International Politics Redux
Arab-Israeli Peace in Pieces

What has become of the Arab-Israeli peace process? Recent years have seen little to no progress, though several opportunities have presented themselves.  The Annapolis Summit in 2007 formally established the two-state solution, to which both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave their informed consent.  Since then, Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 – a disastrous Israeli assault on Hamas forces in Gaza – abruptly ended ongoing negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis on one track and between Syria and Israel on another.  Then came the by-now infamous flotilla incident of 2010, which further derailed any efforts to find a lasting peace.  And in 2011, the biggest leak of confidential documents detailing Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking attempts and failures, collusion and cooptation, was exposed by Al Jazeera as the Palestine Papers.  Keeping this brief chronology of a failed peace process in mind, a lasting political settlement – whether between Arabs and Israelis or Palestinians and Israelis – is plainly and simply impossible at this point in time.  Here are four simple reasons why.

Lack of US leadership

President Barack Obama is running for re-election in less than two months, and has effectively been doing so for the better part of the past two years.  There is no substitute for the invaluable role that the United States has to play in facilitating peace talks between Arab and Israeli governments.  US President Jimmy Carter hosted Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for weeks at a time at his presidential retreat in Camp David, working tirelessly with these two leaders and their entourages to hone the final text of an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1978-79.  It was less onerous for US President Bill Clinton to convince King Hussein of Jordan and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel to hammer out a peace treaty of their own in 1994, but this was only possible after the Palestinians and Israelis formally recognized each other’s authority as negotiating partners in 1993.  Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab countries at peace with Israel, even if it is a cold peace that faces significant opposition within both countries, especially in a post-revolutionary Egypt governed by the conservative Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.  Nevertheless, in both cases, the United States was the only credible interlocutor.  This remains the case today.

Palestinian disunity

It is no secret that Palestinian society is divided, polarized as never before between two camps – among other fringe elements.  This cleavage pits the Palestinian Authority (PA) as the internationally recognized representative of the Palestinian people against Hamas, an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood created in the wake of the First Intifada in 1987.  Territorially, the PA governs the West Bank while Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip since 2007 after a near-civil war.  In terms of ideology, Fatah, the biggest group within the PA, is a secular nationalist organization that has been engaged in dialogue with Israel for 20 years; Hamas is an Islamist fundamentalist group opposed to compromise and dedicated to destroying the state of Israel.  Strategically speaking, Fatah and the PA are friendly to the US and welcomed warmly in world capitals from Paris and Moscow to Ankara and Riyadh.  Hamas, on the other hand, has found allies in Iran, Syria (not since President Assad’s brutal crackdown began in 2011), Hezbollah in Lebanon and Egypt (since the Muslim Brotherhood ascended to power in 2012).  The fact that these two factions are so far apart on substantive issues of policy, and that recent attempts at reconciliation have all failed to bridge these divides, spells disaster for a united Palestinian front in the ongoing peace process with Israel.

Israeli coalition politics

Israel is a pluralist society with a diverse range of actors and organized interests mobilized within political parties.  The election of 2009 delivered a Likud-led coalition government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and allied with nationalist parties like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu and Haredi parties like Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s Shas.  Likud, Beiteinu and Shas are united in their centre-right vision of constructing and expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, protecting a sovereign Israel through the use of overwhelming military force and adopting a hardline negotiating position with the Palestinians.  What this means for Netanyahu’s coalition is that the conditions of any final peace deal could be vetoed by any of his junior coalition partners if they refused to accept it.  But that’s not all.  In the process of scrapping the accord, they could pull their support from the Likud Party and join what would then become a majority opposition and force early elections, potentially depriving Netanyahu of his premiership and his party of predominance in the Israeli Knesset (Parliament).  For this reason, the current Israeli government would be in the awkward position of choosing between peace with the Palestinians or electoral survival in Israel’s domestic political scene in the event that an agreement were ever presented to him for ratification.

Arab rejectionism

This point is so critical to the inability of Palestinians and Israelis to resolve their differences that it is remarkable how little attention it is given in international forums.  The Arab countries of the Middle East have been locked in a struggle with Israel since the days of the British Mandate in Palestine, decades before Israel was even established as a sovereign state.  After the seminal war of 1967, the Arab League gathered in Khartoum and famously issued three no’s: “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, negotiations with it.”  This changed only when Egypt’s Sadat boldly flew to Jerusalem in 1977, addressed the Knesset candidly and admitted that he was ready for peace, recognition and negotiation.  However, Arab society from Morocco to Iraq to Yemen remains intransigently opposed to Jewish settlement in Israel, with anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist propaganda and hate speech commonly found in public discourse.  The Arab states were not bystanders in the dispossession of the Palestinian people from their ancestral homelands; they were active participants.  This is not to say that Israel must not share its portion of the burden, but until governments and societies in the Arab world begin to assume responsibility for their policies and behaviours, there will be no solution for Palestine’s woes.

A Slow and Painful Death for the United Nations Security Council

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The United Nations (UN) was established in 1945 with the hopes of ushering in a more peaceful, just and democratic world order.  After the carnage and bloodshed that two world wars had wrought on Europe and beyond in less than 30 years, the demand for an international peacekeeping organization was high.  The UN was meant to replace the now-defunct League of Nations, which had failed in every sense during the interwar period to avert the slow-motion buildup towards all-out war between the great powers.  Learning from the mistakes of its predecessor, the UN now extends universal membership to all states in the international system – the League of Nations was fond of expelling its more jingoistic members, like Japan and Italy, while others could simply choose to leave, like Germany.  It also boasts an executive decision-making body that can authorize the use of force against any of its member-states, thereby ensuring peace and security between the nations of the world.  But when states turn their weapons inwards and threaten their own citizens, the UN has been much less effective at keeping the peace.

This is precisely the case in Syria, where the government of President Bashar al-Assad has been fighting for its survival against an intractable uprising-turned-civil war for the past 17 months.  The statistics are appalling: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims at least 19,000 casualties, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees counts 120,000 refugees in the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent estimates 1.5 million internally displaced persons.  These figures continue to rise daily, while nongovernmental organizations have been instrumental in shedding light on the brutal nature of the Syrian crackdown.  Human Rights Watch, for instance, has published several damning reports of the Syrian regime’s criminal activities, documenting the torture methods used in its underground prisons and the indiscriminate attacks on civilian population centres.  The Syrian government cannot provide security, justice or liberty for its citizens.

When governments fail to fulfill these basic functions and human lives hang in the balance, the United Nations is supposed to step in and address the problem.  This was, after all, one of the rationales for its creation.  So what has the UN done for the people of Syria so far?  The UN Security Council (UNSC), authorized to pass binding resolutions as the highest level of political authority within the organization, has tried and failed on three separate occasions to pressure Syria by enforcing economic sanctions and threatening military intervention: on 5 October 2011, 4 February 2012 and 19 July 2012.  All three times, Russia and China have jointly vetoed these resolutions after an ambiguously worded resolution in 2011 led to the Western military alliance NATO acting in Libya to help rebels there depose Muammar Qaddafi.  Of course, the deeper calculus behind Russian and Chinese vetoes is the great power conflict bogging the Security Council down in inaction.  Only five countries have veto-wielding status on the UNSC: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, which usually pits Western countries against rival international blocs.  Russia has extensive strategic and economic interests in Syria, while China has adopted a rigid policy of non-intervention in several conflict zones demanding the UN’s attention.

One positive initiative undertaken by the UNSC has been to authorize former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in February 2012 to engage the Syrian regime and rebels in ‘promoting a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis.’  This led to Annan’s reconciliatory Six-Point Peace Plan and the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) intended to implement it.  Unfortunately, this plan has been underfunded and understaffed from the beginning, which has led to the suspension of its activities through June and July ‘owing to an intensification of armed violence across the country’ – the same armed violence that the UNSMIS was supposed to stop.  The viability of the peace plan had always been in doubt since the government has repeatedly broken its commitments while the rebels have refused to negotiate with Assad in good faith.  Even the former head of the monitoring mission, Norwegian General Robert Mood, has said that “it is only a matter of time before a regime that is using such heavy military power and disproportional violence against the civilian population is going to fall.”  The observer mission failed in its mandate, but the blame lies squarely on an illegitimate government savagely repressing dissent.

Indeed, the Syrian government’s days do seem numbered.  After months of guerrilla warfare in and around the countryside followed by pitched yet indecisive gun battles in Syria’s major cities, the rebels scored a crippling blow against the president’s inner circle in mid-July 2012.  A massive explosion allegedly planted by a bodyguard at the national security headquarters in Damascus killed Assad’s defence minister, deputy defence minister and brother-in-law, head of intelligence, and deputy vice president and head of national security, while injuring dozens more.  This crescendo of opposition has taken on a new urgency in light of several recent high-profile defections: Syria’s ambassador to Iraq defected in early July, followed shortly thereafter by the ambassadors to Cyprus and the United Arab Emirates.  The first Syrian parliamentarian defected from the northern province of Aleppo in late July as the Syrian military prepares for the ‘mother of all battles’ in the second-largest city, Aleppo.  The highest-profile defection so far has been that of brigadier-general Manaf Tlass, son of the former defence minister and childhood friend of Bashar al-Assad.  Much of the rebel Free Syrian Army is supposedly made up of military defectors: soldiers, officers and generals.

If the UN Security Council cannot and will not act to prevent more loss of life in Syria, what can be done?  The precedent for multilateral intervention in civil war-like situations has already been set by the NATO-led bombing of Kosovo in 1999.  As Syria slips further into civil war, the prospect of a bloody, chaotic and prolonged endgame looks increasingly worrying.  At this point in the conflict, discussion and diplomacy have been tried and found wanting.  The fact that Russia and China are willing to shelter Syria on the UNSC should not obscure the fact that the al-Assad regime has lost the support of the majority of the Syrian people, that Syria has been expelled from the ranks of the Arab League, that the European Union and several Western countries have imposed their own economic sanctions, and that non-permanent member-states of the UNSC voted for sanctions and intervention – and against Russia and China.

Decisive leadership is needed, plain and simple.  Where the UN fails to take a stand, interested actors need to step up and assume the responsibility themselves.  Whether it is powerful countries like the United States, regional heavyweights like Turkey or Saudi Arabia, fellow Arab governments in countries like Egypt, Jordan or Iraq, or traditional middle powers like Canada willing to take a principled stance, those interested in finding a solution need to stake out their positions and better coordinate their efforts.  Merely calling for the killing to end and for the Syrian president to leave are not helpful on their own; they need to be backed up by a firm commitment and action plan for taking concrete action with concerted steps.  What will replace the Syrian government?  Who can guarantee this orderly transition?  How can the tension between national sovereignty and international intervention be resolved?  These are the questions that need to be asked now, by those with the courage to ask them.  Those that can answer must step up and make their interest known.  Those that cannot need to stop complicating the problem and start contributing to the solution.

Kings and Pawns - How the Arab Spring Failed to Topple Middle Eastern Monarchs

The Arab monarchies have weathered the revolutions of the Arab Spring surprisingly well for supposedly autocratic regimes.  As corrupt and parochial governments are toppled and replaced in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria (which is just a matter of time), not a single monarchy within the Arab world has been overthrown.

These countries’ governments are ostensibly republican in nature, but all this really means is that a charismatic strongman and his family’s tribal affiliations dominate the society. In all of these places, the regime in power is also backed by the military and is opposed by Islamists and fundamentalists of all stripes.  This is why the well mobilized and extremely motivated Islamist parties are shaping events in Arab monarchies in profound ways that would have been unthinkable just two or three years ago.  In Egypt for example, not only do Islamists dominate the post-authoritarian political system’s legislature, but a member of the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood has even ascended to the presidency. To be fair, however, the president’s powers are still in doubt since the constitution has yet to be written and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces still controls the military, retains executive power, wields significant influence over the judiciary, and receives billions of dollars per year in American foreign assistance.

So how have the kingdoms, sheikhdoms and emirates of the Arab world managed to survive?  Oil helps.  The monarchs of the Arabian Gulf – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman – are all rich in energy and have been able to mollify their populations with bribes and handouts, or “subsidies”.  The Bahraini royal family even absconded by inviting Saudi and Emirati armed forces to help with the military crackdown on their own population.  But King Abdullah II of Jordan and King Mohammed VI of Morocco are not so fortunate in energy resources, yet they too have survived this long.  Perhaps they are well insulated by some manufactured legitimacy of the ruling monarchy among the country’s people that took place over the course of decades of constancy.  Cosmetic changes have been made in both these countries to their respective political systems, governing legislatures, and bureaucracies, and somehow these changes have been enough to keep protestors from ousting those regimes like they did in neighbouring North African countries and the in southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

Arab Monarchies are far from invincible, though.  They have been decimated before, just not during the revolutionary turmoil that has shaken the region since late 2010.  The Arab Kingdom of Syria existed for four short months in 1920 and was abruptly terminated by the French as they assumed control of the Lebanese and Syrian territories under League of Nations mandates following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.  King Faisal of Syria was hastily installed by the British as ruler of Iraq as a consolation prize, a country which he managed to administer as a family business until the late 1950s.  The Muhammad Ali dynasty reigned over Egypt and Sudan for almost 150 years, ending in King Farouk’s demise after the Free Officers Coup of 1952.  The Mutawakkalite Kingdom of Yemen existed in some form or another in what is now Yemen for much of the early and mid-twentieth century, but finally dissolved in the struggle between North and South Yemen, a brutal civil war that lasted from the 1960s until the late 1980s.

In Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Yemen, from the 1920s through the 1960s, royalist forces were deposed in military coups and replaced by authoritarian despots.  Now many of these same staunchly secular, republican-inspired governments are facing widespread popular disenchantment with their rule.  For some reason, these countries’ governments remain permanently insecure, while the monarchies of Jordan, Morocco and the Arabian Gulf continue to build their own legitimacy and support networks, coalescing most concretely in the economic and political union that is the Gulf Cooperation Council.  The enigma with this latest round of revolutionary upheaval in the Middle East is that these kingdoms are seemingly immune to the same populist pressures afflicting nearby governments which are every bit as repressive.

Whatever the eventual fate of these countries, it is an interesting phenomenon to note that the monarchies of the Arab World have all tenaciously clung to survival amidst the unpredictability of the so-called Arab Spring.  Strategically speaking, these royal families have all fallen to some extent under the influence of the proverbial elephant in the room, the United States.  Monarchism in the Arab geopolitical context has become synonymous with Americanism, so any fall from grace among these quasi-client states’ regimes would inevitably impact America’s role in the Middle East drastically.  From global energy supplies to the War on Terror, these monarchies have cooperated with the world’s sole superpower to ensure stability and security in their part of the world.  Therefore, what happens next to the rulers of these royal realms could have unimaginable ripple effects across the region and indeed, the world.

Lebanese Tinderbox Smoulders Silently

In the midst of the repressive Syrian regime’s all-out war against rebels and revolutionaries, the strategic Arab state of Lebanon has struggled to maintain its sovereignty and avoid entanglement in neighbouring Syria’s internal crises.  Lebanon has constantly lived in the shadow of Syria’s influence, literally carved out of Greater Syria by the French imperial authorities under a League of Nations Mandate after the First World War.

Nominally independent since the early 1940s, foreign interference has never been far from the surface of internal Lebanese politics.  In the civil war of 1975-1990, rival states fought proxy wars in Lebanon by ruthlessly backing and betraying antagonistic political, economic and sectarian forces within the country.  Two contiguous states, Israel and Syria, intervened with the warring parties and even invaded different areas during this time, occupying significant parts of Lebanon for decades.  While Israel withdrew in 2000 under different conditions from Syria in 2006, the scars of their invasions and occupations have left Lebanon in a perpetually weakened state of sovereignty and independence.

One major impediment to Lebanese national reconciliation and the rebuilding of non-sectarian state institutions is the continued existence of Hezbollah within Lebanon’s borders.  The Taif Agreement of 1989, which signalled the beginning of the end of the civil war, envisioned the dismantling of all militia movements.  Even after all other militant groups were dissolved in 1991, Hezbollah refused to disarm.

Ever since, Hezbollah has rivalled the Lebanese Armed Forces as a ‘state-within-a-state’ with de facto autonomy in the southern regions populated by Shiite Arabs, and has pursued its own interests at the expense of Lebanon’s.  For instance, Lebanon’s only recent international conflict took place in July and August 2006 when Hezbollah fought Israel to a bloody standstill over 34 days in which thousands of Lebanese civilians were killed or injured and Lebanese infrastructure suffered billions of dollars in war-related damage.  Any strategic or symbolic victory won by Hezbollah in this conflict cost the state of Lebanon severely.

