By Marwan Kabalan
As we start the tenth year after the onset of the Arab uprisings, there is, sadly, little hope that there will be peace, democratic transition and stability in the Middle East.
2019 will not bring much positive change to the region: Ongoing conflicts are unlikely to be resolved, some may even get worse and new ones may break out.
In this continuing upheaval, the United States will certainly play the most important role. The political wrangling between President Donald Trump and the Washington establishment, in particular, is likely to determine the direction of much of US foreign policy towards the region.
It is widely expected that, in 2019, Special Counsel Robert Mueller will make more revelations about the results of his investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections. Therefore, Trump will likely seek to distract the public by taking dramatic decisions on foreign policy; the Middle East will be the easiest target.
Already at the end of 2018, there were clear indications of this trend. Trump’s mid-December surprise decision to withdraw over 2,000 US troops from northeast Syria was widely seen as an attempt to appease his support base, consolidate power and rein in administration officials who disagreed with him.
Apart from the continuing unpredictability of US foreign policy shifts, major developments in the Middle East in 2019 will largely be determined by six major issues: the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, the Gulf crisis, the US confrontation with Iran, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and regional rivalries.
Despite the defeat of the Syrian opposition and the retaking of large swaths of land by pro-regime forces in 2018, the Syrian conflict is far from over. More than 40 percent of Syria’s territory is still not under the control of the Damascus government.
The withdrawal of US troops from the oil, gas and water-rich northeast is likely to fan the competition between the major external powers in the conflict: Turkey, Russia, and Iran. This is likely also to affect the de-militarised zone agreement in Idlib, which prevented a major onslaught on the last opposition stronghold last September.
The Syrian conflict may very well enter a new phase of proxy warfare, wherein the US gives Turkey the responsibility of blocking Iran in the territories that it intends to evacuate. The withdrawal of US forces would also stimulate a more aggressive Israeli approach in Syria.
After the US withdrawal, Israel will have to rely solely on its own efforts to counter Iran’s influence in Syria and will seek to increase its military activities on Syrian territory. It will, however, face one major challenge – Russia, which controls Syrian airspace. In September, an incident involving Israeli fighter jets led to the downing of a Russian surveillance plane and the death of its 15-member crew. This infuriated Moscow, which has so far refused to continue its close military coordination with Israel.
Increasing tensions between the major foreign players in Syria are likely also to delay even more a political solution of the conflict. So far the Astana trio (Russia, Turkey and Iran) has failed to agree on the formation of the constitution committee. Now with the withdrawal of the US troops from Syria, the likelihood of an agreement has become even slimmer; in fact, the entire Astana process could collapse. The parallel UN-led peace negotiations have also reached a dead end.
The US withdrawal also means that the US is effectively abandoning its Kurdish allies, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). This will likely result in a dramatic improvement in Turkish-US relations and a restart of their alliance in Syria. This will certainly upset Russia, which is likely to increase its reliance on Iranian militias to fill the vacuum left behind by the US in northeast Syria. Realignment could also bring the YPG, fearing a Turkish military offensive, closer to Russia and the Syrian regime.
Despite the ceasefire agreement in the port city of Hodeidah and the notable progress that was made in the negotiations between the warring parties in Sweden, a final settlement of the four-year conflict is still a distant possibility.
Indeed, the weakening position of the Houthis following their loss of territory over the past two years and the enormous pressure the Saudi leadership is facing to stop the war in the aftermath of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, may have made it easier for UN envoy Martin Griffiths to bring the warring parties together in Sweden.
Yet, the two sides are still convinced that they can win militarily. The Houthis think that the Saudis will eventually have to bow to international pressure, stop the war and abandon their endeavours in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition, on the other hand, believes that recent progress on the ground, especially in Hodeidah, will eventually force the Houthis to accept their terms to end the war.
Iran, too, is still unwilling to help reach a final settlement. Tehran seeks to keep the Saudis bogged down in Yemen so that they would not have the resources to deal with its activities on other fronts in the Middle East. Iran also wants to use the Yemen conflict as a bargaining chip in a grand deal to lift US sanctions and salvage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) after Trump’s withdrawal last May.
