Celebrating shallow victories in the Middle East only ignores dangerously mounting escalation

The downing of an Israeli warplane over the Golan Heights by Iranian and Syrian forces was celebrated by pro-Iran and other radical quarters as a major victory ushering in a “strategic reversal” in the region.

This rash celebration ignores the mounting dangers. Unless Iran’s dangerous escalation of tensions in the region is not checked — and quickly — the price of such shallow victories could be very costly. And who is set to pay the price? The people of Lebanon and Syria.

The sudden rise in regional tensions that already have the Middle East on the edge of an explosive precipice comes after Tehran crossed a new line in the sand. Indications are that Iran tried a direct attack against Israel from a base near Homs, Syria used by Iran’s al-Quds Force.

Iran’s surprise assault on an Israeli position in the Golan Heights failed when the Israelis intercepted an unmanned aerial vehicle and attacked the Iranian base, destroying the command centre and a mobile launch vehicle.

Russian surface-to-air missiles supplied by Moscow to the Syrians were fired at Israeli planes, striking an Israeli F-16. In response, the Israelis destroyed SA-5 and SA-17 missile batteries in Syria.

The knee-jerk reaction to this precarious rise in tensions was to shout victory from the rooftops, a common trend in the Arab world. However, this reaction in such instances is narrow-minded and presents risks of an all-out escalation that could lead the region to a doomsday scenario in which there would be no winners. Such a mindset is stuck in the thinking of the 1960s and 1970s.

“That is potentially a game-changer and helps to explain the Israeli response, which was designed to leave no doubt with the Iranians that they are playing with fire,” wrote Dennis Ross, a former US State Department official who was the leading Middle East negotiator under several US presidents.

Because this is a potential game-changer, it should serve as a wake-up call for the Trump administration to get active in the Middle East. Ross, now a counsellor and William Davidson distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute, said ignoring Iran’s military participation and interference in the region would produce a much wider conflict that places the Israelis and Iranians in direct contact.

It is imperative that the violence is prevented from escalating. The Russians are the only power capable of imposing their dictum and flexing muscle in Syria so they must make their position clear to the Syrians and the Iranians.

Russian President Vladimir Putin could indicate — at the insistence of the Americans and Europeans — that the Iranians have gone too far in their irresponsible behaviour, which has placed Russian forces based in Syria in jeopardy.

Putin could pressure the Syrians and Iranians with Russian air support, which has allowed Syrian President Bashar Assad to remain in power and tilted the war in favour of the Syrian government. Without Russian air power, advisers of Iran’s al-Quds Force, with the Shia militias, including Hezbollah, would become vulnerable.

Experts ask whether Putin will acquiesce. They wonder if US President Donald Trump, who seems to have a soft spot for Russia, could convince Moscow.

Events in the region suggest the Middle East has rarely been closer to an all-out conflagration in which no one would emerge the victor — least of all the Lebanese and Syrian people. But when did the well-being of the local population get in the way of the area’s political leaderships?

Iran’s presence in Syria raises the stakes in a very dangerous game. Tehran’s leaders couldn’t care less if Israel were to retaliate against Syria for offensive actions initiated by the Iranian military forces there. Tehran would likely welcome the chance to confront Israel and test some of its new weapons, those locally made and those recently acquired from Russia.

When watching events in the Middle East, one gets the feeling of viewing a rerun of old events, with a new tragic twist each time. It would have to be hoped that, with time, the political leadership of some countries in the region would have matured but that is wishful thinking.

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Totally unacceptable statistics in the Middle East


It is said that truth is the first casualty of war. If so, then children are a close second.

Children find themselves trapped in the crossfire, becoming victims in a conflict they did not choose and becoming even more vulnerable when their parents are killed. At least 83 children were killed in conflict zones in the Middle East and North Africa during January, the UN children’s agency said.

They died in fighting in Iraq, Libya, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Yemen, UNICEF said in a statement. Some children were killed during suicide attacks.

Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, called the deaths “unacceptable” and said they represented a breach of international law.

“These children have paid the highest price for wars that they have absolutely no responsibility for. Their lives have been cut short; their families forever broken in grief,” he said.

