Friday, 21 February 2020

Slaughtered in Syria – the innocent, humanity and democracy

          In March 2011 a few teenagers in a southern Syrian city – fired no doubt by the revolutionary fervour sweeping the Middle East at the time – daubed some inflammatory slogans on a school wall. Unfortunately for them, the Syria that President Bashar al-Assad had inherited in 2000 from his autocratic father was a tightly controlled police state, in which a powerful and all-encompassing security machine ensured that the slightest hint of opposition to the régime was ruthlessly crushed.

          The youngsters were hunted down, arrested and tortured. When details of their ordeal became known, protesters took to the streets. The security forces, unable to break up the demonstration, eventually fired into the crowd. That was enough to spark widespread rebellion. Groups antagonistic to Assad’s government began nationwide protests. Gradually, popular dissent developed into an armed revolt. The opposition, consisting of a variety of groups, but primarily the Free Syrian Army (FSA), were finally seeking to overthrow the despotic Assad régime and substitute a democratic form of government.

          Had assistance of any sort been forthcoming from the US or other Western governments at that early stage, Assad could have been defeated, to be replaced by a democratically elected government. But President Obama hesitated, and then continued vacillating even after it was clear in August 2013 that Assad had used chemical weapons against his opponents, utterly indifferent to the extensive civilian casualties that ensued.

          Why did Obama shrink from action? Because he had set his sights on a nuclear accommodation with Iran, which always regarded Syria as essential to its Shi’ite empire. Rather than put his projected nuclear agreement in jeopardy, Obama reneged on his declared intention to punish Assad if he deployed chemical weapons. Instead he seized on a deal brokered by Russia, under which Assad would nominally surrender the whole of the chemical arsenal that he had originally denied possessing.

          America’s hesitancy provided Russia’s President Putin with a golden opportunity. He seized the political initiative, turning himself into Assad’s protector, supporter and ally. Ever since he has backed Assad’s ruthless determination to regain as much as he could of Syrian territory lost to Islamic State in the heyday of its caliphate.

          Meanwhile the shining sword of democracy, the weapon the rebels in 2011 hoped would bring down Assad’s dictatorial regime, has become heavily tarnished. Those who are now labelled “rebels” are not fighting for democracy – they are fighting for their lives. The original FSA, once dedicated simply to establishing democracy in Syria, has over the nine years of civil conflict been transformed into an entirely different animal. Literally scores of groups – some political, some religious, some a combination – have attached themselves to the FSA, united by opposition to Bashar al-Assad but espousing a plethora of policies. These bodies include Salafi jihadist groups (such as the al-Nusra Front), and remaining elements of ISIS, for whom establishing an open democratic form of government after Assad is far from their aim.

          A second democratic casualty of the civil war is Kurdish hopes of a recognized identity in a post-war Syria. Assisted by the massive Russian military intervention, Assad has regained some 70 percent of what was once sovereign Syria. The Kurd-occupied region, which is about 25 per cent of the old Syria, is now a semi-autonomous region formally designated the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) or, more simply, Rojava. Back in the summer of 2019, on the assumption that Assad would emerge victorious, its leaders made formal moves to reach an accord with the Syrian president. At that time an accommodation within a new post-war Syrian constitution seemed a distinct possibility, akin to the situation in Iraq, where an autonomous Kurdistan is a separate element within the Iraqi constitution.

          The fly in this ointment was Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Any such formal recognition of Rojava would be anathema to him. Fractious Kurds struggling to achieve a degree of autonomy have been a constant political problem for all Turkish governments, including Erdogan. Because Rojava’s leading political party has links to Turkey’s militant PKK, Erdogan asserts that Rojava itself is a challenge to Turkey’s national interests.

           “We will never allow a state to be formed in northern Syria, south of our border,” declared Erdogan in 2015. “We will maintain our struggle whatever the cost... We will not condone it."

          A political crisis was averted when the US reached an agreement with Turkey to create a so-called “safe zone” in north-eastern Syria, to allow Turkey to protect its borders. It amounts to a Turkish occupation of what was once sovereign Syria, but latterly a Kurdish area,

          Meanwhile Assad’s offensive in Idlib proceeds. He has made huge gains in recent weeks and now controls most of the north-west, including the M5 highway connecting Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s second city. As a result, on February 19 a Syrian commercial flight landed at Aleppo airport from Damascus, marking the resumption of internal flights between Syria's two largest cities for the first time since 2012.

          Idlib, however, was established in 2018 as a de-escalation zone by Russia and Turkey. Erdogan, outraged by Assad’s advances into the province, has threatened to launch an operation against Assad’s forces if Damascus fails to withdraw behind Turkish military positions by the end of February. "An operation in Idlib is imminent," Erdogan told parliament on February 19. "We are counting down.” He said Turkey was determined to make Idlib a secure zone "no matter the cost".

          The cost in human lives and suffering is already unacceptable. Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians are being bombed and shelled unmercifully. At the moment of writing Assad’s forces, totally regardless of the humanitarian disaster they are inflicting, are engaged in their final push to capture the province of Idlib, sending up to a million Syrians fleeing the fighting with no safe refuge available. The death, destruction and misery that would result from a military conflict between Syrian and Turkish forces in the region is too horrific to contemplate. Power politics simply must give way to humanitarian relief.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 22 February 2020:

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Lebanese parliament votes yes; Lebanese people vote no

          Ever since October 2019 Lebanon has been in a sort of civil war people against parliament.  Over the months the mass protests and demonstrations have, if anything, increased in their ferocity, expanding to encompass the maneuverings in the political arena.  This explosion of public rage has all the characteristics of a long quiescent volcano suddenly erupting, revealing the boiling turmoil that had been present underground all along.

          To all outward appearances, Lebanon had long been politically apathetic.  When the country went to the polls in May 2018, nine long years had passed since the previous parliamentary elections   supposed to be held every four years. Time and again ministers and politicians had voted to postpone them and extend the current parliament, citing security concerns, political crises and disputes over the election law.

          During the 2018 election campaign, candidates were optimistic that popular dissatisfaction with Lebanon's struggling economy, failing infrastructure and endemic corruption, would provoke the electorate into opting for reform.  Any such hopes were to be dashed. Turnout was less than 50 percent, and the main change was a decrease for the party headed by prime minister Saad Hariri, with a consequential increase in support for Hezbollah. Over the nine years from 2009 political realities had forced Hariri’s government to include in the administration members of the increasingly confident, Iran-backed Hezbollah.  The main effect of the 2018 election was to put more power in Hezbollah’s hands.

