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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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Building democracy through transitional justice: Instigating active citizenship

The project on the Impact of Transitional Justice Measures on Democratic Institution-building, the London Transitional Justice Network and the Centre on Human Rights in Conflict at the University of East London invite you to:

Building democracy through transitional justice: Instigating active citizenship

Date: Friday, 4 October 2013

Time: 4.00 – 5.30pm

Venue: US.2.40, University Square Stratford, 1 Salway Road, University of East London, Stratford, E15 1NF

Speaker: Hugo van der Merwe, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, South Africa

Directions to University Square Stratford:

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Syria, Chemical Weapons and Intervention

by John Strawson

It is evident that a humanitarian disaster has occurred in the Damascus suburbs and chemical weapons attacks in Ghouta have lead to the deaths of hundreds and the suffering of thousands. Chemical weapons are illegal and those who ordered their use and those who then used them must be held to account. While UN weapons inspectors collect evidence that the international community will require it is important to consider what the appropriate reaction to the use of chemical weapons should be. The United States, Britain and France are, it appears, considering some form military response. From reports it seems that the three powers have already determined that the Assad regime was responsible and that some type of missile attack would be appropriate. If this were the case I would argue that this sounds more like a punitive mission rather than the humanitarian intervention that is required.

Since the conflict began in Syria over two years ago far too many states in the international community have taken sides for or against the Assad regime, As the death tool mounted – to now well over 100,000 – the United States, the EU, Iran and Russia have seemed more concerned with their interests in the strategic outcome than with the suffering of Syrian civilians. It is about time that this was reversed and that the people of Syria were put first. The issue is not punishing one side or the other but preventing any further use of illegal weapons and of ensuring that that victims of the present attacks are properly cared for. This may well require military intervention to achieve this. Both the Assad government and the rebel forces need to be disarmed of such weapons. A cruise missile attack will not achieve this but just destabilize the region even further.

What policy-makers need to consider is a package of legal, diplomatic and military measures that center on the need to protect civilians. First it should be made clear that individuals involved in chemical attacks whether in the government or the rebels will be prosecuted either at the ICC (via a United Nations Security Council referral) or through a special constituted international criminal tribunal. Second the UN secretary general should convene talks between all the various parties once the UN weapons inspectors report. The United States, the EU, Iran and Russia need to keep contacts open on the question. States with a genuine objective of protecting civilians should prepare a military plan for intervention with clear and limited objectives; disarming both sides of weapons of mass destruction and creating conditions for delivering humanitarian relief to all civilians.

