Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Syria; the new Cold War

ROBERT FISK of The Independent is not known for mincing his words. Having lived in Lebanon for most of his adult life, and having covered almost every Middle East conflict for the last 40 years, Syria’s complex role in the region is well-known to him.

Ruled with an iron fist by the Alawite Assad family, the Sunni business elite and the generals, Syria has played the diplomatic smoke-and-mirrors game as skilfully as the West.

By balancing the various energies at play – from Israel to Hamas to Hizballah – Syria has been able to keep her nose clean by not firing a shot in anger against Israel on the Golan Heights.

Conversely, Syria has supported Hizballah against Israel on another front, southern Lebanon. Its troops were sent packing from Lebanon after the assassination of Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, but it did not necessarily put a stop to covert Syrian influence.

But the Syrian paradox is most clear when one realises that the same government that was willing to cold-bloodedly slaughter 20,000 Islamists in the city of Hama in the 1980’s has offered refuge to Hamas – a Palestinian Islamist political movement.

Whilst the hard rule of Assad and his cronies should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the brutal Syrian political landscape, it’s his apparent unwillingness to disengage from his neighbour, Iran, which has been more the issue for western axis powers than his vicious crackdown.

It doesn’t take much to realise that the US and Europe would be keen to neutralise any relationship that is seen to empower Hizballah and Hamas, and threaten their ally, Israel, whose bluster against Iran grows by the day.

Add into the mix old Cold War foes of the West, Russia and China (as well as their historic double vetoes at the UN) and you have a recipe for what Fisk describes as “the arena for a new Cold War”.

Professor Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Connecticut University, agrees with Fisk because all the old actors are there, even if for varying reasons. He points a finger at NATO’s intervention in Libya colouring the Russian and Chinese perspective.

With NATO allegedly violating Resolution 1973 of the UN charter with its intervention in Libya, there are some real issues of trust with regards to NATO’s intervention in Syria, he says.

He also points to Russia’s concerns about NATO expanding its presence into the Middle East and Eastern Europe. “The Russians, who have a naval base in Syria and who’ve had a relationship with Syria since the 1960’s, don’t want to see the end of the Assad regime.”

Syrians in the Diaspora have told me that the picture is even more convoluted than the above. Analyst Ahmad Rahbane claims that Israel, already fretful about the Arab Spring, wants Assad to stay in power as the Syrian border is now the only stable one.

Assad is a case of the devil they know. Tel Aviv’s biggest fear is Syria’s new Russian-supplied P-800 anti cruise ship missiles, with a range of 300 kilometres, falling into Hizballah’s or other hands if Assad steps down.

Washington-based cleric, Muhammad al-‘Asi whose family is Syrian, said that Saudi Arabia – keen to push back the Mid-East “Shi’ah crescent” – was creating proxies in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Other sources told me they’d received reports of Hizballah fighters supporting the Assad regime.

Natalia Mihailova, a Chinese affairs expert writing on the website radio86.com, says that whilst China is Syria’s biggest commodity provider, China had invested in a 1 billion dollar oil refinery project in 2008, and enjoyed oil exploration rights in Syrian waters.

Syria had minimal economic interaction with the US and European bloc. In Syria, “oil was under everything”, she said, as by 2030 China would outstrip the US as the world’s biggest consumer of oil.

Quoting a maxim from Zhou Enlai, she said that “all diplomacy (in Syria) is a continuation of war by other means”. Global power plays had seen the countries taking their opposite corners.

Paul Craig Roberts, a former assistant to the US treasury during the Reagan years, was as forthright. He told Iran’s Press TV that the western focus on Syria had nothing to with democratic reforms or human rights, but a US effort to deny resources to China, the US’ biggest global competitor.

The Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a Washington think-tank dealing in energy security, commented that it was energy needs that would determine China’s global strategies. China’s reliance on Mid-East oil was 70% (with 20% coming from Iran), and it needed to protect its resources.

But where do the people of Syria, longing for more representative leadership, stand in all of this? Sources in Damascus have told me that they estimate 12,000 people (about 9,000 civilians) have already died in the 13 month uprising.

Human Rights organisations and aid agencies have reported that the Syrian government has mined its borders to prevent people from fleeing the country. And the other day, an aid worker told me she was coming across refugees who’d been gang raped by soldiers.

And as Kofi Annan, the UN and Arab League envoy shuttles between Damascus and Arab capitals with his six-point peace plan, it’s hoped that Syria does not indeed become the stage on which superpowers brawl.

Natalia Mihailova of radio86 feels that whatever happens, it will be a “blockbuster performance” with, tragically, the ordinary people in Syria political puppets in somebody else’s cruel hands.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Blessed Tree: the Prophet's last surviving Companion

THE 10,000 year-old centre of Amman – modernised by the Makkan Sharif, King ‘Abdullah I, after the colonial dissection of the Middle East in 1917 – is Jordan’s bustling capital. Once straddling seven hills, it now encompasses more than 20 as its grey urban sprawl envelops the countryside.

It’s only when you travel out of Amman that you begin to appreciate Jordan. Sa’ud ibn Mahfoudh, a historian, says that Jordan has over 100,000 archaeological sites dating from the Bronze Age to the Islamic era.

