Tag Archives: Middle East

The Middle Eastern Problem Soleimani Figured Out

The Iranian general Qassem Suleimani is dead, and tensions with Iran appear to be simmering down. But the landscape he helped build is still very much a problem for the United States.

Since his killing in a U.S. drone strike last week, experts have been rushing to explain just why Soleimani mattered so much to Iran’s ambitions—and what consequences his death really holds for the region. One simple way to think about it: He was the one man who had mastered the new landscape of the Middle East.

Soleimani’s particular skill was in controlling what’s known as “nonstate actors”—a dry name that, in the Middle East, covers the fractious group of militias, religious groups and tribal forces that actually wield power in much of the region. These groups have grown vastly in importance in the past 20 years, confounding traditional diplomats and statecraft, and Soleimani not only exploited but empowered them in Iran’s interests. His absence might help the U.S. in the short term, but it also shows just how deep a challenge the region will pose in the near future—and why our adversaries, whether Iran or Russia, still enjoy a significant and unpredictable advantage in exerting power.

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Posted by on January 20, 2020 in Middle East


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The drone attack on the Saudi refinery is no game-changer. But is there a new ‘axis of evil’ in the Middle East?

When, a couple of days ago, Saudi Aramco’s crude-oil processing facilities were attacked with drones – it is thought by the Houthis in Yemen – our media repeatedly characterised this event as a “game-changer”. But was it really this? In some sense yes, since it perturbed the global oil supply and made a large armed conflict in the Middle East much more probable. However, one should be careful not to miss the cruel irony of this claim.

Houthi rebels in Yemen have been in an open war with Saudi Arabia for years, with Saudi armed forces (and the US and the UK supplying arms) practically destroying the entire country, indiscriminately bombing civilian objects. The Saudi intervention has led to one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the century with tens of thousands of children dead. As it was in the cases of Libya and Syria, destroying an entire country is obviously not a game-changer – just part and parcel of a very normal geopolitical game.

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Posted by on September 17, 2019 in Middle East


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Lies and buffoonery: How Boris Johnson’s fantasy world casts dark shadows in the Middle East

I’ve worked out that in the past week, I’ve been told to wait “only five minutes” at least four times. In the Arab world, any interview that is delayed will always be accompanied by the assurance that I will only have to wait for five minutes. Or I will be called back on the phone in just five minutes. Only very occasionally is it 10 minutes. Almost never one minute. It’s five – used more in Egypt, less so in Lebanon and Syria. In Arabic, “only five minutes” is – my transliteration – khams daqiya faqat. In 43 years, I calculate I must have heard the phrase almost 9,000 times, probably more.

It’s a 99 per cent lie, of course, a lie every bit as big as the average percentage vote for an Arab dictator at election time. But I always – still – believe it. Even today, I will wait in a secretary’s office in the Middle East or glance at my phone and say to myself, ah well, it’s only three more minutes now and he/she will see me or ring back. He or she doesn’t. I know he/she won’t. But in the willing suspension of disbelief, five minutes must have credibility.

The lie has been uttered so many times that it has become more real than the truth. And I have not yet, dear reader, mentioned Brexit.

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Posted by on August 7, 2019 in Europe, Uncategorized


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Trump’s hissy-fit over Darroch will blow a chill wind across Britain’s embassies in the Middle East

Just for a moment, let’s forget poor old Kim Darroch. Let’s jump a couple of days in front of this news story. Let me tell you how his utter humiliation and sacrifice at the hands of Trump – and with the connivance of the man who will probably be the next British prime minister – will affect the Middle East.

Let’s go first to Riyadh where, just off Al Khawabi street, stands the British embassy, wherein labours Simon Collis, our man in Saudi Arabia. He’s previously served in Bahrain, Tunis, Amman, Dubai, Qatar, Damascus and Baghdad. In other words, he’s an old Arab hand. He’s also a Muslim convert and the first British ambassador to make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

But right now, Collis is going to be thinking very carefully when he reports back to the Foreign Office about the Kingdom upon which he must report fully, fairly and truthfully for his government. For all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten his reputation if The Leaker gets his hands on the diplomatic bag from Riyadh.

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Posted by on August 7, 2019 in Europe, Middle East


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Chi vuole scatenare una guerra nello stretto di Hormuz

Come fareste se voleste scatenare una guerra in una regione che vive di petrolio e gas e attraverso la quale passa buona parte dell’approvvigionamento di idrocarburi del mondo? Semplice, attacchereste le petroliere.

È esattamente quello che è accaduto il 13 giugno nel mare di Oman, nei pressi dello stretto di Hormuz attraverso il quale transitano ogni anno circa 2.400 petroliere. Due navi cisterna cariche sono state attaccate e sono stati pubblicati video che le mostrano in fiamme. Gli equipaggi sono stati messi in salvo.


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Posted by on June 14, 2019 in Middle East, Uncategorized


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Our sentimental commemorations have conveniently ignored our reliance on the Middle East

Roosevelt, Churchill and the representatives of Russia and China signed the United Nations Declaration on New Year’s Day 1942, two and a half years before D-Day. After that, those words “United Nations” became the formal name under which the allies were fighting Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and Japan.

The declaration, which would cover the aims of the 6 June 1944 landings, declared that victory was “essential to defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice”. It also supposedly – and very significantly – upheld the Wilsonian “principles of self-determination”.

I’m old enough to have met the soldiers of the First World War – at Ypres in the late Fifties with my 1918 veteran dad, when the men of Passchendaele returned to their former battlefields on holiday. And later I met, on my own Normandy holidays, the men of D-Day.

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Posted by on June 10, 2019 in Middle East


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Arab Spring, Again? Nervous Autocrats Look Out Windows as Crowds Swell

In Sudan, tens of thousands of demonstrators are sitting in to demand the ouster of their longtime ruler.

In Algeria, millions of protesters forced out their own octogenarian leader last week.

And in Libya, an aging general is battling to establish himself as a new strongman, promising to end the chaos that kicked off when Libyans threw out their own dictator eight years ago.

The hopes inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 soured long ago. But across North Africa, the reverberations are coursing through the region once again, shaking autocratic governments and posing new questions about the future.

Veterans of the Arab Spring struggles say the scenes feel like flashbacks to chapters of a common story. The masses now clamoring for the removal of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan evoke the crowds that gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo or outside the Tunisian interior ministry eight years ago.

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Posted by on April 15, 2019 in Africa, Middle East


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What should be done in the Middle East? Ask the Romans

On a rare visit to London not long ago, I followed a short path I used to walk as a schoolboy: from the ruins of the old Roman wall near Tower Hill Tube station to the Merchant Navy memorial. The remains of Londinium contain the fine red “sandwich” bricks which reinforced so many Roman houses, temples and fortifications across the empire.

I studied classics for my first degree and roamed Hadrian’s Wall and the ancient villas of England long before I copied down the Latin inscriptions on the Via Appia outside Rome.

On my very first visit to the memorial, I noticed that the commemorative plaques to the 35,800 merchant seamen of Britain’s two world wars, whose bodies were lost to the sea, contained Arab Muslim names. Many came from Yemen (Arabia Felix to the Romans) – and lived in South Shields – and most worked on the great Atlantic convoys.

And it still comes as a shock to think that the last desperate words uttered by some of those trapped in the engine rooms after the first U-boat torpedoes struck their ships were uttered in Arabic and must have been directed to Allah.

When I returned to Beirut a few days later, I took coffee with friends, quite by chance, beside the ruins of the old Roman city; and I noticed, of course, those familiar red sandwich stones behind the columns of the Via Maximus of ancient Berytus. The building blocks of empire, like the straight stone-slabbed roads, stretched across thousands of miles.

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Posted by on March 13, 2019 in Middle East


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The Western world may no longer underestimate Isis, but we’ve failed to learn the most important lessons from its rise and fall

It is always pleasing for authors to find out that they have readers in far flung places. It was therefore surprising but gratifying to see a picture of a battered copy of a French translation of a book I wrote calledThe Jihadis Return abandoned by Isis fighters, along with suicide vests and homemade explosive devices, as they retreat from their last enclaves in Deir ez-Zor province in eastern Syria.

The book was written in 2014 when Isis was at the height of its success after capturing Mosul, and was sweeping through western Iraq and eastern Syria. I described the Isis victories and tried to explain how the movement had apparently emerged from nowhere to shock the world by establishing the Islamic State, an entity which at its height ruled 8 million people and stretched from the the outskirts of Baghdad to the Mediterranean.

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Posted by on February 8, 2019 in Middle East



Au Moyen-Orient, le tableau commence à devenir plus clair

Le nouvel ordre moyen-oriental n’est pas encore défini, les lignes rouges pas encore indélébiles. La région traverse depuis quelques années une phase de recomposition marquée par le retrait relatif des Américains, le retour de la Russie, la déliquescence de plusieurs États arabes, la montée en puissance des groupes paraétatiques et l’exacerbation de la rivalité saoudo-iranienne. En 2018, le tableau commence à devenir plus clair, les puissances régionales ayant repris le dessus et les différentes milices étant plus ou moins marginalisées.

Le terrain syrien reste le cœur de cette rivalité de puissances qui a donné le ton d’une année qui pourrait être ainsi résumée : la Pax americana n’existe plus, la Pax poutinia commence à prendre de l’ampleur, mais montre plusieurs limites, la Pax irania n’est acceptée par personne et la Pax turquia ressemble encore à un mythe du passé. Israël a un tout autre agenda, tandis que les Arabes sont de plus en plus marginalisés dans leur propre région. L’occasion de faire un bilan non exhaustif de l’année 2018, acteur par acteur.


Si le retrait relatif des Américains dans la région a été initié par Barack Obama, il est en train d’être largement accéléré par Donald Trump, qui ne cache pas son désintérêt pour le Moyen-Orient. Le président américain n’a aucune intention de jouer aux gendarmes dans la région, n’en déplaise à ses meilleurs alliés, Israël et l’Arabie saoudite. Sa décision récente de retirer ses soldats du nord-est de la Syrie est certainement la plus symbolique en la matière, et devrait amener certains commentateurs, qui prévoyaient une offensive militaire prochaine de Washington contre l’Iran, à revoir leur jugement. Les États-Unis de Trump veulent mettre l’Iran à genoux – via les sanctions –, mais ne sont pas prêts à se lancer dans une nouvelle aventure incertaine ni même à empêcher, par leur présence en Syrie, la formation du corridor iranien reliant Téhéran à la Méditerranée.

En 2018, la politique américaine au Moyen-Orient est apparue plus incohérente, plus trumpienne en fait, que jamais. Washington ne semble avoir ni vision globale ni stratégie et se contente soit de défendre coûte que coûte les intérêts de ses deux alliés, soit de privilégier des actions unilatérales et précipitées qui répondent à la vision du monde de Donald Trump.

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Posted by on January 26, 2019 in Middle East