Every now and then, news reports filter through of isolated incidents of cross-border violence between the armed forces of Lebanon and Israel; after all, these two countries have technically been in a state of war since 1948.  The most serious confrontation since 2006 occurred in a massive military exchange of gunfire on the border in August 2010, resulting in the deaths of an Israeli colonel, three Lebanese soldiers and a Lebanese journalist.

While the risk of war is omnipresent on the Lebanese-Israeli border, United Nations peacekeepers patrol the area and effectively provide the two states with a buffer zone.  The onset of the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war was precipitated by violations of that buffer zone and the coordinated attack and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah on the border with Israel.  As long as similar provocations do not undermine the mutual deterrence between the states of Lebanon and Israel, a tentative yet non-militaristic coexistence is likely to continue to characterize their relationship.

Today, however, the most serious threats to Lebanese security and stability arise from the spillover effects of the Syrian uprising next door.  The Syrian military has recently escalated its strikes against rebel factions seeking refuge in northern Lebanon, reportedly killing five and wounding 10 more in the villages of Wadi Khaled and al-Mahatta as of July 7, 2012.  The northern city of Tripoli is the site of pro-Syrian regime Shiites openly battling pro-Syrian rebel Sunnis in the streets, with over 30 Lebanese citizens killed in these sectarian conflicts since the uprising in Syria began over a year ago in March 2011.

Just two months ago in May 2012, the kidnapping of Shiite Lebanese pilgrims in the Syrian city of Aleppo by sympathizers of the opposition Free Syrian Army – apparently in retaliation for their fellow Shiites’ support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – nearly led to internecine warfare in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley until Hezbollah-leader Hassan Nasrallah appealed for peaceful protests.  And a mere two weeks ago in late-June 2012, a leading Lebanese television station (al-Jadeed) was attacked after an interview with a Sunni cleric aired which criticized the country’s Shiite leaders for their policies towards Syria.

Lebanon is not the only state bordering Syria which has felt the effects of its civil war. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has brazenly called for the Syrian president to step down after lambasting the regime’s conduct during this rebellion towards its own people.  Syria’s recent downing of a Turkish fighter jet and the non-stop influx of Syrian refugees into neighbouring countries (more than 100,000 in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq) signal the increasing volatility of Syria’s internal crisis and its nearing a breaking point in which international intervention may finally be warranted to stop the bloodshed and replace the Assad regime.  Aside from refugee inflows, Jordan and Iraq have both felt the consequences of the Syrian government’s crackdown on its people as money and weapons are smuggled in and out by Syrian government supporters and detractors in a push by both sides to defeat the other in combat.

So how does Lebanon fit into the Middle East’s security dilemmas?  Revolutionary movements in the Arab World have so far led to democratically elected governments – albeit with minimal executive and questionable legislative power and authority – in Tunisia and Egypt, with Libya joining the list of post-Arab Spring elected governments in July 2012.  Following a transitional regime change in Yemen, paltry reforms in Jordan and Morocco, the bribing of loyal populations in the Gulf Arab states, the squashing of a popular revolution in Bahrain, and an ongoing civil war in Syria, Lebanon at least boasts a functioning government that grants its citizens basic civil rights and political freedoms.

Lebanese democracy however is neither secure nor sacred, with notable exceptions to its political cohesion, rights, and freedoms apparent when those rights and freedoms contradict Hezbollah’s party line or Lebanese governmental policy towards sectarian affairs, religious matters or its powerful neighbours.  In the meanwhile the Arab Spring – an anti-regime revolutionary movement demanding political reform – has largely bypassed Lebanon. This will surely be a discouraging sign for pro-democracy activists and human rights advocates engaged in the country.

The Syrian Kerfuffle

In the discourse of international politics, it is rarely warranted to label a situation a kerfuffle.  Syria is definitely one such kerfuffle.  The international community has failed to broker a solution to what has now become more than a year-long conflict in which the government of Bashar al-Assad is fighting for its very survival against an opposition movement loosely united by the desire to oust him.  Ever since February 2011 when some disenchanted young students in the southern city of Deraa spray painted anti-regime graffiti on the walls of their school, were arrested, and local residents protested against those arrests, the Syrian uprising has escalated to a point beyond any previous predictions.  The international community’s interest in and involvement with Syria’s difficulties has ebbed and flowed in the past year, with very little in terms of results to show for it.

For most of the summer of 2011, the world stood by and refused to engage in any serious action because the Syrian regime looked fairly stable, notwithstanding the demise of local autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt (and soon to be Libya and Yemen).  When the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (which began in August) arrived, the Saudi king symbolically spoke out in defence of the thousands of Sunni Muslims ostensibly being killed, imprisoned and displaced by the Shiite Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad, followed in turn by several other Gulf Arab states.  Turkey, which had until the fall of 2011 gently prodded the Syrian government towards reforms, began to harden its stance as well, allowing Syrian refugees and opposition dissidents to operate from its territory.  The United Nations (UN) failed to pass any resolutions in the Security Council critical of al-Assad’s Syria because of Russian and Chinese vetoes, as well as Russian political and military support, while the Arab League rallied behind the opposition, albeit hesitantly and haphazardly.  Most recently, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has travelled to Syria, Russia and China to gain support for a new peace initiative, but the bloodshed continues.

It is interesting to note some of the comparisons between Syria in 2012 and similar events in the region.  The civil unrest in Yemen began in earnest in January 2011, but President Ali Abdullah Saleh was ultimately convinced to step down as the country teetered on the brink of civil war and after repeated attempts were derailed by delaying tactics because the Gulf Cooperation Council and the United States (US) were able to negotiate the power transfer from Saleh to the Yemeni ruling class in 2012, which was not so much a revolution as it was an evolution in the political and military elite’s composition.  In Libya, where the unrest began only slightly earlier than in Syria, Muammar Qaddafi was only defeated because a broad coalition of countries was assembled and ultimately enabled by the Arab League’s authorization of military force in the form of a no-fly zone, a UN Security Council resolution allowing for humanitarian protection and the combined military strength of key countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as well as token Arab support from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.  Finally, in Iraq in 1991, after the US-led coalition forces ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, the southern Shiites and the northern Kurds rose up in revolt as a direct result of US encouragement, but the US was too afraid of the spectre of another fundamentalist Islamic regime neighbouring Iran to allow these revolts to succeed, a dynamic that is all too similar in the way the Syrian crisis is playing itself out.

The great power interests at work were alluded to earlier, but it is worth pausing for a moment and spelling them out in greater detail.  It is clear enough that US interests in the Middle East typically run parallel to those of the Western Europeans, at least in the post-Cold War and post-9/11 era, and are often seen as antithetical to those of Russia and China, the other permanent members and veto-holders of the UN Security Council.  Both Russia and China have saved Syria from condemnation in the UN and strongly defended its sovereign right to conduct its internal affairs with discretion while simultaneously denouncing Western imperialism and contradictory foreign policies.  Without Russian diplomatic cover and military support, it is seriously doubtful that the Syrian regime could have lasted this long, and as the only Mediterranean port in the Middle East friendly to Russian warships, this makes eminent sense from Russia’s geostrategic perspective.  China is also concerned about its long-term influence in the region, which is perhaps why it has thrown its weight behind Syria, but as the oil-rich countries of the Gulf and the collective countries of the Arab League condemn the atrocities in Syria, China’s position remains tenuous at best.  In addition, regional stability and the economical transport of energy supplies through the Middle East are in China’s direct national interest since they keep commodity prices low, something which cannot be said of Russia’s growing status as a petro-state and an energy superpower.

On a deeper level, the regional interests battling for supremacy in the Syrian kerfuffle are also scarcely as evident and troublesome as they are in this particular case.  Backing Syria from day one have been the Iranian government and its Revolutionary Guards Corps, the militant resistance movement Hezbollah in Lebanon, both of which have provided military training and assistance, and tacit support from the Palestinian movement Hamas until early 2012.  Weak neighbours have also tacitly supported the Syrian regime because they have little choice; they are either directly under its sphere of influence (Lebanon), economically tied to it via imports for their own survival (Jordan) or so penetrated by cross-border clandestine activity that their own tenuous domestic stability would be threatened by a rebuke of any kind (Iraq).  Like Hamas, Turkey formerly considered Syria a strategic asset but has come to the eventual conclusion that the regime cannot be permitted to survive in its current form, even going so far as to host Syrian opposition gatherings and international conferences with the goal of supporting these anti-regime rebels and toppling the al-Assad power structure.  The Saudis and the Gulf countries have been calling recently for much more action on the part of the international community in terms of arming and financing the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, with 70 countries recognizing these groups as the official representatives of the Syrian people and pledging concrete support for them at the most recent ‘Friends of Syria’ conference in Istanbul in April 2012.  Israel has managed to stay out of the fray for the most part, and other countries have treaded very carefully.

And so the bloodshed continues, more than a full year after the Arab Spring-inspired revolts first began.  The lack of a credible response to the Syrian situation is not directly attributable to any group of actors or individuals, nor can it be chalked up to a failure of the international system of states to act in the interests of the international community.  The UN Security Council was designed with vetoes in mind so as to take into account the collective interests of the world’s post-war great powers.  Regional organizations like the Arab League are also powerless to act forcefully since they are just symbolic expressions of the once-revolutionary ideals that pan-Arabism espoused nearly a half-century ago.  Since unilateral interventions would be suicidal for regional countries and downright disastrous for stronger ones like the US, a multilateral option or an internal revolution would seem to be the best solutions.  But as we have seen up until now, these have only been even more spectacular failures.

The Arab League: More than the Sum of its Parts?

Of all the intergovernmental regional groupings, the Arab League is most likely the least effective.  Since the organization was founded in 1945, the League of Arab States has skillfully steered clear of taking any decisive action on virtually every international conflict in the region.  Except for the Arab-Israeli conflict, on which popular opinion in every member-state remains extremely pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli for obvious reasons, the Arab League has sought to avoid any divisive action within the Arab community.  The League even managed to sit out the ‘Arab Cold War’ of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, an international struggle between nationalist republics and Islamist monarchies in the region that paralleled to some degree the bipolar Cold War between the world’s two superpowers.  In this sense, the Arab League’s institutional weakness was its strength: irrelevance ensured survival.

Fast forward nearly 70 years to the ongoing Arab revolutions reshaping the modern Middle East.  It is ironic that in spite of being composed almost exclusively of autocratic and dictatorial regimes, the Arab League has taken bold and courageous steps in support of mass protests and popular uprisings against unpopular leaders and their governments in the Arab World.  Even more, the Arab League may finally be playing a positive role after decades of irrelevance.  In fact, one key sign that the League is acting in the collective interest of the public rather than in the much narrower self-interest of its member-states’ ruling elites is when the state threatened by internal upheaval lashes out at the Arab League, usually for criticizing the troubled state in the first place.

In Libya Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi described the no-fly zone eventually passed by the Arab League in March 2011 as a ‘colonialist plot’ by the West – in concert with the League, of course – to steal Libya’s oil.  His son and once heir-apparent Seif al-Islam strangely dismissed both ‘Arabs’ and the Arab League, mentioning that Libya would rather rely on African and Asian migrant workers than fellow Arabs.  The League had suspended Libya’s membership earlier in February, laying the groundwork for a more robust United Nations (UN) involvement in the pariah state’s increasingly bloody crackdown and authorization of NATO intervention in the eventual ouster of Qaddafi.  Arab League action in Libya was arguably made easier by its geographical location, sandwiched between two post-revolutionary states, Tunisia and Egypt, and relatively isolated from the rest of the Arab World in the sweeping deserts of North Africa.

The situation in Syria has garnered the most headlines in recent months for President Bashar al-Assad’s handling of an even more deadly and destabilizing civil revolt now approaching a year in duration.  Here the Arab League has waffled considerably more than in Libya, which is understandable given Syria’s traditional role as the lynchpin in an intricate web of Middle Eastern alliances and a frontline state in the never-ending war against Israel.  After a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria was vetoed by Russia and China in October 2011, the Arab League in November suspended Syria’s membership and imposed sanctions on the regime, but stopped short of calling for foreign intervention.  All along, Assad had accused the League of promoting an international (Western-led, lest we forget) conspiracy against his regime, repeating that the Arab states were mere stooges and that the League was just a platform in this foreign-led, foreign-funded effort to undermine Syrian sovereignty and diminish Arab pride.

In late December, after months of diplomatic wrangling, Syria agreed to allow League monitors into the country to monitor its implementation of an Arab League peace plan to resolve the crisis, an ambitious move for the regional organization that ultimately failed and unfortunately served only to prolong the bloodshed.  The monitoring effort and peace plan fell apart in late January 2012 after several Arab Gulf states pulled out of the mission and recalled their ambassadors from Damascus.  A second UN Security Council resolution critical of Assad, this one explicitly backed by the Arab League, was also vetoed by the Russian and Chinese delegations in early February.  Meanwhile, Assad continued to lambast the League by dismissing its oil-rich Arab Gulf members as countries lacking culture, scoffing that they could “rent and import some history with their money, but money does not make nations and cultures.”  The Arab League has recently called for a joint Arab-UN peacekeeping mission, but few are predicting its success.

More recently, the Syrian civil war has accelerated in scope and severity.  The Arab League and many of its member-states attended the Friends of Syria conference in Tunisia last February, along with representatives from dozens of Western and otherwise interested countries, in an attempt to boost the Syrian National Council’s status and effectiveness as the officially recognized opposition.  Amid Western fears of al-Qaeda infiltration into the Syrian rebel movement, the rebellion’s own inability to crystallize behind a solid front and the risks inherent in arming an unidentified group of anti-regime dissidents, no major breakthroughs occurred at the first Friends of Syria conference.  The Saudi representative made an especially public spectacle of walking out in disgust at its inaction while at the same time calling for arming the Syrian opposition.  As the second such conference approaches this March in Turkey and the man-made humanitarian disasters in Syria become more widely known to the world, one can only hope for progress in terms of uniting the opposition and ending Bashar al-Assad’s iron grip on power.

The Arab states of the Gulf have their own regional grouping, a more exclusive club known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).  Composed of oil-rich sheikhdoms (except for Yemen), this organization has a mixed record as a positive player in the region and has acted more in the collective interest of regional stability and Sunni Arab dominance.  For example, the GCC mediated the transfer of power in Yemen to promote stability in the Gulf from 2011–2012 as President Ali Abdullah Saleh faced overwhelming opposition in the streets, insurgencies in the North, secession in the South, and several other threats to the state’s unity.  On the other hand, several Gulf Arab states effectively invaded Shiite-majority Bahrain in March 2011 in a blatantly anti-democratic operation to clamp down on widespread protests and ensure the survival of the fellow Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy.

Though the GCC clearly has a mixed record on its own turf, its key member-states (mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar) are today the leading forces in the Arab League for orderly resolutions of Arab revolutions.  Tunisia and Egypt transitioned to post-dictatorial regimes with little to no external influence.  Libya and Yemen, however, necessitated prolonged intervention by the Arab League (and GCC, respectively).  As populist movements in the Middle East topple authoritarian governments like dominoes, and the Syrian crisis drags on despite Arab League efforts, this regional organization’s next challenge is imminent.  Whether the Arab League continues its proactive policies or reverts to the irrelevance of the past remains to be seen.

Arab democracy: Just a revolution away?

Much has been made in the past year about the prospects for democracy in the Arab world after the unexpected revolutions that began in Tunisia spread like wildfire throughout the rest of North Africa and the Middle East.  The US-based NGO Freedom House touted the accomplishments of the Arab Spring in its annual report, Freedom in the World 2012: “In a region that had seemed immune to democratic change, coalitions of activist reformers and ordinary citizens succeeded in removing dictators who had spent decades entrenching themselves in power.”  More than one year after it all began, does the democratic hype really live up to the revolutionary reality?

To better understand this question, consider how these revolutions have played out differently in different Arab states. In Bahrain, for instance, popular demands among the majority Shiites for representative government, constitutional democracy and respect for human rights have been stonewalled by the dominant Sunni monarchy, mainly because of external intervention on behalf of its Gulf Arab neighbours and its geopolitical alliance with the United States.  To its credit, the Bahraini government did authorize an independent commission to investigate the causes, killings and injustices of the so-called Pearl Revolution.  Released in late 2011, this report has been surprisingly candid in detailing human rights abuses committed by the regime and making public policy recommendations for the minority monarchy to reform its politically unrepresentative system.  The Bahraini case shows us how the revolutions in some countries have simply failed.

In other places, mass protests have yielded modest reforms on the part of benevolent autocrats – progress, to be sure, but nothing like a genuine revolution.  This reaction is typical of the more progressive monarchies of the region, like Morocco and Jordan, which have shrewdly managed limited reforms and maintained steady levels of popularity, thus ensuring their own survival.  The sheikhs and emirs of the Gulf, as in Kuwait and Oman, have made modest reforms too, just not the political kind.  Together with Saudi Arabia, these oil-rich countries spent at least $150 billion on their citizens in new economic grants and subsidies, effectively bribing their own people into submission – and since September 2011, that sum has only increased.  Here, evolution is a much better descriptor of the changes taking place than revolution.

Then there are the cases of ongoing revolutionary turmoil, the most prominent examples being Yemen and Syria.  After agreeing and to step down and then reneging on that commitment more times than most care to count, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh seems to have finally ended his 33-year rule after he bid farewell to the country and headed to the US for ‘medical treatment.’  Even with national elections scheduled for later in February, Yemen needs at least $15 billion to survive the transition to democracy – an impossible feat for a country wracked by mass poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, unemployment, separatism and terrorism.  Similar forces are fueling popular outrage in Syria, with the various opposition groups coalescing around their opposition to four decades of the al-Assad family’s authoritarian rule and increasingly bloody crackdowns.  The stability and legitimacy of these regimes is extremely tenuous, and the political destinies of these countries are extremely fluid as a result at this point in time.

What about the post-revolutionary scenarios?  In Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, it is now possible to discuss free and fair elections, civilian government as opposed to military control, independent judiciaries, freedom of the press, the rule of law and constitutional principles as never before.  In Tunisia the Salafi Islamist hardliners are beginning to openly challenge the ruling Ennahda Party’s moderate Islamist dedication to these principles.  The Transitional National Council in Libya faces enormous challenges preparing a country with no representative political institutions and no history of democracy for elections this summer while maintaining law and order, battling the remnants of pro-Qaddafi troops, unifying dozens of armed tribal factions, and facing fresh allegations of torture.  Although elections have been held in Egypt, they have handed Islamists with questionable commitments to democratic values over two-thirds of the seats in Parliament and glossed over the civil-military tensions between Egypt’s government and the ruling generals.

To get back to the original question, democracy as we know it in the West is far from assured in any of these revolutionary countries.  Many of them are still undergoing traumatic transitions in which the removal of the old guard has not yet given way to a stable post-authoritarian political order.  In other cases, a dictatorial figurehead has been substituted for an equally oppressive administration, dashing public hopes for democratic governance.  Only in a select few country cases does genuine transformation of the entire system of governance seem to be on the horizon, and even then a hybrid Islamic democracy (Tunisia) or a reformist democratic Islam (Morocco) might better reflect the will of the people.

Who knows if a full-fledged, representative democracy is the inevitable end-result of all these protests, uprisings and revolutions?  As many of these national leaders crackdown on dissent and adapt to survive, it is simply too early to say if entrenched authoritarianism will surrender to the forces of popular self-determination or continue fighting the losing battle for despotism.  The two new Islamist prime ministers of Morocco and Tunisia publicly defended the prospects for Arab democracy at this year’s annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  Only time will tell if other states in the region emulate the Tunisian and Moroccan models of democracy in this second year of the Arab Spring.  Regardless, an astonishing amount of progress has already been made since that first domino fell in the fateful month of January 2011 that it is difficult in these revolutionary times not to be optimistic – at last – about the future of the Middle East.

Prying Eye: Putin’s Return to the Presidency

“Most of the violations we see happen at the local level.”  Liliya Shibanova, director of the independent election-observer group Golos (Voice), led the charge within Russia condemning the parliamentary elections of December 4, 2011 as anything but free and fair.

In the days and weeks following the vote, mass protests the likes of which Russia has not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union materialized in no fewer than 60 cities across the country, from Vladivostok in the East to St. Petersburg in the West.

At least 50,000 police and riot troops were deployed in Moscow alone ahead of one “For Fair Elections” rally on December 10, of which several such rallies – some bigger, some smaller – followed.

Turnout for this particular rally ranged from a government-sanctioned figure of 25,000 (meaning 2 riot police for every 1 protestor) to what protest organizers have pegged as high as 150,000.  These events are organized by a coalition of opposition parties and activists to protest ballot stuffing and vote rigging in Russia.

Popular dissatisfaction with what many perceive to be a growing tendency towards autocratic rule and endemic corruption in Russia – combined with the parliamentary election’s actual results – could boil over after presidential elections scheduled for March 4, 2012.

These elections saw the dominant United Russia party’s percentage of the popular vote fall from 64% to 50%.  Numbers like these would still be grossly inflated when considering the rampant reports of voter fraud by independent elections monitors both within and outside of Russia, but the numbers would still grant Vladimir Putin a solid majority in parliament with 238 seats in the 450-member legislative body, or 53% of them.

Gennady Zyukanov’s Communist party is the second-largest,and is clearly Putin’s favoured political partner among the parties, jumping from 12% to 19% in support since the 2007 parliamentary elections and carrying 92 seats in all.

Ever since assuming power in 2000, Putin has engineered his way to ever-increasing power over the domestic political environment and control of key officials at all levels of government, military and security services, media networks and propaganda, state-owned enterprises, and so on.

After handing the reins of the presidency in 2008 to his self-appointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and orchestrating the machinations of political life in Russia behind the scenes as prime minister (a post created by Putin and for Putin to circumvent constitutional limits on consecutive presidential terms), the former KGB officer announced his intention to run for a third term as president on September 24, 2011.

Although plotting a ‘constitutional’ return to power since 2008, this September pronouncement marked the official beginning of Putin’s return to the presidency and a decade of increasingly authoritarian rule.

Perhaps even more scandalous than Putin’s inevitable transition from prime minister to president is the manner in which the electoral process itself is already skewed in his favour.

News coverage routinely parades Putin’s accomplishments over the past 12 years and fosters a personality cult around him while simultaneously slandering his presidential opponents in the process, all of whom have struggled to top 10% in recent opinion polls (as opposed to Putin, who comfortably maintains 50–60% approval ratings).

Added to that is the pervasive anti-American tone and Cold War-style rhetoric at the heart of Putin’s campaign, where opposition candidates are portrayed as nothing more than lackeys of the United States and Russia’s societal ills are blamed on the American desire to “weaken Russia and push it back into the chaos that followed the Soviet collapse.”

Putin has even used foreign policy issues as political leverage for the domestic elections by insinuating that the U.S.-led ballistic missile shield in Eastern Europe is an attempt to make vassals, not partners, out of the Russians.

The foreign policy card, in fact, is being played by Putin in many ways to signal his unabashed certainty in victory at the polls on March 4.  Apart from the ballistic missile row with the United States, Russia has been flexing its foreign policy muscles in Europe, Asia and the Middle East in a way that is almost never seen in countries unsure of their next governing party – in other words, in multiparty democracies with competitive, free and fair elections.

Cold spells in Eastern Europe and sanctions on Iranian energy exports to Europe have increased demand (and consequently, price) for Russian oil and gas to Europe, a reality readily exploited by Russia as their pipeline networks stand poised to transport these supplies from their vast reserves to the European states that need them most.

Russia continues to jockey for power with China in the Central Asian republics while ramping up operations on the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline, a conduit that increases Russia’s leverage with energy-hungry East Asian states as state-run corporations manipulate the flow of oil in an easterly or westerly direction to maximize raw profits.

And in the Middle East, Russia stymies Western progress on nuclear negotiations with Iran and vetoes any prospect of Arab League-United Nations intervention in a brutal Syrian crackdown.

These foreign policy adventures are undertaken with a bravado that reinforces the impression that Putin will easily win the presidency and carry the policies of the past 12 years forward into the next 12.  It is precisely this air of smugness on the part of Putin and the United Russia party that betrays any sense of democratic governance in Russia.

Dissent manifests itself in many ways, with online activism rising in intensity as activist bloggers and social media sites express their frustration with the current system.

Already, some of the 200,000 cameras installed in 90,000 polling stations across the country to monitor the March 4 elections have been hacked in distributed denial of service attacks.

