Kurdish Secession and Mysteries of Identity

An old Arab adage asserts that there is always something good in whatever happens. The secession referendum held in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq is no exception. It has added to tension in the region, awakened many old demons and diverted attention from more urgent problems. At the same time it has also provided an opportunity to examine and debate some important issues in a cold and clinical manner as opposed to the inflammatory style current in our neck of the wood.

One such issue concerns the relationship between ethnicity and nationality.

It is important because the Middle East which, is and has always been a mosaic of ethnicities, has arrived at the state of nation-statehood, a la Europeen, through an historic shortcut that bypasses the ethnic conundrum. In Europe, the birthplace of the modern nation-state, the concept of citizenship provided a synthesis between ethnicity and nationality. All European states are multiethnic entities; and, yet, few of them experience ethnic tension the way it affects the emerging nation-states of our region.

The assumption on the part of Iraq’s Kurdish secessionists is that statehood should coincide with ethnicity. However, if that were the case almost all Middle Eastern states would have to be divided and subdivided, by one account, to create least 18 more states.

Kurdish secessionists dismiss that account with the argument that most ethnic groups in the region are too small to merit statehood.

In other words, size becomes a justification for secession.

They also claim that Kurds represent the largest ethnic group without its own state. That, of course, isn’t true. In the Indian Subcontinent, the Dravidians, numbering over 300 million do not have a state of their own. The same is true of the Punjabis, some 100 million of them, who are divided between India and Pakistan with reference to religious differences into Muslim, Hindu and Sikh sub-groups.

In Africa, the Haussa and the Ibo who number 40 and 35 million respectively don’t have a state of their own. In China, the Uighurs, 22 million and the Manchus 12 million, not to mention the Tibetans with 4 million, have had their states wiped out by the Han majority.

There are more Pathans in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, more Irish in United Kingdom than the Republic of Ireland, and more Hungarians outside Hungary than inside it.

The second argument is that since Iraq is an “artificial country” created by Sykes-Picot there is no reason why anyone shouldn’t walk out of it. To start with, despite the fashionable buzz all over the place, the so-called Sykes-Picot “plot” has nothing to do with the current shape of the Middle East.

Sykes-Picot was a draft treaty by Britain, France, Russia and Italy to carve out the Middle Eastern possessions of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. However, the draft never received final ratification by the four countries involved.

Before the war ended the Tsarist Empire collapsed and the new Bolshevik regime published the text of the draft as part of propaganda against “Imperialist powers.”

The draft envisaged giving large chunks of Anatolia to Russia, an ally of Britain and France and Italy. But when the Bolsheviks seized power Russia became an enemy; there was no reason to give it anything.

As for Italy, it had performed so miserably in the war that Britain and France decided it merited nothing but crumbs of the cake, in the shape of a presence in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. With Sykes-Picot rendered inoperable, Britain and France made new deals later reflected in several treaties notably of Lausanne and Montreux.

In any case, to say Iraq is “artificial” is meaningless because all states are artificial; none has fallen from heavens fully shaped. It took the United Sates almost 200 years to assume its present shape, by admitting Hawaii, annexed in 1898, as its 50th state in 1959.

A century ago there were 32 nation-states in the world; today there are 198, the majority of which are newer and more “artificial” than Iraq.

In some cases, ethic identities are either fabricated or exaggerated in pursuit of political power. For example, the Castilians and the Catalans share the same Christian faith, speak variations of the same Latinesque language, and are hardly distinguishable from one another by outsiders. Yet, we have a Catalan secessionist movement in Spain. The reason is that Catalonia has always been a support base for leftist movements in the Iberian Peninsula while the rest of Spain, especially Castile and Galicia has been conservative.

Ironically, the more multi-ethnic a state the more successful it has proved in history. The Sumerian state was “pure” in ethnic terms but vanished without trace. The Roman Empire, open to all ethnicities up to the position of the Emperor, lasted over 1000 years, and perished when it tried to impose uniformity through its new official religion: Christianity.

Countries where citizenship is not based on ethnicity or religion offer inhabitants freedoms unavailable elsewhere. In a small street in Paris, Rue des Petites Ecurries, shops and cafes belonging to all sorts of Islamic sects, Jews and Christians exist side by side without anyone cutting anyone’s throat, at least not yet; something unthinkable in “pure” places such as the ISIS or the Taliban “emirate.”

There is nothing easier to invent than “traditions” upon which ethnic identities are constructed. To fabricate a new identity, Ataturk adopted the Latin script, purged the Turkish language of Arabic and Persian vocabulary, using French words instead.

Now, however, we see the old Ottoman ghost coming back to reassert itself.

Some Kurds, tried a similar scheme by including the vowels ( اعرابIrab in Arabic) in the Arabic script and, imitating Ataturk, purged many Arabic and Persian words. The result is that their new-speak appears more Kurdish but is hard to understand especially when it comes to classical texts of their literature.

There is much talk of identity these days.

But human identity is protean, subject to tangential twists and turns of individual and collective life.

For example, Kak (brother) Massoud Barzani’s identity is not exactly the same as the Peshmerga who drives his bullet-proof Mercedes. Kak Massoud was born in Mahabad, Iran, an Iranian subject, but spent the first 12 years of his life in the Soviet Union. He then spent a decade in Iraq before being forced out by the Ba’athist terror machine, finding refuge first in Iran and then in the United States. That does not make him any less Iraqi or any less Kurdish if only because the two are not incompatible but complimentary in his case.

