Monday, October 6, 2014

Relationships between governments and militias in the Middle East

Numerous armed militias have sprung up in the Middle East, some powerful enough to threaten governments. A variety of actors across the region support these militias directly with money, weapons, or oil purchases, playing chess against opposing militias and governments. Some openly declare their alliances and hostilities, while others are more evasive. In ascertaining the threat posed by the militias and their supporting actors, it may be helpful to map their respective allegiances by their actions.

Iran, Assad’s regime, and Hezbollah are bound together, but Iran also directly supports various militias in Syria to ensure continued influence in the region should Assad fall. Indeed, many nations and militias are determined that he should, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Free Syrian Army, Islamic Front (IF), Al Nusra, and IS. The Kurds have drawn criticism for their truce with Assad and his forces;nonetheless, they have formed a coalition with the Free Syrian Army and the IF against IS. Al Nusra is being fed by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar specifically to take down Assad. Al Nusra is involved in actions against Hezbollah and Lebanon and approaches the Israeli border. Hezbollah and Lebanon are also clashing with IS. If Al Nusra, operating on the Syrian border with Israel threatens their border, Israel will take decisive action. Iran has expressed a desire to arm the West Bank as it has armed Gaza, but the logistics and practicality of such an effort may exile the idea to rhetoric.

Two areas of uncertainty are Qatar and Turkey, who have been accused of supporting IS. Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt have accused Qatar of, if not directly funding terrorism, at the very least not moving against those within their borders who do. Bahrain, however, may simply be opposing Qatar for syphoning off of Bahrain’s Sunni population, a minority providing a certain degree of stability in an unstable nation. Turkey’s loyalties remain in question as it is very likely that they are allowing IS to move oil across their borders. The recent release of IS held Turkish hostages did nothing to relieve concerns. Turkish news source, Anadolu, has said no ransom was paid and no military operation carried out raising the question as to what was exchanged for their release. Additionally, Turkey recently welcomed the Muslim Brotherhood indicating their desire to align with more extremist groups and raising questions as to whether the role of the Muslim Brotherhood will change in the region.

While some relationships remain inconclusive, much can be observed and should be carefully tracked. The allegiances of the militias are constantly evolving as they struggle to survive. Likewise, state actors struggle for their own survival, often concealing their allegiances to preserve relations with Western countries and Islamist countries. Continuing to track the alliances of these groups through the flow of resources and the constantly changing facts on the ground will help to avoid strengthening enemies and alienating friends.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Israel vs. Gaza: How I track the conflict

I have very mixed feelings on blogging on what's going on in Israel and the occupied territories when there is a flare up.  If you really want to know, there are no shortage of real news sources.   

The BBC isn't without bias or problems, but it's easier for me to read than a lot of other sources. Haaretz is the biggest English-language Israeli news source.  The do critique Israel and its leaders and politics, so the bias isn't absolute.  Al Jazeera is the major source of Arab world news.  It has the biases you would expect, but it's pretty good nonetheless.  It is also funded by the ruling family of Qatar, so do not expect unbiased, unfiltered news on Qatar.  There is also Electronic Intifada, which I don't often read, but my old coworkers from IFPB did.  I think you can guess the bias there.

Qatar: Just the Best Place Ever (Source: Al Jazeera)

When you want minute by minute updates, Twitter (sadly) is a really good resource.  I follow BBC, Haaretz, the IDF, Al Jazeera, and I used to follow the Al Qassam Missile Brigades, but, last time I checked, I couldn't find them on Twitter.

I can also go to Facebook.  I have (pro-Israel)  friends in Israel, and lots of my friends zealously support the Palestinians.  "Support" on facebook looks mostly like posting articles and statistics critical of the other side.  "Critical" is way too nice a word.  The result is something almost balanced, but really difficult to look at psychologically and emotionally.  It's strange because I know few people have a Facebook feed that looks like mine, so I probably should post updates about the conflict, but it's hard not to feel that the feed is oversaturated.  Also, my friends will eat me alive if I say the wrong thing.  And all the things are wrong.


Don't trust pictures.  There are accusations from both sides that images are being misused.  For example, some are saying images that claim to be from Gaza are from Israel, vice versa or that the pictures are from years ago.

No!  Not the cavalry!
You are being manipulated by a massive propaganda machine.  These are groups that recognized years ago that international support was a game changer.  In fact, they probably overestimate the power of world opinion.  They know Facebook and Twitter better than you do.  Their messages are carefully crafted, and it's very possible their statistics are too.  Both Israelis and Palestinians have fanboys and girls all over the world that are absolutely whipped into a frenzy.  That's why you get comments on Twitter like "f***ing child murderers".

Try to remember there are human beings on both sides.  They are both jerks, but everyone has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, right? You don't have to pick a side.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

4 Tips for Choosing Reading Material for Travel

File:Melk - Abbey - Library.jpg
Hello, beautiful.
International travel usually requires a large amount of waiting.  Waiting for the bus.  Waiting for the plane.  Waiting for your jetlagged roommates to wake up.  Going means a surprising amount of sitting still.  So, what do you do with that time?  In the golden age of mobile computing, the answer many people choose is Candy Crush, but I think the people at King Games are language criminals that belong in word jail, so I am boycotting.  Plenty of people still opt for music and books, and I am solidly with them. 

