Violence, bloodshed and terrorism and a question of losing face or maintaining credibility

by Claude Salhani –

US President Donald Trump upped the ante with two of the United States’ most prominent enemies — Iran and North Korea — in his address to the UN General Assembly. It was not the sort of speech expected from the president of the United States of America.

“Trump’s ignorant hate speech belongs in medieval times — not the 21st-century UN — unworthy of a reply,” tweeted Iranian For­eign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. “Fake empathy for Iranians fools no one.”

Swedish Foreign Minister Mar­got Wallstrom called it “a bom­bastic, nationalist speech.” “It must have been decades since one last heard a speech like that in the UN General Assembly…. This was a speech at the wrong time to the wrong audience,” Wallstrom said.

Trump’s attempt to intervene with the international commu­nity and show he has the makings of a statesman utterly failed. His speech was far from diplomatic. Trump came across as an insecure leader attempting to justify himself in front of the interna­tional community. He appeared to be a threatening warmonger prepared to use military force rather than pursue and exhaust all diplomatic avenues.

Trump began his diatribe by mentioning how much the US economy had grown and how well the market had performed since he assumed office. Trump went on to threaten North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, saying if the United States is “forced to defend itself or its allies,” it would “totally destroy North Korea.” Trump referred to the North Korean leader as “Rocket Man” and said Kim was on a suicide course.

Turning to another country accused of developing a nuclear arsenal, Trump said Iran was being led by “a reckless regime” that openly speaks of mass murder when they vow “death to America” and “the destruction of Israel.”

“The Iranian government masks a corrupt dictatorship, behind the false guise of a democracy,” said Trump. Iran’s chief exports, the US president said, “are violence, bloodshed and chaos.” Iran is using its wealth — oil — to fund Hezbollah and support the Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Trump took aim at his favourite punching bag — former US Presi­dent Barack Obama. He called the Iran nuclear agreement reached by the Obama administration “embarrassing for the United States” and said he would revisit it.

It is obvious that Trump intended to portray himself as someone who can get things done — particularly with his comments about the economy and jobs — but anyone with half an understand­ing of those subjects knows that complex issues such as a country’s economic health and employment rate take months to properly gauge. Same for the job market. In essence, Trump was trying to cash in on the previous administration’s accomplish­ments.

This state of mind places the United States in a precarious position that could lead to serious repercussions. With Trump’s lack of support even among fellow Re­publicans on Capitol Hill, he is be­ginning to turn more and more to his generals rather than diplomats for solutions. This is a dangerous precedent for the United States. Trump’s disdain for diplomacy is reflected by his failure nine months into his presidency to fill more than half a dozen vacant top jobs in the US State Department.

He cherishes his role as com­mander-in-chief and has said he wants to emulate France’s Bastille Day military parade, to which last July he was a guest of French President Emmanuel Macron, with a similar showcase July 4 on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Trump has made clear that he believes the United States and its allies must adopt a strong line when dealing with rogue states. The president made no qualms about wiping North Korea off the face of the map and voiced similar tendencies in dealing with Iran.

This is all very well and nice, except it will jeopardise the cred­ibility of the United States and the presidency if he fails to follow up with harsh military action. After delivering such a speech, there are only two possible paths this could take, neither of which is positive.

Option one: The Iranians and the North Koreans call his bluff and Trump follows through on his threats and attacks. I can’t believe the American people are ready for two long and protracted wars in the Middle and the Far East.

Option two: The Iranians and the North Koreans continue with their programmes and Trump fails to gather the proper backing for a military intervention and loses face and credibility while weakening the presidency.

Either way, it’s a no-win situa­tion. Now it has become a matter of who is going to lose face: Iran or Trump? North Korea or Trump? In short, Trump has set a line in the sand that may be too close for comfort.

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Not all refugees are created equal

by Claude Salhani

Not all refugees are created equal nor do all refugees receive the same treatment.