If this is any indication of the population’s growing discontent with Putin’s authoritarian style, expect this election to be the catalyst for an ever-more broad-based, ever-more technologically-savvy opposition politics in Russia.

War of Words: The Iranian-Israeli Drama

No two countries mirror their unfounded hatred for one another more publicly, outrageously, and frankly, entertainingly, than Iran and Israel do.  Most geopolitical archrivals are at least immediate neighbours, like North and South Korea, Pakistan and India, or even the former Yugoslav republics.  Iran and Israel share no territorial borders and so have no land-related grievances.  Even a quick glance at a world map will demonstrate that they are separated by at least two other countries in any direction.  Iran and Israel have never formally gone to war, their militaries have never openly engaged each other, and yet the level of sheer animosity between the two defies even ordinary rivalries.  A war of words has erupted in the Iranian-Israeli relationship that creates drama and stokes tensions.  What’s going on?

In one sense, the media is to blame.  Not directly, but the surplus of reporters and reporting, information’s ease of access and the insatiable appetite among news consumers worldwide all combine to feed this frenzy of speculative journalism and incendiary rhetoric on both sides of the conflict.  Any regular reader of world news – and especially media junkies – will recognize the Iranian-Israeli drama as one of the most frequently recurring stories, often accompanied by detailed maps, timelines and graphs all designed to lure in the reader.  Adam Klein demonstrates the bias and demonization of Iran and Israel in their respective media outlets in a 2009 article in Communication, Culture and Critique.  Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency (a state-run entity, to be clear) often refers to Israel as a ‘savage regime,’ ‘Zionist oppressors’ and ‘general enemies of Islam,’ while Israel’s Yediot Aharonot (that country’s most widely read daily newspaper) lampoons Iran’s President on the regular and casts him as the ‘chief supporter of Islamic terror’ and an ‘immediate threat to the Jewish State.’[1]  Any impartial or ignorant reader of these comments can see that they are oversimplifications and exaggerations, but both countries nevertheless engage in propaganda warfare and fuel much of the tension emanating from the Middle East.

What are the Iranian and Israeli claims for conflict?  Iran routinely mentions three interrelated concerns: Palestinian injustices, Israeli occupations and Western colonialisms.  Let’s look at each of these a little more closely.  The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is indeed a festering wound in the region and involves serious structural inequalities and power asymmetries, but it remains one that can only be solved between Palestinians and Israelis.  In September 2010, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad criticized the Palestinian Authority for renewing direct peace talks with Israel, insisted that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had no authority to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians, and advocated armed resistance in lieu of negotiations.  In a rare rebuke, Palestinian spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh responded that Ahmadinejad “does not represent the Iranian people” and “is not entitled to talk about Palestine, or the President of Palestine.”[2]  When the internationally recognized representatives of the Palestinian people reject Iran’s influence, their credibility on the issue suffers as a result.

The second issue, Israeli occupation, is also a cause for serious concern where it applies in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.  However, Iran claims that the entire land of Israel is under occupation, a claim that it shares with the Palestinian militant group Hamas (and other radical Islamist groups) and that contravenes hundreds of United Nations resolutions and declarations, numerous articles of international law and the sovereignty of the state of Israel, all of which affirm the basic right of Israel to exist within the borders of June 4, 1967.  Even the Gaza Strip has been evacuated of all Jewish residents since 2005 in the midst of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, though Israel retains tight control over its borders since the Hamas coup of 2007 for security reasons.  In addition, Israel’s relinquishment of the Golan Heights to Syria has always been conditional on a peace treaty along the lines of Egyptian-Israeli peace and the return of the Sinai Peninsula in 1979.  In short, peace negotiations are the best method for the road to less the way to Israel’s occupation the path to peace with Israel

Iran’s third gripe, Western colonialism, is clearly an overblown charge.  This notion stems from Europe’s 19th and 20th century-old habit of conquering less advanced civilizations, subduing their populations and extracting their resources for one goal: the power and profit of the homeland.  By considering Israeli Jews as European colonizers, Iran diminishes the impact of the Holocaust (which Ahmadinejad habitually denies in any case) and falsely asserts that Israel owes some unpublicized allegiance to a master-state on the European continent.  There is simply no evidence to support this outrageous claim, yet it is resorted to by Iranian firebrands over and over again.  Another interpretation of this claim lies in Iran’s self-identification as the leader of the resistance against Western expansionism and influence in the Middle East, in which case Israel would be the West’s outpost in the region.  In this case, Iran places itself within an inter-civilizational struggle reminiscent of a Huntingtonian world, or even within a realist’s tumultuous game of power politics in which great powers vie for survival, power and influence.  Again, take a look at a map: can a country the size of Israel really threaten one the size of Iran?

As for Israel’s major claims for continued conflict against Iran, they can also be grouped into three broad categories: nuclear ambitions, genocidal intentions and regional conflagrations.  Iran clearly has a nuclear program; about this, nobody disagrees.  The real issue is the nature of that program, with much of the international community fearing its use as an offensive military weapon and Iran asserting its right to peacefully develop nuclear energy and medical isotopes.  A much-hyped report coming out of the International Atomic Energy Agency in November 2011 provided more evidence than ever before that Iran is indeed flouting the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and pursuing nuclear weapons.  Not only would this challenge the existing balance of power in the region based on conventional arms, it could spur a nuclear-arms race among regional rivals Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others.  Israel has knocked out threatening nuclear sites in other hostile states before: in Iraq in 1981 and in Syria in 2007.  But nuclear weapons themselves are not what frighten Israelis.

Iran’s genocidal intentions – mainly attributable to Ahmadinejad, but found in the ramblings of the Iranian Ayatollahs as well – are what Israelis fear will guide the nuclear threat to their doorstep.  Aside from his ridiculous denial of the Holocaust, a politically motivated ploy to rile Israeli feathers, this controversial claim of genocide has its roots in another one of Ahmadinejad’s fiery speeches.  In June 2006, depending on your linguistic preferences, the president of Iran either called for Israel to be ‘wiped off the map’ or to ‘vanish from the pages of time.’[3]  This inflammatory quote gets much of the attention, but it only warrants further thought because of the context within which it is perceived.  Whether deliberate or not, this language stirs up memories of Jewish genocide in the Holocaust – denied, of course, by Ahmadinejad – and gives Iran’s nuclear program a uniquely sinister character.  Even the Soviet-American nuclear standoff during the Cold War never witnessed such outlandish rhetoric.  It is the combination of these first two claims – nuclear ambitions and genocidal intentions – that troubles Israelis.

The third and final Israeli cause for concern is similar to Iran’s: the potential for the breakout of conflict in the region.  Nuclear arms races aside, a rising Iran has always threatened Arab dominance of the Islamic world.  Especially through its proxies in the region, Iran has the potential to destabilize domestic governments in Palestine through Hamas, in Lebanon through Hezbollah (the only armed paramilitary group in Lebanon as well as the kingmaker in its current coalition government) and in Syria through its support for the embattled dictator Bashar al-Assad.  As the United States pulls its combat troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011, Iran also lies poised to manipulate the sympathetic, Shiite-led government of that country as well.  Finally, Iranian influence has always worried the monarchies of the Arabian Gulf, spurring them to band together in a collective security organization that has kept a watchful eye on the Persian Gulf ever since.  Recent protests in Bahrain became a contest of wills between Iran and the Gulf Arabs, and Iran has threatened many times to close the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for any US, pan-Arab or Israeli strike on its sovereignty, an act that would immediately shut down 40% of all seaborne oil exports to Asia, Europe and the US.  Israel’s government must obviously weigh all these potential costs against the intended benefits of military action against Iran.

Recent events seem to have elevated these tensions to new heights.  Kidnappings in Iran and assassinations abroad have begun to emerge, computer viruses and Internet censors damage flows of information and technology, proxy wars between terrorist networks and Israel continue to rage, and several mysterious explosions in recent months at Iranian military and nuclear installations all beg to be explained: are they all simply coincidental or is there intentional sabotage going on behind the scenes?  It is not so important what the answer is because the hostility and animosity, while irrational and not traceable to any legitimate historical grievance between these two countries, exists nonetheless.  What is important to realize though is that the media cannot help but filter these actions and events through its own discriminatory lenses, so consult multiple sources to triangulate your information and make up your own mind based on as many objectively supported pieces of information as you can.