Despite extensive Kuwaiti mediation efforts and increasing US pressure on Saudi Arabia, there are no indications that the Gulf crisis will be ending any time soon. In early December, Saudi Arabia refused to discuss the crisis at the last GCC summit in Riyadh, to which Qatar sent only a low-level delegation.
The four blockading countries (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt) believe that time is on their side and that Qatar will eventually accept their demands. Qatar, on the other hand, thinks that it can weather the blockade and wait for the four to realise that they are in fact shooting themselves in the foot.
In 2019, this standoff will likely persist. For mere geographic reasons, Qatar will have to continue relying on Iran to evade the blockade. It will also strengthen its alliance with Turkey and has allowed the latter to establish a military presence in the Gulf for the first time since the end of World War I.
Following the withdrawal of the US from the JCPOA last May, Washington unilaterally re-imposed sanctions on Iran in two rounds: the first one started in August and the second and toughest started in November, hitting Iran’s oil and financial sectors.
Fearing soaring oil prices, the Trump administration gave six-month waivers to eight countries importing Iranian oil. Come May, when the waivers expire, Trump will have to decide whether to fulfil his promise of working to bring Iranian oil exports to zero.
If he does, Iran, which is largely dependent on its oil revenue for hard currency, is likely to consider the move a declaration of war. In retaliation, it could act on its threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which some 20 percent of the world’s traded oil passes. This would effectively block other Gulf states from accessing the oil market. Although many consider this a hollow threat, the possibility of an escalation is real as the US tightens the noose around Iran’s neck.
If Iran chooses not to block the Strait of Hormuz, it has the capacity to retaliate in other places, especially in Iraq. It has already urged its allies in the Iraqi parliament to try to abrogate the 2008 treaty which made the US military presence in Iraq legal.
Pro-Iran Shia militias have also threatened to target US troops in the country. The resumption of the US-Iran conflict in Iraq could benefit the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, which last year was greatly weakened but not eliminated. Hence Iraq could see further political and security turmoil in 2019 should tension between Iran and the US increase.
In 2019, Israel is likely to continue taking unilateral measures to establish new realities on the ground in Palestine, taking advantage of the full support it receives from the Trump administration and the continuing turmoil in the Arab world and within the Palestinian leadership. In fact, Israel is working with the Trump administration on two fronts in order to completely erase the Palestinian question.
First, it seeks to take the so-called “final status issues” off the negotiation table, most importantly the status of Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The US has already recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and has moved its embassy to the western part of the city. It has also halted funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), demanding that the agency change the definition of a refugee in order to resume its financial contributions.
If UNRWA caves in, the number of Palestinian refugees who receive aid will drop from several million to a mere few hundred thousand. This will also determine the number of Palestinian refugees when the right of return is discussed in any future peace talks.
Second, the US is working towards establishing an anti-Iran Arab-Israeli alliance. It is expected that the Trump administration will present in the new year the much anticipated “ultimate deal” to impose some form of settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and pave the way for the aforementioned Arab-Israeli alliance.
Normalisation is already under way between several Arab countries and Israel and we will see more of it in the coming year.
As these Middle East conflicts deepen, political alignments in the region create corresponding faultlines and increased polarisation. Since World War I, political divisions in the Middle East have always mirrored those of the world order du jour. During the Cold War, the Middle East was divided between the Soviet and US camps.
Today these divisions are deeper in nature and greater in number. They also reflect a degree of independence from the broad trends of the international system. Hence, instead of having two camps, we have now three: the so-called “resistance” axis of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah, which is supported to a certain extent by Russia and China; the counter-revolution axis made up of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan and backed by Israel; and the pro-change axis of Qatar and Turkey.
These three axes are caught in the middle of a vicious conflict to decide the future of the Middle East.
All these issues are likely to dominate the political scene in the Middle East in 2019 and we probably won’t see the end of any of them. In 2018, the Middle East was one of the most volatile parts of the world and is likely to remain so in 2019.
