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In Translation: The Saudi Transition and an Anxious Egypt

March 4th, 2015 No comments

Ever since King Salman ascended to the Saudi throne a few weeks ago, the Arab press has been rife with speculation that he intends to reset Saudi foreign policy. Some, particularly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, are speculating rather wildly that Riyadh wants to make peace with political Islam after financing the Sisi regime in Egypt that decimated the Brotherhood and encouraged similar anti-Islamist clampdowns elsewhere. Others have pointed to a Saudi refocusing Iran, rather than Islamism as the chief threat – particularly as the Arab Islamists have retreated in many countries. The idea of a Saudi push for a “united Sunni front” against Shia Iran and its regional clients makes some sense after the Iran-allied Houthis took control of Sanaa, leading Riyadh to once again reach out to the Yemeni Muslim Brothers as a counterbalance. 

The Sisi regime and its media has reacted quite badly to all this, particularly since so much of what stands as “ideology” of this regime is based around building the Brotherhood into some all-powerful bogeyman. The dependency of this regime on Gulf financing makes it doubly nervous to see a rapprochement between Salman and Turkey’s Erdogan, who is perhaps the only regional leader that continues to call Sisi a putschist. In cutting through all the wild speculation surrounding Salman’s intentions and the dual summits he held over the weekend with Erdogan and Sisi, some of the more plausible readings of Saudi intentions have come from Saudis themselves. Khaled al-Dakheel, a prominent columnist in al-Hayat, penned an interesting piece on this a few days ago, which we translate below. Note in particular the paragraph in which he lambasts the Sisi regime’s obsession with scapegoating the Brotherhood and its inability to build a coherent alternative around which Egyptians could rally. 

Our In Translation series is made possible with the support of Industry Arabic, a full-service Arabic translation service staffed by experienced linguistic ninjas. They have a black belt in Hans Wehr. Please help them support us by hiring them for the next translation job you or your company has.


The Saudi Transition and an Anxious Egypt

By Khaled El-Dakheel, al-Hayat, 1 March 2015

After the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Egypt has clearly been vexed with anxiety, and the source of this anxiety is obviously Egypt’s worries about the political orientation of the new Saudi monarch Salman bin Abdulaziz. The biggest mouthpiece of this concern and anxiety has been the Egyptian media, which expresses doubt that the position of King Salman toward the Muslim Brotherhood is not as firm or decisive as that of the late King Abdullah, and that he may incline toward a rapprochement and possibly alliance with Qatar and Turkey. As a result, his stance toward Egypt would come with boundaries, conditions and requirements that did not exist under King Abdullah. In other words, there is anxiety that Saudi support for Egypt will decline, or that this support will be part of a new political package that the new Saudi crown deems important. Most likely this anxiety was present among Egypt’s leadership before the death of King Abdullah and before it was expressed by the media.

It is only natural and to be expected that Egypt would be worried about a change of leadership in an ally as important as Saudi Arabia and at a time as turbulent as this, especially amid the difficult political and economic circumstances in Egypt. However, what is not natural is the way that this concern has been expressed in the media, where it has reached a level of hysteria.

This was noted by Egyptian writer Mostafa al-Naggar in Al-Masry Al-Youm on 23 February, where he drew attention to the Egyptian media’s complicity in “vile slander against Qatar and in hitting the Saudi regime below the belt.” This indicates that at least some of the Egyptian media is still hostage to the discourse of the 1950s and 1960s, when vile words, veiled threats, and hitting below the belt were used to exert pressure and engage in blackmail. It did not occur to those responsible for this that resorting to such discourse provokes anxiety outside of Egypt, first because it means that Egypt – or at least some people in Egypt – have not changed since the region and the world have changed after the first popular revolution in Egypt’s history.

The second reason it provokes concern is because it suggests that the Egyptian media at least harbors a deep-rooted sentiment that the choice made by the Egyptian state after the 30 June Revolution may be more fragile that it appears. If this is the case, it really does give cause for concern. Amid the current unrest in the Arab world, Egypt’s stability, and before and after it the stability of Saudi Arabia, are no longer just a strategic interest for these two countries alone, but they are a strategic interest for the Arab world as a whole, as well as for the international system. It was on this basis that King Salman Abdulaziz offered reassurance that Saudi support for Egypt would not change.

Where’s the problem then? As I indicated, the problem seems to be in the manner and framework of this support. Some in Egypt would like Saudi support to be in the form of an open-ended royal gift or grant: a blank check, as they say. Saudi Arabia should not seek a rapprochement with Turkey, for example, because they sympathize with the Muslim Brotherhood. This view ignores the fact that relations between countries are not based on such a viewpoint, a viewpoint that is sentimental and not political. The more rational, political viewpoint is that Saudi-Egyptian relations should not be contingent upon a certain stance toward the Muslim Brotherhood or a certain stance toward Turkey. 

