The Kissingerian view of the Middle East

Responding to a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by Henry Kissinger, Rami G Khoury describes the following problems: The first is the tendency to see Middle Easterners largely in terms of religious or ethnic groups, like Sunnis, Shiites, Maronites, Alawites, and Kurds, who wage existential battles for control of territory, resources, or power. The Middle East, in the Kissingerian worldview, is an urban wasteland defined by armed gangs.

Non-state actors and ethno-sectarian nationalisms have emerged as important actors of political contestation in the Middle East in the past 15 years, to be sure, but our region is defined by much more than feuding Houthis, Alawites, Shiites, Kurds, Sunnis, Hizbollah, Hamas, the Mahdi Army, and other such groups. Even sovereign and powerful states like Saudi Arabia and Iran are defined in this mindset as Sunni or Shiite powers, rather than the sovereign and powerful states of Saudi Arabia and Iran with their varied populations that they are.

The second problem in that the Kissingerian view of the Middle East seems to have no place for — or it simply is blind to — the nearly half a billion individual men and women, mostly Muslims, who live here and shape these societies and states. They have done so for millennia, in fact, and these people all seek the same thing that Kissinger presumably seeks for Americans: a stable, decent society where citizens can live in peace and enjoy opportunities to develop their full human talents. In the eye of those who only see the Middle East defined by warring gangs, sects and ethnicities, no real human beings enter the picture. The Kissingerian Middle East lacks humans and their rights, because the Middle East he sees is somewhere between a professorial strategic analysis exercise for graduate students and a war game played on a board with dice.

My third problem is with the consistent American official view of Iran as a dangerous and untrustworthy brute that has, “jihadist and imperialist designs” across the region. Even after the United States negotiated with Iran an important agreement on nuclear capabilities and sanctions, this view still sees Iran using its allies Syria, Hizbollah, Iraq and the Houthis of Yemen to one day encircle the Sunni bloc of states comprising Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the smaller Gulf states. Kissinger sees these as two “rigid and apocalyptic blocs” that face off and threaten each other. This exaggerated and dramatized view cannot be taken seriously by anyone, other than those hundreds of policy-makers and policy-influencers in Washington who believe this intellectual wildness.

My fourth and biggest criticism of this way of seeing U.S. policy challenges in the Middle East is that it ascribes to the United States only noble and peace-loving motives, while totally — I mean totally — ignoring any of the consequences of U.S. military and political policies in the region in the past six decades, or since the U.S. CIA helped to overthrow the Mossadegh regime in Iran. It serves nobody any good to ignore how American and other foreign powers’ policies in our region contributed to the underlying problems that shattered the superficial calm — other than occasional Arab-Israeli wars — that had defined our region from World War Two to the Arab uprisings of 2010-11. [Continue reading…]


Islamism, the Arab Spring, and the failure of America’s do-nothing policy in the Middle East

Shadi Hamid writes: In the years leading up to the Arab Spring, Islamist parties developed something of an obsession with the role of Western powers in supporting democracy in the Arab world — or, more likely, not supporting it. Islamists were fighting on two fronts: not just repressive regimes, but their international backers as well. The ghosts of Algeria lingered. In January 1992, Algeria’s largest Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), found itself on the brink of an historic election victory — prompting fears that the military was preparing to move against the Islamists. In the tense days that followed, FIS leader Abdelkader Hachani addressed a crowd of supporters. “Victory is more dangerous than defeat,” he warned, urging them to exercise restraint to avoid giving the army a pretext for intervention. But it was too late. The staunchly secular military aborted the elections, launching a massive crackdown and plunging Algeria into a civil war that would claim more than 100,000 lives.

That authoritarian regimes and activist militaries could count on American and European acquiescence (or even support) — as they did in 1992 — made Arab regimes seem more durable than they actually were, and the task of unseating them more daunting. During the first and forgotten Arab Spring of 2004-5, Algeria repeatedly came up in my interviews with Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt and Jordan. Perhaps over-learning the lessons of the past, Islamist parties across the region, despite their growing popularity, were careful and cautious. They made a habit of losing elections. In fact, they lost them on purpose. This ambivalence and even aversion to power prevented Islamists from playing the role that opposition parties are generally expected to play. It was better to wait, and so they did.

