Diplomatic crisis in the Gulf: old hostilities and new dangers

 

One month after the outbreak of the diplomatic crisis in the Gulf and in the wake of Qatar’s rejection of Saudi demands, it is more than ever imperative to understand the relations that have been historically linking the Peninsula’s countries one with the other and one against the other

 

One month ago, just a few days after Trump’s visit to the Middle East reconsolidated the Washington-Riyadh relationship, several Arab countries severed their diplomatic ties with Qatar; closed all maritime, land and sea links with Doha; and expelled all Qataris residing within their borders. Among those countries, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt stand particularly out – both for their geopolitical importance and for the major role they have been playing in pulling the strings that have led to the crisis that is currently paralyzing the Gulf.

Riyadh and the Arab countries that followed its steps motivated their move through a series of accusation against Doha according to which the latter would have supported groups such as Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas while also maintaining cooperative and cordial ties with Iran – Saudi Arabia’s nemesis.

Faced with the rejection of all accusations on part of Doha and with the support it found in Turkey, Iran and –though with more softer tones- Kuwait and Oman, the “group of four” has proceeded two weeks later to present to Qatar a series of 13 measures with which it was expected to comply within 10 days in order to end the crisis and its isolation within the GCC.

As of today, with Monday’s deadline now passed, Doha has denounced the Saudi requests (that go from the interruption of all links with those groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood that Riyadh labels as terrorist, to the cessation of any cordial relation with Iran, to the shutting down of the network al Jazeera, to the closure of a Turkish military base in Qatar) as unacceptable and a threat to Qatar’s sovereignty. This refusal on part of Doha seems thus to disappoint the hopes of those who had believed in the possibility of a swift end to what has emerged as the worst diplomatic crisis ever in the Gulf region.

On the background of a crisis of such seriousness that not only has no precedents but that also has the potential to change drastically the balances within the GCC and the Arab-Sunni sphere, it becomes fundamental to understand the relationships that have historically defined friendships and hostilities in the Arabic Peninsula and how they are now reflecting on the current events.

Historically, Qatar has characterized itself as the Gulf country with the most autonomous foreign policy with respect to the general line traced by Saudi Arabia and the UAE and followed by the other members of the Council. Indeed, it has always maintained cordial relations with Iran; it has hosted members of the Brotherhood when they were expelled from Sisi’s Egypt, as well as leader of Hamas and representatives of those fringe of the Afghan Taliban open to dialogue with Kabul; it has supported Hamas and its government over Gaza; it has let Al Jazeera become in 2011 a channel of support for the values and the demands that were igniting the Arab Spring and that many fears were causing instead in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain.

It thus emerges how Qatar, with respect to the other Arab-Sunni countries of the peninsula, is a sui generis actor. Interestingly, despite Qatar’s attempts to conjugate its autonomous choices of foreign policy with the necessity to conform with the line dominating within the GCC, this has not been enough to placate the hostility towards Doha on part of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, that has indeed translated into diplomatic tensions more than once.

For Saudi Arabia, in particular, it is the Iran factor to be crucial. Since 2011, with the collapse of traditional regimes in the Middle East and the breaking out of brutal civil wars that have exacerbated the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis, Iran has found room –in Syria, Yemen and Iraq- to assert itself as major regional actor with whom nor its Sunni rivals nor the west could refrain from dealing. This ascent on part of Iran has caused several worries in Riyadh, that has had to cope both with the economic difficulties caused by the drop in the global price of oil and with the threats to security caused by the war in Yemen, by a Shiite population calling for ever more rights, and from a weakening of the ties with Washington under Obama. In this context, it has become crucial for Riyadh to maintain its credibility as major power by asserting its role as regional hegemon vis-à-vis Iran, and it is in the optic of this tough rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia that the isolation imposed by the latter against Qatar needs to be read.

On their part, the UAE seem to be less obsessed with the Iranian nightmare that bothers Riyadh’s sleep and seem rather to put more emphasis on the necessity for Qatar to cut all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and all the other Islamist groups of the region. Abu Dhabi, in fact, sees those groups as a dangerous destabilizing force and as a serious threat to the sustainability of the regional and peninsular status quo on which its foreign policy and its alliances rest. To this, it is then to be added how the UAE hope that the isolation –and therefore the diplomatic weakening- of Qatar can induce the US to transfer to its country the military base it actually has in Qatar.

The UAE’s fears regarding the support provided by Doha to Islamist groups active in the region is also shared by Bahrain and Egypt. Since February 2011, when the Arab spring’s protests engulfed the streets of Manama and threatened the stability of the al-Khalifa family, Bahrain is a strenuous defender of the status quo that the Islamist groups close to Doha seem willing to upset in the name of their political programs of reformism.

A similar concern is found in Cairo: here, since the coup that led Sisi to power in 2013, there has been a tough repression against the Brotherhood and any group connected to them and the government is engaged in a daily fight with Islamist-inspired groups that threaten the country’s security in less centralized areas such as the Sinai Peninsula. Moreover, the tough financial difficulties of the past years have contributed to consolidating the ties between Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, as the gulf countries have provided Egypt with substantial financial aid.

