A war crime: The murder of Hevrin Khalaf is a slap in the face for those who believed in the Rojava dream.
On October 12, the Kurdish human rights activist was ambushed, tortured and shot dead on the road to the city of Qamishli. According to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the 35-year-old women was “taken out of her car during a Turkish-backed attack and executed by Turkish-backed mercenary factions” and the killing shows that“the Turkish invasion does not differentiate between a soldier, a civilian or a politician.”
The spokesman for the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) — which groups Syrian rebel factions — said they had not made it as far as the highway known as the M4.“I confirm to you that our forces have not reached the M4,” Youssef Hammoud said to Reuters, denying their responsability for the ambush.
What we certainly know is that the Ahrar al-Sharqiya group entered Syria from Turkey and took control over the area of the M4 highwaywhere other murders took place. Founded in 2016 by some members — including Iraqi commander Abu Maria Al-Qahtani — of the Al-Nusra Front, re-branded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and described as the official Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, the group was originally active in the province of Deir ez-Zor but temporarily managed to seize the territory between Mambij and Qamishli.
The rebels managed to do so due to the vacuum caused by US’ troops withdrawal from northern Syria, that president Donald Trump had announced on October 7.
On September 24, in a controversial speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had declared his intention to create a “safe zone” in the border area. His goal was to establish a huge peace corridor in order to resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees that, despite the seemingly humanitarian purposes, would surely put the local minorities at risk of genocide. Trump’s betrayal — as Kurdish people describe it — might be a gift to a deep-rooted process of ethnic cleansing or, at the very least, it would lead to a new exodus.
Future Syria party: an attempt to multi-ethnic democracy
Hevrin Khalaf was the secretarygeneral of the Future Syria Party (FSP), a political group born with the aim of overcoming the sectarian divisions that have ravaged Syria during the civil war and unify Arab, Kurdish and Syrian Christiancommunities.
The FSP was established after the capture of Raqqa from the Islamic State and it was created as an ideological partner to the SDF — the Syrian Democratic Forces. Its aim was to build a democratic state that represented all components of Syrian society and to replace Bashar al-Assad’s regime withmulti-ethnic democracy.
Nobody except the Kurds wants the project of a “Kurdistan state” to succeed: they are, in fact, still split up among four countries — Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey — , where they have been sufferingbrutal harassment and repression for the past 100 years.
Taking advantage of the chaos caused by the civil war, in January 2014 they managed to carve out a self-controlled area ruled by the PYD — the Democratic Union Party — , which is now known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) or Rojava.
Rojava’s territorial expansionhas alarmed Turkey, which firmly opposes the PYD and regards it as an alleged extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), currently listed as a terroristic group.
The Kurdish-Turkish conflict progressively worsened and in June 2017 tensions flared up on the border with the Afrin Canton — one of the self-governed Rojavan cantons — unitil it became part of the Turkish occupation.
On October 5, Khalaf made some declarations and expressed her concern about Turkey’s imminent intention to invade Rojava again, which would cause in her opinion a potential demographic earthquake.
“During the time (ISIS) held power near the border, Turkey didn’t view it as a threat for its people. But now that there is democratic constitution in northeastern Syria, they threat us with occupation,” Khalaf said referring to the Rojava region.
Women’s rights in peril:
Syrian Women’s Council recently condemned Khalaf’s murder — alongside with the aggressions against unarmed civilians — and called for international action: “We at the Council of Women in Northern and Eastern Syria condemn and denounce this cowardly act against the martyr Hevrin Khalaf.”
Turkey’s Islamic-rooted government has long been accused of limiting women’s rights and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s views on feminism go exactly in that direction. Co-founder of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) he has combined liberal economic policies with religious conservatism. Although he denies to lead an Islamic party, he has often stated that the AKPhad become a role model for all Muslim countries.
Women’s freedom in Turkey has often collided with the above-mentioned Islamic agenda. On March 8 2019, riot police intervened to block Turkish feminists’ march in central Istanbul, when they were celebrating International Women’s Day. The police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd, as they were accused of chanting and whistling during the call to prayer.
Although they said that those acts were not aimed at the mosque,“They disrepected the Azan (call to prayer) by slogans, booing and whistling,”Erdoğan claimed.
During his administration the AKP leader made numerous controversial comments: on various occasions he advocated for increasing population in Turkey and called on Turkish women to give birth at least to three children.
On November 24 2014, he attended a summit in Istanbul on justice for women where hebasically declared that women are not equal to men and addressed them exclusively as mothers.
“Our religion (Islam) has defined a position for women: motherhood”he claimed to the audience, sparking furious debates in the media. “The fact that a woman is attached to her professional life should not prevent her from being a mother”he added, emphasizing that work should not represent an “obstacle” to maternity.
He went even further calling women without children “incomplete” and made his position about family planning very clear: contraception was not for Muslim families and birth control was described as a form of “treason”.
In line with these ideas, in 2012 Health Minister Recep Akdag put forward an anti-abortion law plan so that the procedure could belegally restricted or banned, prompting fury among women’s activists.
In terms of gender-based violence, things are not better: according to the Turkey’s Human Rights Association (IHD), in the last six years there has been an increase in the reported case of violence against women. The number of women murdered by a partner or relative is constantly growing as Kadin Cinayetlerini Durduracagiz Platformu (“We Will Stop Femicide” Platform)reports and its General Secretary Gülsüm Kav is struggling to ask for better protection by the law.
Rojavan utopia: Jin, Jîyan, Azadî
“Jin, Jîyan, Azadî” a Kurdish slogan reads: Women, Life, Freedom.
