Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Reconfiguring Arab-Western relations

                                                                             
      


Exactly five hundred years ago, in 1516, the renowned English statesman and social philosopher Sir Thomas More published “Utopia”, a novel in which he pictured an imaginary island where a totally just government had created the perfect society. More, however, was under no illusion that paradise is attainable in this wicked world – which is why the two Greek words from which “Utopia” is constructed translate as “nowhere.”

        In the real world, where imperfect societies abound, it is certainly incumbent on everyone to strive to eliminate injustice and improve life for humanity in general. But it is also necessary to recognize who your friends are – imperfect though they may be – and which are the malign forces that seek global power and domination.

        On December 6, 2016 Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, travelled to Bahrain to meet members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) gathered in the capital, Manama, for the organization’s 37th summit. The GCC, established in 1981, consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and comprises around 15 percent of the Arab world.

        Individually the member states of the GCC are far from Utopia – some further than others. But collectively, and with certain reservations, they are friends of the West. Assuredly none seeks regional hegemony or world domination. Nonetheless when Theresa May’s visit was announced it aroused a storm of protest both within the UK and beyond.

        Iran’s propaganda medium, PressTV, broadcasting in English around the clock, was quick to publicise the objections of the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), a UK-based hard-line Khomeneist non-governmental organisation. Earlier in 2016 this group bestowed their ‘Islamophobe of the Year’ award to the murdered staff of Charlie Hebdo. At their awards ceremony the IHRC joked about what a shame it was that none of the staff of Charlie Hebdo were around to collect it.

        It is not likely, therefore, that Mrs May took much notice of the letter that arrived at 10 Downing Street, urging her to cancel her projected meeting with GCC Arab monarchies because it “shows a glaring disregard for human rights and also a dangerous message of approval to the leaders of GCC regimes who continue to perpetrate human rights abuses against their own and other citizens.”

        It is no surprise that the IHRC took a swipe also at Saudi Arabia for the military coalition it is leading in Yemen, where it is countering the efforts of the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels to overthrow the legitimate government. The Saudi effort is backed by the US and the UK. Also roundly condemned by the IHRC was Britain’s continued support for Saudi Arabia and Bahrain by way of weapons and intelligence.

        The IHRC is playing the long-established game of using the tools of democracy to destabilise democracy itself. Amnesty International (AI) is a non-governmental organization founded in the UK in 1961 whose self-assigned purpose is to draw attention to human rights abuses, and to mobilise public opinion to put pressure on governments that let abuse take place. It is therefore to be expected that AI puts under scrutiny the value and independence of two UK-supported human rights institutions set up in Bahrain. The bodies, the Ombudsman of the Ministry of Interior, and the special investigations unit within the public prosecution, were established in 2012 following a fierce crackdown by the Bahraini government on protests the previous year.

        Whereas the British Foreign Office believes the two institutions show the government in Manama is willing to respond to western pressure, and the then foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, told the House of Commons in January 2015 that Bahrain was “a country which is travelling in the right direction”, AI’s head of policy and government affairs, Allan Hogarth, said: “It was a welcome move when Bahrain set up these two bodies back in 2012, but it’s utterly disingenuous of the UK government to pretend they’re delivering substantial human rights reform in Bahrain. Instead of acting as overexcited cheerleaders for Bahrain’s woefully inadequate reforms, UK ministers ought to be confronting the awkward reality that these UK-backed institutions are seriously flawed and widely seen as a PR tool of the Bahraini government.”

        Amnesty International is fulfilling its self-imposed remit by pressing Bahrain to improve human rights within the kingdom. It can do nothing about an outside pressure group like the IHRC, with its strong Iranian links, jumping on the bandwagon for its own, less savoury, purposes.

        An important aspect of Theresa May’s visit to the Gulf has been to rebuild relations with the Middle East, following the truly disastrous results of the Obama administration’s policies in the region. Obama began his presidency by trying to reassure the Muslim world of America’s respect for Islam and his intention to avoid its past “colonialist” interference. He ended by having empowered the Arab world’s greatest enemy, Iran, through the deal that ensures that Iran will become a nuclear power within 10-15 years. He consistently supported the Muslim Brotherhood, declared a terrorist organization by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. His refusal to engage wholeheartedly against the enemies of stability in the Middle East, such as President Assad of Syria and Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, left a power vacuum which Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was quick to fill. As a result confidence in, not to say respect for, the USA has been severely shaken in the Arab world.

        As regards the UK, the Gulf states, always strongly Anglophile, found their sympathies severely strained by the British government’s support for the Iran deal. If in the future Theresa May takes a more hardline approach towards Iran, she would ease this tension – and indeed she is likely to do so, if only to align British foreign policy with that of President-elect Trump.

        With foreign policy hawks such as General Mike Flynn, Trump’s new National Security Advisor, occupying senior posts in the next administration, the Iran deal – or at least the way it is currently being administered – is unlikely to survive. Amending the Iran deal, or at least imposing rigorous compliance with its terms on Iran, would help Washington repair relations with traditional allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to say nothing of Israel, alienated by Obama’s pro-Iranian policies. 


        It seems pretty certain that a reconfiguration of relations between the West and the Arab world is in the offing. Utopia it will not be, but it may result in a more harmonious and balanced situation in which friends are supported, and malign forces are opposed not appeased.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 5 December 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Reconfiguring-Arab-Western-relations-474467

Published in the MPC Journal, 6 December 2016 as
"Reconfiguring Orient-Occident Relations":
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/12/06/reconfiguring-orient-occident-relations/

Friday, 25 November 2016

A Trump-Putin axis?

                                                                                   
        US President-elect Donald Trump admires Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. That much became clear during Trump’s presidential campaign, as did his intention when in office to repair the US’s damaged relations with the Russian Federation. At the moment the US and Russia, although both nominally combatting Islamic State (IS) in the Syrian civil war, are so far from allies that they are very nearly belligerents. 

        In September 2014 the Obama administration brought together a coalition of countries to undertake a twin-objective military effort in Syria: to defeat the rampant IS that had seized large swathes of the country, and to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power, establishing democratic governance in his stead. There was one proviso: there were to be no Western boots on the ground. The strength of the coalition was to be focused on providing training, logistical support and air cover for the “moderate” forces fighting IS and opposing Assad, mainly the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

        Assad, for his part, controlled the formidable Syrian army and was supported by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, by the forces provided by Iran’s puppet, Hezbollah, and in addition, since autumn 2015, by the full weight of a massive Russian military build-up. But although IS was nominally in Russia’s sights from the start, estimates are that less than 10 per cent of Russian air strikes have been targeting it. Russia’s powerful air support, to say nothing of the Kalibir NK cruise missiles first fired on Aleppo from the Russian frigate Admiral Grigorovich on 15 November, has been directed primarily against the FSA.

