Monthly Archives: June 2014

Researching the Middle East: conflicts, threats, possibilities (Part II)

Blog post by John Strawson, Co-Director of the Centre on Human Rights in Conflict


On the ground in Palestine, the Israeli operations to find the Kidnapped teens has now seen 5 Palestinians shot dead and over 400 detained. The Netanyahu government has insisted that its action is against Hamas and that it has evidence that Hamas was behind the kidnapping. However, the impact of the military operations across the West Bank has been to weaken support for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. The ability of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) to act in all Palestinian major cities on such a scale only draws attention to the fragile character of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and underlines the reality of the occupation. Abbas has attempted to balance his condemnation of the kidnapping while speaking against the killing of Palestinians. Netanyahu has defended Palestinian deaths as acts committed in self-defense. However, Palestinian public opinion has become increasingly outraged by the Israeli actions and by the Palestinian Authority’s inability to protect civilians. As a consequence Israeli operations are over all undermining the PA. This may well be an unintended result of the Israeli actions, however, it is beginning to look as if this was the calculation all along. Since the break down of the Camp David talks in 2000 successive Israeli governments have claimed that while peace talks are desirable, there is no Palestinian partner. Back in 2000, then Prime Minister Ehud Barak declared the late Yasser Arafat as duplicitous, a view shared by his successor Ariel Sharon. When Abbas succeeded as President after Arafat’s death he was denounced as weak. Netanyahu had condemned Abbas for the unity government with Hamas and is now attempting to blame him for helping to create the environment in which the kidnapping could take place. Abbas is thus labeled as both unreliable and weak – and thus there is no Palestinian to negotiate with should the Obama administration raise the issue.


Viewing Iraq from the Middle East

The United States and the European Union have been slow to grasp to enormity of what is taking place in Iraq. Over the weekend the forces of Da’ash (the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq – ISIS) have made sweeping gains in Anbar province and now appear to be controlling  some border towns: one with Syria (Al-Waleed) and another with Jordan (Turaibi). The goal appears to be to capture the entire province, which borders Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It would provide them with a major strategic position in order to attempt to stabilize more of the Middle East. Whether Da’ash has the capacity to act across such a large front is another matter. In Iraq their success has only been achieved through military and political alliances with former Ba’athist forces. However, the fragility of the region three years after the Arab Spring means the future is even more unpredictable. The rather belated visit to the region by US Secretary of State John Kerry seems to indicate that the US have no new initiatives – and the policy confusion over the Middle East evident in the reaction to the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011 remains. Kerry’s first stop was Cairo where the US seems to be re-cementing its strategic alliance with Egypt. In very friendly talks with President Sisi he announced the restoration of the American military aid held back since the overthrow of President Morsi. Rather late in the day the US seems have to grasped that Morsi was perhaps not the democrat that they thought and that the millions of Egyptians who demanded his removal in July 2013 may have been right. The new position on Egypt has been forced on the US due to the Iraqi crisis.


John Kerry’s next stop was Baghdad. Nothing perhaps symbolizes the US weak position in the Middle East than this visit. Eleven years after the US-led war, Iraq is now a playground for extremists. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a bitter enemy of Iran, but under Nouri Al-Maliki Iran’s influence in Iraq has never been stronger. In 2003 there were those like Rumsfeld who thought that US intervention could build a model democracy in Iraq that would become a pole of attraction for the rest of the Middle East. Instead Iraq is the cockpit of a regional insurgency.


2003 Iraq War and Occupation

This crisis is not directly the result of the 2003 war itself. Certainly the policies that were adopted by the occupying US and UK forces are however a link between 2003 and today’s crisis. The policies of banning the Ba’athist party, disbanding the military and   prohibiting previous regime official and politicians any role in the future of Iraq were very much the author of the present disaster. While it would be inaccurate to think that the Ba’athist regime was purely Sunni, such policies did have the effect of removing overnight a Sunni ascendancy that had been established by the British in the 1920’s. In occupying Iraq during the First World War and then establishing the Mandate, Britain through Percy Cox (the High Commissioner) and Gertrude Bell his “oriental secretary” set about making alliances with the Sunni elites and placed the Hashemite Faisal on the throne. In one form or another Sunni’s have benefited from this position in terms of government influence, economic advantage and social status. (The regime of General Qasim (1958-1963) was the only time that this issue was addressed). Whatever means had removed the Ba’athist regime the challenges of building an open society free from privileges and without rancor from the majority Shi’a population would have been formidable. A truth and reconciliation process rather than dubious criminal trials and a rather rushed constitution might have provided Iraq with a better future. The Iraq crisis underlines the truth that we cannot escape from the histories that have created the present without addressing them


Significance of Da’ash (ISIS)