All too often children are recruited to fight. During the Iraq-Iran war, in which close to 1 million people died on both sides, the Iranians would dispatch young boys to march ahead of the older fighters, thus clearing minefields. In exchange the boys were promised an eternal place in paradise.

Violent conflicts affect different children in different ways. Besides the obvious physical wounds caused by exchanges of fire and the unfortunate targeting of civilians in what the military calls “collateral damage,” there are the deep psychological scars that may take years to diagnose.

UNICEF said 59 children were killed in Syria last month. In Yemen, 16 children died in January with UNICEF receiving reports of casualties on a “daily basis,” Cappelaere said.

A suicide attack killed three children in Benghazi, Libya, where three others died while playing near an unexploded bomb that detonated. Other fatalities included a boy shot near Ramallah in the West Bank and a child killed by a bomb in Mosul, Iraq.

Along with those killed in the conflicts, four children were among 16 Syrian refugees who froze to death after fleeing the battle in their country.

Conflicts across the Middle East and North Africa have taken a “devastating toll” on children in the region, Cappelaere said.

“Not hundreds, not thousands but millions more children in the Middle East and North Africa region have their childhood stolen, maimed for life, traumatised, arrested and detained, exploited, prevented from going to school and from getting the most essential health services; denied even the basic right to play,” he said.

Once, while on a radio programme in Washington talking about war in the Middle East, I was asked if there would ever be peace in the Middle East. The host added: “You have 30 seconds to reply before we go to commercial break.” I had half a minute to round up my nearly 30 years of experience covering violent conflicts in the Middle East.

My best effort at a comprehensive reply was as follows: “Yes, I do believe there will be peace in the Middle East someday but for that to happen the antagonists must have greater love for their children than the hate they currently harbour of their enemy.”

I never really understood wars although I have covered several of them as a photojournalist before transitioning into a correspondent and an analyst. After the birth of my first child, I understood the willingness of engaging an enemy in battle even less. I would be willing to do just about anything to prevent my son going to fight in a war. However, what I found to be quite common in the conflicts I covered was the ease with which these children were sent off to do battle.

The Geneva Conventions, which set out the laws of conflict, call for the protection of children during war. All 193 members of the United Nations ratified the conventions. But how many countries respect the conventions?

Those are depressing statistics from the Middle East. Those are unacceptable statistics from the Middle East. The unacceptable truth, as told by statistics from the Middle East, is, as Cappelaere said: “We collectively continue failing to stop the war on children.”

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Cutting funds to Palestinians will boost Iran’s role in region

Hoping to arm-twist the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, US President Donald Trump is using the carrot-and-stick approach. Except with the Palestinians, Trump is using only sticks, reserving the carrots for the Israelis.

Using threats and bullying one side in a dispute may work in some instances but it is highly unlikely to produce positive results in Middle East peace negotiations. Rather, Trump’s approach to international peace-making will, without a doubt, further harm US interests in the region and empower Iran’s position of influence as a regional leader.

Iran, a majority Shia country, has been trying to make headway in Sunni countries since the Islamic Revolution overthrew the shah. A US withdrawal from supporting the Palestinians would serve up the Palestinian territories to Iran on a silver platter. The Iranian mullahs have already infiltrated predominantly Sunni Gaza, controlled by Hamas. A financial void created by the United States withholding economic aid to a region badly in need of such assistance would pave the way for Iran to jump in.

The United States gives about $600 million annually to the Palestinians, most of which goes to pay the Palestine Authority’s security forces. Imagine if Iran controlled the Palestinian security services and how that could alter the political map of the region.

The Iranians would gladly pay two or three times that much for the access it would give them to Israel.

There is no doubt that the Palestine Liberation Organisation under Iranian influence would be a very different and more hard-line faction to negotiate with. If this were to happen, it would put the Iranians in a position of unprecedented power in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. That is what the mullahs in Tehran are hoping for.

The amount of financial aid Washington would spend on the Palestinians is marginal for the United States, especially compared to the amount it gives Israel every year.

Speaking in Davos, an annual gathering of financial elites from around the world, Trump said he would cut off all financial aid to the Palestinians unless they agreed to peace. What Trump utterly fails to comprehend is that his approach to resolving the conflict is only going to make it worse.

Trump has proven to the world, and to the Palestinians in particular, that the United States can no longer be considered an honest broker in the Middle East dispute.

Trump has shown his contempt for the Palestinians’ view of the conflict by stating that he would move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Israelis believe Jerusalem is their God-given right to have the holy city as their capital and so do the Palestinians.

Jerusalem will remain one of the hot issues in any peace talks. Trump claims his action has taken Jerusalem off the table. It has not. Trump’s decision on Jerusalem has further complicated future talks, in which Palestinians are likely to place the city at the very top of their agenda.

Add to that the financial aid threat, which many Palestinians and other Arabs see as a slap in the face. Crippled by the Israeli occupation, Palestinians are facing economic hardship, especially in the over-populated Gaza Strip where unemployment abounds.

Unlike other countries that receive US aid in quarterly instalments, Israel since 1982 has been paid in one large lump sum at the beginning of the fiscal year, leaving the US government to borrow from future revenues. Israel even lends some of this money back through buying US Treasury bills, by which it collects interest.

Jeremy Sharp, a specialist in Middle East affairs at the Congressional Research Service, wrote in an April 11, 2014, report titled “US Foreign Aid to Israel” that “Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of US foreign aid. To date, the United States has provided Israel $121 billion (current, or non-inflation-adjusted, dollars) in bilateral assistance. Almost all US bilateral aid to Israel is in the form of military assistance, although in the past Israel also received significant economic assistance.”

In 2001, at a presentation with the Centre for Policy Analysis on Palestine, international relations scholar Stephen Zunes noted that, while Israel is an “advanced, industrialised, technologically sophisticated country,” it “receives more US aid per capita annually than the total annual GDP of several Arab countries. Approximately one-third of all US foreign aid budget goes to Israel, “even though Israel comprises just… one-thousandth of the world’s total population and already has one of the world’s higher per capita incomes,” Zunes said.

US government officials argue that this money is necessary for moral reasons. Some even say that Israel is a democracy battling for its very survival. Israel may be seen as being democratic so long as you are not Palestinian, where a whole different set of rules applies. In that case, it more closely resembles the ugly face of apartheid than democracy.

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This year will be a time of elections in many parts of the Arab world.

by Claude Salhani-

This year will be a time of elections in many parts of the Arab world.

Elections generally are designed to give voters the reins of power but they only really work when all sides respect the rules of the game: campaign openly, do not cheat, do not threaten or coerce opponents and their followers and accept the outcome gracefully.

Those who lose should work constructively as part of the legitimate opposition. A healthy opposition serves to keep those in power in check.

For many politicians or would-be leaders, the temptation of power is too much. To attain a leadership position, they will lie, cheat, kill and contest the counting of votes. Some will resort to the use of the military if they have the right connections.

Yet elections in the Middle East and North Africa do matter, despite the many caveats and the juxtaposing of autocracies, theocracies and authoritarian rulers, the whole sprinkled with a mixture of so-called democracy.

There will be the opportunity to witness legislative elections in Iraq next May. Two months earlier, Egypt votes for a president.

There is a vote scheduled for Libya, assuming those who brought havoc on the country can stop fighting long enough to allow citizens to voice their choice for leadership through the ballot and not the bullet. Libya has gone from foreign colonisers to a brief independence period when it was ruled by a royal family, which was ousted by the brutal dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi, to the current mayhem.

It is evident that elections do not always yield greater democratic freedoms but they beat all alternative ways of managing a country. In Iran, elections have always led to continued theocratic rule under one wing or the other of the clerics. The clerics use election results as a stamp of approval for their rule. Committing a crime against the state is bad enough but when the crime becomes a crime against the will of God, the picture changes drastically.

In Turkey, the imperial ambitions of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan do not mean respect for liberties and human rights at home. Re-election is essentially guaranteed but courting Turkish nationalists in preparation for the next Turkish elections is fuelling anti-Kurdish military action. That threatens regional stability.

Elections may not amount to stability and security in strife-plagued countries such as Libya and Iraq.

As mentioned earlier, there is no room for surprises. In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is expected to win re-election. The only question is how free the government will allow the political debate to be during the campaign.

