Burning out Another Room in the Arab House

Digging graves in Syria.

By Jeremy Salt – Ankara

In the ugly panorama that is the contemporary Middle East a light hardly flickers on the horizon. Iraq has been destroyed as a unitary Arab state and jihadis unleashed in Syria are burning out another room in the Arab house. Lebanon has again been brought to the brink of implosion through the intrigues of outside governments and local proxies incapable of putting the interests of their country ahead of their sectarian and power intrigues. The Palestinians are divided between those who live under the authority of one man who has bound himself to Israel and the US and two others who have bound themselves to Egypt and Qatar. Fitna – the spreading of division and sowing of hatred amongst Muslims – is being fanned across the region by governments brazen enough to call themselves Muslim. Whether in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Iran, Shiism is the enemy. Ceaselessly stirring this pot from the outside are governments that feast on division in the Arab world.

There are those who loathe Bashar so much that they are willing to commit or tolerate any crime in the name of getting rid of him, including the deliberate bombings of civilians, one taking the lives of a leading Sunni Muslim scholar and 48 other worshippers in a Damascus mosque only recently and another killing 100 people, amongst them children waiting for their school bus. A country Gamal abd al Nasir once described as the ‘beating heart of Arabism’ is being destroyed. Its enemies have their hands inside the body and they intend to rip the heart out. The cooperative at work on this venture includes the US, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the local and foreign-born jihadis who are their tools whether they realize it or not.

That the Syrian system needs changing goes without saying. In Syria possibly no-one understands this better than the much reviled Bashar al Assad. He could go tomorrow but that would solve nothing because the system would stay the same; for those who hate him, someone worse might take his place. Bashar has made serious mistakes, including the adoption of free market policies which have enriched the merchant class while further impoverishing the peasantry, who are now said to be many of the foot soldiers of the armed groups, but Syria is an easier place than it was under his father. The abolition of the Baath as the central pillar of state and society and the multi-party elections held last year were a start to political reforms.  The elections were not perfect but if anyone is looking for perfection in the Middle East, they should look somewhere else. These are threads that could have been teased out if the collective calling itself ‘The Friends of the Syrian People’ had any serious interest in the best interests of the Syrian people. A process of national dialogue has begun in Damascus but this has been ignored, too, because these ‘friends’ want nothing less than the destruction of a government which is a strategic ally of Iran and Hezbollah and forms with them the ‘resistance axis’ to US-Israeli hegemony.

The achievements of this axis need to be set against the record of collaboration of those Arab governments who are now bent on destroying it. Iran and Syria have been solid in their support for the Palestinians, hosting resistance movements and working together to provide Hamas with the weapons it needed to defend Gaza. No weapons came from the direction of Saudi Arabia or Qatar. It was Hezbollah, the non-state partner in this alliance,  that finally drove Israel from occupied southern Lebanon after nearly two decades of struggle involving not just the bravery of part-time soldiers but the mastery of electronic warfare, enabling Hezbollah to penetrate Israeli communications, including drone surveillance, as was made clear when Hasan Nasrallah produced intercepted film showing that an Israeli drone had been shadowing Rafiq Hariri for three months and was overhead when he was assassinated in February, 2005. When Israel tried to take revenge in 2006 it was humiliated. Hezbollah stood firm, destroyed its supposedly invincible Merkava tanks, disabled one of its warships in a missile attack and prevented its ground forces from advancing north of the Litani river.  At the time, it might be remembered, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia vilified Hasan Nasrallah for bringing on this war, as they saw it.

It was Hezbollah which scored another triumph by breaking Israel’s spy network in Lebanon, now in the public eye because of the revelations that an Australian-born Mossad agent, Ben Zygier, had provided it with the names of two of its agents.  The official Israeli version of the Zygier affair is that he handed over this information with the ultimate intention of setting up the assassination of Hasan Nasrallah.  However, as the case is regarded as one of the most serious threats to national security in Israel’s history, much more might be involved than the collapse of a spy network.  It is hard to imagine any agent who was not in fact a double agent doing what Zygier is reported to have done. What other information he might have passed on is a matter of conjecture but Israel’s nervousness about this affair could be a sign that far darker secrets are involved than the exposure of two spies.

