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The Afro-Middle East Centre invites you to an international conference entitled 'In whose interests? Exploring Middle East involvement in Africa'. AMEC’s international conference scheduled for 5 to 6 November 2013 promises a close interrogation of the nature and extent of Middle Eastern states' penetration into Africa. Around twenty Middle East and African speakers and scholars will come together to deliberate on various issues such as aid to Africa, the role of the African Union, educational links, and desire for African resources in the interaction between the two regions. - See more at: http://www.amec.org.za/events/conferences/itemlist/category/263-middle-east-in-africa-conference-2013.html#sthash.OJQi5lDx.dpuf
The Afro-Middle East Centre invites you to an international conference entitled 'In whose interests? Exploring Middle East involvement in Africa'. AMEC’s international conference scheduled for 5 to 6 November 2013 promises a close interrogation of the nature and extent of Middle Eastern states' penetration into Africa. Around twenty Middle East and African speakers and scholars will come together to deliberate on various issues such as aid to Africa, the role of the African Union, educational links, and desire for African resources in the interaction between the two regions. - See more at: http://www.amec.org.za/events/conferences/itemlist/category/263-middle-east-in-africa-conference-2013.html#sthash.OJQi5lDx.dpuf
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Concept note

For many centuries, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has been a theatre that foreign powers have sought to control and gain influence in. In the twentieth century, with British and French attempts to destroy the Ottoman empire, the 1918 Sykes-Picot agreement saw these powers seek to divide the region into their respective spheres of influence. The region’s importance to foreign powers increased as oil became the primary energy source over coal, since the MENA region possessed some of the world’s largest oil reserves.

By the mid-twentieth century, the Cold War, in which the USA and the Soviet Union fought for ideological and global superiority and employed proxy states and forces in various parts of the world, saw these powers and their allies battle for the support of MENA states and non-state actors in attempts to extend their influence over a critical geostrategic region and to exert control over energy resources. Western powers such as the USA and Britain supported Arab monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, while Arab republican states such as Egypt and Syria were, in the main, supported by the Soviet Union. Two powerful non-Arab states in the region, Iran and Turkey, were both in the western camp for much of the Cold War era.

The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 added a new dimension to foreign intervention as a number of western powers sought to bolster and protect the new entity and ensure the easy flow of Jewish immigrants to it. Israel effectively became the bulwark of western interests in the MENA region.

Despite the end of the Cold War in 1989-1990, the region’s geostrategic significance and oil resources ensured that it would remain the target of various forms of intrigue and intervention. The discovery of large gas reserves gave even more reason to foreign powers to jostle to win influence. More recently, emerging powers, such as India and China, have also sought to access the resources in the MENA region and exert influence over state and non-state actors there. For China, the region is also critical in its belt and road initiative, which aims to tether China’s growth to an opening up of trade routes and markets with Middle East countries.

In the past decade, the involvement of a number of foreign powers in the region has been massively militarised in some countries. The shock of the MENA uprisings in 2010-2011 persuaded many foreign actors to increase their role in the region. Indeed, Syria and Libya serve as good examples of the large number of foreign actors intervening, and of the scope and scale of their interventions. The USA, Russia, a number of European states, as well as non-state military outfits from these countries have been active in military training, strategic planning and advice, on-the-ground military activity, and air attacks that have left thousands of citizens of MENA countries dead or injured. Many of these countries are also key suppliers of weapons to state and non-state actors. The rise of the Islamic State group provided a further excuse to foreign powers who wanted to maintain a presence in the region, and it became the cited reason for the increased military activity of Russia and the USA, as well as other foreign powers.

In many instances in the region, the influence and interventions of these foreign states have often led to the suppression of the popular will, facilitated the violent clampdown on dissent, and generally empowered elites against the citizenry – often with serious implications for the violations of human rights.

