Friday, December 31, 2010


This editorial was published in The Jordan Times on 31/12/2010

We reached again, and quite fast, alas, the threshold of a new year. Nations across the globe celebrate this occasion with much jubilation, usually hoping that the new year will bring positive changes in the lives of peoples and better relations among nations.

The year that has just ended had its more or less customary ups and downs, witnessing natural catastrophes in many parts of the world and the miraculous escape of Chilean miners after a long ordeal underground, rescue celebrated across the world.

The April oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, on the other hand, may have topped the list of disasters this year.

Passengers trapped at airports - because of the Icelandic volcanic ash and, more recently, because of severe snowstorms - are part of this year’s overall picture, proving, once again, man’s helplessness in the face of nature.

On the political and economic fronts, there have been no major achievements. The world economy, ours included, showed a few timid signs of recovery, but these stayed just that, with no major buttressing or spectacular revival. Even if some countries were doing better, bailing out industries or other nations took a toll, eclipsing any progress.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict seemed to be getting a boost when direct negotiations between the two began, only to end in utter failure because of Israel’s defiance of international law and community.

In Lebanon, the international tribunal mandated to look into the assassination of prime minister Rafik Hariri split, again, the country, while in Iraq, after almost 10 months of uncertainty and haggling, Nouri Maliki finally succeeded in forming a government, just a few days ago.

Afghanistan is still torn by war and violence, a situation from which the US seeks to extricate itself, and Iran is threatening by its nuclear programme.

Acts of terrorism have increased, with scores of innocent people falling prey to ruthless individuals who have no respect for human life.

Relations between Washington and Moscow warmed up in the wake of the approval of the START programme, limiting the number of warheads and coming up with effective means of inspecting nuclear sites.

Global warming was tackled, but no immediate solution seems to be in sight, which should give way to no smaller worries than the global economy.

WikiLeaks will probably go down in history as the biggest happening of the year, proving, above all, that technology is not infallible.

All the above, and more, will accompany us into the new year and will have to be tackled. But, more importantly, the quality of human life, progress in the fight against diseases, and uplifting the marginalised and disadvantaged among us should be of main concern.

It is hope for better tidings that keeps most of us in a joyous spirit on the occasion of the new year.

And, hopefully, the days ahead will still surprise us and make it a great and happy year.

Lebanon Is Staring Into The Abyss

Whatever the tribunal into the death of Rafik Hariri decides, it will pour petrol on Lebanon's raging fire

By Fawaz Gerges
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 31/12/2010

Saad Hariri
Saad Hariri says he recognises fears of the politicisation of the tribunal and potential implications of an indictment of Hezbollah. Photograph: Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty

Once again, Lebanon is on the brink of major social and political upheaval. Rumours of an impending armed clash between Hezbollah and the pro-western governing coalition have spread like wildfire among the Lebanese people, who are hoarding food and arms in anticipation of the worst.

On the surface of it, the current crisis revolves around a United Nations tribunal set up to investigate the 2005 assassination of prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. An indictment from the tribunal is imminent; there is increasing evidence that the tribunal will accuse members of Hezbollah, the Shia-dominated resistance movement, as having played a central role in the assassination. If true, this could provide the spark that ignites the next confrontation.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has repeatedly dismissed the tribunal as an "American-Israeli" tool intended to incite sectarian strife in Lebanon. He has warned that the looming indictment will be an act of war against his group. He has demanded that the Lebanese government – led by Saad Hariri, the son of the late prime minister – distance itself from the UN tribunal and renounce it before the indictment is released.

On a deeper level, the standoff reflects a broader institutional crisis. Lebanon's institutions are dysfunctional and defective; they have failed dismally to mediate conflict among rival groups, as well as to integrate rising social forces into the political process. The Hariri tribunal is a case in point. Lebanon's three major institutions, the presidency, the cabinet and the parliament, are paralysed, unable to solve the impending crisis.

The recent impasse is mired by a series of "false witnesses" linked to the UN probe into Hariri's killing. Consequently, all eyes are now on Saudi Arabia and Syria, the two regional patrons of the rival Lebanese camps. They have attempted for months now to broker a settlement (with little success so far) that nullifies the tribunal and thus averts bloodshed. On the other hand, the United States has reportedly impressed on its allies the need to show resolve in the face of Hezbollah's threats and support the tribunal.

Sadly, Lebanon's leaders have forsaken their responsibility and have resigned themselves to the belief that the resolution of the tribunal problem lies in the Saudi-Syrian initiative. Lebanon's national unity government has proven to be an unworkable mixture of ministers from across the political spectrum. An abject failure, this multi-coloured cabinet has stalled all efforts to pass crucial policies.

Institutionally, Lebanon is a failed state. The political class has consciously and systemically used identity-politics to advance its material interests and undermine institution-building and nation-building; in moments of duress it has called on foreign powers to sustain its dominance.

Far from being sectarian-based or driven, the power struggle in Lebanon is multi-layered and complex. Sectarianism is used and abused to mask vested interests and differences.

On one level, the political class is divided along two camps: Lebanon-first v Arab-Islamic. The Lebanon-first constituency advocates a pro-western foreign policy and active neutrality in the Arab-Israeli conflict. In contrast, the Arab-Islamic constituency supports al-muqawama or "the resistance" against Israel and the Iranian-Syrian front.

On another level, the power struggle conceals changes in the demographics of Lebanese society which have not been given their equal representation in the political system. While Maronites and Sunnis formally control executive power, the rising Shia community, disfranchised historically, feels under-represented and politically marginalised.

Moreover, Lebanon is a battleground for a fierce confrontation between the US and its regional allies, on the one hand, and Iran-Syria and their local friends, on the other. A bitter struggle has exacted a heavy toll on the stability and security of the tiny country and paralysed its institutions further.

In a way, the fight over the UN tribunal is an extension of the US-Iranian rivalry. Hezbollah fears the tribunal is politicised, a tool of US policy, designed to weaken and destroy the resistance against Israel. The Obama administration hopes that the indictment of Hezbollah will expose the warts of Iran and Syria and their surrogates in Lebanon and hammer a deadly nail in the moral standing of Hezbollah throughout the region. What US officials neglect is the effects of such an indictment on social harmony and peace in Lebanon.

Lebanon faces a stark choice between justice and stability. There is a real danger that justice is no longer achievable and that the costs are exuberant. Regardless of the evidence marshalled by the tribunal, thedecision will likely pour gasoline on a raging fire and reinforce the two camps' opposing narratives: Hezbollah's cohorts will view it as a conspiracy, while for Hariri's supporters, conclusive evidence of the guilt of the Iranian-Syrian camp.

Hariri says that he recognises the fears of the politicisation of the tribunal and the potential implications of an indictment of Hezbollah. On the other hand, Hariri has asserted that he cannot renounce the tribunal because he wants the assassins of his father to be brought to justice, and because he possesses no authority over the UN tribunal. Hariri is also under pressure by the Americans to buckle up and back the tribunal.

No matter if Lebanon can weather the gathering storm, this will not be the first crisis, or the last. The country's dilemma is structural; as long as Lebanon's political class substitutes identity-politics for formal institutions, it will continue to be politically unstable. As long as Lebanon's leaders rely on foreign intervention to tip the internal balance of power in their favour, they will remain passive bystanders in determining their country's future.

With Friends Like Avigdor Lieberman

What is surprising is not the Israeli Foreign Minister's views but Benjamin Natanyahu's tolerance of his expressing them

By Donald Macintyre
This commentary was published in The Independent on 31/12/2010

Those puzzling in Britain on how far public disagreement should be allowed between members of a coalition Cabinet may like to consider the case of the Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman. In Israel, where, unlike in Britain, coalition has always been the norm, the stiff-upper-lip concept of collective responsibility has never been a big deal. Disputes are out in the open, and often remain so after the decision in question has been taken. Yet even by these relatively lax standards Mr Lieberman has boldly gone where few, if any, ministers have gone before.

Mr Lieberman is after all supposed to be the leading spokesman for the government abroad and might therefore be thought to have a special responsibility to express government policy. In September, however, at the UN General Assembly in New York, he made a speech diametrically opposing the position of Prime Minister Netanyahu (or at least the public one), that it was possible to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians within a year. Mr Lieberman said that even an "intermediate" deal could take decades, and went on to expound his own highly personal – and, to many, toxic – proposal for "static transfer" by locating the most populous Israeli Arab area in a distantly future Palestine.

Then this week, he did it again. Just as efforts, undoubtedly in Israel's strategic interest, were being made to patch up relations with Turkey that had gone into deep freeze after Israel's lethal raid on the Gaza-bound vessel Mavi Marmara, Mr Lieberman chose to denounce the Turkish leadership for their "lies", going on to reaffirm his opposition to reaching an agreement with the "illegitimate" moderate Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. The Israeli Foreign Minister, in other words, has made a mockery of Lyndon Johnson's famous remark about why it was better to keep J Edgar Hoover on at the FBI. Mr Lieberman is inside the tent. And he is pissing in as well as out.

What is surprising is not Mr Lieberman's views on these topics but Mr Netanyahu's seemingly inexhaustible tolerance for his expression of them. It can be debated whether an ultra-nationalist who fought the last election on a proposal to force Israeli Arabs to swear allegiance to the Jewish state in order to qualify for citizenship, and who once said that Arab parliamentarians who talked to Hamas should be executed, could ever become the Israeli Prime Minister. But one point on which both men seem agreed – and they are not alone – is that Mr Lieberman remains Mr Netanyahu's most dangerous rival on the right. And Mr Netanyahu has apparently decided, for now at least, that his Foreign Minister is marginally less threatening inside his coalition than out of it.

Mr Netanyahu's refusal to sack his Foreign Minister has therefore been widely read in Israel as growing weakness. And it is made the more inevitable by the lack of an alternative agenda, especially in relation to the Palestinians, that Mr Netanyahu can stand on. It isn't easy to sack a minister as powerful as Mr Lieberman for deriding the peace process if there is no peace process to speak of. 2010 was the year in which even the most hardened sceptics struggled to suspend their disbelief, and will the Prime Minister to feel the hand of history on his shoulders. On the old Nixon-recognises-Red China principle, it was argued, only the right can make a lasting peace; Netanyahu wouldn't want his second premiership to end in failure as the first one did. And so on. At the turn of the year, these panglossian sentiments are becoming harder and harder to utter with any credibility.

The Americans cannot escape blame for squandering 18 months of diplomatic capital on an ultimately vain effort to persuade Mr Netanyahu to sustain the settlement freeze without which the Palestinians said they would not negotiate.

It still seems incredible that the Obama administration allowed the agreement on a resumption of the freeze which Mr Netanyahu was supposed to have struck over seven hours of talks with Hillary Clinton in mid-November to be unravelled within days by his right-wing coalition partners. In his television interview this week, moreover, Mr Netanyahu blandly blamed the Palestinians for being "unwilling to make peace" and suggested Israelis now focus instead on their country's economic strength.

That approach would be fine if not for the fact that Israel is massively the stronger party, that the Palestinians had by all accounts agreed to the original Clinton-Netanyahu terms, and above all if political progress were not centrally an Israeli interest as well as a Palestinian one.

This point was dramatised this week when the veteran Labour minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer urged his colleagues "to do everything possible" to get negotiations restarted, adding: "I wouldn't be surprised if within one year the whole world supports a Palestinian state, including the United States. Then we'll ask where we were and what we were doing."

He spoke in a context in which the Palestinians are resorting to a diplomatic Plan B, securing "recognition" of a Palestinian state on 1967 borders by Latin American countries, and now promoting a UN resolution condemning settlements. These moves will not end the occupation; and the US may well veto such a resolution. But the reason that they have any traction at all is the very one that should be propelling Israel back to negotiations at virtually any short-term price, that there will never be a more secure neighbour than the state-in-waiting that the Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, intends to have built by the late summer of 2011.

The international efforts to resume negotiations will continue. Rather as the Northern Ireland peace process diverted round the road block of IRA arms decommissioning a decade ago, so the US-led mediators will now try to find significant confidence-building measures other than a settlement freeze that they can persuade Israel to agree as an incentive to talks. And some of the Europeans, irritated at being allocated by Washington the servile task of "selling" to the Palestinians proposals for getting back into talks that they did not devise, may seek a more creative role next year.

The problem is that Israeli politics has not stood still in the past 18 months. In a column starkly headlined "It's over" the Haaretz commentator Aluf Benn this week depicted an agenda-less Prime Minister who could have built a broader coalition but for whom it was now "all downhill until the next elections". He argued that the West would do well to concentrate its efforts on preventing the "military escalation" – whether from a strike on Iran or a fresh war in Gaza – to which he pointed out Israel is especially prone in the run-up to elections.

With a strengthened Mr Lieberman – who once exhorted his colleagues to treat Gaza as "Russia operates in Chechnya" – waiting in the wings, it's isn't impossible that Mr Netanyahu would be tempted catastrophically into Gaza, as Ehud Olmert was tempted so bloodily in an election year when Mr Netanyahu himself was similarly waiting in the wings. But either way, the momentum towards a Middle East breakthrough that seemed possible when Barack Obama was elected two years ago is at once more necessary and much harder to generate than it was then.

The Weekly Wrap: December 31, 2010

By Steve Levine
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 31/12/2010

Whither Ahmadinejad: Has it been a good or bad year for Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? A mysterious computer worm called Stuxnet confounded the work of Iran's nuclear centrifuges; unknown assassins targeted Iranian nuclear scientists; and Iran was forced to slash fuel subsidies in the face of tighter western banking sanctions.  But whether Ahmadinejad's political power waned is another matter. As Bruce Walker suggests, history is replete with leaders making hay while crippling their country. Meanwhile, one of the few nations still officially doing business with Iran - India - joined those tightening a financial grip on the country, Lydia Polgreen and Heather Timmons write at the New York Times. India conducts some $11 billion a year in oil and gas trading with Iran, but now India's central bank has halted the use of a key method of making payments for the fuel, known as the Asian Clearing Union.

