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The Arab League and peace, after 68 years

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The disconnect between the past and the present in the Middle East is growing fast. Consider the anachronism called the Arab League.

In December, after an “emergency meeting” called by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby declared that “not one” Israeli soldier could remain in the territory of Palestine. An Arab League report condemning American support for “Israeli security expansionist demands” was also cited in Middle Eastern news sources but made little impression in the West.

The statement made little impression on US Secretary of State John Kerry who was “grateful that the Arab League as a whole and Saudi Arabia individually will be significantly involved in helping build support for this effort.” He also promised to update “our Arab League partners.”

The very idea that the Arab League is a ‘partner,’ and the League’s recent pronouncements, are reminders of the Arab-Israeli conflict as it once was; an era when furious expressions of “unity” over Palestine were taken seriously, and which mostly excluded the Palestinians.

The Arab League was formed in March 1945, its charter filled with boilerplate about the strengthening, safeguarding and coordinating of between member states. But the founding treaty’s annex stated while that Palestine’s “international existence and independence in the legal sense cannot, therefore, be questioned,” “outward manifestations of this independence have remained obscured for reasons beyond her control” and that “until that country can effectively exercise its independence, the Council of the League should take charge of the selection of an Arab representative from Palestine to take part in its work.” The League’s raison d’être was control of the Palestine question.

The pan-Arab takeover had actually begun earlier, with the Bludan conference of 1937 “to study the duties of the Arabs in their respective countries and to agree on effective measures to resist the dangers posed by the Zionists.” There the Peel Commission’s recommendations on partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states were rejected and a boycott of “all Jewish goods and activities” was proposed.

But Palestinians and certain Syrians were unsatisfied since, as a British report put it, “They had hoped, it appears, so far to stir up public opinion as to obtain from an excited mob a declaration of the Jihad.” Existential fear and loathing of Jews – not Zionists – in Islamic terms was pronounced even then.

After World War II the Arab League’s contradictions became more pronounced. At the Inshas conference of 1946 Arab rulers declared “Palestine is Arab and cannot be separated from the rest of the Arab states, for it is the center of the great Arab nation and its destiny rests with that of the Arab states.” But the next year in London Arab League delegates accepted the idea of a unitary Palestinian state in which Jews would be a recognized minority with representation. The Palestinians under Haj Amin al-Husseini, the “Grand Mufti” and leader of the Palestinian nationalist Arab Higher Committee, refused to even participate.

The Mufti’s aspirations to rule Arab Palestine also clashed with those of Abdullah of Transjordan, who sought to annex it to Transjordan. In 1947 the League formed the “Arab Liberation Army” that invaded Israel upon independence, while keeping Husseini and his military force in marginal roles. Abdullah’s Arab Legion operated independently, while he met secretly with Zionist representations. Upon defeat the League authorized a provisional government for Gaza, which was barely symbolic before being dissolved by Egypt.

The League’s most notable achievement was the boycott against Israel. This prohibited direct economic relations, as well as with countries and firms that did business with Israel. Though the boycott limited investment and economic relations, it hardly achieved its goals of bringing about “the eventual collapse of the State of Israel.” The boycott may have hurt Arab countries more than Israel, scaring off investors from the Middle East and damaging regional economies. The 1966 decision to kick Ford Motors out of Arab countries following a trade agreement with Israel cost 6000 jobs in Lebanon alone.

On the issue of Palestine the League has always taken extreme stances. It suspended Egypt in 1979 after the Camp David Accords and rejected the Gulf Cooperation Council’s decision to lessen trade restrictions on Israel in 1994. Even the League’s endorsement of the much-vaunted Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 was predicated on reading UN Resolution 194 to mean the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.

Only in fostering creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in 1964 did the Arab League inadvertently advanced the Palestinian cause, albeit through an irredentist entity dedicated to violent “resistance” that preyed on Arab states almost as much as Israel. The PLO and its culture have reliably enforced extremism ever since.

The Arab League’s other activities have been incoherent and hopelessly divided. It did not defuse the 1958 Lebanon crisis, although it played a larger role in the Yemen civil war from 1962 to 1970, in effect a proxy war between member states Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It supported Iraq against Iran but was split over the first Gulf War, and its solution to the Lebanese Civil War was to license the Syrian takeover and almost three decades of occupation. The list of failure goes on until today’s Syrian crisis.

The Arab League’s usurpation of Palestine served higher purposes, Arab national integration around the twinned themes of protecting Palestine and hating the Jews. Palestine was a fetish but this was never the same as advancing the Palestinian national project. As with all fetishes it became a trap. Shared outrage helped generate a common sense of ‘Arabness’ as well as distinctive Syrian, Iraqi and other national identities but contributed little positive except to continually focus attention outward from corrupt, repressive regimes. But once ignited, the flame could not be ignored lest outrage be redirected inward towards regimes whose obsession wavered.

The Arab League’s routine continues but the Palestinian fetish has been taken over by UN and EU apparatchiks and US diplomats. With more than a little antisemitism (on the UN and European sides), they have institutionalized Palestinianism and the “peace process” in ways the Arab League, forever banging the tables at “emergency meetings” or even at the UN, could only have dreamed. Perhaps the Arab League succeeded after all.

But ceding control of their national fate is now also part of Palestinian culture. Sometimes Palestinians genuinely think they are the paramount pan-Arab or pan-Islamic cause. Other times it just gives Palestinians cover for being indecisive, divided, or merely to go about business as usual.

This is immensely profitable for Palestinian elites who make money from legal and illegal business deals, who skim or divert Western aid, less so for the enormous Palestinian public and NGO sectors. The status quo and “occupation” rhetoric keep money flowing and postpones hard-decisions about self-governance and self-responsibility. The Arab League gives the Palestinians rejectionism plausible deniability, and helps put peace impossibly, but profitably, out of reach.

But state failure, the ‘Arab Spring,’ and now the Shia-Sunni civil war, have disrupted the cycle, at least for now. And in a supreme irony, the Jews are temporarily more useful as Sunni allies than cosmic enemies, while the Palestinians are neither especially relevant nor interesting.

The sooner everyone, including the US and especially the Palestinians themselves, admit that the Arab League is an impediment the sooner a negotiated peace with Israel may actually arrive.

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Middle East

Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

Dr.Alon Ben-Meir

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Turkey’s President Erdogan is becoming ever more dangerous as he continues to ravage his own country and destabilize scores of states in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa, while cozying up to the West’s foremost advisories. Sadly, there seems to be no appetite for most EU member states to challenge Erdogan and put him on notice that he can no longer pursue his authoritarianism at home and his adventurous meddling abroad with impunity.

To understand the severity of Erdogan’s actions and ambitions and their dire implications, it suffices to quote Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly one of Erdogan’s closest associates who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and subsequently Prime Minister. Following his forced resignation in May 2016 he stated “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath. No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”

Yet on October 12, Davutoglu declared “Erdogan left his friends who struggled and fought with him in exchange for the symbols of ancient Turkey, and he is trying to hold us back now…. You yourself [Erdogan] are the calamity. The biggest calamity that befell this people is the regime that turned the country into a disastrous family business.”

The stunning departure of Davutoglu from his earlier statement shows how desperate conditions have become, and echoed how far and how dangerously Erdogan has gone. Erdogan has inflicted a great calamity on his own people, and his blind ambition outside Turkey is destabilizing many countries while dangerously undermining Turkey’s and its Western allies’ national security and strategic interests.

A brief synopsis of Erdogan’s criminal domestic practices and his foreign misadventures tell the whole story.

Domestically, he incarcerated tens of thousands of innocent citizens on bogus charges, including hundreds of journalists. Meanwhile he is pressuring the courts to send people to prison for insulting him, as no one can even express their thoughts about this ruthlessness. Internationally, Erdogan ordered Turkish intelligence operatives to kill or smuggle back to the country Turkish citizens affiliated with the Gülen movement.