Even in a place like Tunisia, where there are guarantees of free and fair elections, the population’s mind is not necessarily focused on voting even if political parties are jockeying for seats. Local elections in Tunisia can be an indicator of what local democracy can look like, especially if Tunisian legislating manages to approve a legal text organising the elections.

Elections still do matter. They remain the best avenue to share power even in the tense environment found in the Middle East and North Africa. The alternative is open ethnic, sectarian and ideological strife. Elections could be used to overcome sectarian cleavages in Iraq even when Iranian interference there is a given.

Elections can give citizens a stake in the running of their own societies. Marginalised and disenfranchised citizens can be drawn to extremist movements. Elections offer a way for societies to discuss their present and future, away from the ill-fated democracy agendas such as those ill-advisedly pushed by the Bush and Obama administrations.

Elections are about building and reconstruction. They are about renewal — what the “Arab spring” was supposed to bring about. Unfortunately, that is not exactly what happened in most of the Arab world.  Elections could, however, bring a dose of relative stability to a region that badly needs it.

It is evident that elections do not always yield greater democratic freedoms but they beat all alternative ways of managing a country.

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Vodka on the Rockies

I came across this story today that I first wrote and published in 2002. It remains one of my all time favorites,.

Vodka on the Rockies
By CLAUDE SALHANI | July 26, 2002 at 10:49 AM

LAS VEGAS, July 26 (UPI) — So, you really thought the Cold War was over and done with, that the Evil Empire was defeated and the good guys won, right? Well, comrades, that is all just capitalistic propaganda.
Think again, because there is a restaurant in Las Vegas, in the very heart of the capitalist temples of profligacy and decadence that attests otherwise, and puts you back in the U.S.S.R. As Lennon and McCartney would say, “boy, how lucky you are.”
“Red Square” is a restaurant that serves Russian caviar and more than 200 kinds of vodkas — many of them Russian, of course, but including some that come from Belgium, Jamaica and Jordon. Not a typo, comrades, that’s the way it’s spelled on their menu, of which the last six pages are devoted exclusively to vodkas. Ask the barman, and he shrugs his shoulders. Hey, he only serves it.
The bottle of Jamaican vodka, the staff admits, still is full from the day the restaurant opened several years ago, save for a single serving. But in all fairness, the Stoli is excellent. As are the blue cheese-filled olives. Capitalism, after all, has its advantages.
Let no one tell you, though, the people who dream up the Vegas casino themes will not go the extra step for your enjoyment.
In keeping with its Soviet philosophy of maintaining secrecy, Red Square, in the Mandalay Bay Hotel, is not an easy place to find. One gets the feeling that, somewhat like the people who ran the Kremlin on the edges of the real Red Square, those who run the Vegas version wanted to add to the aura of je ne sais-quoi.
It took this eager reporter and his dinner companion a good 10 minutes of wandering among a sea of poker tables, slot machines and other tools of Western debauchery, before locating it. And that, only after swallowing my male pride and asking for directions — twice.
But then, lo and behold, there it is! Red Square, in all its Soviet splendor.
A large, decapitated statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin stands guard outside the establishment. However, unless you read Russian, you will need to decipher that this is indeed the place you are looking for. There are no signs for Red Square, as such, rather the name, high above the church-like entrance is chiseled in stone — or what passes for stone in Vegas — and is written in Cyrillic characters, with the reversed “R.”
You enter, nevertheless with a little trepidation, into a grandiose room decorated in deep, Soviet scarlet red. The lights are dim and at first you feel as though you should whisper. This is, in most probability, the only temple to communism left standing in the entire Western world. And remember, there certainly are not many left in the communist world, either. Even in Russia, Lenin’s portraits have disappeared from government offices, and except for a few die-hard party apparatchiks, people have largely stopped revering him.
Two or three large — and I mean large — Great Patriotic War-era posters decorate the walls. (That’s how the Soviets refer to World War II.) The images of valiant Soviet comrade-soldiers cover some of the walls, running from floor to ceiling. A painting of Comrade Lenin hangs elegantly on the far wall, high above the dining room. Big Brother is there to make sure you enjoy your evening. With every sip you almost feel obliged to raise your glass to toast the great leader, and the working class — the latter who certainly could never afford to wine and dine in such self-indulgent splendor.
The bar, one of the most intriguing aspects of Red Square, is covered with a 2-inch slab of ice. Very convenient to keep your vodkas ice cold, as they should be. And also convenient for refugees from the gulags, just in case they forgot what their front porches in Siberia felt like.
The waiters and staff are all dressed in black and sport a hammer and sickle, the Soviet emblem, in a small red square on their chest. They look like the bad guys in James Bond films. Only Ernst Stavro Blofeld, you know, the man with the white cat, and Rosa Klebb, the evil KGB woman with a stiletto hidden in her shoe, are missing.
As an observer, and a chronicler of history, I found the concept of a Soviet-styled bar intriguing and wished Red Square would use Russian music, instead of Western rock and roll, which sadly clashes with the rest of the décor.
Russian music is wonderfully rich and the Soviet Red Army Band’s harmony would add a seal of greater authenticity and zest to the place. Or preferably, listening to the songs of someone like Vladimir Vysotski — Russia’s answer to Bob Dylan — probably would encourage you to consume greater amounts of vodka, which by the way, is easy to do when you stare at all those inviting bottles.
A voice such as Vysotski’s can only be acquired after years of smoking filterless Russian cigarettes and consuming vast amounts of Russian vodka, preferably clandestinely distilled in your uncle’s backyard shed.
But all this nostalgia for the past makes me wonder if the next themed attraction will be a Third Reich bar down the hall. Or maybe the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino could dedicate a room to the Vichy collaborationists?

