The endless conflicts of the Middle East

How the Middle Eastern region continues – and will continue – to be a hotbed of instability.

 

On the 14th of May 2018 Israel celebrated its 70th anniversary, reaching a goal that in 1948 seemed impossible to most, given the tense Middle Eastern cotext in which the Jewish State came to light. And indeed, even to this date the Middle East continues to be a region of deep tensions, in which the passing of time produces ever more crises and never significant distensions.

Taking the anniversary of Israel’s independence as useful pretext to raise the question of where the Levant stands today, the first element to be noticed cannot bu be the persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Contrary to the expectations of all those who 25 years ago – when Arafat and Rabin famously shook their hands on the lawn of the White House after signing the Oslo Accords – thought to be witnessing the beginning of a new era of coexistence between Jews and Palestinians, the conflict between the two peoples has actually never ceased. At most, it has changed form –conventional war, peaceful resistance, guerrilla war, terrorism – in order to respond to the circumstances and the requirements of each specific moment.

Over the past year, a dangerous combination of factors has inevitably led to an increase in hostility: the ascent to the White House of Donald Trump, most-openly pro-Israeli American president to date; the strengthening in Israel of the ultra-right front that has been leading the country since 2015; the lack of a coherent and credible Palestinian political leadership able to address the divide between Gaza and the West Bank and to advance the national interest of the Palestinians.

Elected President in January 2017, as early as last December Trump announced the moving of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Recognizing the latter as capital of the Jewish State and modifying in this way the American approach to the Israeli-Palestinian question that had been maintained by any previous administration, Trump has compromised the credibility of the United States as arbiter super partes in the dialogue between Jews and Palestinians – a dialogue that consequently has now become ever more doomed to stalemate. Furthermore, Trump’s decision has not only made any prospect of future negotiations more difficult, but it has also changed its terms significantly: recognizing Jerusalem as Jewsih capital, it has canceled the possibility of a two-state solution leading to a Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital.

A decision of this kind, with the implications that it has on the bilateral dialogue, could not but ignite the Palestinians’ anger and embolden Israel’s ultra-right governing coalition. The latter, indeed, strong of the new Israeli-American friendship that has been restored under Trump, has rapidly exploited the momentum to take steps that seek to change the demographic balance in Israel/Palestine to its sole advantage: it has proceeded at a fastened pace with the Jewish occupation of the West Bank by means of new construction permits and the retroactive legalization of illegal settlements and it has passed a new law that gives to the Interior Minister the power of outstripping Israeli Palestinians of their citizenship if their “loyalty” to the Jewish State is doubtful.

On this background, on the 30th of March the Palestinian people of Gaza launched the “March of Return” to protest the isolation enforced by Israel against the Strip and to claim their right to retunr to their ancestral land. The protests, held for six consecutive Fridays, have seen thousands of youths (some affiliated with Hamas, others with no political affiliation and others critical of the group that has been ruling Gaza since 2007) march towards the border with Israel to be met with gunfire and tear-gas by the Israeli Defense Forces. Until mid May, the victim toll was of 49 but the apex was reached on the 14th of May, a symbolic date that not only marks the anniversary of Israel and of the Palestinian Nakba but that this year also coincided with the opening of the new American embassy in Jerusalem. On that single day, 58 Palestinians were killed and more than 2,000 injured. A dramatic confirmation that even if 70 years have passed tensions between the two peoples still run high.

Alongside the perennial Palestinian question, the Middle East today is the theatre of further tensions that are contributing to defyining new regional dynamics and new axes of alliances and rivalries.

In Syria, the victory of Assad is by now undeniable and the war has entered a new phase in which the civil conflict is leaving the place to an open competition between external powers – regional and non regional – interested in carving out for themselves convenient areas of influence upon the Syrian territory. Thus, while the opposition to Assad is seeing itself forced to leave the areas that it still controls in exchange for guarantees of survival, and while the Kurds seek desperately to defend their aspirations to statehood, Russia, Iran and Turkey have made of the negotiation table of Astana (where the U.S. does not participate) the place where to define the future status quo of Syria.

Here, an important role is played by Iran. In fact, if Turkey uses Astana to make sure that the national aspirations of the Kurds in Syria do not achieve successes that might embolden the Kurds of Anatolia and to carve out for itself a role of primacy in the Middle East at a time in which its relations with the West are at their lowest, and if Russia uses Astana to defend its startegic interests through a Syrian firendly regime that leaves in place Moscow’s air and naval bases in the Mediterannean, Iran is using Astana to accomplish its hegemonic ambitions. In the specific, it is exploiting its involvement in Syria on Assad’s side (supported via the Revolutionary Guarda and the proxy Hezbollah) to create a corridor of influence that stretches form Iran to the Mediterannean going through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

The presence in Syria of Iranian military bases and pro-Iranian forces is a first-hand threat to Israel, that has in Iran its nemesis and that sees the vicinity of Iran to its borders as a red line that, if crossed, jutifies any response.

To worsen the tensions triggered between Israel and Iran by the latter’s ascent in Syria, last week came Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program signed in 2015 by the US, the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran. The American withdrawal – strongly encouraged by Saudi Arabia and Israel – risks strengthening within Iran those hardliners who criticized Rouhani’s opening to the West and who might now call for a more assertive foreing policy and a full recovery of the nuclear program. Unsuprisingly, the hours after the US decision saw Israel and Iran firing missiles over the Syrian sky, thus seeming to be ever closer to an open confrontation that might lead the entire region to chaos. The evolution of these tensions will largely depend on the role that Russia – a precious ally of both – will want to play and on Europe’s capacity to ensure the survival of the JCPOA.

For Israel, the Iranian threat is accentuated by the ascent of Hezbollah, the Lebanese group that Teheran has been nurturing since the ‘80s in open anti-Israeli function. Since the outset of the Syrian war in 2011, Hezbollah has obatined two important victories that make Israel particularly worried. Firstly, is the military victory that the group has obtained thanks to its beloning to the pro-Assad axis and that is made by a combination of: increase of the group’s military (especially milistic) arsenal thanks to the arms transfers by Iran; access to sophisticated war material capable of posing a direct and serious threat to Israel’s security; conslidation of the group’s presence in the Syrian-Lebanese area that borders Israel. Besides this military victory, there is the political victory that the group has obtained last week at the polls and that confirms the wide support it enjoys among the Lebanese people – even beyond its traditional Shia powerbase.

Having at its borders an historical enemy like Hezbollah that is now more preapred militarily, more favoured strategically and more credible politically represents a primary threat in the eyes of Israel. From the perspctive of the Jewish State, in fact, hezbollah could use Syria as a strategic platform from where to launch attacks against Israel without openly compromising Lebanon and from where to upset the existing sttaus quo.

In this cotnext, the Middle East has become today the theatre where two blocs of triple alliances are in competition: the “status quo bloc” formed by Israel, Saudi Arabia and the U.S; and the “resistance bloc” formed by Iran, Turkey and Russia. Contravening past rhetorics and ethnic-religious divergencies, these systems of alliance are born to respond to immediate needs but, whatever their length will be, they are producing dynamics whose effects are likely to be felt in the region in the medium to long term.

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The “mother of all bombs” is daughter of no strategy

The US dropping of its largest non-nuclear bomb in Afghanistan reveals all the weaknesses of Washington’s Afghan policy and the need for a more comprehensive strategy capable of responding to the country’s many security challenges and political problems

 

One day after ISIS-Khorasan (the Afghan branch of ISIS) claimed responsibility for an attack near government offices in Kabul that killed five people and wounded ten, the United States dropped a GBU-43 bomb in the eastern province of Nangarhar, where ISIS-K is based. The GBU-43 bomb is a 9,797kg GPS-guided munition that was first tested in 2003, before the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It is the largest non-nuclear bomb that the US has ever used in combat, and because of its destructive potential it has gained the nickname “mother of all bombs”.

After the bomb was dropped on Thursday, the head of American and international forces in Afghanistan Gen. Nicholson said that the operation was intended to damage the operational capabilities of ISIS-K and to increase the protection of international and Afghan forces against its terrorist attacks. On the same line, spokesperson within the Pentagon stressed the efficiency that deploying such a powerful weapon can have in the framework of countering terrorism in Afghanistan and the contribution that it can give to ending a “war on terror” that begun sixteen years ago and that still lacks a clear winner.

 

However, the massive military attack of Thursday does not seem to be part of any broader US Afghan strategy and it is difficult to see how a similar show of military might on part of Washington can respond to the exigencies and the challenges of the Afghan war. The bombing in Nangarhar might perhaps respond to Trump’s foreign policy narrative of an assertive and credible American military power and to the expectations of those voters who supported his project of making America “great again”, but it certainly does not respond to the needs of Afghanistan. Indeed, the problems in terms of terrorism, security, and stability that Afghanistan is facing are too complex for a mere militarist approach to be sufficient.

 

Firstly, there is to consider the weakness of Afghanistan’s democratic experiment and the stalemate that continues to paralyze policy-making in Kabul. Despite the important and undeniable step forward that the instalment of the NUG in 2014 under the leadership of Ghani and Abdullah represented, the country is still characterized by a political system made of patronage and ethnic rivalries/alliances that find their roots in a culture traditionally dominated by tribalism. In this context, it is necessary to embrace a strategy that encourages –as the NUG tried to do, but in a more credible and effective way- the development of a political system based on actual (not merely fictional) power-sharing across ethnic groups, so as to give equal representation to the country’s diverse realities. Only in this way it will be possible to make of the government in Kabul an inclusive one, in which all Afghans can recognize themselves and which all Afghans can come to trust and respect.

Secondly, adding to the NUG’s limited inclusiveness and worsening its low credibility, is the rampant corruption within the government and the military that has created over the years a wide gap between government officials and security forces on one hand, and the population on the other. This gap has eroded the trust of Afghans in the political class and the security apparatus, since they regard both of them as distant, detached from people’s grievances, and exclusively focused on furthering their interests and broadening their privileges. Unsurprisingly, this has helped groups such as the Taliban to gain a considerable degree of popular support, or at least connivance. What the Taliban (and more recently, though to a lesser extent, also ISIS-K) managed to do, in fact, was to exploit the Afghans’ distrust in the government, in the army, and in a political system perceived as corrupt and inefficient, in order to present itself as a viable and better alternative. It is on this background that a battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people –especially in those rural areas that Kabul struggles the most to reach and control- ensued, and no strategy in Afghanistan can successfully deal with the country’s internal conflict without addressing this major challenge. It is indeed crucial to replace the existing political culture of favoritism and nepotism with one of accountability and responsibility that –together with better systems of checks and balances- might restore the Afghan people’s trust. Unless this trust is restored, in fact, non-state groups such as the Taliban and ISIS-K will easily exploit the situation at their advantage, giving to people what corrupted politicians and security forces fail to give and gaining in this way their support.

Finally, there is an exogenous factor to be taken into account when attempting to frame a successful strategy for Afghanistan, and this is the role of Pakistan and its historical use of Afghanistan to gain strategic depth vis-à-vis India. In the specific, since the early ‘90s Pakistan has been doing so by backing the Afghan Taliban in their struggle to control Kabul, and the continuation of this policy up to this date reveals the necessity of a strategy that uses diplomatic and economic leverages to encourage Islamabad to change its traditional Afghan policy. At this respect, though, the picture is made more complex by the need to consider two other major players: China, that has recently supported Pakistan’s economy with investments for $57 bn, and Russia, that is tightening its ties with Pakistan in the attempt of increasing its influence in South Asia. An effective Afghan strategy is thus one that looks not only at what happens within the country but also at the broader set of actors that rotate around it and whose influence on the conflict’s prosecution/ending is of primary relevance.

 

In conclusion, Afghanistan is a country facing an extremely wide array of problems and challenges and if the US is determined to address them in order to bring an end to the conflict, a mono-dimensional and militarist approach such as embodied by Thursday’s attack is not viable nor effective, and a broader and multi-dimensional strategy is required in its stead.

 

[Photo: AP]

 

 

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]