Middle East

By Gideon Rachman
How long can a country that represents less than 5 per cent of the world’s population and 22 per cent of the global economy, remain the world’s dominant military and political power? That question is being asked with increasing urgency in the Middle East, eastern Europe and the Pacific Ocean.

Russia raises its profile in the Middle East
Russia has moved fighter jets, tanks and troops into a base in Syria, meanwhile Vladimir Putin, Russian president, is gearing up to make a major speech at the United Nations. What are the Russians up to? Gideon Rachman discusses this question with Neil Buckley and Geoff Dyer.

There are drawbacks to being a satirist from a deeply authoritarian state. Exile is a frequent consequence. But it has its advantages.

“I’m really blessed as an Iranian comedian,” Kambiz Hosseini told the audience of democrats, dissidents and defectors who gathered this week in Norway for the annual Oslo Freedom Forum (or “Davos for dissidents”). “There’s no shortage of material for me.” Read more

(c) WEF

Holding the World Economic Forum in a ski resort in the Alps sounds like an eccentric decision. In fact, the choice of Davos as a location for the WEF is very clever. It is such a pain to get here that once the delegates are in Davos, they feel compelled to stay. If the WEF took place in a big city, there would be a lot more flitting in-and-out. Read more

  • Borzou Daragahi reports on how the violence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon is merging into a single sectarian war whose Shia and Sunni protagonists are receiving support from regional powers “amid a dizzying and ever-changing cast of militia leaders, jihadi adventurers, sectarian politicians and rogue gangs dressed up as political groups”.
  • As for the conflict in Ukraine, Courtney Weaver discovers that dozens of Chechen fighters have joined pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country, claiming to have been ordered there by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. “They’ve killed one of our guys and we will not forget this,” said Magomed, a 30 year-old Chechen fighter with a wolf tattooed across his chest. “We will take one hundred of their lives for the life our brother.”
  • On the European front, “the outcome of the European elections (at home and elsewhere) paves the way for Italy to play an active role in Europe,” says the Bruegel think-tank as it chews over the success of Matteo Renzi and the Democratic party. But now that Renzi has a mandate, “Italy should play a role and put itself forward as a decided leader in the project of more European integration.”
  • One for a quiet moment and a cup of coffee: The Guardian has gone deep into “enemy territory” and produced an outsider’s guide to the City of London. “I am trying to understand the culture of the City; to find out whether those who work there have learned the lessons of the crash of 2007-08, and if the City can ever be made ‘disaster proof’,” writes Stephen Moss.
  • On that note, Martin Wolf ponders the crisis-prone nature of capitalism and asks what governments must do to minimise the damage without having to resort to the comprehensive measures needed after the last crash.

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  • If the eurozone FTT were adopted by the UK it would probably amount to a big tax cut for the City, but the British are still unlikely to support it because they are so allergic to EU taxes, says the FT’s Alex Barker.
  • Wealthy foreign investors have long used offshore companies to hold property in London, but the scale of the practice is raising eyebrows: between 1999 and 2012 nearly 100,000 UK properties were bought through foreign companies.
  • Central banks are using specific regulatory tools to tackle credit and house price growth, rather than raising interest rates, but there are questions over whether this regulation can stop a boom.
  • MI5 warns British corporate chiefs that foreign intelligence agencies are targeting their IT workers, hoping to use them to gain access to sensitive computer systems.
  • Vox explains Middle East history and the big stories in the region through the medium of maps.

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Patrick Seale, journalist and scholar, Middle East commentator and impassioned Syria expert, died last week after succumbing to brain cancer. He was 83.

Best known as the biographer of Hafez al-Assad, the late dictator of Syria, and as a foreign correspondent, first for Reuters news agency and then as the Middle East correspondent for the Observer, Seale was also at different times an art dealer, a literary agent and in 1999 an intermediary in ultimately vain efforts to secure a peace treaty between Syria and Israel. Read more

♦ Young ‘scrapper’ squares up for reform battle. The challenges awaiting Matteo Renzi, the 39-year-old centre-left leader likely to form Italy’s new government

♦ As Britons struggle to protect their homes from unprecedented floods, the sandbag – the traditional bulwark against rising water – has been branded by experts outdated and hopelessly ineffective.

