middle east

From Palestine to Syria!

29/05/2013 6:05 pm

Dr Harry Hagopian, the Bishops' Consultant on the Middle East

The Bishops' Middle East North Africa (MENA) consultant, Dr Harry Hagopian, recently published an in-depth article on Palestine and Syria.

The piece, reproduced here and taken from Dr Hagopian's epektasis.net website, focuses on two topical news stories:

  • the amending of the EU embargo on supplying arms to the rebels in Syria
  • the World Economic Forum (WEF) initiative 'Breaking the Impasse between Israel and Palestine'

Harry Hagopian is our main studio guest for the popular podcast series Middle East Analysis.

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One drawback of venturing into the vast and at times overlapping world of social media is that one starts thinking in short sentences. This is certainly the case with me and Twitter: I now often tend to think politically in 140 characters and anything that goes above those painfully staccato expressions becomes a tad too demanding for my hectic lifestyle!

Consequently, well-developed analytical pieces, opinions and commentaries get replaced by pithy comments that are mainly geared toward instant consumption by the denizens of our globe. But such comments are self-limiting by definition. So I will today step out of my own Twitter chrysalis and join ranks again with those who write as much as they tweet in order to share my reflections on two of the latest ‘topical’ developments impacting Palestine and Syria.

Palestine

I wish to go only as far back as the beautiful Dead Sea resort in Southern Shoufeh, Jordan, where the World Economic Forum (WEF) took place a few days ago and adopted an initiative entitled 'Breaking the Impasse between Israel and Palestine'. This initiative seeks to enable the parties - in the hopeful words of US Secretary of State John Kerry - to bring an end sooner rather than later to this festering conflict.

The WEF is, by its own definition, an independent international organisation committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas. So the idea behind this initiative is that the mega-rich corporations and mega-rich business entrepreneurs would come together and help launch the Palestinian economy and in so doing catalyse the process for peace. The onus for this objective falls upon the broad shoulders of the tried, tested but somewhat unsuccessful former politician Tony Blair.

The idea per se sounds quite exciting. In fact, a journalist tweeted from the meeting hall saying that she spotted a few wet eyes amongst the participants at the forum. But exciting is not enough since it is not economics alone curtailing what we used to describe in the halcyon days of political antiquity as ‘a just and comprehensive solution’ to this conflict.

True, Secretary Kerry mentioned quite candidly that business investment prioritises political investment too. That sounds fine. After all, past initiatives - political and personal - over a span of at least forty six years have indeed taught us that the economy is quintessential for the prosperity and wellbeing of Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians alike. But it is not enough - not by a long chalk. Nor is it enough to add that investing in business opportunities would go hand-in-hand with political investment. That does not cut the mustard either - not simply for me but also for many conflict analysts. Rather, what is crucial but lacking is the political will and good faith that together would deliver those twin investments to both peoples. But alas, I would argue that good will and good faith are sorely absent commodities.

In the adrenaline rush of the hour in Jordan, two things were quite telling to me. The first was the body language and kinetics of President Abbas who seemed utterly bored with the proceedings in the hall and - more critically in any political sense - was the absence of Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu. President Shimon Peres, himself a crafty and ambitious man who has often waxed lyrical about peace, was inconsequential. What matters in Israel is Rosh HaMemshala or the prime minister since any real decision on peace in Jerusalem would be taken at 3 Kaplan Street and not at 3 HaNasi Street. No wonder then that chief negotiator Tzipi Livni and the prime minister’s envoy Itzhak Molho both travelled to Amman the following day and met with John Kerry (and certainly with other political figures too).

Until such time as we acknowledge that peace can only take root once we wrestle in good faith with those parameters we are familiar with - be they the Clinton ones or the amended Arab Peace Initiative - and until such time as Palestinians and Israelis desist from political tomfoolery with their constituencies or with each other, the conflict will persist and a land that is supposed to ooze milk and honey will remain a hotbed of discrimination, radicalism, injustice and violence.

Syria

I do not wish to re-hash the context of what started in Dara’a in southern Syria in 2011 or why we are in a veritable hellhole today. That would require a huge amount of political regurgitation let alone conjecture that is inapt. Instead, I will focus on the success by both the UK and France to amend the EU embargo on supplying arms to the rebels in Syria.

First and foremost, it is true that there is precious little consensus amongst the fractious opposition as to the way forward. That is due in some part to the fact that they are so disparate in their own views - from the liberal to the radical and religious - coupled with the fact that every faction in the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) or outside it is controlled by other regional or international powers. Hence, a body that is so utterly dependent upon those ‘patrons’ for their existence becomes prone to pressure and manipulation and it is quite difficult for them to toe any one line. Yet, this dissension is wreaking havoc with any real hope for a united political line on Syria let alone for any confident support by allies.

In this context, the West could have perhaps acted earlier in order to prevent the situation from reaching such a zenith of dispersal, radicalism and fragmentation. But the West was conscious of Iraq, Afghanistan and even Libya and decided against any action. This inevitably created wide openings that others stepped into with political deftness. So in one sense, we are now alas reaping what we sowed earlier. But I still remain unconvinced that we are witnessing a Sunni-Shi’i war in the region. There are admittedly some tell-tale signs of such tensions being ramped up but I do not yet qualify them as significant. However, what I do perceive is a power-play by many countries and factions in defending their interests. This applies to Iran as much as it does to Russia, China and Hezbollah. But it equally applies to the EU (whose member-states are not homogeneous on Syria) as it does to other BRCIS members, to the GCC and to the neighbours of Syria - namely Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan - as it does to Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and takfirist pockets. In a previous age, such alignments might have been viewed as a manifestation of the Cold War or labelled as realpolitik.

Today, everyone is opining on whether the EU should have amended the package of sanctions imposed upon Syria that also included an arms embargo on all parties (including the rebels). Here, everyone is using justifications to score points. Some claim that chemical agents have not been used and so there is no need for an intervention. This is not entirely true. There are those who claim that any arms supplies would fall into the wrong jihadist hands and cause even more mayhem. This is untrue too since the mayhem is already very real and arms could be vetted carefully. Others claim that the humanitarian outflow will overwhelm adjacent countries. This is another disingenuous argument since there are almost 1.5 million refugees abroad and over 4 million within the country itself. Mind you, I have not seen the rich countries - be they Arab, the G-8 or others - reaching out to stanch the flow of refugees or meeting humanitarian needs. But it is facile to find holes in any argument. The trick is to suggest a credible argument that oversteps a mediocre ‘let’s get them to the negotiating table in Geneva’. What will this table yield that incorporates the huge losses and bitterness of two years?

For me, the amendment of the EU arms embargo is only that - an amendment and far from an immediate ratification. The leeway to exercise this option will in my estimation help concentrate minds on both sides of the fighting that there is a need for genuine political dialogue around a table. After all, one basic rule of international dispute resolution is that any two parties only come to a negotiating table when the conflict peaks and they reach a standoff whereby both sides recognise that they cannot achieve victory - even a Pyrrhic one. In Syria, this will be the time when both sides might seriously consider heading to Geneva 2 with the real intent to find a solution. In fact, this is why Reza Afshar, Head of Syria Team at the Foreign Office in London, keeps repeating the same point almost mantra-like in his tweets and statements. Besides, another reality is that Britain and France do not even have those weapons in their armouries now - that are not very impressive when compared with uninterrupted Russian supplies - and, even if they were available on the market, they would in all likelihood need to send in foreign forces to help the rebels use them.

Just as in the case of Palestine, and unless we overstep our most prurient interests and come together to help Syria emerge from its current violence, we could well end up with a failed state that is not too distant from the Somali experience. We could witness the fragmentation of the country - as many Syrians tell me is slowly happening already - that we are incidentally complicit in creating let alone in the dismantlement of the Sykes Picot colonially-imposed boundaries with nothing better as a substitute other than uncertain instability and consequently more violence.

Ultimately, as Volker Perthes, Executive Chair & Director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin tweeted helpfully and almost presciently a few days ago, “Beyond Geneva-II: Syria needs a quiet dialogue somewhere abroad between elders & citizens from all groups about the future of the country.”

When I started writing this reflection, I had just read a blog from a colleague who had recently returned from Beirut and who blogged about the shades of grey in Lebanon and Syria amidst our black and white analyses. His comments helped me ask myself whether Palestine and Syria have indeed become unruly and even hopeless conflicts. I do not think so.

It is undeniable that those shades of grey are often sought by politicians of different colours and such a penumbra is a zone that is certainly inhabited by both the Palestinian and Syrian conflicts today. Yet, what worries me in this instance is that the quest for the grey also masks multiple secondary agendas and political interests by those who propagate it. So despite much disconcerting evidence to the contrary, I would suggest that neither Palestine nor Syria have entered the irreversible zone of unruly hopelessness. Rather, they are being buffeted by different political whims and the forcibly disempowered - let alone often destitute - citizens of both countries are bearing the brunt of those bumpy rides.

In the final analysis, over two decades of political negotiations, conflict resolution modules in courts and regional travels have taught me that most of us are prone to listen to what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear about issues that impact us. Perhaps Palestine is a longstanding example of such inherited dichotomies and Syria is a more recent one.

So is there yet another lesson to be drawn from this reflection? Indeed, the [very] smug satisfaction to know that I could never have exported those views that are almost 9000 words rich in any number of tweets!