Hollande: France would recognize provisional Syrian government

Criticized by some in recent weeks, including his predecessor, for foot-dragging on Syria, French President Francois Hollande suggested one way to raise the diplomatic stakes today: 

"France asks the Syrian opposition to form a provisional government - inclusive and representative - that can become the legitimate representative of the new Syria," Hollande said in a speech to France's corps of ambassadors.

"We are including our Arab partners to accelerate this step," he said at the presidential palace, without elaborating. "France will recognize the provisional government of Syria once it is formed."

France, along with Italy and Qatar, was one of the first countries to recognize the Transitional National Council as the legitimate government of LIbya last year.  This may turn out to be harder in the case of Syria, where the opposition leadership seems more divided.

The U.S. government says Hollande's comments don't represent an international position and that the United States will not be making a similar declaration any time soon. Last summer, I wrote that the U.S. government probably wouldn't recognize the Libyan rebels while Muammar al-Qaddafi was still in power as it traditionally avoids wading into recognition battles when the situation on the ground isn't settled and there's no international consensus on legitimacy. That turned out to be completely wrong.


Al-Shabab's rough week

It has been a particularly rough week for al-Shabab. The al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist militia that has been battling for control of Somalia for the past few years has suffered three major setbacks in the course of a few days.

Just last month,  prominent al-Shabab-affiliated cleric Sheikh Aboud Rogo was fingered in a leaked UN report on Somalia as a key recruiter for the group in East Africa with strong ties to al Qaeda. On the morning of Aug. 27, he was shot in his car along with several members of his family as they drove through Mombasa, Kenya.

No assailants have been identified, but crowds of thousands of Rogo's outraged supporters have taken in the streets of Mombasa to protest his death.  At least one person has been reported dead so far and two churches have been vandalized by mobs, Jeune Afrique reported.

According to the U.N. report, Rogo was a key figure in the leadership of the Muslim Youth Centre (MYC) -- also known as Al-Hijra -- one of al-Shabab's main support networks in Kenya:

"The MYC relies heavily on the ideological guidance of prominent Kenyan Islamist extremists including Sheikh Aboud Rogo, a radical cleric based in Mombasa, Kenya, known associate of member of Al-Qaida East Africa and advocate of the violent overthrow of the Kenyan government. In consultation with Rogo, MYC has not only changed its name, but reorganized its membership and finances in order to permit its organization, the Pumwani Riyadha Mosque Committee (PRMC) in Nairobi, to continue funding Al Shabab."

Only a few days before Rogo's death, the U.N. Security Council announced that it was implementing targeted sanctions against Abubaker Shariff Ahmed, another Mombasa-based Kenyan national with deep links to al-Shabab.  Ahmed has been in prison for over two years in Kenya for his involvement in a grenade attack on a Nairobi bus depot that killed three.

According to the Security Council resolution, Ahmed has six known aliases and is "a close associate of Aboud Rogo." Rogo's name is the only one mentioned in the Security Council resolution condemning Ahmed. Both men were placed under sanctions by the U.S. at the same time on July 5, 2012.

Also on the morning of Aug. 27, the AFP reported that African Union AMISOM troops captured the coastal al-Shabab stronghold of Marka:

"The loss of Marka, some 70 kilometres (45 miles) south of the capital Mogadishu, is another major blow for the insurgents, who have been on the back foot for several months."

Al-Shabab was pushed out of Mogadishu, the Somali capital, last year and has suffered number of further defeats over the past several months. However, they still maintain control of the two port cities of Barawe and Kismayo, their main stronghold.

Whether these events represent different strands of a coordinated regional crackdown on al-Shabab activities or whether the group is encountering a rather startling wave bad luck remains unclear.