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The Political Isolation of Lebanese Sunnis

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The delicate fabric that is the Lebanon polity, only recently rewoven after decades of civil war, is once again on the verge of unraveling.

Recent events—between the ascendance of Shiite groups through the February 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri to the current Syrian civil war—have caught one of the most prominent sectarian groups, the Sunnis, unprepared. How this has come about is a convoluted tale of jockeying for power between rival politicians and ethnicities.

Sunni Enfeeblement

It is ironic that Lebanon’s Sunni population, long ascendant in that region and identified with the governing powers since the days of the Umayyads (c. 661 C.E.) and through the Ottoman period (ending in 1918), has virtually been bereft of communal autonomy. Sunnis became junior partners in ruling Lebanon with the Christian Maronite population after independence in 1943. But the rise to power of Hafiz al-Assad and his Alawite relations in neighboring Syria in 1970 brought marginalization of the Sunni majority there, which quickly spilled over to affect Lebanese Sunnis as well. The eviction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (secular though largely Sunni in religious background) from Lebanon in 1982 then left them vulnerable to the emerging Shiite power block as well as to resurging Maronites.

Shiites made their forceful entry into the Lebanese political system in the name of resisting Israeli occupation. They built up their forces in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley and have managed to keep the national army outside their areas of influence. But the Jewish state has not been the only target of their violence and machinations. Shiite and Druze militiamen eliminated the rival Sunni al-Murabitun militia in 1985. Then in 1989, the outspoken Sunni grand mufti Hassan Khalid was assassinated. However, this was neither the first—nor would it be the last—political murder to roil the Sunni community.

Beginning with the assassination in 1951 of Riad as-Sulh, a prominent Sunni politician and cofounder of independent Lebanon, Sunnis searched for leadership outside the territorial boundaries of the fledging state. The appointment of Rafiq Hariri as prime minister in 1992 got their hopes up for making it back to the center stage of Lebanese politics. Hariri came into office with strong Saudi backing and French blessing and was determined to resurrect the 1943 Maronite-Sunni “gentlemen’s agreement” for governing Lebanon. His rise to power coincided with the political mobilization of Shiites into two major groups with the Amal movement implementing the schemes of the Syrian regime while Hezbollah submitted itself to the dictates of Iran’s supreme leader.

Hariri presumed he could integrate the Shiite community in his accommodationist project for Lebanon. While he managed to win the trust of many Maronites, his success in collaborating with Amal depended on maintaining a working relationship with a hard-to-please regime in Damascus. Moreover, his ability to enlist the cooperation of Hezbollah proved futile because the latter had an opposing vision for Lebanon. In 2005, Hariri paid with his life for promoting a project that, if successful, would have undermined Syrian hegemony in Lebanon and blunted Iranian determination to become a greater regional player. Hariri’s assassination amounted to a political coup, removing Lebanon from the camp of Arab moderate states and advancing the interests of the Syrian-Iranian axis.

The March 14 Coalition’s Unfulfilled Promise

Hariri’s assassination ignited the Cedar Revolution which, in turn, inspired the formation of the March 14 Coalition that drew from the mostly Sunni Muslim Future Trend party, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party, Maronite Christian Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces (LF), and the largely Maronite Phalangists associated with the Gemayel family. Shortly afterward, the Syrian army exited Lebanon. In June of that year, the coalition won a majority of seats in the parliament and Fuad Seniora formed a new cabinet that promised to prosecute Hariri’s assassins. Its efforts seemed to bear fruit when in March 2006 the United Nations Security Council issued resolution 1664 to form a Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) to investigate the assassination.

The July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah altered the balance of power between the March 14 Coalition on the one hand and Hezbollah and its allies on the other. Despite heavy losses and a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, Hezbollah portrayed the outcome of the war as a divine victory and accused Seniora’s government of colluding with the United States and Israel to destroy a patriotic Lebanese party. By November, Hezbollah and Amal had withdrawn their ministers from the central government to protest its stand on the special tribunal, triggering a wave of protests against it. A state of paralysis persisted until May 2008 when Hezbollah stormed predominantly Sunni west Beirut and disbanded the ragtag and poorly-led Future Trend militia. This incident convinced Jumblatt that the power of arms had become more important than the ballot box in ruling Lebanon. This also got Christians within the March 14 Coalition thinking about the significance of their role in the alliance. Their doubts increased when President Michel Suleiman designated Hariri’s son and political heir, Saad as prime minister in 2009. The new prime minister immediately decided that he needed to be on the good side of the neighboring Syrian regime to have a smooth stay in office and appealed to Saudi King Abdullah to arrange for him to visit Damascus and meet with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The joint visit to Beirut of King Abdullah and President Assad in July 2010 “to defuse tensions about [STL’s] impending indictment of Hezbollah members,”[1] highlighted both Syria’s resurgent role in Lebanon and an overall regional preference for stability over justice. The final act of the 2005 coup that began with the Hariri assassination took place in January 2011 when Syria’s Lebanese allies pulled their ministers out of Hariri’s cabinet and forced its dissolution. The March 14 Coalition has failed to govern Lebanon and the Future Trend had demonstrated its inability to lead.