The Greenhouse Gas Conundrum: One victim of 2010 was climate science. The second-biggest emitter of CO2 on the planet, the United States, opted out of internationally negotiated mandatory carbon cutbacks, reversing what had appeared to be sure passage of legislation that for the first time would put a price on carbon emissions. As the year wound down, the Obama Administration advanced a detour strategy of which it had warned since it took power two years ago: If Congress would not regulate carbon emissions, the White House would do so administratively through the Environmental Protection Agency.  As John Broder reports in the New York Times, EPA regulation begins to take effect Sunday. Yet, that strategy, too, will face a collision with new U.S. politics - the strengthened power of the Republican Party, vocally powerful swaths of which question the science underlying climate policy.

The Power of the Energy Market: China, holding a corner on the market for rare-earth elements, in 2010 began to slowly capitalize on that leverage to squeeze technology-based countries around the world. This story - one of the most important economic developments of 2010 - looks likely to overlap into next year, as Japan and South Korea are especially reliant on the rare-earth minerals for their key export industries including advanced batteries, solar and wind. Next year, China will cut exports of the 17 elements by another 11 percent, calling it a move against illegal mining. At the New York Times, Keith Bradsher writes that the folks doing the actual mining are often the victim of gangsters who control China's rare earths black market.

Gas, Gas, Gas: The most important wild card in global energy is natural gas, as we learned in 2010. A ramp-up in shale gas production in the United States shook Europe, and reduced Russia's gas-fueled hold over the continent, as this blog reported. Next year looks likely to carry the trend forward. Many analysts think that environmental concerns such as water pollution make it unclear how much shale gas will end up actually produced. But the market thinks otherwise - 2010 was marked by tens of billions dollars in domestic and foreign investment in the U.S. shale gas patch. As Telis Demos reports in the Financial Times, 2011 is shaping up similarly, as BHP Billiton may buy Anadarko Petroleum, one of the biggest shale-gas players in the world. A new venue for the gas frenzy is Israel, Charles Levinson and Guy Chazan report in the Wall Street Journal. This week, Noble Energy confirmed that it had found 16 trillion cubic feet of gas in a field called Leviathan underneath the Red Sea, "the world's biggest deepwater gas find in a decade, with enough reserves to supply Israel's gas needs for 100 years," Levinson and Chazan report.

Happy New Year, Matt Bryza:  Matthew Bryza's wait has seemed interminable, but in this week he got what he had waited for patiently: the ambassadorial post in petro-state Azerbaijan. This blog has chronicled Bryza's woes as he battled State Department intramurals (insiders who thought Bryza's rise was too fast) and local politics (Armenian groups who thought him too glib on the question of the 1915 massacre of Armenians in Turkey). All that comingled with poisonous election-year politics to confound Bryza's Senate confirmation, as two senators up for re-election (Barbara Boxer in 2010 and Robert Menendez in 2012) and vulnerable to Armenian politics placed holds on his nomination. But, as James Morrison reports in the Washington Times, President Barack Obama included Bryza on his list of recess appointments. The appointment allows Bryza to serve for a year while the White House attempts to navigate Senate politics.


I Lie To You

By Ghassan Charbel
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 31/12/2010

Dear reader,

I have this overwhelming urge to lie to you, and then claim that I rarely do so. However, the last day of the year leaves me perplexed, affects my calm demeanor, and hides the observer that lives in my brain. How do I deal with this day? Should I call it the last crutch of the year that is readying itself to commit suicide? Should I call it the last bullet held by an exhausted warrior amidst darkness? I feel puzzled to be at the edge of the upcoming year, the edge of expatriation, the edge of the homeland, the edge of civil war, the edge of the eroded state, the edge of blood and revenge, and the edge of the darkness that swallows books and eyes, cities and the countryside, TV stations and universities.

I have an urge to lie to you like we were lied to when we used to believe. The journalists who removed the bridles, the writers who smuggled dreams to their readers, the poets who rebelled against the murky dictionaries, the thinkers who said that retrogression, declination, and deterioration are not the product of fate; that the Arab house will not remain open; that the nation will awaken from its inattentiveness; that our schools will not be prisons of imaginations; that our universities will not produce blind armies; and that the coming days are better than the bygone times.

I have an urge to lie to you, and repeat the game of those who lied to us, and tell you that tomorrow is going to be better than yesterday; that Arabs will not take part in a conflict if it lures them. They will not turn against their neighbor in the same district, city, or country; they will not allow the language of yesterday to trap their children; they will not let themselves be led to killing and suicide bombings; they will not consider the other as an enemy; they will not consider that any difference is an opportunity for clashing; they will not allow deadly illusions to flow through their veins. The Arabs will not consider the cities of others to be an aggression on their existence, or their universities to be a violation of their own peace of mind. They will not consider everything that is new to be a dagger or a conspiracy.

I will not exaggerate in lying to you. I will not say for instance that complete concord will prevail over inter-Arab relations, and that the skies will be swarming with pigeons carrying messages of love. I will not say that the factories of blind armies will shut their doors, that charlatans will find themselves unemployed, and that fortune tellers will stop taking viewers for imbeciles. I will not say that cities will drown in coexistence and solidarity, that scores of tourists will gather around fountains, that fanatics will not drown in the blood of innocent people, that gun silencers will retire, and that assassinations will become a thing of the past. I will not lie to this extent.

I know, dear reader, that you know, and that disappointments have uprooted your dreams, and that you believe that every bottom pushes us to another bottom; every slope takes us to a steeper slope; and every abyss throws us in an even deeper abyss. I know that you do not ask for more than some bread, drinking water, an acceptable job, a just police force, an honorable judiciary system, and institutions that protect you from the storm instead of aligning it against you. I know that you do not demand more than the minimum necessary in order to avoid the humiliation of waiting in line in front of embassies or fleeing in the boats of death.

Despite the above, I feel that what is coming cannot be more blatant. Maybe it is because I believe that we have reached rock-bottom; that the journey of decline has been going for a long time; that the spirit of the nation cannot keep on staying away; that new generations will ask new questions and will interpret the tragedy in a manner that will allow them to get out of it; and that the questions of honor, freedom, and truth in life, progress, and interaction will lead in the end to open a window in the wall of darkness and injustice.

On the last day of the year, I recall the front pages of Al Hayat, and I feel the urge to apologize. Explosions and funerals were always present. We have poisoned the days of readers with thousands of corpses, from Sa’dah to Waziristan, as well as many other stages. I attempt on this last day to atone the sins of the messenger, not the perpetrator. Hence, we shall try to light a candle, even if the reader will accuse us of lying to him.

Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of The Pan-Arab daily al-Hayat

Kurdish Self Determination: The Good And The Better

By Amir Taheri
This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 31/12/2010
A recent remark by Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani that the issue of "self determination" remains on the table has come as a gift to those who have always claimed that partition is the best solution for Iraq. Over the past seven years we have seen dozens of seminars, mostly held in the United States, on how best to carve Iraq up. Meanwhile, books and articles on the subject amount to a sizeable library.

The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States encouraged the partitionists. Obama himself had no particular position because, as in other issues, he wanted to have as much wiggle room as possible. However, his vice president Joseph Biden, who had passionately argued in favour of the war in Iraq, had promoted partition for years before his new position forced him to either shut up or equivocate.
Inside Iraq, however, the idea has never been raised in the context of a public debate. The reason for this is that Arabs, who account for almost 80 per cent of Iraq's population, have had no desire to raise it while the Kurds, during the reign of successive despots in Baghdad, did not dare even hint at it.
Now that Iraq is an open society there is no reason why the issue of Kurdish self-determination should not be raised.
Barzani is wise not to want to brush the issue under the carpet. After all, when the southern Sudanese are allowed self-determination and at a time that the Kosovars are buildng a state of their own, no Kurdish leader worth his salt could pretend that the issue does not exist.

But what does self-determination actually mean?
If one takes self-determination to mean the right to choose one's government through free and fair elections, the Iraqi Kurds already enjoy that right. As head of the autonomous Kurdish government in Erbil, Barzani himself is a living testimony to this fact.
However, many of those who speak of self-determination mean something else: the right to break away from Iraq and form an independent state in the provinces where ethnic Kurds form a majority of the population.
And, who might benefit from such a development?
Before the Khomeinist revolution, the safe assumption was that Iran would not wish the Kurds of Iraq to have a state of their own.
The reason was that Tehran feared that such a development could attract its own Kurdish minority to secession.
Today, the picture is different. The Khomeinist regime, or at least the part of it that is still dominant, sees the world through a pan-Shi'ite prism. Its long-term strategy is to assume the leadership of united Shi'ite communities across existing frontiers and then use this as a platform for claiming the leadership of Islam as a whole in an as yet ill-defined "final confrontation" with the "Infidel" Western powers.
That strategy would benefit from the break-up of Iraq. For the past four years Tehran has been promoting the so-called " federal" agenda for Iraq in the hope of creating a client republic in the eight central and southern provinces of Iraq where Shi'ites form a majority of the population.

The break up scenario would also make sure that a carved up Iraq would not be able to challenge Tehran's ambitions for regional hegemony. A united Iraq with a population of 30 million plus huge potential wealth thanks to oil reserves and water resources would be in a good position to counter-balance Iran.
Moreover, Iraq is the second largest Shi'ite majority country after Iran. In time, Najaf could re-emerge as the main centre of Shi'ite scholarship and religious guidance, making it harder for the Khomeinists to pursue their pan-Sh'ite dreams. Even today, there is evidence that Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, who is based in Najaf, is emerging as the most popular Shi'ite marja'a or "source of emulation" in Iran.
Turkey's position may have also changed. Until the liberation of Iraq, the popular view was that Turkey did not want an independent Kurdish state for fear that such a development might push its own ethnic Kurds towards secession. Between 1981 and 2003, Turkey also enjoyed the carte blanche issued by Saddam Hussein for military incursions in northern Iraq. That enabled the Turks to pursue Kurdish rebels deep inside Iraqi territory with the consent of the despot in Baghdad. As long as a despot was in power in Baghdad, a united Iraq suited Turkish interests. A democratic Iraq, however, is unlikely to tolerate foreign military incursions into its territory for long. It would be hard for Turkey to provoke a war situation with its only democratic neighbour in the Middle East without provoking adverse reaction from the international community.
Thus today, as neo-Ottomans in Turkey pursue dreams of empire, Ankara may be tilting towards a new position that favours the break up of Iraq. After all, the Ottoman Empire was made possible by the fact that the Arabs were divided into countless mini emirates or had no states of their own. A mini-Kurdish state in northern Iraq would have no choice but kowtow to Ankara even if that meant continued Turkish military incursion into its territory.
Syria may also favour the break-up of Iraq. Such a development would make Syria the most populous Arab state in the strategic region between Egypt and Iran and thus a more important player. A united and democratic Iraq, on the other hand, would be a daily challenge to a Syria dominated by a despotic elite in a client situation vis-a-vis the Khomeinist regime in Tehran.

Part of the Jordanian ruling elite would also be favourable to a beak-up of Iraq. A smaller Iraq would make tiny Jordan look bigger while old dynastic claims to ruelrship in Baghdad are revived.

One other regional player, Israel, has always been favoruable to the dismembering of Iraq. Many in Israel's leadership believe that Iraq is the only Arab country large and, potentially, wealthy enough to pose an "existential threat" to the Jewish state. They argue that a smaller Iraq would be less likely to harbour dreams of leading the Arabs in a new major war against Israel.
But what if all partitionists are mistaken in their various calculations?
The first big losers could be Iraq's own Kurds. They would not only have to bear the huge cost of building a new state but would also continue to pay for its maintenance and defense in a hostile region. Several studies show that a citizens of a mini Kurdish state in Iraq would end up much poorer than they are today. Landlocked and cut off from the bulk of Iraq's huge oil wealth, the Kurds might find "self determination" not such a good deal after all. Even in Europe, the partitions that we have witnessed recently have often ended up to the detriment of the secessionists. The Slovaks are now 40 percent poorer than when they were part of a united Czechoslovakia. With the possible exception of Slovenia, all the seven states that have emerged from the break-up of Yugoslavia are relatively poorer. There is no reason why Iraqi Kurds would do any better.
That would not be the only cause for concern. The areas that would presumably form the new mini state include a number of ethnic groups that do not regard themselves as Kurds. The new state would have to either suppress those minorities by force or accept their demand for the creation of micro-states in accordance with the most radical interpretations of the Treaty of Lausanne.
The regional powers that favour the partition of Iraq would also end up as losers. All those states include within their frontiers a wide variety of ethnic minorities, including Kurds, who might be interested in their own versions of "self determination". History shows hat when the contours of one state are put in doubt the frontiers of all states within this region are open to change. Most of the states surrounding Iraq have treated it either as a nuisance or an actual threat. And in the case of some, Kuwait and Iran for example, they have not been wrong. However, new Iraq will not be what it was under the mad dictators of the period between 1958 and 2003.

In 1989, French President Francois Mitterrand and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were opposed to the re-emergence of a united Germany. Their fear was based on the memories of the Weimar Republic and the Nazi Reich. Today, united Germany is the principal guarantor of stability in Europe and the continents ultimate economic insurance. The lesson is that fears of the past should not block the hopes of the future.
Barzani should press his analysis to its logical conclusion and formally put the issue of "self determination" on the agenda for national debate. Unless one is wrong, a majority of Iraqi Kurds are attached to Iraq provided they are allowed to enjoy a wide measure of autonomy within a pluralist system. Since 1991 Iraqi Kurds have succeeded in developing an original system of autonomy that maintains their links with Iraq without putting their fate in the hands of those in power in Baghdad. Both Barzani and his ally-cum-rival Jalal Talabani deserve credit for an outcome that seems to satisfy a majority of Kurds in Iraq. As far as Iraqi Kurds are concerned, their current status is good enough, and there is no reason to upset it in the name of something better. Often, better could become an enemy of the good

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Lebanon: The Year That Wasn't

This editorial was published in The Daily Star on 31/12/2010
As Lebanon bids farewell to 2010, it also bids a bittersweet goodbye to the hope that some 500 items on the Cabinet’s agenda – and on the agenda of the Lebanese people – would receive the attention they deserve.

