Friday, March 27, 2015

Breaking free in the great Syrian prison

In an interview in 2004, the Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh described the last of his 16 years spent in Hafez Assad’s prisons for being a member of the Communist Party-Political Bureau.

“After I completed my 15-year sentence they sent me to [Palmyra] prison, a place that literally eats men, that was worse than the ‘house of the dead’ described by Dostoyevsky,” Haj Saleh recalled. “Fear is a way of life in [Palmyra], where every day primitive and vengeful torture is carried out at the hands of heartless people. That was in 1996. They released me at the end of the year. I was 35.”

A French translation of Haj Saleh’s writings on his prison experiences has just been published, titled “Récits d’Une Syrie Oubliée: Sortir la Memoire des Prisons” (Accounts of a Forgotten Syria: Bringing Memory Out of the Prisons). I read it the same week I watched “Our Terrible Country,” a film by Mohammad Ali Atassi and Ziad Homsi. It describes Haj Saleh’s departure in 2013 from Douma, near Damascus, for his hometown of Raqqa, before he went into exile in Turkey because the city had fallen to ISIS.

Haj Saleh’s book, by deconstructing the life of political prisoners in Syria, provides a commentary on the repressive, suffocating order put in place by the Assad family, marked by omnipresent and subtle informal institutions of domination and cruelty. Atassi and Homsi’s film takes us to the heart of the devastating war the Assads have declared on their own people, showing their willingness to annihilate Syria rather than allow their authority to be contested.

The parallels between Syria’s security state and the conflict today are many. Just as the regime devised a vast system to perpetuate its absolute power, it has used the war to defend the vile edifice it put in place. In a passage from his book, Haj Saleh describes the regime’s strategy before the uprising against Bashar Assad: “By burning the social ground so that no party, no independent organization, could emerge, Hafez Assad’s regime managed to confiscate political life and banish Syrians from the public domain.” That describes well the reasoning behind the regime’s murderous suppression of the revolt.

“Our Terrible Country” is a stunning documentary, which shows how war is a monster overturning life in traumatic, prodigious ways. The film begins with images of Haj Saleh and his wife Samira Khalil in a Douma devastated by regime bombardment. Both had fled there from Damascus to escape the security services. As conditions in Douma worsen, Haj Saleh decides to head toward Raqqa, on the understanding that Samira would join him later by taking a less dangerous route. Homsi accompanies him on the trip through the desert, filming as they go along. Once in Raqqa, where two of his brothers have been abducted by ISIS, Haj Saleh concludes that he has no option but to move on to Turkey. His exile begins, and we later learn that Samira, trapped in Douma by the deteriorating situation, has been abducted, along with the human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouni and two others. To this day their fate is unknown.

This is a microcosm of Syrian society caught in war. On the one side is the brutality of the Assad regime, on the other that of ISIS. In the middle is a valiant population whose fate has provoked desperately little outrage in the world. The Syrian uprising has indeed been an “orphaned revolution,” to borrow from the title of Ziad Majed’s book on the subject. It is a horrific stain on the international community and on any aspiration for a rules-based global order.

Someone should offer Haj Saleh’s book and the Atassi-Homsi film to those leaders in the West who, by action or omission, continue to tolerate the Assads and their Iranian backers. Haj Saleh sensed their perniciousness long ago, stating that liberty was not possible in the Middle East, partly because “regimes are exempted from the human and political obligations faced by the modern state because they satisfy what the world hegemon, the United States, wants of them.”

But it’s also true that had Haj Saleh been completely persuaded of the impossibility of freedom, he would not have become active in the Syrian uprising. Yet what do we have today? An infinite horizon of sorrow and ruin, a shattered society, over 200,000 dead in just four years, millions of refugees both inside and outside the country, and all for what? So that the malignant Assads and their sordid clique can remain in power? So that Iran can build up a satrapy on Israel’s border to advance its project of regional hegemony?

How can one fail to admire a people that has been through such desolation? Haj Saleh himself has faced unspeakable hardship: the abduction of his wife and brothers, 16 years in regime prisons, the denial of his youth. That is why it is strange to read him describing his prison years as “an experience of change and emancipation. A second childhood. We suffer, and we struggle against suffering.”

As many who have lived through war know, such reactions are, oddly, common. When we are engulfed by monumental events, no matter how horrifying, sentiments of euphoria can accompany those of revulsion. One has a feeling of having lived an overpowering, grand experience, an exhilarating wave of hyperreality.

This force, allowing psychological rebirth, will harden the spirits of Syrians against the depravities of Assad rule. It is why Assad’s enemies refuse to surrender, even as their conflict takes myriad turns into darkness. And it is why Iran will likely never triumph in Syria. In their search for emancipation, for a second childhood, Syrians will suffer, but they will also struggle against suffering.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Balancing act - Obama goes academic in the Middle East

The news on Thursday morning was rich in paradox. In Yemen, the United States was assisting Saudi Arabia in an operation against the Houthis, who are backed by Iran. In Iraq, American aircraft were supporting the Iraqi Army and militias, also backed by Iran, in their battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Tikrit.

Such are the realities of President Barack Obama’s desire to push for a new Middle East characterized by a balance of power between the principal regional states. For the president, this would allow the United States to disengage from a region that has drained American resources. But as Obama is discovering, it’s easier to be drawn into the Middle East than to get out.

Since roughly the end of the Cold War, the United States has been the main stabilizer in the region. When Saddam Hussein ordered his army into Kuwait in 1990, it was America that led the military effort to expel his troops. Once that was done, Washington mediated between the Arabs and Israelis to reach peace settlements. The process ultimately failed, except for the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan.

After the 9/11 attacks, the American priority changed. From defending the status quo, the George W. Bush administration sought to fundamentally alter it to America’s advantage by removing Saddam’s regime. The rationale was that Arab dictatorships had generated frustration among youths, who, in response, had turned to terrorism. By removing the worst dictator of the lot, the United States could bring about a democratic transformation that made this process less likely.

It may have been simplistic, but the so-called Arab Spring later showed that the absence of democracy and liberty was at the heart of Arab discontent. Yet the Iraqi campaign also brought a fundamental break in the supine Arab equilibrium. The principal winner in Iraq was not the United States, but Iran. This alarmed the mainly Sunni states of the Gulf, who were doubly troubled by the American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.

