ISIS on the rampage

The Arab Weekly
Claude Salhani

A slew of terrorist activities — from running people over to bombings, shootings and knifing bystanders — in numerous cities across Europe and the Muslim world has killed more than 400 people and wounded many more in what some observers say may indicate that the Islamic State (ISIS) is changing tactics.

That change comes amid multiple defeats for the jihadist group on conventional fronts in recent weeks.

Reports from Western intelli­gence sources said ISIS has suffered as much as a 25% loss of territory it had grabbed in Syria and Iraq. A coalition of Arab, European and North American forces on one side of the battle in Syria and Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah forces on the other have pounded ISIS positions with devastating effect.

Despite the large numbers of volunteers who have flooded to ISIS’s self-declared caliphate — many who made their way from Europe and Central Asia, espe­cially from the Caucasus — the group has been in retreat.

Establishing a physical address rather than remaining in the shadows was a major point of contention between ISIS, which was eager to establish a territory, and al-Qaeda, which also wanted to create a caliphate but opted for a more cautious approach.

Facing defeat after defeat, ISIS chose to launch its terror cam­paign far beyond its borders. Eleven cities in the Arab world and beyond have been hit since the start of the holy month of Ramadan as ISIS expanded its geographic presence and reach.

The result — at least until ISIS is completely neutralised — is bad news for Europe and the Middle East, as experts predict more terrorist attacks to come. Attacks against civilian targets with the aim of causing large numbers of casualties, such as the attack in the French resort city of Nice or the shoot-out in a Munich shopping mall, seem to be the new ISIS tactic, although some observers fear economic and strategic installations, such as the oil industry, could also be potential targets.

Recently, however, it has been gatherings of people that have been chosen as targets. One of the most deadly attacks was in Baghdad where about 300 were killed when a truck bomb was set off in a commercial centre crowded with people shopping for Ramadan. ISIS claimed responsibility.

In Jordan, a suicide car bomb struck a Jordanian Army post along the Syrian border, killing seven soldiers in the worst attack in the kingdom in years. ISIS claimed to be responsible for the attack.

Yemen suffered a string of attacks in the southern port city of Mukalla, killing 43 people. The majority of the victims were intelligence and security offi­cials. A group closely affiliated with ISIS claimed responsibility.

In Lebanon, five people died when three suicide bombers blew themselves up in a small Chris­tian Lebanese village on the border with Syria.

In Turkey, three bombers armed with automatic weapons went on a rampage in Istanbul Ataturk Airport, killing 44 people and wounding 150 others. The perpetrators were a Russian, an Uzbek and a Kyrgyz with links to ISIS.

In Malaysia, a grenade thrown outside a bar in Kuala Lumpur wounded eight people watching a football game.

In Bangladesh, gunmen armed with automatic rifles and knives attacked patrons at an expensive restaurant in Dhaka and took 35 people hostage. They ended up killing 20 — nine Italians and seven Japanese among them. According to witnesses, the gunmen released Muslims but tortured those unable to recite the Quran. ISIS claimed responsi­bility for the attack.

In Indonesia, the most popu­lous Muslim country, a suicide bomber struck outside a police station in Solo, Java.

In Orlando, Florida, a gunman killed 49 people in a crowded gay nightclub, in the worst mass shooting in modern US history. The gunman, according to law enforcement officials, claimed he was “a soldier of the caliphate” acting on behalf of ISIS. It is far more likely that he was mentally deranged.

In Saudi Arabia, suicide bombers struck in three cities, including outside the mosque in Medina where the Prophet Mohammad is buried, one of the holiest sites in Islam. Four security guards were killed. Just outside the US consulate in Jeddah, two security guards were wounded in an attack. Nobody claimed responsibility for the Saudi attacks, leaving open to speculation that these were home-grown and not coordinated by ISIS.

Whatever its new tactics may be, ISIS remains the most ruthless terror organisation in history.