He regularly cracks down on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, preventing them from living a normal life in accordance with their culture, language, and traditions, even though they have been and continue to be loyal Turkish citizens. There is no solution to the conflict except political, as former Foreign Minister Ali Babacan adamantly stated on October 20: “… a solution [to the Kurdish issue] will be political and we will defend democracy persistently.”

Erdogan refuses to accept the law of the sea convention that gives countries, including Cyprus, the right to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for energy exploration, while threatening the use of force against Greece, another NATO member no less. He openly sent a research ship to the region for oil and gas deposits, which EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called “extremely worrying.”

He invaded Syria with Trump’s blessing to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing autonomous rule, under the pretext of fighting the PKK and the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish militia that fought side-by-side the US, and whom Erdogan falsely accuses of being a terrorist group).

He is sending weapons to the Sunni in northern Lebanon while setting up a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) in the country—a practice Erdogan has used often to gain a broader foothold in countries where it has an interest.

While the Turkish economy is in tatters, he is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Balkans, flooding countries with Turkish imams to spread his Islamic gospel and to ensure their place in his neo-Ottoman orbit. Criticizing Erdogan’s economic leadership, Babacan put it succinctly when he said this month that “It is not possible in Turkey for the economic or financial system to continue, or political legitimacy hold up.”

Erdogan is corrupt to the bone. He conveniently appointed his son-in-law as Finance Minister, which allows him to hoard tens of millions of dollars, as Davutoglu slyly pointed out: “The only accusation against me…is the transfer of land to an educational institution over which I have no personal rights and which I cannot leave to my daughter, my son, my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law.”

Erdogan is backing Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia (backed by Iran) over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited by ethnic Armenians and has been the subject of dispute for over 30 years.

He is exploiting Libya’s civil strife by providing the Government of National Accord (GNA) with drones and military equipment to help Tripoli gain the upper hand in its battle against Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in February 2020 that “The unclear Turkish foreign policy by Erdogan may put Turkey in grave danger due to this expansion towards Libya.”

He is meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to prevent them from settling their dispute unless Israel meets Palestinian demands. He granted several Hamas officials Turkish citizenship to spite Israel, even though Hamas openly calls for Israel’s destruction.

He betrayed NATO by buying the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which seriously compromises the alliance’s technology and intelligence.

He is destabilizing many countries, including Somalia, Qatar, Libya, and Syria, by dispatching military forces and hardware while violating the air space of other countries like Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece. Yakis said Turkey is engaging in a “highly daring bet where the risks of failure are enormous.”

Erdogan supports extremist Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and an assortment of jihadists, including ISIS, knowing full well that these groups are sworn enemies of the West—yet he uses them as a tool to promote his wicked Islamic agenda.

He regularly blackmails EU members, threatening to flood Europe with Syria refugees unless they support his foreign escapades such as his invasion of Syria, and provide him with billions in financial aid to cope with the Syrian refugees.

The question is how much more evidence does the EU need to act? A close look at Erdogan’s conduct clearly illuminates his ultimate ambition to restore much of the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the countries that were once under its control.

Erdogan is dangerous. He has cited Hitler as an example of an effective executive presidential system, and may seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s time for the EU to wake up and take Erdogan’s long-term agenda seriously, and take severe punitive measures to arrest his potentially calamitous behavior. Sadly, the EU has convinced itself that from a geostrategic perspective Turkey is critically important, which Erdogan is masterfully exploiting.

The EU must be prepared take a stand against Erdogan, with or without the US. Let’s hope, though, that Joe Biden will be the next president and together with the EU warn Erdogan that his days of authoritarianism and foreign adventurism are over.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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Middle East

Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics

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Syrian refugees in Rukban camp

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the issue of Syrian refugees and internally displace has been the subject of countless articles and reports with international humanitarian organizations and countries involved in the Syrian conflict shifting responsibility for the plight of migrants.

The most notorious example of human suffering put against political games is the Rukban refugee camp located in eastern Syria inside the 55-km zone around Al-Tanf base controlled by the U.S. and its proxies.

According to official information, more than 50,000 people, mostly women and children, currently live in the camp. This is a huge number comparable to the population of a small town. The Syrian government, aware of the plight of people in Rukban, has repeatedly urged Washington to open a humanitarian corridor so that everyone can safely return home. However, all such proposals were ignored by the American side. U.S. also refuse to provide the camp with first aid items. Neighbouring Jordan is inactive, too, despite Rukban being the largest of dozens other temporary detention centres in Syria, where people eke out a meager existence.

At the same time, the problem is not only refugee camps. Syria has been at war for a decade. The country’s economy has suffered greatly over this period, and many cities have been practically grazed to the ground. Moreover, the global coronavirus epidemic didn’t spare Syria and drained the already weakened economy even more. However, Damascus’ attempts of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery were undermined by multiple packages of severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. At the same time, U.S.-based human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations continue to weep over the Syrian citizens’ misery.

The situation is the same for those refugees who stay in camps abroad, especially in countries bordering on Syria, particularly Jordan and Turkey. Ankara has been using Syrian citizens as a leverage against the European states in pursuit of political benefits for a long time. No one pays attention to the lives of people who are used as a change coin in big politics. This is equally true for Rukban where refugees are held in inhuman conditions and not allowed to return to their homeland. In those rare exceptions that they are able to leave, refugees have to pay large sums of money that most of those living in camp are not able to come by.

It’s hard to predict how long the Syrian conflict will go on and when – or if – the American military will leave the Al-Tanf base. One thing can be said for sure: the kind of criminal inaction and disregard for humanitarian catastrophe witnessed in refugee camps is a humiliating failure of modern diplomacy and an unforgivable mistake for the international community. People shouldn’t be a tool in the games of politicians.

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Middle East

Is Syria Ready For Second Wave Of COVID-19?

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©UNICEF/Delil Souleiman

Despite a relative calm that has been holding on the front lines of the Syrian conflict since the beginning of the year, Syria had to face other equally – if not more – serious challenges. The spread of COVID-19 virus in the wake of a general economic collapse and a health care system battered by nine years of war threatened Syria with a death toll as a high as that of resumed military confrontation. However, the actual scale of the infection rate turned out to be less than it was expected considering the circumstances.

Although Syria did not have much in resources to mobilize, unlike some other countries that were slow to enforce restrictions or ignored them altogether, the Syrian authorities did not waste time to introduce basic measures that, as it became obvious in hindsight, proved to be the most effective. A quarantine was instituted in the areas controlled by the government, all transportation between the provinces was suspended, schools and universities were temporarily closed and face masks were made obligatory in public spaces.

As a result, official data puts the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the government areas at modest 4,457 while 192 people died of the infection. In turn, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria announced that 1,998 people contracted the virus. The data on the infection rate in the opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo is incomplete, but the latest number is 1,072. Compared to the neighboring Turkey with  9,000 of deaths of COVID-19, Syria seems to be doing relatively well.

Tackling the virus put the already embattled health care system under enormous strain. Syrian doctors are dealing with an acute shortage of medicines and equipment, and even hospital beds are in short supply. Over 60 medical workers who treated COVID-19 patients died.

The situation is worsened even further by the economic hardships, not least due to the sanctions imposed on Syria by the U.S. and the European states. Syrian hospitals are unable to procure modern equipment necessary for adequate treatment of COVID-19, most importantly test kits and ventilators.

The economic collapse exposed and aggravated many vulnerabilities that could have been easily treated under more favorable circumstances. A grim, yet fitting example: long queues in front of bakeries selling bread at subsidised prices, that put people under the risk of catching the virus. Many Syrians are simply unable to avoid risking their health in these queues, as an average income is no longer enough to provide for a family.

Moreover, despite a nation-wide information campaign conducted with the goal of spreading awareness about means of protections against COVID-19 like social distancing and mask-wearing, for many Syrians the disease is still stigmatized, and those who contracted it are often too ashamed to go to a hospital or even confess to their friends. As consequence, a substantial number of cases goes unreported.

With the second wave of COVID-19 in sight, it is of utmost importance that the work of health care professionals is supported, not subverted by the citizens. Otherwise Syria – and the world – may pay too high a price.

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