Thursday, August 28, 2008

Limited powers

This article, in this morning's Financial Times, caught my eye. It details the efforts of the latest governor of Helmand province, Gulab Mangal, to root out endemic corruption. Mangal, reports the writer, dresses up in disguise and goes out on his weekends looking for policemen seeking bribes. "If they are junior, I sack them on the spot," he is quoted as saying, proudly. Which begs a question - what if they are senior?

To be fair to Mangal, however, the article goes on to suggest that he is trying to break up the local opium trade which, UN figures published earlier this week showed, grew to new record levels in this year's springtime harvest. The UN focused on the fact that overall production in Afghanistan was down, but a drought appears significantly responsible for the fall.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Golda Meir: the Iron Lady of the Middle East

Tomorrow's Sunday Times runs my review of Elinor Burkett's new biography of the Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir. Here it is.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

What's going on in Syria?

It's been six years since I went to Syria, so I am not well qualified to talk with insight on the goings-on inside that state. But a report in this morning's Times that a senior Syrian general with links to Hizbollah was shot dead in the port of Tartous last Friday caught my eye. The Times has followed up the story today, quoting an analyst who says that the dead man, Mohammed Suleiman, was the liaison officer between the Syrian regime and the Lebanese political party/terror group/state within a state.* Interestingly, according to Haaretz, Syria's state-controlled media did not report the killing which, presumably, they might have done if they suspected a foreign hand at work.

Syria is being pulled in two different directions. The French, and quietly the British, have been making overtures to the British-educated President Assad (whose wife was brought up in Acton, west London), hoping to separate him from the Iranians. Syria has started talking to Israel, using Turkey as a mediator. On the other hand the President is surrounded by an older generation he inherited from his father, Hafiz, who built close ties with Iran in order to weaken neighbouring Iraq. Whether or not to maintain those ties is now the question. Assad appears to be trying to bridge the gap, saying in the Syrian newspaper Tishreen yesterday that on his trip to Teheran this past weekend he had not been acting as a go-between the West and President Ahmadinejad. On his visit he also met the Ayatollah, drawing attention to his own connection, as an Alawite, to the Shia branch of Islam. He is clearly anxious not to be seen as a puppet of the west.

The Times suggests that the assassination of Suleiman (who, judging by his home-town, is likely also to be an Alawite) is linked to internal tensions over tactics. The absence of comment on the murder in the Syrian press and my own, slightly unsettling, experience of meeting one or two the old guard six years ago make that sound eminently plausible.

* Delete as preferred