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Reconstituting Syria

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Public discussion of the Syrian situation has tended to focus on the plight of the Syrian refugees and their effects on neighboring countries, the internal fighting there, and the interplay between external States seeking to influence the outcome of the Syrian civil war.

Much less attention is given to what it would take to restore a well functioning society, or a set of well functioning societies, in the area of Syria. But there is reason to focus on that question now. If that is the end result which local, regional and global actors should seek, then those actors need to be shaping their undertakings accordingly, from this point forward, and avoiding actions which, though appealing from an individual actor’s perspective, continue or make worse the current turmoil and suffering.

Syria has, in economic terms, deteriorated badly, as Chatham House has well documented . Syria has lost control of rich agricultural areas and a large portion of its petroleum production facilities. Thus, the energy bases for economic and social performance have been greatly diminished. A recent World Bank report suggests that Syria’s gross domestic economic production has plummeted in recent years, and “the current account balance is estimated to continue its trend and reach a deficit of 13 percent of GDP in 2015. As a result of the civil war, total international reserves have declined from $20 billion at end-2010 to an estimated $2.6 billion at end-2014, and are estimated to fall further to $0.7 billion by the end of 2015.”

The same report states “As of September, 2015, 4 million Syrians have registered as refugees with the UNHCR, and are mostly hosted in Syria’s neighboring countries, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, but also in Egypt and, increasingly, in European countries. More than 12.2 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian aid, including 5.6 million children (UNOCHA, Syrian Center for Policy Research-SCPR).”

Though Russia and Iran have made investments in Syria in recent years, there is reason to suggest that Syria has disintegrated so far as to be only a liability for any other State, or the citizens of such other State — including the prominently mentioned States such as Russia and Iran, as well as Europe (as a whole), the United States, Saudi Arabia, and others. ISIL, the international outcast, is the only exception. As Syria now stands, it is hard to see it as a substantial current economic asset to anyone.

There is reason to suggest that rivalries among external State actors, including the United States, have, wittingly or unwittingly, contributed to the current breakdown in Syria. The authors of a 2014 Foreign Affairs article suggest that “Syria has become a dividing line among rival powers — a twenty-first-century iron curtain of sorts.”   This perspective is subject to the interpretation that the ’Western’ steadfast rejection of Assad has to do not only with that Assad’s bloodthirsty reaction to political challenge, but also with his economic and military alignment with Russia, Iran and China. In overview, the combination of Western economic sanctions, a drought, local citizen disenfranchisement and abuse, civil war and ISIL is what has pushed Syria nearer, if not to, the brink of state disintegration.

The net economic and humanitarian result of this history seems to underlie the current degree of coordination between external State actors, including both Russia and the United States, directed to some degree toward ISIL, and perhaps to underlie some ambiguous statements by Russian spokespersons. This suggests that there may be some possibility of setting up a political reorganization of Syria through international concord, leading to workable domestic concord over some several months or years. The United Nations appears to be playing a constructive role in this process.

This certainly is to be encouraged. But Russia’s interjection of military hardware, and its currently continued protection of Assad, suggests it still seeks heavily to tilt any resolution of the Syrian State in its favor, and attempt to benefit economically and geopolitically thereafter. One can assume that Europe and the United States have an opposite set of preferences.

However, from a global standpoint, it is more important that there be normal and productive economic and social activity in and near Syria than that any of these State actors gain advantage over the others. A functional Syria without an inimical agenda toward any of its neighbors need be no threat to any of them. Such a functional Syria, with adequate agricultural production, petroleum production, banks, utilities, medical and educational systems, could engage in productive economic and social interaction with any and all nearby and global entities — Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Europe, the United States, etc.

Such a result need not be entirely blind to history, For example, the Russian naval base on the Mediterranean would not need to be excised, assuming it were not used for war support purposes.

Let us briefly review what will be required successfully to reorganize Syria, or something like it.

The agricultural areas of Syria need to be reintegrated, and well serviced.

Oil and gas production areas need to be restored, in normal production, transport, and sales patterns, with new investment.

The population needs to be protected from ISIL, and any other external incursion.

Banks, insurance, and similar financial institutions need to be reliably in place at reasonable scale. Though calculation of investment needs in Syria may not be obvious or easy in the current fog of war, it may not unreasonable to expect that up to or over a hundred billion dollars of investment, of various sorts, will need to be mobilized over time.

Such of Syria’s population as its State can absorb need to find or build homes to return to. They will need reliable educational and medical institutions.

All of this needs to be in place, using a workable political entity, and reliably maintained for many years, if not some decades.

This is a great deal to ask of the loose collection of political entities now addressing Syria, with all their diverse interests, notwithstanding the involvement of many able persons who, presumably, are not insensitive to the ongoing human tragedy in and around Syria.

Thus, the recent suggestion of Don Kraus that an international trusteeship for Syria, under United Nations auspices, deserves, this author suggests, widespread and receptive attention, even as the current efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis proceed.

Given all the diverse actors involved, natural reluctance to give up or compromise individual State or sectarian interests, and intricacies of construction of an institution of this sort, a massive reorganization of prevailing thought and a massive UN level organizational effort would be required. Americans, for example, seem divided over just the American role concerning Syria. This state of consciousness is well short of considering that the United States sponsor a new UN organization to deal with Syria, even though such a sponsorship might be appealing in some respects.

Thus Kraus recognizes that his proposal would seem to many to be a ‘radical’ solution. In concept, the proposal is not all that radical. Indeed, a branch of the United Nations has already begun planning for a Syrian reconstruction effort, whomever wins the current civil war.

Even so, such an action would be a rare and demanding departure from current international practice.

Such a departure might be seen as necessary if conflicts between participants in the nascent coalition of State actors concerning Syria were to escalate. An important benefit of a UN Trusteeship would be diminution of the possibility of armed conflict between the various nations participating in trying to quell the ISIL activity, and jockeying for position in the resolution of the conflict in Syria. One entity in control of Syria, known not to have global ambitions or alliance with any of the contending camps, would seem a much safer approach than we now see, with multiple national warplanes and surface missiles, cruise missiles, and ground forces intermixed. We now have a classic tinderbox situation.

Lastly, from the viewpoint of the United States, a functional Syrian State which neither favors nor opposes our particular interests, or those of Russia, or Iran, or Shia muslims, or Sunni muslims, would be a major improvement over the current tragic state of affairs. If ‘better off’ is good enough, the United States need not control a reconstituted Syria, or make it our own salient in a cold or slow motion war with Russia. Nor do we need to make it an instrument with which to bludgeon Iran, or Shiites in general, or in particular situations, as some have seemed to suggest. This would be likely only to make matters worse.

In sum, the US and Europe would be better off if Syria were just a normal State which is not hostile to them (or anyone else). Russia and Iran would continue to have geographic proximity and long term connections favoring productive relationships with such a State. From the perspective of millions of Syrians, some long term relief from ongoing personal suffering is urgently needed. Speaking from the viewpoint of the global citizen, a UN trusteeship would seem an appropriately global, and potentially much safer, solution. And whatever the form of workout for Syria, one may suggest that the perspectives here offered might be integrated in the process.

Middle East

International Solidarity Day with the people of Palestine

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Since 1948, the people of Palestine were suffering due to Israeli oppression and aggression. Despite several resolutions on Palestine passed by the United Nation, Israel has not implemented either of them. Despite the struggle from all peace-loving nations, in various forms, the Palestinian people have not yet been given the right of self-determination, or self-rule, and are yet, forced to leave their land, homes and stay in refugee camps or migrate to foreign countries to live a miserable life. After failure from all aspects, the United Nations desp[erately declared to mark International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.

In 1977, the General Assembly called for the annual observance of 29 November as the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (resolution 32/40 B). On that day, in 1947, the Assembly adopted the resolution on the partition of Palestine (resolution 181 (II))

In resolution 60/37 of 1 December 2005, the Assembly requested the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People and the Division for Palestinian Rights, as part of the observance of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People on 29 November, to continue to organize an annual exhibit on Palestinian rights or a cultural event in cooperation with the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the UN.

The resolution on the observance of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People also encourages the Member States to continue to give the widest support and publicity to the observance of the Day of Solidarity.

The government and the people of Pakistan join the world community in observing the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (29 November).

The commemoration of this day is a reminder to the international community that the question of Palestine remains unresolved and the Palestinian people are yet to realize their inalienable right to self-determination as provided in various resolutions of the United Nations. It is also an occasion to reiterate our support and solidarity for the Palestinian people who continue to wage a just struggle against the illegal and brutal occupation.

On this day, Pakistan reaffirms its consistent and unstinted support for the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause, which has always been a defining principle of Pakistan’s foreign policy.

The international community must shoulder its responsibility to protect the lives and fundamental rights of the Palestinian people, and play its rightful role in promoting a just and lasting resolution of the Palestinian question per international legitimacy in the interest of durable peace and stability in the Middle East. The international community should also ensure accountability for the widespread violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in the occupied territories.

We renew our call on this day for a viable, independent, and contiguous Palestinian State, with pre-1967 borders, and Al-Quds Al-Sharif as its capital being the only just, comprehensive and lasting solution of the Palestinian question, under the relevant United Nations and OIC resolutions.

The purpose of marking this day is to remind the whole world that the people of Palestine deserve your attention and your time to think about their sufferings. It is to remind that the whole world should understand the issue and try their best to solve it according to the UN resolutions. Those who believe in justice, may raise their voice in favor of the Palestinian people and condemn Israeli barbarism and atrocities. This Day invites all of you to join the [peaceful struggle of Palestinian people for their legitimate rights. Irrespective of your profession, social status, or your religion or race, you may support the Palestinian cause for justice on humanitarian grounds and keep your struggle till the people of Palestine gets their legitimate status and rights on equal footings according to the UN resolutions.

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Middle East

Israel-Palestine: Risk of ‘deadly escalation’ in violence, without decisive action

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photo: UNOCHA/Mohammad Libed

With violence continuing daily throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process urged the Security Council on Tuesday to adopt a more coordinated approach to the region.  

Tor Wennesland told Council Members that “recent developments on the ground are worrying”, pointing out the situation in the West Bank and Gaza and the challenges faced by the Palestinian Authority.  

“I therefore emphasize again the importance of concerted efforts by the parties to calm things on the ground. I am concerned that if we do not act quickly and decisively, we risk plunging into another deadly escalation of violence”, he warned. 

He informed that, in the last month, violence resulted in the death of four Palestinians, including two children, and injuries to 90 others – including 12 children – due to action by Israeli Security Forces. 

One Israeli civilian was killed in the same period, and nine civilians, including one woman and one child, and six members of ISF were injured.  

Challenges 

Mr. Wennesland said that a severe fiscal and economic crisis is threatening the stability of Palestinian institutions in the West Bank. 

At the same time, he added, “ongoing violence and unilateral steps, including Israeli settlement expansion, and demolitions, continue to raise tensions, feed hopelessness, erode the Palestinian Authority’s standing and further diminish the prospect of a return to meaningful negotiations.” 

In Gaza, the cessation of hostilities continues to hold, but the Special Envoy argued that “further steps are needed by all parties to ensure a sustainable solution that ultimately enables a return of legitimate Palestinian Government institutions to the Strip.” 

Settlements 

The Special Coordinator also said that “settler-related violence remains at alarmingly high levels.” 

Overall, settlers and other Israeli civilians in the occupied West Bank perpetrated some 54 attacks against Palestinians, resulting in 26 injuries. Palestinians perpetrated 41 attacks against Israeli settlers and other civilians, resulting in one death and nine injuries.  

Mr. Wennesland highlighted a few announcements of housing units in settlements, reiterating that “that all settlements are illegal under international law and remain a substantial obstacle to peace.” 

Meanwhile, Israeli authorities have also advanced plans for some 6,000 housing units for Palestinians in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of al-Issawiya and some 1,300 housing units for Palestinians living in Area C (one of the administrative areas in the occupied West Bank, agreed under the Oslo Accord). 

The Special Envoy welcomed such steps but urged Israel to advance more plans and to issue building permits for all previously approved plans for Palestinians in Area C and East Jerusalem. 

Humanitarian aid delivered 

Turning to Gaza, the Special Envoy said that humanitarian, recovery and reconstruction efforts continued, along with other steps to stabilize the situation on the ground. 

He called the gradual easing of restrictions on the entry of goods and people “encouraging”, but said that the economic, security and humanitarian situation “remains of serious concern.” 

The Special Envoy also mentioned the precarious financial situation of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which still lacks $60 million to sustain essential services this year. 

The agency has yet to pay the November salaries of over 28,000 UN personnel, including teachers, doctors, nurses and sanitation workers, many of whom support extended families, particularly in the Gaza Strip, where unemployment is high.  

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Saudi religious moderation is as much pr as it is theology

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Mohammed Ali al-Husseini, one of Saudi Arabia’s newest naturalized citizens, ticks all the boxes needed to earn brownie points in the kingdom’s quest for religious soft power garnered by positioning itself as the beacon of ‘moderate,’ albeit autocratic, Islam.

A resident of Saudi Arabia since he had a fallout with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia, Mr. Al-Husseini represents what the kingdom needs to support its claim that its moderate form of Islam is religiously tolerant, inclusive, non-sectarian, pluralistic, and anti-discriminatory.

More than just being a Shiite, Mr. Al-Husseini is the scion of a select number of Lebanese Shiite families believed to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.

Put to the test, it is a billing with as many caveats as affirmatives – a problem encountered by other Gulf states that project themselves as beacons of autocratic interpretations of a moderate strand of the faith.

Even so, Saudi Arabia, despite paying lip service to religious tolerance and pluralism, has, unlike its foremost religious soft power competitors – the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, Iran, and Indonesia, yet to legalise non-Muslim worship and the building of non-Muslim houses of worship in the kingdom.

Similarly, the first batch of 27 newly naturalized citizens appeared not to include non-Muslims. If it did, they were not identified as such in contrast to Mr. Al-Hussein’s whose Shiite faith was clearly stated.

The 27 were naturalized under a recent decree intended to ensure that Saudi Arabia can compete with countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Singapore in attracting foreign talent. About a quarter of the new citizens, including Mr. Al-Husseini and Mustafa Ceric, a former Bosnian grand mufti, were religious figures or historians of Saudi Arabia.

In doing so, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman linked his economic and social reforms that enhanced women’s rights and catered to youth aspirations to his quest for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. The reforms involved tangible social and economic change. Still, they refrained from adapting the ultra-conservative, supremacist theology that underlined the founding of the kingdom and its existence until the rise of King Salman and his son, the crown prince, in 2015.

Prince Mohammed’s notion of ‘moderate’ Islam is socially liberal but politically autocratic. It calls for absolute obedience to the ruler in a deal that replaces the kingdom’s long-standing social contract in which the citizenry exchanged surrender of political rights for a cradle-to-grave welfare state. The new arrangement expands social rights and economic opportunity at the price of a curtailed welfare state as well as the loss of political freedoms, including freedoms of expression, media, and association.

A series of recent op-eds in Saudi media written by pundits rather than clerics seemingly with the endorsement, if not encouragement of the crown prince or his aides, called for top-down Martin Luther-like religious reforms that would introduce rational and scientific thinking, promote tolerance, and eradicate extremism.

Mamdouh Al-Muhaini, general manager of the state-controlled Al-Arabiya and Al-Hadath television networks, spelled out the top-down process of religious reform that would be led by the crown prince even though the writer stopped short of identifying him by name.

“There are dozens, or perhaps thousands, of Luthers of Islam… As such, the question of ‘where is the Luther of Islam’ is wrong. It should instead be: Where is Islam’s Frederick the Great? The King of Prussia, who earned the title of Enlightened Despot, embraced major philosophers in Europe like Kant and Voltaire and gave them the freedom to think and carry out scientific research, which helped their ideas spread and prevail over fundamentalism after bitter clashes. We could also ask where is Islam’s Catherine the Great…? Without the support and protection of these leaders, we would have likely never heard of these intellectuals, nor of Luther before them,” Mr. Al-Muhaini said.

Messrs. Al-Husseini and Ceric represent what Saudi Arabia would like the Muslim and non-Muslim world to take home from their naturalization.

A religious scholar, Mr. Ceric raised funds in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Malaysia during the Bosnian war in the 1990s and defended issues close to Saudi Arabia’s heart even if his own views are more liberal.

Mr. Ceric argued, for example, that opposition to Wahhabism, the kingdom’s austere interpretation of Islam that has been modified since King Salman came to power, amounted to Islamophobia even if the cleric favoured Bosnia’s more liberal Islamic tradition. The cleric also opposed stripping foreign fighters, including Saudis, of Bosnian citizenship, granted them for their support during the war.

To Saudi Arabia’s advantage, Mr. Ceric continues to be a voice of Muslim moderation as well as proof that Islam is as much part of the West as it is part of the East and the hard to defend suggestion that being a liberal does not by definition entail opposition to ultra-conservatism.

Referring to the fact that he is a Shiite, Mr. Al-Husseini said in response to his naturalisation by a country that was created based on an ultra-conservative strand of Islam that sees Shiites as heretics: “The glowing truth that cannot be contested is that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is open to everyone…and does not look at dimensions of…a sectarian type.”

Beyond being a Shiite Muslim cleric, Mr. Al-Husseini is to have been a Hezbollah insider. A one-time proponent of resistance against Israel, Mr. Al-Husseini reportedly broke with Hezbollah as a result of differences over finances.

He associated himself on the back of his newly found opposition to Hezbollah with the Saudi-backed March 14 movement headed by Saad Hariri, a prominent Lebanese Sunni Muslim politician.

As head of the relatively obscure Arabic Islamic Council that favoured inter-faith dialogue, particularly with Jews, Mr. Al-Husseini ticked off another box on the Saudi checklist, particularly given the kingdom’s refusal to establish diplomatic relations with Israel without a clear and accepted pathway to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While Mr. Al-Husseini’s history fits the Saudi bill, his impact appears to be limited. He made some incidental headlines in 2015 after he used social media to urge Muslims, Jewish, and Christian clerics to downplay religious traditions that call for violence.

Mr. Al-Husseini spoke as the tension between Israel and Lebanon mounted at the time after Hezbollah killed two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border attack.

Earlier, Mr. Al-Husseini seemingly became the first Arab Shiite religious figure to address Israelis directly and to do so in broken Hebrew.

“We believe that not all Jews are bad [just as] not all Muslims are terrorists. Let us cousins put our conflicts aside and stay away from evil and hatred. Let us unite in peace and love,” Mr. Al-Husseini told an unknown number of Israeli listeners.

Mr. Al-Husseini’s presence on social media pales compared to that of the Muslim World League and its head, Mohammed Al Issa. The League, the one-time vehicle for Saudi funding of Muslim ultra-conservatism worldwide, and its leader, are today the main propagators of Prince Mohammed ’s concept of moderate Islam.

Mr. Al-Husseini’s 47,00 followers on Twitter and 10,200 on Facebook pale against his Saudi counterparts who propagate a message similar to his.

The League has 2.8 million Twitter followers in English and 3.4 million in Arabic in addition to 662,000 in French and 310,00 in Urdu. The League boasts similar numbers on Facebook. The League’s president, Mr. Al-Issa, has 670,000 followers on Twitter and 272,000 on Facebook.

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