1. Have we reached the end of Al-Qaeda? Philippe Gohier has a fantastic article about other elements of radical Islam turning against Al-Qaeda, defections from the organization, and the destruction of the group’s popular support. Personally, I believe that while Al-Qaeda is still capable of massive bombings, the group is on the verge of defeat (radical Islam, though, will outlive AQ). AQ has been scattered, largely dependent upon state sponsors to operate, either via direct support of turning the other way. AQ lives on in very insecure shelters, mainly in small areas in Iraq currently under assault in Diyala and Nineveh; areas of Iran; Somalia and smaller parts of Africa; and the Afghan-Pakistani border areas.
2. Pakistani forces bombed the tribal areas, specifically Bajur (which the NY Times notes has “been considered a possible hiding place” for Bin Laden and Zawahiri, as has virtually every other area in the border). While the bombing is fierce, reportedly destroying 40 houses and killing 100 enemy personnel, the question is whether they will be allowed to regroup or whether this will become part of a genuine, full-fledged offensive. Given the reports of Bush’s orders to step up all efforts to get Bin Laden before he leaves office, we may be seeing the results of intense pressure from the President.
3. If this report is to be believed, Bashar Assad’s recent visit to Iran was a failure. Syria continues to flirt with the idea of defecting to the West and Iran failed to convince Syria to end peace talks with Israel. The Arab press is reporting that Syria and Lebanon will restore their relations, which would show that Syria and the West reached some sort of accomodation on the issue.
4. Perhaps the aforementioned accomodation with Syria over Lebanon is related to this. The main issue in Lebanon, Syria’s covert violent actions, aren’t useful to Syria at the moment, pushing the issue off to the side. Hezbollah controls 11 of 30 cabinet seats, and if Syria’s demands for a general election in May 2009 are met, Hezbollah and Syria’s allies will be empowered. If the West accepts this, it appears that we’ve decided that it’s better to have a Syria that is not aligned with Iran dominate Lebanese politics than a pro-Iranian Syria violently dominate the country.
The big question mark on this issue is Hezbollah. If Syria breaks from Iran, will the mullahs use Hezbollah against Syria? Will such a break lead to a Syrian-Hezbollah break, and thus causing Syria to lose its grip on Lebanon, bringing us back to square one? The issues over Lebanon are far from being permanently resolved.
5. Interesting developments in Iraq. A security deal between the U.S. and Iraq beginning the withdrawal of U.S. forces on a timeline is said to be very close to being finished. The very important law on provincial elections is still being stalled, which is very unfortunate. And in Kirkuk, Kurdish Peshmerga forces are reportedly getting circling the city, cutting off roads the Turkmen and Arabs use to transit the city. There are also reports that the local Arab population is threatening to form militias to settle the conflict.
If Iraq can solve the disputes over the provincial elections and Kirkuk, most of the major issues will be solved, the political progress will be something historians should be astonished by, and Iraq will have a very bright future. If either issue explodes into significant violence, the potential for a downturn in Iraq politically is very real and pressing.