Lebanon’s politicians have been busy warning the public daily that civil strife and unrest could break out with the issuing of an indictment by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in the 2005 killing of Rafik Hariri.

Unrest related to events in The Hague is a possibility. But so is the outbreak of unrest that springs from the failure to address people’s needs and grievances.

The daily business of government is not a luxury. When the government fails to act on the poor situation of electricity, water supplies, sanitation, road safety, infrastructure, or the economy, to name just a few items, resentment and despair grow to dangerous proportions.

If a given community feels it’s getting short-changed by the government, while other parts of the country “get their share,” tension over seemingly trivial things like a broken power line or unfinished road works can easily become a mini-sectarian war. It doesn’t take grand statements from the Hague to push the country to the brink.

It is no cliché to state that poverty, like the Cabinet’s paralysis, affects all sects. The political stalemate is eating away at the reputation of the government, and of the political system itself. If left untreated, it will eventually have a negative impact on investors and the business community, and lead to a drying up of political support from abroad. A government mired in such an impasse will find itself less and less capable of earning others’ respect, or securing their much-needed cooperation.

Lebanon has in the past lurched from one year to the next, suffering from an acute lack of planning and political vision. But 2010 will be remembered as the year of the infamous 500-item Cabinet agenda, which brings to mind the way the government allows garbage dumps to grow to frighteningly large sizes, until a bout of bad weather brings collapse, with disastrous consequences.

Lebanon has entered the Guinness Book of World Records of late, for its giant plates of tabbouleh and hummus, but the pile of accumulated policy paralysis also deserves mention in a record-book somewhere.

Elsewhere, countries will be entering the new decade by making huge efforts to provide better lives for their citizens. In Lebanon, the political class lives in denial, subsists on grandiose rhetoric, and waits for solutions from the outside world. But no solution will be durable unless Lebanese shoulder their portion of responsibility in 2011, acting with courage, creativity and inspiration. Otherwise, another lost year awaits.

62 Years On, Peace Is Not Impossible

By Rami G. Khouri
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 31/12/2010

Where are we, then, in the Arab-Israeli conflict, at the close of the 62nd year after the seminal act of the conflict in 1947-48?

That was when Zionist Jews achieved statehood in the new state of Israel, and indigenous Palestinian Arabs found themselves refugees outside their land, or second-class citizens living in security zones inside the new state that Jews had created for Jews.

We are in a very bad situation with no easy solution, but only hard choices that must be made if generations to come will be spared more wasteful wars. The situation is very difficult, but not irresoluble, as was succinctly captured in recent weeks in statements by the Israeli foreign minister and the Palestinian chief negotiator.

The Palestinian, Saeb Erekat, in a commentary in the Guardian newspaper earlier this month, reminded us that the heart of the conflict for the Palestinians was their refugeehood and exile - partly due to the usual chaos of war, mostly due to deliberate Zionist ethnic cleansing to clear the way for the Jewish state. Neither time nor facts on the ground would render the refugees’ rights moot, he said, emphasising that “Palestinian displacement continues to this day through the revocation of residency cards, ?and confiscation, home demolitions and evictions. At the same time, Israel has barred Palestinians displaced between 1947 and 1949, and again in 1967, from returning to their homes or receiving restitution for their lost property”.

The Jewish-majority Zionist Israeli state would have been impossible without the mass expulsion of Palestinians, he explained, “given that Palestinians constituted a majority in every district of historic Palestine prior to 1948 and also owned over 90 per cent of the landة. This period of dispossession, known to Palestinians as Al Nakba or ‘the catastrophe’, is the seminal Palestinian experience and source of our collective identity”.

The Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, meanwhile, noted in his year-end remarks to Israeli diplomats that a peace agreement with the Palestinians was impossible to achieve under the current circumstances, and the best that could be hoped for were long-term interim agreements on security and economic matters - an offer the Palestinians reject routinely.

Senior Israeli officials have recently offered other ideas as well, notably the notion that Jews who left, fled or were driven out of Arab countries in and around 1948 had to be considered in any peace agreement - meaning that approximately equal numbers of Jews and Arabs changed places in the region and therefore there is nothing to negotiate.

The Palestinians, Erekat suggests, need a combination of “return and restitution” as the remedy of choice that has a strong international precedent, such as in Bosnia. He adds that “Israel’s recognition of Palestinian refugee rights and its agreement to provide reparation and meaningful refugee choice in the exercise of these rights will not change the reality in the Middle East overnight, nor will it lead to an existential crisis for Israel. What it will certainly do is mark the beginning of a new reality?that will no longer be rooted in repression, denial of rights, and discrimination. In other words, it will lead to a lasting peace”.

The many attempts in the past 62 years have failed to achieve a comprehensive, lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians because they have consistently avoided coming to grips with the core issues that most matter to the two people. The Palestinian chief negotiator is making an important statement when he says publicly that “reparation and meaningful refugee choice” in the exercise of the rights of “return and restitution”, provides an opening for serious and honest Israelis to explore a middle groun? on which to reconcile the national rights and claims of both sides.

When I was discussing this with an American Jewish friend at Harvard University the other day, he used a phrase that struck me as capturing the essence of what Israelis and Zionists seek from any permanent peace agreement - Palestinian and Arab “acceptance of the legitimacy of the idea of Israel as a safe haven for Jews”.

Yes, this is a hard conflict to resolve, but hard is not impossible. Israelis must come to grips with a “meaningful refugee choice on return and restitution” for Palestinian refugees everywhere, while Palestinians and Arabs must acknowledge that the state of Israel they say they are prepared to live with is a legitimate home and haven for Jews everywhere.

The details and specifics of an agreement will be much easier to work out once these core principles are first acknowledged and then formally accepted in a legally binding agreement. If anyone plans to start the New Year exploring for ways to advance the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process, this is probably as good a starting point as any.

Two-State Solution Vital To Israel’s Own Interests

By Joschka Fischer in Berlin
This commentary was published in the Gulf Times on 31/12/2010

Two years have passed since Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. Much to his credit - and in contrast to his immediate predecessor - Obama tried, from his first day in office, to work towards a resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Two years on, are good intentions the best that Obama’s new policy has to offer? After all, nothing of value has in fact resulted from them. Even worse, given that Obama’s effort to enforce a permanent moratorium on new settlement construction in the West Bank has failed, is that direct negotiations between the conflicting parties have run aground.

Good intentions count for little in life - and for less in politics. What matters, first and foremost, are results.

President George W Bush believed that he needed to take account of only one half of America’s dual role in the Middle East, namely the alliance with Israel. He had no time for the second US role, that of pivotal peace mediator between Israelis and Palestinians, during his entire eight-year presidency. All his initiatives were intended only to pacify the international public. We all know where that led.

From the start, Obama wanted to do things differently, pursuing an active Middle East policy. But the results so far are not very different from those under Bush. In both cases, standstill triumphed over progress.

Given this, and both sides’ intransigence, many would withdraw and try to forget the conflict altogether. But it isn’t as simple as that, because a continuation of the conflict (which is what “forgetting about it” would boil down to) would not only prolong what is a tragedy for both Palestinians and Israelis, but would also be too dangerous for the region. Most ominously, the window of opportunity for a two-state solution could close for good, because realities on the ground will no longer allow it.

For Israelis, this would mean permanent occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and thus reckoning with an Arab majority, which would erode the foundations of their state - democracy and the rule of law - and thus its legitimacy. Such a development is the greatest threat that Israel faces in the medium term, which makes a two-state solution vital to its own interests.

Of course, from Israeli leaders’ perspective, the status quo, with its absence of terror and missile strikes, is anything but negative. But it won’t last. Moreover, the country’s strategic situation is deteriorating with each passing year, because the global redistribution of power and influence from the West to the East can only weaken Israel’s position.

For the Palestinians, the situation is oppressive, and for Gaza it is an outright humanitarian disaster. They are internally divided between Fatah and Hamas, under Israeli occupation in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, isolated from the outside world in Gaza, hopeless in the region’s refugee camps, and rebuffed by their Arab neighbours. In these circumstances, the loss of a two-state perspective would be a recipe for further indignities and deepening misery.

But, if Israelis and Palestinians share a vital interest in a two-state solution, they have very different interests, and therefore mean very different things when referring to the same issues.

For Israel, security is the top priority; for Palestinians, what matters most is an end to Israeli occupation. Israel cannot afford a second Gaza in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; for the Palestinians, a state with an ongoing Israeli military presence would be worthless.

Perhaps Obama’s central error was that an important but minor matter - stopping new settlements - was given central significance. An indefinite building freeze would lead to the immediate end of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition government in Jerusalem, without giving Israel or Netanyahu anything tangible in return. It should have been clear that Netanyahu would not extend the freeze.

The crucial question that the US must ask both Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is whether they would be willing - here and now - to negotiate in earnest about the final status. If so, a way out of the seemingly irresolvable conflict between Israeli security and Palestinian statehood would open.

The formula could run as follows: a comprehensive agreement about the final status now (taking into account all open questions, including East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine); implementation of the agreement in pre-defined steps over a longer period of time; and monitoring of the process via a mechanism based on the presence on the ground of a third party (led by the US).This would give Palestinians a guarantee of their state’s borders, its capital, and the Israeli occupation’s pre-defined endpoint.

They could use the time, with international help, to build up effective state institutions, address economic development, and heal the rift between West Bank and Gaza. On this new and permanent basis, they may find a solution for the Palestinian refugees and advance the cause of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.

Israel would have a guarantee that its security would not be endangered by a final-status agreement and the establishment of a Palestinian state, and that its withdrawal from the Palestinian territories would be gradual, over several years, and monitored on the ground by a third party. The country would then have clear, internationally recognised borders, enabling it to end permanently the conflict with its Arab neighbours.

While the situation in the Middle East currently looks hopeless, a new attempt that focuses on the essential points, not on minor ones, deserves support. The alternative is the loss of the two-state solution and the perpetuation of a terrible - and terribly perilous - conflict. - Project Syndicate/Institute of Human Sciences

Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice-chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader in the German Green Party for almost 20 years

This Week In The Middle East

Can Tunisian protesters end the 'Arab malaise'? Will Egypt ever catch the people traffickers? 

By Brian Whitaker
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 30/12/2010

Demonstrators clash with Tunisian security forces
Demonstrators clash with Tunisian security force members on December 27, 2010 in Tunis centre. Photograph: Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

A regular weekly look at the Middle East, focusing on some of the issues and stories that you may have missed. If there's something you would like to see included, send an email to

Arabs in revolt

The biggest story from the Middle East this week … No, the biggest, most important and most inspiring story from the Middle East this year is one that most readers may only vaguely have heard of, if at all. It's the Tunisian uprising.

For almost two weeks now, people up and down the country have been protesting, some of them rioting, others demonstrating peacefully – and all in a police state where the penalties for defying the regime are severe.

You won't find much about it in the western media (or the Arab media, for that matter) though you can piece together much of the story from snippets on Twitter and videos on YouTube.

There have been complaints from bloggers about this silence but in a way it's refreshing not to have the likes of Fox News, Bernard Lewis and Glenn Beck telling us what should be done. In any case, the Tunisians – so far at least – seem to be getting on quite well with their uprising by themselves.

Foreign governments have been similarly quiet and, again, this is something of a blessing: too many activist movements in the region have been killed off by the wrong kind of support from the west.

Tunisia is in an unusually fortunate position as one of the few countries in the Middle East where foreign powers have little incentive to meddle. Its dictator, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali (23 years in power) is a western ally of sorts, but an embarrassing one. He's no great asset and his departure would be no great loss. If a recent WikiLeaks document is to be believed, the Americans find him impossible to deal with and have more or less given up on trying to work with him.

So, what we have in Tunisia today is the birth of a genuine, national, indigenous, popular movement, not against colonialists or foreign occupiers but against their own repressive regime, and one which is not tainted (as in Iran) by international power games.

This is something new, which is why it's so important. For years, writers have complained about the "Arab malaise" – the way Arabs have become accustomed to playing the role of victims, their passivity in the face of home-grown tyrants, and so on. The need, as I explained in my recent book, is for Arabs to stop being prisoners of their history and start shaping their own destiny. At long last, that is what the people of Tunisia are trying to do.

The immediate cause of the uprising is economic; not so much poverty as unemployment. Tunisia has a comparatively good educational system, producing lots of university graduates, but it can't provide jobs for them – certainly not the kind of jobs they have been led to expect.

That happens in other countries, too, but in Tunisia there's no solution while Ben Ali remains in power.

One reason is that investors are put off by the regime's kleptocracy. Ben Ali's family and their associates try to muscle in on any lucrative prospects and claim their rake-off.

Another is that technology-based development, which could provide jobs for graduates, is hampered by the regime's paranoid insistence on controlling information – including heavy censorship of the internet.

Unlike the oil-rich rulers of the Gulf, Ben Ali does not have the money to buy his people's silence with "ghost" jobs as government employees. He may succeed in quelling the current unrest (though the loyalty of his security forces is yet to be seriously tested) but at best that can only bring a temporary respite.

Tackling the economic problems will need a new kind of Tunisian politics – a kind where criticism is allowed, where arguments can be heard and eventually resolved by popular consent. And it's hard to see a role for Ben Ali in any of that, and you can bet your bottom dinar that other Arab leaders will be watching developments nervously.

African hostages

Last week I wrote about the plight of African migrants held hostage by people-traffickers in Egypt. The Egyptian government is under international pressure to stop this disgusting racket but claims it can't find any sign of the migrants or the traffickers.

However, a group of Egyptian human rights organisations seem to be having better luck than the authorities. They have even made contact with one of the migrants held captive in Sinai:
"The Eritrean refugee said that he is detained in a metal container with 15 other hostages by a group of Bedouins, because he has not been able to pay the money demanded (generally ranging between $3,000 and $8,000).

He added that the traffickers only provide two pieces of bread and some salty water per day, and that he has been transferred several times to different detention centres in Sinai where hundreds of immigrants from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia are detained and tortured – some of whom have been held for more than six months."
In a joint statement on Tuesday, the Egyptian organisations called on the authorities "to stop dismissing the facts on the ground and put an end to this terrible human tragedy. The government is obliged by its own anti-trafficking law, passed last May, to deal with these crimes as crimes of human trafficking."

Meanwhile, the Italian-based EveryOne Group continues to post more and more information about the traffickers and their victims on its website. In one report it identifies the head of the traffickers as a Palestinian Bedouin called Abu Khaled. Last year, Khaled was interviewed by the AFP news agency about his smuggling activities through the tunnels into Gaza.

Price of a life

Giving judgment on "blood money" in a traffic accident case, the supreme court of Abu Dhabi has affirmed that the value of a woman's life is 100,000 dirhams (£17,663) – half that of a man.

Morocco And The Terrorist Threat

By Mohammad El-Ashab
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 30/12/2010

When technology and violence come together, this simply leads to the formation of a cell of a kind officially described as “cyberterrorist” in Morocco. And although the advanced communication media revolution was meant to be at the service of civil society, as it shortens distances between worlds and brings closer the branches of knowledge and the features of civilized interaction between nations, what has been termed cybercrime today keeps sleepless all the societies that have been scorched by the transcontinental fire of terrorism.

Ever since civilian airplanes turned into missiles that raided the twin towers of the World Trade center in New York and destroyed them on that blood-drenched September 11, it seems that the scientific and technological inventions produced by the human mind in order to bring comfort, prosperity and fraternity have been swayed away from their humane purposes and used to suppress the mind and to spread terror and division.

However, ever since the suicide attacks in Casablanca in 2003, no terrorist cell has been successful in executing its plans, under the effect of the preemptive strikes which have achieved a record number of networks dismantled, some of them still in the planning phase and others on the verge of execution. Nevertheless, talk of using car bombs represents a precedent of copying methods that have been used in areas of high tension, increasing conflict and security breakdown. And between announcing the dismantling of terrorist cells that focused on recruiting volunteers to join the resistance in Iraq, strengthening the presence of Al-Qaeda in the coastal region south of the Sahara, Afghanistan and Somalia, or threatening Western interests in North Africa, the recognition that the methods used by these terrorist cells have evolved seems noteworthy – least of it being that most of the terrorist cells being prosecuted were using manual methods for building explosives and suicide-bombing equipment.

What reinforces such a belief is that it is not in the interest of Morocco, which wagers on tourism and the appearances of stability to attract foreign investments, to undermine this trend, if it wants to obtain dangerous information regarding the possibility of it being the target of attacks, or to get its hands on scenarios that reach carrying out terrorist attacks in inflamed areas. Yet its sensitivity regarding what is going on in the coastal stretch south of the Sahara seems more worrying, having increased in the absence of indicative regional coordination, in view of the repercussions of disputes over the Western Sahara issue.

It appears that the rift caused by this issue is on its way to affecting numerous other issues, most prominently that of dealing with the growth of the phenomenon of terrorism. And inasmuch as Morocco calls on the United States and France in particular to grant the security challenges on the coast the utmost concern, in light of the increase in kidnappings of foreign nationals, the countries neighboring the coastal region have focused their efforts on causing these disputes, the most prominent feature of this being not reaching an agreement over holding a security conference bringing together Northern and Southern Mediterranean countries, in addition to the US and the countries of the African coast, in order to formulate new mechanisms in the war on terror, one that would attract the attention and resolve of many towards it.

While Morocco is exposed to being targeted from several countries, according to the statements of volunteers in internet technology terrorist cells, this implicitly suggests coordinating efforts further, as it alone cannot confront plans the details of which are being developed beyond its borders. This is apart from the fact that the branches of such a terrorist cell would be directly linked to the “Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb”, because it is the closest to the area under threat, in addition to the fact that it represents the key to all the doors leading to high-tension zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and the coast. And perhaps behind all of this lies its desire to proclaim that the need for regional coordination exceeds any political disagreement that stops at the obstacle of disputes.

Some misplaced rivalries will not be useful to resolve any issue or contain any problem. Yet when terrorism strikes with its full force, it does not distinguish between friend and foe – it is fierce as fire, destroying everything in its path.

And in the coastal region south of the Sahara, in order not to be exposed to further blazing spreads, the efforts of Arab, Islamic and African countries to agree over a bare minimum of consensus have failed, even while the issue regards imminent threats. Such a predicament is nearly more dangerous than any war left to chance, although choosing the timing, defining the goals and gathering efforts are irreplaceable elements in waging any battle.

Sudan: The Imperfect Islamic Republic

By Osman Mirghani
This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 30/12/2010
Whether it was part of a plan or a mere coincidence, the timing and manner in which Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir announced the plan to declare Sudan an Islamic state has aroused a lot of controversy that will last for a long time. For al-Bashir linked the referendum over the future of southern Sudan to the implementation of Islamic Shariaa law [in the north]. He also commented on the Sudanese girl who was filmed being brutally whipped in an open area by laughing police officers who were apparently enjoying this scene of torture and her cries of pain. This is something that is, of course, nothing to do with the tolerant nature of Islam, and the concept of justice, and the prerequisites for implementing Islamic Shariaa law. However how can we blame these police officers if the regime itself is using Islamic Shariaa law as a bargaining chip in its political maneuvering, and is justifying actions that in fact harm the people of Sudan, and their tolerant and kind nature, as well as [harming] Islamic tolerance, distorting the religion's deeply held principle of justice?
Al-Bashir said that if the south chooses secession in the referendum that is scheduled to take place on 9 January 2011 he will amend the Sudanese constitution so that "there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity…Shariaa [Islamic law] and Islam will be the main source for the constitution, Islam the official religion, and Arabic the official language." Is Islamic Shariaa law, therefore, a bargaining chip in the referendum issue? More importantly, has all the previous talk about Islamic Shariaa law been nothing more than one act in the political theatre that has been ongoing since the Sudanese regime first tricked its way into power through force of arms in 1989? What about those who were tortured, whipped, and even executed, in accordance with Islamic Shariaa law – or at least as the people have been repeatedly told – since 1990 until the present time?
There is no doubt that the south will choose to secede because the policies of the regime have made this a foregone conclusion, and those in power in Khartoum are more aware than anybody else that the referendum will result in secession. This is because the government not only failed in making unity an attractive proposition [to the south] over the past five years, since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the Southern People's Liberation Movement [SPLM], but has greatly contributed to pushing the southerners to secede since it raised the slogan of "jihad" during the Sudanese Civil War in the 1990s. Al-Bashir's latest speech has only served to further convince the southern Sudanese to choose secessions, for it reveals that those in power in Khartoum considers any talk about diversity of culture and ethnicity to be "devious", even if this completely contradicts the reality on the ground in Sudan, and puts the future of the country in jeopardy. Diversity in Sudan is an issue that is not just related to the south, but extends from the north to the south, and the east to the west. Even when we were students at primary school [in Sudan], we would sing nationalistic songs praising the ethnic and cultural diversity of this country that is made up of one million square miles, however the size and population of this country will be greatly reduced soon due to the policies of isolating and marginalizing [the south], and exploiting religion for political goals.

In this same speech in which al-Bashir decreed the country's constitution and future in just a few improvised words, he also commented on the case of the Sudanese girl who whipped in public in a language that challenges the view of many Sudanese, especially as Islam in Sudan has always been distinguished by its tolerance, which is something that is inherent in this religion, as well as in the natural disposition of the Sudanese people. Al-Bashir called on those who objected to the brutal whipping of this girl to "perform ablutions, pray to God, and return to Islam." He added that "punishment in Islamic Shariaa law includes whipping, amputation, and death, and we will not be flexible with regards to the ordinances of Allah and the Islamic Shariaa." However these words contradict what he previously said with regards to the amending of the constitution depending on whether or not the southerners choose to secede. So, will the regime compromise over Islam and the implementation of Islamic Shariaa law depending upon whether the south chooses to secede or not? Were they flexible over Islamic Shariaa law when they froze its implementation for years? There has been a shift in the regime's position, from utilizing the slogan of the "Islamic Revolution – providing safe haven to extremist Islamists from everywhere, offering training camps to Osama Bin Laden and his followers, and providing assistance to those behind the assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa – to the regime changing tack, submitting to foreign pressure, and kicking out its unwelcome guests, and even moving to cooperating with US and French intelligence…so how will the regime explain this [if it becomes an Islamic state]? Nobody knows, however the practice of "Taqiyaa" [concealing one's faith during dangerous circumstances] remains one that those in the regime have been committed to since they first came to power through a coup against the [previous] democratic regime, which they themselves were members of. They placed some of the previous regime's leaders in jail with the aim of concealing the true identity of their regime, and hushing up the role played by the National Islamic Front.
The talk that is being repeated these days about the constitution being amended and Sudan being declared an "Islamic" state seems to be nothing more than the regime attempting to hide behind the Islamic Shariaa law in order to avoid responsibility for dividing the country. They are attempting to draw everybody's attention away from the referendum and the forthcoming secession of the south, and the dangerous consequences that this will have, including the implications this will have on the war in Darfur, and the other developments that will result in the situation being more dangerous than many people imagine. There are also some parties within the regime that hope for, and even actively worked to ensure, the secession of the south, so that they will be solely in power in the north and can therefore revive their project to establish an Islamic state there, even if this state is not as large [as the previous unified state], and has a convulsive political approach that is contrary to the nature of the people it rules, and does not follow the tolerance of Islam, and its concept of just rule.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Lebanon: Ahead, A Syrian-Saudi Obstacle Course

By Michael Young
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 30/12/2010
The Syrian-Saudi initiative is like the abominable snowman. Some people claim to have seen it; some can even describe it. But proceed to the frozen wastelands where the creature was supposedly spotted last, and you only find snow, nothing more substantial. 
There is no doubt that the Syrians and the Saudis are exchanging ideas on a new modus vivendi in Lebanon. We know this from the fact that an unidentified American official took the trouble last week, through the Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat, to warn against any steps the two countries might take to undermine the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. But what are the particulars of their discussions?
Here and there we will get useful sound-bites. An Arabic diplomatic source told The Daily Star, in remarks published Wednesday, that Damascus and Riyadh were discussing a package deal. The pact would encompass the special tribunal, Syrian arrest warrants against Lebanese considered close to Prime Minister Saad Hariri, as well as a possible change in government with Hariri remaining in office, and an overhaul of Lebanon’s security and judicial hierarchies.
This seems awfully close to a Syrian interpretation of the talks to be entirely convincing. Here is why. Most revealing is the last thought, namely transformation of the security services and the judiciary. Even with a glass eye one can easily discern which party controls the major security posts. It is equally useful to recall that the Syrians have played a crucial role in blocking administrative and diplomatic appointments during the past year. The reality is that any changes in the military and in the major security agencies – the top leadership posts of the army and military intelligence, as well as of the General Security directorate, airport security, and so on – would principally affect individuals close to Hizbullah. And for Syria and Saudi Arabia to take from Hizbullah, Iran would first have to approve.
In public, pro-Syrian Lebanese spokesmen offer a slightly different reading. They will agree that a change in government is in the air, but will not admit to any divergences with Hizbullah. They will suggest that the political momentum is in Syria’s and Hizbullah’s favor, and that the government and the security services and other parts of the public administration must reflect this balance. Some will go so far as to hint that a complete revamping of the Lebanese political system is needed, one which grants the Shiite community more power.
Such ideas do not a Syrian-Saudi agreement make. In fact quite the contrary. Whatever Damascus and Riyadh consent to will not only have to pass Iranian muster, but also gain American approval. And if there are any doubts about the impediments, the deputy secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, Ali Bagheri, remarked Monday in Damascus that it was Hizbullah that would decide how to react to indictments issued by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. This seemed a careful way of stating that the Syrians and Saudis would be given latitude to cripple the tribunal, but that Tehran’s patience had limits.  
Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, is engaged in a delicate balancing act. He is happy to gain from Saudi-Iranian tensions, but he also needs to ensure that he will not alienate either side. Assad is impatient to damage the special tribunal’s legitimacy, since he doesn’t want the institution to weaken Hizbullah or point the finger at Syrian officials. But he cannot allow Hizbullah to humiliate Hariri, as it did in May 2008, as this would harm Assad’s relationship with the Saudis, deny Syria the valuable Lebanese Sunni card it has spent years reclaiming, and only reinforce Iran’s role as the dominant actor in Beirut.
Assad probably believes that the Saudis will push Hariri some of the way, which is why he has reportedly urged them to approve measures to scuttle Lebanese cooperation with the tribunal. However, many of the recent leaks indicating that Hariri would soon agree to renounce the tribunal were really no more than disinformation, efforts to pressure the prime minister into bending in Syria’s direction. Yet for all these pressures, the rickety Hariri government remains standing and Syria’s allies have not yet seriously threatened to withdraw. 
Then there is the United States. The Syrians and Saudis must not only consider how Iran views their deliberations, but also the way Washington will respond. Assad’s expectations for a breakthrough on the Syrian-Israeli front may be low, but that doesn’t mean the Syrian president can be reckless with regard to the Obama administration or Israel. For Assad, repairing Syria’s ties with Washington is necessary to provide him with options beyond his profitable, but also frequently demeaning and constraining, alliance with Iran. And Damascus needs to protect itself against the Israelis if they come to view Hizbullah as a strategic menace, leading to a Lebanon war that draws in Syria.     
If Assad pushes too hard against the tribunal, to Hizbullah’s advantage, both the United States and Israel will begin fretting. Washington will not readily give up on an institution that might soon accuse Hizbullah (which is different than saying that the Americans are manipulating the indictments). Israel, in turn, will not look kindly on Lebanese measures shielding the party from a trial, thereby implicitly strengthening its military capacity, therefore Iran’s.
Here is the dizzyingly complicated context for the Syrian-Saudi talks, and such complexity seems a good reason to lower expectations about a breakthrough anytime soon. For what we have now are negotiations between two parties that have significant sway over Lebanese affairs, but not necessarily the final say. Whatever decisions they reach must still clear several hurdles, not one of which will be easy. 

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster).