The Guardian reports: Eastern European countries have approved the discreet sale of more than €1bn of weapons in the past four years to Middle Eastern countries that are known to ship arms to Syria, an investigation has found.
Thousands of assault rifles such as AK-47s, mortar shells, rocket launchers, anti-tank weapons and heavy machine guns are being routed through a new arms pipeline from the Balkans to the Arabian peninsula and countries bordering Syria.
The suspicion is that much of the weaponry is being sent into Syria, fuelling the five-year civil war, according to a team of reporters from the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
Arms export data, UN reports, plane tracking, and weapons contracts examined during a year-long investigation reveal how the munitions were sent east from Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Montenegro, Slovakia, Serbia and Romania.
Since the escalation of the Syrian conflict in 2012, the eight countries have approved €1.2bn (£1bn) of weapons and ammunition exports to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey – key arms markets for Syria and Yemen. [Continue reading…]
Steven A. Cook and Amr T. Leheta write: Sometime in the 100 years since the Sykes-Picot agreement was signed, invoking its “end” became a thing among commentators, journalists, and analysts of the Middle East. Responsibility for the cliché might belong to the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn, who in June 2013 wrote an essay in the London Review of Books arguing that the agreement, which was one of the first attempts to reorder the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire’s demise, was itself in the process of dying. Since then, the meme has spread far and wide: A quick Google search reveals more than 8,600 mentions of the phrase “the end of Sykes-Picot” over the last three years.
The failure of the Sykes-Picot agreement is now part of the received wisdom about the contemporary Middle East. And it is not hard to understand why. Four states in the Middle East are failing — Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. If there is a historic shift in the region, the logic goes, then clearly the diplomatic settlements that produced the boundaries of the Levant must be crumbling. History seems to have taken its revenge on Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot, who hammered out the agreement that bears their name.
The “end of Sykes-Picot” argument is almost always followed with an exposition of the artificial nature of the countries in the region. Their borders do not make sense, according to this argument, because there are people of different religions, sects, and ethnicities within them. The current fragmentation of the Middle East is thus the result of hatreds and conflicts — struggles that “date back millennia,” as U.S. President Barack Obama said — that Sykes and Picot unwittingly released by creating these unnatural states. The answer is new borders, which will resolve all the unnecessary damage the two diplomats wrought over the previous century.
Yet this focus on Sykes-Picot is a combination of bad history and shoddy social science. And it is setting up the United States, once again, for failure in the Middle East.
For starters, it is not possible to pronounce that the maelstrom of the present Middle East killed the Sykes-Picot agreement, because the deal itself was stillborn. Sykes and Picot never negotiated state borders per se, but rather zones of influence. And while the idea of these zones lived on in the postwar agreements, the framework the two diplomats hammered out never came into existence.
Unlike the French, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s government actively began to undermine the accord as soon as Sykes signed it — in pencil. The details are complicated, but as Margaret Macmillan makes clear in her illuminating book Paris 1919, the alliance between Britain and France in the fight against the Central Powers did little to temper their colonial competition. Once the Russians dropped out of the war after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the British prime minister came to believe that the French zone that Sykes and Picot had outlined — comprising southeastern Turkey, the western part of Syria, Lebanon, and Mosul — was no longer a necessary bulwark between British positions in the region and the Russians.
Nor are the Middle East’s modern borders completely without precedent. Yes, they are the work of European diplomats and colonial officers — but these boundaries were not whimsical lines drawn on a blank map. They were based, for the most part, on pre-existing political, social, and economic realities of the region, including Ottoman administrative divisions and practices. The actual source of the boundaries of the present Middle East can be traced to the San Remo conference, which produced the Treaty of Sèvres in August 1920. Although Turkish nationalists defeated this agreement, the conference set in motion a process in which the League of Nations established British mandates over Palestine and Iraq, in 1920, and a French mandate for Syria, in 1923. The borders of the region were finalized in 1926, when the vilayet of Mosul — which Arabs and Ottomans had long associated with al-Iraq al-Arabi (Arab Iraq), made up of the provinces of Baghdad and Basra — was attached to what was then called the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq.
On a deeper level, critics of the Middle East’s present borders mistakenly assume that national borders have to be delineated naturally, along rivers and mountains, or around various identities in order to endure. It is a supposition that willfully ignores that most, if not all, of the world’s settled borders are contrived political arrangements, more often than not a result of negotiations between various powers and interests. Moreover, the populations inside these borders are not usually homogenous.
The same holds true for the Middle East, where borders were determined by balancing colonial interests against local resistance. These borders have become institutionalized in the last hundred years. In some cases — such as Egypt, Iran, or even Iraq — they have come to define lands that have long been home to largely coherent cultural identities in a way that makes sense for the modern age. Other, newer entities — Saudi Arabia and Jordan, for instance — have come into their own in the last century. While no one would have talked of a Jordanian identity centuries ago, a nation now exists, and its territorial integrity means a great deal to the Jordanian people.
The conflicts unfolding in the Middle East today, then, are not really about the legitimacy of borders or the validity of places called Syria, Iraq, or Libya. Instead, the origin of the struggles within these countries is over who has the right to rule them. The Syrian conflict, regardless of what it has evolved into today, began as an uprising by all manner of Syrians — men and women, young and old, Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish, and even Alawite — against an unfair and corrupt autocrat, just as Libyans, Egyptians, Tunisians, Yemenis, and Bahrainis did in 2010 and 2011.
The weaknesses and contradictions of authoritarian regimes are at the heart of the Middle East’s ongoing tribulations. Even the rampant ethnic and religious sectarianism is a result of this authoritarianism, which has come to define the Middle East’s state system far more than the Sykes-Picot agreement ever did. [Continue reading…]
Robin Wright writes: In the Middle East, few men are pilloried these days as much as Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot. Sykes, a British diplomat, travelled the same turf as T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), served in the Boer War, inherited a baronetcy, and won a Conservative seat in Parliament. He died young, at thirty-nine, during the 1919 flu epidemic. Picot was a French lawyer and diplomat who led a long but obscure life, mainly in backwater posts, until his death, in 1950. But the two men live on in the secret agreement they were assigned to draft, during the First World War, to divide the Ottoman Empire’s vast land mass into British and French spheres of influence. The Sykes-Picot Agreement launched a nine-year process — and other deals, declarations, and treaties — that created the modern Middle East states out of the Ottoman carcass. The new borders ultimately bore little resemblance to the original Sykes-Picot map, but their map is still viewed as the root cause of much that has happened ever since.
“Hundreds of thousands have been killed because of Sykes-Picot and all the problems it created,” Nawzad Hadi Mawlood, the Governor of Iraq’s Erbil Province, told me when I saw him this spring. “It changed the course of history — and nature.”
May 16th will mark the agreement’s hundredth anniversary, amid questions over whether its borders can survive the region’s current furies. “The system in place for the past one hundred years has collapsed,” Barham Salih, a former deputy prime minister of Iraq, declared at the Sulaimani Forum, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in March. “It’s not clear what new system will take its place.”
The colonial carve-up was always vulnerable. Its map ignored local identities and political preferences. Borders were determined with a ruler — arbitrarily. At a briefing for Britain’s Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, in 1915, Sykes famously explained, “I should like to draw a line from the ‘E’ in Acre to the last ‘K’ in Kirkuk.” He slid his finger across a map, spread out on a table at No. 10 Downing Street, from what is today a city on Israel’s Mediterranean coast to the northern mountains of Iraq.
“Sykes-Picot was a mistake, for sure,” Zikri Mosa, an adviser to Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani, told me. “It was like a forced marriage. It was doomed from the start. It was immoral, because it decided people’s future without asking them.” [Continue reading…]
Growing Home ينبتون وطنا : Samer, a displaced Syrian barber, has taken refuge along with his young family in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. Despite filling his time with meaningful work, caring for his family and improving his living conditions, the daily distractions cannot diminish his desire to return home.
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David Hearst writes: The betting is that neither the pro-Assad coalition nor the Saudi-backed one will prevail in Syria. The likeliest outcome of a ceasefire is a Syria permanently fragmented into sectarian statelets in the way Iraq was after the US invasion.
This could be regarded as the least worst option for foreign powers meddling in Syria. Jordan, the Emirates and Egypt will have stopped this dangerous thing called regime change. Saudi will have stopped Iran and Hezbollah. Russia will have its naval base and retain a foothold in the Middle East. Assad will survive in a shrunken sectarian state. The Kurds will have their enclave in the north. America will walk away once more from the region.
There is just one loser in all this – Syria itself. Five million Syrians will become permanent exiles. Justice, self-determination, liberation from autocracy will be kicked into the long grass.
The history of the region has lessons for foreign powers. It proves that fragmentation only leads to further chaos. The region needs reconciliation, common projects and stability as never before. That will not come from creating sectarian enclaves backed by foreign powers.
The Islamic State is a distraction from the real struggle of the region, which is liberation from dictatorship and the birth of real democratic movements. IS is not a justification for the strong men. It is a product of their resistance to change. History did not start in 2011 and it won’t stop now. The revolutions of 2011 were empowered by decades of misrule. There is a reason why millions of Arab rose – peacefully at first – against their rulers and that reason still exists today.
As long as there is no real democratic solution in the Middle East, the Islamic State group will continue to mutate like a pathogen that has become antibiotic-resistant in the body politic of the Middle East. Each time it changes shape, it will become more virulent. [Continue reading…]
Eleonora Vio reports: Over the last five years, close to 4.8 million Syrians have fled the conflict in their country by crossing into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. But as the war drags on, neighbours are sealing their borders. Forced from their homes by airstrikes and fighting on multiple fronts, the vast majority of Syrian asylum seekers now have no legal escape route.
Earlier this week, EU leaders reached a hard-won deal with Turkey aimed at ending a migration crisis that has been building since last year, and that in recent weeks has seen tens of thousands of migrants and refugees stranded in Greece. But the agreement turns a blind eye to the fact that even larger numbers of asylum seekers are stranded back in Syria, unable to reach safety.
Syrians hoping to apply for asylum in Europe first have to physically get there. EU member states closed their embassies in Syria at the start of the conflict, and even embassies and consulates in neighbouring countries have been reluctant to process visa and asylum applications.
When Syria’s war erupted in March 2011, it was initially relatively easy for most refugees to leave the country. Those without the means to fly poured out in waves of tens of thousands across land borders into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. But one by one, these exits have been restricted or closed off entirely. [Continue reading…]
American Geophysical Union: A new study finds that the recent drought that began in 1998 in the eastern Mediterranean Levant region, which comprises Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey, is likely the worst drought of the past nine centuries.
Scientists reconstructed the Mediterranean’s drought history by studying tree rings as part of an effort to understand the region’s climate and what shifts water to or from the area. Thin rings indicate dry years while thick rings show years when water was plentiful.
In addition to identifying the driest years, the science team discovered patterns in the geographic distribution of droughts that provides a “fingerprint” for identifying the underlying causes. Together, these data show the range of natural variation in Mediterranean drought occurrence, which will allow scientists to differentiate droughts made worse by human-induced global warming. The research is part of NASA’s ongoing work to improve the computer models that simulate climate now and in the future.
“The magnitude and significance of human climate change requires us to really understand the full range of natural climate variability,” said Ben Cook, lead author and climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York City. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: When the Syrian refugees first started streaming into this bedraggled border town, Gassim al-Moghrebi was their tireless benefactor, distributing donations of food, money and clothes and sheltering as many as possible in two apartments he owned.
“All of Ramtha was just like me,” Mr. Moghrebi said, describing a good will rooted in family ties that spanned the border, and sympathy for the victims of a pitiless war. “One man had 10 apartments. He gave them to the Syrians for free.”
But now, as Syria witnesses a new escalation of violence, including waves of Russian airstrikes, and as Syrians flee for safety again by the tens of thousands, neighboring countries are increasingly overwhelmed and reluctant to let them in. In many places, that early altruism has hardened into resentment — an ominous turn for those fleeing war.
Desperate Syrians are backed up at the borders of Jordan and Turkey, barred from entering or else just allowed to trickle in. Increasingly, they find escape routes closing. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: Just look at how we’re living,” says Umm Majd, a Syrian who fled to Jordan. She stands in a tiny single-room apartment in Amman, the capital. It lies deep underground, next to a subterranean car park, and measures just two metres by two and a half. It is here that she, her husband and their two sons live out their exile.
“Just look,” says Umm Majd, gesturing at the room. “That’s enough to understand what’s happening to Syrians here in Jordan.”
There are between 630,000 and 1.27 million Syrian refugees in the country, depending on whose estimate you believe. Like most of them, Umm Majd’s husband does not have the right to work – so he works illegally as a carwasher for 100 Jordanian dinars a month (about £100, half the minimum wage). The family collectively receives 40 dinars in food coupons from the UN – down from 80 a year ago. Their rent is 50 dinars, leaving them just 90 each month for any other living expenses.
“Right now we’re not thinking of going to Europe,” says Umm Majd’s husband. “But if they cut our funding again then we’ll have to. If they cut the coupons we’d probably die.” [Continue reading…]
Gordon Brown writes: mid the Syrian chaos of carnage, starvation and evacuation, there is a tiny glimmer of hope. The Lebanese government has declared that it has taken 207,000 Syrian refugee children off the streets and given them places in their country’s public schools.
And today I am setting out a plan to extend the opportunity of education to 1 million refugee boys and girls across Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey during the course of 2016 – with the ambition that by next year every refugee child will be offered a place at school.
Through a combination of generous European Union funding by development commissioner Johannes Hahn and contributions from both public and private sectors in the region itself, $250m has been raised – the first instalment of the $750m we need to deliver this bold initiative. And in the run-up to the UN pledging conference in London on 4 February we are asking donors from public and private sectors to do more.
What has unlocked the chance of hundreds of thousands of extra school places is the introduction of a “double-shift school system”. Local Lebanese children are educated in the morning in their neighbourhood schools but the same classrooms are now being thrown open to refugee children in the afternoon and early evenings.
Because the double-shift system uses existing schools and so avoids the huge capital costs of building, the average cost is just $10 per school place per week. Already 200 Lebanese schools are offering double-shift education and there are now robust plans to offer 400,000 places by doubling the number of schools.
And as a direct result of Lebanon’s success, Turkey and Jordan are now ready to make double-shift schools the centrepiece of this year’s educational efforts for refugees. Working with Unicef, Turkey has set out its goals to double its school places for refugees to more than 450,000 this year. In Jordan, where just over 100,000 refugees are already in school, the aim is to double places. [Continue reading…]
Michael Ignatieff writes: According to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, since September 11 the US has taken in 784,000 refugees and of these only three have been arrested subsequently on terrorism-related charges.
Fear makes for bad strategy. A better policy starts by remembering a better America. In January 1957, none other than Elvis Presley sang a gospel tune called “There Will Be Peace in the Valley” on The Ed Sullivan Show to encourage Americans to welcome and donate to Hungarian refugees. After the 1975 collapse of South Vietnam, President Ford ordered an interagency task force to resettle 130,000 Vietnamese refugees; and later Jimmy Carter found room in America for Vietnamese boat people. In 1999, in a single month, the US processed four thousand Kosovar refugees through Fort Dix, New Jersey.
These examples show what can be done if the president authorizes rapid refugee clearance in US military installations, and if the US were to process and repatriate refugees directly from the frontline states of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. As Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative has been urging since September, direct processing in the camps themselves will cut down on deaths by drowning in the Mediterranean. If Europe and the United States show them a safe way out, refugees won’t take their chances by paying smugglers using rubber dinghies.
The Obama administration should say yes to the UNHCR appeal to settle 65,000 refugees on an expedited basis. Refugee agencies across the United States — as well as religious communities from all faiths — have said they will take the lead in resettlement and integration. If the Liberal government in Canada can take in 25,000 refugees directly from Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, and process their security clearance at Canadian army bases, the US can do the same with 65,000.
Taking 65,000 people will only relieve a small portion of a refugee flow of 4.1 million, but it is an essential political gesture designed to encourage other allies — Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina — and other immigrant countries to do their part. The strategic goal is to relieve the pressure on the three frontline states. Refugee resettlement by the US also acknowledges a fact that the refugees themselves are trying to tell us: even if peace eventually comes to their tormented country, there will be no life for all of them back home.
Once the US stops behaving like a bemused bystander, watching a neighbor trying to put out a fire, it can then put pressure on allies and adversaries to make up the shortfall in funding for refugee programs run by the UNHCR and the World Food Program. One of the drivers of the exodus this summer was a sudden reduction in refugee food aid caused by shortfalls in funding. Even now these agencies remain short of what they need to provide shelter and food to the people flooding out of Syria.
Now that ISIS has brought down a Russian aircraft over Sinai and bombed civilians in Paris, Beirut, and Ankara, the US needs to use its refugee policy to help stabilize its allies in the region. The presumption that it can sit out the refugee crisis makes a hugely unwise bet on the stability of Jordan, where refugees amount to 25 percent of the total population; and Lebanon, where largely Sunni refugees, who have hardly any camps, are already destabilizing the agonizingly fragile multiconfessional order; and Turkey, where the burdens of coping with nearly two million refugees are driving the increasingly authoritarian Erdoğan regime into the arms of Vladimir Putin. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: As the United States prepares to intensify airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, the Arab allies who with great fanfare sent warplanes on the initial missions there a year ago have largely vanished from the campaign.
The Obama administration heralded the Arab air forces flying side by side with American fighter jets in the campaign’s early days as an important show of solidarity against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh. Top commanders like Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who oversees operations in Syria and Iraq, still laud the Arab countries’ contributions to the fight. But as the United States enters a critical phase of the war in Syria, ordering Special Operations troops to support rebel forces and sending two dozen attack planes to Turkey, the air campaign has evolved into a largely American effort.
Administration officials had sought to avoid the appearance of another American-dominated war, even as most leaders in the Persian Gulf seem more preoccupied with supporting rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Now, some of those officials note with resignation, the Arab partners have quietly left the United States to run the bulk of the air war in Syria — not the first time Washington has found allies wanting.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have shifted most of their aircraft to their fight against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Jordan, reacting to the grisly execution of one of its pilots by the Islamic State, and in a show of solidarity with the Saudis, has also diverted combat flights to Yemen. Jets from Bahrain last struck targets in Syria in February, coalition officials said. Qatar is flying patrols over Syria, but its role has been modest. [Continue reading…]