The diplomatic crisis in the Gulf: Saudi Arabia’s hazard, Qatar’s isolation and Iran’s potential win

 

Where does the diplomatic crisis that has been unfolding in the Gulf in the past couple of days stems from and where does it risk leading the region

 

In what to many has been a familiar déjà-vu, a diplomatic crisis with Qatar at the centre of it has been unfolding in the past couple of days in the Gulf. However, despite not being anything new to the region’s inner actors and outside experts, this time the diplomatic rift has assumed more dramatic tones: unlike what happened in 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and the Maldives did not limit to sever diplomatic ties with Doha but also severed all sea, land and air ties; issued expulsion orders to Qataris residing in their countries; and expelled Qatar from the Saudi-led coalition that is fighting in Yemen against the Houthi rebels.

According to what reported by Saudi news agencies on Monday 5th of May, the reasons that led Riyadh to adopt such tough measures against Qatar and that led the other countries mentioned above to follow suit are to be found in Doha’s financial and material support to terrorist and extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and to its excessively close ties to Shia Iran.

As a matter of fact, Qatar has historically characterized itself for a somewhat independent foreign policy that has at times created rifts and tensions between the Emirate and the other GCC countries: it has always maintained cordial ties to Iran, with which it manages gas exploitation in South Pars, the world’s largest gas reserve that lies in the Gulf’s waters between Iran and Qatar; it has traditionally sponsored and provided a safe haven to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood; it has maintained close and cooperative links with PA’s rival Hamas; and in 2011 its news outlet Al Jazeera largely supported the Arab Spring that was conversely arousing the fears of GCC countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen.

Nevertheless, Qatar has always tried to balance its quite independent foreign and regional policy with substantive alignment with the GCC, as its involvement in the war in Yemen to restore President Hadi and its participation in the fight against ISIS proves. Therefore, the decision of Saudi Arabia to cut all sort of ties with Doha, without even clarifying which steps should Qatar take to step out of its current isolation, needs to be explained in light of other and deeper considerations than mere accusations of links with terrorism (from which not even Saudi Arabia itself is exempted) and with Iran (a country with which also Oman has pretty cordial relations).

The tough moves embraced by Saudi Arabia against Qatar are taking place just a couple of weeks after President Trump made of Riyadh the first destination of its first Presidential trip abroad. There, the American President’s words and acts (among which the signature of a new arms deal worth 110 billion $ stands out) revealed an American Middle Eastern policy that sees in Saudi Arabia a major strategic partner with whom to fight terrorism and curb Iran’s aspirations to regional hegemony.

Unsurprisingly, but perhaps more quickly and more dramatically than expected, this new attitude of Washington towards Riyadh has made the kingdom more self-confident in its self-entrusted role as Sunni leader and has encouraged its already assertive posture vis-à-vis Iran. Thus, emboldened by a retrieved friendship with the US that the years of the Obama administration had seemed to cool, Saudi Arabia has decided to act promptly and to assert its prominence as Sunni anti-Iranian leader by cutting ties with a Qatari neighbour judged not belligerent enough against Teheran.

In doing so, though, Riyadh is playing with fire and it is risking unleashing further tensions in an already troubled region.

As Qatar sees itself isolated in the Gulf peninsula and with no reliable friends in the GCC, its only hopes of re-inclusion rest with the mediating role that Turkey and the US might play. However, until now neither Ankara nor Washington has clearly intervened in the diplomatic rift on Qatar’s behalf: the former seems reticent to openly criticize Riyadh’s assertiveness and seems to be considering the UAE as a possible country where to transfer its military base currently installed in Qatar; the latter, on its part, is too absorbed by the fight against the PKK and the dynamics of the Syrian war to search another confrontation.

In this context of deep isolation, in which old enemies resurface and old friends shied away, Qatar might thus find itself in a situation in which strengthening its ties with Teheran becomes the best and only path out of the solitude. If this did occur, the shift of a Sunni major strategic and economic power like Qatar to Iran’s camp would risk exacerbating further the dangerous confrontation between Riyadh and Teheran, with unpredictable –but surely destructive- effects on the entire region.

Saudi Arabia should therefore remember that by playing with fire you risk sparking flames that you cannot control -and getting burnt yourself.

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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.

Palestine’s lost elections

 

The Palestinian Authority’s decision to postpone the municipal elections in Palestine reveals how deep the fracture between Hamas and Fatah is and warns about its dangerousness for the future developments of Palestinian politics

 

Until 1987, talking of Palestinian politics essentially meant talking of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), of Fatah (the prevailing party within the PLO), and of Yasser Arafat (founder of Fatah and leader of the Palestinian cause). In 1987, though, the sparks of the continuous fights with Israel ignited the First Intifada and the Palestinian political theatre was made more complex by the appearance of a new actor – Hamas.

Founded in Gaza as local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas opposes to the nationalist and secular ideology of Fatah a nationalist and Islamist one; it reacts to Fatah’s claimed abandonment of political violence in 1988 with a Charter that praises armed struggle as sole means for the liberation of Palestine; and it competes with Fatah for the support of the Palestinian people.

Remained in a somewhat marginal position until Arafat’s death in 2004, in 2006 Hamas takes part in the Palestinian legislative elections and obtains a victory that changes in a crucial way the Palestinian political environment and the balances of power within it. Indeed, Fatah’s hegemony is for the first time seriously put into question and the Hamas-Fatah competition becomes so deep that it leads to war and, in June 2007, to an executive duplicity whereby Gaza goes under the control of Hamas while the West Bank remains under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Since that moment on, talking of Palestinian politics means essentially talking of the contraposition between Fatah and Hamas and of the challenges that it poses to the socio-political dynamics of Palestine.

 

 

The irreconcilability of the two groups emerged clearly in 2012, with Hamas’ decision to boycott the local elections by refusing to taking part into them, and again in 2014 with the failure of the attempts aimed at creating a unitary government.

On the background of these dispiriting precedents, a new gleam of hope with respect to the possibility of healing the division seemed to emerge with the prospect of the municipal elections that should have taken place in 416 cities of Gaza and the West Bank on October 8 and to which both Hamas and Fatah should have participated.

However, once again, what was a hope remained such and what was a division deemed by many as irresolvable was confirmed as such. On October 8, in fact, the Palestinian High Court decreed that the elections would take place in the West Bank only, accusing Hamas of attempting to boycott the electoral process by using Gaza’s local courts to cancel nine members of Fatah from the lists.

Unsurprisingly, the ruling of the High Court was met with harsh accusations of partiality on part of Hamas, that refused to consider the ruling legitimate and underlined how its nature was political rather than judicial. Indeed, the ruling of the High Court seems to stem from the fear of Fatah about experiencing again a defeat such as that of 2006; from the PA’s convenience to postpone the elections in a moment in which its popularity is extremely low; and from Abbas’ worry that the elections (seen in the West Bank as a referendum on his person) might lead to his definitive political defeat.

New complexities emerged then on October 4, when the PA replied to the High Court’s decision declaring that there would be no elections without the participation of Gaza, but that –to make such participation possible- Hamas should “neutralize” its position. For the moment, being Hamas and Fatah incapable of finding an agreement that could restart the electoral process, the elections have been postponed for four months.

 

The ruling of the High Court came thus to disappoint the Palestinians’ hope in a future national unity, since it revealed the merely rhetoric value of Hamas’ and Fatah’s declarations in support of reconciliation and confirmed instead the permanence of an intra-Palestinian division which is territorial, demographic, and political.

The consequence of this division is that the two parties –each busy trying to affirm its superiority over the other- are actually weakening the Palestinian political front and the feasibility of the Palestinians’ aspiration to a nation state. Indeed, incapable of healing their divergences and of confronting each other in a legitimate and democratic electoral process, Fatah and Hamas are depriving their people of the right to express their voice through the vote and are obstructing the elaboration of a Palestinian political position which is representative of the popular will, cohesive, coherent, legitimate, and credible.

In front of the current situation, two paths are thus possible. In the best possible scenario (that though the latest events make now look somewhat utopic) the hope is that Hamas and Fatah succeed in addressing the problems that have led to the current stalemate; in retrieving the electoral process by participating both into it; and in cancelling that dangerous separation between Hamas-Gaza and Fatah-West Bank that is endangering the realization of the Palestinian cause. Conversely, if this is not done and Hamas and Fatah maintain their irreconcilability, the current division would transform into a real fracture, with the social and political system of Palestine torn between Gaza and the West Bank and the prospect of a state unity ever more faltering and ever farther.

 

 

[Picture rights:Mohamad Torokman/Reuters]

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Which future for Gaza?

