‘Gassing’ Syrians Is Overshadowed by Considerations of “The Eastern Question”

Washington graciously ‘reassured’ us the other day that the fate of Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad is no longer a United States priority in dealing with the ongoing tragedy there. This message was conveyed by not one, but two foreign policy authorities, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. Hours before, Turkey, too, had some ‘good news’. It declared its “Shield of the Euphrates” in northern Syria as ‘complete’ as after ‘achieving its aim (!)’, although, what had been achieved up till the declared ‘completion’ contradicts with not only Ankara’s promises, but also with its threats and sabre-rattling since 2011.

Between Washington’s ‘reassurances’ and Ankara’s ‘good news’, the journey of lost peace, non-existing trust, as well as ill will, limped to another unsavory Geneva stop.

The Syrian regime’s thugs continued with the help of their Iranian and Russian ‘sponsors’ the process of uprooting and displacing people, and shamelessly and openly redrawing a map of Syria based on sectarian cleansing and partition.

Secessionist Kurds, too, were working over-time to carry out what they had been tasked to do in order to destroy what remains of the Syria we know; while ‘loyalists’ and ‘opposition radicals’ – who have been accusing each other of apostasy and terrorism – found enough common interests in carrying out ‘population exchange’ at the expense of helpless people.

A couple of days ago, I read two interesting articles. The first tackled the competition raging between Turkey and Iran to re-establish their long gone old empires while, in fact, they are nothing more than lackeys to the more powerful superpowers. The second posed the valid question of ‘why after 6 years of tragedies and bloodshed we do not hear of a ‘Syrian Question’, similar to the ‘Palestinian Question’ and the ‘Armenian Question’?

Here, I venture to say that there are several complex and intersecting issues involved. Issues that one needs to understand and deal with realistically, away from the announcements and posturing.

I claim that, we in the Middle East are completely lost. There are no more proper yardsticks for running away and moving forward, expansionism and entrenchment, barricading behind nationalism bordering on racism… and religion to the extent of accusing others of being infidels. Indeed, if the Arabs appear almost ‘absent’ from the scene, the Iranians, the Turks and also the Kurds seem to be lost even if their respective leaders have managed to convince them that they are approaching a great dawn in the ‘absence’ of the Arabs.

However, there is still one major difference between the case of the Iranians and the Turks, and that of the Kurds. The former are raising the banners of religious and sectarian ‘leadership/legitimacy’ in what is fundamentally a nationalist bid for regional supremacy. As for the latter, they are bidding for national sovereignty and expansion by becoming clients to global superpowers that are much more powerful that Turkey and Iran, both of which have never agreed on one issue as much as they did against a ‘Greater Kurdistan’!

While the Arabs are nowhere to be seen, Tehran is bidding to convince the West, indeed, the ‘World of Christendom’, that it is its ally in the war against “Takfiris”. A term in Tehran’s jargon which simply means political Sunni Islam.

In turn, Ankara is trying – so far unsuccessfully – to remind the West of its past NATO ‘services’ during the Cold war. However, Russia’s apparent success in ‘penetrating’ Western political and security establishments has weakened the credibility of Turkey’s leadership in America and Europe. Noteworthy here, is the fact that in Russia’s Christian and nationalist memory, there is a deeply held hate and fear of any Muslim power – particularly, Sunni – sharing its southern borders.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rhetoric, almost always, is neither helpful in putting to rest the Ottoman siege of Vienna and the old ‘Eastern Question’, nor persuading Europeans to ignore what their racist leaders are drumming up as the ‘Muslim time-bomb’ in the Continent.

In this regard, the Iranians have proven to be far more ‘PR savvy’ than their Turkish neighbors. They have been much more skillful, despite the frequent vocal threats against Israel’s existence. To begin with, even the Israel’s leadership does not believe these threats, and treats them as empty bravado intended for local consumption; the reason being that Iran which today boasts being in control of four Arab capitals, has never attacked Israel. However, Tel Aviv seems happy about these empty threats for two reasons: the first is that they facilitate the process of liquidation of any future Palestinian state; and the second, is that they ensure Tel Aviv continued Western political, military and economic support.

Furthermore, a powerful Iran wreaking havoc in the Muslim world, and creating terrorist Sunni organizations that help its PR strategy, and distort the image of Sunni Political Islam, is very beneficial to Israel and the West since the Sunni-Shi’ite animosity whose fire Tehran is stoking is the best recipe for a global Islamic ‘civil war’.

While these complications engulf the Middle East, voices of hate and xenophobia – especially against immigrants and refugees, and particularly those from Muslim countries increase. Regardless, which is the main reason behind such a situation; is it Western racist supremacy which establishes centuries of colonialism, and even the Crusades before that; or is it the Islamic conquests which reached central Europe and Western Europe, or the current difficult co-existence between Muslims and ‘civil rule’?
My guess is that the two sides have enough to fear and be greedy about. The Christian west is demographically dwindling, and its global influence looks threatened by the rise of non-Western, non-white and non-Christian powers, and in both cases its cause is not being helped by the tide of globalization. Thus it feels cornered as the refuge of the ‘nation-state’ is shaken, ‘capitalism’ is losing its glitz, ‘democracy’ no longer enjoys consensus, and neither does the issue of the separation of the state and the church.

On the other side, those outside the ‘World of Christendom’ that they are outside the arena which they had entered, and sometimes accepted its rules and preconditions unwillingly. They have adopted a ‘democracy’ alien to their traditions, a ‘capitalism’ detached from their heritage, and a ‘secularism’ they are barely comfortable with. However, as major Asian players are accommodating what is going on with patience and wisdom, irrational violent rejection embodied in what we define as ‘terrorism’ is pitting the Muslim World, specifically, Sunni Muslims in an indiscriminate war of obliteration against the West, Indeed, the whole World.

This brand of ‘terrorism’ has provided anti Muslims everywhere with not only the perfect excuse to practice racism and discrimination, but also justified using all kinds of weapons against them… including disregarding their human rights, dehumanizing them, and ignoring their most just and humane causes.

The Repercussions of Misunderstanding History

It is never a must that all those engaged in politics should hold university degrees in history. Actually, many of the world’s prominent statesmen never majored neither in history nor political science.

Among those, some entered politics as legislators after studying at law schools. Others came through military academies, such as Charles De Gaulle and Winston Churchill.

A third group even included those who specialized in medicine and engineering, before seeking power either through electoral politics or revolutions. Among those we find physicians like Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia and Michelle Bachelet of Chile, and engineers like US president Herbert Hoover, Necmettin Erbakan of Turkey… and currently Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil!

Going back to history, I do not believe that there is a problem in lecturing about history, but there surely is one with misrepresentation and subjective ‘interpretation’.

Last week, Foreign Ministers of the 68-member ‘Global Coalition’ working to defeat ISIS met in Washington DC upon the invitation of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The meeting, attended by Mr Bassil, was held in order to review and accelerate the campaign for the lasting defeat of the extremist terrorist organization.

I have not been fortunate enough to read about the contributions of Mr Bassil in the aforementioned meeting; however, I had the chance to read what he said at the Wilson Institute, in Washington, during his stay in the US capital.

