Axis of Good and Evil

By Munir Akram
May 28 2017 (Dawn, Pakistan)

On his first foreign foray, President Donald Trump, apart from asking the 50-odd Muslim leaders assembled in Riyadh to act against `Islamist terrorism`, proposed a new alliance between the US, Arab-Muslim states and Israel to oppose Iran`s hegemonic expansion and support for `terrorism` while simultaneously promising a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Munir Akram

Munir Akram

In his Riyadh speech, Trump called this a struggle between `good and evil`. Unfortunately, the proposed coalition would combine many members who are `good` with some who are `evil`.

Trump`s new plan reflects a radical turnaround from his expressed hostility to Islam and condemnation of Saudi Arabia and `radical Islamic terrorism` during the presidential campaign. However, despite the fanfare in Riyadh and Jerusalem, there are good reasons to be scepucal about this plan`s success.

Trump`s intensified opposition to Iran is in itself not surprising. Two main sources of his support base the Republican right and Israel were strongly opposed to Barack Obama`s engagement with Iran. They wanted the complete dismantling of Iran`s nuclear programme rather than the agreement negotiated to ensure that Iran does not have the capability to develop nuclear weapons for at least a decade.

Obama`s apparent assumption was that in the wake of the nuclear bargain, Iran would use its considerable influence to help in stabilising Iraq and Syria and the region. For its part, Iran expected the US, under Obama`s Democratic successor (Hillary Clinton), not only to legally abrogate the nuclear sanctions but also work to eliminate the unilateral US sanctions imposed on Tehran in the context of terrorism and missile testing. Trump`s victory upended these assumptions.

Under Trump, Iran is doubtful that the nuclear sanctions will be cancelled by the US Congress and rightly fears that other US sanctions may be intensified, as threatened by Trump and his advisers and members of the US Congress. Consequently, while continuing to fight the militant Islamic State (IS) group and Al Qaeda in the region, Tehran has held back its cooperation with the US and enhanced its military role in all of the region`s conflicts.While Trump has not renounced the nuclear deal, his administration is embarked on finding ways to intensify pressure on Iran. The aim, at the minimum, is to secure a halt to Iran`s missile testing, a more accommodative stance on Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and termination of support to Hezbollah and Hamas. To challenge Iran, Washington has now aligned itself completely with Israel and Saudi Arabia.

For Riyadh, the return of its prodigal patron is heaven-sent. Angered by Obama`s `betrayal`, and fearful of Iran`s rising power, Saudi Arabia had hastily announced the formation of a 41-nation `Islamic alliance` last year. Given Iran`s explicit exclusion, the response to the `alliance` was lukewarm from most Muslim countries. The most notable development was the appointment of Pakistan`s respected ex-army chief to head the military alliance.

With the revival of the traditional US-Saudi alliance, as illustrated in the $110 billion in arms deals and $350bn in business contracts signed during Trump`s trip, the Saudis have less need now for the `Islamic Alliance` against Iran although it would be a useful appendage to the renewed partnership with the US.

It is safe to presume that tensions in the Levant and the Gulf are likely to escalate in the wake of the new `co-relation of forces` unleashed during Trump`s trip. However, it will not be easy, even for the powerful coalition that is being formed, to reverse Iran`s dominant position in the region.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi`s government in Baghdad depends on the Iranian-trained Shia militias to do most of the fighting against IS, and restrain the Sunni tribes and Kurdish ambitions. Similarly, Syria`s Assad could not survive without the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Shia militias.

In Yemen, the Iran-backed Houthis have proved resilient. Hezbollah, despite its preoccupation with fighting for Assad, possesses the missile capabilities to do serious damage to Israel from southern Lebanon and Syria. Iran also retains influence with Hamas, the only credible Palestinian resistance to Israel.

Finally, Iran`s capacity for retaliation under pressure cannot be underestimated. It can, among other things: foment trouble in the Gulf, especiallyBahrain, destabilise Afghanistan and provoke sectarian strife in Pakistan.

Trump himself affirmed in Jerusalem that Arab cooperation in an anti-Iran coalition will be available only if a political settlement can be achieved between Israel and the Palestinians. The 2002 Saudi peace plan was mentioned as a basis for a settlement. This appears highly unlikely, given Israel`s virtual foreclosure of a two-state solution.

Trump has raised expectations which are unlikely to be fulfilled.

Those Arab and Muslim states which were invited to Riyadh for the Arab Islamic American summit would do well to carefully review the pros and cons of joining the anti-Iran coalition.

As has been noted critically in the Pakistani press, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was not able to speak at the Riyadh summit, nor to meet President Trump, while the leaders of lesser countries were accorded that privilege. This may represent a deliberate snub, probably administered by the Americans rather than the Saudis, or merely an organisational mishap. In any case, this diplomatic snub or snafu may be a blessing in disguise since it provides Pakistan with even greater justification to review its position on the anti-Iran coalition.

Since the early days, Pakistan has taken the consistent position that it will not take sides or participate in conflicts between Muslim states. Thus, it adopted a neutral stance during the Iran-Iraq war and participated in a six-nation Islamic heads of state committee to end the war. Such neutrality did not detract from Pakistan`s traditional commitment to the security of Saudi Arabia and the holy places.

This practised paradigm provides a sound guide for Pakistan`s policy in the current context.

Of course, Pakistan`s neutrality should be reciprocated by Iran in the context of Pakistan`s challenges with Afghanistan and India.

Finally, Pakistan should expect to be pressed by the US to fall in line with its regional strategy not only in the Gulf but especially in Afghanistan and South Asia. This is another reason for Pakistan to determine its policies after due consideration of the entire spectrum of its strategic interests. The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan.

Asean Environment: Wetlands for Disaster Resilience

By Ambassador Amado Tolentino
May 28 2017 (Manila Times)

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami originating in an earthquake in the sea off Sumatra in Indonesia devastated 12 countries, including Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. As an immediate response, the periodic Asian Wetlands Symposium held in 2005 (in India) recommended, among others, to “prioritize the natural coastal defenses through greenbelt/coastal ‘bioshield’ development…… In connection therewith, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015) identified as one of four priorities the matter of ‘investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience’.”

Amado S. Tolentino Jr.

Amado S. Tolentino Jr.

Not to be missed is the Asean Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (ADMER), which came into force in 2009 with the intention of providing “effective regional mechanisms to mitigate impacts of natural disasters….through concerted national efforts and intensified regional cooperation.”

Early this year, the Asean Institute of International and Strategic Studies, a consortium of Asean think tanks, concluded that one of the key challenges to Asean is “adapting to climate change:……Asean needs to be prepared for the real possibility that global mitigation efforts are not sufficient. Efforts to adapt to the effects of climate change and disasters will increasingly demand greater coordination and the pooling of resources.”

In the light of scientific information that natural disasters are projected to intensify in Asia, the ADMER could be utilized for disaster prevention and mitigation purposes even if the agreement leans heavily towards disaster preparedness and emergency response, i.e. faster movement of relief goods, better utilization of civilian and military response, etc. ADMER could serve as the basis for Asean’s active role at disaster risk reduction by incorporating effective wetlands management strategies for climate change resilience.

Disaster risk reduction, according to ADMER, means “a framework of elements considered with possibilities to minimize vulnerabilities and disaster risks to avoid, through prevention or, to limit through mitigation and preparedness the adverse impacts of hazards within the broad context of sustainable development.”

Wetlands, on the other hand are among the world’s most valuable ecosystems, providing so may benefits to people. As defense fortifications, wetlands, particularly mangroves, proved excellent defenses against the onslaught of typhoons and tsunamis as proven by the earthquake occurrence mentioned above. Scientists explained that the roots of vegetation in Asian mangroves and other forest wetlands helped to hold the sediments in place against the impact of strong winds, waves and currents. Additionally, wetlands are the “kidneys of the earth,” purifying water and waste from both natural and human sources. As “biological supermarkets,” wetlands provide a wide variety of flora and fauna. Wetlands act as natural dams, absorbing heavy rainfalls, preventing flood downstream; helps shoreline stabilization and erosion reduction. Wetlands help recharge groundwater aquifers too. Most important of all, wetlands provide livelihood to many people.

Aside from mangroves, wetlands include swamps, marshes, mudflats, floodplains, peatlands, estuaries, rivers, lakes and many more generally described as “where water meets land.”

ADMER is replete with provisions which could be used by Asean countries in refuting the claim that while emergency response is almost well attended to from the local to the national government level, much remains to be done in regard to a) cooperation in developing and putting into effect solutions to reduce disaster impacts; b) development of strategies to identify, prevent or reduce disaster risks and losses; c) prevention and mitigation legislation, regulations, policies, plans, programs and strategies; and d) raising public awareness about disaster prevention and mitigation.

In pursuit of this, Asean countries could very well incorporate wetlands for disaster risk reduction and build resilience in their legal agenda. For instance, the strategy of planting mangrove saplings should be a continuing year-round activity in the long and extensive coastlines of countries comprising Asean. Likewise, massive planting of high-quality and commercially productive variety of bamboo could be introduced in riverbanks/river basins and lakeshores as a technique not only to withstand environmental disturbances but also to preserve and rehabilitate freshwater sources and lakes and provide added source of income to people.

Take note that Asean is not only about economic partnership, trade liberalization and economic integration. It is also about environmental security. In that regard, Asean’s environment program, conceived in the early 1980s, has metamorphosed to include an Asean Working Group on Coastal and Marine Environment.

Hosting Asean@50 gives President Duterte a historic opportunity to influence the future direction of Asean vis-à-vis disaster risk reduction, an area where Asean lags behind in terms of prevention and mitigation projects to better achieve climate change resiliency.

It should be borne in mind, however, that building a disaster-resilient Asean needs partnerships among governments, private sector, NGOs, LGUs, and other institutions with clearly defined roles not only in disaster response but also in disaster prevention and mitigation. To begin with, a program on the values and functions of wetlands for disaster risk reduction and onwards to consolidating resilience endeavors among Asean countries on the same track could be embarked on and, in the process, highlight also the need to scale up adaptation to climate change. Indeed, Asean-wide advocacy initiatives about wetlands for disaster risk reduction would do well to invigorate efforts in the region to give climate change resilience the priority that the issue deserves.

Hopefully, the recommendation is realized soon because Asean remains vulnerable to natural disasters. But through multi-stakeholder engagement, improvements can be made at a much faster pace so the region can have a much needed disaster-resilient system.

This story was originally published by The Manila Times, Philippines

Britain Mourns While Sri Lanka Groans

By Neville de Silva
May 28 2017 (The Sunday Times - Sri Lanka)

It was a week of tragedy and farce. Here in the UK death came suddenly and unexpectedly one night last week. The country went into mourning as the single biggest [...] Read more »

There Is More at Stake Than Freedom of Press

By Eresh Omar Jamal
May 28 2017 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

The notion of today’s press freedom is deeply rooted in the idea of freedom of speech and expression, intellectual freedom, liberty of thought, etc. In the words [...] Read more »