One month after the Turkish-Israeli agreement and the arrival of the first Turkish aid in Gaza, the issue of what future lies ahead for the Strip under a blockade regime that Israel is not intentioned to lift remains open and debated

 

After the agreement between Tel Aviv and Istanbul with which the two countries retrieved their bilateral relations, in early July a cargo ship delivering Turkish aid reached Gaza. Indeed, when the deal was reached, among the Turkish requests there was the end of the blockade imposed by the Israeli government on the Strip. However, among the Israeli positions there was the refusal of any significant change to the blockade regime. Therefore, a compromise was necessary and this was found in the consent given by Israel to Turkey to send aid towards Gaza through the Israeli port of Ashdod, where any cargo directed to the Strip needs to be inspected by Israel before it can reach its final destination.

Due to this agreement, thus, on the 3rd July the vessel Lady Layla reached Ashdod and from there Gaza City, where it transferred 11 tonnes of aid, among which food, clothes, toys, products for personal hygiene and other goods of first necessity. Once in Gaza, the aid was put in the hands of the Ministry of Social Affairs, in charge of distributing 75% of all aid to the 75,000 poorest families who depend on subsidies (the remaining 25% is administered by the Palestinian Red Crescent).

 

In the words of Etimad al-Tarshawi (Secretary General of Planning and Development in the above-mentioned Ministry), this aid –even if only a small part of what Gaza needs- is extremely important for the families that receive it, since it helps to cope with an economic situation which is desperate to say the least.

Since June 2007, indeed, when Hamas won administrative control over Gaza, Israel has imposed severe restrictions to the movement of people and goods from and to the Strip. The Israeli policy –justified by the government as a measure which is necessary to prevent weapons from being delivered to Hamas and to prevent extremists from entering the Israeli territory and endangering the country’s security- did not succeed in weakening the group, that continues in fact to administer the Strip and to enjoy a broad popular support thanks to the services it provides to the population. On the contrary, the Israeli policy had the only effect of obstructing any possibility of economic development for the Strip, thus paving the way to the emergence of a thriving black market that benefits those who manage the smuggling networks and condemns instead to poverty the civilian population. Following the Israeli policy, in fact, the almost 2 million civilians who live in Gaza are confined within the borders of the Strip, prevented from moving to other places in search of job, and left without means of subsistence and without hopes of a future improvement.

Moreover, because of the blockade that prevents construction materials from reaching Gaza, houses, schools, and hospitals that had been destroyed in 2014 during the last conflict have not been rebuilt yet.

 

According to the UN, if this situation does not change in the short run, Gaza will become “uninhabitable” by 2020. Similar warnings have also come from the World Bank which has defined Gaza’s economy as being “on the verge of collapse”.

 

 

In light of this grim economic situation, it is clear how the aid coming from Turkey is vital to Gaza and its inhabitants. Nevertheless, the agreement between Turkey and Israel (and in particular the section related to Gaza) has given rise to discordant reactions on part of the Palestinians.

On one side, there are those who have stressed the positive impact that Turkish aid can have on the conditions of Gazans and have underlined the necessity and the hope that Turkey continues its policy of concrete support made possible by the recent agreement. In this group, there is also Hamas that presented the agreement as a turning-point that can make Turkey more active in pressing Israel to lift the blockade.

On the other side, instead, there are those who criticize the terms of the agreement because they regard it as being not only insufficient but even counter-productive as far as the lifting of the blockade is concerned. What many civilians and analysts settled in Gaza maintain, in fact, is that the agreement fails to reckon the difference between embargo and blockade and that its efficiency is limited exclusively to the former. As far as the latter is concerned, in fact, the agreement merely allows the transfer of aid to the Strip but does not guarantee the opening of Gaza to international economy, risking in this way to crystallizing the blockade rather than paving the way to its lifting.

 

This stance highlights an important element: despite the undeniable importance of humanitarian aid for an area of the Levant where the unemployment rate is one of the highest in the world, what Gaza really needs are development projects capable of revitalizing its economy. It is necessary a long-term and broader approach, capable –through initiatives and in loco development projects- of giving to Gaza a real economic structure and to the population residing there possibilities of work and self-sufficiency.

Without this kind of approach, Gaza will continue to be dependent on aid and its population will continue to be excluded from development, with the consequent risk that the territory might become a hotbed for extremism. Without alternatives and in a socio-economic context made of alienation, poor education, unemployment, and lack of direct contacts with the outer world -in fact- radical religious and political groups and organizations voted to violence and terrorism might easily exploit the despair of young Gazans to win support and attract recruits.

 

A situation of this kind would serve no one’s interests: it would not benefit Gaza, its population, Hamas, nor would it benefit Israel and Egypt – the countries responsible for the maintenance of the blockade.

With the Strip radicalized and exposed to the risk of proliferation of terrorism, Israel would find itself having at its borders a serious threat to its security – much more serious than the one that, according to the government’s rhetoric, there would be if Gaza was enabled to have its own economy and to maintain economic, trade and financial relations with the outside world.

A similar discourse applies to the Egyptian case: if a Gaza forcibly kept isolated and underdeveloped became an operative ground for extremist and terrorist groups, the Sinai would see itself exposed to a direct threat to its security and stability, and from the Sinai (that already is for Egypt the most volatile region and the most difficult to be controlled from Cairo) the threat would rapidly extend to the rest of Egypt.

 

However, within the Israeli establishment this reality is reckoned only by few, among whom Maj. Gen. H. Halevy. In a recent speech, he underlined how “if there is no improvement [of Gaza’s situation], Israel will be the first one to pay the price” and warned the Knesset that the reconstruction of Gaza is actually the best (and perhaps the only) way to avoid the risk of a future war.

 

It is thus in the hands of the international community the responsibility of using all the possible economic, political and diplomatic leverages to convince Israel that keeping Gaza underdeveloped does not serve its; to push Israel to include in the distension of relations with Turkey the lifting of the blockade; and to induce Egypt to modify its policy of support to the blockade.

 

A Turkish Tale

How a failed military coup might lead to a revived national unity

 

Turkey is undoubtedly a country with a troubled history of military coups behind it: since 1960, the Turkish Republic founded by Ataturk has experienced four of them and the military has always been a major force in the Turkish structure of power and influence.

The attempted military coup of Friday finds thus its roots in a trend which has more than once characterized the country’s modern evolution and which has more than once tested its political stability.

 

Everything began on Friday at around 7.30 PM, when army units blocked the Bosphorus and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridges in Istanbul; fighter jets and helicopters were reported flying in the skies over Ankara; and gunfire was reported in the streets of the capital. In a statement read on TRT (Turkey’s national broadcaster), it was said that the military had “completely taken over the administration of the country to reinstate constitutional order”, in response to Erdogan’s erosion of democracy.

At 10 PM, the news was reporting explosions at Parliament buildings. However, by 00.45 AM soldiers were surrendering their weapons in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, and the picture of soldiers standing next to their tanks with their hands in the air has become the image of the coup’s failure.

On Saturday, the government’s reaction was in full sway throughout the day: a purge of soldiers and judicial officials led to the detention of 2839 military personnel, to the dismissal of 2745 judges from the HSYK (Turkey’s top judicial body), and to the detention of General Ozturk, accused of being one of masterminds behind the coup.

 

In just a few hours, the attempted coup took the life of 265 people (both among the military personnel and among civilians) and ended in a major failure that is probably explained by the absence of the necessary support on three essential fronts: the military, the political and the popular ones. As soon as the coup began, in fact, it became evident that the putsch did not enjoy a widespread military backing, since many among the army opposed it and voiced their condemnation. However, even more important in explaining why and how the coup failed, was the absence of political and public backing.

 

On the public’s side, in fact, people responded to Erdogan’s call and took to the streets to voice their support for the democratically-elected AKP government. This reaction on part of the Turkish public represented a deeply positive (and off-late sadly rare) sign of national unity, a sign of courage and respect for the state legitimate institutions that might turn into the beginning of a national reconciliation that Turkey desperately needs.

 

Equally important, is the unity showed at the political level: after seeing its buildings attacked, the MPs of the four political parties sitting in the Parliament convened in an emergency meeting that stood as clearest and brightest proof of how unity across party lines can be built and rediscovered when a country finds itself through its most difficult hours.

 

 

The unity within the Parliament’s groups and within the people of Turkey is at this point the only reaction that can save the country from itself.

 

Erdogan’s government is not a particularly liberal and illuminate one. Many of the internal policies that Erdogan has pursued over the past months have indeed led to an escalation of tensions, divisions and clashes between Turkey’s political and ethnic groups (with the clashes involving the PKK being the most dramatic expression of this trend). In terms of foreign policy -then- the war in Syria, the attacks against the Kurds, and the diplomatic tensions with neighbours and foreign powers (only recently partially healed thanks to a rapprochement to Russia and Israel) have isolated Turkey and exposed it and its people to unprecedented waves of terrorist attacks.

 

The internal and foreign policies pursued by Erdogan are thus responsible for many of the challenges and problems that Turkey is today called to address, and the President should be held accountable for them. Nevertheless, Erdogan was democratically elected by 52% of Turkey’s population and any opposition to his rule must rely on legitimate political means in order to be effective and beneficial for the country. Only political measures that are constitutionally legitimate can build a credible alternative and a safe path capable of leading to a stronger Turkish democracy.

 

 

 

From Sykes-Picot to the Chilcot Report

The lessons that the West must learn when intervening in the Middle East’s complexities

 

Fifteen years after al-Qaeda’s attacks led the West to a “war on terror” that ended up creating more damages than those it had aspired to heal and taking more lives than those it had aimed to protect, the Chilcot Report -commissioned by the British House of Commons to assess the government’s decisions with respect to the war in Iraq – brought to light new evidence. The Report is an open (and due) condemnation of Blair’s foreign policy, but –more importantly- is a crucial document containing lessons that need to be learnt to develop more aware and informed foreign policies (especially when it comes to delicate regions that rest on ever more fragile balances such as the Middle East).

 

The UK, under the leadership of then-PM Tony Blair, intervened in Iraq in 2003 following the United States and remained in the country until 2009. Of the Report published on July 6th by Sir John Chilcot, two things particularly stand out. The first is that – contrary to what had been claimed by the USA and the UK governments at that time – the attack against Saddam’s Iraq was not a last resort; the second is that no clear nor informed planning had been made by Blair’s cabinet in terms of post-conflict reconstruction.

 

As far as the decision to go to war is concerned, the Report highlights how PM Blair decided to attack Saddam regardless of the fact that the international community was still trying to deal with Iraq’s putative WMD without resorting to war, regardless of the fact that the UN was still conducting its enquiry, and that the UN Security Council (as well as the majority of the EU partners) was not supporting military intervention.

According to the Report, the reason for Blair’s decision was that in the previous year the British PM had pledged to President Bush his country’s unshakable support, and that maintaining such pledge had therefore become unescapable to preserve the Anglo-American special relationship.

 

As highlighted by the Report, though, the mistake was not only the decision to intervene in a war that was not necessary nor unavoidable. The other major mistake (and one that proved to have a dramatic long-run impact) was that no clear plan had been conceived in terms of how to deal with Iraq in the post-intervention phase.  Rather than elaborating an aware and coherent plan of reconstruction before going to war, the UK government missed this crucial step on the basis of the (wrong and unjustified) assumption that Washington would deal with the issue and that the UN would play a major role once the military intervention was over.

 

After the toppling of Saddam, though, none of this happened: the UN revealed little inclination to intervention and the USA had no reconstruction plan.

 

After winning against Saddam’s Baathist forces in a matter of weeks, in fact, the USA created and led a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) within which the UK had basically no relevant say and that failed to serve the interest of the Iraqi population (thus failing to win the people’s support). In a moment of delicate transition in which fair elections were needed to create a government that could give representation to all Iraqis and that could be accepted by Sunnis and Shias alike, nor the UN nor the USA succeeded in supporting the country through its delicate transition. A Shia government led by Nouri al-Maliki took power in Baghdad; the tensions between Shias and Sunnis and between Arabs and Kurds were exasperated; Sunni jihadist groups (such as al-Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Iraq) managed to exploit sectarian divisions to increase their action capabilities; and former soldiers who found themselves unemployed after the army was disbanded became easy recruits for jihadist groups.

 

Thus, the result of the war that the Bush administration had pursued and that the UK had decided to support was not a mere regime change in Baghdad but the collapse of the Iraqi state as such.

What the Chilcot Report makes clear, in fact, is that, in the moment in which the UK and the USA intervened in the Iraqi theatre without a clear and informed strategy for the post-intervention/post-Saddam phase, they set into motion a chain of events that paved the way to the rise of ISIS in 2014 and that changed (perhaps forever) the geopolitical map of the Levant.

 

Forced to face the mistakes made by the West back in 2003, what lessons can now be drawn to avoid their repetition and develop more aware foreign policies?

 

If one major lesson can be derived from what is contained in the Report is that, when intervening abroad, three elements are especially crucial.

Firstly, it is necessary to understand the dynamics of the theatre of intervention from any point of view: geopolitical, geostrategic, ethnic and religious. This understanding –especially as far as the religious and ethnic complexities of the Iraqi state are concerned- was clearly lacking on part of the UK and the USA in 2003 and explains how it was possible for power to end up in the hands of a Shia-dominated and sectarian government such as al-Maliki’s.

Secondly, it is necessary to develop realistic objectives and to embrace a relevant strategy that deals not only with the military aspect of intervention but also with the political and civilian ones – two dimensions to which the UK and the USA gave little importance when planning their intervention in 2003 and which continued to underestimate thereafter.

Finally, the third necessary step is to elaborate a post-intervention strategy that deals with the long-term and that gives to the country in which intervention was carried out and to its institutions all the support needed in a phase as delicate and crucial as that of reconstruction.

 

With 2016 marking the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot – the infamous Agreement with which France and the UK divided the Middle East into artificial states whose ethnic and religious contradictions have exploded over the past few years – we are now painfully reminded that there are mistakes we cannot afford to repeat anymore, and that our approach to the Middle East cannot be successful if History’s lessons are not learnt.

Life after Mansour: Afghanistan’s new act

What next in Afghanistan now that the Taliban have lost their leader (again)?

 

On Sunday 22 May, a US drone strike killed the leader of the Taliban Mullah Mansour in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, thus marking the opening of a new phase in the development of the AfPak region’s political dynamics. The killing of Mansour, in fact, not only will force the Taliban to go through the delicate process of appointing a new leader, but it will also have a major impact on the relations between the Taliban and the Afghan government – and therefore on the future of Afghanistan.

 

It was less than a year ago when the news of the death of the group’s founder Mullah Omar was released and the Taliban had to appoint a new leader. Far from being a smooth process, the debate on whom to appoint caused deep rifts within the Taliban, and when the final decision fell upon Mullah Mansour many denied to pledge allegiance to him and many others left the Taliban to join ISIS-Khorasan. In July 2015, thus, the Taliban had lost its traditional cohesion and appeared – to enemies and supporters alike – as a weak group.

Faced with such delicate and vulnerable situation, the new leader embraced a strategy made of deadly attacks across Afghanistan, continuous fights with the national forces, and rejection of any prospect of talks with Kabul so as to increase its credibility among the Taliban (as well as among enemies) and give to the group renewed cohesion.

 

Now that Mansour has been killed, the challenge the Taliban face is that of appointing a successor approved and recognized as legitimate by everyone within the group. A failure in this sense would make the Taliban even less united, with more splinter groups conducting their independent actions and attacks, and this would have tremendous consequences for the prospect of peace talks.

What last summer’s shift in leadership made clear, in fact, is the impossibility of having negotiations when one of the parties involved in them is internally divided. After a first round of talks held in Murree, what made it impossible to go ahead was that the internal division caused within the Taliban by the appointment of Mansour did not allow Kabul to identify in a clear and unambiguous way who its interlocutors were. With the group divided and led by a leader not recognized by all members, it became impossible for the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) to have a clear picture of which leaders/members were supporting the talks, to what extent, and how representative of the whole group they actually were.

From this point of view, thus, the killing of Mansour opens the possibility of having a new, legitimate and broadly accepted Taliban leader who could make the group more cohesive and thus make it possible for Kabul to at least identify whom pressure has to be put on to push the Taliban to talk.

 

For Ghani’s government, thus, the death of Mullah Mansour is of crucial importance both politically and militarily. Indeed, the death of Mansour represents for the Taliban a major blow in reputation and credibility capable of boosting the morale of the Afghan national forces that are involved in daily struggles against them and that had to see the terrorist group achieve important successes in 2015. Deprived of their leader, the Taliban are now immersed in the appointment process, which implies the Afghan national forces can take advantage of this temporary respite from fight to better organize themselves and strengthen their holdings on disputed regions and provinces.

In addition, Mansour’s death has not only affected the credibility of the Taliban’s operative capabilities. It has also shed light on how the Taliban’s war-based approach is inherently shortcoming if the group aims to territorial control and political say, and how the rejection of peace talks comes at a price for the group.  Many among the Taliban used to reject talks because relying on the belief that war was the only way to political influence. The killing of Mansour has proved them wrong and might now strengthen the position of those Taliban most prone to talks.

 

However, until the Taliban’s new leader is appointed it is not clear which future lies ahead for the perspectives of negotiations. The only certainty is that the death of Mansour has opened a new chapter in the AfPak’s turbulent story. The way in which the story will evolve is now dependent on the intra-Taliban decisions and on Kabul’s capacity to adapt its political and military strategy to them.

 

Iran’s new political chapter?

Assessing the political implications that the lifting of the sanctions against Iran can have for the Teheran-Riyadh relationship in the region

Since 1979, when the Shah was eventually overthrown after his steadiness on the throne had been decreasing by the day and Khomeini took that crucial Air France flight that brought him back home, Iran has been politically isolated in the Middle East and marginalized in the international community. In addition, since 2006, because of its nuclear program, it has been subject to economic sanctions imposed by USA, EU and UN that have reined in the country’s economic potential and condemned its population to economic hardships.
Now all this might change.
On 17th January 2016, after the IAEA confirmed Iran was complying with what agreed upon in last summer’s nuclear deal by sensibly reducing its nuclear activities, those sanctions that over the past years had doomed Iran to face a double-digit inflation were lifted. A breakthrough development, capable of opening –in Rouhani’s words- a “new chapter” for the country, a major event whose consequences will not interest Iran only but will affect the whole region – economically as well as politically.

On the economic side it is where the consequences are clear the most. With the country back in the international economy, new prospects and opportunities are on the horizon and optimism is slightly reappearing in the streets of Teheran.

Though, it is in the political field, where clear and certain predictions are much more difficult to be made -especially in a region as complex as the Middle East, where any new day brings about new crucial events and developments- that consequences are interesting the most.
As said, Teheran is considerably isolated since the earliest days of life of the Islamic Republic –an isolation that first emerged with undeniable clarity during the war with Iraq and that is still reflected in today’s regional dynamics- new scenarios might be now opening up.
Over the past years, the Middle East has witnessed a progressive disengagement of the United States -whose major strategic interests are shifting towards the Pacific and for which the Middle East is becoming nothing more than a source of continuous failures and worries- and a progressive heightening of the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Ever more engaged in a struggle for power in which any loss is a rival’s gain, the two regional powers have turned Syria and Yemen into the preferred fields of a bloody proxy war whose prize is supremacy over the region, prestige and political sway.
Resisting the temptation of reducing everything to a Sunni-Shia divide that this time is just in the background, it is to be reckoned we are in front of a struggle for power whose balance is leaning in favor of Teheran – at all expense of a Saudi monarchy that its own most recent moves are dragging ever down. In front of a rival getting closer to the international community thanks to the nuclear deal, Riyadh has responded by escalating the conflict in Yemen -now destined to become a new endless, Syrian-like bloody stalemate- and by escalating sectarian and political divides through the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Both disputable choices that are not leading Saudi Arabia anywhere. Especially when on the other side of the Gulf’s waters Iran is on the rise and strengthening its standing at international and regional level.
Indeed, the reality that is now unfolding in the area, and that is bringing worries to the Saudis as much as it is bringing hopes to the Iranians, is that Iran, by signing a nuclear deal the population had been waiting (and asking) for long, is not only reaping the economic advantages that the lifting of sanctions brings. It is seen itself recognized as a power capable of sitting at a table with the world leaders, negotiate agreements and keep its promise. It might seem nothing big at a first look, but it actually is. The fact that today the international community begins to regard Iran not as a radical Islamic country, led by bearded religious leaders and ambiguous political figures, but as a country with which dialogue is possible and agreements are reachable, creates the possibilities for a new chapter to begin for real. Politics is made of perceptions, of ideas we have of ourselves and of the others, and of behaviors that by those ideas are instructed. A change in perceptions is therefore a change in behavior, and the perception today is that Iran is on the rise and that the future dynamics of the Middle East will depend much more on Teheran’s moves than on Saudi Arabia’s.
With an opening economy, political leaders such as Zarif who are giving the country a new face, and an educated population willing to work, travel and enter in relations with the outer world, Iran’s capacity of expanding its influence in the region goes now beyond the “proxy war rationale” through which Teheran and Riyadh have used to confront each other. Iran is now increasingly on the rise because it is believing in the possibility of founding its strength and regional influence on elements other than material capabilities: a new international image, new economic opportunities, new capacity of building relations with the outside.

That said, it is clear that Teheran will not reduce its indirect presence in Yemen, will not abandon its intervention in Syria, nor will it moderate its support to Hezbollah and other regional Shia militias. However, attention must be given to the fact that it is giving to its foreign policy a new dimension, competitive because centered on soft power. A dimension that Riyadh is proving it does not know how to compete with.

The game the Middle East does not need

The sectarian rivalries the Saudis are trying to ignite in an anti-Iran logic are a direct threat to the whole region, and the Middle East’s near future is now dependent on Teheran’s responses

Too fast have the events of the past two days unfolded before our eyes.
On Saturday, Saudi Arabia carried out the execution of 47 prisoners – some of them accused of involvement in the Al-Qaeda-led terror attacks that have hit the country over the past years, others of incitement of violence against the government.
Bearing in mind that in 2015 alone Saudi Arabia executed 175 people, the executions of the 2nd January might look as nothing more than the prosecution of a grim record that ensures Saudi Arabia a place in all the statistics on human rights violations. However, this time it is different and worse, because beyond the human rights dimension there is a political one, that comes to give a particular significance to the executions of Saturday and has the potential of spreading instability and violence across the whole region.

Among the 47 people executed on Saturday, in fact, one individual stands out: Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Arrested in 2012 with the charge of inciting the wave of anti-government protests that in the framework of the Arab Spring did not spare the Saudi Kingdom, Nimr al-Nimr was more than a critic of the House of Saud. He was also more than a Shia expressing his resentment towards a Sunni government that has always relegated the Shia minority of the country in a marginalized position: he was the face of all the Saudi Shias who in 2011-12 took to the streets asking for the end of discrimination. He was expression of the Shia soul of a Wahhabist country that one day though will have to deal with its Shia side in a more inclusive way, if it aspires to be something more than a regional power. He was a man and an icon, and the execution of a figure like him cannot but have consequences in the broader region, there where the axis Sunni-Shia is still the main definer of the individuals’ identity and one of the major driver of the countries’ foreign policies.

Not surprisingly, Nimr al-Nimr’s execution sparked a wave of protests than spread from the Gulf to Indian Kashmir, going through Lebanon, Iraq and Iran.
And it is indeed at Iran that we have to look to understand what lies behind Saudi Arabia’s move.

Putting on the lenses of Realism to look at the region’s reality, it immediately emerges how Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two protagonists of a zero-sum struggle for power. The champion of Sunnism and the exponent of Shiism are indeed involved in a struggle whose price is nothing less than influence on the region, and whose battlefields are Syria as much as Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to carry out Nimr al-Nimr’s execution has the effect of dramatically escalating the tensions between Riyadh and Teheran: on Saturday itself, the Saudi Embassy in the Iranian capital was set on fire and on Sunday Saudi Arabia announced the end of any diplomatic tie with Iran.

Why do so then? Precisely to achieve this result: escalate tensions with the region’s number one rival.

In the bilateral competition for power of which Saudi Arabia and Iran are the players, the former has emerged over the past year as the weakest one. Since Salman became king last January, global economy and international diplomacy have played against Riyadh and given King Salman sleepless nights.
As if the fall of oil prices was not enough to dramatically weaken the influence of a country whose contracting power and strength has since its foundation relied on its black oil, the nuclear agreement reached by the P5+1 with the ayatollah has made Saudis’ position even more staggering.
Iran has indeed emerged over the last months as a growing regional power, whose re-integration in the international economic and political system represents a direct threat to Riyadh’s national interests. If to this we add the increasing possibility of negotiations emerging on the horizon of the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars that would improve Iran’s image worldwide, it emerges the necessity for the Saudis of curbing the rival’s rise.
The execution of Nimr al-Nimr find thus explanation within such framework. It is the last, exasperate card played by a country in economic and political decline trying to preserve what still remains of its traditional role of major regional actor. A role the Saudis are trying to preserve igniting the sectarian conflict in the Middle East; pushing Iran to react harshly and thus lose the possibility of a full (re)integration in the international system; strengthening Sunnis’ anti-Shia feeling in the whole region; protracting the wars in Yemen and Syria to prevent Iran exploiting the benefits of diplomatic negotiation.

As of now, Iran has reacted verbally only and the ayatollah – though obviously condemning Nimr al-Nimr’s execution – has also avoided leaving unpunished those who attacked the Saudi embassy in Teheran.
By so doing, Iran is following not only a positive path that might succeed in keeping the sectarian tensions under check, but also a strategic one. It is playing the Saudis’ card against the Saudis themselves. It is presenting itself as a reasonable regional power who reacts by words without inciting violence as the Saudis hoped, and it is making all the responsibility of sectarian clashes fall on Riyadh, thus impairing even more their international image, when not even legitimacy.
A route of action that, if maintained with coherence and avoidance of any reprisal, will confirm even more Iran’s rise – despite the dangerous game the Saudis have initiated and that could turn into an added element to their recent weakness.

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.