Opinion: The Mirage of Sovereignty and the Bluff of National Unity

Both Iraq and Lebanon are currently living two big ‘lies’: sovereignty and national unity, and as the days go by, not only are the politicians in the two countries proving their ability to bluff their people, but also their ability to bluff themselves.

1920 was a significant landmark in the history of the two countries as the ‘New World Order’ drew their maps that included several constituents. Some of these constituents willingly accepted the new ‘national’ borders, others accepted them as a fait accompli, and they felt that the very existence of ‘national borders’ dividing and separating what were Arab majority or character Ottoman provinces and ‘Mutassarifliks’ (i.e. ‘autonomous districts’) was tantamount to a fatal blow to the dream of ‘Arab Unity’.

It is worth remembering here, and always, that the ‘borders’ of the Near East’s entities were not drawn and adopted by their peoples, who are the peoples directly involved, but rather by the imperialist Western powers that won the WW1. It is well known that these powers agreed among themselves to divide and apportion the former Ottoman territories through a set of deals and agreements.

The question of ‘minorities’ – be they ethnic, linguistic, religious or sectarian – was always a sensitive issue at the time of drawing the maps of the British and French mandates. As artificial – even revised, as is the case of Western Iraq/Eastern Syria – borders were being drawn, they separated homogeneous groups while bringing together groups that had almost nothing in common.

The new post-Ottoman ‘Caliphate’ geo-political realities were taking shape against a background of a tough struggle between the ‘religious / sectarian’ and ‘nationalist’ identities as European- inspired ‘nationalism’, as well as rapid urbanization at the expense of rural and nomadic patterns of settlement with all the interaction, friction, interest-linked loyalties, concepts and ideologies.

Iraq, Lebanon and Syria have lived through all the above. However, while a royalist regime was established in Iraq based on a melange of rural, tribal and city elites from Baghdad, Mosul and Basra, and supported by the ex-‘Sherifian’ officers and other Faisal ibn Al-Hussein (King Faisal I) loyalists, a consensus republican system was installed in ‘Greater Lebanon’ headed by a Christian president.

Neither the Kurds nor the Turkmen had a say in deciding the shape of the new Iraq, nor were the Shi’a active participants in the building process of the new entity. Still, Faisal I succeeded with the help of wise and efficient advisers – many of whom were non-Iraqi – in creating an ‘Iraqi’ identity. By the mid-1930s, the ‘state of Iraq’ became a secure and thriving reality bolstered by oil wealth, despite internal and regional tensions, including those caused by Nazi Germany’s activities which thrived for a few years in Baghdad against the British, affecting both the Iraqi parties and the national army.

In Lebanon, urban and rural elites adapted to the new system as well. Common interests, traditional and ideological cross-factional political alliances emerged, although the disagreements remained between the ‘Lebanonists’, ‘pan-Syrianists’ and ‘pan-Arabists’.

In both Iraq and Lebanon the ‘political conscience’ of Arab Sunni Muslims was boiling with deep frustration with the ‘reality of partition’. They felt that the new entities created by Great Britain and France came at the expense of the destroyed dream of ‘The Greater Arab Homeland’ extending from the Atlantic to the Arab Gulf. This romantic dream, in fact, could have faded away, perhaps, had it not been for the loss of Palestine in 1948.

Indeed, Iraq’s Shi’a Arabs were never ‘less Arabist’ than their Sunni folks, and neither the Christians nor the Jews, Yezidis and other minorities were less proud of being ‘Iraqi’ than the Muslims. Even Kurds and Turkmen came together and co-existed with the other constituents, producing many leading statesmen, senior officers, intellectuals and poets. Arabic names were widely used then with no association with fear or need for flattery.

In Lebanon, also, despite the fact the majority among the ‘Labanonists’ was Christian, and the majority within the ‘pan-Syrianists and ‘pan-Arabists’ was Muslim, these two majorities were not large as many leading ‘pan-Syrianists’ and ‘pan-Arabists’ were Christian, and many Muslim leaders were more ‘Lebanonists’ than their Christian compatriots.

The Palestine ‘nakbah’ (i.e. disaster) which shocked the Arab world and damaged the credibility of Arab political elites left the stage waiting for a “hero”. Soon enough the “hero” emerged from army barracks. The Arab military took over and became involved in ‘the Cold War’ politics and the game of ‘power for power’s sake’. The military that originally took over power under the banner of ‘filling the vacuum’ and ‘liberating Palestine’ became drawn to the international rivalry between the ‘socialist’ east and the ‘capitalist’ west, and failed to deal with party politics.

Contrary to the 1948 ‘nakbah’, the 1967 ‘naksah’ (i.e. defeat) uncovered to the Arabs that the real solution may not be through the military after all. Then, the ‘Camp David Accords’ between Israel and Egypt managed to divide the Arabs, thus, weakening the ‘Arabist’ choice which was further weakened by Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait. Later on, the fall of the USSR ushered in the Arab world the collapse of the ‘Leftist’ alternative that included among others the slogans of the ‘war of popular liberation’. Even the Palestinian resistance movement fell victim to its involvement in inter-Arab rivalries and animosities and lost a lot of credibility.

Four decades of accumulating mistakes, stagnation and tendency for ‘inherited’ succession, combined to bring about the popular uprisings now known as the ‘Arab Spring’. These uprisings showed the disparity in the presence of the ‘deep state’, or rather ‘entrenched state’, in various Arab countries; and if Tunisia and Egypt managed their way through the ‘Arab Spring’ with a minimum of losses, the tragedies of Syria, Yemen and Libya proved beyond doubt their fragile structure and citizenship.

Iraq and Lebanon, while not experiencing the ‘Arab Spring’, have also been seen as fragile and devoid of proper citizenship against the background of the Syrian crisis made worse by Iran’s drive for sectarian and territorial hegemony; a drive that has been fueling Sunni-Sh’i tension throughout the region since 1979.

The present and lengthy political crisis in both Iraq and Lebanon is the clearest indication of the mirage of sovereignty and the bluff of national unity. To turn this sad reality into a full blown tragedy, it only needed Russia’s return to its imperialist dreams, and Barack Obama’s American volte-face against its Middle Eastern ‘friends’, caring less about the fate of the region’s people, strategic balance, and old alliances.

Opinion: Sami Gemayel – A Lebanese Political Phenomenon

The Gemayel family, which produced several prominent Lebanese politicians, never really enjoyed nationwide support. The reason being that Sheikh Pierre Gemayel, the family’s ‘patriarch’ founded a political party with candid sectarian overtones in 1936. Indeed, throughout Sheikh Pierre’s long leadership of the said party, called ‘The Lebanese Phalanges’, its ideological and political identities became ever more pronounced. Although like most successful parties it has been able to develop an ideological ‘cliché’ that was relatively free from static sectarian boundaries and more open to interacting with the ‘others’. This ‘cliché’ took the shape of ‘Lebanese’ nationalism against those speaking of ‘Syrian’ or ‘Arab’ nationalisms.

‘The Lebanese Phalanges’, which developed from a youth and sports movement into the most powerful and highly organized Christian political party in Lebanon thanks to Sheikh Pierre Gemayel, had other co-founders some of whom later left it. These include Charles Helou (President of Lebanon from 1964 to 1970) and leading journalist and intellectual Georges Naccache. Furthermore, Sheikh Pierre’s two sons Bechir and Amin were successively elected presidents of Lebanon. Later, the founder’s grandson and namesake Pierre Amin Gemayel entered the Lebanese Parliament and became a cabinet minister before his assassination in 2006 at the relatively young age of 34.