In the past decade, the foreign role in the MENA region has taken new and different forms, from seeking to influence youth activists through funding to largescale military intervention. These interventions have also played a role in reconfiguring political alliances and axes in the region. While current politics in the region are extremely fluid, this reconfiguration could produce developments that upset the manner in which state-to-state relations have been conducted within the region in the past half a century, and could also see radical changes in which external states exercise what influence on which state and non-state actors in the region. Will the US role continue along the same trajectory as it had been in the past? Is Russia poised to play a much larger role and develop its own set of MENA proxies and allies? How will fluctuating Turkey-USA relations affect the role of NATO in the region? Will Turkey’s and Iran’s mostly warm relations with Russia result in a new regional-foreign bloc? How will the Saudi-Israeli-American alliance play out in future and how will it affect the future of the Palestinian struggle? These and numerous other such questions are relevant in any discussion on the role of foreign actors in the MENA region.

The above themes and questions will be interrogated at a two-day conference organised by the Afro-Middle East Centre. Academics and experts from the region and globally will discuss these issues and assess the region’s future trajectory.

by Helen Lackner

Yemen remains in the grip of its most severe crisis ever: the civil war between forces loyal to the internationally-recognised government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition on the one side and those of the alliance between the Houthi rebel movement and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh on the other has devastated the country. ‘Chaos’ is an appropriate term to describe the situation in a turbulent region. With no immediate prospects for the stable, peaceful, and democratic state that hundreds of thousands of demonstrators called for during the 2011 uprisings, what went wrong? Why is there no prospect even of an internationally brokered plan to help end hostilities, let alone find peace? Conflicts in Yemen stem from a combination of internal rivalries between elites, rising demands of an increasingly impoverished population, interventions from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and western states and neoliberal financiers.[1]

On 12 July 2017, the United Nations Special Envoy told the UN Security Council, ‘The situation in Yemen remains extremely grave. The intensity of the conflict increases day after day…The humanitarian situation is appalling…The country is not suffering from a single emergency but a number of complex emergencies, which have affected more than 20 million people and whose scale and effect will be felt long after the end of the war.’[2] The UN also declared the spread of cholera in Yemen the worst ever recorded worldwide. There are now over 300 000 suspected cases and over 1 700 people have died as a result of the epidemic. Fourteen million people are food insecure, of whom almost 7 million are at risk of famine.

This paper probes the main causes behind the disintegration of the Yemeni state established in 1990, and discusses early promises that were dashed by a succession of problems culminating in the 2011 uprisings, the failed transition of 2012-14,[3] the Houthi takeover of Sana’a, their alliance with Saleh, and the Saudi-led intervention. It also deconstructs the rationale behind the events that led to the collapse of the Yemeni state, as well as the reasons why the international military intervention, starting in 2015, has ensured the prolonging of the war, and its catastrophic consequences for the population.

Origins of the New Republic
The Republic of Yemen was established in 1990 by the merger of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), the former resulting from the overthrow of the imamate in 1962 by a group of republican officers, and the latter emerging from British-administered Aden and the protectorates. These states had different political orientations; the YAR following a capitalist one while the PDRY was the only socialist state in the Arab world. Despite these differences, the two states shared common features that made Yemen a nation: a common culture, a similar fundamental social structure despite both regimes’ efforts to transform society in divergent directions, and a shared economic base of agriculture and fisheries with hopes of discovering oil. Families – and both states – relied considerably on remittances from migrant labour elsewhere in the peninsula and beyond.

Unification was the most popular political slogan on both sides of the border, and was embraced by both populations. But unification was born by forceps rather than through a democratic process: Saleh, who was president of the YAR (1978-2017), persuaded southern leader Ali Salem al-Beidh to agree to a full merger only hours after the PDRY’s ruling Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) had confirmed its commitment to a federal agreement that left considerable autonomy to each former state. This shift laid the basis for tension and led to a short civil war in 1994, decisively won by Saleh with the military support of the factions that had been defeated in the 1986 internal conflict in PDRY, including current ‘legitimate’ president Hadi, and the Salafis returning from Afghanistan. 

Yemen map Lackner

Mounting Crisis and The 2011 uprisings

The Republic of Yemen’s first two decades were characterised by economic crises. More than 800 000 Yemenis were deported from GCC states when Yemen voted against UNSC Resolution 678 that approved military action against Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait. This reduced foreign economic aid to Yemen to almost zero, and added close to a million job seekers at a time of high unemployment. Although this crisis receded by 1995 and aid was resumed, it is worth remembering that remittances from workers abroad, mostly in GCC states, remained more important to Yemen’s economy than aid. Moreover, remittances directly reached mostly rural households, while aid went to state institutions in the early years. This shift changed in the late 1990s when IFIs actively weakened the state by financing organisations such as the Social Fund for Development and the Public Works Project, which operated according to ‘efficient’ private sector principles, though in fact they are parastatals whose salaries allow them to poach the best staff from line ministries, thus reducing their technical capacity. Other factors, such as climate change, rapid population growth and the corruption of the ‘elite’, contributed to increasing poverty and worsened the gap between the majority of the population and the small group of beneficiaries of the Saleh regime. Earning potential within Yemen and beyond was negatively impacted by constraints on migration and lack of job creation policies at home.

Political tensions increased through three episodes:

  1. Opposition parties in parliament regrouped in the Joint Meeting Parties in 2003, composed of Islah (the largest party, itself combining northern Hashed tribes and supporters of Muslim Brotherhood throughout the country), the YSP, Baathists, Nasserists, Popular Forces and al-Haq parties.
  2. The emerging Houthi movement began armed opposition to the Saleh regime in 2004, resulting in six short wars until 2010.
  3. The rise of the southern separatist movement from 2007. It was initially peaceful, but the regime’s aggressive response contributed to the growth and increased influence of the movement.

Combined with the social and economic crises, the only missing element was a trigger for a major uprising. The turning point came in the form of the apparently successful overthrow of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, encouraging Yemenis to believe that fundamental change was possible. Symbolised in the slogan ‘Saleh out’, the movement included thousands of independent youth and women, and members of opposition parties who were later joined by their leaderships. With a split in the military/security forces in March 2011, the country came close to large-scale warfare between opposing military factions, while the anti-Saleh peaceful civil movement persisted but was increasingly influenced by the political parties, particularly Islah and the Houthi movement. These developments led to intervention by the ‘international community’ in the alleged pursuit of a peaceful solution to the crisis.

The GCC Agreement and the transitional regime
Various events in the course of 2011 gradually weakened the Saleh regime and led, by the end of the year, to the GCC Agreement, which included Saleh’s resignation and his replacement by his former vice-president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who was to lead a transitional regime. According to the GCC Agreement, the two-year transition would get the political and economic support of the international community. It included a government of national unity that brought together Saleh’s forces and the opposition’s forces, the restructuring of the military/security sector, and a National Dialogue Conference (NDC) to design Yemen’s post transition structures. This was to be followed by a Constitution Drafting Committee, a referendum on the draft constitution, and elections.

Most of these steps were formally undertaken between 2012 and 2014. However, they failed to achieve the desired result, largely due to inherent design faults, such as allowing Saleh not only to stay in the country, but to continue leading the GPC, and allocating half of the government posts to his party. While this arrangement reflected the actual balance of power in 2011, it jeopardised the national unity government’s potential as ministers from the two main groups (GPC and Islah) competed for power and actively undermined each other. The government developed an unenviable reputation of being Yemen’s most corrupt ever, while failing to halt the deterioration of living conditions. The international community also shared considerable responsibility for the absence of social and economic development. Close to USD 8 billion was pledged for Yemen in September 2012, but these funds were withheld under various pretexts, resulting in continued deterioration in public services.

This period witnessed the quiet rise of the Houthis, who consolidated their control over the northern governorate of Sa’ada. They expanded their control zone militarily and politically westward towards the Red Sea, aiming to control the small port of Midi to ensure they were not landlocked, as well as controlling the entire western part of the border with Saudi Arabia. They also moved east into Jawf governorate, again on the Saudi border, but this time in the belief that the area had significant oil resources. Moreover, they expanded southwards and reached Amran town in mid-2014, only fifty kilometres north of Sana’a, after taking over the stronghold of the senior Hashed leaders.

There have been several points of correlation between the waning transitional regime and the rise of the Houthis. The former was known for its corruption, incompetence, and inability to address the social and economic problems of the population, whereas the latter benefited from their (secret) alliance with Saleh. A final contributor to their success was the internal rivalry within the transitional regime. Hadi had sought to weaken Islah by allowing the Houthis to defeat it, with the intention of controlling the Houthis. One can only presume that he was unaware of their cooperation with Saleh.

In the summer of 2014, large anti-government demonstrations contested the IMF-recommended rises in fuel prices. The Houthis capitalised on their image as an oppressed minority, supporting the popular demands and pushing for government accountability. They managed to take over Sana’a on 21 September 2014, and consolidated their position in the following months.

By January 2015, the submission of the new constitution draft to the post-NDC body was an excuse for a final showdown. Both Houthis and Saleh regarded the proposed federal state as unacceptable for different reasons. Hadi and his new government were placed under house arrest as the Houthi-Saleh military forces moved further south and captured Aden by March. After escaping from Sana’a, Hadi named Aden the country’s interim capital. He and his ministers escaped to Riyadh, while requesting the GCC to provide military support to restore the transitional regime.

A Wider Radius of the War
In the regional context, there was a likelihood of victory in favour of the Saleh-Houthi forces in spring 2015. The newly-appointed minister of defence in Saudi Arabia, ambitious young Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), saw the Yemen downturn as an opportunity to prove himself as a new leader, full of initiative, and determined to solidify Saudi Arabia’s role in the region. He presumed his modern air force, equipped with the latest western weaponry, would easily defeat the ill-trained forces of the poorest Arab state. The Saudi-led coalition destroyed the Yemeni airforce on the first day of the war. By the summer of 2015, it became imperative to involve ground troops, mostly from the UAE and other coalition members, primarily Sudan, alongside mercenaries from various Latin American states. This tactic enabled the coalition forces to ‘liberate’ the area of the former PDRY and some of the northeast of the country by the autumn of 2015. However, the military stalemate has prevailed.

The UN-sponsored negotiation process has thrice failed to stimulate a settlement plan between the warring parties. Since mid-2016, UN mediation has not been able to convene another round of talks. There have been two main political developments in the last two years:

  1. In the areas controlled by the Houthis, worsening tension within the Houthi-Saleh alliance culminated in Houthis killing Saleh in his Sana’a residence on 4 December 2017, leaving them in full control of the northern highlands. This may well be the peak of their power, as they now have to add forces loyal to Saleh to their list of rivals.
  2. The disintegration and fragmentation of the ‘liberated’ areas. The main characteristic of the Hadi government is its absence. Southern governorates are under the control of a range of forces including southern separatists (the Southern Transitional Council (STC) established in May 2017 is the most influential of these groups), various local regional forces, and jihadis. The UAE set up, financed, trained and deployed military and security forces – known in the western governorates as Security Belts, and in the eastern ones as Elite Forces. They are all primarily composed of local Salafis and do not form a coherent body. The northern areas are under the control of the vice president (since April 2016), Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, an Islamist on the extremist end of the Islahi spectrum. State institutions have largely disintegrated, partly due to the failure of the internationally-recognised regime to pay salaries.

While the Arab Coalition includes several states, the decision-making process is controlled by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. However, there is increasing divergence in policy and strategy between them, most visible in the south. Regardless of the rhetoric, Emirati forces are actively supporting separatists via the STC and the security forces. While claiming to address the problem of jihadi groups (AQAP and the Islamic State group), most of their interventions and arrests are against Islah, considered by the UAE to be Muslim Brothers, whom they pathologically detest. Outsiders have difficulty understanding support for extremist Salafi groups who are more dangerous to a moderate Islam than the Muslim Brothers. Divergence with the Saudi regime focuses on this aspect as it supports Ali Mohsen, who is an important Islah leader, and have had, for decades, very different approaches to Muslim Brother-related institutions.

Deepening humanitarian crisis
In the poorest Arab country with high levels of poverty and malnutrition, the current war has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Some 22 million of the 29 million population are in dire need of humanitarian assistance; 16 million individuals lack clean water and sanitation; 18 million are food insecure, including 8 million ‘on the brink’ of famine; and more than 1 million are victims of cholera, another world record.[4]

About 16 000 individuals have been killed by coalition air strikes, with the most effective weapon being the blockade of Yemen’s main port Hodeida and other Red Sea ports, as well as the imposed closure of Sana’a airport. Several thousands of Yemen WHO LacknerYemenis have died by hunger, disease and other side effects of the blockade, a driving force behind the humanitarian crisis.

An Open-ended war?
The perpetuation of the Yemeni war derives from two main reasons. First, international intervention has added another layer of complex issues, which seem irrelevant to Yemen and Yemenis. The main issue is Iranian-Saudi rivalry. Saudi accusations that the Houthis are no more than ‘Iranian proxies’ have become part of the official discourse throughout the region and beyond, including in the USA. While the reality is that Iran’s actual involvement is minimal, it benefits from a massive propaganda advantage in exchange for limited practical support to the Houthis. This added element tends to complicate the pursuit of a solution.

The second reason is both internal and external vis-à-vis Yemen. In the domestic context, numerous figures on all sides benefit from the war. Not only do they have no incentive to end it, but they have every incentive to prolong it. They include men and boys manning checkpoints and ‘taxing’ passengers and goods (including the basics to keep people alive: food, fuel and people seeking medical aid). Next are the Houthis in areas they control. They both fill their pockets and finance their ‘administration’ through the ransoming of traders and others, but do not use these funds to pay salaries of medical, education or any other civil staff. In the ‘liberated’ areas, the beneficiaries of the war include any number of groups, ranging from AQAP and IS militants to officials of everything from the various southern separatist groups to the few remaining Hadi loyalists. Outside the country, members of Hadi’s government collect massive salaries, submit exorbitant bills to the coalition, but fail to pay staff inside Yemen. This is the irony of the political economy of war.

On the international level, western states sell sophisticated and expensive weapons and ammunition to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. According to SIPRI, in the period 2013 to 2017, Saudi Arabia was the second largest importer of arms in the world, with 10 per cent of all arms imports. Its share of imports had risen by 225 per cent from the previous five-year period. About 61 per cent of its weapons came from the USA, 23 per cent from the UK, and 3.6 per cent from France. In the case of the UAE, the fourth largest importer, the USA is also its largest supplier (58 per cent) followed by France (13 per cent) and Italy (6 per cent).[5] Recently, the US president, Donald Trump, sat with MbS and did a ‘show-and-tell’ display of the latest proposed sales.

Conclusion
This paper has provided a rapid sketch of the events which led to Yemen’s disintegration. Fundamentally, the collapse is due to a combination of internal rivalries between elites, the rising demands of a population which has experienced increased hardship, and the impact of international interventions, both from neoliberal international financiers and politically-motivated actors in support or opposition to the internal rival factions.

The Yemeni war shares some characteristics with the Lebanese civil war, with different external actors attempting to use local factions to pursue international rivalries. Yemenis suffer the consequences to a nightmarish extent. A small ray of hope emerged early 2018 with the appointment of a new Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General, as well as the presence in the UNSC of members who are committed to end this war. This window of opportunity, however, will demand major transformations of the current UNSC resolutions, as well as a new complex and sophisticated approach involving many actors currently excluded from the official negotiating process. This will not be easy, and success is not guaranteed, particularly in view of the complicated international dimension of Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

* This article was first published by AlJeazeera Centre for Studies

* Helen Lackner is a research associate at the London Middle East Institute in SOAS and author of the forthcoming book Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, neoliberalism and the Disintegration of a State

 


[1]     Helen Lackner (2017). Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State, London: Saqi Books.

[2]     Lackner (2017). “Yemen in Crisis”.

[3]     A detailed analysis of the transition can be found in Helen Lackner (2016), “Yemen’s Peaceful Transition from Autocracy: could it have succeeded?” Stockholm, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

[4]     UN News (2018). “Secretary-General's remarks to the Pledging Conference on Yemen”, 3 April. https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2018-04-03/secretary-generals-remarks-pledging-conference-yemen-delivered.

[5]     SIPRI (2017. “Trends in international arms transfers, 2017”. https://www.sipri.org/publications/2018/sipri-fact-sheets/trends-international-arms-transfers-2017.

Reports in January 2017 that the leader of the Islamic State group (IS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been killed, reports that he had been captured by Russian troops in Syria, and the insistence by IS sources that he is still alive and fighting in the Iraqi city of Mosul, raise a number of questions about the IS chief’s location, and whether he is still alive. The IS response to this, by nominating a potential successor to Baghdadi, and the fact that the group is in the process of moving its Syria capital from the city of Raqqa to Deir al-Zour, suggest important reorganising in the IS structure and leadership to cope with a new military and political situation.
 
The IS leadership has certainly taken seriously the possibility that Baghdadi could get killed (if he is not already dead) or captured in the near future in fighting with the Iraqi or Syrian armies, any of a number of militia groups in the two countries, or airstrikes by the USA, Russia or the Syrian regime. The group’s Shura Council, its supreme decision-making body, has taken the matter seriously enough that it nominated, earlier this month, a  successor to the self-styled ‘caliph’, one Abu Hafsa al-Mawsely, in the event that Baghdadi might become incapcitated.
 
But that decision, which was not unanimously agreed-upon in the Shura, has led to conflicts among IS commanders and fighters, some of whom refuse to accept Mawsely as a possible new leader. Consequently, the Shura Council has decided to reconvene – on an as-yet-unspecified date, and most likely in the Iraqi city of Mosul, to again discuss the matter of Baghdadi’s successor. The new meeting could nominate another candidate.
 
Not much is known about Mawsely, except that he is the deputy commander of IS’s ‘Nineveh province’, has a reputation for being one of the more brutal commanders in the group, is a senior legislator in the group’s governance structure, and has occupied several important military and administrative positions. He is based in the ancient city of Nineveh, on the outskirts of Mosul, the city which IS has occupied since 2014, and is now being forced out of by the Iraqi army and a number of militias, with support from the US-led coalition.
 
The IS Shura Council consists of a selected group of military leaders and legislators from its various ‘provinces’. It is expected that once the Shura Council finalises its decision, IS fighters will accept it and will be willing to pledge their allegiance to the new ‘caliph’ in the event of Baghdadi’s death or capture.
 
Baghdadi became the leader of IS’s precursor, al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI), in 2010. He was born near the Iraqi city of Samarra in 1971 , and obtained a PhD in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad in 2013. Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Baghdadi helped found the militant Jamaat Jaysh Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamaah (JJASJ), which later joined the Mujahedin Shura Council (MSC) in 2006. The MSC became Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, also known as al-Qa'ida in Iraq) in 2006, with Baghdadi as head of its shari'ah committee and member of its senior consultative council. After a ten-month detention in the US prison Abu Ghaib and Camp Buca detention centres. Baghdadi was announced as ISI leader in May 2010, following the death of his predecessor Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi. He was the mastermind behind the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and the establishment of the ‘Islamic State’ thereafter.
 
Reports indicate that Baghdadi had escaped from Mosul in February when the road to the west of the city was opened in the wake of a fierce attack launched by IS fighters. The group claims its fighters used seventeen suicide car bombs from Mosul and some units from Syria to temporarily clear the road out of the city it has held, uncontested, for about two years. Before he left the city, however, Baghdadi addressed supporters and fighters in what has been referred to as his ‘farewell speech’. According to a report from its members, the IS ‘caliph’ admitted that the group had been defeated in Mosul by US-backed Iraqi forces and militias, and urged his fighters to flee the urban areas and take refuge in the mountains.
 
While he was on his way out of the city, a US swat team ambushed a vehicle carrying a top IS commander who, it seems, the US military believed was Baghdadi or another senior IS leader. US troops in a helicopter exchanged gunfire  with IS fighters who were protecting the vehicle. IS sources reported that only one person was injured and nobody was killed in the exchange, but some news agencies reported that Baghdadi was in the convoy and that he had been seriously wounded. The US Pentagon, however, admits that it is unsure where the IS leader might be.
 
Baghdadi allegedly broke a months-long silence in May 2016 by releasing an audio message in which he once again urged Muslims from around the world to emigrate to the ‘caliphate’ that the group has proclaimed in areas of Syria and Iraq. The group’s dire military situation and its battle for survival has, however, meant that the flow of fighters and other ‘immigrants’ to its ‘state’ has slowed down considerably.
 
With IS’s Syrian capital, Raqqa, under attack by a range of forces in the past few months, the group began moving its governance structures from Raqqa to the eastern province of Deir al-Zour earlier this month. Its military commanders, bureaucracy and some fighters are now headquartered 140 kilometres southeast of Raqqa.
 
This follows a difficult month of March for IS in Raqqa, with US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and other groups moving on the city, having captured the Tabqa airbase, and cutting off the road between al-Thawrah (where IS fighters had retreated to) and Raqqa. It is almost certain that Raqqa will fall to opposition groups in the next few months, necessitating the emergency measures undertaken by the IS leadership.
 
Rather than signalling any major, dramatic or radical change in direction, the new ‘charter’ (officially called ‘A Document of General Principles and Policies’) of the Palestinian group Hamas formalises what has existed in terms of the party’s policies and practices for more than a decade, superseding its old charter which has largely been outdated, irrelevant and an albatross around the organisation’s neck.
 
The new document, which took two years to debate and draft (but has been in the making since 2006), replaces the ‘Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement’, which was authored by a single individual in 1988, and adopted barely nine months after Hamas’s founding. Hamas has variously defended, been apologetic about and embarrassed by the 1988 charter, but, for mysterious reasons, has not been able to get rid of, or even amend, it. The group’s spokespersons have often said broad consultation was too difficult within its security constraints – even though it regularly holds leadership elections that encompass its members in various parts of the world. In 2006, in the run-up to elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the first Palestinian Authority (PA) election that Hamas contested, the party issued an election platform that articulated changes in its positions from that contained in the original charter. But the platform was not comprehensive enough to be regarded as superseding the charter, and Hamas leaders themselves never referred to it in this way.
 
The platform did highlight the irrelevance and embarrassment of the old charter, and sparked a debate within the organisation on a range of issues – from the role of religion in the Palestinian struggle to the nature of a future Palestinian state. That debate culminated on 1 May 2017 with the launch of the new document. The process leading up to the launch was vigorous, and produced some issues of sharp disagreement within the movement. The 1 May document attempts to balance those debates within the Hamas constituency, and still provide a vision and strategies in a manner that will keep the organisation united, and allow all its members to feel satisfied.
 
Since the launch, much attention has been paid to the clause that accepts a Palestinian state along the 4 June 1967 border – essentially confining a future Palestinian state to the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. The clause, however, does not actually go as far as ‘accepting’ the 1967 borders or a two-state solution, but notes that ‘Hamas considers the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967...to be a formula of national consensus.’ The clause was qualified with its ‘rejection of the Zionist entity’, support for the right of return of all Palestinian refugees – including to their homes in Israel, and rejection of ‘any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea’. It is debatable whether the 1967 border ‘formula’ ever was one of ‘national consensus’ among Palestinians. In the past few years, especially, after Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu repeatedly rejected any notion of a two-state solution, former US secretary of state John Kerry lamented its end, and US president Donald Trump refused to endorse the well-worn US support for such a solution, Palestinians have increasingly been arguing that a two-state solution is not possible, and the current reality is that there is already a single state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea that is governed by Israel. Despite the language in the document, however, after the launch Hamas leader Khaled Mesha'al, interpreted it as supporting a two-state solution. This contradiction between the charter’s insistence on Hamas’s ultimate goal being the ‘liberation’ of all of British Mandate Palestine, and the seeming acceptance of a two-state solution could prove to become a difficulty for the movement in the future, even though the notion of a two-state solution has already been articulated by Hamas spokespersons, including by its founder Shaykh Ahmed Yassin and by Mesha'al. The document’s position might be viewed as support for a two-state solution as the first phase towards a single state.
 
