Archive for May 2008
This, along with other perspectives, will appear on the forum of the Creative Syria website.
After months of rumours it has been announced that Syria and Israel are engaged in formal peace talks under Turkish auspices. In theory it shouldn’t be difficult for the negotiations to come to a positive conclusion. After all, in 2000 Hafez al-Assad and Ehud Barak came remarkably close to an agreement in which the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967, would be returned to Syria, and Syria would recognise and establish normal relations with Israel.
Syria would benefit hugely from peace. Apart from the ramifications for national pride, the return of the Golan would constitute a tremendous economic boost. There would be a boom in construction and tourism as well as an easing of water shortages in the Damascus region. An end to military tensions with Israel would make Syria a much more welcoming environment for investors.
Israel would gain a measure of long-term security and some much needed legitimacy (still not nearly enough – that won’t come until Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs live as equals in Palestine). Both countries would be able to cooperate to confront the climate change and overpopulation crises that are likely to bite in the near future.
The Lebanese government took the first steps towards dismantling Hizbullah’s vital communications network. The opposition closed roads and demonstrated. Pro-government thugs shot at civilians, as they have done many times before. This time, the opposition responded decisively. Disciplined Hizbullah fighters and their unruly allies from Amal and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party quickly took control of West Beirut. Hundreds of Hariri’s Future militia surrendered. In the Shuf, pro-opposition and pro-government Druze forces fought it out, with the opposition winning. The north was messier. In Tripoli the Sunnis fought, Hariri supporters against Omar Karami’s opposition-linked group. Future men ransacked and burnt offices of the Ba’ath Party, of Ayatullah Fadlallah, Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, and the Syrian Social Nationalists. (This party, by the way, is not Syrian but ‘Greater Syrian’; while the Ba’ath envisages a union of all Arab countries, the SSNP wants a state covering Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, Kuwait and – believe it or not – Cyprus, a Fertile Crescent state.) At the time of writing, things have calmed down in Tripoli.
So far, it looks like a clear victory for the opposition and a resounding defeat for the government and its Saudi and American backers. Hariri and Junblatt have been humiliated. Sinyura said he would let the army decide on Hizbullah’s communications network. The army accepted the offer and promptly declared that the resistance would be protected. It also announced that the Hizbullah-linked head of airport security would be reinstated. The government (if it is still the government) must be bitter that the army, which it had heralded as the symbol of a neutral state, has shown more understanding for the opposition than for the leaders who provoked it.
The Lebanese government wants to remove surveillance cameras at Beirut airport, and has suspended the official in charge of airport security because of his links with Hizbullah. Hassan Nasrallah has responded by warning that the government plans to turn the airport into a base for the CIA and Mossad. For the last two days Hizbullah and Amal supporters have closed roads leading to the airport.
The government aims to dismantle Hizbullah’s communications system, which one minister referred to as “Iran telecom.” Nasrallah describes this move as “a declaration of war,” and he may not be exaggerating. Israeli inability to destroy Hizbullah communications in 2006 meant that Israel was unable to achieve any of its war aims. The destruction of the system now would leave Hizbullah vulnerable to assassinations and full scale military attack from Israel.
Working in intolerably humid conditions clearing the salt marshes of southern Mesopotamia, fed on a poor diet of dates and semolina, frequently racially abused, the ‘Zanj’ – east African slaves in 9th Century Iraq – rose in their hundreds of thousands in a revolt which lasted for 15 years. They conquered large parts of Iraq, Iran and Bahrain, held the city of Basra for a decade, established their own capital, and even minted their own currency.
As labour intensive activities such as mining and plantation agriculture had expanded in the Muslim empires, so the slave trade had developed, especially the commerce in African slaves. Simultaneously, cultural justifications for the enslavement of Africans multiplied, with many classical writers depicting blacks as slow-witted and bestial. One writer who did not rehearse the stereotype was Jahiz of Basra, himself perhaps of African origin, who wrote: “Everybody agrees that there is no people on earth in whom generosity is as universally well developed as the Zanj. These people have a natural talent for dancing to the rhythm of the tambourine, without needing to learn it. There are no better singers anywhere in the world, no people more polished and eloquent, and no people less given to insulting language. No other nation can surpass them in bodily strength and physical toughness. They are courageous, energetic, and generous, which are the virtues of nobility, and also good-tempered and with little propensity to evil. They are always cheerful, smiling, and devoid of malice, which is a sign of noble character.”