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France has become primary European target for ISIS

The Arab Weekly
Claude Salhani

The ignoble act that marred Bastille Day festivities in the south­ern French resort city of Nice claimed more than 80 lives when a lorry was driven into a crowd of people celebrating French National Day. The driver was identified as a 31-year-old French- Tunisian resident of Nice. He was shot and killed by police trying to stop the carnage.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. How­ever, knee-jerk reaction would be to suspect this could be the work of jihadists who have carried out a number of attacks in France as well as in neighbouring Belgium.

France has been under a state of emergency since the November terrorist attacks in Paris and one of the first questions raised follow­ing the attack in Nice is how was a truck allowed near such a large crowd? Crowds had gathered on the seafront Promenade des Anglais to watch fireworks celebrating Bastille Day.

Understandably, tensions will run high in this great city and throughout France. Chances are innocent Arab citizens of France, or legal residents, who have absolute­ly no sympathy for the murderous thug who carried out the attack, could suffer harassment and abuse.

We owe that much to the memory of the victims of the Bastille Day massacre not to wrongfully accuse people just because of their faith or the colour of their skin. The result of such behaviour would only wedge a further gap between com­munities across the country. This would grant terrorists a dividend they do not deserve.

French police forces will be stretched thin in the weeks to come, making it easier for people whose aim is to create chaos to act out their intentions. France’s political leadership must not lose track of who the real enemy is and not give further satisfaction to those who wish to create mayhem in Europe by allowing mob justice to take place. As a first step, French President François Hollande said he would deploy units of the French Army.

The attack in Nice, much like the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, establishes a sombre landmark in the history of terror­ism. As the terrible incidents played out in southern France the night of July 14th have shown, terrorists no longer require aeroplanes to kill people in large numbers, when this can be done using a simple truck.

This is one of the most barbaric modus operandi used by a terrorist.

Focus must be given at the high­est levels on how to eradicate this disease at the source. This means concentrated efforts by intelligence services — domestic and interna­tional — combined with tactical military action when needed in conjunction with international and Arab leaders. Many of these leaders had to deal with terrorism in their own countries and were unanimous in condemning the attack.

A statement from al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s leading centre of learning, said the “vile terrorist attack” con­tradicted Islam and called for “unit­ing efforts to defeat terrorism and rid the world of its evil.” Tunisia denounced the attacker, whom po­lice said held joint French-Tunisian citizenship, as having committed an act of “extreme cowardice” and expressed solidarity with France against the “scourge of terrorism”.

Shawki Allam, a prominent Egyptian Muslim cleric, vigorously castigated the assailant, saying: “People who commit such ugly crimes are corrupt of the Earth and follow in the footsteps of Satan… and are cursed in this life and in the hereafter.” The six Gulf Arab states issued a joint statement “strongly” condemning the “terrorist” act in Nice.

Saudi Arabia denounced the “heinous terrorist” act, adding that it stands in “solidarity” with France and would “cooperate with it in confronting terrorist acts in all their forms”.

UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan said: “This heinous terrorist crime makes it imperative for all to work decisively and without hesitation to counter terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.”

Such cooperation could help the world community answer a crucial question: How does a young man — whatever his motives — end up losing his humanity and all sense of the humanity of others?

Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly


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A great review of Inauguration Day on Amazon.com

