Friday 30 September 2016

Portrait of the Week

John Lennon's haunting Christmas song pleads for peace, but events last week prove that war is far from over

Rachel Lavin

Published 20/12/2015 | 02:30

Peace talks: US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, pictured earlier this year Photo: Getty Images
Peace talks: US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, pictured earlier this year Photo: Getty Images

As we prepare to ring in the centenary of the Easter Rising, we will commemorate how 1916 (arguably) brought us the establishment of a better nation with long-lasting peace and sovereignty in the Republic of Ireland. But in the Middle East, 2016 will mark the opposite.

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One hundred years ago, Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot carved up the Middle East in straight lines and shared the spoils of the newly established states of Syria, Mount Lebanon and Northern Iraq with France while Britain claimed the rest of Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan. On finding out about the decision, Edward House, a foreign policy adviser to US President Woodrow Wilson, said "It is all bad…They are making it a breeding place for future war."

As the centenary approaches, in the Middle East it will be one that commemorates 100 years of unrest in the areas surrounding these borders, today claimed by Isil who are now battling to construct new borders for their Islamic caliphate.

Even as the surrounding countries rallied together last week, bolstered by international support, to try and salvage control over Iraq and Syria, more problems than solutions have been found.

While recent ceasefire talks between Syrian rebel fighters and Assad's regime look promising, opposition fighters said last week they will not agree to a ceasefire unless Bashar al-Assad signs an agreement to step down as president of Syria.

But with Russia and the US leading peace talks in New York on Friday, Putin's allegiance to Assad proves a sticking point in the strategy to fight Isil. Especially when Russia continues to bomb Syrian opposition forces with strikes between Homs and Aleppo and the far north of Syria. UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said "75pc" of Russian air strikes were targeting "people who we believe need to be part of the solution in Syria".

Questions around the vested interests of those involving themselves in the fight against Isil were also raised as an anti-terrorism alliance amongst 34 Middle Eastern and North African countries was announced on Tuesday. While Western leaders cautiously welcomed the news of the Saudi-led coalition, seeing it as an answer to their calls for a more united front amongst Muslim countries against Isil, critics raised questions over the sectarian nature of the alliance. The majority of the countries are Sunni majority, with countries including Shia-majority Iran and Iraq left out of the fray.

Mohammed bin Salman, the country's defence minister and deputy crown prince, said the states would work together to target "any terrorist organisation, not just Isil". But some fear this could be used to turn the Sunni coalition against Shia forces in the region. Tensions are already high elsewhere in the region as Saudi Arabia leads a coalition against Iran-backed Houthi's in Yemen. Famine is looming because of the conflict and 13 million people are defined as 'food insecure' with 21 million people in need of assistance. Oxfam has called it the world's largest "forgotten emergency".

Turkey and Iraq were at loggerheads earlier last week too after protestors in Baghdad burnt the Turkish flag in response to Turkish troops being deployed to Northern Iraq. Turkey said they were there to train Kurdish peshmerga forces and Sunni Arab fighters to fight Isil but Iraqi authorities said they had never agreed to host Turkish forces. Turkey partially withdrew troops on Monday but complete withdrawal has been demanded.

Meanwhile, while the Kurds are one of the main groups leading the fight on the ground against Isil, conflict within Turkey intensified. Two towns near the Syrian and Iraqi borders became central targets for Turkey's latest anti-PKK operations with 10,000 police and troops, backed by tanks taking part. This is in response to the insurgency of the PKK that flared up again in July after the collapse of a two-year ceasefire.

Twenty five Kurdish militants were killed in two days but the chant "Through resistance we will win!" echoed through the streets of the town of Cizre on Thursday night as local Kurds banged saucepans and kicked shutters to protest against the security operations.

Outside of the Middle East, the country of Burundi in Central Africa is said to be on the "very cusp" of a civil war with the UN's human right's chief warning that it could result in eruptions of ethnic violence and have alarming consequences for neighbouring countries.

The conflict began after protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza, who sought a third term in April. At least 240 people have been killed since and 220,000 have fled. Thirty four bodies were found on the streets of the capital last week in the worst night of violence to date. Residents believe it was revenge attacks by police.

Elsewhere, the world saw first-hand the oppressive tactics of the Chinese government as a plainclothes policeman physically prevented a news reporter live on television from reporting outside a courthouse in Beijing. This was just a small example of the oppression of freedom of speech in China however as inside the courthouse, prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was facing up to eight years in prison for criticising the government for what he called, their 'excessively violent' crackdown on the Uighurs Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region.

Overall, this Christmas, as we approach 2016, replays of John Lennon's Happy Christmas (War is Over) seems almost haunting as violence around the world seems to only have escalated since this time last year, let alone 40 years ago when Lennon first pleaded "let's stop all the fight". But simply wanting it is not enough, especially for the Middle East. To achieve long-lasting peace we need a clear united military and diplomatic strategy.

Let's hope it's a good one.

Sunday Independent

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