Both Iran and Syria have been targeted with economic sanctions because of their disobedience.  Iran has been threatened with military attack ever since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and now that the attempt to destroy the government in Damascus through armed proxies has clearly failed, if more than two years of trying qualifies as failure, the US is sending out signals that it is prepared to intervene directly despite the regional and global risks. The collapse of the Syrian National Council last year has now been followed by the disintegration of the Syrian National Coalition, with ‘president’ Mu’adh al Khatib resigning and the chief of its military wing refusing to recognize the authority of new ‘prime minister’ Ghassan al Hitto.  Riad al Assad, the displaced former commander of the self-styled Free Syrian Army, has just been carried back across the border into Turkey with only one leg, the other having been blown off by a roadside car bomb. Some sources say it was only a foot but either way he is out of action for a long time to come. As the leading armed groups do not recognize the authority of Mr Assad or the squabbling coalition of which the FSA is supposed to be the military arm,  his absence from the scene is not going to make a great deal of difference.

For Muadh al Khatib to be given the Syria seat at the recent summit of the Arab League in Doha is farcical in more than one respect. Al Khatib is no longer even a member of the group Qatar is trying to set up as an alternative government. The group itself is in a state of complete collapse, with al Khatib walking out and other members rejecting the appointment of Hitto, a Syrian-born American who has not visited the country of his birth for decades.  That Al Khatib should demand that his ragged, motley crew be given Syria’s seat at the UN goes beyond preposterous. The government of Syria sits in Damascus, not Doha, and Bashar al Assad is still its president, not the former imam of the Umayyad mosque. Compounding this theatre of the absurd, it was the ruler of Qatar who directed that Al Khatib be given the Syrian seat at the Doha summit, underlining the degree to which the Arab League has become no more than an instrument of this gentleman’s drive for regional dominance. That King Abdullah should have stayed away from Doha is a sign of the deepening rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, especially over how to manage Syria. The determination of the ruler of Qatar to persevere with this chaotic bunch of exiles is the measure of his determination to destroy the government in Damascus.

On the ground the armed groups are taking a beating at the hands of the Syrian army but like an irresponsible trainer sending a punched-out boxer out from his corner for the next round, their outside sponsors are pouring arms into Syria to keep them on their feet. The tactics of these groups include bombings aimed at civilians that in other circumstances their backers would not hesitate to call terrorism but steadfastly refused to call terrorism when Syrians are the victims and their proxies are the perpetrators. Al Khatib’s dissatisfaction with his ramshackle coalition was possibly brought to a head by the assassination in Damascus of Sheikh Muhammad Said Ramadan al Bouti, a former colleague and a man he greatly admired. Al Bouti and close to 50 other worshippers were murdered in the Iman mosque by a suicide bomber. Two days earlier an armed group had loaded CL 17 chlorine – an ingredient normally used in swimming pool cleaner – into the warhead of a small missile and fired it at a Syrian army checkpoint, killing 26 people. Soldiers were among the dead and the army was there to look after the survivors, so the claims of activists that ‘the regime’ was responsible had even less traction than usual. Having warned of direct intervention in Syria should chemical weapons be used, the US had little to say now that such a weapon had been used, not by the Syrian army, but by the ‘rebels’ it has been supporting.

Hezbollah, Syria and Iran’s record of resistance has to be compared with the long Saudi and Qatari record of collaboration with the US and Israel. Having deserted Damascus in its hour of need, what does Khalid Mishaal think he is going to get from the ruler of Qatar besides money and somewhere to stay?  What is Ismail Haniyeh expecting from Muhammad Morsi, who began his presidency by blocking off the tunnels into Gaza and confirmed where he intends to take Egypt with his letter calling Shimon Peres ‘my dear friend’? Is it forgotten already, apart from his record in violence and destruction going back to 1948, that it was Peres who authorized the attack on southern Lebanon in 1996 which took the lives of more than 100 people sheltering inside the UN compound in Qana? If the friend of my enemy is my enemy, where does that leave Haniyeh, Misha’al and Abbas?

The beneficiaries of intervention in Iraq, Libya and Syria are outside and regional governments who have combined forces to reshape the Middle East in their own interests.  As Ibrahim al Amin has remarked (‘Partitioning Syria at the Doha summit’, Al Akhbar English, March 25, 2013), they are fighting a global war against Syria in the name of bringing the people freedom and justice. In truth, western governments only intervene in their own interests and the people always end up being sliced and diced on the chopping board of their grand designs. There has been no exception to this rule. Civilization, liberation, freedom, democracy, the rights of the people and the responsibility to protect are the unctuous phrases that have rolled off the lips of western prime ministers, foreign ministers and presidents for two centuries. This is the rhetorical buildup to a self-assigned ‘duty’ to intervene: the only real difference between intervention in the 19th century and intervention in the 21st  lies in the vastly increased killing power of western governments and the  development of weapons that would have been regarded as science fiction until only recently.

As they always get away with it, there is no reason for them to stop. Iraq was a terrible crime but while the UN Security Council or the International Criminal Court points the finger at Robert Mugabe, Umar al Bashir or Saif al Islam al Gaddafi it never points the finger at western politicians whose crimes are infinitely greater. Slobodan Milosevic was a rare exception but even his crimes do not measure up to what George Bush and Tony Blair authorized in Iraq in and after 2003 – not to speak of the horrors that Bush senior, Clinton and Blair authorized through the decade of sanctions which followed the attack of 1991.  Because they are protected by a world system which is highly selective about who it punishes, the politicians who follow them feel free to repeat the experience. They know that whoever suffers, whoever is bombed, whoever has to look at the faces of dead parents, children, aunts, grandfathers and neighbors being dug out of the rubble of bombed cities and towns, it is not going to be them. William Hague is perfectly comfortable in his desire to give more weapons to the ‘rebels’ because he knows that the calamitous consequences of decisions he takes are never going to bounce back on  his own doorstep.

It is obvious but needs to be said anyway that the first priority of people across the Middle East should be solidarity rising above ethnic and religious divisions. No problem can be solved without it and certainly not the core issue of Palestine. In his recent Edward Said memorial lecture, Noam Chomsky drew attention to what is going on while the world’s attention is diverted by the ‘Arab spring.’  In 1967 the Jordan Valley had a Palestinian population of 300, 000. The policy of ‘purification’ pursued by the Israeli government has now reduced that population to 60,000. On a smaller scale the same policy has had the same results in Hebron and elsewhere in the occupied territories. There is nothing accidental or incidental about this. Netanyahu is no more than faithful to the racist policies set in motion by Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion. Continuing without letup for 65 years these policies are neither forgettable nor forgivable.

It is not surprising that Israel’s strongest supporters always have been similar colonial settler states. There are no exact parallels but the Zionist settlers in Palestine and the American colonists both turned on the mother state while setting out to crush the native people.   Thomas Paine had much to say about the American ‘war of independence’ that is relevant to Palestine.  First of all, it was it was an ‘independence war’ being fought on land long since inhabited by another people. The colonists wanted to be independent of the mother country, which planted them in this foreign soil in the expectation that they would maintain it as part of the king’s domains. A loyal colony was what the British also sought in Palestine but the American settlers and later the Zionists had other ideas. The war between Britain and the American colonists was brutal, generating deep hatreds on both sides, just as the Zionist war against the British did in Palestine.

Paine was writing of settler feelings towards the savagery of the mother country but the words equally apply to the people who were the victims of double colonialism in North America or, nearly two centuries later, in Palestine:

‘Men of passive tempers look somewhat lightly over the offences of Great Britain and still hoping for the best are still apt to call out come, come, we shall be friends against for all this.  But examine the passions and feelings of mankind; bring the doctrine of reconciliation to the touchstone of nature and then tell me whether you can hereafter love, honor and faithfully serve the power that hath carried fire and sword into your land. If you cannot do all these then you are only deceiving yourself, and by your delay bringing ruin upon posterity. Your future connections with Britain, whom you can neither love nor honor, will be forced and unnatural and being formed only on the plan of present convenience, will in a little time fall into a relapse more wretched than the first. But if you say you can still pass the violations over, then I ask hath your house been burnt? Hath your property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or child by their hands and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, then you are not a judge of those who have. But if you have and can still shake hands with the murderers, then are you unworthy the name of husband, father, friend or lover; and whatever may be your rank or title in life you have the heart of a coward and the spirit of a sycophant.’

Paine was a democrat within the limitations of his time. He was writing for the settlers and had no thought of admitting the indigenous people of North America to representation in the colonies. Except for the passage of almost 250 years Paine might be a Zionist today, but the two and a half centuries make all the difference. Israel was an anomaly from the beginning, a colonial state arising at the tail end of colonialism. It would be no more possible to imagine Thomas Paine supporting an America in which native and Afro-Americans did not have the vote now than it would be to imagine him supporting a situation where a people not only did not have the right to vote but had been denied the right to live on the land where they or their forebears had been born.

In today’s world Paine could not support an Israel built on blatantly racist and discriminatory lines. Everything he says in the passage quoted above applies to Israel. The wounds it has inflicted have gone deep and far from making any attempt to heal them Israel has endlessly inflicted new wounds. The state of Israel – to be differentiated from those pockets of its citizens who oppose its brutal mindset – is not interested in any kind of genuine settlement with the Palestinians. It is not interested in them as a people. It is not interested in their stories of suffering. It is not interested in its own guilt because it is blind to its own guilt. It has no humility and would scoff at the idea of penance for crimes it refuses to admit it has committed, like the worst recidivist offender hauled before a court. It is interested in the Palestinians only as a problem to be solved and the solution is for them somehow to disappear or to be made to disappear. Hence the ‘purification’ in the Jordan Valley and the daylight oppression of the Palestinians in Hebron and the racist demographic war being waged in East Jerusalem. These are crimes against humanity.

If we substitute Israel and the Oslo process for the reconciliation proffered by the British monarch the result is the same: the policy, wrote Thomas Paine, is there ‘in order that he may accomplish by craft and subtlety in the long run what he cannot do by force and violence in the short one’. His conclusion that ‘reconciliation and ruin are nearly related’ sums up the consequences for the Palestinians of the Venus fly trap known as the ‘peace process.’  Violence works but ‘peace’ has a deadly potency of its own:  whatever the means employed,   the Zionist aim of reducing the Palestinians to dust that will eventually be whirled away by history has not changed in 100 years.

By themselves, however bravely they have resisted, the Palestinians have never had the power to fend off the forces arrayed against them. This has been true from the time Britain implanted the Zionist project in Palestine until the present day. Britain and the US were not just any countries but the two most powerful states of their time and with their support both Zionist success and Palestinian failure were assured.  Never have the Palestinians been able to draw on anything like such sources of strength despite the immense potential in their own backyard.  Israel’s dominance as a regional power is still sustained by the US while being continually replenished by Arab weakness: Arab weakness is built on chronic Arab disunity, now being promoted in sectarian form by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. As long as there is no way out of this trap the Palestinians will remain stuck in their trap.

Sectarianism is a powerful weapon but would be useless if people were not susceptible to it. A people divided are doomed to be dominated.  George Antonius prefaced The Arab Awakening with a quote from Ibrahim Yaziji: ‘Arise Arabs and awake!’  That was in 1938.  An Arab awakening did follow and while it would be tempting to say the Arab world has gone back to sleep, in reality what is happening is far worse than sleep.  A fire is raging and it is hard to see how and when it will be put out.

– Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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