          Following the election it took nine months for Hariri to form an administration but, constituted as it was, it was incapable of remedying Lebanon’s endemic problems.  The spark that ignited mass popular protest was a government announcement of new taxes on gasoline, tobacco and access to social media on the internet.  The first demonstrations in October 2019 quickly morphed into nationwide near-riots condemning the stagnant economy, unemployment, corruption in the public sector, and inadequate basic services such as electricity, water and sanitation.  

          In October  prime minister Hariri resigned amid public demands for a government of independent specialists.  He was to be replaced, it was announced, to vociferous public dissatisfaction, by a former minister of education, Hassan Diab.  The public viewed this potential appointment as simply more of the same, discredited, ruling elite clutching on to power.  Nevertheless, with the support of Hezbollah and its political allies, the appointment was confirmed on 22 January 2020, and Diab was charged with forming a new cabinet.

          On Tuesday, February 11, in a parliament building besieged by protesters, and with mass demonstrations being staged throughout Beirut and beyond, a majority of parliamentarians passed a vote of confidence in the new cabinet, and its financial rescue plan.  The vote was passed by 63 of the 84 parliamentarians present. Those in support were Hezbollah members and their allies.  The party of the previous prime minister, Saad Hariri, and his allies voted against.

          As the nine-hour parliamentary session proceeded, security forces including the Lebanese army, riot police and SWAT teams used batons, tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets to clear the roads of protesters trying to delay the crucial vote. Protesters tore down metal and cement barricades put up around Nejmeh Square, the seat of the Parliament. A group of people also set fire to a bank next to the parliament's entrance.  More than 200 people were injured in the riots.

          A group of protesters attacked member of parliament Salim Saadeh in his car. In a video posted on his Twitter account, his shirt stained with blood and his left eye blue and swollen, Saadeh said: “Thank God I am good. I thank everyone for their love.''

          Prime minister Diab’s vote of confidence encompassed also his 16-page government statement on a rescue plan to get Lebanon out of its economic and financial crisis.  The plan includes reforms in the judicial, financial and administrative fields, as well as proposals to fight corruption and fix the country's finances.

          Lebanon’s debt ratio, standing at more than 150 percent of GDP, is one of the highest in the world.  It has been on a downwards path for years, with the country recording nil economic growth and high unemployment.  Diab promised "painful'' measures, including slashing interest rates. Given the reaction of the Lebanese public to the attempt to raise taxes back in October, it is difficult to predict anything other than fierce mass opposition to this administration as long as it remains in power. 

          For that is the nub of the problem.  The public sees all too clearly that the ruling elite, entrenched in power, is heavily dominated by the Iran-controlled Hezbollah.   Over the past few decades this rapacious predator has been consuming the political, military and administrative organs of the once proud state of Lebanon, until only the outer shell of an independent sovereign country now remains.  At one time it seemed that Hezbollah, a body deemed a terrorist organization by large parts of the world, had created a “state within a state” inside Lebanon. Many now believe that the Lebanese state and Hezbollah are in effect indistinguishable. 

          In theory Lebanon should be a template for a future peaceful Middle East. It is the only Middle East country which, by its very constitution, shares power equally between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and Christians. Theory, however, has had to bow to practical reality. Lebanon has been highly unstable for much of its existence, and its unique constitution has tended to exacerbate, rather than eliminate, sectarian conflict. 

          Root and branch reform of the constitution, no less than fundamental improvements to living standards and the rooting out of corruption in public life, lie at the heart of the widespread public dissatisfaction that is shaking Lebanon to its core.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 February 2020:

Published in the MPC Journal, 17 February 2020:

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Labour's next leader

This article of mine appears in the new edition of the Jerusalem Report, dated 24 February 2020
          Shortly after presiding over its worst electoral defeat since 1935, Jeremy Corbyn declared that he would be stepping down from the leadership of Britain’s Labour party. The terms of his announcement caused a raising of eyebrows, both within the Westminster bubble and more generally in the media. In the British political system, if you lead your party to electoral defeat you are expected to resign. It is considered the honourable thing to do, rather like a Roman general defeated in battle falling on his sword. You do not – as Corbyn did – declare that you will hold on to the leadership until Labour’s complex electoral system, taking literally months to work through, produces a successor. You resign, and if necessary a temporary leader takes over for a limited period.

          When Ed Miliband lost the general election for Labour in 2015, he resigned at once and Harriet Harman became temporary leader until Corbyn was elected to the office.

          Harman is definitely not a Corbynista. She is a social democrat. This is perhaps the clue to Corbyn’s decision to hold on to the leadership. The hard-left clique, led by the Momentum organization, that has seized the reins of power within the Labour party, will not willingly lose control, even temporarily, and the leadership electoral process will not play itself out until April 4.

          The Labour party’s method of electing its leader, a four-stage process, is complicated to a degree. First, hopeful contenders must be nominated by at least 10% of Labour members of parliament (MPs) or members of the European parliament (MEPs). For this leadership election, candidates were required to obtain 22 signed nominations. Five contenders succeeded in jumping this hurdle; one did not.

          In the next stage, candidates must obtain backing from either three Labour affiliates (that is, trade unions or associated groups like the Jewish Labour Movement) or 5% of local constituency Labour parties. On the affiliate route, two of the affiliates must be trade unions. If candidates are relying on local party support, they must be backed by 5% of the total, which amounts to 33 local parties. This stage, which lasts until February 14, saw one contender quickly eliminated, and another could yet fall at this fence.

          The third leg of the marathon requires winning a ballot of Labour Party members. At a recent count, party membership stood at more than 540,000, including an influx of new members ahead of the leadership vote. The postal ballot will run from 21 February to 2 April. 

          Finally, using the alternative vote system of preferential voting, the winning contender will be announced on  4 April.

          The four candidates who succeeded in reaching stage 2 of the race agreed to participate in a series of joint hustings up and down the country at which they would parade themselves and their varying opinions. Certain indicators likely to influence voting patterns are emerging.

         To start with, of the four candidates who entered the race, three are women. The Labour party, which prides itself on its progressive credentials, has never had a woman leader, unlike their Conservative rivals who have already had two – Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May. There is a strong current of opinion within Labour circles that the moment to correct this anomaly is now. Indeed there have been calls for the male candidate, Sir Keir Starmer, to stand aside for that very reason.