The world watched in disbe­lief as millions of Americans be­came temporary refugees as they tried to remain one step ahead of Harvey and Irma, the killer storms that unleashed nature’s fury on parts of Texas and Florida.

So ferocious were the storms that the mayor of one Florida town labelled Irma a “nuclear hurricane.” The news coverage on American television, which documented the event minute by minute, featured the various net­works sending their top anchors to report standing ridiculously under heavy rain and dangerously in the middle of the actual storms.

Watching the rescuers caring not only for the people affected by the storms but also for their cats and dogs, I could not help but compare the neat and orderly evacuation of the Americans to the chaotic, disorganised and archaic experience of Syrian and Iraqi refugees fleeing man-made disasters. No government assis­tance here for the people, let alone for their pets.

Footage from various Carib­bean islands after the hurricanes’ passage, however, is reminiscent of the images of Syrian cities’ victims of the ongoing civil war. St. Kitts and parts of Puerto Rico mirrored images of Aleppo, Homs and Raqqa without the weapons.

The US government as well as state, county and city authorities were well organised and prepared to handle the back-to-back disas­ters, unlike the authorities in Syria and Iraq who mostly left the refu­gees to fend for themselves. Were it not for the actions of interna­tional relief agencies, these refu­gees would have had almost no help. In the US, President Donald Trump made two separate visits to the stricken areas and spent a few minutes handing out care packag­es, food and water. This is a stark contrast to the picture in Syria.

“The world must do more to help Syrian refugee children get an ed­ucation,” actress Priyanka Chopra said after chatting and joking with young refugees at an after-school centre in Jordan’s capital, Amman.

As has been pointed out numer­ous times in these very pages, education is the key to resolving the crises plaguing the Middle East. Be it a political conflict or a religious-based dispute, the root of the turmoil affecting the Middle East inevitably remains the same: Lack of education.

As Kazakhstan President Nur­sultan Nazarbayev likes to say, the solution to the problems facing militant Islam are three words: “education, education and educa­tion.”

“Individuals can make a differ­ence with donations if govern­ments don’t step up,” said Chopra, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and Bollywood and Hollywood star.

“We need to take it into our own hands because this is our world and we only have one of it,” Chopra told the Associated Press at the end of her first day in Jordan.

In addition to the army of federal, state, county and city rescue workers helping the Texan refugees from Hurricane Harvey, hundreds of individuals from as far away as California went to the affected areas with their boats, volunteering to help with search-and-rescue operations in the Houston area. In Florida, the US Navy dispatched aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, amphibi­ous assault ship USS Iwo Jima (a helicopter carrier) and amphibious transport dock ship USS New York to a position where it could pro­vide humanitarian relief support to federal, state and local authori­ties if requested.

After the fierce division brought about by Trump’s policies, Ameri­cans were suddenly united by the disaster wreaked by the hurri­canes. It was no longer a Texan or Floridan problem, but a national issue.

In Jordan, Chopra urged the world to take a similar approach to the disaster in Syria.

“I think the world needs to understand that this is not just a Syrian refugee crisis, it’s a human­itarian crisis,” said the Bollywood/ Hollywood actress.

The civil war in Syria has af­fected hundreds of thousands of children who without sufficient support “can be an entire gen­eration of kids that could turn to extremism because they have not gotten an education,” Chopra said.

Some 5 million Syrians have fled civil war in their homeland since 2011, with many settling in nearby Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. The influx has overbur­dened host countries, especially their educational systems. More than half a million Syrian refugee children of school age — or one-third of the total — are not enrolled in school or informal education in the host countries. The United Nations and international aid agencies supporting the refugees routinely face large funding gaps.

The UN child welfare agency supports more than 200 refugee education centres in Jordan. Given their inadequate level of care and education, which is sometimes religiously biased, the next gen­eration of extremists is already guaranteed.

 

 

 

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Religious extremism remains the world’s top enemy

By Claude Salnani-=

 

September 11 will be the 16th anniversary of the 2001 terror attacks that destroyed the Twin Towers in New York and damaged the Pentagon just outside Washington. Those attacks led to the beginning of the so-called war on terror as then US President George W. Bush called it.