By John R. Carpenter on June 29, 2016

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase

In “Inauguration Day” a dramatic countdown begins to the day when a newly elected American president is to be sworn in and inaugurated, January 20th. But it is also the day when an assassination of the president-elect has been so meticulously planned that it is certain to succeed. All the details are so carefully thought out it becomes almost inevitable, and any possible flaws in the planning have been corrected, none left out. A lucky piece of information at the beginning of the novel reveals when the assassination will take place, January 20th. But no one knows who, no one knows how.
The suspense gathers with each page, the narration follows the terrorists and those who might stop them during the months, weeks, then days until January 20th. It turns out the assassination is only the first step in a plan hatched in Cairo. Taking advantage of the chaos and universal mayhem after the assassination, the US government will be paralyzed and impotent, incapable of forming a response, unable to defend itself for weeks if not months. And this will coincide with a plot of a further strike using biological weapons: “What we have done is combine two very lethal toxins, Bacillus anthracis and VX. One pound of anthrax alone has the power to kill everyone is an area as large as Manhattan, while a single drop of VX the size of a pinhead leads to instant paralysis.”
The book is well-informed. The author, Claude Salhani, has traveled widely, reporting on conflicts in the Middle East and Israel. The narrative is fiction, to be sure. But it is filled with realistic information about the world where we now live. Salhani knows the topography and the cities with their neighborhoods, sights and smells, and creates a narrative that is vivid, tactile, believable. He seems to feel at home in many of the countries he describes such as Egypt and Lebanon. And the Americans he describes who work in the Middle East have often lived there for many years. He describes Chris Clayborne: “He could not get himself to leave the place. There was a certain attraction that kept him hooked to Beirut and the Middle East. It was a love-hate relationship. At times he felt as though he was living life to the fullest; yet at other times he was really tired and fed up. There was a certain joie de vivre in the Middle East that was lacking in the US.”
Sometimes Salhani puts himself inside the mind of a terrorist, as with the sheik Omar: “The Naqba, or the Catastrophe—that’s when they lost Palestine… Omar’s world was a desperate one. It was a world where tenderness and affection did not belong and where love had been unable to survive. Born into a violent society, in turbulent times, Omar belonged to a generation where understanding had been replaced by violence… Only one thing mattered now: revenge!”
A great strength of this novel might be summed up in the word “careful.” In some journalistic talk about terrorists, descriptions of them remain outside their minds and feelings. They are portrayed often as emotional, lacking the stringent discipline to plan. This novel stands out for the methodical planning that goes into a plot against America: the covering of tracks, the creation of baffling false leads; and many of the terrorists have the ability to use the most advanced sophisticated technology with the internet a resource for the latest scientific information.
The narrative is fast-paced and well- informed. The action is seen through the eyes of a wide array of characters from different countries, through their thoughts and acts. Events happen rapidly; in the first pages the reader is introduced to Lebanese and American characters in Beirut, then the scene shifts to Cairo, the thoughts and conversations of a Sheik, a terrorist operative. Also in Cairo the reader is introduced to an American journalist and long-time Middle-East hand. Many players from different countries are caught up in the action. The narrative technique is one of the most successful and original features of the book: rapid, dynamic, well-informed, self-assured, sometimes proceeding in bursts set in different parts of the globe. But at the same time the fast-moving narrative never loses sight of the overall suspense: the count-down to January 10th.
If Inauguration Day is a work of fiction– of suspense and vivid highly dramatized conflict– it is also firmly grounded on real current events, the insoluble conflicts of today’s international world.
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Europe’s camp of shame

By Claude Salhani

The camp of squatters at the edge of the north­ern French port city of Calais is often referred to as “the Jungle”. Indeed, this “jungle” is not only an eyesore — a small city built haphazardly with bits of cardboard, tin and anything else migrants could get their hands on — but it is an eyesore at one of France’s ports of entry. Not what Paris wants to be the first site seen by visitors to France

The Jungle is also a political failure; it is a humanitarian shame and it is a sin on the collective con­science of every political leader in France and Great Britain.

The Jungle exists in a sort of geopolitical purgatory. It is a place where thousands of refugees from conflicted countries found their drive to a safe haven blocked by red tape and immigration laws.

Inside the camp, there are no laws on the books. Heck, there aren’t even books there. If there were, chances are they would be used keep fires going to give refugees some warmth for a minute or two longer.

By some fluke — or perhaps lack of luck — these immigrants find themselves so close yet so far from what they hoped would be their final destination, England. Why England? Perhaps because they speak English. Also, once inside the United Kingdom, the migrants hope to benefit from Britain’s immigra­tion policies. The difficulty is get­ting there in the first place.

The occupants of the Jungle are, for the most part, economic refugees but as conflicts across the Middle East and North Africa gather momentum, the camp houses mostly political refugees, many of them with simply nowhere to go.

There are also Kurds fleeing Turkey, Somalis, Ethiopians and many others. However, it is not their nationality that is important in this context. What is alarming is that such conditions are permitted to exist in Europe.

The refugees are in the Jungle be­cause it is the closest jumping point to Great Britain. In the interim they squat, waiting with an uncertain future, rampant crime that includes forcing women — even young girls — into prostitution, and, of course, drugs. Not to mention the opportu­nities that such camps offer jihadist recruiters.

These abominable crimes are tak­ing place in the heart of Europe and in the country where human rights were first launched. By any means what is taking place in the Jungle is a crime and those responsible are criminals.

What is happening in the Jungle is a crime all the more so because, by French law, it is a crime if one fails to provide assistance to someone in danger. The thousands of residents, especially the younger ones, of the Jungle are definitely in danger.

Migrants living in the Jungle try almost on a daily basis to sneak into Britain. They hide in lorries, cars, ferries or trains travelling through Calais in the Eurotunnel. French authorities send out regular patrol of riot police, which often end up clashing with migrants.

Police patrol the perimeter of the camp but leave the interior to its own fate, meaning mostly that it ends up being controlled by some sort of organised crime group.

Frustrated by their situation, the continued uncertainty of the future and being so close yet so far from England, the migrants periodically storm the highway leading to the port of Calais, blocking traffic for hours, as they try to sneak aboard any vehicle headed to Britain. French police typically fire tear gas and even deploy bulldozers to tear down parts of the shantytown-like areas of the Jungle.

The Jungle has attracted pimps and people traffickers who focus on the large number of orphan children who wind up in the Jungle. Accord­ing to multiple reports, there are hundreds of children in the camp living on their own and who become easy prey. Many are from countries where war has torn them from their land and family.

This situation should not be al­lowed to exist in a country such as France.

The immediate task should be finding a way to resettle all refugees and to close this despicable place of shame.

Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly.

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A tribute to religious tolerance

  Claude Salhani

~~~The Arab Weekly

As the world prepared for more conflict, war and other associated acts of madness, an unusual event recently took place in the United States. This was a peaceful event, quite appropriate for a man who led a turbulent life but inwardly never stopped looking for peace.

In what way was it unusual? It was a gathering to say goodbye to one of the legends of our time, Muhammad Ali, the great boxing champion. Ali, of course, was much more than a boxer and I leave it to others who knew him far better to eulogise him. However, I want to point out one manner in which Ali’s spirit reaches out.

To begin with, one of the keynote speakers at the funeral of a prominent member of the Muslim community was a member of the Jewish community and then there were the contents of his discourse.

Wait a minute! A rabbi speaking at the memorial service for a Muslim?

Yes, and not just any rabbi but Rabbi Michael Lerner, a liberal rabbi from Berkeley, California.

Lerner used his platform, where a slew of dignitaries had gathered, to call for peace between communities and for greater equality between those who have and those who have not. He asked the powers that be to introduce a plethora of social changes.

What is the world coming to when traditional bigotry and hatred are interrupted by the likes of Rabbi Lerner, who promote interfaith dialogue and respect of each other? When an American Jew calls for an ending of drone warfare and the ending of Israeli West Bank occupation? What kind of world is this when the leader of a Jewish community calls on Israel to respect Palestinians? And calls on the Turks to respect the Kurds and on the United States to become the most loved country on Earth, not just the most powerful?

What you get is the opposite of Donald Trump’s narrow-minded views and limited scope of life and politics. What you get is the opposite of what fanatical Islamists such as members of the Islamic State want. What you get is hope that there exists some sanity among us.

Regretfully, the likes of Muhammad Ali and Michael Lerner are rare. What Lerner called for is almost utopic, only a dream, a political reverie, a minute oasis of sanity among vast oceans of madness, violence growing political, social and economic instability.

With people like these you get a chance for a better world.

The rabbi began his unusual diatribe by saying he was representing the Jewish community in the United States but does he really? Certainly he can count on many supporters but, then again, so can Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who stands at the other end of Lerner’s political spectrum.

Lerner is no doubt a very learned man who understands the complexities of politics far better than some of the candidates running for the US presidency.

Alas, his talk is destined to be a good, provocative speech delivered in front of an impressive audience but that, regrettably, will soon be forgotten. Many people listened to the words of wisdom, applauded the man who delivered them, as well as the man in whose honour those words of wisdom were delivered.

Yet how many will have the courage to follow in his footsteps? Those were very big shoes Muhammad Ali left behind.

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The Syrian conundrum

The Arab Weekly
Claude Salhani

Although the war in Syria seemed to be stagnating, recently the situation appears to be moving and evolving at an accelerated pace. Russia and Iran have increased their military involvement in Syria. Both countries contributed troops to the conflict in support of the Syrian president and the Russians committed their air force to back pro-government forces.

The Iranians who have been sending troops and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to fight in support of Syrian Presi­dent Bashar Assad recently ran advertisements aimed at recruit­ing young boys — generally aged 9-12 — to fight in Syria — a repetition of what the Iranians did during the war with Iraq. They would often have youth brigades precede regular troops on the battlefield to clear land­mines. In exchange for their lives, the ayatollahs promised the boys a place in paradise.

US President Barack Obama reiterated multiple times over the past year that there would not be any US troops in Syria. It seems he spoke too soon. It has been confirmed that, despite Obama’s promises, that there are a number of American special operations forces on the Syrian front. Although limited in numbers, there are nevertheless US troops in Syria today.

Peace talks — or rather attempted peace talks — in Geneva have gotten nowhere with the chief negotiator for the Syrian opposition throwing in the towel, saying he was resigning in protest over the failure by the United Nations to make any headway.

The proverbial fog of war remains, thick as ever, rendering the situation as confusing and as murderous as ever. All sides in the civil war, more than five years long, claim to be on the right side and periodically they all claim to be on the winning side, too.

Indeed, at some point in this continuing mayhem, they may well be right or winning, or both or neither. Contributing to the confusion are the multitude of factions engaged in the fighting. Many of these groups have extraordinary names, such as the pro-government Cheetah Force or the Kata’ib Hezbollah. Or yet the pro-rebel Deterring the Oppressor Brigade.

Some of these groups have several thousand men while others consist of barely a handful of followers. But if the perhaps hundreds of thousands of fighters engaged in the Syrian conflict are unable to force a military solution despite five years of continued warfare and the military, finan­cial and political support of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Iran, Russia and the United States as well as a handful of European countries, including France and Britain, what on Earth could find a solution to the current conun­drum?

What is obvious is the inability of Syrians at solving their prob­lem on their own and the solu­tion, if indeed there is one, would require the intervention of two of the world’s most powerful countries, each with its own reason to want to see the demise of the Islamist terrorists. The United States, of course, opposes terrorism and wants to promote democracy in the Arab world, even if it goes about it in a rather strange manner.

As for the Russians, they want to make sure they get to defeat the jihadists before they return to the former Soviet republics and autonomous regions within Russia.

It may have taken five years of all-out war but it finally seems as though the Americans and the Russians have finally realised that by working together they may be able to solve the crisis. It is perhaps to that end that US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have been meeting in recent weeks.

 

Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly.


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Misunderstanding Islam

There is a great misun­derstanding of Islam in the West, a fair amount of which falls under the banner of Islamophobia — the unfounded fear of Islam.

True, much of this misconception has been accentuated by actions of Islamist fundamentalists such as members of al-Qaeda and its spinoff, the far more radical Islamic State (ISIS). It is so bent on cruelty and violence that even al-Qaeda refers to its members as terrorists.

Nevertheless, an equal amount of blame for this ignorance of one of the world’s three main religions falls on the Judeo-Christian West for its failure to reach out to Muslims in any truly constructive manner. At least no concentrated efforts were undertaken before the bubble burst on September 11th, 2001.

Much ignorance persists. Ignorance in this instance is the real enemy. Not Islam. Not Christianity. Not Westerners. Not Middle Easterners. Ignorance is the threat. Because, as we now know, ignorance breeds fear and fear brings about hatred. Combined they lead inevitably to violence.

Here is a simple example of how little some in the Western media who cover major stories concerning Muslims really know what they are talking about.

The visit by the grand imam of al-Azhar, the prestigious Cairo centre of Islamic learning, to Pope Francis in Rome was a prime example of this lack of knowledge. Judging from headlines in the Western press, it sounded as though the leader of the Catholic Church was going to meet the representative of the Sunni world.

This is how MSN reported the event: “Pope Francis to receive Sunni Muslim leader at Vatican.” The story went on to say that the pope was to meet the grand imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar at the Vatican “in an unprecedented encounter between the leader of the world’s Catholics and the highest authority in Sunni Islam”.

This is misleading. Yes, the head of Egypt’s oldest and most prominent centre of religious studies does carry a certain amount of clout. And Egypt, despite being shunned by the rest of the Arab world for many years as punishment for proceeding on its own with a peace treaty with Israel when it signed the Camp David agreement, is still a country of stature.

Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar, is an important figure in Egyptian religious, political and social life. He often represents the clergy at official government functions. However, in the Sunni branch of Islam, there is an absence of hierarchy. There is no supreme leader, as in the Shia branch, in which there are ayatollahs, grand ayatollahs and other ranks.

One of the great attractions of the Sunni branch of the Muslim faith is that there is no pope, archbishop or supreme leader. Every Muslim has an equal footing in the community. The religious leader of the community, the imam, is respected for his knowledge of the holy books and usually because of his age. Or at least the knowledge he is supposed to have as in some cases ignorance of the world in general is so vast that his work and knowledge becomes counterproductive.

The imam can and does offer advice and leadership given his knowledge, which typically exceeds the general knowledge of the congregation. That is certainly often the case in poor communities. Officially, however, the imam wields no supreme power. That has been both a blessing and a curse, especially when it comes to sensitive issues such as issuing fatwas, religious edicts.

As we have seen many times since the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, a number of Muslim leaders who have issued a variety of edicts were well authorised to do so. Many have been counterproductive in promoting understanding and cooperation between Muslims and the West, yet those fatwas were perfectly legal, if somewhat inane.

In contrast to Shiism, in which there is an established structure, in the main branch of Islam everybody is supposed to be equal in the eyes of God. This is an interesting concept for such a vast movement not to have a supreme leader and in times of strife, as we have seen these past years, it makes it very difficult to reach out to such a wide-ranging community in which there is no central figure who can speak for its followers.

Attempts were made in some European countries — France in particular — to designate a top Muslim figure who could influence the faithful. The exception to this rule is, of course, the caliph, the one who is supposed to lead the umma, the community and the one replacing the Prophet. But as in all other religions, here, too, one has to beware of false prophets.

 

Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly.


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Hezbollah: From national heroes to regional villains

The Arab Weekly
Claude Salhani

