Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, November 18, 2019

Even Before War, Syria Was a Basket Case

By Henry Srebrnik, [Saint John, NB] Telegraph Journal

The war in Syria is the defining conflict of this decade. From its origins in peaceful demonstrations for political reform, the confrontation between the Alawite regime and its opponents evolved into a regional and global proxy war. By now, at least half a million people have been killed.

At the centre is Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, who has weathered international condemnation to emerge still secure in power.

The protests that began in 2011, despite the ferment throughout the Arab world known as the Arab Spring, apparently took Assad by surprise. He fancied himself a more modern, rational ruler, not an autocrat like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or a deluded fanatic like Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.

Assad had married outside the family sect, and he had spent his formative years in London qualifying as an ophthalmologist. Many western leaders considered him a reformer.

His elder brother Bassel, to whom the presidency was meant to have passed, had died in a car accident in 1994.

But sectarian tensions, particularly between the majority Sunni Muslim community and Assad’s Alawite sect -- an offshoot of Shia Islam -- nonetheless escalated into violence, and Assad was faced with a state coming apart at the religious and ethnic seams. 

Soon enough, with the assistance of the army, the air force, semi-private Shi’ite militias, and a national network of intelligence agents, Assad began destroying rebellious communities -- executing civilians, looting, and burning homes.

Assad’s father Hafez, a far more brutal tyrant who ruled for 30 years until his death in 2000, dreamt of a single overarching ideology for Syria. It would be under the wing of the Ba’ath Party (“resurrection” or “renaissance” in Arabic). But it was not to be.

In line with the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, the French and British had divided the former Ottoman Middle East between themselves at the end of the First World War. 

The French occupied the northern Levant, from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates River and beyond – a 200,000 square-kilometre area. They quickly realized that their Syrian dominion was a patchwork of conflicting communities.

The polity they created was a collection of hostile ethnic and religious groups, even before little Lebanon was lopped off in order to create a Christian entity along the Mediterranean coast.

The Alawites were promised a fair amount of autonomy in their own area around Latakia, between Lebanon and Turkey. A nominally Shi’ite sect that most Muslims regarded as heretical, they were eager to associate with the new non-Muslim rulers. 

They provided the French with excellent soldiers and would later form the backbone of the Ba’ath Party’s armed forces in the independent country that emerged in 1946. 

The Druze community was a major power in the mountainous areas south of Damascus and were initially provided with an entity of their own. Later, Jabal Druze were merged into a single Syrian state with Damascus and Aleppo.

Independence brought a succession of military regimes and even a brief incorporation into Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s United Arab Republic between 1958 and 1961. 

Finally, the Assads took over in 1970, coopting all non-Sunni or non-Arab minorities, such as Kurds and various Christian sects, in order to check the majority Sunnis.
They have held on for dear life – literally – ever since.

Identity Politics in Nepal

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

In the Himalayan state of Nepal, identity issues have dominated its political landscapes in the past decade.

There are more than 125 ethnic communities in Nepal, and the majority of people are also peasants.

The dominance of Hindu groups began after the unification of various principalities into modern-day Nepal by the Gorkha King Prithvi Narayan Shah in the 1770s, establishing a Hindu dynasty in Nepal.

However, Nepal witnessed a series of peasant rebellions against the state and landed aristocrats in the 20th century, culminating in a full-fledged Maoist revolution which overthrew the old order.

Ethnic peasants were at the forefront, demanding autonomy, dignity, and an end to state violence. Since then, however, the idea of indigeneity has become more pronounced. 

As identity politics became the dominant ideological force, this has undermined the course of radical political developments in the country.

People who do not fall within the Hindu caste hierarchy and have their own language and cultural identity claim themselves to be ethnic populations. 

Madhesi communities in the southern Terai area, which borders India, and who constitute one third of Nepal’s population, consider themselves as a separate ethnic group.

The Maoists entered into a peace agreement in 2006 and two years later won the first elections of the post-war period. They declared Nepal a republic. 

However, in the aftermath of the revolution the powerful ethnic and peasant movements were gradually replaced by identity politics as a new consolidating force in Nepali politics. 

Dozens of political groups emerged demanding political autonomy for indigenous people and identity-based federalism in Nepal. Taking advantage of this, urban and ethnic elites, have reconsolidated their political and economic power.

The Maoists had effectively mobilized the idea of ethnic autonomy to enroll the rural peasantry into the revolution, not realizing this might eventually boomerang and reproduce, via new forms of identity-based political mobilization, a return to upper class dominance.

By prioritizing ethnic autonomy, the Maoists had created an opening for identity politics to displace core concerns regarding social, cultural, and economic exploitation.

As identity politics surpassed other political ideas, the Maoists themselves were left with ethnic federalism as the only agenda for their political campaign. 

Ethnic identity politics became particularly strong in the Terai region, where the Madhesi people faced the most entrenched economic inequality and caste discrimination in the country. They have long been exposed to racial slurs and to being framed as Indians or illegal migrants.

They had come to champion a Madhesi state within a proposed new constitution. But the Maoists, voted out of power in elections held in 2013, were forced to accept a new constitution, passed in 2015, which created a geography-based federation, dividing Nepal into seven provinces.

Madhesi activists argued that it separated them into different jurisdictions, increasing rather than alleviating their discrimination. 

So while many Nepalese celebrated Constitution Day this past Sept. 20, Mahanta Thakur, leader of the Madhesi-based Rastriya Janata Party Nepal, told protesters that the Madhesi people “have been fighting against oppression, injustice and discrimination for a long time.” That is why “we consider this day a black day.” 

The Nepalese situation is another demonstration of the law of unintended consequences, as the Maoists learned the hard way.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

An Obscure Part of South Asia

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

There are places in the world so relatively obscure that few people other than those who live there are aware they exist, but that doesn’t make them any less important.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts in the far southeastern corner of Bangladesh is one such region.

It has a diverse population, quite different from the rest of Bangladesh, which is almost uniformly Bengali Muslim. Its inclusion in the Muslim state called Pakistan that was born at the 1947 partition of India has also led to problems for its peoples, who are mostly Buddhists and Hindus.

Covering 13,295 square kilometres, the Hill Tracts are the only extensively hilly area in Bangladesh. It shares borders with Myanmar on the south and southeast, India on the north and northeast, and the Chittagong district of Bangladesh on the west.

Home to eleven indigenous ethnic groups, the largest being the Chakma, they are collectively known as the Jumma people.

They historically have lived a relatively semi-autonomous existence under first Mughal and then later British imperialism. They were governed by semi-autonomous local chieftains or minor “princes” as British administrators dubbed them.

At the time of partition in 1947, the inhabitants of the Hill Tracts opted to join secular India rather than Muslim-majority Pakistan but, for complex reasons, ended up in the latter.

This population, numbering some 500,000, is different from the majority Bengali people of Bangladesh in language, culture, heritage, religion, political history, and economy.

They are closer to their Southeast Asian neighbours in Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia and speak Tibeto-Burmese dialects rather than Bengali.

Such ethnic and religious differences have been a source of conflict in the region. The peoples of the Hill Tracts have suffered violence and human rights violations, including the destruction of Buddhist and Hindu temples, forced conversion to Islam, rape and massacre.

Many peoples in the area have objected to the influx of Muslim Bengali settlers. While in 1961 there were 40 mosques and two madrasas in the region, by 1981, there were 592 mosques and 35 madrasas.

Widespread resentment also occurred over the displacement of some 100,000 of the native peoples due to the construction of the Kaptai Dam in 1962. It inundated nearly 40 per cent of their cultivatable land.

They did not receive compensation from the government and many thousands fled to India.

The 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh required “Bengaliness” to be the prime identity for its citizens, effectively sidelining minority indigenous groups like the Chakmas. Chakma leader Manabendra Narayan Larma refused to be identified with the Bangladeshi nation.

An armed struggle between the Shanti Bahini insurgents made up mostly of Chakmas, and the government only ended in 1997 with the signing of the Chittagong Hills Tract Peace Accord.

It provided recognition of the region as a tribal-inhabited area, introducing a special governance system. This was regarded as the cornerstone of a new period of peaceful coexistence between the inhabitants of the Chittagong Hills Tracts and Bangladesh.

But the lack of implementation of the main provisions in the accord has led to an increase in tensions between the central government and the indigenous communities. These derive in particular from the presence of the Bangladesh military in the region.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Hezbollah is Losing Grip on Lebanon

By Henry Srebrnik, [Saint John, NB] Telegraph-Journal

More than a million of Lebanon’s five million citizens recently came out into the streets to express their anger at a fossilized political class that has run the country into the ground.

Since Oct. 17, protests across Lebanon have challenged the political status quo, in a country which has always been run by the country’s ruling sectarian-based oligarchy. It was ignited by a government plan to tax WhatsApp calls. 

The mass demonstrations have brought the country to a halt, closing schools and banks, and blocking roads and highways.

To make things worse, Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Oct. 29 ended up resigning, though still governing as a caretaker.

The country’s political system is constitutionally divided along sectarian lines to ensure the inclusion of Lebanon’s 18 recognized ethnic and religious communities.

As a result, Lebanon’s various religious groups established their own parties and patronage networks, creating a widespread system of corruption and nepotism.

Protesters want a government of non-partisan experts to lead Lebanon out of its deepening economic and financial crisis, secure basic services such as water and electricity, and create a new, non-sectarian electoral law. 

The Shiite group Hezbollah, which is both a political party and an armed militia, is a power broker in the country and enmeshed in its governing institutions.

But if it fails to adapt to the new situation it could potentially risk the environment that has allowed the group three decades to confront Israel and expand its regional activities. 

The fact that protests are occurring in even traditional Hezbollah strongholds such as the Bekaa Valley and South Lebanon should be a cause for alarm for the group.

Hezbollah in 2016, with the tacit approval of Iran and the United States, secured a deal that brought General Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian, to the presidency; Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, to the premiership; and made Nabih Berri, a Druze, parliamentary speaker.

In return, it agreed not to hinder the ability of Aoun and Hariri and to lead the government.

Is this agreement now coming undone? Though this is hardly the first time Lebanon has been convulsed by civil conflicts, what’s different is that the current grassroots uprising of younger people is not sectarian. Shia, Sunni, Christian and Druze appear to be coming together.

They have been flying Lebanese flags, rather than those of sects and parties. And they have been targeting those they regard as corrupt within their own communities.

Both Maronite Christian Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai and Sunni Muslim Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Derianhas, have called for a change in government to include qualified technocrats.

“The country's situation cannot withstand another day of delays,” Al-Rai stated.

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, the odd man out, may be losing control of a significant part of the Shiite constituency as these protests continue.

Nasrallah has asked supporters to stay off the streets and suggested that the turmoil was instigated by foreign countries.

Still, while his Shiite supporters may not approve of his dealings within the Lebanese political system, they remain supportive of “the resistance project” against Israel.

Meanwhile, Lebanese leaders have yet to make progress on the formation of a new cabinet, and the crisis deepens.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Crackdown is Ballot Question in Spain's Election

By Henry Srebrnik [Fredericton, NB] Daily Gleaner

The rise in Catalan nationalism over the past two decades has led to overly repressive measures taken by the Spanish government.

Spain is going to the polls this coming Sunday and the outcome will depend in large part on how voters react to the days of unrest which have swept Barcelona and other Catalan cities after Spain’s Supreme Court on October 14 sentenced nine Catalan separatist leaders to lengthy jail terms over a failed 2017 independence bid.

The vote for independence in a referendum two years ago, though successful, was quashed by the central government in Madrid and its leaders arrested.

The longest prison term, 13 years, went to the former deputy leader of the Catalan regional government, Oriol Junqueras, head of the secessionist ERC (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya – Republican Left of Catalonia).

 “The road of self-determination is a dead end,” claimed Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, speaking recently at a rally near Barcelona, as the leader of the Catalan branch of the party, Miquel Iceta, stood beside him.

He might be proven wrong, if the number of Catalan flags flying in Barcelona is any indication -- something I took note of when in the city last June.

Large protests erupted in Barcelona and other cities after the verdicts. On Oct. 24 some 350,000 people rallied in Barcelona in support of the separatist leaders.

Catalonia’s current pro-independence president, Quim Torra, criticized the arrests and has called for a new independence referendum within two years.

Torra was voted into office in 2018 by the JxCat (Junts per Catalunya – Together for Catalonia), an electoral alliance created by former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, and the ERC.

Puigdemont, who fled the country and now lives in Belgium as a fugitive, has stated that Catalans were victims of a “strategy of repression and revenge.”

Catalan politics remained remarkably stable until 1999 in terms of party competition and parliamentary balance.

The party system was dominated by the CiU (Convergència i Unio – Convergence and Union), while the main opposition party was the PSC (Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya – Socialists’ Party of Catalonia).

But in 2000, the PSC launched a proposal to reform the 1979 Statute of Autonomy, which provided Catalonia with a large measure of self-government. Their goal was to reinforce political collaboration with the secessionist ERC.

Following elections in 2003 the CiU, which had governed Catalonia since 1980, lost power to a PSC-ERC coalition.

The reform was approved by referendum a year later and whetted the appetite of nationalists wanting to go further; they saw their chance following the 2008 financial crisis in Spain. Today, the idea of Catalan sovereignty has captured the loyalty of a large percentage of Catalans.

The response has been a new and strengthened Spanish nationalism. Sanchez has spoken out vehemently against Catalan independence in order to win the general election. But parties on his right that have adopted an even stronger stance are gaining.

The PP (Partido Popular – People’s Party) has called for a national security law which would allow Madrid to take control of Catalonia’s regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra. Others want direct rule. Where this will end is anyone’s guess, but it won’t be pleasant.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Boko Haram is a Formidable Movement

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
In northeastern Nigeria, a war has raged for a decade between Boko Haram militants and the Nigerian state. Can it be won?

Boko Haram emerged in the late 2000s in Nigeria’s Muslim-majority northeast, an area that has endured years of poverty, corruption and underdevelopment. 

Its militants mainly inhabit areas in the northern states of Nigeria, specifically Yobe, Kano, Bauchi, Borno and Kaduna. 

Boko Haram was referred to locally as the Nigerian Taliban because of their religious similarities to the Afghani movement.

Boko Haram does not engage in Nigeria's political system out of an adherence to a fundamentalist form of Islam which forbids participation unless the system is based on Sharia, or Islamic law. 

Originally a popular religious movement that challenged this status quo through ultra-conservative Islamist activism – openly opposing democracy and the legitimacy of the Nigerian state – Boko Haram turned to armed revolt in 2009, launching an uprising that the authorities have tried to crush with extreme brutality. 

More than 37,500 people have died in the conflict with the group, according to data collected by the Council of Foreign Relations. Millions have had to flee the wider area, with many living in internally displaced person camps miles away from home.

Today it remains a violent insurgent group, widely abhorred but still able to recruit on the basis of grievances many in northern Nigeria share, and whose members have tried to build links with other jihadists in west Africa. 

Last year, the group split into the “Islamic State – West Africa Province” (ISWAP) and a splinter faction operating under the group’s original name. ISWAP in particular now appears resurgent, having conducted a recent series of attacks against the Nigerian army and built closer ties to communities around the Lake Chad Basin, extending the territory under its influence.

The Lake Chad Basin, at the borders between Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Niger and the Central African Republic, is an important strategic location as the last green oasis before the Sahara Desert.

Some analysts have pronounced Boko Haram al-Qaeda’s representative in Nigeria, a view designed to push the United States to view Boko Haram as a global strategic threat to Western interests.

But this is rejected by many scholars of the region, who understand Boko Haram as just one of the symptoms of an ailing Nigeria-- a country riven by corruption and violent abuse, facing multiple crises across a diverse and large population. 

Portraying Boko Haram in this way, warned such academics, could hurt many more innocent people and exacerbate a grievous humanitarian emergency. 

Actually, Nigeria’s military influences and controls much of the debate about the movement, and its own conduct can be intimidating, even towards the politicians in Abuja. 

Last December the Nigerian government briefly suspended the operations of UNICEF, accusing it of “unwholesome practices” and “deploying spies” for Boko Haram.

This followed the UN agency’s claim earlier that year that Boko Haram had kidnapped more than 1,000 children since 2013.

It is difficult to verify such claims, given the militants’ control of most of the countryside. The heartland of the insurgency is a conservative, deeply rural society with low literacy and few English speakers. It’s impossible for outsiders to get around easily.