New Age Islam Edit Bureau
22 February 2016
France, Israel and Palestine: Same As
It Ever Was?
By John Bell
How Putin Is Winning In Syria
By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Saad Hariri versus the ‘Supreme
By Khairallah Khairallah
Syria between Two Theatres
By Abdulrahman Al-Rashed
Compiled By New Age Islam Edit Bureau
France, Israel and Palestine: Same As It
21 Feb 2016
While Syria burns and great powers run towards
collision there, the French government has formally put forward a new
initiative for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The three-step process (consults with
both sides, convene an international support group, and convene an
international summit to restart talks) is the brainchild of now former French
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
Despite Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya, the
French government feels that this ageing conflict is central to the problems of
the region and needs to be resolved. In this view, disenfranchised and occupied
Palestinians remain at the heart of Arab grievance.
The proposed initiative follows a familiar
pattern, and indeed some would say it is outdated. So far, there is no reason
to believe it will go anywhere because the political stars are not aligned
today in its favour.
Upfront - Does The Israeli Occupation
There is no real interest in it on the
Israeli side, and Palestinian demands have not changed. Palestinian Foreign
Minister Riyad al-Maliki has said that Palestinians will "never"
return to direct talks with Israel; they naturally seek the multilateralism
that France is proposing.
US Won't Give Up Primacy
The Americans are also not likely to give
up their primacy in this process to the French. Instead, Washington promises
future re-engagement, possibly, a la Clinton 2000, in the narrow and tricky
window between the November elections and the January presidential
Indeed, like the refrain from the Talking
Heads song, the Israel-Palestine conflict remains "same as it ever
was". The Obama Administration is busy elsewhere: the expanding troubles
in Syria and a region upending itself in new troubles every day are rather
The French have added a twist to their
proposal: if Israel rejects it, they may recognise a Palestinian state adding
to a growing international climate against occupation marked by the BDS
The French have added a twist to their
proposal: If Israel rejects it, they may recognise a Palestinian state adding
to a growing international climate against occupation marked by the BDS
However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu has the option of engaging France sufficiently, if only to buy time,
until a new US president comes to office.
The Israeli prime minister may try to walk
the tightrope between his right-wing base and international pressure until a
president closer to his liking and inclinations enters the scene.
The deeper problem with this initiative is
the gap between the salons and the situation on the ground. In Jerusalem and
the occupied West Bank, the situation remains perilous.
Lack of Political Horizon
The lack of political horizon is a breeding
ground for violence, and despite illusions, the Israeli PM cannot keep the
situation fully contained. This is why some Israeli officials, including some
in the defence and security sectors, are encouraging a more serious engagement
with the French.
The same gap between reality on the ground
and talk tragically applies in Syria where the Geneva talks were abruptly
interrupted by air strikes by one of its sponsors, alongside a bold military
move by one of the protagonists.
Such interruptions are sadly reminiscent of
destructive actions in Israel and Palestine in the 1990s that regularly upset
the apple cart of negotiations and ultimately cast them into the dustbin.
Under such conditions, why would the French
put it forward at this time? Some point to the ego of a departing foreign
minister who wished to leave a legacy behind, or the vestigial legacy of a
waning power pining to play a role.
Less cynically, it may simply be a real
belief by the French government that the question of Israel and Palestine needs
to be resolved.
However, if this wish cannot be translated
into results or influence the grander scheme, it will deteriorate into yet
another endless and fruitless process - and therein lies the rub.
The lessons from Syria abound. On that
file, some have already stated that "diplomacy that perpetually and
falsely holds out the prospect of imminent progress can end up providing cover
and an excuse for inaction".
This may not be the French intention, but
there may be plenty of diplomatic room for an Israeli prime minister to have
yet another "excuse for inaction" towards a permanent solution.
Diplomacy can be a very attractive process.