The killing of Mustafa Badreddine, the top Hezbollah military commander in Syria, adds greater pressure on the Lebanese Shia movement and its secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, at a time when both friends and foes are questioning its policies and procedures.

Over the past several years the movement went from being regarded by the majority of Leba­nese citizens as national heroes to being frowned upon as a misused regional military force and inter­national villains.

The group first rose to heroic status in the eyes of the Leba­nese and other Arabs because of its staunch and at times fierce resistance to the Israeli military occupation of southern Lebanon. Hezbollah’s relentless attacks against the Israeli military even­tually forced the Jewish state to withdraw all its forces from Lebanon.

Following the forced departure of the Palestine Liberation Or­ganisation and dozens of splinter groups from Lebanon after Israel invaded the country in June 1982, Hezbollah quickly rose to promi­nence. It became, in the absence of the Lebanese state authority, and thus the Lebanese Army, the de facto military force in the south and eventually expanded its reach over much of the country.

The Lebanese Shia group be­came known as “the resistance” and rose in prestige in the eyes of a great majority of Lebanese, including Christians, who not too long before that were engaged in fighting fellow Arabs during the Lebanese civil war.

Hezbollah succeeded in pushing the Israeli military war machine out of occupied Arab territory, something that no other Arab force had been able to ac­complish since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

For a brief period, Hezbollah basked in the limelight across the Arab world and was cheered as liberators from Aden to Casa­blanca.

Egged on by its suc­cess, the group made two monumental mistakes. The first came when various Leba­nese militias convened in Saudi Arabia and agreed to give up their weapons. Hezbollah, arguing that it was a resistance group and that Israel still occupied tracts of lands in southern Lebanon, convinced the others that it should retain its weapons.

That alienated many Leba­nese, who resented giving up their weapons while the Shia movement continued to acquire heavier and more sophisticated weapons, mostly supplied by Iran.

Then came the Syrian war and Hezbollah’s second and poten­tially fatal mistake. Had the group chosen to give up its arms when the other Lebanese factions gave up theirs, the history of Lebanon’s modern-day politics could have been very different.

Without its weapons, Hezbol­lah would have had to pursue dialogue and that would have encouraged Lebanese political parties to seek a just solution to their political differences through peaceful negotiations and not through strong-arm tactics, threats of violence and the like.

By allowing itself to be manipu­lated by Syria and particularly by Iran, Hezbollah transited from a position of heroism to one of re­gional hitman to that of an inter­national villain. In looking back, could it be that the organisation might have taken on a greater role than it could manage? Or should it have not become involved in the Syrian conflict?

The number of casualties the group suffered in defending Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has made many of the group’s supporters question the logic behind a move that has turned Hezbollah into a regional terrorist group implicated in con­flict beyond its borders.

According to sources familiar with the Shia community in Leba­non, there is now open criticism of Nasrallah’s decision to support Assad in Syria and fear among some that this will drive a wedge between the Lebanese Shia com­munity and the Syrian people, who are not about to forget Hez­bollah’s position during the war.

With the killing of Badreddine in Syria, Nasrallah lost a major asset who carried enormous pres­tige and clout within the military high command. His death is a big blow to Hezbollah in general and to Nasrallah in particular. It strengthens the Iranians’ position in Syria and weakens Hezbollah’s autonomy, if it ever had any.

Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly.


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Iranians playing with fire in the Gulf


2016/05/08 Issue: 55 Page: 6
Claude Salhani

In an act of precarious defiance, the deputy commander of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolu­tionary Guards Corps threatened to bar access to the strategic Strait of Hormuz to the United States and its allies if they “threaten” the Islamic Republic.

The narrow strait that lies be­tween Iran on one side and Oman’s Musandam peninsula on the other provides the only sea passage to the open ocean from the Arabian Gulf. It is one of the world’s most strategically important choke points.

At its narrowest, the strait has a width of 54km, making it relatively simple to block. Crippling one or two supertankers, of which there are no shortages going through the busy strait on a daily basis, would close the passage to all shipping.

Blocking the strait would cre­ate an oil shortage for parts of the world, diplomatic imbroglio and military enmeshment, with potentially grave conse­quences.

On the oil front, with Hormuz closed, there would be an immediate fuel shortage. It is esti­mated that about 20% of the world’s petroleum passes through the strait.

The closing of Hormuz would have serious con­sequences for Saudi Arabia, whose super tankers need the Hormuz outlet to ferry the country’s oil and liquefied natural gas from port terminals in Eastern province, as well as for other Gulf Cooperation Council members.

Such action would create a scurry on the diplomatic front, as politicians and diplomats at all levels would try to reach a peaceful solution.

The United States would cer­tainly intervene, as it has in the past to protect its US Navy 5th Fleet, which has its home port in Bahrain and is deployed mainly to protect international shipping in the region.

There is a memorable precedent of a similar situation pitting the US military against the Iranians when, in 1987-88, the US Navy set out to escort as many tankers and supertankers as it could, frequent­ly engaging the Iranians who tried to attack the vessels.

But that was nearly 30 years ago. Today the region is very different and much more volatile. Following the uprisings of the “Arab spring”, it is much more explosive with several conflicts percolating.

Given the harsh realities associ­ated with the closure of such a strategically important waterway, it is unlikely that the Iranians would actually go through with their threat to bar US ships from the strait.

However, the danger may come because hotheads in Iran, egged on by the country’s military successes in Syria and political achievements on the nuclear negotiation front, could be blinded and misguided by those limited accomplishments.

Iranian state media quoted Brigadier-General Hossein Salami, the acting commander of the Is­lamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, as saying: “If the Americans and their regional allies want to pass through the Strait of Hormuz and threaten us, we will not allow any entry.”

Earlier Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei criticised US military drills in the Gulf.

The last time the United States confronted the Iranians in the Gulf, the situation was contained but with conflicts raging in Yemen, Iraq and Syria and with jihadists creating potential trouble in the rest of the region, there are good chances for any Iranian-US conflict to escalate to very dangerous levels.

Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly

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A glimmer of hope at the Islamic summit

Claude Salhani

Amid the numerous wars, religious conflicts and general malaise and mayhem gripping large portions of the Levant and North Africa, there comes a glimmer of hope, a tiny flicker that peace can be within reach — at least in the humble opinion of this commentator.

I have been chronicling devel­opments — political, economic, military — as well as social trends in the greater Middle East for more than four decades and have seen the region in times of crisis and in times of greater crisis. And in all those years every attempt at resolving any crisis has lacked one thing: addressing its root problem.

The Middle East region has weathered its share of violent conflict — and then some. And with each new conflict, the level of violence increases exponen­tially.

Quite naturally as the violence grows, it feeds on itself, gather­ing momentum and growing like a demented monster. The war in Syria, which has claimed at least 270,000 lives, is a perfect example of how a conflict can grow and grow, leaving politi­cians powerless when they try to intervene because they often forget to address the root cause of the problem.

And here is the reason on which I base my optimism: the decision by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) not only to tackle the main issue that is driving the violence in the Middle East and beyond — terror­ism — but also to address the root cause or causes of the region’s turmoil.

Addressing 30 leaders of Mus­lim countries, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in an opening speech at an OIC conference in Turkey, called on Mus­lim states to unite in fighting terrorism and overcoming sectarian divisions.

“Why are we waiting for help from outside to solve our problems and put a stop to terror?” asked Erdogan.

“I believe the greatest challenge we need to surmount is sectarianism. My religion is not that of Sunnis, of Shias. My religion is Islam,” he added.

The summit nonetheless con­demned Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah for “support for terrorism”.

The events of the past few years have demonstrated that the most sophisticated security systems can be easily bypassed if terrorists have the will and resolve to strike.

If you want to resolve a conflict, you must start by addressing the reasons that have driven the ter­rorists to take up weapons in the first place. If the initial problem is not taken care of, the issue will persist. The challenge facing the OIC and its members is that the Middle East’s problem has metamorphosed into a series of different issues, making attempts at resolving the root problem all that much harder.

The OIC meeting in Turkey hoped to address the issue of the Palestinian territories, which many observers say is the root cause of the region’s problems. What began as a dispute over real estate between those inhabiting Palestine and newly arrived im­migrants claiming historical at­tachment to the land, has turned into a multifaceted religious, sectarian, political and economic conflict — at times pitting differ­ent cultures against each other.

Many will argue that the Pal­estinian problem is not what is driving today’s violence in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. That, of course, is absolutely true. How­ever, had the conditions been different from the start, would the regimes that have found their way in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen have had the same excuse to rule the way they did all those years?

As for the second issue the OIC planned to address — terrorism — again a very difficult and multi­faceted problem to solve.

There is no doubt that those tasked with solving these issues will not face an easy job.

What makes me optimistic, however, is that Muslim leaders seem to acknowledge the exist­ence of the problems and the need to address them urgently. Peace may not be achieved right away but this is the right course to follow.

The Arab Weekly

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