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Land Rights and Governance

by Sally Holt, 30/04/2013
Coming in to land at Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport, the rocky sandy-brown landscape stretches out as far as the eye can see. I am here for an awareness-raising Workshop organised by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to help country representatives in the region to identify ways to improve governance of tenure and implement the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security.
These first impressions do not provide much evidence of fertile agricultural land here in Amman, but the route from airport to city centre is lined with polytunnels which I later learn are used for the cultivation of vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumber, squash, and okra. These commercial enterprises are interspersed with small herds of camels, goats and sheep roaming the landscape – evidence of the small-scale livestock husbandry which also characterises this peri-urban landscape, along with the occasional walled olive grove or orchard. The amount of modern construction going on is quite striking and includes some ostentatious buildings – many of which seem to be hotels or the headquarters of foreign companies. The shiny new airport terminal itself – which apparently only opened a couple of weeks ago –is part of Jordan’s bid to continue to attract increasing numbers of visitors and foreign investors to the country. All of this provides an illustration of the competing interests for the use of land that Jordan, like every other country, has to try and balance in the best interests of its whole population. This is the crux of the matter we will be discussing at the Workshop over the next few days.
Next morning I head off to the upmarket Landmark Hotel where the Workshop is taking place. Our surroundings are in stark contrast to the subject of the meeting, which places particular attention on the situation of the poorest and marginalised in society when it comes to responsible tenure, livelihoods and food security. Participants include a mixture of government and civil society (CS) reps hailing from Bahrain, Iran, Oman, Syria, UAE and Yemen – with a particularly good representation from Jordan as the host country. Regrettably there is no one from the private sector despite the important role they play when it comes to tenure issues. There is some confusion about why participants from Palestine will be attending the North African workshop to take place in Morocco in June rather than this one. Something to do with FAO regional divisional organisation we understand. There is nevertheless one participant from Palestine here representing the Palestine’s Farmers Union.
Initial presentations introduce the content of the Voluntary Guidelines (VGs) to those who are less familiar. While some in the audience have been part of the process of their development from the off, having attended a Workshop in Jordan 3 years previously and actively contributed in drafting sessions since, others are relatively new to them.
The VGs are welcomed by all as providing a principled framework within which to address tenure issues in each country. The fact that these guidelines have been negotiated (apparently quite fiercely on certain points) and agreed by governments gives them greater currency as a tool of advocacy. It is stressed by the FAO that the VGs are basically a policy document providing a comprehensive overview of the issues. They are not intended to provide detailed practical guidance on specific options for implementation, but the FAO is also producing supplementary technical guides on specific issues – one of which (on gender) is already available on their website: An e-learning course is also being developed – with UEL contributing a module on addressing tenure disputes and conflicts.
Talking of conflict, in the course of discussions the Palestinian CS rep raises a question about how the VGs can be implemented in situations of occupation or protracted conflict where there is no legitimate authority to appeal to and people are losing access to their lands and related resources on a continuing basis. The pragmatic answer to this is that, of course, the VGs cannot solve macro level political conflicts. What they can do is inform processes of negotiation and mediation. It is therefore crucial that those involved in such processes are aware of the guidance the VGs provide. This is equally true in processes of transition and in national dialogue processes such as the one currently underway in Yemen. More broadly, from a conflict perspective, the VGs can help to address the underlying and root causes of tensions and conflict within societies and so prevent the (re)emergence of violence. Aside from specific guidance on dispute resolution, other sections (e.g. on improving security of tenure or regulating markets so that some groups are not unfairly disadvantaged) also have a role in addressing grievances and fears that can underlie conflict. It therefore follows that national processes of reviewing existing tenure systems and institutions as the basis of potential reform should incorporate a conflict perspective. It is also worth mentioning that even situations of protracted conflict small steps can be taken. For example, registering claims as people are forced from their lands, as happened in Colombia, provides a record for when the situation shifts and return and restitution becomes a possibility. Small comfort perhaps for Palestinian farmers, but nevertheless something practical that can be done.
On the second day we break into three working groups on land, forests and fisheries respectively. This division reflects FAO’s institutional focus and structure. Some civil society reps are concerned that this categorisation has contributed to the (in their view) insufficient attention in the VGs to rangelands, which can encompass all three elements and face their own set of issues. Certainly, tensions over ownership, use and management of rangelands is emphasised as one of main – if not the – key issue in Iran (and this is also the case in a number of Central Asian states) where lands have been nationalised without recognition for the customary and tribal rights. States’ failure to recognise the benefits of traditional methods of use and management which tend to work in harmony with nature and are therefore sustainable and environmentally friendly are also noted. More worryingly still, these lands are now being given over by governments to private ownership so creating more competing ownership claims – a recipe for tensions and conflict. Perhaps counter-intuitively one of the positive factors identified by participants in relation to rangelands is the abject failure of policies to deal with this issue to date. This is seen as an entry point now for advocating reform according to the principles set out in the VGs. A new approach is clearly needed.
As we get down to serious work in our groups we are guided by a series of questions. Not only should we review the main issues of concern in each country and identify common threads and themes, but we should try and come up with recommendations for how to address them as part of a strategic plan. In the land group, country reps identify key challenges to include: problems of legal recognition of rights, weak titling and registration systems, multiple and conflicting claims to land and resources and lack of effective mechanisms to deal with them. Complexities in the law concerning allocation of public, private and customary lands and the need for clarification are highlighted as particularly crucial. In some cases e.g. Oman while a regulatory framework is in place the problem lies with implementation where land is used for purposes other than agriculture or left it lie fallow. Another issue generally across the region is access to water of sufficient quantity and quality. Water is also a source of trans-boundary tensions here in Jordan. The adverse effects of regional and international trade agreements on the production of crops for domestic markets is also highlighted as an important issue affecting food security. For example, in Jordan, wheat production is reportedly down to a record all-time low of 6%, with imports coming from Syria, Russia and the USA. While the issue was not really discussed in our group it is worth noting that Middle East and Gulf states seeking food security for their rapidly growing populations are now outsourcing agriculture by buying or leasing land in Africa and Asia, often via private companies. Obviously this has significant knock-on effects in those continents where competition for land is already fierce.
In looking for solutions, participants discuss how Islamic law can provide some useful models for addressing some of these difficult issues. It is a shame that UEL’s Siraj Sait is not here to share his expertise in this area, as well as on gender. He could not make it to this workshop, but will be attending the one in Morocco instead.
In the spirit of the principles laid out in the VGs, everyone in our group agrees that process is all-important in addressing land tenure (and indeed many other policy) issues and that genuine participation is key. We come up with a plan involving the creation of a multi-stakeholder platform in each country, which will then undertake activities in relation to:
(1) Dissemination and awareness-raising about the VGs among a wider audience, including educational initiatives such as the production of targeted materials for different sectors (policy-makers, farmers, land administrators, technicians, etc.); and
(2) Review and possible reform of relevant law, policy and practice.
We also incorporate an element of regional cooperation, stressing the potential complementarity and mutual support that countries can provide for one another. All this is very ambitious and will require political will – not to mention funding – but we have decided to think big, even if the first steps may be small.
Sadly, I have to head back to the airport and miss the final presentations of the other groups, but I’ll be looking out for the meeting report which will also be posted on FAO’s website.
I am also missing out on a trip to the Dead Sea – famous for its restorative powers and a popular tourist destination – which is apparently shrinking at a record rate. This is attributed partly to increased usage for agricultural and industrial purposes of the water that used to flow into the sea, especially from the Jordan River. This is problematic from both an environmental and conflict perspective. Indeed, some commentators are predicting that the fragile political situation in the Middle East will only be made worse by the increasingly intense water shortages in the region.
On the way back to the airport we pass the Amman Waves Aqua Park Resort and I can’t help wondering how this fits into Amman’s plan for sustainable use of resources. I guess the leisure and tourism industries are important players in that careful balancing act in the competition for precious natural resources.
Back in London, it has finally stopped raining and it seems like spring has finally arrived. How long until the first hose-pipe ban is announced?

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Arms race in Syria

In a matter of two days the Syrian crisis has been internationalized yet again. Three developments underline this: the European Union lifting the arms embargo, the Russian delivery of S-300 miles to the Assad government and the public announcement by Hezbollah of military support for the regime. For the time being the cockpit of the struggle is the battle over Qusair and critical town on the Lebanese border. It is here that Hezbollah fighters – numbered at between 5,000 -7,000 – are battling rebel held positions. Selim Idriss the Free Syrian Army chief has already denounced what he calls the ‘invasion of Syria.’ The US and some other Western governments have called for Hezbollah to withdraw. A slightly contradictory position as the same governments have been coordinating policy with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar who are supporting some tens of thousand foreign fighters. By ending the arms embargo and by announcing the arms could be with the rebels by August 1, William Hague the British foreign minister was effectively firing a starting gun for an arms race. The actions of the Russians and Hezbollah are clearly designed to ensure that the Assad government has a clear military advantage before August arrives.

All this casts a dark shadow over the Russian-US plan for a Geneva peace conference in June. Already the battle over Qusair has been used as an excuse by the opposition to refuse to go the event while the fighting continues – claiming that massacre of the town’s inhabitants threatens if the government wins. It should be pointed out that when the rebels took the town they ethnically cleansed the 10,000 strong Christian population. The truth is that what began as rising of Syrian civilians demanding reform has now transformed into an internationalized civil war along sectarian grounds. This has brought all their major regional and international powers into play: US, Russian, Britain, France, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. This is the old Middle East and not the new. We have yet another round big power rivalry where the interests of the Syrian people are lost amongst a host of other national self-interests. The 80,000 civilian deaths, mass displacement and the growing refugee problem should be the center of concern not who will gain from the victory of one side of the other. The axis of colonialism, the old East- West conflict and the sectarian division in the region are exacerbating an already dangerous situation. This threatens the stability of neighboring state, especially Lebanon and Iraq and also a generalized war. The international community needs to pull back from the current policy of backing one side or another and adopt a Syria first position. It has to be accepted that there are no good sides and what the people of Syria need is a ceasefire and compromise on the political future. This means a genuine diplomatic effort to stop the fighting, and to do that the arms race must stop.


John Strawson

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