The Limitations of the Future Trend

The Future Trend party suffered from two fatal shortcomings. First, its total dependence on Riyadh for political direction limited its options because the Saudi royals chose not to pursue an aggressive Lebanon policy. Since Hariri’s assassination, which created a vacuum in Sunni leadership, the Saudis have come to believe in the need for a plurality of leadership within the Sunni community.[2] This may be the reason why they quietly welcomed the appointment of Najib Miqati, a Sunni politician with somewhat pro-Syrian credentials, to the office of prime minister after the collapse of Saad Hariri’s cabinet.[3] The second fatal flaw was Hariri’s political inexperience, exacerbated by his apparent lack of self-assurance and poor speech delivery; his inability to properly read his inaugural parliamentary speech when he became prime minister invited the ridicule and laughter of other members of parliament and elicited public dismay.

The leaders of the Future Trend are not oblivious to its limitations and realize that the party must behave in a conciliatory manner toward other sects because its Saudi patron keeps it on a short leash. When a Saudi newspaper mocked Maronite patriarch Bishara al-Rahi for visiting Damascus, Lebanese Maronites responded by hanging a banner portraying King Abdullah on a playing card holding a blood-dripping sword.[4] Had the banner been hung in a different country, the Saudi response would probably have been extreme, but an exception was made in the case of Lebanon. Second Saudi deputy prime minister Prince Muqrin assured Lebanese officials that Riyadh “will not take any measures against Lebanese citizens working in the Kingdom … [and] we have no intentions to withdraw deposits from Lebanese banks, whether by the cabinet or investors.”[5]

Conflict in Syria and Impact on Lebanon

The Syrian war has given impetus to renewed Lebanese Sunni militancy, attracted direct Hezbollah involvement, caused Christians to reposition themselves politically, and has left the Future Trend bereft of allies and in a state of powerlessness. Many former supporters have shifted their allegiance to Sidon’s Salafist sheikh Ahmad Asir who has transitioned himself from being merely a fiery preacher into a fiercely anti-Hezbollah partisan. The frequent sit-ins he has organized to demand disarming Hezbollah appeal to most Lebanese Sunnis. Asir has called for the release of militant Sunni detainees suspected of affiliation with Islamic terrorist organizations, on whose behalf mainstream Sunni politicians had been hitherto reluctant to publicly advocate. Much to the chagrin of Lebanese Christians who extol the army as a virtuous and upright institution, Asir slammed its legal apparatus: “I say to the military law that we do not have faith in your investigations and the justice of your military tribunal.”[6] He made his remark to demand the release of some 480 Sunnis who had been in jail without trial since 2007 on suspicion of membership in the Fatah al-Islam militant group. He said government officials had told him they could not try them because of the unavailability of a courtroom big enough to hold all of them.[7] The founder of Lebanon’s Salafist movement, Dai al-Islam Shahhal, urged the Lebanese military establishment to rectify its path and “cease to act as an Iranian-Syrian tool of subjugating Sunnis, otherwise I would issue a jihadist fatwa against trespassers of our rights.”[8] When Asir and a group of his followers sought to spend a picnic day at Faraya ski resort in the Maronite heartland in Keserwan, locals cut off the road leading to the resort; a local dignitary told correspondents that “this visit is unwelcome, and blocking the road demonstrates our opposition to it.”[9]

As the Syrian civil war takes on a greater sectarian complexion with many Christian Syrians fearing for their safety, their Lebanese brethren’s sudden warming to Hezbollah and the Syrian regime has startled the Sunnis. They disapproved of Maronite patriarch Bishara Rahi’s urging of the international community “to refrain from making decisions aimed at changing the region’s regimes.”[10] Rahi even asserted that “Syria was closest to democracy in the Arab world.”[11] As if his statements were not enough, he broke a 70-year-long Maronite patriarchs’ boycott of travelling to Syria though the sect’s holiest religious places are located there. The patriarch’s landmark visit to Damascus underscored the extent of Lebanese Christian change of heart vis-à-vis the Assad regime.[12] Sunnis have found it difficult to come to terms with this shift, especially in view of Maronite vaunting of their heritage of fidelity to authenticity, fondness for democracy, and respect for the conscience of the human individual.[13]

The influx across the border of Syrian refugees has further complicated Lebanese politics. Whereas Sunnis have called for accommodating them, Maronite responses range from concern about their numbers and the duration of their stay to outright hostility. The Phalangist Party complained that the arrival of a large number of Syrian refugees to Lebanon had taxed the country’s meager resources and called for tightening border controls.[14] Another Maronite politician, Minister of Energy Jubran Bassil (son-in-law of the Free Patriotic Movement’s leader Michel Aoun) went to the extent of proposing shutting the border to prevent further refugee arrivals.[15] Even though the Lebanese government has—thanks to U.S. pressure—halted the deportation of the mostly Sunni Syrian refugees, it continues to pursue “a systematic policy of harassment to coerce as many of them as possible to return to their country.”[16] Christian- and Shiite-controlled security forces regularly stop Syrians at checkpoints and “physically abuse them in detention centers.”[17] Despite an official policy of dissociation from the Syrian crisis, the Lebanese government has done nothing to curb Hezbollah’s direct involvement in it and has been openly violating the sanctions regime against Damascus. The frequent burials of Hezbollah militants killed in obscure missions eventually compelled Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah to allege that “party members had fought Syrian rebels … but they were acting as individuals and not under the party’s direction.”[18] Nasrallah’s deputy, Na’im Qassem, subsequently admitted that Hezbollah had armed and trained Shiite villagers in Syria in the Orontes River basin. He argued that these villagers were actually Lebanese nationals who had found themselves annexed to Syria as a result of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement.[19] In this way, the ripple effects of Syria’s crisis have spilled across the border, drawing Lebanon’s Sunnis into an increasingly fraught situation.

Sunnis versus the Rest

Sunnis sense that there is a tacit agreement among other Lebanese sects against them. While the continuation and escalation of the Syrian insurgency has given hope of redemption to many Lebanese Sunnis, it has caused heightened anxiety among Christians and Shiites. It is not difficult to see an emerging grand alliance of historical minorities in Lebanon but one that differs markedly from past associations. The Sunni “awakening” in both Syria and Iraq has caused Christians in the March 14 Coalition to see eye to eye with the Shiites on the need to alter the rules of the country’s political game in stages, beginning with parliamentary elections.

The formation of inter-sectarian electoral tickets with Sunnis no longer appeals to Christians. The media outlets of Hezbollah and its allies have consistently complained that the multi-confessional electoral districts at governorate level had previously led to the election of Christian parliamentary deputies by Sunni voters. During the talks leading to the May 2008 Doha agreement, Michel Aoun insisted that the next parliamentary elections be held at the sub-governorate level as per the 1960 electoral law.[20] When the 2009 parliamentary elections did not give the March 8 Coalition a legislative majority, Aoun’s son-in-law, Jubran Bassil, demonized the 1960 electoral law as “an act of large scale robbery of Christian rights.”[21]

Phalange parliamentarian Sami Gemayel joined rival Aoun in speaking out against reintroducing an electoral law on the basis of multi-confessional lists: “We will no longer tolerate the marginalization and misrepresentation of Christians who prefer not to vote in districts with Muslim majority because they know their votes will not make a difference.”[22] In responding to criticism over his unexpected position on the parliamentary electoral law, Lebanese Forces’ Samir Geagea stated that his party was “playing a complicated political game over the parliamentary electoral law … The LF was misunderstood, and it was wronged at different instances over its position.”[23] The Lebanese Forces, too, could not distance itself from the changing mood of Lebanese Christians, dismayed by the proliferation of Middle Eastern jihadism in general and Lebanese Salafism in particular.[24]

Hezbollah and Michel Aoun Reform and Change Parliamentary Bloc rejected the Future Trend’s compromise hybrid electoral draft law and insisted on the adoption of the Orthodox Gathering Electoral Proposal.[25] Settling for a hybrid electoral draft law, which combined the winner-takes-all system and the proportional electoral system, would have denied the Future Trend and its allies in the March 14 Coalition a majority in the parliament. It fit well into Lebanon’s politics of accommodation and sectarian balance. This led Nabih Berri, the speaker of the House and leader of Amal Movement, to withdraw the hybrid proposal saying it had become a point of contention among rival groups.[26]

Conclusion

On March 22, 2013, Prime Minister Najib Miqati tendered the resignation of his government since he could no longer tolerate Sunni ridicule as being a Hezbollah stooge. Matters came to a head when Aoun barred him from extending the term for six months of the Sunni chief of the internal security forces, who had reached retirement age. It was at that point that Miqati decided that enough was enough. The arduous task of naming a new prime minister came up again less than two years after Miqati’s cabinet won the vote of confidence in parliament. Syria’s burgeoning conflict and Hezbollah’s desire to mitigate mounting Sunni-Shiite tensions drove them to make a tactical retreat and to name Tammam Salam as a politically innocuous Sunni prime minister. Salam, who hails from a previously prominent Sunni political Beiruti family, became a de facto member in the March 14 Coalition after Saad Hariri secured him a parliamentary seat in 2009.

Portrayed by the March 14 Coalition as heralding a comeback reversing Hezbollah’s political coup d’état that toppled Hariri’s cabinet in 2011, Salam’s designation to lead the republic’s seventy-third cabinet actually confirms Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon. In a country where politicians disagree on everything, the fact that Salam received the nomination of 124 of the parliament’s 128 deputies suggests a preference for maintaining the status quo. Contrary to Geagea’s boasting that Salam’s designation was 100 percent made in Lebanon, media reports indicate that Saudi Arabia played a decisive role in making it happen.[27] For their part, Lebanese Christians endorsed Salam’s candidacy with the understanding that he would work with them to adopt an electoral law that emancipates them from the hegemony of Sunni numbers at the election poll. Securing his approval, the Maronite patriarchate took the lead in demanding that the Ministry of Interior take measures to annul the 1960 electoral law. Sunni involvement in Lebanese politics had undergone a full cycle from a key role to a minor one.

While the Sunnis have clearly failed to anticipate the specter of a grand Christian-Shiite alliance, the essence of Lebanon’s politics is unlikely to change. Still, Beirut’s current sectarian lineup on political issues may eventually give way to another lineup with different actors on vital economic resources. A new flashpoint is already looming on the horizon over the discovery of vast natural gas resources off the Lebanese coast.

Hilal Khashan is a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.

[1] The Daily Star (Beirut), Aug. 2, 2010.
[2] Al-Akhbar (Beirut), Oct. 18, 2012.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Al-Anwar (Beirut), Feb. 19, 2013.
[5] Naharnet (Beirut), Mar. 10, 2013.
[6] An-Nahar (Beirut), Feb. 24, 2013.
[7] Sawt Beirut International (Beirut), Feb. 23, 2013.
[8] An-Nahar, Mar. 2, 2013.
[9] Saidaonline (Sidon), Jan. 24, 2013.
[10] El-Nashra (Beirut), Sept. 5, 2011.
[11] Ibid.
[12] An-Nahar, Feb. 9, 2013.
[13] See Bulus Na’man, “The Maronite Way of Life: Constants and Variables of Living,” Haliyyat, 39 (1985), pp. 11-28.
[14] An-Nahar, Mar. 11, 2013.
[15] Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (Beirut), Feb. 7, 2013.
[16] BBC Arabic (London), Jan. 25, 2013.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Al-Jazeera TV (Doha), Oct. 5, 2012.
[19] Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), Mar. 12, 2013.
[20] Beirut Observer (Beirut), Oct. 2, 2012.
[21] Al-Rai (Kuwait City), Mar. 2013.
[22] Naharnet, Jan. 14, 2013.
[23] Ibid., Mar. 9, 2013.
[24] El-Nashra, Mar. 18, 2013.
[25] As-Safir (Beirut), Mar. 12, 2013.
[26] The Daily Star, Feb. 28, 2013.
[27] Al-Qabas (Kuwait City), Apr. 6, 2013.

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Tunisia between Islamism and the ‘Delta variant’

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photo credit: tunisienumerique.com

On Sunday 25 July, on a day dedicated to celebrating the country’s independence, in a move that surprised observers and diplomats alike, Tunisian President Kais Sayed relieved Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who had been in office since September 2020, of his duties. He suspended Parliament’s works and dismissed the Interior and Defence Ministers.

Mechichi, as well as the Speaker of Parliament Rachid Gannouchi, are members of the Islamist Ennhada party which, with 25% of the votes, holds the majority of Parliamentary seats and since 2011, when it returned to legality, has become a powerful political force that has attempted – without resorting to violence – to give secular Tunisia a progressive turn towards the most militant Islamism.

As is well known, Tunisia was the first Muslim country to be crossed by the stormy wind of the “Arab Springs” when, in December 2010, a young fruit and vegetable street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in a square in the centre of Tunis to protest against the corruption of President Ben Ali’s government, in power for 23 years.

The demonstrations that followed the young street vendor’s death led to the ousting of President Ben Ali in January 2011, who was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia with his entire family, as well as to the fall of Mohamed Gannouchi’s government and, in October of the same year,  to new elections which saw the success of the religious party, Ennhada, which had been banned by Ben Ali. This triggered a series of political innovations that led – in January 2014 – to the approval of a new constitution that, despite strong Parliamentary pressure from the most radical Islamists, can be considered one of the most progressive in the whole North Africa.

In the five years that followed, Tunisia – amid political and economic ups and downs – maintained a degree of internal stability that enabled it to dampen those Islamist pressures that, in other countries of the region, had turned the so-called “springs” into nightmares marked by unrest and bloody civil conflicts.

Ennhada was gradually integrated into a sort of ‘constitutional arc’, despite the protests of its most radical militants, and its most charismatic leader, Rachid Gannouchi, was even appointed Speaker of Tunis Parliament.

In recent years, however, the country has been afflicted by the problem of corruption of its entire ruling class, including Islamists. It is on a programme platform to fight this phenomenon resolutely and relentlessly that in October 2019 an eminent Law Professor, Kais Sayed, was elected President of the Republic.

In August 2020, President Sayed appointed Mechhichi, a moderate who had already been his political advisor, to form a technocratic government, “free from parties’ influence”.

The situation has seen the establishment of what the Tunisian media call the ‘government of the three Presidents’, namely Sayed (President of the Republic), Mechichi (President of the Council) and Gannouchi who, as Speaker of Parliament, tries to make the majority presence of the Ennhada Islamists in the legislative branch count.

The equilibria are fragile and are made even more precarious by the heavy social and economic consequences of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country.

Since the beginning of this year, Tunisia has been in a state of creeping crisis: the political uncertainty caused by the perennial search for a difficult political and governmental has been compounded by ideological and personal tensions between the “three Presidents”, whose positions on the instruments with which to tackle the pandemic and the economic crisis have gradually exacerbated to the point of producing a situation of political and legislative paralysis that is completely unsustainable.

In recent weeks, the ‘Delta variant’ of the pandemic has caused a spike in infections, causing further damage not only to the population and the health system, but also and above all to the economy of a country that is seeing the possibility of boosting its gross domestic product with tourism disappear for the second year running. For decades tourism has been an irreplaceable source of livelihood and enrichment for large sections of the population. The pandemic crisis has acted as a multiplier of the economic crisis, with the progressive and seemingly unstoppable loss of dinar value and the increasingly acute disparity between the increasingly poor and the increasingly rich people.

The government’s approach to the pandemic has been nothing short of disastrous. While the World Health Organisation declared Tunisia ‘the most infected country in Africa’, the government saw the change of five Health Ministers in succession, each of whom proposed confusing and uncoordinated emergency measures (lockdown, curfew), which were completely ineffective in containing the spread of the virus and the high levels of mortality.

The often improvised and contradictory confinement rules have exasperated the population, who has taken sides with the two parts of the political front: on the one hand, Ennhada’s supporters, who are convinced that the technocratic part of the government is to blame for the health and economic crisis; on the other hand, the secularists, who accuse the Islamists of being the cause of everything and of playing the “so much the worse, so much the better” game to permanently destabilise the institutions and turn Tunisia into an Islamic State.

Ennhada itself has not remained unscathed by internal quarrels and divisions, between the ‘hardliners’ who want the party to return to its militant origins and those who prefer to ‘stay in power and rule’ who – as is currently happening in Italy – prefer to seek stability in the situation and maintain their power positions.

Last May, Abdellhamid Jelassi, the Head of the Ennhada “Council of Doctrine”, resigned accusing the party leader and Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Gannouchi, of delaying the date of the Congress in order to avoid his defenestration and the appointment of a successor closer to the original ideas of the movement and to the most radical tenets of Islamic doctrine which, according to the orthodox members, have been betrayed by “those who want to rule” for the sake of power.

It was in that situation of economic, political and social crisis that, invoking Article 80 of the 2014 Constitution, President Sayed dismissed the Prime Minister along with other Cabinet members and suspended Parliament’s works for thirty days.

Many people within the country and abroad, starting with Erdogan’s Turkey, shouted the coup.

In Ankara, the spokesman of the AKP, President Erdogan’s party, defined President Sayed’s actions as “illegitimate” and threatened sanctions against those who “inflict this evil on our brothers and sisters in Tunisia”, while the Turkish Foreign Minister more cautiously confined himself to expressing his “deep concern” over the suspension of Parliamentary activities.

It is significant, however, that on the national front, after the first street protests by Islamists and Ennhada supporters, which were immediately harshly repressed by the police, and after the closure of the offices of the Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, which has always fomented Islamist demands, as well as the dismissal of the top management of the state TV, the “crowd” in the streets was dominated by demonstrators who favourably viewed the President’s initiative which, in their opinion, put an end to the activities of that part of the national government that proved totally unable of tackling the pandemic emergency and its negative social and economic consequences.

According to those who claim that what happened on July 25 was not a coup, President Sayed did not dissolve the Tunisian government: he confined himself to dismissing incapable Ministers and leaving those of the ‘technocratic’ wing in place, in the hope of producing a government turn while waiting for Parliament to reopen at the end of August.

The situation is in flux, but it seems to be moving towards stabilisation, which will be speeded up if the Mediterranean countries and the European Union move quickly to help Tunisia get out of the doldrums of the pandemic and economic crisis.

Helping the Tunisian authorities pragmatically to resolve the political crisis is also in the interest of all the countries bordering the Mediterranean, starting with Italy, not only for reasons of good political neighbourhood, but also to prevent a possible Tunisian chaos from triggering a new and uncontrolled migration push. This is what is currently happening in Afghanistan, where, following the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the United States and NATO allies, the Taliban are coming back, with the first consequence of a mass exodus of Afghans to Turkey via Iran.

According to the UNRHC, the United Nations refugee agency, thousands of refugees from Afghanistan are moving towards Turkey at a rate of 1,000 to 2,000 people a day: a phenomenon which could soon affect Italy, too.

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Politics by Other Means: A Case Study of the 1991 Gulf War

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War has been around since the dawn of man and is spawned by innate human characteristics. Often, when efforts at resolving conflicts fail diplomatically (be it at the nation or international level), war is what follows and seemingly the only other option. As Clausewitz, the famed Prussian military commander and military theorist, once said, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce” and, despite the horror and destruction of war, war is necessary for the conduct of foreign policy. War and physical combat allows for resolutions that cannot come about from any other way, once all legitimate foreign policy tactics have been exhausted. With the U.S. there are an abundant amount of examples showing how direct military conflict has solved a foreign policy problem. The 1991 Gulf War is a prime example.

               The Gulf War began in August of 1990, when Iraqi tanks rolled over the Iraqi-Kuwait border, claiming vast oil reserves and annexing the country. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had just come out of the Iran-Iraq War, an almost eight-year, prolonged war of attrition which ended with, “an estimated quarter of a million dead…over 60,000 Iraqis [as] prisoners of war…[and] had run up a debt of over $80 billion…[with] the collapse of world prices meant that Iraq’s oil revenues in 1988 amounted to $11 billion, less than half its 1980 revenue”. Not only this, but Iraq had been fighting what was essentially a civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan, which involved the use of chemical weapons against civilians. The hundred year plus dispute between Iraq and Kuwait about sections of the border with essential waterways leading to the Gulf, the economic hardships and falling price of oil, the U.S. severing ties with the Middle Eastern nation due to war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the fear of decreasing power and influence in the region, and the desire to attain the funding for nuclear weapons programs were all central factors in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