This is not the most significant aspect of the document, however. Perhaps most significant (and the most radical change) is the language and tone that describes Hamas as a nationalist Palestinian movement rather than as part of a global Islamist one. This begins with the description of Palestine as ‘the land of the Arab Palestinian people’, while the old charter regarded Palestine as ‘an Islamic Waqf [endowment] consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgement Day’ – somewhat mirroring the Zionist conception of Israel as the land of all Jews. No longer. While Palestine is still ‘a land whose status has been elevated by Islam’, it belongs, according to Hamas to Palestinians, not to Muslims. Even in its characterisation of itself, Hamas now views itself as a ‘Palestinian Islamic national liberation and resistance movement’. The positioning of the words ‘Palestinian’ and ‘Islamic’ are not accidental. ‘Its goal is to liberate Palestine and confront the Zionist project. Its frame of reference is Islam,’ and there is no proclamation of ‘The universality of the Islamic Resistance Movement’ as in the old document. This new orientation is likely the reason that references to the Muslim Brotherhood (whose name and slogans peppered the earlier document) have been dropped. There is a glaring question that the document does not answer, however: if Palestine is ‘the land of Arab Palestinians’, what would be the place of Jews in a future Palestinian state.
 
Despite speculation that the document would attempt to placate Israel and western powers, it makes no serious attempt to do so. Even its strong emphasis that the ‘conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion’ and its accusation that it is Zionists who have co-opted Judaism and Jews in service of its ‘colonial project and illegal entity’ reflects a change in the way the movement views Jews and Zionism, and is guidance provided to its own constituency, rather than a placatory gesture to outsiders. Indeed, the three demands that the West (through the Middle East Quartet, comprising of the UN, USA, EU and Russia) have made of Hamas since 2007 have been emphatically rejected in the charter. The demands were that Hamas recognises Israel; renounces violence; and accepts all previous agreements made by the PLO and PA with Israel. Instead, the charter emphasises that ‘There shall be no recognition of the legitimacy of the Zionist entity’; insists that ‘At the heart of [means of resisting occupation] lies armed resistance’; and rejects the Oslo Accords ‘and all that flows from them’.
 
Of course, the rejection of the Oslo presents a contradiction. The charter affirms a role for the PA (a creature of Oslo) ‘to serve the Palestinian people and safeguard their security, their rights and their national project’. Further, the movement contested elections for the PLC (another Oslo creation), plays a role as part of the PA, and has expressed no intention to extract itself from the PA and refuse to contest future elections.
 
If we ignore the opportunity Hamas provides us to do interesting analyses of a new document, its release is a rather ‘ho hum’ moment. In itself, it says nothing new, and only documents what has already become a reality within the movement through decade-and-half shifts in thought and practice. At most, it will allow its spokespersons a sigh of relief that they no longer have to defend the old anti-Semitic and irrelevant document. The timing of its release does has some significance. While it will be seen as Mesha'al’s swan-song (he did not contest the recent leadership election, whose results will be announced later this month), it also happens when more militant leaders are rising, and they have expressed no criticism of the document. Yahya Sinwar, for example, a leader of Hamas’s armed wing, the 'Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, who spent twenty years in an Israeli prison, is now the group’s Gaza leader and the ‘prime minister’ in the territory. His embrace of the document indicates that the political and military wings of the movement are united in supporting it, and it is not an imposition by ‘moderates’ on the rest of the organisation.
 
If Hamas was unconcerned about how its critics in Israel and the West might view its new charter, it should be concerned about criticism from Palestinians, particularly the disappointment (and even anger) expressed by some at the seeming acceptance of the two-state solution. For many Palestinians who have become weary of the shenanigans of the PA, Fatah and the PLO, who oppose the PA’s ‘security coordination’ with Israel, and who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel had hoped that Hamas would not compromise its support for armed resistance, and would clearly express support for a one-state solution. For some in this group, the new document does not distinguish Hamas from Fatah in terms of its vision for the future (even though that’s not a correct reading of the relevant clauses).

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