New Age Islam Edit Bureau
8 October 2015
Syria: Russia’s Afghanistan 2.0?
A royal solution to Libya’s chaos
Palestinians yearn for a ray of hope
The Iraqi Kurds and then came ISIL
Compiled By New Age Islam Edit Bureau
Syria: Russia’s Afghanistan 2.0?
7 October 2015
Russia’s airstrikes in Syria have dominated the news headlines. After Russian President Vladimir Putin’s moderate speech at the United Nations, in which he called for broad cooperation, hardly anyone could expect that the next day would mark the launch of one of the most controversial operations since the no-fly zone over Libya.
The controversy lies in its coverage by the Russian side, the contradiction of Russian foreign policy and military doctrine, the goals declared, and the way the operation is being performed.
The coalition that Russia is forging - including Syria, Iraq, Iran and Hezbollah - will exacerbate the Syria crisis and regional sectarian tensions. The threat becomes even more dangerous when considering the ongoing Yemen crisis, and valid Saudi concerns over the growing power of Iran following the nuclear deal. This will tarnish the image of Russia in most of the Sunni Muslim world.
Moscow’s perception of "terrorists” in Syria is too broad. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is not its only target. Most of the Russian airstrikes are against rebel forces, thus relieving the pressure on the Syrian army.
This undermines the value of Russian declarations on Syria and on President Bashar al-Assad in particular, as the airstrikes look like an attempt to secure the regime on the ground. Moscow has hit odious forces such as Al-Nusra Front, but lumping all rebel forces together undermines Russia’s credibility and complicates the situation on the ground further.
Another problem is the absence of a timeframe for the offensive and a concrete goal. Ambiguity does not contribute to the effective performance of the operation. Moscow’s aim in Syria, as described by its representative to the EU, is to “eliminate the terrorist threat to the region and to the world community.”
As such, the operation could continue unsuccessfully for years, dragging Russia deeper into the conflict. Its economy is already weakened by Western sanctions and low oil prices. Furthermore, its offensive has made Russia a target for jihadists and other extremists. Their first attack is a matter of when, not if.
The fact that Russia is forging its own coalition parallel to the U.S.-led one resolves the most difficult question of how to make rebel and governmental forces fight together against ISIS. Also, Tehran-backed militias, or even direct Iranian involvement on the ground with Russian air cover, could be effective.
If Russia finally concentrates on ISIS positions, it could really contribute to the group’s destruction. To this end, cooperation with the international coalition is vital, at least on the level of data exchange and trust.
Russia has opened a Pandora’s box with unpredictable consequences. A positive outcome is possible, and much depends on the international community’s approach and dialogue with Russia on the matter. However, the risks are high and the gains not so obvious. Syria could become Russia’s Afghanistan 2.0.
Maria Dubovikova is a President of IMESClub and CEO of MEPFoundation. Alumni of MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations [University] of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia), now she is a PhD Candidate there. Her research fields are in Russian foreign policy in the Middle East, Euro-Arab dialogue, policy in France and the U.S. towards the Mediterranean, France-Russia bilateral relations, humanitarian cooperation and open diplomacy. She can be followed on Twitter: @politblogme
A royal solution to Libya’s chaos
7 October 2015
Over the past year Bernardino León, the U.N. Special Envoy to Libya, has been mediating between the internationally recognized Libyan government in Tobruk and the rival Islamist-dominated General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli.
The Libyan government fled to Tobruk when an alliance of militias known as Libya Dawn seized Tripoli and installed the GNC as a rival government, after the Islamists did poorly in the free elections for parliament (known as the House of Representatives, or HoR) last summer.
León is to be replaced in the coming weeks, but he says his latest draft agreement is final and should be signed off and a “government of national accord” installed by October 20 when the mandate of the legitimate parliament expires. But this is the seventh draft, with each of the previous versions having been announced by León as final and about to be signed off by both sides.