When Obama began his presidency, the Sunni Arab states perhaps felt the most vulnerable. Instead of receiving reassurances from Washington, however, they saw a president who made it very clear that he intended to reduce American involvement in the Middle East. This intention was implicit in the administration’s priority to effect a “pivot to Asia.”

Worse for the Arab states, Obama later began negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, a step Arabs read very differently than Washington. To them, a resolution of the nuclear dispute would lead to normalization between Iran and the United States. Above all, it would lift sanctions, freeing up vast sums of money and thus allowing the Islamic Republic to pursue regional hegemony. And to add icing to the cake of Arab anxiety, Obama appeared to embrace his radical new template for the region.

The president apparently believes that the only way for the United States to reduce its footprint in the Middle East is by establishing a new regional balance of power that can manage itself and thereby maintain stability. Obama seems to believe, however, that for this to take root Iranian interests must be given due consideration and its regional role recognized. That’s because Washington simply no longer has the means, let alone the will, to pursue the containment of Iran.

Yet, while Iran’s stakes in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have been respected by the Obama administration, there are red lines. America will defend allies such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Jordan and Israel if they are ever threatened. That explains why Washington has collaborated with the Saudis in Yemen against Iran’s wishes, while assisting Iran’s allies in Tikrit. The Obama administration will go along with Saudi and Iranian efforts to keep order in their respective backyards.

This balancing game will not be easy. Regional equilibriums usually only come in the wake of myriad conflicts in which each state imposes its zones of influence on the others. In Europe, it took the Napoleonic wars to bring about the balance reached after the Congress of Vienna. And even then it was relatively short lived, as the revolutions of 1848 challenged the established order, and later as an emerging Germany challenged and defeated France in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871.

In other words Obama’s concept of balance seems remarkably academic, with little reflection about the chaos and rivalries that will be unleashed. In such a context it is difficult to see how the United States, which seeks to leave a steady order in place, can avoid greater engagement in the Middle East. The headaches have just begun for the onetime university professor. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

US and France need to see eye to eye on Syria

The rift between the United States and France over Syria is becoming more apparent by the day. However, the French position, while honourable, has had little real impact on the Syrian situation. That is why the discord is unlikely to have long-term consequences for relations between Washington and Paris.

The latest signs of disagreement came after the US secretary of state, John Kerry, declared that a solution in Syria would require negotiating “in the end” with president Bashar Al Assad. The statement caused an uproar in many countries.

France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, was unsparing in his assessment: “[Negotiating with Mr Al Assad] would be an absolutely scandalous, gigantic gift to the terrorists of [ISIL]. Millions of Syrians who have been persecuted by Mr Al Assad would turn to [ISIL]. This must be avoided.”

While Mr Kerry was only echo­ing a long-standing view of the Obama administration that there must be a peaceful resolution in Syria, the context has greatly changed. There is a belief that the United States seeks a new political order in the Middle East, one that would grant a choice role to Iran in a new regional balance of power. This would allow the Americans to disengage from a place that has been thankless, and a drain on their resources.

In this context, Mr Kerry’s remarks were interpreted as an admission that Washington no longer truly seeks Mr Al Assad’s removal. Instead, the argument goes, the United States has ceded Syria to Iran, the de facto decision-maker in Damascus.

It’s difficult to fault this interpretation. A day before Mr Kerry’s statement, CIA Director John Brennan effectively admitted that the Obama administration did not want a collapse of the Al Assad regime, as this would give a boost to Islamic extremists.

“The last thing we want to do is to allow them to march into Damascus,” Mr Brennan told the Council on Foreign Relations.

The director only echoed Barack Obama’s logic. Last October, according to The Wall Street Journal, Mr Obama sent a letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reassuring him that coalition attacks against ISIL would not target Mr Al Assad’s troops. The letter described the shared US-Iranian interest in fighting ISIL.

The French position on Syria has been more consistent, but has also been shaped by contrary pressures. Cynics can argue that as France has a limited say over the course of events in Syria, it is easy to take a position of principle in opposing Mr Al Assad.

Perhaps, but France was willing to put its money where its mouth was in 2013, when Mr Obama was preparing to retaliate for the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons in the Ghouta. France was the major European military partner of the Americans. Yet when the US president changed his mind at the last minute, he left French president Francois Hollande in the lurch, informing him only after he had decided to accept a negotiated solution.

This was humiliating for Mr Hollande, and since then the differences between Washington and Paris have widened. Last October, Mr Hollande publicly backed a Turkish proposal to establish a no-fly zone over northern Syria. But the Obama administration rejected the idea, no doubt fearing it would undermine Mr Al Assad at a key moment in the campaign against ISIL.

In parallel, France has been more sceptical about a nuclear deal with Iran, in contrast to the Americans. While this has been explained away as France’s currying favour with the Gulf monarchies, the reality is more complex. Just as a new Middle Eastern order may help the United States extricate itself from the region, it could also generate chaos, to France’s disadvantage.

Despite Mr Hollande’s steadfastness on Syria, there have been some erratic signs from France as well. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, French security officials travelled to Damascus to look into ways of co-operating with the regime to address terrorist threats against France from jihadists in Syria.

There have been conflicting accounts over whether Mr Hollande pushed for this. Some observers say the president did not encourage it, but agreed to go along under pressure from his domestic and external intelligence establishments.

Syria sought a reopening of the French embassy in Damascus as a condition, but this was rejected by Paris. The Syrians conceded the point, and when a group of French parliamentarians visited Damascus in February, French intelligence officials accompanied them and met with Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syria’s National Security Bureau.

Ultimately, France has little choice. When the Americans sneeze it’s the French who catch a cold. One can sympathise with Mr Hollande. He has tried to stick to principles as security imperatives have imposed more pragmatism. Mr Obama, in contrast, has never put principle at the heart of his Syria policy.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Beaten but not broken - Did Rustom Ghazaleh pay a price for his hostility to Iran?

The saga of Rustom Ghazaleh, the former head of Syria’s intelligence network in Lebanon, continues to attract attention. After Ghazaleh’s severe beating a few weeks ago in the offices of Rafiq Shehadeh, the head of Military Intelligence, the news on Thursday was that Shehadeh had been removed from his post.

It is unclear why Ghazaleh was beaten by Shehadeh’s men. The victim himself suggested, rather comically, that he had been injured while fighting the rebels. In a long blog post (in French) for Le Monde’s “Un Oeil sur la Syrie,” the person writing under the pseudonym Ignace Leverrier offered a fascinating overview of the different theories for what had happened.

A recurring hypothesis is that Ghazaleh was punished for his expressions of displeasure with Iranian and Hezbollah’s influence in Syria. Indeed, an incident in which Ghazaleh ordered the destruction of his own home, allegedly to prevent it from falling into rebels hands, may have resulted from his refusal to hand it over to the Iranians and Hezbollah, who had sought the high ground on which it stood to fight the rebels.

Leverrier also recounts what allegedly happened at a meeting several months ago between Hezbollah and Syrian officials. The Hezbollah representatives reportedly complained that the Syrian Army would invariably seek to draw publicity from Hezbollah successes in front of their media outlets, while preventing Hezbollah’s media from taking part.

This was hardly a negligible charge. Hezbollah needs to show its own supporters that the bloody intervention in Syria is bearing fruit, so denying its media the opportunity to highlight the party’s victories is a problem. The underlying tensions between Hezbollah and the Syrians have often been mentioned, and Ghazaleh’s reaction at the meeting seemed to bear this out.

According to Leverrier, Ghazaleh stood up and responded to the party by saying: “Without Syria, Hezbollah would quite simply not exist. What is happening today in Syria affects the survival of Hezbollah, which is also fighting on its own behalf.” Leverrier goes on to indicate that Ghazaleh accused Hezbollah of failing to do battle, preferring to “buy its victories by paying rebel groups to withdraw without exchanging fire.”

If all this is true and Ghazaleh was pulped to make him more amenable to Iran and Hezbollah, then how are we to interpret Shehadeh’s fate? Did Bashar al-Assad aim to signal his displeasure with what had happened to Ghazaleh? Perhaps, but there have been unconfirmed reports that Ghazaleh may himself have also been dismissed, suggesting the president had no choice but to impose a Solomonic decision.

Regardless of the truth, if there is disgruntlement in Syria with Iranian influence in Damascus, it is not something Assad can readily ignore. The legitimacy of his regime, like that of his father’s, was always tied to Syria’s image as a proudly independent Arab nationalist state. That is why Hafez al-Assad made a strong effort to limit Iran’s role in both Syria and Lebanon, and it is why, even with the Soviet Union, the late Syrian leader was careful never to show a hint of dependency.

Moreover, relations with Iran have a bearing on sectarian relations. Alawites do not want it said that they have willingly surrendered Syria to Iran because of their sectarian affinities (though Alawites and Shiites are far more different than their detractors suggest). Shehadeh is an Alawite and his actions against Ghazaleh, a Sunni, could easily reinforce such an accusation in the Damascus rumor mill. It could be that Assad had to dismiss him to put an end to this kind of speculation.

If Ghazaleh complained about Hezbollah and Iran, he doubtless was not alone. It is hard to believe that those who first built their careers under Hafez al-Assad can be anything but angry at the turn of affairs in Syria today. For Ghazaleh, who treated Hezbollah as a subordinate in the days when he ruled over Lebanon, it must be an especially bitter pill to have to bow and scrape before the party today. It’s very likely that the Ghazaleh affair has opened sensitive doors inside the Syrian regime, and particularly inside its murky security apparatus.

If so this casts light on the complexity of, and obstacles to, Iran’s expansion in the Arab world. Iran and its allies have doubtless paid a heavy price in both lives and money to save Assad’s regime, without any light at the end of the tunnel. But Ghazaleh is right in one regard: they didn’t do this because they had any particular fondness for Assad, but because his downfall would have represented a major setback for Iran’s agenda of domination in the Middle East.

The true reasons for what happened to Ghazaleh may never be known, but it is revealing how speculation has shifted to his purported displeasure with Iran and Hezbollah. There may be some momentum to that impression domestically; a feeling that somehow Ghazaleh is a courageous officer willing to challenge Syria’s descent into an Iranian protectorate.

It remains to be seen if Ghazaleh is still at his post or if reports of his removal are true. But Bashar al-Assad must know that when senior intelligence officers begin assaulting each other, it’s time to hit hard and reimpose order, or risk losing everything.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

As Netanyahu wins, the U.S. disengages

Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in Israel’s general elections means that any hope of serious negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians – never particularly high in the first place – is now virtually nil.

But more uncertain, and interesting, is what it will do to relations between the United States and Israel.

Under Barack Obama, the United States has adopted a radically new vision for the Middle East and Israel’s status in it. Obama seeks to put in place a regional balance of power, one in which Iran would play a major role. A nuclear deal with Tehran is the cornerstone of that effort. It would allow the Americans to disengage from a region that has been a drain on their limited resources; a region that, to Obama, offers few long-term advantages.

This American attitude has helped Netanyahu, but it also contains many risks for Israel. The Israeli prime minister can delight in the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is today of little concern to Obama, who regards American mediation as a thankless, unending task destined to fail. That allows the Israelis to pursue their occupation of Palestinian land at will and ensure that no peace deal ever becomes possible.

But there is also a downside. Obama’s implicit message is that in a new Middle East Israel will more or less be on its own, having to invent a new purpose for itself in the emerging regional realignment, across from Iran. And as a more unpredictable region takes form, Israel’s power will be eroded by its inability to reach a settlement with the nearly 4 million Palestinians in and around the territories it controls.

America will not abandon Israel, any more than it will Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. But nor will it expend valuable political capital to save Israel from itself. Especially when Israelis seem unwilling to understand the urgency of a peace settlement with the Palestinians. The reality is that Israel has no solution to the demographic time bomb in its midst.

In the looming Middle East this time bomb will be turned against Israel in a new regional struggle for power. Looking around at other regional powerhouses, Israel knows that not one of them – Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Iran – has any sympathy for Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. Not one would fail to use the Palestinians against Israel if that ever became necessary, and in all cases this is virtually inevitable.

One might argue that Obama has two years left in office, therefore that his sharp reorientation in the region is a momentary lapse. Perhaps, but the president is hardly an anomaly. Many American officials are increasingly tired of a Middle East that has sapped their country’s energies in the past decade and a half, while offering no compensations. Israel has many friends in the U.S. Congress, but that’s primarily for domestic electoral reasons. No one in his right mind would seriously wager on Israel or the Arabs advancing a successful project of regional reconciliation and betterment.

In other words it would be a mistake to assume that Obama is a fleeting phenomenon. The idea of a regional balance of power, if it is seen as ultimately creating stability, may be embraced by many future American leaders. The strategic importance of the Middle East to the United States is no longer what it was, with America now a major oil producer. If anyone suffers it will be the Chinese, who rely on the Middle East for more than 50 percent of their oil. Let the region become China’s headache then, would be the resentful rationale in Washington.

In his speech before the U.S. Congress, Netanyahu clearly had more than an inkling of this. His speech was focused on a nuclear deal with Iran, but the broader message was that Iran was moving ahead with a project of regional hegemony, and that the Obama administration was implicitly favoring this.

As Netanyahu put it, “Iran’s goons in Gaza, its lackeys in Lebanon, its Revolutionary Guards on the Golan Heights are clutching Israel with three tentacles of terror. Backed by Iran, Assad is slaughtering Syrians. Backed by Iran, Shiite militias are rampaging through Iraq. Backed by Iran, Houthis are seizing control of Yemen, threatening the strategic straits at the mouth of the Red Sea. Along with the Straits of Hormuz, that would give Iran a second choke point on the world’s oil supply.”

Netanyahu is a disgraceful figure, and if he forms a government he will only push the region into new catastrophes. But he is right in seeing a fundamental change in the American approach. Yet his victory may only serve to accelerate Obama’s shift, reinforcing the president’s conviction that Israelis are incapable of making difficult choices with the Palestinians. Let them pay the price for their stubbornness, he may be thinking; but there is no reason for the United States to do so as well.

Those who will welcome Netanyahu’s win are the Iranians. An Israeli villain allows them to advance their agenda more easily. Tehran grasped Obama’s intentions early on, and now they are preparing to square off against an Israel stuck in its ways, surrounded by countries disgusted with its policies. And this time the Americans may simply stand by, allowing things happen.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Imperialism lives on, but not as a western conceit

A prominent feature of many western universities is the fact that they offer courses in postcolonial studies, or have entire departments devoted to examining colonial legacies.

Few students of the Middle East can avoid postcolonialism and the implicit message it contains, one that is as much moral as historical or cultural. A prominent theme at the heart of postcolonial discussion is that classical western scholarship of the region created a binary relationship between the Occident and Orient, depicting the latter as “the other”.

By creating this Oriental “other” and redefining and reshaping it, the literary critic Edward Said argued in his influential book Orientalism, the West was better able to control “the Orient”, providing the underpinnings of imperial expansion.

The irony today is that it is not the West but countries of “the East” that are seeking to impose their hegemony on their geographical environment. Indeed, these countries had at one time themselves suffered from western imperialism.

Chinese ambitions are no longer a secret in Asia, nor should they be given China’s rich imperial past. Less noticed in western faculties are Iran’s power plays in the Middle East – not least perhaps because for many critics of western imperialism, Iran has long stood as an anti-imperial paragon.

The same can be said of Hizbollah, a primary instrument of Iranian influence in the Arab world. Despite its adherence to a political-religious ideology and its devotion to a reactionary leader in Iran, Hizbollah has been embraced by many on the political left. It has been viewed as a bulwark against American and Israeli aggression.

For instance in 2006, at the start of the summer war between Hizbollah and Israel, a group of 450 intellectuals, several working in western universities, released a public statement. Among other things, they expressed their “utter rejection of the Lebanese government’s decision to ‘not adopt’ the Lebanese resistance operation, thereby stripping the resistance of political credibility before the adversarial international powers”.

The reference was to the Lebanese government’s refusal to endorse Hizbollah’s effort to capture Israeli soldiers, which ignited the war. The signatories, many from the political left and proponents of an anti-imperialist perspective, condemned a sovereign government that had not been informed by Hizbollah of its reckless action, all because they could not stomach giving an advantage to “adversarial international powers”.

Such academic luminaries have said little lately about Hizbollah’s role in Syria, as it participates in the repression of an entire population on behalf of Iran’s regional agenda, including sectarian cleansing in wide swathes of central Syria.

Nor has much been heard about Iran’s hegemony in Iraq, and its use of militias to massacre and engage in sectarian cleansing there. This from individuals who routinely denounced American intervention in Iraq as a neo-imperial project.

Well, the Americans are more or less gone (except when the Iraqis ask for their help), while the Iranians are more active than ever, with the paternal Gen Qassem Suleimani now appearing virtually everywhere, on every fighting front. And despite all the public denials, the US and Iran are now on a similar wavelength in the region.

The extension of Iranian power is not even denied by Iranian officials. On the contrary, it is a source of considerable pride. As the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Gen Mohammad Ali Jaafari, stated last week: “The Islamic revolution is advancing with good speed, its example being the ever-increasing export of the revolution.”

He added: “Today, not only Palestine and Lebanon acknowledge the influential role of the Islamic Republic, but so do the people of Iraq and Syria. They appreciate the nation of Iran.”

Appreciating Iran and embracing Iranian dominion are very different things. But such hubris is to be expected when Iran faces no powerful Arab adversaries and sees the US apparently willing to sign off on a new balance of power in the Middle East, in which Iran would play a central role.

Which leads to a pertinent question. If imperialism is inevitable, if powerful states have an inescapable urge to control weaker societies and states, isn’t it best that they be liberal and spur economic development? It is in response to that question that the historian Niall Ferguson has argued that the British Empire enhanced global stability and financial growth by acting as a “global net creditor” and a purveyor of liberal values.

Iran fails on both counts in the Middle East. In pursuit of its expansionist regional drives it has played on the contradictions in the Arab world, usually sectarian contradictions, while exacerbating regional polarisation. Tehran has exploited Arab divisions to ensure that states such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon remain divided, facilitating its domination.

This is a topic that those outraged by western imperialism may wish to examine. Imperialism is alive and well but it is no longer a thing of the West. We have met the enemy and he is us.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Cardboard man - Barack Obama’s moral bankruptcy on Syria

On the fourth anniversary of the Syrian uprising, one can sympathize with Khaled Khoja, the president of the Syrian National Coalition. Describing how Russia and Iran had forged a “pact of steel” with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Khoja noted that the 114 countries making up the Friends of Syria group had responded with “a pact of cardboard.”