If the stability of Egypt is a strategic interest of Saudi Arabia – and it is – Saudi Arabia must deal treat the Brotherhood issue as essentially a domestic Egyptian issue, and to approach it from the standpoint of its influence on Egypt’s stability first, then the regional repercussions and thus on Saudi Arabia second. From the same perspective, Saudi Arabia’s continued alienation from Turkey – as wished for by some in Egypt – does not serve regional balances at this stage, as these balances are the main pillar of the region’s stability and thus of Egypt’s stability as well. Turkey is one of the most important countries in the region in terms of economic and military capabilities and political role. This is in addition to the fact that it is a member of NATO and the G20, and enjoys a strategic position between the Arab world on the one hand and Israel and Iran on the other, as a country that possesses a clear political and economic project that is in contradiction with Israel’s settlement project as well as with Iran’s sectarian project. Turkey also is significant as the secular nation-state whose project and regional policies are most likely to intersect with Arab interests. However, before anything else, this presupposes that there is an Arab plan. At this moment, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the Arab countries best poised to consider launching and sponsoring such a project. This is what Saudi Arabia and Egypt should be occupied with, not Turkey’s stance toward the Muslim Brotherhood.

The irony is that in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood has become a sort of ideological and political complex, a destructive complex that needs to be deconstructed, and a distinction needs to be drawn against the position towards the Brotherhood and what the country needs on the regional level. Egypt did not accept that Turkey described what happened on 30 June 2013 as a military coup. However, most countries in the world consider it to be a coup. Does this mean that relations should be cut off with these countries too? If it is important for Egypt that the world recognizes that what happened then was a revolution – which is its right – it must back that up politically and constitutionally at home before it tries to do so abroad. Then, if the Muslim Brotherhood issue blows up in this way, it is a natural result of the absence of an Egyptian intellectual and political project for the majority of Egyptians to rally around. In the same context, the scale of the Muslim Brotherhood issue both inside and outside Egypt indicates the continued crisis of governance in the Arab world, and this crisis is the primary reason that Arab countries suffer from stumbling growth and the resulting flare-ups that led to the Arab revolutions and it is because of this that they have hit intellectual and political dead-ends.

Here let us pause and ask: is that everything? Fortunately, it appears that what was impossible to achieve has begun to be achieved at least in part. Today is the second day of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit, and tomorrow begins his official visit to Riyadh. Today (Sunday) Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi also arrives in Riyadh. Is this a coincidence or a prior arrangement? It does not look like there will be a meeting between the two leaders in the Saudi capital. However, their presence at the same moment might imply something. In any case, the Turkish premier’s visit represents a shift in Saudi policy in the right direction, and it will be a first step toward an expected change in the political stances of more than one country in the region.

Finally, let me repeat the conclusion I made to an article of mine here last year about the urgent need for a Saudi Arabia-Egypt-Turkey trio, noting that such a trio “in the current circumstances constitutes a strategic necessity for the three parties. These parties complement one another politically and economically, and coordination between them…would restore some balance to the region after the fall of Iraq and Syria, not to mention that it would form a barrier to Iran’s destructive role…It would also be a starting point to lay the foundations for stability in the current turbulent period.” (Al-Hayat, 13 January 2014) Is Egypt tilting even slightly in the direction that Saudi Arabia has already started down?


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Partisan leader: President is not interested in parliament elections

March 4th, 2015 No comments

Via Egypt Independent, striking quotes (for him) from Social Democratic Party leader Mohammed Aboul Ghar on the (yet again) postponement of parliamentary elections in Egypt because a the Supreme Constitutional Court found the electoral district law to be unconstitutional. Aboul Ghar was an important cheerleader for Abdelfattah al-Sisi’s coup in July 2013, only find his party and others like it sidelined by an electoral setup that favors a fragmented parliament with small electoral district to favor local notables and vote-buying (both tend to be more difficult/expensive in larger districts, where it is more helpful to have a party machine to organize) with strong control by the presidency. Many will say it’s too little too late for a system that has gone from (allegedly) “one man, one vote, one time” to “one man (Sisi), all the time, no vote”, but considering Aboul Ghar and his ilk have been largely to cowed by the return of the security state to express even a semi-coherent political discourse, this should be welcomed. After all, if no one is asking for anything better, it’s hardly likely to come.

A renowned politician has said that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi does not want parliamentary elections to be held at the current period, days after a verdict was handed down by the Supreme Constitutional Court against the constitutionality of the law regulating the polls, causing its postponement.

“The president does not want a parliament right now, hence the delay in the official invitation for voting and the large number of unconstitutional legislations adopted by the state in the absence of the parliament,” said Mohamed Abul Ghar, chairman of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, adding that many laws enacted over the past period turn Egypt into “a police state”.

“The general atmosphere suggests that the president and the state either do not want a parliament at all, or seek a fragile, divided parliament that is unable to make a decision or practice oversight on the executive authority.”

Abul Ghar, however, said that the court’s verdict against the constituencies law has nothing to do with the regime’s disinterest in elections.

“The court ruling, in my judgement, was independent and objective, addressing an unconstitutional law,” Abul Ghar said.

Asked whether the postponement of elections has any benefits, Abul Ghar replied, “If the electoral system is not changed entirely, there would be no gains, just losses, it is a futile postponement.”

