Category Archives: Middle East

Ceasefire, What Ceasefire?

The UN backed six-point ‘Annan Plan’ for Syria is ‘on track’, according to Ahmed Fawzi, a spokesman for Kofi Annan, despite the continuation of violence throughout a number of cities in Syria. Whilst it has been acknowledged that the signs of progress, and indeed cooperation from the Assad regime, have been rather small, there still seems to be an expectation that the Annan plan is the best possible option with which to go forward. At least for the time being.

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Tried and Tested

The ‘Friends of Syria’ Conference, based in Istanbul last week, finally yielded some movements towards a unified opposition to the Assad regime in nominally forming the Syrian National Council (SNC) – similar to that formed in Libya at the beginning of the Benghazi uprising last year. The move is a late one – in a conflict that has lasted over twelve months already there has been little success in providing a unified front in the conflict, and sectarian fissures have been prolific in creating a confused and haphazard attempt to overthrow the regime.

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Playing the Fiddle

In 64CE it is said that the Roman Emperor Nero played the fiddle whilst his capital, Rome, was burning to the ground in what would later be known as the Great fire of Rome. Whilst this legend is now regarded by most historians as false, it is telling of the nature of Nero – his brutality and sense of extravagance – that this rumour came into being in the first place. It is also telling that many believe that he started the fire himself to clear space to build his vast palatial complex. The result being, two millennia after his time as Emperor he is remembered with disdain and ridicule as the man who put his own whims, his own extravagant ventures, and his own desires before his Empire, before the people of his Empire.

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Tiny Little Fractures

The proposals that emerged today for a semi-autonomous Eastern Libya, based on an historical region known as Cyrenaica, have been greeted with more concern than shock. Cyrenaica, based around the Eastern city of Benghazi and the original stronghold of the National Transitional Council of Libya, has always been distinct from the Western, Tripoli-centred, region of North Libya; one that had become increasingly disadvantaged – socially, politically and economically – during the Gaddafi era, as he favoured the region around Tripoli, which were closer to him in both geographical and geopolitical terms (his power base was derived from the North-Western corner of Libya, surrounding Tripoli and Sirte). And whilst over the past four decades money has been increasingly spent in the areas surrounding Tripoli and Sirte, a large amount of this money has been derived from the sale of oil from fields in the Cyrenaica region.

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In the Line Of Fire

On the 22nd of February this year, British newspaper journalism lost one of its most fearless and resolute reporters to the Syrian conflict. Marie Colvin, who had long spoken of the dangers of front line war reporting, was killed alongside a French journalist, Remi Ochlik, and was among several others who were severely wounded and remained trapped in the besieged district of Babr Amr, Homs. In the days, and now weeks, that have followed, there has been a lot of debate over the ethics of foreign journalists being present during such volatile circumstances, and unintentionally becoming the focus of the news rather than simply acting as a conduit through which events are reported. This debate was further fuelled as video messages were sent by the injured and surviving journalists, asking for a ceasefire to allow their removal from Babr amr district, and then as several members of the Syrian Free Army lost their lives in aiding the removal of the journalists to neighbouring Lebanon. Continue reading

With Impunity

When  the uprisings started in Syria, just over a year ago, the regime denied that any such movement had started to swell up amongst the ranks of the Syrian people. It was easy to see why they would be in denial; between Bashar Al Assad’s slow moving reforms, an attempt to placate a population so often restless under his father’s rule, and the unrelenting comprehensive system of torture employed against any dissidents, those who were not so enamoured with their leader were at least fearful of voicing their opinions against him.

The outside world, too, for a time believed that the uprisings were nothing more than a faded mirror image of what was happening in the rest of the Arab world – a few isolated groupings trying to seize the regional momentum to push personal agendas. For state leaders in the United States, the UK and across Europe, their involvement in Libya meant that accepting that the uprising was factional, regional, and minor fitted better with their strategic military capabilities – with active engagement in two conflicts, in Afghanistan and Libya, they were not able to, nor were they prepared to, stretch themselves any further than they already had. The result was that the international community, its eyes turned towards its interests in Libya and elsewhere, largely ignored the increasingly bloody violence that was smouldering in Syria’s cities and the outskirts of Damascus.

When it did finally wake up to the fact that the conflict in Syria was not only more serious than they had first anticipated, but that it was also fragmenting along sectarian lines, there was a timid showing from the Arab League who made statements against Assad, and sent observers to the country, before trying to persuade the United Nations Security Council to step in and take action. But even then only in the form of selective sanctions.