Khoja reserved his most bitter criticism for the United States. He described the American plan to arm 15,000 “moderate” Syrian rebels as a “joke”, and told The Guardian: “The Americans don’t want to coordinate with the [Free Syrian Army]. There is no will from our allies. We have a lot of allies and a lot of promises compared with what the regime has received.”

One day, when Barack Obama becomes a highly-paid fixture on the speakers’ circuit, it will perhaps dawn on Americans that their president disgracefully permitted one of the worst crimes of recent memory to continue unabated for many years.

It took Bill Clinton four years to apologize for his administration’s shameful inaction to the genocide in Rwanda. “We owe to those who died and to those who survived who loved them, our every effort to increase our vigilance and strengthen our stand against those who would commit such atrocities in the future here or elsewhere,” Clinton said.

Evidently the message didn’t reach the University of Chicago. We often hear that Obama is preoccupied with his legacy, and that his eyes are on a nuclear deal with Iran. Whatever the potential benefits of such a deal, this is a president who has very little regard for human rights. His much-praised, yet ultimately vacant, speech in Cairo soon after he took office showed us that Obama, the one-time civil rights activist, had only a vague, theoretical commitment to rights in the Arab world.

 How else does one explain Obama’s reassurances last October to one authoritarian leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that coalition airstrikes in Syria would not target the forces of another, Bashar al-Assad? In other words the president implicitly recognized Iranian stakes in Syria, ignoring Tehran’s participation in the savage repression of the Syrian population.

Even before the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS), Obama had sent mixed messages on Syria. In August 2012, the president declared: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”

Yet when Assad used a whole bunch of chemical weapons in an attack against eastern Ghouta in August 2013, which the United States estimated killed some 1,400 people, Obama failed to recalculate. Instead, he approved a plan pushed by Russia, Assad’s hardnosed ally, to dismantle Syrian chemical weapons.

While this option had its advantages, it confirmed that Obama would do anything to remain clear of Syria—a valuable piece of information for both Russia and Iran. It also affirmed that the Syrian regime would pay no price for having committed a barbaric war crime. If this was a test of Obama’s moral fiber, it was one he failed, showing that when American interests were concerned, the president would take actions that, by omission, favored those to which he was nominally opposed.

ISIS only served to reinforce Obama’s determination to keep Assad in place, fearing that the jihadists would benefit from the Syrian leader’s downfall. But then, why go through the charade of arming the “moderate rebels”? For two reasons, each reflecting breathtaking cynicism. First, to create a force that could recapture ground from ISIS; and second, to keep alive the illusion that the United States was opposed to Assad.

In other words, the Obama administration seeks to turn Syrian moderates into cannon fodder in its own war against ISIS; and it wants to deceive most people into believing that Washington is on the side of good in Syria, in order to better cover for the fact that it has absolutely no intention of undermining Assad.

The only problem is that it is unclear whether the moderates will ever be authorized to fight Assad’s forces at all. Washington is focused on ISIS now, and any possibility that the moderates have to turn their weapons against the regime will only appear in a distant, ill-defined future, once—and if—ISIS is defeated.

One can direct considerable criticism against the Syrian opposition in exile. Yet Iran and Russia have similar negative thoughts about their own Syrian allies. But they stuck with Assad nevertheless, through thick and thin, while the United States and the West showed no such resolve. Nor did Obama seriously consider the advantages of undermining a cornerstone of Iranian and Russian power in the Middle East.

If Obama is a political realist, he is only one in his willingness to coldly accommodate his adversaries’ power moves. But realism is really about denying power to others and increasing one’s own power. Syria was a textbook case where Obama could have deployed his much-vaunted realism to help remove Assad, diminish Iranian influence in the region, isolate Hezbollah, and put in place a regional order more attuned to American desires.

But Obama has proven to be a second-rate realist. He has presided over America’s virtual elimination from the Middle East and alienated its closest allies, reversing half a century of successful American policy. A man of cardboard can only put in place a pact of cardboard. Khoja is right to be resentful.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Iran’s project will reshape Lebanon

Recently, the former minister Wiam Wahab, in an interview on television, said something to the effect that he was saddened by the vacuum in the Lebanese presidency. He was saddened because Lebanon might never have a Maronite president again.

This could have been hyperbole, but there were those who saw a more sinister underpinning to Wahab’s remarks. Pointing to his close ties with Hezbollah and Iran, they read in his remarks the first hints of a broader Iranian vision for a new reality in Lebanon. Not surprisingly, the greatest potential victims of an Iranian-inspired overhaul of Lebanon’s political system could be Christians in general and the Maronites in particular.

As Iran expands its power throughout the Middle East, it is seeking to reshape the political landscape in ways designed to enhance its leverage and that of its allies. Nor is anybody successfully hindering this. On the contrary, it has become increasingly apparent that the United States has no intention of challenging Iran’s sway in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Gone are the days when the American priority was containment of Iran in the region. Under Barack Obama, the U.S. appears to favor a new regional order in which Iran will be granted a choice role.

That is why Tehran has been so adamant about defending Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. His downfall would have crippled Iran’s efforts. Today, Iranian combatants are fighting in Syria, compensating for the losses in the Alawite community, while Iran has spent billions of dollars to prop up Assad’s regime.

In Lebanon, it seems highly probable that Iran will pursue a similar logic by seeking to modify the political system to the advantage of the Shiite community, led by Hezbollah. That is easier said than done, however, which is why Hezbollah is using the clashing ambitions of the Maronites themselves to help discredit the current post-Taif political arrangement.

Taif is widely viewed in Lebanon as having favored the Sunni community because it turned the Cabinet into Lebanon’s executive authority, taking most powers away from the Maronite presidency. As the prime minister is a Sunni, he plays a pivotal political role by virtue of his position, even if constitutionally the Cabinet holds executive power as a collective body. That is one reason why, since 2011, Hezbollah has sought to push aside Saad Hariri and bring in prime ministers not regarded as leading representatives of their community, no matter what their individual merits.

Hezbollah has also pursued its undermining of the post-Taif Constitution by emasculating the presidency. The party isolated and threatened President Michel Sleiman and exploited Aounist resentment of him, before allowing a vacuum to take hold once the president’s term ended. Michel Aoun is blamed for this, and has sought to perpetuate a void in order to blackmail the political parties into electing him as Sleiman’s successor. However, the reality is that Aoun is Hezbollah’s dupe. The party has itself done nothing to fill the presidency, preferring to highlight just how irrelevant the post has become as the state continues to function more or less normally without a president in place.

How the party intends to push its advantage further and increase Shiite power remains to be seen. On several occasions Aoun raised the issue of a new division of power in Lebanon according to thirds – in other words roughly a 33-33-33 division between Sunnis, Shiites and Maronites – to replace the 50-50 division between Christians and Muslims in Taif. This approach was motivated by Aoun’s belief that it would bring him Hezbollah’s support for the presidency, as well as, beyond that, granting the Maronites balancing power between Sunnis and Shiites.

For Hezbollah, however, anything that can increase Shiite representation in parliament and the government is desirable, all the more so as the community’s current share does not reflect Shiite demographics. Even a system of thirds can be turned to the party’s advantage at a time when Christians in Lebanon feel, not always justifiably, that the greatest threat to the Christian presence in the Middle East is Sunni extremism.

Lebanon has particular importance for Iran. Though small, it lies on the border of its principal regional rival, Israel. As Iran puts in place a broad strategy for the expansion of its power in the Arab world, Lebanon and the Golan Heights take on exceptional value. That is why the Lebanese power-sharing agreement needs to be adapted to ensure that Iranian stakes are not threatened.

Yet the debate over Lebanon’s presidential vacuum has been pathetically parochial. The focus of discussion continues to be on the rivalry between Aoun and Samir Geagea. Yet the issue is much bigger than the two. If they have any interest in the future of their Maronite community, they must use their impending dialogue to agree common principles in light of Iran’s ambitions.

That may be too much to ask from the two men who contributed most to the devastation of Maronite fortunes in 1990. Aoun in particular must be mindful of his foolish denunciations of the Taif Accord. If Taif is ever changed it will not be to return power to the Maronite president, as he ludicrously hopes. It will be to take more power away from Christians, and redistribute this in ways that reflect Lebanon’s sectarian realities.

Lebanon is entering an Iranian era. This may very well lead to further convulsions, with Sunnis seeking to oppose such a project. As for the Maronites, they must grasp that if Sunnis and Shiites struggle over Lebanon, it is they who are the dispensable ones – those at whose expense compromises can be reached.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

America should only help Israel if it helps itself

There was more to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech in the US Congress than protesting against a nuclear deal with Iran. Mr Netanyahu was worried about Israel losing its central role in Washington’s relationship with the Middle East.

Yet the Obama administration has worried not only Israel, but also traditional Arab allies. In recent years the Americans have pursued a radical shift in their approach to the region. Their intentions were outlined early on by the “pivot to Asia”. Really it was a pivot away from the Middle East.

Despite American intervention in Libya, and again in Iraq against ISIL, there are no signs that the administration’s resolve to disengage from the region has changed. For Mr Obama this is a philosophical issue, one shaped by his reading of a changing world.

Mr Obama believes the US is no longer capable of sustaining the foreign burdens that it once took on. Its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq nearly ruined the country financially, while significantly degrading the capacities of the military, which was stretched to its limits.

Because the Middle East was the focal point of this damaging policy, Mr Obama believes, it was necessary to scale back US involvement there. Meanwhile, greater challenges were rising in Asia, particularly the emergence of a more assertive China. For the administration, this dictated a fundamental rethinking of the policies of the Bush administration.

This led Mr Obama into a profound reconsideration of how to maintain stability in the Middle East. If America could not intercede at every occasion to maintain regional order, some arrangement had to replace this. From there it was only a step to arrive at acceptance of a major responsibility for Iran. An avowed political realist, Mr Obama looked to lay the groundwork for a new regional balance of power.

Perhaps Mr Obama was influenced by Henry Kissinger’s A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822. The book argues that Europe enjoyed an extended period of peace after the Congress of Vienna reset boundaries in Europe following the Napoleonic Wars.

While Mr Obama has kept his cards close to his chest, his goal in the Middle East seems to be to replicate this. Only a balance between the main regional protagonists can bring stability. There may be instability for a time, but ultimately, once the major players have defined spheres of influence and methods of interaction, self-interest in cooperation will replace conflict. When the region introduces mechanisms to govern itself, the need for a powerful America to regulate regional affairs will no longer be necessary. Washington’s main concern in the interim will be to ensure that all actors are brought into the game in a harmonious way. This means that the US will seek to impose red lines to maintain an equilibrium.

Therefore, while Iran’s dominance in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is recognised, America will not allow Iran to seek inroads into Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Jordan and Israel. In Yemen the situation is more complicated, because the administration seeks to do a number of things: combat Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which can mean looking more sympathetically on the Houthis, yet ensuring that the country does not threaten Saudi Arabia.

In light of this, Mr Netanyahu is right to view a nuclear deal between the United States and Iran as the first stage in normalisation that could redefine Iran’s regional role. A new balance of power would alter how Israel is perceived. Rather than being Washington’s dominant ally, Israel would see its importance diminished.

In light of this, the Americans could say that they have warned Israel enough, and to no avail, about the risks of failing to resolve the Palestinian problem. Unless Israel seriously works towards such a resolution, its regional status could be eroded from within. America is willing to help Israel, the argument goes, but not if Israel refuses to help itself.

Mr Netanyahu is right to feel that Mr Obama is fed up with the Israelis. But the president is not about to abandon them. Nor is he willing to harm US interests by conferring on Israel a status far in excess of what it merits, in his eyes. That’s especially true when Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly sought to undermine Mr Obama’s agenda through Congress.

However, there is more to politics than what one reads in political science textbooks. All regional states have ambitions and fears, and will not gladly fit into Mr Obama’s neat template. Nor will they go along with it just because the US president wants to reduce America’s headaches in the region.

The European state system took more than a century to reach the post-Congress of Vienna level of stability, and even then it later led to multiple conflicts and two world wars in the 20th century. There is a smug finality in Mr Obama’s ambitions that is unsettling. Mr Netanyahu is a sordid man, but his doubts are shared by many.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

On Iran, Arabs deeply mistrust Obama

What was striking in Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday was how the Israeli prime minister exploited the Obama administration’s ambiguities on the broader implications of a nuclear deal with Iran.

