Is it worse or better in the Middle East today?

Is it worse or better in the Middle East today?

By Harry Hagopian
10 Sep 2010

“It’s always the same. It won’t change. Neither will it get better nor will it get worse. All we can say is God willing. What else do you say?” I came across this quotation from Khalil Ahmed, an engineer in Baghdad, recently in one of my daily news despatches. And what a thought-provoking - let alone challenging - statement it was, just before President Obama had announced an end to the American combat mission(s) in Iraq by declaring that it was time ‘to turn the page’ and had initiated a phased withdrawal from the country by sending thousands of American troops into neighbouring Kuwait.

Yet, have we truly moved on in Iraq? What about the remaining 50,000 or so troops still in the country, albeit hidden away from public view in al-Balad base in the middle of nowhere? Is President Obama succeeding in putting an end to this tragic war initiated by his predecessor? Or are the realities the same although a different template might well have been deployed to emulate perchance the lessons of the US-South Korean model? Or has Iraq become the new Germany of the Middle East?

Could it be that what we are caught up in a hall of mirrors where the status quo ante continues in a virtual sense whereby the military occupation is now being re-branded as one of international contingency or stability operations? What about the outsourcing of such an occupation to private security contractors? Over seven years after releasing an unstoppable genie from an Iraqi murky bottle, we have witnessed the consolidation of al-Qa’eda and its terrorist affiliates in Iraq and the region, let alone the spreading of Iranian influence as well as bloody attacks and internecine squabbles that continue to date.

Just consider those chilling statistics that came out on 18 August 2010: ever since 2003, we have witnessed the heart-wrenching deaths of 4419 American troops, 316 other soldiers from different allied countries (including 180 from the UK) as well as 31,639 wounded men and women. Those figures also do not even begin to consider the 9368 Iraqi military deaths, the well over 100,000 dead (an extremely conservative estimate from Iraq Body Count when compared with other figures and sources), the 2.2 million internally displaced persons or the 1.8 million refugees. Should I also add that the USA has spent roughly US$ 900 billion on this war effort, or the equivalent of US$ 5000 per second? And at a time of a painful belt-tightening global recession, when many ordinary people fret about their daily bread and butter issues, how much have we got to show for all those sacrifices that have afflicted the allied forces as much as Iraqis themselves?

Of course, we got rid of a virulent and brutal dictator, not unlike others across the world, and for that I am unreservedly grateful. But in his place, we have cloned many mini-Saddams - a group of Iraqi politicians who cannot even decide upon a government six months after the parliamentary elections. Two parties, and their junior allies or supporters, are jousting for the leadership of the country and are heeding the orders coming from outside. Iraq might well bleed, Sunnis and Shi’is might be facing each other in an indirect regional confrontation and the Kurds might be making political hay while the sun shines as they prepare for the moment when they could possibly be compromised again. We also have a government that is seemingly steeped in incompetence and possible corruption running a country that is potentially the second oil-producer after Saudi Arabia but still cannot get its crucial oil law agreed upon, resolve the future of the disputed and mineral-rich Kirkuk or protect its targeted and harassed Christian or other minorities (such as in the Nineveh and Kirkuk governorates).

So welcome to the Iraq of 2010 - the attempts at democracy have been so ill-begotten that they were best described in the New York Times on 2 August by Haitham Farhan, a shop owner in Baghdad who has to steal electricity to keep running his business when he exclaimed that “democracy did not bring us anything. Democracy brought us a can of Coke and a beer.” Indeed, when some commentators claim that the situation in Iraq has improved over the past three or four years following the 2003 invasion, I wonder what benchmark they use to reach those sanguine conclusions? Are they comparing Iraq today with its immediate post-2003 chaos or else with its pre-2003 situation before the regime of sanctions kicked in?

Am I woeful and even a tad soulful? Probably, since our cherished Western values got muddied in a campaign that had little to do with democracy and much more [to do] with resources. The writing on the wall has been clear ever since George W was instructed by God to invade Iraq and our own staunch Tony Blair joined him in this pointless adventure. With Prime Minister Nouri el Maliki on his way out anyhow, our politicians deliberately or ignorantly misread to this day, the bold writing on the wall.

Equally worrying for me are the events that have overtaken Lebanon in the past few weeks. This tiny country has been further polarised by rumours of an imminent indictment being handed down by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) in the Hague, which allegedly links some Hizbullah members to the assassination of the former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri. So Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of this Shi’i powerful party, has been upping the ante in successive television appearances by rejecting any such possible indictment and deftly steering the finger of accusation for Hariri’s assassination toward Israel. He and his old or new acolytes - including Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), who often changes his political postures to ensure his survival, and protect his Druze community, let alone secure his son Taymour’s chances for succession - have seemingly joined hands to dredge up the issue of false witnesses as well as circumstantial satellite photos in order to divert the impact of this possible indictment - or else.

I am unsure when the STL Canadian chief prosecutor, Daniel Bellamare, will issue an indictment, nor what it might actually contain, but there are serious political pressures today labouring to delay any putative release that could fuel another massive bout of sectarian feuds in Lebanon. But Bellamare, in a rare interview with the electronic Now Lebanon publication on 31 August, clearly rejected the idea that an indictment is forthcoming and refused unequivocally to politicise the judicial due process. So what is happening today is less about indictments, and much more about regional tugs-of-war for influence and dominion.

Indeed, the old alliances that were forged in Lebanon since 2005 are shifting once again - as the recent bloody battles between Hizbullah (backed principally by Iran) and the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects or Al-Ahbash (backed over many decades by Syria) in the streets of Borj Abi Haidar proved to all seasoned political pundits. In fact, one of the consequences of the much-vaunted but brief joint visit to Beirut last month by the Saudi Arabian king and Syrian president, appears to be the emergence of an international consensus aimed at containing Hizbullah. But why weaken Hizbullah one might ask, if that is what is truly on the agenda?

The payoff, I believe, will be the strengthening and re-introduction of the Syrian presence in Lebanon as a bulwark against a Shi’i militia that has held Lebanon hostage for many years. Otherwise put, half the Lebanese overall population that has been complaining for years about the control of Lebanese key institutions by Hizbullah, could well witness it being traded off with a new Syrian accrued presence in the country that might be different in format from that which occurred during the period from 1976 to 2005. Yet it will have the effect of a new form of authority over the country.

The Lebanese are mainly being asked to accept domination by an Arab - largely Sunni - country (Syria) rather than one by a Shi’i Iran and its Hizbullah allies. If this were to happen, it could spell the death knell for the chimerical and flash hopes that were raised in 2005 for an independent and sovereign Lebanon for all citizens - hopes, incidentally, that also cost the lives of a number of Lebanese prominent civilian and military men and women from all sides.

How will this play in the country as a whole? It depends to some extent on the reaction of Lebanese politicians in the face of those exiguous forces. As things stand today, there are serious cleavages between the different Christian parties representing an embattled, embittered and disquietingly rudderless community, see-sawing principally between General Michel Aoun (FPM) and Dr Samir Geagea (LF). Moreover, the tectonic tensions between Sunnis and Shi’is are barely kept beneath the surface, and there are now telling - and growing - signs of a modicum of Shi’i-Shi’i tensions between Hizbullah and Amal over their response to the latest political and concomitant geo-strategic re-orientations, both in Lebanon and regionally.

However, such sectarian, let alone personal, power plays aside, the Lebanese deputies did make some progress recently when Parliament adopted a law granting improved employment rights to the roughly 400,000 Palestinian refugees living in the country. It lifted a number of former restrictions on employment for Palestinian refugees who will now have the right to work in many fields that were open to foreigners, with benefits including social security from their own special fund.

Moreover, the deputies approved a petroleum excavation law that could be a long-term answer to the endemic electricity shortages and power-cuts in the country as it paves the way for an auction on exploration rights. The law would also help Lebanon divide its reserves into blocks and eventually bring in tenders and start looking into power-sharing agreements. The Norway-based Petroleum Geo-Services has announced that the Lebanese waters contain ‘valuable information’ on potential offshore gas reserves.

However, the US-based Noble Energy has also announced plans to begin drilling in autumn in the Rachel and Amit licences of the massive Leviathan prospect located offshore [from] Israel, adding that it has discovered enough natural gas at the Israeli Tamar and Dalit offshore fields. Those developments evidently exacerbate tensions between Lebanon and Israel which do not enjoy formal or clear UN-endorsed maritime borders.

I fear Lebanon is possibly being propped up once more to serve as a proxy terrain for the gripes, scores and even wars of its neighbours, although the erupting conflagration this time round might well go beyond its borders and engulf other countries. This is why the sputtering National Dialogue headed by the president of the republic, or the latest campaign for an arms-free Beirut, will not in themselves ward off any major confrontations unless Lebanese politicians learn the difficult art of living together, despite their eighteen different confessional backgrounds, and start thinking of the collective interest of the country rather than those loyal to their own camps.

Sadly, the primal Christian misperception - almost a boast in some undeveloped minds - that a Sunni-Shi’i meltdown would be beneficial to the Christian communities, is lamentable. The Maronite Cardinal Mar Nasrallah Sfeir is well aware of those pitfalls and strives to keep the lid on such ambitions whilst simultaneously undergirding the Christian communities in the country. Similarly, any major Sunni-Shi’i confrontation will boomerang upon Lebanon and also globally, and should not be viewed by an Iran-sceptic Western world as an intelligible long-term strategy.

Irrespective of the uncertain tensions simmering both in Iraq and Lebanon, it is impossible to ignore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is the hub of tensions region-wide. Following weeks of intense pressure by the US Administration, Israel and the Palestinian Authority both finally agreed to fortnightly direct negotiations starting on 2 September in Washington DC, in an effort to seek once more a lasting peace to a conflict of competing nationalisms between those two Semitic peoples.
But the history of this conflict to date, has been one of endless durable processes that have not translated into peace. Even before the talks have kicked off in earnest, the yawning gap between both sides is once again becoming patently apparent.

Although Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu agreed grudgingly to direct negotiations following the inertia of the proximity talks, he has nonetheless set three thwarting sine qua non conditions that stymie the course of a process aiming to create an independent Palestinian state by 2011. He demands the implementation of Israeli-friendly security arrangements (including, critically, in the Jordan Valley), the recognition of Israel as a Jewish homeland and an agreement that an accord would spell an end to the conflict. In other words, apart from inherent racist connotations, Israel is ab initio disempowering any future Palestinian state by turning it into a Bantustan that has no sovereignty, contiguity or geopolitical relevance, but becomes a puppet entity.

It is also ignoring the reality that one-fifth of the non-Jewish population of Israel is Arab-Palestinian, let alone annulling the notional right of return for refugees - especially from Lebanon, but also from elsewhere - as enshrined in UNSCR 194. No wonder then, that the Arab press editorials are writing in their majority that this latest chapter is a process of istislam (surrender) and not salaam (peace). To paraphrase the late Mahmoud Darwish, who once described Palestinian aspirations with rueful irony, the idea of the [Palestinian] state is so big but the state [of Palestine] itself is so small!

The situation remains grave because all the actors who are meant to help facilitate the resolution of the conflict are powerless or disinclined - or both. The Quartet that houses the USA, the Russian Federation, the EU and the UN and employs a former British Prime Minister as its envoy, cannot seemingly fulfil its role of proper facilitator. The US Administration, on the other hand, states time and again that it is unwilling to pressure Israel into any of those painful concessions that are necessary for peace and that would in return also warrant Palestinian concessions. Instead, it pressures the Palestinians even more and polarises the Arab and Muslim streets further.

Even this latest round of talks - not unlike the US-sponsored Annapolis conference of November 2007 - is somehow a vainglorious attempt to shore up the falling popularity ratings of all three leaders, rather than a genuine endeavour at peace-making. The Arab World, for its part, also lacks any discernible strategy to counter Israeli expansionist policies and invests its time in making grandiloquent statements and holding conferences under the auspices of a semi-defunct Arab League, then sliding back into political hibernation. Need I also add that Palestinians are themselves sorely divided - with no credible prospect for reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, despite numerous vacuous expressions to the contrary - and have both lost their bite and bark?

The Palestinian Authority is weak and unpopular, despite Dr Salam Fayyad’s functional attempts at re-constructing economically a virtual state, whereas Hamas is becoming an increasingly power-hungry and obscurantist religious movement whose dictates do not subscribe to Palestinian popular aspirations. Indeed, any future Palestinian state is almost redundant today. Let me quote again Mahmoud Darwish, who mirrored the loss of a homeland, the frustrations of being under siege and occupation, when he exclaimed in his poem The Earth is Closing on Us “Where should we go after the last frontier? Where should birds fly after the last sky?”

So it is no cataclysm that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the ultra-orthodox Shas movement ‘prayed’ to the Almighty during his Sabbath sermon on 29 August 2010 that Abu Mazen and all Palestinians should become plague-ridden and perish from the face of this earth. Yet, do we witness any outcry from those promoting peace or marketing reconciliation?

If so, what does it take to sue for peace between Israelis and Palestinians? Is it an impossible dream? Not really, since the avenues for a solution are almost akin to the Clinton parameters that were honed over seventeen years of marathon and detailed final status negotiations at Camp David, and later at Taba, during the now much-maligned Oslo chapter. In parallel, there is also the Arab Initiative that enjoys the endorsement of 57 Arab and Muslim states. Indeed, the zones of agreement are already clear and the necessary trade-offs are familiar. Besides, both peoples constantly poll their support for peace within the framework of a two-state solution.

So the question is not one of finding solutions, but of implementing them. However, the majority of the Israeli political establishment - not unlike Hamas in an obverse sense - does not want to resolve the conflict and establish peace with the Palestinians but prefers instead to manage the conflict and perpetuate it in order to preserve the Zionist identity and its raison d’être.

Yet, one big irony is that it is not peace that will eventually erode Jewish nationalism, but ideological settlers who hold the region to ransom and whose rabid theft of Palestinian land fuels the kind of violence we witnessed two days ago. At the end of the Clinton administration, I recall Shimon Peres observing wryly that “history is like a horse that gallops past your window and the true test of statesmanship is to jump from that window onto the horse.” I would, however, submit it is Israel that refuses to jump onto the horse, and has moreover removed the saddle to prevent Palestinians from jumping on it too. One conclusion is that Israel needs a foe, not peace, to ensure its unity, social cohesion and ultimately survival - and Palestinians fit the bill. As the Greek poet Constantine P Cavafy wrote in Waiting for the Barbarians , “And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? They were, those people, a kind of solution.”

Iraq, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine … and other tensions such as the multi-polar confrontations in Yemen, the fissures in Egypt or the theocratic excesses in Iran, are not leading the world into a clash of civilisations or cultures, but into one of political rivalries masked as religious face-offs. And in such zero-sum confrontations, when justice becomes inconsequential, there is no clear-cut winner, but obvious losers - ordinary citizens who get maltreated as chattels and manoeuvred into manumission.

Is it worse or better in the Middle East today? I still hold onto dear hope, but I leave it to your political imagination.

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© Harry Hagopian is an International lawyer and EU political consultant. He also acts as Middle East advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris and is a regular Ekklesia contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly, he was Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches. He is a member of, and adviser to, the Armenian Orthodox Church. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net

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