The Lebanese foreign minister said – from what I have gathered – something around the lines of ‘ISIS as an ideology’ has been around for a long time, and because of this ideology one third of the ‘Lebanese’ emigrated to America and other parts of the World; and later another third died under the “Allies’ siege” during WW1. The remaining third, according to Mr Bassil, has managed to stay put and continue to fight against ISIS till today.

What is extremely interesting in this historical voyage is that it contradicts several simple historical facts, although, in these days of radicalism and religious sectarian and ethnic extremism, it is a very ‘attractive’ incitement against Mr Bassil’s ‘political enemies’. Moreover, it does not really help the cohesion of Lebanon’s “national unity government”, let alone the spirit of ‘national entente’ in the pretty complicated local, regional, and even international, spheres.

To begin with, claiming that ISIS’ ideology had existed “for a long time”, given the rest of his speech, alludes to the pre-WW1 era. This means it had existed before Lebanon had even been created as an entity within its presents borders in 1920.

Then there is a clear indication that what meant was the Ottoman Empire; however, the Ottomans followed the liberal Sunni Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence, which had nothing at all to do with ISIS’ “takfir” – i.e. declaring others as apostates – which is rejected by all Muslim states. In addition to this, the Ottoman Empire, which dominated the Middle East and most of Northern Africa between 1516 and 1918, had gone through the “Tanzimat”, a far-reaching progressive movement that included modernization and constitutional reform between 1839 and 1876, ushering impressive religious tolerance and openness. In fact, even when external pressures and military setback in Europe provided an excuse for Sultan Abdul Hamid II to claw back some authoritarianism, he was opposed by ‘reformists’ since 1908; and later deposed by the ‘Three Pashas’ Talaat, Enver and Djemal who were the furthest from Islamic conservatism, let alone ‘ISISism’ …if it had ever existed.

Another issue Mr Bassil touched on, and sounded more like folkloric rather than a serious reading of history, is when he was keen to mention Lebanese emigration during Ottoman rule while ignoring the ‘real’ reasons for the accelerated exodus since the end of the Lebanese War (1975-1990).

This could be explained by his ambiguous position towards Hezbollah. In Washington he claimed that Lebanon was paying a heavy price for what was going on in Syria, including Hezbollah’s military intervention there. He added that he did not speak for the (pro-Iran Shi’ite party/militia), and invited those interested in knowing more about its military intervention in Syria and elsewhere in the region to ask Hezbollah itself!

What is quite interesting here is that Hezbollah is regarded as a terrorist organization by the US, where Mr Bassil was speaking; and yet it (i.e. Hezbollah) is an ally of Bassil’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement. More interestingly, Hezbollah has been the main player that imposed Gen Michel Aoun, the FPM’s founder and leader and Mr Bassil’s father-in-law, as president of Lebanon; after more than two years of presidential vacuum. Aoun, in turn, has continued to defend not only Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria, but also using the Syrian situation to justify the Party’s retaining its weapons despite the fact that all Lebanese militias disarmed voluntarily after 1990.

Thus, when Minister Bassil claims that “Lebanon’s official policy”, as expressed in the manifesto of the ‘national unity government’, is committed to keeping Lebanon away from all regional conflicts, is practically, meaningless.

Another noteworthy point was Bassil’s criticism of the failure of international justice to act against ISIS. His party, the FPM, has always been critical of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) formed in 2005 to investigate and prosecute those involved in the assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others. The STL has already accused at least five Hezbollah militiamen of involvement in the crime, but, the Party has refused until now to cooperate with it. On the other hand, prominent figures in Bassil’s FPM have recently bemoaned the costs of the STL to Lebanon’s treasury.

Last but certainly not least, the Lebanese foreign minister has called yet again for the return of Syrian refugees and displaced to either areas deemed combat-free, or to Tartous Province in the Alawite heartland of northwest Syria. This negative stance towards the plight of Syrian refugees and displaced is not actually new. It is a re-enactment of the old negative stance towards Palestinian refugees who have been displaced since 1948. While it is a duty, from nationalist and humanitarian viewpoints, to reject uprooting and displacement in general, some Lebanese spent more time in the past criticizing the Palestinian victims than denouncing the power which uprooted and driven them away from their homes. Today, the trend represented by Mr Bassil does not want the Syrian victims around but neither criticizes nor holds accountable those who caused their misery!

Here lies the heart of the problem that has prevented the transformation of Lebanon from a ‘deal’ to a true state; and thus, the intentional misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the Middle East’s history will keep Lebanon a weak link in a turbulent region.

Syria: 6 Years of an Orphaned Revolt

A girl carrying a baby inspects damage in a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria January 10, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

Marine Le Pen, the French extreme right’s presidential candidate, clearly summed up how the West regards the Syrian Revolt, which erupted six years ago.

In an interview with Al-Arabiya TV channel, she replied to a question about her view of Bashar al-Assad by saying: “If I were to choose between al-Assad and ISIS I shall choose al-Assad”. This is a fact well-known to the sponsors and defenders of the Syrian regime. Thus, in order to save the regime it was necessary to derail the popular uprising, destroy its moderate armed and unarmed elements, and deprive the true ‘revolutionaries’ of all kinds of support and protection.

This is how we have reached the current ‘ideal’ scenario.

The Syrian people are now out of the equation. What has been unfolding for the last six years is being depicted before the world as a straight ‘choice’ between a regime that is willing to concede to all but its own people and a dubious extremist terror most of which is foreign.

It was necessary to defend the regime that since its founding, in 1970, has been providing valuable ‘services’ to several powers. Letting this regime fall has never been an option. Even after resorting to excessive violence in confronting the children of Daraa and Hama’s massive peaceful demonstration during the summer of 2011, it became obvious that the international community was intent on trivializing its crimes while undermining the credibility of its opponents.

In a chat I had four years ago with Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, the British Politician – who was a diligent campaigner on behalf of the victims of former Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein – she suggested Syrian refugees should return home; adding “Assad is not another Saddam Hussein… they will be fine under his regime!”.

In the same vein, one cannot forget former US president Barack Obama and his advisors, such as Philip Gordon, Valerie Jarrett, Susan Rice, Denis McDonough and Jake Sullivan.

Obama played the major role in ‘redefining’ Washington’s practical priorities in Syria. Committed to a nuclear and strategic deal with Iran, Obama, like Le Pen, believed that the top priority in Syria was to confront ISIS; despite the fact that the terrorist group, in its current form, appeared on the scene no less two years after the peaceful popular uprising and the regime’s bloody attempts to crush it. Indeed, Obama made fun of the moderate opposition, and dismissed its constituents while repeatedly refusing to protect Syrian civilians through imposing ‘no-fly zones’ and ‘safe havens’.

Israel too has chosen – at least on face value – to look ‘neutral’ between Assad and the Revolt. However, in reality, as one could deduce from the comments of its senior intelligence and security figures, it has been happy that Syrian ‘hemorrhage’ continues; and on the other hand, regards Assad as ‘the lesser of two evils’ compared with ISIS and fellow extremist ‘Jabhat Al-Nusra’. In fact, it is understandable and quite logical that Israel should actively – albeit tacitly – strive to keep an Arab regime which has since 1973 proven to be most capable to defend its borders and eliminate it enemies while claiming on every occasion to be its ‘steadfast’ adversary.