This latest draft emerged from negotiations León had been mediating in Morocco, and he had said there will be no more amendments. But it was amended because the GNC delegation withdrew from the talks in Morocco – and León had to accept amendments that strengthened the GNC’s role in the projected unity government. The executives of a unity government – a Prime Minister and two deputy Prime Ministers, have still to be negotiated. The Tobruk government suspected the GNC was dragging its feet on this last procedure, because if the HoR parliament loses its original mandate, then the Tobruk government would theoretically have no more legitimacy than the GNC in Tripoli. So the legitimate parliament on Monday voted to extend its term of office beyond October 20, without fixing any limit.
ISIS in Libya
Meanwhile more bodies keep washing up on the Libyan shoreline because Libya’s ports – the departure point for the hundreds of thousands of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Italy, are controlled by the GNC or ISIS. After nearly four years of increasing chaos and the growing strength of the Libyan affiliate of ISIS, more and more Libyans are fed up with what they perceive as a hopeless track to a stable and democratic country.
The problems of governing Libya are not limited to the obvious rival political authorities. There are three very distinct rival regions – western, eastern and southern Libya. And on top of that there is the authority still exercised by the dozens of tribes in Libya, which with the collapse of Qaddafi’s highly centralized rule, have regained their strength as rival sources of potential conflict as well as a viable, comforting sense of identity and mutual aid.
The third aspect in this political and security vacuum is of course ISIS. The prevailing political chaos is the source of ISIS’ apparent strength, not any significant support from the Libyan people. And indeed a significant percentage of ISIS fighters are foreigners, Salafi-jihadists coming from Libya’s many Arab and African Muslim neighboring countries.
There is a countercurrent to this political standoff. A growing sentiment – which has even been characterized as a grassroots movement – calls for the restoration of Libya’s 1951 constitution, which established the shape of then newly independent Libya as a constitutional monarchy, tied to a parliamentary system that was based on universal suffrage. Calls to restore the constitution have been heard in debates and conferences in Tripoli and Benghazi, and a growing number of advocates on social media. Libya’s royal family, deposed by Qaddafi in 1968, are the Senussi – leaders of the resistance to Italian colonialism.
In June leaders of Libya’s 40 tribes convened in Bayda, to pray for peace and unity, and to agree on measures the tribes can undertake in opposition to ISIS. It is widely believed that the inspiration of the gathering came from the self-claimed Crown Prince of Libya, Mohammed el-Senussi, who is the great-nephew – and disputed heir apparent – of King Idris, Libya’s first and only king.
There is strong argument for federalism in Libya, which is a system that would recognize the three distinct regions. And the 1951 Constitution devolved significant authority to regional assemblies. But most importantly, a monarch transcends regional, partisan and ideological rivalries. A monarch becomes more than a symbol of unity, but a source driving unity – something Libya so desperately needs.
Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) for the New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.
Palestinians yearn for a ray of hope
07 Oct 2015
The escalating violence in Palestine is the result of many long-standing, festering issues, but mostly, it's the outcome of a total absence of hope.
When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced from the UN rostrum that Palestinians are no longer obliged to adhere to the Oslo Accords, his words ended much more than a 22-year-old memorandum of understanding between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel; Abbas's statement blocked the last ray of hope of Palestinians for a better future.
The majority of the Palestinian population today are young. According to the Palestinian Census Bureau, 70 percent of the 4.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza are under the age of 29. For these young people, the view towards the political horizon is obstructed, and there appears to be no real future for an independent and viable Palestinian state.
No matter how many times the word "Palestine" is repeated, and no matter how many pompous flag-raising ceremonies are held - at the United Nations or anywhere - young Palestinians look around them and see very little reason for hope.
In Jerusalem, Palestinians feel the entire burden of the Islamic world on them as they try single-handedly to defend Islam's third holiest mosques. Aside from hollow rhetoric, the Arab and Muslim world are watching in silence as a handful of Jerusalemites take on the powerful Israeli security machine, intent on changing the decades of status quo on premises of the Haram al-Sharif.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that Palestinian youth would react violently to this unknown future that has nothing pleasant to offer them.
Not only do they see the impotence of their own leadership, which had to wash its hands from the Oslo Accords, but even a sovereign state like Jordan - a strong US ally with diplomatic relations with Israel - is unable to do anything to stop the daily Israeli aggression on al-Aqsa Mosque, as well as the restriction of the right of worship enshrined in all international covenants and supposedly guaranteed in the Israel-Jordan peace treaty. The kingdom, after all, was given special standing with regards to al-Aqsa Mosque and other religious places in Jerusalem.
Perhaps the one place with the greatest cause for hopelessness is the Gaza Strip, where the Palestinian population feels abandoned by the world. Even Gaza's southern Arab neighbour, Egypt, is denying Palestinians in Gaza the right of movement under the guise of its fight against violent extremists in the Sinai Peninsula. The flooding of the borders after the destruction of some 3,500 homes on the Egyptian side of Rafah has further frustrated Gazans, who are now left totally at the mercy of the Israeli occupiers.
The Israeli occupiers and Arab and Muslim countries aren't the only ones to blame for the sense of hopelessness among Palestinians today. Palestinians need to own up to part of the responsibility for what has happened to the once-shining example of a liberation struggle.
Deeply divided at all levels (Gaza and West Bank, PLO and Hamas and within Fatah itself) Palestinians must realise that there is a lot that they can do to improve their plight. It is unacceptable that Palestinians are unable to meet and agree on a national strategy that can provide a badly needed ray of hope. The Palestinian cause is a just one that can easily garner worldwide support, but this requires Palestinians to be united with a clear and reasonable national goal and a feasible action plan.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) is not going to succeed if Palestinians in the diaspora and in Palestine do not work together with the same spirit, goal and direction.
The zenith of the Palestinian national movement was when all Palestinians, both inside and outside the occupied territories, were united in purpose under the auspices of the PLO. The Palestinian parliament in exile provided a useful forum for all Palestinians to meet, plan and implement a strategy for liberation. Now the deep divisions have made the act of holding a regular session of the Palestinian National Council an impossible task.
A line from a famous poem by Mu'ayyad al-Din Al-Tughari goes something like this: "How limited life is without a window of hope."
Palestinians today are in dire need of a window of hope that will make them believe in a better tomorrow.
Everyone interested in de-escalating the current level of violence in Palestine must think about how to provide this beam of hope rather than search for more repressive actions or further the disunity of a proud people yearning for freedom and liberation.
Daoud Kuttab, an award-winning Palestinian journalist, is a former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University.
The Iraqi Kurds and then came ISIL
07 Oct 2015
It took two planes, a road trip and a rinky-dink speedboat to get me to Iraq's Kurdish region in January 2003. It was the run-up to the US-led invasion. Journalists were competing to get in. But neighbouring Iran, Turkey and Syria weren't making it easy.
After a six-day wait in Damascus, I flew in on a rickety charter plane, landing in the border town of Qamishli; the rest of the journey was by car, past the oil rigs, and into Malakia; and finally, a speedboat across the Tigris River.
The assignment - gauge the mood in the run-up to the war.
"Nobody knows much about the Kurds," my editor had told me, flippantly. "Let's humanise them. Find out what they eat, whether they go to the cinema, what they think of the upcoming US invasion …"
I spoke to a cross section of Kurds, from shopkeepers in the bazaars, truck drivers, communists, former political prisoners, survivors of the 1991 gassing of Halabja, Peshmerga commanders to civil society activists.
Abdullah, a fruits and vegetables vendor at the Erbil bazaar, had told me back then: "We hope Saddam will be removed. Maybe then, the local government can focus a little bit more on our plight."
The optimism was unanimous. The US had to invade, Saddam Hussein had to go, and so did the crippling sanctions that had so cruelly impeded progress in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. For the Kurds, the war represented hope for a tantalisingly better future.
In Erbil, I interviewed Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In Sulaimania, I interviewed Jalal Talabani, leader of the rival party, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
The next time I visited Iraqi Kurdistan, in the winter of 2005, it was a time to build. Fortune was flowing into the region, mostly from the Gulf countries and Turkey. Kurdish-administered northern Iraq was a blank slate; and adventurous, far-sighted businessmen from around the world were swooping in.
"The Kurdistan region is open for business," KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told me in an interview in 2006.
There would soon be two new airports, several new housing projects, shopping malls, five-star hotels and Western fast-food chains. Still, in the midst of this investment frenzy, average Kurds endured hardships, such as regular power shortages, poor healthcare, an overstretched education system, and rents going up at a faster rate than public sector salaries.
I travelled back and forth for a few years, but I was most struck by what I noticed in 2010. It was weeks before the parliamentary elections, and the city was abuzz with rumours. Just a few months earlier, a new political party calling itself "Gorran" (Change) had emerged. It was the first significant newcomer on the Iraqi-Kurdish political scene, dominated for decades by the PUK and KDP.
The party capitalised on the economic stagnation and general malaise over a sense that Sulaimania was lagging behind the regional capital, Erbil, which appeared to be drawing the lion's share of foreign investment.
"Have you seen Erbil? How many skyscrapers they're building over there?" one young Sulaimania resident asked me. "They're finally building one here in Suly, but it's just one."
And so I went to visit the site of the city's first skyscraper, the upcoming Grand Millennium Hotel - a miniature replica of Dubai's signature Burj al-Arab. Proud residents of Sulaimania had already dubbed it the "Burj Sulaimania".
I followed with interest a year later, shortly after the outbreak of the Arab Spring. Demonstrations erupted on the Kurdish street, too. Some claimed these were orchestrated by Gorran, for political ends; others said the protests were a genuine expression of public dissatisfaction with the regional government's failure to ease daily hardships.
Not much came of those protests, however. Kurds appeared unwilling to risk grappling with the post-Spring repercussions.
Last week, I got to return to Iraqi Kurdistan; my first trip back in five years. When I landed at Sulaimania Airport, security officers gave me an eye-scan and took my fingerprints on fancy machines. I remembered my first visit via speedboat, setting foot on muddy Kurdish shores in the cold of winter.
A snazzy new jazz bar had just opened up at the upscale Copthorne Hotel. It was the place to see and be seen. There were also several Lebanese restaurants with sprawling gardens and outdoor seating; an Italian restaurant offering homemade gelato; and a dusty antique shop in an old Ottoman-era home that had been converted into a trendy eatery.
On the face of it, there was little to suggest that the region's revered Peshmerga were fighting yet another existential war only 60 kilometres away; not against Saddam's army, but against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
"Sulaimania is surrounded by mountains," a well-placed security source told me one evening, over tea on his porch. "We're buffered. If it weren't for the mountains, you'd probably hear the shelling."
With much of the construction nearly complete, Erbil now boasts a skyline fit for any self-respecting Gulf country. High-end housing complexes, a sushi bar, franchise fast-food restaurants, such as Hardee's and KFC, shops and international chain hotels, such as the Rotana and Divan, with the Marriott and Hilton soon to come.
But the city's spectacular skyline belies the recent regional developments that have essentially turned it into a ghost town. Its pavement cafes, restaurants and ritzy hotels were once full of foreigners and expatriates. But the ongoing war with ISIL has spoiled investor appetites. The five-star hotels now cater exclusively to the few security and NGO types who have not vacated.
"If only you had come back a year ago, and then you'd have really seen something," one local businessman, who owns a popular cafe, a shopping mall and a hotel, told me. "Things were different. Things were moving. And then ISIL happened."
In contrast to all the flashy consumerist additions to the region, Iraq's Kurds appear to be in a state of suspended animation. The hope of 2003 has been replaced with trepidation. If yesterday everything hinged on the removal of Saddam Hussein, today, everything they achieved hinges on whether or not their leadership can maintain a semblance of unity and hold the line against ISIL. Or else, all will come undone.
"We're just waiting now," the businessman told me. "Maybe it will pick up again when the war is over."