Saturday, May 24, 2008

Syria – Israel Peace Talks

This, along with other perspectives, will appear on the forum of the Creative Syria website (see link to the left).

After months of rumours it has been announced that Syria and Israel are engaged in formal peace talks under Turkish auspices. In theory it shouldn’t be difficult for the negotiations to come to a positive conclusion. After all, in 2000 Hafez al-Assad and Ehud Barak came remarkably close to an agreement in which the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967, would be returned to Syria, and Syria would recognise and establish normal relations with Israel.

Syria would benefit hugely from peace. Apart from the ramifications for national pride, the return of the Golan would constitute a tremendous economic boost. There would be a boom in construction and tourism as well as an easing of water shortages in the Damascus region. An end to military tensions with Israel would make Syria a much more welcoming environment for investors.

Israel would gain a measure of long-term security and some much needed legitimacy (still not nearly enough – that won’t come until Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs live as equals in Palestine). Both countries would be able to cooperate to confront the climate change and overpopulation crises that are likely to bite in the near future.

As well as potential rewards, there are immediate dangers that could be avoided through peace. In Lebanon’s Hizbullah, Israel has met its most serious enemy, a force which can hit back effectively at aggression and which can not be removed. The missiles of Hamas, while currently not much more than an occasionally bloody irritant, are extending their range and power and present a long-term existential threat. Israel also has its ‘demographic problem’ – the land controlled by Israel already contains roughly equal numbers of Arabs and Jews. As a result, the Jewish state’s pretence of being a democracy rather than an apartheid regime wears ever more thin. Peace with Syria would not solve these problems, but it would provide an environment more conducive to the hard thinking and compromise necessary to solve them. Syria, meanwhile, lives from crisis to crisis, with a shattered Iraq on its east, unstable Lebanon and wounded Palestine to the west, with Wahhabi-nihilists threatening to strike, with hostile Western governments ranged against it, and a mushrooming, youthful population that must be employed. Syria needs the space to breathe that a peace treaty would bring.

Unlike the US, Turkey, which is friendly with both countries, is in an excellent position to mediate talks. Furthermore, it appears that Olmert has agreed to fulfill Hafez al-Assad’s demand of a full withdrawal to the coast of the Sea of Galilee.

So conditions seem right and both sides would benefit. This does not mean, however, that peace is on the horizon. I suspect that both leaderships know this, and are playing along for political and PR reasons. Neither wants to be seen as the warmongering side. Bashaar al-Assad wants to cool down the Western heat, especially if he fears the results of the enquiry into Rafiq Hariri’s assassination. Olmert wants a diversion from his domestic failures and the corruption charges against him. If an attack on Iran is being planned, it may be that Israeli and American planners also aim to keep Syria temporarily sweet, for the duration of the bombing.

So why no peace? Israeli foreign minister Tsipi Livni has said it clearly: as a precondition, Syria must distance itself from Iran and cease support for Hizbullah and Hamas. In other words, Syria must sacrifice its independent foreign policy, accept that its alliances will be decided elsewhere, and welcome American-Israeli hegemony in the region. This is an impossible price for the Syrian regime to pay. Like any government, the Syrian rulers govern by consensus as well as by coercion. In general, Syrians like their government’s anti-imperialist line. Better put, Syrians tolerate the regime’s failures for two reasons: domestic stability and dignity in foreign policy.

The Syrian people are at least as nationalist and anti-zionist as their government. The connection to other Arab peoples, especially in the ‘bilad ash-sham’ cultural zone, is not something that Syrians would be willing to give up. Would Israelis accept cutting links with their US friends, because Syrians don’t like American policy? Of course, Syria wouldn’t be so foolish as to ask for this as a precondition for peace. The fact that Israel demands the equivalent from Syria shows that it does not consider Syria as an equal partner, and that there will be no peace.