        So Russia has been battering the FSA while the US-led coalition has been supporting it. In short, Russia and the US are virtually at war with each other in Syria, albeit by proxy. Trump wants to stop that proxy contest turning into a full-scale conflict.

        The long-standing US position has been that to end Syria’s complex and multisided struggle, Assad must be removed from power and democratic elections take place. Trump takes a different stance. Hard-line Sunni Islamist elements are known to be present within the ranks of the FSA, and in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on November 11, Trump cast doubt on its democratic credentials. “We’re backing rebels against Syria,” he said, “and we have no idea who those people are.” Moreover, while he “did not like [Assad] at all”, he judged that shoring up his regime was the best way to stem the extremism that has flourished in the chaos of the civil war and threatens US domestic security.

        Taking his position to its logical conclusion, he said that since Russia is now totally aligned with Syria, if the US goes on attacking Assad, “we end up fighting Russia.”

        This is an essentially pragmatic line to adopt. It acknowledges that the result of President Obama’s weak-kneed policies in the Middle East was to leave a power vacuum that Putin was quick to fill. Trump admires Putin for his diplomatic and military boldness, and seems prepared to allow Putin to enjoy the fruits of his adventurism.

       Putin’s Syrian adventure was partly an effort to counter the sanctions and diplomatic cold-shoulder by Western powers that followed his annexation of Crimea and subsequent military involvement in eastern Ukraine. By bulldozing his way to influence and power in the Middle East, Putin has gained a position in which the West simply has to take account of him. Putting aside any personal admiration for the man’s audacity, Trump is actually bowing to the inevitable.

        Putin’s multi-faceted Syrian initiative kills several birds with one stone. In sustaining Assad in power he is safeguarding Russia’s long-standing military and commercial interests in Syria. Foremost among these is the naval facility at Tartus, Russia’s sole outlet to the Mediterranean, about to become “a fully-fledged overseas base of the Russian Navy” according to an announcement on 21 November 2016. Putin is also protecting the strategic centre of Russia's military operations in Syria – the Hmeymim airbase near Latakia – to say nothing of billions of dollars of commercial investments including oil and gas infrastructure.

        There are also domestic security issues at stake, with which Trump can empathise. Russia is combatting an Islamist insurgency of its own in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, and the last thing Putin wants is for young impressionable Muslims, inspired by further Islamist successes in Syria, to join its ranks.

        But there is an apparent circle to be squared. Russia counts Iran as a close ally in its efforts to shore up the Assad regime. Trump is a harsh critic of Iran and the nuclear agreement (“the stupidest deal of all time”), and while on the campaign trail advocated either renegotiating it or “tearing it up”. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, voted against the nuclear deal in the Senate, while Congressman Mike Pompeo, selected by Trump to be CIA director. has investigated the Obama administration’s secret negotiations with Tehran. In short, a US accommodation with Putin under President Trump is unlikely to incorporate a love-in with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei – a situation much to the liking of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which regard Iran as their worst enemy, and Obama’s consistent appeasement of its leaders as a disaster.

        A continued stand-off between Trump’s America and Iran is not likely to concern Putin overmuch. While providing Iran with billions of dollars-worth of military hardware, Putin by no means shares Iran’s declared intention of eliminating Israel. On the contrary, he seems intent on expanding Russian influence in the Jewish state. One example is the 20-year deal signed recently between a subsidiary of Russia’s Gazprom and Levant Marketing Corporation, allowing for the exclusive purchase by Russia of three million tonnes per year of liquefied natural gas from Israel‘s Tamar offshore gas field. Moreover Putin has met Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, no less than five times in the past year. He seems very nearly as strong a supporter of Israel as Trump claims to be. 


        An agreed US-Russian end to the Syrian conflict, a combined victory over IS, a concerted effort to support a new Israeli-Palestinian peace effort, renewed confidence in America from the Arab world – given the complex factors at play on the Middle East board-game, a future Trump-Putin understanding might do much more for global security than Obama’s “hands-off” policies ever achieved.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 24 November 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/A-Trump-Putin-axis-473548

Published in the Eurasia Review, 28 November 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/28112016-a-trump-putin-axis-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 29 November 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/11/29/a-trump-putin-axis/

Friday, 18 November 2016

UK split over the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia

        Britain’s parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee is at daggers drawn with Britain’s Foreign Office. That is to say, the Members of Parliament who form the influential Select Committee that monitors foreign affairs have taken up cudgels against the government department, headed by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, responsible for formulating and implementing UK foreign policy.

        The spat is all over how Britain should relate to the Muslim Brotherhood. It was sparked by a review, commissioned by the government in April 2014 from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), to examine whether the Muslim Brotherhood put British national security at risk. The report was issued in December 2015.

        In accepting its conclusions, Britain’s then Prime Minister, David Cameron, said: "Parts of the Muslim Brotherhood have a highly ambiguous relationship with violent extremism. Both as an ideology and as a network it has been a rite of passage for some individuals and groups who have gone on to engage in violence and terrorism. The main findings of the review support the conclusion that membership of, association with, or influence by the Muslim Brotherhood should be considered as a possible indicator of extremism."

        Three months later the Foreign Affairs committee announced its intention to inquire into ‘political Islam’, its characteristics, and “how well the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has understood and engaged with ‘political-Islamist’ groups.” The very terms of its self-formulated remit indicated a clash of opinion, even before the committee had begun its work. After nine months gestation, the committee gave birth to a report which thoroughly castigated the FCO review. It was particularly scathing about the appointment to lead the review of Sir John Jenkins, the UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia, which has proscribed the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

        "Notwithstanding his knowledge, experience, and professional integrity, Sir John Jenkins's concurrent service as UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia made his appointment to lead the Muslim Brotherhood Review misguided. It created the impression that a foreign state, which was an interested party, had a private window into the conduct of a UK Government inquiry…This has undermined confidence in the impartiality of the FCO's work on such an important and contentious subject.”

        Some, however, might characterize this particular criticism as the pot calling the kettle black. The chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee is Crispin Blunt – “a Muslim Brotherhood-oriented man,” according to Dalia Youssef, a member of Egypt’s parliament. 


        "Blunt was here in Egypt in 2013,” said Youssef, “and he decided to join the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Rabaa El-Adaweya in Cairo. Blunt stayed in Rabaa for four days, eating and drinking and living the Muslim Brotherhood experience without shame and without reviewing their radical speeches delivered throughout the day."

        What lies at the heart of the clash of opinion inside the British establishment about the Muslim Brotherhood? Liberal/left wing sentiment opposes Egypt’s counter-revolution of 2013, led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which overthrew the unpopular but democratically elected Brotherhood and its president, Mohamed Morsi. It is prepared to take the Brotherhood at its word that it is a populist movement fully engaged in the democratic process, and overlook or downgrade the deeper religio-political agenda that underlies its operations.

        The Foreign Affairs Committee report contends that “the need to appeal to a broad range of the electorate in order to win elections, and the need to work with other political perspectives in order to govern effectively, will serve to encourage Islamist groups to adopt a more pragmatic ideology, and an increasingly flexible interpretation of their Islamic references.”

        Others may maintain that views like these are a triumph of hope over experience. For the evidence of the Brotherhood’s active involvement in terrorism is overwhelming. It is set out in some detail in the Bill submitted by US Senator Ted Cruz in November 2015, requiring the Secretary of State to report to Congress on designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization.

        The Muslim Brotherhood was founded by Hassan al-Banna in Egypt in 1928, after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. Its operating philosophy is that the end – the establishment of a world-wide caliphate – justifies the means, and the means can extend from involvement in democracy and social welfare, to militancy, jihad and terrorism, as expediency requires. Its founding belief, as expounded by al-Banna, is that: “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.”

        In the UK, liberal-left wing suspicion of Saudi Arabia extends well beyond the Muslim Brotherhood issue. In September 2016 the four parliamentary committees that make up the Committees on Arms Export Control were due to publish a report into British arms exports to Saudi Arabia. In the event the four could not agree on a proposal, backed by two of them, to condemn Saudi Arabia for civilian casualties caused in Yemen’s civil war, and to cease all exports of British defense equipment to Saudi until the conclusion of a UN investigation. As a result the Foreign Affairs Committee released its own findings, and the Defence Committee opted out altogether.

        The International Development and the Business Committees, however, published a joint report calling for the government to cease exports of all weapons to Saudi Arabia that could be used in the conflict with rebel forces in Yemen until a yet-to-be set up independent international investigation reports on claims that civilian targets such as hospitals and schools were bombed in violation of humanitarian law.

        The report makes no mention of Saudi’s own investigation into failings in their chain of command structure that led to the loss of innocent life. Nor does it refer to war crimes committed by the Houthi rebels and their Iranian backers who together have plunged the country into bitter conflict. It fails, also, to mention that the Saudis, putting aside their differences with Turkey and Qatar – both supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood – established a coalition of Sunni Arab states which, with the backing of the US and Britain, seeks to prevent Shia Iran from seizing control of Yemen.

        Government reaction was swift. Four ministers, including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, issued a robust joint statement pledging to continue British arms sales to Saudi Arabia, regardless. Perhaps Brexit (to say nothing of Trump’s triumph) foreshadows a less spineless approach by the British establishment to all-too-pervasive political correctness.


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 November 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/UK-split-over-the-Muslim-Brotherhood-and-Saudi-Arabia-473027

Published in the Eurasia Review, 28 November 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/28112016-uk-split-over-muslim-brotherhood-and-saudi-arabia-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 29 November 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/11/29/uk-split-over-the-muslim-brotherhood-and-saudi-arabia/

Friday, 28 October 2016

To hell with the truth!

                                                                         

                                          To hell with the truth! As the history of the world proves, the truth has no bearing on anything.
                                              – Eugene O’Neill: “The Iceman Cometh”

          Opinions and wishful thinking are not the same as provable facts. It is one thing, for example, to believe fervently that Marxism is a preferable system to capitalism, but to maintain against all the evidence that the world is a flat disc floating in space is surely unsustainable. Yet the Flat Earth Society flourishes, even in 2016. Discounting all the scientific evidence to the contrary, there are people who have convinced themselves that the world is not a globe spinning in space. As the ancient proverb has it: "There are none so blind as those who will not see. The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know.”

          And so, for example, there are large numbers of people who deny that the Holocaust ever occurred, choosing to ignore the overwhelming weight of historical evidence, the testimony of thousands of witnesses and participants, and the tons of documents, photographs and film footage. They can maintain this even in the face of the evidence of such Nazi officials as SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Hoess, given at his trial in Nuremberg in 1946:

          “I commanded Auschwitz [from 1 May 1940] until 1 December 1943, and estimate that at least 2,500,000 victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning. …victims included about 100,000 German Jews, and great numbers of citizens, mostly Jewish, from Holland, France, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Greece, or other countries. We executed about 400,000 Hungarian Jews alone at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944."

          Rational people do not normally turn their backs on indisputable evidence, unless they are moved by some even stronger motive. Holocaust deniers are either apologists for Hitler’s Nazi regime, or have a strong antipathy to Jews, or both. What then of the 24 nations that voted on October 13, 2016 in favor of a resolution of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) that denies the incontrovertible Jewish connection to its most holy religious sites, namely the Temple Mount and the Western Wall in Jerusalem?

          A world body with UNESCO’s remit might be expected to assert that Jerusalem contains sites variously holy to Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Instead, giving one token nod in that direction, it has voted to eradicate all Jewish connections to its holy places, and by extension Christianity’s too. The latest resolution describes the Temple Mount and the Western Wall as purely Islamic holy places, referring to them solely by their Muslim names of Al-Haram Al-Sharif and the Buraq Wall.

          It is an historical, geographical, archaeological and biblical fact that the first Jewish Temple stood on the Mount in about 900 BCE, and that the second Temple – built in 349 BCE and extensively reconstructed by Herod in the first century BCE – was totally destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE as they crushed a revolt of the Jewish population, leaving only the outer wall surrounding the Mount. The Arch of Titus in Rome commemorates the victory, and bas-reliefs show Roman soldiers making off with Jewish religious artefacts from the Temple.

          As for the Christian connection, the Temple features in one of the iconic incidents in Christ’s story: “Jesus went into the Temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the Temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers,,,” (Matthew 21:12).

          Islam dates its origins from the death of Mohammed some 600 years after the Romans sacked Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque were built several decades after that.

          In addition to the 24 nations that supported the UNESCO motion, political expediency clearly outweighed respect for the truth for a further 26 nations, which chose to abstain rather than vote against an obvious distortion of historical fact. The resolution had been sponsored by Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, and Sudan – all Arab nations intent on delegitimizing Israel as far as they could. The 26 simply lacked the moral courage to oppose them.

          Only 6 countries out of the 56 voting were principled enough to put plain truth before political expediency and vote against the resolution. They should be named: the US, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Lithuania and Estonia.

          Also on the roll of honour arising from this episode stand the names of the retiring UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, and UNESCO’s own director-general, Irina Bokova. Ban’s spokesperson said: “The Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls have an undeniable link to three religions: Christian, Jewish, Muslim… Anything that is perceived as an undertaking to repudiate that fact … will only feed violence and radicalism.”

