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Post-coup scenario: Turkish president Erdogan to visit Russia on August 09

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One of positive consequences of military coup engineered in Turkey on July 15 is the realignment of Russia and Turkey, former foes for decades, into a friendly and purposeful anti-West relationship. In a remarkable about-face, Erdogan apologized to Putin for the Su-24 shoot-down and asked the family of the killed pilot to “excuse us.” Two weeks later, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim stated that Turkey might even entertain normalizing relations with Syria someday.

After the failed coup attempt in Turkey, international experts have been quick to declare that Turkey will drift closer to Russia and away from its allies in NATO. Putin was one of the first to condemn the attempt and declare support for Turkey’s elected government. Thus their bilateral relationship began to flourish.

As the bilateral relations are getting warmed up, on August 9, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will travel to St. Petersburg, Russia to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, for the first time since November 2015.

The plane downing led to a bitter war of words between the two leaders, with the Kremlin strongman calling it a “stab in the back”

and accusing the Turkish president of involvement in the illegal oil trade with the ISIS jihadist group. But after the Kremlin claimed last month that Erdogan had apologized to Putin over the incident, Moscow ordered the lifting of a string of economic sanctions including an embargo on Turkish food products and the cancellation of charter flights to the country.

Further, an official in Turkey said that Erdogan and Putin had agreed to meet ahead of the G20 summit in China in September. Russian news agencies quoted Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek, the highest ranking Turkish official to visit Russia since the November downing of the Russian jet on the Syrian border sparked an unprecedented crisis in relations. He said he was in Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart Arkady Dvorkovich in an effort to “normalize the situation and our relations as soon as possible and at an accelerated pace”.

Rapprochement

Bilateral relations between two Eurasian nations -Turkey and Russia – have been fraught ever since the Turkish air force downed a Russian fighter plane that repeatedly violated its air space in November. But the tensions between the two countries had been escalating for months before that, due mainly to US instigation, first over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and then over Syria. As a result, in the span of two years, both have largely undone whatever entente they had built over the past 15. However, Turkey woke up before it was too late and readily apologized to Russia.

Ties and tensions between them went hand in hand for years, fueled by USA, NATO and EU. In fact, the Russo-Turkey ties were slowly but steadily improving before the military coup to dethrone ruling government of Erdogan and destroy his AK Party – obviously ploy of the western powers to end Islamist rule in Europe. But the coup meant to destabilize an elected government in Istanbul has brought people together and simply accelerated the process of reinventing a possible Turkey-Russia coalition in warm ties for mutual cooperation in many domains of diplomacy, politics, security and economics.

Neither USA nor EU had anticipated the anti-climax to the plots of coup leaders in Istanbul. President Obama may have been shocked to know that turkey is strong enough to defend itself.

The thawing of ice between the two countries began in June when Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sent a letter to his counterpart expressing regret over the downing of the Russian jet, extended condolences to the family of the Russian pilot who died in the incident using the apologetic expression “may they excuse us.” Two days after this letter, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin made a phone call to Erdoğan, and said, according to the Kremlin’s website, that the letter “opened the road for overcoming the crisis in bilateral relations.”

This exchange of cordiality resulted in Putin’s lifting of the Russian ban on travel packages to Turkey, which was welcomed by both Russian holiday-makers and Turkish tourism industry alike; and visits made by three Turkish cabinet members—Deputy Prime Ministers Mehmet Şimşek and Nurettin Canikli, as well as the Minister of Economy Nihat Zeybekçi—to Moscow last week, only a few days after the failed coup attempt in Turkey, reveal that reconciliation will proceed faster than expected and economic issues will be in the forefront. After the visit, Minister Zeybekçi said that 80% of the problems that Turkey had with Russia have been solved.

As the bilateral relations are getting warmed up, on August 9, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will travel to St. Petersburg, Russia where he will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, for the first time since November 2015. For the past two weeks, a steady parade of Turkish ministers has flown to Moscow to lay the groundwork — confirmation that the Turkish-Russian relationship, on ice for the past eight months, is headed for a summer thaw. But the St. Petersburg meeting between two strong presidents is more than just another summit — it is the opening ceremony for a broader Turkish tilt toward Moscow.

Sudden change

The bases for this sudden change are manifold, but the primary impetus is Bashar al-Assad’s near-restoration in Syria. In the past, Assad had been the major obstacle to improved ties between Russia and Turkey.

Both Russia and Turkey realized they need each other to protect themselves against the Super power, NATO and EU.

Turkey was seriously traumatized by the coup attempt and is trying now to sound certain warnings to the West by floating the idea that it may move toward strategic ties with Russia.

Russia’s economic losses due to Western sanctions have somewhat weakened the Kremlin. Turkey’s economic losses due to the embargoes imposed by Moscow after the downing of the jet and the fact that this incident seriously diminished Turkey’s hand in Syria forced Erdogan in the end to seek reconciliation. The punitive measures had dealt a crushing blow to the Turkish tourism industry, which is hugely reliant on Russian tourists, especially on its Mediterranean coast.

Erdogan’s domestic politics only reinforce his regional calculations for tilting toward Russia. The aftershocks of the attempted coup against Erdogan by a faction of the military on July 15 are steadily pushing Turkey away from the West and toward Russia.

