A Powder Keg in the Middle East: All Eyes On Syria

CounterPunch, July 30, 2012

The refugee crisis in Syria is worsening

In 1995, I had a rare opportunity to spend some time in Syria, where the Damascus Trade Fair was taking place. A normally secretive Arab country had opened its doors to a select group of Western journalists, businessmen and officials. The event was aimed at showing glimpses of a rich mix of civilizations going as far back as between 9000 and 11000 B.C., described as a Hidden Pearl of the Orient. Syria today has Muslims, Shia and Sunni; Assyrian-Syriac Christians, ethnic Kurds and Turkmen in the north; Druze in the south. People of all ethnic and religious groups live in Aleppo, the country’s most populated city. For centuries, Aleppo was the largest urban center in Greater Syria and the third largest in the Ottoman Empire, after Constantinople and Cairo.

Ancient Syria included today’s Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. According to the Torah, on the other hand, God promised the “Land of Israel” to the Jewish people. And on the basis of scripture, the first Kingdom of Israel was established around the eleventh century B.C. Such ancient claims, religious or secular, are at the heart of Middle East politics, in particular the Arab-Israeli conflict. A civil war fuelled by foreign intervention has turned large parts of the country into ruins. Damascus is no longer the city where, despite a heavy presence of state security, Syrian families could be seen spending a moonlit evening on a picnic while children played hide and seek in the rocky terrain until well after midnight.

Like its neighbors Lebanon and Iraq above all, Syria has been fragile since the fall of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. All three states, and others, were artificially created amid the rubble of the Ottomans’ Arabian domain, in a manner that split communities. The Druze, the Kurds and the Palestinians, each divided and enclosed in different national boundaries drawn by Britain and France under the legal instrument called “Mandate” are part of the legacy of the First World War.

My journey to Damascus in 1995 was by Air France, the only Western carrier flying to Syria at the time. It was a reminder that modern Syria and neighboring Lebanon were carved out by France under the French Mandate while Britain got the lion’s share over Arabia, leading to the creation of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine-Israel.

The manner in which the modern Middle East was carved out by the victorious Allies after 1918, and individual territorial entities granted independence in subsequent decades, made sure that the new states were small, weak and unstable. It also made sure that those states could only be held together by authoritarian rulers, beholden to external powers. New imperialism was born and, like its previous incarnation, it was about controlling vital resources and trade.

Suspicion of Western powers, and of each other, in a highly diverse population runs deep in Syrian society in the same way as in neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia and Iraq who aligned themselves to the United States or the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Syria remained the leading member of the “Rejectionist Front” for its determination of no-compromise with Israel and America over issues such as lost Arab territory and Palestine.

The Ba’ath party, rooted in Arab nationalism, secularism and socialism, and dominated by military officers of the minority Alawi (Shia) sect, was as much a thorn in the side of the conservative Arab bloc as the West. The Soviet Union’s demise in the early 1990s was a disaster for Syria. In the aftermath, Damascus did make attempts aimed at reconciliation with Israel, but failed. Syria sought compromises with the West, too, most shamefully in the rendition and torture of people in the “war on terror.” It is mentioned in the Swiss senator Dick Marty’s 2007 report for the Council of Europe and the European Parliamentary Assembly. All that has not produced any concessions for Bashar al-Assad from Washington.

When I visited Syria in 1995, Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, was still the country’s president. I was among a small number of foreign journalists invited by Farouk al-Sharaa, then foreign minister, now vice president, to his residence in Damascus. I had taken a small tape recorder with me and, during our conversation over a cup of tea, I requested a short interview with him. In impeccable English, al-Sharaa declined. His response was that “Syrians are not known for instant reactions.”

The Syrians have long been suspicious of the West and its Arab allies while the West has consistently failed to read the country. These failures have been to the detriment of peace in the Middle East. For Syria is essential for peace and stability in the region––something that will not be achieved by a Western-inspired overthrow of the present government in Damascus. If Bashar al-Assad’s government and Syria’s armed forces disintegrate, the consequences for the Middle East will be disastrous. With disparate groups in the population, and weapons aplenty in a volatile region, an Afghan-type scenario is very likely. And the consequences will be worse than those of recent wars.

[END]

Living With the Hegemon: Extending the Empire to New Frontiers

CounterPunch, July 17, 2012

Extending the Empire to new frontiers

Recent wars from Libya to Afghanistan and Pakistan in a region of vast natural wealth and strategic importance highlight a phenomenon as old as humanity. Iraq and Libya had oil, but their leaders were longtime foes of the United States, now the world’s lone hegemon. Saddam Hussein allied with the Soviet Union before its demise, so did Muammar Gaddafi. They both displayed stubbornness. They were ready to drop the American dollar as the oil currency before bigger players like China and India dared. Saddam and Gaddafi ruled with an iron hand state systems that were brittle. They were too independent for their own good.

