x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

But what about penalties?

Kofi Annan's new deadline for Syria has no sanctions or penalties in case the regime again breaks its word, an Arabic-language commentator notes. So what's the point? Other topics: secularism and ties with China.

Annan's plan is unlikely to become a reality in the absence of proper enforcement measures

The joint UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, set April 10 as the deadline given to the Syrian regime to implement his proposal's six points aimed at ending the crisis in Syria. But Mr Annan and both of the organisations behind him neglected to determine what punitive measures would be taken in case the regime fails to duly execute the terms of the initiative, said the London-based daily Al Quds Al Arabi in its editorial.

"Mr Annan urges the UN Security Council to support the term clause, which Syria agreed to, but, although at one point he was the secretary general of the UN, he forgets that two of the council's members, Russia and China, strongly object any decisions that don't serve the interests of the Syrian regime," the paper remarked.

Last week, the spokesperson for the Syrian ministry of foreign affairs, Jihad Makdissi, created a wave of speculation when he announced that the crisis is over and that the ruling authorities were able to wipe out all "terrorist groups" and control the situation throughout the country.

However, Mr Makdissi's statements were premature and, in any case, if they had been precise there would have been no need for Mr Annan's plan in the first place.

"Mr Annan's one-week-only term for the implementation of an initiative as crucial and as complicated as his was off the mark. The Syrian regime's agreement to it couldn't be serious either, for at this point, both parties, the regime and Mr Annan, are vying for a new time extension. On his part, the envoy wants to buy more time for his failing mission. As for the regime, it needs to complete its plan to eliminate the opposition," added the paper.

The deadline would've made more sense had Mr Annan determined the steps to be taken in case of non-compliance by the regime.

But most probably he doesn't have any punitive measures up his sleeve to threaten the Assad regime with, especially following the announcement this week by Nato's secretary general that the alliance doesn't have any plans for a military intervention in Syria no matter what the case may be.

He actually went as far as to express his opposition to the option of arming the opposition and warned against the proliferation of weapons in the region.

"If Nato, which resolved the situation in Libya for the opposition, refuses to interfere, and if the US administration objects to sending weapons to Syria lest they fall in the hands of extremist or terrorist groups, and if Egypt shares the same opinion, how would Mr Annan's deadline be of any effect or get the required respect from the part of the Syrian regime?" asked the editorial in conclusion.

Arabs grapple with concept of secularism

The very word "secularism" is like a ghoul in the Arab world, not just for the masses but also in some more cultivated circles, wrote Hashem Saleh in an article featured in yesterday's edition of the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al Awsat under the title When will Arabs understand that secularism is not atheism?

The issue is that in the collective Arab consciousness, secularism is "identical to atheism", he said.

"So when you call for a secular state, you come across as someone who's calling for an atheistic state, which is not right."

History tells us that it is ill-advised to force areligious thought on people. Pumped up on communist ideology, the Soviet Union clamped down on religious freedoms in the eastern European republics. And as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, communities went back to their much-missed religious practices.

Arabs must understand that secularism does not seek to repeat something like the Soviet scenario.

Far from being a call for shelving religion, secularism simply means that any citizen has the right to exercise - or not exercise - religious practice, be that Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or other, the writer said.

It has taken countries like France and Britain centuries of bloodshed to understand the virtues of secularism. And it will take time for the concept to seep into the Arab mind.

UAE-China cultural ties are increasing

As a consequence of colonialism, Arabs have for decades now been impressed by modern western culture, and only a few of them have looked in the other direction to scour the East for new knowledge, noted columnist Ahmed Al Mansouri in the Abu Dhabi-based paper Al Ittihad.

"This East is not just a mixture of top-notch Japanese technology and an overflow of made-in-China products. Nor can it be pigeonholed as just a source of cost-effective hand labour," he argued.

In March, UAE-China cultural relations received a boost on two telling fronts: the Sheikh Zayed Centre for Arabic and Islamic Studies was reopened in Beijing, and the Confucius Institute, for studying Chinese language and culture, was inaugurated at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi.

Over the past years, political and economic ties between the UAE and China have been growing steadily. The UAE is the second most important strategic partner for China (second only to Saudi Arabia) in the Middle East.

This economic partnership is good and necessary. But the cultural ties that go with it are, in being focused and on the human side of things, more "lasting" than commercial interests which are always time-dependent, the writer concluded.

* Digest compiled by The Translation Desk