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Antonella Appiano: how the arab revolts have changed the Middle East

 
Monday, 02 May 2016 08:26
 
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Epos converses with Antonella Appiano

by Nicolamaria Coppola (EPOS)
EPOS Conversations

 

Antonella Appiano is a  Middle Eastern issues journalist based in Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman. She is an independent researcher, an analyst and a writer, and her researchers and academic studies include the Arabic world and the Middle East area, Islam, multiculturalism and interfaith dialogue. She is dedicating herself to tackling the misrepresentation of Arab and Islamic culture in the Western society, and as a digital journalist, she is utilizing a variety of social media platforms to do that. From March to May 2011, she lived in Syria, following the crisis for the online newspaper Lettera43. She was there again in July 2011, directly following the evolving of the situation and cooperating with other media, such as L’Espresso, Radio24, Uno Mattina. She continues to follow the on-going situation of the Syrian rebellions on her personal website.

She was in Egypt during the Morsi presidency, and recently she travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan, to collect and record impressions of the refugees and of the Kurdish Peshmerga after the conquest of Mosul by the ISIS forces. As an expert in the Middle East geopolitics, she has accepted to be interviewed by EPOS, and in the following exclusive interview, she talks about the latest news from the region, discussing the Syrian conflict, the role of Gulf countries, the situation in Egypt and the position of Oman into the regional and international theatre. She depicts the context from the within, giving EPOS’ readers a detailed and thorough analysis of the issues.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: It has been five years since the more optimistic days of the Arab uprisings, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Tunisia and Egypt and forced Ben Ali and Mubarack to leave. In 2011 you were in Syria, and you have been one of the few foreign journalists to witness the early stages of the uprising firsthand. You have already published two books on Syria after your experience as an undercovered journalist in Damascus, "Clandestina a Damasco" and "Qui Siria", and your last book on the Syrian conflict, "Syria Calling" will be released in the coming weeks. Five years later, how has the Middle East changed in terms of democratization process, balance of power and strategic alliances?

Antonella Appiano: The Arab revolts transformed the Middle East forever. A movement for change has dissolved into chaos, States are collapsing and has emerged the Islamic State. In 2011, when the Arab Spring began overturning governments across the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran tried to fill the vacuums. The region's greatest rivalry, between Iran and Saudi Arabia (and their allies,) has become more harmful with repercussions across all the area. Both countries are supporting militant groups and proxy forces throughout the region, particularly in Syria. But the Iranians, for now, are victorious as they strengthen their presence in the area (already established in Iraq after the US military action). Saudi Arabia and Turkey, on the other hand, would figure in the list of losers. Saudi Arabia has gambled everything on a change of regime in Syria. In a bid to fight and stop Iranian influence in the country, it chose to move its players in a mistaken strategy, with a huge loss of money and energies. The reigning House of al-Saudis in difficulty.

Speaking of Turkey, in the syrianconflict- that has involved regional and international actors–Erdogan has played his cards badly, with too much ambiguity towards Islamic State and too many attacks against the Syrian Kurds. The "sultan" can save himself only if he manages to control his fears over the creation of an independent Kurdish state, in the current Syrian Kurdistan, along the southern border with Turkey. Democratization process? The West can’t export a "model of democracy". Muslims are victims of wars fuelled by the West, victims of the constant interference in domestic affairs of other countries, of military and political intervention in the Middle East to impose and maintain political control. This interference started during the First World War.

Without interferences, I think that Muslim Countries could bring together Islam, pluralism and democracy without betraying their identity. Certainly it will take some time. Quoting Ben M'Hidi, in the celebrated film "The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo":«It's hard to start a revolution. Even harder to continue it. And hardest of all to win it. But, it's only afterwards, when we have won, that the true difficulties begin».

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: Are the various Middle East conflicts in some way linked to each other? In other words, are the conflict in Syria, the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the polarization inside Iraq, and the conflict in Yemen in some way connected?

Antonella Appiano: The various Middle East conflict and also the question of terrorism, are interconnected. Peace isn't possible in Syria or in Yemen; stabilization isn’t possible in Iraq, until Saudi Arabia and Iran back down from supporting their proxy forces there. Thus, it is clear that the Syrian war is proxy war between Iran and the Saudi Arabia (with Gulf countries). And conflict is further powered by international powers where Russia is in support of Iran and the United States, European countries and Turkey are in favour Saudi Arabia.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: In your view, are we seeing the rise of sectarian politics in the Middle East? Is religion increasingly a source of tension within and between countries? Can religion be a constructive force for peace and dialogue? If so, how?

Antonella Appiano: Most assuredly, one of the drivers of conflicts in the Middle East today is the tension between Sunni and Shia. In Iraq, for example, the country and its politics are divided between Sunni and Shia, which is part of what allowed the Islamic State to rise among the Sunni minority there. But religion is just the tip of the iceberg, visible to the eyes of everyone: underneath there is much more which is invisible to the majority. Various conflicts are not about religion, even if are expressed along religious lines.

The crux of the question is power, territory.

The struggle for influence in the area, between Iran and Saudi Arabia and their allies. Religion, contrary to the opinions of many western mass media sources, is not the cause of the wars and terrorist attacks. It is just an excuse, to legitimize a series of acts, a propaganda tool to hide the true reason, the power struggles. Speaking of terrorism, there is for sure a certain religious fanatism based on incitement, it’s a particular characteristic of the Salafist ideology upon which the terrorist cells are based. Their goals are clear: they intend to use religion for subversive means, allocating the responsibility for worldwide destruction to the West. Without any doubt, the fundamentalist propaganda exploits anticolonial and third-world arguments to influence the masses who are handicapped by lack of education and frustration.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: The Islamic State, also known as "Daesh", acronym of Al-Dawlah Al-Islamiyahfe Al-Iraq wa Al-Sham, has taken over a number of key areas in Iraq and Syria, including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. The jihadists have also eliminated the official and physical boundaries between Syria and Iraq and their goal is to establish an Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East, in Northern Africa and, then, all over the World. In the last few weeks, Daesh has lost part of its territories, and the city of Palmira, for example, has been retaken by the Syrian army with the support of the Russians. What are your thoughts on the Islamic State? Is it really as strong and powerful as it wants us to think? Can it be considered an "unexpected phenomenon"?

Antonella Appiano: The Islamic State can’t be considered an "unexpected phenomenon". The organization (initially referred to as the Organization of Monotheism and Jihad) was founded in Iraq under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jihadi figure head in the fight against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Al-Zarqawi later joins forces with Osama bin Laden and, in October 2014, the Iraqi branch of Al-Qaeda was born (AQI). Al-Zarqawi died on 7th June 2006 north of Baghdad during a U.S. attack. Following the death of its charismatic leader, the AQI group unites with other Jihadi groups for strength in numbers, leading to the creation of ISI (Islamic State of Iraq). In May 2010, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi becomes head of the movement and as of February 2013 decides to expand into Syria (the "land of Sham").

With the conquest of Syrian territory, the ISI group’s name is changed to ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Al-Baghdadi is recalled on different occasions to Iraq by al-Zawahiri (the leader of Al-Qaeda after Bin Laden’s death) but he refuses to go, remaining instead in Syria and taking some "unilateral" decisions. A crucial factor (which must be grasped in order to understand the overall situation) is the continual “weaving” and connection or unity between the different groups in Syria and Iraq from 2013. In fact, immediately after its appearance in Syria, at Daraya and Aleppo (in February), already in July 2013 the extremist Sunni group carries out a series of suicide bombings in Iraq, Nassiriyya, Mosul, Kirkuk and Bassora.

In August 2013, the group manages to take the city of Raqqa, defeating the rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), allied with the Salafite groups of Jabhaat al-Nusra and Ahrar Ash Sham who had in turn taken the city from the regime on 6th March 2013. Main strengths of Islamic Stat are: high-level guerrilla training, weapons and equipment; advanced communication technology; organization; financing, and well-organized propaganda for the recruitment of new fighters. But when compared with the number of Western military troops, the forces belonging to IS are trivial. The estimated number of fighters is 80,000 (although numbers vary according to sources). They are well-equipped but without an air force. They have often won because they have met with badly-equipped organizations or regime troops. And yet the West has allowed them to advance, firstly paralyzed by miscalculation and now because it is convenient to all.

Unlike Al-Qaeda, Islamic State follows a strategic plan to radicalize the territory, with the creation of a state or caliphate in Syria and Iraq. When a city is defeated, the basic services are restored – such as water and electricity – and Quor’ an-based schools and courts are set up. Islamic State has much more wealth than Al-Qaeda has ever had, as well as advanced means of propaganda and communication. Its militants are not "crazy", as the media has long liked to describe them. They perform acts of terrorism, extreme cruelty, and attack minority groups (not only Christians) and Shia Muslims. They carry out suicide bombings but always with a purpose, a defined goal.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: You are currently living in Oman: how can you describe Oman from a geopolitical and geostrategic point of view? How strong and influent is Sultan Qaboos inside the country and abroad?

Antonella Appiano: The geopolitical importance of  Oman in the regional context and power balance is big. And, in fact, this becomes clear just by looking at a geographical map. A long border is shared in the northwest with powerful Saudi Arabia, in the northeast with the Arab Emirates and in the west with Yemen. Only a strip of sea divides the country from Iran, a rival of Saudi Arabia which is fighting for control of the area. Slotted between Shia Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Sunni kingdoms, it is located in the Arab peninsula but at the same time provides a point of access for the Indian Ocean, southern Asia and western Africa. So, Oman maintains good relations with Iran as it needs Tehran’s continued assistance in reaching the trade routes of central Asia. But in the Middle East, everything is constantly in flux and may change from one moment to the next. Thus, in addition to cordial relations on one hand and preventive action on the other, Oman is also investing in the building of the port of al-Duqm on the Arabian Sea – this is the deepest basin of the Middle East anchor to moor supertankers, and a perfect point of departure for western trade routes. Oman, at the same time, maintain excellent relations with the House of Saud, and the United States. But when the Gulf States and Iran began to take an active part in the war in Syria, Oman opted for non-intervention and never sent arms or money to Syria or any fighters. I think this was a clever choice, part of the Sultan Qaboos bin Al-Sa’id’ss skilled and pragmatic foreign policy which has always prioritized the interests of the country within the complex international dynamics.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: One of the most important players in the Gulf region is UAE, fully committed in the economic differentiation but also in an apparent openness to civil society. What is Abu Dhabi’s role in this context?

Antonella Appiano: UAE is a Rentier State. An impressively and refined "propaganda" pushes the UAE’s positive image. Many Emiratis and foreigners, who live in the UAE, enjoy a modern style, high tech, and large salaries. But the openness to civil society is apparent. No political parties are allowed. UAE doesn’t tolerate dissent. Limitations on citizens’ civil liberties include the freedoms of speech, press, association, and internet use. There are arbitrary arrests and incommunicado detentions. Last but not least, migrant workers’ rights remain a big problem. Workers from Asia are not allowed to unionize and strikes are illegal and  their safety condition is alarming. In the context of Middle East conflicts, UAE are allies of Saudi Arabia.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: What about Egypt? What do you think of the tragic murder of our compatriot Giulio Regeni?

Antonella Appiano: The tragic murder of Giulio in Egypt could signify  big trouble for the President-general al Sisi because denounced that today’s Egypt is less free and less safe than it was under Hosni Mubarak. The is no security now in Egypt’s for foreign journalist, researcher, even travelers. The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms reports that 1,700 individuals disappeared in 2015. Not only members of the Muslim Brotherhood but also civil society activists.

Nicolamaria Coppola, EPOS: Could you please tell us more about your last book and the reason why you have chosen the e-book interactive format?

Antonella Appiano: My last e-book on Syrian Conflict is entitled "Syria Calling - A real-life experience of six years of uprisings, witnessed from Aleppo and Damascus, Iraqi Kurdistan and Rome, Egypt, Oman and Kuwait" . Could not have been written on paper because it is not a traditional book, but a text to surf, among background information sections, references, maps, timelines, photographs. An interactive e-book forms part of a cultural genre which adopt technology as a tool – It is not a tout court technique in itself. And neither is it a book which has simply changed format. It is instead a means to tell stories of the future. It is a way to negotiate two narrative threads simultaneously- that of reportage an that of in depth analysis without including a heavy overload of "footnotes" at the bottom of the page.

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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 Friday, 06 May 2016 07:33
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