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The Kurds once again caught in the great game of nations

by Claude Salhani –

If one were to be overly opti­mistic, one could consider the fact that the Kurds – one of the Middle East’s “forgotten people” — made front-page news as something positive, even though the news itself was not very encouraging.

What was the news that brought the Kurds to the front page? The United States’ announcement that it is planning to finance and train the Kurds in northern Syria, a deci­sion that deeply worries Turkey.

The Kurds are one of several large ethnic minority groups that have been short-changed by history. They have also been short-changed by geography but it is precisely their geographic presence that gives them strategic importance today.

Throughout history, the Kurds have been denied a state of their own. Still, they have fared better in some parts than others. In Iraq, for example, the Kurdish Autono­mous Region effectively operates like an independent state, except for issues involving foreign affairs, defence and, of course, oil sales, all of which are handled by Baghdad.

In general, however, history — as well as geography — has not been kind to the Kurds.

Among the Middle East’s groups of stateless peoples, the Kurds are some of the most important. Time and again, they have proven themselves to be faithful, depend­ent and powerful allies. They have consistently used their militias to help Western interests, only to be left empty-handed.

As early as the first world war, the Kurds were promised a home­land in exchange for their support of Western allies against the Otto­man Empire. They were abandoned at the end of the war.

The West made flimsy promises again to the Kurds after Saddam Hussein defied Western powers. The Kurds suffered greatly under the Iraqi dictator, who deployed chemical agents against Kurdish villages, gassing entire families as they slept. Again, the Kurds were forgotten at the end of the war.

Today, with Russia playing a central role in the Syrian civil war, the United States — fearing it could be sidelined — placed its bets on the Kurds again, despite strong opposi­tion from Turkey, which threatened military intervention in response.

The Kurds are again caught in the middle of the great game of nations, only this time the United States has replaced Great Britain as the principal Western power.

The Kurds have often been the odd man out in the Middle East because of their unique culture and background, which includes an amazing will to survive in the inclement weather of the rugged mountainous regions they call home. Kurdistan, as an independ­ent state, does not exist but, if it did, it would comprise land from Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. That’s why those countries are not very eager to see the creation of a Kurd­ish state.

There is another detail that makes it harder for the Kurds to ob­tain their independence: The lands the Kurds claim are rich in oil. Oil means revenue and who wants to give away a potential cash cow?

In Turkey, for example, where oil extracted from Kurdish land serves as an important source of financial revenue, the government worries that a move towards Kurdish inde­pendence in Syria would encourage Turkey’s Kurds to follow suit. The way Turkey sees it, an independent Kurdish state would erode parts of Turkey, something neither its military nor its politicians want to see happen.