Supporters of Starmer, once Britain’s Director of Public Prosecutions, and later Corbyn’s shadow Brexit secretary, argue strongly that, regardless of gender, the best person for the job should be elected. That may well prove to be Starmer for, with impeccable Labour credentials (he is named after Labour’s very first MP, Keir Hardy), he quickly edged into the lead and was the first to qualify for round three.

His nearest rival, which some polls have already put ahead of him, is Rebecca Long-Bailey.

She is regarded as the Corbyn continuity candidate. Close to Corbyn throughout his leadership, she was a member of his shadow Cabinet and was largely responsible for writing the manifesto on which Labour went to the country in 2019. She is supported by Momentum, which helped Corbyn to the leadership, and has won the support of the UK’s largest trade union, Unite.  She is also the candidate of choice of the so-called Corbynistas within the Labour movement, most of whom are in denial about the toxic effect on the electorate of the manifesto she had so large a hand in producing.

The two other women contenders are Lisa Nandy, a social democrat whose distrust of Corbyn’s leadership led to her resignation from the shadow Cabinet in 2016.

        And Emily Thornberry, who was Corbyn’s shadow foreign secretary but strongly opposed the equivocal stance on Brexit that he adopted as party policy, and pushed for a completely Remain position.
         Nandy has already qualified to enter the leadership ballot.  Thornberry, who does not have a strong base in either the trade union movement or at local party level, had not done so by early February, and may fail to do so.

          The first leadership hustings were held in Liverpool on January 18. Antisemitism within the Labour party, and the failure of Corbyn as leader to deal with it effectively, was one of the major topics discussed. All the candidates pledged to tackle the antisemitism crisis left behind by Corbyn.

          Long-Bailey said she wanted to establish the “gold standard” in dealing with complaints, in order to reset the Labour party’s relations with the Jewish community. 

          Lisa Nandy said there had been a “collective failure of leadership” in the shadow cabinet about the problem of antisemitism, which had let Labour and the country down.

          Thornberry said that Labour needed to drive antisemites out. “I have always been clear about it, and I always will, because it's unacceptable, it undermines us as a party and undermines our soul.”

          Starmer told members that if they were antisemitic “you shouldn’t be in the Labour party”, adding that if elected he would demand a report on his desk every week until the problem was eradicated. At a Holocaust Memorial Day event on January 27, Starmer said that on “day one” of being elected he would demand an update of complaints of antisemitism within the party, and a “clear timetable for their resolution.”

          At the same event, Thornberry asserted that Corbyn would always call out those who play the race card, and was immediately criticized by Labour MPs for supporting him and failing to mention his failure to deal with the problem inside the Labour party.

          By the time the convoluted electoral process has run its course and the Labour Party gets around to announcing its new leader, their catastrophic general election result will be four months behind them. In the interim Jeremy Corbyn continues to present the public face of Labour to the country. Week after week at Prime Minister's Questions, TV viewers endure the spectacle of Corbyn, a lame duck leader, ineffectively facing the UK’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, in the House of Commons. Corbyn sits on the Opposition front bench flanked by the four MPs fighting to succeed him, while the rest of his parliamentary colleagues are vowing their allegiance to one or other of his possible successors.

          Corbyn’s appearances in parliament and the media are object lessons in denial: it is as though the election had not happened and his policies had not been repudiated, especially by voters that Labour had taken for granted for decades. He has never acknowledged his self-evident failure to deal with the upsurge in antisemitism under his leadership, and he continues to promote the policies contained in his election manifesto.

          His refusal to admit what seems self-evident to most people is the line adopted enthusiastically by his hard-core supporters within the Labour movement – the so-called Corbynistas. And because the final stage of the leadership electoral process depends on winning the ballot of members, this denial has infiltrated the leadership contest, and affected the pitches of all four candidates.

          The antisemitism issue was so toxic during the general election that all the candidates have felt it essential to promise to address it. With that exception, Corbyn’s messiah-like status among Labour party members means that those seeking to replace him must pretend that he was not part of the reason they lost. Long-Bailey, asked to mark his leadership out of 10, awarded him 10. Only Jess Phillips was openly critical, and she is now out of the race due to lack of support.

         Momentum is, of course, pushing hard for Long-Bailey, who has every intention of continuing to offer the country the Corbyn vision. Nandy declares that Labour’s debacle in the election was due to media bias against Corbyn, and its misrepresentation of perfectly sound policies. Even Starmer, the front-runner, who has never been considered a hard left politician, is having to defer to socialist rhetoric – perhaps hoping that if he becomes leader he can somehow tame the bucking Momentum bronco. That would be a struggle of herculean proportions – and with Boris Johnson in power as prime minister with a comfortable majority, the nation will have plenty of time to sit back and observe it.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line as "Labour Party on hold", 18 February 2020:

Thursday, 6 February 2020

The Deal of the Century: the Islamic world at odds

        President Trump’s so-called Deal of the Century was revealed, like Salome, after a tantalising dance of the seven veils. Again and again the world was promised that the plan would be revealed, only for it to be disheartened with a new postponement. Titillated almost beyond endurance, a global TV audience was finally presented with the object of desire on Tuesday, January 28. With Benjamin Netanyahu at his side, Trump outlined his plan for a resolution of the unending Israel-Palestine dispute. 

         The revelation produced reactions both entirely predictable and astonishingly unexpected.

        To be expected – and indeed anticipated for at least a year – was the response of the Palestinian leadership, led by PA president Mahmoud Abbas. Trump had scarcely finished speaking before Abbas was addressing the party faithful in Ramallah. “We say a thousand times: No, no and no to the ‘deal of the century,'” he declared, consigning it to “the dustbin of history.”

        Abbas clearly hoped that Muslims the world over would rise up in support of his utter rejection of Trump’s proposals. He summoned a crisis meeting of the Arab League for just this purpose. This is not how matters are panning out. In the event truly solid endorsement of the Palestinian position comes from two major non-Arab players on the Middle East scene – Iran and Turkey. Both, it might be legitimate to assume, are more motivated by anti-Israel than by pro-Palestinian motives. Jordan formally endorses the PA’s position, although the Jordanian Foreign Minister, Ayman Safadi, is reported as saying that his country “supports every genuine effort aimed at achieving just and comprehensive peace that people will accept.”

        As for the majority of the Arab Muslim world, reaction to Trump’s proposals has been surprisingly muted. Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sent their ambassadors in Washington to the White House as Trump was announcing the offer, and subsequently expressed support for the deal.

        Shortly after Trump released the details of his proposal, Egypt issued a statement calling on both sides to consider the offer carefully, and to use it to re-open negotiation channels.