          Bokova disavowed the resolution passed by her own organization. It “runs counter to the reasons that justified [Jerusalem’s] inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage list,” she said. “We have a collective responsibility to strengthen cultural and religious coexistence… to bridge the divisions that harm the multi-faith character of the Old City.”


          “Not a peep from the Pope” ran a catchy headline to a recent commentary on the UNESCO vote, noting that initially the Vatican had remained rather alarmingly silent, as if efforts to Islamicize Jerusalem did not also impinge directly on Christian history and religious interests. Finally on October 26 Pope Francis, in the midst of an address about migration, gave utterance to a typically opaque Vatican remark: “The people of Israel…walked through the desert for forty years until they reached the land promised by God” – a statement which, in the context of the UNESCO vote, could be taken as an endorsement of the Jewish God-given connection to the Holy Land.


          It is not only the Pope
who has failed to defend Christianity in the face of this UNESCO assault on historic fact and religious belief. Protestant leaders world-wide have said very little. It is incumbent on them, on the Vatican, and on national leaders the world over to speak out for truth and in support of the Judeo-Christian foundations on which Western civilization is based.

          In short, let it be said loud and clear that Jerusalem is a city containing sites revered by three world religions whose claims on them need to be respected, not deliberately obliterated in the interests of political point-scoring.

          “To hell with the truth!” is all very well as a realpolitik philosophy. But turning one’s back on the truth does not make it go away. As Shakespeare so succinctly puts it: “Truth will out!”


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 30 October 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/To-hell-with-the-truth-471099

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 October 2016 as
"UNESCO and to Hell with the Truth!":
http://www.eurasiareview.com/31102016-unesco-and-to-hell-with-the-truth-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 30 October 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/10/30/to-hell-with-the-truth/

Monday, 24 October 2016

Attenders and non-attenders at the Peres funeral

                                                                     

          A glance at the list of distinguished individuals who flocked to Israel at very short notice to attend the funeral of Shimon Peres on September 30, 2016 reveals several surprises, some in respect of those who came, and some of those who did not.

          The USA contingent, for example was described by one journal as “an insanely long list”. It consisted of no less than 32 people. The presence of the President, ex-President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and the US ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, was appropriate and to be expected. The party, however, included no less than 19 members of Congress and a slew of Special Assistants, Assistants and Advisers.

          Among the 80 attendees, one noteworthy figure was Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, accompanied by a delegation of senior Palestinian officials. Abbas may have anticipated something of a political backlash from Hamas for his provocative initiative, but he must have been shocked at the vehemence of the attack from more extreme elements within his own party, Fatah.

          In denouncing Abbas, Hamas declared: “We condemn Abbas’s condolences for Shimon Peres, and consider it disregards the blood of the martyrs and the suffering of the Palestinian people.” On the day of the funeral people took to the streets in Gaza to attack Abbas for taking part, while the leadership of Fatah's student wing, the Shabiba movement, also condemned Abbas’s participation.

          That same day Osama Mansour, the director of public relations at the PA military liaison office, posted a Facebook message calling on Abbas not to attend. Next day he was arrested by PA military intelligence. On October 12 the Ramallah military court sentenced Mansour to a year’s imprisonment – though a few hours later Abbas pardoned him, but demanded his resignation.

          On October 4 clashes broke out in Ramallah between Palestinian security members participating in a Fatah march in support of Abbas, and members of a youth march opposed to Abbas's attendance. Khalida Jarrar, a member of the political bureau of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), said, “The attack on a peaceful march…is part of an attempt to muzzle and terrorize the people and prevent peaceful protests.” The attack, she maintained, showed that the PA and its security services failed to understand the resentment felt by those who opposed the president’s participation in Peres's funeral.

          Political author and analyst Khalil Shaheen did not mince his words. “Peres is a war criminal, and despite that, Abbas attended his funeral. This is while the PA claims that it wants Israeli war criminals to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. It makes the PA discourse unconvincing for the Palestinian public opinion.”

          In the final analysis Abbas and his delegation were indeed present at the funeral, but they were the sole Palestinian representation. The 13 Joint List members of the Knesset (MKs), the parliamentary representatives of Arabs domiciled in Israel, decided not to attend – a decision that generated just as much fervent opposition within Israel as Abbas’s did in the occupied territories.

          On the day before the funeral Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh announced in a radio interview that the party did not intend to issue an official statement of condolence on the passing of Shimon Peres. “Peres’s memory in the Arab community is different from the narrative of the past few days,” he asserted, adding that Peres’s funeral was part of a “national day of mourning in which I have no place.”

          Odeh’s statements, and the abstention from the funeral by Joint List members, drew criticism from across Israeli society, Arab and Jewish. In a poll of Arab opinion 59% of respondents claimed they were "upset" with the Joint List's position; among a group of 20 Arab mayors who came to the Peres Center for Peace to pay their respects, some said they were "furious with the Joint List's decision"; others claimed their visit "was not a criticism" of the Arab politicians, though it was scarcely an endorsement.

          Professor Riyad Agbariya, a well-known Arab academic, said: "Odeh's behavior is wrecking the bridges with Jewish society" and called on the Arab MKs in the Joint List "to resign from the Knesset or to re-learn what politics means".

         The absence from the funeral of certain other dignitaries from the Arab world aroused little or no comment, but are noteworthy nonetheless. For example. neither Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi nor King Abdullah of Jordan - countries with which Israel is at peace - were present. According to Zvi Mazel, a former Israel ambassador, if either had attended it would have been an open acknowledgement of their growing covert security and intelligence cooperation, and even greater economic exchanges, with Israel. Neither, he asserted, dared do so, because it might also have put at risk the developing momentum in favor of a “regional solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

          The case for this approach was put with conviction by Yair Lapid, leader of Israel’s Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party, in a newspaper article in June 2015. “The only way to achieve the two-state solution,” he wrote, “…is to give up on direct talks.,, We should turn to the Arab League … to create a regional summit under the auspices of the United States, so we can conduct regional dialogue leading to an agreement.

          “The Israelis and the Palestinians cannot just sit together and find a solution…In the internal Palestinian dialogue, compromise is treason. The punishment is death. They can’t admit that publicly because it will contradict years of propaganda intended to present Israel as the sole refuser of peace." Arab states that seek to maintain the status quo like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are “forces that we can and need to work with. Those countries lead the Arab League. The Palestinian Authority, which fears the rise of Hamas, sees itself as part of them. We can and we should speak to the Arab League. The opening point for these discussions should be a regional summit.”

          If a future accommodation between Israel and the Palestinians turns on the absence of Egypt and Jordan from Shimon Peres’s funeral, that would be a price worth paying – a sentiment that Shimon Peres himself would surely have endorsed.


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 25 October 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Attenders-and-non-attenders-at-the-Peres-funeral-470704

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 October 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/24102016-attenders-and-non-attenders-at-the-peres-funeral-oped/

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Breaking the Israeli-Palestinian log-jam

         

         Discussing the current impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, a recent leader in the Jerusalem Post put Israel’s dilemma in a nutshell. “The real problem is that Israel lacks a clear and decisive policy of what it wants…Israel is living in a reality of indecision.”

          Within the broad spectrum of Israeli public opinion there is no shortage of clear and decisive policies for resolving the Israel-Palestine stalemate, but the four administrations led over the years by Benjamin Netanyahu have plumped for none of them. The result, as the leader writer pointed out, is the anomaly of the government officially supporting the two-state solution while continuing to build homes in the West Bank on the very land that would be earmarked for inclusion within a sovereign Palestine.

          Recent Likud-led governments have confined themselves to managing the issue on an ad hoc basis, but in doing so they have adhered to fairly rigid guidelines. One mantra repeated endlessly has been that a resolution can be reached only through face-to-face negotiations between the principal parties – Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

          It is time that particular sacred cow was slaughtered. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the PA, leads a Fatah party whose constitution states quite unequivocally that Palestine, with the boundaries that it had during the British Mandate – that is, before the existence of Israel – is an indivisible territorial unit and is the homeland of the Arab Palestinian people.

          Why then, one might legitimately ask, has Abbas spent the past ten years nominally supporting the two-state solution? Because, unlike Israel, the PA does have a clear and decisive policy. Pressing for recognition of a sovereign Palestine within the boundaries that existed on 5 June 1967 – that is, on the day before the Six-Day War – is a tactic inherited from Abbas’s predecessor, Yassir Arafat. It represents the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine. This objective was spelled out by Arafat.

          "We Palestinians will take over everything, including all of Jerusalem," said Arafat, in a secret meeting with top Arab diplomats in Stockholm's Grand Hotel on January 30, 1996, adding that the PLO plans "to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian State.” This unchanged objective underlies everything that Abbas says in the Arabic media, but which he never mentions in his statements to the world.

          World opinion in general has elevated the two-state solution to the status of the Holy Grail, and Abbas, in nominally supporting it, has succeeded in swinging world opinion to the Palestinian cause. But from the Palestinian perspective the insurmountable obstacle lodged within the two-state solution is that one of the states must be Israel – and Israel’s very existence within Mandate Palestine is anathema.

          The time has come to acknowledge that face-to-face negotiations between Israel and the PA have been tried to destruction, and that to persist in asserting that this is the only way forward is perverse. Some alternative approach is called for.

          Speaking to the UN General Assembly in September 2014, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said: “A broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.” Such a rapprochement has, in effect, been achieved, forced into existence by the growing assertiveness of Iran, following its nuclear deal, and the mayhem created by the rampant Islamic State. In today’s pragmatic Middle East, Israel collaborates on a broad range of security issues not only with Egypt and Jordan, but with Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, inter alia.

          Take Netanyahu at his word. An Arab-Israel peace conference, at which the Arab interest was represented by the Arab League, might be charged with settling the future geo-political configuration of what was Mandate Palestine, starting from the perhaps unpalatable, but nonetheless undeniable, presumption that Israel is here to stay.

          Simply to create a Palestinian sovereign state more or less on the pre-Six Day War boundaries would simply not do. Hamas, the extreme Islamist organization that seized power in Gaza, rejects the right of Israel to exist at all, and is dedicated to destroying it. It would not take long for Hamas to seize power in a new sovereign Palestine, just as it did in Gaza. The new state would then become a Gaza-type launching pad for the indiscriminate bombardment of Israel. This prospect in itself may not concern the PA leadership overmuch, but what does worry them is the likelihood of losing power to Hamas. Like it or not, they would need stronger defences against “the enemy within” than their own resources could provide. 


          Just as threatening to an independent Palestine would be Islamic State (IS) which seeks to embrace the whole region within its self-declared caliphate. IS would pounce on a new sovereign Palestine, entirely dependent on its own weak military for its defence, like a cat on a mouse. IS is already harrying both Israel and Jordan on their northern borders with Syria. Defending Jordan, Israel, and a new sovereign Palestine against the incursions of IS would be of paramount importance in any final settlement.

          An even more fundamental issue militates against the classic two-state solution. Vying with Hamas on the one hand, and extremists within its own Fatah party on the other, the PA has glorified the so-called “armed struggle”, making heroes of those who undertake terrorist attacks inside Israel, continuously promulgating anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda in the media and in the schools, and reiterating the message that all of Mandate Palestine is Palestinian. The end-result of its own narrative is that no Palestinian leader dare sign a peace agreement with Israel. The consequent backlash, to say nothing of the personal fear of assassination, have made it impossible.

          A possible answer? At the instigation, and under the shield, of the Arab League the PA might be invited to an Arab-Israeli peace conference dedicated to the establishment of a sovereign state of Palestine, but within the context of a new three-state confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine – a new legal entity to be established simultaneously, dedicated to defending itself and its constituent sovereign states, and to cooperating in the fields of commerce, infrastructure and economic development to the benefit of all its citizens – Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian alike.

          Such a solution, based on an Arab-wide consensus, could absorb Palestinian extremist objections, making it abundantly clear that any subsequent armed opposition, from whatever source, would be disciplined from within, and crushed by the combined defence forces of the confederation. A confederation – one for all; all for one.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 October 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Breaking-the-Israeli-Palestinian-log-jam-470241?#_=_

Published in the MPC Journal, 21 October 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/10/20/breaking-the-israeli-palestinian-log-jam/

Friday, 7 October 2016

The War Criminals of Syria

        “It is difficult to deny that Russia is partnering with the Syrian regime to carry out war crimes.”

        This is the charge laid by the British ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, in a vituperative meeting of the Security Council on 25 September 2016. In comments unrestrained by the normal diplomatic niceties, Britain, France and the US openly condemned Russia as “an international pariah”.

        The war crimes accusations centred on the widespread use of bunker-busting and incendiary bombs on the 275,000 civilians living in the rebel-held east of the city, weapons that Moscow’s accusers say were dropped by Russian aircraft.

       “Bunker-busting bombs, more suited to destroying military installations, are now destroying homes, decimating bomb shelters, crippling, maiming, killing dozens, if not hundreds,” said Rycroft.

        François Delattre, France’s UN ambassador, specifically declared that the use of bunker-busters and incendiaries on urban residential areas was a war crime.

        “Aleppo is to Syria what Sarajevo was to Bosnia,” he said. “This week will go down in history as the one in which diplomacy failed and barbarism triumphed”.