It does not come as a surprise that the revolution in Rojava— where women arelegally considered equal to men — sounds like a dangerous threat to honor-shame societies. In this regard, de-facto autonomous region — which name literally means “the land where the sun sets” — is a one and only model in the whole Middle East area.
RojavanConstitution, in fact, is characterized by the implementation of direct democracy and confederalism and it “ (…) does not accept the concept of state nationalism, military and religious.”
Inspired by the beliefs of American anarchist Murray Bookchin it stresses the importance of “social ecology”, as a fundamental aspect of the revolution: in this regard, the exploitation of natural resources is comparable to the domination of men over women.
Thisutopian political system is established by the so-called Charter of the Social Contract, which promotes — along with ecology and gender equality — self-determination, secularism, cooperative economy and multi-ethnic coexistence.
The emancipation of women is seen as such a key point that one of Rojava’s governing ideologies is the “Science of Women” — or Jineology.
Based on PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s statement“A country can’t be free unless the women are free,” this innovative concept represents a step forward for the women’s liberation movement and it stands in opposition to the sexist paradigm which reflects the subject-object dichotomy “men act, women are.”
The social experiment is the brave response to centuries of oppressive tradition, such as underage marriage, poligamy and patriarchal mentality: these massive changes regard social, cultural and political structures are bright example of authentic modern feminism.
Although the region’s autonomy is not officially recognized by any international state, the PYD entertained some foreign relations; Hevrin Khalaf was often referred to as “Rojavan Minister of Foreign Affairs” and she was very appreciated for her diplomatic skills.
Women and jihad
Gender equality is behind Rojavan political, social and military upheaval.
In Syria, the armed wing of the PYD is thePeople’s Protection Units (YPG) along with the all-female militia called Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).
YPJ combatants have subverted traditional gender roles and stereotypes, fighting sexism and promoting female emancipation; jineology, in fact, is a multi-disciplinary philosophy which permeates every aspect of society, including the military sphere.
Furthermore, in Kurdish community centres they stress the importance of self-defence,in order to practically teach women how to stand against patriarchy-induced abusesand help victims of domestic violence.
Kurdish fighters — now world-wide famous — have proved that women can be effective soldiers just as much as their male counterparts. The advocacy of women’s rights, in fact, was severely put in danger during ISIL occupation, which represented the greatest possible form of female subjugation.
The armed forces of YPJ played a central role in the liberation process and they stood up against terrorism in very many ways.
Kobanê was the city that involvedthe largestfemale participation: the area, in fact, soon became symbol of the revolution, especially with regard to patriarchal traditions. Some of the fighters were married at a young ageor their husbands were much older than them, they served as nothing more than bodies used for sex and considered just as a vehicle for making children.
“I wanted women to have agency and will, and to build a free identity for themselves”commander Meryem Kobanê said in an interview. The women of the YPJ “has tasted freedom” and the more they were oppressed the more they developed a strong warrior spirit, to the point that they shared the frontlines with their male comrades.
It seems hard to understand, but while ISIL militants treat women as inferior beings, they also fear them on battlefields. According to jihadist doctrine, in fact, those who die in the name of Allah will be rewarded with 72 virgins, but they will not be admitted to heaven if they are killed by a woman.
Female emancipation in Middle Eastern countries clashes with this contrasting and misogynistic concept also; therefore, jihad represented a crucial chance to women’s liberation.
“Isis would like to reduce women to slaves and body parts. We show them they’re wrong. We can do anything.” Asya Abdullah — Movement for a Democratic Society’s coalition co-chair — said to the The Independent in the middle of the civil war in 2017.
Women’s rights future in Syria:
Kurdish fighters seeked vengeance for those victimized by the Islamic State, but women’s oppression still represents an ongoing problem in Syria.
On International Women’s Day, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR)documented the deaths of at least 27,464 females from March 2011 until March 2019at the hands of the main perpetrator parties to the civil war; 11.402 of them were children.
The rate of gender-based violence increased during the years of the conflict, especially in rural territories andin rebel-held areas, where women were particularly targeted, becoming victims of war rape and honor killings. Syrian security forces have been accused of torturing female inmates that — according to human rights lawyerAnwar al-Bunni — were often imprisoned without charges.
Although the condition of women in Syria has improved in many fields, there still is a lot to do in terms of gender equality and experts rate the country badly concerning human rights agenda.
For instance, Syrian Constitution — which is partially based on Sharia laws — does not recognize women as active subjects in marriage contracts, which have to be signed by the groom and the male guardian of the bride, but not by the bride herself.
Hevrin Khalaf was the voice for these women also and her death is now a symbol of the world’s hypocrisy, which is turning its back on her people once again. Today’s crisis is frustrating the efforts ofRojavan revolutionaries and it represents the umpteenth threat to Middle Eastern women’s rights future.
If Rojava’s dream dies, it will be a slap in the face for many of us, but Kurdish activists has long proved the world that turning the other cheek would never be an option.
Middle East futures: Decade(s) of defiance and dissent
If the 2010s were a decade of defiance and dissent, the 2020s promise to make mass anti-government protests a fixture of the greater Middle East’s political landscape. Protests in the coming decade are likely to be fuelled by the challenges Middle Eastern states face in enacting economic and social reforms as well as reducing their dependence on energy exports against the backdrop of a global economic crisis and depressed oil prices and energy markets. Complicating the challenges is the fact that youth that often constitutes a majority of the population have lost or are losing confidence in government and religious establishments at a time that social contracts are being unilaterally rewritten by political elites.
Pressure on the Middle East’s autocratic rulers is likely to increase with the departure of US President Donald J. Trump, a staunch supporter of strong man rule and the coming to office of President-elect Joe Biden. In contrast to Trump, Biden has suggested that he would emphasize democratic values and freedoms. In doing so, Biden could contribute to renewed public manifestations of widespread discontent and demands for greater transparency and accountability in the Middle East and North Africa.
Autocrats get some things right
The second decade of the 21st century has been bookended by protest. The decade was ushered in by protest across the globe, from student rallies in Chile to Occupy Wall Street to fuel price demonstrations in Jakarta. The 2011 popular revolts that toppled four Arab autocrats grabbed the headlines and provided drama.
The 2010s ended with similar drama. Protests in Chile resulted in a vote for a new constitution. A coalition of opposition parties challenged the legitimacy of the Pakistani government. Racism and the killing of people of colour by police sparked massive protests in the United States not seen since the 1960s. And like ten years earlier, demonstrators toppled Arab leaders in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq, uncertain whether this would secure the aspired change.
The 2020s promise to be no different, nowhere more so than in the Middle East. A global public opinion survey conducted by Edelman, a US public relations firm, in the United States, Europe, and Asia showed a significant drop in trust in governments as a result of their handling of the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in the worst global economic downturn in decades. Saudi Arabia, alongside Japan, were the two countries that witnessed only a minimal drop.[i]
Nevertheless, global mismanagement of the pandemic has hit hard in countries that are wracked by war, like Syria and Libya, nations with perennially weak economies that host large refugee populations, such as Lebanon and Jordan, and Gulf states, which have seen energy prices tumble with prospects dim for a quick recovery of oil and gas markets. Shifts towards greater autocracy in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere bode ill at a time in which populations with a youth majority are not necessarily clamouring for greater freedom but are increasingly gloomy about governments’ ability to deliver jobs and other public goods.
Delivery was already a daunting task prior to the pandemic. The World Bank reported that the number of people living below a poverty line of US$1.90 a day in a region with the world’s highest youth unemployment had more than tripled from eight million in 2011 to 28 million in 2018 and that the extreme poverty rate had doubled from 3.8 per cent in 2015 to 7.2 per cent in 2018.[ii]
Facing significantly dimmed economic prospects, the region’s autocrats, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his UAE counterpart, Mohammed bin Zayed, have, nonetheless, so far relatively successfully managed the political and social environment they operate in, judging by the responses to recent public opinion polling.[iii]
Both men have to varying degrees replaced religion with nationalism as the ideology legitimising their rule and sought to ensure that various countries in the region broadly adhere to their worldview.
“I know that the Saudi government under MbS (Prince Mohammed) has put in a lot of effort to actually do its own public opinion polls… They pay attention to it… They are very well aware of which way the winds are blowing on the street. They take that pretty much to heart on what to do and what not to do… On some issues, they are going to make a kind of executive decision… On this one, we’re going to ignore it; on the other one we’re going to…try to curry favour with the public in some unexpected way,” said David Pollock, a Middle East scholar who oversees the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s polling in the region.[iv]
The two crown princes’ similar worldviews constitute in part a response to changing youth attitudes towards religiosity evident in the polls and expressed in mass anti-government protests in countries like Lebanon and Iraq. The changes attach greater importance to adherence to individual morals and values and less focus on the formalistic observance of religious practice as well as a rejection of the sectarianism that is a fixture of governance in Lebanon and Iraq as well as Saudi religious ultra-conservatism.
The problem for rulers is that the moorings of their rule potentially could be called into question by a failure to deliver public goods and services that offer economic prospects. At the same time, social reforms needed to bolster development go hand in hand with the undermining of the authority of religious establishments. Increased autocracy that turns clerics and scholars into regime parrots has fuelled youth scepticism not only towards political elites but also religious institutions.
For rulers like the Saudi crown prince, the loosening of social restrictions – including the disempowerment of the kingdom’s religious police, the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, less strict implementation of gender segregation, the introduction of Western-style entertainment and greater professional opportunities for women, and in the UAE a degree of genuine religious pluralism – are only first steps in responding to youth aspirations.
“Youth have…witnessed how religious figures, who still remain influential in many Arab societies, can sometimes give in to change even if they have resisted it initially. This not only feeds into Arab youth’s scepticism towards religious institutions but also further highlights the inconsistency of the religious discourse and its inability to provide timely explanation or justifications to the changing reality of today,” said Gulf scholar Eman Alhussein in a commentary on the latest Arab Youth Survey,[v]
Youth put a premium on reform
Middle Eastern youth attitudes towards religion, religiosity and religious leadership mirror their approach towards material concerns. Their world is one that focuses on the individual rather than the collective, on what’s in it for me? instead of what’s in it for us?. It is a world that is not defined by ideology or politics and does not see itself reflected in the values and objectives espoused by elites and governments. In their world, the lingua franca differs substantially from the language they were raised in.
Two-thirds of those polled by the Arab Youth Survey believe that religious institutions need to be overhauled. They question fundamental religious concepts even if they define religion as the most important constituent element of their identity. “The way some Arab countries consume religion in the political discourse, which is further amplified on social media, is no longer deceptive to the youth, who can now see through it,” Alhussein said.[vi]
“Arabs know what they want and what they do not want. They want their basic needs for jobs, education, and health care to be attended to, and they want good governance and protection of their personal rights,” concluded James Zogby an Arab-American pollster with a decades-long track record of polling in the Middle East and North Africa.[vii]
Michael Robbins, director of the Arab Barometer, another pollster, and international affairs scholar Lawrence Rubin concluded that the youth in post-revolt Sudan had soured on the idea of religion-based governance because of widespread corruption during the region of toppled president Omar Al-Bashir, who professed his adherence to religious principles. Robbins and Rubin cautioned, however, that religion could return as the catalyst for protest if the government fails to cater to youth aspirations.
“If the transitional government can deliver on providing basic services to the country’s citizens and tackling corruption, the formal shift away from Sharia is likely to be acceptable in the eyes of the public. However, if these problems remain, a new set of religious leaders may be able to galvanize a movement aimed at reinstituting Sharia as a means to achieve these objectives,” Robbins and Rubin warned.[viii] It is a warning that is as valid for Sudan as it is for much of the Arab and Muslim world.
Saudis empathetic to protests
Asked in a recent poll conducted by The Washington Institute whether “it’s a good thing we aren’t having big street demonstrations here now the way they do in some other countries,” a reference to the past decade of popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq and Sudan, Saudi public opinion was split down the middle. 48 per cent of respondents agreed, and 48 per cent disagreed.[ix] Saudis, like most Gulf Arabs, appear less inclined to take grievances to the streets. Nonetheless, the poll indicates that they may prove to be empathetic to protests should they occur.
Saudi attitudes towards protest take on added significance in an environment in which governments in the energy-rich Gulf have seen their ability erode to invest in infrastructure and cradle-to-grave welfare states. The need to diversify economies away from dependence on oil and gas exports to create jobs against the backdrop of depressed energy prices and markets as a result of the global economic downturn means changing expectations and rewriting social contracts that offered economic security and well-being in exchange for the surrender of political and social rights. In May 2020, The Dubai Chamber of Commerce provided a foretaste of problems to come. Based on a survey of 1,228 CEOs, the chamber warned that a staggering 70 per cent of businesses in the emirate expect to close their doors within the next six months.[x] Analysts added to the gloomy prospects by reporting that non-oil growth in the UAE pointed toward a contraction of the economy.[xi]
The challenges Gulf and other Middle Eastern states face are compounded by the pandemic and a painful, protracted and complex road towards economic recovery, coupled with the toll of debilitating regional conflicts. They are also complicated by an apparent conditional willingness to accept belt-tightening and the unilateral rewriting of social contracts.
“If it’s temporary, one or two years, I can adapt. My concern is that more taxes will be permanent – and that will be an issue,” said Saudi government worker Mohammed according to a report by Bloomberg after his USD 266 a month cost-of-living allowance was cancelled and sales taxes were tripled as part of painful austerity measures announced by finance minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan.[xii]
Mohammed’s words were echoed in a rare pushback against the government by columnist Khalid Al-Sulaiman, writing in the Okaz daily newspaper, one of the kingdom’s tightly controlled media outlets, who wrote: “Citizens worry that the pressure on their living standards will outlast the current crisis. Increasing VAT from 5% to 15% will have a big effect on society’s purchasing power and will reflect negatively on the economy in the long term,”[xiii]
The surveys leave no doubt that even before the economic crisis sparked by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic the Middle Eastern youth was first and foremost concerned about its economic future. Asked what had prompted the wave of protests in 2011, 2019 and 2020, respondents pointed to unemployment, personal debt and corruption. 35 per cent of those polled in the latest Arab Youth Survey reported that they were mired in debt compared with 15 per cent in 2015.[xiv] A whopping 80 per cent said they believed Arab regimes were corrupt.
“This evinces a realization that the past decade of revolutions has borne rather bitter fruit: civil war, humanitarian distress, the rise of powerful extremist elements, and the collapse of governing restraints… Today, rather than seeking to change the world, most Arabs (especially the younger generation) demonstrate that mere improvements in their material condition would suffice,” said Middle East scholar Michael Milstein.[xv]
Voting with their feet
If the surveys suggest one thing, the streets of Algerian, Sudanese, Lebanese and Iraqi cities suggest something else.[xvi] Protesters in those four countries appeared to have learnt lessons from the failed 2011 revolts in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. In contrast to 2011, protesters in 2019 and 2020 refused to surrender the street once a leader was forced to resign. Instead, they maintained their protests, demanding a total overhaul of the political system,[xvii] which led to the formation of a governing transitional council in Sudan and a referendum on a new Algerian constitution.
Feeling outmanoeuvred by the military and political elites, Algerians voted with their feet. While the new constitution won in the referendum with a two-thirds majority, less than a quarter of eligible voters cast their vote.[xviii] “Algerian youths do not see the ‘New Algeria’ that lives in the president’s speeches. Activists are jailed for social media posts and memes, and the entire nation feels abandoned by both the political establishment and the traditional opposition,” cautioned Algerian scholar Zine Labidine Ghebouli.[xix] In Sudan, the jury is still out on whether the council will satisfy popular demand. In Lebanon and Iraq, the protesters also insisted on the removal of the sect- and ethnic-based political structures that underpin the two countries’ political systems.[xx]
Like in Algeria, protesters in Lebanon and Iraq confronting police violence and the impact of the pandemic was at an inflexion point. That was graphically visualised in late October 2020 with the reopening of a key bridge in Baghdad and the clearing out of tents from a sit-in in Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the anti-establishment protest movement that erupted a year ago to demand basic services, employment opportunities and an end to corruption.[xxi]
Few doubt that the combination of repressive law enforcement, politics rather than engagement and a public health crisis at best buys elites a reprieve. The writing is on the wall, with intermittent protests erupting in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Iran and war-ravaged Syria. “For political transformation to happen, you need a generation,” noted Lina Khatib, head of London-based think tank Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa programme.[xxii]
The question is not whether another wave of protest will occur, but when and where.
“The most dangerous people in any society: “When you look at the poor economic growth, when you look at the very high demographic growth, what you see is a region that has a lot of challenges ahead of it. There are very few things that are true for every country in the world. But one of those is that the most dangerous people in any society are young men. Testosterone is a hell of a drug. There are lots of young men in this part of the world that don’t have avenues to channel their innate aggression into productive, constructive forms. They are attracted to destructive avenues,” said former CIA acting director Michael Morell.[xxiii]
“The essential situation is that this mass of citizens has reached the point of discontent but (of) desperation and therefore has done the only thing it sees as available to it other than immigrate, which is challenging their state openly in street protests. Something has to give between these two forces,” added veteran journalist and Middle East scholar Rami Khouri.[xxiv]
Give and take seems, however, for now, a way off. The immediate reality is a stalemate. Protesters have demonstrated their ability to topple heads of government but have so far failed to force elites, determined to protect their perks at whatever cost, to address their fundamental concerns, let alone surrender power. Aggravating the stalemate is the breakdown in trust between significant segments of youth populations and governments as well as traditional opposition forces fuelling demands for reforms that replace existing elites rather than exploring ways of finding common ground.
“Arab governments’ long suppression of the development of inclusive, democratic, and effective institutions has left a vacuum of leadership among regime and opposition forces alike. That vacuum is acutely felt today… with no trusted institution in the region who could carry out people’s rightful demands for more effective management of their countries, the endgame is unclear,” said Marwan Muasher, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former Deputy Prime Minister of Jordan.[xxv]
In a swath of land that stretches from the Atlantic coast of Africa into Central Asia, trends and developments no longer are sub-regional. They reverberate across what increasingly looks like the Middle East’s expanding borderlands as was evident in the 2020 Caucasus war between Armenia and Turkey- and Israel-backed Azerbaijan with Iran walking a fine line despite its empathy for the Armenians. Russian security forces and analysts predict that the fallout of the war is likely to compound a combustuous mix that will spark social unrest in the North Caucasus.
Aslan Bakov, a prominent political analyst from the Kabardino-Balkaria region, warned that Muslim civil society groups were likely to lead anti-Russian protests, taking local authorities as well as the government in Moscow to task for mismanaging the pandemic and reducing financial support of the North Caucasus. As a result, the region suffered a higher Covid-19 related death rate per capita of the population and has seen employment rates soar as high as 40 per cent. Muslim non-governmental organizations have stepped in where increasingly authoritarian local governments have failed to deliver, fuelling widespread lack of confidence in state authority. Describing the situation as “ideal conditions for a social explosion,” Baskov cautioned that the unrest could escalate into ethnic and border conflicts in a region in which frontiers have yet to be definitively demarcated.[xxvi]
A catalyst for reinvigorated protest?
Much like US President Jimmy Carter’s support for human rights in the 1970s boosted popular resistance to the Shah of Iran and helped pave the way for the Islamic revolution,[xxvii] President-elect Joe Biden, with his emphasis on democratic values and freedoms,[xxviii] could contribute to renewed public manifestations of widespread discontent and demands for greater transparency and accountability in the Middle East and North Africa.
Supporters of a human rights-driven foreign policy juxtapose the emergence of an anti-American regime in Iran with the rise of post-revolt democratic leaders in Chile, the Philippines and South Korea. US President Barack Obama and his Vice-President Biden struggled almost a decade ago with how to handle the 2011 popular revolts.
Critics accuse Obama of enabling the Muslim Brotherhood to gain executive power in the aftermath of the revolts. The rise of the Brotherhood sparked a counter-revolution that led to a military coup in Egypt and civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen.
“The cases of Chile, South Korea, and the Philippines, along with a few others, are often cited…by foreign policy elites arguing that American human rights advocacy needn’t come at the expense of American interests. And yet, as we can see in…harsh Monday-morning quarterbacking of Obama’s policy toward the Egyptian uprising against Mubarak, for example, this argument still faces a steep uphill climb,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Middle East scholar who coordinated US democracy and human rights policy as the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. Cofman Wittes was referring to Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian leader who was forced to resign in 2011 after 30 years in office.
Biden has pledged to “defend the rights of activists, political dissidents, and journalists around the world to speak their minds freely without fear of persecution and violence. Jamal’s death will not be in vain.” Biden was referring to Khashoggi, the murdered Saudi journalist.[xxix] Biden has also said he would convene a global Summit for Democracy in his first year in office as part of an effort to confront authoritarian regimes and promote elections and human rights. The summit would be attended not only by political leaders but also including civil rights groups fighting for democracy.[xxx]
Campaign promises are one thing, enacting policies once in office another. As a result, the jury is out on how a Biden administration will handle potentially sustained protest in the Middle East and North Africa. To be sure, taken together the most recent surveys of public opinion paint a picture of a youth that has shifted in much of the region from optimism at the time of the 2011 revolts to deep-seated pessimism if not despair about its future prospects and a lack of confidence in the ability and/or willingness of most governments and elites to cater to its social and economic needs. That makes predictions of civil unrest all the more real.
Fact is also that the lesson of the last decade for the coming one is that political transition sparked by waves of protest is not a matter of days, months or even a year. It is a long, drawn-out process that often plays out over decades. 2011 ushered in a global era of defiance and dissent, with the Arab uprisings as its most dramatic centrepiece.
The 2020s is likely to be a decade in which protests may produce at best uncertain and fragile outcomes, irrespective of whether protesters or vested interests gain an immediate upper hand. Fragility at best and instability at worst is likely to be the norm. To change that, protesters and governments would have to agree on economic, political and social systems that are truly inclusive and ensure that all have a stake. No doubt, that is a tall order.
Author’s note: An earlier version of this article appeared in Orient.
[i]  Edelman, 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, January 2021, https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2021-01/2021-edelman-trust-barometer.pdf
[ii]  World Bank Group, Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2020: Reversals of Fortune, 2020, https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/34496/9781464816024.pdf
[iii]  ASDA’A BCW, Arab Youth Survey, 2020; Arab Center Washington. https://www.arabyouthsurvey.com/findings.html / Arab Opinion Index 2017-2018, 2018, http://arabcenterdc.org/survey/2017-2018-arab-opinion-index-executive-summary/
[iv]  Interview with the author, 14 October 2020.
[v]  ASDA’A BCW, A Voice for Change, 2020, 2020, p. 44, https://www.arabyouthsurvey.com/pdf/downloadwhitepaper/AYS%202020-WP_ENG_0510_Single-Final.pdf
[vi]  Ibid.
[vii]  Interview with the author, 24 August 2020.
[viii]  Michael Robbins and Lawrence Rubin, Sudan’s government seems to be shifting away from Islamic law. Not everyone supports these moves, 27 August 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/08/27/sudans-government-seems-be-shifting-away-sharia-law-not-everyone-supports-these-moves/
[ix]  David Pollock, Saudi Poll: China Leads U.S.; Majority Back Curbs on Extremism, Coronavirus, 31 July 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/saudi-poll-china-leads-u.s-majority-back-curbs-on-extremism-coronavirus
[x]  Natasha Turak, 70% of Dubai companies expect to go out of business within six months due to coronavirus pandemic, survey says, 21 May 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/21/coronavirus-dubai-70percent-of-companies-expect-to-close-in-six-months.html
[xi]  Al Jazeera, Egypt and Saudi business conditions improve, while UAE’s worsen, 3 November 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/3/bbegypt-and-saudi-business-conditions-improves-while-uaes-wors
[xii]  Vivian Nereim and Sylvia Westall, Crisis Austerity in Oil-Rich Gulf May Test Political Balance, 2020.
[xiii]  Khalid Al-Sulaiman, Will the Finance Minister Do It? (هل يفعلها وزير المالية ؟!), Okaz, 1 September 2020, https://www.okaz.com.sa/articles/authors/2026288, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-03/austerity-experiment-in-oil-rich-gulf-may-falter-post-crisis?sref=3XwG50X1
[xiv]  ASDA’A BCW, 7th Annual ASDA’A Burson-Masteller Arab Youth Survey, 2015, http://arabyouthsurvey.com/pdf/whitepaper/en/2015-AYS-White-Paper.pdf
[xv]  Michael Milstein, Ten Years Since the ‘Arab Spring’: Despair Has Not Become More Comfortable, 27 October 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/arab-spring-despair-comfortable
[xvi]  James M. Dorsey, The Tumultuous Decade: Arab Public Opinion and the Upheavals of 2010–2019, 2020, New Books Network, 5 September 2020, https://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2020/09/the-tumultuous-decade-arab-public.html
[xvii]  James M. Dorsey, 2019 was a decade of defiance and dissent. The 2020s are likely to be no different, 1 January 2020, https://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2020/01/2019-was-decade-of-defiance-and-dissent.html
[xviii]  Al Jazeera, Algerians back constitutional reforms amid low voter turnout, 2 November 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/2/low-voter-turnout-hits-algeria-referendum-amid-boycott-calls.
[xix]  Zine Labidine Ghebouli, Requiem for a Revolution, , Newlines Magazine, 1 November 2020, https://newlinesmag.com/essays/requiem-for-a-revolution/
[xx]  James M. Dorsey, Countering civilisationalism: Lebanese and Iraqi protesters transcend sectarianism, 1 November 2019, https://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2019/11/countering-civilisationalism-lebanese.html
[xxi]  Al Jazeera, Baghdad’s Tahrir Square cleared, Jamhuriya Bridge reopened, 31 October 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/31/iraq-clears-tahrir-square-a-year-after-mass-protests-began
[xxii]  Jared Malsin, Middle East Protesters Try to Avoid Mistakes of Arab Spring, 2020.
[xxiii]  CBS News, Biggest factor in U.S.-Middle East relations is perception that U.S. is withdrawing, 6 January 2021, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/biggest-factor-in-u-s-middle-east-relations-is-perception-that-u-s-is-withdrawing/
[xxiv]  Wilson Center, Ten Years of Pan-Arab Protests: Understanding the new Dynamics of Change, The Wall Street Journal. 20 January 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/middle-east-protesters-try-to-avoid-mistakes-of-arab-spring-11579530280
[xxv]  Marwan Muasher, Is This the Arab Spring 2.0?, 30 October 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/10/30/is-this-arab-spring-2.0-pub-80220
[xxvi]  Paul Goble, Year 2020 in Review: Pandemic Exacerbated Problems Across North Caucasus and Set Stage for More Conflict, Eurasia Daily Monitor, 5 January 2021, https://jamestown.org/program/year-2020-in-review-pandemic-exacerbated-problems-across-north-caucasus-and-set-stage-for-more-conflict/
[xxvii]  Tamara Cofman Wittes, Iran’s revolution and the problem of autocratic allies, Brookings, 24 January 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/01/24/irans-revolution-and-the-problem-of-autocratic-allies/
[xxviii]  Joss Harrison, There are signs that as president, Joe Biden could adopt a proactive human rights approach similar to Jimmy Carter’s, LSE US Centre, 3 July 2020, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/usappblog/2020/07/03/there-are-signs-that-as-president-joe-biden-could-adopt-a-proactive-human-rights-approach-similar-to-jimmy-carters/
[xxix]  JoeBiden.com, Anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s Murder – Statement by Vice President Joe Biden, 2 October 2020, https://joebiden.com/2020/10/02/anniversary-of-jamal-khashoggis-murder-statement-by-vice-president-joe-biden/#
Reigniting Chaos in Syria
Syria has been the nexus of brutality and terror for almost a decade now; with more than 6 million natives who have already fled and numerous displaced over the territory itself, the region casts a ghastly shade that has only turned grimmer with time. Although the conflict seemingly raved its catastrophic footprint in early 2000, the root cause arguably always ends up to be the infamous ‘Arab Spring’ that actually tuned the Syrians against their very own regime. Something to compare and contrast that communal unity acted in Iraq’s benefit back when USA invaded the territory to avenge the 9/11 Attacks in 2003 while casted a fiasco in Syria when invaded in 2014. Large scale protests and rampaging violence gradually morphed into a series of relentless efforts to first deter Bashar Al-Asad’s efforts to first peacefully and then collaboratively resolving the raging unrest. Some would say it was inspired by the historical besiege of Libya and the subsequent execution of the Libyan prime minister Muammar al-Gaddafi as an ensue of that revolution yet Bashar Al-Asad proved a far more tensile force to overthrow. Such tumultuous turn of events, lead Syria to first economic sanctions followed by severe isolation in the global community opposing and downright rejecting Assad’s actions to curb the political tremors. Yet intermittent interventions, both implicit and explicit, by the western powers and their counter-parts have defined the region more as a battle ground of mercenary motives instead of mere efforts to safeguard human rights and ensuring regional peace.
Since 2011, three core actors have remained active in skirmishes that have more oftener than not transformed into battles of gore and toil and sometimes even full-fledged wars that have not only dismembered the expanse of over an 185,000 km2 of land into mounds of dust and rubble with terror now crawling over the lanes but have even shuddered the immediate vicinity. With the downfall and perpetual dissipation of ISIS, losing much of its occupied land to active contenders, Assad’s militia and Kurdish forces remain the helming competitors along with a smattering of other oppositions like Jaish al Fateh and Nusrta Front. The conflict between the Kurdish forces backed by the US regime against ISIS and then eventual betrayal on the Turkish front had been a matter of contentions in the latter part of 2019; Kurds making it abundantly clear to harness the borders they surmise to be rightly theirs while Turkish policies, especially under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have been outright fearless and needless of any other inference regarding their austere stance over the issue; claiming their bordering territories and inferring stern response in case of any dissension caused by the Kurds.
However, the outlining threat in the recent time can be perceived at a novel yet a totally realistic stage, where proxy wars no longer remain the ground reality of armed unrest in Syria. This notion has arisen since harsh words were exchanged between Moscow and Ankara; the metropolis’ of the neighbouring giants: Russia and Turkey respectively. A glimpse in the historical scaffolding of the entire Syrian conflict, Russia has always backed Assad’s regime despite its initial block over Syrian policies revolving over strategies to deal with the blooming protests in the early tremors of the Arab Spring who’s effects had started to resonate in the entire Middle East following up on Ground 0, Tunisia. The vantage point of Russia, however, shifted when the political paradigm was drastically nudged by the terror-driven escalation of ISIS after severe US blunders and baffling retreat from Syria that even threatened the sovereignty and security of the region following their besiege of the state of Raqqa, establishing ISIS as a looming concern, thereby aligning the aims of both Russian reign and Assad’s regime, ultimately inciting a continued alliance. Turkey, on the other hand, being the northern neighbour to Syria also contended as a root protagonist in economic isolation of Assad’s government, imposing stringent financial sanctions that tightened the bottlenecks and eventually led to the deterioration of their financial virility that already staggered after sanctions and embargos placed by both EU and USA.
This conflict that permeates in the north-western terrain of Syria lilts an innuendo that a spark may be brewing between the two nations. The besieged province of Idlib exudes the source of the strife; an area that has witnessed countless Turkish troops slain by Assad’s forces in cross-border disputes; close to seven Turkish soldiers were recently killed in a thorough retaliation of Syrian forces in the de-escalation zone, much to Turkey’s dismay. However, the Russian involvement in backing the Syrian government in their dissent in Idlib and heavily bombing of the territory with artillery servers as a link to presumably leading a head-on conflict between Russia and Turkey; hinted by Erdoğan that any effort made in the region will not go answered, clearly warning the Russian forces to avoid any transgression that could cause fatality to their personnel. The people of Syria, blended with the rebels, look in the eye of a dead end; bombardments to deter the tyrants have shredded their innocent bodies similar to the incursions in Eastern Ghouta and with no one on their side but with ulterior incentives, they are left with no choice but to see Turkey as a savior. To any sane mind, however, its not really a complex interface of modes and interests involved. With clash of alliances, historical narrative of both the world wars fought, coherently brings about the model of war despite a never-ending argument at whim. Without contesting any theory by any analyst, its imperative to gauge at the systematic progression of the tensions flowing yet not mitigating. Turkey being stranded from its western allies and Arab assistance in wake of the murder conspiracy and being locked in a bound-to-doom NATO relation with Russia, the outcome of this steady conflict can bring about equal amount of damage yet in lesser of a decade and more pandemic effects.
Recent Israeli airstrikes targeted the Iran-linked elements in Syria. One of the biggest attacks even in at least half a decade period of relative dormancy in the region hint at the start of something gruesome. The attacks pointed Iran-backed sites like Al-Bukamal in intensity, riddling the city that acts as a focal point to Iran’s influence over and beyond the borders of Baghdad and Damascus, as well as paving way to militants from the fore stretch of Lebanon. The attacks reportedly served as an active Israeli position against the Irani militants and revolutionary guards, casting a heavy presence in the core hit areas of the province of Dair al Zor, claiming 57 casualties. The attack assumes a step-up stance of Israel picking up from a cold targeted strike within Iran, months back, eliminating the crucial scientific figure of Iran, that earned promises of retaliation both from the military leads and the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
These attacks nurture an underlying message of Israel following on the shadow war footsteps dictated under the premiership of Mr. Donald Trump. Now, with his nefarious exit from the presidential office following the riots at US Capitol and Mr. Biden’s ascension to power just days away, Israel insinuates its true deterrence of Iran’s growing influence and hostility in the expansive areas of Southern, North-western and Eastern regions of Syria. With US intelligence cultivating the Israeli position in Syria while Iran enriching its plans of Nuclear power along with backing militias under the lead of Lebanese force of Hezbollah, a possibility of another proxy clash is re-emerging in the peripheries of Syria. Now as Israel continues to welcome Arab nations to set camp around Syria to end Tehran’s influence, US faces a tough choice in over a decade to either exit the war before it even flames or repeat their interference regretted since the Arab Spring to jump headfirst into another round of decade long destruction.
Post Trump Palestine
The unconditional United States’ political, financial and military support to Israel enabled the latter to occupy the Palestinian territories. The former became involved in Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an arbiter to resolve the issue. But the foreign policy of US has always remained tilt to Israeli interests. From recognizing Israel as sovereign state in 1947 to accepting Jerusalem as capital of Israel has clearly unearthed the biased attitude of US for Israel.
Similarly, Trump also adopted the traditional stance of Washington on Palestine, i.e. outright support for Israel. Trump’s policy regarding Israeli-Palestinian conflict was more aggressive but not in contradiction with his predecessors’. For instance, he brought into reality the law passed by US congress in 1995 that recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, shifted US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, closed office of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington DC in Sept 2018 and closed US consulate in East Jerusalem the area under Palestinian control. His bigotry against Palestinians unveiled more distinctly when he announced defunding of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), the UN agency that provides food, education and healthcare to the refugees. Moreover during his regime in November 2018 the state department of US proclaimed that the construction of Israeli settlements in West Bank does not come under the ambit of violation of international humanitarian laws. Certainly, the belligerent policies in last four years of trump era paved the way for the colonization of Palestine by Israel and helped the latter to put unlawful restrictions on Palestinians making them deprived of all civil liberties and peace.
As per world report-2020by Human Rights Watch HRW, Palestinian citizens are restrained from all basic necessities of life such that, education, basic healthcare, clean water and electricity. The movement of people and goods to and from Gaza strip is also inhibited. According to World Health Organization WHO 34 percent of applications by Palestinians, for medical appointments outside Gaza strip, were not addressed by Israeli army. Moreover, HRW report states that the Israeli government destroyed 504 homes of Palestinians in West Bank during 2019 and facilitated 5995 housing settlements for Israelis. The country is trying at utmost to eradicate indigenous Palestinians from their home land. According to United Nations’ Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs UNOCHA, the demolitions of Palestinian homes displaced 642 people in 2019 and 472 in 2018.Moreover, the illicit attacks by Israeli side have killed hundreds of innocent citizens in the same years. According to UNOCHA on November 11, 2020, 71 innocent Palestinian citizens were killed by Israeli forces while 11,453 were lethally injured in a single day. Furthermore, UN secretary general exhorted that Israeli armed forces have infringed the children’s rights during the conflict as in 2018, 56 Palestinian children were killed by Israeli armed forces.
While, other international actors criticized the Israeli annexations of the region and declared it as violation of international humanitarian laws, US supported the Israeli escalations in West Bank. The former also stopped aid support through USAID for Gaza strip where eighty percent of population depends upon aid. Such partial attitude of US has put the country outside the international consensus on the issue. Apparently, US pretend its position as arbiter but her policies accredited the colonization of Palestine by Israel.
Thus, it seems futile to expect any big change in US policies regarding Israeli-Palestinian issue during forthcoming administrations. However, the president-elect Joe Bidden may alter some of the trump’s decisions such as reopening of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington, resuming funding of UNRWA and reopening of US consulate in East Jerusalem. But his policies will not contradict the congress’ stance on the issue. As, he and his team have clearly mentioned prior to elections that they will not shift back the US embassy to Tel Aviv as it seems politically and practically insensible to them. Moreover, Blinken, the candidate for secretary of state in Joe’s upcoming regime, made it clear through his controversial statements, that the imminent president will inherit historic US position on Palestine-Israel dispute. Further, Chinese expansionism, Russian intervention in American and European affairs and Iran nuclear deal issue would remain the main concerns of foreign affairs of US during initial period of Joe Biden’s regime. He is likely to favor the status quo in Palestine and remain focused on other foreign interests. In addition to this the inclination of Arabian Gulf to develop relations with Israel will also hinder the adherence for Palestinians from the gulf countries. Subsequently, it will enable Israelis to continue seizing the Palestinian territories into Israel and leave indigenous Palestinians stateless in their own land.
Summing up, it is significant for Palestinians to continue their struggle for the homeland and seek support from other international actors to marginalize Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territories. As well as, the peace accord of 1993 signed in between both nations, to share the holy land, should also be revoked by both countries. Both nations should try to resolve the issue on equitable grounds by negotiations so that either side could not be deprived of its interests.
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