[1] See Adam Klein, “Characterizing ‘the Enemy’: Zionism and Islamism in the Iranian and Israeli Press,” in Communication, Culture and Critique 2, no. 3 (September 2009): 387 – 406.

[2] See CNN Wire Staff, “Iran Continues Back-and-Forth Barbs with Palestinians over Peace Talks,” CNN World, September 5, 2010, http://articles.cnn.com/2010-09-05/world/iran.west.bank.comments_1_palestinian-authority-peace-talks-nabil-abu-rudeineh?_s=PM:WORLD (accessed December 10, 2010).

[3] See Jonathan Steele, “Lost in Translation,” The Guardian, June 14, 2006, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/jun/14/post155 (accessed December 10, 2011).

The Arab Revolutions Considered

2011 could be characterized as the year of the Arab.  The year has yet to end, and several Arab regimes, relics of an age quickly gone by, have been toppled by their own people.  The pattern is by now familiar: popular protest in the streets, the capital city swarmed by the disaffected masses as new flags and populist slogans make their appearances.  Then the crackdown begins, brutality and repression remind the world of how these authoritarian despots ever attained and remained in power in the first place.  Funeral processions for the martyrs follow and even bigger crowds are drawn into the streets as these mourning events coincide with Friday night prayers or religious holidays on the Islamic calendar.  This cycle repeats itself, rallies followed by repression followed by more rallies, until something gives.  Eventually, the old sovereign surrenders power to the collective force of the citizenry or is defeated in long and drawn out bloodbaths between the rebellion and the establishment.  In any case, inevitable regime change is afoot in the Middle East, and it is changing the nature of the region’s politics.

Consider what has happened up until now.  Barring Bouazizi, Ben Ali arguably began this chain reaction by refusing to militarily crush the protests in Tunisia and fleeing to Saudi Arabia instead.  This directly inspired the Egyptians to march on Cairo’s Tahrir Sqaure in Egypt and pressure Mubarak to step down, in effect ceding power to the highly regarded military establishment.  The following outbreaks of revolution were no so peaceful.  Libya descended into civil war almost as soon as protests spread from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi to other coastal cities, threatening Qaddafi’s hold on the capital city of Tripoli.  Activists in Yemen and Syria publicly organized anti-regime protests for the first time in decades, prompting both Saleh and Assad to wage open warfare on their own people, deploying heavy machinery in residential areas and massacring unarmed protesters.  Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority rose up against the Khalifa ruling family, but little change resulted because fellow Sunni monarchs in the Arabian Gulf actively suppressed this uprising.  Nobody could have predicted change like this just one year ago.

As of December 2011, three Arab despots have been removed from power: Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak and Libya’s Qaddafi.  Two more are fighting for their very survival: Saleh in Yemen and Assad in Syria, with little hope for either of them in the early months of 2012.  Arab monarchies have felt the same populist pressures, but have succeeded so far in avoiding the fate of their secular autocratic neighbours.  The massive oil wealth of the Gulf Arabs prolongs their popularity and subsidizes their survival.  Others, like Jordan and Morocco, have amended their constitutions or replaced the sitting parliaments in an effort to appease the protesters, cosmetic changes which seem to have worked for the time being.  But what are the long-term implications of such rapid and massive structural changes?

Three worrying trends are immediately apparent: democracy, inequality and instability.  The rationale for intervention from Western countries in Arab revolutions (from Libya lately to Syria soon) has been twofold, humanitarianism and democratization.  First protect the civilian population from the dictator’s massacres, then remove the dictator and install democratic government.  The problem is that democracy is not automatic: in Tunisian and Moroccan elections, for example, the first and fairest of the Arab uprisings, Islamist parties have garnered the most votes and have led coalitions in both countries to form national governments.  Even the transitional governments in Egypt and Libya have encountered practical difficulties in rewriting constitutions and organizing elections, which means that democracy might not be the end result in these situations, regardless of how ideal it may be.

Unequal and unstable conditions are also unlikely to disappear any time soon.  Poor performance along basic social measures like inequality, poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, malnutrition, infrastructure, and life expectancy, while improving somewhat, still threaten to derail any progress achieved by toppling dictators in the Arab world.  Dissatisfaction with one’s quality of life can just as easily be directed against newborn democracies as it was against the former dictators and despots.  Instability breeds inequality, however, since the foreign infusions of capital and investment needed to remedy this state of affairs will not materialize if potential investors lack any security.  Strategic oil and gas conduits must also remain open for the energy-hungry world to support these kinds of structural changes in this part of the world.  In addition to stabilizing national governments, this means also avoiding international wars, also an unlikely scenario in such an unpredictable region.

Another more global concern is the international community’s growing tendency to violate supposedly inviolable legal and normative precedents when it suits powerful interests to do so.  For example, the original pretext for the NATO-led intervention in Libya only secured support from the Arab League and United Nations because it aimed to prevent Qaddafi’s forces from slaughtering thousands of Libyan civilians.  It became obvious almost immediately that the unstated goal of this operation was to remove Qaddafi from power and enable regime change, as Western heads of state and foreign ministers repeatedly claimed.  This is a violation of international legal jurisdiction.  In a related case, the United Nations included an arms embargo in the push to authorize humanitarian intervention in Libya, but France overtly (in addition to the covert actions of other NATO countries) parachuted munitions into rebel strongholds in the Libyan mountain ranges.  This clearly violates arms proliferation norms.  Finally, in the case of the Syrian uprising which has only taken up arms recently, Syrian military defectors and other rebel leaders have taken refuge and received military protection across the border in Turkey.  From this base of operations, they have repeatedly launched cross-border raids and incursions into Syria, attacking military buildings and groups affiliated with the government in clear violation of the norms of national sovereignty and territorial inviolability.  As morally justifiable as these actions may seem against one of the world’s biggest violators of human rights, they cannot be defined as legal.

The wave of unrest sweeping across the Arab world is far from over.  Up until now, the long-term strategic consequences of such a momentous event have been overlooked and understudied.  As the Arab world voices its demands, a window for democratic change in the Middle East presents itself.  Whether that window is opened and democracy indeed replaces despotism remains to be seen, but it remains the civic duty and ethical obligation of every democratic society to do what it can to encourage reform and catalyze progress.  It is difficult to say how a more representative and politically engaged Middle East will differ from yesterday’s, but at the very least it will be a more hopeful one.

Are Palestinians and Israelis Still Fighting?

While much of the international media’s limited attention span has focused almost exclusively on the popular uprisings in the Middle East and the pro-democracy protests on the Arab street, another longstanding problem in the region has been overshadowed and overlooked.  With roots going arguably as far back as the First World War, the nearly century-long conflict between Palestinians and Israelis has typically dominated the discourse on security and stability in the Middle East.  Recent developments on the Palestinian-Israeli front have made it increasingly likely that a fresh wave of conflict is likely to erupt in the near future, an eventuality that needs to be considered seriously and addressed responsibly if needless bloodshed is to be spared and a long-sought peace is to be achieved.

What follows is a brief analysis of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, along with its main actors and central issues.   The purpose of this exposition is to inform and educate, not to persuade or proselytize.  Naturally, a piece of this length will neglect some salient aspects of the conflict, but a brief introduction to the topic is necessarily truncated.  While recognizing that human beings are fallible creatures whose written works are naturally hampered by their uniquely subjective perspectives, this article still strives to be as objective, unbiased and neutral as possible.  With those caveats in mind, the problem of peace between Palestinians and Israelis can be explored and the possibilities for progress between these two intransigent protagonists can be examined.

Perhaps it is best to begin in the present day and with the main actors on the Palestinian side.  As it stands, the Palestinians are largely divided between two opposing camps: Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Fatah in the West Bank.  While dozens of peripheral players are involved, these two are paramount.  Hamas won legislative elections in the Palestinian Territories in 2006, but international donors withdrew funding for the Palestinian Authority (the government) because of Hamas’ refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israel.  In a bloody 5-day civil war the following year, Hamas seized Gaza and expelled Fatah forces to the West Bank where they remain today.  Hamas and other Islamic radical movements in Gaza adhere to a religious fundamentalist worldview while Fatah and other secular nationalist groups in the West Bank have adopted a more Western-friendly policy orientation.  Since 2007, Fatah has regained control of the Palestinian Authority and wavered between engaging in peace talks with Israel and reconciliation talks with Hamas but to no avail on either front.

Divisions in Israeli society are no less pronounced than with the Palestinians.  While Israel is a thriving democracy, the most recent configuration in its steady stream of coalition governments can explain much of its recent behaviour.  In 2009, the Likud Party returned to power after a decade in the opposition by courting right-wing political parties.  With its hawkish, messianic and jingoistic worldview, the settler movement has found ample support on the ideological right of the Israeli political spectrum.  When the Israeli government is dependent on courting favour from pro-settler political parties for its survival, peace overtures to the Palestinians become increasingly complex and convoluted.  Israel has been forced to choose either domestic political stability or progress in peace talks with Palestinians.  Palestinians, for their part, have elevated the issue of settlements to one of primary importance in setting preconditions for further talks, an equally detrimental move towards peace which neglects other critical issues like borders, refugees, Jerusalem, water rights, economic arrangements, and so on.

In addition, the role of external actors cannot realistically be ignored.  The United States, the principal benefactor for both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government, exercises influence for better or worse disproportionate to its direct involvement in the conflict.  Other great powers like Great Britain, France and Russia, and international organizations like the United Nations, the European Union and the Quartet on the Middle East, have also weighed in on the conflict’s dynamics with pomp and circumstance unheard of in any other ongoing conflict anywhere else in the world.  Even regional powers have begun to play bigger and more relevant roles, with Egypt being central ever since it signed the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty in 1979, Turkey maintaining elite-level military and diplomatic ties, and Iran cultivating ever more strategic relationships with fellow rejectionists Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Syrian state.  While these actors fall outside the scope of this brief overview, they are nevertheless extremely important since any sustainable peace process needs their involvement.

With President Obama coming to office in January 2009, renewed emphasis was placed on resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  Although the Palestinian Authority and Israel began talks shortly thereafter aimed at establishing a viable Palestinian state living in peaceful coexistence beside a secure Israel, both sides made excruciatingly little progress.  The Israeli government remains unable to compromise on the conflicting demands of Palestinian negotiators and Jewish settlers, and Hamas continues to use violence against Israeli civilians and delay reconciliation with Fatah, both of which remain inimical to the faltering peace process.  Problems internal to the political processes of both actors are unavoidable issues that will only increase in difficulty and complexity as time goes on, whether it be among Palestinians living under the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank or Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip, or even among Israelis living within the state’s June 1967 borders or in East Jerusalem and the settlements in the West Bank.  The sooner this problem is resolved, the better.

Recent events have only served to heighten tension and mistrust between Palestinians and Israelis.  A Palestinian terrorist’s cold-blooded murder of a Jewish family in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, increased rocket and mortar salvos from Gaza landing in southern Israeli cities accompanied by retaliatory missile strikes by the Israeli Air Force, and an explosive device detonated at a busy bus stop in Jerusalem that killed at least one person and injured dozens more.  These localized events have only added more intensity to the increasingly globalized diplomatic contest that Palestinians have been waging for international recognition.  With several Latin American countries recognizing Palestinian statehood in the past few months, and President Obama expressing his hopes to the United Nations in September of 2010 that an independent Palestine would emerge in a year’s time, the political pressure is building for concerted diplomatic action.  By September of 2011, political and economic institutions gradually assembled by the Palestinian Authority over the past few years with the help of international donors will be complete, and an opportunity for international legitimacy of the Palestinian cause will present itself.  Unfortunately, peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis show no signs of resuming.  If Palestinians achieve international recognition without a simultaneous reconciliation with Hamas and resolution of the conflict with Israel, the consequences may not be self-determination and statehood, but a resumption of conflict with a high probability of violence, bloodshed, and possibly all-out war.

The Media and the Middle East

When Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in the provincial Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid on December 28, 2010, to protest his inability as a fruit vendor to obtain a simple license to sell his wares at the local market from the government, nobody could have predicted the chain of events that has since led to revolutions in Tunisia and the wider Arab World.  Only ten days after Bouazizi died from his self-inflicted wounds on January 4, 2011, anti-regime protests forced the Tunisian President of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine ben-Ali, to flee the country with his family and inner circle.  By January 14, 2011, the Tunisian case had set the trend for the rest of the region, with popular pressure forcing the Egyptian President of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, to hand power over to the much-respected military and retire to the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh on February 11, 2011, only 18 days after massive demonstrations began!  In both of these cases, the Tunisian and Egyptian governments and militaries refused to crack down violently on protestors, and the message that peaceful revolution was possible spread to neighbouring Arab states.  But how did these revolutions succeed in the first place, and how have they managed to inspire populist uprisings elsewhere without any central planning or organization?

Without the modern media in the form of privately-owned newspapers, satellite television stations, smartphone-enabled citizen journalism, Internet-based blogging sites, and social media networks, these modern revolutions would have been impossible.  Take, for example, the fact that Al Jazeera – the Qatari-based satellite TV network with journalists reporting on the ground in practically every Arab state undergoing some type of civil unrest – was temporarily banned from Egyptian households by Mubarak’s supporters, their government-issued accreditation was revoked by the ruling al-Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain, and they have had reporters harassed and a cameraman even killed by pro-regime forces in Libya.  While these state-sponsored acts targeted Al Jazeera directly, they represent an attack by the region’s fundamentally unrepresentative and increasingly threatened authoritarian regimes on all democratically-motivated and transnationally-oriented revolutionary movements in the Middle East.  In other words, as the principles of democracy, transparency, accountability, empowerment, and social justice are championed locally by the international media, the traditional autocrats inimical to these modern qualities react with gradually more erratic, barbaric and unacceptable measures.

Ever since the apparent successes of Tunisia and Egypt, similar anti-government revolutionary movements have taken place in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, and Bahrain, each with varying degrees of effectiveness in achieving their goals.  Part of the problem is that state-owned media networks often compete directly with the private and international media to feed the public their version of reality.  When government-run media stations lose control of the dominant narrative, they cut off access to foreign news sources by blocking satellite signals, revoking licences, disconnecting service providers, censoring the Internet, shutting down offices and physically deporting journalistic staff.  Until the very last days of Mubarak’s rule in Egypt, local media virtually ignored the millions of people protesting in central Cairo’s Tahrir Square.  Throughout Muammar Qaddafi’s struggle to militarily defeat the rebellion in Libya and Bashar al-Assad’s repressive crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Syria, for instance, ordinary citizens consuming local radio, newspaper and television broadcasts are bombarded by government lies, propaganda and misinformation on a daily basis.

Even more interestingly, local media networks controlled by national governments can construct diametrically-opposed realities on stories of international significance.  The regional tug-of-war pitting Saudi Arabia and Iran against each other with Bahrain in the middle demonstrates this effect perfectly.  Bahrain is a majority-Shiite but Sunni-led Gulf state in which the Shiite opposition’s popular demands for better treatment in employment, housing and infrastructure have been received by the al-Khalifa ruling family with heavy-handed crackdowns.  Under the guise of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional security alliance, friendly Sunni monarchies responded to the King of Bahrain’s request for assistance by dispatching their militaries to the Bahraini capital of Manama and forcefully pacifying the protesters.  This is where fact and fiction collide: while the Sunni and Saudi-owned al-Arabiya satellite television station reported this event as a cooperative military intervention necessary for territorial integrity and regional stability, the Shiite and Iranian-owned al-Alam (Arabic) station decried it as an imperial military invasion that interfered in Bahrain’s sovereign affairs.  However events unfold in Bahrain, the point is that without truly independent media, governments are still able to create and control the narratives.

For the two North African Arab states which precipitated the so-called Arab Spring, it is worth pausing for a moment and reflecting on why the ruling families refrained from turning their powerful security, military and paramilitary forces on their own people in the way that other Arab dictators have done.  Although Egypt and Tunisia represent more homogeneous societies than those in Libya, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, popular discontent remains a constant feature of the region.  What these demonstrators have recognized and capitalized upon is the power of the media to mobilize the message of the revolution and deliver it to the rest of the world instantaneously.  Whereas mere decades ago the government could control the message, massacre its own population and continue on with business as usual, international public opinion pressures these regimes to substantially modify their behaviour.  Not only are these individual Arab revolutions national in nature, they collectively represent a much broader media revolution in international politics.  Power is rapidly diffusing from governments to populations, aided by transnational networks and encouraged by international awareness.  If these changes usher in more democratic and representative governments, the long-suppressed peoples of the Middle East may finally be able to determine their own destinies and participate in creating a more modern world.