There are plenty of regimes in the region which substitute US backing for popular support in their own countries. In other words, they fear the displeasure of the patron, which protects them with military bases and cash injections, more than they fear the displeasure of the street. Could Syria flip and become an Egypt or a Saudi Arabia? I think not. For a variety of ideological and strategic reasons, this would be almost impossible in the easiest of conditions, that is, even if the US was waiting with kisses and bags of investment cash. And the US, which calls Syria a member of the axis of evil, is frowning at the current talks.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Sense, Mainly

The Lebanese government took the first steps towards dismantling Hizbullah’s vital communications network. The opposition closed roads and demonstrated. Pro-government thugs shot at civilians, as they have done many times before. This time, the opposition responded decisively. Disciplined Hizbullah fighters and their unruly allies from Amal and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party quickly took control of West Beirut. Hundreds of Hariri’s Future militia surrendered. In the Shuf, pro-opposition and pro-government Druze forces fought it out, with the opposition winning. The north was messier. In Tripoli the Sunnis fought, Hariri supporters against Omar Karami’s opposition-linked group. Future men ransacked and burnt offices of the Ba’ath Party, of Ayatullah Fadlallah, Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, and the Syrian Social Nationalists. (This party, by the way, is not Syrian but ‘Greater Syrian’; while the Ba’ath envisages a union of all Arab countries, the SSNP wants a state covering Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, Kuwait and – believe it or not – Cyprus, a Fertile Crescent state.) At the time of writing, things have calmed down in Tripoli.

So far, it looks like a clear victory for the opposition and a resounding defeat for the government and its Saudi and American backers. Hariri and Junblatt have been humiliated. Sinyura said he would let the army decide on Hizbullah’s communications network. The army accepted the offer and promptly declared that the resistance would be protected. It also announced that the Hizbullah-linked head of airport security would be reinstated. The government (if it is still the government) must be bitter that the army, which it had heralded as the symbol of a neutral state, has shown more understanding for the opposition than for the leaders who provoked it.

Hizbullah has acted with its usual intelligence and restraint. As soon as the opposition took control of pro-government areas it handed them over to the army. It did not perform a coup, as it so easily could have done. It has been careful to include its Sunni and Druze allies in the military action, and to work in concert with its Christian allies politically. All that it has demanded is a return to the status quo before the government orders threatening the resistance’s communications network. It has not even mentioned the third of cabinet seats that it has been negotiating for months. The Shia community, which makes up between 30 and 40% of the people, currently receives only 21% of parliamentary seats. Rather than push for an end to this injustice, Hizbullah is trying to soothe tempers and establish a new consensus around the resistance.

Still, the presence of militia on the streets once again is heartbreaking, and will make consensus very difficult to achieve. There are reports of Amal men entering homes to beat Hariri supporters, stealing jewellery, and chanting sectarian insults. The Future TV building was burnt by SSNP supporters. An Amal supporter turned his fire on a Sunni funeral crowd, killing at least two. And the ‘clean hands’ purity of the resistance has been lost. Hizbullah is the only militia which did not commit massacres against other communities during the country’s civil war. The actions of the last few days may have been necessary, and Hizbullah itself (as opposed to its sometimes embarrassing allies) behaved in a disciplined manner, but Lebanon has now seen Hizbullah using military force against other Lebanese. If sectarianism proves to be stronger than sense in the Sunni community (and the Saudi-run media will do all it can to whip up hatred – al-Arabiyya’s coverage, for instance, has been appallingly one-sided), or if Hizbullah now makes even one mistake, a short term victory for resistance Lebanon could become a defeat, and bankers’ Lebanon could return in force. Or there could be a return of blood and chaos.

There have already been scenes which replay the civil war. Future militiamen lined up and murdered a group of migrant Syrian workers. Junblatt’s militia kidnapped and executed at least two Hizbullah supporters. These are the ‘moderate democratic’ pro-Western forces the US has been funding and training in Jordan (alongside the Badr militia calling itself the Iraqi army and the Dahlan militia pretending to be Palestinian security). Hariri, Sinyura and Junblatt have recognised the current balance of forces, but haven’t recognised the justice of the opposition’s stand. Whether or not they call on their fighters to destabilise the new set-up will depend on the orders they receive from Saudi Arabia and the US. Here, the signs are not good.

Aside from general destruction, the Bush administration has failed in everything it has tried in the Middle East, and may now be getting desperate. The Lebanese events are very reminiscent of Gaza, where America (via the Abrams Plan) armed and then incited its own faction against the resistance. The resistance tried its best to establish a national government but in the end, after grievous provocation, took direct control of Gaza.

1.3 billion dollars of American money was spent propping up the Sinyura government, and not only money. A former head of Mossad observed yesterday that three years of work by Arab and Western intelligence agencies in Beirut had been lost in one night. This is a good thing, surely. Where will we be in a month’s time?

Friday, May 09, 2008

Sect or Sense?

The Lebanese government wants to remove surveillance cameras at Beirut airport, and has suspended the official in charge of airport security because of his links with Hizbullah. Hassan Nasrallah has responded by warning that the government plans to turn the airport into a base for the CIA and Mossad. For the last two days Hizbullah and Amal supporters have closed roads leading to the airport.

The government aims to dismantle Hizbullah’s communications system, which one minister referred to as “Iran telecom.” Nasrallah describes this move as “a declaration of war,” and he may not be exaggerating. Israeli inability to destroy Hizbullah communications in 2006 meant that Israel was unable to achieve any of its war aims. The destruction of the system now would leave Hizbullah vulnerable to assassinations and full scale military attack from Israel.

Yesterday Hizbullah and the much less disciplined Amal supporters on one side and Sunni pro-government people fought each other on the streets and abused each other in the grossest sectarian terms. At least eleven people died. Nasrallah ominously announced that while the resistance’s weapons would never be used for internal political purposes, the weapons would be used “to protect the resistance’s weapons.” Lebanese have learnt to keep calmer for longer since the 15-year tragedy which destroyed them, and they may yet weather this storm. But Lebanon is now closer to civil war that it has been at any time since 1990.

The context to this is that the country has been split down the middle since the departure of Syrian forces. The government is made up of Sunni parties allied with the small Druze minority, and is led by big businessmen and the traditional heads of big families. The opposition houses the Shia community and is more closely linked to working class Lebanon. The Christians are divided, with the old civil war Phalange fascists supporting the government and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement backing the opposition. The government, which inaccurately calls itself the ‘majority’, does not represent the Shia at all, who are the country’s largest sect. The two sides are unable to agree on a candidate for president, or on the opposition’s demands for a veto-wielding third of cabinet seats. (This seems to be a reasonable demand, given that Lebanon can only be run by compromise and consensus, and that the opposition represents more than a third of the people). If the opposition is backed by Syria and Iran, the government is backed by Saudi Arabia, America, France and, less directly, Israel.

It is almost certain that the latest provocation has been encouraged by an American administration wanting to bring things to a head before it is replaced. There are some people who pray for Hizbullah to kill Sunni civilians, because this would damage the resistance’s standing in the wider Arab and Muslim worlds. Opinion polls show that Hassan Nasrallah and Bashaar al-Assad are the most popular leaders on the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab street. Outside of Lebanon, sectarianism has not coloured people’s judgement, despite the steady stream of sectarian propaganda from the pro-American regimes and Saudi-owned press and screen media. Arabs generally side with anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist forces, which scares and upsets the clients. In Syria, for instance, Hizbullah is wildly popular even with those Sunnis who are religiously prickly about Shia Islam. You often find the portrait of Nasrallah on the walls of Syrian Christian homes.

Of course, Syrians or Egyptians do not have to live in Lebanon. There are many Lebanese who have justified fears of Hizbullah’s state within a state. There are many who ask why Lebanon should endlessly suffer in confrontation with zionism, for the sake of Syria’s Golan, or Palestine, or for pan-Arab or pan-Islamic ideologies that may never be victorious. After all, Israel has now left Lebanese territory except for the Shebaa Farms, and most Lebanese hostages have been released from Israeli cells. Why not disarm the resistance and let the state rule?

But what is this state in which political disagreements always fracture the country along sectarian lines? (It is upsetting to see working class Sunnis acting as street fighters against the resistance on behalf of millionaire capitalists like Hariri and Sinyora – a perfect example of ‘false consciousness’). What is this state in which the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shii Muslim? This state in which the vote of a Shii farmer is worth about half that of a Maronite businessman? The demand that the national army have a monopoly of armed force would be justifiable if the army were not liable to split into sectarian factions at the first sign of serious trouble. Lebanon is a country in which the sects hate each other, and in which all communities have historically served outside powers in order to gain leverage over their neighbours. For the resistance to maintain its excellence it must maintain its internal unity and its impermeability to Israeli spies. It is doubtful that this would be possible in a ‘national’ framework. It is more than doubtful that Israel would leave Lebanon alone if there were not a strong Lebanese resistance to deter aggression and exploitation.

Is it possible for this state – created by the French from the core of Maronite Mount Lebanon, with Orthodox, Shia, Sunni and Druze areas tacked on – to become a nation? I will outrage many patriotic Lebanese by saying that I suspect not. It would have been better if it had never been peeled away from Syria, which is also a patchwork of sects and ethnic groups, but with a more definite Arab centre of gravity. This is not the same as saying that incorporating today’s Lebanon – which has a vibrant and admirable freedom of speech and lifestyle that no other Arab state can match – into the Ba’athist dictatorship is in any way workable. Syria has to change before the two states could learn to make the border matter less.

In the meantime, a serious attempt should be made to prove pessimists like me wrong, to show that Lebanon could become a true nation. Hizbullah has sought to reassure the other sects by not seeking a one-man one-vote system in Lebanon. They have done this both because they fear the inevitable accusations of seeking Shia dominance, and because they benefit from the confessional system to the extent that they are seen by the Shia as the final guarantor of Shia power and pride. But it is time to rock the boat, and work for real representation. Hizbullah’s recent opening of its military ranks to Sunni and Christian reservists shows that the party possesses the imagination required for this next step.

My aunt owns a house in West Beirut that has been repeatedly damaged by war. Here in Oman we have a Lebanese friend who lost tens of members of her family to the Israeli onslaught in 2006. And those are my nearest links to physical danger in Lebanon. Having established that I don’t have to risk my life for my Lebanese opinions, and that I recognise that I might have different politics if my children went to school in Beirut (but I expect not), I must now express the following:

The Arab world has waited 60 years for an organisation that can stand up militarily to Israel, and longer than that for a force that can hold back the West. Hizbullah is a rare historical occurrence. Without Hizbullah, Israel would not have retreated from its decades-long occupation of South Lebanon. Without Hizbullah, Israel would not be considering any kind of withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights. Without Hizbullah, the Palestinian resistance would be alone. Without Hizbullah, the poor Shia of south Lebanon and the Beirut suburbs would still be deprived of infrastructure and strong political representation. The existence of a strong and strengthening Hizbullah makes possible a much more wide-ranging Arab victory over Zionism in the future. Hizbullah, furthermore, provides a shining example to all Arabs of what ordinary people – as opposed to police states, bureaucratic armies or nihilist terror groups – can do socially, economically and militarily when armed with commitment, humility and intelligence. It would be a tragedy to lose Hizbullah. Do the Lebanese and Arabs of all sects have the maturity to avoid civil strife and to protect the resistance?

The Angry Arab News Service (see in the links at the top of the page) has some good hour-by-hour commentary on events in Lebanon

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Zanj Revolt

Here’s a text written not by me but by a character in the novel I’m writing (if you see what I mean). It seems to bear some loose parallells to contemporary events:

Working in intolerably humid conditions clearing the salt marshes of southern Mesopotamia, fed on a poor diet of dates and semolina, frequently racially abused, the ‘Zanj’ east African slaves of 9th Century Iraq rose in their hundreds of thousands in a revolt which lasted for 15 years. They conquered large parts of Iraq, Iran and Bahrain, held the city of Basra for a decade, established their own capital, and even minted their own currency.

As labour intensive activities such as mining and plantation agriculture had expanded in the Muslim empires, so the slave trade had developed, especially the commerce in African slaves. Simultaneously, cultural justifications for the enslavement of Africans multiplied, with many classical writers depicting blacks as slow-witted and bestial. One writer who did not rehearse the stereotype was Jahiz of Basra, himself perhaps of African origin, who wrote: “Everybody agrees that there is no people on earth in whom generosity is as universally well developed as the Zanj. These people have a natural talent for dancing to the rhythm of the tambourine, without needing to learn it. There are no better singers anywhere in the world, no people more polished and eloquent, and no people less given to insulting language. No other nation can surpass them in bodily strength and physical toughness. They are courageous, energetic, and generous, which are the virtues of nobility, and also good-tempered and with little propensity to evil. They are always cheerful, smiling, and devoid of malice, which is a sign of noble character.”

The Zanj rebels appealed to Islam, the common frame of reference of all social classes in the Abbasi empire. The Zanj were mindful that Islam had begun as a revolution of the dispossessed. The freed Syrian slave Zayd was the Prophet’s adopted son and military commander. The man the Prophet appointed to call the faithful to prayer, the first muezzin in Islam, was the freed Ethiopian slave Bilal. Although the Qur’an, like the earlier Abrahamic revelations, does not explicitly ban slavery, it repeatedly calls on believers to ‘emancipate slaves and feed orphans,’ and the position of slaves in Islam was theoretically closer to that of well-treated serfs than that of the chattel-slaves of the Americas. Islamic regulations stated clearly that a slave must be provided with food and clothing equal to his master’s. Slaves could marry and own property. The use of violence against a slave was firmly prohibited. As for racial bases for slavery, in his final sermon the Prophet stated that there is no difference between an Arab and a non-Arab or between a red man and a black man except in God-consciousness. The Zanj revolutionaries saw these precepts betrayed by the merchants and land owners who had enslaved and abused them.

The rebellion was led by Ali ibn Muhammad, a man of mixed Persian and Arab origin, perhaps of African blood too. He claimed to be a descendant of Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, and employed Shii and Khariji ideas and vocabulary. He was credited with magical powers, and spoke in quasi-prophetic terms: “A cloud cast a shadow upon me. Thunder crackled and lightning flashed, and a voice addressed me, saying, ‘Head for Basra.’” He was followed by some of the local workers and peasants and some Beduin as well as by the Zanj.

Guerrilla tactics and ruthless massacre, as well as the sectarian, tribal and class divisions of the Abbasi state, quickly multiplied Zanj victories. Turkic, Slavic, Persian and Arab slaves flocked to the banner of the revolution and to the maroon city of al-Mukhtara, ‘the Chosen’, so that by the end of the rebellion non-Africans outnumbered ethnic Zanj in the revolutionary ranks.

In its final days, the ‘republic of slaves’ had become as divided by sect, class and competing centres of power as its enemies. It should be noted that Ali ibn Muhammad had promised that the liberated slaves would have slaves of their own. With Zanj unity and moral purity destroyed, it was a matter of time until revitalised Abbasi armies put down the revolt. Ali ibn Muhammad’s skewered head was paraded through Baghdad.

The final defeat of the rebellion resulted not in the reintroduction of mass enslavement but in the incorporation of the rebels into central government forces. Slavery persisted, but there would be no further attempts at mass enslavement in the eastern Arab world until a thousand years later, when Omani-controlled Zanzibar sent slave-produced coconuts and spices to European markets.

I commented indirectly on Oman’s history of slavery here: