there was no restraint by Assad's forces, with indiscriminate firing, corpses left on the street, and even fleeing civilians shot down.

Syrian citizens fleeing from their own country to avoid government bloodshed

Talkalakh, the latest Syrian town being demolished by Assad and his shabiha

So what do we have?

In Syria, the past few days have seen Palestinians given access to the Israeli border, while Syrians themselves are fleeing into Lebanon from internal repression!

The Arab uprisings - successful in Tunisia and Egypt - have undertaken a hopeful reconstituting of a more democratic governance. We can with good will wish the populations of these nations success after throwing off dictatorships. The verdict is still out as to what the new voice will sound like.

The odds of new Arab voices in Iran, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain have shrunk considerably, notwithstanding the selective support for one such overthrow of the suddenly odious Gadaffi.

We are learning that in nearly every Arab country experiencing protests, there are undercurrents of sectarian tensions. As in Iraq, where a Sunni minority governed a Shiite majority and a sizable third segment of Kurds, the Syrian leadership, ie. the Assad family, is from a decided minority tribe (the Alewite is a nominally Shiite offshoot) controlling a Sunni majority. It is reported that most of the shabiha are from the Alewite tribe... Bahrain's majority Shiite population is governed by a Sunni line of royalty.

Where sectarian tensions are not dominant, Islamist parties and other religious groupings strive with one another. In Gaza, Hamas is confronting Salafists, and in Egypt, Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood are jockeying for position between themselves and others, with more serious and violent clashes with a sizable Coptic Christian minority.

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Pro-Assad forces known as shabiha (circled), "assist" regular Syrian forces in rounding up protestors

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