Sunday, 29 December 2013

Hollande, Abdullah set to meet in Rawdat Khoraym

Rawdat Khoraym, a wild life park and oasis 100 kms northeast of Riyadh

French President Francois Hollande flies into Riyadh this afternoon on his second official visit to Saudi Arabia before flying by helicopter to Rawdat Khoraym for talks with King Abdullah.
Rawdat Khoraym, or Khoraym Gardens, is a wild life park and oasis that blooms in the middle of the desert, chiefly in springtime.
Situated some 100 kilometers northeast of Riyadh, Rawdat Khoraym is the King’s favorite retreat.
Hollande told Lebanese journalist Ms Randa Takieddine in an exclusive interview for the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat he will focus in his talks with the monarch on the Iran file and the political solution in Syria.
“Bilateral cooperation between our two countries is consolidating in all fields. France and the Kingdom are partners in working for peace, security and stability in the Middle East.”
Hollande and Abdullah in Riyadh last Novemeber
The French president said he would take up with King Abdullah the world powers’ talks with Iran on its nuclear ambitions and ways of reaching a political solution to the Syria crisis, the need to uphold Lebanon’s stability as well as France’s partnership with the Kingdom in the defense domain.
He reiterated there could be no political solution to the Syria crisis with Bashar al-Assad remaining in power, saying: “Assad is not fighting Muslim extremists. He simply uses them to put pressure on the moderate opposition.”
France, Hollande stressed, continues to coordinate steps with moderate Syrian opposition forces to find a political outcome in Syria.
He hoped the international community would come together at the Geneva-2 Syria peace conference to kickoff a process for a genuine transfer of power in Syria that would preclude the escalation of violence there and in the region.
The French leader strongly condemned Saturday’s car-bomb assassination in Beirut of Lebanon’s former finance minister Mohamad Chatah, an economist who held a senior position at the IMF. Chatah “was a man of dialogue and peace,” he said
Hollande called for the cessation of violence that is threatening Lebanon, saying: “It is vital to respect the country’s constitutional deadlines, particularly the date set for presidential elections” in May.
President Michel Sleiman's mandate runs out on May 25 and there are fears a successor will be hard to find because of huge disagreements between Lebanon's pro- and anti-Syria blocs.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Turning Geneva-2 into the tomb of Geneva-1

RT photo of Lavrov meeting RT journalists at an RT studio

Writing today for pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, political analyst Abdelwahhab Badrakhan says, “The United Nations might for the first time be banking on two chemical scientists to manage the planned Geneva conference on Syria instead of relying on experts in politics and diplomacy.
“Because the aim, according to leaks and to information being circulated, is to concoct a composite of magical, miraculous and unknown ingredients allowing each of the sides concerned to claim the composite help realize its objectives:
“One, Bashar al-Assad and his regime remain in office with the consent of the opposition and the international community in order to fight the terrorists whose existence he predicted before they emerged in Syrian opposition ranks.
“Two, the opposition would receive a form of words reducing Assad’s prerogatives in preparation for his exit and changing the regime’s character, making it more representative of society’s sectarian components.
“The chief chemical scientists are Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry.
“The former, Lavrov, is more outspoken. His laboratory does not cease blending acids with toxins, facts with assumptions and aspirations in order to come up with prescriptions that are insoluble: The priority is to fight terror and to unify the regime and opposition in the war against it.
“The other, Kerry, uses his ambassador, Robert Ford, to deliver consecutive electrical shocks to tame the opposition’s demands. The opposition does not only have to live with the idea of Assad staying put, but with the army and security services remaining under Alawite command, in to prevent the army disintegrating and to protect the sect.
“Fair enough.
“But where is Geneva-1 from all this? And how is Geneva-2 convened on its basis or the basis of the invite to it to be made by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in late December?”
In the buildup for Christmas Day, Lavrov gave RT (Russia Today), a global news channel broadcasting from Moscow and Washington studios to over 100 countries around the globe, his appraisal of “the arrangements on Syria and Iran” and “the prospects for the Geneva-2 talks.
In his words:
The agreements to destroy the Syrian chemical arsenal and to convene the Geneva-2 conference, as well as the first stage agreement on further steps to resolve the Iran nuclear issue, are the fruit of years-long efforts. At least when it comes to Syria, we're talking about three years of Russia's consistent efforts of defending international law. The same applies to the progress on Iran. For over three years we'd been seeking two things: first, to get all the parties to the talks to agree that eventually Iran should have a recognized right to develop its peaceful nuclear program and enrich uranium to make fuel for nuclear power plants, while making sure that this program has no military dimension and that it is subject to total control of the IAEA, and providing security to all the countries in the region, including Israel.
The decisions regarding Syria and Iran are far from being fully implemented. As for destroying Syria’s chemical stockpiles, everything is going according to plan, with minor deviations concerning the timeframe of the interim stages, though the reasons for that are objective rather than subjective. I am sure the deadline for the complete destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal, June 30, will be met.
As for Geneva-2, we still have a long way to go. We don’t know for sure that this conference will be successful. And as regards the Iranian nuclear program, we’ve only reached an agreement concerning the first phase.
[Forced “democratization” results in instability]. This happened when Americans invaded Iraq; this happened recently, when NATO blatantly overstepped the UN Security Council mandate and bombed Libya; and this kind of external intervention is also happening in a number of other countries in the region. The Syrian conflict is another example of a situation where you have terrorists from all over the world, including Europe, U.S. and Russia, fight there to turn Syria, and in fact this whole region, into a caliphate. So, forced democratization by outside forces undermines stability and produces new threats. Greater stability, on the other hand, provides the best environment for democratic reforms.
So, when the conference on Syria opens (and I really hope that the conference will go ahead as planned on January 22; I hope the opposition does not come up with some unacceptable conditions contrary to the Russian-American initiative), I strongly believe this conference should focus on fighting terrorism as this is the main threat to Syria and other countries in the region today. Certainly, there will be other issues on the agenda, including pressing humanitarian issues, discussions on the political process, organizing the elections, provisional institutions for the transitional period, but all this should be based on a common understanding between the government and the opposition, just the way it was captured in the Geneva communiqué produced at the first Geneva conference.
So, I really hope that our Western partners and our partners in the region, which have more influence on the opposition than anybody else, will make sure, firstly, that the opposition is properly represented at this conference and, secondly, that the opposition attends the conference without any preconditions. The very point of the Russian-American initiative is that the people of Syria should agree on how to implement the principles captured in the Geneva communiqué of June 30, 2013, without any external intervention or any preconditions. But so far, unfortunately, we don’t know what the regime's opponents, who have recently formed the National Coalition, will do. We are alarmed by the fact that the National Coalition does not seem to have complete unity. We are also alarmed by the fact that the National Coalition keeps saying that this conference must result in a regime change, or even that a regime change is a prerequisite for having the conference. This is something we have never agreed to. We are also alarmed by the fact that the National Coalition does not seem to have complete control over all the groups fighting the regime on the ground. Another concern is that we see among the rebels an increasing number of jihadists who pursue extremist objectives. They want to set up a caliphate and impose sharia laws, and basically they are already terrorizing minorities.
They have formed what they call an Islamic Front, and some of our partners in the West are even flirting with it – even though we know from our confidential contacts with them that they know pretty well that the organizations which formed the Islamic Front are not much different from Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. This alarms us.
The opposition says they will only take part in the conference if their various demands are met. Sometimes they insist on a regime change; sometimes they say they need guarantees that there will be a regime change immediately after the conference; sometimes they say they will only take part in the Geneva conference after the humanitarian crisis is taken care of. But in reality the humanitarian crisis gets worse mostly because of the militants, because of the groups that many countries have officially recognized as extremist and terrorist. So, we do need to address humanitarian issues, but instead of fighting symptoms we should fight the root cause of the crisis. And the root cause of the crisis is that the terrorist threat is extremely serious in Syria today, and the government and the opposition should come to an agreement on the key parameters regarding the future of their country, like I said earlier.
By the way, I should also mention that at the G8 summit in Lough Erne in June, all the leaders of the G8 countries urged both the Syrian government and the opposition in their communiqué to join their forces in fighting terrorists in order to defeat those terrorists and drive them out of Syria. This, I believe, is our top priority today. Once the situation stabilizes, once the rights of all minorities are secured, once the multi-ethnic and multi-faith nature of the Syrian state is secured, democratic institutions will follow. Stability is the number one priority today.
In his column for the independent Lebanese daily an-Nahar, political analyst Rajeh el-Khoury says if reports are true the Syrian National Coalition is divided on attending Geneva-2, it means some in the opposition are Lavrov apologists. They have no misgivings about ignoring Francois Hollande’s warning against the conference endorsing “a handover of power from Assad to Assad.”
Having gagged the Americans, the Russians eliminated the Syrian people and their dead from the political and moral equation and started to speak of Geneva-2 as a forum aimed solely at fighting terror.
In the Russians’ view, the terrorists are the Syrian civilians being decimated by Assad’s barrel bombs, Scud missiles and chemical weapons.
Geneva-2, in its Russian format, won’t thrash out a Syria solution. It is evident from his words, Lavrov wants Geneva-2 to be an international occasion to reproduce Assad as president of a country he had already turned into a graveyard for its inhabitants with Russian help.
The Russians’ brutality and the meanness of the Americans are such that they both are mum on Assad’s use of barrel bombs to turn Aleppo neighborhoods into burial grounds for Syrian children and civilians.
Those who turned a blind eye to the use of chemicals in the two Ghoutas before applauding Assad for handing over his chemicals arsenal have no qualms about turning Geneva-2 into the grave of Geneva-1. 

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Who killed the “Arab Spring”?

Ghassan Charbel, editor-in-chief of pan-Arab al-Hayat, penned this think piece in Arabic
Where are the young men and women who nearly three years ago crammed the plazas and public squares calling for the downfall of who they called the tyrant or the dictator or the despot?
Do they remember the victory signs they raised when they heard news of his escape or his standing down or his killing?
Do they recall the dreams they dared reflect upon in those days and their talk of democracy, state institutions, transparency, the transfer of power and the respect of human rights?
Was their behavior actually motivated by their fervor, their innocence or their naïveté?
Were they alien to their communities and ignorant of the degree of injustice permeating their depths and the wells of hatred waiting for an opportunity to explode?
Did it escape them that the problem is basically cultural rather than political and that it is not enough to open the ballot boxes to turn over the page of the past?
Did it escape them as well that centuries of darkness contributed to the incarceration of the Arab intellect and its disablement, rendering the Arab individual incapable of handling the keys to the future?
I have been obsessed for weeks by an irritating question: “Who killed the ‘Arab Spring’?”
That’s why I seize the opportunity of coming across anyone of the major players in the said “Spring” to ask for his assessment – especially now that some of the said ‘Spring’s’ theaters shut out the advocates of democracy and of modern state-building.
I will not name my respondents because our discussions were not to be published.
The man played an important role in his country’s “Arab Spring” when he dealt a painful blow to the despot under whose portrait he served for several years.
I asked him the question, “Who killed the ‘Arab Spring’?”
“I don’t know,” he replied.
“What you call the ‘Spring’ may have come early, before our societies became ready to embrace a transformation of this magnitude.
“It turned out we still live in the depths of history.
“With the tyrants’ fall, our societies began spewing all the blood, pus, hatreds, coercions and reprisals that accumulated in their guts.
“I think the transitional phase will be daunting and extended. In any case the French Revolution took eight decades before settling down.”
He added:
“We are in a terrible state of underdevelopment. Watch the screens. A university professor talks as if he has yet to enter the era of reading and writing.
“Look at nation-states, like for example Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain that are now paying the price of what took place between Ali and Muawiyah.
“We discuss globalization and technology and then go to sleep in the caves of history.
“Our capitals are closer to abattoirs overflowing with suicide bombers and assassins.
“Our countries fail to provide regular power supplies to their citizens.
“Our societies participated in killing the ‘Arab Spring’ by letting the prisoners of history take the lead.”
Another player put forward a different reading.
He said the most prominent killers of the “Arab Spring” are those who rushed to mold it, casting an image of their own interests.
He said the West acted as a crook, especially Obama’s America. Washington wanted the phenomenon to serve the policy she adopted years earlier – in essence the policy of promoting to power what she calls moderate Islam, thinking that the latter could contain terror.
He added: The Muslim Brothers, who were the better organized and widespread movement in the community, took this as an historic opportunity to devour it all.
He also said Turkey played a role in killing the “Arab Spring” when she considered a “Brotherhood Spring” victory gives her a trump card in her strategic wrestling with Iran.
He said Qatar used her financial might and international relations to prop up the “Brotherhood Spring” alongside Turkey.
Russia, he remarked was focusing on stifling the “Muslim Spring” lest it turned into a card in the hands of the West or spread to her vicinity.
He said Russia found in Syria’s events a chance to kill the “Arab Spring.” Iran was of the same opinion but for different purposes.
The two men’s words helped me understand what is now going on in more than one Arab country.
I got convinced the “Arab Spring” killers were more than one.
Most probably a stormy season is just about to kick off – a long and painful transition season.

The first condition for moving into the future is to exit the caves of history and bury the illusions of ready-made solutions.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Fatwa from Qom endorses fighting alongside Assad

Grand Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri (above) and Saudi Prince Turki al Faisal (top)
First ever fatwa from Qom endorses fighting alongside Assad,” Saudi Arabia’s newspaper of records, Asharq Alawsat, banners on its front page today.
The paper was referring to the first public religious edict issued by a leading Shiite Muslim cleric widely followed by Iraqi militants permitting Shiites to fight in Syria’s war alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces.
The fatwa by Iran-based Grand Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri, one of the mentors of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, comes as thousands of Shiite fighters mostly from Iraq and Lebanon play a major role in the battles.
The call likely will increase the sectarian tones of the war, which pits overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels against members of Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Al-Haeri is based in the holy city of Qom, Iran’s religious capital. Among his followers, according to The Associated Press, are many fighters with the feared Shiite militia, Asa’eb Ahl al-Haq, or Band of the Righteous, an Iranian-backed group that repeatedly attacked U.S. forces in Iraq and says it is sending fighters to Syria. That militia is headed by white-turbaned Shiite cleric Qais al-Khazali, who spent years in U.S. detention but was released after he was handed over to the Iraqi government.
Many Shiite gunmen already fight around the holy shrine of Sayyidah Zaynab just south of Damascus. The shrine is named after the Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter and is popular with Iranian worshippers and tourists.
Asharq Alawsat says the fatwa sanctions the participation of Iraqi fighters in the protection of Sayyidah Zaynab shrine as well as in the defense of Assad’s regime.
Asked by a follower whether it is legitimate to travel to Syria to fight, al-Haeri replied: “The battle in Syria is not for the defense of the shrine of Sayyidah Zaynab but it is a battle of infidels against Islam and Islam should be defended.”
“Fighting in Syria is legitimate and those who die are martyrs,” al-Haeri said in comments posted on his official website. An official at his office confirmed that the comments are authentic.
Asa’eb Ahl al-Haq currently has about 1,000 fighters in Syria and many others were volunteering to go join the war, said Ashtar al-Kaabi, an Asa’eb Ahl al-Haq member who organizes sending Shiite fighters from Iraq to Syria. Asked whether the increase is related to al-Haeri’s fatwa, al-Kaabi said: “Yes. This fatwa has had wide effect.”
The rebels are mainly backed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Sunni powerhouses in the Middle East.
The main Western-backed Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, claimed recently that Shiite fighters from 14 different factions are fighting alongside Assad forces in Syria. The coalition said those fighters are brought to Syria with the help of Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, another Iranian pawn.
Lebanon’s Iran-backed Shiite Hezbollah also openly joined Assad’s forces in May after hiding its participation for months. Since then, the group has helped Assad forces recapture a string of towns and villages from rebels.
Separately, an influential Saudi Arabian prince said on Saturday Assad’s opponents have been at an impossible disadvantage since the start of the Syrian conflict because the United States and Britain refused to help them.
The United States and Britain suspended non-lethal aid to northern Syria last Thursday after reports that Islamic Front -- a union of six major rebel groups -- had taken buildings belonging to the Free Syrian Army's (FSA) Syrian Military Council on the border with Turkey.
Former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal criticized the decision, saying the two countries had left the moderate FSA to fend for itself.
"What's more damaging is that since the beginning of this conflict, since the FSA arose as a response to Assad's impunity, Britain and the U.S. did not come forward and provide the necessary aid to allow it to defend itself and the Syrian people from Assad's killing machine," Prince Turki told Reuters on the sidelines of the World Policy Conference in Monaco.
"You have a situation where one side is lopsided with weapons like the Assad regime is, with tanks and missiles -- you name it, he is getting it -- and the other side is screaming out to get defensive weapons against these lethal weapons that Assad has," Turki said. "Why should he stop the killing?"
"That to me is why the FSA is in not as prominent position as it should be today, because of the lack of international support for it. The fighting is going to continue and the killing is going to continue."
The U.S. gave us the impression that they were going to do things in Syria that they finally didn't," Prince Turki said outside the World Policy Conference in Monaco. "The aid they're giving to the Free Syrian Army is irrelevant. Now they say they're going to stop the aid: OK, stop it. It's not doing anything anyway."
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the main backers of the main opposition Syrian National Coalition and the FSA.
Assad is backed by Iran, which struck a preliminary deal on with world powers in November to limit sanctions relief for more international oversight of its nuclear program.
Western countries have held back from giving heavy weapons such as anti-tank and missile launchers for fear they could fall into the wrong hands.
"For me ... (to bring a) successful end to this conflict would be to bring an end to the Assad regime. It is because of the Assad regime that everything is happening," Prince Turki said.
Commanders from the Islamic Front are due to hold talks with U.S. officials in Turkey in coming days, rebel and opposition sources said on Saturday, reflecting the extent to which the Islamic Front alliance has eclipsed the FSA brigades.
A rebel fighter with the Islamic Front said he expected the talks to discuss whether the United States would help arm the front and assign to it responsibility for maintaining order in the rebel-held areas of northern Syria.
Prince Turki told Reuters while he hoped Iran was serious with regard its interim nuclear deal, it needed to provide some confidence-building measures with its Gulf Arab neighbors, beginning in Syria.
"Iran is coming at us with a broad smile. Let's hope they are serious about that. We would like to see Iran first of all get out of Syria," he said.
Reporting in context for yesterday’s New York Times, Steven Erlanger wrote in part:
…The Saudis have been particularly shaken by Mr. Obama’s refusal to intervene forcefully in the Syrian civil war, especially his recent decision not to punish President Bashar al-Assad of Syria with military strikes even after evidence emerged that Mr. Assad’s government used chemical weapons on its own citizens.
Instead, Mr. Obama chose to seek congressional authorization for a strike, and when that proved difficult to obtain, he cooperated with Russia to get Syria to agree to give up its chemical weapons. Prince Turki and Israeli officials have argued that the agreement merely legitimized Mr. Assad, and on Sunday, the prince called the world’s failure to stop the conflict in Syria “almost a criminal negligence.”
Syria, Iran, nuclear issues and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were the main focus for Prince Turki, who spoke at the World Policy Conference, a gathering of officials and intellectuals largely drawn from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
Saudi unhappiness with Iran’s growing power in the region is no secret, and the Saudis, who themselves engage with Iran, have no problem with the United States trying to do the same, the prince said. But he complained that bilateral talks between Iranian and American officials had been kept secret from American allies, sowing further mistrust.
The prince said Iran must give up its ambitions for a nuclear weapons program — Iran says its nuclear program is only for civilian purposes — and stop using its own troops and those of Shiite allies like the Lebanese organization Hezbollah to fight in neighboring countries, like Syria and Iraq. “The game of hegemony toward the Arab countries is not acceptable,” the prince said. Just as Arabs will not dress as Westerners do, he said, “we won’t accept to wear Iranian clothes, either.”
A prevalent theme at the conference was the waning of American influence in the Middle East. Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said: “Today we live in a zero-polar, or a-polar, world. No one power or group of powers can solve all the problems.”The United States, Mr. Fabius said, was often criticized for being “overpresent, but now it is being criticized for not being present enough.” While “it is perfectly understandable” that Mr. Obama would refrain from new military engagements in the Middle East, he said, “it creates a certain vacuum” that has allowed Russia “to make a comeback on the world scene” and has encouraged France to intervene in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mali…

Friday, 13 December 2013

Syrian refugees shame European leaders

This Syrian baby froze to death during the wintry storm "Alexa" chilling the Middle East

European leaders should hang their heads in shame over the pitifully low numbers of refugees from Syria they are prepared to resettle, said Amnesty International.

In a briefing published today, An international failure: The Syrian refugee crisis, the organization details how European Union (EU) member states have only offered to open their doors to around 12,000 of the most vulnerable refugees from Syria: just 0.5 per cent of the 2.3 million people who have fled the country.

“The EU has miserably failed to play its part in providing a safe haven to the refugees who have lost all but their lives. The number of those it’s prepared to resettle is truly pitiful. Across the board European leaders should hang their heads in shame,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

The closest European capital, Nicosia, lies a mere 200 miles from Damascus. Yet collectively, EU member states have pledged to resettle just a very small proportion of Syria’s most vulnerable refugees. Amnesty International’s briefing breaks down the figures: 

  1. Only 10 EU member states offered resettlement or humanitarian admission places to refugees from Syria.
  2. Germany is by far the most generous – pledging to take 10,000 refugees or 80 per cent of total EU pledges.
  3. Excluding Germany, the remaining 27 EU member states have offered to take a mere 2,340 refugees from Syria.
  4. France offered just 500 places or 0.02 per cent of the total number of people who have fled Syria.
  5. Spain agreed to take just 30 or 0.001 per cent of refugees from Syria.
  6. Eighteen EU member states – including the UK and Italy – offered no places at all.

As winter approaches, conditions for the 2.2 million people who have fled Syria to neighboring countries are deteriorating rapidly.

With only 12,000 places offered by EU member states for resettlement or humanitarian admission, others attempt the journey under their own steam.
Tens of thousands have reached Europe trying to claim asylum having risked life and limb in arduous journeys, on boats or across land. 

Amnesty International’s research reveals that first they have to break through the barricades of Fortress Europe.
Many are faced with violent push backs by police and coastguards, or detained for weeks in deplorable conditions. 

The journey to Italy by sea: 
Hundreds of people die attempting to cross the Mediterranean every year.
In October it is estimated that as many as 650 refugees and migrants died when three boats sank attempting to reach Europe from North Africa. 

More than 10,000 refugees from Syria are reported to have arrived along Italy’s coast in the first 10 months of this year. 

Amnesty International’s briefing gives first-hand accounts of those who have attempted to reach Europe by sea. 

Awad, a 17-year-old boy from Damascus, described how he managed to escape through a window of a sinking boat and swim to the surface. There were reportedly 400 people on board. He saw people clinging to dead bodies and boat wreckage to stay afloat, while others fought over life jackets.
Awad lost his mother as well as other family members. 
“I have no idea where my family are… I used to have ambition but now I have lost my mother, I don't want anything, I just want stability, everything else is second to that.”
Another boy from Syria lost both his father and nine-year-old brother in the accident. 

“My experience didn’t just destroy my dreams; it destroyed my family’s dreams. I am destroyed completely.”
Fortress Europe: 
In two of the main gateways to the EU, Bulgaria and Greece, refugees from Syria are met with deplorable treatment, including life threatening push-back operations along the Greek coast, and detention for weeks in poor conditions in Bulgaria. 

Greece’s pushback into the sea: 
Refugees have told Amnesty International how Greek police or coastguards, wielding guns and wearing full face hoods, ill-treat them, strip them of their belongings and eventually push them back to Turkey. 

A 32-year-old man from Syria described how the Greek coastguard near the island of Samos confronted him and his mother in October.
They were part of a group of 35 people including women and young children pushed back to Turkey. 

“They put all the men lying on the boat; they stepped on us and hit us with their weapons for three hours. Then at around 10 in the morning, after removing the motor, they put us back to our plastic boat and drove us back to the Turkish waters and left us in the middle of the sea.’’

The number of unlawful pushback operations from Greece is not known; however, Amnesty International believes hundreds have been affected. 

In the last two years the European Commission has provided €228 million to bolster border controls. 

In comparison, for the same time period, just €12 million was allocated to Greece under the European Refugee Fund, which supports efforts in receiving refugees. 

Bulgaria -- detained and contained: 
In Bulgaria, an estimated 5,000 refugees from Syria arrived between January and November 2013. The majority is housed in emergency centers, the largest of which is in the town of Harmanli. It is effectively a closed detention centre. 

Amnesty International found refugees living in squalid conditions in containers, a dilapidated building and in tents. There was a lack of adequate sanitary facilities with limited access to food, bedding or medicine. 

A large number of people was in need of medical care, including some injured in conflict, individuals suffering chronic diseases and those with mental health problems. 

Some of the refugees in Harmanli told Amnesty International they had been detained for over a month.

“Tens of thousands are risking perilous journeys by boat or land to try and reach Europe. We have seen hundreds lose their lives in the Mediterranean. It is deplorable that many of those that who have risked life and limb to get here, are either forced back or detained in truly squalid conditions with insufficient food, water or medical care,” said Salil Shetty.

Europe must act 
“The platitudes of Europe’s leaders ring hollow in the face of the evidence,” said Salil Shetty.
“The EU must open its borders, provide safe passage, and halt these deplorable human rights violations.” 

Just 55,000 Syrian refugees (2.4 per cent of the total number of people who have fled Syria) have managed to get through and claim asylum in the EU. 

For those who manage to break through the barricades of Fortress Europe, many head for Sweden or Germany, which have offered the most help to asylum seekers. In the two years to the end of October 2013, Sweden has received 20,490 new Syrian asylum applications and Germany received 16,100 such applications.
Less than 1,000 people have claimed asylum in each of Greece, Italy and Cyprus. 

Amnesty International is calling on European member states to: 

  • Significantly increase the number of resettlement and humanitarian admission places for refugees from Syria;
  • Strengthen search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean to identify boats in distress and assist those on board;
  • Ensure that those rescued are treated with dignity and have access to asylum procedures;
  • Ensure that unlawful pushback operations are ended;
  • Provide legal safe passage for Syrian asylum seekers wishing to travel to European member states.

The EU, its member states, and the international community should continue to provide support to countries hosting the largest numbers of refugees, particularly Jordan and Lebanon.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Oman as Iran’s Trojan Horse in the GCC

Prince Turki al-Faisal addressing the Manama Dialogue

Oman is emerging as Iran’s Trojan Horse trying to destroy the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) from within.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the monarch of Oman since 1970, reportedly played a key role in facilitating the secret U.S.-Iran talks leading up to the November 24 “historic” nuclear deal, according to The Associated Press.
Oman is isolated from much of the rest of the Arabian Peninsula by a formidable mountain range, while Iran is just across the narrow Strait of Hormuz, a critical waterway for global oil shipments that has at times raised tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
As early as 2009, according to Wikileaks, the sultanate offered to arrange talks between the U.S. and Iran – which hadn’t had diplomatic relations for 30 years – on condition that they were kept quiet. But it was reportedly the hostage crisis of three American “hikers” that brought him into a mediating role between the two sides and helped win the release of the three Americans, who were arrested and accused of spying while hiking along the Iran-Iraq border.
With that success in his pocket, Sultan Qaboos offered to facilitate a U.S.-Iran rapprochement, the AP reports. In March, U.S. and Iranian officials met in Oman, Secretary of State John Kerry followed up in May, and the talks took on a momentum of their own after Hassan Rouhani replaced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran’s June elections.
Sultan Qaboos wasn’t in front of the cameras in Geneva, but a news report in the Saudi daily al-Hayat this morning speaks of “fears within the GCC of Iranian-Omani efforts to break up” the six-member club grouping Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
Oman and Saudi Arabia bickered publicly over the GCC’s future last week at the three-day Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, a forum on Middle East security.
A much-anticipated Gulf union is inevitable and will happen because people in the region are keen on it, Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s former Intelligence Chief who also served as ambassador in both the United States and United Kingdom, told the conference.
He was commenting on remarks made Saturday by Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, the Omani foreign minister, who said his country rejected the Gulf union and would pull out of the club if the union were approved.
“Everyone has the right to express their opinions,” Prince Turki retorted. “However, this will not prevent the union from happening. Oman can join it then or later, or not at all,” he said.
On the nuclear talks in Geneva last month between the 5+1 world powers and Iran, Prince Turki said they lacked a “very important factor” – namely, the participation of Iran’s Gulf neighbors.
“I don’t know the reasons for that… because eventually we are the ones that will be affected by anything -- a military event or a nuclear leak or any earthquake that may hit the [nuclear] sites in Iran,” he remarked.
“No doubt we are now facing a big smile from the Iranian leadership in the way they are dealing with the Gulf.”
Prince Turki added: “Iran must take concrete measures before we can judge whether it is going forward with a smile, or simply showing its teeth.”

Prince Turki said television and radio stations in Iran are targeting the Gulf Arabs with inflammatory broadcasts tackling “sensitive issues in our Arab world.”
Addressing Iran, he said: “Why don’t you close them down and show us your good intentions? Show us you are serious about this real, wide smile you are showing us.”
The six GCC partners hold their annual year-end summit in Kuwait, tomorrow, Tuesday.
Ghassan Charbel, editor-in-chief of al-Hayat, has this word today to tell tomorrow’s summiteers:
The region is unlike the one that existed three years ago.
Governments are confused. Armies are anxious. Borders are violated or about to be…
Iraq’s disintegration is an undeniable fact. The dismemberment of Yemen is flagrant. What looked like a Syrian intifada turned out to be a sectarian war feeding tension into the neighbors’ arteries.
Lebanon’s institutions are in a coma and its doors are open to refugees and fire. Libya, which spent four decades under one leader, today terrorizes its people, neighbors and the world. From Yemen to Tunisia, al-Qaeda and its ilk are omnipresent…
Today’s world is much more dangerous than the world that witnessed the birth of the GCC in 1981.
Bar Israel, four key regional states will play a dominant role in this difficult phase depending on their respective internal stability, resources and alliances.
They are Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran and Turkey.
GCC leaders who meet in Kuwait tomorrow are aware of the magnitude of the threats to stability and roles. They know the importance of adapting to change.
Oman’s attitude clearly unveiled that the Gulf union’s journey won’t be trouble-free.
But sensitivities should not forestall attempts to reconcile views of the various GCC member states on how to handle this phase of containing risks and assigning roles.  

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Enter Saudi-Iranian “Track II diplomacy”

This is my paraphrasing of the weekly think piece penned in Arabic by Saudi mass media celebrity Jamal Khashoggi for al-Hayat newspaper
“Conflict resolution” specialists note that forthright negotiations between two adversaries often fail when held in the public eye.
This is because of pressure official negotiators come under from their political mentors, as well as from their core supporters who monitor the talks and want to know their secrets from journalists present at or around the negotiations venue.
Whether the journalists’ leaks prove wrong or word-perfect, their effect is often negative.
An issue that was already settled suddenly gets complicated and another that was not on the agenda crops up from nowhere.
Lying in wait are two oppositions trying to raise the stakes and embarrass the two sides.
The “conflict resolution” specialists thus spread and defined the concept of “Track II diplomacy” aimed at fixing a conflict situation.
“Track II diplomacy” would kickoff by arranging for secret talks at a countryside resort or a remote state, initially involving secondary academics and activists.
Some of the latter don’t realize their country’s leadership is aware of the negotiations. They believe they are engaged in scientific research.
Once “Track II diplomacy” makes progress and paves the way for blueprints of an acceptable understanding on which an agreement could be based, the level of participants is raised and the parties start serious negotiations.
They begin exchanging documents setting out the rules of negotiation and the mandatory nature of bilateral agreements.
This is what happened between the Palestinians and Israelis in the early 1990s.
While the late Haidar Abdel-Shafi, Hanan Ashrawi (do you recall those names?) and other members of the Palestinian national movement were engaging the Israelis in tough negotiations at the Madrid conference of 1991, “Track II diplomacy” was underway in a distant corner of northern Europe – namely, in the Norwegian capital Oslo.
The breakthrough came in Oslo.
And the Oslo Accord governs the lives of Gazans and West Bankers today, whether for better or worse depending on one’s political outlook.
I liked this idea.
I thus decided to volunteer and initiate a “Track II initiative” between my native country, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
My decision came after the so-called “Saudi-Iranian impasse” came to light and raised the prospects of problems in the region, the likely escalation on the ground in Syria and elsewhere and the exchange of bombing and counter-bombing charges.
This transpired after the November 24 agreement between the 5+1 world powers and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program and the looming honeymoon in bilateral relations between Iran and the U.S. without a similar breakthrough on the horizon between Riyadh and Tehran.
That’s why I seized the opportunity of my participation in three research workshops over the last three weeks, which took me to Washington, the English countryside and Vienna to test “Track II diplomacy” with Iranian researchers I met there.
Indeed, I came across three of them: a Washington-based researcher, and two others based in Tehran – the first is a consultant to one of the ministries and the other is a political science professor.
Before any of the readers gets excited and describes what took place as official and serious, let me reiterate that it was neither.
Discussions took place on the sidelines of the conference during intermissions or over dinners.
None of us took down notes, but everyone welcomed the idea of “Track II diplomacy” between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
This is not astounding.
Throughout his recent Gulf tour, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did not cease calling for a get together that would promote cooperation, devotion and brotherhood with the kingdom.
But Mr. Zarif reminds me of what I told the Iranian political professor in Vienna: “You want to eat the lamb and at the same time leave it whole to graze hillsides and slopes. You want good relations with the kingdom without pulling out of Syria, for example, or ending your intervention elsewhere in the region.”
At the beginning of our “Track II diplomacy,” the Iranians resorted to cliché expressions such as, “What is Syrian democracy to you? You’re not a democratic state.”
I think my answer was convincing.
I said, “Yes, this is true. But we did not call for or trigger the Syrian revolution. The Syrian people are calling for regime change. We either accept their call as bona fide or let them slay you and the Syrian regime’s people.
“Even if we let down the Syrian people, they won’t acquiesce and they would keep up their uprising. The longer their struggle goes on, the deeper your involvement in it.”
One of my interlocutors retorted saying not all people are against Bashar al-Assad and elections are the only way forward.
We ended our discussion by agreeing that Saudi-Iranian cooperation at Geneva-2 was imperative. I kept insisting that talk of cooperation or elections at Geneva-2 or elsewhere is haywire so long as a lone Syrian soldier continues to fire at his own people with Iranian help.
In another round of “Track II diplomacy” with the Iranian ministry’s consultant, I enumerated the instances of Iranian meddling in the region before asking him bluntly: “Have you a similar list of complaints against Saudi interventions in Iran?”
His answer: “I am not familiar with such security issues… The kingdom did not truly accept the Islamic Republic, choosing to deceive it instead. The kingdom warmly welcomed any aggression against the Islamic Republic by Israel or the United States.”
I denied this, basing myself on several bilateral agreements signed by the two neighbors -- some of them are of a security nature -- and on the exchange of formal visits.
I also pointed out that kingdom has invariably opposed military action against Iran and undertaken not to join any of them.
We continued our discourse over dinner, when we shared a meal of “Wiener Schnitzel” with mashed potatoes on the side.
Our rapprochement was self-evident. We both stopped resorting to controversial slogans used in televised debates only.
We agreed peace would be mutually beneficial.
He told me Iran was groaning under the weight of sanctions and wants to channel its economic resources to economic development.
The political science professor said a third of Iran’s youths are unemployed and Tehran intended to curtail its foreign interventions in the next decade.
“Why should it wait a decade,” I said in reply. “That will prove costly to her and to us.”
“Better you get to know Iran from the inside,” he retorted. “It hasn’t got one lone force only. You’ve got to talk to everyone there.”
It was an encouraging first foray by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran into “Track II diplomacy.”
But the exercise requires patience. It also calls for awareness that it will be a very long journey the two neighbors embarked on over 3,000 years ago.
Why not resume it – even without letup in our bilateral confrontation?