However, given Russia’s growing conflict with the West, which Moscow believes is trying to encircle it militarily, many doubt that Putin will want to squander the opportunity to turn Turkey away from the West. The Turkish president is now trying to improve Turkey’s relations with Russia. This makes Turkey Russia’s ally in the endeavor to split the consolidated position of the West

Turkey is angry with Europe over its “wait and see” stance during and after the coup attempt. The general view is that Europe’s dislike of Erdogan prevented it from providing unequivocal support for the democratically elected president and government of Turkey.

Europe’s critical position on the massive crackdown against alleged coup plotters and sympathizers in Turkey and its reactions to Erdogan’s support for the death penalty for the coup plotters is adding more grist to the anti-Western mill in Turkey.

The beneficiary of coup

One of Russia’s principal aims today was to weaken NATO and it would like an important NATO member Turkey to support the Kremlin to consolidate the ties. Russia always looked for better ties with Turkey but USA opposes that. From the outset, as the coup unfolded, Putin reportedly offered support for Erdogan, in contrast to Secretary of State John Kerry’s initial equivocations. Predictably, that contrast has only grown sharper over the past two weeks: While Russia has raised no objections to Erdogan’s needy purges of key institutions to streamline administration the West has regularly criticized his crackdowns, with Kerry even threatening Turkey’s membership in NATO – the usual bully.

With more strategic foresight than the USA and Europe, Russia played its cards right as the coup attempt was underway and was the first country to immediately condemn this attempt unequivocally.

As the one of first world leaders, Putin called Erdogan earlier this month to express his support after the failed putsch in Turkey, and the Kremlin confirmed at the time that the two leaders would meet in the near future.

Russia appears to be the main beneficiary of the July 15 attempted military coup in Turkey. Moscow clearly sees a strategic opportunity for itself given the sharp increase in anti-American and anti-European sentiments in Turkey, which are being fanned by the coup and rhetoric of Turkish President Erdogan.

The failed coup has increased Russia’s importance for quarters close to Erdogan. Calls from pro-Erdogan circles for Turkey to seek strategic partnerships with Russia and to develop a strategic Eurasian dimension to replace ties with the USA, NATO and the EU are clearly being monitored closely in Moscow with satisfaction.

That Uncle Sam is dragging its feet over Ankara’s demand for Gulen’s extradition, has raised anti-American feelings among Turks to a fever pitch. This has also increased calls for Turkey to seek strategic partnerships with Russia and to replace ties with the United States, NATO and the European Union. These calls are clearly being monitored closely in Moscow. Eyes will therefore be focused on Erdogan’s talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Aug. 9.

There are indications, however, that while Moscow believes it has the upper hand against Ankara now, and will try and secure maximum advantages for itself as it responds to positive overtures from Turkey, it will still play hard to get. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave an early sign of this after the failed coup attempt when he openly declared that the future of Turkish-Russian ties would still depend on Turkey’s position on Syria where Turkey support USA..

“Much will depend on how we will cooperate on the settlement of the Syrian crisis,” Lavrov said, according to TASS.

Now, Moscow and Tehran are in the midst of an operation to restore Assad’s control over Syria’s second city of Aleppo. Even an obstinate leader like Erdogan cannot ignore the hard reality that Assad is here to stay. Turkey’s reconciliation with Russia would make Turkey to work with Russia in Syria.

USA knows the terrible meaning of losing Turkey to Russia. President Barack Obama is not without options, however. To keep Turkey from moving toward Russia, the USA would widen its aperture beyond the Islamic State to include Turkey’s strategic interests in Syria. It would also recalibrate its criticisms of Erdogan.

The USA, which is pitted against Erdogan-inspired Islamists, is shielding the alleged coup mastermind, Fethullah Gulen, who could be an important tool in the hands of all anti-Turkey forces in the West.

One Turkish minister even flatly accused the USA of orchestrating the coup. Incensed Turkish protestors have marched on Incirlik Air Base, the key facility from which the USA flies combat missions against the Syria and ISIS Islamic State.

The PKK is a US-designated “terrorist organization” that has fought a separatist war against the Turkish state for decades. As Turkey turns inward and anti-Western sentiment rises, Turkish military readiness needs to on alert. Its Kurdish sister organization in Syria is the Democratic Union Party (PYD). For the past two years, the PYD has systematically built up its political control in northern Syria under the guise of fighting the Islamic State. President Erdogan would rely on the key player on the ground, Russia, to limit the PYD and PKK.

Turkey has tracked the PYD’s rise along its border with alarm — especially since the group crossed west of the Euphrates, a traditional Turkish red line, to participate in the fight to capture the Syrian city of Manbij from the ISIS.

By sidestepping the question of Assad, Erdogan is attempting to unlock cooperation with Russia on his other major priorities — the defeat of the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and the consolidation of domestic power. Erdogan understands that in order to stop the PKK and PYD from establishing themselves along the Turkish border, he must deny them international support — most notably, from their natural regional patrons, Russia and Iran. These sets up a possible transaction in St.

Petersburg next week: In return for Russia withholding its support for the PKK and PYD, Turkey may agree to look the other way on Assad.

From US perspective Russia and Turkey are autocracies while USA and Europe, where minorities are ill treated, are true democracies. From Ankara’s perspective, PKK and PYD pose a more ominous threat than the Islamic State — even after the Istanbul airport attack of June 28.

Objectives

There are indeed achievements made during the talks in Moscow: charter flights will be resumed between Turkey and Russia, sanctions on food exports from Turkey to Russia will be gradually lifted, the Joint Russian-Turkish Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation will be reactivated, negotiations will resume on an intergovernmental agreement on trade in services and investment and a mid-term intergovernmental programme of trade, economic, research, technical and cultural cooperation for the period between 2016 and 2019, visa restrictions will be lifted, and a joint Russian-Turkish fund will be established to finance investment projects in both countries.

Russia and Turkey have affirmed their intention to reinstate dialogue on the proposed Turkish Stream pipeline project. In other words, business will be back to normal very soon between Turkey and Russia.

Trade figures, investment projects and tourist numbers may soon get back to normal. However, it is too early to declare the normalization of ties complete, as obstacles remain in the political realm with the two sides yet to solve their differences over the issue of civil war in Syria.

It appears that the future for the “strategic partnership” with Russia that some in Turkey are hoping for now, purely out of anger for the West, would soon develop into fruitful ties.

With a reconciliation process between the two countries starting in June and gaining significant momentum through the visits of a number of Turkish cabinet members to Moscow last week and an upcoming meeting between the two countries’ presidents, there are sufficient grounds to expect this soccer game to herald the normalization of relations between Ankara and Moscow.

Moscow continues to back the Assad regime and its allies; while from Ankara’s point of view there can be no solution in Syria unless Assad leaves. These two positions appear to be firmly irreconcilable; however given the emerging political will to that end on both sides, a certain degree of common ground can be achieved in St. Petersburg.

In the meantime, Ankara is pinning the blame for the downing of the Russian jet fighter on a maverick pilot who allegedly was part of the coup plot, thus providing another indication of how fast things are moving in Turkish-Russian ties.

The countries’ already poor relations reached a boiling point when Turkey shot down a Su-24 Russian fighter jet last November. The situation in Syria has changed dramatically since that episode, however. The Russian-Iranian offensive in support of Assad has checkmated Turkey, shutting Ankara out of northern Syria.

If the Erdoğan-Putin meeting on August 9 goes well, we might also see the two leaders attending the game together. Turkey and Russia made serious progress in restoring their economic ties, and despite all the difficulties and differences, the meeting in St. Petersburg can produce some form of a common ground over Syria as well. The question for Ankara would be then whether the détente with Russia could be replicated in other problematic areas of foreign policy too.

The relations should be improved and deepened. I believe that the most important file to be taken up during Erdogan’s visit to Moscow, for example, will be the energy file, On the evening of August 31, the newly built stadium in Antalya on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast will host a soccer match between the national teams of Turkey and Russia.

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Middle Eastern culture wars: The battle of the palates

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Nothing in a swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to China is undisputed.

Food is often emblematic of disputes over identity, history and political claims that underlie an arc of crisis wracked by ethnic and religious conflict; clamour for political, economic, social, national and minority rights; efforts by states and ethnic groups to garner soft power or assert hegemony, international branding; diplomatic leverage; and great power rivalry.

Israel and Lebanon fight humus wars and join Palestine in battles over the origins of multiple dishes.

Turks, Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and Iranians claim as their national dish baklava, a sweet whose variations over time reflect the region’s history. They fight over the sweet’s origins and even that of the word baklava.

The battles over the origin of foods have forced countries to rewrite aspects of their histories and major companies to review the way they market products. Food also serves as a barometer of the influence of regional powers.

Iranian dates flooding Iraqi markets suggest that Iran is winning its proxy war with Saudi Arabia, another major grower, in Iraq, the world’s biggest producer of the fruit prior to the country’s multiple wars dating back to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

Iranian domination of the market symbolizes the Islamic republic’s massive inroads into Iraq ranging from the fact that it is the country’s foremost trading partner to its political influence in Baghdad and military sway exemplified by Iraq’s powerful Shiite militias.

Saudi Arabia, which only recently switched from effectively boycotting Iraq to forging political, economic, and cultural links is playing catch-up. The kingdom garnered a degree of soft power on the soccer pitch and has plans to invest in Iraqi sectors like petrochemicals, energy and agriculture.

The more than a decade-long Israel-Lebanon hummus wars are both a struggle to claim whose food it is, counter perceived Israeli attempts to colonize Palestinian and Levantine culture, and an effort to make an international mark though securing a place in the Guinness Book of Records by competing for the title of having made the largest pile of the chickpea dip. Hummus symbolizes “all the tension in the Middle East,” says Israeli food journalist Ronit Vered.

The war kicked into high gear with Lebanon, home to Middle Eastern haute cuisine, producing a 4,532-pound plate in 2009 prepared by 250 Lebanese sous-chefs and their 50 instructors that was intended to deprive Israel of its earlier record engineered by Sabra, an Israeli hummus producer.

That same year, Lebanon also made its mark with a 223-kilogram kibbeh, a cylindrical cone-shaped dish made of cracked wheat, minced onions, finely ground lean beef, lamb, goat, or camel and spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and allspice.

“We were not trying to prove something, but to remind people that we should take the international market more seriously. (In the U.S.), if you question that hummus is Israeli, you’re an outcast, but hummus existed long before Israel,” said then Lebanese tourism minister Fadi Aboud.

In a reflection of the complexity of Middle Eastern disputes and a hint towards hummus’ Arab origins, it was an Israeli Palestinian, Jawdat Ibrahim, rather than an Israeli Jew who took up the Lebanese challenge.

The owner of a popular restaurant in Abu Ghosh, Mr. Ibrahim months later cooked up a 4,090- kilogram hummus that was served in a satellite dish. “It was (a) big issue ­­that hummus was Lebanese. I said, ‘No, hummus is for everybody.’ I hold a meeting in the village and I say, ‘We are going to break Guinness Book of World Record.’ Not the Israeli government, the people of Abu Gosh,” Mr. Ibrahim said.

More recently, Mr. Ibrahim has come under fire for charging a Chinese party of eight $4,400 for a meal that included hummus.

Food battles do not stop at the borders of Africa and Asia. They extend into Europe and impact projections of national heritage and commerce.

In March, Virgin Atlantic felt obliged to drop classification of a salad on its in-flight menu as Palestinian even though it was based on a Palestinian recipe after pro-Israel passengers protested and threatened to boycott the airline. The airline opted for the more generic name, Couscous Salad.

“Our salad is made using a mix of maftoul (traditional Palestinian couscous) and couscous, which is complemented by tomatoes and cucumber which really helps lift the salad from a visual perspective and is seasoned with a parsley, mint and lemon vinaigrette. However, we always want to do the right thing for our customers and as a result of feedback, we have renamed this menu item from our food offering at the end of last year and we’re extremely sorry for any offense caused,” said a spokesperson for Virgin Atlantic.

Quipped Palestinian cookbook writer Christiane Dabdoub Nasser: “Maftoul is Palestinian, just like pasties are Cornish and pâté de foie gras is French. No one can deny that and yet the airline, to add insult to injury, apologizes for the offense that the mention of Palestinian maftoul might have caused.”

American cookbook writer and television personality Rachel Ray two months earlier sparked an uproar on social media when she showcased hummus alongside stuffed grape leaves, and  various dips made from beet, eggplant, sun dried tomatoes, walnut and red pepper as well as tabbouleh, a salad, as Israeli dishes, disregarding their Levantine origins.

“This is cultural genocide. It’s not Israeli food. It’s Arab (Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Jordanian). First the Israelis take the land and ethnically cleanse it of Arabs. Now they take their food and culture and claim it’s theirs too! Shame,” tweeted prominent Arab American James Zogby.

British supermarket chain Waitrose took a hit in 2015 when it distributed a magazine entitled Taste of Israel that featured tahini, zaatar and other dishes that like Ms. Ray’s foods originate in pre-Israel Arab lands across the Levant.

Similarly, Sweden recently conceded that meatballs, long celebrated as one the internationally best known icons of traditional Swedish cuisine, were in fact an Ottoman import.

Sweden’s official Twitter account, featuring Swedish multi-national Ikea’s rendering of the dish, admitted that Swedish King Charles XII had brought the recipe from Turkey in the early 18th century when returned from five years in exile. “Let’s stick to the facts!” Sweden said.

Swedish food historians and gourmets had already accepted that Kaldolmens Day or Cabbage Roll Day that commemorates the death of King Charles celebrates another dish that he discovered while dwelling among the Ottomans.

Refuting Sweden’s claim was easy compared to battles over baklava whose history dating to the 8th century BC Assyria tells the story of shifting regional power, changing tastes and the communality of food that can prove to be equally divisive.

Turks, Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and Iranians all contributed to baklava as we know it, yet they are reticent to acknowledge the sweet as a regional rather than a national dish.

Greek seamen and merchants brought it to Athens where cooks introduced a malleable, thin leaf dough to replace the Assyrian rough, bread-like mixture of mixture of flour and liquid. Armenians added cinnamon and cloves while Arabs introduced rose and orange blossom water. Iranians invented baklava’s diamond-shape and perfected it with a nut stuffing perfumed with jasmine.

Ebtisam Masto is a refugee who fled war-torn Syria with her six children to Beirut where she joined a cooking programme in an effort to rebuild her life. Summing up the region’s battle of the palates, she says”

“Food is a way to preserve history and culture, to pass traditions on to the next generation so that they can understand their origins and identity. If we don’t preserve (food) and teach it to them, it will disappear. It is our duty to keep it going.”

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Elections in the Lebanon

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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The general elections in the Lebanon were held on May 6 last. They had originally been scheduled for 2013 but,due to the repeated failure of Parliament to elect a new President from April 23, 2014 to October 31, 2016 because no candidate had succeeded in obtaining the required two-thirds majority, the Parliamentary term had been extended at first until 2017 and then until 2018.

A new electoral law had been adopted in 2017, providing a proportional representation system for the first time in the history of the country.

The maximum proportional representation system in elections coincides with the maximum destabilization of a country.

Finally, Michel Aoun was elected President on October 31, 2016 at the 46th electoral session of the Lebanese Parliament, breaking a 29-month deadlock.

Aoun is a Maronite Christian, as provided for by the Lebanese Constitution, and he was Head of the Armed Forces as early as 1984. From 1988 to mid-October 1990 he served also as Prime Minister appointed by the then departing Lebanese President Amine Gemayel, whose controversial decision led to the paradoxical situation of having two rival Lebanese governments contending for power, one by Aoun and the other by Selim Hoss, apparently pro-Western and self-appointed Prime Minister.

The Lebanese Constitution lays down, inter alia, that the President must be a Maronite Christian, the Head of  government an Islamic Sunni and the President of Parliament a Shi’ite.

The Lebanese Constitution, however, does not define – as happens also in other Middle East countries – traditional political groups, but sectarian parties of religious origin and affiliation.

Until Aoun’s election, two coalitions competed in the country. The first one was the March 14 Alliance led by Saad Hariri, a politician close to Saudi Arabia floundering in a very severe financial and political crisis – a political alliance currently established, together with the Christians of Samir Geagea, by the group of Sami Gemayel, the Head of the Maronite Phalanx, and by Walid Jumblatt, the historical leader of the Druses.

From the very beginning the whole “March 14 Alliance”  was closely linked to Saudi interests.

It is worth recalling, however, that the Lebanon is the third most indebted country in the world, with a 150% share of the GDP, a total net indebtedness of 79 billion US dollars and an increase in the debt / GDP ratio which, according to the International Monetary Fund, could reach  a 180% share in three years.

In a forthcoming Conference to be held in Paris, the Lebanese government will ask for foreign investment targeted to infrastructure equal to at least 16 billion US dollars, while banks do not provide liquidity to anyone.

As evidenced by the growth of grassroots parties, infrastructure and local public services, as well as urban management issues, are the true weak point of the Lebanese State.

70% of the Lebanese public spending goes to wages and salaries and to debt servicing, in particular, while as much as 10% goes on subsidies to the electricity and energy bills of the poorest population.

Hence there is no room for any government to reduce the Lebanese public spending significantly.

Therefore there is always a very close link between the dysfunctionality of political systems and State’s indebtedness and, finally, between the rigidity of electoral representation and the impossibility of controlling the connection between debt and GDP.

This should be studied to further clarify the “Italian case”.

The March 8 Alliance, however, was established  by Hezbollah – the Shiite Party founded in 1982 by Imam Khomeini “as if it were the apple of his eye”, as well as by Nabih Berri’ Shi’ite movement of Amal (Hope) and, finally, by Michel Aoun’s Maronite Christian Party.

According to what is currently maintained in the Lebanon, the agreement between the two major factions envisages the “green light” of the March 8 Alliance for the future premiership of Saad Hariri, one of the leaders of the other coalition.

However, who is Michel Aoun? First and foremost, the military commander of the 8th Brigade of the Lebanese Armed Forces who succeeded in stopping the offensive of the Druse leader Walid Jumblatt who, at that time, was leading the pro-Syrian militia.

As already stated, in the years following his appointment as Head of government, Aoun clashed especially with both the Shi’ite and Druse groups and the Maronite militia of Samir Geagea’s “Phalanx”.

As was also the case in Northern Ireland and Spain, with the Basque movement, the political revolution easily gives way to illegal activities.

In 1989, after the signing of the inter-Lebanese peace agreement -a sectarian pact, named Taif Accord because it was made in Taif, Saudi Arabia, which put an end to the  Lebanese civil war-the new President Hrawi dismissed Michel Aoun and ordered him to leave the presidential Palace. He refused to dismiss and barricaded himself in the Palace to prepare for his defense, thus refusing to give up the power.

Not very long after the attacks on the presidential Palace Aoun was asked to leave the Lebanon and later went into exile in France. For the former Head of the Lebanese Armed Forces the exile was inevitable after the victory of the Syrian forces that entered the Lebanon to stabilize the “province” of Beirut.

It was a period in which Aoun established very close relations with the French intelligence services and, above all, with the Israeli ones.

During those years the Lebanon became a full Syrian protectorate.

Nevertheless Aoun came back to the political scene and to the Lebanon in 2004, when the UN voted Resolution No. 1559, which obliged all the Syrian Armed Forces to leave Syria.

Aoun ended 15 years of exile when he returned to the Lebanon on May 7, 2015 – eleven days after the withdrawal of the Syrian Army from the Lebanon following the assassination of Rafic Hariri on February 14, 2005. The huge demonstrations following the assassination of Hariri, guarantor of the Lebanese reconstruction -although with the Saudi money – after the massive destruction caused by the civil war, forced the Syrians to leave the country.

It was from that moment that Aoun, who had long  secretly and later overtly returned to the Lebanon, quickly began to approach and come closer to his long-standing enemies, the Shi’ites of Hezbollah and Amal.

Amal, the old movement of Nabih Berri, had fought against Hezbollah for control over South Beirut in the “Lebanese civil war” and, however, had been founded by Musa al-Sadr, the Imam who established the belonging of the Alawites – hence the elite currently ruling Syria – to the Shi’ite Islam and was most likely killed, upon Gaddafi’s order, in Rome in 1978.

As can be easily seen, the Lebanese politics has always been a game of shadows and paradoxes.

In 2008, however, Aounhad failed in his first presidential project, while reestablishing relations with his old Maronite enemy, Samir Geagea, who in 2016, withdrew from the presidential election and made his votes converge on Aoun.

Nevertheless Aoun could anticipate the real presidential victory only when Saad Hariri, weakened by the financial crisis of his company operating in Saudi Arabia and pressed by the French Embassy for other very urgent financial problems, gave him his support –  certainly in return for a future Premiership, thus abandoning the Christian candidate of his coalition, Suleiman Frangiehjr.

Aoun, however, is old since he is aged 82. He is supposed to pave the way for his son-in-law and current Foreign Minister, Gebrain Bassil.

Moreover, the two coalitions – both heirs of the civil war – are ever less voted by young people and by all those who want to lay the ghost of the Lebanese political and military factionalism. There are many of them.

Not surprisingly, in the latest elections the two coalitions  even joined forces to defeat the new civic and environmental movement known as Beirut Madinati (“Beirut My City”) which, however, unexpectedly won  one of Beirut’s three electoral districts.

Beirut Madinatiis a movement which emerged after the 2015-16Lebanese protests as a reaction to power and water shortages, streets filled with trash and dizzying urban infrastructure. Nothing destroys political representation as disaster in basic public services.

Nothing supported Hezbollah more than its supply of sectarian welfare, which replaces a State that no longer has  the money nor the rules – stupidly “liberalized” – to help the poor in hospitals, schools and at work.

The rules of privatization will destroy political representation also in the West.

As can be easily imagined, however, the core of the Lebanese political system is currently the intelligence service network.

Also as a military leader, Aoun is still at the centre of the Lebanese intelligence system.

He is the guarantor and the mitigator of both the demands of the Shi’ite alliances, including Hezbollah -Aoun’s ally since 2005 and traditional point of reference for Syria and, above all, for Iran – and of the multifarious, but powerful world of Sunni militias.

The Sunnis are a politically growing area no longer tolerating the defeats of the “jihadist brothers” in Syria and Iraq, nor the perceived dominance of Hezbollah and Amal.

The Lebanon, however, has four intelligence agencies: the “Intelligence Section of the Interior Security Forces” (IS-ISF); the “General Directorate of General Security” (GDGS); the “Military Intelligence Directorate” (MID) and the “State Security Directorate” (SSD).

The IS-ISF deals with counterterrorism, anti-drugs and criminal investigations; the GDGS works on visas and passports, censorship, port and airport checks, as well as counterintelligence and counterterrorism.

Conversely, the MID operates in the field of military espionage, the protection of Armed Forces’ sites and facilities, as well as the prevention of political upheavals.

Finally, the SSD protects public offices and important personalities.

General Antoine Suleyman Mansour has recently replaced his peer Camille Daher as Head of the MID.

Mansour was born in the Beqaa Valley and followed counterterrorism courses in the USA, in France, but above all in Syria.

The Beqaa Valley is the axis of Hezbollah’s economic and strategic power.

It is in that region, which is essential also for Israel’s defense, that the “Party of God” organizes its drug trafficking and where its main very secret arms caches are located.

The “Shi’ite pathway” stretching from Iraq to Teheran up to South Beirut – as currently imagined – is vital for the very survival of Hezbollah, but also for the Iranian power system.

It is the most evident threat to the Israeli system, especially if we relate it to the Iranian operations in the Gaza Strip and in the Territories.

Moreover, General Daher also dealt – directly with Saudi Arabia – a supply of brand new French weapons paid by Saudi Arabia and worth three billion US dollars. Nonetheless the negotiations  failed and the weapons were later bought by Saudi Arabia for its armed forces.

It is easy to understand what this meant for the Lebanese internal political equilibrium.

It is said that General Daher bears the brunt of his affinity with General Kahwahj, former Chief of Staff in Beirut and, above all, Aoun’ sworn enemy and internal rival.

General Karaa, the first Head of the SSD and Abdou Fattou,  responsible for the confidential funds of the Service, were replaced by Tony Saliba and Wafiq Jizzini, respectively. In 2008 General Karaa had investigated into Hezbollah’s advanced and confidential communication network, which is very powerful and secret, while Abbas Ibrahim, who leads the GSDS, is explicitly supported by the “Party of God” and hence has remained at his place.

Ibrahim has also held the recent and complex negotiations between the Daesh-Isis, Al Nusra and Hezbollah for the transfer – hence the recent increase in the Lebanese sectarian violence – of Sunni terrorists to Syria, under the direct protection of Hezbollah and the Lebanese intelligence Service.

Hence what is the current electoral system in the Lebanon? In June 2017 the various religious and political forces reached an agreement on electoral procedures.

The agreement led to a proportional representation system, wanted above all by the Maronite world, and, in particular, by Aoun’s movement, namely the Free Patriotic Movement, as well as by its Shi’ite allies.

Considering the 6.2 million inhabitants of the Lebanon, Muslims account for 54%, of whom 27% are Sunni and 27% Shi’ite, with the latter growing significantly.  Christians account for 40.5%, of whom 21% are Maronite, 8% areGreek Orthodox, 5% are Greek Catholics, 6.5% are other types of Christians, while the Druses are 5.6%.

As could be easily predicted, currently Hezbollah is the real winner of the latest Lebanese elections.

Together with Amal, united in a joint list called Al Amal wal Wafa (“Hope and Loyalty”), the two Shi’ite Parties, along with other friendly lists, won 13 and 15 seats respectively.

Beforehand, the two pro-Iranian Parties, with a very long history of violent struggle between each other, had 13 seats each in the Lebanese Parliament, which has a total of 128 seats.

As many as 7,000 clearly documented infringements of the electoral procedures were checked, with a voter turnout lower than 50%. Hence many operations of tampering with people’s will were recorded, whatever this means in the Lebanon.

Aoun’s movement rose from 18 to 22 seats while, at least this time, Geagea’s group–Hezbollah’s traditional Maronite opponent and Aoun’s current ally -rose  from 8 to 14 seats.

Also the Azm Party of former Prime Minister Najib Mikatirose from one to four seats.

The Azm Party was founded by Mikati, the well-known Premier of the March 8 Alliance, with the support of Hezbollah, Aoun and their local allies.

The Syrian National Socialist Party and Tashnag, the political group of reference for the Lebanese Armenian community, obtained two and three seats, respectively.

However, Kollouna Watani(“We are All National”) – a recently-established political group -got no seats.

Saad Hariri’s Party, which seems to be no longer close to its Saudi friends’ heart, fell from 33 to 21 seats only. Moreover, in Beirut, in the traditional strongholds of Hariri’s Future Movement, the Shi’ites won.

The Druse Party of Walid Jumblatt, namely the Progressive Socialist Party, lost two seats falling from 11 to 9.

Here demography rather than militant politics matters – as well as the great Lebanese migration of the middle class to  Europe and the United States.

The Kataeb Party, the old Maronite Phalanx of Sami Gemayel, fell from five to three seats.

Marada, Frangieh’s old movement, kept its three seats.

Certainly the prorogation of Parliamentary terms of office  began with the outbreak of riots in 1975 – except for the extraordinary appointment of 40 MPs elected in 1991. Hence the Parliamentary Assembly elected in 1975 lasted in office precisely until 1991.

The Parliament just dissolved had been elected in 2009, for four years only, but its term was extended four times in a row.

Furthermore, the election of President Suleiman on May 25, 2008 had been made possible only by the inter-Lebanese Dialogue held in Doha on May 21, 2008, shortly after the (military) show of strength by Hezbollah in West Beirut, right in the Sunni area of the capital city.

Therefore the elections of June 2009 directly followed President Michel Suleiman’s rise to power.

Four years later, the elections already scheduled for June 7,  2013, were postponed again.

The Parliament continuously renewed its term of office  until 2014, then until June 2017 and again until 2018. A failed link between the Presidency and local representation.

Moreover, at military level, since that moment Hezbollah has been a unit integrated with the rest of the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Hence the Syrian army, the “Party of God” and the Al QudsIranian brigades have become actors on the operational front as early as the fall of Aleppo, on December 22, 2016, while a real Iranian military protectorate on the Lebanon has been created by the presence of said three forces along the axis stretching from Northern Syria to Southern Lebanon, through the Golan Heights.

Later, after the clear support of the “Party of God” to the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, the cleavage, i.e. the final “break” between Sunnis and Shi’ites, widened, even in the Lebanon alone.

Therefore, after the end of the “Caliphate”, Saudi Arabia and its allies have no elements on which to manipulate the balance of power and forces in the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon axis.

All this happens while Saad Hariri, together with the Saudi “enemies” that are still in the broad March 8 Alliance, are agreeing with Hezbollah to form a “national unity” government. Hariri, who is floundering in a financial crisis, needs this government to get back on track.

As an old South American parliamentarian used to say, politics “es muy lucrativa pero muy peligrosa”

With specific reference to Hariri, this is the sense of his defacto “being held hostage” by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as from November 2017.

This is the internal and external sphere of power relations in the Lebanese political system.

The rationale of the new electoral system provided for by Law No. 44 of June 17, 2017 is to project internally the external equilibria which ensure unity and funding to the Lebanese State.

With a view to avoiding further chaos, after Michel Aoun’s election, all the electoral districts and constituencies were designed to preserve and stabilize the traditional religious-sectarian electorate.

In fact, electoral law No. 44/2017 divides the country into fifteen major electoral constituencies, further divided into 26 cazas, namely minor electoral districts, thus putting together the classic proportional representation system with a mechanism defined by the specific “preferential voting”.

This means that each voter shall vote for one of the competing lists and shall be entitled to cast one preferential vote for a candidate of the same list he/she has chosen.

This voting system selects candidates only within the caza, the first and smallest electoral district.

The vote, however, is valid only if the preferential votes are cast in all fifteen regional constituencies – with the electoral quotient determined by the number of voters in a given constituency divided by the number of seats already allocated for that constituency.

The preferential voting, however, defines the ranking – hence the winner at caza level.

In other words –  as is also the case with Western Europe -this happens to create a sort of electoral elite as against the mass of irrelevant representatives.

Therefore the  Lebanese system creates a hidden electoral bonus, but only for the best known candidates.

Nonetheless the real issue is another one: the division is currently within the March 14 Alliance, with the Sunni, Druse and Christian side opposing the Syrian designs on the Lebanon, as against the March 8 Alliance that is  increasingly linked to the Syrian regime and its external supporters.

Hence the local paradoxes of a now clear geopolitical framework: Samir Geagea’s “Lebanese Forces” of Samir Geagea are hostile to the Syrian-Iranian axis and close to Saudi Arabia, but are allied with the Free Democratic Movement of Aoun and his son-in-law Bassil, who have instead signed a written contract with Hezbollah.

Therefore, in the Lebanon, there is a political system reaffirming and maintaining the destabilization of the country indefinitely. It brings back memories.

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Middle East

A Ramadan Humiliating Commercial: A Blatant Call for which Sort of Peace?

Sondoss Al Asaad

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The Kuwait-based Zain Group, a leading Mobile Telecommunications Company (MTC) in the Middle East and North Africa, has released a three-minute ad by the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. The commercial ad features a child addressing the leaders of powerful countries including U.S.’s Donald Trump, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The child, who allegedly expresses children’svoice living in various conflict areas tell them [The Leaders] that they [Arabs and Muslims] will soon break their fasting in Jerusalem, the capital of Palestine, But!!

The suspicious viral Ramadan ad has sparked a social media backlash, accusing Zain of taking advantage of the Palestinians’ and of other Arabs and Muslims refugees’plight.At the first place, seventy years after the Palestinian diaspora [Nakba,] an Arabian effective and influential company has finally and surprisingly remembered the Palestinian cause and the misery of its people along with other peoples.

Indeed, Jerusalem is definitely and unarguably the capital of Palestine, however it is more than shameful to utilise this cause in Zain’s marketing projects for two obvious reasons. First, to gain more profits under the umbrella of standing in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Secondly, to covey hidden-messages, i.e. normalising ties and ‘peace’ connotations. It would be reasonable, if the ad was purely commercial, however it is a politicised invitation to Arabs and Muslims to break their fasting, in Jerusalem, with their enemy on the same table.

Zain’s ad, shockingly and audaciously, promotes the scheme of reconciliation and peace with the Zionist enemy and its imperialist allies, which kills on daily basis tens of innocent Palestinian children, youth and elderlies. Apparently, this ad, sponsored by Zain,has not been arbitrarily picked, exploiting a vulnerable child to beg Trump’s sympathy.How come an oppressed plea his oppressor to grant him peace?

While the American president does not appear in a place other than his disreputable office, Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, sits in a starving family’s kitchen, portraying him as the murderer of the Syrian children. On the other hand, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel rushes to save one of the refugees children on the death boats.

In the same scene, also the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shows up to promote how kindly Canada and Germany welcome the Syrian refugees. Laughably enough, the same state where Zain and its other GCC allies have long refused to welcome refugees. These states in many cases deal with foreigners as second-class citizens or they exploit them in their demographic schemes as what is goingcurrently in Bahrain.

The ad continues its dramatic farce when the child tells the North Korean President Kim Jong-un that he cannot sleep; as whenever he closes his eyes, he hears an explosion. I wonder,has North Korea bombarded any missile against the Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqis, Yemenis, Palestinian? Who knows everything is possible according to the Persian peninsula’s governments and their media!

The legendary melodramatic ad does not only cover Arabs’ miseries; although it is supposedly addressing the Zionist arrogance American tyrant Donald Trump, inviting him to a humiliating fast-breaking in Jerusalem; the capital of Palestine!! It further reflects the Rohingya ethnic crises, where a group of displaced victims, together with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, walk in rough ways and cross a river. This hypocritical part attempts at showing Zain’s concern over this humanitarian melancholic catastrophe, through a suspicious ad, but not efficiently on the ground.

The ludicrous ad is purely a clear call of peace with Trump’s aggressive administration and a reprehensible approval of the imperialist hegemony; despite its ongoing genocides and atrocities. Unfortunately, Zain has made foolish of itself, demeaned the innocent victims and particularly degraded the Palestinian cause. Instead of promoting such a ridiculous ad. Unequivocally, Zain should have either exerted pressure on its government to resolve the Palestinian calamity or it should have backed those peoples financially to purchase weapons and resist the occupation.

Besides, Zain’s ad promotes the Arab’s dilution belief, which requires a quick reconciliation with the Zionist enemy. A claim that obviously refutes the resistance choice and approves the superiority of the West. Furthermore, the ad boosts an emotional generation to avoid resistance and to easily accept humiliation and subjugation. Zain surprisingly turns blind eyes and deaf ears to the fact that this awaited ‘Saviour,’ i.e. Trump, due to his arrogance and foolishness, has already put the Middle East into a ‘ring of fire’ by declaring Jerusalem as a capital of the Zionist illegal entity.

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