And the ball is Iran. We can still expect the world to be at real risk from the fallout from a brutal Mid East war in 2013. Bad times come in the aftermath of the US Presidential elections in November 2012. Then you get the window for war in the run up to Israel's 2013 Knesset elections. There is some debate as to when these will be held. Theoretically they should be by February 2013 (the previous elections being four years prior in February 2009) but there are circumstances in which they could run up to six months later as long as they are announced by February 2013. Everything now depends on how likely it is that Ahmadinejad wins another term in Iran's Presidential elections in June 2013. As all the world knows, most democracies go to war in the run up to elections and not at other times. So watch that space.
Meantime the US is emasculated by its inability to negotiate with the key actor. Remember that Iran's Revolutionary Guard has split between the goodies, the pragmatic traditionalists, and the baddies, i.e. Ayatollah Mezbo Yazdi and his disciple Ahmadinejad both of whom (and this is not hype this is a fact) believe in bringing on Armageddon. But the USA only talks to the bad guys. Sad really. And we see no progress. Have we no bright White House strategists to weave us a real long term policy? Or must Western foreign policy in the 21st century be merely reactive?
Then there's Hamas. The single greatest mistake in US foreign policy has been to promote unilateralism on issues such as that of the Hamas question, thus disabling the world. We oppose democracy in the Middle East. Up to a point we always have done, and Hamas is the classic example of this policy in action. They win the election so we intervene with multiple hoops for them to jump through (recognition of Israel plus renunciation of violence plus endorsement of Oslo) rather than permit them to form a government. Well we can't have an Islamist government can we? I sympathise actually. After all they poured away our whisky at the Gaza border in December 2010 so they must be evil. Democracy is not tolerable.
How dumb can you get? Can you imagine how useless a Hamas government would swiftly have become had we let them govern? All governments become unpopular over time. They'd have been voted out. And had they not, had they refused to be subject to the ballot box, then we'd be seeing the people rise up against them as they have been against the establishment in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and Syria. How sweet could that be were you of a neo-con inclination? Instead we have boxed ourselves into a corner by popularising Hamas, making them the victims, and keeping them electable to such a degree that we have to put the brakes on when it comes to suggestions that there might be a further democratic experiment for Palestine. We even opposed Palestinian-Palestinian unity on the basis that to permit it would mean allowing Hamas into the PLO. Intolerable. But thank goodness Egypt has moved things on a little despite the West and there is hope.
Hope most particularly because Senator George J Mitchell Jnr is no longer the US special envoy for Middle East Peace. He quit in apparent high dudgeon because Egypt encouraged Palestinian-Palestinian peace against his wishes. But he was trouble from the outset. He reinforced Abu Mazen's insane policy of giving Israel control of the agenda. Abu Mazen said way back that he would not attend peace talks if Israel continued settlement building. Hasn't Abu Mazen got his head round the fact that the current Government of Israel does not - for the moment - want peace talks? Arafat never did this - he never gave Israel control of the agenda in this way, so that if Israel found they were having difficulty dealing with the peace issue it could just be sidestepped by re-starting settlement construction. The point being that instead of telling Abu Mazen to wise up, Mitchell reinforced the no settlement halt / no talks scenario.
But that was then, this is now. And now we have such a better situation. For one thing the USA is no longer pursuing a Mid East policy directly opposed to that of Israel. This is important because we have got rid of much of the dissembling. It was done brutally. Netanyahu dressed down Obama in public (and undoubtedly Israel will pay a heavy price for that piece of grandstanding for the public back home, because the last thing Israel can afford is a worsening relationship with her main patron). But the point is that for the best part of a year, more maybe, the USA has been pursuing a foreign policy in regard to Mid East peace that pretends you can negotiate the borders of a Palestinian state without any deal on Jerusalem, the settlements, on the right of return. That was a red line for Israel which sees itself as unable to surrender land (as it is its only bargaining chip) without deals on the rest. Now the USA can no longer pretend and dissemble to the world. It has to call a spade a spade with regard to Israel. Which is good for peace.
More negatively, here's an interesting observation from Alon Ben Meir. We have paraphrased his comment:
quo: Israel through settlement construction and arrogant intransigence in recognizing any merit to Palestinian positions; Palestinians through their refusal to return to the negotiating table and insistence on the right of return of the Palestinian refugees, which Israel will not accept. The status quo has become a political asset for each side, even at the risk of serving as a strategic liability for the future of both peoples.The cost of maintaining the conflict is currently acceptable to both sides. The economy in Israel and the West Bank is thriving, and it is even improving in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas' relationship with Egypt is improving with the renewed open border. From each side's perspective, today's conflict is manageable in the immediate-term, even if both parties appear headed off a cliff in the not-too-distant future."
Now let's talk Libya. By way of a little scene setting, the NCF was sent by the then UK Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Derek Fatchett, to encourage Libya to allow the Lockerbie boys to go to trial. I remember insisting, when I met Gaddafi's classmate and advisor, who shall be nameless, that it'd be no sweat if the two boys went on trial because they'd probably be found innocent. He put his hand on one of my knees and leant in close and said. "But William; what if they're guilty?" And my jaw dropped. They were of course. Guilty as sin. I guess you know the dynamic there. The late John Bulloch explained it to me on the basis of inside knowledge provided him by the notorious Palestinian Abu Nidal. The Lockerbie action on 21st December 1988 with the loss of 270 lives was in retaliation for the allegedly accidental downing of Iran Air flight 655 with the loss of 290 lives by the USS Vincennes on 3 July 1988. The terrorist attack was commissioned by an Iranian Foundation and paid for through Abu Nidal, then based in Libya, with the tacit knowledge of the Libyan authorities. It was all done swiftly so that there could be no doubt as to the tit-for-tat nature of the action. I mention this to set the record straight given that Lockerbie is misunderstood.
Fast forward to today and the government of Libya gets its day of reckoning; not because of Lockerbie but because of years of grinding oppression. But it has been a tough fight. Gaddafi's loyalists have too much to lose. They'll take the fight to the death and may, by the skin of their teeth, hold on. I genuinely doubt it but it is possible. Whatever, it will be messy. Friends in Tripoli confirm how bad it is. If they express dissent in public protest, snipers shoot them from roofs of schools! Food is in short supply in the Medieval style siege the West is imposing. They are terrified of the rebels who have a well earned reputation for barbarity. They see no prospects for a post war democracy and think the deal is to replace a Tripoli based dictatorship with a Benghazi based dictatorship.
Meanwhile the West is strongly against any peace deal or truce, stating that Gaddafi must go as a precursor to any future for Libya.
And there's an issue here. Where should we be coming from? You and I in the West? We need to regain something of our old idealism. A new 17 year old NCF intern wrote today that she was not sure whether our intervention in Libya was oil related. She said: "Ultimately, Libya will determine the motives of our government and our path in foreign affairs in the future. I believe that the highest priority of our affairs in the Middle East is to protect lives and ensure that we defend the citizens that are vulnerable to corruption and oppression in government. It is our duty to ensure that countries in the Middle East can have a democratic and responsible government as we do, and I believe it is a cause worth fighting for. However there are many questions I would like to ask and find out about in terms of our interest in oil; an interest that I see as selfish. Foreign intervention in the Middle East must be to ensure that other countries can enjoy the freedom and peace that we do now."
She's right of course.
Time for some light relief. There is a success story and it's called Iraq. Helluva place. Of course, like the curate's egg, it's not perfect. There's Kirkuk for instance. An internecine festering wound. The Brits, the UN and the meddlers in the International Crisis Group have been busy kicking that can down the road. Which is bad because meanwhile the bonfire that is the squabble over the status of this disputed city gets bigger and bigger and bigger and one day someone will set a match to it.
But Kirkuk aside, Iraq is brilliant. One place at least Allied troops did not die in vain. Iraq is a vibrant democracy reminiscent of that which emerged in post colonial India.