An Iraqi citizen is easy to define and recognize because citizenship is a politico-judicial status that can be tested and ascertained. When it comes to ethnic and/or religious identities, however, we are often in terra incognito.

Two things are certain about anyone of us: our humanity and our citizenship. Everything else is subject to dicey speculation and convoluted definitions.

Saudi Arabia and Russia are not Foes

saudi

With steady steps, Russia returned over the past decade to the Middle Eastern arena. This coincides with the development of its relations with Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, the Syrian regime, and surely Iran.

However, Moscow’s relations with Saudi Arabia were going through rocky roads after which tensions became high following different positions on the Syrian crisis.

The first thing that comes to mind when discussing the relations between the two countries is the Syrian issue. It remained a complicated point of disagreement between both countries and a barrier to the development of the bilateral relations despite several attempts.

However, after decades of discords, June 2015 was crucial in restoring the Saudi-Russian relations during the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Russia under the directives of King Salman.

Riyadh and Moscow reached an inevitable result in their future relations that they would rather focus more on common interests available in promising fields rather than disagreeing on issues that affected them negatively.

One can say that Riyadh succeeded back then in breaking the ice in its relations with Moscow.

Prince Mohammed’s visit was reflected in the country’s success to overcome the Syrian crisis. They both realized that what brings them together is much more important than disparities.

King Salman’s current visit to Russia is a decisive development in the course of Saudi-Russian relations. The visit aims to eliminate elements that affected the relations, or as the Russian Ambassador in Saudi Arabia said that some parties are trying to target the Saudi-Russian relations through the Syrian issue.

Through King Salman’s visit to Russia, a new phase of a coalition began based on joint interests that will be reflected on the region’s stability and security which is a strategic goal both Riyadh and Moscow aim to reach.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia continues to present itself as a regional and international player that is indispensable.

Saudi foreign policymakers are credited for taking into consideration long-term planning in their relations with Russia through a packet of strategic relations.

Side differences or even special relations with the West can’t hinder the success of the Saudi-Russian partnership.

Saudis are also credited for adopting a balanced foreign policy based on diverse options through openness to Russia as well as other international forces.

Saudi policy aims to diversify its activity with different partners which grant it the ability to manage the international relations on common interests.

Needless to say that as soon as this partnership is activated economically, commercially, and militarily Moscow will have to balance its complicated relationship with Iran.

Architects of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy are aware of this aspect especially after Tehran took advantage that Riyadh steered clear of Kremlin’s maze.

Indeed, Riyadh disagrees with Moscow on the Syrian issue. But, at the time it is adopting a realistic policy aimed at establishing partners and not allies on the basis of exchanged interests, Saudi Arabia realizes that there is a lot to be achieved from strong relations with Russia.

With 60 percent of Russia’s budget revenues from oil imports, the kingdom is aware that Moscow prioritizes a sort of coordination and agreement with Riyadh on oil prices and production.

For the first time, the two countries succeeded in leading the international oil market out of the most critical crisis. They managed to leave the bottleneck and reach a price close to $60 after it fell below $28 two years ago.

During an energy forum in Moscow attended by several OPEC oil ministers, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday: “Everyone is interested in a stable market. What we did with OPEC, I believe, is beneficial for all the global economy.”

Saudi Arabia and Russia appeared as though they were enemies separated by miles apart. Several attempts to reproach the two countries failed until facts and realities proved that the two states are not like that at all.

King Salman’s visit to Russia is a historic moment that will drive both countries closer and the relations will enter a new phase of further understanding and deeper cooperation.

Why Has Qatar Chosen Defiance?

Qatar Airways plane is seen in Doha

Qatar has adopted one concept within its response to the Arab Quartet that has decided to boycott it: do all that it can to thwart their plan and force them to reconcile with it.

It has become closer to Iran and has restored relations with Hezbollah. It’s funding Houthi militias in Yemen and hostile Islamic extremist groups that oppose the boycotting countries. It has also been supporting the US Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) and wants to criminalize Saudi Arabia by accusing it of funding the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Qatar has also been pushing international organizations to hold Saudi Arabia accountable at the UN Security Council and the US Congress for its military activity in Yemen, knowing that it was part of the coalition there.

Doha is also paying huge amounts of money to anyone who speaks out against the Arab quartet.

Some may ask: Why do we denounce Qatar for doing so while it is defending itself after the quartet actually started the crisis by boycotting it?

It is true that we denounce what Doha is doing, but we are not surprised at all as this is how it secretly operated earlier. Doha, however, is now openly targeting these countries, and it has doubled its acts against them.

Hostility and confrontation practiced by Doha is not the only option since it can also accept the reality and live with it.

Qatar had three options from which to choose since the eruption of the crisis with the Arab quartet – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

The first option is to accept conditions and rearrange relations based on guaranteed interests. The problem will then end, and we would all live through a stable phase based on mutual respect and not interfering in each other’s affairs.

The second option, which Qatar could have chosen, is to boycott the countries, just like what the quartet states did, and just manage its affairs without them.

The third and most difficult option, and which Qatar has chosen, is to declare enmity and launch a war by confronting the four countries via international organizations and governments, form alliances, seal military deals against them, fund the four countries’ rivals and incite against them through every available platform.

The behavior of Doha’s authority is not surprising. This is what it has been doing for the past 20 years.

Qatar thinks it can impose its views on other countries regardless of their orientation and capabilities and risks of facing them.

