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Three Hotspots in the Middle East!
Palestine, Lebanon & Iraq

21 December   |   2006   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Here we are drawing toward the end of 2006 and the situation in the Middle East remains as volatile, vituperative and violent as ever. In fact, the three hotspots of Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq are nothing less than tinderboxes ready to go aflame at any one moment. With other countries such as Iran contributing - whether by commission or omission - to those tensions, one wonders whether the whole region is regressing inexorably into a primeval meltdown.

Are my words a tad too dramatic? Perhaps so to many readers, but the reality is that the situation in the Middle East today is not only critical for the region itself but also for the globe. Yet, I remember a few years back when Middle Easterners were hopeful - cautiously, mind you - that their region was perhaps gradually groping its way toward some modicum of stability. The Lebanese were attempting to rebuild their country, Palestinians and Israelis were still struggling to find peace through an end to occupation and Iraqis still held out some hope for democracy. One might have been forgiven to suggest that matters could - ostensibly - get better. Or at least that they could not get worse. Yet, here we are in a morass that is threatening to engulf the whole region, and the latest moves of an incumbent US Administration that has wedded might with ideology to introduce peace, democracy, human rights and good governance have sadly helped push the Middle East into further polarisation and radicalisation.

In the Israeli-Palestinian context, we are now reaping the bitter harvest of international inaction for almost six years. It is quite true that a hudna [ceasefire] between Israel and the Palestinians has led to a respite in the suicidal tit-for-tat war between the two parties. Yet, nobody seems to have the gumption let alone resolve to invest in this hudna for the sake of building peace, re-humanising the opponent or at least opening up negotiations between the parties. After all, such hudnas have in the past been used by faith-based political movements in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Morocco, Turkey and Yemen to pause for peace or to avoid expanding conflicts. However, in the face of this opportunity, all that the present US Administration - admittedly the sole power able to move the process forward - has come up with are sporadic, woefully inadequate and almost timorous calls for "care and restraint". As Gareth Evans, President of Crisis Group, stated on 22 September 2006 when launching a new global advocacy initiative designed to generate new political momentum for a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, After the chaos of the last few months, there is a new sense of urgency about finding a comprehensive, just and sustainable peace. There is also broad international understanding of what is needed ultimately to resolve the conflict. But the spark has to be somehow lit, and a serious new process started. Today, though, there is no sense - despite vacuous verbal promises by all and sundry - that the spark would be re-lit or that any forward movement for peace is being achieved in this riven land.

Indeed, a recent UN report stated that 65% of Palestinians are living in poverty, 29% are unemployed, healthcare is on the verge of collapse and 50% of Palestinians do not have reliable access to food. With increasing signs of malnutrition in some parts of the Palestinian territories, and the myriad restrictions on movement imposed by Israel, Palestinians have to negotiate their way through 500 checkpoints and deal with a separation wall that is gobbling up even more Palestinian territory. As former US President Jimmy Carter, author of Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid , wrote in an article dated 8 th December in the Los Angeles Times entitled Speaking frankly about Israel and Palestine , "An enormous imprisonment wall is now under construction, snaking through what is left of Palestine to encompass more and more land for Israeli settlers." Readers need only watch a film entitled The Iron Wall directed by Mohammad Alatar to appreciate the distressing factual, political and human dimensions of the Palestinian conflict and the facts that have been created on the ground which render the creation of a genuinely sovereign, viable and contiguous Palestinian state well nigh impossible.

Palestinians today also find themselves on the brink of civil war between Fateh and Hamas, with each side refusing to budge from its stated positions. Hamas seems unwilling to relent to pressure from the international comity and its community of donors and accept the three pre-conditions that would lead the West to dialogue with it, namely an end to all violence, an acceptance of previous agreements and the recognition of Israel. Instead, it pursues stalwartly its Islamist agenda, whilst Fateh is equally unwilling to acknowledge that it had lost much of its credibility before losing the elections due largely to the fact that the Palestinian people were fed up with the lack of success on the diplomatic front let alone the nepotism and cronyism during the time Fateh were in control of all organs of the Authority.

Last week, the President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas called for fresh presidential and parliamentary elections. Whilst he can dismiss the cabinet, it is less clear whether the Palestinian Basic Law empowers him to dissolve the Legislative Council in view of the heady mixture of presidential and parliamentary systems. This is why the Palestinian Electoral Commission headed by Dr Hanna Nasser has already tabled out a detailed procedure that needs to be met before proceeding toward such elections. Besides, Mahmoud Abbas also took a big gamble with this political move. In a sense, he has challenged Hamas in order to break what he perceives a political stalemate and shuffle the process forward - possibly with the appointment of a new government of technocrats. Yet, this bold move could also backfire if the masses do not support him, or if Hamas refuses ideologically to cooperate with his high-stakes decision.

Veterans of the Israeli-Palestinian political scene are all too familiar with the options available for a resolution of the conflict. Those include key UN resolutions as well as the Quartet's Roadmap for Peace that has been pretty much a map without a road. But what I suggest might perhaps work as a peace lever is the resuscitation by the UN of the Saudi / Arab League initiative of 2002 as a concrete basis for a resumption of peace talks. Such an initiative made full recognition of Israel by all Arab states conditional upon an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. It could offer a possible consensus for two peoples locked in a struggle for peace and justice, and move the conflict away from what are increasingly suppressive moves to snuff out Palestinian aspirations for statehood under the guise of the war on terror.

Lebanon is the second hotspot in the Middle East that faced further devastation and wreckage in 2006. In fact, the latest crisis has divided the country almost equally into pro-government and anti-government factions, and reflects on the different power struggles that are being played out. Today, the Siniora government is supported by Sunni, Christian and Druze parties (known as the 14 th March coalition) whilst the opposition that is demanding his resignation comprises the Shi'a parties of Hizbullah and Amal as well as one Christian party (known as the 8 th March coalition). Analysing those constantly shifting alliances provides in itself a kaleidoscope of ever-changing geo-strategic choices in Lebanon.

The withdrawal of Hizbullah ministers from the cabinet until it - and its allies - secure one-third of the seats in government (al-thulth al-damen or conversely al-thulth al-mouattel) was an astute ruse by Hizbullah to create a crisis that would stave off the possibility of an international tribunal to try the assassins of former PM Rafik Hariri and other Lebanese public figures killed in the last twenty months. It also challenged any hopes to disarm Hizbullah in accordance with UNSC 1701 of 12 August 2006. But Hizbullah served in this same government previously without complaint, so its motives become disingenuous when it suddenly reverses course from one of collective responsibility to one of collective denunciation and describes the said government as being unconstitutional or illegitimate.

The answer, I believe, is that Hizbullah and its allies (as witnessed by the hordes of people gathered in Martyrs' Square in Beirut opposite the seat of the Lebanese government) are trying to impose their own will upon the whole nation and in the process invalidating any moves that might lead to the setting up of an international tribunal. As Yassin Haj Saleh opined recently in his succinct editorial in the Lebanese Arabic language Hayat newspaper, this is also part and parcel of an emerging trend whereby religious extremism and Arab nationalism are becoming identical currents, with the former being the sole effective means of pursuing the latter. No wonder then that the coalition of 8 th March is part of a radicalised political Islam that is sweeping across many parts of the Arab world - including Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.

The Christian ally who offers the 8 th March coalition with the garb of cross-community legitimacy and multi-confessional respectability is General Michel Aoun. Over the years, Aoun has proven to be an unreliable political player given the number of times he has shifted his support for or against Syria, with or against the Muslim factions within Lebanon itself. The perceived wisdom is that this maverick politician - who fled Lebanon in 1990 - hopes that his support for Hizbullah would earn him their electoral weight when it comes to the next presidential elections and that he - a Maronite, as the Constitution stipulates - would become president after the incumbent Emile Lahhoud. Yet, everybody but supposedly Aoun himself knows that this strategic alliance could die out once Hizbullah attains power in Lebanon.

The Siniora government, on the other hand, is relying almost too painfully on American and Western support for its sheer survival. Here again, it seems that history has not managed to make much of an impression upon the main actors. I am bemused that this government would truly believe that the USA - or the West for that matter - could be relied upon to stand four-square (or shoulder-to-shoulder) with their version of Lebanon in its moment of need if Western political interests do not justify such support. I remember the UN conference held in Rome on 26 July 2006 during the 34-day war between Israel and Lebanon / Hizbullah when PM Fouad Siniora was weeping in despair and begging the Americans to pressure Israel to stop its destructive attacks against Lebanon. Of course, we all know that they did no such thing - not until they realised that Israel was not winning the war and that their own vested interests let alone battered image were being compromised even further in the whole Middle Eastern and Muslim worlds.

Today, sixty years after its independence, Lebanon is still threatened by Israeli bombs, by the looming might of Iran and Syria, by the spasmodic collapse of American imperialism and by its own ethnic bloodletting. This small country - with its multi-confessional system as much as its myriad religious, cultural, political and social contradictions - is again coveted by many regional and world powers and is in the process of inching toward another civil war.

Yet, I hope that the politicians from all colours would exhibit restraint and avoid going down the same slippery and catastrophic path that they chose in the 1980's since any such move would spell further chaos in the country. It is quite obvious to me that an ideological struggle is being played out in the streets and corridors of power in Beirut, and that Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia as much as the USA, Israel, Russia and the West in general are caught up in it. A recent compromise initiative by the Maronite church leadership in Bkerke called for the implementation of a code of honour that would apply to all parties, with the creation of an international tribunal to try Hariri's assassins, a new electoral law and the formation of a reconciliation government that would hold early presidential elections. This initiative - that did not fly - was followed by an Arab League ongoing initiative that more or less replicates those same points. To date, it has not yet succeeded in bringing down the walls of mistrust and diffidence between the two coalition forces.

What could be done in a sense to save Lebanon and to ensure that those masses in the streets do not spill over into violent confrontations and ultimately into confessional recriminations that would re-introduce the bogey of civil war?

Lebanon is a jigsaw of manifold complexities. For one, the confessional structure of the country - from its Constitution to its Executive and Parliamentary organs - perpetuates tensions but cannot be altered without fomenting more insecurity either. For another, Lebanon has almost always defined its problems in relation to outside parties - whether Iran, Syria, Israel, the USA or others. Perhaps Lebanese politicians should at long last choose to look inwardly at themselves, not outwardly at others, in order to address the fundamental issues that plague their country.   This is as difficult in Lebanon as it is in Iraq or elsewhere, due as much to the politics of the region and the pseudo-genetic make-up of its leaders as it is due to the unending colonial-style interference of outside forces in the country.

It is clear that Hizbullah emerged from the latest war with an enhanced sense of power and relevance both in the Lebanese and wider regional contexts. Although nobody seriously expects Hizbullah to give up its arms, it is nonetheless clear that this party needs to be careful that its victory on the field does not backfire politically by ripping apart any residual national consensus within Lebanon. Hizbullah cannot be allowed to monopolise its position as a strong armed group to bully other factions in such a way that it spills the political struggle into the streets of Lebanon. Therefore, to prevent a lose-lose situation for all parties involved in the Lebanese imbroglio, I would suggest that negotiators on both sides consider a greater Shi'i political representation in government in return fir the integration of Hizbullah into the Lebanese state as a home guard for the south of the country. This compromise might ensure that the present stasis with no real government in power is dealt with sensitively. The question, though, is whether Hizbullah would acquiesce to such a pact - or would tactically reject it - and therefore suffer the concomitant consequences.

So where does all this leave Iraq, the third hotspot in the Middle East?

As 2006 winds down in Iraq too, it is quite clear to many observers that this country has stepped into the phase of civil war, and that the much-hailed elections last year failed to produce any palpable progress on the ground. According to the Brookings Institution in Washington, and Sunni-Shi'i murderous rampages notwithstanding, the economic growth in the country is a top-down phenomenon having little effect on the unemployment rate or well-being of Iraqis in places like the Anbar Province or the Sadr City slum in Baghdad, and those increasingly proficient security forces remain politically unreliable in many cases, just as inclined to stoke sectarian strife as to contain it.

Indeed, a UN human rights report published last month stated that Iraq is a country in chaos. The report underlined that much of the population is under siege in many neighbourhoods that remain polarised along sectarian lines. Iraqis are also on the move in their hundreds of thousands as they escape the worsening violence and head for neighbouring countries - predominantly Syria and Jordan. Just like the Brookings Institution conclusions, the report also raised serious questions about the sectarian loyalties and effectiveness of Iraq's 300,000-strong US-trained security forces.

If one heads toward the western Euphrates River valley, it becomes strikingly clear that the "war on terror" is not being won - if not still being lost - with the current strategies. A recent report highlighted an average of 959 attacks on US and Iraqi targets every week from August till November 2006, adding that Baghdad remains all but isolated electrically - less than seven hours of power a day - with attempts to repair power lines falling behind attacks on the grid. So polarised have Iraqi communities become, and so divided are they along sectarian lines, that a local association, Peace for Iraqis, stated recently that hundreds of mixed Sunni-Shi'i couples are being coerced to divorce due to pressure from insurgents, militias or families who fear that they could be singled out. The smaller minority communities are also paying the price for this instability, polarisation and vengefulness. From Camp Sara in Baghdad to Mosul, Iraqi Christians for instance are being abducted, at times grievously maltreated, and often released only upon the payment of hefty ransoms.

In the midst of all the carnage, a 10-member bipartisan commission co-chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton issued the Iraq Study Group report on 6 th December that carried with it 79 unanimous recommendations and warned that 'the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating' and spoke of a further 'slide toward chaos'. Some of the recommendations from the ISG report included engaging Iran and Syria, revitalising the Israeli-Palestinian (and larger Arab-Israeli) conflict, re-integrating Ba'athists, instituting a far-reaching amnesty, delaying the Kirkuk referendum, negotiating the withdrawal of US forces with Iraqis and engaging all parties in Iraq.

It is not easy to see clearly through the haze that has become Iraq, nor is it even possible to have a clear idea of what can be done to extricate the country from the mess - three years after the 2003 invasion. Indeed, following the ISG report, the Chatham House foreign policy think tank in London also described the Iraqi invasion as a terrible mistake that will affect foreign policy for a long time. Parallel with such failures, though, one can also detect that the American neoconservative policy is at long last being questioned by politicians in Washington. The Iraq Study Group report does not refer to a failure of US policy; however, the fact that its principal recommendations are the antipodes of a strategy that were put in motion by Bush and Rumsfeld in 2003 is sufficient to gauge the extent of the grave mishandling of the Iraq file.

Today, there is a morbid denial about the civil war in the country despite the cumulative weight of evidence and the pronouncements of international authorities such as Nicholas Sambanis, a political scientist at Yale University who co-edited 'Understanding Civil War: Evidence and Analysis' published by the World Bank in 2005. Only last month, Sambanis stated that he could not understand "how people can avoid calling it a civil war" since "the level of violence is so extreme that it far surpasses most civil wars since 1945".

Given that President Bush is now re-visiting his fast-disappearing options, I believe it would help to implement a combination of recommendations made by the ISG and Pentagon. Those include a large programme to create jobs, a surge of perhaps 25,000 more American troops to Iraq to improve security in Baghdad and an ultimatum to Iraqi political leaders to achieve consensus on key issues like sharing oil. But I also believe that all those options would fail unless the political and military components are pursued together. An escalation of American forces might work only if it is tightly integrated with a political strategy for producing an Iraqi government finally willing to move against insurgency-loving Sunnis and death-squad Shi'ites as well as opening a dialogue on national reconciliation. Otherwise, I doubt very much how anyone could contain the chaos - including the Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini Sistani.

