image of jerusalem 2015

The MENA on the cusp of a new year!
Almost as quickly and furtively as in the blink of an eye, we will soon dig into our festive meals, sing our favourite carols and turn the pages of our calendars in quest of a virginal welcome to 2016.

9 December   |   2015   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

We will also no doubt adopt our New Year resolutions that we would inevitably forsake soon thereafter. In short, we will persevere with our lives as we have done for the past oh-so-many years.

But what can we say about the furrowed uncertainties of the MENA region? Could such Western habits apply equally to the populations of this vast geographical space? Just look at the bloody events in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and even Egypt. Also, look at the fears assailing many other regional countries where the rulers and potentates are paranoid about their own future in the face of the popular anxieties that are trespassing into their lives across porous boundaries. Not to mention the political wheeling-dealing in Lebanon or the different ethnic and faith-based communities facing persecution - or at the very least grave discrimination. Many of them are destitute, homeless and hopeless and some have become refugees in camps dotted across the region or even at the doors of a distressed Europe.

Mind you, the granddaddy of MENA contemporary conflicts - and its historical hub in some sense - still remains Israel-Palestine where the sense of despair among the younger generations of Palestinians is mounting proportionately to the increasing ideological practices and right-wing rhetoric of a large number of Israeli politicians. The sad truth here is that the core issues of this decades-long conflict can be resolved if only Israel evinced willingness to reach an agreement based on the principle of land-for-peace that has been institutionalised by various UN Resolutions and later re-confirmed boldly in 2007 by the Arab Peace Initiative. But what has often been sorely wanting is the good will to move forward: as an editorial in Haaretz suggested recently, Israel does not wish a two-state solution but a 1.5-state solution. Otherwise put, Israel will administer most of the West Bank and Palestinians would be allowed to live in cantons. I fear that such a political viewpoint reeks of apartheid-style racism.

But it was Uri Savir, honorary president of the Peres Center for Peace and founder in 2011 of YaLa Young Leaders online peace movement, who wrote recently that we must not emote about the solution to this conflict but rather address its constituents - starting with Jerusalem - dryly and pragmatically. If only our politicians heeded his cry in the wilderness and discerned the merits of his arguments.

Sadly, a short piece cannot address the issues of a whole region, so I would simply like to focus today in my last piece for 2015 on Syria and refer to two key headings of its 5-year crisis. The Syria of today is a country where some 2.1 million homes, half its hospitals and 7000 schools have been destroyed according to UN sources. In fact, the cost of the damage to date is estimated at over $270 billion - and rebuilding the country could run into $300 billion. In Aleppo alone, more than 14,000 buildings have been destroyed or damaged, and one commentator described it wryly as the new Stalingrad.

In light of the devastation heaped upon hapless citizens who only yearned in 2011 for some basic freedoms, we now witness multiple wars that are being fought on its behalf, whilst new efforts are also being deployed to degrade and eradicate Daesh (ISIL). So let me first remind readers of the revenues supporting this militant terror group that according to the Soufan Group security consultancy has since June 2014 some 27,000 foreign jihadi fighters: how has it managed to raise billions of pounds?

Until October 2015, and according to US Treasury figures, Daesh was earning £31m per month from oil sales across Iraq & Syria. Following the coalition airstrikes, earnings have reportedly fallen by a third. But other than oil, Daesh has also claimed it has an annual budget of £1.3bn for 2015 which makes it by far the wealthiest jihadist movement in history. In fact, the estimates by Bloomberg and RUSI suggest that Daesh earns £130m per year through crop production and heroin trafficking into Europe. Besides, it also earned up to £650m in 2014 through the ransacking of banks and the sale of antiquities. According to OHCHR, large sums have been gained from the trafficking of women and children, the ransom payments received to release captives and the sale of the bodies and organs of the people captured by Daesh. In fact, the Economist suggested recently that Daesh / ISIL can still survive for one year if all its incomes dry up.

The second heading is more in the form of food for thought for the future. What are the International law tools - be they based on treaty or custom - that could help redress the post-conflict situation in Syria and across the MENA region? In a thoughtful piece in The Washington Post last month, David Ignatius underlined five historical peace agreements that could serve as guidelines for a post-Islamic State Middle East. In the past, those five agreements marked the end of other convulsive conflicts. Chief among them is the Peace of Westphalia 1648 that remains the legal reference for many scholars or theorists and that created a system for sovereignty in which each ruler could determine the established religion of the state under his [or her] control. By embracing the idea of non-interference in the affairs of others, this treaty is often thought to mark the creation of the modern nation-state. The second one is the Congress of Vienna 1815 that rebalanced Europe after the upheaval of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Third was the Treaty of Versailles 1919 that ended WWI but arguably created the tumult and torment of the modern Middle East - not least with its arbitrary Sykes-Picot delineation of borders. Ignatius also added 1945 to show how the United States shaped the peace agreements that ended World War II. And finally, the Taïf Agreement of 1989 is in my opinion vital in that it helped put an end to the 14-year civil war in Lebanon and created a balance of power among its warring sects on the basis of “no victor, no vanquished”.

Whether those tools would help configure the MENA region in the future remains a moot point for me. After all, and as Dr Adib Nehmeh reminded his participants at a colloquium in Beirut recently, “The Arab region has for the most part not created stable, productive, and equitable civil states defined by modernity’s benefits because for decades it has functioned under three simultaneous dominant contexts: neo-patrimonial states, neo-patriarchal societies, and neo-liberal peripheral economies.” And herein admittedly lies the crux of the problem. However, I would argue that conflict resolution tools show us that it is possible to build peace so long as the belligerent parties have reached a peak in their conflict where a resolution is the sole egress from further suffering. This point has alas not seemingly been reached across most conflicts in the MENA. However, given the current peristalsis of global interests, we might soon come face-to-face with the choice of either harnessing our political energies and pooling our irenic efforts or facing the unforgiving abyss.

Interestingly enough, one of the thought-provoking reactions to the terror attacks in Paris on 13th November was a remarkable increase in the sales of A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. Published in 1964, this book largely incorporates the memoirs of its author. But it also symbolises optimism and reinforces the absinthe-hydrated and resilient culture of Paris. That optimism will always help us mere mortals and ordinary citizens to overcome setbacks: we fall often, but then we shake off the dust of defeat and continue with our struggles.

So let me conclude with two after-thoughts for 2015. The first one is from no less a renowned polymath and author than one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin reminded us in 1755, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” The second one comes in the form of a rebuke by an onlooker that set the Twittersphere alight after the attack at Leytonstone Tube station in London: # You ain’t no Muslim, bruv. Granted, this hashtag does not explain the radicalism that manifests itself in a malignant detachment from our common values but it does nonetheless help undermine the appeal of Daesh in a way that dropping bombs on Raqqa does not do at all.

This is the kernel of my truth for the waning days of 2015. I hope to be proven wrong in 2016.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2015   |   9 December


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