Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Now it is Syria’s Turn: The uprising on its Way?

While many analysts thought Syria’s Bashar Assad’s regime would remain safe and sound amidst the wave of Arabs turning their countries on their head, it seems that they were wrong. During the last two weeks, protesters in the cities of Daraa and Latakia have taken to the streets, and Syria has once again showed to what extent it will go to silence opposition, opening fire and killing at least 100 protesters. The brutal regime of Hafaz Assad, inherited by his son Bashar (who never really seemed that it was his dream to inherit such a role) at last is coming to an end. Yes, it is not important anymore whether or not the recent clashes in Daraa and Latakia will translate to mass demonstrations in the capital of Damascus, clearly Assad will now have no other choice than to lead Syria on a path of democracy. If he does not do this, you can rest assured that the Syrians will do this for him. Yes, for Assad these demonstrations mark the beginning of the end.

The Syrians have lived under draconian emergency laws since 1963, and under Hafiz and Bashar Assad’s iron fist since 1971. Even if Bashar when coming to power in 2000 introduced reforms, they still cannot cover up the farce of a son inheriting the position of his father; and, they cannot cover up the fact that the whole regime is rotten at its very core. The father Assad unarguably was one of the most brutal of the Arab regimes, who will be most remembered for the 1982 massacre he orchestrated in Hama. With the Muslim Brotherhood gaining strength, the city of Hama was bombarded leaving over ten thousand people dead, with some placing the number up to thirty thousand. The massacre always stood as one of the greatest double-standards of the Middle East. While the world voiced a loud protest (rightly so) to Israel and their Lebanese counterparts for the massacre of thousands in Sabra and Shatilla refugees camps, most chose to ignore Assad’s crime. In fact, it was almost as if much of the Arab world suffered from a strong case of amnesia when it came to criticizing crimes against humanities perpetrated by leaders like Hafiz al-Assad (last blog I mentioned the massacre at Halabja committed by Saddam Hussein).

Of all the Middle East countries, perhaps Syria was one country that following the French occupation and Mandate was well on its way to democracy until the Baath party halted this. With a multi-religious makeup, including Sunni, Greek Orthodox, Druze and Alawi, among others, ideological political parties of the 1950’s offered the Syrian people a political system that potentially could cross religious and ethnic lines (there is also a large Kurdish population in Syria). This long break with the past, and years of living under fear, might actually serve as a golden opportunity, a key to unity, which will unite all Syrians. However, this will not be easy with disproportionate amount of peoples living off the huge bureaucracy, and the secret service (muhabarat) embedded in almost every nook and cranny. In Latakia, Assad’s hometown, tensions have been reported between the minority Alawi community and Sunnis; an important note: the Assad family is Alawi and not Sunni. Yes, even if this is not the main motive of all Sunnis, many seem set on taking the “power back” from the Alawi minority.

A Syria free of Assad, a free Syria, free from an outdated ideology, could offer the Middle East a genuine democracy. Just the thought of thousands of Syrians demonstrating a few weeks back seemed unimaginable. For now, we will need to wait and see how this plays out; will this produce an opposition that challenges the regime and forces them to relinquish power in the next few weeks? For now, this does not seem to be the case. However, Syria’s neighbors will need to watch closely since the status-quo has certainly taken a great blow. For Turkey, who has voiced their cautious support of the Assad regime, a new order could dampen their attempts to create a “new Middle East lead by Turkey.” For Israel, new challenges will await now that a genuine call to take back the Golan Heights through peace agreements might emerge. For Lebanon, an Assad free Syria would change all the powers, pulling the carpet of support out from under the Hezbollah, which could set off numerous crises. For Iran, this most definitely would hurt their regional prestige. This fact was read out clearly by the protesters at Daraa that chanted “No to Iran, No to Hezbollah.” I can vouch that someone who has worked on the Middle East for years, the change is refreshing.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Libyan Crisis, Remembering Kurdish Halabja, and Bahrain.

Evening, 19 March 2011*

While the decision by the UN to impose a “no-fly zone” seems to have been necessary to protect the pro-democratic forces, the recent western assault on Libya needs to be treated with the utmost caution. With the support of the Arab countries and the backing of the UN, French, British, Italian and American forces have started the first step to stop Qaddafi’s war against the protesters for democracy. However, we need to be on guard making sure that that this does not open the doors to a full-out invasion and occupation. Furthermore, we need to ask the question if the West and the UN supports such an act in Libya, why do not they act with equal fervor in the uprising in Yemen, or what about Bahrain?

While I generally support the world’s attempt at saving the innocent in the name of democracy I remain suspicious and ask myself why now. Why now has the world suddenly united against a dictator; especially one like Qaddafi who so many world leaders “hang out” with, such as Italian PM Berlusconi.Simply put, for years as a dictator and a out-right tyrant he was perfectly fine; it is not that we woke up one day and learned that he had been committing crimes against his people. This was always known. So why the newfound support for democracy? Could it be perhaps due to the huge oil reserves in Libya? I think that goes without saying, and even if it is not the main goal now, all realize that it must top the agenda of most countries, including many of the Arab countries not active in the actual assault.