While Netanyahu’s proposals for how to strengthen the nuclear accord are not likely to be implemented, two issues he raised cannot be readily ignored by President Barack Obama: How a deal might enhance Iran’s regional influence; and whether regional wariness with a deal could spur nuclear proliferation.

Iran’s regional role is an issue that the U.S. has strenuously, and foolishly, sought to separate from the nuclear discussions. This has alarmed the Gulf states – and now Israel – who fear that a lifting of sanctions on Iran and a rapprochement with the U.S. would facilitate Iranian expansionism. The Arab states understand that the implications of a nuclear accord are mainly political. Having signed a long-awaited arrangement with Tehran, the U.S. is unlikely to turn around and enter into new conflicts to prevent it from widening its reach in the Arab world.

Indeed, there are signs that the Obama administration would do precisely the contrary. Obama, in a letter last October to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, effectively recognized Iran’s role in Syria by reassuring him that coalition airstrikes against ISIS would not target Bashar Assad’s forces. Moreover, by affirming the parallel interests of the U.S. and Iran in combating ISIS, Obama defined a basis for regional cooperation with Tehran.

It is understandable that Netanyahu’s warning fell on deaf ears at the White House. The relationship between Obama and the Israeli prime minister has been poor, and Netanyahu’s refusal to advance in negotiations with the Palestinians suggests to the Americans that relations with his government are a one-way street. For Netanyahu to then personally lobby in Washington against a major Obama initiative was the last straw. No wonder House Democrats were so withering in their criticism of him.

But whatever Netanyahu’s duplicity, the questions he raised are the same ones that many Arab states have, and to which Obama has offered no answers. Iranian influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories and now Yemen, is very real, and Tehran has spent years building it up, patiently and deliberately.

Obama has explained his Iran policy poorly, and there is a growing sense that this has been intentional. Why? Because Obama’s true ambition is to reduce America’s role in the Middle East, and, to quote analyst Tony Badran, leave in its place “a new security structure, of which Iran is a principal pillar.” Because such a scheme is bound to anger U.S. allies in the region, Obama has concealed his true intentions.

From the start the administration made it a primary goal to reorient American attentions away from the Middle East, toward Asia. When the so-called “Arab Spring” began, Obama ignored its potential benefits and sought to pursue American disengagement. At every stage the administration worked to reduce the American footprint, and where that was not possible, as in Libya and Iraq, to define limited goals and share the burden with others.

In absolute terms this approach is defensible. But as Badran suggests the outcome may well be an enhanced role for Iran, and this is something Arab states, not to mention Israel, will have great trouble accepting. If Obama imagines that the best way to advance his project is to keep mum about the outcome, he will see many more reactions like Netanyahu’s before long.

The Israeli prime minister is correct about one thing: If the Arabs feel threatened by an Iran that, ultimately, has the means of going nuclear, they will respond in kind by trying to develop their own nuclear capability. This would generate considerable instability and defeat the purpose of a nuclear agreement now.

In many passages Netanyahu’s speech was over the top. His credibility has been damaged by revelations that Israeli intelligence did not share his assessment of Iran’s nuclear program. There are few leaders as shameless, as annoying, as fraudulent. But that should not detract from the validity of some of his points. While many in the region might accept Obama’s choice to avert war with Iran by agreeing a nuclear deal, they see nothing reassuring in America’s vision of the aftermath.

The reality is that Obama is deeply distrusted in the Arab world. He is not a man who communicates much with Arab leaders or societies. His aversion to the region’s problems is palpable. Nor is Obama a president who immerses himself in the Middle East’s details. The extent of this was best illustrated by the fact that he never considered appointing an envoy to coordinate with regional allies over America’s position in the nuclear talks.

Obama may get his deal with Iran, but he has prepared the terrain so carelessly that the consequences may be quite damaging. Iran is a rising power in a region where Arab states are disintegrating. Agreeing with Iran, if that happens, will be the easy part. Much tougher will be leaving in place a stable regional order. And given Obama’s performance until now, no one is wagering much that the U.S. will succeed in that.

Offensive thoughts - Lebanon’s army and the campaign in Qalamoun

Amid alarming reports in Lebanon that jihadist groups in Qalamoun plan to attack the Lebanese Army and border villages in the coming weeks lies a different reality. It is the Syrian Army and Hezbollah that are planning an offensive in the border area, and the Lebanese Army is being incorporated into that effort.

Almost daily one Lebanese media outlet or another paints an apocalyptic picture of what lies ahead, once the snow melts in the mountain areas along the border. Most of the time the reports cite unnamed “security sources” warning of a jihadist onslaught, though there is desperately little evidence provided for their claims. It all smacks of an organized campaign to frighten the Lebanese and make them more amenable to the gradual integration of the army into the military strategy of Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.

Doubtless there is some resistance in the army to such dynamics. However, the armed groups in Qalamoun have done themselves no favors by retaining Lebanese military personnel they abducted last summer, and by attacking army positions. In effect, they have acted precisely the way Hezbollah wants them to, in that their behavior has pushed the army to take a more aggressive role in hitting militant armed groups in Qalamoun.

According to one prominent Lebanese politician who follows events along the Lebanese-Syrian border carefully, an offensive may take place as soon as April, and the army has occupied advanced positions in preparation for this. If the ongoing campaign in southern Syria is any indication of what will happen, Hezbollah and possibly Iranian forces would spearhead the effort, with the Syrian regime providing air cover.

The role of the Lebanese Army would be to interdict the cross-border transfer of supplies and weapons to the armed groups in Qalamoun, and to protect Hezbollah’s flank. Both Syrian and Hezbollah officials have repeatedly called for coordination between the Lebanese and Syrian armies, but the nature of such coordination will have to be carefully addressed.

For instance, it remains to be seen whether the army will participate in a joint operations room with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. If it ever decides to do so, there will be risks for the army’s unity, as a substantial number of troops are Sunnis. However, there are also less obvious ways to act in unison if the army successfully opposes formal coordination.

In light of the recent regime offensives in the north of Syria, near Aleppo, and in the south of the country, in Quneitra and Daraa, the Iranian plan appears to be to clear border areas where Turkey and Jordan can assist groups fighting the Syrian regime. The scheme faltered in the north after Shiite forces mustered by Iran, especially Afghans, took heavy losses. There have been unconfirmed reports that Turkish intelligence and aid provided to the rebels was vital in this regard.

In the south, the Iranians and Hezbollah have been more successful and are trying to do two things: tighten regime control over areas providing access to Damascus; and capture high ground in the region around Daraa that would allow them to interrupt supplies from Jordan to the armed groups there.

In light of this, Qalamoun appears to be the next target. If the Iranians and Hezbollah can control access to and from the southern border areas in Syria, they can hinder the possibility of jihadist groups gaining in Lebanon’s Shebaa area, where there is a Sunni population. The same logic holds in northern Bekaa, where Sunnis also reside. Taking over Qalamoun would further secure lines of communication between Damascus and Homs, as well as neutralize the Lebanese border once and for all.

What is remarkable about this scheme is that the Iranians have managed to slot their agenda neatly into the new “war on terror.” For instance, the American ambassador in Beirut had this to say when the United States delivered military equipment to the Lebanese Army in early February: “We are fighting the same enemy, so our support for you has been swift and continuous. I am confident that, with the right equipment, Lebanon’s soldiers can defend Lebanon successfully.”

Some commentators correctly wondered about the use of the word “enemy.” While Jabhat al-Nusra may indeed be an American enemy, there are a significant number of rebels in Qalamoun who are simply young men from the area displaced by Hezbollah’s offensive in spring 2013. They may have joined jihadist groups not out of ideological conviction, but rather because those groups were the best organized and financed.

Such subtleties are lost today in the new crusade against terror. A neat dichotomy has been imposed, and, increasingly, Iranian and American interests appear to be parallel, at least in the American reading of the situation.

For instance, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, has said of the current Iranian-organized offensive against Tikrit: “If they perform in a credible way [against ISIS] then it will, in the main, have been a positive thing…” Dempsey added that this would only hold if sectarian tensions were not exacerbated. Yet how can a Shiite-led offensive against a major Sunni city, in which a central role is being played by Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, do anything but anger Sunnis?

But the Obama administration has ignored this. That’s why when the Qalamoun offensive begins, you can assume that the Americans will be on board, by action or by omission. A new order is emerging in the region and the United States has been a factor in helping bring it about. What occurs in Qalamoun is a small part of it, but never too small for Iran as it weaves its regional hegemony over a disintegrating Arab world. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Urgent action is required to help Arab Christians

The fate of the Middle East’s Christians was again highlighted after the recent abduction of hundreds of Assyrian Christians by ISIL in Syria. Coming months after Chaldeans and Assyrians were forced out of Mosul, the precariousness of the Christian presence in the region is more evident than ever.

The destiny of the Christians is not playing out solely in Iraq and Syria, but also in Lebanon and Egypt.

In Lebanon, where a panoply of Christian sects continue to exist, the president of the republic by tradition comes from the Maronite Catholic community. Maronites retain political power, yet today they account, with other Christian communities, for no more than a third of the population.

The figure is an estimate because Lebanon has not conducted a census since before independence in 1943, precisely to avoid emphasising the decline in Christian numbers. When Greater Lebanon was established by the French in 1920, Christians still held a slight majority, but the addition of Muslim-majority areas ensured that in subsequent decades the demographics would shift to the advantage of Muslims.

In Egypt, the Copts have an ambiguous relationship with the Egyptian state. While the Coptic pope, Tawadros II, has been a supporter of Abdel Fattah El Sisi, discrimination against Copts is widespread in the state administration. There was much tension between the community and the regime of Hosni Mubarak, with Copts accusing the security services of organising attacks against them.

The reason Pope Tawadros has backed Mr El Sisi is that he removed a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government that was deeply unpopular with Copts. However, the pope’s reaction reflects a broader problem of minority behaviour in the region: to protect themselves Arab Christians frequently ally with regimes that come to be resented. As a result, when these regimes are challenged, the safety of Christians is in doubt.

This has been particularly true for the Christians of Syria and Iraq. It is a grave mistake for Arab Christians anywhere to imagine that their salvation is tied in with the survival of dictators. But for as long as the main adversaries of supposedly secular regimes are extremists, this reckless tendency will continue to prevail.

Middle Eastern Christian communities are dwindling amid a sense that their prospects in the region are nil. The vast majority of Arab societies do not have social contracts that take into consideration the anxieties of minorities. Sectarian pluralism is a value Arab regimes have tolerated but rarely promoted.

It is ironic that a reason for this is the Arab nationalist traditions of most of the regimes in countries where Christians are present. Arab nationalism regards sectarian identity as detrimental to Arab unity.

The problem is that this desire not to be defined by one’s sect had the perverse consequence of making Arab nationalist regimes tone deaf when it came to minority concerns. Worse, in countries such as Syria and Iraq, where minority regimes held power, to draw attention away from this fact leaders worked twice as hard to affirm their Arab nationalist credentials.

Arab nationalist regimes, where they still survive, have lost most of their legitimacy in the face of a revitalised Islam. This has made the lot of Christians bleaker. Arab nationalism has brought them nothing, while extremist militancy offers even less. These dynamics are leading towards a further reduction in the Arab Christian population through emigration – bringing with it further marginalisation.

At the end of the First World War, protecting minority rights was a major theme in the post-war settlements. Both the French in Lebanon and Syria and the British in Iraq built up their League of Nation mandates on a foundation of defending minorities. However, as the costs of the mandates rose, this policy was slowly abandoned.

As nationalist opposition rose against the mandates, minority identity was absorbed into a broader national identity. Only in one country, Lebanon, was a social contract agreed creating a power-sharing system that allowed leaders from the different religious sects to play prominent political roles. In most other places a stifling nationalism took hold, overwhelming all impulses or identities that clashed with nationalist dictates.

As a result, nationalism, an ideology that brooked no alternatives, became an essential cornerstone of Arab authoritarianism. Thus, the suffocation of minority identities was frequently a facet of Arab dictatorship. That in some cases it was minority regimes enforcing such uniformity did not make it any less potent.

The only real hope for Arab Christians lies in the emergence of democratic Arab societies where differences are respected and encouraged. Yet so remote are the prospects for this at present that the Christian presence may be a distant memory by the time Arab countries become democratic, if they ever do so.

Muslims have a key role to play in preserving a continued Christian presence, beyond boilerplate. Otherwise, Christians may, before long, become topics for the history books – interesting but irrelevant.