Qatar has also paid huge sums of money to see this through. However, isn’t its concern justified? Can Qatar’s leadership really go to bed every night and rest assured that no one will overthrow it and take over power?

What Qatar is actually doing is provocation and antagonism. Its hostile activities against these four countries may force them to overthrow this leadership or support those with ambitions, and they are many.

The other truth is that no one wants to impose change by force unlike what the Qatar regime is claiming.

This is due to several reasons, as for example changing regimes and arranging coups lead to a bad reputation for the country doing so.

Besides, if the quartet really wanted to stage a coup or an invasion, it would not have boycotted Qatar and let its security forces on alert 24/7.

Those angry at Qatar could have simply not sparked a battle and instead seized Doha in the dark within two hours.

The royal family, which used to conspire during tea sessions to topple regimes in the region and intimidate governments, including the quartet’s, is terrified like we’ve never seen it before.

This fear of a “justified” revenge pushed it to scream out and appeal for help from every state, especially that now it’s been distanced and belittled.

It has been spending large amounts of money, like nothing we have ever seen before. The result, however, will be as I have written before; it will submit and sign, maybe behind closed doors.

I think Qatar could have tried to live in isolation without Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain.

It could have been best friends with 200 other countries instead of being reckless and attacking the quartet everywhere.

This behavior will eventually lead to its bankruptcy and make others lose respect for it. It may even provoke its rivals to do far more than what they are currently doing.

Gaza Opens its Doors after Years of Deprivation

Gaza’s leadership finally welcomed the Palestinian Authority with arms wide open to end their dispute.

This is a very important political and humanitarian agreement credited for the government of Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, the first in a decade who succeeded in doing so.

If the deal’s implementation went as planned, and Ramallah and Gaza’s leaders cooperated, one of the worst politicians-made humanitarian disasters would be over.

There is no doubt that Gaza’s leaders, who were drawn into Qatar’s adventures and Iran’s exploitation, are responsible for the dark stage.

For ten painful years the densely populated strip suffered, and its people witnessed devastating wars having no political objectives. The factions in the enclave fought with extremists and radicals.

Trade was banned, tunnels were blocked, swimming in the sea was forbidden, and fishermen were constrained.

The suffering began when the airport, symbol of peace promise and better future, was closed.

Most of Gaza’s news became about the crossing point, and when it would be open for humanitarian cases.

The people’s suffering was neither a national duty nor a political necessity. It was rather a nonsensical disagreement and personal rivalry over leadership.

Not until the new agreement goes into full effect for weeks and months, will we be certain that it will last. However, this remains the best thing that has happened in years.

Can Rami Hamdallah’s government run the enclave and coexist with Hamas simultaneously? Will disagreements be forgotten and replaced by a cooperation that shall unite the strip back with the West Bank?

Many old reasons make this a difficult task, and even if it succeeds today, it might not last.

Gaza’s return to Ramallah is an important sign on the Palestinian leadership’s ability to speak on behalf of all Palestinians.

The reconciliation puts an end to Israel’s rejection of peace claiming that “Hamas,” “Islamic Jihad”, and other armed opposition movements thwarted past attempts for peace.

Reconciliation opens the door to any international desire to launch a new initiative.

Even if a serious peace plan is not produced, at least it will be possible to reform the internal Palestinian situation shattered by conflicts over authority.

Egypt’s return is an important new peace factor. It was responsible for sponsoring the Gaza Strip, hadn’t it been for the Qatari-Iranian interventions that struck Egypt’s role, created a wall of fear and closed the strip.

During the 10 years of intra-Palestinian conflict, Egypt tried to mediate but failed. However, this is the first time we see a sign of hope in ending the conflict between two brothers.

Sincere intentions are required so that the authority isn’t tempted into total domination, nor does it become a victim of Hamas’ deception to open the crossings in order to overcome the crisis, provide its needs, and then return to disagreement and estrangement.

Reconciliation and the opening of Gaza may be the door to regional stability and a sign of an end to regional chaos.

Return of the German Volk

Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, the Alternative for Germany party’s leading politicians, in Berlin on Wednesday.

BERLIN— The Volk is back in its tribal sense. That was the message of Alexander Gauland, a leading politician of the extremist Alternative for Germany (or AfD) party, when he vowed on election night to “take back our country and our Volk!”

Volk means people. Sure it does. It’s a simple little word. Sure it is. Gauland was just feeling giddy because his party had won 94 seats in Parliament, a breakthrough that has reshaped German postwar politics. Sure he was.

I would like to believe in the inoffensive nature of this four-letter word. I can’t, not in Gauland’s mouth. His statement raises the question: Take back Germany from whom? The immigrant rabble, I assume, and the half-breed hordes, and the Muslims who, for the AfD, serve as today’s Jews.

The clamor of Hitler was for “Fuhrer, Volk und Vaterland.” Only membership of the Aryan Volk assured non-inclusion among the doomed masses. They, the others, were the “untermenschen,” or sub-humans: the Jews destined for annihilation, the Slavs destined for slavery.

In 1933, Victor Klemperer, the diarist of the Nazi era, wrote: “Yet again a new opportunity for celebration, a new national holiday for the people: Hitler’s birthday. The term Volk (people) is now as customary in spoken and written language as salt at table, everything is spiced with a soupçon of Volk: Volksfest (festival of the people), Volksgenosse (comrade of the people), Volksgemeinschaft (community of the people.)”