A prayer for our times
By Rajeev Bhargava
As all of us ordinary citizens recovered from the carnage in Pulwama, and wondered how the government would respond to this latest instance of cross-border terrorism, one television channel showed us poignant images of grieving relatives of the fallen soldiers. While a few, driven by moral hatred for the perpetrators, were understandably crying for revenge, others, even at this moment of utmost suffering, spoke of the futility of retaliation. “It would only bring similar suffering to fellow humans,” said one widow from the rural hinterland. Hers was a cry for peace, not for vengeful violence. “War can only be the last resort, after everything else has failed,” she wisely counselled.
Yes, war is sometimes necessary, especially in self-defence. But one doesn’t have to be an unconditional pacifist to acknowledge the misfortunes it begets or to decry war mongering. Nor is readiness to go to war the only indicator of patriotism. True, patriots must be prepared to die in defence of their ‘patria’, their mother or fatherland. But one is not any less a patriot if one strives for everyone in his country living peacefully, happily, flourishing, leading life to its fullness. Fighting the daily challenges faced by their countrymen, seeking to improve their lot, always loving them and their habitat, and expressing this love in word or deed as the occasion demands is the everyday vocation of a patriot.
A country at war is different. War is disruptive, and because it is lethal and involves human sacrifice, a patriot must eschew any bravado about it. This is particularly expected from contemporary leaders, patriots who never themselves go to war; quite unlike the past where the ruler who declared war was expected to always lead from the front on the battlefield. After all, it is our Army officers and jawans who die, not the ones who call for and support war. Our rulers move about with elaborate security to protect their own lives. If they don’t allow others to play with their lives, they must ensure that no one plays with the life of their countrymen, most of all our soldiers. Decisions on war must then be taken responsibly, without haste, not for spectacular effect or as tactical ploys in a game.
The inner workings of the human mind are mysterious, however. For it is not these thoughts that crossed my mind when I saw those moving images on television. This reasoning is retrospective; thoughts that have occurred to me now, post-facto. At that time, a strange melange of emotions — feelings of grief, despair, shame, nostalgia — curdled up and then suddenly, from nowhere, the lyrics of an immortal song by Sahir Ludhianvi, set to tune by Jaidev and sung melodiously by Lata Mangeshkar in the 1961 Dev Anand classic Hum Dono, came unbidden to mind: “Maangon ka sindoor na chhutey, maa behenon ki aas naa tootey (may no one be widowed; may no mother or sister lose hope of their loved one returning).”
In the film, these lines are part of a prayer for peace led by the wife and mother of a Major of the Indian Army missing in action — a prayer not only that their own loved one returns home safe but that no wife, mother or sister may lose loved ones in war. Death in war is an interruption, an anomaly. It takes away from us young, active, lively persons who have not yet lived their full life. When a soldier dies in the prime of life, he leaves many tasks unfinished, many relationships incomplete, millions of desires unfulfilled. And according to popular belief, when a person at the height of his powers meets a bloody, violent, untimely end, his prana or atman remains in limbo, trapped in no man’s land; it leaves the body without reaching wherever it is meant to go and keeps hovering around us. May this never happen to anyone, says the poet. “Deh bina bhatke na praan (may the spirit not abruptly detach from the body and wander restlessly).”
But this mellifluous song is more than a comforting prayer for peace. It subtly points fingers at those who injudiciously push us into war, at the economically strong and politically powerful who bring war upon us for their own benefit, to serve their own nefarious purpose. “O saare jag ke rakhawaale, nirbal ko bal dene waale, balwaanon ko de de gyaan (jnana) (you, who watch over the entire universe, you who empower the weak, may you also grant wisdom to the mighty).”
Jnana here refers not simply to knowledge, but to wisdom, moral insight, indeed to conscience. May the rulers rule with a conscience! May they be able to distinguish right conduct from wrong. Really, only such people should guide us when we are faced with the dilemma of whether or not to undertake morally retributive action.
And this is not all. The prayer then becomes a plea that we all be endowed with sanmati — to put our intelligence to good use, to have sound judgments, that all have a conscience. Why? Because unsound judgments, faulty moral reasoning and suspension of good sense are not the lot of leaders alone but also of those who support them and legitimise their actions. It is after all we, ordinary folks, who are swayed by war hysteria. Those without good sense get the leaders they deserve. May the gift of sanmati be bestowed on us. For only people with sanmati can rein in leaders who have lost all sense of good and bad, right and wrong.
But who is this prayer addressed to? “Allah tero naam, Ishwar tero naam (You, whose name is both Allah and Ishwar). In this, his masterstroke, Sahir invokes not only Gandhi, but an entire, centuries-old religio-philosophical legacy of the subcontinent in which all traditions are believed to share the same semantic universe that enables the god of one religion to be translated into the god of another. This is inclusive monotheism at its best, where god is one but referred to in different traditions by different names. And so, the prayer is addressed to Allah, Ishwar, and implicitly to the god of every religion.
With men spewing venom, not satisfied with fighting a war with their own fellow countrymen, itching to go to war with others, nothing (empathy, reason, dialogue) seems to work. Helpless spectators, no longer in control of their collective life, in sight of a looming disaster on the horizon, often break into a prayer. What else can those stripped of agency do but hope that somehow good sense may prevail, that all of us be delivered from the collective insanity that shows no sign of loosening its grip? Thus, those who believe in one god, invoke him; those who believe in gods and goddesses, invoke them; and those who believe in neither, hope for some good fortune to fall in their lap! This is why this is a prayer for our times: we offer this prayer to you, Allah to some, Ishwar to others, that you miraculously bring an end to needless killings, wisdom and conscience to the rich and powerful, and peace and good sense to everyone.
(Courtesy: The Hindu)
The ‘Clash of Civilisations’ Thesis Stalks the World
By Ram Puniyani
The horrific massacre in Christchurch on March 15 has shaken the world. The killer, Brenton Harrison Tarrant, is an Australian citizen. Nearly 50 people died in the attack in which Tarrant attacked two mosques. Those killed include nine from India.
Tarrant had fixed a camera on his head so as to live stream the massacre. The Christchurch terrorist was consumed by intense racism and hatred of Muslims. He posted a long statement online, a “manifesto” of “white nationalism” before undertaking the dastardly act.
New Zealand Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern, who at 38 years of age is among the youngest heads of government in the world, was the first to term the shootings an act of terrorism. Arden declared that the victims, many of whom may be migrants or refugees, “are us”, and the shooter “is not”. The overriding theme of the Prime Minister’s statements was that her country represents “diversity, compassion and refuge”.
The Pope in a touching speech said, “In these days, in addition to the pain of wars and conflicts that do not cease to afflict humanity, there have been the victims of the horrible attack against two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand… I am close to our Muslim brothers and all that community… ”
As in India, the phobia of Islam and Muslims is founded on the narrow version of history. This phobia against Muslims around the world gained momentum after the 9/11 Twin Towers attack in New York.
This phobia has by now constructed its own History, selective and distorted, that centres around Muslim invaders and their alleged crimes in the medieval past. This History generates endless accusations. It singles out and exaggerates, holding a large and diverse group of people collectively responsible for these acts.
It is tragic that Tarrant’s hateful note is being supported by those who believe in this notion of politics and history. Again, taking revenge for the past is one of the dimensions of the agenda governing these ideologues: “To take revenge on the invaders for the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by foreign invaders in European lands throughout history.”
Again, the radicalisation of the likes of Tarrant is due to the rabid propaganda current in the Western media – and many places besides – where Muslims are constantly presented in a negative light. Many newspapers and media groups – owned by a few – like the Daily Mail in the UK and Fox News in the USA have taken the lead in spreading negative perceptions against Muslims.
Such propaganda, along with many anti-immigrant and xenophobic websites, is spreading hatred against Muslims which in turn is the foundation of the attacks on Muslims. Muslims are also being demonised in terms familiar from anti-Semitism, portraying them as less than trustworthy, lesser citizens and inferior humans or not humans at all.