        “In the absence of another political offer,” said an Egyptian diplomat, “and in view of the fact that this offer is actually re-engaging the US in the Middle East peace process, it is not exactly wise to jump to reject the offer. Egypt is not asking the Palestinians to take it as it is, but rather to read it and see how to negotiate their demands from there.”

        The UAE media reported that the country backed the deal, and described it as an opportunity to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians. “The only way to guarantee a lasting solution,” one report ran, “is to reach an agreement between all concerned parties…the plan announced today offers an important starting point for a return to negotiations within a US-led international framework.”

        As for Saudi Arabia, the official response was one of qualified support for the initiative. A Saudi foreign ministry statement, issued shortly after the release ran: "the Kingdom appreciates the efforts made by President Trump's administration to develop a comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli peace plan, and it encourages the start of direct peace negotiations between the sides under US sponsorship, in which any dispute regarding details of the plan will be settled. This is in order to advance the peace process and arrive at an agreement that will realize the fraternal Palestinian people's legitimate rights."

        Political realities require all such positions to be nuanced. Accordingly, parallel to the foreign ministry’s reaction, the Saudi press reported that King Salman had spoken by phone with Abbas, to "stress to him the Kingdom's steadfast position vis-à-vis the Palestinian cause and the rights of the Palestinian people."

        Despite this, the general feeling within political and media circles inside the Kingdom is support for the Trump initiative. Just as in Egypt, some commentators and leading figures have called on the Palestinians not to miss this opportunity, and to approach the plan with a positive mindset. According to a survey undertaken by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) articles and tweets within Saudi Arabia have been saying that history shows that every plan offered to the Palestinians has been worse than the one before it, and that if they reject the Deal of the Century now, they will long for it in the distant future.

        As an example, Saudi journalist Ahmad Adnan wrote in his column in the Saudi daily Okaz: "The PA has made negative statements against the deal. I maintain that at this stage it needs a friend to be honest with it, telling it and advising it: Sign the deal and then curse it as much as you want, day and night. The Palestinians have in decades past specialized in missing golden opportunities because of mistaken assessment of their capabilities and of the crisis.”

        In short, with the exception of Palestinian opinion, much of the Arab world has offered a muted welcome to the Trump peace initiative, and is urging the Palestinians not to reject it out of hand, but rather to use it as the basis for serious negotiation. It has, as its main objective, the eventual creation of a sovereign Palestinian state. Underlying this stance is the fact that, for much of the Sunni Islamic world, the major enemy is Shia Iran, with its undisguised ambition to achieve both political and religious hegemony and its efforts – usually undertaken by its proxies – to undermine Sunni states. To give only one example, Houthis have been firing Iranian-provided missiles into the centre of Riyadh. 

        The Sunni world, which lost faith in America during ex-president Obama’s flirtation with Iran, views the Trump administration, and increasingly Israel, as powerful allies against its main enemy. Unfortunately, the Palestinian leadership is not moved by the same considerations.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 8 February 2020:

Published in the MPC Journal, 8 February 2020, as "The Deal of the Century - Muslim majority countries divided":

Friday, 31 January 2020

Iraq's entangled riots

          Anyone relying on Western TV stations like CNN or the BBC for their news could be forgiven for believing that the people of Iraq have risen up in a mass popular protest, pouring on to the streets of Baghdad and other cities demanding the expulsion of all US troops from their country. This is far from a true portrayal of the demonstrations that have turned Baghdad into a battlefield.

          There are, in fact, two main popular protests being played out on the streets of Baghdad. One is a mass demonstration staged by the powerful pro-Iranian caucus within parliament and country, urged on by influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr, head of Sairoon, the largest coalition bloc in parliament, seized the opportunity provided by the public reaction to the US assassination of Iranian military general Qasem Soleimani on Iraqi soil on January 3.

          On January 5, the Iraqi parliament as a whole backed a nonbinding resolution for all foreign troops – including 5,200 US soldiers – to leave the country. Al-Sadr called on the nation to participate in a million-man march. People certainly responded, but as a matter of fact, none of the rallies in support of his call is believed to have reached this sort of level.

          Al-Sadr’s efforts to rouse the nation received something of a setback on January 22 when Iraqi President Barham Saleh met US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Much to the dismay of the pro-Sadr protesters, the two leaders agreed on the need to keep US forces in Iraq.

          The al-Sadr protest movement was, however, a late-comer to Iraq’s chaotic scene.

          Ever since September 2019 the nation’s cities have been almost in lock-down as a result of genuine popular dissatisfaction with the corruption, inefficiency and failure of Iraq’s politicians and ruling class. For months in unprecedented displays of anti-Iran sentiment, demonstrators chanted “Out, out, Iran! Baghdad will stay free!”

          The vast majority of demonstrators are young, and their lot is largely bleak. Despite Iraq’s petroleum wealth, young Iraqis have a one-in-five chance of living below the poverty line. One in four young people is unemployed.

          In the early days al-Sadr was believed to be in sympathy with the demand for sweeping reforms and opposed to the government-led efforts to disperse the protesters. Those efforts originally involved Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, led by Qasem Soleimani, and resulted in hundreds of dead and thousands of wounded. Footage posted online showed Iraqis hitting pictures of Soleimani with their shoes, a scathing insult in Arab culture.

          Those anti-government protests have shown little sign of weakening. What has happened is that some of its leaders have begun accusing the al-Sadr movement of supporting the government in its crackdown. In proclaiming that al-Sadr is pro-Iranian, they are of course correct.

          Al-Sadr, who heads the biggest bloc in parliament, recently issued a statement on Twitter expressing his "disappointment" in those who had accused his rally of being pro-government. "From now on I will not interfere in these protesters' affairs in either a negative or a positive way," he wrote.

          On January 25, people believed to be supporters of al-Sadr began packing up their tents and leaving sit-ins in central Baghdad. This coincided with a new onslaught by government security forces, which pushed closer to Baghdad's Tahrir Square, the main anti-government protest camp, reopening several roads that were previously shut down by demonstrators.

          At about noon local time security forces fired tear gas and live bullets at Khilani Square, a few hundred metres away from Tahrir Square, while riot police set fire to a number of protest tents on the nearby Sinak Bridge, sending a column of thick black smoke into the sky. A statement from the Baghdad Operations Command said key squares and roads that had previously been a focal point for protesters had been reopened for vehicle access.

          According to media reports, some anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square blamed the violence on al-Sadr's decision to cease his involvement in the protest movement. That was not a universal opinion. One al-Sadr supporter claimed that although some of the Shia leader's followers had left Tahrir, the majority were still present.