The Federal Republic has journeyed, with detours, from this exclusionary “völkisch” identity to one that is open and inclusive. German identity can never be a simple thing; history dictates that. But Germans, with each post-1945 generation, have grown more comfortable with themselves. Chancellor Angela Merkel has said flatly: “The Volk is everyone who lives in this country.”

That would include, in a population of 82 million, more than one million recent immigrants (many of them Syrian). Last year, the Federal Statistical Office said that roughly 18.6 million people in Germany had a migrant background, or 23 percent of the population.

There is a word in German for the population: “Bevölkerung.” It is as flat, straightforward and bland as “Volk” is charged, emotive and tribal. Between “Volk” and “Bevölkerung,” myth and migration, Germany has sought itself. On the whole it has done well.

And yet, as the election this month showed, even a country with a strong economy and low unemployment is not immune to the anger and fear that feeds the AfD. Looking at the world today I hear Bob Dylan’s words: “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is.”

The something is a violent, reactionary current. It is a rightist, nativist, nationalist and, yes, “völkisch” reaction against globalization, against migration, against miscegenation, against the disappearance of borders and the blurring of genders, against the half-tones of political correctness, against Babel, against the stranger and the other, against the smug self-interested consensus of the urban, global elite.

The indecipherable swirl and cacophony of the modern world feeds unease. Technology is a wonderful thing if you are putting it to use, less so if it is putting an end to your usefulness.

Gauland wants Germany back but the Germany of his fantasy is gone, baby, gone. The British wanted their country back — and got the disaster of Brexit, a delusional act of irreparable self-harm.

Enough Americans wanted something back — a weird, white-dominated pastiche of the 1950s utterly removed from the United States today — to elect Donald Trump, who keeps referring to the need to defend “our people.”

As in: “We need a travel ban for certain dangerous countries, not some politically correct term that won’t help us protect our people.”

Now, “our people,” in the American case, refers to a nation of immigrants (including Trump’s grandfather from Germany), but Trump’s “defense,” like Gauland’s, targets immigrant hordes. As Marx observed, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

Still, the most dangerous thing would be to fail to take these rightist, xenophobic currents seriously, to assume they will go away because logically they should; after all, the world has moved on.

But not all the world: wired metropolises yes, vast peripheries no. The worst form of liberal arrogance is to dismiss the forces that brought Trump to power and are feeding resurgent nationalism around the world. Nobody was ever persuaded by being made to feel stupid.

On the western façade of the Reichstag, which houses the Parliament, is an old inscription: “Dem Deutschen Volke” — “To the German People.” When I lived in Germany, in 2000, there was a furor over a proposal to install in the building a work by the artist Hans Haacke with the illuminated words “Der Bevölkerung” — “To the Population.” Some Germans thought it was insulting. Today, the dedications to people and population are both there.

That’s appropriate. The slogan of the protesting East Germans who brought down the Berlin Wall was “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the People.”) Words, like history, are many-shaded. It depends how they are used.

The great danger is when they lose their meaning entirely, as with Trump; or are deployed to raise W. B. Yeats’s “blood-dimmed tide,” as with Gauland. When both happen at once, beware.

(The New York Times)

Newton’s Third Law in a Country Held Captive

I would have preferred today to write something about the Iraqi Kurdistan referendum and its likely consequences; as it presents a true landmark regardless how one looks at it. However, the sentences passed by Lebanon’s Military Court against the hardline sheikh Ahmad Al-Asir and his followers after convicting them of “confronting the army” is worth some deliberation.

For a start, I would like to say that I do not support sheikh Al-Asir, who has been sentenced to death, nor do I believe he represents the Sunni Muslims whether inside or outside Lebanon. I would even venture further to say that Sunni Muslims benefit nothing by being represented by the sheikh or those like him.

In fact, it is precisely because I regard sheikh Al-Asir an extreme sectarian phenomenon, I am deeply concerned that the above-mentioned sentence – directed exclusively at his person and his sectarian and political current – would recruit hundreds, perhaps thousands to his cause after he becomes a wronged martyr. The Lebanese, whether they are willing to admit it or rather continue with their acts of denials which they have mastered, know only too well the circumstances surrounding the verdict.

They realize the present huge imbalance on the ground in Lebanon. They know where the “legitimate arms’ stand vis-à-vis the ‘illegitimate arms’. Who rules the land and issues orders. Who is ‘guiding and directing the population’ in order to fit its conditions set for the homeland, citizenship, and its ‘certificates’ in patriotism and morals, including his teachings with regard to family life and upbringing. Who escapes justice thanks to its arms-backed power and influence… and who are those solely accused of extremism, ‘terrorism’, ‘takfirism’(i.e. religious extremism), and of course being ‘agents of Israel and America’.

The Lebanese are fully aware of all the above. Indeed, if one thing was missing, it was brought home through social media recently by the footage of a lecture given by sheikh Naim Qassem (the Deputy Secretary General of Hezbollah). In this lecture, sheikh Qassem unequivocally uncovered his candid views about the Lebanon he seeks, its ‘Islamist’ society and politics … from ‘resistance’ (i.e., fighting against Israel and USA), to preventing divorced women from teaching children!

Of course, in such a situation there is no need to ask whatever happened to the suspects in the assassination of Rafic Hariri and his colleagues sought by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). No need either to question why the killer of Lebanese air force officer Samer Hanna in 2008 was set freed on bail 10 months after the “manslaughter”; or what became of the ‘identified’ suspect in the assassination attempt against MP and ex-cabinet minister Butrus Harb, or those who carried out the massive explosions in the Taqwa and Salaam mosques in the city of Tripoli in 2013, in which 49 were killed and more than 800 injured.

