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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The autocratic transformation of Erdogan

The Arab Weekly
Claude Salhani

The image of Turkey that its president wanted to project — that of an open, secular and modern society in which concerns for an individual’s rights were on a par with Europe to the degree that the country could be invited to join the European Union — is rapidly fading.

What we are seeing emerge through the fog of confused Le­vantine politics is a very different Turkey, one far removed from what was initially hoped for.

Turkey is projecting a depressing glimpse of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s interpretation of demo­cratic principles.

Yes, the country governed by Erdogan looks very different from the one that was knocking on the European Union’s door not too long ago. When Erdogan rose to power in 2003, there were expecta­tions that he could serve as a role model of the modern and progres­sive Muslim leader who proved to sceptics that Islam and the West could coexist in peace.

Supporters of the notion that Turkey belongs in the European Union along with the rest of demo­cratic Europe argued — and contin­ue to say — that admitting Turkey into the group would propel the democratisation process in Turkey and that, within a relatively short time, the country would have come around to resemble its European partners more than its neighbours to the south, as now appears to be the case.

Those opposed to Turkey’s admission into the EU are saying that they were justified in oppos­ing Ankara’s ascension. They point to Erdogan’s two-faced policies in dealing with jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq. On the one hand, the Turkish government helped funnel arms and fighters to the Islamists; on the other, it professed to clamp down on jihadists.

As a member of NATO, in princi­ple at least, Turkey is an ally of the United States and Western Europe. Turkey has even dispatched units to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq.

The “democracy” that the Turk­ish president purports to be back­ing is in reality more of a gradual infringement on all levels of a free society. Scratch the surface of Turkish politics and you will un­doubtedly discover ugly truths.

Looking over the past few years, there is a clear transformation of the Turkish leader’s political stance and the shining light and breath of fresh air the Europeans had hoped for. The reality turned out to be something very different.

As more than one observer noted, Erdogan turned out to be a disappointment as the former prime minister became president and is now turning into a dictator.

As any self-respecting dictator would do, Erdogan went after the country’s free press. Erdogan had the editors of Zaman and Cumhuri­yet, two of the country’s largest newspapers, arrested. Zaman had devoted a number of articles to corruption in Erdogan’s family and government and Cumhuriyet repre­sented the opposition.

Erdogan also took on scores of university professors, members of the military and aid workers, send­ing dozens to prison

He erected a huge presidential palace for himself and called a ref­erendum, hoping to win the right to rewrite the constitution and give himself greater power.

Cumhuriyet published video footage showing trucks filled with weapons being delivered to rebel groups in Syria. Since the start of the war in Syria, Turkey had offered support to rebels fighting the Assad government, even arming extrem­ist groups closely affiliated with al-Qaeda. Two top editors of Cum­huriyet, Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, were accused of espionage and could be sentenced to life in prison. According to journalism watchdog groups, there are about 20 report­ers imprisoned in Turkey.

And because the United States needs Turkey’s support in the fight against terrorism, the White House and the US State Department have been reluctant to criticise the Turk­ish leader’s actions, even when his security detail beat protesters in Washington on March 31st when scuffles broke out between Turkish security and reporters.

While US authorities reiterated their position demanding that there be more media freedom in Turkey, ugly scenes erupted shortly before Erdogan’s arrival at the Brookings Institution, where Turkish security officials clashed with protesters, exchanging insults and scuffling, before police separated them.

During the scuffle one Turkish security guard aimed a chest-high kick at an American reporter at­tempting to film the harassment of a Turkish opposition reporter while another called a female foreign policy scholar a “whore”.


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

 

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Is Hezbollah a terrorist organization?

from The Arab Weekly

Claude Salhani

The six oil- and gas-producing countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) recently declared the Leba­nese Shia movement Hezbollah a terrorist organisation, echoing what Israel and the United States have long maintained.

Just one day earlier a NATO-sponsored, closed-door confer­ence addressed this very issue.

A GCC official asked the audi­ence: “Is Hezbollah a terrorist or­ganisation?” The vote by a show of hands was far from unanimous but I believe the “yeses” were in the minority.

Whether Hezbollah is a terror organisation, however, cannot be answered with a straight yes or no. The answer, much like the politics of the region, is more complicated.

One of the greatest writers on military tactics, Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, said the first step in defeating your enemy is to know him.

Indeed, declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organisation is doing a disfavour to those trying to coun­ter the group’s philosophy and fight its expansion in the Middle East.

Among the multitude of crimes Hezbollah is accused of having committed, the US government says it has irrefutable proof that group, with the help of Syria, was responsible for the killing of 241 US servicemen, mostly US Ma­rines, and 58 French paratroopers in Beirut on October 23rd, 1983.

Hezbollah has committed ter­rorist acts, of that there is little doubt, or at least some members of the organisation carried out acts that can be classified as acts of terror.

However, to better understand the group’s actions, motivations and source of strength, one needs to take a closer look at the compo­nents that make up the move­ment and not lump them into one basket marked terrorism.

Observers of the region’s politics agree that Hezbollah is composed of three distinct units.

First and foremost, Hezbol­lah is a bona fide political party representing a large portion of Lebanon’s Shia community. As such it is represented in the government, with a number of important ministerial positions held by its representatives. It is also represented in the country’s parliament, with deputies elected on the Hezbollah slate. Because of the way in which Lebanon’s electoral laws are established, Hezbollah’s parliamentary slate includes Christian members.

Second, perhaps the most important element of Hezbollah is its social services. This unit provides services for the impov­erished Shia community in the absence of the Lebanese state. Services of primary importance such as day care and healthcare centres are provided for the com­munity by the movement. This is an area in which the Lebanese state has completely failed.

Quite naturally when providing such services to a segment of the population, in return Hezbollah receives much loyalty.

The third component of Hezbol­lah is its military wing, which is at the heart of why some call it a terrorist organisation. The military unit is armed, trained and financed mostly by Iran. Hezbollah calls its military wing a resistance movement as it was its military forces that eventually forced Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

The group’s involvement in the daily lives of the Shia commu­nity in Lebanon, and sometimes beyond, is so ingrained in the society that extracting one from the other would be a very difficult task unless, of course, the Leba­nese government steps in to pick up its responsibilities where it has been absent and it has largely failed.

If you want to defeat Hezbollah start by building up the Lebanese state. There is no other way.

There are, however, two problems with that notion: One is that Hezbollah has infiltrated Lebanese state institutions and substituted its own agenda over that of the country’s, making rebuilding the Lebanese state a more wishful thing today than a realistic objective.

The second problem is that Hezbollah has substituted its Iran-inspired regional agenda to Lebanon’s national security requirements. That can only be disastrous for Lebanon.

Nobody can reboot the Leba­nese state as long as Hezbollah, terrorist or not, holds the plug to the system.

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

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The Middle East in turmoil

The Arab Weekly
Claude Salhani

The civil war in Syria has unleashed a Pandora’s box of problems for the region and well beyond, drawing major powers into the conflict and escalating tensions to unprecedented danger levels, or at least to those not seen since the coldest days of the Cold War.

The Syrian conflict has spread well beyond its borders, affecting all of its neighbours in one manner or another. The unprecedented refugee crisis has troubled European countries, raising spectres of past regimes that some hoped would remain forgotten.

The dangers facing the region have many people worried about where this could lead if left unchecked.

Amr Moussa, the former secretary-general of the Arab League, classified the situation in the Middle East and North Africa as one of “immense danger”.

What does the future hold for Syria given the level of violence and destruction that has prevailed throughout this terrible war?

There is no doubt the Syria of tomorrow will be a very different than today’s. Will a post-war Syria continue under the current regime after all that has transpired? That is unlikely. In all probability, once the Russians have secured their naval bases on the Mediterranean, Syrian President Bashar Assad may very quickly be seen as a liability for them. But his presence or departure may not be Moscow’s biggest problem once the guns fall silent.

Iran and Russia may be allies today but their interests are bound to change once the conflict subsides. If Moscow’s preoccupation is to maintain its naval bases on the Mediterranean, Iran has far more ambiguous ambitions.

Unlike Russia, which has limited its participation in the war to providing air support, Iran, having invested a good number on lives and many dollars, views Syria as a logical extension of its Islamic revolution. How will this affect the Russians’ position? Is the Kremlin simply going to allow Iran to swallow Syria or the several countries that may emerge from the post-war Syria? Or will Russia be willing to engage in yet another far-away bloodier war?

On the other side of the region is North Africa, particularly in Libya, where the Islamic State (ISIS) has invested heavily, hoping to extend its caliphate from Baghdad to Tripoli. That is another major flashpoint yet to reach its climax.

A number of officials who monitor the region have voiced concern about Libya. The Europeans particularly are keeping a very close eye on the situation there as it directly affects developments in their countries.

Such is the flow of refugees inundating European countries in recent years that there is, of course, the potential of sleeper terrorists infiltrating along with refugees, with senior US officials warning that they are entering Europe every day. The Islamists have been going about it quite shrewdly, investing heavily in getting their supporters to Belgium, one of the smallest European countries. That is why the Belgium question was asked at a recent NATO conference held in Rome.

The answer may be quite obvious to some. Belgium, divided between its two principal communities, the Flemish and the Walloons, offers a certain level of ambiguity that the terrorists have used to their advantage.


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

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The peace talks and the pawns of war

by Claude Salhani

UN-brokered peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups in Geneva run the risk of unleashing an upsurge of fighting as each side seeks to gain ground to aid its negotiating position.

Opposition delegate Bassma Kodmani said bombings had increased in the week ahead of the Geneva talks, which began on January 29th. “In preparations for the negotiations, everything has intensified. The sieges have become total,” she said.

On January 31st, the United Nations said Mouadamiya, a rebel-held town of 45,000 on the south-western edge of Damascus, faced a new siege by government forces.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for attacks in the Sayeda Zeinab district of Damascus, according to Amaq, a news agency that sup­ports the militant group. It said two operations “hit the most im­portant stronghold of Shia militias in Damascus”. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at more than 60, including 25 Shia fighters.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the attacks were “clearly aimed to disrupt the at­tempts to start a political process” to end a conflict that has killed more than 260,000 people.

In the Syrian conflict, as in every conflict, there comes a phase in the war when the fighting can no longer be considered a viable solu­tion and peace begins to look like a more acceptable option.

But as the peace negotiators sit down to silence the guns, the fighters hunker down for a last spurt of heavy fighting.

This is where the Syrian conflict is. After nearly five years of con­tinuous violence that has ruined the country and has turned close to half its population — 10 million people — into refugees, all eyes are turned to Geneva amid hopes that the antagonists can reach a lasting solution.

Now, as Syria’s warlords con­vene in Geneva the conflict enters into a precarious phase.

In this dreadful war, as is often the case in conflict negotiations, there is that twilight moment, a time of last-minute madness in which the hell that is war takes on an additional degree of insanity. This is when the politicians take control of the war machine from the combatants — remotely, of course — so as to give them better leverage in negotiations.

These are at times the harshest hours for those in the front-line trenches. The men and women and, in some cases the children, engaged in defending their terri­tory are aware that peace talks are just around the corner and that every second of every minute of every hour counts.

This is where the cold-blood­edness of the politicians is best reflected as they move their men about the battlefield much as pawns are shuffled around a chess board.

This is a certain insane absurd­ity that surrounds most peace talks. The most memorable ex­amples were the talks to end the Vietnam War. While young men and women died in the jungles of South-East Asia, negotiators sit­ting in the comfort of the Avenue Kleber Conference Centre in Paris haggled for weeks over the shape of the table and which side got to sit where. All the while fight­ing raged with renewed intensity because both sides knew the end of the war was near and each side wanted to make the most territo­rial gains.

However, the winning side has to carefully balance just how much ground it takes so as not to put the other side into too big a defeat, causing them to leave negotiations.

In Geneva, where the Syrian peace talks were being conducted, opposing sides would not even meet in the same room. Instead UN negotiators are forced to shuttle between the delegations’ separate areas.

The Syrian peace talks are prob­ably as complicated as were the Lebanese peace talks in the luxury of a five-star hotel in Lausanne in 1984. The sheer number of parties involved, each armed with a list of demands and expectations contribute to the complexity of negotiations.

At one point in the 15-year Leba­nese civil war there were no fewer than 98 armed groups of vari­ous sizes and importance, some controlling no more than a single street, others welded more power than the national army.

In Syria, the opposition is also divided and composed of a multi­tude of parties and armed militias that spend as much time fighting each other as they do the central government they want to over­throw. They have yet to familiarise themselves with the ancient Ro­man adage of divide and conquer.

Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly

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US boots on the ground in Syria?

Is the statement by US Vice-President Joe Biden — that the United States would be putting boots on the ground in Syria to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) — a change of heart and mind as far as US foreign policy is con­cerned?

Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, President Barack Obama’s administration has been adamant that there would be no US troops deployed in Syria. Now the Obama administration is having second thoughts. Is this a last-minute attempt by Obama to make amends for his lack of interest in a turbulent Middle East?

Obama, who leaves the White House next January, is concerned — as all presidents before him were — about his legacy. While Obama has scored some victory points domestically, there is nothing major on foreign policy that his administration can claim, such as president Jimmy Carter orchestrating the Camp David accords that ushered in a lasting peace between Egypt and Israel.

But for Obama, as it was for Bill Clinton, attempts at rectifying the Middle East conflict come too little, too late. Similarly, Obama must certainly feel the pressure mounting as each day brings the inauguration of the next president closer.

Is the United States serious about sending troops to fight in Syria? Rumours have it that the 101st Airborne Division, one of the crack units of the US Army, is preparing for the task.

The statement the vice-president made after he met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul took care to underline that US and Turkish forces would deploy to fight ISIS and would not be involved in the Syrian civil war otherwise.

Additionally, Obama may feel pressured to act given that Russia has a firm foothold, which includes air bases and naval facilities, in Syria. Now that the Russians are there, it is highly unlikely they would ever leave the eastern Mediterranean.

In essence it would be hard to detect any policy change given that there was never any clear-cut policy on Syria to begin with. The Obama administration seemed to randomly pick out an opposition group from the plethora of forces opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad, only to realise a short while later that it was the wrong group. Some Syrian opposition groups wanted to appear sympathetic to the United States so as to receive training, weapons and financing.

With the peace talks possibly restarting and the possibility of a major offensive by the United States and Turkey, is there a glimmer of a light at the end of the tunnel? On the one hand, if Syrian peace talks succeed, this may be the beginning of the end of the war but if they fail, would the United States and Turkey intervening militarily bring an end to the conflict?

That is unlikely to happen. There are serious doubts the peace talks will go anywhere given the disparity among the opposition forces. And, despite the United States maintaining that any forces committed to the Syrian theatre of operations are there to fight ISIS, there is no telling once on the ground how things will turn out.

Turkey has also stated that it would be sending troops to fight ISIS, which Ankara supported not too long ago. But Turkey has its own agenda and it keeping tabs on the Kurds.

Truth be told, chances of a diplomatic solution to the conundrum in Syria are few and far between as the numerous opposition parties spend as much time fighting each other as they are fighting their common enemy, the current regime in Damascus.

Nobody in this conflict seems to be playing straight. Just as the Syrian factions supported by the United States would not hesitate to turn their backs on the Americans, so, too, would the United States drop them like a hot potato should a better opportunity knock at the door. The trouble, however, is you don’t know who is knocking on the door until it’s too late.

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

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War and Peace in the Middle East

By Claude Salhani

The sheer insanity of war seems to have spread like a malignant cancer across North Africa and the Middle East. Everywhere you look war and its by-products — hate, violence and fear — have never been so present as they are today in the Arab world.

From the tip of the Arabian pen­insula to the valleys of the Two Riv­ers, from the cedars of Lebanon to the plains of Anatolia and from the pyramids of Egypt stretching across the deserts to the string of pleas­ant fertile Mediterranean cities that dot the coast of North Africa, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed and millions rendered homeless.

The refugee crisis stretching from the Mid­dle East into Europe and even beyond is one of the world’s most serious mass migration of peoples across borders and continents since World War II.

There is no immediate solution to the refugee cri­sis, there is no magic wand that will fix everything immediately assuming that the concerned powers agree on an agenda. It will take years, if ever, to right all the wrongs committed in this last year alone.

The Christmas season, being the time of unbridled dreams, one should imagine if only for a brief moment, how different the region would be and how much it would prosper and develop and just how much the people would benefit if and when peace were to replace war.

For the moment, it is only a distant dream but dreams can come true when there is human will.

If the peoples of the Middl East manage to overcome the divides separating them and learn to curb the fears they have of each other’s differences, the outlook of the re­gion would not be quite the same.

First, money currently spent on buying arms could be used to ad­vance education and welfare, two fields in which the region lags.

Second, youth in the region would have dreams of better lives at home. The drive to migrate at any cost would certainly slow down if not stop altogether.

Third, destructive mindsets would cease being the trademark of the MENA region. The Arab world could, as it did in the Mid­dle Ages, start contributing to the advancement of thought, science, technology and medicine. There is no reason why the Arab and Muslim world cannot contribute greatly to such developments the way it did during the days of Avi­cenna and Averroes.

Fourth, consider how the tour­ist industry is hurting more than ever after terrorist attacks in Tunis and Egypt. Consider the amount of foreign currency that would be pumped into the countries and the number of jobs created in the tour­ism industry and offshoots if there were no terror threat.

Religious tourism could skyrock­et if pilgrims of all religions were able to travel unhindered around the region to visit the holy cities in the Palestinian territories, Israel, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia without fear of arrest or kidnapping or of being caught up in political violence.

Fifth, industrial zones could be created in parts of the Middle East with large populations where an inexpensive and capable labour force could be found. Only indus­try can create the tens of thou­sands of jobs needed to stem youth unemployment.

Think how prosperous the region could be if the money invested by Saudi and Qatari donations as well as by Western nations and private corporations — both official and from private entities — would go to helping in the causes of develop­ment, welfare and progress.

This, of course, is all utopic under the current circumstances and hardly likely to be in the offing in the near future. Though one can still dream and hope for a miracle. It is nearly Christmas after all.

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