          "Al-Sadr did not order us in his statement to withdraw from the protests," a 24-year-old law student asserted. "He was merely expressing his disappointment in those in Tahrir Square who have been criticizing him and his motives."

          Even al-Sadr’s most devoted supporters would find it difficult to square the aims of the two main protest movements that are shaking the nation to its core. On the one hand there is a mass demand for an end to corruption within the bureaucracy, a clearing out of those who have permitted the country to become an Iranian stronghold, and a new democratic accountable form of government . On the other, the strong pro-Iranian faction that has embedded itself within Iraq’s body politic is calling for the country’s shield against Islamist extremism, as represented by Iran and the IRGC, to be removed.

          The two mass protest movements are scarcely reconcilable. One can only hope that they do not turn on each other and plunge the nation into a civil war.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 2 February 2020:

Published in the MPC Journal, 2 February 2020:

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Who wants regime change in Iran?

        Who wants regime change in Iran? First and foremost, large sections of the Iranian population, if the reports of mass anti-government demonstrations over the past few months, backed by video evidence, are anything to go by. 

        A hiatus, it is true, followed the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani on 3 January.  The country was plunged into emotional turmoil, and for a time it seemed as though the public mood had changed into support for the regime in mourning the loss of the charismatic leader of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). 

        By 11 January the mood had reverted to downright condemnation of the regime and its leadership. The shooting down of the Ukranian passenger jet on January 8 and the deaths of 176 innocent travelers, had been followed by days of obfuscation and denial of responsibility by government spokesmen. When the evidence became too clear to deny, the regime finally brought itself to admit that its own missile had destroyed the plane . Recent online videos have shown Iranians ripping down posters of Soleimani and – according to the Al-Jazeera media website – calling for the removal of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

        Who wants regime change in Iran? Well not US President Donald Trump, to go by his public pronouncements. At a press conference in Tokyo on 27 May, 2019 he said: "We're not looking for regime change, we're looking for no nuclear weapons," adding that he believed "we'll make a deal" with Iran. On August 26 he declared that that it was “too early” to meet Iran’s top diplomat, who had made a surprise visit to the G7 summit, but insisted that Washington was not looking for regime change. On Friday January 3, 2020, less than a day after the assassination of Soleimani. Trump reiterated that America does not seek regime change in Iran.
        And yet, despite these repeated assertions, compelling evidence has come to light indicating that the US administration has been deliberately weakening the Iranian regime to the point where it might implode. It may be a fine line, but it appears that Washington has been seeking regime disruption, with regime change as the ultimate goal.

        Leaked US government documents, revealed on 14 January 14 by journalist Eli Lake on the Bloomberg media website, show how long, and the extent to which, senior officials had been actively considering measures aimed at disrupting the Iranian regime. Following the shooting down of an American drone in June 2019, a top security consultant wrote to then-national security adviser John Bolton, copying his memos to senior State Department officials.

        “The US response should be overt,” he wrote, “and designed to send a message that the US holds the Iranian regime, not the Iranian people, responsible...This could even involve something as a targeted strike on someone like Soleimani or his top deputies.”

        Back in June the adviser had been careful to say that the US response “does not need to be boots on the ground (in fact, it should not be).” His advice was for the US response to aim at exploiting the loss of public confidence in the government. Judged by Iranian popular reaction to the regime’s attempt to cover up the tragic shooting down of the Ukranian jet, Lake concluded that this analysis had proved correct. What had begun in November as a protest at a sudden, 50 percent rise in fuel prices had mushroomed into much wider fury with the government. Not least among the issues of concern to the demonstrators was the heavy-handed way Soleimani had dealt with the protests. It is believed that the security forces killed at least several hundred demonstrators in a brutal crackdown, with hundreds more injured and up to 7,000 arrested.

        This wave of protests is nothing new. On June 12, 2009, following a heated campaign between a popular reformist candidate for president and the incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranians turned out in record numbers to cast their votes. Shortly after the polls closed, the government announced that Ahmadinejad had been re-elected with 64 percent of the vote.

        Incredulity was followed by widespread allegations of vote rigging and election fraud. A so-called “Green Movement” began mounting public demonstrations of an intensity unprecedented since the 1979 Revolution. Khamenei ordered the IRGC to crack down on the protesters. In the ruthless repression that followed, more than 100 people were killed and thousands were arrested to face trial. Many were hanged.

        By the end of 2017 it had become clear that the promises made by Sayyed Hassan Rouhani when standing for president – namely, to create new jobs, to implement economic reforms and to improve human rights – stood no chance of being implemented. As a result unrest broke out across the country, and by January 2018 Iran was again in turmoil. Rallies and street protests were erupting throughout the nation. At first they centered on the worsening economic situation, and the ever-rising food and commodity prices. This soon morphed into opposition to the regime in general, and the Supreme Leader in particular.

         Dissent was voiced especially against the foreign adventures indulged in by the regime, including direct involvement in the Syrian civil conflict, and costly military and logistical support for Hezbollah in Syria, for the Houthis in Yemen and for Hamas in Gaza. The vast sums expended in these foreign adventures were seen as being at the direct expense of the Iranian population.

         As for this latest round of mass anti-government demonstrations, they must appear to Trump and his supporters to vindicate the “maximum pressure” campaign he launched when he renounced the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018. It suggests broad-based discontent with the regime, and a deep-seated desire for economic and political change. How far will Trump go to facilitate just such a change?

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 21 January 2020:

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Prince Charles, defender of faith, comes to Israel

This article of mine appears in the new edition of The Jerusalem Report, dated January 27, 2020

          Less than a week after Boris Johnson and his Conservative administration won a sweeping victory in the 2019 UK general election, it was announced that the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, would be making an official visit to Israel. The main purpose of the trip was to attend an event at Yad Vashem titled ”Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Antisemitism”. Inevitably the gesture was seen by some as a resounding rebuff to the anti-Zionist antisemitism that had tainted the Labour party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and had led, in part, to its electoral defeat.

          In all its 71 years Israel has received only one other such official visit by a member of the Royal family – that of Charles’s elder son, William, in June 2018. Charles himself, his brother Edward, and his father, the Duke of Edinburgh, have all set foot on Israeli soil in the past, but not in an official capacity.