It’s been almost five years since the start of the Arab Spring, but one conversation still stands out to me, despite (or perhaps because of) everything that’s happened since. Just two months before the uprisings began, Egypt was experiencing what, at the time, seemed like an especially hopeless period. I was in the country for November elections that proved to be the most fraudulent in Egyptian history. After winning an unprecedented 88 seats in parliament in 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood wasn’t permitted by Hosni Mubarak’s regime to claim even one seat. But this movement, the mother of all Islamist movements, accepted its fate in stride. “The regimes won’t let us take power,” Hamdi Hassan, the head of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc, told me during that doomed election campaign. What was the solution, then? I asked him. “The solution is in the ‘Brotherhood approach.’ We focus on the individual, then the family, then society.”

“In the lifespan of mankind, 80 years isn’t long,” he reasoned, referring to the time that had passed since the Brotherhood’s founding. “It’s like eight seconds.” [Continue reading…]


Anti-interventionist Donald Trump: Middle East would be more stable with Hussein and Gadhafi

NBC News reports: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, when asked if he believes the Middle East would be better today if Moammar Gadhafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein of Iraq were still in power, responded, “It’s not even a contest.”

He related the situations in both of those countries with what is currently happening in Syria and seemed to endorse a stronger President Bashar Assad, even while admitting that he is “probably a bad guy.”

“You can make the case, if you look at Libya, look at what we did there — it’s a mess — if you look at Saddam Hussein with Iraq, look what we did there — it’s a mess — it’s [Syria] going to be same thing,” the real estate mogul said. [Continue reading…]

This is a point of view that appeals to a lot of liberals and peace activists these days, but it begs at least two questions:

How sustainable is stability when it derives from political oppression?

And what is the long-term price of torture?

Without exception, authoritarian regimes across the Middle East have relied on the same techniques for suppressing political opposition: torture.

Torture has the virtue of silencing critics without turning them into martyrs.

The streets can remain quiet when the screams of those having their fingernails ripped out are muffled by heavy prison doors.

But torture doesn’t just scar bodies — it scars minds, feeding a desire for vengeance that has inspired many a terrorist.

Is this what peace and stability really looks like?

Maybe the real lesson of the last decade has not been that regime change is itself such a terrible idea, but rather that the methods employed to achieve that goal have been worse than useless.

The issue is not one of intervention vs non-intervention but rather a question of what might actually lead to the desired goal.

The insular perspective of those who posture as realist defenders of national interest, suggests that it’s none of our business what happens within the borders of other states, but the reality is that sooner or later the misery of every dysfunctional state will spill out across its borders.


Western superiority and Arab denial

Saudi commentator and academic Khaled al-Dakheel writes: Most Arabs and Muslims will not grant that the West’s civilization is superior. They will admit that it is more technologically or materially advanced, but they deny that the West has achieved any cultural or ethical advance or superiority. There is a half-deliberate, half-incidental disregard for the West’s political and legal achievements, which are sometimes dismissed by referring to the contradictions that seem to undermine their foundation. This is abundantly clear when we hear acknowledgements of the West’s tremendous industrial capabilities alongside descriptions of its cultural decadence and lack of moral discipline. Most currents and schools of thought in the Arab world agree on this point, even if they differ in their explanations, descriptions and details. None of them have ever asked themselves: Could a decadent and morally undisciplined culture have provided the basis for tremendous industrial capabilities? Maybe for this reason time will show that the Arab-Islamic attitude toward the West is mistaken in its outlook, justifications and conclusions. This attitude reveals that the Arab-Islamic perspective (with the possible exceptions of Malaysia and Indonesia) continues to be in thrall to a past that could only ever be resurrected through destructive means. But its error is even more dangerous than that, because it expresses a civilizational impotence and exhaustion more than it expresses any coherent political stance, civilizational vision, or alternative civilizational project. The greatest evidence of the incoherence and injustice of this vision is that you find Baathists, Nasserists, Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Salafis, Muslim Brotherhood, nationalists and leftists all joining together to mock the West, deride its ethical incoherence and despise or disregard its political achievements. This comes at a high cost, because it does not reflect a real consensus as much as it represents an empty opportunism void of political substance and the least amount of moral probity.

This attitude brings together such disparate figures as Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the leader of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammed al-Julani, head of the Change and Reform bloc Michel Aoun, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (who is incidentally also the Secretary-General of the Arab Socialist Baath Party – Syria Region). Ranged alongside them are other figures who have since left this world, such as Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad, Abdel Nasser, Abd al-Karim Qasim, Abdul Salam Arif, and many more. They are also joined by Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood sheikhs and sheikhs from various other schools of thought. Lately Houthi leader Abdel Malik al-Houthi has joined the list as well. What is striking – and significant – is that whereas they concur in this coarse opportunism, they disagree on everything else. They are engaged in brutal, bloody clashes on the battlefields of religious wars in Iraq and Syria, fighting on the basis of a sectarianism that they have no shame in avowing. [Continue reading…]


As tragedies shock Europe, a bigger refugee crisis looms in the Middle East

The Washington Post reports: While the world’s attention is fixed on the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees swarming into Europe, a potentially far more profound crisis is unfolding in the countries of the Middle East that have borne the brunt of the world’s failure to resolve the Syrian war.

Those reaching Europe represent a small percentage of the 4 million Syrians who have fled into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, making Syria the biggest single source of refugees in the world and the worst humanitarian emergency in more than four decades.

As the fighting grinds into a fifth year, the realization is dawning on aid agencies, the countries hosting the refugees and the Syrians themselves that most won’t be going home anytime soon, presenting the international community with a long-term crisis that it is ill-equipped to address and that could prove deeply destabilizing, for the region and the wider world.

The failure is first and foremost one of diplomacy, said António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The conflict has left at least 250,000 people dead in the strategic heart of the Middle East and displaced more than 11 million overall, yet there is still no peace process, no discernible solution and no end in sight.

Now, the humanitarian effort is failing, too, ground down by dwindling interest, falling donations and spiraling needs. The United Nations has received less than half the amount it said was needed to care for the refugees over the past four years. Aid is being cut and programs are being suspended at the very moment when those who left Syria in haste, expecting they soon would go home, are running out of savings and wearing out the welcome they initially received.

“It is a tragedy without parallel in the recent past,” Guterres said in an interview, warning that millions could eventually end up without the help they need to stay alive.

“There are many battles being won,” he added. “Unfortunately, the number of battles being lost is more.”

It is a crisis whose true cost has yet to be realized. [Continue reading…]

A Syrian refugee, having reached Europe — where she hopes to find a doctor who can treat her two-year old daughter’s heart condition — told the New York Times: “I want to find somewhere where there are no Arabs. Europeans are better people. The Arabs hurt us a lot.”

Jenan Moussa, who reports for Al Aan TV, highlights the conflicted views on governance that are stifling the region’s political development.


The Arab Spring was a revolution of the hungry

Thanassis Cambanis writes: Early in the Tahrir Square revolution, a group of retired Egyptian generals sat poolside at Cairo’s Gezira Club and worried about whether the country’s ruling elite could survive a popular uprising. It was February 2011, a week before President Hosni Mubarak was toppled. Millions of freshly politicized Egyptians had already taken to the streets. And yet, some of these career security men were unfazed.

“The only thing we really need to worry about is a revolution of the hungry,” said one, a retired Air Force general. “That would be the end of us.”

As it turned out, it took less than four years for Egypt’s dictatorship to reconstitute itself, crushing the hope for real change among the people. In no small part, the regime’s resilience was due to its firm grasp of bread politics. The ruler who controls the main staples of life — bread and fuel — often controls everything else, too.

Nonetheless, the specter of a “revolution of the hungry” still worries authoritarian rulers today, in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. Roughly put, the idea is shorthand for an uprising that brings together not only the traditional cast of political and religious dissidents but also pits a far greater number of poor, uneducated, and apolitical citizens against the state.

Look across the region, and regimes have good reason to be afraid. Even in countries where obesity is widespread, people suffer from low-quality medical care and malnutrition due to a lack of healthy food.

The basic equation is stark: The Arab world cannot feed itself. Rulers obsessed with security have created a twisted web of importers and bakeries whose aim is not to feed the population efficiently or nutritiously but simply to maintain the regime and stave off that much feared revolution of the hungry. Vast subsidies eat up the lion’s share of national budgets. [Continue reading…]


The Iranian project of regional expansion was from the start based on shaky ground

Basheer Nafi writes: In spite of mounting evidence that the Iranian influence was in decline, many concluded that the nuclear agreement would provide the Iranian expansionist project with what it needs to become an invincible power. So, where is the fault in the reading of the Iranian expansionist project, or in Tehran’s own assessment of its power?

This, first of all, is the Middle East, the post-World War I Middle East, where power equations do not last for long and where the underpinnings of power keep changing just like quick sand. It is true that the Iranian expansion coincided with American failings in the Middle East, followed by a relative American withdrawal, as well as a decline of the regional Egyptian and Saudi influence; but it has also coincided with an active Turkish return to the neighbouring Middle East.

Additionally, it is true that the fall of the Taliban and Saddam regimes was quite swift, but it is also true that the Iraqi resistance to the occupation did not wait long before emerging, and that the Taliban were soon to regroup and lead the resistance against the occupation and its allies in Kabul. The problem with the Iranian expansionist project, right from the start, was that it did not take into consideration the continuously changing nature of the map of power and influence in the region.

Secondly, the Iranians chose in most of their expansionist steps to stand by the minorities, whether political or sectarian, in the face of the majority, not only the majority in every single country but also the majority at the level of the region as a whole.

The peoples of the region were, for several decades, viewing Iran with admiration and sympathy, especially when Iranian policy was characterised with standing by the people and their aspirations. Yet, Iran was changing rapidly, where nationalistic and sectarian ambitions replaced the policies of pan-Islamic solidarity. Iran encouraged the emergence of a sectarian hegemonic regime in Iraq, and put its entire weight behind the continuation of the hegemony of a sectarian and political minority over Syria and its people.

It also supported the foolish Houthi plot to seize control of Yemen. Without a single exception, Iran’s regional policies were to generate civil wars and ethnic and sectarian cleansing, not to mention the tragic destruction of peoples and their resources. [Continue reading…]


Scorching ‘heat dome’ over Middle East sees temperatures soar to 165F in Iran

The Telegraph reports: Iran is buckling under the pressure of a massive heatwave passing across the Middle East, with temperatures soaring to nearly 70C.

Scorching heat levels of 50C have already paralysed nearby Iraq, where officials were forced to call a four day public holiday because it was too hot to work.

But the word “hot” has taken on an entirely new meaning in Iran’s city of Bandar Mahshahr, where it was claimed that the city’s heat index, or “feels-like temperature”, was among the highest ever recorded.

The heat index was recorded by a group of astonished weather experts who predict the country could be enduring some of the hottest urban temperatures ever endured by mankind.

‘That was one of the most incredible temperature observations I have ever seen and it is one of the most extreme readings ever in the world,’ said AccuWeather meteorologist Anthony Saglia.

It is just a few degrees lower than the highest ever recorded heat index, which was 178F (81C) in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia on July 8, 2003. [Continue reading…]


Arab Gulf states have a massive lead over Iran in virtually every aspect of conventional arms

Anthony H. Cordesman writes: Much of the criticism of the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran has focused on the fact that it would allow conventional arms transfers to Iran in five years if Iran fully complies with all other aspects of the agreement. In practice, this does not obligate any country to sell arms to Iran, nor does it affect U.S. and European constraints on arms sales.

It could, however, lead to significant arms sales on the part of Russia and China, and potentially other states. Iran badly needs to modernize its aging air force, surface-to-air missile defenses, and many other elements of its weapons systems – as well as acquire the technology for a wide range of new sensors, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and other improvement in its war fighting capabilities.

It is important, however, to keep such risks in perspective. Iran is already able to exploit a large network of purchasing offices and cover organizations to buy critical technology, parts, and other military equipment. It takes time to absorb arms transfers even when they come, and Iran faces a massive backlog of obsolescence, worn systems, patchwork improvements, and awkward efforts at systems integration.

In the real world, Iran is anything but the hegemon of the region – as a new CSIS study of the Gulf military balance shows. This study is entitled The Arab-U.S. Strategic Partnership and the Changing Security Balance in the Gulf.

Chapters II and III of this study compare the size of Iranian and Arab Gulf military expenditures and arms transfers. The following chapters analyze the limits to Iran’s conventional forces and the growing strength of Gulf Arab forces. Chapter XII analyzes the scope of the U.S. strategic partnership with the individual Gulf states and the Gulf Arab states as a whole.

The report shows that the Arab Gulf states already have a massive lead over Iran in virtually every aspect of conventional arms, except total military manpower. It also shows that the U.S. strategic partnership has delivered some of the most modern weapons in the world to the Arab Gulf states, and that equally massive new transfers are underway. [Continue reading…]


Iran is drama, but Iraq is destiny

Rami G Khouri writes: The dramatic events surrounding the intense negotiations for a deal on Iran’s nuclear industry and the sanctions on it deserve immense attention because of what they tell us about two pivotal dynamics in the Middle East, namely the role of Iran in the region and the world and the more mature attitude of the United States towards countries and movements that it disagrees with, like Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and others. Yet, despite the momentous impact of an agreement on Iran, the dynamic this week that I am watching much more closely is the offensive launched Monday by the Iraqi government to retake Anbar Province from the hands of “Islamic State” (IS). Anbar Province’s convoluted and fast changing condition in the past decade is a sign of wider stresses that plague Iraq, including the province’s successive anti-American, anti-Islamic State in Mesopotamia, and anti-Baghdad rebellions, its gradual loss to IS during the past year, and Baghdad’s current strategy to return it to the fold of the Iraqi state.

What happens in Iraq in the coming months and years matters dearly to the entire Arab world because Anbar’s turbulent recent history and its current condition manifest the most fundamental and crucial issues that still challenge most Arab states, and are likely to determine if they persist as sovereign, stable states. These issues relate to the ability of citizens and state to negotiate a social contract that ensures good governance and equitable participation and life opportunities for all citizens, which in turn would guarantee stability and security, and probably also prosperity, given Iraq’s immense natural and human resources. A social contract that meets these criteria has evaded every single Arab country in the past century — only because not a single Arab country (before Tunisia since 2011) ever attempted to credibly engage its citizens in the process of shaping public life, governance, participation, accountability, national values, and state policies. The test that Iraq and all Arab countries face is how to allow populations composed of several different ethnic and religious groups to work together within the context of the institutions and national integrity of their state. [Continue reading…]


From Deep State to Islamic State by Jean-Pierre Filiu

Ian Black writes: “If you think you understand Lebanon, you haven’t been properly briefed”. Thus went the advice dispensed by the spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force in the wild south of the country in the mid-1980s. The same worldly-wise adage applies these days to the entire Arab region, wracked by collapsing states, terrorism, sectarianism, proxy wars and alliances of the strangest bedfellows.

It takes patience, clarity and perspective to explain the whole grim picture and the links between its constituent parts. These qualities are on impressive display in an important new book by the French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu. His particular skill is to describe the development, survival and resurgence of the Arab “deep state,” the security agencies that have kept it going and the “monster they helped create” – in its most extreme form the jihadis of the Islamic state (Isis).

Filiu traces how autocrats in Syria, Egypt and Yemen used their experience of managing internal dissent to unleash their own thugs – different names in different countries, same vicious methods – to enforce their will when the call went up to reform or change their regimes. Anyone who experienced the heady events of 2011 will recognise the bitter truth in his admission that the excitement of the Arab spring obscured the prospects of successful counter-revolution.

I thought I had seen it all from the Arab despots. Their perversity, their brutality, their voracity. But I was still underestimating their ferocity and their readiness to literally burn down their country in order to cling to absolute power.

Following the departure of Hosni Mubarak, counter-revolution triumphed in Egypt with the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood. The overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, compared with the success of Rachid Ghannouchi in Tunisia, provided an instructive lesson, Filiu argues: Islamists who succeed at the ballot box, in complex and volatile circumstances, must not take their electoral victories as a “blank cheque.” To ignore that is to invite the backlash that brought Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi to power and forged a reality even worse than under Mubarak. [Continue reading…]


Lifting the veil

Kim Ghattas writes: “Why do they hate us?” That is the question that Mona Eltahawy asked in a much-discussed 2012 article for Foreign Policy. “They” were the men of the Arab world; “us” were the Arab women who, as she writes in a new book that grew out of that essay, “live in a culture that is fundamentally hostile to [them], enforced by men’s contempt.”

The question, as you may remember, is the same one that President George W. Bush asked in a speech in Congress in September 2001 about the men who flew planes into towers. The lack of nuance in Bush’s proclamation framed a debate that amplified stereotypes and “otherness.” Eltahawy’s book, Headscarves and Hymens, a radical feminist manifesto, risks doing the same for the battle over Arab women’s rights.

While Eltahawy rightly rejects the patriarchal system that tramples on women’s rights, she reduces men to a monolithic bloc with which women are at war, instead of seeing them as potential partners for change. She ignores the historical, political, and economic context that has produced the current darkness in the Arab world for women and men alike. Instead, she focuses mostly on issues that are in essence just the façade of the problem, like the veil that many women wear, and overlooks the systemic changes needed to truly improve women’s lives. By doing so, she reduces Arab women to a downtrodden mass, awaiting liberation from a piece of cloth. [Continue reading…]


Saudi Arabia’s widening war

Gary Sick writes: The level of turmoil in the Middle East is greater than at any other time in my nearly fifty years of watching this region. Amid this perfect storm comes the most dramatic shift in Saudi policy since at least World War II– marking a critical turning point in Saudi Arabia’s relations with its historical protector, the United States, and with its neighbors in the Middle East. The Saudi regime’s insistence on seeing threats to the Kingdom in fundamentally sectarian terms — Sunni vs. Shia — will put it increasingly at odds with its American patrons and could lead the Middle East into a conflict comparable to Europe’s Thirty Years War, a continent-wide civil war over religion that decimated an entire culture.

Driving the Saudi strategy is fear of Iranian regional hegemony. This wariness of Iran is nothing new, but, since the early days of the Clinton administration, Saudi Arabia has been able to rely on Washington to contain Iran. The United States surrounded Iran with its bases and troops, and imposed ever-increasing economic punishment on the Iranian revolutionary state. This policy began after the George H.W. Bush administration completed its brilliant military victory over Saddam Hussein’s forces, and as the Soviet Union was collapsing, leaving the United States as the sole military power in the Persian Gulf.

The Clinton administration had briefly considered balancing Iran or Iraq against the other as a way to maintain a degree of regional stability and to protect the smaller, oil-rich Arab states on the southern side of the Gulf. Policy of this sort had prevailed for the two decades prior to the Persian Gulf War. However, Martin Indyk, chief of Middle East policy at Clinton’s National Security Council, formally rejected this policy and announced a new “dual containment” policy. With Iraq boxed in by UN sanctions, and Iran nearly prostrate after eight years of war with Iraq, the United States had the “means to counter both the Iraqi and Iranian regimes,” declared Indyk. Now, he said, “we don’t need to rely on one to balance the other.” [Continue reading…]


Resilient societies in the Middle East are guided by strong women

Jomana Qaddour writes: This decade has revealed the scores of women leading protests in Egypt, insisting on constitutional freedoms in Tunisia, and supporting Syrian families when men have joined armed groups. It has become an unspoken rule in the international aid and policy community that resilient societies in the Middle East are guided by strong women. The reality is that even if the international community has only just taken notice of Middle Eastern women and their capabilities, it does not mean those women have been absent. On the contrary, women in the Middle East have always been dynamic actors in their communities; and since the Arab Spring women have facilitated significant societal change that has forever altered the region.

My grandmother is an illiterate, petite, 70-year old Syrian woman living on the outskirts of Damascus, yet she is the heart of her family — the lifeline — and what has kept the family together in the midst of a war that has uprooted and displaced over 11 million Syrians. She, like many Syrian women, has planted a garden big enough to feed her extended family, ensuring that they are not dependent on international aid groups to survive. She rushed to seize my uncle from a checkpoint in Damascus — arguing with regime soldiers — moments before the Syrian army shipped him off to Aleppo to fight against the rebels. My maternal aunt is the sole breadwinner in her immediate family, working as an accountant and traveling almost four hours a day to and from work because her family’s survival depends on her. [Continue reading…]

Khaled Hosseini writes: I recently returned from Jordan with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, meeting Syrian refugees and hearing about their experiences. Each encounter reminded me anew of the role of stories, why sometimes they can be more useful than numbers, why we need the tale of a Tom Joad to understand a Great Depression, why Rudyard Kipling said: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

Let me introduce you to Khalida, a bespectacled 70-year-old woman with jutting cheekbones and a schoolgirl’s laugh. Before the war, she lived a Syrian mother’s dream, surrounded, loved and supported by her nine grown children. But then war broke out, and Khalida learnt that armed groups were forcing young men to fight for them by threatening to assault and abuse their mothers. Khalida made a painful, and to me, stunning choice. She decided to deny the militants this leverage.

“I didn’t want to be the reason my sons had to fight,” she says, “so I left everything I had.”

She left her children, her home, her city. Alone and illiterate, Khalida tore herself from Syria and now lives on the outskirts of Amman, renting a nearly empty one-room apartment at the bottom of a steep hill.

In this new, tabula rasa existence, she is forced to fend for herself entirely. Her greatest expense is rent, and she pays for it with help from a kind Jordanian woman – though soon Khalida will be receiving help through UNHCR’s cash assistance programme, an initiative targeting the most vulnerable Syrian refugees.

Every day, Khalida climbs steep, battered steps uphill to the main road. She travels to a community centre in Madaba, a 40km trip taking over an hour, requiring her to hitch two car rides and board two buses, where she takes literacy classes in a room full of other Syrian women and young girls.

Khalida is the oldest and most enthusiastic student in the class, because for her, literacy is now an indispensable survival skill. She needs to read street signs, bus destinations, her medication labels. Despite a marked hand tremor, she has diligently filled entire notebooks.

Khalida misses Syria. She misses her home, and most terribly, her children. But she would rather live alone, with nothing, in a foreign country, than go back to Syria and put her sons at risk. [Continue reading…]


Iran these days is a greater focus of Arab ire and disquiet than Israel

From Dubai, Roger Cohen writes: When Amr Moussa, the former secretary general of the Arab League, spoke here of the Arab world’s humiliation by three non-Arab states — Iran, Israel and Turkey — and the way they had, through their “hegemony,” turned Arabs into a “laughingstock,” I asked him what exactly he meant.

His response focused on Iran. This in itself was interesting. Statements from Tehran about Iran calling the shots in several Arab capitals — including Damascus, Baghdad and Sana — had “enraged many of us,” he said, leaving Arabs humiliated that any power “would dare say that.”

As this remark suggests, Iran these days is a greater focus of Arab ire and disquiet than Israel, a country with which many Arab states have aligned but unsayable interests.

Cut to Camp David and President Obama’s attempt to reassure Persian Gulf leaders that the United States can, in Secretary of State John Kerry’s words, “do two things at the same time” — that is, conclude a nuclear deal with Shiite Iran and honor its alliances with the Sunni monarchies, whose oil is now of less strategic importance to an America in the midst of an oil boom.

The walk-and-chew-gum American argument is a tough sell because Arab honor and Arab humiliation are in play. That’s why King Salman of Saudi Arabia stayed away from Camp David. That’s why the Saudis started a bombing campaign in Yemen: to stop the Houthis, portrayed in Riyadh as pure Iranian proxies. That’s why much of what you hear these days in Dubai (where many Iranians live and trade) is talk of Obama’s betrayal of the Arabs through infatuation with Iran. [Continue reading…]


Obama is on a quest to rebalance American power in the Middle East

Reza Marashi writes: As President Obama hosts leaders from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE on May 13 and 14, he will surely hear a push from them for a White House plan to contain Iran. However, recent candid remarks from Admiral Mike Mullen should cause America to think twice. Going against conventional wisdom in Washington, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said: “[A nuclear deal] would also more fairly rebalance American influence. We need to re-examine all of the relationships we enjoy in the region, relationships primarily with Sunni-dominated nations. Détente with Iran might better balance our efforts across the sectarian divide.”

Let that sink in. The highest-ranking officer in the United States Armed Forces from 2007 to 2011 is essentially saying that America’s long-standing allies in the Middle East are trying to lock it into permanent confrontation with Iran–and into a permanent alliance with countries whose interests and values are increasingly opposed to its own. After the initial shock from Admiral Mullen’s intellectual honesty subsides, one quickly realizes that he is right: Why shouldn’t the U.S. have more options at its disposal to achieve its interests and reduce the threats it faces? For example, after 15 Saudi hijackers attacked the U.S. on September 11th, 2001, American decision-makers did not have the option of being firm with Saudi Arabia. Instead, they were trapped in an alliance precisely because there was no regional alternative that could be leveraged to hold the Saudis accountable. [Continue reading…]


Obama and the Gulf states

Brian Whitaker writes: This week’s meeting at Camp David between President Obama and leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council is still being described as a “summit”, though it has already slithered some way down from the mountain top. The Sultan of Oman and the president of the UAE are both too ill to attend and will be sending representatives instead. The kings of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have pulled out too, in a move that is seen as a snub to President Obama. That leaves only Kuwait and Qatar to be represented by their heads of state.

In the US, even before it happens, the meeting has opened up a space for anti-Obama stirring from the political right, especially among opponents of the proposed nuclear deal with Iran. For the purposes of bad-mouthing Obama, the Gulf’s bumbling monarchs are presented as good guys – “determined to take the initiative” in “confronting Iran’s regional expansion” (to quote a briefing paper from the Orient Advisory Group) – against a US president with “a regional policy that no one can define or even understand”.

So the big question – indeed, the only question as far as some commentators are concerned – is what the US can do to reassure the Gulf’s plutocrats that it is still committed to their security.

The irony is that it ought to be the other way round. Given the spread of jihadist activity in the region and beyond, Obama should (but probably won’t) be asking the emirs and their stand-ins for more evidence of a commitment to other countries’ security. It’s all very well to thank them for resisting ISIS and supporting counterterrorism efforts at an international level by sharing intelligence, but in the current situation that is simply not enough. It’s time to start reversing the damage they have caused in the minds of many Muslims.

They should stop promoting sectarian politics and consider how their actions legitimise religious intolerance: the laws that prescribe punishment for apostasy, blasphemy and other kinds of nonconformity, the policies that treat the followers of different faiths (and even different branches of Islam) as inferior beings – in fact, anything that leads people to think it’s right to impose religion by force. Obama should tell them that until they take such a stand, no matter how many bombs they drop, there is virtually no hope of putting an end to jihadist violence.

But don’t hold your breath. It’s far more likely the Americans will send them home with assurances about Iran and arms deals in their pockets. [Continue reading…]


How ISIS uses water as weapon of war

Walaa Hussein writes: The Middle East is facing a water crisis. As the region experiences conflicts over water and faces the continuous risk of war breaking out, experts on water predict that the Islamic State (IS) aims to exacerbate this water crisis, as evidenced by its efforts to seize rivers and dams in Syria and Iraq, starting in 2013.

The Arab League has worked since 2008 to establish a new Arab convention on water usage, which would establish parameters on how to deal with the water crisis. However, the final draft is still under review because of the reservations of some member states.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, an international consulting organization, has identified numerous regions where the water crisis threatens to transform into a global conflict. Turkey, Syria and Iraq are included on that list, due to the Turkish dams controlling the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Iran and Iraq are also witnessing a competition over the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, known as Shatt al-Arab. Also included is Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, which are witnessing a conflict over the Nile. Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Chad and Niger are also experiencing a crisis in relation to an 800-meter (0.5-mile) deep underground water field and the Nubian sandstone aquifer. Libya wants to invest in this aquifer to extend an artificial river and supply its coastline with freshwater. [Continue reading…]