As a handful of Middle East analysts asked at the time, how do you launch a war on terror? You can wage war on terrorism, yes; or on terrorists, yes; but terror is an emotion. Declaring war on terror is akin to waging war on fear.

As expected, these terror attacks against the United States brought about swift military ripostes, which came in the form of the invasion of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq. Just as Pearl Harbour had direct or indirect implications on the lives of millions of Americans, so, too, did the 9/11 attacks affect the lives of many people around the globe.

There were political and military chain reactions to various aspects of people’s daily lives, many of which continue to be felt. As a direct result of the 9/11 attacks, for example, Big Brother is every­where, watching through a vast and extended network of CCTV cam­eras. There are added security measures imposed on all travellers at airports.

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Iran’s provocations may prove costly

by Claude Salhani –

Iran has threatened to resume its nuclear programme and its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has continued to provoke the US Navy in the Arabian Gulf, putting into question an international ac­cord formulated under the Obama administration,

US President Donald Trump has accused the Iranians of violating the spirit of the Joint Comprehen­sive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement between Tehran and world powers regarding Iran’s nu­clear programme.

Following pointed Twitter ex­changes between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who threatened the well-being of the US territory of Guam and possibly Hawaii after Trump warned of “fire and fury,” there is potential for a new nuclear-oriented conflict.

This time the fight is with Iran. This crisis has the potential of developing into a far more serious dispute than the one with North Korea. The reason is quite simple.

Apart from the heavily policed demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, there is no possibility of US forces coming into contact with the North Koreans. In the Gulf, however, the Iranians seem intent on provoking the Americans into an international conflict.

As in all aspects of foreign policy, there are two schools of thought on Iran and its nuclear capabilities. Actually, better make that three diverse schools of thought.

First, there are the optimists who believe they can talk the Iranians out of any given situation if they are given enough time. Then there are the pessimists who believe that the only way Iran will give up its weapons is if the West flexes some muscle.

The third group — the realists — understands why the West fears a nuclear-armed Iran and why the Iranians are so intent on obtaining nuclear weapons.

To understand the reasons that propel Iran to pursue its nuclear dreams, examine two major events that will shape Iran’s foreign policy for years to come.

The first is the eight-year war be­tween Iran and its neighbour Iraq, during which about 1 million peo­ple were killed. Iran came close to capitulation at one point during the war and suffered severe punish­ment from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the form of chemical weapons deployed on the front lines.

It was at that point that the ayatollahs vowed never to allow the country to fall into such a vulner­able position again. The key to that problem, the Iranian leadership decided, was to be found in nuclear weapons.

The second event was the US invasion of Iraq. Tehran concluded that it may well be vulnerable to an American invasion and determined that the only sure deterrence was in acquiring nuclear weapons.

The US Navy has accused the Ira­nians of flying drones dangerously close to one of its aircraft carriers in the Gulf, while the IRGC defended its right to carry out air patrol mis­sions in the area.

The US Naval Forces Central Command said that an Iranian drone had come within 300 metres of a US Navy aircraft carrier while it was in international waters in the Gulf conducting flight operations. A spokesman for the US 5th Fleet said the Iranian drone “conducted an unsafe and unprofessional approach” as it passed by the USS Nimitz without navigation lights late August 13.

The IRGC said in a statement published on Tasnim News Agency that “it carries out air patrol mis­sions in Iran’s air defence identi­fication zone every day and in ac­cordance with current regulations.”

“The Revolutionary Guards drones are equipped with standard navigation systems and are con­trolled professionally,” it added.

The IRGC accused the United States, which claims Iran has insti­gated about a dozen such incidents, of not having “capable identifica­tion and reconnaissance systems.”

With Trump’s John Wayne-like outlook on some foreign policy issues, continued provocations by the Iranians may prove to be a costly way to conduct business.

