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Middle East & North Africa

Tag Archives | Middle East & North Africa

How the Middle East Peace Process went ‘Poof’

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Secretary of State John Kerry appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations committee

Poor John Kerry. This week he emitted a sound that was more expressive than pages of diplomatic babble.

Secretary of State John Kerry appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations committee

In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations committee he explained how the actions of the Israeli government had torpedoed the “peace process.” They broke their obligation to release Palestinian prisoners, and at the same time announced the enlargement of more settlements in East Jerusalem. The peace efforts went “poof.”

“Poof” is the sound of air escaping a balloon. It is a good expression, because the “peace process” was from the very beginning nothing more than a balloon full of hot air. An exercise in make-believe. John Kerry cannot be blamed. He took the whole thing seriously. He is an earnest politician, who tried very very hard to make peace between Israel and Palestine. We should be grateful for his efforts. The trouble is that Kerry had not the slightest idea of what he was getting himself into.

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Syria’s Civil War, Assad and the Palestinians

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Following heavy fighting in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Palestinian refugees line up to receive food aid from UN workers. Photo: ONU Brasil

The three-year old Syrian crisis presents dire dilemmas for Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and in refugee camps across the Middle East.

Following heavy fighting in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Palestinian refugees line up to receive food aid from UN workers. Photo: ONU Brasil

Given Syria’s traditional role as a sponsor of Palestinian resistance movements and a home to hundreds of thousands of refugees, Palestinian leaders are understandably torn between loyalties to President Bashar al-Assad and his enemies. Palestinians have fought in Syria on behalf of both the regime and the rebels. The conflict has deepened ideological and political wedges between Palestinians and complicated their patchwork of international alliances. Moreover, as various proxy battles are waged within Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, the Palestinian refugees there are now enduring an underreported humanitarian crisis.

Syria’s Role in the Palestinian Resistance

Historical bonds between Palestinian resistance movements, refugees, and the Syrian government have complicated Palestinian attitudes toward the grinding civil war in Syria. In 1948, 90,000 Palestinians fled to Syria as refugees. Since then, several hundred thousand more have arrived and settled in large refugee camps, such as Yarmouk in Damascus.

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Kerry’s Self-Imposed Deadline Fast Approaching and the Peace Process Industry

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Secretary of State John Kerry during a press conference in London

As the US-imposed April 29 deadline for a ‘framework’ agreement between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority looms, time is also running out for the Obama administration itself. The Obama administration must now conjure up an escape route to avoid a political crisis if the talks are to fail, as they surely will.

Secretary of State John Kerry during a press conference in London

Chances are the Americans knew well that peace under the current circumstances is simply not attainable. The Israeli government’s coalition is so adamantly anti-Arab, anti-peace and anti any kind of agreement that would fall short from endorsing the Israeli apartheid-like occupation, predicated on colonial expansion, annexations of borders, land confiscation, control of holy places and much more. Ideally for Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies in the right, far-right and ultranationalists, Palestinians would need to be crammed in disjointed communities, separated from each other by walls, Jewish settlements, Jewish-only bypass roads, checkpoints, security fences, and a large concentration of Israeli military presence including permanent Israeli control of the Jordan Valley. In fact, while politicians tirelessly speak of peace, the above is the exact ‘vision’ that the Israelis had in mind almost immediately following the 1967 war - the final conquest of all of historic Palestine and occupation of Arab lands.

Palestinians are currently paying the price of earlier Israeli visions, where Vladimir Jabotinsky’s ‘Iron Wall’ of 1923 was coupled with the Allon plan, named after Yigal Allon, a former general and minister in the Israeli government, who took on the task of drawing an Israeli design for the newly conquered Palestinian territories in 67. Not only would it not make any sense for a Zionist leader like Netanyahu - backed by one of the most rightwing governments in Israeli history - to bargain with Palestinians on what he considers to be Eretz Yisrael - the Whole Land of Israel -he has shown no desire, not even the most miniscule, to reach an agreement that would provide Palestinians with any of their rightful demands, true sovereignty notwithstanding.

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U.S. Outraged Over Iran’s ‘Hostage-Taker’ Envoy to the United Nations

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Hassan Rouhani

The Obama administration says Iran’s nomination of a former hostage-taker as its ambassador to the United Nations is “extremely troubling.” US senators have also balked at Iran’s pick of Hamid Aboutalebi, who was part of a Muslim student group, which seized the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. The 52 Americans were held for 444 days during the crisis.

Senator Ted Cruz says he will introduce legislation to block Iran’s application for a US visa for Mr. Aboutalebi. Department of State spokeswoman Marie Harf said at Wednesday’s daily briefing: “I will say that we think this nomination would be extremely troubling. We’re taking a close look at the case now, and we’ve raised our serious concerns about this possible nomination with the government of Iran.” Mr. Aboutalebi has reportedly said he had minimal involvement in the hostage-taking group, named the Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line. Officials for Iran’s Mission to the United Nations have so far declined to comment.

Mr. Cruz, a Texas Republican, said on the Senate floor on Tuesday: “It is unconscionable that in the name of international diplomatic protocol, the United States would be forced to host a foreign national who showed a brutal disregard of the status of diplomats when they were stationed in his country.” He added, “This person is an acknowledged terrorist.”

His legislation would require US President Barack Obama to deny a visa to any UN applicant determined to have engaged in terrorist activity. Fellow Republican Senator John McCain called Mr. Aboutalebi’s appointment “a really kind of an in-your-face action by the Iranian government,” the Associated Press news agency reports.

Armenian Insecurity and the #SaveKessab Campaign

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Following heavy fighting in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Palestinian refugees line up to receive food aid from UN workers. Photo: ONU Brasil

In what was an inadvertent statement on the sad state of news, it took a tweet from Kim Kardashian (no intro needed) for the #SaveKessab movement to garner some real attention.

Following heavy fighting in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Palestinian refugees line up to receive food aid from UN workers. Photo: ONU Brasil

The hashtag is in reference to Kessab, Syria where on March 21 rebel groups took over and forced the majority of the city’s 2,000 Armenians living in the city to flee to Latakia city, some 57 km away. Early on, there were reports of Armenians being killed and Armenian churches being vandalized.

However, the reports have yet to be verified, despite protests from Armenians, both inside and outside of Syria, who have demanded investigations on the happenings in Kessab. This is also not the first time that Armenians have been forced to flee during the Syrian civil war. Aleppo, Syria, a relative melting pot for the country’s minorities, was on the front lines of battles between pro-Assad and rebel forces and included a significant Armenian population. There, an estimated 10,000 Armenians fled and churches were destroyed.

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The Cycle of Violence: Egypt’s Military Solution

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Residents walk past a banner for Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

More of the same, it would seem, is heading your way if you are living in Egypt. Egypt’s now ex-defence minister, Field Marshal Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, is readying himself for power.

Residents walk past a banner for Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

He does so by way of caution and a puritanical script favouring austerity. “I cannot make miracles. Rather, I propose hard work and self-denial.” Acknowledging limits should be a matter of course: “We must be truthful with ourselves: our country faces great challenges. Our economy is weak. There are millions of youths who suffer from unemployment in Egypt.” Every strong man needs showmanship and a sense of role play. Muscle is otherwise a reality without sense, a statement of the gym rather than parliament. Sisi provides myth and a sense of assurance in the form of jogging with his troops, donning his fatigues and menacing his enemies with lashing rhetoric.

He also uses his uniform to impress – the oldest trick in the trade of wooing electorates who fear into bed. “True, today is my last day in military uniform, but I will continue to fight every day for an Egypt free of fear and terrorism.” A fit man with a sharp tongue is a formidable man. Whether he is a person who will clean the stables is something else. They may not be up for cleaning in any case. “Key to his political skill,” observes Robert Springborg of the United States Naval Postgraduate School, “has been his secrecy coupled with expert role playing that duped his opponents into thinking he was an unambitious professional officer.” In so doing, he also made a tilt in appeal “to the Egyptian public as the man to lead them out of the post-Mubarak political morass.”

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Arab League Summit in Kuwait: Seeking Solidarity?

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Arab League meeting in Cairo. Source: Bahrain Foreign Ministry

Kuwait is now hosting its first Arab League Summit. The slogan for this year’s Summit is “Solidarity For A Better Future.”

Arab League meeting in Cairo. Source: Bahrain Foreign Ministry

Question is: will the Kuwait Summit ensure solidarity for the region? It is a well known fact that the Arab World has seen its own share of regional alliances formed on the basis of ideological, sectarian and regional dynamics. With the recent cases of the Arab Spring, such dynamism has become all the more complicated and thus, regional solidarity is surely a challenging task to accomplish. Back in the 1950s-60s, the Arab World was divided into two factions: pro-Soviet Arab nationalists led by Egypt, and pro-West conservatives led by Saudi Arabia. The division between the two factions was so paramount that Malcolm Kerr termed it as The Arab Cold War.

Alignments changed in the year 1978 after the signing of the Camp David Accord, when Egypt decided to quit the Arab-Israeli conflict. Both Syria and Iraq tried their best to isolate Egypt after Camp David, but the situation refused to remain static. Following the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran, Iraq’s attention shifted towards Iran, and the Arab World witnessed another set of factionism. This time, countries such as Syria, Libya and Algeria sided with Iran, whereas the Gulf States, Egypt and Jordan aided Iraq.

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Nowruz, a Harbinger of Cultural Diplomacy

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Nowruz celebration. Photo: Kourosh Ziabari

The Persian New Year, which coincided with the commencement of the Vernal Equinox, has arrived and people across Iran and in parts of Central and West Asia and the Middle East are celebrating this ancient festival, which marks the beginning of the new solar year.

Nowruz celebration. Photo: Kourosh Ziabari

Nowruz, meaning the “New Day,” refers to a set of festivities and rites that mark the arrival of spring and the Persian New Year. It is not simply an ordinary event of celebration and rejoicing or a national custom. Rather it is an historical and interregional tradition which dates back to some 3,000 years ago and connects people of different ethnic, lingual and national backgrounds and promotes regional peace and friendship.

Today, Nowruz has been recognized by the international community as a worldwide cultural event with significant social and political implications. Even though many nations observe and enshrine this festival, its origins and roots belong to Iranians, so leaders from different Western countries seize the opportunity of Nowruz every year to reach out to the Iranian people and send political messages to them. For instance, the U.S. presidents in the recent years have regularly recorded video messages addressed to the Iranian people on the occasion of the Persian New Year. This message includes their plans and ambitions for strengthening and repairing the long-marred relations between Iran and the United States.

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Israel’s Two-Step Solution to African ‘Infiltrators’

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A participant in a march by asylum-seekers in Jerusalem is arrested by Israeli police on 17 December 2013. Yotam Ronen/ActiveStills

Since 2006, thousands of Africans, mostly Eritreans and Sudanese, have fled their country escaping conflict, human rights abuses and destitution.

A participant in a march by asylum-seekers in Jerusalem is arrested by Israeli police on 17 December 2013. Yotam Ronen/ActiveStills

They move to Sudanese refugee camps where many are kidnapped by traffickers and delivered to criminal gangs in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, subjecting the refugees to deplorable conditions, including torture and rape, while ransom payments are demanded from their families. The majority of those abused in the Sinai who were freed now reside in Israel. Along with those African migrants who had paid smugglers to take them to Israel, they now makeup an immigrant population of 60,000. Israel’s response to the influx of Africans has been to reinforce its siege mentality, labelling the migrants as “infiltrators” and a direct threat to the future of Israel as a Jewish state.

To maintain the state’s Jewish ethno-religious character, Israel has implemented a two-step solution to their non-Jewish African problem. The first step has been to shut down the growth of African migrants entering Israel through the Sinai Peninsula by building a 240km border fence with Egypt. The second step has been to clear Israel of those Africans already inside.

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Iran’s Case against Stuxnet

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

Speculation has it that Iran wants to pursue legal action against the US-Israeli led Stuxnet cyberattack.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

If the rumors prove to be true, Iran’s case against the United States could give the international community a great opportunity to use the case as needed momentum towards setting official international regulations on cyberwarfare. Arguably, the Stuxnet cyberattack is an illegal act of force that violated the Charter of the United Nations, the IAEA safeguards regime, and Iranian sovereignty as well.

After the U.S.-Israeli cyberattack, Tehran took a relatively passive posture and never officially complained to international legal channels. Shortly before President Rouhani took office in Tehran, an anonymous Iranian diplomat made public that Iran’s Foreign Ministry had enough evidence to take legal steps against the United States for the Stuxnet cyberattack. If Iran takes legal action against Washington it can demand that it receive compensations for damages caused and having its sovereignty violated by an illegal act of war. A lot is at stake as Iran’s determination against the cyberattack could set boundaries for future illegal cyber behavior.

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Iran and Pakistan – It’s complicated

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Photo of Iranian guards at a border crossing in southeastern Iran’s Milak region which borders both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Source: Press TV

The recent kidnapping of 5 Iranian soldiers serving along Iran’s border with Pakistan, and their subsequent alleged captivity in Pakistani territory has shed light on the complex relationship between the two states.

Photo of Iranian guards at a border crossing in southeastern Iran’s Milak region which borders both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Source: Press TV

With western media analysis firmly focused on continued negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme and Pakistan’s internal troubles, there is little written about the relations between the two neighbours who share a 900km border running through the heart of the Baluchi cultural region. This is a relationship that contains myriad complexities and the potential for conflict and cooperation, ranging from tackling Baluchi separatism and drug trafficking to pipeline politics, Afghanistan and the ever present spectre of US and Saudi interests in the Middle East and beyond.

Despite the complexities, relations have been good up until now, showing the pragmatism of both states and the importance both place on the relationship. However, the recent comments of Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, who has threatened unilateral action inside Pakistani territory as a means of maintaining Iran’s security and that of its soldiers serving along the border, demonstrate the potential for a rupture and the necessity for pragmatism to prevail.

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In Spite of Turmoil, Egypt and Israel have Maintained Bilateral Relations

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Israeli security forces seen patrolling the border between Egypt and Israel.  Tsafrir Abayov/FLASH90

With Al Qaeda’s presence growing in the Sinai, Egypt and Israel have stepped up joint bilateral security cooperation to deal with the threat.

Israeli security forces seen patrolling the border between Egypt and Israel. Tsafrir Abayov/FLASH90

Amidst the turmoil that has ensued throughout post-Mubarak Egypt, Al Qaeda (AQ) has established a stronghold in the Sinai from where jihadists routinely target Egypt and Israel. In turn, Egyptian and Israeli security forces have increased cooperation to address the Sinai’s security challenges, underscoring that the bilateral relationship remains intact. While in the longer term the direction of bilateral relations remains uncertain, in the near term Al Qaeda’s actions have strengthened security ties between Egypt and Israel. Al Qaeda’s actions in the Sinai and Levant have also served to enhance the likelihood that other governments in the region, such as Jordan and Turkey, will continue to cooperate with Israel on security–related issues.

An ‘Islamic Emirate’ between Egypt and Israel

Since Israel’s withdrawal from Egyptian territory in 1982, the Sinai has proven to be Egypt’s most ungovernable territory. The Mahahith Amn al-Dawla (MAD) — the highest internal security authority in Egypt — was responsible for ensuring law and order in the restive Sinai and cracking down on underground Islamist movements. Throughout Mubarak’s rule, the MAD prevented Islamist militants from successfully launching more than only a few attacks across the Egyptian-Israeli border. However, Mubarak’s fall led to the MAD’s dissolution, raising question about the Egyptian government’s capacity to effectively combat militant jihadist forces.

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Syrian UN Aid Resolution a Step Forward

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The Syrian civil war has left millions displaced and seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, often in camps in a dire condition. EPA

On Saturday, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution that demands access for humanitarian aid organisations in Syria.

The Syrian civil war has left millions displaced and seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, often in camps in a dire condition. EPA

This is an important step forward. It follows a Presidential Statement last October, which had made similar requests. But why is access for humanitarian organisations such an important issue in this crisis? Part of the issue is the sheer number of civilians who have been affected by the Syrian civil war. Some 2.3 million Syrians have sought refuge in neighbouring countries; 6.5 million are internally displaced within Syria. A further three million civilians within Syria are in need of assistance, including an estimated 240,000 civilians who are under siege by government and opposition forces.

Combined, these figures represent half of Syria’s population. This has led to a massive assistance operation on the part of the international community. The UN has requested US$2.3 billion for assistance operations within the country and a further US$4.2 billion for operations in the region. To give an idea of the scope of these requests, the worldwide contributions to humanitarian assistance in 2012 totalled only $17.9 billion USD. Despite the crisis enveloping the country, the Syrian government has blocked significant assistance efforts within Syria. Most aid organisations are guided by four key principles derived from the Geneva Conventions:

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The (Very) Early Beginnings of an Iranian-Israeli Detente?

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Pictured: Benjamin Netanyahu and Hassan Rouhani

“If the Palestinians are happy with the solution [Israel-Palestinian negotiations] then nobody outside Palestine [including Iran] could prevent that from taking place.” – Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

Pictured: Benjamin Netanyahu and Hassan Rouhani

Just the other week news broke that Iranian President Rouhani had decided to give the Dr. Sapir Hospital and Charity Center, Tehran’s Jewish Hospital, $400,000 on behalf of the government. This followed Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s remarks on Monday that “if the Palestinians are happy with the solution [an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal] then nobody outside Palestine could prevent that from taking place,” which despite some domestic backtracking was seen as a signal of Iran’s willingness to one day recognize Israel under the right conditions.

This remarkable shift in tone coming from Iran has been noted in Israel as well. According to a recent report from Al-Monitor, the recent changes in Tehran have been “inspiring great hope” in Israel’s defense establishment. So much so, it appears, that Israel defense minister Moshe Ya’alon was willing to sit in the front row of a German TV interview with Zarif – a rare sight indeed. All this follows Israeli President Shimon Peres’s recent tweet that “as far as Israel is concerned we are ready to make peace with the Iranian people, historically they have never been our enemies.”

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Analysis of Turkey and Iran’s Growing Alliance

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani. Source:  Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs

“The terrorist groups that are operating under the cover of Islam are in no way related to Islam. We will widen our cooperation shoulder-to-shoulder with Iran in combating terrorist groups.” – Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. Source: Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit to Iran last month symbolized a pivot toward Tehran and a shift in Ankara’s Middle East foreign policy. Declaring a desire to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Iran in combating terrorism, and driven by Turkey’s evolving policy toward Syria, Erdoğan’s trip highlighted Ankara and Tehran’s tendency to pursue mutual interests when their paths cross. This is significant in terms of its implications for the Syrian conflict and for the region’s landscape, as both countries have the ability to influence the course of future events throughout the Middle East.

History of Turkish-Iranian Ties

Turkish-Persian history was characterized by centuries of rivalry, which remains the case today as both powers seek to shape the Middle East consistent with their respective visions. The Turkish Republic oriented itself toward the West (and away from the Middle East) throughout the 20th century; Iran was therefore not a central focus of Turkey’s Cold War foreign policy. However, the Iranian revolution of 1979 did create tension, as Turkey’s ruling secular elite viewed Iran’s post-revolutionary regime as a menace. This perception was in part fueled by Ankara’s belief that Tehran sponsored terrorist groups in Turkey with the intention of exporting the Islamic revolution to neighboring countries. In turn, Iran’s post-1979 political order viewed Turkey as a threat to Iran’s post-revolutionary objectives, given its membership in NATO and secular ideology.

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