4. If you have an ereader, rock on. 
I am very much a fan of pages and binding and ink.  At home, if I have a choice between a book and a digital display, the paper wins.  However, as a traveller, the economy of size and weight is...irresistible.  I got mine as a gift, but there are several options now that are not incredibly expensive.  If this isn't an option, remember to take size and weight into account when bringing a book or books. 

3. Read something you have already started or an author you already know.
It's just really unpleasant to be on a trip with a disappointing book. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Roof Knocking

Express, the free paper distributed by the Washington Post, featured an article on "roof knocking," the IDF policy of calling to warn families in houses about to be bombed and delivering a small "warning rocket" before the larger missile.  I am pretty happy about this since I've known about it for years, but I've only heard a few people ever talk about it.  So, when I mentioned it, I felt like a crazy person.  Here's a link to the Post article
Both aricles have some interesting touches, like the caller identifying himself as "David".  Seriously?  The warning that your house is about to be destroyed starts with, "Hi, I'm David"
The article also mentions that this process is inconsistent.  Sometimes there are warnings and sometimes not.  Sometimes there is a warning, but no attack.  This is problematic.  Some consider this psychological warfare.  It may be, or it may be human error where there should not be human error. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

CSK Book Review: Son of Hamas

If you are at all interested in Palestine, Israel, Islam, or the teachings of Jesus, you should read this book.  It is a profoundly personal autobiography which also addresses fascinating and sometimes gut-wrenching social, political and spiritual realities. 

Like many, I expect, I first learned of Mosab Hassan Yousef through the news special that aired some years ago.  The special focused primarily on his personal history and conversion, and, I am sorry to say, left out some of the most riveting pieces of his story.  Since then, Son of Hamas has been on my list of books to read. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Driving in Israel

Renting a Car: 
Reserve a car ahead of time.  This is probably obvious to most of you, but I did not know what a hassle it would be, especially after flying for so many hours.  Renting a car is a very good option because PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION SHUTS DOWN FRIDAY AFTER 2PM AND DOESN'T COME BACK UNTIL SATURDAY NIGHT.  It gives you a lot more freedom, but can also be a hassle.  Vehicle problems, parking and driving regulations and navigation are on you. Without going into much detail, I am very grateful to the helpful citizens of Israel for their nearly perpetual rescue.  I do not recommend renting a Peugeot.  Available rental companies include: Avis, El Dan, Hertz and Budget.  Hertz was not my favorite. Being able to drive stick is an advantage (a necessity in our case), but, if you reserve ahead of time, getting an automatic may not be a problem.

I'm breaking up with you.
Waze (a smartphone app) works very well, but a lot of the directions are in Hebrew on the screen.  The

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Places to Stay in Israel

Places we stayed: 

Black & Wild - Tel Aviv
Super cheap and pretty cool (and not as crazy as it sounds).  The 4-bed women's dorm room was perfect for the 3 of us $144 for me for checking in Sunday and checking out Thursday [4 nights]).  Free wifi.  Spacious lockers.  Sorta clean.  I had to kill one cockroach.  There's lots of sand, which is to be expected because we were LESS THAN A BLOCK FROM THE BEACH.  The beach was free and awesome.  We spent a couple hours there after our days doing stuff.  Bein Harim tours leave from just across the street and B&W will book them for you.  The tour itself was a 3/5, but, honestly, I did not find a lot of options for one-day tours.  Also, admittedly, part of our doorframe came down, and so did part of the bed frame.  However, I would still book all over again.  There is always someone at the desk, and we asked them at least one question a day, and they were helpful.  It's also right in the middle of blocks and blocks of shops and restaurants (Protip: 1+1 means that if one person orders one drink they get a second drink free [they don't let one person use their free drink on a 2nd person]).  Also, A BLOCK FROM THE BEACH.

And behold, I found rest and English-language movie channels.

The Colony- Haifa
The Colony was my Palace Beautiful.  It was so relaxing.  So beautiful.  So nice to have a room to myself.  So nice to not have to worry about making someone wait while I took my time getting ready.  The guy at the desk was also helpful in helping me figure out how to get where I needed to go.  It also had useful amenities.  I brought my own shampoo on my trip, I don't need the hotel to provide it.  However, I did not bring Q-tips, so seeing them in the hotel bathroom made me very happy.  Also, the giant water bottle.  Also, the hairdryer.  Also the chocolate.  Okay, maybe chocolate isn't useful, but you get the idea.  Also, for as nice as it is, it isn't super expensive.  My room with a double bed for just me for one-night was $170.  It also included breakfast, which was great for me, since it worked well with my plan to sleep in.  It's also right in the German Colony, so plenty of restaurants and right by the Baha'i Gardens.

Apartment - Herzeliya
Friends of mine rent out a studio apartment through airbnb.  It is awesome.  It's so stylish and open.  The pictures are pretty good, so click through those if you are looking for a place in Herzeliya.  Herzeliya (spelled many different ways) is about 30 minutes from Tel Aviv, and right on the beach.  Again, we couldn't see the beach from the apartment, but it was a very short walk.  There were also several shops and restaurants nearby (we practically lived at Landwer's), although it was not as dense or urban as Tel Aviv.