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Promoting democracy in Middle East, a thing of the past in Washington

 

by Claude Salhani

It appears the United States is getting out of the democ­racy-spreading business — at least while the current president remains in the White House. The Washing­ton Post reported that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ordered the US State Department to redefine its mission and issue a new statement of purpose.

The Post report stated that draft statements under review were similar to the old mission statement, except for one thing: Any mention of promoting democracy was being elimi­nated.

This reversal of recent policy could herald bad news in the Middle East, where democracy is either unavailable or attainable only in limited quantities. On the other hand, not many will regret Washington’s abandonment of democracy promotion in the region.

Democracy promotion under President George W. Bush involved an agenda that did not exclude the use of military force and did not care whether people in the region were ready for it. The Bush administration’s policy was to export democracy as if Jeffersonian democracy was a one-size-fits-all, off-the-shelf item.

It was an agenda that favoured the indiscriminate ascent of civil society and the atrophy of the state, even at the expense of disorder and strife. It was an agenda premised on the partici­pation of Islamists even when they were not ready to govern or play a leading role in the demo­cratic process.

The results were often increased chaos and violence.

Washington believed it could treat the Middle East as a homogenous zone and failed to understand that, despite Arab societies’ many uniting similari­ties — such as language, religion, culture and history — there are also vast differences between them.

The administration of US President Donald Trump is following a very different foreign policy than previous US adminis­trations, particularly regarding the promotion of democracy in the Middle East.

Trump does not seem to place the same importance on promot­ing democracy as Bush did when he ordered the invasion of Iraq, overthrew the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and acted as though the United States could export Western democracy to Middle Eastern countries.

A newcomer to politics, Trump apparently thought he could apply his business experience to the cut-throat world of interna­tional politics. Nothing could be further from reality. The presi­dent’s behaviour is unorthodox when it comes to diplomacy, to say the least.

While campaigning, Trump lashed out at his predecessor, accusing Barack Obama of failing to act on several foreign policy issues, including the Middle East. Now Trump is starting to realise that diplomacy, geopoli­tics and business are very different animals.

Although the United States’ desire to bring democratic reforms to the region remains on its agenda, it does so today at a much less urgent pace. Indeed, some may regret Washington’s loss of immediate interest in seeing much-needed democratic reforms take place in the greater Middle East. Nevertheless, the Arab region’s abandonment by official Washington will not be regretted by others.

Without the United States’ activist posture, the Middle East might be able to realise on its own that it needs democracy and build one from within regardless of what Trump might think.

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Sudan: The Arab world’s and Africa’s forgotten conflict

http://www.thearabweekly.com/Opinion/9012/Sudan%3A-The-Arab-world%E2%80%99s-and-Africa%E2%80%99s-forgotten-conflict

by Claude Salhani

Unlike conflicts in the Middle East and parts of Africa that grab the spotlight and make front-page news in the world’s leading media outlets, the armed conflicts that have plagued Sudan since its inde­pendence have a hard time getting the world’s attention.

Sudan, a predominately Arab country in northern Africa, is one of the poorest places in the world. Its infrastructure and public services leave much to be desired and the country ranks among the world’s lowest in key domains such as human rights, economy and education.

While the conflict in Sudan is very real and murderous, it at times appears to belong more in an Evelyn Waugh novel.

After gaining its independence from Great Britain and Egypt in 1956, Sudan had decades of civil conflict, with the people voting to allow the south to secede in 2011. This split Sudan, then Africa’s largest country, into two sovereign states: Sudan and South Sudan. Three times the size of France, Sudan claims to have a road network of some 17,000km but only 200km are paved.

The referendum in January 2011 indicated overwhelming support for the south’s independ­ence. South Sudan officially gained independence on July 9, 2011. Sudan and South Sudan have yet to fully implement security and economic agree­ments signed in September 2012 to normalise relations. The final disposition of the contested Abyei region has also yet to be decided.

The underlying causes of Sudan’s multiple wars are many. There is the religious war between the Christian south and the Muslim north. The north is mostly Arab and Muslim, whereas the south is Christian and Animist. Despite having some of Africa’s largest oil reserves, South Sudan is poorer than Sudan. Second, there are wars between various tribes and militias, such as the Janjaweed, which operates in western Sudan and eastern Chad.

Following South Sudan’s independence, fighting broke out between the government forces and the Sudan People’s Libera­tion Movement-North, which is active in Southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile (together known as the Two Areas). The clashes resulted in the death of tens of thousands of people and created a refugee crisis, displacing nearly 1.1 million people.

In 2003, Janjaweed went on a killing spree in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, displacing nearly 2 million people and claiming thousands of more lives. While fighting between government and opposition forces has largely subsided in both regions, civilians are threatened by low-level violence, including inter-tribal conflicts and crime, which is largely a result of the weak rule of law.

For all intents and purposes, Sudan is a failed state incapable of providing security for its citizens. Efforts to quell the violence by the United Nations and the African Union have not succeeded. Peacekeeping forces from the United Nations and the African Union have been dis­patched to Darfur.

Already weighed down by massive social and economic problems, including the provi­sion of housing for millions of refugees from its own country, Sudan is further troubled by an influx of refugees from neigh­bouring countries, primarily Ethiopia, Eritrea, Chad, Central African Republic and South Sudan. Armed conflict, poor transportation and the inability of the central government to offer any tangible solutions to the country’s problems have contrib­uted to Sudan’s dire condition.

In the past, Khartoum was accused of aiding and abetting terrorism. Former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden sought refuge in Sudan until, under international pressure, he fled to Afghanistan.

While bin Laden may have been forced out of the country, a state of anarchy persists in Sudan, making it an ideal haven for terrorists.

The US Department of State has warned US citizens not to travel to Sudan:

“US citizens should avoid all travel to the Darfur region, Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan states and consider carefully before planning travel to other areas of Sudan due to the risks of terrorism, armed conflict and violent crime,” reads the agency’s travel warning.

“The US embassy’s ability to provide services outside of Khartoum is extremely limited. Terrorist groups are active in Sudan and have stated their intent to harm Westerners and Western interests through suicide operations, bombings, shootings and kidnappings. Violent crime targeting Westerners, including kidnappings, armed robberies, home invasions and carjackings occur everywhere in Sudan but are particularly prevalent in the Darfur region.”

“Despite numerous ceasefires declared by the government of Sudan and opposition forces, tensions in the Darfur region… remain high and violence contin­ues. In addition to risking injury or death, US citizens who go to these areas without the permis­sion of the Sudanese government may be detained by security forces,” the travel warning stated.

These embassy warnings may well be the only media coverage that the tragic story in Sudan receives. There is no end in sight for the country, its conflicts and its many problems.

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Is a new Palestinian intifada on the way?

by Claude Salhani

The UN Security Council convened in an emergency session to address the violence that flared up once again in the Holy Land as Israelis and Palestinians exchanged bullets, tear gas and knife stabbings and hurled rocks and accusations at each other.

At least seven people were killed and dozens injured. The Palestinian Authority said Israeli security forces arrested more than 900 protesters. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinian Authority suspended all communication and cooperation with Israel. The violence spread to neighbouring Jordan when an attacker struck at the Israeli Embassy in Amman.

Sadly, it’s a safe bet that any resolution adopted by the United Nations regarding ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will amount to the equivalent of applying Band-Aids to a patient requiring major surgery.

The reality is that there is no alternative to reaching a lasting solution to the problem — the creation of a Palestinian state that can coexist peacefully alongside the state of Israel. Given the political realities in the region, that would require nothing short of a miracle.

If those attempting to bring peace to the troubled Middle East bothered to consult history books, they would quickly learn that, short of settling the 7-decade-old dispute in Palestine once and for all, periodic violence will inevitably continue to haunt the region.

Applying interim and temporary ceasefires and short-term peace accords only serves to fuel the animosity and general frustration that each actor in this never-ending drama collects and ultimately harbours for the other side. When that pent-up energy is released, it does so with renewed vigour, climbing to worsening levels of violence.

As for UN resolutions, suffice to look at previous ones passed by the Security Council, such as Resolution 242, adopted unanimously on November 22, 1967, after the June 1967 Six- Day War. Long considered a cornerstone for future negotiations on the Israeli-Palestinian problem, it has yet to be implemented.

The recent violence erupted after Israeli security installed metal detectors at the entrance to the Dome of the Rock, considered Islam’s third holiest site after Mecca and Medina. Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven on his winged horse, Buraq, from the site where al-Aqsa Mosque sits today. Palestinians see this latest Israeli move as an attempt to control access to the holy site.

There is a very good reason why the United Nations did not waste time in calling for the Security Council meeting, hoping to suppress the violence before it expanded. Similarly, Washington was quick to dispatch an envoy to the region hoping to quell the unrest.

Indeed, the United States and Russia saw the clear danger from an escalation of violence between Palestinians and Israelis. With large areas of the Middle East in turmoil as the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate is pushed out of Iraq and Syria, the last thing the region or the major powers want is a new active front.

But, if miracles are no longer common occurrence in the Holy Land, changes in attitude and political stances do happen. Indeed, after saying that the metal detectors at the Dome of the Rock would remain in place, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu agreed, even if reluctantly, to remove them. As pressure mounted, the Israel security cabinet agreed to replace them with other systems.

Netanyahu’s decision to remove the metal detectors and back down in the face of Palestinian demands is itself a major change in Israel’s policy, but is unlikely to be the last word regarding this issue.

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What’s next after Mosul and Raqqa?

By Claude Salhani

Units of the Iraqi Army’s special forces, trained and supported by the United States, celebrated their victory over the Islamic State (ISIS) in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

In the war against ISIS, Iraq has the political backing of several Eu­ropean and Arab countries, includ­ing most of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members.

Shortly after their defeat in Mosul, ISIS jihadists will almost cer­tainly be removed from the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the short-lived caliphate. Here, a much-weakened ISIS will likely face its last stand, this time against the the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and their allies.

While the war to defeat ISIS in Iraq is quite clear — at least as clear as the fog of war permits in the complex and often murky world of Middle Eastern politics — the fact is that ISIS is fighting one coalition in Iraq and another in Syria. This does not automatically make the two anti-ISIS coalitions allies or even friends.

The civil war in Syria complicates matters even further.

The war against ISIS in Syria, supported by Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, does not bring these factions any closer. Despite Russia and the United States both fighting to eradi­cate ISIS, this does not make the two superpowers any friendlier to one another, either. Instead, it risks putting their political differences on the front lines of the Syrian conflict, as recently took place when the United States shot down a Syrian war plane.

The alliances created out of military necessity have brought together the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, the GCC countries and a scattering of European and Arab countries.

ISIS’s imminent defeat on the battlefield does not mean the end of the Islamist threat, however.

Indeed, routing ISIS on the bat­tlefield creates new problems that must be addressed immediately. Ignoring those issues would create further chaos in the region and beyond.

What comes next is not going to be easy or simple to resolve.

Authorities will have to expe­dite rebuilding population centres destroyed in the fighting. Winter is only a few months away and the number of refugees is staggering. They will want to ensure there are adequate living conditions to house refugees before cold weather sets in.

Tonnes of rubble will need to be cleared and financial investors will need to be invited to rebuild the cities and gradually fix the ugly scars of war. The military will need to start removing the thousands of landmines and unexploded ordnance.

An urgent refugee crisis requires immediate attention, as many of the millions of people displaced by the fighting will head back to the area.

The refugee crisis has not only affected the countries involved in the conflict but spilled into neigh­bouring countries in the Levant and into Europe.

Syria, with the civil war continu­ing, faces a greater problem, as ISIS was only one of the factions fight­ing the regime.

Additionally, military sources have estimated that approximately 60,000 ISIS fighters were thrown into the fight in Mosul, not all of whom were killed or captured in Iraq.

As the jihadists were being pushed out of their last stronghold in Iraq, many made their way to Raqqa. Respite for the jihadists, if any, will likely be brief before the same scenario that took place in Iraq unfolds in Syria. Thousands, if not more, of experienced, combat-hardened and angry young men will scatter across the Levant and Europe. Both Iraq and Syria face nearly insurmountable problems.

Syria, Iraq and the international community will have little time to celebrate before the reality of the situation makes itself known.

Both cities will have to be rebuilt. Both cities are faced with a refugee problem of gigantic proportions. Of the 60,000 or so Islamist fighters, not all were killed or captured. Many will filter back to their native countries in Europe and the Arab world.

Are the countries concerned pre­pared from a security and humani­tarian point of view? Will Europe step up to the plate, given how the United States, with President Donald Trump, is preoccupied with domestic issues? The US president’s tweeting addiction may leave him watching from the sidelines. Or will Russia, with its ambitious presi­dent, try to fill the void?

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Why are Arabs and Israelis unable to reach a peaceful settlement?

By Claude Salhani


I remember in junior high school learning about the Hundred Years’ War between England and France and laughing, thinking how impossible it would be. Looking at the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel, however, we come to realise that we are not far from reaching the landmark century point. Only 30 years to go and, at the rate relations are going, this conflict might surpass the 100-year mark.

The setback in such instances is that the longer a conflict remains unresolved, the more difficult it be­comes to resolve it. Time changes everything, including conflicts. The principal actors change, their position on the world stage changes, their supporters change. Alliances and friends can change, as can one’s enemies. This conflict has changed faces more than once. What began as a conflict over real estate has metamorphosed into a clash of ideologies, politics and religions.

US President Donald Trump had high hopes of making rapid head­way in narrowing the wide divide keeping the Palestinians and Israe­lis apart and ironing out a quick fix in the early days of his presidency. However, as anyone with a grain of knowledge of the Middle East will attest, his failure to secure a lasting peace initiative could have been predicted. There is no quick fix for this 70-year-old problem. Indeed, the only fix seems to be the one set by Israel and peace does not seem to be in the cards or on Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netan­yahu’s agenda.

History has shown that any real move towards a peace deal be­tween Arabs and Israelis requires the full attention of the office of the president of the United States and all the prestige that goes with it. That was the case when US Presi­dent Jimmy Carter convened Egyp­tian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the Camp David presiden­tial retreat in 1978. The Camp David peace accords were eventually signed, paving the way for the first peace deal between Israel and an Arab country.

Given the political upheaval sur­rounding Trump and the contro­versies surrounding several major issues he is trying to address on the domestic front — health reform, tax reform, etc. — the US president will find it extremely difficult to devote time exclusively to resolving the complex and delicate Middle East conflict.

If one is to read the political tea leaves correctly, Trump’s problems are likely to increase, despite the US Supreme Court ruling par­tially in favour of his travel ban on people from six Muslim-majority countries.

Why, despite all the early op­timism that the president could quickly wrap up a Middle East peace deal, do we seem caught up in the same quicksand environ­ment that the previous 17 major attempts at resolving the dispute fell into?

Despite optimism that came with the new American president and the winds of change that are blowing through the region, why is there still lethargy in the Middle East to negotiating peace?

There are two basic reasons for this. First, there is absolutely no trust between the two principal antagonists. Netanyahu is firmly opposed to granting the Pales­tinians the state they desire and deserve. So long as he remains in power, the likelihood of the Pales­tinians creating an independent state is next to nil.

On the Palestinian side, Presi­dent Mahmoud Abbas is politically incapable of making meaningful concessions, especially given the fact that he only speaks for the Pal­estinians living in the West Bank. The Palestine Liberation Organisa­tion has no control over the Gaza Strip, where 1.86 million people live under the rule of the pro-Is­lamists of the Hamas movement.