Furthermore, is it not strange that Al-Asir was sentenced to death amid ‘doubts’ about the role claimed to have played by his armed adversaries in his case with the Lebanese Army?

Then, if defending the safety and security of the homeland were behind the death sentence, is it not strange that retired Brigadier Fayez Karam was only sentenced to three years imprisonment, later commuted to two, after being actually convicted of “giving information to Israel’ without any objection from Hezbollah which both is an ally of Karam’s party (the Aounist ‘Free Patriot Movement’) and the self-proclaimed sole enemy of Israel? Is it not strange that ex-MP and cabinet minister Michel Samaha, a close friend of the Syrian regime, was only sentenced for 13 years imprisonment despite being convicted to transporting arms and explosives intended for use in a bombings and assassinations campaign aimed at inciting civil strife in Lebanon?

Worse still, is it not curious that many suspected Sunni ‘terrorists’ and ‘Islamists’ jailed in Roumieh Prison (East of Beirut), have never been legally accused, not even of crimes the sentences for which are shorter than the period they should serve had they been actually convicted?!

Facing a preposterous situation like this, I reckon this must be the surest way of recruiting new members for extremist organizations like ISIS. This huge injustice drives many into the bosoms of extremist and terrorist organizations and movements.

This has, in fact, been successfully tried before in Iraq and Syria. The Iranian leadership, whether directly or through its subservient agents in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, had striven to weaken the nationalist, liberal and moderate leftist Sunni Muslims through methodical marginalization and intentional humiliation in order to frustrate and dispirit them; and then accusing them of religious extremism and terrorism … to justify crushing them.

Former Iraqi prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki used this method with the Sunnis of Al-Anbar Province (western Iraq) thus creating an unwilling sectarian ‘incubator’ for Al Qaeda; however, after the ‘Sahwat’ (the Awakening Uprisings) rebelled and expelled Al Qaeda, al-Maliki carried on his policies of intentional marginalization and persecution until ISIS appeared on the scene. The same ISIS Al-Maliki’s government and Iran’s General Qassem Suleimani allowed to attack and occupy the (Sunni) city of Mosul and its environs, which were almost handed over without a shot fired in anger!

In Syria, Al-Assad’s regime invested heavily, for years, in self-proclaimed (Sunni) Islamists, such as Mahmoud Qul-Aghassi “Abu Al-Qa’qa’”. Their task was to smuggle extremists across the borders into Iraq in order to hassle American troops and push for its withdrawal; thus, leaving Iraq an easy trophy for Iran and its subservient Shi’ite ‘Popular Mobilization Forces’ (PMF).

Last but not least, in Lebanon, the same strategy has been adopted to paint the Sunnis as ‘ISIS sympathizers’; although this is completely untrue. Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims are the furthest from religious and sectarian extremism. One of their great ‘muftis’ (religious leaders) was the late Pan-Arabist prime minister Abdul-Hamid Karami, whose two sons Rashid and Omar also became prime ministers.

Indeed, it is ironic that the statue of Abdul-Hamid Karami which stood in his city, Tripoli, for years was taken out by extremists nurtured by the Syrian intelligence agencies. In addition to Karami, it is worth mentioning that at present one of Lebanon’s Sunni ‘muftis’ is the son of a Christian mother, and another has Shi’ite sons-in-law and daughters-in-law! Even as far as prime ministers go, Lebanon has had prime ministers who converted from Sunnism to Shi’ism for reasons connected to inheritance.

Yes, Lebanon’s Sunnis are not ‘extremists’, but there are certainly those who are keen to push them to that corner, without realizing that this is a double-edged sword.

Those pushers betting on Isaac Newton’s ‘Third Law of Motion’ where “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” are risking a lot.

They, through pushing Sunnis to extremism in order to incriminate and destroy them, are not only gambling with the fate of the Middle East and Muslim world; but are also cultivating within their own communities ills that will prove fatal sooner or later.

Zuckerberg’s Preposterous Defense of Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg, shown in Spain last year, defended his company this week from President Trump’s assertion that “Facebook was always anti-Trump.” Credit Pau Barrena/Bloomberg

Responding to President Trump’s tweet this week that “Facebook was always anti-Trump,” Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, defended the company by noting that Mr. Trump’s opponents also criticize it — as having aided Mr. Trump. If everyone is upset with you, Mr. Zuckerberg suggested, you must be doing something right.

“Both sides are upset about ideas and content they don’t like,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “That’s what running a platform for all ideas looks like.”

This doesn’t hold water at all.

Are you bothered by fake news, systematic misinformation campaigns and Facebook “dark posts” — micro-targeted ads not visible to the public — aimed at African-Americans to discourage them from voting? You must be one of those people “upset about ideas” you disagree with.

Are you troubled when agents of a foreign power pose online as American Muslims and post incendiary content that right-wing commentators can cite as evidence that all American Muslims are sympathizers of terrorist groups like ISIS? Sounds like you can’t handle a healthy debate.

Does it bother you that Russian actors bought advertisements aimed at swing states to sow political discord during the 2016 presidential campaign, and that it took eight months after the election to uncover any of this? Well, the marketplace of ideas isn’t for everyone.

Mr. Zuckerberg’s preposterous defense of Facebook’s failure in the 2016 presidential campaign is a reminder of a structural asymmetry in American politics. It’s true that mainstream news outlets employ many liberals, and that this creates some systemic distortions in coverage (effects of trade policies on lower-income workers and the plight of rural America tend to be underreported, for example). But bias in the digital sphere is structurally different from that in mass media, and a lot more complicated than what programmers believe.

In a largely automated platform like Facebook, what matters most is not the political beliefs of the employees but the structures, algorithms and incentives they set up, as well as what oversight, if any, they employ to guard against deception, misinformation and illegitimate meddling. And the unfortunate truth is that by design, business model and algorithm, Facebook has made it easy for it to be weaponized to spread misinformation and fraudulent content. Sadly, this business model is also lucrative, especially during elections. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, called the 2016 election “a big deal in terms of ad spend” for the company, and it was. No wonder there has been increasing scrutiny of the platform.

However, at the slightest sign that Facebook might be pressured to institute at least some sensible oversight (as has happened recently in the German and French elections, when the platform mass-deleted fake accounts), right-wing groups and politicians can swiftly bring Facebook to its heels with charges of bias, because Facebook responds to such pressure as much of the traditional media do: by caving and hiding behind flimsy “there are two sides to everything” arguments.

This right-wing strategy has been used to pressure Facebook since before the presidential election. It was revealed in April 2016, for example, that Facebook was employing a small team of contractors to vet its “trending topics,” providing quality control such as weeding out blatant fake news. A single source from that team claimed it had censored right-wing content, and a conservative uproar ensued, led by organizations like Breitbart. Mr. Zuckerberg promptly convened an apologetic meeting with right-wing media personalities and other prominent conservatives to assure them the site was not biased against them.

Facebook got rid of those contractors, who were already too few for meaningful quality control. So what did it do to stem the obvious rise in the scale and scope of misinformation, fake news and even foreign state meddling on the site in the months leading up to the election? Clearly not enough — for fear, no doubt, that it would again be accused of bias.

Make no mistake: The flood of misinformation and fake news that went viral on the site was visible even to casual observers. A good chunk of such content featured outrageous claims about Hillary Clinton — that she had murdered F.B.I. agents, for example — as well as unfounded assertions that millions of undocumented immigrants were illegally voting.

Even the conservative pundit and wild-eyed conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck, of all people, has expressed befuddlement at the charge that Facebook censored conservative content. He has correctly pointed out that Facebook had been a boon for right-wing groups, especially of the alt-right and Breitbart variety. There has been no change in this state of affairs since the election. Last week, the best-performing post on Facebook was a Breitbart article that called African-American athletes protesting police misconduct “millionaire ingrates.”

While there are plenty of left-wing conspiracy theories, outright fake news and fraudulent sites are more prevalent on the right, especially the far right. Opportunist fake news producers who were creating such content purely to make money typically gave up trying to monetize left-leaning fake news because it didn’t go viral as easily on Facebook.

After the election, Mr. Zuckerberg characterized the suggestion that such misinformation campaigns played an important role in the election to be a “crazy idea.” This week, Mr. Zuckerberg reconsidered that comment, saying it was too dismissive. But his latest comments are still too dismissive, portraying those of us who are worried about misinformation campaigns and deception online as intolerant censors bothered by “ideas and content.”

A more astute observer of American politics than Mr. Zuckerberg might consider that Mr. Trump’s comments are part of an effort to depict Facebook as anti-conservative, lest outrage about the company’s role in the 2016 election prompt the site to adopt policies that would make a repeat of 2016 more difficult.

For those of us who are tolerant of a wide range of ideas and arguments, but would still like deception and misinformation to not have such an easy foothold in society, Mr. Zuckerberg’s comments do not inspire hope. Indeed, people across the political spectrum should be able to agree that not making it so easy, and so lucrative, for fake news to spread widely is better for all of us, since fake news isn’t necessarily a right-wing phenomenon. But since Facebook has no effective competition, we can look forward only to being lectured on being more tolerant of “ideas” we don’t like, and to smug talk of the false equivalency of “both sides.”

(The New York Times)

Trump Stands at the Edge of a Cliff with Kim Jong Un. Time to Start Dealing.

President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Top US officials have said repeatedly that America is seeking a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis with North Korea. But President Trump’s insulting comments toward North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appear to have made such a negotiated settlement more difficult.

In the chaotic government-by-Twitter atmosphere of the Trump administration, no senior leader has publicly questioned whether the president’s trash talk about “Rocket Man” and his threat to “totally destroy” North Korea have undermined his own strategy. But there’s growing concern that, as former US diplomat and North Korea expert Joseph DeThomas wrote Monday on the 38 North blog, Trump’s comments “may have closed any remaining doors” to a quick diplomatic resolution of the standoff.

Experienced Korea watchers believe that Trump’s threats have deepened Kim’s resistance to concessions and that the North Korean leader is unlikely to back down in the face-off with Washington. By responding personally to Trump’s bluster and issuing his own counterthreats, Kim has attached his personal prestige and his family’s demigod status to the confrontation.

Trump’s disruptive comments have doubtless caused some head-scratching in Pyongyang, as leaders there try to discern the signal from the noise. But any benefits of Trump’s unpredictability were probably erased by threats to obliterate North Korea and its leaders if they remain defiant.

Officials who appeared hopeful about diplomatic prospects just a few weeks ago now seem concerned that Kim may seek another round of escalation. One possibility is an intercontinental ballistic missile test, arcing far out over the Pacific, to demonstrate North Korea’s range. North Korea could perhaps even mount a hydrogen warhead atop one of these missiles so that it exploded in the ocean, though that would risk prompt US retaliation. The North Koreans could also test submarine-launched ballistic missiles to demonstrate a second-strike capability following any US preemptive attack.

Conflict certainly isn’t inevitable, even after Monday’s claim by Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho that Trump’s UN comments meant “the United States declared war on our country.” But analysts believe Ri’s threats to attack planes that fly near North Korean airspace were serious. As both sides increasingly accompany their rhetoric with displays of military hardware, the risk of accident and miscalculation grows.

Korea watchers stress that for 70 years, North Korea’s identity has been that of a defiant small country, armed to the teeth, that survives by not giving in to any outside threat. The regime’s attitude is: “We don’t mind dying, but we’ll make you pay a price that you won’t want to pay.”

The Trump administration has hoped to use China as leverage against this meddlesome foe. But Pyongyang seems impervious to Beijing’s threats, too. Even as China has joined in UN Security Council sanctions, North Korea has denounced what it sees as the perfidy of its neighbor.

An example of Pyongyang’s indignation is an article titled “Chinese Media’s Shameless and Impudent Acts Blasted,” distributed Sept. 22 by North Korea’s official news agency. Calling sanctions “the dirty excrement of the reactionaries of history,” the article said North Koreans “really feel shame” when they see China “kowtow to the US.” The article describes an uncorrupted North Korea proudly resisting alone: “Though small in territory and population, the people of the DPRK have such fortune . . . standing against the ‘world’s only superpower.’ ”

Hopes that Kim’s inner circle may fragment as the confrontation escalates are probably misplaced. Senior North Korean military, intelligence and political officials appear convinced that if Kim’s regime implodes, they go down with it. The fate of Saddam Hussein’s family and associates offers a grim lesson that insiders can’t easily separate from the regime.

What road map might allow the United States and North Korea to move away from the brink? Probably it would begin with a concession from Washington that eased North Korea’s anxiety. One possibility would be a US proposal to limit the scope of the next joint US-South Korean military exercise, in 2018.

A wild card would be a dramatic gesture by Trump to “go to Korea,” as Dwight D. Eisenhower pledged to do in 1952, during the height of the Korean War. For a president who loves drama, it would be hard to beat a meeting at the demilitarized zone.

The first steps away from confrontation will have to be small. Trump’s rhetoric has probably torched the big bargain, for now. An initial statement to reduce tensions could be followed by other confidence-building measures, and then, eventually, by talks about de-nuclearization and reduction of US forces in the region.

The humbling lesson that Trump must learn: He has blustered his way to the edge of a cliff. Now he must stop fulminating and start dealing.

(The Washington Post)

Steering the Battle Towards Saada

Houthis

Saada is the Yemeni governorate south of Saudi Arabia and home to the Iran-affiliated Houthi and Ansar Allah’s militias.

It is not an exaggeration to assume that through those militias, Iran wants to establish a presence on Saudi Arabia’s southern borders which poses a serious threat not only to the kingdom, but also to any authority that rules Sana’a.

Iran’s allies, the Houthis, fought five wars against the government forces during the presidential term of Ali Abdullah Saleh and they attacked Saudi Arabia in 2009. They undermined the UN-sponsored Yemeni agreement when their militias entered Sana’a and seized power in September 2014.

Saudi Arabia has two goals to achieve in Yemen: solidify legitimacy of its neighboring country given that stability and security in Yemen are vital, and protect its borders and territories from chaos, terrorism and smuggling.

The kingdom fears that Houthis are the Trojan Horse where Iranians hide to besiege Saudi Arabia.

Currently, they continue to attack the border and cities of Saudi Arabia. Had it not been for the kingdom’s advanced defense capabilities, missiles would have caused severe damage and panic in the southern cities and major ones like Jeddah, Mecca and Taif.

Now that over one third of Yemen’s territories have been liberated and are governed by legitimate forces under the Saudi-led coalition, Riyadh has good options. The first option is to continue with the war and fight hostile forces, as well as Saleh’s troops, Houthi militias and al-Qaeda in Yemen.

The second option is to settle with what has been achieved and resume military support of the legitimate government to strengthen its influence in areas under its control. The third option is to protect its territories and create a buffer zone, south of its borders, including Saada.

I believe that a full-scaled war may take a long time and is not necessary now that the legitimate government is in Aden, and especially since Sana’a no longer has any influence on the rest of the state.

The second option, completely giving up on the war, is not practical because parties like Iran and al-Qaeda will be empowered and legitimacy will weaken.

The third option of creating a buffer zone will unify all capabilities to attack the Houthis in their home.

If the campaign is a success, its results will serve Saudi Arabia and the rest of Yemen, because the Houthis are responsible for most of the crisis. By eliminating this rotten element from Yemen, stability will be achieved in the north and Saudi Arabia will be protected. After that, we can focus on Sana’a.

Houthis are a relatively small Yemeni component that does not exceed 3 percent of the country’s population and perhaps their supporters are double that due to their ideological, political and military activity.

We do not have reliable information about the number of their forces and deployment, but we know that they are a small armed and religiously extremist group that ideologically and politically follows Iran.

The Houthi threat can be better understood when compared to al-Qaeda, which it resembles a lot. The small number of Houthi followers does not make them any less dangerous In fact, they are committed ideologically and they glorify waging religious “jihad” according to their religious interpretations.

