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Middle East crisis, Elhusseini: Israel as the focal point

Monday, 09 November 2015 13:52
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Epos converses with Fadi Elhusseini

by Nicolamaria Coppola (EPOS)
EPOS Conversations


It is complicated to depict what is happening in the Middle East these days. The whole region is like a ticking time bomb ready to explode: Iraq is fighting against the Sunni jihadists of Daesh that have conquered swaths of territory. In Syria, the "Islamic Caliphate", straddling the border with Iraq, is growing fast and is likely to continue to be a magnet for extremists from all over the world. In the meanwhile, Russia has intervened in Syria with airstrikes and soldiers on the ground, and in doing so, it has entered the Great Game for the heart of that country and the region. Palestine, the region’s oldest conflict, has exploded spectacularly with the latest bout of fighting between the Israelis and the Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories.

EPOS has interviewed Fadi Elhusseini, Political and Media Counselor (diplomat), and associate fellow researcher (ESRC) at the Institute for Middle East Studies Canada, to better understand the current situation in the Middle East and to try to unravel the knot. In the following exclusive conversation with EPOS, Mr Elhussein analyses the crisis in the region from a geopolitical point of view, focusing on the focal factors of the Syrian Civil War and on the responsabilities of the Americans in the sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shias, examining the raising of the Islamic State, pointing out the Kurdish issue, commenting on the Russian intervention in Syria and on the Iran Nuclear Deal, and giving EPOS' readers a new perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: The Middle East is at the forefront of international politics now more than ever with the world’s battle against ISIS, the refugee crisis, the Russian involvement in Syria's military affairs and the current Iran Nuclear Deal. The Middle East looks like a ticking time bomb: what do you think is the focal point of what is taking place in the region today?

Fadi Elhussein: I say that the focal point is the Israeli occupation. I know this might sound bizarre but let's think about it in an objective way: first, Arab regimes remained reluctant and weak in the eyes of their people when it comes to Israel. They couldn't help or defend their brothers and sisters in Palestine and at the same time they were allying with Israel's main protector: the US. This is one of the reasons of the Arab youth frustration from their rulers, that led by the end of the day to the outbreak of the Arab revolts or what was called the Spring. Second, Israel which requests to be recognized as a Jewish state, makes ISIS aspirations to establish an Islamic state sounds logical. In other words, when a State seeks recognition for one specific religion, any political conflict in the region transforms into a religious one. The issue of Palestine has been an excuse and a slogan used by almost every ruler who seeks legitimacy. Saddam Hussein, Ahmadinejad, Assad (the father and son), Hezbollah, almost everyone uses the Palestinian cause to justify his presence and in order to get popularity. Freeing Palestine became the most selling product, and now it's used in the same way by those radicals. Also, Israel has been always living under the perception that it is surrounded by enemies.... Israeli nuclear program comes in this context and this with no doubt encouraged others, like Iran, to follow suit and have this advanced technology. The core issue is peace: if a long lasting peace (especially if we consider the Arab peace initiative bringing 50+ Muslim and Arab countries with Israel) occurs, this would bring the whole region into one peaceful entity; there would be no place for radicalism, arms race and all the parties would come together to fight terrorism.

Nicolamaria Coppola: What began as civil violence against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in 2011 has escalated into a full-scale war with spillover into neighboring states. Since the start of the war, more than 200,000 people have been killed and 7,6 million have been internally diplaced. The conflict has drawn in external powers, including Gulf countries supporting the groups fighting against Assad, and Russia and Iran supporting the Syrian government. The United States has also joined the conflict as it has intensified. Who and in which way is influencing the war in Syria?

Fadi Elhussein: Syria has a strategic importance, and this is because of its location (next to Turkey and Israel), close alliance with Russia and being a unique religious mosaic of almost every sect and religion ever existed in the region. Things started as peaceful demonstrations, yet the continuous protests with the direct involvement of the Syrian army led to weakening the central government. This is the crucial point: when the central government is weakened, along with mounting frustration and bad economic conditions, the possibilities for crimes, radicalism and foreign intervention would be very high. Some global powers (like the US) aimed to have a footstep in a spot considered for long time as a Russian sphere of influence. Russians want to save their last pocket in the region, and others in the Gulf found this as a historic opportunity to get rid of Assad whom they, mainly the Saudis, don't see in the eye. US vice president Biden referred to the fact that almost all the US allies in the region funded and armed the radicals; the US did the same with whom they call "moderate" opposition, and obviously the Russians backed the Assad regime. The result is this "proxy" destructive civil war and the unfortunate refugee crisis.

Nicolamaria Coppola: How do you envisage the political equation in the short and long term in Syria? What sort of Syria do you think we are going to see in the next future?

Fadi Elhussein: The Syria crisis has entered a critical juncture the moment when Russians started their intervention overly. The Russians threw all their cards to save their interests in Syria… and I am saying interests not Assad! I see that the armed conflict is heading towards its final stage.  There will be a compromise, mainly between the Russians and the US and this would be considered a success for the US who will be able to enter and reserve a spot in Russian sphere of influence. I see that Assad will be part in a transitional phase before setting up the political structure of 'new' Syria.

Nicolamaria Coppola: Could the Syrian sectarian war escalate into a regional and, then, into a global conflict between Sunnis and Shias?

Fadi Elhussein: The possibilities are there… and this issue is neither limited to Syria nor a new one. During the destructive Civil War in Lebanon in the last century, the sectarian conflict (between Sunnis and Shiites) was there. In Iraq, sectarian conflict is there. Not limited to the region, there are signs of a sectarian conflict in several states in Asia. I can see that in modern history, the year 1979 was a turning point: in this year the US supported and funded radical Sunnis and encouraged them to go fight the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. The same year saw the establishment of the Shiite Republic of Iran. The Sunni radicals returned home in Arab countries and there were known as "Arab Afghan" forming the seeds for all radical Sunni groups we see today.

Nicolamaria Coppola: With Russia’s military intervention and high-paced operations with the Syrian army, the current issue is whether this situation might be changing. International news is laden with optimistic reports and forecasts that IS' offensives are losing momentum, that the tactical military scene is one of stalemate and that with the much-anticipated siege of Raqqa, the end of IS could actually be near. Many military analysts, however, are warning against underestimating IS' defensive capacity. In The Islamic State Digs In, Jessica Lewis McFate does so by examining the situation in Mosul this year. According to McFate, Russian military intervention in Syria and its intention to expand its theater of operations toward Iraq might end up strengthening IS. What is your point of view on that?

Fadi Elhussein: First, we have to be clear: Russia has no interest to see ISIS or any other radical Islamists strong or return to Russia or its neighborhood. Russia suffered from this danger and it would not tolerate any mistakes in this regard. Second, I personally don't see that ISIS can survive for long. It is true that it won lands and established quasi state, yet the conditions that helped it to emerge and grow will not last. ISIS has no allies. ISIS does not have any sympathy from all Muslim states. ISIS lost every credibility and connection to Islam with its brutality and continuous crimes. I am not a military expert, but I think a REAL ground operation would end the ISIS phenomenon.

Nicolamaria Coppola: Let's talk about the Kurdish issue: some analysts argue that the Kurds will determine the future of Middle East. What are your thoughts on that?

Fadi Elhussein: With my reservation on the term "the Middle East" (as it is a common term rather than being a real coherent entity), I think this is a very extreme statement. Kurds are part of this region and the stability of this region would be of their interest. However, we have to recognize the uniqueness of the Kurdish issue: being stretched in four countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey) and sharing the same background, language and culture Separatist tendencies are to be expected. Let's bear in mind that those four countries are among the strongest in the region and having one Kurdish state that encompasses all Kurds stretched in those four countries is not very likely, at least in the coming future and under current circumstances.

Nicolamaria Coppola: The day after the elections, Turkey's most urgent problem stubbornly remains the same one since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923: the Kurdish question.  But the last election will also likely have significant international ripples: Turkey plays key roles in both the Syrian civil war and its ensuing refugee crisis, as well as the U.S.-led military actions in Iraq and Syria against ISIS. In which way Turkey's election result will impact the Middle East?

Fadi Elhussein: The Kurdish was partially solved and was a success story for the ruling AKP, until the June 2015 elections. I can see the AKP is capable of bringing back the peace process to where it stood before the elections and this takes us to where does Turkey stand after the elections?! I see that the Arab Spring had serious consequences on Turkey's foreign policy and role in its neighbourhood. I see that Turkey, in the aftermath of the novel victory of the AKP will focus more on domestic issues rather than regional and international problems. Unfortunately, ISIS and the issue of refugees became domestic issues rather than international and regional.  In addition to those two issues, I see that the AKP will most likely focus on economic problems and the Kurdish issues. Without solving these issues, Turkey will not be able to assume any prominent role regionally or internationally.

Nicolamaria Coppola: What about the Iran Nuclear Deal? How will the agreement affect the relationship between political groups inside Iran? How do you think the nuclear deal will affect Iran’s regional policy?

Fadi Elhussein: I think the Iranian Deal was the only positive development in this region, assuming the sincerity of the Iranian motives. This Deal is an outcome of the change in the Iranian political leadership, which was able to rescue Iran from an ultimate confrontation with one or a number of international and regional forces. The Deal ushered the re-birth of a regional power, considering that new Iran will attract investments, will reap the rewards of stability, will receive an enormous amount of frozen money and will return to the oil market with an immense amount of reserves. All these factors lead to one conclusion: Iran has never been out of the regional politics, yet now it will appear with a different- stronger face.

Nicolamaria Coppola: This second part of 2015 has been the beginning of a series of public and shocking acts of violence enacted by Israelis, the Israeli military and Palestinians, which arguably has begun the so-called "Third Intifada". What are your predictions for the coming months and into 2016?

Fadi Elhussein: First, we have to be just when we pose the question: you can't put the Israeli and the Palestinian acts as equal violence. I can see that what the Palestinians have been doing, mainly in Jerusalem and Hebron, is a natural outcome of the practices and provocations from a government classified by most of the world's capitals as extreme, religious and anti-peace. I don't think it’s a third Intifada, yet it is a sign of a bigger act that is coming, that may be a new Intifada. I am not so optimistic: I can see that the Israeli government is trying to convert the political conflict into a religious one which will be destructive. Why religious: first, they insist on the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish State; second they continue provoking the religious feelings of the Palestinians by visiting, attacking and vandalizing religious sites and third, the religious entities and settlers became very obvious with unprecedented power and leverage in Israel, thanks to this government's acts and policies empowering them.

Nicolamaria Coppola: Religious competition over Jerusalem is at the heart of the Arab–Israeli conflict: should there have been more of a focus on reconciling Jewish and Islamic tensions in recent years rather than in dealing with Hamas and security? Or are they separate and yet equally as divisive?

Fadi Elhussein: Your question goes in perfect match with my previous answer: the current Israeli government is transforming the political conflict into a religious one; which is very dangerous that its repercussions may surpass the borders of Palestine and Israel. Hamas is part of the Palestinian political structure and any unilateral agreement between Israel and Hamas will need nothing but to more division inside the Palestinian front and more fragile agreements. I will give you an example: Israel has been always complaining about the rockets thrown from Gaza. And let's think about it; Gaza was the only territory that it withdrew from unilaterally, without signing agreement, without making any arrangements with. So, when you make unilateral moves, unplanned consequences may follow.

Nicolamaria Coppola: Two central tenets of the Palestinian independence cause are the "right of return" and the claim to sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem, yet Israel will not entertain these ideas. As such, how can there ever be a peaceful two-state solution? But is still a two-state solution an acceptable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Fadi Elhussein: I think the two-state solution is the most agreed upon solution for the conflict. Regardless of the divergence in positions between the Palestinians and the Israelis, if there is a will, there would be always away. Nonetheless, the continuous settlement activities in the West Bank is in fact leading to ending any chances for the two-state solution. Netanyahu may give some incentives, may ask to resume negotiations and talks, and nothing but talks, so that he continues changing facts on the ground, to first limit any possibility for the establishment of a Palestinian state and second to please his coalition and religious forces inside Israel so that he preserves his chair as the premier of Israel. In that case, I can see that if Israel continues changing facts on the ground, the only left solution for this conflict would be a one-state solution: One state, One capital, One land for two nations.


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the interviewed’s own and do not necessarily reflect EPOS WorldView’s editorial policy

Last modified on Monday, 09 November 2015 15:16

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