          Back in 1994 the Duke attended a ceremony at Yad Vashem honouring his mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, who had been awarded the title ‘Righteous among the Nations” for saving Jewish lives during the Holocaust. She is buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Charles represented the Queen at the funerals of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and of Shimon Peres in 2016. Both visits were categorized as private. The Queen’s youngest son, Edward, made a little publicized trip to Israel in 2007. Edward was invited by the Israel Youth Award program, a self-development group for Jewish and Arab youth affiliated to the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award International Association. While in Jerusalem Edward joined the then Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, for Shabbat dinner.

          Prince Charles is scheduled to attend the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem on 23  January 2020 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. He will be joining dozens of other world leaders at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, including the presidents of Russia, France, Germany, Italy and Austria, as well as the kings of Spain and Belgium.

          In addition, according to a statement issued by Prince Charles’s office, January’s trip “will be the first time that the Prince has undertaken a programme of engagements in Israel or the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has invited Charles to a series of events. This ecumenical approach to his official duties is entirely consistent with Prince Charles’s all-embracing concept of religion.

          The title “Defender of the Faith” was once conferred by the Pope on monarchs to mark outstanding support for the Roman Catholic church. When King Henry VIII broke with Catholicism in 1534, Parliament declared him "Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England", and later bestowed on him the title “Defender of the Faith” – the faith in question now being the protestant Church of England. When anti-Catholic sentiment was at a height in the 17th and 18th centuries this function of the monarch assumed particular relevance. Any royal who married a Catholic was barred from the succession – a disqualification ended as recently as 2013 by an Act of Parliament.

          So the profound shock to the British establishment can be imagined when, some years ago, Charles declared that on accession as sovereign he would want to be known either as “Defender of Faith” or “Defender of the Faiths”, since he saw his role as being supportive of the multitude of different faiths represented in modern Britain. The furore in government, religious and media circles was immense.

          It was the Queen, with her inimitable skill, who paved the way towards a resolution of the problem. In a speech in 2012, she took the opportunity to say that the Church of England's purpose "is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions", but rather the Church "has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country." As a result, Charles has recently been able to modify his original view. In an interview in 2015 he said that on his eventual coronation he will retain the monarch's traditional title as "Defender of the Faith", while "ensuring that other people's faiths can also be practised."

          Prince Charles has extended his positive support to many minority religions in the UK. He has shown particular interest in Islam. For more than twenty years he has been patron of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. “He makes all British citizens feel they are part of the grand historical narrative,” says the director, Farhan Nizami. “I don’t think there is another major figure in the western world who has as high a standing as he has in the Muslim world.”

          The Prince has studied Judaism as well as Islam, and is close to former UK Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks. Believing that Judaism and Islam both have a great deal in common with Christianity, he has said:. “The future surely lies in rediscovering the universal truths that dwell at the heart of these religions. All I have ever wanted to do is build bridges that span these chasms.”

          Charles’s sentiments bear a striking resemblance to those set out by then Chief Rabbi Sacks in the first edition of his controversial book “The Dignity of Difference” ­– a volume that outraged orthodox Jewish rabbis, and that some termed “heretical”. Even the London Beth Din declared that parts of the book were open "to an interpretation that is inconsistent with basic Jewish belief". Published in August 2002, the book was withdrawn from sale after a few weeks, with Sacks undertaking to rewrite passages for a second edition.

         His original text was taken to mean either that no religious faith contains the whole truth, or alternatively that all religions were equally true. A number of phrases in the book caused consternation, but one paragraph in particular seemed to orthodox Jewish critics to place Christianity and Islam on a par with Judaism.

          It reads: "God is universal, religions are particular. Religion is the translation of God into a particular language and thus into the life of a group, a nation, a community of faith. God has spoken to mankind in many languages through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims." That sentiment seemed to discount the central belief in Judaism of a particular covenant concluded on Mount Sinai between the Almighty and the Jewish people, under which Jews undertook to fulfil the multifarious commandments and obligations that were to be laid on them in the Torah.

          Unlike his friend Jonathan Sacks, Prince Charles crosses no red lines when he seeks to accord equality to all religious minorities, both in the UK and across the world, in the freedom to worship the Almighty in their own way, and when he works to heal division and conflict between them.

          Over the years it has become clear that Charles intends to encourage and support all the major religious communities in Britain. It is no longer a matter of comment when he dons Jewish or Muslim skullcaps in visits to communal events, or puts on religious ceremonial garb for the openings of Sikh and Hindu temples. The Prince also admires the Orthodox Church, not least perhaps because his grandmother, Princess Alice, was an Orthodox nun. He has made regular spiritual retreats to stay in the monasteries of Mount Athos, the Greek republic run by two thousand monks. He has incorporated Byzantine icons in the chapel in the grounds of his residence, Highgrove.

          On December 2, 2019, with the UK election campaign at its height, Prince Charles addressed 400 guests at a pre-Hanukkah reception at Buckingham Palace. He was unequivocal in his praise for the contribution to the life of the UK made by Its Jewish citizens, and his total abhorrence of antisemitism. The Prince said prominent members of the Jewish community had "literally transformed this country for the better" whilst others were cornerstones of their local communities. "In every walk of life," he said, “in every field of endeavor, our nation could have had no more generous citizens, and no more faithful friends.”

          There is no doubt that in Prince Charles the Jewish community in the UK, and Jews the world over, have a friend. In his closing remarks to his guests as Buckingham Palace he said:

          “In my own small way, I have sought to recognize the contribution of the Jewish community by various means, whether in attending or hosting receptions for the Kindertransport Association, or for Holocaust survivors, or attending events for the National Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, of which I am Patron, or helping to build a Jewish Community Centre in Krakow – where I was privileged to fix a mezuzah to the doorpost – or in agreeing without a moment’s hesitation to become Patron of World Jewish Relief... I see this as the least I can do to try to repay, in some small way, the immense blessings the Jewish people have brought to this land and, indeed, to humanity.“

          Charles deserves the most generous and warm-hearted welcome that Israel can provide.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 15 January 2020:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 18 January 2020:

Friday, 10 January 2020

The problem with Iran

        Ever since the Islamic revolution of 1979 the world has grappled with problems centred on the Iranian regime. Consistently over the 40 years Iran has either carried out, or initiated through its proxy militias like Hezbollah or the Houthis, a series of bombings, rocket attacks, assassinations and terrorist actions not only in the Middle East, but across the world. Iran also made determined efforts for decades to develop nuclear power, with the aim – never openly acknowledged – of producing nuclear weapons.

        Finally in 2015, in an attempt to halt their nuclear programme and bring Iran back into the comity of nations, the permanent members of the UN Security Council together with Germany concluded an agreement with Iran. No doubt all those involved, including then-US President Obama, had the very best of intentions. They believed they had put Iran’s nuclear ambitions on hold for about 15 years, making the world a safer place if only temporarily, and believed that they had taken an important step towards normalizing relations with the Iranian regime.