Therefore, without any siege imposed on Houthis, they will continue to pose a chronic and dangerous threat to everyone. It is possible to cooperate with Yemeni tribes in the north as they have always been Saudi Arabia’s allies and a source of stability there.

Houthis can be deterred in Saada, the headquarters of their tribal and military leadership, and then its militias in other conflict zones will be abolished.

When they retreat from Sana’a as a result of the Saada war, it will be easier for parties to agree on a peaceful solution for whoever is left in the city.

The situation as it is today suggests that Houthis and Saleh have failed miserably. Since the war began they failed to establish their own state and failed to prevent exiled legitimacy from returning to Yemen.

However, one cannot deny that even though they are militias, not armies, they are capable of engaging in further clashes. If Houthi power is crushed in their governorate, the rebellion might be completely extinguished.

From Barcelona to Irbil

Catalonia

My British neighbor has been anxious for days. He has been following up on the news on the television and internet. He has a feeling of imminent disaster. He has forgotten all about the Brexit and his current and future concerns. He ignored the conference of the conservative party and daggers hidden behind smiles. He is preoccupied by a much greater and more serious issue. What will happen to the Barcelona football club if Sunday’s referendum ended with the declaration of Catalonia’s independence? That would be a disaster. The prestigious team will no longer be part of the Spanish league and it will also no longer be part of the European league that has cemented its status as a major club.

My neighbor is very serious. He believes that a handful of Catalan politicians do not have the right to gamble with the fate of a club that is considered one of the symbols of their modern history. He also does not recognize the right of the voters to determine the fate of this success story. This issue is no longer about a city or a region. It is about those who loved the vision of generals, who brandished the club’s flag. He said that peoples should not be swept by national and popular tensions every time ballot boxes are opened. The Catalans should remember that some of those who achieved glories with Barcelona FC came from other nationalities and played under different flags.

I tried to persuade him that this issue is greater than the fate of a football club. He said that he is not worried about that. The Europeans have abandoned the habit of civil wars and of drawing borders with blood. The Yugoslav file was a passing incident and an exception to this rule. The institutions of the Old Continent have overcome world wars and the demise of the Soviet Union, whose remnants are gathering dust in museums. Furthermore, economic facts will soon cool the hotheads and break down the aura of the populists.

My neighbor does not believe that Catalonia will jump off the Spanish train that it has been riding for five centuries. Its previous attempts have failed. In addition, it is standing in a good position and it is the best among Spanish regions. It also stands out from among European provinces. Its popular differences do not need to be underlined. Its successes are clear in the industrial, economic and touristic sectors. Its culture is not under threat and its capital, Barcelona, is a jewel in the European crown and one of the most economically and culturally dynamic cities.

Catalonia’s story seems to be indeed odd. Have old wounds been reopened among its people? Have they coincided with the anti-centralism sentiment and the rise of the populists and their exceptional ability to influence followers through social media? Has globalization helped awaken small identities and this leaning towards isolation? Are these the same winds that have blown through Quebec and Scotland and which will blow again in Spain’s Basque Country if Catalonia indeed succeeds in gaining independence?

The Catalans can use the excuse that international laws speak of the rights of people to determine their fate. It is clear however that this right is granted to people who are suffering under occupation or to minorities who are threatened by genocide at the hands of a bloody tyranny. This definitely does not apply to Catalonia.

Of course, we cannot deny that Franco’s Spain weakened the Catalan voice and cracked down on their language and culture, but Franco is now languishing in the tombs of history.

Every population or group has a wounds left over from history. Catalonia cannot speak of exceptional suffering in the past decades. It cannot compare itself to the Kurdistan region that suffered through the Anfal operations that left 180,000 dead and the destruction of several villages. Barcelona cannot speak of suffering at the hands of “Chemical Ali.” Madrid has not and will not stop paying the salaries of the Catalan employees. Catalonia is lucky that it does not carry such wounds and scars.

Europe and the terrible Middle East cannot be compared to each other. We are part of the most fragile region in the world. We drink from the streams of fear and we teach that to our children. Our maps are weak as are our constitutions. If the winds blew away a dictator, the country will be overrun by countless militias.

Every time a Kurdish leader speaks of independence, an earthquake takes place. Border drills are staged. Fears that other minorities will follow their lead. The drums of war start beating.

Yesterday, European experts observed the Catalan referendum. They clearly said that Catalonia’s independence, should it happen, will not lead to the establishment of an independent state. Madrid considers the referendum unconstitutional and illegal. The European countries will not recognize any state that arises from it. Force is not the solution to confronting millions of voters. Force favors the extremists. Dialogue is the only option. Some experts believe that saving Spain’s unity deserves considering other options, such as a confederate system.

It is likely that Haidar al-Abadi and Masoud Barzani followed the Catalan referendum. The two men know that our culture does not believe much in the tango, where each dancer has to coordinate his steps with his partner. They know that our culture does not favor a marriage between equals or permits a smooth divorce. All this does not however merit threats or preparing for war. Iraq and the Kurds have suffered enough. New bold ideas are needed. Saving Iraq is worth searching for several options, including possibly a confederacy.

The story in Catalonia is greater than a match between Barcelona FC and Real Madrid. The story in Baghdad is greater than the tensions between Irbil and Baghdad. Admitting the failure of coexistence is a fatal blow to countries and their borders. Coexistence must be saved, even if that requires difficult decisions. It not yet too late in Madrid and Barcelona or in Baghdad and Irbil.