Indeed, a Middle East Report # 60 dated 19 th December by International Crisis Group entitled After Baker-Hamilton: What to Do in Iraq came up with three pivotal orientations. The report called for 'a new forceful multilateral approach that puts real pressure on all Iraqi parties, a conference of all Iraqi and international stakeholders to forge a new political compact' and 'a new US regional strategy, including engagement with Syria and Iran, an end to efforts at regime change, revitalisation of the Arab-Israeli peace process, and altered strategic goals'.

From Palestine to Lebanon and Iraq, it is clear that the regional situation is sombre. Yet, not many people outside the Middle East are aware how the conflicts in those three hotspots are impacting Europe - be it in terms of terrorism, rising radicalism and intolerance, or increased measures that curb our civil liberties.

It has always been my thesis that fostering a genuine Arab-Israeli negotiating process, and dealing proactively with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, would help cool down the other regional hotspots and might even possibly to reverse the rising tides of mistrust and tension between East and West. Mind you, I underline the clause 'help cool down' since I do not mean either that Palestine is the sole gateway to peace. Nonetheless, I would strongly argue that it is the mobilising conflict that has smeared relations between the West and the Middle East for at least the past sixty years.

In an article entitled Tony Blair's Tragedy and My Great Aunt's Wisdom , Rami G Khouri, Director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, wrote that PM Tony Blair "should assert and stand up for the rule of law, impartiality, consistency, democratic pluralism, and peaceful resolution of conflicts. Instead of boycotting and starving the democratically elected Hamas government, supporting the politically frail and largely discredited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas against Hamas, and standing firm alongside Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Blair seems likely only to exacerbate tensions within Palestine and between Palestinians and Israelis."

Indeed, what has puzzled me - and countless others like me, I suppose - is that our Western leaders come out with eloquent sound bites that support democratic forces and peace-seeking moderates in the Arab world in order to defeat terrorism yet fail lamentably to understand that their words and gestures increase the anger and frustration on the streets of that same Arab world because they are perceived by millions of peoples as unbalanced, inconsistent and hypocritical.

Readers are aware that I am not a supporter of Hamas, and that I oppose theocratic compulsion and radicalised religion whether it is Christian, Jewish or Muslim - and that includes Salafist movements in general or those who in my opinion misuse religion as a tool for the furtherance of bigotry and exclusive political gains. Yet, I also respect the decision of the majority to elect their own representatives, and it is beguiling when I hear politicians praising the elections in Iraq whilst at the same time spurning those in Palestine. By the same token, I must add that I frankly find it perplexing that our Prime Minister would stand next to the Prime Minister of Israel, wear a kippa (skullcap) and light a Hannukah (Festival of Lights) candle. Mind you, as a Christian believer, I have no quibbles with this gesture at all. But it seems surreal that a consummate politician, who is not a religious minister, would dismiss the political perceptions of his televised gesture upon millions of Muslim and Arab nationalists who might misread his decision and draw dissimilar conclusions.

Whether it is a question of historical duplicity, a regrettable lack of credibility amongst many Arab leaders, or merely a question of vested interests ranging from oil and dollars to arms and contracts, the Middle East has been buffeted by many ill-begotten political winds and thereby spun off course in 2006. But the truism that what affects the Middle East also affects the world is quite true. So whilst I write about this wave of pessimism descending upon the region, I still don my optimistic hat and voice a hope - the only forlorn one for 2007 - that we could soon witness the beginning of peaceful processes in all three hotspots. But those processes should be genuine and anchored in political responsibility and engagement, not misleading and steeped in political immaturity and thoughtlessness.

Or else, I might well be reproducing this article again toward the end of 2007 - possibly with a more strident

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2006   |   21 December


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