Many such biases and myths are prevalent in India also. In the Western mode of propaganda Muslims are now being portrayed as people whose wearing of the hijab is sufficient proof that they are against the norms of the West – against the US Constitution, for example. Similarities with prevalent perceptions in India!
One recalls the Norwegian Christian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik at this point of time. In a carefully planned attack in 2011, Brevik killed 69 youth with a machine gun and other assault weapons. He also had issued a manifesto, in which he said his primary goal was to remove Muslims from Europe.
Breivik also called for cooperation between Jewish groups in Israel, Buddhists in China, and Hindu nationalist groups in India to contain Islam. He wrote, “It is essential that the European and Indian resistance movements learn from each other and cooperate as much as possible. Our goals are more or less identical.”
We must note, that there are strong parallels between Tarrant’s and Breivik’s manifestos and the ideology of Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, on the question of the nature of Islam: Muslims and coexistence with Muslims. Much like rightwing parties in the European mainstream, the BJP in India does condemn the violence for name’s sake, but participates in spreading the underlying ideology which is based on Islam-phobia.
Worldwide, this despicable politics is in a way the outcome of the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis propounded by Samuel Huntington. At the end of the Cold War, with the collapse of Soviet Russia, Francis Fukuyama stated that now Western liberal democracy would be the final form of political system.
Building on this, Huntington stated that now the primary conflict would be around civilisations and cultures. Nation-states would remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics would occur between nations and groups belonging to different ‘civilisations’.
“The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” As per this manifesto Western civilisation is faced with a challenge from backward Islamic civilisation, providing the basis for the American policy of attack on many Muslim-majority countries like Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Iran among others.
To counter this thesis the United Nations undertook the initiative for an ‘Alliance of Civilisations’ when Kofi Annan was Secretary-General. The high-level committee he appointed gave a report which argues that all the progress in the world has been due to the alliances between different cultures and civilisations.
Today we are facing times where American politics of ‘control over oil wells’ led to the formations like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. After the 9/11 attacks perpetrated by men whom the US government formerly supported and armed, the US media popularised the phrase ‘Islamic terrorism’. What we are witnessing today is the fallout of this policy, which was pursued simply to control oil wealth.
The Islam-Muslim phobia this generated, in the West and elsewhere, has led in due course to White Nationalism. Like other forms of majoritarianism and violence, this needs to be countered ideologically, by demonstrating the inherent tendency of alliance between diverse cultures found throughout human history in the world.
The Sikh Empire’s Expedition to Balakot
By Ananth Karthikeyan
A few weeks ago, the Indian Air Force’s Balakot air strike using French-built Mirage-2000s bought India and Pakistan to the brink of war, and perhaps changed the regional dynamics forever. Balakot has a history which has been a subject of much interest in the past few days: it was the site of the end of Syed Ahmad Barelvi’s jihad at the hands of the Sikh Empire. Today we look at this history and another curious fact – this was not the first time that French weaponry has been wielded against Islamist fanatics in this region.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh (r. 1801-1839) was aware of the superiority of Europeans in technology and modern methods of war. He sought to close this gap by importing talent and building an indigenous capability. Ranjit Singh welcomed experienced scientists, engineers, mercenaries and officers from European nations to ensure that his kingdom could withstand any threat. Besides, the Afghan kingdom, the Pathan tribes and jihadis were threatening his western borders. French know-how became a major element in the defence of his realm. After Napoleon lost in Waterloo (June 1815) thousands of French and allied European soldiers were dismissed: the governments of Europe, including the new government of France, distrusted those who served under Napoleon. A few settled into civilian life, but most could not: fighting was all they knew, and they did not wish to waste the skills they honed fighting in three continents. Many offered their services to Asian kings who wished to modernize their backward militaries.
At this juncture, Ranjit Singh accepted talented Napoleonic officers such as Jean-Francois Allard, Jean-Baptiste Ventura, Paolo Avitabile, and Claude Auguste Court into his service. Besides such officers, there were chemists, doctors, engineers and soldiers of American, German, Italian, Polish and Irish extraction also. Many foreigners were given plum roles in the Empire. Claude Auguste Court was a product of the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris and apparently knew the science of artillery. Paolo Avitabile also had considerable experience as an artillery officer. Court and Avitabile, along with the Sikh leader Lehna Singh Majithia (who possessed great skill in engineering), overhauled the Sikh artillery. They established the training program for the gunners. Court re-organized the artillery command structure and established arsenals and magazines on European lines. The existing weapon foundries and workshops (established by Ranjit Singh and Mian Qadir Baksh in 1807) were rebuilt with French know-how to manufacture a variety of high-quality guns and artillery. Ranjit Singh soon possessed a formidable artillery of about 500 pieces, including mobile horse-drawn artillery. Court was bestowed large cash awards and titles when he introduced his new shells, fuses and commenced full-scale production.
The meteoric rise of the Sikhs and the decline of the Muslim kingdoms of India had agitated many Islamic fundamentalists. The most influential of them was the popular preacher Syed Ahmed Barelvi, who hailed from present-day Rae Bareilly. In 1825, thousands of his followers from the Gangetic Plains took up his call for jihad against infidel powers and followed him to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Barelvi’s Jihad was supported by many Afghan chiefs, who were usually suspicious of all outsiders. Barelvi was able to field nearly 100,000 Mujahideen and launched a five-year guerilla war against the Sikh Empire.
However, Barelvi’s orthodox interpretation of scriptures and stern disregard of Afghan tribal traditions soon led to many Afghans leaving his cause. Barelvi suffered a crushing defeat in a battle with the Sikhs near Nowshera in March 1827. Later some Afghan tribes turned on Barelvi and massacred hundreds of his followers in Peshawar in November 1830. Barelvi and his loyalists now decided to move out and try their luck in Kashmir. However, a Sikh army led by Sher Singh surrounded the Mujahideen at a mountain fort in Balakot and annihilated them in May 1831.
Ranjit Singh’s French guns and artillery were widely used in such battles in the turbulent North West frontier. Artillery and firearms which performed reliably enabled the Sikhs to prevail against great odds. Perhaps even more critical was the discipline instilled in the new infantry battalions by the European officers. Officers such as Ventura and Court also led campaigns into the North West frontier. However, after Ranjit Singh died, neither their weapons nor their courage could save the Sikhs from civil war and treachery. During this chaos, the surviving Europeans returned to their homelands. Soon the British defeated the Sikhs and the Afghans also took back some of their lands.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region is still turbulent, and weapons from many nations are still used here in the name of pacification, anti-terror and innumerable internal conflicts. History is repeating in strange ways and there are irony and dark humour in the shadow of the mushroom cloud. India’s French Mirages are the latest entrants in this theatre — let us hope it is not a destabilising element.
Mayawati won’t contest 2019 Lok Sabha polls
Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati will not contest the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. “Our coaliation is doing good…I can...
Traffic on Jammu-Srinagar National Highway suspended due to inclement weather
JAMMU: The traffic on the strategic Jammu-Srinagar National Highway was suspended Wednesday as the high altitude areas of Jammu and...
Uri resident injured in Pak firing succumbs at SKIMS
BARAMULLA: A 32-year-old youth, who was critically injured in Pakistan firing at Line of Control (LoC) in Uri sector on...
Don’t use places of worship for propaganda: EC to parties, religious leaders
New Delhi: The Election Commission asked political parties and religious leaders to refrain from using places of worship for propaganda...
‘Azaan’ to be broadcast nationally in solidarity with Muslims: NZ PM
Christchurch: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Wednesday said Azaan (the call to prayer) will be broadcast nationally along...
President Kovind appoints Justice PC Ghose as India’s first Lokpal
New Delhi: President Ram Nath Kovind appointed Justice Pinaki Chandra Ghose as the first Lokpal of India. According to a...
Heavy snow accumulation may delay Zojilla re-opening
Sonamarg, Mar 20 : With Sonamarg-Zojilla road still closed since December, officials said the reopening of the road is likely...
Kashmir shuts against Awantipora teacher’s custodial death
Srinagar, Mar 20: A complete shutdown called by the JointHurriya against the custodial death of a private school teacher of...