By Jeremy Salt
Asked in a recent interview about the ‘Arab Spring’, Michel Aoun, the Lebanese Christian leader and ally of Hizbullah smiled and said ‘You mean the Arab hell’. That for the most part is what it has been. Libya destroyed, with militias fighting in the streets of Tripoli and an arc of countries around Libya’s borders destabilized; Tunisia, where the salafists are launching street attacks on liberals and institutions they don’t like; Syria, being destroyed piecemeal by gangs armed and financed by outside governments; Egypt, in the hands of a dictatorial president – another one- who calls Shimon Peres ‘my dear friend’ and destroys the tunnels into Gaza; Palestine, whose erstwhile president has renounced his right of return and says that as long as he is president there will be no third intifada, even as Israel burrows deeper into its occupation; Lebanon, suffering the spillover from Syria and pushed again to the brink of communal, sectarian warfare by the assassination of Wissam al Hasan. Who is it who can be enjoying the fruits of the Arab spring the most but their enemies?
It has been a deeply disturbing year. The losses are heavy, the gains seem evanescent. The remains of unitary Arab states litter the landscape. Capitalizing on the ‘Arab spring’, and recovering quickly, the historical enemies of the Arab peoples and their aspirations, the US, British, French and Gulf governments, have turned it to their own advantage. The region is in chaos, with killing and destruction the order of the day in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Other countries tremble on the brink, even as an undeclared war of sanctions and cyber-attack is waged against Iran.
Visiting the Gulf States on a mission to sell weapons, David Cameron pledged cooperation with the armed groups to bring down the government in Damascus. Cameron’s position was already clear but so was the nexus between weapons sales to rescue a British economy in desperate straits and full support for the Syria policy of the Gulf States. He was scarcely likely to disagree even if he did know, as surely he did, exactly who the governments of these states are sponsoring in Syria. Cameron talked of cooperation only with those groups that commit themselves to upholding human rights standards when the concept is entirely meaningless to them. They are tearing Syria apart through massacres and assassinations, aimed especially at the professional middle class, teachers, doctors, engineers, pharmacists, actors and journalists; through the sabotage of state institutions and infrastructure; and through car-bombings in the middle of cities that kill dozens of innocent people at a time.
Recently the armed groups have been targeting suburbs which are predominantly Christian or Druze, with the western mainstream media joining their chorus that it is actually the government planting the bombs amongst communities that are amongst its strongest supporters. The armed groups keep telling us that death does not worry them, not their death or the death of anyone else. They take pride in their atrocities. They film them on their mobile cameras for the entire world to see. Unarmed men being laid on the ground and kicked and beaten before being sprayed with machine-gun fire. Unarmed men being stood against a wall and being blown to bits. Bodies thrown from the tops of buildings or a bridge, all of it always to the cry of ‘Allahu akbar’ as if any God could have anything to do with this. Cameron and Hague divert attention with their talk of moderates and a secular opposition, when what they and others in the ‘Friends of the Syrian People’ collective are sponsoring is terrorism carried out by armed salafist jihadi groups who loathe ‘western civilization’ and all its trappings and regard democracy as a blasphemous infringement of God’s sovereignty.
Set up with the backing of Turkey last year, and dysfunctional from the start, the Syrian National Council (SNC) has now been dumped and replaced by a new umbrella group set up in Doha, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. Dominated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, this group is being touted as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and an alternative government, just as the SNC was a year ago. It is neither of these things, of course. It is representative of no one except itself and its principal sponsors, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, France, the UK, the US and Turkey. It is up to the Syrian people to decide who their legitimate representatives are, not the ruler of Qatar and the Turkish Foreign Minister. The Doha council has even been rejected by the armed groups, 16 of them signing an agreement issued in the name of the ‘Islamic emirate of Aleppo’. They are answerable only to their Saudi sheikh, Adnan al Arur. Thousands of foreign jihadis have been shifted into Syria from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. They are being given increasingly sophisticated weapons by their sponsors, including ground and surface-to-air missiles and anti-tank shells. These weapons have been flowing into Syria from various points on the compass, with coordination and channeling in the hands of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the US and Turkey.
‘Operations centers’ for weapons delivery and coordination with the armed groups have been set up in Lebanon and in Turkey, at Antakya and Adana in the southeast and in the Istanbul seaside suburb of Florya. Lebanese Future Movement’s Okab Sakr is a central figure in the process. Behind Sakr stands Saad al Hariri and behind Hariri, Saudi Arabia and the US. The Beirut newspaper Al Akhbar is currently publishing revelations based on recordings of conversations between Sakr and the jihadi groups. Its anti-Assad inside source is hostile to Sakr because by delivering weapons to the wrong areas, by giving out money without discriminating between ‘mercenary killers and the patriotic opposition’ and by withholding funds for the wounded and civilian refugees he has been damaging ‘the revolution.’ In this person’s view, Hariri and Sakr are using the conflict in Syria ‘to pursue their own interests with little or no thought for the collateral damage.’ (‘Hariri and Sakr Caught Red-Handed, Al Akhbar English, November 30, 2012).
The beans spilt are nevertheless compelling. Sakr is heard asking an unidentified supplier for machine-guns, bullets, RPG shells and anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons for delivery to Aleppo, Azaz, Idlib and other regions. In another tape he asks ‘You mean the quantities we have sent you are not enough?’ and promises to increase the quantities ‘by as much possible’ because ‘I am aware of the situation you are in – you are heavily compromised.’ The conversations indicate that Sakr is personally involved in handing over the weapons. Sakr is a Shia, but, as he says, referring to Iranians abducted in Syria, ‘I am a Lebanese Shia but they are Persian Shia.’
What the US, France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are actually sponsoring in Syria, behind the mask of their support for the Doha council, is bloody mayhem intended by their protégés to end in the establishment of an Islamic state in the place of the secular state the Syrians now have. Syria lies at the epicenter of a regional sectarian war being waged in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon for mastery of the Middle East. Syria is the only gap left in the wall of Sunni Muslim states Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with western support, are trying to build in an arc reaching from North Africa, down through Egypt and Jordan to the Gulf states and reaching up into Turkey. If the gap can be plugged, Iran and Shia Iraq will be contained behind one side of this wall. The thinking here is somewhat reminiscent of the attempts of the old imperial powers, the US and their Gulf allies to build a ‘northern tier’ under the USSR in the 1950s to ‘contain’ communism. On the other side of this wall Hizbullah will be deprived of the strategic ally it now has next door and will be cut off from its other strategic ally on the northeastern flanks of the Arab world. If Syria falls to the jihadis, the flames already licking at Lebanon will burst into a conflagration.
As only Iran and Syria have been giving the Palestinians active material support, the betrayal of Syria by Khalid Mishal is shameless. Having run his operations from Damascus for more than a decade, but calculating that the government was doomed, he flew off to Doha before joining Ismail Haniyeh in Cairo in seeking the favors of President Morsi, the man who calls Shimon Peres a ‘dear friend’ and made the destruction of the Gaza tunnels one of his first priorities. The leadership situation in Ramallah is even worse. Mahmud Abbas has been consorting with the enemy for decades and deserved to be put on trial in a Palestinian constitutional court for his role in the US-Israeli attempt to destroy the elected Hamas government in 2007. After he renounced his right of return, even the people of Ramallah were burning posters of his face in the streets. He is not the legitimate popularly-elected president of Palestine but a puppet held in place by Israel and the US. The moment they drop him he will stop being president. Yet here he is strutting the world stage and speaking from the podium in the UN General Assembly during the debate on Palestine’s admission as a non-state member.
While the vote gives the Palestinian international legal rights they did not have before, specifically access to the International Criminal Court and other institutions, it will change nothing on the ground. Netanyahu’s spiteful and thwarted response the day after the vote was to announce the construction of 3000 more ‘housing units’ on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. The Palestinians can’t stop the Israelis and no one else will. That has been the predicament all along and having spent the past 65 years ignoring UN resolutions, Israel is not going to start taking notice of them now.
With its attack on Gaza, Israel reminded those whose attention may have been diverted by the ‘Arab spring’ of the central Arab and Muslim issue in the Middle East – Palestine. Saudi Arabia and Qatar can pour billions into destroying Syria but have never sent even a rifle for the Palestinians to defend themselves against Israeli onslaughts. The visit of the Qatari ruler to Gaza, sprinkling money here and there so the Palestinians can rebuild their destroyed offices and apartment buildings, will not change that. The salafist jihadis these two states are funding in Syria have never struck a blow of any kind against Israel, and it is the same with al Qaida and all of its associates. Perhaps they are just too busy for the time being killing other Muslims but their inaction on this front certainly is rich material for conspiracy theorists. As for the Arab League, this tool of the Gulf States and the western governments lined up behind them, it put an Arab face on the attack on Libya last year and is now standing by mutely as its own members join forces with the West to destroy another Arab state. Parallel to the killing in Syria, Sunni salafist jihadis are slaughtering Shia Muslims in Iraq. Whatever cause these groups think they are fighting, objectively speaking they are serving the joint strategic interests of Israel, the US and the Gulf States.
Within a week of its attack on Gaza Israel had struck close to 1000 targets and killed more than 160 Palestinians, many of them children, down to less than a year old. Yet the focus of concern of western governments and the western media was the suffering of the Israelis as they rushed for bomb shelters, suffered panic attacks and suffered cuts and scratches turned into ‘wounds’ for the sake of the propaganda war. The world was told that the Israelis only had 15 seconds to get to the bomb shelters (in settlements built on ethnically cleansed Palestinian land around Gaza), as if the Palestinians had any bomb shelters anywhere, no matter how long it would take them to get there. David Cameron condemned the bombing of an Israeli bus in which no one was killed but did not condemn Israel’s murder of dozens of Palestinian children. Then he and William Hague threatened to abstain from the UN vote unless the Palestinians promised not to seek the prosecution of Israeli war criminals in the International Criminal Court. The determination to protect them is a reminder of the pernicious role played by Britain ever since it handed Palestine over to the Zionists in 1917. If any country has long since forfeited its right to open its mouth on the question of Palestine it is surely Britain.
Any time to bomb Gaza is a good time for Israel but this time there was the added incentive of looking tough in an election campaign, a time-worn tactic of numerous previous Israeli Prime Ministers (think of Shimon Peres and the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ operation in Lebanon in 1996 which culminated in the bombing of the UN compound at Qana and the killing of more than 100 people who had sought sanctuary there). Bombing Gaza also fits in a pattern of deliberate regional degradation of the ‘resistance axis’: of Syria by supporting the armed groups; of Iran by carrying out economic and cyber warfare; and of Lebanon by assassination in the attempt to throw the country back into sectarian civil war. It is up to Arabs everywhere and Palestinians in particular, because they will again be the biggest losers, to stand back so they can see the bigger picture. The breakdown of Arab states on sectarian lines has been a strategic aim of Israel’s virtually since the beginning. Where Israel goes the US follows, so if we read into US policies as they have been put into practice at least since the advent of the George W. Bush administration this is what we see happening. ‘Mosaic’ states such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are the main targets.
The latest onslaught on Gaza is no more than a repetition of cycles which have continued to turn on the regional and local front without a break since 1948. Not once has Israel been punished in any way for any of its rampages and this time was no different. The US, Egypt and Hamas joined forces to make sure that Netanyahu could walk away from the scene of the crime, knowing that he will return to it sooner or later. After a week Israel had failed to stop rocket attacks reaching as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It had mobilized 75,000 troops for a ground invasion but Netanyahu was bluffing because in an election campaign this was the last thing he wanted and therefore it was a step the Gazan resistance should have compelled him to take because almost certainly it would have broken his leadership. Islamic Jihad alone held out for this option.
The repetition of these interlocking cycles, the ‘peace process’ cycle and the military cycle, has greatly benefitted Israel. It does not want these wheels to stop turning because as long as they do it has time to complete the engorgement of Palestine. It wants the process but not the peace. For Israel the ‘collapse’ of negotiations that might have gone on for years is not a failure but a triumph. The longer they last before reaching this point the better. It has the military means to ensure that this process – the real process – can go on endlessly. It intimidates the Arab world and attacks whenever necessary. It slaps the Palestinians down whenever they dare to raise their heads. They are not a problem for Israel. Its real concern is the activation of the Palestinian question at the Arab and Muslim level. The trigger would be the conjunction of a particularly violent onslaught on the Palestinians or an Arab country and political changes in the Arab world releasing the dammed-up energy of the people. The changes are now taking place which is why Israel has to tread more carefully than before and perhaps why, also, it did not want to go any further in Gaza.
Arab governments and the Palestinian leadership alike have been deeply complicit in allowing these cycles to continue without disruption. The Palestinians may have switched to the diplomatic track in good faith but that was back in the 1970s and one would have to be delusional not to see the disastrous consequences. Diplomacy is always war by other means and by entering into the ‘peace process’ and falling into one trap after another, the Palestinian leadership merely saved Israel the trouble of having to go to war to get what it wanted. Yasser Arafat was sweet-talked into sacrificing central Palestinian positions. Hebron is an example of an agreement that should never have been reached because it validated Israel’s ‘right’ to be inside an occupied city. Had all of this led somewhere positive there might be an argument for it but it did not. The consequences were entirely negative and far from managing to redeem any of their basic rights, the Palestinians are not just worse off than before but in a disastrous position. This is where the last 65 years has left them.
Israel has effectively driven the Palestinians back to 1948. It has dismissed, ignored or debauched every proposal for peace ever made. It is not interested in a two state solution and not in a one state solution either, unless that state is Jewish and incorporates all the land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. Seeing that this is the case it is perhaps time for the Palestinians to respond in kind by declaring that all bids are off and developing new positions based on the full restoration of their rights. The Oslo ‘peace process’ was a fraud so agreements made while it continued can be declared null and void. The land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River remains the property of the Palestinian people, individually and collectively. The Palestinians need to keep reminding the world of the point. There is no statute on theft and the facts can be easily proven. There is no reason for the Palestinians to strategize on the basis of 1967 when Israel does not.
It might be argued that this position is not realistic but where has so-called realism led the Palestinians so far? The realistic choices ahead of the Palestinians now are confined to two: surrender or resistance to Israel at every level. For those who argue that there are ‘good’ people in Israel, who can live with the Palestinians, who would accept a two–state solution or even a one-state solution, there are and there always been since the time of Judah Magnes but there are not enough of them and there never have been. Not since 1948 have they succeeded in turning the state from its chosen path and there is no reason to think that they are capable of doing it now or will ever be capable of doing it except in circumstances in which Israel receives a terrible shock and is forced to think the presently unthinkable. Certainly it is not going to embrace these options voluntarily.
It is up to the Palestinians because no-one else has any right to tell them what to do, but perhaps it is time for the half-way path followed for the past four decades to be declared at an end. Perhaps the contradictions between occupier and occupied need to be sharpened instead of continually being blurred and broken down through a process of ‘negotiations’ (which show the reality anyway because it is the occupier who is always calling the shots). Israel has intimidated the Arab world for nearly seven decades. Whatever it does it always threatens worse. The whole of Lebanon will get the Dahiyeh treatment next time around, Gaza needs to be pushed into the middle ages or even flattened as thoroughly as Hiroshima or Nagasaki and Iran will bombed unless it does what Israel is demanding. There seems no end point to what is it prepared to do and no one – not a state and not a society and not individuals – can live under this kind of threat forever. At some point there must be a complete breakdown. This is what might be called the beaten wife syndrome. Through the use of force and the threat of even more force, and by portraying itself as a mad state capable of doing anything if crossed – and what does this indicate if not that the state is a psychopath? – Israel continues to hold a sword of death and destruction over the entire region. So why not let it do its worst as it is continually threatening and break the cycle which has served it so well?
Israel is fully occupying Gaza and the West Bank but has set up the occupation in such a fashion that it is able to control Gaza through fences, gates, air, land and maritime surveillance and the use of force whenever the natives get out of hand. This deception has turned Gaza into the biggest prison in the world. It occupies the West Bank through soldiers, checkpoints, regulations and a subservient ‘Palestinian Authority’ which long since ceased to serve Palestinian interests. Let it collapse and let the reality prevail. Let Israel resume its land occupation of Gaza the next time it attacks instead of letting it walk away yet again and let it send its forces of darkness to every corner of the West Bank because sooner or later it will light a fire it cannot put out. The initiative has to be wrenched out of Israel’s hand if the cycle of the past 65 years is to be broken. If another 65 is allowed to pass there will be no ‘Palestine problem’ because there will be no Palestine.
This is the junction which the Palestinians seem to have reached. The other is the Arab world junction reached through the so-called ‘Arab spring’ and here the choices they have to make are no less significant.
- 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.