Hamas, under the influence of the Sunni Gulf countries, has begun to distance itself from the Iranians and the Muslim Brother­hood, a first step in a long process that will hopefully lead to a peace­ful settlement eventually.

In the meantime, there is plenty of blame to go around. Each side’s demands can be justified, up to a point. You cannot blame the Israe­lis for their intransigence when it comes to the question of security. As much as Netanyahu likes to remind anyone who will listen that the United States is Israel’s best friend and that the United States will never let Israel down, there is a point beyond which Israel will not outsource its security, even to the United States.

As for the Palestinians, who have spent seven decades under condi­tions of occupation with no state to call their own, can we really blame them?

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Geopolitical pot could quickly reach a boiling point

by Claude Salhani


Syrian President Bashar Assad may well be accused of being a brutal, ruthless dictator who has caused more harm to Syria than any other national leader or foreign enemy. Assad has been accused of surpassing his father Hafez’s taste for violence and blood.

In his quest to remain on the throne, so to speak, he has lied to his people and to the international community. However, amid all the manipulation, juxtaposing for dominance and lies, there was one particular statement from Assad early in the civil war on which he has kept his word: Assad promised the international community that interference in the Syrian conflict would drag them into hell.

The civil war, for which Assad carries a good load of responsibil­ity, has claimed more lives and caused greater damage to Syria than all the wars with Israel com­bined. It has created an unprec­edented refugee crisis, affecting not only the immediate region but spreading around the Levant and into Europe. Now it is pitting the old Cold War enemies — Russia and the United States — against each other in what could amount to a dangerous confrontation between the two nuclear-armed countries.

Wars have been started for much less than what is at stake here. An added danger in today’s explosive situation is the mega­lomaniacal leaders of the two countries concerned: Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.

In Putin, Russia has a powerful president who has refurbished his military and has been testing its newly acquired armaments in a real combat setting in Syria. From 1950s-vintage AK-47 assault rifle to the antiquated T-54/T-55 and T-62 battle tanks, Moscow has replaced them with the more modern AK-12 assault rifles and the T-90 battle tank.

While the United States remains a formidable power to contend with, the country is in no way ready for a major conflict in the Middle East, especially a war that would not be limited to a single geographic theatre of operations and could spread worldwide.

A highly volatile geopolitical pot is simmering and the ingredients needed to reach the boiling point are being added day by day. It is insanity to have the Russians sup­port one side and the US support another side in the Syrian civil war and not expect the two forces to clash. The major difference in the danger level of a US-Russian confrontation today and in the days of the Cold War is due to both countries having troops on the ground and forces in the air, whereas in the past the United States and the Soviet Union of­fered support and armament to their Middle East clients.

The shooting down of a Syrian war plane by the United States contributed to wedging the two sides further apart and closer to a direct confrontation. While Washington and Moscow may be wise enough to realise that there would be no victor in a new world war, one that would make Russia’s Great Patriotic War appear tame by comparison, it would not be all that impossible for Assad, in his continued scorched earth policy, to push the Russians and the Americans into a disastrous and insane military misadventure.

This is not crying wolf. The dangers of a direct conflagration between nuclear-armed Rus­sia and nuclear-armed United States are all too possible. The precariousness of the situation is comparable to the one that prevailed in Europe on the eve of the first world war, when “the war to end all wars” was ignited with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by an anarchist in Sarajevo.

Today, the stakes are far higher. Syria, in its present state of gen­eral anarchy and sectarian divi­sions, is comparable to a Sarajevo with nuclear weapons attached to the archduke’s

undercarriage. If this conflict reaches this critical level it will not be the war to end all wars but more likely the war to end the world as we know it.

No one imagined in 1914 the disastrous effects and the con­sequences of that shot fired in Sarajevo. Let us hope that history does not repeat itself. Let us hope that saner minds prevail. It is time to put an end to this murderous conflict in Syria.

 

 

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