Conversely, Oman and Kuwait have historically played the role of mediators between Qatar –with whom they maintain friendly relations- and the other members of the GCC. Like Qatar, in fact, they have maintained mostly cordial relations with Iran and they similarly believe in the importance of inserting the enhancement of the Gulf-Iran relations in the broader framework of the fight against terrorism and regional instability. Like Doha, then, they have deep ties with Teheran in the field of energy: Oman has been planning for some time to begin importing Iranian gas through a pipeline connecting the Iranian province of Hormuzgan with Sohar, and Kuwait also seems to have recently initiated negotiations with Iran to import its gas.

The crisis that is interesting the Gulf is thus taking place on the background of pre-existing tensions and rivalries that the latest events have not but exacerbated. Because of the longtime nature of these tensions, making predications on what might be the consequences if Qatar and its four neighbors did not find a common line of agreement is extremely difficult. The only assertion that can be made with certainty –and with preoccupation- is that, if an agreement is not reached, the dynamics that have existed in the region until now would be upset and the regional security further compromised.

The undeniable face of apartheid

Israel’s discriminating policies and the need to acknowledge them as first step to countering them

 

It is hard to find a word as evocative of a specific place and time as “apartheid” is of the South Africa of the decades 1948-1994. As one hears or reads the word “apartheid”, the memories of South Africa’s dramatic experience immediately come to mind and images of South African black people’s discrimination, oppression, and humiliation arouse a mixture of compassion, disgust and shame.

 

Yet, apartheid is not limited to last century’s South Africa. The evils that the phenomenon encourages are indeed still much alive in today’s world and –far from having disappeared from – they have merely changed residence and victims.

 

Last week, the UN-linked ESCWA committee published a report entitled “Israeli Practices Towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid” that came as a detailed analysis of all the legislations, policies, and practices pursued by Israel against the Palestinian people that constitute crimes of apartheid.

Recalling the definition of apartheid of the International Criminal Court, the term “apartheid” applies to all “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them”, and according to ESCWA’s report many of Israel’s policies with regards to the Palestinian people fit indeed into this definition.

 

In particular, the main finding of the report is that Israel pursues different policies in its relations with the Palestinians, giving rise in this way to a four-level apartheid system referred to as “strategic fragmentation of the Palestinian people”. According to this fragmentation, Palestinians are divided into four groups: Palestinian citizens of Israel against whom “civil law” is deployed to restrict their freedom; Palestinians in East Jerusalem governed by ever more exclusionary “permanent residency laws”; Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who live under belligerent occupation; and Palestinians living as refugees or in exile who are precluded by law and policy from returning to their homeland. As stated by the report, these apparently different policies are actually part of a broader single policy of apartheid aimed at the preservation of Israel as a Jewish state based on a privileged Jewish majority.

 

Unsurprisingly the report was met with opposing reactions and the distance between them is perhaps the greatest and most disheartening sign of how long the road to equality for Palestinians still is.

If the Palestinian Authority’s endorsement of the report and Israel’s rejection of it were predictable, the decision by UN Secretary General A. Guterres to distance himself from the report has raised some voices of disappointment and several questions over the credibility of the UN system and its capacity to guarantee the respect of international law. On the same line, the US ambassador to the UN declared her country to be “outraged” from the report, sparking further debate not only on the US’s role but –more broadly- on how the international community should react to the report and to Israel’s discriminatory policies.

 

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the international community played a crucial role in uniformly putting pressures on South Africa for the abolition of apartheid, and those universal pressures that saw the world united in one single cause are what made of the defeat of apartheid in South Africa a story of rebirth and hope that belongs not only to the national narrative of South Africa but to the historical narrative of all of us.

Today, the international community should retrieve that same positive role it once played and use towards Israel all the political, diplomatic and economic leverages that are needed to encourage Tel Aviv to reframe its policies and laws towards the Palestinians in conformity with international law.

 

It took South Africa the courage of its people –black and white alike- to give itself a new identity and an inclusive future. Now, it is the turn of the Israelis to show the same courage. It is time for the Israeli civil society to look into the eyes the apartheid system they have created and reinforced over the years and to see that -if they want to defend all the positive values of which Israel can be expression – then that system has to be acknowledged, denounced, and ultimately dismantled.

 

Acknowledgment of a phenomenon is the unavoidable first step of any effort aimed at countering it, and the ESCWA report should have been taken as the opportunity to do exactly that and move towards building a new, positive, inclusive identity for the state of Israel.

Towards a real and lasting Palestinian unity?

 

The Palestinian Authority and Hamas have reached a deal to form a national unity government that might finally pave the way to end intra-Palestinian divisions and feuds

 

After three days of dialogue held in Moscow under Russia’s auspices, last Tuesday the representatives of the main Palestinian political groups –the Palestinian Authority (PA), Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad- announced the reaching of a deal to form a national unity government.

According to the deal, the various groups involved in it will now join Palestinian institutions, will form a new Palestinian National Council (PNC), and will hold long-awaited elections. The last time in which credible and inclusive elections were held, in fact, was more than ten years ago –in 2006- when Hamas’ victory and the subsequent fractions emerged within the Palestinian front led to the rupture Hamas-Fatah and to the de facto division of Palestine between Gaza, since 2007 under Hamas’ rule, and the West Bank, under the control of Abbas and the PA.