Today, the political dynasty is represented in parliament by the two surviving grandsons: Sami Amin Gemayel and Nadim Bechir Gemayel, with the first assuming the party’s leadership too.

During Pierre ‘the Grandson’s’ short period at the forefront of politics, his younger brother Sami was preoccupied in a youth organization with candid slogans and ideas that many Lebanese at the time thought controversial and marginal. In reality, those slogans and ideas were closer to being voices of protest than proper blueprint for a comprehensive political agenda that deserves to be taken seriously, in a divided multi-confession society that became even more divided, obsessed, extremist and exclusionist as a result of a 15 year civil-regional war.

Pierre ‘the Grandson’ managed to “re-establish” and reorganise the ‘Phalanges’ during his father’s (ex-president Amin) exile in France, and succeeded – according to many party members and loyalists – to return it to its position as the biggest organized Christian political force in Lebanon. At this juncture it is important to mention that the party had been weakened by political internal dissent and the exit of several leading figures, while other figures became openly associated with the so-called “Syrio-Lebanese Security apparatus”. The party had suffered too from the emergence of new organizations which were once part of or close to it, like ‘The Lebanese Forces’, and the extremist “Christian” outbidding of General Michel Aoun claiming to be more “Christian” than all, including the Maronite Patriarch himself, to the extent of refusing the ‘Taif Accords’ accepted by the Patriarchate!

Thus, the assassination of Pierre Amin Gemayel during the wave of assassinations targeting the leaders of the Lebanese popular uprising against the hegemony of the Damascus – Tehran axis, was a very well-thought out and meticulously calculated crime. What the murderers intended was to undermine a young and highly promising Christian leadership that was also capable of crossing religious and sectarian barriers, more so, as it neither participated directly in the war like ‘The Lebanese Phalanges’, nor is an avowed enemy to other Lebanese sects like Michel Aoun.

For a while, the murderers appeared to have won. The ‘Phalanges’ were shaken and confused, partly because few expected the younger brother Sami to be a worthy successor. However, Sami Amin Gemayel was quick to surprise the sceptics and prove them wrong. He firmly took over the party leadership, and soon enough emerged a serious player on the national arena. Some might say it is the ‘political instinct’ within Lebanon’s many traditional political dynasties that is instrumental in the ‘rapid maturing process’.

Today, in spite of bouts of vigour which are a hallmark of youth, Sami enjoys a real presence that has benefitted from his self-confidence, clear vision, candid honesty, as well as the disappointment of many who had expected more from Christian alternatives.

Sami who once, before 2006, shocked the Lebanese when he called for a ‘federal’ Lebanon when he was still on the fringes of the political arena, has not really changed his deeply-held convictions on that matter, although he is now more mature and diplomatic in arguing his views. Moreover, after the debacles of Iraq and Syria, the term ‘federalism’ does not sound like a “partitioning” nightmare nor an act of treason given Iran’s expansionist schemes and the threat of the dark-ages ISIS. In addition, the ‘Taif Accords’ specifically called for “Broad Administrative de-Centralization” as they noted the impossibility of continuing with a fully centralized system of government after a devastating civil war before re-assuring the fearful vanquished and containing the ambitions of the jubilant victors!

It is obvious today that the gamble of Dr Samir Geagea, the leader of ‘The Lebanese Forces’, of securing a political breakthrough through a “Christian reconciliation” with Aoun has lost its glitter, if not its credibility. This “Christian reconciliation” has provided Iran’s strategy of creating a political vacuum that facilitates its hegemony – through Hezbollah – an extended Christian cover, instead of convincing Aoun to stop using Hezbollah to gain personal ascendancy. Furthermore, instead of putting Iran and its henchmen in a fix, this “reconciliation” has strained the relations within the anti-Tehran March 14th Alliance and shaken trust among its members.

Thus, Sami Amin Gemayel has now emerged as the frankest and most realistic Christian voice; firstly, in diagnosing Lebanon’s problem as it approaches two years without an elected president; and secondly, in telling the truth about Hezbollah, its organization, role, philosophy and loyalty; and thirdly, in dealing with fears relating to the future of Lebanon as regional taboos are broken, identities redefined, borders re-drawn, demographic uprooting and change is in full swing.

Given all the regional developments and their repercussions on the Lebanese domestic scene, many Lebanese are now fully aware that Hezbollah’s arena is far larger than Lebanon; its political and security ‘decisions’ are taken outside Lebanon, and its loyalties, commitments, connections and conception have nothing to do with Lebanon, its constitution and institutions, but they feel they do not need to spill the beans and speak frankly.

Only Sami Gemayel is making his position loud and clear, although he knows more than most the high cost of truth in a country that can no more tolerate a comedian’s joke here or a critical cartoon there.

Only Sami Gemayel, it seems, is now aware of the absurdity of continuing with a ‘dialogue of the deaf’!

Opinions: The Problem With the US Elections’ Extremes

trump

The leading US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump recently announced his team of political, security and economic advisors; the – unfortunately interconnected – Middle East, Muslim world and terrorism files were given to Dr Walid Phares. On the Democratic side, Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard resigned as Vice-Chair of the Democratic National Committee, decrying what she regarded as the DNC’s attempts to bolster the position of Hillary Clinton against Leftist Presidential challenger Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, subsequently joining the latter’s campaign.

Dr Phares, for those who do not know much about him, is a right-wing Christian Lebanese-American academic and political activist, who for a long while was very close to the Christian militias which fought the Lebanese War (1975-1990), and metamorphosed after bouts of infighting, schisms and reorganization into ‘The Lebanese Forces’ party. As there may be no need to dwell much on the history of that war, its various groups, or the “achievements” of these fighting groups regardless of their slogans, it is worth mentioning what follows:

Firstly, the ‘The Lebanese Forces’ in its current form is a civilian political party, represented in Parliaments by a bloc of deputies (MPs), and it was one of the fighting groups that gave up and handed over their arms after the ‘Taif Accords’.

Secondly, ‘The Lebanese Forces’ was initially an ‘umbrella militia’ created by Bechir Gemayel, the former commander of ‘The Lebanese Phalange’ (Kata’eb) and Lebanese president-elect, as the fruit of his plan to “unify Christian guns” against the then Pan-Arab and Leftist “National Movement” and its Palestinian allies. This means the ‘Forces’ were, from an organizational aspect, a group made up of several militia that included in addition to the Kata’eb’s, the National Liberal Party’s ‘Numour’ (i.e. Tigers) and ‘The Maronite Organization’’s ‘Tanzeem’.

Thirdly, following the assassination of Bechir Gemayel in the autumn of 1982 – shortly after being ‘elected’ president – many aspiring factional leaders emerged and competed to succeed as the ‘Christians’ strongman’ at the helm of the ‘Forces’. Some were defeated and left, others were killed, the rest deserted politics altogether. Dr Samir Geagea, a former ‘Kata’eb’ young militia commander emerged victorious and became the leader of the ‘Forces’, however, many of the disgruntled veterans never recognized him, and remained outside the re-formed party.

Dr Phares, who at one juncture in his career was Secretary of the ‘Maronite World Union’, left Lebanon in 1990 and pursued post-graduate studies in the USA. He earned a PhD from the University of Miami, and became a well-known conservative political commentator and TV pundit specializing in terrorism and Islamic radicalism. His works and comments have always been very close to those of the Christian right now dominating the Republican Party. Being chosen by Trump as an advisor on the Middle East, Muslim world and terrorism, especially, following Trump’s controversial anti-Muslims positions, confirms that these positions did not come up by accident.

With this said, it is worth noting that Trump’s anti-Muslim sentiments are not much worse than those of Senator Ted Hughes, his main rival in the GOP field. The latter caused furore during the ‘In Defense of Christians’ three-day conference (September 9/11, 2014 in Washington, D.C. when he insisted on saying that the Christians of the Middle East won’t have a better ally than Israel. Among those who felt obliged to leave the main dinner in protest was the Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III Lahham, born in the now besieged Damascus suburb of Darayya. Still it was Trump’s call for a ‘ban on Muslims’ entry to the USA’ that made even Cruz look like a ‘moderate’ in comparison.

In fact, if Dr Phares has had an input in Trump’s positions, this is surely a worrying sign for the future relationship between ‘Donald Trump’s Washington’ and a frustrated and disappointed Arab world which the policies of the last two administrations have caused him to lose faith and goodwill in America.

On the opposite side, it is fascinating to read the resume of Ms Gabbard, the first Samoan and the first Hindu member of the US Congress, and a member of both Armed Services and Foreign Services Committees. Gabbard (34 years old) who in the late 2014 visited India’s hard-line prime minister Narendra Modi, has been vociferous in opposing any attempt to bring down Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, arguing it was “counter-productive to overthrow Assad”, and asserting that “the Syrian government is a powerful anti-ISIS force in the region and toppling it would only serve to bolster the presence of terrorist groups in Syria and neighbouring countries”! Furthermore – like many liberal democrats – despite her professional military experience, Gabbard has linked her opposition of using force in Syria to opposing the invasion of Iraq, a position taken by Sanders in 2003.

Thus, we are faced with two contradictory extreme cases, one absurdly too conservative, the other absurdly too liberal.

As Arabs – albeit from an American standpoint – we share the position of the old poet Duqelah al-Manbiji in his famous ‘The Orphaned poem’ when he said:
“Two extremes, when coming together …. each enhances the beauty of its opposite”.

This was absolutely true, at least as far as the average American is concerned – let alone Democratic voters – with the hawkish Neo-cons’ led Republicans. It has been true too with Obama’s passive, retreating and appeasing policies which are now fuelling an ultra-conservative Republican reaction bordering on blatant racism and sectarianism benefitting Sanders’ ‘leftist’ Democrats.

Given the above, I dare say that it is in America’s interest first, and the whole world’s second, that neither the dogmatic extreme right as represented by Trump, or the dogmatic utopian left as represented by Sanders wins. Indeed, one hopes that in the coming months we witness some logic and a lot of realism, and this is what both Republican and Democratic ‘establishments’ feel and are working for before it is too late en route to the two parties’ National Conventions this summer.

The world, of course has the right to criticise America, but America is still the greatest world power, even its people forget this fact!

Opinion: Our Story with Russia

Despite the zeal of some ultra-nationalist Russians who shun and ignore Soviet heritage, others still feel the USSR, the mammoth that competed with the USA for the leadership of the world, was an effective tool in promoting ‘Russian’ interests, regardless of whether ‘internationalist’ Bolsheviks had intended it or not.

I reckon this particular argument is still far from being settled, within Russia or outside the great country the Arabs and Muslims came to know for the first time through the travels of Ahmad Ibn Fadhlan in 922 AD, during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Al-Muqtadir, who sent with him a letter to ‘the King of the Slavs’, including the ‘Rus’ people.

On the other hand, I think we as Arabs have failed to get to know the Russian people, their culture, their history as well as their interests, in spite of the fact that they have been among the most interactive ‘European’ peoples with the Arab and Muslim worlds. Without dwelling too much on the subject, it would be beneficial if we keep the following in mind:
Firstly, the Russian ‘geographic’ environment has put them sometimes in a state of positive exchange, but more frequently in a state of confrontation with both Muslims and Arabs since the armies of Islamic conquest reached the foothills of the eastern Caucasus at Derbent (Bab Al-Abwab, i.e. ‘the gate of gates’ in Arabic), and began to deal with the local population.

In those days the Muslims and Arabs called the Caucasus massif the ‘Mountain of the Tongues’ (Jabal al-Alsun) denoting the multitude of languages spoken in its inaccessible valleys inhabited by different minorities without a single dominant majority. In fact, a large portion of that region is called Dagestan meaning the ‘Home or Land of mountains’. Before that, some historians linked the Jews to the Khazar people living on the northern shores of the Caspian Sea, claiming that the then King of the Khazar, already on bad terms with Christian Slavs but unwilling to accept Islam brought by invading armies from the south, decided to adopt Judaism as the religion of his people.

Throughout history the lands of the ‘Rus’ witnessed several waves of invaders and settlers, perhaps the most important of which were the waves of Turkic (Altaic or Turanic) raids, which resulted in the settlement of many Turkic peoples in today’s Russia. These include the Chuvash – western Russia’s only major Christian Turkic people –, the Tatars, the Bashkirs and the ‘old Bulgars’.

Secondly, Russia remains Europe’s largest country and certainly the leading bastion of Slavic culture. Indeed, when European powers began to show interests in the Middle East, bolstered by the never severed religious connections with the holy places in Palestine, Russia was one of these powers which established a strong ecclesiastic, educational and cultural presence. This presence was best reflected in what were known as ‘Moskovian’ seminars and schools. The remains of that presence are still there despite the ‘spiritual retreat’ in the face of ‘revolutionary thought’ during the Soviet decades. I still recall during my school days in Lebanon, namely in the town of Choueifat, the strong Russian ties with the area including the marriage of Aleksei Kruglov, the last Russian consul in Palestine to a Christian Orthodox lady from Choueifat. A grandson of consul Kruglov is a very dear friend and schoolmate.

Furthermore, in a study conducted by the Syrian academic Dr Joseph Zeitoun, he mentions that Russia’s interests in the ‘Mashreq’ go back to the early 19th century during the reigns of Emperor (czar) Alexander I and his successors. Zeitoun claims that the first steps in that direction were founding convents, caravanserais and hospices to serve pilgrims and visitors to the Holy Lands, particularly Jerusalem, but also including the Syrian town of Saydnaya, not far from Damascus, due to the significance of its ‘Convent of Our Lady’, regarded by many Christians as the ‘third pilgrimage’ after Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

In the 1830s Russia’s consul in Beirut instructed his council to travel through greater Syria (Bilad Ash-Sham) and prepare a report about the overall situation of Orthodox Christians. This report in turn led the Russian Synod to ask one of its bishops to travel to Palestine in a fact finding mission. The bishop indeed prepared an extensive report about the conditions of the Orthodox Church and its people, and stressed the urgent need for a ‘spiritual, social and educational renaissance’, as well as the need to establish a large Russian mission to provide relief not only to Greater Syria but also Egypt. Actually, as a fruit of such an endeavour, the prominent Lebanese intellectual and man of letters Mikhail Naimy was one of the Syrio-Lebanese graduates of Russo-Ukrainian institutes, and so were the prominent Palestinian author and educator Khalil As-Sakakini, and three members of the Arab ‘Pen League’ of New York, Raschid Ayyub, Abdul Massih Haddad and Nasib Arida. In addition to those, there was the noted Jerusalemite intellectual and academic Bandali Al-Jouzy who studied and taught in Russia.