It has the virtue of being "jaw jaw" rather than "war war",
and it is often seductive to those involved because if feels as if something
exciting and high level is going on, even when nothing is. It can also always
be excused by the compelling argument that it is always better to try rather
Diplomacy Is Handmaiden of Policy
However, the gap between the lakesides in
Geneva and the hells of Homs or the darkness in Hebron can be vast. A process
that neither reflects realities nor connects to them risks consequential
failure: After Camp David 2000, an Intifada broke out; after US Secretary of
State John Kerry's recent attempt on Israel-Palestine, violence broke out,
including in Jerusalem and Gaza.
After expectations are raised and unmet,
even subtly, there are reactions; diplomacy is not without its consequences.
The reality is also that diplomacy is
inevitably the handmaiden of policy. If there is no policy, as in the case of
the US over Syria, then the implication is clear: Diplomacy is only a process
that can be used or abused by those with clearer policies, for better or worse.
Traditional diplomacy (not the preventive
variety) works when the situation on the ground is ripe enough for the sides to
put aside war for politics, or when there is enough goodwill or political will
in the highest circles to make the crucial difference.
Otherwise, diplomacy is often part and
parcel of a larger strategy that includes changing conditions on the ground.
It is Russia and Bashar al-Assad in Syria,
and the Israeli government in the West Bank and Jerusalem that have cynically
but effectively used this approach. Settlements grow, Assad gains ground, while
diplomats talk - even sometimes because diplomats talk instead of their
countries taking action.
Whether the French have a clear and
sustainable policy in this case remains to be seen. It may well be that the
French are serious about recognition of a Palestinian state should their
initiative be rejected by Israel.
That, at least would be a policy with some
teeth. It may also be that the French initiative may co-opt the Israeli prime
minister into a process where he has to make concessions that he was previously
unwilling to consider. Or, more grandly, it is a step on the march towards summoning
sufficient international pressure to resolve the problem.
The jury is out and the initiative may be
worth a try. As some great and many trite philosophers have promised, process
is a natural part of life. However, in a conflict that has gone on for over
four generations, what Israelis and Palestinians need are results - and a sense
of clear responsibility (and policy) by those pursuing diplomatic action.
John Bell is director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo
International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian
diplomat, and served as a political adviser to the Personal Representative of
the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian
When Vladimir Putin first committed himself
to the Syrian conflict, many commentators, including myself, thought that he
was taking a large and potentially very costly gamble: if he got bogged down in
Syria like the Soviets did in Afghanistan, this could well be the end of his
regime and that would have spelled trouble for the whole of Russia as well.
But it now seems safe to conclude that his
gamble has paid off. Spectacularly so. There are three reasons why this worked
out well for Putin: the Russian domestic economy, its regional influence in the
Middle East, and its relationship with Europe.
Even as of now, Russia is not in a good
place. It was widely reported last year that the Russian economy is in the
doldrums. Both the real economy and the government’s revenues in the country
are hugely over-reliant on oil and commodities more broadly. The prices of all
those things are still at uncomfortably low levels.
And what is more, with the slowdown of
China, and the expectation looming around the world that we are heading into a
new global slowdown, the chance that oil and commodity prices will bounce back
soon is virtually zero. Nor is there anything else in the economic forecasts to
suggest that the Russian economy will be boosted by any other factors.
But this is no longer reported on – either
in the international media or in Russia. There is precious little Putin can do
about fixing the Russian economy in the short term, and he has squandered 15
years of being in government not restructuring the economy away from natural
resources and towards high-value, high-growth sectors. But what he can do is
distract attention from these facts. And with the intervention in Syria, he is
doing that brilliantly.
Secondly, there is the key issue of
influence in the Middle East. For decades, regional influence in the region was
exercised both by the U.S. and by Russia in the form of backing competing
strong-man regimes. With President Obama’s moves towards a more “ethical”
foreign policy, and the backing we the West have given to the Arab Spring, many
of our client dictators in the region have been toppled: most notably Mubarak
in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia.