Since then, Palestinian politics has deeply suffered due to this internal division that has weakened the credibility of Palestine as a cohesive and credible actor on the international stage, and has compromised any possibility of reaching a two-state solution. The dialogues held last week, if actually turned into the concrete  measures they promise, could thus be the first step toward the resolution of this decade-old fragmentation and a new beginning for Palestinian politics.

 

Over the past years, attempts were made to bring unity within the Palestinian government. However, no initiative for a long-lasting reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah proved successful and internal divisions have continued to prevail, up to the point that last September the Palestinian High Court decided that municipal elections should be held in the West Bank only and then suspended the entire electoral process.

Despite this, though, efforts at reconciliation have now been retrieved and the explanation is to to be found looking at both the international and the intra-Palestinian level.

 

Over the past months, the ascent of Donald Trump and his pro-Israeli rhetoric; the appointment of Friedman as US Ambassador to Israel; the Amona case; and the continuous construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank have brought once again the Palestinian issue and the two-state solution to the attention of the international community – that over the past years had been mostly focused on other Middle Eastern problems. In the context of this renewed attention given to the Palestinian issue, important episodes were the adoption on part of the UN Security Council of a resolution condemning Israeli settlements, and the international conference on peace in the Middle East held in France and attended by representatives of 70 countries. Though the impact these initiatives will have is likely to be extremely limited, they are nonetheless important steps that reveal the general pro-Palestinian attitude of the international community and the growing isolation of Israel.

It is thus on the background of these developments on the international stage that it is possible to explain Abbas’ decision to take advantage of this mood of general support by reaching a Palestinian political unity. Indeed, only by overcoming internal divisions and by giving to Palestine a unitary government, can Abbas present the Palestinian state as a cohesive, credible, and reliable actor and encourage further the backing of the international community – a goal particularly important in a moment in which Trump’s advent to the White House rises uncertainties and concerns among the Palestinians.

 

To these considerations we should then add the Palestinian internal dimension, so as to give a more comprehensive explanation of the reasons that have led now the various Palestinian groups to renew attempts at unity.

As far as Abbas is concerned, despite his leadership being confirmed last November at the Congress of Fatah, the Palestinian leader has seen his popularity decrease diminish over the years. The achievement of a lasting national unity would thus represent for Abbas and his future political legacy an extremely important success capable of ameliorating his image to the eyes of a Palestinian people tired of divisions and feuds. Moreover, Fatah has been since 2007 in a situation in which its legitimacy as guide of the Palestinians is continuously challenged and questioned by the presence of Hamas’ government in Gaza and by the frictions existing with the other groups of the Palestinian political mosaic. The only solution for Fatah to solve this legitimacy problem is through the calling of and the participation in truly inclusive elections.

On its part, Hamas is experiencing difficulties at governing over Gaza. At this respect, the most recent example is represented by the difficulties that the group is having in providing constant energy to the Gazans and that, last week, ultimately sparked a wave of protests. As these protests have revealed, Hamas’ difficulties at governing risk deteriorating the popular support which the group traditionally enjoys in Gaza and this makes it reasonable for Hamas to pursue a reconciliation with Fatah and to join a national unity government that can ameliorate governability in the Strip and thus save the group’s image and credibility.

Finally, as far as the smaller groups such as PIJ are concerned, to them the formation of a government of national unity as first step towards elections is functional to increase their capacity of influence and expand their basin of supporters beyond their traditional areas.

 

In conclusion, both considerations linked to the international realm and considerations linked to the Palestinian one have contributed to encouraging the main Palestinian actors to renew attempts at reconciliation. It is now to be seen if these attempts will be translated into concrete actions capable of giving to Palestine the cohesion it needs.

Colombia’s only way out of war

 

 

Why the agreement reached by Santos and the FARC is the best option Colombians have to leave their bloody past of civil conflict behind and build a future of peace and growth

 

After 52 years of a civil war that cost the life of 220,000 people, after long-drawn and tiring negotiations, and after a referendum that in October seemed to have halted the whole process, the Colombian Senate and Congress approved a revised peace agreement (to which 50 changes have been introduced with respect to the former version) reached by the government led by Santos and the FARC guerrillas led by Timoshenko.

 

However, despite the importance of the Congress’s approval in pushing the peace process forward, opposition to the agreement among Colombians still remain.

Led by former President Uribe, many Colombians who have never seen their country at peace, consider the deal reached by Santos too lenient, since it grants amnesty to FARC members who have blood on their hands and it allows FARC leaders to take part legitimately in the country’s political life.

 

Confronted with such opposition, if Santos wants the agreement on which he has spent so much time and so much energy to become effective and to be enforced, he has to embark with seriousness, patience, and constancy in the most difficult challenge of all: explaining to his fellow citizens -many of whom have suffered (or seen family members and friends suffer) at the hands of the FARC- why a peace agreement is the best option on the table and the only way out of war.

 

After half a century of civil war that has torn the country’s stability apart and severely reduced its potential of growth, it is clear that the Colombian army cannot succeed in winning against the FARC militarily.

As the events of the past years have shown, the best that the Colombian army can hope for is to win battles against the FARC, but winning the war is another matter and one in which the possibilities of success for the country’s regular forces are simply too low to be credible and too weak to stand as foundations of an effective strategy. Due to both flaws of the Colombian army in terms of training, corruption and technological development and due to the fighting capabilities of the FARC and the free movement that they enjoy in many parts of the country where the government’s protection umbrella does not reach, the asymmetrical war between army and guerrillas is thus one that -if let free to continue- will likely condemn the country to other 50 years of death and suffering.

 

In this context, it is thus evident that an alternative to a military confrontation which is doomed to stalemate needs to be found, and the only viable alternative rests in an agreement. Recalling a classical mantra of political affairs, if you cannot win against your enemy you cannot but sit down with him and work on a solution acceptable to both.

In the case of the FARC-government confrontation, the only solution is a political deal capable of halting the conflict and encouraging the FARC to give up weapons. However, for this to be possible and to encourage the FARC to move along a path that goes “from bullets to ballots” some concessions need to be made, and it is here that amnesty and participation in the political process find their explanation and justification. Without granting to the FARC amnesty and without allowing the FARC leaders to take part as a legitimate force in the country’s politics, it would in fact be impossible for Colombia to obtain the cessation of hostilities and fighting to which it and its people aspire.

As the experiences of other countries have shown, (from post-apartheid South Africa to the agreement singed last October in Afghanistan between Ghani and Hekmatyar) complex processes of national pacification always come with a price, and necessarily require the population to come at terms with its bloody past, to forgive and at times to forget, in order to build a peaceful future.

 

Clearly, the Colombian case is one of a costly and painful do ut des, but one that is necessary if the aim is to achieve peace. Therefore, what Santos needs to explain to his people is that, even if it seems that it is the government that is conceding the most, if the peace agreement is given a chance it will be the country and not the FARC to win the most.

 

 

[Picture: The Economist]

Bibi’s great refusal

 

The proposal of dialogue coming from Paris has revealed all the difficulties inherent in an effective revival of the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, with the Israeli front led by an extreme-Right coalition not interested in dialogue and a Palestinian front that claims to be disposed to talk but which is actually too weak to

 

The last attempt made by third parties to encourage a revival of the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians was made in 2014 by a then hopeful –but soon disillusioned- John Kerry, and collapsed a few months later after the reconciliation agreement reached by Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA) and a Hamas that the international community has always resented to regard as legitimate and reliable partner in attempts at dialogue and peace-building.

Two years after the failure of the Obama administration, it was France who proposed over the last months to promote a new Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, but once again hope has soon been replaced by resignation. Last Monday, in fact, during the visit in Israel by France’s envoy Pierre Vemont, Netanyahu voices his neat and irrevocable refusal to take part in any such dialogue as proposed by Paris and the PM’s “no” seems to have curbed the French proposal for good.

 

On the background of a Middle Eastern scenario ever more dispiriting –with Yemen and Syria doomed to an endless civil war, and an Iraq over which the threat of ethnic and religious sectarianism is looming again as the battle for Mosul goes on- Netanyahu’s “no” becomes the last piece of a bleak puzzle and the latest proof of how any prospect of an open, sincere and credible dialogue within the Israeli-Palestinian context is ever more utopic.

 

In particular, Netanyahu’s refusal reveals in an undeniable and worrying way how the Israeli government is dominated by an extreme-right coalition that conceals its extremism behind weak justifications and pretexts. Despite Netanyahu’s government justifying his stance with respect to the French proposal saying it is open only to initiatives coming directly from the Palestinians and only to proposals for a bilateral dialogue, Tel Aviv’s refusal is nothing but a clear closure to any possibility of dialogue. The refusal to convene in Paris, in fact, cannot be seen as an incentive to encourage the Palestinians to direct and bilateral dialogues with Israel (despite this being the Israeli government’s rhetoric) but only as a rejection of any initiative that aspires to promote negotiation and to address the demands of Palestinian nationalism.

 

To counterbalance Netanyahu’s refusal came instead the acceptance of the French proposal on part of Abbas and Erekat, who declared their openness to a multilateral dialogue encouraged by a third party.

Clearly, Abbas’ “yes ” is ot enough to make of the Palestinian front the ideal partner in a dialogue as complex as the one between Tel Aviv and Ramallah.  Indeed, within the Palestinian political picture there continue to exist deep divisions between the PA and Hamas (with a series of minor parties and groups to complicate internal factionalism) and this rises doubts on the Palestinians’ capacity to select for the process of dialogue figures truly capable to represent the whole Palestinian people and all the colours that make up its social and political reality.

 

Paris’ proposal, thus, failed in changing the stalemate in which the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue has been for the past two years, but it has nonetheless contributed to make light on the difficulties that continue to obstruct dialogue and on the subsequent steps that the international community should take. From this point of view, as far as the Israeli front is concerned, USA and EU should use their diplomatic and economic leverage to induce the Israeli Right that is currently ruling the country to moderate its stance and its most controversial policies (above all that of settlements in the occupied territories). On the other hand, as far as the Palestinian front is concerned, it would be necessary to encourage truly inclusive elections, capable of giving to the Palestinian people that undivided and legitimate voice that is essential for dialogue to start.

 

Until this is done, the Israeli “no” will remain an immovable obstacle and the Palestinian “yes” an empty assent.

 

 

[Picture rights: Atef Safadi/Reuters]

The ignored war of the Middle East

 

Assessing the reasons why the world’s major powers pay little attention to what goes on on the Yemeni front

 

In the Middle Eastern geostrategic dynamics and in the international media establishment a dangerous phenomenon is steadily consolidating: while everyone’s attention is focused on crucial battlefields such as Mosul and Aleppo, Yemen continues to be the theatre of a forgotten –or rather ignored- civil war.

But why is it so? Why is a civil war that in just two years has caused one of the worst humanitarian emergencies of our time so little spoken of?

The reasons are essentially two.

 

First of all, there is the complexity of the Yemeni war that makes it difficult to give a clear reading of the conflict, to reach a true understanding of its political and sectarian causes, of its evolving dynamics, of its array of actors and interests, and of its regional impact.

Yemen’s conflict -broken out in 2014 when the Houthi rebels of the north forced President Hadi to leave the country and seek exile in Saudi Arabia- is indeed particularly challenging to be understood in all its dimensions because it lacks the black-and-white contraposition that characterizes other regional conflicts. Since its outbreak, the war has been defined by a wide multidimensionality: it is a Yemeni internal confrontation between the Houthi/Saleh front and Hadi; it is a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia (with its GCC allies) and Iran; and it is a sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni forces. Therefore, understanding the war in Yemen requires understanding these many intricate and at times overlapping levels of conflict, but since applying different keys of reading to a single theatre is not an easy task (neither for policymakers nor for analysts) this has contributed to Yemen’s marginalization in the global public debate.

 

Nevertheless, there is another, more explicatory, and more worrying reason why the world is paying so little attention to Yemen: unlike what we have been witnessing in places of the Levant such as Syria and Iraq, major international powers such as the US, the EU and Russia are simply little interested in Yemen and in Yemeni affairs. And this is so for three main reasons.

 

Since its emergence out of the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, the Yemeni Republic has been one of the poorest countries of the entire Arab region.

According to the last report of the World Bank, even prior to the conflict Yemen was facing widespread poverty and economic stagnation: despite enjoying a crucial position with respect to the Mandeb Strait -which is the  fourth most important passage for international oil trade- Yemen always had to face economic difficulties because of the government’s poor management of resources and infrastructures; because of a widespread corruption curbing any entrepreneurial ambition; because of a dramatic and unsustainable population growth; and because of an economy that, unlike that of the other Gulf states, relied mainly on agricultural production rather than on oil export. Due to these economic weaknesses and vulnerabilities Yemen never attracted significant amounts of FDIs, which means that today there is no major world power with crucial and direct economic interests in Yemen to be protected.

Conversely, in countries such as Iraq and Syria, Western powers and Russia have cultivated economic and commercial interests since the late XIX century and the need to protect these interests is today one of the major reasons behind their direct involvement in those countries’ crises and behind the attention they pay to everything that happens in there.

 

Apart from economic considerations, though, there is also another factor that comes to explain the little interest foreign powers have in Yemen and it has to do with geo-strategy. In terms of geo-strategic considerations in fact, Yemen –with its position in the southern-westernmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula- has never been considered as a crucial player by foreign powers. Countries deeply involved in the region such as Britain and the US, in fact, have traditionally founded their involvement in the area on alliances with other more influential and more powerful countries. The only interest that foreign powers have in Yemen is that of avoiding the situations that might change the existing balance of power and create instability in the Gulf- and it is in the framework of this logic that the decision of the US and Britain to support the Saudi-led coalition needs to be placed.

Conversely, in the cases of Syria and Iraq foreign actors such as Washington, London, Brussels and Moscow have many and long-time geo-strategic interests because of those countries’ position in the heart of the Levant and because of their physical vicinity to the borders of Europe and Russia.

 

In addition to this, the issue of geographic position is also relevant to understand the final reason why foreign powers are little interested in Yemen and totally focused on Syria and Iraq instead.

Due to Yemen’s already mentioned position in the southernmost tip of the Arabic Peninsula, the war that has been tearing the country apart since Fall 2014 does not constitute a direct threat to the security of major foreign powers. Indeed, despite the number of refugees created by the conflict is dramatically high, most of them have fled to countries of the neighbouring region such as Djibouti, Somaliland, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Conversely, the refugees created by the wars in Syria and Iraq have mostly attempted to seek asylum in Western countries – above all Europe, but also the US and Canada – which are more easily reachable for them than for poorer Yemenis.  These flows of refugees have put a burden on the capacity of Western countries to deal with increasingly multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious societies and have created security concerns that contribute to explain why the US, the UK and the EU focus so much on Syria and Iraq while ignoring Yemen.

 

On the background of this general lack of interest, it does not surprise that when Hadi last week refused the latest UN proposal for a peace negotiation few have paid attention to it.

And yet this is a huge mistake on part of the international community. Humanitarian considerations (the number of dead, displaced people and refugees caused by the war in Yemen cannot but deeply touch our human sensibility) and security calculations (the instability and power vacuum of Yemen has inflamed sectarian tensions that could easily spread to other regional countries and has played the game of terrorist groups such as AQAP that have seen their influence grow) call for the international community to use its influence over the Saudis in order to favour the reaching of an agreement capable of bringing about the inclusive government Yemen is desperately needing.

 

It’s time for the international community to start caring about Yemen.

 

 

[Picture rights: Reuters]

Eid al-Fitr and the challenges ahead for the Muslim world

After having a heavy meal cooked by a Muslim friend with whom I had the privilege to share the joy that Eid-al-Fitr brings with it, and while walking around the old city of Jaffa, where streets and restaurants were full of families dining together in a deeply cheerful and almost magical atmosphere, I could not but look back at the week that has just passed and at its painful events.

 

From Bangladesh, to Iraq, to Saudi Arabia – in fact – the Muslim world has gone over the past days through a series of attacks that have hit its heart, its people, and its symbols.

After suicide attacks in Dhaka on Friday and in Baghdad on Sunday, Monday was the turn of the Sauds’ Kingdom: starting from early in the morning, suicide bombers conducted attacks in Jeddah near the American consulate; in Qatif against a Shia mosque; and in Medina outside the Prophet’s mosque – which is Islam’s second holiest site and that during the month of Ramadan attracts thousands of pilgrims.

 

Despite thus far no official claim for the attacks has been made by any group, all fingers pointed to the Islamic State, considered to be the responsible for the escalation of violence that has tinted with blood the last days of the Muslims’ holiest month.

 

Such attacks, in fact, fully reflect what has been emerging over the past months as the new tactics employed by ISIS. As already underlined at the time of the latest attacks in Paris and Brussels, the group is changing strategy in order to deal with a changing scenario and with declining capabilities.

While in 2011 the group led by al-Baghdadi emerged on the Iraqi and Syrian scene and distinguished itself for its unparalleled capacity to conquest territory and to attract recruits worldwide in a way that no previous jihadist group had been able to do, over the past few months the situation has begun to change. The group, indeed, is continuously losing ground in both Iraq and Syria (where it is hit by regional and international enemies), and the more it loses ground the more the number of recruits decreases. To deal with a balance of force that is no longer leaning in its favour, ISIS is thus exploring new strategies.

 

On the one hand, the group is trying to expand its presence in those territories where the absence of credible and strong state institutions can be exploited to establish a local presence and gain new ground and support. This is what the group is now doing in countries such as Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan, where the state institutions are either absent or so weak that it is possible for al-Baghdadi’s group to take advantage of the deteriorating political and security situation to occupy areas and try to win the support of a tired and hopeless local population.

 

On the other hand, the group is trying to compensate its territorial losses with a new al-Qaeda-like tactics. Rather than focusing exclusively on the project of creating an Islamic State in the area known as al-Sham, the group led by al-Baghdadi is now hitting foreign targets as well (the so-called “far enemy” of the 1990s al-Qaeda’s strategy). The aim of this new tactics is to expand the group’s global presence so as to retain the credibility it had gained in the jihadist universe, strengthen its image of success abroad, and obtain the visibility it needs to avoid the number of recruits to drop even more.

 

The attacks perpetrated in Saudi Arabia are fully coherent with this strategy. Through those attacks, in fact, the group tried to obtain visibility; to question the credibility of the Saudis as protectors of Islam’s holy sites; and to undermine the Kingdom’s relations with foreign allies and with its own Shia population.

 

However, the violence disseminated by the group rather than dividing the Muslim world has encouraged Muslims from all countries and all sects of faith to get together in condemning it. The hashtag #PrayforMedina has invaded the Internet, and public figures and groups from the whole Muslim world (Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif, the Lebanese Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, the Jordanian government…) have voiced their outrage.

This unity between Sunnis and Shias in condemning the acts of violence perpetrated by what is nothing more than a group of extremists shows how terrorism is the product of given social, political and historical contexts and occurrences and not –as many would like to make us believe – of given religious faiths.

Confronted with extremists such as ISIS-affiliates that threaten many countries’ security and stability, as well as Islam’s legitimacy and image, the challenge for Muslim states and Muslim people (both religious leaders and simple believers) all over the world is to stick united in condemning violence. Only in this way, in fact, it will be possible to use the power of information to spread religious awareness and thus counter the distortions that fanatics promote and prevent youngsters from falling victim of their heinous message.

 

And no day is better than Eid-al-Fitr to start a new year of inter-sect unity and cooperation against extremism.

The importance we should be giving to the nuclear deal with Iran

What Republicans and many others in the West should take into account when dealing with the Islamic Republic and its nuclear program

The Iranian nuclear program was first initiated under the Shah in the ‘70s. At that time the USA and many other western countries regarded Iran as their ally and “policeman” in the region, Shiism was still characterized by a certain political quietism, Khomeini was nothing more than a voice of dissent coming from Paris and the prospect of a nuclear Iran was not a threat at all.

After 1979, when Khomeini ceased being a voice of dissent and became the voice of Iran, when the line separating religion and politics became blurred, when the country became an Islamic Republic guided by an often radical clergy and the Shah was nothing more than a sick monarch in exile, the prospect of a nuclear Iran began to be perceived in the West as a real threat. Set aside until the ‘80s, in 1995 the nuclear program was seriously retrieved and in the early 2000 became one of the main issues on which to base the relationship West-Iran.

The mistakes made by Bush’s blindness (above all his resolute refusal of the “Guldimann Grand Bargain” that contributed to Katami’s decline and paved the way to Ahmadinejad’s radical stance) and ignorance regarding Iran (that was inserted in an axis of evil even though in 2003-2004 it had stopped its nuclear activity to facilitate negotiations with the EU Three, then collapsed mainly due to the USA intransigence) made the issue grow tougher. It is with Obama that the US approach to Iran undergoes a necessary and valuable re-orientation: Iran is acknowledged to be too important in the Middle Eastern dynamics to be an enemy, and the possibilities to build a new relationship are at this point recognized to be highly dependent on the solution of the nuclear issue, on which discussions seriously begin in December 2013.

Deadline after deadline, the only thing we are now sure of is that for both sides the nuclear deal is something too important to be let go. Looking at the Iran’s international isolation and the dissatisfaction of the Iranian people after years of sanctions, we can easily understand the importance the nuclear deal has for the country’s people , but it is as much important for us too.

Why?

On the political level, reaching a deal would mean that Iran is subject to international controls, that international personnel can have access to Iran’s nuclear sites and keep under control the process of uranium enrichment to make sure it doesn’t reach the level which marks the border between civilian and military use. Until now such controls have not been possible and without a deal they would remain impossible, thus preventing us from knowing what is really going on at Iran’s nuclear sites.

No deal doesn’t in any way mean no nuclear Iran; it only means no controls.

Iran has by now reached a point of technological development thanks to which it has acquired the capability to become the next nuclear power. At this point the only thing we can do is trying to keep that capability under control; as for trying to cancel it, it is just too late.

Those who fear that allowing Iran to go on with its nuclear program will introduce a further element of destabilization in the Middle East, prompting Sunni states like Saudi Arabia to start a nuclear program too, should wonder what will happen without deal: a nuclear power under no control, Sunni states and Israel feeling threatened, military actions and proxy wars therefore much more likely, further destabilization in a region already touched by chaos.

Those who state that protracted sanctions will eventually bind Iran and make collapse its nuclear program, thus making the deal not necessary, fail to understand the reality of the Islamic Republic. In the limbo between authoritarianism and democracy the Iran’s government is not accountable in the same way in which democratic governments are; and past experiences show that when you are not dealing with a full democracy, then sanctions won’t work. They will just be manipulated by those in power, until reaching the paradox of becoming a weapon against those who enforced them (this is for instance what happened with Saddam after the Second Gulf War). Looking at Iran, whose government cannot be compared to fully authoritarian ones either, we can see that here people overtly express their resentment and the desire for sanctions to be lifted. On the other hand though, these complaints don’t reach the deaf ears of those in power, as sanctions are benefitting those who are close to the regime (in particular the Sepah), who are taking advantage of soaring prices. And this is why going on with further sanctions won’t be the answer to the nuclear issue: those hit by sanctions are not those who take decisions, and those who benefit from sanctions have power enough not to step back.

On the economic level, a deal would mean a gradual but definitive lifting of sanctions.

In this way Iran would be back on the world stage, retrieve its economic growth, weave new financial and economic relationships, go back exporting oil and gas, attract new investments and invest in its turn . And this would have positive repercussions not only the country’s economy but on the broader regional one, that can’t but benefit from the re-emergence of what can be a leading economy in the Middle East, thanks to its natural resources and labor force, its traditional role of bridge between middle east and South Asia and an internal political stability that in the region is unfortunately not the rule. The possibilities that an Iran integrated in the global economic system can unfold for the region have been for instance acknowledged also by the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government), that has declared it would benefit from acquiring Iranian gas and oil.

The positive implications, on both regional security and regional economy, that a nuclear deal between P5+1 and Iran would have, are thus the keys to explain why diplomats from all over the world are investing so much in negotiations and why can’t they just be let turn out into nothing.

The fight to keep our past alive

The path to follow in order to find a balance between protecting our past and securing our future, and why military should be left out of it

Our fight against time is as old as humankind itself. The inexorable flow of hours, months and years is a tragedy we have always known we cannot escape. And though men, throughout their history, have proved brave and resilient and have found ways to freeze time, to bind its flow and leave a trace of their passage that nothing could cancel.

And in this fight –as the prehistoric caves in Africa prove – the stronger tool in our hands has always been art. Art in all its form, art as the most powerful means to tell those who will come who we were, and how they are who they are.

This is how we have been winning this millennial fight. This is how our cities, museums, archeological sites tell us how did we get here.

Then why are there men who have passed to the enemy’s field? Why are there men trying to erase our past and with it our identity, letting time laugh at us?

Because when I said men are brave and resilient, I forgot to add that men can also be weak and ignorant.

That’s why men, throughout all their history, have built magnificent things, but also destroyed magnificent things. That’s why men have tried to produce things that could leave a mark in history, but also destroyed the  marks left by others – failing to see that you don’t have to make something to appreciate and respect it, failing to realize that it doesn’t matter who is the author, what his religion or his nationality is, since what is done by one man in any remote part of the world is an achievement of us all.

Far from being a new phenomenon, it is once again men’s ignorance to guide groups who have cancelled some of the most ancient and beautiful things men had built in the Middle East. They have thus far consigned to history pieces of arts such as the Gorgon heads of the Assyrians , four out of six world heritage sites Syria had, the mosaics the Romans made to decorate their palaces and temples, the statues kept in the Mosul museum, the ruins of the ancient cities of Hatra and Nimrud…and the fear now is that Palmyra, an ancient Roman city in Syria, could follow suit.

Partly convinced of their idolatrous nature and significance- proof of the “infidels” who once lived those lands- and partly looting those antiquities to sell them and thus finance their activities, those groups are right now cancelling our achievements.

Saving art is far more than just saving beauty: it means saving our history from disappearing.

We have, therefore, to protect our past from ignorance and self-deceiving ideologies. But such a mission comes at a price, and what is to be decided now is what price are we disposed to pay, and is rational to pay.

I firmly believe, as person who had tears in her eyes when admiring for the first time the majesty and stunning beauty of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, that saving art is a duty we cannot avoid. But I also believe that calls for military actions and proposals such as the creation of “blue helmets of culture” or the one that came from UNESCO, calling for the creation of protected cultural zones, fail to recognize that there is no work of art – no matter how ancient or beautiful – that can be compared to human life.

We have to save art but all the efforts of the international community should be aimed at protecting people. We have to preserve our past but the priority is to grant everyone a future. Groups who destroy our past, in fact, are threatening our future even more, and “protected cultural zones” should not be created until there are men, women and children living in “terror exposed zones”.

The fight to save future and man cannot but overcome that to save past and art.

If those proposals lack pragmatism and common sense, the positive and hopeful note is represented by all those people who, in many countries, have taken on themselves initiatives to save what they regard as a heritage too precious to be let go.

In Mosul locals have risked everything to protect a local minaret; others in Syria and Iraq (for instance in Idlib) have concealed works of art or sent them abroad to foreign museums; and among the most important initiatives there are educative programs, held by academics in areas under rebels’ control, aimed at explaining the members of those groups the importance – and the interests – of preserving art. At this respect, an invaluable job is that of the so-called Syria’s Monuments Men. This is a group of 200 local archeologists, academics and volunteers who are travelling unarmed all over the country to save from looting and disruption what is left in Syrian museums and Syrian cities, and who are also organizing meetings with the groups operating there, to educate them to be more sympathetic to cultural heritage.

These examples of courage and action tell us that, in order to prevent time from cancelling what we have been and what we have done, the best path is for the international community to avoid military actions. Military interventions, indeed, far from saving ancient sites would just turn them into battlefields, endangering even more the lives of the locals.

A better measure, on the contrary, would be to rely on art experts and institutions all over the world to support local people and local museums in cataloguing, concealing and sending abroad works of art, that to survive need to leave – hopefully only temporarily – their lands of origin. Far from becoming a fight among world museums to host those pieces of art – fight that would only make Syrian and Iraqi museums reluctant to send their antiquities abroad – it should be a worldwide cooperative work aimed at finding temporary new homes for those endangered beauties. So that in the centuries to come they will still be there telling our posterity who we were.

It is a matter of fact that there are things that cannot be saved from their destiny, and at times we lose our fight.

This was the case in Afghanistan when in March 2001 the Taliban turned into dust the 1500 year old Bamiyan Buddhas. And though, for any man who – blinded by his own ignorance – proves unable to appreciate art, history and culture, there are thousands of men who will never give up defending our heritage with creativity and passion – in this fight far more effective than any weapon. During the nights of the 6th and 7th of June, in fact, a Chinese couple realized in the holes left by the Taliban more than a decade ago, 3-D projections of the Buddhas.

Certainly not comparable to what we lost, nevertheless their light forced time to come back at our will for two nights. And it reminds us that man’s desire to defend his past is something too big to be stemmed.

Something that not even explosives and ignorance can destroy.

Hello world!

Hi! My name is Marta Furlan. I am from Italy and was born in Milan in 1993. I speak five languages, my main areas of interest are the Middle East and Islamist terrorism and my great passion is traveling. I’m majoring in Foreign Languages for International Relations at the Catholic University. Last year I attended a summer course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on the role of Israel in the Middle East, and have recently had been working in South Africa at the Chamber of Commerce in Johannesburg. I am currently completing my thesis on the development of jihadist terrorism by Al Qaeda in ISIS.

Follow my blog if you have a strong interest in International Relations, especially Middle East.