Well fairly brilliant that is. There are indications that Iran is getting more and more clout in Iraq. The latest sad note is that Iran and Iraq have formed a joint committee with the Red Cross to shut down Camp Ashraf in Iraq which houses thousands of Iranian opposition activists. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said this month: “The camp will be shut down by the end of this year. For this, a tripartite committee has been set up by Iraq, Iran and the International Red Cross to make decisions and follow up on necessary measures to shut down the camp of this terrorist group." The People’s Mujahideen established Camp Ashraf in the 1980s — when Saddam Hussain was at war with Iran — as a base from which to launch military action against the Islamic Republic. Camp Ashraf is now home to some 3,400 people. The announcement was met with a “vigorous” condemnation by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the broad grouping that includes the People’s Mujahideen. The NCRI said allowing Iran to “interfere in the issue of Ashraf is a red line that should not be crossed,” and urged the International Committee of the Red Cross “not to lose credibility by participating in this plan of repression.”. But they are beating a dead sheep. The Red Cross lost its credibility years ago when it helped the UN impose sanctions via UNSCR 1284 that led to the Iraq war and it seems in no hurry to become respectable again if its latest actions are anything to go by. Iran must be delighted.
And then there is Afghanistan. The sledgehammer approach currently being adopted in areas like the Sangin district of Helmand Province has resulted in stupendous levels of collateral damage. This in defence of a decadent, corrupt and indecent government. Part of the problem we are facing Mid East wide today is an inability on the part of the great powers in general and the US in particular to distinguish between legality and legitimacy. President Hamid Karzai represents the legal government of Afghanistan. His is not the legitimate government of Afghanistan. On top of which disinformation levels in regard to Afghanistan are astonishing. Just as an Iran / Saudi proxy war takes place in Iraq, so too a RAW / ISI proxy war takes place in Afghanistan, i.e. India's Secret Service (the Research and Analysis Wing) versus Pakistan's Secret Service (Inter-Services Intelligence). Pakistan cannot face being encircled by enemies. Karzai is India's ally.
There are possibilities for a better Afghanistan, but the crackpot strategy the West is currently pursuing of handing the southern half of the country to an unpopular Taliban government and the northern half of the country to an unpopular Karzai government is not good.
Other options? Well yes. Dump Karzai and let traditional Afghan structures of governance return. It really is not difficult. A sort of federated tribal ruled Afghanistan with a loose royalist coalition in governance is easy peasy lemon squeezy and would deliver stability and calm over time and we could get out with honour. This other approach attempts to ease the fragile Afghanistan into the 2014 transition and involves allocating more responsibility to local tribesmen. This would mean an Afghan Government that cooperates with former insurgents such as the Pashtuns and allows them a greater stake in their own country through financial incentives to secure and manage their own local region. The ANA could be organised into smaller divisions and placed in certain regions to oversee and offer support to the tribes.
But we won't do it. We are too proud to admit we were wrong.
Which means we are handing Southern Afghanistan back to the Taliban? How disgusting. How unworthy of the many allied troops that have died. What about the women of Afghanistan? NCF intern Giorgia Cacacae writes "Afghanistan's post-Taliban reforms have barely improved the lives of women. A 2010 report conducted by UNAMA found that in 29 out of the 34 Afghan provinces, abuse of women’s rights occurs on a daily basis. In 1950s' Kabul, women were students, worked on university faculties, worked in respected office jobs and even on construction sites. Under King Amanulla in the 1920s, women first won the right to go to schools and under King Zahir Shah, they walked the streets safely without burqas. In the communist 1980s, women were finally viewed as having the right to be involved in policy forming. Many have died as martyrs in order to fight for women's rights over the years in Afghanistan: Malalai Kakar - a prominent police woman, Safia Ama Jan - Director of Ministry of Women's Affairs and Zakia Zaki - journalist, to name but a few have been murdered and tortured by Afghan men for their progressive ideals. Suraya Parlika is a veteran protestor; a widely respected Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Upper House member in the Afghan Parliament. She was imprisoned, beaten regularly and had her fingernails removed. It seems that these women’s momentous sacrifice has somehow not made a difference in the 21st Century." And now we are going to let the Taliban back ! Great.
This month Iran's supreme leader accused the United States of supporting terrorism, pointing to American drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan that he said have killed scores of civilians. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said a country whose military forces are responsible for such deaths can’t lecture the world about fighting terror. As long as American troops are based in Afghanistan, there will be no real security,” Khamenei said.
Perhaps, sadly, he is right.
And then there's Syria. Niccolo Machiavelli said in The Prince, "If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared." Deliver your crushing blow to repress your population, then ease off and be gentle and they'll be yours. That used to be the Syrian way. Every now and again the whisper would go out that there had been more arrests of opposition activists - or executions in Snednya Prison - or whatever. But by and large governance was quite benign. No more. Now things are bad bordering on evil. Perhaps the Syrian example merits closer examination:
The Syrian Reform Group based in America and led by Faride Ghadry called for demonstrations in Syria last Saturday 5th February. They were jumping on the Egypt bandwagon. Not to be outdone the Muslim Brotherhood jumped on Faride Ghadry's bandwagon and called for demonstrations a day earlier on Friday 4th February.
And what happened? There were no demonstrations of any significance. The Muslim Brotherhood were utterly humiliated. Truth is they are very weak in Syria just as they are in Egypt (contrary to Western perceptions). Indeed they were humiliated in Egypt under similar circumstances ("The 6th April Movement" in Egypt successfully called a general strike on 6th April 2010 demanding the removal of President Mubarak but a repeat demonstration called for 6 May 2010 was cancelled by them because they perceived the Muslim Brotherhood as jumping on the bandwagon - this lead to the political humiliation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt at the time).
That is not to say that they would not garner support in a genuine election in either country, perhaps even mustering 20% of the votes. But they can never be the key political force in Syria.
Is that the point? Perhaps not. It was the street, not the Muslim Brotherhood, that led the Egyptian Revolution.
So who then leads the street protests in Syria? It takes courage to demonstrate in Syria given the stronghold the government exercises. The people are the ones that do it. The ordinary people. Not this or that political group. Actually protests might have been far larger but for the economic reforms that have been delivered. Economic you ask? Well yes, economic. To quote the Middle East Association just a month or so ago, "Syria boasts one of the region’s most diversified economies. With ever increasing competition, the private sector is experiencing growth. GDP growth is 4.5%".
And up to recently, Syria was comparatively well run. No chaos. So what's gone wrong? Well the way all this began is interesting:
In an apparent response to Facebook activity, children in the town of Deraa started spray-painting anti-government slogans as graffiti on walls. Some were arrested on 6th March on orders from Atif Najib, head of the Political Security Directorate in Deraa province. A delegation of tribal leaders came to see Atif Najib. The tribal leaders asked for the release of the boys imprisoned for graffiti. In a traditional gesture, they took their headdresses from off their heads and placed them on the table, saying they’d take them up again when the matter had been resolved. By way of response Atif took the khaffiah (headdresses) of the senior tribal leaders from the table and threw them into the rubbish bin. Protests broke out. (Deraa Governor Faisal Kalthoum was subsequently sacked on 22nd March and Atif Najib was dismissed on 9th April - as a sop to the protesters).
And then somewhere in there the Syrian government lost the plot. In my book the seminal event was the killing of the boy. Outrage against the lack of human rights afforded to Syrian citizens during the demonstrations was highlighted by the story of a 13 year old boy called Hamza al-Khateeb. Hamza died in police custody, after being abducted by local security forces whilst attending a protest in the southern town of Saida at the end of April. His battered and mutilated body (with bullet holes in his arms, sides and chest) was returned to his family four weeks later. The Syrian government, totally insensitive to this incident, alleged that he was shot during a demonstration. Dr Akram Shaar stated on state run television “the apparent torture marks were the result of natural decomposition”.
And now all hell has broken loose. Will the government survive in Syria? hard to tell. A coup d'etat is a possibility but unlikely. I think they will hang on. But it's going to be a close call.
Syria, Libya, Palestine, Israel. What future? Not great in the short term but in the longer term things are much healthier. There are prospects for cleaner governance less subject to incompetent Western meddling. There are undoubtedly better prospects for peace. You may need a spyglass to see it but peace is coming. Just make sure your view is not rose tinted.