There are three reasons why this worked out
well for Putin: the Russian domestic economy, its regional influence in the
Middle East, and its relationship with Europe
The others, such some Gulf states and the
Israelis are shifting very uncomfortably in their seats, as the U.S. is not
only failing to back them repeatedly, but has also gone out of its way to
achieve a détente with their arch-enemy, Iran. There may be very many reasons
why the deal with Iran was a good thing. But we must appreciate that many of
our regional allies will not be very pleased about it.
By contrast, Russia is sticking by its
clients in the region, and is taking significant risks to do so. The Assad
regime has been Russian allies for over half a century. And when Syria was
threatened, Putin backed them with money, weapons, intelligence, and
ultimately, boots on the ground. Regimes in the region are watching very
If Russia succeeds in keeping Assad in
office, they will be seen as a much more reliable ally than the U.S. Fragile
regimes who do not feel confident that the U.S. has their back may well start
gravitating towards the Russian sphere of influence.
Lastly, it has already been observed by
some commentators that Syria is a huge problem for Europe. And Europe’s woes are
Putin’s gain. Let us not forget that Russia is still stuck in a frozen war in
Ukraine. Just as it has annexed Crimea, it also continues to wreak havoc on its
former client through that war, but also through economic sanctions.
The Europeans have initially provided what
for Putin was an unexpectedly robust response to that crisis, and it has led to
a breakdown of relations between Putin and Merkel who had been on very good
terms before. But the Syrian crisis has been the major factor behind the
ongoing European migration crisis. And the migration crisis is tearing the EU
and individual EU member states apart politically.
European governments have to contend with
the rise of ultra-nationalist factions in their domestic politics, the Schengen
agreement of open borders in Europe is teetering on the edge, and the financial
burden of absorbing the migration is pushing states like Greece, already
economically fragile, ever closer to the abyss. In these circumstances,
Europe’s leaders no longer have the time or resources to engage with the
Ukraine situation. They have far too many things on their plates just keeping
everything together at home.
We are thus left on the defensive, on all
these fronts, and Putin can just keep rubbing salt on our wounds, as the West
is wobbling. It is hard to conceive how Putin could get more out of the Syrian
war than he is already getting.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford
and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College.
He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an
International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard
and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous
world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker
by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the
World Economic Forum.
Saad Hariri versus the ‘Supreme Leader’
Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri
touched upon several important issues in his speech delivered recently. The
most important part of his speech was: “Lebanon will not be, under any
circumstances, an Iranian province. We are Arabs, and Arabs we shall remain.”
This goes on to show that there is awareness as far as the dangers of Iranian
expansionism is concerned.
Hariri was speaking at an event marking the
11th anniversary of his father Rafiq Hariri's assassination. Throughout his
speech, he referred to efforts being made to get rid of his father’s legacy. He
said he was aware of the plots against Lebanon since Syrian President Bashar
al-Assad insisted on extending the term of former Lebanese president Emile
This was followed by a surge in
assassinations, the 2006 war with Israel, an attempt to establish an Islamic
emirate in northern Lebanon, and a sit-in in downtown Beirut intended to
destroy the country’s economy and the city centre.
All these events, followed by the invasion
of Beirut and the Shouf Mountains by Hezbollah in May 2008, must be recalled.
The party imposed itself on government formation by armed forces in order to
humiliate the Sunnis and Christians, and to prepare for Hariri’s departure from
Lebanon due to serious threats to his life.
There is a “supreme leader” of Lebanon called
Hassan Nasrallah who decides who will be president - Lebanese deputies are only
required to validate what he decides
The link between these events appears today
in the form of the presidential vacuum imposed by Hezbollah. It boycotted
sessions to elect a president after it decided to participate in a sectarian
conflict against the Syrian people by a ruling minority that has no legitimacy.
Hezbollah will not elect a president unless its conditions are met - first and
foremost, to have the final say in Lebanon, especially in presidential
In his speech Hariri highlighted the risk
of Hezbollah’s ambitions materializing. The danger lies in its desire to
indirectly change the nature of the Lebanese system. There is a “supreme
leader” of Lebanon called Hassan Nasrallah who decides who will be president -
Lebanese deputies are only required to validate what he decides.
