Category Archives: The Middle East

Remembering a forgotten hero amid Lebanon’s road to revolution

Fuad Chehab’s presidency set a precedent for his successors

On 17 October 2019, more than a million people took to the streets of Lebanon to express their discontent and dissatisfaction over their government’s mismanagement of the economy and its proposal to implement new taxes. In what had been termed as the ‘Tax Intifada’ or the ‘WhatsApp Revolution’ (pertaining to the government’s imposition of charges on Voice over Internet Protocol calls), the WhatsApp-tax proved to be the trigger which culminated in mass-demonstrations against the Lebanese government. Country-wide protests have persisted tirelessly for ten days, with methods such as demonstrations, internet activism, strikes, sit-ins and civil resistance employed. A country which has been embroiled in bloody sectarian and confessional politics since Lebanon’s independence from the French Mandate in 1943, anti-government demonstrations and protests are not exactly unfamiliar. However, the spontaneous, spirited and non-sectarian nature of these protests have caught the government, as well as the leaders of the Amal Movement and the powerful Shia-Islamist Hezbollah group off-guard.

With the impassioned slogan ‘All of them means all of them’ aptly capturing the sentiments of the protestors, calls for a “sweeping overhaul of Lebanon’s political system” have and continue to gain momentum. Amid animated chants for a revolution against what protestors singled out as rampant corruption, rising social inequality and an ensuing economic crisis, it is worth mentioning how demonstrators have ardently beckoned Lebanon’s army to “side with them, arrest politicians accused of corruption, and even steward a transitional period.” Considered one of the more transparent national institutions of the country which has managed to cut across sectarian lines, it was reported that the army had vowed to protect protestors especially after a video circulated showing Lebanese soldiers thwarting suspected Amal and Hezbollah supporters from attacking protestors in central Beirut. Continue reading

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Filed under Discussion, Lebanon, Politics, The Arab Spring, The Middle East

The Iran-Saudi standoff and the future of the Middle East peace process

Russia is fast emerging as a major power broker in the Middle East.

The world reeled from shock after two successive missile attacks targeted the Abqaiq oil facility and the Khurais oilfield in the Saudi desert last month. The real drama unfolded the morning after – thick smoke billowed from the wreckage, blotting out the early morning sun, and with it perhaps any hopes of restoring some amount of normality to Iranian-Saudi relations, at least for the foreseeable future. Over half of all the crude oil excavated in the Saudi kingdom is processed at Abqaiq. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that crude oil prices surged by 20 percent as global markets grappled with the biggest oil supply shock in decades. The Kingdom’s oil production is already running a historic low as its natural reserves face depletion, and the attacks at Abqaiq and Khurais managed to cut down global oil supply by a further 6 percent. Saudi Arabia called the September 14 attacks an act of war, and Iran stands accused of masterminding the offensive, a charge it vehemently denies. 

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned what he called Saudi attempts to provoke Iran into a full-blown military confrontation. The country remains economically besieged; heavily sanctioned by the US, with inflation in the country hitting new highs every week under the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy. Zarif holds the Houthi rebels responsible for the attack, based on a statement released by the rebel faction in Yemen. Nonetheless, Tehran has not been able to produce any concrete evidence apropos of the claim. The Saudis, meanwhile, have alleged Iranian involvement after examining misfired missiles that they claim were sourced from Iran. Less than a month after the attacks on the Aramco facilities, an Iranian oil tanker, the Sabiti, was attacked while cruising the Red Sea, just off the coast of Jeddah, causing oil prices in London to surge to 60 US dollars a barrel. Continue reading

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Filed under Discussion, Iran, Pakistan, Politics, Russia, Saudi Arabia, The Middle East, United States, Yemen

Ana Husain: Beyond Nationalism: The Kurdish Dilemma Re-examined

The Kurdish Question warrants a more comprehensive examination

Seemingly intractable, positively complex – the question of the Kurds has been an area of contention in Middle-East politics, dating back to the Kurds’ frequent rebellions against the Ottoman Empire. Turkey’s decision to launch ‘Operation Peace-Spring’ (the third major Turkish military operation in to Syria since 2016) in Syria on October 9, 2019 has been subject to polarising reception. Amid the volatility and added layers of developments, it is imperative to be familiarized with the roots of the conflict in a bid to get to the heart of the dilemma. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, new states such as Turkey and Iraq, as well as Iran and Syria inherited the unresolved issues of Kurdish quests for autonomy. Notably, according to a TRT report, “almost 10 per cent of the Syrian population, 15-20 per cent of the Turkish, 20 per cent of the Iraqi, and 10 per cent of the Iranian populations are Kurdish.” With respect to Turkey, the modern roots of the conflict resurfaced after the 1919–1923 Turkish War of Independence but took a more violent turn after the establishment of the Kurdish militant and political organization, the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê).

Clashes between state forces and the PKK piqued in 1984 and the 1990s amid the organizations’ declared goals of establishing an independent state in south-eastern Turkey through armed-struggle. The Turkish state’s enactment of more unitary and assimilationist policies – with the endeavour to promote and cultivate a unifying, national identity – have often been at the centre of the debate pertaining to ‘reactionary’ and ‘radicalized’ Kurdish nationalism and militancy. What often goes amiss in discussions focusing on a clash of competing nationalisms in Turkey is the considerable integration of Kurdish communities in Turkish society. Those communities adamant on their rejection of social-integration and assimilation gave way to militancy, with the rise of the PKK. Continue reading

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Filed under Discussion, Human Rights, Pakistan Horizon, Syria, The Middle East, Turkey

The Yemen Question?

The turning point was when the Houthis took control of Sanaa, the capital in 2014 and from there they started to expand to the west and east of Yemen.

In order to fully understand the current state of Yemen, it is important that we zoom into history and try analyzing what went wrong and where. For much of the past century, the country has been divided into The Yemen Arab Republic in the north and People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south. Ottoman and British rule managed to keep the two separated but in 1990 these were unified under one flag and this was the beginning of crisis. If we look at the cultural and political divisions, these two parts are way different in two aspects. For almost a thousand years, the north  had been under the theocratic rule of the Zaidi Shiites (the Zaidi sect of Islam is almost wholly present in Yemen and they believe that Muslims should only be ruled by the Imams – those who are the descendants to the Prophet), as opposed to this, the south was transformed from a scratch by the British during their rule. These differences took a conflicting turn after the two were united in 1990.

Looking at the religious division more closely the Zaidi Shiites predominate the north, with a minority Ismaili sect, whereas, the Sunni sect of Islam dominates elsewhere. Sectarianism was not really a problem until recently. Previously, a more tolerant society prevailed. Indeed, various exchanges between the two communities had been observed and inter-community marriages were normal and considered a routine in Yemen. However, the rise of political Islam led to an upsurge of tensions and with the emergence of radicalism, groups like Muslim Brotherhood and Zaidi Houthis emerged and expanded. With the spread of Salafi ideology in the predominant Zaidi areas, the expansion of Houthis was needed. Initially Houthis emerged as a theological revivalist movement in 2004 fearing the spread of Salafi ideology in the dominant Shiite areas.

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Filed under Discussion, Human Rights, Iran, Pakistan, Politics, Saudi Arabia, The Arab Spring, The Middle East, United States, Yemen

The Israel-Lebanon Conflict Reignited

The United Nations has cautioned against the escalation of this conflict by calling for both sides to exercise maximum restraint.

As Israel launched a number of airstrikes along the Lebanese-Syrian border on Sunday (25 August) morning, President of Lebanon Michel Aoun labelled the Israeli provocation as a ‘declaration of war.’ With the Israeli media identifying the objective behind this attack as targeting a group led by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a preventive measure against an impending ‘kamikaze-style’ armed drone attack on Northern Israel, these airstrikes were also said to have resulted in the death of two Hezbollah operatives: Hassan Yousef Zabeeb and Yasser Ahmad Daher. However, it must be noted that the airstrikes were not simply an isolated incident – they were followed by an Israeli drone attack on Beirut. It was reported that alleged Israeli drones had also crashed in Lebanon’s capital, suburban city, eliciting a strongly-worded condemnation from the Lebanese government and from Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s incumbent Secretary General. ‘I say to the Israeli army on the border from tonight, stand guard. Wait for us one, two, three, four days,’ exclaimed Hassan Nasrallah to his supporters during a rare public appearance on Sunday.

‘What happened in Syria and Lebanon last night is very, very dangerous.’ He further added that Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu ‘would be mistaken if he thinks that this issue can go unnoticed. The time at which Israeli war jets used to strike targets in Lebanon while the usurping entity in Palestine kept safe has ended… Be prepared and wait for us.’ President Aoun too, accused Israel of violating Lebanon’s sovereignty during his meeting with the United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Jan Kubis. ‘What happened was similar to a declaration of war which allows us to resort to our right to defending our sovereignty,’ the Lebanese president’s office quoted him as saying on Twitter, on Monday. He went on to say that ‘We are a people seeking peace, not war, and we don’t accept anyone threatening us in any war.’ Continue reading

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Filed under Discussion, Drones, Palestine, Politics, The Middle East, United States

PIIA Roundtable on Iran with Dr Syed Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour

On Friday, July 19 2019, Dr. Syed Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour, President of the famous Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), visited us at The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs (PIIA) for a roundtable on Iran’s relationship with the United States and how it is influencing the course of events in the region. He said that in order to understand the question of why Iran is the way it is today, it is important to comprehend three integral factors – the United States’ contradictory policies with Iran, the resulting state of bitterness, and an uneven assessment of the available possibilities. By laying emphasis on the contradictory policies of the United States, during very tense times, Dr. Kazem sought to explain how certain inconsistencies in the harsh policies of the United States have been a significant source of tension between the two countries, especially when pursuing negotiations and settling agreements. Watch Video

He said that negotiations between the United States and Iran continued for twelve years before the Americans decided to withdraw itself from further negotiations. In this regard, Dr. Kazem explained how Iran wasn’t doing anything wrong and it was in fact merely abiding by the negotiations. Even now, he expressed that Iran is willing to negotiate, however, in this era of nationhood and nationalism, Iran has to defend itself – its integrity and sovereignty. Hence, according to him, maximum pressure from the United States is likely to bring maximum resistance from Iran as well. He also explained that contradictory American policies have resulted in a state of bitterness where one has to choose from the limited alternatives available, that is cooperation and confrontation. Talking about Pakistan and Turkey and their relationship with Iran, Dr. Kazem said that Iran, Pakistan and Turkey are all regional players. He further explained that they all have stakes in the region, and are connected through a regional perspective. Continue reading

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Filed under Discussion, Events, Iran, Nuclear Energy, Peace building, PIIA, The Middle East, UK, United States

Trump’s “Maximum Pressure” Doctrine: A Terrible Miscalculation

Trump represents the height of dysfunction in the US and the negative consequences of blindly pandering to a pro-Israel lobby and the military-industrial complex’s interests.

While the US and Saudi Arabia continue to accuse Iran of creating instability in the region, it would benefit Trump greatly if he turned his gaze inwards to demonstrate some degree of reflection. When one considers the current crisis and its motivations, it is fairly reasonable to reach the conclusion that Trump instigated a crisis in order to carry out his “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran. Trump incorrectly predicted that his move would be successful in causing the Iranians to capitulate to US demands for Iran to stop funding proxy wars and discontinue its ballistic missiles program. A victory of this nature would have boosted Trump’s credibility in the upcoming US elections while showing that a mediation-oriented leftist approach is wrong. However, Trump’s simple-minded plan has clearly failed as Iran has not backed down and continues to challenge the US on an almost equal footing.

Iran has retaliated in response to the earlier seizure of Grace I (by the UK on the directions of the US) by attempting to halt a UK ship and then by towing the Panamanian-flagged tanker, Riah, to its port for technical repairs in response to a distress signal issued by the tanker. While it is likely that the Riah did not have technical issues, Iran is coating its retaliatory efforts in strategic statements in a similar vein to those of the British who claimed that the reason for the seizure of Grace I was due to EU sanctions against Syria. It is worth noting that the EU sanctions have been placed on Syria since 2014 yet it is only now in the midst of tension that they seem to be remembered in the case of Iran exporting its oil. Continue reading

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Filed under Disarmament, Discussion, Europe, Iran, Politics, Syria, The Middle East, Trump, United States