Saudi Arabia and tiny Arab emirates such as Bahrain and Qatar, on the other hand, are punching above their weight. Wealthy and dictatorial, their rulers accommodate the hegemon’s interests. These rulers sell their oil and amass petrodollars which they spend in vast quantities on weapons and consumer goods from the industrialized world led by the hegemon. Their relationship is far more agreeable.

The hegemon is thus left with states of two more categories of significant kind. In one category is Iran since the 1979 Revolution, Syria since the 1963 Ba’athist coup, and Sudan. The hegemon intervenes seeking to overthrow uncooperative regimes by diplomatic, economic and military means. In the second category are China, Russia and, to a lesser degree, India, where even the world’s lone hegemon has limits. Beyond these categories are the discarded––completely failed entities like Somalia, Ethiopia, Mali, where utterly poor and miserable people live.

The hegemon and satellites have not a care in the world for the welfare of such people, except sending drones or troops from neighboring client states to kill those described as “terrorists.” What desperate poverty and misery lead to has no space within the realm of this thinking.

Plato’s Republic, written around 380 BC, has a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon about civilized society. They discuss how a society develops from primitive to higher levels of civilization. Trades and occupations multiply and population grows. The next stage of development, according to Socrates, is an increase in wealth that results in war, because an enlarged society wants even more for consumption. Plato’s explanation is fundamental to understanding the causes of war. This is how empires rise, military and economic power being essential to further their aims. A relevant section in the Republic reads:

We shall have to enlarge our state again. Our healthy state is no longer big enough; its size must be enlarged to make room for a multitude of occupations none of which is concerned with necessaries. There will be hunters and fishermen, and there will be artists, sculptors, painters and musicians. There will be poets with their following of reciters, actors, chorus-trainers, and producers; there will be manufacturers of domestic equipment of all sorts, especially those concerned with women’s dress and make-up. 

Nearly two and a half millennia after Plato, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt offered a Marxist vision of the twenty-first century in their book Empire. Their core argument in the book published in 2001 was that globalization did not mean erosion of sovereignty, but a set of new power relationships in the form of national and supranational institutions like the United Nations, the European Union and the World Trade Organization. According to Negri and Hardt, unlike European imperialism based on the notions of national sovereignty and territorial cohesion, empire now is a concept in the garb of globalization of production, trade and communication. It has no definitive political center and no territorial limits. The concept is all pervading, so the “enemy” must now be someone who poses a threat to the entire system––a “terrorist” entity to be dealt with by force. Written in the mid-1990s, Empire got it right, as subsequent events testify.

The United States occupied “a privileged position in Empire” depicted by Negri and Hardt. Its privileges did not necessarily arise from its “similarities to the old European imperialist powers.” They derived from the assertion of  “American exceptionalism.” From the early days of its formal constitution, the founders of the United States had believed that they were creating “a new Empire with open, expanding frontiers,” where power would be distributed in networks. More than two centuries later, the idea had become global. The presidency of George W. Bush was a powerful militaristic expression of America’s will.

Like terrorism, the term “empire” is often used disparagingly by those on the left and the right. The emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as the two greatest powers after the Second World War offered contrasting models. Advocates of each accused the other of being an empire, meaning a large population comprising many nationalities in distant territories living under subjugation or exploitation.

Different concepts of empire have existed through history. For centuries, the term referred to states that considered themselves successors to the Roman Empire, but later it came to be applied to non-European monarchies such as the Empire of China or the Mughal Empire. Most empires in history came into being as a result of a militarily strong state taking control of weaker ones. The result in each case was an enlarged, more powerful political union, before its eventual decline.

The dissolution of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a blow against the idea of ruling an empire by brute force. Suddenly, the floodgates opened for rapid globalization and expansion of the markets to places that had previously been in the Soviet domain. Capitalism could reach where it had not been before, from newly independent countries in eastern Europe to Soviet-style economies in Asia and Africa. Two decades later, the West was to hit the most serious crisis since the Great Depression. It was brought about by a combination of impudence after the West’s Cold War triumph, false sense of moral superiority and belief in its power to destroy and recreate nations at will.

