Arabic translators did far more than just preserve Greek philosophy

By Peter Adamson, Aeon, November 4, 2016

In European antiquity, philosophers largely wrote in Greek. Even after the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean and the demise of paganism, philosophy was strongly associated with Hellenic culture. The leading thinkers of the Roman world, such as Cicero and Seneca, were steeped in Greek literature; Cicero even went to Athens to pay homage to the home of his philosophical heroes. Tellingly, the emperor Marcus Aurelius went so far as to write his Meditations in Greek. Cicero, and later Boethius, did attempt to initiate a philosophical tradition in Latin. But during the early Middle Ages, most of Greek thought was accessible in Latin only partially and indirectly.

Elsewhere, the situation was better. In the eastern part of the Roman Empire, the Greek-speaking Byzantines could continue to read Plato and Aristotle in the original. And philosophers in the Islamic world enjoyed an extraordinary degree of access to the Hellenic intellectual heritage. In 10th-century Baghdad, readers of Arabic had about the same degree of access to Aristotle that readers of English do today.

This was thanks to a well-funded translation movement that unfolded during the Abbasid caliphate, beginning in the second half of the eighth century. Sponsored at the highest levels, even by the caliph and his family, this movement sought to import Greek philosophy and science into Islamic culture. Their empire had the resources to do so, not just financially but also culturally. From late antiquity to the rise of Islam, Greek had survived as a language of intellectual activity among Christians, especially in Syria. So when Muslim aristocrats decided to have Greek science and philosophy translated into Arabic, it was to Christians that they turned. Sometimes, a Greek work might even be translated first into Syriac, and only then into Arabic. It was an immense challenge. Greek is not a semitic language, so they were moving from one language group to another: more like translating Finnish into English than Latin into English. And there was, at first, no established terminology for expressing philosophical ideas in Arabic.

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Russia is taking the unwelcome place long occupied by the U.S. in Middle East

The Wall Street Journal reports: Victory comes at a cost.

Since entering the Syrian war last year, Russia successfully ended America’s status as the Middle East’s sole superpower, an achievement capped by the fall of Aleppo.

That rise has turned Moscow into the region’s indispensable power broker. In Europe, too, the migrant wave unleashed by the Syrian war strengthened Moscow’s sway, fueling populist parties friendly to President Vladimir Putin.

The assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey on Monday, however, highlighted the flip side of this dizzying rise. As America’s influence has shrunk, Russia has taken the place the U.S. long occupied in the minds of many people in the Middle East: an alien imperialist power seen as waging war on Muslims and Islam.

There haven’t been any recent anti-American protests in the region. But amid the agony of Aleppo, tens of thousands of protesters converged this month outside Russian missions from Istanbul to Beirut to Kuwait City—where the chanting, led by local lawmakers, was clear: “Russia is the enemy of Islam.”

The Turkish policeman who gunned down Ambassador Andrey Karlov on Monday shouted that he was avenging the suffering of Aleppo, which had been subjected to a year of Russian bombing before the Syrian regime and its Shiite allies conquered the rebel-held parts of the city in recent weeks.

The diplomat’s assassination, while condemned by governments, was greeted with open joy on Arabic social media, and in Palestinian refugee camps.

“Russia is certainly being perceived as the new bully in the neighborhood,” said Hassan Hassan, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington. “The way people react to its involvement in the decimation of one of the most revered Sunni cities in the Middle East, Aleppo, is reminiscent of how the U.S. was viewed after its occupation of Iraq. You only need to follow how the killer of the Russian ambassador was glorified throughout the region to get an idea of how Russia is despised by the populace today.” [Continue reading…]

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Putin’s oil and gas deals magnify military power in Middle East

Bloomberg reports: After reinventing itself as a major power in the Middle East by force in Syria, Russia is now using its other strong suit, energy, to expand its influence across the region.