        They were mistaken. To quote President Donald Trump, speaking on 8 January 2020:

        “Iran’s hostilities substantially increased after the foolish Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2015, and they were given $150 billion, not to mention $1.8 billion in cash. Instead of saying "thank you" to the United States, they chanted "death to America." In fact, they chanted "death to America" the day the agreement was signed.

        “Then, Iran went on a terror spree, funded by the money from the deal, and created hell in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration. The regime also greatly tightened the reins on their own country, even recently killing 1,500 people at the many protests that are taking place all throughout Iran.”

        Where did the civilized world go wrong? The mistake was the same mistake the world made in the case of Hitler. Nobody read Mein Kamf or, if they did, took it seriously until it was too late. But the philosophy underlying Hitler’s political beliefs was there, in black and white, for years before he was in a position to implement it. He might have been thwarted.

       The problem that Iran poses to the civilized world stems entirely from the Islamic revolutionary regime that the nation wished on itself back in 1979. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the figurehead for Iran’s new direction, became Supreme Leader in December 1979. His philosophy, which he made no secret of, and wrote about nearly 40 years before, required the immediate imposition of strict Sharia law domestically, and a foreign policy aimed at spreading the Shi’ite interpretation of Islam throughout the world.

        “We shall export our revolution to the whole world,” he declared. “Until the cry 'There is no god but Allah' resounds over the whole world, there will be struggle.” Or again: “Establishing the Islamic state world-wide belongs to the great goals of the revolution.”

        Pursuit of this fundamental objective of the Islamic Revolution has involved the state – acting either directly or through proxy militant bodies, which enables it to deny responsibility – in a succession of acts of terror, mayhem and murder directed not only against Western targets, but against non-Shia Muslims as well. “To kill the infidels,” declared Khomeini, “is one of the noblest missions Allah has reserved for mankind.”

        He was unequivocal about the basic purpose of his regime. “We have set as our goal the worldwide spread of the influence of Islam and the suppression of the rule of the world conquerors ... We wish to cause the corrupt roots of Zionism, Capitalism and Communism to wither throughout the world. We wish, as does God almighty, to destroy the systems which are based on these three foundations, and to promote the Islamic order of the Prophet.”

        With the best of intentions world leaders have been pursuing a path that leads nowhere. The Iranian regime, now headed by Ayatollah Khamenei, has no interest at all in an accommodation with the West. It is intent on achieving the original goals of the Revolution – the destruction of Western-style democracy and its way of life, and the imposition of Shia Islam on the world. “We have to wage war,” wrote the first Supreme Leader, “until all corruption, all disobedience of Islamic law ceases.”

        This partly explains Iran’s unremitting hostility to Sunni Saudi Arabia which, with Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, within its borders, sees itself as the leader of the Muslim world. This claim is hotly contested by Iran, which sees Saudi Arabia as its great rival for political, as well as religious, hegemony in the region.

        Trump has repeatedly denied that he seeks regime change in Iran – all he wants is a cessation of Iran’s terrorist activities and a renegotiation of the nuclear deal. These, if finally achieved through the tough sanctions imposed by the US, would indeed be welcome. But the fundamental purpose behind Iran’s Islamic regime means that a genuine accommodation with the rest of the world – which the ayatollahs seek to convert to Shia Islam – is impossible.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 11 January 2020:

Saturday, 4 January 2020

America bites back

          Iran has literally been getting away with murder for decades. On the night of December 29, 2019 the United States launched its first airstrikes in nearly a decade on the forces of Iran’s proxies. Four nights later it carried out a precision drone-based attack just outside Baghdad airport, and killed Iran’s top military commander and the leader of a major Iran-supported proxy fighting organization. 

          It has long been clear that a key aspect of Iran’s geopolitical strategy is to use proxies to execute its less savoury operations, thus avoiding direct responsibility for the atrocities committed at its behest. Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Gaza, and a plethora of jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq are, in addition to its own Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the instruments Iran uses to reach its political goals. For the past decade these groups have been recognized by the US simply as Iran’s tools, and have not been considered central enough to warrant direct retaliation.

          A rocket attack on an Iraqi military base on December 27 by an armed group known as Kataib Hezbollah (KH) was the straw that broke the camel’s back. KH is an Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite militia operating in Iraq and throughout Syria. Founded in 2003 it is in sympathy with the Lebanon-based Hezbollah organization. The US has expressed concern in the past about pro-Iranian militias targeting coalition forces in Syria. This anti-KH operation was characterized by US Assistant Secretary of Defense Jonathan Hoffman as “defensive strikes,” in retaliation not only for the attack on December 27, but for “repeated Kataib Hezbollah attacks on Iraqi bases that host Operation Inherent Resolve coalition forces.”

          KH’s leader, Jamal Jaafar al-Ibrahimi – also known as Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes – was the alleged mastermind behind the US and French embassy bombings in Kuwait in 1983. During the war in Iraq the group specialized in planting roadside bombs and using improvised rocket-assisted mortars to attack US and coalition forces. A string of other atrocities, abductions and murders are attributed to them. KH has been closely linked to Iran’s external military branch, the IRGC. Al-Mohandes operated in close liaison with the IRCG Quds Force commander, Qassem Suleimani. Now both have been eliminated.

          The first US airstrikes targeted at least five KH locations. The Pentagon says three were in Iraq and two in Syria. The targets included weapons depots and command posts, and the attack may have involved drones, according to some reports. The US says that the areas it struck were also used to “plan and execute attacks.” As for targeting Suleimani, President Donald Trump has explained the US action as a pre-emptive intelligence-based strike aimed at preventing an impending onslaught on American troops.

          A more fundamental issue is at stake. Taking advantage of the chaos currently reigning in Iraq, which is almost at a standstill as a result of mass anti-government protests and demonstrations, Iran is attempting to entrench itself even further inside the country both politically and militarily. It has certainly been building up resources to boost its anti-US, anti-Israel power base. In December reports emerged that Iran was moving ballistic missiles to Iraq.

          Iran’s dominant position within the Iraqi body politic has emerged as a key issue during the current anti-government crisis. Iraqi President Barham Salih has resisted recent attempts by the pro-Iran coalition to put forward nominees for prime minister that included a resigned minister and a controversial governor, Asaad al-Eidani. The mass street protests are supporting the president’s threat to resign rather than accept the pro-Iran coalition's candidate.

