Middle East Roundtable
Edition 45 Volume 7 - December 17, 2009
The next war
• No military solution to conflicts - Arshin Adib-Moghaddam
No society can rally behind a state that is perceived to be unwilling or helpless to contain the killing of its own population.
• The underlying fault lines of the region - Lamis Andoni
Arab regimes' sense of impotence is trickling down, becoming a collective sense of helplessness.
• No peace, no war, but perhaps a revolution - Shlomo Avineri
Stalemates usually encourage doomsayers who predict dour alternatives. None seem likely.
• Yemen troubles could stir wider confrontations - George Joffe
The al-Houthi rebellion is now set to become a metaphor for a much wider Middle East confrontation.
• Back to Gaza - Bruce Riedel
The next Middle East war will probably be a second war in Gaza.
No military solution to conflicts
The nature of the current wars in the wider western Asian area reveals a disturbing trend: next to sources of conflict between states there are an increasing number of conflicts within them. In Yemen, the civil war has had a ripple effect throughout the Persian Gulf region provoking the military intervention of Saudi Arabia and a humanitarian crisis that has remained largely unreported. In Iraq, the aftermath of the devastating US/UK invasion in 2003 continues to cast a shadow on the timid post-war reconstruction efforts of the al-Maliki administration.
Indeed, seven years after the "shock and awe" campaign of the US military and six years after the abuse at Abu Ghraib, the plight of the Iraqi people has largely been forgotten. The news about the recent car bombs that killed over 120 people in Baghdad did not make it to the front page of major newspapers in Europe and the United States. The western consciousness has been coded to move on to a new strategic theater, "AfPak". The drones of the US military are now bombing the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Civilians are routinely killed. Iraq is old news.
And so is Palestine. One year ago almost to the day, Palestinians were picking up their dead and injured in the streets and alleys of Gaza. Of the 1,453 people estimated killed in the conflict, as the UN report by Richard Goldstone later established, 1,440 were Palestinian, including 431 children and 114 women. The same report established that Israel's offensive against Gaza was "a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population" for which the Israelis responsible should face "individual criminal responsibility". The report was dismissed as "biased" by the Israeli state.
The policy of collective punishment continues. According to the World Health Organization, the blockade of Gaza has led to "worsening infant and child mortality, and childhood stunting". It also has had adverse effects on the mental health of the population, "for instance some 30 percent of school children show significant mental health consequences ... with potentially serious future implications in terms of loss of commitment, alienation, and destructive and violent behavior."
In the meantime the Israeli air force is repeatedly overflying towns in southern Lebanon in a deliberate challenge to UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended hostilities in 2006. The IDF has also been busy launching extensive war games simulating an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. The Israeli state continues to ignore repeated calls for scrutiny of its nuclear weapons arsenal by the United Nations and the IAEA. All the Netanyahu administration conceded to US President Barack Obama, who had tentatively requested a freeze to the expansion of Israeli colonies on Palestinian territory, is a limited 10-month building ban. Not many people in the region would doubt that the Israeli military has the capability and audacity to launch or instigate another war in the region.
Here lies the difference with the Iranian case. Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad has painstakingly built up a reputation as a loud and bellicose leader, even gone out of his way to earn this notoriety. Yet the current consensus among the shrinking "international community" that Iran is the major threat to regional security in western Asia is a figment of the imagination. There is a clear difference between shouting abuse and wanting to--and being capable of--hitting someone. By all statistical indicators available, Iran has one of the lowest military expenditures in the region. At the same time it has one of the largest budgets for satellite television stations that broadcast in Arabic, English, Persian, Urdu, Turkish, Kurdish and other major regional languages and dialects. Iran is banking on soft power.
The turmoil surrounding the country's nuclear file has not so much to do with Iranian capabilities or intentions, but with setting a new benchmark for developing states. Until here and no further seems to be the message. But the world has changed. The reason why Lula of Brazil, Chavez of Venezuela and Erdogan of Turkey, among others, support Iran's quest for nuclear technology has a lot to do with their own efforts to develop a viable nuclear infrastructure for their countries and in view of their increasingly bold opposition to US foreign policies.
And what about the "war on terror"? It has been rhetorically repackaged, yet it is ongoing and has failed to bring about stability. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will last a decade, and in the case of the former, the fight against the Taliban has been extended into Pakistan. The war on terror has been widened rather than confined and the quasi-states in Pakistan and Afghanistan seek their fledgling security in ad-hoc "alliances" with the United States.
But while subservience to external demands may promise short-term stability, it depletes political legitimacy in the long term. No developed society can accept the bombing of its country by a foreign entity. And no society can rally behind a state that is perceived to be unwilling or helpless to contain the killing of its own population. In this sense the "war on terror" has been self-defeating: it has contributed to turning the people of the target countries against their governments and against the very presence of US military and NATO forces. The lesson is rather simple: There is no military solution to any of the current conflicts in the wider Arab and Muslim worlds.- Published 17/12/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org.
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam teaches comparative politics at SOAS and is the author, most recently, of "Iran in World Politics: the Question of the Islamic Republic", which is based on extensive field research in Iran and interviews with Iranian decision-makers.
The underlying fault lines of the region
In 1989, the prominent Orientalist Bernard Lewis argued that the Arab world was disintegrating into fragmented ethnic and sectarian enclaves, dissipating any sense of collective solidarity and identity. Looking at the Arab world today, from the ugly spat between Egypt and Algeria, countries once identified with pan-Arabism, to the openly sectarian and ethnic power struggle in US occupied-Iraq, Lewis' ominous "prediction" is gradually becoming a reality.
The imperial theorist, however, was not making predictions but advocating policies to be implemented through American and Israeli wars. Lewis was never simply an academician, but a main pillar of neoconservative thought and a direct participant in decisions leading up to the Afghan and Iraqi wars. The guiding idea was that post-colonial Arab nation-states did not have solid foundations as modern states and would eventually crumble.
I am not talking here about a grand conspiracy theory nor am I blaming Lewis or the West for the deep divisions that are tearing through the Arab world. The American empire, which succeeded Britain, is mainly bent on consolidating its domination over the region's resources and securing Israel, the front line against pan-Arab nationalism. Certainly, US wars of destruction and Israeli aggression are major culprits in the prevailing regional sense of defeat and demoralization that is largely responsible for the spreading entrenchment behind ethnic and sectarian tribalism. But Lewis was merely dutifully serving the empire by justifying and instigating policies that aim at inflicting consecutive defeats not only on Arab armies but also the Arab spirit. Consecutive defeats would see a strong sense of collective Arab belonging be replaced by a collective sense of defeat--triggering ethnic and sectarian struggles and competition among the ruling elites.
It is our part in this shameful saga of petty destructive rivalries and unabashed power struggle in the name of sects and religion that we should start seriously scrutinizing. True, it was the 1967 military defeat of mainly pan-Arab regimes that proved the strongest blow to what then appeared a powerful and progressive wave of pro-independence pan-Arabism. But it was the dictatorships and erosion of political freedoms that not only contributed to the military defeats but deepened an individual as well as collective sense of humiliation and powerlessness.
The Arab states' failure to pursue development policies, reliance on western support in place of domestic legitimacy and continued suppression of political freedoms have prevented any genuine resurgence of an Arab movement or parties that could effectively ensure citizens' rights and participation. The ongoing crack down on social and political movements allows political leaders to manipulate poverty and a sense of loss into sectarian divisions. It pushes a desperate Arab citizen, deprived of any real sense of citizenship, to focus on false victories, the football game between Egypt and Algeria being a case in point where a sporting event becomes an occasion for defeating an imaginary "other".
In Jordan, fear of Israeli expansion that would turn the kingdom into a substitute homeland is being used by the power elites to foment and widen a Palestinian-Jordanian divide. The failure of Palestinian reconciliation is producing a geographic divide that enables Israel to complete the fragmentation of any Palestinian homeland. Our utter failure to solve, and the disgraceful mishandling, of minority and ethnic grievances and problems, from the Kurds in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, Darfur in Sudan to the Sahara in Morocco, have invited foreign intervention and threaten to break up Iraq and Sudan.
The regimes' sense of impotence is trickling down, becoming a collective sense of helplessness as a function of repression and increasing poverty. The international criminalization of resistance, including peaceful forms of resistance, through blockades and the exercise of American power also function to deepen social, class, sectarian and ethnic fault lines. The alarming cooptation of Arab intellectuals by Arab and particularly Gulf states reduce their rhetoric on pan-Arabism to vacuous slogans that deceive people into believing in hollow acts of resistance fought on satellite TV and talk shows. New fault lines will appear as the region's social and political conflicts, especially the Arab-Israel one, are gradually presented as religious conflicts, threatening to distort what in the latter case is essentially a struggle for liberation and justice.
But there are glimmers of hope in this gloomy picture. The movement against an "inherited" presidency in Egypt, the spread of human rights watchdogs and initiatives to deal with serious social problems in the Arab world are all promising acts of resistance to bigoted ideas and hatred. The continued Palestinian resistance, from Bili'in to Gaza, is also a sign of a rejection of submission to despondency that could turn into civil war.
But without a serious movement in the Arab world, and inside Palestine, to put a halt to violations of human rights by all sides, the Palestinian struggle and all social movements will suffer even more. One of the most dangerous signs of increasing divisions in the Arab world is the ideological entrenchment that justifies human rights violations by political parties as if all is fair in support of a political agenda. As it is between Fateh and Hamas, so it is in most Arab states: human rights are merely used as tools to serve political elites rather than as a means to bring about the kind of accountability that is our only guarantee against descending into an abyss.- Published 17/12/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Lamis Andoni is a veteran journalist and commentator on Middle East affairs.
No peace, no war, but perhaps a revolution
The saying goes that it is difficult to prophesy, especially about the future. But let us try. There is no doubt: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is stalled, and all of US President Barack Obama's charisma--and US power--have until now failed to revive it. Stalemates usually encourage doomsayers who predict dour alternatives: war, violence, another intifada, perhaps a nuclear holocaust.
None of this seems likely.
Let us look at three areas: Israel-Palestine, Israel-Syria and Iran. Beginning with Israel-Palestine, one hears Palestinian leaders saying that if there is no visible progress in negotiations with Israel, another intifada may break out. One can well understand their frustration, and threatening an intifada may be politically astute. Yet previous intifadas, while originating in spontaneous outbursts against occupation, were ultimately sustained by the support--political, moral and material--of the Palestinian Authority. This is not going to happen again: this time, a descent into violence may mean the disintegration of the PA, accompanied by a strengthening of Hamas. The PA leadership is not going to commit political suicide: it will try to cling to power.
As for Hamas, judging from its behavior since the war last winter, it is not interested in another violent confrontation with Israel. It is rightly proud of having been able to survive Israel's onslaught a year ago, but it does not wish again to bring suffering and devastation upon the population under its control. What Hamas is interested in is to maintain, consolidate and legitimate its rule in Gaza, and the longer this de facto control lasts, the more everyone gets used to it. Similarly, Israel is interested in maintaining the tenuous status quo along the Gaza frontier.
Turning to Israel-Syria, negotiations may resume but even if they do the gaps between the two sides' positions are too deep to be easily overcome. Yet even if the present stalemate continues, I do not see Syria resorting to a violent challenge to the present status quo, despite President Bashar Assad's threats to the contrary. Syria is aware of its military inferiority vis-a-vis Israel, and while it will continue to support Hizballah and Hamas, Syria is interested--as in the past--in stability. It would like to see the new government in Lebanon consolidate its power, while Hizballah--Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's fiery rhetoric notwithstanding--does not look forward to another war with Israel.
Finally, Iran. Obama's politics of engagement with Iran has failed. It is now obvious that Tehran is not going to accommodate even the most minimal demands made by the international community. This may lead to a tightening of sanctions and escalate the pressure for military action.
But in all probability, neither the US nor Israel is going to attack Iran. With the new surge in Afghanistan and the still unfinished business in Iraq, the Obama administration is not going to start a third war. Israel, on the other hand, for all the tough talk of some of its leaders, is not in a military or diplomatic position to attack Iran on its own. A lot of saber rattling may occur--but no military action.
Yet something may still happen concerning Iran--internally. The massive protests that followed the fraudulent presidential elections last June have dramatically changed the Iranian political discourse. The tens of thousands of young protesters have shown that there are deep cracks in the legitimacy of President Mahmoud Ahmedinezhad's regime. The Islamic Republic has always claimed that it rested on two pillars, theocratic and democratic, and for all the limits it placed on a truly democratic environment, the fact that contested presidential and parliamentary elections did take place gave at least a semblance of credibility to this claim.
This has now been shattered. The massive protests against Ahmedinezhad--and implicitly against the Supreme Leader--were not necessarily led by secular, western-oriented liberals, but rather by people brought up in the belief that the Islamic Republic represents them and listens to their voice. They do not challenge the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic as such; they challenge the fraudulent and repressive way it is being ruled. Many protestors are also aware that Ahmedinezhad's gutter language (denial of the Holocaust, threats to wipe Israel off the map) has hurt the country's standing in the world. For them, Ahmedinezhad's thuggishness represents not the ideals of the Islamic Revolution but its perversion. In this they are similar to 1970s communist bloc dissidents challenging their regimes not because they believed in capitalism and western-style democracy, but because they felt that the Kremlin gerontocracy represented a denial of the emancipatory ideals of Marxism.
Sanctions on Iran, even if implemented, will not change the mind of the current Iranian leadership, but may impact internal developments in the country. Iran's vibrant civil society, now highly motivated and more mobilized than ever, may bring about internal change. This may be violent or partially negotiated, and it will not institute a western-style democracy in Tehran. But internal change in Iran could revolutionize Middle East politics. After all, what are called revolutions in the Arab world have been nothing but military coups, while Iran did go through a genuine popular revolution that brought down the Shah. It may happen again.- Published 17/12/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Shlomo Avineri is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former director-general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Among his many books are "The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx" and "The Making of Modern Zionism".
Yemen troubles could stir wider confrontations
Just six short months ago, a sense of guarded euphoria spread through Europe and the Middle East in the wake of President Barack Obama's Cairo speech. It seemed as if, at long last, an American president had understood the crying need for action over regional problems and the terrible damage done by years of abuse and neglect. Now, in the wake of the president receiving the Nobel Peace Prize--awarded, apparently, for what he is going to do rather than for what he has done--things look very different.
During this time, existing crises in the Middle East and North Africa--continuing violence in Iraq, tensions over Iran's nuclear program or Jordanian King Abdullah's "arc of Shi'ite extremism", as well as the crisis in Palestine--have been joined by new ones that seem much more immediately threatening. Thus the domestic crisis in Iran has generated an intensified intransigence over the country's nuclear program and corresponding American and Israeli impatience, now increasingly backed up by European states, the United Nations and even China and Russia. An attack on Iran, for instance, which seemed so remote in June is now back on the agenda. The crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan--Obama's "war of necessity"--is ever more threatening as western confidence in victory ebbs away.
In Iraq--even if the violence of the past has been dramatically reduced with only 122 deaths throughout the country in November, the lowest number since the American invasion in 2003--the long-running sore of the future status of Kirkuk, as part of Iraq or the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, is bubbling toward a climax as the security forces of both the Kurds and the federal government in Baghdad confront each other. And in North Africa, Morocco is becoming increasingly irritated by Algerian insistence on a referendum for self-determination in the Western Sahara, while Algeria and Egypt square up over the issue of football. The ritual mutual vituperation there is intense, diplomatic links have been put in the deep freeze and Egyptian investment in Algeria is threatened.
Yet, surprisingly, none of these issues, except perhaps the crisis in Gaza, has as much potential for real violence in the immediate future as the situation in Yemen. There the veteran government of Ali Abdullah Saleh faces two rebellions; a recent recrudescence of separatist sentiment in the south that is shaping up as a real threat to the regime and the long-standing al-Houthi rebellion in the north of the country. It is the al-Houthi rebellion that increasingly seems to have the potential to become a cause of regional conflagration, bringing the two regional hegemons, Saudi Arabia and Iran, into conflict.
The rebellion began in June 2004, pitting a former parliamentary deputy, Husayn Badr Ed-Din al-Houthi and a few thousand supporters from the Sa'ada area, against the government. Al-Houthi was ferociously opposed to both al-Qaeda extremism because of its treatment of Shi'ites in Afghanistan and to the pro-American policies of the Saleh regime because of his intense distrust of both the United States and Israel. He created a new political movement called the Sha'ab al-Muminin (the Young Believers), acquiring significant religious status among the Za'idis of northern Yemen because of the fusion of Za'idi doctrine into his political beliefs.
Al-Houthi himself was killed the following September but, by then, the rebellion had grown and taken on a sectarian character because of Za'idi resentment of the repressive violence of the Yemeni army, which they saw as a predominantly Shafi organization even though the president himself is a Za'idi. The growth in support had also been driven by Yemeni dislike of America's "war on terror" in which the Yemeni government was now enmeshed. As a result, in March 2005, rebellion broke out anew under the leadership of al-Houthi's father, a Za'idi mullah.
Since then, the rebellion has smoldered on, repeatedly erupting in periods of intense violence that government forces are increasingly unable to control. Mediation in 2007 by the head of the al-Hashid tribal confederation (Yemen's largest), who is also head of the Islah opposition in parliament, has been unsuccessful. Two similar attempts by Qatar in 2007 and 2008 also failed, while tens of thousands of residents in the Sa'ada area have been forced from their homes. The latest explosion occurred last May and still continues, with 150,000 persons displaced and the rebels now promising to extend the struggle into the north and the south of the country. In November, al-Houthi elements are said to have infiltrated across the Saudi border, bringing intense Saudi military retaliation to force them back, although nobody knows whether this will be permanently effective.
It is this that has given the conflict inside Yemen its increasingly threatening regional character. The Yemeni government, with little evidence, has long insisted that Iran has been behind the rebellion, providing it with material support. Now Saudi Arabia is hinting that this is the case, while Iran has suddenly begun to take an interest in the plight of the Za'idis, as fellow Shi'ites. All that is needed now is for Iran to decide to provide the material support that it has been long accused of doing, something the Ahmadinezhad government might well be tempted to do, to divert domestic opinion. Saudi Arabia would be bound to respond, as part of its wider challenge to Iranian radicalism throughout the "Shi'ite arc of extremism". The al-Houthi rebellion, in short, is now set to become a metaphor for a much wider Middle East confrontation.- Published 17/12/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org.
George Joffe is affiliate lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.
Back to Gaza
The next Middle East war will probably be a reprieve of the last, a second war in Gaza, only this time even more violent and destabilizing for the entire region. The first Gaza war last January left unfinished business and a humanitarian catastrophe. The next war may be started by an al-Qaeda-inspired Gazan faction of the global Islamic jihad against the wishes of Hamas, with al-Qaeda one of the major beneficiaries.
Since Hamas staged its coup d'etat in Gaza in 2007, it has faced opposition from even more radical Islamists who oppose any ceasefire with Israel and want to engage in jihad immediately. These groups are getting stronger, feeding on the frustration of a million and a half Gazans who see their lives becoming ever more grim and have little or no hope of a better future. The jihadis promise a better life through martyrdom. They know they cannot defeat Israel yet but they prefer to fight rather than live under siege. Some have now openly associated themselves with al-Qaeda and its global Islamic jihadist message.
It is safe to assume that contacts are being developed between these jihadis in Gaza and the al-Qaeda core in Pakistan. We know some volunteers from the global jihad have gone to Gaza; at least one Saudi was killed in the first war. Al-Qaeda gloried in the first Gaza war as a propaganda triumph because it demonstrated to the Islamic world that the new American president-elect, Barack Hussein Obama, was unwilling to criticize Israel when it attacked Palestinians. For Osama bin Laden this was not change you can believe in but the same old Zionist-Crusader alliance.
Another Gaza war would be another gift to al-Qaeda. It could start this way. A jihadist cell ambushes an IDF patrol on the border of Gaza, killing several and capturing one or two. By the time the ambush takes place, let's say on the anniversary of 9/11 in September 2010, Hamas will have already done a huge prisoner deal with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's government, exchanging dozens of Hamas killers for Gilad Shalit who was captured in a similar ambush in 2006.
The Israeli government will have to respond forcefully, especially given intense Israeli public criticism over the Shalit deal. Many in the IDF and the Shabak (Internal Security Service) will urge the prime minister to finish the job begun in January 2009. Air power will be accompanied by major ground incursions to cut off the Strip from Egypt, surround major population centers and break Hamas' hold on Gazans. It may take a month or more.
Hamas will try to avoid the war by cracking down on the jihadist al-Qaeda sympathizers. But it cannot return captured Israeli soldiers for nothing, especially after the Shalit deal. Whether Hamas wants a war or not, the jihadis will have outmaneuvered it. Many in the military wing of Hamas will probably want to fight, having spent the last year and a half preparing for another round.
The imagery of war, captured by al-Jazeerah and by al-Sahab (the Qaeda media arm), will be awful. Even with the greatest care, war in an urban arena means terrible suffering for the innocent. In the first Gaza war, bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Zawahiri broadcast repeated messages calling Obama a Zionist warlord, ridiculing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah for doing nothing to help Hamas, and Saudi Arabia for being a closet ally of Israel. Expect more of the same. A bloody Israeli invasion of Gaza resisted by jihadi martyrs would radicalize the Islamic world and send new recruits and new funds to the global jihad.
Should Israel succeed in breaking Hamas in the second round, a big if, what will follow? Fateh and the Palestinian Authority are not ready to take over Gaza alone--certainly not when propped up by IDF bayonets. The international community, led by Obama, will have to decide if it is prepared to take on the job of governing Gaza and providing the economic aid to get it back on its feet.
This will mean troops: NATO probably, with a UN mandate; perhaps some Egyptians and Jordanians, too. With NATO's attention focused on Afghanistan, it will be hard to find the numbers needed for a risky mission that could turn ugly, with both sides blaming the peacekeepers for any mistakes. Of course, the alternative would be Gaza 3.- Published 17/12/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in the Brookings Institution. He advised Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama on the Middle East and South Asia in the National Security Council of the White House. He is the author of "The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future".