A series of agreements is allowing Russia and the Gulf states to cooperate in areas where their interests meet, looking beyond Syria where they have backed opposing sides in a brutal proxy war. Over the past month alone, Russia brokered the first deal between the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and non-OPEC nations in 15 years to cut oil production, secured a $5 billion investment by Qatar in oil giant Rosneft PJSC, and then saw Rosneft agree to pay as much as $2.8 billion for a stake in an Egyptian gas field.

“Russia is really keen to increase leverage in the Middle East by every means,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

It’s a reflection of how events in the region are combining in favor of Russian President Vladimir Putin as rarely before. A cooling of U.S. alliances in the Gulf in recent years, the havoc cheaper oil has wreaked in energy-dependent economies and a recognition that Russia can no longer be ignored on regional security issues mean Putin is pushing at an increasingly open door. [Continue reading…]

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Another Arab awakening is looming, warns a UN report

The Economist reports: In December 2010 Egypt’s cabinet discussed the findings of their National Youth Survey. Only 16% of 18-29-year-olds voted in elections, it showed; just 2% registered for volunteer work. An apathetic generation, concluded the ministers, who returned to twiddling their thumbs. Weeks later, Egypt’s youth spilled onto the streets and toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

The UN’s latest Arab Development Report, published on November 29th, shows that few lessons have been learnt. Five years on from the revolts that toppled four Arab leaders, regimes are ruthlessly tough on dissent, but much less attentive to its causes.

As states fail, youth identify more with their religion, sect or tribe than their country. In 2002, five Arab states were mired in conflict. Today 11 are. By 2020, predicts the report, almost three out of four Arabs could be “living in countries vulnerable to conflict”.

Horrifyingly, although home to only 5% of the world’s population, in 2014 the Arab world accounted for 45% of the world’s terrorism, 68% of its battle-related deaths, 47% of its internally displaced and 58% of its refugees. War not only kills and maims, but destroys vital infrastructure accelerating the disintegration.

The Arab youth population (aged 15-29) numbers 105m and is growing fast, but unemployment, poverty and marginalisation are all growing faster. The youth unemployment rate, at 30%, stands at more than twice the world’s average of 14%. Almost half of young Arab women looking for jobs fail to find them (against a global average of 16%).

Yet governance remains firmly the domain of an often hereditary elite. “Young people are gripped by an inherent sense of discrimination and exclusion,” says the report, highlighting a “weakening [of] their commitment to preserving government institutions.” Many of those in charge do little more than pay lip-service, lumping youth issues in with toothless ministries for sports. “We’re in a much worse shape than before the Arab Spring,” says Ahmed al-Hendawi, a 32-year-old Jordanian and the UN’s envoy for youth. [Continue reading…]

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Who made the Arab Spring into an Arab crisis?

Yezid Sayigh writes: A recent news item on the BBC’s English website neatly captured the sharp contrast in how, five years later, various Arab rulers, citizens and non-Arab observers view the popular uprisings that swept leaders from power in several Arab states and challenged others. The headline read “Arab Spring ‘cost region $600bn’ in lost growth, UN says”, but what the latter actually said differed substantially.

In its Survey of Economic and Social Developments in the Arab Region 2015-2016 (PDF), the United Nation’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), which covers 18 Arab countries, attributed a net loss of $613.8bn in economic activity and an aggregate fiscal deficit of $243.1bn not to the attempt to bring about democratic political transition, but to the armed conflicts now involving nearly a dozen Arab states.

Whether intentionally or not, the BBC’s headline echoes those who portray the chaos and bloodshed suffered by several Arab states since 2011 as the direct result – indeed the essence – of the Arab Spring. But, there was nothing inevitable about this.

Rather, the current reality, or potential threat of state failure and civil war in Arab states, is the outcome of their problematic past trajectories prior to 2011 and of the choices made by those in power on how to respond to evolving political, socioeconomic and institutional challenges since then. [Continue reading…]

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Middle East rights activists, dismayed by Obama, fear Trump will be much worse

The Washington Post reports: Human rights activists fighting a wave of repression across the Middle East are bracing for an American president they fear will empower autocrats and roll back U.S. support for democracy initiatives in the region.

President-elect Donald Trump has shown little regard for human rights issues, activists say, and has praised authoritarian leaders in countries including Turkey and Egypt.

The Obama administration — which sold arms to despots in the region even as it cracked down on opponents — has disappointed many rights advocates. But President Obama has also pressed Middle East governments to curb abuses and enact democratic change.

Trump, by contrast, has not only lauded some of the region’s strongmen but also called for torturing terrorism suspects and killing the families of Islamic State fighters as a way to defeat the extremist group. His rhetoric has alarmed local human rights defenders who say their situation is tenuous enough already. [Continue reading…]

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Sesame particle accelerator project brings Middle East together

The Guardian reports: In the sleepy hillside town in al-Balqa, not far from the Jordan Valley, a grand project is taking shape. The Middle East’s new particle accelerator – the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications, or Sesame – is being built.

In a region racked by violence, extremism and the disintegration of nation states, Sesame feels a world apart; the meditative peace of the surrounding countryside belying the advanced stages of construction inside the site, which is due to be formally inaugurated next spring, with the first experiments taking place as early as this autumn.

It’s a miracle it got off the ground in the first place. Sesame’s members are Iran, Pakistan, Israel, Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Bahrain. Iran and Pakistan do not recognise Israel, nor does Turkey recognise Cyprus, and everyone has their myriad diplomatic spats.

Iran, for example, continues to participate despite two of its scientists who were involved in the project, quantum physicist Masoud Alimohammadi and nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari, being assassinated in operations blamed on Israel’s Mossad.

“We’re cooperating very well together,” said Giorgio Paolucci, the scientific director of Sesame. “That’s the dream.” [Continue reading…]

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An epic Middle East heat wave could be global warming’s hellish curtain-raiser

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The Washington Post reports: Record-shattering temperatures this summer have scorched countries from Morocco to Saudi Arabia and beyond, as climate experts warn that the severe weather could be a harbinger of worse to come.

In coming decades, U.N. officials and climate scientists predict that the region’s mushrooming populations will face extreme water scarcity, temperatures almost too hot for human survival and other consequences of global warming.

If that happens, conflicts and refugee crises far greater than those now underway are probable, said Adel Abdellatif, a senior adviser at the U.N. Development Program’s Regional Bureau for Arab States who has worked on studies about the effect of climate change on the region.

“This incredible weather shows that climate change is already taking a toll now and that it is — by far — one of the biggest challenges ever faced by this region,” he said. [Continue reading…]

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The Middle East needs help with its long game: education and jobs for the young

By Zahir Irani, Brunel University London

The future for many young people across the Middle East and North Africa looks bleak. The World Bank records that 54% of the working age population in the Middle East and North Africa is unemployed with little prospect of any positive immediate change. An average of 28.7% of 15 to 24-year-olds in the Middle East and 30.6% of those in North Africa are unemployed according to the International Labour Organisation.

Much of the world’s response to this chronic problem has been to intervene financially: in the form of aid or debt restructuring. But through supporting economic recovery by giving generations of young people new skills and new opportunities to improve themselves, the world can help Middle Eastern societies in a more sustainable and thoughtful way.

Reliance on public sector jobs

One of the biggest challenges the World Bank identifies in this broad region is that unemployment rates are the highest among the educated, with university graduates making up 30% of the region’s unemployed. They are slowly losing optimism and hope for a better life and future.

This is largely attributed to a reliance on the public sector to provide jobs that come with steady albeit low salaries but high degrees of job security. In many North African countries or those Middle Eastern ones with high populations, other than wait in line for a public sector job, there are few other alternatives. At one end of the spectrum there’s the misery of violence and refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and the other – even if you’ve excelled – a flat and static job market for the best and brightest. No wonder so many highly-skilled people are fleeing to Europe in search of stability and new opportunities.

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Farming invented twice in Middle East, genomes study reveals

wheat

Nature reports: Two Middle Eastern populations independently developed farming and then spread the technology to Europe, Africa and Asia, according to the genomes of 44 people who lived thousands of years ago in present-day Armenia, Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Iran.

Posted on 17 June on the bioRxiv preprint server1, the research supports archaeological evidence about the multiple origins of farming, and represents the first detailed look at the ancestry of the individuals behind one of the most important periods in human history — the Neolithic revolution.

Some 11,000 years ago, humans living in the ancient Middle East region called the Fertile Crescent shifted from a nomadic existence, based on hunting game and gathering wild plants, to a more sedentary lifestyle that would later give rise to permanent settlements. Over thousands of years, these early farmers domesticated the first crops and transformed sheep, wild boars and other creatures into domestic animals.

Dozens of studies have examined the genetics of the first European farmers, who emigrated from the Middle East beginning some 8,000 years ago, but the hot climes of the Fertile Crescent had made it difficult to obtain ancient DNA from remains found there. Advances in extracting DNA from a tiny ear bone called the petrous allowed a team led by Iosif Lazaridis and David Reich, population geneticists at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, to analyse the genomes of the 44 Middle Eastern individuals, who lived between 14,000 and 3,500 years ago. [Continue reading…]

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Global violence worsens, driven by Middle East conflicts

Reuters reports: The world has become increasingly violent with deaths from conflict at a 25-year high, terrorist attacks at an all-time high and more people displaced than at any time since World War Two, the 2016 Global Peace Index showed on Wednesday.

The annual index, which measures 23 indicators including incidents of violent crime, countries’ levels of militarisation and weapons imports, said intensifying conflicts in the Middle East were mostly to blame.

But beyond the Middle East, the world was actually becoming more peaceful, researchers behind the index said.

“Quite often, in the mayhem which is happening in the Middle East currently, we lose sight of the other positive trends,” said Steve Killelea, founder of the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), which produces the index.

“If we look in the last year, if we took out the Middle East … the world would have become more peaceful,” Killelea told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. [Continue reading…]

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The forgotten story of European refugee camps in the Middle East

Ishaan Tharoor writes: Tens of thousands of refugees fled a war. They journeyed across the Eastern Mediterranean, a trip filled with peril. But the promise of sanctuary on the other side was too great.

No, this is not the plight faced by Syrian refugees, desperate to escape the desolation of their homeland and find a safer, better life in Europe. Rather, it’s the curious and now mostly forgotten case of thousands of people from Eastern Europe and the Balkans who were housed in a series of camps across the Middle East, including in Syria, during World War II.

As the Nazi and Soviet war machines rolled through parts of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, vast civilian populations were displaced in their wake. In areas occupied by fascist troops, Jewish communities and other undesired minorities faced the harshest onslaught, but others, particularly those suspected of backing partisan fighters, also were subject to targeted attacks and forced evacuations. [Continue reading…]

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The Arab revolution of 2011 is being destroyed by a counter-revolution led by dictators and jihadists

The Irish Times reports: In late 1400 and early 1401, the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane left “pyramids of skulls, like those constructed by Islamic State today” across Syria, recalls the French Middle East expert Jean-Pierre Filiu.

Tamerlane had already destroyed Aleppo. The great Arab historian and statesman Ibn Khaldun talked to him for 35 days, in the hope of saving Damascus. “The whole time, Tamerlane knows he’s going to massacre everyone in the city,” Filiu continues. “He uses the negotiation to divide and rule, to massacre more people, faster.”

Filiu wants Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, to read Ibn Khaldun, for it’s impossible not to see a parallel with the behaviour of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Filiu is an Arabist, historian and former diplomat who served as an adviser to a French prime minister, defence minister and interior minister. His “added value”, he says, is history. He will address members of the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin on The Jihadi Challenge to Europe next Monday, May 23rd, and debate The Spectre of Global Jihad with the author Shiraz Maher that evening at the International Literature Festival Dublin.

In his most recent book, From Deep State to Islamic State; The Arab Counter-Revolution and Its Jihadi Legacy, (published by Hurst in London) Filiu concludes that the Arab revolution of 2011 – a term he prefers to “Arab spring” – is being destroyed by a counter-revolution led by the remnants of dictatorships in collusion with jihadists.

Over the past century, Filiu writes, the Arabs’ right to self-determination was “denied by colonial intervention, ‘hi- jacked’ at independence by military regimes, trampled on by the double standards of the war for Kuwait and the ‘global war on terror,’ and perverted in the UN, where peoples are represented by the regimes who oppress them”.

No other people have faced “so many obstacles, enemies and horrors in the quest for basic rights”, Filiu says. [Continue reading…]

In January, Filiu spoke about the price being paid because of President Obama’s failure to uphold ethical principles.

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Untangling the complicated legacies of colonialism and failed Arab regimes overshadowing today’s conflicts in the Middle East

Rami G Khouri writes: Why have most Middle Eastern lands that Great Britain, Italy, and France managed as mandates or colonies become violent wrecks and sources of large-scale conflict and human despair? It is just as dishonest to blame mainly Western colonialism for our national wreckages and rampant instability as it is to blame only Arab people and culture for those failings. We need a more complete and integrated analysis of the multiple phenomena that shaped our last erratic century.

Initially, we must absolutely acknowledge that Arab states’ inability to achieve sustainable economic growth and pluralistic democracies is the core reason for our problems today. The main reason for this reason, however, is to be found in a more complex set of interlocking relationships among powerful political actors inside our countries and capitals far and near.

This requires going back before 1916, maybe a century or two, to recall how European powers conquered much of the world as colonies or sites of unchecked imperial plunder. The main problem with Sykes-Picot is not only what happened in and after 1916; it is also heavily a consequence of the European colonial mindset that matured in the century before 1916, and continued to exercise its colonial prerogatives for decades to follow — perhaps even in today’s continued use of European, Russian, and American military power across our region.

At the same time, three critical issues after 1916 made it virtually impossible for many Arab countries to transition from Euro-manufactured instant states born on after-dinner napkins in the hands of Cognac-mellowed British and French colonial officers, to stable, democratic, prosperous sovereign states.

These three issues were, in their historical order:

1) British support for Zionism and a Jewish state in Palestine in November 1917, which plunged Palestine into endless Zionism-Arabism warfare since then, and sucked in other Arab states, Iran, and others yet;

2) the discovery of large amounts of oil in the Middle East in the 1930s especially, which the West needed to maintain access to for its own industrial expansion; and,

3) the post-1947 Cold War between the U.S.-led West and the Russian-led Soviet Communist states that was translated into perpetual proxy wars across the Middle East for forty-four years, and maybe is resurfacing today in new guises. [Continue reading…]

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Don’t blame Sykes-Picot for the Middle East’s mess

sykes-picot

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…]

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How the curse of Sykes-Picot still haunts the Middle East

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…]

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Stop viewing the Arab world through a narrow lens

H A Hellyer writes: If, in 2011, the West’s view of the Arab world was grounded in optimism and exhilaration, it’s an entirely different story in 2016. Five years ago, there was still the sense that something was afoot, that the region could change into something better. There was the promise of a region based more on respect for fundamental rights, better governance and freedom – rather than one where these elements were constantly sacrificed to nepotism, autocracy and the cynical exploitation of concerns around security.

Five years on, the situation looks very different.

Now it is far more about security than ever before. It used to be that different Arab leaders would privately and publicly argue that they were better than the alternative of Islamism and that would be enough to get any concerns around fundamental rights of the table for discussion. Today, the equation is the same but different: many simply argue that the alternative to their rule is chaos. And, of course, no one wants chaos – and so the cycle continues.

But the region is not simply a place where one makes short-term exchanges between security concerns and everything else. It is a catastrophic mistake to look at the region in those terms alone. [Continue reading…]

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As long as there is no real democracy in the Middle East, ISIS will continue to mutate

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…]

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