Turkey’s concerns reflect those of Ankara, Baghdad, Tehran and Damascus over the potential crea­tion of a Kurdish state. They are all particularly anxious about and vehemently opposed to the idea of a Kurdish state.

For the Kurds, who have lost so much fighting for the West in the far-off hope that they will get rewarded accordingly, keeping their name in the limelight for the time being is a positive step.

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Once again Iran’s ruling mullahs are worried about the future. Their own future.

by Claude Salhani

Once again Iran’s ruling mullahs are worried about the future. Rather, they are wor­ried about their own future.

Following the outbreak of violence in recent weeks, there is much that frightens the country’s rulers. Iran’s mullahs are worried about the internet and social media and they feel particularly threatened by the English lan­guage, the lingua franca of the internet.

On all the above counts the mullahs are spot on. They have every reason to be worried.

They have chosen to enter a war from which they cannot possibly emerge victorious. It is only a matter of time before the mullahs and their revolution become a thing of the past. Much like the regime they overthrew, the mullahs too will become obsolete in the not-too-distant future.

A good reason the mullahs governing Iran need to worry is because they are attempting to stop the natural instincts of man — to constantly learn and evolve. They are attempting to stop him from trying to find out more about himself and how better he would fare if he had the power to contribute more in society. It is this craving to have a say that has flamed revolts and revolutions since the beginning of organised governments.

It may come as no surprise because it is in man’s nature to seek a better tomorrow for himself and his family. The mullahs in Iran are, therefore, fighting a losing battle. It matters not how many guns, armoured cars, tanks and torturers they may have at their disposal.

History has shown there is no other way but to embrace some form of liberalism or democratic principles. It is inevitable for change to come to Iran, just as it has in many countries in the past. Successful revolutions are not measured by the amount of blood drawn but for their long-term gains.

From the Soviet Union to the People’s Republic of China and the former Soviet satellite states, change from autocracy to a more open and inclusive form of government has worked in favour of the citizens. Though many may argue that they have still a long way to go.

As someone who has travelled extensively throughout the Soviet Union and in the former Soviet republics, I can attest that the people are, on average, far better off today. That is not to say that the changes from communism or whatever form of dictatorship plagued these societies came about without problems or major headaches.

The mullahs ought to take a little time out and reflect on what Winston Churchill once said about democracy: It “is the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried.”

Following the demonstrations that had spread suddenly across the country since December 28, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei decreed that the teaching of English in Iranian primary schools would be banned.

As Iran tried to smother the first stirrings of a rebellion against the rule of the mullahs, the Islamic Republic showed it was clearly drawing the wrong conclusions. Its religious leaders and enforcers insist that the protests have been provoked by social media, so they are restricting access to the internet. They consider any fresh thoughts from the outside to be a threat.

Even as powerful an organisa­tion as the Soviet KGB was unable to stem the spread of the social media of the Cold War era — Radio Free Europe. Think how much more difficult the task will be today.

As for banning the teaching of English in primary schools, the regime is only going to cause further hardships on its populace. Tehran’s decision to ban English language education in primary schools reflects a close-minded approach at home and towards the rest of the world.

It is a theocratic regime that sees bridges to the world as a threat to the anachronistic way of life it’s imposing on all Iranians.

It is a regime that promotes hostility to other cultures as it is a guarantee of continued rule. It is also a regime that lacks confi­dence in itself. It does not want its citizens to know there is a lot out there with different ideas and various possible narratives. By doing so, it is condemning itself to sclerosis and obsolescence.

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Optimism versus pessimism in the Middle East


For many people, the celebration of the new year is a time for opti­mism; a rebirth and a chance of renewal amid high hopes for positive change. World leaders and the Ro­man Catholic pope often use this time to call for a better tomorrow.

In the Middle East, however, given conditions in many coun­tries, the mood tends to be more pessimistic than optimistic.

Iranians ushered in the new year with anti-government protests, the largest since the major uprising in 2009. The demonstrations, many which turned violent, took the govern­ment by surprise.

The protests started over high rates of unemployment and rising cost of living but quickly expanded to include many other grievances the people have with the autocratic theocracy. These include demands for greater political freedom and less interference by the government in individual rights. One act of defiance to the regime in these latest protests saw young women defy the strict dress code imposed on their sex and removed their headscarves.

This may not sound like much to a Western audience but in a conservative society ruled by the clergy punishment for such actions can be severe, especially if the government wants to set an example and frighten others from following suit.

Security forces responded with a heavy hand, with at least 21 deaths among the protesters. Authorities warned there would be “serious consequences” if the protests continued and dozens of people were arrested. US Presi­dent Donald Trump tweeted: “The world is watching.”

So is Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who blamed the protests on “Iran’s enemies.” The Iranian leader did not name those “enemies” but it is largely assumed he meant the United States (the Great Satan) and Israel (the Lesser Satan). In a follow-up tweet, Trump said the Iranian regime was “brutal and corrupt.” Trump added: “The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal Iranian regime.”

Iran is not the only country where the Iranian regime is facing potential trouble. The mullahs are involved in Iraq and in Syria, fighting in support of the regime of Bashar Assad. They are involved in Lebanon through their ties with Hezbollah and they are involved in Yemen, supporting an anti-Saudi militia in the country’s civil war.

Iraq is reeling from the years of strife since the US invasion and subsequent occupation. Here, too, Iran is deeply involved in backing the Shias and interfering in the country’s internal affairs.

Moving across the region, the situation in the Palestinian territories regressed in 2017 with Trump declaring that the United States would consider Jerusalem the capital of Israel, ordering the transfer of the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and igniting a few fires along the way as Palestinian youths took to the streets in protest.

Trump ignored the counsel of numerous world leaders, all of whom have far greater experience and knowledge of the issue. All cautioned that such a decision should only be made in the context of negotiations for an overall settlement of the Israeli- Palestinian dispute.

Lebanon is once again caught up in a political storm with Hezbollah representing Iranian interests on one side and Prime Minister Saad Hariri standing up for Saudi Arabia’s position.

In Egypt, the once serene Sinai is a place of strife where the Islamic State (ISIS) has found enough recruits to turn the area into an outpost of violence. The targeting of police officers and Egyptian military by ISIS follow­ers has become a common occurrence.

The fighting in Yemen seems to have taken a turn for the worst with the pro-Iranian militia deploying missiles against Saudi Arabia.

Even the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where life seemed sheltered, life is changing with the imposition of a value added tax on most goods. A reality check for everybody.

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Trump driven by ego, the Iranians and Turks by own agendas on Jerusalem

By Claude Salhani

Will US President Donald Trump’s highly contro­versial decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv provide the spark needed to revive peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians?

Will it wake up the Palestinians from their political slumber?

Will it make the Israelis realise that they cannot go on occupying another people indefinitely?

Or will that spark flare the other way and reignite violence in the region?

Pundits have been divided on the answers to those questions, with some asking whether the American president’s decision may offer an opportunity for a real game changer. Wishful thinking, say the pessimists — and the realists.

Trump stated that his directive was an overdue acknowledge­ment of the facts on the ground. Because Jerusalem is the seat of the Israeli government, should it not be recognised as such by the international community?

Practically all world leaders, including many close US allies, condemned Trump’s decision and reaffirmed that the status of Jerusalem should be decided during peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. Trump’s initiative could revitalise Arab and European sympathy for Palestinian sentiments through­out the world, resulting in a political setback for Israel.

Trump’s claim that he could negotiate between the antago­nists is about as outside the realm of possibilities as can be. He does not realise the complexity of the problem. The Middle East issue has over the decades stomped US presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and others and a slew of conflict resolution experts from Gunnar Jarring to George Mitch­ell. All have failed. For Trump to succeed would be nothing short of a miracle.

Much of the debate has to do with the perception of Trump and the controversies he systemati­cally sparks, not about the policy itself. There is really nothing new here as previous US presidents, including Barack Obama and George W. Bush, announced their recognition of Jerusalem as the site for the US Embassy in Israel even if they refrained from announcing its transfer.