Hariri emphasized that Lebanon’s president
is elected by parliament and will not be chosen by Nasrallah. He said he would
give his blessing to whosoever is elected. There is resistance to the take-over
Khairallah Khairallah is an Arab columnist who was formerly Annahar's
foreign editor (1976-1988) and Al-Hayat's managing editor (1988-1998).
21 February 2016
“This is amazing. We now congratulate each
other for being granted asylum status. We rejoice if one of us finds a shelter
for himself and his family. We rejoice if a child is still alive after being
found in the rubble. We sometimes just wish to find our children’s corpses so
that we can bury them.”
This is how Syrian actress Yara Sabri
summed up the current life of the Syrian people in a monodrama. She was playing
the role of a Syrian woman fighting entrenched behind sandbags in a one-woman play
called Under the Sky performed in the Dubai Community Theater & Arts
Centre. Contrary to my expectations, the hall was packed with audience. I
thought few people would want to watch a political play considering we have
been watching political developments in Syria for five years now.
People of Syria are artistic and culturally
inclined. Art remains part of their lives wherever they go and live. After the
war, they took with them their society consisting of writers, actors,
actresses, artists and painters wherever they went. Sabri’s play was very
impressive. You can hear some of the audience interacting and even crying as
the play reopened everyone’s wounds. The man who sat next to me has lost more
than 16 members of his family in Syria. Most of those watching the play had
lost near and dear ones. Tragedy has struck almost the entire Syrian
In the play Under the Sky – written by
Fadia Dalla and directed by Maher Salibi – we do not see anything about ISIS
and about sectarian battles. A woman sitting next to me said this is how Syria
used to be for all the Syrian people before the regime ripped it apart and
decided to destroy it and displace its people.
No War on Terror
The regime has tried and actually succeeded
at picturing its confrontation with the majority of the Syrian people as war
against terror and a struggle exported to Syria as a religious project.
However, the story of the Syrian revolution is like the Libyan and the Yemeni
revolutions. It’s the story of the people who could no longer tolerate a life
under the rule of violent security and military regimes.
The play reminds us how, before the Syrian
revolution, people rejoiced if the bread they received was not rotten. It shows
how the regime kept people preoccupied with earning a living, putting food on
the table and how it afflicted them with torment. This is why the Syrian people
revolted. They did not revolt out of religious or ideological grudges.
We can see the difference between popular
sympathy and international carelessness, which has allowed Syria to become the
worst tragedy we’ve known since World War II
Do the people know the scale of the tragedy
committed against millions of Syrian people? Dalla’s black comedy, with this
funny yet painful script, gives us mixed emotions. In one of the scenes, Sabri
grabs her phone and takes different pictures of herself while carrying a rifle.
“Maybe someone will see this photo and like it (on Facebook),” she says. The
scene is followed by moments of silence as she recalls others’ sufferings and
says: “What about those drowning in the sea? How will they see how many likes
they have on their photos?”
People in Arab countries and the rest of
the world certainly sympathize a lot with the Syrian people. However, this
sympathy is not being reflected on the ground due to the official opportunist
stances by governments. Therefore we can see the difference between popular
sympathy and international carelessness, which has allowed Syria to become the
worst tragedy we’ve known since World War II.
As long as there is continuous rejection of
the wrong status quo, the Syrian cause will not be buried despite the life of
displacement and exile and the huge flow of refugees. This is why the war
failed to impose what the regime wants.
Whenever we ask ourselves whether the
Syrian people can resist and remain steadfast, we realize that with this spirit
and persistence, they’re actually capable of overcoming their ordeal and that
no matter how successful Assad is at displacing whoever is left of the Syrian
people, he will not succeed at planting despair.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News
Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former
editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where
he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of
Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed
has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide
recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded,
thriving and influential position it is in today.