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Lebanese Elections: Positive Change or Negative Status Quo?

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Lebanon’s Parliament slated May 6th, 2018 for its first elections in close to a decade.  The country’s constitution mandates Parliamentary elections every four years but due to the turmoil within the nation the last election occurred in 2009.Based on the lengthy delay since the last election and rule-alterations, the upcoming elections have the potential to result in significant changes to the government of Lebanon.  Officials expect a high voter turnout on Election Day for the 976 candidates running for 128 seats, including a record: 111 female candidates.  Conversely, even with the considerable amount of first-time young voters due to the nine-year delay, Iranian-backed Hezbollah may still keep its firm hold on Parliament, resulting in little progress or change.  Thus, the big question: is Lebanon on the precipice of true change or will the results just continue the status quo?

Based on a change to proportional representation, the new voting laws consist of each person voting twice: the first vote is from a list of pre-determined names and then the second vote is for the voter’s preference from the list. The convoluted nature of the voting process, multiple parties, and history of voting along sectarian lines makes it unlikely that the results will end in a major upset for any one group.  The religious diversity and complex political party system contribute to a population that self-identifies more with a specific group rather than as a nation.  The high number of candidates running from political dynasties is not unusual, but one aspect that is unfamiliar and unique to this election is the banding together of several activist groups in an effort to gain votes from all districts.  In a departure from past elections, the two long-established primary coalitions March 8 and March 14 are seeking alliances with other groups in a bid to reach a much larger population of new voters.

The current Prime Minister’s Future Movement Party is diversifying its candidates and including some that were previously viewed as political rivals.  One aspect of the upcoming elections that remains unchanged is the National Pact.  The National Pact mandates  “the President [elected by Parliament, not the voters directly] must be Maronite, the Prime Minister Sunni, and other positions would be reserved for the Shi’a and Druze as well as smaller minorities. A prominent position to note is that of the Speaker of the Parliament.  This role is designated for a Shi’a Muslim, the same religious affiliation as the Iranian-supported Hezbollah party.  The mandate does not guarantee the Speaker will come from Hezbollah, but the probability is high that whoever fills that role will be sympathetic to Hezbollah’s agenda.  The current President Michel Aoun supports Hezbollah and has signed a formal agreement with the group in 2006.  If the new Parliament re-elects Aoun, it further solidifies Hezbollah’s influence overt wo of the three leading government positions.

Stability from both an economic and security perspective are central issues surrounding the vote on May 6th.  In early April 2018, at the behest of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Lebanon received pledges for over 11 billion dollars from several nations to bolster the shaky economy.  The over 1.5 million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon place a considerable strain on the economy, even with support provided by the international community.  Lebanon is in a tenuous position both geographically and politicallywith the Russian-backed Syrians on one side and Israel on the other, while one of its most influential political parties serves Iran, who also supports Syria and is vehemently anti-Israel.  Saudi Arabia is involved as well and plays a key role in trying to counter the efforts of Iran.  Many nations have an interest in Lebanon but honestly for their own national gain and not the good of the country as an independent nation.  Preventing an economic collapse, which would be followed by the inevitable grab for power, is vital to preventing a messier situation in the region.  Hezbollah still seeks to enact its “long-term goal of the Islamization of Lebanon and the establishment from within of an Islamic republic. While Hezbollah also agreed not to conduct extremist domestic operations when it became a political party, the potential collapse of the Lebanese government post-election provides the perfect opportunity for it to achieve the above-stated goal and would ultimately give Iran a more permanent and critically strategic foothold.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri proposed a plan that would stabilize the economy and create jobs for both Lebanese and Syrian refugees.  Securing the necessary funding a little more than a month before the elections is a victory for Hariri and his Future Movement Party, especially on the heels of his November 2017 unexpected resignation while in Saudi Arabia and subsequent rescinding of the resignation once out of Saudi Arabia.  Whether the resignation announcement was a stunt, done under duress, or a sincere act undid by pressure from other entities is not known.  During his resignation speech, Hariri claimed that Iran and Hezbollah were destabilizing Lebanon and speculation abounds that he revoked his resignation after Hezbollah agreed to not interfere in domestic issues.  Saad Hariri, formerly a businessman, became active politically after his father’s assassination in 2005.  He is also not a political novice, having served as Prime Minister from 2009 – 2011 and his father served as same five times between 1992 and 2004.  Some view Hariri, likely to remain Prime Minister after the elections, as taking a less hostile stance towards Hezbollah.  If true, that gives Hezbollah influence in all three central political billets – President, Prime Minister, and Parliament Secretary.  However, this also positions Hariri between Iran and Saudi Arabia. If he is working both sides it could result in a tragic political ending like his father.