Even if the dynamics and the background are quite different, the current world attempt to stop Qaddafi in his tracks reminds me of the world coalition to punish Saddam Hussein for his invasion of Kuwait in the early nineties. Just like Qaddafi, Hussein too had in his control vast amounts of oil, was fairly easily manipulated by western leaders, and allowed no freedom of speech whatsoever in his country; however, the lack of democracy never phased the US or any of the European countries. In fact, just a few days back it was the anniversary of the genocide committed by Iraqi forces in the Kurdish city of Halabja. On March 16, 1988 Saddam Hussein was responsible for dropping chemicals upon Halabja, killing over 5000 residents. This attack was just one of many which occurred in Hussein’s Anfal campaign aimed at crushing a Kurdish uprising. Who can forget the photos of a whole population dead on the ground after breathing the poison, with one woman falling dead while holding her child. For most of the world then (including the Arab world who remained silent), as long as Saddam produced enough oil the world remained quiet (among other reasons); however, following the Kuwait invasion and fears that Saudi Arabia could fall, Iraq had to be stopped. It was only then we saw the crimes of Saddam Hussein appear on televisions throughout the world. Well, the outcome of the first Iraqi War we know. A little more than a decade later, the 2003 Iraqi war began bringing years of instability and death to an insurmountable amount of innocent civilians.

Which brings us to an even more ironic point: Last week, the Bahraini government, aimed at crushing the pro-Democratic voices, opened its gates and allowed thousands of Saudi Arabian troops to come to their rescue. Did I hear right? Where in the Mediterranean, Western troops are in the middle of an attack on Libya, in the name of pro-democratic voices, in the Gulf, the world remains quiet while another country provides the needs to silence pro-democratic voices. I suppose that with a serious threat to the current “status-quo” in the Gulf, the pro-democratic voices of Bahrain apparently do not deserve the same as the pro-democratic voices in Libya. And, really, believe me, whether I support one campaign or the other, it is important to highlight the ironies.

What remains clear is that we do not know where the recent assault on Libya will take us. We do not know how many more civilian lives might be killed because of this new policy. A new partition of a Middle Eastern country, perhaps; a ground invasion by Western troops which once occupied Libya, perhaps. We need to be cautious and realize that this conflict might just be a bit more than the Western states bargained for, and that we certainly have no way of knowing if this is what the majority of Libyans wanted or not. For now, one thing which is quite clear is that while the short term strategy of the Western forces might seem well-planned, a long term strategy seems to be lacking. Thus, for now only time will tell....

*I began writing this piece right after the news of the of the Western assault on Libya began.

Monday, March 14, 2011

How a Knife challenged a Tsunami and the Banality of Violence

March, 14, 2011

Last Friday, with the first photos coming in from earth-quake/Tsunami stricken Japan, so many remained dumbfounded by the force of nature. An earthquake that reached nine points on the Richter scale was followed by a massive wave reaching more than six kilometers inland, wiping out whole cities. The next morning Israelis (who do not keep Shabbat) turned their television on and were awakened with shocking news. Late Friday night a Palestinian(s) infiltrated the Jewish settlement of Itamar, broke into a house, and stabbed to death five members of one family: the father, mother, and three young children, including a three month of baby. Two of their children were spared, and the incident was discovered by the 12 year old daughter, who returned home around midnight from a youth group event. This tragic and horrible act stood as a stark slap in the face vis-à-vis the Japanese tragedy. This was not an act of nature; this was a meticulously carried out operation initiated by a human.

This abhorrent act of violence will go down in the memory of both Jew and Palestinian alike. In this blog entry, I will not talk about the occupation. I will not compare it to Jewish acts of violence. I will not use it as a way to build more settlements. I will not demand from the Palestinians a louder apology than they have already issued.

Tonight, I will remember a beautiful family as I saw in the last family film they made, which was aired on Israel television tonight. Yes, a mother and father, and five amazing children playing together. And, like the Tsunami that swept away thousands of Japanese, leaving families torn apart, little did the girl know that after two hours away from her house a Tsunami would come crushing down on her family; forever, tearing them apart.

Violence has become so banal (I choose to forfeit discussing the philosophical questions surrounding that statement). To the Israeli government I say: let our loved ones rest in peace; let us not try to make cheap political gains over their deaths; let us not advertise their blood on television. Can we not even mourn the death of loved ones in this country?

The goodness and crimes of both people, Israelis and Palestinians alike, are etched out in our memories and recorded in history. This case was just another reminder of what has happened too often in the past. At the moment, the most difficult question which remains for both peoples is how is it possible to prevent such heinous crimes in the future?

* -This article was written in memory of the Fogel family and all the Palestinian and Israeli children whose lives were cut short due to the conflict.