As for Assad regime, it has understood from the very beginning that, regardless of the individual position towards its policies and actions, it would continue to be accepted by many major regional and global powers. It would be preferred by these powers to any democratic alternative representing the lively forces in Syria.

The Assad regime has realized, first, that it is a much needed tool in maintaining the state of weakness and division in the Middle East; hence, it would be impossible that those who have ‘used’ it for decades would let it fall.

Secondly, the regime has always looked for the ‘content’ rather than the ‘form’ in setting the priorities of maintaining power. All loud slogans of Arabism, Secularism and Socialism have been proven meaningless.

Arabism means nothing when intersecting regional calculations of Iran, Israel, Turkey and Russia are based on and benefit from ethnic and sectarian fault lines. Secularism too means nothing when sectarian identity defines the scale of influence, and when religious, sectarian and ethnic cleansing becomes a strategy for survival. And last but not least, Socialism, too, means nothing in a country controlled by monopolistic clan-based ‘mafias’ serving local and regional interests; and where trade unions and peasant federations metamorphose into mercenary gangs and cheering ‘crowds’.

This is the image of the besieged and ‘orphaned’ Syrian Revolt six years after the demonstrations in the Damascus market and Daraa’s children anti-regime graffiti.

Having said this, however, Syria’s opposition groups have not been blameless. Some of their mistakes may be understandable keeping in mind the huge psychological damage a lengthy dictatorship has caused to the Syrian psyche, but other mistakes deserve blame if not condemnation.

In the first case several opposition groups paid a heavy price for being ‘penetrated’ by regime agents posing as opposition activists. The latter carried out exactly what they had been instructed to do politically and militarily. Some of the regime’s agents actually even appeared in pictures as fighters with extremist militias. Others took part as opposition figures in political conferences where they caused confusion and wreaked havoc, then returned to the bosom of the regime in Damascus, after carrying out their ‘dirty job’.

However, in the second case, individualism, opportunism and spite have plagued genuine opposition groups and weakened their credibility. Thus, regional as well as international powers have managed to impose their own agendas on these groups; and even create their own groups that reflect the interest of the foreign powers rather than that of the Syrian people. This dangerous development has led many armed opposition groups to the trap of extreme sectarian fragmentation; consequently serving the interests of Russia and Iran.

Furthermore it had provided dubious elements which had claimed to be ‘non-sectarian’ to tour Western countries inciting against the Revolt. On the other hand, well-meaning opposition elements naively trusted and defended extremist groups that later began fratricidal ‘gang wars’; thus, allowing extremism and bigotry to alienate and dishearten many people.

It is not too late to save Syria’s Revolt, nor is it too late to uncover those conspiring against it. But it is now the right time to begin a candid and serious review before the situation deteriorates further, and the Revolt loses all those who are qualified to rebuild the country the moment destruction stops.

Manbij: Syria’s Modern Day “Danzig”

Establishing safe zones and no-fly zones was among the very first critical demands made with respect to the Syria crisis, yet the then United States administration led by former President Barrack Obama– keen on rehabilitating its rival Iran and turning it into a reliable West ally in the regional game of politics– turned down those requests time and time again.

Despite the atrocities of war and displacement being loud and blatant, justifications on US idleness were plainly obstinate.

The US claimed that safe zones were a costly scenario, both in terms of policy, funding and military. More so, it could have entailed the deployment of troops to Syria at a time they were quite busy pulling troops out of Iraq.

At that time, none reflected on the very short distance separating Turkey’s Incirlik air base and the proposed safe zone. Located in the Incirlik quarter of the city of Adana, and controlled by the Turkish and US air forces, the base is nestled right by Syria borders.

None questioned the perpetual US refusal since Ankara (despite its opinion about the invasion of Iraq) was still ready to put Incirlik air base under international forces assigned to the maintenance and protection of the safe zones.

In 2015, it was confirmed that the Turkish Government would allow USAF UAVs and USAF combat planes to fly combat sorties against ISIS in Syria out of Incirlik Air base.

Afterwards, both Russian and Iranian interferences in Syria escalated. Tehran and Moscow did not consider the expenses of maintaining these safe zones to be too high, despite the US doing so.

Anyways, let bygones be bygones. It was made clearer as idleness persevered against the prohibited usage of chemical weapons and barrel bombs by the Syrian regime that forced the brutal displacement of masses and demographic sorting.

Yet with the interference of Russia, the Syrian regime stood to gain much from that, for example:

-Firstly, reclaiming strategic Aleppo.

-Secondly–after the downing of the Russian Sukhoi aircraft near the Syria-Turkey border in November 2015 – Turkey was successfully convinced that the West would not rush to their aid should any confrontation arise with Russia.

Moreover, Ankara has discovered (although untimely) that Washington does not really take into consideration “the sovereignty and unity of Turkish lands”. Seeing that US military support was presented to Kurdish forces in Syria—which Turkey considers a threat. US aid was reasoned as a counterterrorism effort against ISIS.

The US rashly praised efforts of the Kurdish militias labeling them, and I quote, “phenomenal accomplishments,” especially in the Ein Al-Arab battles against ISIS. Even though extensive air support covered Kurdish-led operations in Syria.

Had US air support been provided to Syrian rebels, who only received ridicule from the Obama administration, Syria might have not become the tragedy it is today.

A few months ago, the city of Al-bab located in Aleppo could have turned into the Syrian rebels’ modern day “Stalingrad”.

Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel forces, backed by Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield military operation, made substantial advances towards the strategic town of al-Bab, driving ISIS militants out of their stronghold.

Before that, the terrorist group had also lost substantial territory to FSA and Turkish combined efforts, such as the border city of Jarablus. Notably, ISIS suffered the loss of Manbij to the Kurdish militias supported by the US.

It is worth mentioning that the battle of al-Bab stretched on for quite some time, as the contentious arena was a crossway for several operations staged by multilateral forces and each based on different agendas.

As developments unfolded, Turkish forces and their Syrian allies won over al-Bab. However, the second stage of Operation Euphrates Shield is far from accomplished, particularly amidst regional and international disarray.

Ankara, naturally, announced its plans on not only establishing a “safe zone” between the western city of Aazaz and Euphrates-neighboring Jarablus, but also advancing further to include Manbij. Thereon Turkish forces will continue pushing southeast towards Raqqa. Yet this stance translates into a direct confrontation with US-backed Kurdish forces.

On the other hand, Kurdish militias had their image ‘reinvented’ by the US and given an attractive name, “the Syrian Democratic Forces.”

More so, many Arab tribes with different religious and racial backgrounds had joined the embellished SDF. These forces later carried their own self-styled “nationalist” agenda, at which they will stop at nothing to fulfill.

When zooming in on Raqqa, ISIS’ de facto capital to their self-proclaimed caliphate, many serious altercations surface, outlining the future fallout of any entity (or entities) able to survive on Syrian lands.

The city of Manbij is today a crossroad for these fallouts, and from it comes the greater contradictions involved in determining future events. Possibly, even beyond Syria itself.

Manbij has turned into what seems like semi-autonomous city-state , Danzig (or the polish city Gdansk) whose strategic location, situated by the Baltic Sea, was a key reason behind it becoming a German base in World War I.

Danzig had an early history of independence. It was a leading player in the Prussian Confederation directed against the Teutonic Monastic State of Prussia. This city sparked many wars and battles.

Moreover, out of this city came Lich Walesa and the Solidarity Labour Union that rose up against the communist rule which almost caused a 3rd world war before the fall of the Soviet Union. Danzig was a meeting point and a place of severe conflict between Prussia, Poland and Russia, and until now, it is still a part of eastern Prussia.

Similarly, Manbij finds at a crossroad of conflicts emerging between Kurds, Arabs, and Turks.

Manbij today pays the steep price of US ambiguity and Russian aggression in Syria. It also accounts for the opportunistic greed of some Kurdish groups exploiting a dismantled Syria. Manbij also stands to be affected by the fluctuating foreign policy adopted by Iran and Turkey.

As Ankara defends the ongoing expansion of its military offensive in Syria– involving Raqqa (a Kurd-free zone)– Washington also stands idle against escalating demographic tensions. The matter of the fact is that the Kurdish agenda in northern Syria is now on pause.

Evidently, and with US say, Manbij is “Syria’s Danzig”…

A World of Fear and Hatred

From the security meetings in Bonn, Munich and Baku, to the French and German elections, following Britain’s Brexit vote and Trump’s election, the world looks worried, anxious and different. Is it a crisis of priorities, or a problem of concepts? Are we still capable of coming up with a new definition for ‘coexistence’ in the age of brute populism?

Is it possible for bigots and extremists who hate even their compatriots and seek to repatriate immigrants to their countries, to live in peace and harmony with peoples whose fathers and grandfathers fought against theirs a few decades ago?!

Whatever connects the “racists” of France to those of Germany when one remembers that behind the two peoples stand the animosities of two world wars and reciprocated claims of “occupied territories” in Alsace, Lorraine and Saarland?

Weren’t these animosities only buried by wise and great visionaries like Konrad Adenauer, Charles De Gaulle, and Robert Schumann who looked for unifying interests, which eventually, led to the idea of a United Europe?

What brings together English right wing ‘isolationists’, who used to describe the Labour Party – with disdain – as ‘the Party of the Scots and Welsh’ and the extremist Flemish and Walloons of Belgium?

What principles unite the ‘zealots’ among the Catholics and Protestants separated through the ages by rivers of blood like those of St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France and the ‘Irish Troubles’?

Then, how can one explain the ‘morality’ or ‘logic’ of Arab, Kurdish, Indian or Chinese immigrants; and Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Sikh immigrants in Western Europe, who oppose newcomers from the white Christian Eastern European countries, such as Poland, Hungary and Rumania?

How is it possible that immigrants and descendants of immigrants become enemies of immigration? What is the excuse for former victims of racism and extremism in their forefathers’ homelands practice racism and extremism against others, just because they arrived in their new home earlier, enjoyed its milk and honey, and then shut out the late comers?

This is the immoral and unstable world we live in today. This is the world some of whose leaders are trying to halt its slide into a massive ‘world war’.

Still, the democratically-elected world leaders, throughout their debates and actions, are only dealing with symptoms rather than treating root causes.

Everybody is chattering about freedom, and yet has reservations about its most significant product … globalization. Everybody is looking at the issue of security, but turns a blind eye to hotbeds of injustice, nests of deprivation and swamps of ignorance that threaten peace and security of societies across the globe.

At the Munich Security Conference 2017, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said: “We should be careful that this fight (against terror) does not become a front against Islam and Muslims…” This has also been the position of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

However, correct and honorable as these positions may be, they mean little in the light of what we see and hear during election campaigns currently underway in the West. They carry no weight when opinion polls – time and time again – show that the more a candidate incites hatred and adopts isolationist and racist stances the higher he scores with the electorate.

Furthermore, they do not amount to anything, when we see before us maneuvers, conspiracies and crimes of religious and ethnic nature like those being committed from Myanmar, to the Americas, across the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

Indeed, many of these maneuvers, conspiracies and crimes that include ethnic and religious-sectarian ‘cleansing’, are ongoing with international sponsorship or collusion, sometimes at the highest levels.
America elected Donald Trump in November’s presidential race based on a clear and candid electoral platform. At the moment three delicate and dangerous elections are scheduled in the Netherlands, France and Germany.

If the Dutch elections are viewed by some as carrying less weight than what might happen in France and Germany, the advances made by the extreme Right have become ever more worrisome for various reasons; among which are its deep hatred to immigrant (especially Muslims) in a country with a sizable Muslim community, from which actually, comes the Speaker of the Dutch Parliament.

Thus, how the ‘racists’ fare in the Netherlands is worth observing since ‘racism’ is not a political ‘taboo’ any more, even in the greatest constitutional western democracies.

No doubt, the French elections are crucially important for the French – including immigrant communities – as well as Europe and the whole World. What seems obvious so far is that the extremist ‘National Front’ is no more a political aberration, but is now rather a major player within the political establishment.

In addition to the success of Jean-Marie Le Pen with reaching the final round in the 2002 presidential race, the alt-right now enjoys significant support and influence. This fact is further proven by the stunning victory scored by ex-Premier Francois Fillon at the Republican Party primaries at the expense of two ‘heavy-weights’: ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy and ex-Premier Alain Juppé.

Fillon, came from behind to win big because he took the most conservative positions, indeed, taking in the process many leaves from the book of ‘National Front’—as the dangerous isolationist trend is dragged from the fringes into the mainstream.

In Germany, the ‘Alternative for Germany’, another extremist anti-immigrant party, is worth monitoring too. It would be interesting to see how it would channel what its ‘soulmates’ in the Netherlands and France achieve–particularly with what has become of the issue of immigrants and refugees has become.

All this takes place based on the background of the Syrian Crisis and its tragic consequences– a very sensitive issue for Europe, which has become a natural destination for refugees escaping the horrors of Syria, as well the whole Middle East and North Africa.

Well, here we reach another dimension to the rise of racism, particularly, in Europe. It is Moscow’s position.

Moscow’s strong backing of Donald Trump in the US presidential race is well-established. In Europe, more and more reports are emerging about active Russian support being provided to extremist and racist blocs, including Marine Le Pen the current leader of France’s ‘Front National’ and its presidential candidate. Interestingly, this backing actually coincides with Moscow’s continuous sponsorship of a policy of systematic ‘displacement’ in Syria.

Where is Moscow’s interest in all this?

Logically, the Kremlin seems to be sowing the seeds of devastating civil strife inside great western powers. It is also reasonable to belief that it views this strategy as the perfect revenge against the West which had brought down the Soviet Union and temporarily, at least, checked the Russian ‘imperialist’ advances towards the Old World’s warm waters.

Six Years into Syria’s Revolution

Listening to UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura and following the ongoing infighting raging in Aleppo, Idlib and Hamah provinces between the ‘Islamist’ armed opposition groups, are enough to uncover the terrible conspiracy that seems to have succeeded in putting down the uprising of the Syrian masses before it completed its sixth years.

It is also sufficient to watch the proliferation of ‘opposition platforms’ – such an ugly and meaningless term – here and there like poisonous mushroom, if not in capitals friendly or supportive of Bashar Al-Assad and Iran’s Mullahs, then in the Humaymeem Russian Airforce Base in Latakia province from which Russia’s air force bombers razes Syria’s villages, towns and cities … including Aleppo.

Then, look no further than how rational enlightened personalities that spoke for the ‘revolution’ a few years ago, have been pushed away by bearded-militiamen, opportunist henchmen, and exclusionist sectarians.

Then, keep in mind a conspiring international community which has exploited every weakness in the political culture of a long suffering population, living for more than half a century under a ‘police-State’ dictatorship; and examine fake ‘friendships’ that have drugged, dispirited and splintered the opposition while helping a murderous regime to get back on its feet.

Today, in what looks like a race against time, what has remained of the real opposition is trying to swallow the bitter pill of including in their negotiating team many from the fake ‘opposition’. Indeed, some of the latter have been chosen by Russia, Al-Assad’s main military backer, while the forthcoming negotiations are expected to be as useless as the previous ones, so long they are under the same international sponsorship and UN special envoy.

This is also taking place after the international community shifted its ‘priorities’ away from regime change and building a democratic Syria, to fighting terrorist groups which the regime and its sponsors and backers had helped create and promote, and major world capitals had allowed it to grow and expand when for 4 years they stubbornly refused the demands of ‘safe havens’ and ‘no-fly zones’.

Furthermore, the fate of the Syrian people – for around 6 years being driven towards death, displacement or despair- has become a matter of expediency, while the new maps of the Middle East are being drawn, based on ambitions and exchange of interests. Even those who still think the political international wind is blowing in the favour of their religious, sectarian and ethnic interests may eventually discover, like many before them, they were sacrificed for greater deals cut above their heads.

For this instance, I recall the period when Western powers – namely USA & UK – were busy preparing to bring down Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Particularly, I remember the deep divisions that were the hallmark of the Iraqi opposition factions. This fact was clear to all at the ‘London Conference’ before it was concluded by a 22 points declaration in December 2002.

Before the destructive ill feelings later emerged, the above-mentioned ‘declaration’ recognized Iraq’s diversity, and claimed to respect the countries’ sects and parties. However, the most important part was, despite the divergence between the words and the intentions of those who signed it, there was an evident will – at least in Washington and London – to effect regime change in Baghdad.

The divisions tearing apart the Iraqi opposition factions then were as bad if not worse than those plaguing Syria’s opposition groups today. The difference, however, between the two cases was that while the momentum to bring down Iraq’s regime was obvious, the same could not be said about Syria’s. While intentions and plans then claimed that the Iraqis, the Middle East and the whole world be better off without the Baghdad regime, the approach to the situation was and still is quite different.

It may not be possible here and now to discuss in full detail what made ousting Saddam perfectly right, but is now taboo in Al-Assad’s case. But one can look, first, at the interests of the major regional players; and second at the international scene in 2002 and now.

In 2002 there was at least a tacit agreement between Israel and Iran to get rid of a ‘common enemy’. The Iraqi regime had also lost a significant part of its Arab ‘cover’ following its invasion of Kuwait, which created a climate of distrust and doubts throughout the Gulf region. This made it isolated and vulnerable.

As for Turkey, it had not then taken forceful strides under the banner of ‘political Islam’ which is now established 15 years into the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his colleagues.

Vladimir Putin’s hesitant Russia of 2002, just emerging from the Boris Yeltsin era, was totally different from the 2017 Putin’s Russia. It was not capable then of doing what it is doing now; taking risks, threatening, conquering, even, interfering in elections in major Western powers. And sure enough, both the USA and the UK were under strong and decisive leaderships in 2002 unlike today.

During the last 15 years a lot has changed in Syria and Iraq, as well as in the rest of the Arab world.
Iran, with American blessings embodied in the JCPOA fathered by Barack Obama, is now the dominant force in several Arab capitals that seem to have forgotten their Arab identities, such as Baghdad and Damascus. The ‘Arab Spring’ has managed to uproot the desiccated shoots before the flowering of the buds. Even Turkey, dreaming of combining the ‘opposites’: the Ottoman Caliphate and Ataturk’s nationalism, has been brought back to reality by Russia’s old animosities and America’s betrayal.

Finally, Israel under the Likud is now so relaxed and relieved thanks to the ‘Arab Fatigue’, that it is completing the ‘Judification’ of the whole Palestine.

Thus, circumstances in 2002 facilitated the disabling of the former Iraqi regime through the creation of ‘no-fly zones’ and ‘safe havens’. On the contrary, the role the Syrian regime has played since it came to power in the autumn of 1970, has not only been accepted, but also required regionally and internationally. It has been an excellent ‘mail box’, an effective ‘buffer zone’ on Israel’s northern borders, and a valuable trap – serving Western powers – in catching and blackmailing naïve and misguided Arab radicals.

The Syrians regime, as the Syrians have discovered lately, has been a ‘necessity’ for everybody but themselves. It has been a much needed servant to those keeping it, despite its crimes; simply because its crimes have been serving their interests.

…. Talking of Walls

Members of the revolutionary guard attend the anniversary ceremony of Iran's Islamic Revolution at the Khomeini shrine in the Behesht Zahra cemetery

“Men build too many walls and not enough bridges.”
(Joseph Fort Newton)

As the world holds its breath awaiting more shocking ‘orders’ from the new U.S. president Donald Trump, Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani came up, perhaps, with the most eloquent criticism on Trump’s insistence of building a separating wall along the U.S. – Mexican border (paid for by Mexico!)

This is a terrible irony; indeed, ironies in reading history, understanding politics, and viewing the future and preparing ourselves to confront its challenges.

Trump, the super-rich businessman, is imagining himself as he takes his first steps in the world of politics, a company boss whose wishes are orders because he or those he represents own a majority share in that company.

Then, there is Trump the president, indebted to the Religious Right that believes the world is divided into two camps: virtuous and evil; and therefore has to pay back extreme evangelist groups. These groups – bolstered by his ultra conservative cabal of Breibart advisers – have used since his election campaign scare-mongering and aggressive propaganda against the ‘extremism’ of Muslims and the threat of a Hispanic ‘deluge’ changing the nature of America within few decades, through Mexico’s borders or the Caribbean Sea.

Finally, there is Trump who hates America’s political ‘establishment’, and detests entente and compromise-based approaches in handling political matters; and is thus willing to make common cause – at least tactically, so far – with all populist and extremist ‘anti-establishment’ forces keen to kill off dialogue and consensus throughout Europe.

This surely is a phenomenon worth serious consideration, and is actually causing mayhem in the U.S.A. as it is bound to be ever more divisive, inflaming the situation internally and causing tension abroad. However, if ever there was one leadership in the world that is not qualified to criticize Trump and his policies, it must be the Iranian leadership.

Yes, this leadership in Tehran, given its ‘achievements’ through the years whether inside Iran or abroad with its Arab neighbors, is the least qualified or entitled to talk about building and bringing down ‘separating walls’!

It is true that Trump’s insistence on building a wall along the U.S.A.-Mexico borders, his ban on Muslims from seven Muslim countries to travel to the USA, his support of dismantling the European Union, and his restriction on American industrial corporations’ benefiting from globalization are all steps that engender doubts and hatred with Latinos, Muslims and even Europeans; but let us have a look at what Iran is doing.

At the moment, Iran ranks second in the world – after China – in the number of executions, many of which target activists and human rights campaigners from the country’s Kurdish, Arab, Balouchi as well as other ethnic minorities.

Furthermore, Iran despite its enormous natural, human and cultural wealth, is suffering from acute economic and social problems including high unemployment and corruption, and is depriving its people of the country’s riches in order to finance regional wars through which the Mullah’s regime ‘exports’ its internal problems. These wars are justified either as a defensive war against foreign aggression pushing the regime to fight in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana’a in order not fight in Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz and Tabriz; or as a sign of Iran’s rising power that has led its IRGC to boast that Iran is now a world power capable of confronting and defeating any aggressor, and is in full control of the previously mentioned Arab capitals.

Thus, walls and borders are a problem in Iran’s case as they are with Trump, if not more. It is actually a serious problem. More so, since every time the Tehran rulers abolish a political-geographical border they build psychological borders that are difficult to bring down.

Add to the above, Iran has refused to learn the lessons of its first war with Iraq (1980-1988), and to understand how risky fiddling with history, geography and religious sectarianism is. Indeed, many Arabs did not support the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, but blamed him for fighting a war against a big neighbor whose new rulers had declared their commitment to liberating Palestine, after bringing down a regime that aspired to be the ‘Policeman of the Gulf’!

Those Arabs who refused to support or endorse Saddam Hussein, were then willing even to ignore Tehran’s loud slogans about ‘exporting the revolution’ as well as the sectarian activities of the Iraqi Shi’i Da’wa party. Their reasoning being that starting new animosities based on old gone sensitivities was a dangerous path; and a step that leads to unearthing old grudges and creating new hatred and endless strife.

Still, Tehran continued to escalate its vitriol, and went on to establish its own ‘Trojan horses’ inside its neighboring Arab countries. Soon enough with the genie of strident sectarianism was out of the bottle, Tehran co-operated with what hitherto was ‘The Great Satan’, aiding its occupation of Iraq in order to ensure later that it fell into its arms.

Today, if Qassem Soleimani’s IRGC, his Iraq ‘Popular Mobilization Forces’ and Hezbollah militias have indeed succeeded in abolishing the official boundaries of the post-‘Sykes-Picot’ entities in Iraq and Greater Syria, they have also built on the grounds of fears and grudges blood-stained walls separating the communities of these entities.

Iraq is now Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish ‘Iraqs’, Syria is now ‘Syrias’ of all kinds, and Lebanon too has become ‘Lebanons’ of its sects and factions. Even Palestine, who is supposed to remain united in the face of occupation and its existential threat has become fractured and partitioned between the West Bank and Gaza, thanks to Iran’s eagerness to ‘liberate’ it!

Last, but not least, let’s not forget Yemen and the Gulf States, and how could we?! To begin with, merely reading Iran’s ‘official’ media – especially those controlled by the IRGC – would immediately recall Tehran’s claims that Bahrain was an Iranian territory. As for Yemen, where Tehran has gone even deeper in pre-Islamic history annals in order to justify its military intervention (backing the Houthi rebels), the decision was right to act forcefully to defend the legitimacy and the Arab identity of the country.

Actually, animosities must not be the destiny of the Arab region. Building walls is not a solution; while bringing down state border in order to impose regional hegemony is a sure way to destroy all opportunities for peace.

The Middle East is qualified for cultural co-existence that enriches it and ensures its well-being and harmony. It is not true to assume that nationalisms by themselves are a hindrance, or that sectarian diversity justifies monopolizing the truth and allows for exclusion or accusations of blasphemy.

The Donald Trump experiment is still in its early days, and is expected to be corrected one day, albeit with a high cost; but we must learn the lesson.

Opinion: When Lebanese Democracy Talks

The controversy surrounding the election of Donald Trump as US president made many outside America have another look at how its electoral system works. However, controversy is surely not limited to America; it extends to Lebanon, a faraway small country that boasts being an ‘institutional democratic’ state built on consensus and entente.

Many pose questions about the logic behind the American political system which values the electoral votes of individual states more than the direct popular votes of the electorate. The fact is that the USA is a federal country, thus its political representation needs to reflect two fundamental principles without which no healthy democracy can survive:
-The first is simple direct democracy whereby the numerical majority has the advantage over the numerical minority; and this is embodied in the House of Representatives where each state is represented by a number of congressmen relative to its population.
-The second is respect for national unity in a diverse society, where an individual in a populous state must enjoy no advantage over another individual from a less populous state before the federal law which must treat all Americans equally. The principle of national unity is enshrined in the Senate where all states, regardless of population, are equally represented by two senators each.

This great vision has helped make the American political system as a whole, one of the fairest and most advanced in the world. It has sustained an ever growing and geographically expanding country since the 16th century, attracting wave after wave of immigration; and through the years each American state based on its topography, natural environment, and economic resources had specific attributes and qualities despite free and smooth inter-state movement.

Of course Lebanon is far too small compared to the USA. Its ‘democratic’ experience is also pretty modest to compare with that of America’s ‘Founding Fathers’ and the legislations and agreements they adopted, even though these legislations and agreements failed to prevent the American Civil war (1861-1865), some vestiges of which remain until today. In fact, Lebanon too had a civil war in 1860 that helped create its almost ‘independent’ status; and as in America’s case, the vestiges of the war remain, while its borders have changed.

Still, size and global influence aside, there is another major difference between the American and Lebanese examples, which is that the Americans have learnt from their experiences, respected their institutions, and stopped bluffing themselves, which is not the case with the Lebanese.

In the USA no less than five presidents trailed their opponents in the popular votes, but abiding by the Constitution, the process led them to the White House. Moreover, despite the huge diversity in a country of 320 million inhabitants, there remains a good deal of healthy co-existence. We don’t hear people calling every day for a new electoral law that enhances the share of his or her ethnicity or religious sect. Nor do we hear of people calling for foreign intervention in their favor in the light of changing international policies.

Lebanon’s case, however, is totally different. Here, even the Lebanese constitution does not deal with its people as citizens but rather as members of sectarian flocks. The constitution which recognizes 17 sects, has “permanently” allocated each sect what has been deemed as its fair share of governmental position although population changes are continuous as are political disagreements.

Another interesting fact is that any Lebanese may spend his/her lifetime within the confines of his/her sect without interacting with other sects, beginning with birth, death, inheritance and marriage registries, and ending with education, health and employment. Thus, religious sects in Lebanon are de facto quasi-independent ‘states’, that have their own leaders, political parties, schools, universities, hospitals, and even sport clubs!

Given this situation and bearing in mind the vestiges of the past, the Lebanese have two living obsessions: the first is the ‘unfairness’ lamented by the Muslims who believe they are the majority that is long prevented from enjoying what it deserved under the French Mandate (1920-1943); and the second is the ‘fear’ felt by the Christians towards the ‘sea of Muslims’ surrounding them. The latter, led at first to separating Mount Lebanon from its surrounding area in 1861 and giving it the status of an ‘autonomous district’, i.e. “Mutassarrifiyya”, under the joint rule of the Ottoman Government and the European Powers, in order to ensure the ‘protection’ of the Christians. Then in 1920, it led to the creation of the current Lebanon (Grand Liban) under a Christian president, and a 6 to 5 parliamentary representation in the Christians’ favour that lasted until the ‘Taif Agreement’ in 1989.

Now, after ending ‘the presidential vacuum’ and forming the new cabinet, all that remains is electing a new parliament to replace the current one. The latter ended its four year term in 2013, but due to ongoing disagreement the scheduled elections were cancelled and its term extended. Still, disagreements continue regarding under what electoral law the forthcoming elections should be conducted, noting that almost all political parties and blocs refuse to carry on under the current multiple seat constituency law, popularly known as ‘The 1960 Law’.

There are many alternatives being put forward by parties and blocs ranging from full ‘proportional representation’ as preferred by Hezbollah and followers – which is understandable given its virtual armed hegemony – to the ‘Greek Orthodox Law’ whereby each sect elects its own members of parliament, including different ‘mixed’ versions combining direct vote and PR.

One alternative, however, that seems to be intentionally and stubbornly dismissed is the one calling for a bi-cameral parliament comprising: A Senate or Upper House elected by each sect, whereby all religious sects are equally represented and enjoy a ‘veto’ on issues adversely affecting their interests; and a House of Deputies or Representative, elected with no sectarian quota, with Lebanon as a single constituency, thus encouraging proper issue-based political parties after ridding the country of the two obsessions, i.e. the Muslims with ‘unfairness’ and the Christians with ‘fear’!

Why the idea of a Senate looks like being rejected out of hand, is not really surprising, if one keeps in mind the Lebanese eternal gamble in external forces and changes of regional and international balance of power. This remains the case despite the fact that the Lebanese Constitution, as adopted in Taif, called clearly for ‘wide decentralization’ and a ‘senate’.

Indeed, it has become a habit of Lebanon’s factions to demand justice and fairness when they are the underdogs, but seek hegemony when they feel they are winning.

Given such a mentality, any authority devised to curtail the ambitions of the powerful and defended the rights of the weak, has no chance of being accepted; as every faction hopes one day to be powerful enough to monopolize the country, and obliterate the others. Even the one who may be weak today would rather hope for an opportune moment to gamble again, and settle old scores.

In short, this is ‘electoral democracy – Lebanese Style’!

Opinion: Astana Talks – Low Expectations and Different Calculations

In the aftermath of the New Year’s bloody terrorist attack in Istanbul, several official announcements were made, each with a different version as to what exactly happened and who the terrorist was. Unfortunately, it was clear though that there were many security deficiencies and Ankara was uneasy about admitting their serious nature.

In reality, the overall political and security circumstances surrounding the Istanbul attack are pretty bad; and what followed was even worse. The terrorist not only managed to escape (for a while), but there was a lengthy confusion about his true identity. On the other hand, if ISIS was – as usual – quick to claim responsibility for the attack in which 39 people lost their lives, an operation of such a magnitude poses more questions about: first, the politico-ideological identity of this extremist organization; second, the way it thinks, analyses and prioritises; and third, who the main beneficiaries from its crimes are, if not who those who choose, plan, and exploit them are.

It is obvious now that Turkey is going through a crisis; and even if its government is entitled to describe it as it wishes, and hold whoever it chooses responsible; this does not change the facts one bit.

Still, Turkey is not the only player ‘in crisis’, as there are quite a few regional and global movers and shakers dealing with Turkey that have political crises of their own. They include the USA, no less, as well as Turkey’s neighbours and its ‘dubious friends’ like Iran. However, the scene becomes ever more complicated after the US presidential elections’ earthquake resulting in Donald Trump’s taking over at the White House; bearing in mind Trump’s weird, ambiguous, contradictory and subjective approaches to Middle East issues. In preparation for the Trump era, Middle Eastern regional powers are also piecing together their policies during the next four years in the hope of exploiting the status quo, as tilted as it may be. The strategic American – Israeli alliance aside, all concerned realize they are dealing with an ‘unknown’ in Washington; while being aware that Trump’s first task will be re-establishing and cementing his relations with the Republican Party’s ‘establishment’, whom the electorate deserted in order to vote for him.

Only Israel, despite Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal problems, should feel assured that its main interests are not going to be adversely affected by the policies of the new US president. In the meantime, the appointments Trump has made smack of contradictions that do not point to smooth and consistent long term strategies. Even Russia, which we have heard a lot about playing an influential role in destroying the chances of Hillary Clinton – Trump’s Democratic challenger -, continues to relish his victory, and maintain good ties with his Secretary of State to be, Rex Tillerson. It may not stay reassured if Republican ‘hawks’ return to impose their foreign policy priorities on the president.

Iran, which has had a great return on its investment under Barack Obama, may not be so lucky with Trump. In fact, its relationships with Moscow and Tel Aviv may prove to be decisive on how the new master of the White House deals with it. Another factor may be how the internal situation within Iran unfolds, especially, as the IRGC get ever more belligerent and ambitious, the health of the ‘Supreme Guide’ Ali Khamenei remains under intense speculation, and the huge loss suffered by the PR savvy ‘Reformists’ with the death of the shrewdest operator and former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Thus, if one considers that the Arabs have become relevant to Washington only as far as the War against Islamist Terror – indeed, Sunni terror – is concerned, Turkey remains in the eye of the storm. Going through terrorist attacks that targeted Turkey during the last 12 months, it has become obvious that several parties are keen to blackmail it, and push it to adopt certain policies, or destabilize it in order to facilitate a change of regime, either through the ballot box, a military coup, or aiding and abetting secessionist forces.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is aware of the challenges, and so far has confronted them through two ways:
1. Blaming his internal ‘enemies’, namely the Fethullah Gulen supporters and Kurdish secessionist rebels.
2. Going forward with his plans to establish a presidential system that gives him vast powers, replacing the current parliamentary system whereby parliamentary opposition can challenge him and slow down his initiatives.

This is how Turkish policies are shaping up; and although Erdogan is keen to accuse his internal ‘enemies’ of being behind most of the terrorist attacks – in addition to ISIS, of course – he surely realizes that Turkey is being targeted both as a regime and a political entity. This is why Ankara has threatened to prevent the International Coalition against Terror – technically speaking, the USA – from using Incirlik Air Base (southern Turkey) while Washington continues to generously support Kurdish militia across the Syrian borders. As for Washington, this support is a tacit blackmail to Ankara whose ‘Islamist’ line is widely viewed as a factor in encouraging religious ‘hawkishness’, leading perhaps to acts of terrorism.

On the other hand, neither Ankara nor Moscow regards their improving relations as a steady march towards broad-understandings let alone a fully-fledged strategic alliance. Here again, the Kurdish question is looking like being a means of blackmail. What has been emerging from the talks between the Turks and the Syrian opposition groups in Ankara preparing for Astana Talks (in Kazakhstan) shows too that Ankara finds itself in a difficult position brought about by Russia’s pressure and America’s abandonment; which has had an adverse effect on the Syrian opposition, and the Syrian uprising as a whole.
During these hours, a few days before Donald Trump takes over as president and the convening of the Astana Talks, Moscow has hijacked the international initiatives, with America’s blessing, while Turkey is under a political and terrorist siege and Iran is intensifying its military aggression, pre-empting any unwelcome change in Washington’s stances.

Opinion: Northern Syria … Where To?

Northern Syria seems to have become a focal point for regional and global players as questions are raised about its future after the handing over of Aleppo.

The town of Al-Bab has become a battle ground, murderous explosions are shaking the town of Azaz, and international alliances are strained and threatened by intersecting and opposing blood-stained ethnic projects, namely a ‘Kurdish Homeland’ and a ‘Turkish Safe Haven’.

Current developments there have brought back memories that are a few decades old. It was during the worst days of the Lebanese War that two couples of progressive intellectuals sought a temporary refuge in my serene mountain village from the gales of extremism blowing on the war-torn country. The two couples had to leave their homes for ideological reasons, but no sooner had they crossed the ‘Green Line’ dividing Christian East Beirut from Muslim West Beirut that they became under fatal sectarian danger.

Luckily, however, there were some ‘oases’ of tolerance and diversity still left in the country, like my village, in which they had friends who were extremely happy to welcome and accommodate them until the worst was over.

During their sojourn, one of the two ladies was applying the final touches to her PhD dissertation about Syria’s political history under the guidance of her husband, a prominent academic. From then on, ever since I had a look at some of the original documents she kept with her, my deep interest in Syria’s history and anthropology got much deeper.

I remember well how I was fascinated by the local urban, rural and tribal elites which made up the Syrian Parliament, including of course those of Aleppo Province. In those days, Aleppo Province was much larger than what it is now as the present Idlib Province was still part of it. Thus, it stretched along Turkey’s southern borders from Ayn Al-Arab (Kobani) going west to Azaz and Afrin, then south all the way to Ma’arret Al-Nu’man, including Harem, Kfar Takharim, Idlib and Jisr Al-Shughour.

In turn, the composition of the Syrian Parliament was almost a ‘Who’s Who’ of the notables, clan and tribal chiefs, such as the MPs from Ibralim Pasha Al-Melli’s tribe in Ayn Al-Aran and Jarablous, Sheikh Dhiab Al-Mashi, who was famous for being the longest serving parliamentarian in the Arab world, as he was the MP from Manbij for 55 years (between 1954 and 2009). As for the cities, led of course by Aleppo itself, its seats reflected the politico-economic city life dominated by the rivalry between the later dominant People’s Party (led by Rushdi Al-Kikhia, Dr Nazem Al-Qudsi, Ma’rouf Al-Dawalibi, Rashad Barmada, Mistafa Barmada and Ahmad Qanbar) and the remnants of the National Party (led by Sa’dallah Al-Jaberi, Dr Abdul Rahman Al-Kayyali and Michail Lian).

Evidently, commercial interests in Syria’s two great metropolises Damascus and Aleppo expressed themselves in the political leanings and loyalties of the two bourgeois ‘elite-led’ parties. Straddling the trade route connecting Baghdad and Istanbul, Aleppo’s interests were thus tied up to the Baghdad-Istanbul ‘axis’, and consequently its dominant party became identified with the Baghdad Pact (later CENTO) during the Cold War. On the opposite side, Damascus was the political and economic pole in the south, lying on the trade routes between Arabia and Egypt, thus the pro Riyadh-Cairo ‘axis’ National Party was the more powerful here.

Back to the north, throughout the 20th century the richly diverse communities of northern Syria, Arab and non-Arab, Jewish, Christian and Muslim of various sects lived in peace and harmony. No noteworthy discrimination existed between Orthodox or Catholic Christian Arabs and Christian Armenians and Jacobite Syriacs. The same was true among Arab Muslims whether Sunni, Shi’ite, Alawite, Ismaili or Druze; and Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen.

Issues of ethnic-based partition or secession were never raised, in fact the opposite was true when most Syrians of all faiths and persuasions opposed annexing the Syrian ‘Liwa’ of Alexandretta to Turkey (present Hatay Province). In short, despite the beautiful diversity in this area, one the world’s richest in history, almost all were convinced that what united them was far more important than what would set them apart.

Alas, what we see today is quite different. Many of ‘The Defenders of the Homeland’ as mentioned in Syria’s national anthem have been willing to destroy their ‘Homeland’ and tear apart its social and ethnic fabric. The ‘secular’, later ‘socialist secular’, ruling Ba’th which for a while claimed to rise above sectarianism, and fight for the rights of the peasantry ridding them of ‘the yoke of feudalism’, has been transformed into a flimsy cover concealing a monopolistic sectarian and clannish ‘mafia’ crushing its own people with the help of ‘imported’ confessional militias and even foreign regular armies.

As for the much-trumpeted ‘nationalist’ slogans which were supposed to bring people together, they became so ‘chauvinist’ to the extent of alienating non-Arab minorities, hence, encouraging unhealthy isolationist and secessionist aspirations in several places throughout northern Syria.

As a result, the weekly published maps showing the various sectors controlled by different armed groups, give the impression that northern Syria is heading towards the unknown. Indeed, thanks to Barack Obama’s concentration solely on “downgrading” ISIS, Washington has set out its ‘constants’ in Syria, which are:
1- Preventing the Syrian Opposition from acquiring the weapons they have been demanding for years.
2- Refusing all Syrian and Turkish demands of ‘No Fly Zones’ and ‘Safe Havens’.
3- Siding with and aiding secessionist Kurdish militias, despite Ankara’s protests.
‘Constants’ like these are bound, logically, to cause the current state of loss and uncertainty we see throughout Syria, but more so in the north.

The regime and its allies, clearly emboldened by America’s inaction and Iran’s and Russia’s direct support, are now on the attack. While Turkey, the old Cold War US ally has been let down and left in the cold. Finally, the Kurds think that Washington has provided them with a unique opportunity to fulfil their ambitious nationalist dream.

The massive explosion in Azaz yesterday was nothing but a ‘new message’ to Ankara written in blood, after the Istanbul New Year’s Eve and the Izmir attacks. Furthermore, the bogged down ‘Shield of the Euphrates’ operation around Al-Bab confirms the existence of serious differences between regional and global powers in northern Syria, firstly, regarding ‘Useful Syria’, secondly, the Kurdish Homeland’, and thirdly, the price extricated from Turkey and Iran in order to keep the Kurds, while we the Arabs are nowhere to be seen!