        Delattre’s comparison with the battle of Sarajevo during the Bosnian conflict was both apt and significant. When the stricken capital of Sarajevo was under siege by Bosnian Serb militias for no less than 1,425 days – from 2 April 1992 until 29 February 1996 - former US president Bill Clinton made little effort to intervene. NATO mounted a few rather ineffective air-strikes which did little to deter the Serb military, who continued to target the civilian population with shells and sniper fire, killing in all some 14,000 people.

        Delattre no doubt wished to remind both Russian President Valdimir Putin and Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad that, as a result, on 24 March 2016 Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić stood trial in the International Criminal Tribunal, was found guilty of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 40 years in prison. His trial and sentence had been preceded by that of General Dragomir Milosevic in 2007 (29 years), and General Momcilo Pensic in 2011 (27 years).

        “Though the mills of justice grind slowly,” Delattre might have been saying, “they grind exceeding small.”

        The first of the war trials arising from the siege of Sarajevo, mounted in 2003, saw the commander of the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps, General Stanislav Galic, sentenced to life imprisonment. The prosecutor in his opening statement read out charges that have an uncanny contemporary relevance in the bombardment of Aleppo. Not since World War One, he said, “had a professional army conducted a campaign of unrelenting violence against the inhabitants of a European city so as to reduce them to a state of medieval deprivation in which they were in constant fear of death.”

        Putin has doubtless calculated that the prospect, however justifiable, of his ever standing trial charged with war crimes is remote in the extreme; he doubtless assesses that the likelihood of Assad eventually facing justice is perhaps a tad more possible. But he has almost certainly convinced himself that if their joint effort to regain the whole of Aleppo succeeds, neither will ever be brought to account, regardless of the brutal and inhumane means they have used to do so. In the Machiavellian world view which prevails in global affairs, might is almost always right – a doctrine which Putin exemplifies, with the anschluss of Ukraine under his belt, eastern Crimea increasingly under his control, and a towering Russian presence in the Middle East achieved in the power vacuum created by President Obama’s abdication of the US’s previous dominance of the region.

        Just as in the 1930s, while Mussolini and Hitler blatantly contravened international agreements, expanded their military might and invaded or occupied smaller nations, world powers have so far averted their gaze from Putin’s amoral march towards a status for the Russian Republics akin to that of the old Soviet Union. The ruckus at the recent Security Council meeting may be the first sign that the world will not stand idly by on this occasion. Russia and its client state – the rump of the Syria that was – have ridden roughshod over the conventions of acceptable military action, especially where civilians and children are concerned – and this time they may not get away with it.

        Retribution may not come by way of charges of war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal, at least not in the first instance. In his UN intervention Matthew Rycroft hinted that Western powers must consider coercive measures to force Russia to back away.

        “We must now do more than demand or urge. We must now decide what we can do to enforce an end to bombardment,” he said. The West could consider economic sanctions or a diplomatic move against Russia to try to force it to change course.

        The Russians are mightily irked by sanctions already taken in respect of their Ukrainian adventure. Putin characterized them as “the USA's unfriendly acts toward Russia,” and "a threat to strategic stability,” as he signed a decree on October 3 suspending his country’s participation in a treaty with the US designed to eliminate nuclear weapons.

        Putin’s decree stipulates that Moscow will resume its participation in the accord only if the US lifts all anti-Russian sanctions, compensates Russia for the sanctions-related losses and reduces the US military presence in Eastern Europe to pre-2000 levels (NATO opened command points in six eastern European nations in 2015 to enable swift deployment of troops and arms if necessary).

        Moreover personal sanctions and travel bans against Russian officials clearly discomfort the regime, for Putin’s decree specifically wants the US to remove them. They hurt some of Putin’s oldest and closest allies whose family members live or study in Western Europe or the United States.

        In a statement posted on his ministry website, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said: “Attempts to talk to Russia from the position of power ­­­- to use the language of sanctions and ultimatums, and at the same time, to continue a selective partnership with our country only in the areas that are beneficial to the US - are not going to work.”

        If sanctions are, for the moment, the only effective counter measure to Russia’s naked aggression and its support for Syria’s brutal military assault on its opponents, regardless of the effect on the civilian population, then let the West clamp down hard with renewed and crippling sanctions – and soon. Something must stop the Behemoth in its tracks.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 16 October 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/The-War-Criminals-of-Syria-469644

Published in the Eurasia Review, 10 October 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/11102016-the-war-criminals-of-syria-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 9 October 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/10/10/the-war-criminals-of-syria/

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

CANZUK and Israel

          It did not take long for “Brexit”, a portmanteau term invented in 2012, to become common usage the world over. Now a new expression is bidding for its place in the sun – “CANZUK” – and its emergence on the political scene is not unconnected with Brexit itself.

          CANZUK, grammatically speaking, is an acronym – a word made up of initial letters, rather like NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). It is formed from the initial letters of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom – and it has emerged following a bout of vigorous activity by a body founded in Canada in 2014 called the Commonwealth Freedom of Movement Organisation (CFMO).

          CFMO was formed to expand the existing historical connections between the citizens of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, by creating a sort of travel-free alliance between them. The big CFMO idea is to use mutual travel agreements and visa-free initiatives as a way of encouraging the British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand governments to strengthen and expand economic, political, trade, investment, military and diplomatic relationships.

          The unexpected result of the UK’s EU referendum, and the certainty that the UK will eventually leave the European Union, has thrust the CFMO initiative into prominence, As a result it has gained a more substantive identity in the shape of an off-shoot – CANZUK. In fact, as the UK builds its post-Brexit place in the world, CANZUK provides it with one of several credible paths to follow.

          Eminent British historian, Professor Andrew Roberts, believes that the CANZUK countries should form "a new federation based upon free trade, free movement of peoples, mutual defence, and a limited but effective confederal political structure.” He points out that were CANZUK to become a union, “it would immediately become one of the global great powers alongside America, the EU and China. It would be easily the largest country on the planet, have a combined population of 129 million, the third biggest economy and the third biggest defence budget.”

          In favour of the argument, he points out that the CANZUK countries already have a common head of state in the British monarch, a majority language, legal systems based on Magna Cara and the common law, Westminster parliamentary tradition, and a long history of working together. All they lack is geographical proximity, which is becoming less and less important in the modern world.

          “CANZUK,” concludes Roberts, “is an idea whose time has, thanks to Brexit, finally come again.”

          Momentum towards creating such an entity is mounting. Within a few months of posting a petition on its website, CFMO attracted tens of thousands of signatures, and support continues to grow by the day. The petition, in line with CFMO’s limited objectives, is a modest request to the parliaments of the CANZUK countries to introduce legislation promoting the free movement of citizens between the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In fact, each of the governments concerned is sympathetic to the general concept of strengthening existing ties. CANZUK is far from pie in the sky.

         Suppose such a third major political force were indeed to emerge on the world stage, what might its attitude be towards Israel? Judging by Israel’s current relationship with the countries involved, the connection would surely be considerably warmer than the wary and arms-length – though admittedly strong – association that has developed between Israel and the EU. It would be boosted by thriving Jewish communities in three of the four CANZUK nations – New Zealand being the exception. The Jewish community in New Zealand, which itself has a total population of less than 5 million,amounts to about seven thousand souls. It so happens that one of the seven thousand is the current Prime Minister, John Key.

          Israel’s relationship with Canada is particularly strong. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper often reiterated that “Israel has no greater friend than Canada.” It was during his visit to Israel in January 2014, that the Canada-Israel Strategic Partnership was signed, reaffirming the close and special friendship that underpins the Canada-Israel relationship. The Partnership lays out a strategic direction for stronger future relations between the two countries, paving the way for even greater collaboration in such areas as defence, energy, development, innovation and education.

          Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has changed some of the rhetoric, but not the reality, of the close relationship. On Israel’s Independence Day in May 2016 he said:

          “Canada and Israel unite in their people-to-people ties, shared values, respect for democracy, and growing trade relationship. I look forward to continuing to strengthen our strong friendship. Although today is a joyous day, let us also reflect on the threat that Israel and its people continue to face throughout the world in the form of terrorist attacks, acts of anti-Semitism, and religious intolerance. Canada stands with Israel and will continue to promote peace and stability in the region.”

          With Australia Israel has enjoyed close ties from the founding of the state, and in fact Australia has the distinction of being the first country to vote in favour of the 1947 UN partition resolution. Totally consistent, Australia has been, and remains, a long-standing supporter of a negotiated, two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian issue, as indeed is New Zealand and the UK.

          Meanwhile Australia is deepening bilateral cooperation with Israel. Since replacing Prime Minister Tony Abbott in September 2015, Malcolm Turnbull has continued Abbott's efforts to achieve even closer relations with Israel - choosing Tel Aviv as the site of one of just five designated global Australian "Landing Pads" for innovation entrepreneurship. Support for closer Australia-Israel ties is shared by the ALP Opposition.

          Israel’s relations with the UK were particularly close during David Cameron’s premiership, and there is every expectation that the strong commercial and industrial bonds he forged will be strengthened under the post-Brexit government of Theresa May as it seeks to boost its trade agreements world-wide.

          As a formal union or federation, the four CANZUK countries could be a new, strong entity on the world scene, very favourably disposed towards Israel. Professor Roberts goes so far as to believe that its emergence could bring about the fulfilment of Winston Churchill’s great dream of a Western alliance based on three separate blocs. “The first and second blocs – the USA and a United State of Europe – are already in place,” says Roberts. “Now it is time for the last – CANZUK – to retake her place as the third pillar of western civilization.”

          All in all, Israel would seem to be in a position to benefit substantially from its realization. Bring it on!

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line. 26 September 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/CANZUK-and-Israel-468314

Published in the Eurasia Review, 26 September 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/24092016-canzuk-and-israel-oped/

Can Syria avoid disintegration?


           On September 10, 2016, after mammoth negotiating sessions held in Geneva, the USA and Russia announced that agreement had been reached on a cease-fire in the Syrian civil war, to take effect at sundown on Monday the 12th. 

          The agreement specified that should the cease-fire, timed to coincide with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, hold for seven days, the US and Russia would collaborate operationally in airstrikes against jihadist militants in Syria, while the Syrian air force would cease flying over rebel-held areas.

          The sun did eventually sink below the horizon on Monday the 12th. After less than an hour residents in war-torn Aleppo reported that a government helicopter had dropped explosive cylinders on a rebel-held district, while a rebel faction in the southern province of Dara’a announced that it had killed four government soldiers. Violations on both sides have continued.

          Whether or not the US and Russia turn a blind eye to these and further possible infringements, the fragile nature of the agreement is obvious. The US and Russia are united only in their opposition to Islamic State (IS) and to the groups of jihadist militants including Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front). Where President Bashar al-Assad and his future is concerned, the US and Russia are on opposite sides of the fence: Russia supports him; the US backs the rebels who want him deposed.

          In fact Syria is currently divided into four main zones: one controlled by the Assad régime, one by Islamic State (ISIS), a third by the Kurdish PYD party, and a fourth by various jihadist groups. Bashar al-Assad, however, remains defiant. Just before the start of the cease-fire, in a symbolic propaganda gesture, he visited the Damascus suburb of Daraya, wrested from rebel control in August. “The Syrian state is determined to recover every area from the terrorists,” he announced (“terrorists” is the term he employs to describe all those opposed to his régime, regardless).

          Backed by both Russia and Iran, and indifferent to the humanitarian catastrophe he inflicts on the civilian population in his existential battle against his opponents, Assad has certainly chalked up some significant gains for the régime. But the US, as well as the 10 countries it leads in its anti-IS coalition in Syria, are determined that Assad can have no part in a reconstituted Syria. This is an issue swept under the carpet in the current cease-fire agreement, but will eventually have to be resolved.

          For the present, the priority is to defeat IS and the other jihadist militant groups that are ravaging large areas of what was sovereign Syria. Virtually the entire civilized world has recognized that IS must be overcome, defeated and removed. This is why no less than 62 countries agreed in September 2014 on a many-sided strategy against IS, including cutting of its sources of finance.

          Assuming the cease-fire holds sufficiently to allow the next phase of the agreement to be implemented, US and Russian forces will shortly begin collaborating in determined anti-IS operations. If successful, they will alleviate the humanitarian crisis for large swathes of the population, significantly weaken IS, and chalk up a loss of prestige and power for the malign organization world-wide.

          They will also, of course, have removed some of Assad’s fiercest opponents from the Syrian scene, thus further strengthening his position. Moreover Putin will have secured Russia’s naval base in Tartus, its military base at Latakia, and its new air base at Khmeimim converted, by way of a formal agreement between the Syrian government and Russia in August, into a permanent Russian air base. In other words, providing Assad remains in power and Syrian sovereignty is restored, Russia will emerge with an immeasurably strengthened military presence in the Middle East – a strong contributory factor, no doubt, in ensuring Russia’s involvement in the cease-fire agreement.

          For the rest of the multi-nation anti-IS coalition, the political and administrative structure of a future Syria, even if currently on the back burner, remains of prime concern.

          A policy document published on September 6, 2016 by the European Council for Foreign Affairs (ECFA) argues strongly in favor of recognizing the realities of present-day Syria. One such reality, the paper asserts, is that although the country is fragmenting into competing centres of power, most Syrians remain attached to the idea of national unity. Despite the chaos, economic links and interdependency persist between the various parts of the country. Its proposal for Syria’s future is some form of political decentralization, including a special status for areas of high Kurdish concentration.

          In what remains of Assad’s regime, state institutions continue to function and maintain law and order. But the rest of what was Syria has had to adapt to the almost complete withdrawal of the state, and local communities have created alternative systems to impose law and order, supply water and electricity, provide social services, educate children, and manage the economy. Opposition areas now have Sharia courts, while Kurdish areas have attempted to impose a cooperative system to run the economy.

          These variegated systems of governance, says the ECFA paper, “are becoming increasingly entrenched.” Accordingly Syria’s National Coalition (NC), which includes most non-armed opposition groups, is also proposing delegating central powers to the regions – in other words, administrative decentralisation. Some groups within the coalition suggest that this could include granting special political rights to the Kurds – some form of Kurdish autonomy, perhaps, although not independence. The NC, however, relies on Turkey’s goodwill, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is totally opposed to the creation of a separatist Kurdish entity on Turkey’s southern border, fearing the effect this might have on the aspirations of his domestic Kurdish population. His rejection of Kurdish separatism, however, does not extend to the idea of administrative decentralisation in a reconstituted Syria.

          Oddly enough, in May 2016 Russia prepared a draft text for a new Syrian constitution that acknowledged the need for decentralisation. According to a report published by Al-Araby, (or the New Arab), a fast-growing news and current affairs website, the text called for removing the word “Arab” from the official name of the country, allowing the use of Kurdish language in Kurdish areas, and establishing a regional council with legislative powers that would represent the interests of the local administrations. 

          Within days, according to Al-Akhbar, a pro-Assad Lebanese journal. the regime rejected almost all the Russian suggestions, but the fact that political decentralization has entered Russian thinking does, despite Assad’s rooted objections, point the way to a possible future.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 21 September 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Can-Syria-avoid-disintegration-468040

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 September 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/20092016-can-syria-avoid-disintegration-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 28 September 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/09/27/can-syria-avoid-disintegration/

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Could Israel join NATO?


        The answer is “no,” if NATO’s official website is to be taken at its word. Setting out its position on future membership, it declares “NATO’s door remains open to any European country in a position to undertake the commitments and obligations of membership, and contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic area.”

        “European country”. It would take a stretch of the imagination to designate Israel a European country. Nor could Turkey be called in evidence as a precedent. Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1951, and the organization’s policy on expanding its membership relates to the future, not the past. Although Turkey can at best be described as a transcontinental state, since it lies partly in Europe, but mainly on the Anatolian peninsula in Western Asia – the Middle East, as the area is generally known – its acceptance into the alliance is past history.

        The decision back in the early 1950s to allow Turkey (and indeed Greece) to join NATO stemmed largely from Cold War strategies directed against the Soviet Union. Both states were viewed by the West as bulwarks against Moscow and the spread of communism in Europe. Accepting non-North Atlantic nations into NATO lay at the heart of the US’s Truman Doctrine -- extending military and economic aid to states vulnerable to the threat of Soviet expansion.

        Could current geopolitical considerations lead to a flexible reinterpretation of NATO’s policy on new members?

        On May 4, 2016 the North Atlantic Council agreed to allow five non-NATO members to open diplomatic missions to its headquarters in Brussels. One of the states so favoured is Israel. The concession provides the ambassadors and attachés of the approved states – Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Israel – upgraded access to exercises, events and alliance-related procurement programmes. Invitations were first issued back in 2011, but in Israel’s case had been blocked for the past five years by Turkey, whose agreement was required under NATO’s rules of unanimous consent.

        Zaki Shalom, a senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, said the NATO initiative was more symbolic than strategically substantive. “It’s not as if Israel is becoming a NATO member …What’s really important is that it demonstrates the warming of relations with Turkey.”

        Since its founding in 1949, NATO has added new members on seven occasions and now comprises 28 nations. The organization has also broadened its operations to encompass both a “Partnership for Peace” programme with states of the former USSR, and a number of “Dialogue Programs”. Among these is the Mediterranean Dialogue, set up in 1994 and intended to link Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia in security discussions.

        Of course, this group of countries lacks any culture of cooperation in security matters, so the programme as such is pretty much a dead letter – except that out of it, Israel alone has forged extremely close links with NATO. For example in October 2006, after prolonged negotiations lasting some 18 months, Israel and NATO concluded an Individual Cooperation Program (ICP). Israel was the first country outside of Europe – and the first among NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue countries – to reach such an agreement.

        The NATO-Israel ICP, renewed and modestly expanded in December 2008, is a wide-ranging framework intended to extend the scope of cooperation across a wide range of fields including response to terrorism, intelligence sharing, armament cooperation and management, nuclear, biological, and chemical defence, military doctrine and exercises, civilian emergency plans, and disaster preparedness.

        NATO-Israeli relations had warmed to such an extent that in March 2013 NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed Israel’s then-president, Shimon Peres, to NATO headquarters to discuss how to deepen the relationship. The main purpose was to enhance military cooperation, focusing on counter-terrorism. The agreement they reached extended the NATO-Israeli association beyond the “Mediterranean Dialogue”. The joint statement issued after the meeting referred to a NATO-Israel partnership, suggesting Israel’s participation in active theatre warfare alongside NATO as a de facto member of the North Atlantic Alliance.

        “The two agreed during their discussions,” ran the statement, “that Israel and NATO are partners in the fight against terror.” In other words, Israel would be directly involved is US-NATO military operations in the Middle East.

        Israel was already a partner in NATO’s naval control system in the Mediterranean. By supporting NATO forces in patrolling the Mediterranean. Israel has contributed on a regular basis to Operation Active Endeavor, which was established after 9/11 and designed to prevent the movement of terrorists or weapons of mass destruction.

        So rather like the UK’s desired position post-Brexit in its relations with the EU, Israel appears to be an active participant in NATO’s activities while not being a member of the organization. Would it in fact be in Israel’s interests to be admitted to full membership, assuming NATO relaxed its current requirements on new members?

       Opinion within Israel is, inevitably, divided. In practical terms NATO’s “all for one, one for all” doctrine – the principle of collective defence enshrined in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which regards an attack against one ally as an attack against all – probably militates against Israel’s acceptance into the alliance. How many of NATO’s 28 members would willingly sign up to fighting for Israel if it were attacked by any of its many potential enemies?

        In any case Israel’s defence and security policies have always been based on self-reliance and freedom of manoeuvre, an approach likely to be constrained within a formal relationship with NATO. Israel’s unwritten alliance with the United States provides an alternative backup, should the need arise. 

        As it currently stands, the NATO-Israel relationship allows both parties to benefit from a uniquely close association, with neither being embarrassed by the requirements of Article 5. On balance, that seems a win-win situation.  

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 16 September 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Could-Israel-join-NATO-467598

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 September 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/13092016-could-israel-join-nato-oped/