Norwegian scholar Johan Galtung, regarded as the father of conflict and peace studies, said in 2004 something that is a fitting definition of the term “empire.” He described it as “a system of unequal exchanges between the center and the periphery.” An empire “legitimizes relationships between exploiters and exploited economically, killers and victims militarily, dominators and dominated politically and alienators and alienated culturally.” Galtung observed that the U.S. empire “provides a complete configuration, articulated in a statement by a Pentagon planner.”  The Pentagon planner in question was Lt. Col. Ralph Peters:

The de facto role of the United States Armed Forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing. (Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph? 1999, 141)

The American defense planner’s confession was as revealing as it was terrifying. Economic interest and cultural domination are interwoven in imperial thinking, driven by its simplistic logic. Imperial powers are expansionist by nature, always inclined to enlarge territories they control. What lies behind their ambition is access to more and more resources––energy, minerals, raw materials and markets to trade. Imperial behavior drives a great power to expand its domain of direct control or influence by military and other means to territories that have resources and a certain cultural symmetry with the center. The greater the cultural symmetry, the better for the hegemon.

 [END]

Questions about Constitutional Future: Whose Egypt?

CounterPunch, July 2, 2012; Palestine Chronicle, July 3, 2012

A development of this magnitude was unthinkable before Mubarak’s fall

After a tantalizing delay, Egypt’s military authorities accepted the inevitable. Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was declared elected as president a week ago and took the oath of office on Saturday (June 30, 2012). A development of such magnitude was unthinkable before Hosni Mubarak surrendered power to the military in February 2011 amid a massive popular uprising against his regime. For nearly 60 years since the 1952 Egyptian revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood had been the main source of opposition to the ruling establishment. The prospect of the Brotherhood’s candidate being allowed to stand, let alone freely campaign, for the presidency had looked remote.

That the Islamist movement has survived despite long state repression, and its own internal conflicts, will be seen as a remarkable feat. Since the Brotherhood’s founding by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, when Egypt was under British rule, the movement’s anti-Western ideology and commitment to an Islamist order as the remedy to the “ills” of colonialism and imperialism have made it an object of admiration as well as fear in much of the Muslim world. The organization has transformed itself many a time and promises to work by peaceful means. Even so, its activities, and those of its breakaway factions, have generated profound distrust among many secular and Western-oriented people in the Arab world and beyond.

Morsi’s victory comes in controversial circumstances. Sections of Egypt’s educated middle classes are far from happy. Leading secular and liberal candidates were eliminated, even though together they had gained more than forty percent of the vote in the first round. It meant that Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, a prominent figure from the Mubarak era, entered the final round representing opposite poles. Shafiq was initially disqualified as a candidate, but was quickly reinstated. The Egyptian armed forces apparently did not want to let go after the fall of Mubarak from the presidency.

Although a member of the ruling elite despised by many, Shafiq came close to being elected as Egypt’s president. But it was not to be. Displaying their influence in society, Muslim Brotherhood volunteers collected unofficial counts from precincts around the country. The overall tally showed Morsi getting fifty-two percent of the vote. The delay in making the formal announcement of Morsi’s victory, which caused anxiety and tension in Egyptian society, is a topic of speculation. It appears that ultimately the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces reconciled itself with the new reality. However, before it happened the military council granted itself sweeping powers in all important areas, including defense and foreign policies and internal security.

For now, the elected president is Mohamed Morsi, but real power remains with the military. American aid of 1.3 billion dollars a year since Egypt signed the 1978 Camp David accords, and made peace with Israel, enabled Washington to exercise enormous power over the Egyptian armed forces. Those developments following President Anwar Sadat’s defection from the Soviet camp neutralized Egypt’s official backing for Palestinians and isolated Egypt in the Arab world. Sadat also enraged many in his own country. His assassination in 1981 led to Mubarak’s rise to the presidency and the rest is history.

Despite the recent political upheaval, it is difficult to see how Egypt’s conduct on the international stage can alter. For unless the country has a constitution defining the powers of the president, the parliament and the judiciary, the chairman of the Supreme Military Council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, remains the most powerful man and President Morsi his deputy.

There is another possible explanation of what was a soft military coup prior to Morsi’s victory. It suggests that military’s move was not so much against the Egyptian people, but was to prevent Hosni Mubarak handing over power to his son, Gamal. In that scenario, Egypt would have turned into a country ruled by a single family like most other states in the region. So, it is said, the military moved against Mubarak, one from its own ranks, to maintain its control in the country. If Gamal Mubarak had succeeded his father, Egypt would be on the road to becoming a family dynasty such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait or Qatar, where institutions are more frail and the rule of law has corroded.

Questions about Egypt’s constitutional future persist. A multi-layered battle is set to continue between the military and civilians, Islamists and secularists, conservatives and liberals. Many eyes will be on parliamentary elections if and when they take place. For now, those firmly entrenched in power and those in the population yearning to see a new Egypt confront each other. The most important country in the Arab world is going to be looking inward rather than outward. And it is what happens in Egyptian society that is going to affect the rest of the Middle East.

Can President Morsi possibly order permanent twenty-four hour opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza? The answer is: “Not likely.”

[END]