The success of Da’ash presents not just a strategic threat but also an ideological one. What we are seeing is a struggle within the Islamic world. Da’sh is a split from Al Qa’ida. Like its parent organization it has never seen the West as it’s main target despite September 11 2001. Rather it has been focused on removing those it regards as false Muslim leaderships. Such views originate with Sayyid Qutb the ideological leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He argued that a new age of Jahilliya (ignorance, a term used to describe the period before the coming of the Prophet) had befallen the Muslim world. Al Qa’ida and like-minded groups have kept this view alive and since the early 1990’s have seen secular governments and the ‘corrupt’ monarchies as their main target. They also see Shi’as, and other non-Sunni groups as not Muslim at all. It is no accident that Muslims have been the main victims of these groups. The hatred of the West derives from the perception that it has been the US and the Europeans that have supported these regimes. Da’ash is thus trying to re-shape the Middle East through removing the exiting systems and indeed states and replacing them with an ‘Islamic state” in their own image. As such they threaten pluralism within Islam itself. From its earliest inception Islam in terms of theology, philosophy and jurisprudence has been highly discursive and consists of many different trends. In classical Islam, coercion is seen as un-Islamic. Da’ash thus rejects Islamic civilization and threatens Muslims. The West needs to grasp that it is principally Muslims that are in the front line not The US or Europe. That is not say that are not likely to be consequences in Western countries from returning militants. However, they pose no threat to the existence of Western states and governments. In the Muslim world they do. This has significant consequences for any Western responses to the crisis.



The renewal of US-Egyptian relationships is seen as good news by the Israeli government. It looks like the reassurance of the past Middle Eastern order. Yet as the US reviews its relations with Iran, Israel looks more nervously at its eastern borders. Yesterday there was an attack on Israeli construction workers on the occupied Golan Heights –one teenager dead two injured – and Israeli planes immediately went into action to strike Syrian government targets. The action illustrates the contradictions of the Israeli position. After all in attacking the Assad government Israel aims to weaken the main force in Syria that opposes Da’ash. The fighting in Syria over the past year has been mainly between government forces and Islamists of one hue or another. The idea that there is a strong, secular “moderate” in western parlance opposition, must be disabused; there is none in Syria itself.   US policy has been built on this illusion. However, the Israelis have been much clearer. For the past three years, as I said to the BBC, the Israeli government has been gripped by two fears – (1) that Assad does not fall and (2) that he does. The Israelis are well aware that the likely replacement of Assad will be an Islamist regime of some sort, which would be even more hostile to Israel and more sympathetic to Hamas. In that sense the Israeli strike does not make much sense. Like the US, Israel is desperate to go back to the old Middle East that it once knew. However, that is no long an option.  The crisis is shifting the strategic balance. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are finding that they have common interests with Iran as they oppose their own Islamists. The US, as I noted, is also pushed towards a new much more pragmatic relationship with Tehran.  There is not going to be a new alliance but there will be new understandings. This is likely to make drafting agreement at Geneva on the Iranian nuclear program easier. This will discomfort Israel and indeed Prime Minters Netanyahu has gone on a major propaganda offensive to warn the US and Europe of the dangers of allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons. However, Kerry will not see things that way as he leaves Baghdad. He will also be aware that the continued Palestinian-Israeli conflict complicates the crisis.  Once again the rights of the Palestinians to self-determination are subject to the wider relations of the Middle East. The Israeli government is however being very short sighted. It should use the current regional crisis to negotiate a fair deal with President Abbas. A genuine Palestine state is not merely what the Palestinians need but would contribute one stable piece to the complex jigsaw of the Middle East.



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Researching the Middle East: conflicts, threats, possibilities

Blog post by John Strawson, Co-Director of the Centre on Human Rights in Conflict

Jerusalem June 19

Working on the Middle East is never dull. Having arrived in Israel this week there is the continuing hunt for three Israeli teenagers kidnapped in the West Bank and this of course is overshadowed in the region by the dramatic events in Iraq where Da’ash (ISIS) led insurgents have seized whole parts of the country and threaten Baghdad. Da’ash of course  established itself during the Syrian civil war. Recent developments have

In turn transformed relationships between the West and Iran as both sides now face a common enemy. Meanwhile in Benghazi US Special Forces have abducted Abu Kattala the alleged ringleader of the lethal attack on the US mission in 2012.  These events are merely the news headlines but the significance of each underlines the complexities of researching the region. In my view it reinforces the need for the researcher be to be immersed in the Middle East – its history, politics and languages – but also just walking the streets and picking up on contemporary music, chat and feel. It also generally underlines the importance of area studies, which is alarmingly, a fast disappearing discipline in Britain.

The media regularly trashes the history of the region. Articles on Iraq over the last few days (as examples see: Rouhat in the International New York Times, Masalha in Ha’aretz) claim that the borders of the modern Middle East were created by the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, a view which is quite false. They were in fact designated after the First World War beginning with the Cairo Conference. Ironically the areas in Iraq and Syria controlled by Da’ash look very much like the area allocated by Sykes and Picot to the French!

So it is against this background that I have come to grapple with the every-present Palestinian-Israeli conflict and to try to make an assessment of the prospects. Twenty years ago (May 1994), Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Cairo Agreement (the second major text of the Oslo process), which effected Israeli withdrawal from most of Gaza and the Jericho area and set up the Palestinian Authority.  As a result Yasser Arafat, the Chair of the PLO was able to return to Palestine after 27 years. The PA was set up (headed by Arafat) and the Oslo process got underway. The peace process has now faded, the Israeli occupation continues and the number of Israeli settlers on the West Bank has risen from about 120,000 to about 350,000. Despite Israeli encroachments on Palestinian land the United Nations General Assembly has recognized Palestine as a state. The PA, which began operating in June 1994 with a faxed decree from Arafat, (from Tunis) still exists although is now based in Ramallah. So while peace has not progressed the institutions of the Oslo agreements have persisted.

Iraq and Iran

The situation in Iraq now stalks the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in particular the West’s rapprochement with Iran. For Israel over the past 35 years Iran has been seen as the major strategic threat. In 1994 Avram Burg (then a leader of the Labor Party) explained to me in the Knesset that Shi’a Islam as whole was a particular problem for Israel as it was more extreme than Sunni Islam. Long before concerns over the Iranian nuclear program, Iran figured high on the Israeli radar. Indeed successive Israeli governments were consistently puzzled over US obsessions with Iraq after 1991. The subsequent 2003 war was seen as a waste of resources that could only increase Iranian influence in Baghdad. The Israeli conflict with Iranian backed Hezbollah, which began during Israel’s occupation of Lebanon, was a prelude. The Shi’a militia and political party claimed that when the Israelis unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 (after two decades) it was under their fire. Since then Israel and Hezbollah have fought the vicious war in 2006 and unease across the border continues. Syria as an ally of Iran has also to be seen in the context of the strategic threat. Thus in this narrative Iran has proxies on Israel’s borders. Israeli analysts first thought that the 2011 rising against Assad was a helpful development. But as the conflict developed Sunni Islamists became dominant in the opposition and it is these forces that are now linking up with Sunni dissatisfaction in Iraq. For the USA and the UK the greatest danger is the success of Da’ash-led forces. As a result Iranian offers of help to al Maliki’s government coincides with Western interests. The new contacts between the West and Iran while undoubtedly along the lines of “my enemies enemy is my friend” in fact continue a trend in Western-Israeli relations since September 11 2001. The Bush administration missed a major opportunity to renew relations at the time, but the election of President Rouhani last year created a fresh opportunity.

For Israel the situation the concern is that this will weaken the West’s resolve over the Iranian nuclear program. As a result relations are strained with Israel and the US. Israel now feels isolated and whatever US influence there has been since the Obama Administration took office is now at its lowest point. This creates a situation in which Israeli unilateral steps are likely. The response to the kidnapping of the three Israeli teens (now over a week ago) gives perhaps some indication of what is to come. The large Israeli military action in the West Bank has been entirely focused on Hamas. Whether Hamas itself was responsible is not known although it appears that a cell associated with Hamas activists was. It is quite probable that such a group was unhappy with the Hamas leadership’s decision to form a coalition government with Fatah of President Abbas.  The coalition was seen by Israel as bringing terrorists within the Palestinian government – although only technocrats are in the cabinet. Part of the Israeli response to the kidnapping has to be seen as an attempt to divide the new government – a government, which the US and the West has said it will deal with. However, this is likely to be the beginning of a new phase of Israeli policy. The future holds possible annexations of part of the West Bank – the zone to the west of the wall, which would compromise some 12% of the West Bank. There are even suggestions by some in the Israeli Cabinet – and this would be supported by the in-coming President Rivlin that the whole of the West Bank should be annexed. Whatever the outcome the Iranian factor will continue to influence events.

Civil Society

While strategic questions dominate both the Israeli and Palestinian Governments what is interesting is that civil society organizations aimed at fostering peace are very active on each side. At the Jerusalem Hotel on the Nablus Road in East Jerusalem I was fascinated by a seminar being held by an activist from the Israeli veterans organization, Break the Silence. It was held in the restaurant for about 10 American tourists. Afterwards I chatted to one of the organizers and established that the group was in fact staying in Ramallah and this one of many such trips a year. Few would suspect that American tourists would be staying in Ramallah but this is indeed the case – and brought by American peace activists. This was a multi-faith initiative. Given the normal stock in trade view of US-Israel relations this was a highly significant example of what can be done. Across Israel and Palestine people-to people activities are taking place sometimes in the framework of established organizations and sometimes informally. The question is how can these voices from the ground make themselves heard by the governments which claim to represent them?


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