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

By Claude Salhani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Geopolitical pot could quickly reach a boiling point

by Claude Salhani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Both sides in Syrian civil war are breaking the rules

By Claude Salhani

Human rights groups have accused Syrian opposition groups supported by the United States in Syria of having used white phosphorus-loaded munitions in what is appearing to be the final push on the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa.

Videos posted online appear to show and human rights groups have claimed that white phos­phorous munitions were deployed at least twice in densely populated areas of Mosul and Raqqa.

Use of white phosphorus munitions is common in Western militaries, according to military sources, though controversial. White phosphorous shells were used extensively by the Israeli military during the Lebanon inva­sion in 1982. Continue reading

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A sickening perversion of the faith

By Claude Salhani

The terrorist attacks in Manchester and London have brought to light many points in the war to defeat a sick and cowardly ideology led by maniacal men who feel no remorse in attacking defenceless girls. Where is the honour or valour in committing such barbarous acts?

Truth will always prevail over falsehoods and good will always triumph over evil. Look at history as a guideline. Every nefarious philosophy that adopted evil as its road map, be it from the far right, the far left or from a ruthless dic­tatorship, has ultimately been de­feated. At times, it may have taken a few more years but, in the end, good, truth and justice emerge vic­torious over oppressive regimes, be they religious or secular.

Communism, fascism, jihadism — to name but a few — were predi­cated on lies, hatred and evil. Just how two-faced these groups are is apparent in their interpretation of Islam and the way they cherry-pick what suits them, passing over the rest. They supposedly reject modernity and its tools, yet turn to the most modern of Western advances — the internet to commu­nicate, recruit and communicate between themselves and their agents in the West.

Their propaganda is pure fiction. It preys on the vulnerability of marginalised youth with a shallow understanding of the faith and instils dangerously distorted and bellicose versions of Islam. The programme put forward by the Is­lamic State (ISIS) is based on a plat­form of hate, lies and unadulter­ated evil. It convinces brainwashed youth of Muslim backgrounds that their neighbours and fellow citizens are their enemies.

Those who ordered or sanc­tioned the June 3 attacks in Lon­don committed a horrible, horrible sin, not only against innocent bystanders whom they considered to be their enemy but also against their own coreligionists.

The ISIS narrative promises jihadist operatives that their heav­enly reward for their ultimate “martyrdom” would be multiplied tenfold because they are perform­ing those acts during the holy month of Ramadan.

God — no matter what you call him — does not condone the killing of innocents and there is nothing in the teachings of the Prophet Mo­hammad — not in the Quran, nor in the Hadith — to suggest that the faithful need to go on a rampage during the very month they are meant to cleanse themselves and rise to a higher level of spirituality.

In their sick minds the terror­ists may consider this latest attack a victory. Indeed, they may have scored points with their followers but ultimately this is a war they cannot win.

This is the last stop in a treach­erous road of ideological perver­sion spanning various gradations. Misguided followers can graduate from the supposedly traditional­ist Islamist doctrine to the most extreme forms of aggressive Salafism. Sometimes there is no evolution. New recruits just get dragged into the bloodiest forms of radicalism overnight.

The latest London incident raised many security and intel­ligence questions. There is clearly a long and difficult road ahead for Britain’s security forces as made evident by their apparent inability to identify the dangerous elements among Islamists or to heed warn­ings about them. British security had received several warnings about the individuals involved in the London Bridge attack but had not considered those individuals dangerous.

This is likely to be a mixture of faulty intelligence and a propen­sity to underestimate the danger as such individuals are examined through the distorting prism of communitarianism: They are pre­sumed to just be different.

Still, the challenge can be daunt­ing.

British Prime Minister Theresa May revealed that no fewer than five terror attempts had been thwarted in recent days. Security services are refining their strate­gies. The response time between the moment the alarm was first raised and security forces arrived on the scene was eight minutes. Eight minutes in a city as large and as congested as London is simply outstanding.

As security forces continue to penetrate and pre-empt terror attacks on the home front while confronting the groups on their own home turf, defeating them militarily, there remain two areas security services need to address aggressively: The internet and social media.

In the meantime, we may find that some of our civil liberties may be constrained as the war to oust the jihadists from Britain intensi­fies.

“Enough is enough,” said the British prime minister. That is a phrase the resident of No 10 Down­ing Street should have uttered well before June 5, 2017.

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What will it take to stop the current destruction?

by Claude Salhani –

What will it take to awaken the leaders in the Arab world who continue to believe that their will can be imposed on their people regardless of the cost in material damages and human lives?

How many more cities in the Arab world need to be destroyed and how many more innocent people must die before these lead­ers realise the absolute madness of such violence?

And how many more millions of Arabs must become refugees before those responsible for the carnage accept the fact that changes in a modern society must come through the ballot and not by the bullet?

How many more years of death and destruction will it take for Bashar Assad and others like him to figure out that they have over­stayed their welcome?

These leaders, blinded by their beliefs in the need to impose a political and sectarian diktat, have caused untold misery and bear the responsibility for millions of deaths and injuries and the physical and psychological scarring of future generations. They stood by as thou­sands of children were orphaned and thousands of parents rendered childless.

They have sanctioned the killing and torture of countless numbers of people simply because they disagree with them. They have starved and gassed their opponents. They continue to lie about the use of banned weapons of mass destruc­tion, such as chemical bombs.

Yet the rest of the world stands by. What is happening in Syria and Iraq today is a blemish on all of humanity.

Yesterday it was Hama, then Homs and then Aleppo. Today it is Mosul and Raqqa.

What of tomorrow?

Will the lunatics who believe that their god is greater than the god of their neighbours feel the need to destroy more Arab cities?

Will they not be content before bringing ruin to the entire Middle East?

How many more cities in the region need to suffer before the instigators of death and destruction realise that there are alternatives to dictatorship?

Will they bring their carnage to other great cities of the region? Will they be satisfied to see the apocalyptic shape in which they left Mosul is repeated in other great cities of the region?

New images for CNN by Gabriel Chaim, a Brazilian photojournalist using a camera mounted on a small drone, gives us insight into the scope of destruction and devas­tation that befell what was once Iraq’s second largest city as govern­ment forces backed by the United States fought for control of what remains of this martyred city.

Mosul now takes its place alongside Homs, Hama and many other Arab cities that have suf­fered incalculable losses. From a prewar population of more than 1.6 million, Mosul’s population has been cut to about one-third of that. Those who remain in the belea­guered city struggle to find food and water to survive.

Islamic State (ISIS) militants are regrouping around Raqqa, the expected site of the next ma­jor offensive. There, US-backed military units are preparing for a final showdown with ISIS. That battle for control of the Islamists’ stronghold in Syria is expected to be even more violent with Russian Air Force planes participating in the fight against ISIS.

In Syria, President Bashar Assad hardly merits the title of president, given that he hardly controls about one-third of his country and is entirely dependent on the military assistance of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Russian Air Force. Without their help, Assad would probably have been history long ago.

Some of these Arab leaders are ignorant of the past. History is the best indication of what the future might bring and history has shown us that even the mightiest of dicta­tors are eventually tak

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The second greatest disaster for Israel

By Claude Salhani –

 Of the many conflicts fought between Israel and its Arab neigh­bours since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, the 1967 six-day war carries particular importance as it changed the very psyche of the Middle East. The war — 50 years ago this June — altered the outlook the two sides had on the conflict, giving Israelis over-inflated egos and a false sense of security.

The war changed the map of the Middle East, giving the young Jew­ish state far more land than granted by the United Nations’ partition vote. The June war saw the gentri­fication of Jerusalem and demon­strated to the Palestinians that no one was going to win this fight for them and that they would need to become pro-active.

Thus, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was recreated. The PLO had existed for some time but its chairman, Ahmad Shukeiri, proved to be ineffective and was replaced with Yasser Arafat.

In those gruelling six days of intense fighting, Israel captured the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank of the Jordan River and Arab East Jerusalem from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. It was a humiliating time for the Arabs, losing more than 20,000 men, 450-plus aircraft and hundreds of tanks, armoured personnel carriers and artillery pieces, as well as huge areas of land. The Arab leaders lost face, too.

It was also a loss for Israel, which lost its sense of humanity.

This is what Gideon Levy, a commentator for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, had to say in an April 16th column: The occupation of Palestinian land “began with the ultranationalist-religious orgy that swept over everyone but for a handful of prophets, and continues today, through the familiar mecha­nisms of brainwashing.”

Levy calls the 1967 war “Israel’s nakba” and the Palestinians’ second nakba. The nakba — “catastrophe” — is how Palestinians refer to the loss of Palestine in 1948.

“Israel,” said Levy, “has turned it into an evil, violent, ultranational­ist, religious, racist state.”

He cautioned Israelis not to blame all their ills on the occupa­tion. What the war of 1967 and its aftermath did was to “accelerate, institutionalise and legitimise the decline. It gave birth to the ongoing contempt for the world, the brag­ging and bullying,” he wrote.

Levy said the 1967 war was the “greatest Jewish disaster since the Holocaust.”

Those are harsh words but they needed to be said. More specifically, they needed to be said by an Israeli. Levy said 2017 “has to be the year of soul-searching in Israel, a year of unparalleled sadness.”

While such views are rare in Israel, it remains encouraging nev­ertheless to find such a conscience waking up. Of course, not everyone in Israel is of the same liberal mind. The government certainly does not share Levy’s position.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is of a very different opinion. His government will be having year-long celebrations and has set aside $2.75 million, which has been allocated to celebrate 50 years of what the government labels as “liberation” (of Samaria and Judea) and what Levy describes as “occupation.”

“Fifty years of suppression of another people, 50 years of rot and internal destruction,” Levy wrote. “Fifty years of bloodshed, abuse, disinheritance and sadism? Only societies that have no conscience celebrate such anniversaries. Israel won a war and lost nearly every­thing.”

He lamented the status of Jerusa­lem, a city claimed by both Pales­tinians and Israelis as their capital. “It is enough to look at Jerusalem, which went from being a charming university city with government institutions to a monster ruled by the Border Police,” said Levy.

Is this the onset of a new trend developing in Israeli society? Is the country waking up to the realities of what the occupation has been doing to generations of Palestinians? Well, miracles have been known to hap­pen in that part of the world.

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Conspiracy theories, Russia’s antidote to chemical weapons

by Claude Salhani

There is a new weapon in the war in Syria besides chemical agents: It is called conspiracy theories. Well, then again, maybe they are not so new.

Conspiracy theories have been around forever and range from the absurd to the sublime. They are relatively simple to initiate and almost impossible to prove right or wrong if cleverly constructed.

They can have a great public rela­tions impact because thousands of people fall for such fake news. For the record, use of chemical weap­ons is not exactly a novelty in the Syrian conflict.

You can find conspiracy theorists all over the world, although they seem to have a special following in the Middle East. At times, it appears the Middle East has a love affair with conspiracy theories.

To be fair, many other places and people do, too, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. A strong supporter of the Syrian regime, Putin accused the United States of staging “fake” gas attacks to discredit Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Of course, when the Russian president comes out publicly with such a statement there is no need to offer proof, at least as far as con­spiracy theorists are concerned. His statement alone gives conspiracy theorists all the ammunition they need.

Putin said Russia had information that the United States was plan­ning to launch new missile strikes on Syria and that there were plans to fake chemicals weapons attacks there. Putin did not identify the source of this information. Many people will assume that, coming from the Russian president who obviously has access to intelligence sources, the statement must have some truth to it.

Truth, the saying goes, is the first casualty of war and in a dirty war, such as the one in Syria, it is hard to say who is telling the truth and who is not.

Can we trust statements from the Syrian government? Unlikely. Its leaders have been known to bend the truth to suit their needs.

Can we trust the opposition to tell the truth? Again doubtful, as its members have emerged through the same schools as the Syrian regime.

Can we trust the regime’s allies: Russia, Iran and Hezbollah? None of the three has a great track record when it comes to telling the truth.

Can we trust Turkey or Saudi Arabia?

Can we trust Western powers to tell the truth? Typically, they tend to have a somewhat better track record but, then again, look at the web of lies told by the United States to get into Iraq.

For decades, many conspiracy theorists promoted the notion that everything bad that happens in the region — from the Maghreb to the Hijaz — is primarily the fault of the United States’ CIA.

Many conspiracy theories making the rounds on social media in the Middle East have to do with the recent chemical attack on civilians in the Idlib region, which led to a retaliatory missile strike by the United States against a Syrian air­base. Well, no great surprise here. What better subjects with which to build a solid conspiratorial thesis than those implicated in the Syrian conflict, a conflict that is increas­ingly difficult to explain?

And a good conspiracy, if well crafted, can go a long way in the propaganda war. It is a fact that if a falsehood is repeated often enough, it ends up being credible.

In this latest conspiracy theory apparently originating in Russia, the chemical attack that Washing­ton blames the regime in Damascus for was supposedly fabricated by the United States. Among evidence put forward by conspiracy theorists are videos showing supposedly fake victims of the chemical weapons attack standing up as soon as they finish acting their role. It is all fake, we are supposed to believe. The at­tack. The injured. The dead.

Moscow, of course, is getting a kick out of supporting the theory, which Russian leaders hope will make Washington look bad.

“A similar provocation is being prepared… in other parts of Syria including in the southern Damascus suburbs where [the US] are planning to again plant some substance and accuse the Syrian authorities of us­ing [chemical weapons],” Putin said.

Additionally, a Turkish health minister said traces of sarin gas had been detected in the victims of the supposed chemical attack. Doc­tors and aid workers examining the wounded said chlorine may have been present in the weapons.

As I said, conspiracy theories range from the sublime to the absurd.

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Oops, Syria did it again

by Claude Salhani

Syria stands accused once again of using chemical agents against its civilian population. In this latest episode, at least 87people are reported to have been killed. The death toll is expected to rise.

After the incident, French Presi­dent François Hollande called for new sanctions against the govern­ment of Syrian President Bashar Assad and US President Donald Trump condemned the attack and held Assad responsible. There were no immediate indications from the White House as to how, or even if, the United States would respond.

Trump said the attack in Syria’s Idlib province was “reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civi­lised world”. He did not miss an opportunity to blame his prede­cessor, Barack Obama.

“These heinous actions by the Bashar Assad regime are a con­sequence of the last administra­tion’s weakness and irresolution,” Trump said in a statement. “Presi­dent Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing.”

The Syrian military denied responsibility for the attack and said it would never use chemical weapons.

Indications point to the use of sarin, US government sources said, and that it was “almost cer­tainly” carried out by forces loyal to Assad.

“This is clearly a crime,” a US State Department official said. Those who support the Syrian regime “obviously have a lot to answer for,” the official said, tak­ing aim at Russia and Iran.

Moscow and Tehran continue to provide military assistance to Damascus, without which Assad would have never been able with­stand, as he has for more than six years, the war that has devastated the country.

The incident and Trump’s response and reaction to it could well be a godsend for his admin­istration, helping the US presi­dent climb from his low approval ratings. Then again, it could also prove to be a double-edged sword, further hurting the Trump presidency.

This is one of the first major tests for the Trump team in foreign policy, an area in which neither Trump nor his closest advisers have real experience and are facing astute politicians such as Russian President Vladimir Pu­tin, his Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov or an old fox, Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Muallem.

This development comes after the announcement that the Trump administration would no longer seek to oust Assad as a means to resolve the crisis in Syria. Instead, the United States announced it would focus on removing the bigger and most immediate threat posed by the Islamic State (ISIS).

Both US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said their focus in Syria was on stopping ISIS militants rather than pushing Assad to relinquish power. A senior Trump adminis­tration official told Reuters after the chemical attack that it was considering policy options in Syria but that they were limited and that the views expressed by Tillerson and Haley still held.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said this was Damascus’s way of testing the Trump administration and to see what sort of response the chemi­cal attack would draw.

Syrian opposition officials said that the attack comes about as a “direct consequence” of the United States’ recent statement on Assad. That statement coincides with the position reiterated by two key US allies in the region, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Both indicated that eliminating the threat to the region posed by ISIS takes priority over replacing Assad.

Early in the Syria war, Obama insisted Assad had to leave power. In later years, Obama shifted his focus to the fight against ISIS mili­tants, who captured large areas in Iraq and Syria in 2014.

Unless the Trump White House comes up with drastic changes in its policy regarding Syria, the cur­rent administration’s stance may prove to be no different than the one criticised by Trump.


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How Trump’s tweets affect relations with Iran

by Claude Salhani

– US President Donald Trump is undermin­ing his administra­tion by shooting from the hip with contradictory and often deceitful and misleading postings on Twitter. This very unpresidential behaviour will weigh against him in any nego­tiations he may have with foreign leaders, especially those mis­trustful of the United States for what they perceive to be biased policies.

The Trump administration’s modus operandi has been to deflect one potential crisis by creating another in the hope that the media’s — and therefore the public’s — focus will shift from a potentially embarrassing outcome created by the fallout of the first crisis. The primary tool of choice has been the US president’s Twit­ter account, which has caused his presidency immense damage.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow described Trump as “dangerous and unpredictable, gauche and greedy, temperamen­tally unsuited and emotionally unsound”. His Twitter episodes, Blow said, “make him look not only foolish but unhinged”. “Pres­idential credibility is American credibility,” Blow wrote.

From January 20th to date, Trump’s tweets have time and again sent his White House staff members scrambling to defuse one live wire after another.

During these weeks, the periodical barrage of tweets has harmed the president’s office, damaging its prestige and cred­ibility. Trump’s tweets have hurt the standing of the United States, probably more than all the accusa­tions thrown at it by the regime in Tehran.

When the media kept pressuring the Trump administration to dis­close information about potential Russian involvement in his presi­dential campaign, Trump came up with the ludicrous allegations that former president Barack Obama had him wiretapped.

US Representative Adam Schiff, D-California, who receives top intelligence briefings in his role as ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, expressed particular concern that Trump’s mischarac­terisation or fabrication of classi­fied information might affect the Iran nuclear deal.

One week after Trump put out his accusatory tweets alleging that the former president had illegally wiretapped his phones inside the Trump Tower in New York, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer tried to downplay Trump’s dia­tribe by saying the president had used the word wiretap in quota­tions and did not mean he thought Obama personally wiretapped him

Trump is coming under pressure from close advisers in the White House to get tougher on Iran, as tensions between the United States and the Islamic Republic reached new heights and face ad­ditional stumbling blocks.

Several unrelated incidents have contributed to rising tensions between Washington and Tehran. During the first week of March, Is­lamic Revolutionary Guards Corps naval units hampered a US vessel sailing through the strategic Strait of Hormuz. Observers see the move as Iran’s testing Trump to see what it can get away with.

Many within the administration want to see the nuclear deal be­tween Iran and the United States and other world powers renegoti­ated. They are not alone in not trusting the Islamic Republic.

Besides imposing sanctions, however, US options are limited. Sanctions imposed by the United States in the past have achieved only limited success, given the ease with which Iran can import without hassle from Dubai, just across a narrow waterway, as it has been doing for centuries.

Perhaps Trump would rather get into a tweeting feud with Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has apparently revived his Twitter account.


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Why Bashar Assad survives the Syrian deluge

by Claude Salhani –

Logic, if it applied in this war, would dictate that by now — six long and murderous years into the conflict — Syrian President Bashar Assad should carry the blame for the sectarian violence that has placed his country on the brink of destruction. In any other context, in any other country, he would have been removed from power and brought to stand trial.

However, in Syria, particularly in time of war, there is another type of logic that prevails. As with almost every other aspect of daily life in the region, do not always seek explanations in which one would naturally look. In the Levant, as in other parts of the Middle East, answers may be found in the country’s tribes or in traditions.

In Syria, it is the logic of sectarianism, political schisms and the deep-rooted hatred dividing the various religious communities that guides everyday political decisions and what may pass for logic. It is largely thanks to those guidelines of tribal survival that Assad is still in power despite half the country and most civilised democracies calling for his resignation.

Why has Assad managed to remain in power?

To better understand what keeps Assad so solidly in command when a large portion of his people, most of his neighbours and much of the Western world vie for his demise, one should visualise an inverted pyramid.

Imagine an upside-down pyramid with Assad at the bottom, in a sort of Herculean manner, struggling like Atlas to keep the rest of the infrastructure sturdily on his shoulders and intact. Remove Assad and the structure crumbles.

Right above the president there is the extended family: Mother, brothers and sisters along with their spouses and children. On the next tier one can find cousins, uncles and in-laws. Above them are the top party officials and the senior military personnel. Interjected among all the above is a scattering of loyal bodyguards and their close families.

Remove any of those rows of people and the ones above them crumble and crash. Do not forget that above those mentioned there are hundreds of rank and file who belong here simply because they happened to be born into a particular religious sect. Aside from the political and religious affiliations, many of those within the inner circle are connected through lucrative business deals.

This is a very similar infrastructure to the one that existed in Iraq during the time of Saddam Hussein. It was precisely what frigh tened former US president George H.W. Bush and his team and kept the United States from taking drastic action in the period between the two Gulf wars.

Assad’s position is comparable in many ways to that of Saddam when he ordered his army to invade Kuwait.

There are also fundamental differences between the ruling Ba’ath Party in Iraq prior to the US invasion and subsequent occupation and the ruling Ba’ath Party in Syria, not least of which is Iran’s position in the conflict. Iran plays a major role in the region’s politics.

In the war in Iraq, the Iranians supported the opposition to the regime. In the Syrian war, the Iranians are backing the regime.

Another similarity between the Gulf wars and what is going on in Syria today is the important role being played by the Kurds. They were a major contender in the fight to bring down Saddam and the Kurds remain a power to be reckoned with in the fight to bring down Assad. Suffice to say that, this time around, the Kurds may be somewhat closer to attaining their long aspiration of an independent homeland.

However, as history has a habit of repeating itself…

Saddam was eventually deposed, so why is removing Assad from power so difficult and so complex? Three good reasons: Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

Once, not too long ago, sidelined from Middle East politics, Russia under President Vladimir Putin finds itself again practically at the level of influence previously enjoyed by the Soviet Union, if not actually even more so.

With these new developments in Syria, the United States will find it can no longer act unilaterally. Another major difference is that Assad was able to call on Iran and on Hezbollah militiamen from next-door Lebanon, whereas Saddam had no friends left.

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


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