The Middle East Cauldron

Israel’s posture of systematically denying Palestinians their right to statehood is as intolerant as the IS’ cruel elimination of all people who do not adhere to their credo. Is it not high time for the majority of decent and open-minded citizens of the world to break their silence and say as Salahuddin, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, a loud no to intolerance?

When Salahuddin, the Kurdish Commander of the Saracen forces fighting the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in October 1187 after the capitulation of the city held by the Crusaders, he summoned the Jews living in neighbouring Jewish settlements and permitted them to resettle in Jerusalem. Following his victories and conquests, Salahuddin was proclaimed Sultan of Egypt and Syria and became the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty.

In 1192, he also opened Jerusalem to Christian pilgrimages as Jerusalem is a Holy city for the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths.

This tolerant philosophy is in sharp contrast to the Amnesty International reports of genocides, ethnic cleansing and abduction of women carried out by the Islamic State (IS) against Christian, Yazidis or other minorities as well as Muslims who do not espouse their intolerant views. Today, Kurdish fighters, the famed Peshmerga, who are mostly Sunnis are helping the battered Iraqi army which was on the run, fight and gain ground against IS insurgents. They wrested the Mosul dam, a key water source in Iraq from the IS forces with the help of dozens of US air strikes. The combined forces of Kurds, the Iraqi army and Shia militias backed by US air strikes have this week broken the two-month siege of Amirli and seized the IS stronghold of Sulaiman Bek in northern Iraq.

In the last eighteen months, IS forces have fought the Syrian army, Hezbollah and other groups fighting the Assad government as well as Iranian forces. They have routed the Iraqi army and pushed back the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. IS now controls large areas of Syria and Iraq which they have merged into one entity. IS is not an ordinary extremist organization as it has not only firmly asserted its ambitions of statehood but wishes beyond its clandestine financial sponsors to have its own sources of revenue by targeting the control of oil fields in Iraq. Reports indicate that other extremist groups in Afghanistan and covert ones in the West have or are joining forces with IS.

The enemy of my enemy…

The challenge posed by the IS has led to a disconcerting mixed bag of foes, who were until recently strongly opposing each other in the convoluted geopolitical games engulfing the Middle East for decades, to become unlikely ‘bedfellows’. In tune with the adage that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, Iran was the first to respond to the Kurds lobbying of the international community for better arms to fight IS by providing weapons to and training the Kurds, ahead of the US, France, Germany and others who had pledged military support. The Kurds who had suffered tremendous atrocities at the hands of the Iraqi military in the past decided to fight the IS when the latter attacked Iraqi Kurdistan and joined the Iraqi forces to fight a common foe. The US air strikes, which began on 8 August, have now attained some 110 sorties and have so far cost the US some $ 560 million.

In the wake of the recent barbaric beheading of the American journalist James Foley, the US has called for the setting of a global coalition to fight and defeat IS and to this end has sought the support of the EU and countries of the Middle East. Another American journalist Steven Sotloff kidnapped in 2013 was brutally beheaded this week. The US military however recognizes that the IS cannot be defeated unless their sanctuaries in Syria are also attacked and destroyed. Would this catch 22 situation lead to an arrangement with the decried Syrian Assad regime and its allies? The stunning rise of the IS as a well armed and strong force now controlling large swathes of Syria and Iraq begs the question of the covert organizations and countries which are supporting it financially. The US and all those combating the IS must realize that finding and severing its financial support is vital to any strategy aimed at neutralizing it.

A woeful tale of costly failures

It must be remembered that the US and its allies set up during the occupation of Iraq as from its invasion by US led coalition forces in 2003 till August 2010 when US troops left, a new election-based democratic political system in Iraq and built, trained and equipped an Iraqi army with advanced weapon systems costing some $12.5 billion to Iraq. However, the Iraqi forces were swiftly routed by IS war hardened veterans having fought in Syria. IS forces captured important quantities of sophisticated weapons from the defeated Iraqi soldiers including 52 howitzers having a 20 mile range and carrying GPS aiming systems costing $500,000 each. These were then used against Iraqi forces. Furthermore, owing to its lack of inclusiveness, the Iraqi government imploded and had to be replaced. Similarly, despite the West’s support of the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Libya or Syria as from January 2011 to help promote democracy, these countries have instead become deeply divided and are hotbeds of violent internecine conflicts among diverse armed factions.

Despite the interventions and efforts of principally the US, UK and France to assist the region, the end result is that the Middle East has become a boiling cauldron and currently presents a distressing picture of general disarray, persistent turmoil and threatening instability. In spite of their important geopolitical interests in the Middle East, have these countries still not been able to fathom the intricate tribal, religious and ethnic complexities of the region? The question asked at Nato’s summit in Newport, Wales this week as to whether the organisation is equipped to address such new challenges is therefore very pertinent. How could their sophisticated surveillance systems miss the tentacular rise of IS in the region?

The present territorial borders delineating countries of the Middle East were largely imposed after World War I on the territories secured from the fall of the Ottoman Empire and cut across tribal and ethnic allegiances which cross country frontiers. For example, most Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians or Libyans identify themselves with and show allegiance to a tribe. Tribalism is a powerful source of socio-political mobilization and has shaped the conflicts in Syria, Iraq or Libya. Of the 150 tribes in Iraq, 30 are the most influential. The tribes are grouped into federations which exercise tremendous clout. In order to administer the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire made elaborate allowances to accommodate the diverse tribal, religious and ethnic groups in the region. The tribal, religious and cultural differences require an inclusive system of government with a strong leadership to contain divisive forces and bind the heterogeneous components of each of the countries of the Middle East into sustainable national entities.

In addition, it is equally evident that an accumulation of events such as the long delayed and unresolved issue of Palestine statehood as well as a deep sense of revolt at repeated foreign military interventions in their countries causing defeats, humiliations and hurt national dignity have created a fertile breeding ground to indoctrinate and spawn radical and extremist groups which threaten to engulf and set the Middle East, Libya and Afghanistan ablaze. In order to defuse this explosive situation, these root causes of alienation must be addressed forthwith.

One of the immediate issues that need to be addressed is the establishment of Palestinian statehood. Once again the US and the European Union’s ineptitude has been exposed in their inability to bring an end to the recent 50-day long worst violent conflict between Israelis and Hamas in a decade, which killed 2,143 Palestinians, 70% of which were civilians, and 70 Israelis, 64 of which were soldiers. In spite of the pressing calls for a ceasefire and repeated discussions by the UN, the US and the EU countries with the protagonists, their combined diplomacy has been unable to put an end to the violent conflict. Instead, all the eight short-lived ceasefires since the beginning of the hostilities as well as the present long term truce have all been brokered by the present military backed Egyptian government decried by the US, the West and others since it had ousted the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in a coup in 2013. Egypt has been able to do so consistently in the conflict and has succeeded in making the parties agree to the present truce as well as a road map for further more substantive discussions towards a more comprehensive peace agreement.

As part of the truce, Israel will ease the blockade exercised for 7 years akin to a prison over Gaza since 2007, to allow in aid and building materials for the reconstruction of the destruction wreaked on Gaza during seven weeks of bombardment and shelling. It is hoped that this will allow the reconstruction of schools and houses destroyed in the war which has had dire consequences on the children and the common people of Gaza. The agreement also extends Gaza’s fishing zone. Indirect talks will be pursued through Egypt within a month to address the more contentious issues such as the disarmament of militant groups in Gaza or the total end to the blockade on Gaza and the building of a seaport and an airport to allow Gaza to live out of the Israeli stranglehold, to trade in order to be more economically independent as well as the exchange of Palestinian prisoners against captured Israeli soldiers.

Palestinians are known to be an entrepreneurial nation. From the outset of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 1948, successive waves of Palestinian refugees who have left to settle abroad principally in the Middle East, South America, the United States and Europe have prospered in their countries of adoption with some achieving immense success as businessmen, bankers, contractors and in academia, etc. There are more than 5.6 million Palestinians living abroad principally in the Arab countries with about 3.9 million in the Palestinian territory and 1.2 million in Israel. Given statehood and the opportunity to develop their country and trade, they have the enterprising acumen to bring about a sea change in a free Palestine.

Saying no to intolerance

It must be remembered that unless Israel and Palestine seriously engage in negotiations to agree on a lasting and comprehensive peace accord with the establishment of a free Palestinian State, they would only be setting the stage for the next cycle of violent conflict. Of late, Israel has shown increasing intransigence and has become a master of the art of scuttling all peace initiatives for a settlement of the long outstanding Palestinian State issue and of taking undue advantage of the status quo by building new settlements or appropriating land in Palestinian occupied territory.

On 31 August, days after the truce agreement, Israel announced the expropriation of 400 hectares of Palestinian land in the West Bank which according to an Israeli pressure group Peace Now is the largest seizure of land in three decades and is likely to threaten the two-state peace solution to the conflict. This decision was severely criticised by the British Prime Minister David Cameron in a statement in Parliament earlier this week. Unless the US, the UK and the UN take potent steps to have Israel annul this provocative decision and exert firm pressure on Israel to seriously engage Palestine in negotiations to conclude a peace accord within an established time frame, the Middle East cauldron could exacerbate violence and armed conflict in the region.

It is clear is that such irresponsible incidents and the images of the daily toll of civilian deaths including children and women in the recent five-week conflict, has caused Israel to lose the moral battle. Nothing can justify Israel which has the 6th largest army in the world endowed with such potent air, missile and military capability to unrelentingly wreak wanton havoc on a densely populated and blockaded enclave against a significantly weaker foe in the teeth of rising civilian casualties. In those five weeks of ruthless assault, the civilised world could not remain insensitive to the daily breaking news reports of the rising toll of civilian deaths and images of injured and dazed children and distressed mothers bewildered by the firepower and indiscriminate brutality of the attacks.

The major collateral damage of these conflicts in the Middle East has been the hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of displaced refugees, a large proportion of which are living in spite of the efforts of the UN High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR) in shabby, sub standard and tenuous conditions. According to UNHCR, some 6.5 million Syrians representing about 30 % of the Syrian pre-war population of 23 million have been displaced from their homes since the conflict began in March 2011. About half of those uprooted by the ongoing conflict are children. Most of the refugees have found shelter in neighbouring countries, namely Lebanon (1.14 million), Jordan (608,000) and Turkey (815,000).

Such a sorry state of affairs requires the UN and the international community to double their efforts to swiftly put an end to the mounting misery being relentlessly heaped by armed conflict on people in the countries of the Middle East region. Israel’s posture of systematically denying Palestinians their right to statehood is as intolerant as the IS’ cruel elimination of all people who do not adhere to their credo. Both stances are contrary to the fundamental rights of the Palestinians for statehood and to the sacrosanct right to freedom of worship of every citizen in any society. Both Israel’s and IS’ highhandedness and rabid intolerance must be condemned and robustly combated by the UN, the West and the Middle East countries in equal measure in order to re-establish and safeguard these fundamental and unalienable rights. To expeditiously do so would help purge the world of these systemic sources of angst and global conflict which have now prevailed for too long.

Is it not equally high time for the majority of decent and open-minded citizens of the world to break their silence and say as Salahuddin a loud no to intolerance?

* Published in print edition on 5 September 2014

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