The known unknown at this point is the reaction to and effects of the strikes on Syria launched by the United States, United Kingdom, and France in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack on April 7th, 2018.  Of the players with interests in Lebanon, only Saudi Arabia and Israel are not wholly against the United States.  Saudi Arabia could provide Lebanon with much needed financial support and appears to be making overtures of challenging Hezbollah’s Parliamentary seats in at least one region in southern Lebanon.  The potential exists that Parliament may cancel the elections based on the situation and the aftermath of the strikes.  How the people in Lebanon will react if the government decides to cancel the vote is unknown but it could be the catalyst needed to incite an Arab Spring-like protest within the country.  Any demonstrations or unrest internally potentially gives an opening for Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, or any number of other groups to exploit the situation for their own gain.

Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has proven himself a savvy political operative with an astute ability to envision and move the group into an advantageous position without acquiescing to too many concessions. Initially, many thought, the move from terrorist organization to a political party would require Hezbollah to become more mainstream or disarm.  Nasrallah found a way to avoid this, and any “Lebanonization” of Hezbollah, making the transition on their own terms to suit their own end game.  Hezbollah’s only real compromise to gain acceptance as a political party was agreeing not to conduct attacks inside of Lebanon.

Hezbollah from its beginning as a terrorist organization built a reputation of being more stable and helpful than the Lebanese government. So much so that people would go to Hezbollah for essential services before trying to access aid through the government.  This ability to support the people aided Hezbollah’s transition from solely a terrorist organization to a legitimate political party.  The garbage crisis on 2015-2016 led to the “You Stink” movement in Beirut and brings up the question of Hezbollah’s continued influence and capacity to provide services.  If they are willing and able, why allow this garbage crisis to continue?  What did the party gain?  If Hezbollah was unable to resolve the situation quickly, then is this an indicator that the party is not as dominant a service provider as it once was?  This minute detail could be a crack in the façade of Hezbollah that opens the door for other parties to make political headway against it.

Previously, the government canceled elections due to internal unrest.  Thus, Parliament scheduling the May 6th elections is an essential first step in retaking ownership of their nation.  The government’s successes or failures past that point are more dependent on those elected.  It seems unlikely with the election reforms that there will be a strong Parliament able to stand up to surrounding nations’ interference.  Ideally, Parliament pressures Hezbollah successfully to stop working as Iran’s proxy.  On paper, this sounds like a winning solution but the second and third order effects might be more detrimental to Lebanon.  The country’s government and military are not prepared to counter Iran, Hezbollah, Syria, Saudi Arabia, or many other groups if they set Lebanon in their crosshairs.  The next best case is the government develops and implements a plan to use economic aid to bolster the economy rather than to line the pockets of those in power.

Now is not the time or the place for the United States to take the lead in shoring up the government of Lebanon, but it absolutely can and should be part of the international community supporting a nation trying to maintain stability in a historically unstable area. The UNDP Administrator summed it up best, “supporting Lebanese unity and stability will support stability in the entire region, and it will diminish the threats to peace that we are facing today in the world, but we can only achieve this by working together.” One can only hope that after so many years of waiting, the voting electorate shows the world it is ready to step into the spotlight and catapult Lebanon forward as a model of restraint, progress, and emerging democracy. If so, then it would be a much welcome change not only in Lebanon but across the Middle East as a whole.

Dana Ogle has over 25 years’ experience as a United States Marine, providing mission integration in ground, air, and cyberspace operations. She is currently a doctoral student in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University.

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Middle East

Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

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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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