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The Talented Sudanese cartoonist, Khalid AlBaih

March 4th, 2015 No comments
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Kevin Sullivan’s propaganda piece about Saudi prisons

March 4th, 2015 No comments
I have to tell Kevin that Saudi propaganda outlets and newspapers of Saudi princes were so pleased with your piece that they translated it into Arabic and are circulating it.  Good work.  His piece was basically this: Saudi regime escorted me to prisons and told me that they are very nice and I believed them on the spot.

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So when American fly to Syria and Iraq and join Christian militias it is a good thing?

March 4th, 2015 No comments
““Jesus tells us what you do unto the least of them, you do unto me,” said the 28-year-old from Detroit who served an extended tour in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. He asked for his surname not to be published, to protect his family at home. “I couldn’t sit back and watch what was happening, women being raped and sold wholesale.”

So in December he traveled to northern Iraq, where he joined a growing band of foreigners leaving behind their lives in the West to fight with new Christian militias against the Islamic State extremist group. The leaders of those militias say they have been swamped with hundreds of requests from veterans and volunteers from around the world who want to join them.”

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Iran Reformers – Talks will Succeed: Netanyahu ‘not Influential,’ like Iran Hardliners

March 4th, 2015 No comments

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

How did Iranian politicians react to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s anti-Iran speech to the US Congress?

Iran’s first woman vice president, who has the Environment portfolio, Masoumeh Ebtekar, is in Paris these days and she spoke with AFP about the Netanyahu address.

“I don’t think,” she said, that the voice of Netanyahu “has very much weight.” She said he was trying to derail an accord, “but I believe that more reasonable pressure groups on both sides want a solution.”

Responding to Netanyahu’s charge that Iran is a danger to the world, she said that to the contrary, “the present threats in the region, the radicalism, extremism, terrorism . . . all of that makes a solution, and a more important role for Iran, all the more necessary.”

(She means that Iran is the major foe of al-Qaeda and ISIL, the two radical extremist groups that many Sunnis in Iraq and Syria have joined or allied with.)

She said that the important thing was that sanctions on Iran be lifted, calling them “unjust and illegal.”

Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who heads the powerful clerical Expediency Council and sympathizes with the reformers in Iran, teased the Iranian hard liners that they “have become ‘unanimous’ with Netanyahu, according to Fars News Agency as reported by BBC Monitoring.

Rafsanjani said, “On the other side Netanyahu provokes Barack Obama and on this side, Delvapasan [those who reject the nuclear talks] say that we will disclose some secrets. We do not know what secrets they are talking about… they [Iran negotiators] are working hard and we are about to reach an agreement [with the West], but when they return to the country, instead of welcoming them, Delvapasan say things that should not be said.” Rafsanjani’s remarks angered arch-conservatives in parliament.

Speaker of the House Ali Larijani, a hard liner, said that Netanyahu’s speech was riddled with contradictions. First, he depicted Iran as a dangerous regional power that bestrode the whole Middle East. But then he said that if the UN Security Council plus Germany made peace with Iran, Israel would be able to attack Iran all on its own. If the latter was true, Larijani appears to have been implying, then Iran couldn’t in fact be very powerful in the first place.

Ahmad Bakhshayesh of the Iranian parliament’s security commission was quoted by ISNA (trans. BBC World Monitoring) as saying: “By saying that if Iran and P5+1 come to an agreement, Iran will have access to a nuclear weapon, Netanyahu has humiliated P5+1, especially America.”

In short, most Iranians had difficulty taking Netanyahu seriously. They generally believed that Obama and the rest of the P5 +1 would marginalize the Likud leader. They were not worried by his bluster, finding it fantastical that he would attack them if he saw them as so powerful. For reformers, Netanyahu just sounded like one more Iranian hard liner.

Related video:

WotchitGeneralNews: “Khamenei Vows Firm Iranian Nuclear Stand, Warns on Gas Exports”

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Snowden will return to US if fair trial guaranteed – NSA whistleblower’s lawyer

March 4th, 2015 No comments

RT | –

“Edward Snowden would go to the US if he was sure that he would face a fair trial there, the former NSA contractor’s lawyer Anatoly Kucherena says.”

RT: “Snowden will return to US if fair trial guaranteed – NSA whistleblower’s lawyer”

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Yemen’s legitimacy crisis

March 4th, 2015 No comments


President Hadi, who is currently governing from Aden

Yemen’s legitimacy crisis is not new but is critical

By: Sama’a al-Hamdani, al-Araby al-Jadid, 3 March, 2015

On February 21, Yemen’s President Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, escaped the Houthi-mandated house arrest and successfully fled to the southern city of Aden. A few hours later, al-Jazeera television broadcast a statement by the then resigned president. At the end of the statement, Hadi signed his name, “Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, President of the Republic of Yemen”. It strongly suggested he had withdrawn his resignation.