Termite robots build the future. The FT looks at a ground breaking experiment in artificial intelligence.

♦ How an Arab/Iranian women’s movement to fight patriarchy through reclaiming the body has become intertwined with revolutions in the Middle East.

♦ Carlo Strenger in Haaretz slams the Israeli right’s use of ‘the holocaust card’ whenever the settlement policy is criticised by overseas allies.

♦ For romantically inclined smart readers: The Economist explains the science of love at first sightRead more

A suburb of Damascus after it was recaptured by regime forces (Getty)

On a recent trip to Damascus, an acquaintance surprised me by announcing his plans to leave the country. Concerned friends have been trying to get him to move to Lebanon for the past two years, but he always refused. Like many Syrians, he felt that even with a civil war raging, Damascus had a soulfulness and integrity that Beirut lacks. Now he’s had enough.

“Its not the shelling,” he explained. “It’s the greed.” Read more

♦ The Volcker rule is contentious, but it is not the knockout blow some people had expected.
♦ The economically sensible wing of the US Republican party doesn’t exist, says Paul Krugman.
♦ Iran and Israel have paid tribute to Mandela, while choosing to remain a safe distance from the memorial.
♦ Marc Lynch explains why nobody in the Middle East deserves to be on the Foreign Policy Leading Global Thinker list this year.
♦ After cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s interior ministry has turned its attention to the activist community of journalists, non-Islamists and students.
♦ The Australian speaks to a mother in Iraq who is waiting for her son’s execution to be announced after a “hanging day”. Read more

By Luisa Frey
♦ Spaniards may have less faith in European institutions than before, but no eurosceptic parties have risen in the country, writes the FT’s Tobias Buck.
The higher the fire burns in Middle East, the more the US seems intent on turning away, says FT columnist Philip Stephens.
♦ As part of a soviet-inspired urban plan, superblocks are being built in China. The gated compounds in suburbia have residential towers and houses inside them, but force the new urban middle-class to drive back to the city for services.
Rising anti-semitism is bringing fear to Europe. A third of European Jews are considering emigration because they do not feel safe in their home country, according to The New York Times.
♦ Local newspapers called Wednesday’s breakthrough in peace talks aimed at ending Colombias’s half-century-old guerrilla war “historic”. But many Colombians are sceptical, reports the Global Post
Tens of thousands of middle-class Syrians are trying to get to Europe’s wealthy northern states: “Whether they wind up in Nordic comfort or desperate straits on the fringes of Southern Europe is often a matter of luck”. Read more

Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, and Mohammad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, ahead of talks in Geneva, November 7. Getty.

As Iran and world powers hold a new round of talks in Geneva on Tehran’s nuclear programme, western diplomats have one immediate goal in mind. They want Iran to call an immediate halt to further progress in the nuclear programme so that time can be found next year for a comprehensive solution to the stand-off with the west.

The first round of talks in Geneva last month between Iran and six world powers – the US, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China – went well. Iran suggested it was looking to try and sign a comprehensive deal at some point in 2014 that lifts the full raft of international sanctions while setting out constraints on its nuclear activities.

But as they start negotiating over this hugely complex deal, western diplomats fear time is not on their side. Their concern is that while everyone is talking in Geneva, Iran is developing its nuclear programme on the ground at a speed which they believe is alarming. Read more

Barack Obama with Mahmoud Abbas at the UN (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Image)

“Let there be no doubt: in the Asia-Pacific of the 21st century, the United States of America is all in”, declared Barack Obama in a speech to the Australian parliament in November 2011. But Asians might be excused for having a few doubts about that now that Obama has cancelled half of his upcoming trip to Asia – so that he can stay at home and concentrate on his budget fight with Congress. For the moment, the president is still planning to travel to the Apec summit in Bali. But even that promise is under review, depending on what’s happening in Washington. It would be acutely embarrassing if Obama cancelled the trip to Apec, since it would be the third time he has failed to show up for a scheduled trip to Indonesia. Previous efforts to visit the country that he lived in as a child were cancelled – in March 2010 and then again in June of that year – because of an argument, first over health-care and then over BP. Read more