               International outcry was swift and critical of Saddam’s actions. This was largely due to the fact that Iraq was now closer to Saudi Arabia and the threat of him and Iraq controlling a substantial portion of the world’s oil reserves was very real. Richard Kohn, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, discussed this with NPR, stating, “The stakes in 1990 and ’91 were really rather enormous. Had Saddam Hussein gotten control of the Saudi oil fields, he would have had the world economy by the throat. That was immediately recognized by capitals around the world”. Immediately following the invasion, on August 03, the United Nations Security Council demanded that Iraq withdraw from the country and, when Iraq did not abide by this demand, the UN “imposed a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq (The Iraqi government responded by formally annexing Kuwait on August 8)”. The U.S. too engaged and tried to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait by placing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, utilizing this military presence as a deterrent.

Despite such action by the most powerful international foreign policy and diplomatic body in the globe, and diplomatic action on the part of the U.S. and other foreign nations, war still occurred in January of 1991, which eventually pushed Saddam out of Kuwait via aerial and naval bombardment and, by February, had armor and infantry troops rolling towards Baghdad. The question that remains is, was the war necessary to solving the situation in Iraq and did such military action further international foreign policy goals of the United States?

               War was the only other option that the United States could take when dealing with Saddam. The United Nations, the Arab League, and the United States had all vitriolically and openly opposed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. When Iraq tried to open diplomatic channels to resolve the crisis (while not complying with the UN’s order and keeping troops in Kuwait), the U.S. requested that the Iraqis comply with the decree and pull out of Kuwait, following Margaret Thatcher and Britain’s line of thought that concessions to a dictator would strengthen the Iraqi influence and desire for more power.

               While the fact that the United States did not try to pursue a diplomatic avenue with Iraq in this matter is certainly an interesting method, it is also understandable. Giving in to Iraq’s desires and granting them concessions when they had flagrantly disregarded international law and violated the sovereignty of a fellow nation state (in addition to committing horrendous crimes against their own population), capitulating to the Iraqi government would have been a mistake. It would have solidified their power and their influence within the region and would have seemingly legitimized their standpoint.

               Not only would negotiating on such terms have legitimized their view and stance, but it effectively would have been negotiating with a terrorist. The former Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 1989 to 1991, Joseph C. Wilson, (who would later play a key role in the Plame Affair during the Iraq War), discussed how, “several hundred hostages were held by Saddam, 150 Americans as well as another 70 in our care to keep them out of Iraqi hands…There is no doubt that our personnel and our families were at risk, in considerable danger in fact,”. Hussein’s motivation for holding these Americans and others of varying nationalities (notably British) was most probably to utilize them as a deterrent to an attack from the West. Engaging in capitulation and trying to negotiate with someone who was essentially a terrorist (utilizing terror and violence, or the threat of such action, to attain a political goal) was not something that the United States nor the United Kingdom was willing to do under any circumstances.

               The United States, in this instance, was dealing with a terrorist and a dictator, a megalomaniac who was determined to reclaim what he believed was rightfully Iraqi territory and gain access to further wealth through illegal means. The potential of his army in securing what were important and essential global financial centers in the Middle East was serious and it is possible he was planning to invade Saudi Arabia at some point. Saad al-Bazzaz, the former head of both the Iraqi News Agency and the Iraqi Radio and Television Establishment in addition to being an aide to Saddam, alleged in 1996 that, “the Iraqi leader ordered the elite Republican Guard to be ready to launch an offensive…nine days after the invasion of Kuwait…The invasion plans called for four divisions, or 120,000 troops, to thrust into the desert to capture oil fields more than 180 miles away”. The fact that Iraqi troops also, in January of 1991, after the initial aerial bombardment, captured the small, Saudi Arabian coastal city of Khafji, lends credence to the idea that Saddam may have been planning something larger. al-Bazzaz also alleged that Saddam again began planning an invasion of Saudi Arabia while the Battle of Khafji was ongoing, but resorted to defense when it was apparent he would lose Kuwait.

               Upon the conclusion of the Gulf War, what did the U.S. gain? One of the most significant achievements in the aftermath of the conflict was that the United States was able to create a coalition of military forces (including those from Middle Eastern nations like Syria and Egypt) to side with other nations (former colonizers like France and the United Kingdom) who are often opposed to their conduct of foreign policy or have fraught relationships. As well, the State Department’s Office of the Historian notes, “Although Russia did not commit troops, it joined the United States in condemning Iraq, its long-time client state”. The Office goes on to describe how Secretary of State Baker and his staff went about gathering allies and were instrumental in assisting in diplomatic and coordination efforts for the eventual air and ground campaign. The U.S. gained improved relationships that bonded by the pursuit of an enemy and the removal of a foreign power from a sovereign nation and were further solidified in the UN’s policing of Iraqi airspace and nuclear deproliferation programs.

               Often, wars can be prevented and all out avoided through the use of diplomacy and foreign policy. The Vietnam War, the 1898 Spanish-American War, and the Chaco War of the 1930’s between Bolivia and Paraguay are prime examples of when diplomacy should have been utilized to the fullest effect and in which foreign policy officials and avenues for conflict resolution were not fully considered or utilized. However, in this instance, war was the only viable option for removing Saddam from Kuwait and returning the country to its rightful citizens. Negotiating or trying to work with the Iraqi government on the terms they had decided (meaning working with them in a foreign territory they have illegally acquired) would have given their actions an aura of legitimacy and possibly emboldened Saddam to further push the boundaries of international law. By giving Saddam an ultimatum and proceeding with physical combat and engaging in a war, war with Iraq was the correct decision when considering the person and government being dealt with.

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Middle East

Middle Eastern interventionism galore: Neither US nor Chinese policies alleviate

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A recent analysis of Middle Eastern states’ interventionist policies suggests that misguided big power approaches have fueled a vicious cycle of interference and instability over the last decade.

Those approaches are abetted, if not encouraged by US and Chinese strategies that are similar, if not essentially the same, just labelled differently. The United States has long opted for regime stability in the Middle East rather than political reform, an approach China adopts under the mum of non-interference in the internal affairs of others.

As a result, both the United States and China de facto signal autocrats that they will not be held accountable for their actions. This week’s US response and Chinese silence about the suspension of democracy in Tunisia illustrates the point.

The policies of the two powers diverge, however, on one key approach: The US, unlike China, frequently identifies one or more regimes, most notably Iran, as a threat to regional security. In doing so, US policy is often shaped by the narrow lens of a frequently demonized ‘enemy’ or hostile power.

The problem with that approach is that it encourages policies that are based on a distorted picture of reality. The Obama administration’s negotiation of a 2015 international nuclear agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program proved that amending those policies constitutes a gargantuan task, albeit one that is gaining traction with more critical trends emerging in both the Democratic Party and among Evangelists.

The recent study, ‘No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020,’ published by the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, suggests by implication that China has at the vey least allowed instability to fester in the Middle East that is fueled as much by destabilizing Iranian interventions as by similar actions of various US allies.

The study was authored by researcher Matthew Petti and Trita Parsi, the Institute’s  co-founder and executive vice president and founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council.

To be sure China may not have been able to influence all interventionist decisions, including the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but potentially could have at times tempered the interventionist inklings of regional players with a more assertive approach rather than remaining aloof and focusing exclusively on economic opportunity.

China demonstrated its willingness and ability to ensure that regional players dance to its tune when it made certain that Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries refrained from criticizing Beijing’s brutal attempt to alter the ethnic and religious identity of its Turkic Muslim population in the north-western province of Xinjiang.

Taking Syria as an example, Li Shaoxian, a former vice president at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, articulated China’s approach in 2016 as Chinese President Xi Jinping paid his first visit to the Middle East. “China doesn’t really care who takes the presidency…in the future—as long as that person could stabilize and develop the country, we would agree,” Mr. Li said.

To be fair, the Quincy Institute study focuses on the interventionist policies of Middle Eastern states and recommendations for US policy rather than on China even if the report by implication has consequences for China too.

A key conclusion of the study is that the fallacy of US policy was not only to continue to attempt to batter Iran into submission despite evidence that pressure was not persuading the Islamic republic to buckle under.

It was also a failure to acknowledge that Middle Eastern instability was fueled by interventionist policies of not just one state, Iran, but of six states, five of which are US allies: Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The US allies, with the exception of Turkey and to a lesser degree Qatar, are perceived as supporters of the regional status quo.

On the other hand, the United States and its allies have long held that Iran’s use of militant proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen; its intervention in Syria and support of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip; and its armament policies, including its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs, destabilize the Middle East and pose the greatest threat to regional security.

They assert that Iran continues to want to export its revolution. It is an argument that is supported by Iran’s own rhetoric and need to maintain a revolutionary façade.

Middle East scholar Danny Postel challenges the argument in a second paper published this month by the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies that seems to bolster the Quincy Institute’s analysis.

“The view of Iran as a ‘revolutionary’ state has been dead for quite some time yet somehow stumbles along and blinds us to what is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East. A brief look at the role Iran has played over the last decade in three countries — Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria — reveals a very different picture: not one of a revolutionary but rather of a counter-revolutionary force,” Mr. Postel argues.

The scholar noted that Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, and pro-Iranian armed groups in Iraq responded in similar ways to mass anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020 in Lebanese and Iraqi cities that transcended sectarian divisions and identified the Iran-aligned factions with widespread corruption that was dragging their countries down.

They attacked the protesters in an attempt to salvage a failed system that served their purpose and suppress what amounted to popular uprisings.

Do they really think that we would hand over a state, an economy, one that we have built over 15 years? That they can just casually come and take it? Impossible! This is a state that was built with blood,” said an Iraqi official with links to the pro-Iranian militias. A Hezbollah official speaking about Lebanon probably could not have said it better.

Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal suppression of a popular revolt is no less counter-revolutionary and illustrative of the length to which Iran is willing to go to protect its interests.

“Indeed, for all the talk of Iran’s ‘disruptive’ role in the region, what the cases of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon reveal is instead an Islamic Republic hell-bent on keeping entrenched political establishments and ruling classes in power while helping them quell popular movements for social justice, democratic rights, and human dignity,” Mr. Postel concludes.

“The idea that Iran is a revolutionary power while Saudi Arabia is a counter-revolutionary power in the region is a stale binary. Both the Islamic Republic and the Saudi Kingdom play counter-revolutionary roles in the Middle East. They are competing counter-revolutionary powers, each pursuing its counter-revolutionary agenda in its respective sphere of influence within the region,” Mr. Postel goes on to say.

Counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt appeared to contradict Mr. Postel in a paper published this week that asserted that Hezbollah remained a revolutionary pro-Iranian force in its regional posture beyond Lebanon.

“Hezbollah’s regional adventurism is most pronounced in its expeditionary forces deployed in Syria and elsewhere in the region, but no less important are the group’s advanced training regimen for other Shi’a militias aligned with Iran, its expansive illicit financing activities across the region, and its procurement, intelligence, cyber, and disinformation activities,” Mr. Levitt said.

Mr. Postel’s analysis in various ways bolsters the Quincy Institute report’s observation that tactics employed by Iran are not uniquely Iranian but have been adopted at various times by all interventionist players in the Middle East.

The Quincy Institute study suggests further that a significant number of instances in the last decade in which Middle Eastern states projected military power beyond their borders involved Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on battlefields that were as much related to competition for regional influence among US allies or the countering of popular movements as they were to rivalry with Iran.

“Iran is highly interventionist, but not an outlier. The other major powers in the region are often as interventionist as the Islamic Republic – and at times even more so. Indeed, the UAE and Turkey have surpassed in recent years,” the report said.

The report’s publication coincided with the indictment of billionaire Thomas  J. Barrack, a one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the UAE, widely seen as another case and form of intervention by a Middle Eastern state.

By implication, the study raises the question whether compartmentalizing security issues like the nuclear question and framing them exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than discussing them in relation to diverging security concerns of all regional players, including Iran, will lead to a sustainable regional security architecture.

There is little indication that thinking in Washington is paying heed to the Quincy Institute study or Mr. Postel’s analysis even though their publication came at an inflection point in negotiations with Iran suspended until President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in mid-August.

That was evident in a proposal put forward this month by former US Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross on how to respond to Iran’s refusal to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support of armed proxies  as well as Mr. Al-Assad as part of the nuclear negotiation. Mr. Ross suggested that the United States sell to Israel the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound mountain-buster capable of destroying hardened underground nuclear facilities.

Members of Congress last year offered legislation that would authorize the sale as a way to maintain Israel’s military edge as the United States moves to reward the UAE for its establishment of diplomatic reltions with Israel by selling it top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jets.

The administration is expected to move ahead with the sale of the jets after putting it on hold for review when Joe Biden took office In January.

The Quincy Institute and Mr. Postel’s calls for a paradigm shift in thinking about the Middle East and/or Iran take on added significance in the light of debates about the sustainability of the Iranian clerical regime.

Contrary to suggestions that the regime is teetering on the brink of collapse as the result of sanctions and domestic discontent, most recently evidenced in this month’s protests sparked by water shortages, widely respected Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour argues that the Iranian regime could have a shelf life of at least another generation.

Mr. Sadjadpour draws a comparison to the Soviet Union. “Post-Soviet Russia… didn’t transition from the Soviet Union to a democratic Russia, but it essentially became a new form of authoritarianism which took Communism and replaced it with grievance driven Russia nationalism—led by someone from the ancient regime and a product of the KGB, Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Sadjadpour argues.

“Likewise, if I had to make a prediction in Iran, I think that the next prominent leader is less likely to be an aging cleric—like an Ayatollah Khamenei or Ibrahim Raisi—and more likely to be someone who is a product of either the Revolutionary Guards or Iran’s intelligence services. Instead of espousing Shiite nationalism, they will substitute that with Iranian nationalism—or Persian nationalism,” he goes on to say.

An Iranian nationalist regime potentially could contribute to regional stability. It would likely remove the threats of Iranian meddling in the domestic affairs of various Arab countries by empowering Shiite Muslim groups as well as support for political Islam. Iranian nationalism would turn aid to groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen into a liability rather than an asset.

Mr. Sadjadpour’s prognosis coupled with the Quincy Institute report suggests that the Biden administration has an opportunity to reframe its Middle East policy in the long-term interests of the United States as well as the region and the international community.

The nuclear talks are one potential entry point to what would amount to the equivalent of turning a supertanker around in the Suez Canal – a gradual process at best rather than an overnight change. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan may be another.

Concern in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran about the fallout of the withdrawal suggests that stabilizing the greater Middle East in ways that conflicts can be sustainably managed if not resolved creates grounds for China, Russia and the United States to cooperate on what should be a common interest: securing the free flow of oil and gas as well as trade.

China, Russia, and Iran may be bracing themselves for worst case scenarios as the Taliban advance militarily, but the potential for some form of big power cooperation remains.

China scholars Haiyun Ma and I-wei Jennifer Chang note that in the case of Afghanistan “despite the Taliban’s advancement on the ground and its call for Chinese investment, the current military situation and the political process have not yet manifested a power vacuum created by the US retreat, which makes Chinese entry and gains…largely symbolic in nature.”

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