According to Dr Zeitoun, the first school the Russians founded in Palestine was in the village of Al-Mujaidel near the city of Nazareth in Galilee in 1882. It was soon followed by other schools in the villages of Ar-Rameh, Kufr Yassif and Ash-Shajara in 1883 and 1884.

From my own personal experience, I remember reading two good books covering Russia’s interests in the Middle East; the first ‘The Lebanon and the Lebanese’ written in the 19th century by consul Konstantin Petkovich covering the affairs of ‘Mount Lebanon’ autonomous district between 1862 and 1882 (later translated into Arabic); and the second ‘Peasant Movements in the Lebanon’ during the first half of the 19th century written later during the Soviet era by Irina M. Smilianskaya.

These two books give a clear idea about how seriously the Russians took our region, both in Imperial and Soviet periods. Yet we seem to be unable to understand the motives behind Russia’s intentions. We even do not know, or forget, that the USSR was the first country to recognise the founding of Saudi Arabia!

The fact of the matter is that Russian gas never ceased to see itself a major and influential player on the world stage; let alone with regards to its often problematic historical relations with Islam and Muslim peoples, its geo-political interests in the midst of global competition, and its economic and oil concerns in a world of conflicts and integration.

Today, we as Arabs need experts in Russian as well as Chinese affairs at the same level with those who have studied European and American history and cultures. This is a challenge for us, and we – very simply put – need to know about the Russians and Chinese as much as they know about us!

Opinion: Time for the Arabs to Get off the Fence

A few hours separated two events last week: the Arab League picked a new secretary general, and its foreign ministers labelled Hezbollah of Lebanon a terrorist organization.

There is nothing untoward about the appointment of Egypt’s Ahmed Aboul-Gheit as new secretary general of the Arab League, as the man is neither a novice diplomat nor an accidental tourist in the political arena, but is rather a veteran diplomat and politician whether as an ambassador or a foreign minister. What is new, in fact, is that Mr Aboul-Gheit will find himself forced to deal with a different Arab scene where there is no more room for niceties, pleading and running away from real solutions. At present we may have reached “the era of getting off the fence” and forgetting about running away from challenges through empty talk.

Since the ‘Arab Spring’, that momentous event that Arabs everywhere continue to disagree on how to define and evaluate, the comfort zone and room for manoeuvres have shrunk drastically. At the moment, the Arabs are frankly facing decision time and clear cut positions. Here we have to confess that we have reached this point not by choice but rather as a result of pressing internal and external issues that are impossible to temporarily adjourn or permanently ignore.

Internally, there are the problematic issues of religious and national identities which have become ever more acute after the ‘Arab Spring’ which brought down regimes that monopolised power for four decades during which new generations emerged against the background of diminishing resources, increased expectations, and unrestricted interaction and communications.

Many Arab entities, within its 2011 borders, were running away from providing convincing answers to questions about their legitimacy, borders, popular representation and social cohesion. In fact, if some claim that the occupation of Iraq in 2003 was the incendiary device that ignited the fire of Sunni – Shi’i conflict, others may point out that the seeds of this conflict were sown in 1979 when Ayatullah Khomeini of Iran decide to “export his Islamic Revolution, and in his own way “guide” the Muslims of the world to what he peddled as the ‘true Islam’!

The policy of “exporting the Islamic Revolution” in its unadulterated sectarian form was bound to encounter a sectarian reaction based on a logical counter argument: self defence. Indeed, the Khomeini onslaught, with its Persian hard-core content, ‘Islamist’ and ‘revolutionary’ coating, and painted by the slogans of ‘Liberation of Palestine’ and ‘Death to America & Israel’ were soon confronted theologically, nationalistically, politically, and of course militarily.

The Iran – Iraq War was a significant and costly round in what we see today as an existential war between an Arab world that has understood Islam in an open and uncomplicated ‘generic’ format and an extreme nationalist and theocratic Iranian regime whose philosophy and discourse have been based on a melange of complexes including haughtiness, vengefulness, and insistence on ‘correcting of the wrongs’ of history and geography using as a weapon the same weapon the Arabs had used before to conquer a non-Muslim Iran , i.e. Islam itself!

From the outset the Khomeini project rejected coexistence and sought hegemony. And if Khomeini considered – in his own words – that he “drank the cup of poison” by agreeing to the ceasefire with Iraq, his project of hegemony has not died. It has not for two main reasons:
Firstly, Arab mistakes. The first and foremost of which was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Secondly, Iran’s success in absorbing the shock of the aborted war, and its re-launch of its penetrative offensive in a smart, silent and more diligent manner instead of brutal direct confrontation.

Actually, one example of how Iran managed to learn from its past mistakes was its refusal to be dragged into the Afghanistan quagmire when Washington was on the side of Taliban who were then viciously fighting the Shi’i Hazara. It also turned a blind eye in 1998 and let pass the murders of a number of Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan.

Since then the post-Khomeini Iran, led by self-proclaimed ‘reformers’ and ‘moderates’, knew how to benefit from the ever increasing Arab frustration, and mushrooming of Sunni extremist ‘Jihadists’ spreading from Indonesia (the Abu Bakar Ba’ashir group accused of the Bali attacks) in the east, to the USA, the target of the September 11th outrage in the west. In such a climate the political attitudes of several ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ western politicians matured to bring about the current positions of the ‘Democrat’ Barack Obama, ‘traditional Left-wing Labour’ Jeremy Corbyn and ‘ex-Communist’ Federica Mogherini, all of whom firmly believe that dialogue is possible – indeed, necessary – with ‘political Shi’ism’ but never with ‘Political Sunnism’.

Today this is the heavy tax the Arab world is paying; firstly because it is the closest Muslim neighbour to Christian Europe, secondly because it is the largest Muslim population worldwide, and thirdly because Sunnis make up around 75 % of its population.

The partitioning of the Sudan leading to the birth of the new state of South Sudan in 2011 (the year of the ‘Arab Spring’), and the de facto partitioning of Iraq as the new Kurdish state slowly emerges in its northern regions as preparations gather pace for a referendum whose result is never in doubt, both confirm the fears that the Middle East is approaching new realities that will change the maps and borders of 1920.

The fragility of the ‘national unity’ as laid exposed in many a country living the spasms of the ‘Arab Spring’, combined with the dubious relationship sharing the helm of the international community between a passive and regressive US administration, a neo – Czarist Russian leadership, and an aggressive Iranian regime now emboldened by American goodwill; and then added to all the above is the emergence of ISIS, a sinister organization whose aim is to enrage the world, provoke animosities, and increase the enemies of Islam and Muslims. One would begin to see the serious challenges the Arab has to confront.

We, the Arabs have always talked of ‘brotherly relations’ and ‘one destiny’, but obviously some of us never really meant what we were saying. Well, now we are facing realities drawn on the ground by blood and tears. The issue of self-preservation is neither negotiable nor left to one’s private assessments. The situation in Libya is not natural and does not bode well, more so as its potential dangers are threatening Libya’s neighbours. Syria too, given the apparent agreement between Washington, Moscow and Tehran, may be moving toward ‘partition’ under a diplomatic veil of ‘federalism’ after half of its population has been uprooted and displaced, and around 600,000 people killed.

Sorry, Mr Aboul-Gheit, our new secretary general, I wish I could be more optimistic!

Opinion: Iran’s Costly Fake ‘Democracy’

Iranians are, of course, free to accept the Vali- e- Faqih brand of ‘democracy’ or reject it. But such exceptional ‘democracy’ is proving extremely costly to the Arab world.

What the ruling authorities in Tehran regard as ‘democracy’ or “shura” is beyond the scope of this argument, it is enough to say that the current Iranian regime is underpinned on a solid theocratic – security base that monopolizes the right to choose who runs for the ‘Majlis’ (The Lower House of Parliament) and the ‘Assembly of Experts’, and who are branded as traitors. Such ‘democracy’ in practice takes place against a background of hallows reserved to unacceptable political opponents and is distrusted by a large section of Iranian society; including once prominent symbols and figures in Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution before they ending up marginalized, exiled or placed under house arrest.

Be it as it may, this is the Iranians’ problem and nobody else’s. The people of Iran alone must decide whether the Mullah’s regime, supported by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and its security and intelligence apparatus, reflects its aspirations or not. The real regional problem is that the current US administration trusts the Tehran regime more than the Iranians do. Such a situation has cost the Arab world dearly.

Indeed, the Arabs have paid a heavy price in terms of politics, security, and future development, for Barack Obama’s gamble on Hassan Rouhani’s presidential elections’ ‘victory’ through Ali Khamenei’s (The Supreme Guide) democratic process in 2013, and Khamenei’s ‘fatwas’ against the development of nuclear weapons!

Given the above I venture to say that it would be too naïve to separate Washington’s negative position towards the Syrian Uprising from the nuclear negotiations conducted by the US and Iran in Oman behind the backs of the former’s Arab allies; and later, separate the said negotiations from Washington’s decision to concentrate all its efforts in the Middle East on fighting ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and even ‘moderate’ political Sunni Islam as well.

If Washington’s ‘unsympathetic’ attitude towards Turkey – a fellow NATO member – in its first confrontation with an aggressive Putin’s Russia in the Middle East arena, then in the Kurdish ‘independence’ file, it was truly shameful that Secretary of State John Kerry would volunteer to tell the Congress that Iran “has withdrawn its fighters in Syria” only for this to be denied by Tehran! This worrying episode points clearly to Washington’s huge bet on the ‘friendship’ of Iran under the pretext that it is embarking on an unflinching ‘democratic’ march, and is committed to moderation, reform and openness.

Meanwhile, Iran’s ‘state’ media machine which has been quite successful in penetrating the Arab world has smartly highlighted during the last few weeks the ‘significance’ of the elections. Later, despite being ‘doctored’ through partisan selectivity and exclusion, the same machine was underlining the elections’ ‘high turnout’, meaning a big popular endorsement, which was exactly what both Washington and Moscow desired to justify giving Iran a greater regional role at the expense of the Arabs.

Alas, the Arabs thus far have failed to confront such an imminent threat – backed by international collusion – with the required awareness and solidarity. Worse still, some Arab countries refuse to see the existential danger posed by this Iranian onslaught on the internal order and sectarian co-existence, although what is taking place in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen is clear for all to see.
The four above-mentioned countries, which Tehran proudly boasts of controlling, is practically in various stages of Iranian ‘control’; from de facto occupation like Iraq and Lebanon to open civil war such as Syria and Yemen. For its part, Iran has only provided these countries with means of sedition, division and destruction of state institutions, from money and arms shipments sent exclusively to certain subservient religious sects, political assassinations, car bombs, creation of ‘puppet’ leaderships, and sectarian media agitation and incitement through pulpits and financed and hired media outlets.

This is exactly what has happened in Al-Maliki’s Iraq, Al-Assad’s Syria, Hezbollah’s Lebanon and the Houthis’ Yemen. Tehran’s plans go on and on, without any sign of change soon, especially, because some in the West, namely in Washington, insist on believing the lies of ‘democracy’ and ‘moderation’. Ironically, with this said, the only encouraging sign a few days ago has been the arrest in Tehran of Baquer Namazi, an 80 year old American citizen with links to the pro-Tehran lobby group the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). NIAC has a very loud voice in promoting the fake ‘democracy’ and ‘moderation’ of the Mullahs’ regime in the corridors of powers in the US capital during the last few years, and has been infrequently alleged to be linked to the plans of the present Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to found an effective lobby in Washington.

The sad story of Mr Namazi proves that a leopard can’t change its spots. And that a fascist regime like Tehran’s may be dangerous even to those helping it. It may also tell us that the security-intelligence apparatus in Tehran, embodied by the IRGC, is growing intolerant even with those promoting Iran’s interests in a way they feel is more persuasive in the West where freedoms are understood, and democracy properly practiced.

Since 1948, major Western powers have resisted the recognition of Palestinians’ right of self-determination because they’ve always claimed that Israel was the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’. The result as we see now, is a progressively more ‘militant’ Israeli society that has been led away by settlers and the religious right-wingers from peace to extremism, and frustrated Palestinian reaction engendered counter religious extremism at the expense of ‘a secular state’ or ‘two states solution’.

Today the West, at the helm of the international community, is committing the same mistake again. In concentrating exclusively on fighting ISIS, it is ignoring the extremism of Tehran’s Mullahs and their IRGC, and forgetting the ‘incubator’ of the ISIS discourse, and the simple fact that ‘extremism begets extremism’.

O Democracy! What crimes are committed in thy name!”

Opinion: Obama’s Problem with the Middle East Tango!

Last week I enjoyed reading an article by the American writer Thomas Friedman entitled ‘The Many Mideast Solutions’ about what Middle East the next US president should expect to see. Before that, a friend of mine who is a senior researcher in International Affairs at a leading American university, commented on an article I had written about Henry Kissinger’s Middle East legacy; expressing his fear that the Obama Administration may be about to leave the Middle East lock, stock and barrel, concentrating instead on other areas, such as China.

Whether one accepts everything Friedman says or not, there were a host of irrefutable truths he mentioned in his article. One of the most noteworthy relates to the Palestinian question, second to the Sunni – Shi’i conflagration now – unfortunately – dominating the Syrian uprising that began as a peaceful uprising by a population oppressed by the evils of corruption, nepotism and the security apparatus of a police state for more than four decades.

With regards to the Palestinian question ,I think Friedman was right to conclude that the ‘two-state solution’ is ‘dead’, although one may not blame all those he blamed equally. True, the next occupant of the White House come next January will face a virtual state of ‘full occupation’ from the Mediterranean to the Jordan valley. The culprits, according to Friedman, are:

1. “… the fanatical Jewish settlers determined to keep expanding their footprint in the West Bank and able to sabotage any Israeli politician or army officer who opposed them…”.
2. “… right-wing Jewish billionaires, like Sheldon Adelson, who used their influence to blunt any U.S. congressional criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu …”.
3. “Netanyahu, whose lust to hold onto his seat of power is only surpassed by his lack of imagination to find a secure way to separate from the Palestinians …”.
4. “… Hamas (which) devoted all its resources to digging tunnels to attack Israelis from Gaza rather than turning Gaza into Singapore, making a laughingstock of Israeli peace advocates …”.
5. “… The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, sacked the only effective Palestinian prime minister ever, Salam Fayyad, who was dedicated to fighting corruption and proving that Palestinians deserved a state by focusing on building institutions, not U.N. resolutions …”.

As for the Sunni – Shi’i issue, Friedman rightly claimed that Washington under a new president is going to deal with “a no-state solution in Syria, Yemen and Libya, a non-state solution offered by the Islamic caliphate (ISIS) and a rogue-state solution offered by Iran”. He was also right to say that Russia’s Vladimir Putin was “deliberately bombing anti-regime Syrians to drive them into Europe in hopes of creating a rift in the European Union, strain its resources and make it a weaker rival to Russia and a weaker ally for America”.

Continuing from the above, I would say that the ‘no-state solution’ pertaining to Syria is now a fait accompli regardless of what happens on the ground. Political and military decisions about Syria are now taken in Moscow and Tehran, not Damascus. Bashar Al-Assad has become nothing but a ‘receiver’ appointed by a bankruptcy court and a tinderbox of sectarian blackmail and agitation. Meanwhile, the false claim by Moscow and Tehran that they are engaged in a ‘war against ISIS’ is finding an Obama administration eager to believe and a US Secretary of State willing to endorse and promote.

What the White House does not seem to accept – as Friedman seems to note – is the existence of vital mutual interests between Iran and ISIS whereby each is capitalising on the extremism of the other, using it as an excuse, and convincing its followers that its brand of extremist line is the obvious and right answer.

In the meantime, in the minds of Sunnis – especially Arab Sunnis – any serious campaign against ISIS is impossible to justify while Iran’s IRGC continues to flex its sectarian campaign across the Arab world and boast that their agents control four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and San’aa.

Well, let’s be more specific and take two clear cut examples; the way Bashar Al-Assad and IRGC’s Qassem Suleimani relinquished control of Raqqah, and how the Da’wa Party – led Iraqi government almost ‘handed over’ Mosul!

Why should a sectarian regime like Al-Assad’s, which has founded – under the reign of the current president’s father – the infrastructure of an Alawi sectarian ‘mini state’ in the coastal region of Syria and has become an ‘incubator’ of Iran’s Hezbollah, bother about keeping the remote Sunni-majority provinces of Raqqah and Hasakah?

Why would this regime care about what befalls Tayy’, Al-Jubour, Al-‘Uqaidat, Al-Shu’itat and other tribes of the mid-Euphrates and Al-Jazirah, and try to solve their intermittent problems with the Kurds whom it badly treated and discriminated against?

Wasn’t it always more worthwhile for Al-Assad to co-operate with Iran on created sectarian militias whose task was to support the regime’s Special Forces’ ‘Defence Companies’ and other trusted elitist tools, past and present, when the moment of truth comes and the big lies of secularism, ‘progressive politics’, Arab unity and socialism are uncovered?

With regards to Iraq, the intense hatred, vengefulness and keenness to uproot the Ba’th regime under American occupation of the pro-Iran Shi’ites was common knowledge. These factors were very much behind the ‘political’ sham trials of Saddam Hussein and his subordinates; which were basically nothing more than sectarian and ethnic acts of revenge against a painful past rather than a new beginning for an open and tolerant ‘Iraq of the future’.

Then, even when Al-Qaeda exploited Sunni bitterness at being marginalized, it was the Al-Anbar Sunni tribes which rose in arms against the extremist terrorists, overlooked the injuries inflicted on them by premier Nuri Al-Maliki sectarian policies, and fought the “Sahwat’ (i.e. awakenings) uprising. However, instead of being rewarded and compensated for this act of patriotism, the Sunnis continued to be not only marginalised but also persecuted.

Such an environment of sectarian bitterness as well as machinations of regional and international intelligence agencies provided the perfect incubator for ISIS. Indeed, many ISIS extremists ‘managed to escape’ from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad and headed for Syria, then Mosul fell to ISIS (almost without a fight), and now the whole of western Iraq is threatened with a catastrophe to millions of Iraqi Sunnis if the Mosul Dam collapses.

Obama’s Washington claims it wants nothing to do the Middle East quagmire. It may have even convinced itself that it can afford doing nothing.

But it seems to have forgotten the term ‘It takes two to tango’; given what we now know that Vladimir Putin isn’t a good dancer or doesn’t want to dance, and the same applies to the decision makers in Tehran!

Opinion: Kissinger’s Touches in the Middle East

Henry Kissinger, the doyen of American diplomacy and global strategies, does not like retirement. He believes he has never been out of touch with world affairs and still has a lot to offer in terms of finding solutions and eliminating any threats to the interests he defends. Actually, I believe wise Russians still remember his leading role behind Richard Nixon’s ‘opening up’ policy toward Communist China, which was an integral part of the calculations of the then US – Soviet ‘bi-polar rivalry’.

Dr Kissinger’s strategy was to weaken the Communist threat through widening and exploiting the rift between the two Communist giants, the USSR and China, while skillfully managing the tricky ‘co-existence’ with the Soviets. His success was spectacular as the Chinese giant was brought out of the cold and neutralized, and later Washington managed to turn the Afghani quagmire into the USSR’s Vietnam’.

Kissinger’s destructive strategic planning did not stop at isolating the USSR, embroiling it in trouble, and then exhausting and partitioning it, this was equally experienced by the Arab world. Many Arabs recollect the ‘ventures’ of “Dear Henry” – as the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat used to call him – perhaps the most significant of which was the October 1973 (Yom Kippur) War, which was ‘tactically’ fought by Egypt and Syria after the then leaders of the two countries overthrew Moscow’s friends in two Washington-friendly “corrective movements” in Damascus (autumn of 1970) and Cairo (1971).

Hafez Al-Assad’s and Anwar Sadat’s regimes were in reality fruits of ‘Kissingerism’, not only in terms of regional realignment, but also – and more significantly – in terms of unearthing the anathema of sectarianism in the two counties bordering Israel.

The true sectarian nature of the Syrian regime is now clear to all to see, while exploiting religion in Sadat’s political battles (namely against ‘Arabists’ and Leftists) in Egypt was instigated by the “Believer ( i.e. Muslim) President”. Incidentally, as the once ‘secular’ regime in Damascus turned Syria into a base for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and protectorate of Hezbollah, the “Believer President” became the first Arab head of state to shake hands with Menachem Begin and establish full diplomatic relations with Israel.

Today, Dr Kissinger is preaching cordial relations and cooperation between Moscow and Washington against the background of negative rhetoric regarding the Ukraine and Syria. The other day I read a piece written by Dr Kissinger in which he told the story of his collaboration with the late former Russian statesman, journalist and ‘Orientalist’ Yevgeny Primakov, in creating and co-chairing a group of retired American and Russian politicians and military figures known as Track 2 between 2007 and 2009. The objective of this group was to improve relations and dissipate all tensions, old and new, that may afflict these relations.

The former American Foreign Secretary and National Security Advisor wrote in detail about the efforts of the group and its contacts with the Kremlin and the White House; particularly, with regards to the Ukraine and Syria.

As far as the latter is concerned he wrote: “Regarding Syria, it is clear that the local and regional factions cannot find a solution on their own. Compatible U.S. – Russian efforts coordinated with other major powers could create a pattern for peaceful solutions in the Middle East and perhaps elsewhere”. He concluded by saying that such solutions can only come about through “a willingness in both Washington and Moscow, in the White House and the Kremlin, to move beyond the grievances and sense of victimization to confront the larger challenges that face both of our countries in the years ahead”.

Indeed, Kissinger’s words about the Middle East in general, and Syria in particular, fully complement the policies of the Barack Obama administration. Moreover, what has been said about Washington being less inclined now to be involved in the Middle East in order to concentrate on the potential threat posed by China seems to be related somehow to Kissinger’s efforts to bring Washington and Moscow ever closer. In the past he unleashed the Chinese giant order to weaken the USSR, and now he is cooperating with the Russians as a means to keep China at bay.

On the other hand, Washington has another obsession that has engendered a dangerous impression in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. This impression, widely shared by American politicians and the military, is that the West can never co-exist with a multi-leadership ‘Sunni Political Islam’ but it definitely can with a single-leadership ‘Shi’i Political Islam’. Iran, the only country officially ruled by ‘Shi’i Political Islam’, represents the best example of efficient control and discipline insured by a single authority. This ‘Shi’ite Iran’ is now a very valuable and important Asian and Arabian Gulf player in Washington’s calculations.

Hence, trying to win over Iran as an ally makes sense for Washington, more so, since the Tehran leaders – like the Kremlin leadership – regard themselves fighting on the same front in the open-ended war against ‘Sunni Political Islam’.

Add to the above the fact that the present tension between Russia and Turkey – which has been brought back by Recep Tayyip Erdogan under the banners of ‘Sunni Political Islam’ – represents a vital element in the process of redrawing the geo-political map of the whole Middle East, not only the ‘near east’ of the Fertile Crescent.

Based on this, the unfolding tragic events in Syria give the impression that there is an implicit agreement between Washington, Moscow and Tehran, with Israel’s approval, on the following:
1. To destroy ‘Sunni Political Islam’ throughout the region at any cost.
2. To take the Kurds out of the equation as a prelude to creating a ‘Greater Kurdistan’ which may not leave Turkey unscathed.
3. After eradicating any ‘Arab option’, first by Washington and later by Tehran, to move forward with the plans to establish new sectarian entities replacing the old and dilapidated ‘Sykes-Picot Agreement’ entities now approaching 100 years old.
4. To benefit from China’s – the future adversary – mutual interest in fighting the two common enemies: ‘Sunni Political Islam’ and Turkic nationalism, both currently fuelling the separatist struggle in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (or East Turkestan).

How would or should the Arabs react? I think they have no choice but to realise the interest-based ingredients of the wide international alliance before them, and comprehend that fighting the whole world is not the answer; especially since ‘Political Islam, both Sunni and Shi’i, has caused the region enough disasters.
In fact, some of the worst atrocities attributed to extremist ‘Sunni Political Islam’ were hatched in the intelligence agencies in countries ruled by ‘Shi’i Political Islam’. In addition to dubious ISIS, the links of some Al-Qaeda figures with Iran are well-known and documented, and so are the diligent efforts of the Syrian regime’s intelligences apparatus in creating and orchestrating the activities of ‘Fatah Al-Islam’ in Lebanon and the Abu Al-Qa’qa’ phenomenon and his Al-Qaeda “gifts” to Iraq.

Opinion: The Syrian Settlement – Principles of Geneva 1 or the Concessions of Geneva 2?

I reckon that there is no political observer who expects much from the Geneva 3 talks on Syria. In fact, a senior western diplomat was frank when he candidly expressed his doubts about chances of success as the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) took its difficult decision to send its delegation for talks with the UN’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, along with calls to implement international pledges regarding human issues. The HNC, which was formed by the Riyadh conference and brought together the broadest representation of Syrian opposition groups, was under immense pressure to attend Geneva 3.

This pressure was international as de Mistura threatened the HNC with a fait accopmli conference, Washington threatened the opposition that it would cut off aid if its HNC did not attend and, of course Russian, as the Russian air force is now at war with the Syrian people. The astonishing thing at this point is that while Russia acts as a full political and military ‘partner’ of the Assad regime, it still insists on being an authority eligible to pick and choose delegates of Assad’s “opposition”.

Actually, if we review the overall efforts made to stop the war in Syria since the summer of 2011 when Bashar Al-Assad decided to crush the popular uprising by force, we find two movements moving simultaneously in opposite directions:
1- There was a gradual decline in the cohesion of the group of countries that stood by the Syrian uprising as the US and Iran were finalising the JCPOA (i.e. the Iran nuclear deal).
2- As it became clear to Al-Assad’s regime that it would not survive if left to its own devices, all the hidden links kept in reserve for a rainy day, its implicit alliances and subsequently its strategic role in the Middle East were all uncovered.

The countries that initially sided with the Syrian uprising joined together under what was called the “Friends of Syria” and met in February 2012 in the absence of Russia, China and Iran. The aid provided by the Western powers claiming the ‘friendship’ of the Syrian people, however, fell short of what the Syrian opposition was asking for, namely, safe havens, no-fly zones, and advanced and effective defensive weapons capable of neutralizing and deterring Al-Assad’s air force.

Then in June 2012 a meeting was held in Geneva, this time attended by Russia and China, and set in motion a “transitional” process leading to “A Syria without Al-Assad. However, Russia supported by China adopted the regime’s demands that the priority should be ‘fighting terrorism’, meaning the opposition. At this point there was a clear difference of interpretation of the Geneva (now known as Geneva 1) principles.

The Western “Friends of Syria” continued later on to refuse providing any qualitative military aid to the opposition, especially, ‘The Free Syrian Army’ as ISIS was gaining ground in many parts of Syria, virtually, unopposed and unhindered by the regime’s army. Indeed, the regime intentionally exploited the advances of ISIS against the ‘FSA’, making common cause with it as spelt out candidly by a Syrian intelligence Lebanese functionary.

By 2013 the US – Iran rapprochement was rapidly becoming a reality, more so after the Muscat secret negotiations were divulged, and Hassan Rouhani won Iran’s presidential elections in June 2013. Almost immediately Washington described his win as a victory for “moderation” and “rationalism” that deserved a positive response. Indeed, within, few months, as soon as Al-Assad realised that White House’s threatening ‘red lines’ were non-existent it used chemical weapons in Greater Damascus while doing nothing about ISIS taking over the city of Raqqah which became Syria’s first provincial capital to fall to the extremist terrorist organization. Washington, in turn, did nothing about the chemical attack, and expressed its satisfaction that the Al-Assad had handed in his chemical ‘arsenal’.

In January 2014 Geneva 2 was held without any positive results. Moscow stood firm while Washington, not only retreated from its initial stance, but moved even closer to the Russian interpretation of what was going on in Syria. Then, in early March 2014 President Barack Obama sent a clear message ‘to whom it may concern’ through an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which he insinuated that he regarded Iran as a trustworthy ally in the Middle East along with Israel. Subsequently, Washington rhetoric against Al-Assad was getting fainter, concentrating its argument on the fact that “he has lost his legitimacy” as Raqqah became the declared ‘capital’ of ISIS in the heart of Syria.

Both inside and outside Syria, letting down the Syrian uprising by 2015 led to the proliferation of extremist groups against a marked erosion of frustrated and desperate moderates, some of whom began bit by bit to leave the political and military scene. Yet, despite this, and the active backing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and its Lebanese, Iraqi and Afghani militias, the regime failed to gain the upper hand in the field.

Given the above stalemate, against the background of massacres, human suffering, threats to a number of the regime’s heartlands, and the West’s move to consider fighting ISIS as the priority in Syria, Russia joined the war in October 2015 under the pretext of attacking ISIS.

Then, one month after the Russian intervention, which actually concentrated its bombardment on the positions of the ‘FSA’ and the ‘moderate’ Opposition groups, representatives of 17 countries connected with the Syrian crisis met in the Austrian capital Vienna, including Iran, in the absence of the regime and opposition. The meeting ended with agreeing on a ceasefire and a ‘framework for political transition’, but not the future of Al-Assad. Consequently, last December, the UN Security Council unanimously agreed a ‘road map’ that begins with negotiations between the Syrian regime and opposition aimed at reaching a ceasefire, forming a ‘transitional government’ within six months and conducting elections within 18 months, again saying nothing about Al-Assad’s role. But in the light of developing agreements between Washington and Moscow, and the changes on the ground brought about by the Russian military campaign, some reports have recently suggested that Washington and Tehran have agreed that Al-Assad remains in office until 2022!

What should we expect now? It is obvious that the Syrian opposition has no option but to continue its steadfastness, regardless of how huge the disappointment is. Steadfastness without illusions!

The Syrian opposition is aware today that its ‘adversary’ is also the ‘referee’, and thus must not give it new excuses to continue betraying it.

Opinion: Syria 2016 – A Replay of Syria 1920

The unfolding Syrian crisis is now looking more and more like a carbon copy of the Palestinian crisis. Almost all the ‘constants’ of world powers towards the near east in the aftermath of the First World War remain unchanged. We are still living the same religious, cultural, interest-based considerations that led to the partitioning and apportionment of the near eastern territories of the Ottoman Empire under the ‘Sykes-Picot’ Agreement’ around 100 years ago. Indeed, one of the parties to the ‘agreement’, Sir Mark Sykes, was not far from the close circle behind the ‘Balfour Declaration’.

The current Syrian uprising, just like the early Palestinian uprisings of the first few decades of the 20th century, started as a spontaneous popular uprising calling for freedom, dignity and the right to self-determination. However, it soon discovered it was being surrounded by the ‘game of nations’ that has no respect for people and no regard for human rights. Gradually, thereafter, the picture was getting ever clearer in parallel with emerging disparity between the fighting forces on the ground.

The regional role of the Al-Assad clan’s regime has been clear for all to see; it began even before Hafez Al-Assad officially took over the leadership of Syria in late 1970.

The job of Hafez Al-Assad, very much ‘the man of the Right’ within the Ba’th Arab Socialist Party, was to adopt a ‘realistic’ regional policy willing to co-exist with ‘the region’s realities’, the most prominent among which were:
1- Respecting Israel’s existence.
2- Confronting all radical groups from the revolutionary extreme Left to the Islamist extreme Right.
3- Penetrating these groups, outbidding them after hijacking their slogans and when the need arises, resorting to murder and purges.

For 8 years Hafez Al-Assad manoeuvred his way, implicitly supported by international acquiescence, peddling slogans such as “Arabism”, “Arab unity”, “secularism”, and “corrected socialism” as exportable merchandise. During those 8 years he was entrusted by Henry Kissinger to destroy the Palestinian resistance movement in Lebanon and ‘control’ unruly Lebanon in the turbulent 1970s. This took place despite – or because of – Al-Assad’s participating in the ‘October 1973 War’ (Yom Kippur War) against Israel. Later on, in 1982, world leaders looked the other way as he committed the ‘Hama Massacre’ in which he butchered between 20,000 and 40,000 people in 27 days.

In 1979, when the ‘Islamist Revolution’ led by ayatollah Khomeini succeeded in Iran, the Al-Assad “Arab secular” regime in Damascus was its prime supporter in the Arab world and continued to support it even when it declared its strategy of ‘exporting the (Shi’ite) Revolution’. Later on, when Iraq, backed by many Arab countries that were worried by Tehran’s expansionist dreams and actions, fought Iran, the ‘Ba’thist’ regime in Damascus sided with ‘Khomeinist’ Tehran against Baghdad’s brotherly ‘Ba’thist’ regime.

In spite of this stance and thanks to Hafez Al-Assad’s astuteness and skills in providing strategic services to major global players whenever and wherever needed, the regime’s fortunes were not adversely affected.

Things began to change as Al-Assad senior gradually began to loosen his grip on power which was officially transferred to the ‘second generation’ heirs within the clan in 2000. The change, however, has been conspicuous in style and approach, without any change in the basic political affinities and alliances. Out went the days of wise political dealings and finely-tuned balancing acts, and in came the style of brash exclusion and omission through murder, which accumulated mistakes and encouraged Iran to take a greater role in handling political and security matters.

The ‘series’ began with the alleged ‘suicides’ of former prime minister Mahmoud Al-Zu’bi (less than one month before Bashar Al-Assad inherited the presidency). He was later followed by former senior military and intelligence strongman Gen Ghazi Kan’aan and others. Subsequently, opponents were assassinated across the borders in Lebanon, including former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri; and this policy was expanded to become as strategy within and outside Syria. At this point it became impossible to decide where crucial political decisions were being taken – in Damascus or Tehran?

The situation in Lebanon has been the best marker for what has been going on in Syria. The so called ‘Syrian-Lebanese security apparatus’ which was effectively running Lebanon behind the façade of a president who controlled nothing oversaw the creation of the de facto ‘state’ of Hezbollah which is a branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). Today Hezbollah is the real ‘state’ that is much more powerful than what has become of the Lebanese ‘statelet’.

Proof, if proof is needed, is Lebanon’s refusal to condemn the attack on Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran at both the Arab Foreign Ministers’ meeting and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Foreign Ministers Council’s meeting that discussed the issue. Hezbollah’s preventing the election of a president for more than a year and a half, forcing the Lebanese government to release a former cabinet minister already convicted based on his recorded confession that he was planning a series of murderous explosions to cause sectarian turmoil, and the failure of the government to prevent Hezbollah from engaging in wars outside Lebanon are other forms of proof.

Pressure exerted on the Syrian opposition which is already encountering Iranian land occupation, Russian aerial bombardment and ISIS terrorism, gives credence to Seymour Hersh’s report about the joint efforts of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US Defence Intelligence Agency with Russian, Israeli and German intelligence services to defend the Bashar Al-Assad regime. Today, Washington has fully adopted Moscow’s position towards Syria; in fact some voices from the Israeli intelligence community throughout 2015 have followed the same line.

Furthermore, American active collaboration with secessionist Kurdish groups in northern Syria, along the borders with Turkey, gives the impression that ,despite Vice President Joe Biden’s ‘grey’ talk , Washington is truly working for an independent Kurdish state in the near east. An Israeli lawmaker, actually, said the other day “The Kurds deserve a state of their own”!

Back in Lebanon, it is worth recalling that the Maronite Patriarch Bechara Ra’i was the first prominent figure that candidly expressed his reservations about the Syrian uprising by saying several times both in Lebanon and during his visits abroad, beginning with France, what amounts to “Al-Assad may be a bad guy, but what the uprising might give is a worse alternative”. This precisely reflects the climate created by the ‘alliance of minorities’ mentality in the near east. It was in the very heart of the political thinking of those who conjured up the Anglo – French mandates and the ‘religious homelands’ starting with Israel.

Unfortunately, before the partition maps could be enforced, this ‘alliance of minorities’ (i.e. non-Sunni Arabs) was missing nothing but the creation of ISIS and the JCPOA (the American – Iranian nuclear agreement) which makes the Vali-e-Faqih and his Revolutionary Guards the instigators of the grand Muslim – Muslim civil war.