By Thomas Hale
♦ The Wall Street Journal looks closely at Janet Yellen and the ‘tougher tone’ she may bring to the Fed.
♦ Meanwhile, Roger Cohen ponders Merkel’s election success and her role as the ‘great consolidator’.
♦ Iranian Qassem Suleimani, a supporter of the Assad regime in Syria, has been described as the most powerful operative in the Middle East today. The New Yorker profiles this elusive figure.
The demographic for budget travel is changing – the New York Times looks at business people in hostels.
♦ Christian Caryl’s book Strange Rebels suggests that the 21st century was heavily moulded by the pivotal events of 1979. David Runciman’s review in the LRB is an exhilarating analysis of the future for progressive politics.
♦ Are the lines between the natural and artificial worlds becoming blurred? Sue Thomas expounds on the fascinating notion of technobiophilia in Aeon magazine.
♦ The New York Times looks closely at China’s forays into Central Asia, specifically their recently acquired share in Kazakhstan’s oil.
♦ Paul Mason, writing for Channel 4, weaves together Western intervention in the Middle East with the mercurial plot of HomelandRead more

By Gideon Rachman
The sheer triviality of the German election campaign is a tribute to the success of the country. Only a nation that is secure and prosperous could afford to have a political debate that is so focused on the little things of life. “It’s funny,” says one of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s senior advisers, “foreigners want to know what the German election will mean for the Middle East or for the future of Europe. But we are debating ‘veggie day’ and road tolls.”

By Gideon Rachman
In 1899 Rudyard Kipling, the pre-eminent poet of British imperialism, addressed some stanzas to America. “Take up the white man’s burden,” he urged, “The savage wars of peace/ Fill full the mouth of famine/ And bid the sickness cease.” These days America has a black president and no public intellectual would dare to use the imperialist language of a Kipling. But the idea that the US bears a special burden in policing the world is very much alive. The notion was there in Barack Obama’s call for military action over Syria: “We are the United States,” declared the president – outlining his nation’s special role in creating and defending the post-1945 global order.

By Gideon Rachman
The pace of events in the Middle East has quickened once again. More than two years since the start of the Arab spring, the facts on the ground can still change so rapidly in the region that western governments struggle to keep pace. Last week Barack Obama had convened an emergency meeting to discuss the violent crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, only for the US president to find himself confronted with an even more dramatic challenge – a chemical weapon attack in Syria.

By Abigail Fielding-Smith in Beirut

People struggling to understand the diabolical complexities of the Middle East may have found solace in the FT last week, not in the news pages, but in a letter to the editor from KN Al-Sabah of London, EC4, published last Thursday under the heading ‘A short guide to the Middle East’.

“Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad”, its brisk summary begins, before detailing the myriad and contradictory alliances which make this place the bewildering tinderbox it is (“Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states!”).

The letter, which ends with an exhortation to “have a nice day” struck a chord with general readers and experts alike as they reel from the last few weeks’ barrage of violent and confusing Middle East news. Read more

Video footage showing rows of children in burial shrouds and doctors desperately trying to save other victims shocked the world on August 20. What appeared to be a chemical attack on rebel-held suburbs of the Syrian capital was the latest in a series of allegations that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons in its war against the armed opposition. Just over a year ago, Barack Obama, the US president, vowed that any use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war would be a ‘red line’ that would provoke US intervention in Syria’s conflict. But despite acknowledging that Mr Assad has used chemical weapons, the US has so far failed to take action. Here is a timeline of US statements on chemical weapons and allegations of their use in Syria.

July 23, 2012 The Bashar al-Assad regime confirmed for the first time it possessed chemical weapons, saying it would use them in the case of Western military intervention but never against the Syrian population.

August 20, 2012 President Barack Obama announces his “red line” for Syrian intervention, threatening “enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”

December 6 2012 The White House expresses concern that the Assad regime “might be considering the use of chemical weapons” and that the Syrian authorities would be “held accountable by the United States and the international community if they use chemical weapons or fail to meet their obligations to secure them”. Read more

By Gideon Rachman

If you are going to intervene in a foreign country, it helps to know what you want to happen. But on Egypt – and Syria, too – western policy is buffeted by a mass of conflicting instincts. The US and the EU are pro-democracy but anti-Islamist; pro-stability but anti-crackdown; opposed both to jihadists and to their enemies in the security state. No wonder that the Arab world is confused. The one thing that unites the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood is that they both claim to have been betrayed by the US. Read more