By this time thousands of Syrians – military personnel, civilians, men, women, children and the aged – had lost their lives through gun battles which would erupt spontaneously in a suburb of Damascus, in the centre of Homs or Hama or Daraa, or through the torture and imprisonment dealt out by the Mukhabarat (Assad’s Secret Police) by anyone who voiced disagreement with the regime – notably this also includes children from the age of ten.

The regime weren’t even trying particularly hard to cover up the fact that the violence was happening, noting that the deaths had occurred, but asserting that it was limited to the suppression of extremist Islamist rebels. Throughout this time, and right up until Libya found closure with the death of Muammar Gaddafi, it didn’t really matter what Assad said – no journalists were in the country and, again, no one was really listening.

Then, towards the end of last year and after Gaddafi’s death – recorded as so much of that conflict was by crude camera phone video – the world finally woke up to the fact that Syria’s internal conflict was spiralling out of control. As already highlighted above, the response was still tepid, but as action started to slow in Libya US, UK and French rhetoric in particular started to acquire the sharp tones of impatience with the slow moving international efforts. The Arab League’s insistence that the UN acted in this matter, possibly out of concern for the impact on their own domestic situations just as much as the civilians suffering the brutal force of Assad’s military outfits, was not enough to get the gears in motion – however – as they ground to a halt with Russian and Chinese spanners thrown into works.

Now, as it stands, the international community are toothless – sanctions without Russia (Syria’s chief source of weaponry) and China (where Syria acquires the majority of its imported non-military goods) are a waste of time, and a military solution in a region that is currently chaotic in some corners, petrified of revolution in others, and has Israel and Iran staring at each other over nuclear potential, is simply not viable without creating a perfect storm for widespread and enduring sectarian conflict. What is more, there is not even a truly identifiable opposition with which to negotiate, to recognise, or even to support – with many different factions battling each other as much as they are battling the military mechanisms of Assad’s regime. For this to change, and it must change soon, a number of things have to happen.

First, the anti government forces in Syria need to form a single viable council or leadership group that acts as an umbrella group for all the disparate groupings that currently fight in amongst each other as much as they fight regime forces. This will not be easy, and it must find common ground and a common idea of what comes after the regime, not simply a path to its downfall, to avoid the country falling into chaos if the Assad regime does fall. This will provide a diplomatic core for the opposition which will offer an alternative instrument of government for the international community to back and rally around, but it will also ensure that grievances by and against opposition troops are addressed.

Second, once this entity has been forged, Russia and China must recognise that it is important to make new ties with the new representative body – in a similar way the international community did with Libya’s NTC – and resist blocking any movement in the United Nations. If they do not, it may be that frustrated members start acting outside of the organisation and end up risking a polarising of more than just Syria’s domestic situation. Worse, however, is if they do not act without the United Nations, and stand back to let the situation unfold by itself. The violence and torture against Assad’s opponents has increased dramatically since the failed UN resolution was vetoed, and the longer the international community stands by the more Assad will feel he can act with impunity.

Back to Square One?

Elation and Disappointment

The removal of Hosni Mubarak from the head of the Egyptian government was a momentary release of the pressure that had been building all around the country in every major town and city. Parties and celebrations that stretched through the night into the heady days that followed seemed to carry the message that the felling of the tyrant, particularly considering the manner in which he was felled, had made everything better. The mass mobilisation of the people, never seen on this scale in modern day Egypt, had proved victorious. The people were undefeatable and indefatigable; they were assured in their own invincibility by this great feat of collectivism and then, even as the dust and excitement started to settle, there was a sense that now, everything was going to be alright.

The tumultuous summer that followed Egypt’s Arab Spring suggested otherwise, and as the temporary custodians of the Egyptian Government – in the form of Mubarak’s once staunchly loyal Generals – began to settle into their roles the frustrated and betrayed protestors began to filter back into the Square that had rose to infamy as the battleground for Egyptian freedom.

The Generals, perhaps lacking Mubarak’s sense for the visual in violent oppression of the general, and increasingly vocal, population, did not use men mounted on camels to ride through the Square, bludgeoning everyone in reach. Instead, they opted for the more time tested and subtle methods of harassment by military and police men on foot, employing brutal beatings without any of the visuals that draw many a grateful television camera. And this lack of display is quite possibly very intentional; the Generals are well aware of the damage a captive international audience could do to their current hegemony, if only to help support and spur on the protestors domestically.

Turning a Blind Eye

For the past six months, as it turns out, the world has had its eyes turned elsewhere. The fall of Mubarak acted as closure for many people watching from afar; after all, in the movies the story ends with the decimation of the villain. There have also been plots elsewhere that have torn the audience away; the war in Libya against Gaddafi and what remained of his followers was not only more bloody, it drew many of the West in as governments clamoured to rid the world of this sinister evil dictator and rallied behind the liberating forces. The dominoes had also begun toppling across the region and throughout the globe, and in between insurrections, protests and riots the economic system kept crumbling beneath everyone. Everywhere.

It seems, in fact, that for many people the first resounding nod to the mere fact that something may be wrong with the governance of Egypt is when the elections returned a vote in favour of what have been broadly noted as ‘Islamist’ parties. This, after a decade of Al Qaeda and living on an amber alert, seemed to snap Egypt back into the international consciousness and instigated a whole series of debates over the ability of an Arab population to maintain a democracy, and whether there was something generally wrong with a people who intentionally mark ballot papers in favour of ‘extremists’.

Right Question, Wrong Answer

There seems to be, in many parts of the press and amongst a great deal of the general population – in the UK at least – a tendency to miss the rather less than subtle difference between the more extreme Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood which has been part of Egyptian society for nearly a century – even if it was banned for great swathes of that time. In any case, a vote for either should not be confused with a vote for extremism of any form.

Islamic groups, which have also become political parties with the advent of democracy, are a key feature of these elections for a number of reasons. Firstly, due to their operation through and within the mosque, they have been impossible to destroy entirely even as blanket bans were issued by the governments. With a captive audience (90% of Egyptians are Muslims) and a ready-made meeting place in the mosque, groups centred on Islamic principles have been the only dominant form of civil society in a state which has forbidden political expression against the government. These groups have also been instrumental in raising and distributing Zakat (alms), effectively providing social benefits for the poor and in need; as have they long held strong anti-corruption sentiments – both of which add to their popularity.

That the current political system in Egypt is problematic is unquestionable, but those problems are not with the beneficiaries of the popular vote but with the Generals who seem quite unwilling to relinquish power. Yes, a government containing any Islamic party could possibly opt to ban alcohol and bikinis, but that they will be taking away a cheap and alcohol soaked tourist destination for sun-starved Brits should not be the main concern in judging a government. Instead we should be watching closely, and providing support for a people making their first, important steps out of Tahrir Square and into a better, freer and more just Egypt. A vote for the Muslim Brotherhood is not a vote for tyranny, oppression and violence, but if this is what a vote for the Muslim Brotherhood leads to, then, just as before, the people of Egypt know how to take their country back.

In The End

The demise of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, ex-leader of Libya, was finally played out in a battle over the Sirte area of Northern Libya, the town of his birth, his family, and his wider tribe. As the last of Libya’s cities to fall to the liberation forces of the National Transitional Council, Sirte had provided Gaddafi with his last remaining place to hide in the country he once held completely in an authoritarian grip and, in a way, he found himself repeating the history borne out by another leader of the Arab World no more than five years ago.

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The Exchange Rate

Gilad Shalit, the most high profile prisoner in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, will be released at some point over the next week. In exchange, 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, currently residing in Israeli prison cells, are to be released in stages with female prisoners – all 450 in Israeli custody – being given priority on the time scale. The huge number of prisoners given to the Palestinians, not all of which will be given leave to remain in Israel of the Palestinian Occupied Territories, signifies the growing importance to the Israeli government, and more particularly to Netanyahu, that the hostage situation involving Shalit should be resolved. Whilst it may seem absurd to some that so much is being put at stake to secure the life of one Israeli Soldier, the implications of his release, and the manner in which both sides conduct themselves through the remainder of the deal’s delivery, have hugely wide-scale implications.

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Egypt the Eternal

On the surface, the revolution that rolled through Egypt in little under three weeks earlier this year seemed to be the success story of the Arab Spring. With the abrupt rise of a political opposition out of nothing, the dramatic setting of Tahrir Square – aptly named as Tahrir translates as ‘Liberation’ in English, the deployment of thugs on camel-back, and the overthrow of a brutal and greedy dictator, those moments that many will vividly remember from January/February this year have an almost cinematic quality. Hollywood itself could not have scripted such perfect, well timed drama. And after just three weeks of visible and strong presence on the Egyptian streets, the expectation of a new and more prosperous future felt like a logical conclusion after Mubarak resigned. For all those carried away on the drama, the passion and the pace those weeks left behind, there were few people sounding the voice of realism.

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