          Yet Iraq's current prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, clinging to office as the political storm rages around him, has condemned Suleimani’s assassination, just as he is reported to have "strongly objected" to the US strikes on KH positions in Iraq and Syria as "a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a dangerous escalation."

         The increasing attacks on US military bases by Iran’s proxy militias have plainly been an assertion of Iran’s powerful position within Iraq – a situation that has not gone unnoticed by the public. The street demonstrators saw Iran’s growing dominance as further evidence of the weakness and inadequacy of the old government establishment, which they are seeking to sweep away. How Suleiman’s death at Washington’s hands will affect the political dynamic the next few weeks will demonstrate.

          The extent to which Iran has managed to infiltrate Iraq’s political and military establishment was revealed in November 2019, when 700 pages containing secret intelligence cables were leaked to two US media organizations. They describe a carefully conceived plan, going back to 2014, for Iran’s ministry of information and security, along with the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, to expand Iran’s influence inside Iraq, and to identify and run sources at the most senior levels of government. The aim was to keep the country pliant and aligned to Iran’s objectives.

          The leaked cables reveal that Iranian intelligence officers co-opted much of the Iraqi government’s cabinet, infiltrated its military leadership, and even tapped into a network of sources once run by the CIA. The cables claim that so prevalent is Iran in Iraq’s affairs that Iranian officers effectively have free rein across key institutions of state, and are central to much of the country’s decision-making,

          The intelligence haul threw new light on how Iran’s agents operate, and the extent to which each prime minister and cabinet member was vetted to ensure they were serving the Islamic Republic’s interests.

          A key role in this operation had been assigned to Suleimani, head of the IRGC Quds Force and de facto leader of Iran's constellation of proxies across the Middle East. Suleimani it was who instituted the brutal crackdown on the early anti-government street demonstrations in Iraq, leading to scores of deaths and injuries. It proved ineffective. This has been one military operation from which Suleimani failed to emerge victorious. Now he has been removed from the scene. Popular protest and demand for reform, allied to a new US determination to crack down on Iran’s puppet militias, may yet carry the day – or, alternatively, Suleimani’s death may soften the popular anti-Iran sentiment. Time will tell.

Published as "Iran's entrenchment in Iraq" in the Jerusalem Post, 9 January 2020:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 January 2020:

Published in the MPC Journal, 6 January 2020:

Friday, 27 December 2019

Iraq in turmoil

          Iraq is in total chaos from two unconnected threats to its very existence. On the one hand domestic protesters have brought the country to a standstill with their demands for a total clear-out of the government – president, prime minister and all; on the other, ISIS is staging a full-scale regrouping in the vast areas that lie between the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the north and government troops down in the south. 

          Anti-government protests began sweeping across Iraq in September 2019. They quickly turned violent as the government responded with assassination attempts and kidnappings of prominent activists. The latest to be killed was Alui al-Assami. On December 20 two unidentified gunmen riding a motorcycle intercepted Al-Assami in the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, fired on him and killed him instantly. Later that day protesters headed to the headquarters of political parties that are widely seen as affiliates of Iran. and set them ablaze.

         The government’s violent crackdown on protesters has led to the deaths of dozens in Nasiriyah, but it has failed to bring public servants back to work. So far the security forces, or Iran-backed militias in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), have killed nearly 500 protesters, most of them unarmed civilians. Well over 27,000 have been wounded. Live rounds are reported to have been used, and military-grade tear gas canisters fired directly into crowds.

          Meanwhile Iraq’s top Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani has condemned the continued crackdown on demonstrations and called for an early election. After prime minister Adil Abdul Mahdi resigned amid national anti-corruption demonstrations, the Iraqi parliament missed its constitutionally mandated duty to nominate a replacement. Despite rumors to the contrary, no-one had been nominated by December 25.

          Officials say that Iran, a key player in Iraqi politics, wanted to install Qusay al-Suhail, who served as education minister in the previous government. But protesters categorically reject his candidacy, along with anyone from the wider political establishment which has been in place since Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003. They are demanding the resignation of both President Salih and of parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbussi.

          Electoral reform has been among one of the protesters' top demands, and the national parliament in Baghdad has approved several articles of a new draft election Bill. The draft law proposes changing the electoral system to a mix between direct voting and party lists, but this latter element has already been rejected by protesters, who believe it gives the parties too much power and would allow them to disregard voters’ wishes.

          It is obvious that some sort of resolution on the political front is still a long way off.

          Meanwhile ISIS is reforming and diversifying. On December 22, 2019 the BBC led its main news bulletins with a report indicating that two years after losing the last of its territory in Iraq, ISIS is re-organizing in the country. The report claimed that ISIS was mounting a sophisticated insurgency.

          The militants are now more skilled and more dangerous than al-Qaeda, according to Lahur Talabany, a top Kurdish counter-terrorism official. A different kind of ISIS has emerged, he says, which, to avoid being a target, no longer wants to control territory. Instead – like their predecessors in al-Qaeda before them – the extremists have gone underground in Iraq's Hamrin Mountains.

          "This is the hub for ISIS right now," he said. "It's a long range of mountains, and very difficult for the Iraqi army to control. There are a lot of hide-outs and caves."

          The militants are benefitting from strained relations between Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government. Kurdish intelligence officials estimate that ISIS is10,000 strong in Iraq with between 4,000 and 5,000 fighters, and a similar number of sleeper cells and sympathisers.

          Reestablished in northern Iraq , ISIS is raising money by extorting payments from farmers under penalty of destroying crops. It also has investments in markets ranging from car sales and fish farming to production of cannabis. It is in the ungoverned spaces in eastern Syria and across northern Iraq, particularly in the border areas between the Kurdish regions of Iraq and those that the central government controls, that have been taken over by ISIS. And small ISIS units are operating in the Iraqi provinces of Nineveh, Salahuddin, Kirkuk, Diyala and Anbar.

          ISIS has been recruiting followers among the tens of thousands of people housed in the Kurdish-run displacement camps in Syria, especially Al Hol, home to 70,000 people. To this must be added some 10,000 ISIS fighters in separate makeshift prisons.

          More than a year after Trump’s declaration of victory over ISIS, the movement is rising from its ashes like the legendary phoenix. A politically ravaged Iraq, its government clinging precariously to power, has provided prime conditions for ISIS to stage its comeback. Unless the West takes notice reasonably soon, the five-year battles of 2014-2019 may have to be fought all over again.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 31 December 2019:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 28 December 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 28 December 2019: