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…]
Rami G Khouri writes: The terror attacks in Brussels this week, beyond their inherent cruelty and criminality, in themselves are not particularly distinctive or noteworthy in the larger picture of Islamic State and other acts of terrorism, which have become common fare in this era of expanding violence across all continents. Terrorism database compilers are working overtime these months trying to take note of every such act — and that may be the real significance of what is going on these days: hundreds of thousands of desperate and dehumanized individuals transform their former local grumblings or security-forced passivity into a growing global network of terrorists and anarchists whose numbers are beyond the capacity of any intelligence system’s ability to monitor, arrest, prevent, or shut down.
The heart of this criminal universe mainly comprises Arabs or emigrants of Arab descent. The terror problem at its deepest core is the consequence of the dysfunction of mostly Arab societies that have been subjected to more than half a century of security-enforced docility and lack of citizen rights. Nearly 400 million human beings today across the Arab world were born with innate natural and human rights to freedom, identity, growth, and societal well-being, but they have not been allowed to manifest these dimensions of their full humanity.
Economic, political, environmental, and social constraints that have grown more severe in recent decades have sparked a terrible cycle of stagnation and de-development in the minds and capabilities of men and women — while shopping malls, water-pipe cafes, reality television, supermarkets, and cell phone shops have proliferated like mad across the Arab world, in a futile attempt to keep people busy and happy with material diversions. [Continue reading…]
Joyce Karam writes: When Donald Trump announced his candidacy on June 16, 2015, my editors at the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, like most Americans, shrugged it off. “This is not serious; send something very small to page eight,” I was told.
Nine months later, Trump’s rise is the story in the Middle East when it comes to the American presidential race. My work as a journalist for Al-Hayat sends me traveling frequently in the region, and when people hear I cover US politics, their first instinct has often been to ask me about Donald Trump: “Is Trump for real?” “Why is he winning?” “Is he going to be president?” and “What will happen to us if he does?”
As Trump attracts more support in America, he gets more attention in the Middle East. And there are a few reactions to Trump that I hear over and over. Almost all are negative, some are as much about the US as they are about Trump himself, and all are a revealing look at how the Middle East perceives and thinks about American politics.
Some see in Trump a reflection of their own political figures, from dictators to buffoonish and controversial entertainers. Some take him more seriously and see him, should he become president, as a nightmare for the Middle East. [Continue reading…]
Hisham Melhem writes: For more than three decades, I have tried to interpret America to the Arabs and to explain the Arabs to Americans. I have never seen such disillusionment with an American president and his policies expressed by people in the region, ordinary citizens as well as public figures. In private, I have heard Arab officials express critical views of Obama and his style of leadership bordering on utter contempt; some Israeli officials did that publicly. For his Arab allies, Obama was too deferential to Iran and too quick to dump President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt — views also held by Israeli officials. Arabs feel Obama also mishandled Syria, a view strongly held also by Turkey. It is rarely the case for an American president to find that his relationships with Arabs, Israelis, and Turks are simultaneously troubled and in some cases very bitter.
Nor is Obama popular with the region’s ordinary citizens. A Pew Research Center poll in June 2015 shows that Obama’s image in the Middle East is mostly negative, with more than eight in ten Palestinians and Jordanians saying that they have no confidence in Obama to do the right thing in world affairs. In Lebanon 64 percent have no confidence in Obama’s leadership, with only 50 percent of Israelis saying they have confidence in the American president. In Turkey Obama’s fortune is better, but not by much where 46 percent of Turks have a negative assessment of his leadership. There is much anecdotal evidence showing that Arab youth in general have soured on Obama, accusing him of reneging on his early pledges to oppose Arab despotism and to stand by those who sought peaceful change in Egypt and Bahrain, and of abandoning Libya after the fall of the Gadhafi regime. However, what angers many Arabs is Obama’s disastrous handling of the Syrian conflict; they blame his indecisiveness on challenging the Bashar Al-Assad regime’s predations, and halfhearted measures toward helping the Syrian opposition, for the worst human tragedy in the twenty-first century. [Continue reading…]
The Obama doctrine: The Middle East doesn’t matter but even if it did, there’s nothing the U.S. can do to fix it
Jeffrey Goldberg writes: Inside the West Wing, officials say that Obama, as a president who inherited a financial crisis and two active wars from his predecessor, is keen to leave “a clean barn” to whoever succeeds him. This is why the fight against isis, a group he considers to be a direct, though not existential, threat to the U.S., is his most urgent priority for the remainder of his presidency; killing the so-called caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is one of the top goals of the American national-security apparatus in Obama’s last year.
Of course, isis was midwifed into existence, in part, by the Assad regime. Yet by Obama’s stringent standards, Assad’s continued rule for the moment still doesn’t rise to the level of direct challenge to America’s national security.
This is what is so controversial about the president’s approach, and what will be controversial for years to come—the standard he has used to define what, exactly, constitutes a direct threat.
Obama has come to a number of dovetailing conclusions about the world, and about America’s role in it. The first is that the Middle East is no longer terribly important to American interests. The second is that even if the Middle East were surpassingly important, there would still be little an American president could do to make it a better place. The third is that the innate American desire to fix the sorts of problems that manifest themselves most drastically in the Middle East inevitably leads to warfare, to the deaths of U.S. soldiers, and to the eventual hemorrhaging of U.S. credibility and power. The fourth is that the world cannot afford to see the diminishment of U.S. power. Just as the leaders of several American allies have found Obama’s leadership inadequate to the tasks before him, he himself has found world leadership wanting: global partners who often lack the vision and the will to spend political capital in pursuit of broad, progressive goals, and adversaries who are not, in his mind, as rational as he is. Obama believes that history has sides, and that America’s adversaries — and some of its putative allies — have situated themselves on the wrong one, a place where tribalism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, and militarism still flourish. What they don’t understand is that history is bending in his direction.
“The central argument is that by keeping America from immersing itself in the crises of the Middle East, the foreign-policy establishment believes that the president is precipitating our decline,” Ben Rhodes told me. “But the president himself takes the opposite view, which is that overextension in the Middle East will ultimately harm our economy, harm our ability to look for other opportunities and to deal with other challenges, and, most important, endanger the lives of American service members for reasons that are not in the direct American national-security interest.”
If you are a supporter of the president, his strategy makes eminent sense: Double down in those parts of the world where success is plausible, and limit America’s exposure to the rest. His critics believe, however, that problems like those presented by the Middle East don’t solve themselves — that, without American intervention, they metastasize.
At the moment, Syria, where history appears to be bending toward greater chaos, poses the most direct challenge to the president’s worldview. [Continue reading…]
Gary Sick writes: [The current] violent chaos and unpredictability have prompted comparisons between this moment in the Middle East and the Thirty Years War in Europe (1618-1648). That terrible time, which started as a religious war but which was actually a restructuring of the power relationships in the center of Europe, destroyed entire regions and killed or displaced so many people that it took many generations to recover. In that case, the warring parties fought themselves to exhaustion and then settled their disputes in a series of agreements that defined a new rule-based political order — the Westphalian system — that is widely regarded as the essential underpinning of modern Europe and the West.
The Middle East could follow such a trajectory out of the current chaos. Certainly the process of peace-making after all other avenues have been exhausted — the so-called Lebanonization of the crisis — seems to be the way events are presently moving. But the timing and nature of the end game are impossible to know.
Under these circumstances, the Obama Doctrine, in which the United States will intervene only in the event of an external attack against one of its allies or to prevent a threat to the U.S. homeland, appears to be the least worst of the available options. It is a cruelly pragmatic strategy. It starts with the assumption that the United States cannot solve all the problems of the region — even those for which the United States bears a considerable degree of responsibility — and is unwilling to act as a surrogate for our friends in the region. This is a huge change from the unilateral containment doctrine adopted during the Clinton administration, and it is a total reversal of the Bush Doctrine of actively reshaping the Middle East. It is perhaps a distant relative of the Nixon Doctrine of the early 1970s when the United States relied primarily on local allies to protect U.S. interests in the region, while providing them with military training and support. [Continue reading…]
Kenneth Roth writes: Fear stood behind many of the big human rights developments of the past year. Fear of being killed or tortured in Syria and other zones of conflict and repression drove millions from their homes. Fear of what an influx of asylum seekers could mean for their societies led many governments in Europe and elsewhere to close the gates. Fear of mounting terrorist attacks moved some political leaders to curtail rights and scapegoat refugees or Muslims. And fear of their people holding them to account led various autocrats to pursue an unprecedented global crackdown on the ability of those people to band together and make their voices heard.
In Europe and the United States, a polarizing us-versus-them rhetoric has moved from the political fringe to the mainstream. Blatant Islamophobia and shameless demonizing of refugees have become the currency of an increasingly assertive politics of intolerance.
These trends threatened human rights in two ways, one well known, the other less visible. The high-profile threat is a rollback of rights by many governments in the face of the refugee flow and the parallel decision by the self-declared Islamic State, or ISIS, to spread its attacks beyond the Middle East. The less visible threat is the effort by a growing number of authoritarian governments to restrict civil society, particularly the civic groups that monitor and speak out about those governments’ conduct. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: The president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish north has called on global leaders to acknowledge that the Sykes-Picot pact that led to the boundaries of the modern Middle East has failed, and urged them to broker a new deal paving the way for a Kurdish state.
Massoud Barzani, who has led the troubled country’s Kurds for the past decade, said the international community had started to accept that Iraq and Syria in particular would never again be unified and that “compulsory co-existence” in the region had been proven wrong.
“I think that within themselves, [world leaders] have come to this conclusion that the era of Sykes-Picot is over,” Barzani told the Guardian. “Whether they say it or not, accept it or not, the reality on the ground is that. But as you know, diplomats are conservatives and they give their assessment in the late stages of things. And sometimes they can’t even keep up with developments.”
The political map of northern Iraq has changed drastically in the 18 months since Islamic State overran Iraq’s second city, Mosul. Kurdish forces are now in full control of Kirkuk and Sinjar and have claimed control of thousands more miles of land that had been under control of Iraq’s central government. [Continue reading…]
Joyce Karam writes: Characterizing events from Yemen to Syria to Libya as a “transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia” is not only a reality distortion by U.S. President Barack Obama, but also a dangerous fantasy that resigns American diplomacy to dismissiveness in the Middle East.
Shrugging off the Middle East’s largest upheaval in decades as a theological rift, and shying away from major diplomatic initiatives, is a slap in the face for U.S. role and stature, restricted today to responding and containing conflicts.
Blaming the chaos of the Middle East on centuries’ old battles is a perfect cop-out strategy for Obama, avoiding his legacy from being tarnished by the fragmentation of four states, two of which were bombed by the United States (Iraq and Libya).
Except, religious scriptures from a different era are not driving the current regional rivalry, or spurring ISIS. It’s oppression, civil wars, ISIS territorial gains, and unchecked regional bickering that is fueling the hellfire.
Obama’s narrative, however, is largely aimed at absolving his administration of any wrong doing in the Middle East, and attributing current infernos to a “transformation” across a whole generation that Washington apparently has little influence over. This claim self destructs in every conflict zone in the Middle East, three of them started on Obama’s watch four years ago. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: In his seventh and final State of the Union address, President Obama played up the state of the economy, played down the threat of the Islamic State, and introduced a new effort to beat cancer. He also found time for several not-so-subtle swipes at the Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
But for those versed in international relations, there was one line in particular that jumped out from his hour-long speech.
“The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia,” Obama said.
Thousands of years? Many of the conflicts in the Middle East don’t even date back a decade.
The Twitterati spotted the gaffe, and pounced. Obama was accused of peddling convenient falsehoods while others said he was espousing concepts unworthy of an undergraduate university student. Many said that Obama was not only excusing the conflicts, but in effect was making them seem normal and intractable. [Continue reading…]
Rami G Khouri writes: It is useful to spot meaningful patterns that help us make sense of our bewildering world, and to acknowledge positive developments to be continued alongside negative ones to be avoided.
Applying this principle to the last year in the Middle East reveals several troubling trends that have made life difficult for hundreds of millions of people. One in particular stands out, and strikes me as a root cause of many other negative trends that plague our region. This is the tendency of governments to use increasingly harsh measures to restrict the freedoms of their citizens to express themselves and meaningfully to participate politically and hold power accountable.
Several aspects of this behavior make it especially onerous. It is practiced by all states in the region—Arab, Israeli, Iranian, and Turkish—leaving few people in this part of the world who can live as fully free and dignified human beings. It is justified on the basis of existing constitutional powers, so governments can jail tens of thousands of their citizens, rescind their nationality, or torture and kill them in the worst cases, simply because of the views they express, without any recourse to legal or political challenge. It shows no signs of abating, and indeed may be worsening in lands like Egypt, Turkey, and others. And, it is most often practiced as part of a “war on terror” that seeks to quell criminal terror attacks, but in practice achieves the opposite; the curtailment of citizen rights and freedoms exacerbates the indignities and humiliations that citizens feel against their government, which usually amplifies, rather than reduces, the threat of political violence. [Continue reading…]
As we approach the fifth anniversary of the Arab Uprisings, it’s hard to remember the days of popular protests, of democratic revolutions and of dreams of a better future that rocked the Middle East in 2011. Nearly five years on, tensions between rulers and the ruled have exploded across the region – and the ensuing struggles for survival have continued to take all manner of ugly forms.
At the centre of things, the Syrian conflict has deepened – and while the brutality of Islamic State (IS) has been responsible for much of the recent chaos and tragedy across Syria, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has been responsible for seven times as many Syrian deaths as IS. Assad’s position was strengthened by continued support from Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, antagonising powerful states in the West and the Gulf – particularly Saudi Arabia. The Gulf states also faced domestic threats from IS, with the group carrying out a number of attacks on Shia sites and communities across the region.
The Syrian conflict became ever more internationalised in 2015. The number of foreign fighters on the ground – on all sides – continued to grow, while on the diplomatic level, the Vienna talks tried to resolve the seemingly intractable conflict – though they have yet to yield any decisive action.
The task of dealing with IS was further complicated by a batch of new wilayats, groups who declared allegiance to IS. Wilayat Sinai in particular was purportedly responsible for a range of acts, allegedly including a massive bomb attack in Cairo and the downing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Ian Black writes: In an idle moment between cocktail parties in the Arab capital where they served, a British and French diplomat were chatting recently about their respective countries’ legacies in the Middle East: why not commemorate them with a new rock band? And they could call it Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration.
It was just a joke. These first world war agreements cooked up in London and Paris in the dying days of the Ottoman empire paved the way for new Arab nation states, the creation of Israel and the continuing plight of the Palestinians. And if their memory has faded in the west as their centenaries approach, they are still widely blamed for the problems of the region at an unusually violent and troubled time.
“This is history that the Arab peoples will never forget because they see it as directly relevant to problems they face today,” argues Oxford University’s Eugene Rogan, author of several influential works on modern Middle Eastern history.
In 2014, when Islamic State fighters broke through the desert border between Iraq and Syria – flying black flags on their captured US-made Humvees – and announced the creation of a transnational caliphate, they triumphantly pronounced the death of Sykes-Picot. That gave a half-forgotten and much-misrepresented colonial-era deal a starring role in their propaganda war – and a new lease of life on Twitter. [Continue reading…]
Peter Schwartzstein writes: The U.S. embassy in Cairo is a forbidding-looking fortress. Its imposing concrete blast walls are visible for miles, and cast an ugly shadow over a cluster of surrounding villas. Flanked on all sides by edgy soldiers in body armor and camouflage uniforms, the atmosphere can scarcely be called welcoming.
For diplomatic personnel posted across the Middle East, the security protocols are often no less daunting. Many are shuttled from their offices to their homes in armored vans with tinted windows. When the U.S. ambassador to Cairo’s car emerges onto one of the capital’s main drags, city police block lanes and back up traffic as they hustle to facilitate the convoy’s passage.
Given recent events, the U.S. instinct to wrap its foreign representatives in cotton wool is somewhat understandable. The mission in Cairo — considered relatively safe by regional standards — was attacked by a mob and the site of the stabbing of a U.S. citizen in the last four years alone. The list of assaults on State Department posts around the world runs long and lethal.
But to those who puzzle over Washington’s erratic foreign policy in these parts, this safety-centric tack has much to answer for. [Continue reading…]