Can such a move force the Trump administration to be more forthcoming with the Palestin­ians? That again is highly unlikely as Trump’s positions are often driven by his inflated ego. His Jerusalem plan dimmed the prospects of peaceful dialogue and pushed the Palestinians’ moderate leadership towards unprecedented extremes.

One certainty is going to be the rise of Iranian interference in Lebanese politics and conse­quently more activity along Israel’s northern frontier.

This points to another aspect of the possible ripple effects of the Jerusalem crisis. A recent declara­tion by Hezbollah hinted at the border between Israel and Lebanon becoming a flashpoint of violence. The pro-Iranian forces have come a long way since their last round of fighting with Israel a few summers ago. Hezbollah is better equipped, better trained and its fighters have had several years of combat experience fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

There is little doubt that Iran and its proxies in the region will milk the Jerusalem issue, hoping to extract whatever political mileage they can from the developments. That seems to be the endgame of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has engaged in all sorts of inciteful theatrics for the sake of creating a wider base of support among Islamist supporters at home and in the region.

Public opinion in the Arab and Muslim worlds seem, however, to have grown more realistic if not fatalistic since the “Arab spring’s” catastrophic process in the region.

The bottom line is that in an attempt to restore its deeply frayed legitimacy in Lebanon and elsewhere since its intervention in Syria, Hezbollah could be tempted to open a front with Israel. That is likely, however, to be an Iran-supported sectarian front at best. The Arab world is busy extinguishing its fires.

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Is Trump serving US interests or Russia’s

by Claude Salhani

US President Donald Trump’s an­nouncement that the United States would recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and that the US Embassy would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is perhaps the most destructive, hurtful and counterproductive decision made by a US president in recent memory. I exaggerate not.

While the moves will upset millions in the Arab and Muslim worlds, the full negative effect will be primarily felt by the United States.

While generally protecting Israel’s interests and security, the United States was perceived as a viable broker in the Middle East peace process. That notion died with Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Trump has given up American prestige in the Arab world.

Trump’s decision places every American citizen in the region in danger of retaliation from Islamists or perhaps even from moderates irritated by this foolhardy policy.

Do not be surprised if Ameri­can embassies around the world become targets of terrorist groups seeking to avenge the undermining of the very foundation of Mideast peace talks. Until now, the status of Jerusalem, which both Palestinians and Israelis claimed as their capi­tal, constituted a major negotiation point in any peace talks.

With a stroke of a pen Trump undermined the Middle East peace process and placed American diplomats and military person­nel in the area in great peril. The US president disregarded calls from world leaders not to proceed with his plan, ignoring their pleas and trepidation about renewed violence erupting because of the deluded decision.

Told beforehand by Trump of his plans to authorise the move, King Abdullah II of Jordan warned the American president of “the danger of taking any decision outside the context of a comprehensive solution that establishes a Pales­tinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem.”

“Jerusalem is the key to achiev­ing peace and stability in the region and the world,” the king said.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, alerted in a phone call from Trump, “warned of the dangerous consequences such a decision would have to the peace process and to the peace, security and stability of the region and of the world.”

Indeed, the president of the United States is desperate for a memorable victory before the end of the year allowing him to claim that he has kept one of his cam­paign promises. Over the several decades of the Middle East conflict, many US presidential candidates made promises to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem but, once in office, all refrained from executing that promise.

Having been unable to imple­ment other campaign promises, Trump is hoping to deflect criti­cism by chalking up an easy vic­tory. This is one decision he truly controls. To move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is a decision the president can make without risking red flags being raised by Congress.

The question of Jerusalem has long been a very sensitive subject and remains one of the key issues in any comprehensive peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians. The issue of Jerusalem is more complex than the US health-care system. It constitutes one of the central pillars of any potential agreement between the two sides staking a claim to the city.

Just as Jerusalem is key to peace in the region, it could be the focus of renewed violence. The question of the continued occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel has been the one subject that brought a usually divided Arab world together.

This decision to move the embas­sy is likely to give radical Islamist groups, such as the Islamic State, a boost of energy.

Finally, a point that should not be overlooked is the counterbalance that will emerge because of the loss of American prestige in the Middle East, specifically the increase in Moscow’s influence and of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Think about that if you will. Whose interests is the American president really serving in this instance, the United States’ or Russia’s?


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