On my first visit in 2000 I’d focused primarily on its vast Islamic heritage to research a series of programmes for Voice of the Cape. It had proved to be a fruitful trip, and after having travelled 1,600 kms, I’d left for South Africa drunk with information.

It has always amazed me that so many travellers use Jordan as a transit point. Twenty-thousand Companions of the Prophet (SAW) migrated to the region after his death, and many important historical events occurred there.

On my journey I’d visited the tombs of Prophetic Companions such Ja’fr ibn Talib, Zaid ibn Haritha, Ubaidah ibn Jarrah and Amir ibn Waqqas, and had been overwhelmed that I’d been able stand at their feet.

I’d travelled to Udruh where Abu Musa al-‘Ashari and ‘Amr ibn al-‘As had conducted the arbitration between Sayyidina ‘Ali (ra) and Mu’awiyyah over the Caliphate in 657 CE.

I’d trodden the very soil of the battle of Mut’ah. In this battle (fought in 632 CE) the Muslim army had been defeated by the Byzantines. The Prophet (SAW) had seen the martyrdom of Ja’fr ibn Talib and Zaid ibn Haritha in a vision. He had related that as Ja’fr ibn Talib’s arms were cut off, angelic wings had replaced them.

I’d also crossed the paths of numerous prophets. On a mountaintop overlooking Petra was the tomb of Musa’s (as) companion, Haroun (as), guarded by a crusty old Bedoiun with a dagger. In the village of Baida in one of the valleys below was the spring of Musa (as), from whose sweet waters I had drunk.

In Salt I discovered the tomb of Nabi Yush’a (the biblical Joshua). I visited shrines attributed to Nabi Shu’aib (the Biblical Jethro), the Hebrew prophet ‘Uzair (as) and Ayyub (as) as well as Jadur, the brother of Nabi Yusuf (as). Then there was Lut’s (as) cave on the shores of the Dead Sea.

Closer to ‘Amman I explored the site of the Ashab ul-Kahf (the Companions of the Cave) mentioned in the Qur’anic chapter, Surat ul-Kahf.

All these memories were stirred the other day when I watched a documentary entitled The Blessed Tree. This evocative production (produced in 2010) focuses on a tree near Safawi where the young Muhammad (SAW) met with Bahira the monk while travelling with his uncle, Abu Talib, to Syria.

This was to prove a critical historical event. Bahira would be the first holy man to identify Muhammad (SAW) as a prophet.

In 2000, my guide Nader Al-Abed and I had travelled to eastern Jordan on a tour of the desert castles. We had driven to Azraq, where we would loop back to Amman.

On a lonely drive we passed the turn-off to Safawi, which is near the Wadi Sirhan, a first century trade route from the Hijaz to Syria. It was along this Roman road that the Prophet (SAW) had journeyed. Nader had told me about this tree.

Unfortunately, our hectic schedule prevented us from making what would have had to be a lengthy detour into the desert to see the tree.

But traditions relate that this tree, which had shaded the Prophet (SAW), was where Abu Talib’s caravan had rested. Given the hostile terrain, it was truly astounding that a piece of vegetation could have survived for over 1,400 years.

Later, one of Nader’s friends the photographer Muhammad Salameh, had kindly shown me his pictures of the tree. One image that was particularly striking was a wide angle shot. It showed the desert in relation to the tree, the only one for hundreds of square kilometres.

Another image that we studied showed that the tree, a western Atlantic pistachio or Buttum, had a single trunk with seven side branches. Was this divine symbolism? We didn’t know.

What we did know, however, as we poured over texts was a possibility that this tree was an authentic relic of the Prophetic era. Everything pointed to it, and if it hadn’t been Bahira who recognised Muhammad (SAW), it could have been Waraqah – another Christian monk mentioned in traditions.

I was totally taken aback when I first viewed The Blessed Tree. Nobody (understandably) had taken Nader and me that seriously all those years ago, but here was a full length documentary on it!

In The Blessed Tree Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad relates that on his return from studying at Cambridge his late uncle, King Hussein, had put him to work in the Royal Archives. It was there that researchers had discovered numerous references to the tree, and a forgotten inventory made by King Abdullah I of the holy sites in Jordan.

The Prince had inspected the tree regularly. In 2007 he had visited it together with Habib ‘Ali al-Jifri (a rector of Dar ul-Mustafa in Yemen) and Shaikh Ahmad Hassoun (the chief Mufti of Syria). These men had sat under the tree and made du’ah that they be shown the spiritual truth.

A few days after the event, Shaikh Hassoun had written to Prince Ghazi saying he’d had a dream in which he’d seen someone who appeared to be a hermit about 100 metres away from him. This person had said “peace be to you, O Muhammad ibn ‘Abdullah”.

Shaikh Hassoun had then continued: “…someone whose visage I could not make out was a halo of light under this tree.”

After saying that he had witnessed pious beings – whom he considered to be saints – visiting the figure, he had dipped his hand into a nearby spring to drink when he’d been awoken for the tahajjud prayers.

Prince Ghazi had commented that it was under this very tree that Muhammad (SAW) was recognised as a prophet and that it had borne witness to the Prophet (SAW) who himself was a witness of God.

“That tree is alive, and it’s still there (in the desert)…it’s the only Sahabi, the only remaining terrestrial witness to God's Messenger (SAW),” he said.