So Yemen is now left arguably with two former presidents (Hadi and Ali Abdullah Saleh), a hugely powerful rebel militia leader (Abdulmalik al-Houthi), several secessionist movements (a couple of Southern Hiraks, a Marib Hirak and a Tihaman Hirak), UN-backed transitional committees, and two transitional agreements (The Gulf-Cooperation Council (GCC) transitional deal of 2011 and The Peace and Partnership Agreement of 2014).

In this confusion what, or rather, who, has legitimacy?

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Climate Change helped Provoke Syrian Conflict & it won’t be the Last

March 4th, 2015 No comments

By Thalif Deen | –

UNITED NATIONS (IPS) – Was the four-year-old military conflict in Syria, which has claimed the lives of over 200,000 people, mostly civilians, triggered at least in part by climate change?

A new study by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory says “a record drought that ravaged Syria in 2006-2010 was likely stoked by ongoing man-made climate change, and that the drought may have helped propel the 2011 Syrian uprising.”
“Added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict.” — climate scientist Richard Seager

Described as the worst ever recorded in the region, the drought is said to have destroyed agriculture in the breadbasket region of northern Syria, driving dispossessed farmers to cities, where poverty, government mismanagement and other factors created unrest that exploded in spring 2011.

“We’re not saying the drought caused the war,” said a cautious Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who co-authored the study.

“We’re saying that added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict. And a drought of that severity was made much more likely by the ongoing human-driven drying of that region.”

Doreen Stabinsky, a professor of Global Environmental Politics at College of the Atlantic, Maine, U.S., told IPS that obviously the Syrian war is a complex situation that cannot be explained solely due to drought and the collapse of agricultural systems.

“Yet we know that agricultural production will be one of the first casualties of the climate catastrophe that is currently unfolding,” she noted.

Indeed, she said, climate change is not some far-off threat of impacts that will happen in 2050 or 2100.

“What this research shows is that climate impacts on agriculture are happening now, with devastating consequences to those whose livelihoods are based on agriculture.

“We can expect, even in the near-term, more of these types of impacts on agricultural systems that will lead to large-scale migrations – within countries and between countries – with significant human, economic, and ecological cost,” she added.

And what this research shows more than anything is that the global community should be taking the climate crisis – and its impacts on agricultural production – much more seriously than it has to date, said Stabinsky, who is also a visiting professor of climate change leadership at Uppsala University in Sweden.

Meanwhile, previous studies have also linked climate change – water shortages and drought – as triggering conflicts in Darfur, Sudan.

Asked about Syria, Dr Colin P. Kelley, lead author of the study, told IPS: “From what I’ve read , there is little evidence of climate change (precipitation or temperature) contributing to the Darfur conflict that erupted in 2003.

“I know this has been a controversial topic, though,” he added.

According to the new Columbia University study, climate change has also resulted in the escalation of military tension in the so-called Fertile Crescent, spanning parts of Turkey and much of Syria and Iraq.

It says a growing body of research suggests that extreme weather, including high temperatures and droughts, increases the chances of violence, from individual attacks to full-scale wars.

Some researchers project that human-made global warming will heighten future conflicts, or argue that it may already be doing so.

And recent journalistic accounts and other reports have linked warfare in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in part to environmental issues, especially lack of water.

The new study, combining climate, social and economic data, is perhaps the first to look closely and quantitatively at these questions in relation to a current war.

The study also points out the recent drought affected the so-called Fertile Crescent, where agriculture and animal herding are believed to have started some 12,000 years ago.

The region has always seen natural weather swings.

But using existing studies and their own research, the authors showed that since 1900, the area has undergone warming of 1 to 1.2 degrees Centigrade (about 2 degrees Fahrenheit), and about a 10-percent reduction in wet-season precipitation.

“They showed that the trend matches neatly with models of human-influenced global warming, and thus cannot be attributed to natural variability,” according to the study.

Further, it says global warming has had two effects.

First, it appears to have indirectly weakened wind patterns that bring rain-laden air from the Mediterranean, reducing precipitation during the usual November-April wet season.

Second, higher temperatures have increased evaporation of moisture from soils during the usually hot summers, giving any dry year a one-two punch.

The region saw substantial droughts in the 1950s, 1980s and 1990s. However, 2006-10 was easily the worst and longest since reliable record keeping began.

The researchers conclude that an episode of this severity and length would have been unlikely without the long-term changes.

Other researchers have observed the long-term drying trend across the entire Mediterranean, and attributed at least part of it to manmade warming; this includes an earlier study from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that the already violent Mideast will dry more in coming decades as human-induced warming proceeds.

The study’s authors say Syria was made especially vulnerable by other factors, including dramatic population growth— from 4 million in the 1950s to 22 million in recent years.

Also, the ruling al-Assad family encouraged water-intensive export crops like cotton, the study notes.

Illegal drilling of irrigation wells dramatically depleted groundwater that might have provided reserves during dry years, said co-author Shahrzad Mohtadi, a graduate student at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) who did the economic and social components of the research.

The drought’s effects were immediate. Agricultural production, typically a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product, plummeted by a third, according to the study.

In the hard-hit northeast, it said, livestock herds were practically obliterated; cereal prices doubled; and nutrition-related diseases among children saw dramatic increases.

As many as 1.5 million people fled from the countryside to the peripheries of cities that were already strained by influxes of refugees from the ongoing war in next-door Iraq.

In these chaotic instant suburbs, the Assad regime did little to help people with employment or services, said Mohtadi. It was largely in these areas that the uprising began.

“Rapid demographic change encourages instability,” say the authors. “Whether it was a primary or substantial factor is impossible to know, but drought can lead to devastating consequences when coupled with preexisting acute vulnerability.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

WotchitGeneralNews: “Global Warming Helped Trigger Syria’s Civil War”

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The Islamic State through the looking-glass

March 3rd, 2015 No comments
The long essay below was contributed by friends of the blog Peter Harling and Sarah Birke. A previous essay from a year ago can be read here. 

They will say, “Our eyes have been deceived. We have been bewitched.”
Surat al-Hijr (15:15)

One of the particularities of the movement calling itself the Islamic State is its investment in the phantasmagorical. It has an instinctive understanding of the value of taking its struggle to the realm of the imagination as the best way to compensate for its real-world limits. Even as it faces setbacks on the battlefield, it has made forays into our collective psyche, where its brutality and taste for gory spectacle is a force multiplier. Perhaps more than merely evil, the Islamic State is diabolical: like the Satan of scripture, it is a creature that is many things to many people, enjoys a disconcerting allure, and ultimately tricks us in to believing that we are doing the right thing when we are actually destroying ourselves.    

This may explain, in part, how it is increasingly resorting to crimes that are not just horrific but spectacularly staged, such as the immolation of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh or the mise-en-scène of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts on a Libyan beach. The Islamic State is at its most dangerous in its interaction with the psyche, the fantasies, the frustrations and the fears of others, from the converts it attracts to policy-makers and analysts. 

The semantics deployed in response to it are telling: each party projects its own national traumas and anxieties. In the West, the threat posed by Islamic State has been equated with anything from Auschwitz to the genocide in Rwanda to the siege of Sarajevo, even though none of these precedents has much in common with the phenomenon at hand. Among Muslims, the comparisons tend to point to Islam’s early traumas – Sunnis refer to the Khawarij, Islam’s first radicals, while Shias draw comparison with the Umayyads, the Sunni dynasty whose rise the partisans of Ali opposed. These sectarian-tinged views duel with the Islamic State’s own depiction of itself as the embodiment of pious, brave, ruthless and egalitarian comradeship – a utopian image of early, conquering and united Islam that it cultivates meticulously (and which works all the better the less versed in Islamic culture its audience actually is). 

This is a sign of the times we are living in, not just in the region but beyond. We are emerging from a relatively well-defined, intelligible world into a moment of chaotic change and reinvention. Out of fear of the unknown and a need to categorise what is happening, we use flawed parallels and historic references. One day it is the end of Sykes-Picot borders; the next the Cold War is being revived. Iranian officials like to view current events through the lens of the 1980s, when they fought a heroic and traumatic war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and his backers.

In the West, rather than naming things that trouble us, we tend to use vocabulary that is designed to be reassuring rather than true. It doesn’t take much to see a “national unity government” in Baghdad instead of a profoundly unbalanced and dysfunctional cabinet; we say “Iraqi army” for what in reality is a worn-down collection of abused and often corrupt men who fled as the Islamic State advanced and left most of the fighting to Shia militias. We posit “ceasefires” in Syria to refer to surrenders under the regime’s bombardment, siege and starvation; a “Free Syrian Army” or more recently “moderate rebels” to describe unruly militias fighting Assad. The worst things get, the more we seem willing to describe things as we wish they might be rather than as they are.

* * *

The Islamic State is one of many forces tearing the Arab world apart. But it evokes reactions of a unique magnitude, not least a profound malaise across the region and a “global coalition” of 60-odd countries proclaiming they will defeat terror. Its crimes are better publicised than others’ because their perpetrators advertise them so effectively. Some are uniquely loathsome, notably the taking of Yazidi captives as sex-slaves. But the group’s henchmen are not the only ones to rape, to maim, to execute summarily, and even to decapitate or burn alive. Arguably the greatest horror of all in the region—the use of chemical weapons on a large scale against civilians in the suburbs of Syria’s capital, Damascus, in August 2013 – prompted little more than a guarded, ambiguous and technical response, which led to the on-going effort to dismantle Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons program. 

Militarily, the Islamic State’s expansionist ambitions have been relatively easy to stymie, with airstrikes and skirmishes proving sufficient to break its momentum toward Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as push it back at the Mosul dam, at Baghdad airport, in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane and in Sinjar. In all likelihood, the group belongs to a category of actors that grow beyond their ability to sustain themselves. This doesn’t mean it will disappear into thin air – it is likely to stay – but that its reign of terror will likely be overtaken by other developments in an increasingly overlapping set of regional crises. 

In a region in flux, we have already seen the influence of successive actors quickly wax and wane. Until recently, Turkey and Qatar both appeared to be on the ascendant. Ankara’s soft power seemed unstoppable on the eve of the region’s uprisings in 2011; Doha peaked when Islamists gained power in their aftermath. The United Arab Emirates, long the practitioner of a low-key foreign policy, is now projecting its newly-minted military capabilities in Libya and Iraq and aggressively leading the regional charge against the Muslim Brotherhood, most notably in Cairo.  

As traditional Arab powerhouses such as Iraq, Syria and Egypt have all been brought down by civil strife in recent years, Saudi Arabia has had to assume an uncomfortable leadership role. This is despite the fact that it lacks legitimacy abroad, not to mention the institutional capacity to follow through in its foreign policy (and other fields). Iran, a more efficient player whose star has been steadily rising (in good part due to the mistakes of others), seems to believe it can bully its neighbourhood into accepting its dominance. Its leadership alternates between condoning the most wanton forms of violence on the part of its allies and trying to convince itself and others that it is a force for stability and coexistence.

The same overreach afflicts a range of non-state actors. The foremost Syrian Kurdish faction, the PYD, declared in 2013 that it had created a Kurdish state within Syria, known as Rojava, but this is already a vague memory. The Houthis in Yemen, an armed group rooted in the Zaydi minority found predominantly in the north, have conquered the country’s capital Sanaa and taken over the state, but they have neither the political experience nor broad enough backing or basic resources to effectively hold onto it. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt acted like it owned the state and its future for the whole of 12 months; its members are now locked-up, in exile or in hiding. Hizbollah, a particularly competent Shia armed group in Lebanon, behaves both like a regional power and a narrowly sectarian force (for instance by giving the red carpet treatment to the catastrophically sectarian former Iraqi prime minister Nouri Maliki in late 2014, in what could only be understood as a misguided display of Shia solidarity), seemingly unaware of the growing tension involved by broadening its sphere of activity while narrowing its popular base. 

In the extreme state of confusion and anguish that the region finds itself in today, it is relatively easy to enjoy a brief momentum, but extremely hard to retain it. The Middle East offers a dispiriting landscape of failed leaders, in which anyone who seems to have a plan tends to raise expectations that are generally quickly dashed.  A profound, prevailing sense of cynicism and fatigue ensues. As a result, cultivating conflict, catering to factional fears and playing up the lack of alternatives remain the primary strategies of regional actors. 

All too often the Islamic State’s opponents resort to such counter-productive tactics to cloak and push their parochial interests. When Kurdish factions in Iraq cried out for help as Erbil appeared on the verge of conquest by the Islamic State, they cynically sent troops to take over the coveted, ethnically mixed and oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Iran continues to pump money and arms into Iraq’s Shia militias, which are waging what is essentially a cleansing campaign against Sunni Arabs. What is left of a national state in Iraq that is supposed to reach out to Sunnis is thus further eroded. Iran’s spymaster Qassem Suleimani routinely appears in photos with warlords orchestrating sectarian crimes; the Iranian air force targets areas subjected to communal cleansing, all in the name of “fighting the Islamic State” and with Washington’s blessing. The Syrian regime has also taken to bombing civilians in places where the US is hunting extremists, blurring the line between Washington and itself. In doing so it is effectively redefining the “war on terror” as an endorsement and extension of its own repression.

Equally cynical is Turkey. After helping the Islamic State by turning a blind eye as hundreds of foreign fighters crossed its border into Syria, Turkey then used the group’s attack on Kobane, right on its border, to pressure Kurdish factions involved in a decades-long insurgency on Turkey’s own territory and lobby Barack Obama for a policy reset that would include ousting Bashar Assad. Some Gulf monarchies share the latter objective, but unlike a reticent Turkey, they have joined the anti-IS coalition with the intention to push a mission-creep agenda from within. Many Western governments, keen to encourage anyone fighting the Islamic State, seem willing to work with existing and potential partners who only superficially share their goals. 

All in all, the Islamic State has prompted a response that combines all the ingredients necessary to make it stronger: Western over-the-horizon military intervention; a regional arms race as a variety of countries rush to provide money and weapons to improvised proxies (whose factional and sometimes sectarian agendas further degrade decaying state institutions and exacerbate social fault lines); and growing repression of civil liberties and empowerment of backward-looking (but formally secular) power structures. With enemies like these, the Islamic State hardly needs friends. 

* * *

In this brutal theatre of the absurd, the Islamic State has taken centre stage, capturing our rapt attention as if it was the paramount problem to be solved, not the by-product of all the other unaddressed problems. Conventional explanations of escalating violence – sectarianism, the secular-Islamist divide, the strategic rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the barbarity of a nihilistic version of Islam (a morbid culture implicitly defined as Sunni, although Shia militias and secular forces commit plenty of monstrous crimes of their own) – eclipse the underlying dynamics in the region, which were adequately diagnosed in the early stages of the uprisings of 2011.

The region’s deep-seated problems include, but are not limited to: the struggle to define political legitimacy; the disappearance of grand ideological paradigms (replaced at best by nostalgia for an elusive golden age or millenarian utopias); the retrenchment of the state and rise of social movements, notably Islamist, that fill the ensuing vacuum; the transformation of cities as a result of social and geographical mobility; the narrowing educational and physical gap between rich and poor; the information revolution and its redefinition of individual, collective and transnational identities. The collapsing “regional order” is dialectically connected to its international counterpart, which has become an additional source of confusion and escalation rather than restraint and regulation. (And the recent drop in oil price will only exacerbate economic shortcomings in states that rely on patronage more than participation.) 

Many of these problems are not new: if anything the region is closing a past chapter rather than opening a new one. In the Arab world, the twentieth century was one of ill-fated experiments, accumulating problems, aborted solutions, and growing investment in containment as the answer. The West’s primary concern in the region has always been containment: of Soviet ambition, of Arab radicalism, of both Sunni and Shia Islamism, of Iraq and Iran, of the “axis of resistance”, etc. This, combined with a succession of military half-victories (such as the Suez crisis of 1956, the October war in 1973, and Hizbollah’s resistance to Israel in 2006) and traumatic defeats (the aftermath of the World War in 1918, the Arab-Israeli war after Israel’s creation in 1948, the Six-Day War of 1967, the Gulf war in 1991, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003), has resulted in a pervasive climate of self-doubt and a multifaceted identity crisis. 

The uprisings of 2011 compounded the problems. Their outcomes exposed the failure of the region’s elites – whether secular, Islamist, mainstream religious, minority-based, security-minded, or tribal – to even start to address any of these challenges. Elements of Arab societies that were hailed as offering alternatives to suffocating states, such as new business elites, turned out to be fatalistic: they grew accustomed to dealing with malfunctioning, kleptomaniac power structures. Rather than form a lobby for change, they preferred to lie low or to throw their lot in with whomever can offer even a glimmer of stability. The only “elites” that seem to have something useful to say are artists and social entrepreneurs, mostly of a younger generation whose ability to influence events remains, for now, minimal.

It is the persistence of this vacuum in Arab leadership that makes for the boom and bust cycles mentioned above. The former Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad; Turkish President Recip Tayyib Erdogan, the Lebanese Sunni preacher Ahmad al-Assir, the Islamic State’s “caliph” Abu Bakr Baghdadi – all have, in very different ways, made audacious, revivalist claims to fill the gap, just as Iran’s Qassem Suleimani, Hizbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Iraqi warlords like Qays al-Khazali have done on the other side of what has become a sectarian divide. Their egos, elated in their moment of stardom, continue to drive them even as their actual popular base narrows down to factional constituencies unable to support their larger-than-life ambitions. Soon enough, their attempts to lead the region come down to preaching to the converted. 

In parallel, some of the more established, traditional forms of leadership have attempted to reassert themselves, with no more success. The clearest example is the reconstituted Egyptian regime under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – an archetypical case of outgoing elites jumping on the shortcomings of emerging elites to make a comeback, while doing nothing to address their own, previous failure. This dynamic is in evidence both within countries undergoing transition and on a regional scale, as regimes spared any serious strife – such as the Gulf monarchies and Algeria – play up the ill-fortune of others to justify doing more of the same. Religious establishments, such as Al-Azhar in Cairo, the Marja’iya in Najaf, or the richly endowed ulema of Syria have also to produce anything to recapture the moral authority they once had, abandoning the region to a disastrous tête-à-tête between various strands of secular and Islamist hysteria.

Two radical shifts have occurred in the vacuum that opened in 2011. The first is the unprecedented appearance of a public space. The explosion in politicised use of social media has given a voice to people who have long been avid news consumers, but whose opinions had been restricted to the private realm. The second is a transition from hierarchical to more organic movements, from top-down to bottom-up, from the elite to the popular. New political movements do not represent an ideology but rather express, and come to embody, a sentiment, a zeitgeist. They tap into a variety of frustrations, fantasies and fears and build their influence on that basis, rather than starting with a clear vision, developing the cadres and structures to carry it out, and striving to take over power and transform society in line with a programme. 

These new movements articulate the populations’ need for relative security, for an intelligible frame of political-cultural reference, and for representation when there is no trust in the state. They serve concrete interests in the context of an on-going process of decentralization, whereby power, notably state power, is ever more diffuse. They impose themselves through comparative advantage at a time when all players are poor performers, setting low benchmarks in terms of popular expectations. Their core appeal is to be found in competing narratives of victimhood. 

The Islamic State is a perfect example of this trend, but it is not the only one. Shia vigilantes in Iraq fulfil the same functions, and a number of more traditional actors are being transformed along these lines. Under the veneer of cohesiveness offered by Bashar Assad, the Syrian regime is fragmenting and radicalising as militias increasingly run the show The same is true of the Syrian opposition, and both have equally failed to present a vision that could transcend the emotions of the constituencies they purport to represent. Hizbollah is shifting its focus from battling Israel to fighting fellow Muslims and expanding its recruitment base in ways that undermine its claim to being a highly professional, non-sectarian, ideologically consistent resistance movement. Kurdish factions that once embraced politics and governance are redefining themselves in a militaristic way that rallies popular support and distracts from their many shortcomings. 

* * *

As the region veers toward more organic, communitarian forms of leadership, the West is only making things worse. Rather than think strategically and long-term, it has prioritised some forms of violence over others, introduced an arbitrary moral hierarchy of the different actors, and provided political support and military aid to whoever happened to be in the right place at the right time. It is either directly or unwittingly endorsing the rise of pro-Iranian Shia militias operating under cover of the Iraqi government; further militarising a fragmented landscape of Kurdish factions connected to a number of regional fault lines; and deepening the already horrendous Syrian conflict by striking jihadi targets and half-heartedly rehabilitating the Assad regime with no overarching plan. Measures that Western governments conceive as a politically neutral, technical responses to the immediate threat posed by the Islamic State will have unpredictable knock-on effects for years to come. 

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This is just the latest iteration of a Western posture that has proven remarkable inconsistent, wavering and short-termist. Over the past few years we have jumped from one idea to the next – unlike Russia and Iran which, whatever one thinks of their policies, have clearly decided what their goals are and developed the strategies and devoted the resources to implement them. The West quickly moved from scepticism that anything could change in the very early stages of the Arab uprisings in 2011 to naive enthusiasm for instant democratisation, taking that idea all the way to regime change in Libya (with a similar, tacit, unfulfilled pledge in Syria). It soon became fearful of the empowerment of Islamism through elections and refocused on side effects such as the humanitarian crisis or the rise of militancy, all the while getting caught up in futile processes such as Geneva peace negotiations for Syria. By early 2014, the West was throwing its hands up in the air and trying to distance itself from the region, before returning in response to the Islamic State’s take over of the Iraqi city of Mosul in June of last year. 
    
It is bad enough that we did not assess our long-term goals in the region, but we have not even seen through a single one of these kneejerk responses. It is as if each problem that came along distracted Western governments from the previous one. The West’s confusion has compounded the region’s distress rather than playing a steadying role. The Islamic State is both the result and the seeming escape hatch for the West from the accumulated effect of its various half-baked policies. 

The US in particular continues to desperately seek ways not to engage seriously with the region’s problems. It has developed a sophisticated narrative about a war on terror than thinly veils the absence of a genuine strategy. To have one would require addressing root causes of the current turmoil in Iraq and Syria: systemic political failure. It would also require admitting that the state-building process has derailed in Iraq and that there is no longer a government and an army to work with. Instead, the US continues to find endless reasons to believe that Syria can be left to fester longer; to further empower Iran by not confronting it about its role in the region; and, generally, to pretend to assume a role in a region it sees as economically less relevant, strategically marginal, politically immature, and beset with crumbling states and proxy wars that are beyond Washington’s ability to fix or to win. In a sense, aerial strikes have become a way to simplify the issues while keeping societies and their complexities at bay. 

This is a reflection of broader, deeper trends in the Western political sphere. The policy-making process is increasingly dominated by public relations, as spectacular events prompt a rush to put out statements that later inspire and constrain practical measures that must be made to fit into a narrative rather than into a strategy – i.e.,  a set of clearly-defined interests and goals achievable with available means. The irony in our approach to the Islamic State consists in identifying it as a paramount threat yet deploying mostly symbolic tools (harsh words, pinprick strikes and lackadaisical pledges about dealing with its root causes) to address it. The movement, in that sense, has become a reason to do less about the region’s troubles, although it clearly emanates from them.

In fairness, the region’s problems are eminently complex and there are no easy solutions. Moreover, there is no reason to expect or even to wish that our governments, given their track record on the matter, would sort out the fate of peoples around the globe. At the same time, the stakes are real, and it is all too easy to dismiss the catastrophic events in the region as a form of Arab exceptionalism. The Arab world is more integral to our own societies than we want to admit. Events there resonate not just with immigrant constituencies; most of the social, economic, political and ecological stresses at work in the region are in fact global. It is a testing ground for our ability to do more than fall back on identity politics and containment, the costs of which are clearly rising. The war on the Islamic State is the latest illustration of the increasingly exorbitant price to pay for a failed and still much-needed transition in the region. 

The answer to “what to do about it” lies in being practical. Our governments can best play a steadying role by clarifying their intentions (and therefore closing the gap between overly ambitious stated goals and mediocre means); by seeing through what they can readily achieve (not least adequately addressing the uniquely dangerous Syrian humanitarian crisis, whose consequences in terms of emigration, radicalisation and destabilisation of neighbours are among the gravest challenges we face); and by systematically tying justified support to existing state structures to the most basic and overdue reforms (which would entail security sector reform in places such as Iraq and Lebanon). What the region truly needs from the Western hemisphere is sympathy, patience, consistency and adequate resources. In other words, what we most need to give are precisely those currencies we seem to have in shortest supply. 

Peter Harling is senior Middle East advisor with the International Crisis Group. Sarah Birke is Middle East correspondent for The Economist. These views are their own.


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