Friday, 20 September 2019

What do you make of Qatar?

        Qatar – dubbed “the wild card of the Middle East” – makes for an intriguing case study. Not much is generally known about this stand-alone Gulf state except perhaps that it established what is now a global media empire called Al-Jazeera, that its national airline is a long-time sponsor of the Sky News TV channel, and that it won the hosting rights for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in somewhat dubious circumstances,

        On which matter it should be remembered that when Qatar was awarded that prize, it stated that Israeli players would be allowed to compete – and indeed in March 2019 Israel’s national anthem was played in Qatar after an Israeli athlete won a gold medal at the Artistic Gymnastics World Cup. But will there be any Israelis present in Qatar’s stunning new stadium in 2022 to cheer their team on? That is still unclear. So far Israeli citizens have been unable to apply for visas to visit Qatar.

        The international NGO, StandWithUs, is formally requesting FIFA to ensure that the Qatari government will allow Israeli citizens to receive entry visas into the country to attend the 2022 World Cup. FIFA’s code of ethics specifically prohibits banning people based upon their country of origin.

        Qatar, possibly the wealthiest nation in the world, persists in going its own sweet way, unfettered by diplomatic norms. Take its relationship with Israel. Since the 1990s, Qatar has both built ties with Israel and severed them, not once but several times. In 1996 Qatar allowed Israel to open a trade office in the capital, Doha. For four years Qatar was the only Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country to have normalized relations with Israel.

        In November 2000, though, following the second intifada, Saudi Arabia and Iran threatened to boycott a summit being organized by the OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference) unless Qatar broke off relations with Israel. Qatar succumbed, and closed the Israeli trade office.

        Just a month later, former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and a Qatari official met secretly in Geneva and contacts were resumed. Over the next few years Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni were among the high profile Israelis to visit Qatar. In 2006 Israel supported Qatar’s bid to become a member of the UN Security Council, a major step in Qatar’s rise as a regional peace broker.

        Although Qatar severed trade relations with Israel after the 2009 Gaza conflict, it twice sought to restore them. It offered to allow the Israeli mission in Doha to be reinstated, provided Israel allowed Qatar to send building materials and money to Gaza to help rehabilitate the infrastructure. Israel refused on the grounds that Qatari supplies could be used by Hamas for military purposes against Israel.

        Qatar took matters into its own hands. In 2012 it set up a Gaza Reconstruction Committee (GRC), pledged to invest more than $400 million in humanitarian and infrastructure projects in the Strip over the following six years. It has lived up to its word. It has constructed the Bin Khalifa residential city, encompassing 116 buildings, and more than 2,000 apartments, the Palace of Justice, several sports facilities and stadiums, a reservoir, more than 40km of roadway, a hospital and rehabilitation center and several other housing complexes. The GRC works in tandem with other multilateral and international reconstruction groups. All projects go through a rigorous planning and approval process with the Israeli government.

        On September 10, 2019, as the six-year funding project reached its end, Mohammed al-Emadi, chairman of the GRC, spoke on Al-Jazeera TV, claiming that Qatar has been instrumental in ensuring calm on the Gaza-Israeli border, “despite the occasional flare-up of violence.”

        Whatever its rationale, Israel has raised no public objection to Qatar pouring millions of dollars into Gaza. "Life is full of contradictions and strange things,” was how Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of research for Israel's military intelligence, described the situation.

        An even stranger thing is the fact that for more than two years Qatar has been under a siege initiated and operated by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt,

        Qatar’s strategy of backing Islamists while also offering itself as a key US ally had long infuriated its neighbours. Back in January 2014 Gulf states suddenly pressured Qatar to sign an agreement undertaking not to support extremist groups and not to interfere in the affairs of other states. When the Qatari government flatly refused to comply, they broke off diplomatic relations. Qatar’s 33-year-old Emir, Sheikh Tamim al-Thani, had been in power for less than a year and was unable to withstand the pressure. A few months later the Qataris signed an undertaking known as the Riyadh agreement.

        Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain clearly gained a very different impression of what had been agreed than the Qataris. Expecting Qatar to curtail its support for extreme Islamism, they were soon to find that it had no intention of meeting their expectations. Finally, their patience exhausted, the Gulf states and Egypt took drastic action. On 5 June 2017, without any sort of warning, they broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar and, suspending all land, air and sea traffic, imposed a trade blockade.

        With most trade routes closed off, Qatar has been sustained by continuous shiploads of food and other goods from Iran and Turkey.  But its vast global export market for liquefied natural gas (LNG) has been maintained. As a result, the country has weathered the blockade and seems able to sustain itself indefinitely. In fact in 2018 Qatar’s economy showed one of the fastest growth rates in the region.  Its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by 2.8%, and is expected to maintain that growth into 2020.

        So Qatar continues on its capricious way regardless. Recently it has been wooing leading Jewish American figures by way of meetings with the Emir and funded trips to the Gulf state. These overtures, to which some distinguished individuals have succumbed, sit uneasily alongside Israel’s fragile, developing, and vitally important relationship with the Sunni Arab world which initiated the blockade of Qatar in the first place.

        Winston Churchill once described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Qatar is close to meriting the same epithet.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 20 September 2019:

Published in Israel Hayom as "The Maverick State of Qatar", 16 September 2019:

Friday, 13 September 2019

After Isis

This review of mine appears in the Jerusalem Post Magazine of 13 September 2019

        With the experienced eye and pen of a journalist fully conversant with his subject, Seth Frantzman – the Middle East affairs analyst and op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post – recounts in his new book, “After ISIS”, the rise and decline of the organization that ravaged the Middle East for more than five years – the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

        The years 2013 to 2019 were a momentous period in modern history. In leading us through the ever-changing situation, Frantzman provides much more than a recital of the facts. In line with his sub-title – “How defeating the caliphate changed the Middle East forever” – he explains them. Because he was himself present at various times in the war zones and killing fields, his account is leavened throughout with personal experiences of how the shifting pattern of events impacted on people caught up in them. Nor does he desist from pointing out the various failures of the West during the long struggle to defeat the self-styled caliphate set up by the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

        Nothing moves Frantzman more than his personal witness of the horrific genocide that ISIS perpetrated on the Yazidi people in and around Sinjar in 2014. He arrived in the region very shortly after the slaughter. “To come face to face with genocide is unimaginable,” he writes, describing how he visited a mass grave and found bones sticking out of the ground, a skull with a bullet hole in it, women’s hair matted and twisted between rocks, clothes and blindfolds lying on the surface. The sight moved him to righteous anger.

        “No international investigators are here,” he writes. “No NGOs are working here to protect the human remains. The world was silent again. These lives could have been saved… How could the Western powers with all their technology, all their drones, their EU Parliament and councils of human rights and international criminal courts, do nothing?”

        Nearly six years later he saw new photos from Sinjar. “The city was still in ruins. On Mount Sinjar, people still lived in tents and huts… Survivors were still picking through rubble.” The International Commission on Missing Persons was apparently trying to document the remains in the mass graves, but the grave in one photo was not cordoned off or protected from the elements. There were more than two hundred mass graves in Iraq. Of the handful so far discovered in Syria, one near Raqqa contained an estimated thirty-five hundred bodies.

        As Frantzman leads us through the sequence of events that slowly but surely squeezed ISIS out of the vast areas of Iraq and Syria that it had originally conquered, he provides an informed commentary on their impact. He embraces issues ranging from the effect on Europe of the influx of refugees from the Middle East, to the success of the Kurds’ Peshmerga fighters against ISIS, the subsequent boost to their independence aspirations, followed by the efforts by Turkey’s President Erdogan to remove what he saw as a Kurdish threat to his regime.

        Frantzman brings to light the temporary battlefield alliances that were formed and disintegrated as the US-led coalition slowly crushed ISIS – at one time ISIS was actually in a deal with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime that resulted in some three thousand ISIS fighters being removed from Syria and deposited in Iraq. He deals also with more profound changes in political thinking in the region, for example how Iran’s growing influence encouraged Saudi Arabia and the UAE to look increasingly toward Israel as an ally, and how it changed the strategic thinking of Jordan and Egypt.

        In dealing with the final days of the caliphate as a territorial entity, Frantzman describes as “staggering” the numbers of ISIS supporters, family members and fighters hemmed into a tiny enclave on the Euphrates River. From late January to the end of February 2019, tens of thousands were transported out of ISIS’s final redoubt.

        Yet in considering whether the post-ISIS era would simply replicate the worst days of al-Qaeda terrorism under Osama bin Laden, he is not wholly pessimistic. He points to the concerted anti-terrorism effort, backed by US finance, being undertaken by the US Special Operations Command in some ninety countries. The real question about extremism, he believes, is why and how it exercises such an appeal, and even here he sees grounds for hope. With hundreds of thousands of social media accounts linked to ISIS shut down, he writes, it appears that social media giants have learned the lessons of 2014, when an estimated forty-five thousand ISIS accounts helped attract tens of thousands worldwide to join ISIS and travel out to Syria and Iraq.

        He sees some hope too in the rise of a younger generation of Middle East leaders that came of age in the 1980s or 1990s, in an era of US hegemony, taking over from leaders who had run the region since the colonial era. “With the Saddam Husseins, Mubaraks, Gaddafis, and Salehs out of the way,” he writes, “there may be a new way forward.”

        The basis for Frantzman’s qualified optimism lies in his belief that the whole ISIS episode was a unique phenomenon – a one-off. In his words: “”it appears that the power of ISIS was sui generis. A group like this will not appear again. This was the apogee of Islamist extremism and jihadist groups.”

        Although the US-led coalition finally gained a territorial victory, Frantzman is critical of the pattern of the military effort. “A lesson of the ISIS war,” he writes, “is that you can win the battle, but you might end up leaving the battlefield to adversaries – such as the Syrian regime or Iranian-backed militias in Iraq – when it is all over.”

        “After ISIS” is a comprehensive, insightful, thought-provoking account of how an exceptionally ruthless and brutal organization succeeded in capturing the imagination of scores of thousands of Muslims the world over, how it rose to control large parts of Syria and Iraq and rule over millions, and how finally it was defeated. For anyone wishing to understand how this all came about and what might follow, “After ISIS” is essential reading.

“After ISIS: How defeating the caliphate changed the Middle East forever”
by Seth J Frantzman
Gefen Publishing House
299 pages $16.95

Published in the Jerusalem Post Magazine, 13 September 2019:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 September 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 16 September 2019:

Published in Israel Hayom, 20 September 2019:

Friday, 6 September 2019

Is the Trump-Taliban deal dead in the water?

        Over the past 18 years there has been an armed insurgency in Afghanistan. It is being waged by the extremist Muslim organization called the Taliban, and directed against coalition troops led by the US. Up until 4 am on Sunday morning. September 8, a breakthrough aimed at ending the conflict seemed to be within sight. Nine painstaking rounds of talks between the US and the Taliban over the past year appeared to be resulting in an agreement. Any such development is now moribund.

        We are within days of marking the 18th anniversary of the worst-ever terrorist attack on the United State – the events of 11 September 2001. It was quickly established that responsibility for the onslaught lay with the al-Qaeda movement, but the US was convinced that the Taliban was sheltering its master-mind, Osama bin Laden. As a result, shortly after 9/11 a US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan, and America embarked on its longest war. It has claimed the lives of more than 4,000 American military and civilian personnel. 

        Despite the additional troops sent to Afghanistan from time to time, the Taliban actually gained ground. According to a December 2018 Congressional Research Service report, the “insurgents are now in control of or contesting more territory today than at any point since 2001.” 

        Coming into office in January 2017, President Donald Trump promised a quick win against the Taliban followed by the withdrawal of American troops. Later that year he changed tack, announcing an increase in troop levels to 14,000. What he did not disclose was that this was a first step in a strategy aimed at opening negotiations with the Taliban to try to reach a deal. 

        In December 2018 the Taliban announced that they would meet with American negotiators. On 25 February 2019 peace talks began, with the co-founder of the Taliban, Abdul Ghani Barada, at the table. They got off to a good start. Agreement was reached on a draft peace deal involving the withdrawal of US and international troops from Afghanistan, matched by an undertaking by the Taliban to prohibit other jihadist groups operating within the country. 

        Deadlock soon followed. Among other stumbling blocks was the Taliban’s refusal to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they regarded as a US puppet regime. But on September 2, 2019 Zalmay Khalilzad, head of the US negotiating team, revealed in a TV interview details of the long-awaited deal. The Taliban would guarantee that Afghanistan would never again be used as a base for militant groups seeking to attack the US and its allies, in exchange for the withdrawal of 5,400 of the 14,000 US troops. A pullout of the remaining forces would depend on conditions, including a ceasefire and the start of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. 

        US officials said they had received a commitment from the Taliban that it would respect the country’s democratic constitution – one of the few tangible legacies of the allied intervention. But with the Taliban still engaged in military activity affecting Afghan civilians, public support for a deal is tempered with a great deal of scepticism. Many fear that it could see hard-won rights and freedoms eroded. The memory lingers of the strict religious laws imposed on the population, and the brutal treatment of women, when the Taliban ruled large areas from 1996 to 2001. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in common with much of Afghan public opinion, knows that It would be an unmitigated disaster for Afghanistan if the outcome of any peace agreement was a resumption of the Taliban’s tyrannical rule. 

        So it came as a complete surprise, not to say shock, to learn from a tweet issued by President Trump late on Saturday night (EST) that a secret meeting between the president and Taliban leaders, with President Ghani also present, had been planned for this weekend, to take place at Camp David. Right throughout the formal peace discussions the Taliban had maintained their armed insurgency, concluding that this policy had, if anything, strengthened their negotiating position. 

        They had clearly decided to pursue the same tactics in respect of the unprecedented invitation to the United States. On September 5 a suicide car exploded in the Afghan capital, Kabul, killing at least 10 Afghan civilians, and two soldiers, one of them a US paratrooper. The Taliban claimed responsibility. 

        This time they miscalculated badly. On learning of the death of Sergeant Elis Angel Barreto Ortiz, Trump cancelled the meeting and called off peace talks entirely. Justified as it is, this move smacks of Trump’s “Art of the Deal”, which is to maintain the initiative and keep the other side on tenterhooks. For Trump to achieve his aim of withdrawing from Afghanistan, negotiations will have to be resumed sooner or later. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 10 September 2019:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 9 September 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 9 September 2019:

Published in Israel Hayom, 8 September 2019

An Anglo in Israel

This article of mine appears in the Jerusalem Post magazine of 6 September 2019

        Most outsiders’ impression of daily life in Israel is based on media reports, and the media concentrate on the violent, the shocking and the newsworthy. So on visits back to the UK the general line of enquiry from relatives and friends is: “What’s it like living in Israel with all that violence?” Pointing out that knife crime in Britain is at an all-time high doesn’t wash as a response.

        I often reply by saying that a stroll down London’s Oxford Street is similar in most respects to a stroll down Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff. You don’t expect, and rarely if ever witness, anything more distressing than a heated political argument between friends. What’s more, if Britain prides itself on having become a genuine multi-ethnic society over the past half-century, a glance at the crowds on Dizengoff should convince any visitor that Israel is comparable in that respect.

        As for the charge, loosely flung around by BDS supporters, that Israel is an apartheid state, that I say is easily disproved by a trip to Hadassah hospital as either patient or visitor. The most sceptical would be convinced that racial discrimination simply does not exist. The six- or eight-bed wards are filled indiscriminately with Jewish and Arab Israelis, and the doctors and nurses who work side by side for all the patients are a similar mix. The apartheid charge is a fantasy.

        Yet of course Israel faces problems which, unresolved for decades, feed extremist agendas and spill over into violence. Arab citizens have grievances, but they are at least able to vote representatives to the Knesset to speak on their behalf and strive to redress them. Palestinians in the West Bank, still subject to Israel’s Civil Administration, resent living in a sort of no-man’s-land controlled by the military. Then there are the two million Palestinians in Gaza, who exist under an administration run by Hamas, an extreme rejectionist organization hell-bent on eliminating Israel and regaining the whole of mandate Palestine.

        Hamas and its perpetual program of threatened or actual violence does exemplify one unique aspect of life in this country. Being under existential threat of attack from all sides generates a particular frame of mind. A glance at a map of the Middle East reveals that Israel sits in the midst of states not only hostile, but positively dedicated to its destruction. To the west is Hamas. To the north is Lebanon, now virtually dominated by Hezbollah, an Iranian-controlled terrorist organization which is continually threatening all-out war. To the north-east lies Syria, a vital link in Iran’s so-called Shia Crescent. Beyond lies Iran itself, wholly intent on wiping Israel off the map. With Israel’s two immediate neighbours, Jordan and Egypt, there exists an uneasy peace – a Cold Peace – in which governments cooperate in respect of their self-interest, but friendly relations between peoples is virtually non-existent.

        These are the factors, I tell them, that gives life in Israel its special flavour. People under siege generate a bond of common concern, and we can’t really forget the threat. Its reality is brought home by the occasional practice sounding of air-raid sirens, when we are expected to take cover, and sometimes by the real thing. All the same, though everyone is aware that danger lurks around the corner, normal daily life in Israel proceeds for the most part placidly – or as placidly as your Israeli can tolerate.

        For the truth is that action and excitement are more to the general taste. Living under these conditions produces a sort of nervous energy that is almost palpable. Israel is a young country, and there is a vibrancy in the atmosphere, a feeling that society is on the move.

        Israelis are proud of the title “Start-Up Nation” because, with a population of about 9 million, Israel has become an acknowledged world leader in high-tech innovation. This feeling of a nation moving ahead is enhanced for anyone travelling around the country. Construction, both commercial and residential, is booming; infrastructure development is everywhere in evidence. For example, the Jerusalem light railway, itself a major innovation, is being extended. The Tel Aviv light railway is under construction. The Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast rail link, though admittedly late in arriving, is on the way. The government publication “Infrastructure for Growth 2019” lists 204 mega projects in the pipeline, totaling 196 billion shekels ($56 billion).

        So why, concerned friends ask, doesn’t Israel sort out the Israel-Palestinian dispute once and for all, gain the world’s approval, and forge ahead?

        Efforts to resolve the conflict are strewn across the recent history of the Middle East, but the sad truth is that all were predestined to fail, even before the negotiators for each side sat down at the table.

        The reason is not difficult to deduce. Arab opinion as a whole resents the presence of the state of Israel in its midst. Palestinians mark Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 annually with their own Nakba Day (“Day of Catastrophe”). Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, leads a Fatah party whose charter 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 Palestinian people. Each Palestinian, it declares, must be prepared for the armed struggle and be ready to sacrifice both wealth and life to win back his homeland.

        Why then, one might legitimately ask, has Abbas has spent the past 14 years nominally supporting the “two-state solution”, and 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?

        Given the founding beliefs of Abbas’s party, this tactic – inherited from his predecessor, Yassir Arafat – obviously represents only the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine, an objective explicit in what he says in the Arabic media, but which he never expresses in his statements to the world.

        Supporting the two-state solution has swung world opinion to the Palestinian cause – but the naked truth is that no Palestinian leader could ever sign up to an agreement that recognizes Israel’s right to exist within “historic Palestine”. To do so would instantly brand him a traitor to the Palestinian cause. It would probably be more than his life was worth.

        No, the innumerable peace negotiations have at least yielded one inescapable truth. Short of committing hara-kiri, Israel could never offer enough because its very existence is anathema to the other side.

        Unless and until the Palestinian leadership accepts that Israel is here to stay, the stalemate seems doomed to persist. US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, due to be unveiled after the Israeli elections on 17 September, has been condemned in advance by the Palestinian leadership. What is needed is an Arab-wide consensus, reached with Israel, on the future geo-political configuration of what was Mandate Palestine.

        One possible result of intensive, but realistically-based, negotiations might be the creation of a new legal entity – a Confederation comprising three sovereign states: Israel, Jordan and a new-born Palestine. Such a Confederation, conceived specifically to guarantee the security of all three partners through close military and economic cooperation, might also provide the basis for the future growth and prosperity of each. Living in Israel might then be even more stimulating than it is already.

Published in the Jerusalem Post magazine, 6 September 2019:

Monday, 2 September 2019

Are Iran and Israel edging towards war?

            Military activity by Israel over the weekend of August 24-25, 2019, reported widely in the media, ratcheted up Iranian-Israel tension in the region. Because these operations appeared to be a response to the threat of imminent hostile action, the idea that they may also be consistent with a deeper strategy was not the subject of much comment. Yet alongside a determination to prevent the transfer of Iranian military hardware to Hezbollah, an Israeli policy of consistently degrading Iran’s armed forces and their proxies is becoming increasingly apparent.

          This longer-term pattern of Israeli military thinking parallels what is emerging as Iran’s deeper purposes in the region. Despite its standoff with the US over the past two years, Iran’s power base in the Middle East has been substantially enhanced. Its “Shia Crescent”, once a rather aspirational concept, is now a reality. Having supported and developed the military capabilities of its proxies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen, Iran is now engaged in transferring to them its advanced missile and unmanned drone capabilities. The Houthis in Yemen and Hamas in Gaza are making use of them. If Iran has its way, Hezbollah will one day unleash them on Israel. 

          At the same time Iran pursues with increasing determination its opposition to much of the Sunni Muslim world in general, and to Saudi Arabia in particular, seeking constantly to undermine and eventually overturn their regimes. In this one particular the moderate Arab world and Israel know they stand shoulder to shoulder. 

          The latest clashes began early on the morning of Saturday, August 24, when, acting on intelligence indicating an imminent “killer” drone strike, Israel attacked military sites in Syria. Details remain sketchy, but it appears that the targets were Iranian controlled bases in Aqraba, south-east of the capital, Damascus. Hassan Nasrallah, head of Hezbollah, which is closely tied to Iran’s forces in Syria, claimed that Israel had targeted Hezbollah positions. 

          Shortly afterwards Lebanese sources reported that two Israeli surveillance drones had come down in a Hezbollah stronghold in the Lebanese capital, Beirut. An unmanned drone was said to have fallen on the roof of a media center belonging to the group, and a second to have exploded in mid-air and crashed nearby. Some reports speculate that they had been involved in the earlier attack in Syria. 

          Then on Sunday night, August 25, Israeli aircraft carried out three airstrikes deep inside Lebanon on a base belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the terrorist group fighting alongside Iranian forces and Iran-backed militias in support of Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. The base is located in the Bekaa valley in eastern Lebanon, near the border with Syria. 

          Later that Sunday evening three rockets were fired from Gaza into southern Israel. Two were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, but one exploded next to the Route 34 highway. Within hours the Israeli Air Force had launched a series of strikes on targets in the Gaza Strip, hitting a Hamas military base

          Is all this military activity by Israel, largely explicable as direct reaction to provocation, consistent with a longer-term strategy aimed at weakening Iran’s aggressive capabilities? There have certainly been some unclaimed and unexplained anti-Iran activities in the recent past. 

          For example a blast on Tuesday night, August 20, apparently caused by an aerial attack, struck a pro-Iranian Shiite militia facility 80 kilometers north of Baghdad. It came after three unexplained explosions in recent weeks on Iraqi Shiite militia sites that served or hosted Iranian assets. The last of these demolished a weapons depot. One report said that 50 missiles stocked at the targeted site were destroyed. 

          Iraq’s paramilitary groups backed by Iran have blamed the series of recent blasts at their weapons depots and bases on the US and Israel. The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), or Hashd al-Shaabi, is the umbrella grouping of Iraq's mostly Shia militias. It said the US had allowed four Israeli drones to enter the region and carry out missions on Iraqi territory. The US-led coalition, in Iraq to fight remnants of the Islamic State, denied the accusation. 

          Another blast the week before at a weapons depot run by one group sent rockets hurtling across southern Baghdad, killing one person and wounding 29 others. A government investigation of an earlier explosion near Baghdad concluded that it was caused by a drone attack. 

          Israel has, in line with its normal policy, neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for these attacks inside Iraq, but if it did carry them out, it would be an extension of its normal anti-Iran campaign. The last time it struck Iranian targets inside Iraq was in 1981, when Israeli fighter jets bombed a nuclear reactor under construction south of Baghdad. 

          Escalation is also been the name of the game on Iran’s part. Its recent attempt, frustrated by the Israel Defense Forces, to launch a flotilla of “killer drones” into Israel has upped the stakes. Israel’s immediate claim of responsibility for the strike against the Iranian-controlled bases in Syria also strikes a new note. It underlines Israel’s determination to foil any ambition Iran might harbour of establishing a permanent power base in either Syria or Iraq. 

           The world must hope that neither side will advance its political aims to the point of armed conflict.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 September 2019:

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

The trials - and tribulations - of Judge Richard Goldstone

My review of "The Trials of Richard Goldstone" by Daniel Terris appears in the edition of the Jerusalem Report of September 9, 2019

        In The Trials of Richard Goldstone Daniel Terris, a friend and admirer, provides us with an in-depth account of a remarkable career.

     Goldstone, 80, is a third-generation South African who was born into a Jewish family in Boksburg, near Johannesburg.

        In the book we follow, and are helped to understand, the events and circumstances that led to the emergence of a towering figure in international jurisprudence. As Goldstone’s legal career progressed in his native South Africa, where he combatted and helped defeat apartheid from within the system, and as chief prosecutor for the UN in bringing the Bosnian Serb political and military leaders to justice, he proved himself a dedicated advocate of human rights and an unwavering upholder of international humanitarian law. Terris both describes and explains the challenges that Goldstone faced along the way, and the principles that informed his many decisions – principles that evolved over the course of his career, and have become his legacy.

        Then late in the story, when he was already past 70, came the débacle of the Goldstone Report, a pivotal episode in his life and in his career. Terris describes the episode with scrupulous honesty. Under the auspices of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), a five-person fact-finding team was set up to look into the events of the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza in 2008-9, known as Operation Cast Lead. Goldstone agreed to lead it. Despite his best efforts to paint a balanced picture, lack of access to an Israeli version of events and a consequent over-reliance on accounts from partisan sources, resulted in a report perceived on all sides to be a searing indictment of Israel’s conduct of the conflict.

        When published, the effect of the Goldstone Report on his personal and professional life was devastating. He was reviled across the Jewish world, to the point where he was not only refused an Aliyah on his grandson’s barmitzvah, but only narrowly escaped being refused entry to the synagogue. Equally mortifying, perhaps, was the triumphalist use made of the report by Israel’s enemies.

        It is well known that, a couple of years later, Richard Goldstone published an article in the Washington Post containing the key sentence: “If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.” His partial retraction of the report’s conclusions was condemned at the time as “too little, too late”, and in a sense this was true. Yet Terris also highlights the reactions of some in the human rights world who applauded Goldstone’s moral courage in acknowledging when mistakes had been made. “Heroism of the first order”, one editorial called it.

         Surveying the episode from start to finish, Terris identifies the one fundamental misjudgement that might have averted the whole traumatic affair. Goldstone had been warned, and he ought to have realized, that when he accepted the UNHRC’s mandate, his report would be used as a weapon to delegitimize Israel.
        In refusing to co-operate, Israelis in government and military circles knew only too well how partisan the UNHRC was. In 2009 it was just three years old. It had been set up with one over-riding purpose – to rectify the egregious faults of its predecessor body, the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). That organization had been disbanded because of the raft of objectionable practices it had accrued over the years, not least of which was its compliance with being used as a platform from which selective targets, but in particular Israel, could be condemned and vilified.
        Unfortunately, the change of organization made virtually no difference in this respect. The new Council, its membership heavily weighted against Israel, had issued more condemnatory resolutions against Israel than against the rest of the world combined. In 2007 this policy had culminated in a decision to include, as a permanent feature of each of its three annual sessions, a review of alleged human rights abuses by Israel – a scrutiny extended to no other nation, whatever its human rights record.

        The dangers in accepting a brief from the UNHRC should have been instantly apparent to Goldstone from the blatantly biased terms of the remit it originally offered him: “to investigate all violations of human rights law and the laws of war by the occupying power, Israel, against the Palestinian people in Gaza.”

        It is no surprise that Goldstone refused to accept such a brief. When it was presented to him he said: “I would need to be assured that the investigation would be even-handed,” asking specifically whether he would be permitted to take into account the indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. Eventually, with the approval of Martin Uhomoibhi, the Nigerian president of the UNHRC, Goldstone himself drafted the remit to which his mission worked: “to investigate all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law that might have been committed at any time in the context of the military operations in Gaza in 2008-2009, whether before, during or after.”

        Yet Goldstone must surely have been aware that adjusting the remit was not enough to ensure even-handedness for his report. He must have known that, once it had been presented to the UNHRC, he would have no control over how it would be interpreted or used. Deeper reflection about the UNHRC’s offer and its possible consequences might have led him to reject it, and thus have spared him, his friends, colleagues and family, a great deal of anguish. Unfortunately, as he himself must realize, his name will always be linked to that episode.

        Despite, but perhaps also because of, the Goldstone Report incident, Daniel Terris leaves us in no doubt that Richard Goldstone is a very great man indeed. Throughout a long and distinguished legal career, says Terris, he has abided steadfastly by three core principles: holding to account those responsible for inflicting suffering; equality before the law – in South Africa, for example, he bore down equally on the apartheid regime and wrong-doing by the ANC; and an abiding belief in the importance of international institutions, especially perhaps the UN despite its faults.

        Was it this last deeply-held belief that over-ruled the wiser judgement he might have made, back in 2009?

Saudi Vision 2030 – the British connection

This article of mine appears in the edition of the Jerusalem Report dated September 9, 2019

          The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is such an established feature of today’s Middle East that it comes as something of a surprise to realize that it is less than a hundred years old. It was a British explorer, Captain William Shakespear, who charted large areas of northern Arabia and first made official contact with Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, later to be king of Saudi Arabia. In 1915 Shakespear, by then military adviser to Ibn Saud, was killed in a local skirmish. He was only 36 years old. It took Ibn Saud seventeen more years of political and military struggle against other local chieftains and the Ottoman empire before, supported by Britain, he was able in 1932 to name the area that he had conquered “Saudi Arabia”, and proclaim himself monarch. The bond with Britain, originally forged by Shakespear, had been maintained after his death, and has subsequently withstood the test of time.

          It was doubtless with an eye to the eventual centenary celebrations of the monarchy and the kingdom that in April 2016 Saudi’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), launched Saudi Vision 2030, an ambitious plan to revitalize the nation. If it succeeds, by 2032 Saudi Arabia will have been transformed from its current dependency on oil revenues into a modern, liberalized, thriving, entrepreneurial society, its prosperity underpinned by flourishing industrial, financial, economic and commercial sectors.

          “The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Britain,” said MBS, just prior to a visit to the UK in March 2018 “…goes back to the foundation of the kingdom. We have a common interest that goes back to the earliest days of the relationship. Our relationship with Britain today is super.”

          Saudi Vision 2030 has been described as a “neo-liberal blueprint”. It envisages, among hundreds of initiatives, privatizing entire sectors of the economy, cutting subsidies, courting investors at home and abroad, streamlining government services, and going public with the national oil company, Saudi Aramco. 

          It was in respect of this last objective that MBS envisaged the UK connection coming into its own. Funding the reform program requires vast sums of money, and MBS envisaged raising it by floating a stake in Saudi Aramco, the state-owned energy company. Several stock exchanges vied to handle the flotation, but it was the London Stock Exchange that MBS favored. The deal, said to involve the raising of $2 trillion, the largest flotation that London has ever handled, were just about finalized when, for unexplained reasons, they were put on hold. A few months later, in July 2019, they were revived. The Saudi energy minister, Khalid al-Falih, said on July 2 that officials were working to list the company within the next two years. The expected proceeds are considered integral to the Saudi Vision 2030 undertaking.

          In the interim, as an alternative means of funding its Public Investment Fund (PIF), the chosen instrument for financing Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia has settled on raising substantial loans. Some of the most senior names in international banking pitched for two short-term loan deals, each around $10-11 billion. 

          MBS landed in Britain on March 7, 2018 for a three-day visit, armed with an ambitious agenda to explain and promote Vision 2030. Another prime objective was to consolidate the ties between the British royal family and the new generation of the house of Saud. With this aim endorsed by the government, Queen Elizabeth hosted a lunch for the crown prince – a rare honor for a man not yet head of state – while a separate dinner was also arranged with Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, and Prince William.

          On the political front, no efforts were spared to show MBS that he was a very special guest. Meetings with then-prime minister Theresa May took place at 10 Downing Street and at Chequers, her country residence, and most unusually the Saudi crown prince was invited to attend a meeting of the British Cabinet. Moreover, recognizing Saudi’s important contribution to combating terrorism and extremism, the government arranged for the crown prince to have private meetings with the heads of MI5 and MI6, Britain’s security and intelligence agencies, as well as attending a meeting of the full National Security Council.

          The visit achieved a significant result. The UK and Saudi Arabia agreed to set up a new bilateral government body, to be known as The Strategic Partnership Council. Its remit will be to assist in the roll-out of Vision 2030, and to promote British involvement in Saudi’s rapidly developing service sectors. The Council will provide a mechanism through which the two governments can cooperate on the Saudi reform agenda. It will also serve as a forum for inter-governmental dialogue, and will oversee the work of envoys appointed jointly to drive economic and social progress in Saudi Arabia.

          The need for social progress was recognized and built into Vision 2030 from the start, and it was Saudi’s procrastination in this area that was one of the main causes for public dissent during MBS’s visit to Britain. For mass anti-Saudi demonstrations there certainly were.

          The main charges hurled at MBS and his officials during public protests concerned Saudi’s involvement in Yemen and vehement antagonism to Britain selling arms to Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of people gathered outside Downing Street to voice their opposition to MBS’s visit as Theresa May held talks with him inside. Leading Labour and Green Party figures were among the speakers as protesters chanted “Hands off Yemen - stop the bombing now” and demanded that the UK halt arms sales to the Gulf state. 

          A fiery exchange in parliament between Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn underlined the tension in Britain over MBS’s trip. Corbyn accused the government of "colluding" in war crimes by selling arms to Riyadh.

          Then in June 2019 the Campaign Against Arms Trade brought a case against the then-international trade secretary, Liam Fox, charging the government with selling arms to Saudi Arabia illegally. The case went to the court of appeal, which ruled that certain sales had been unlawful, since they had been made without properly assessing the risk to civilians. As a result, the court said that the UK export licensing process was “wrong in law in one significant respect,” and ordered Fox to hold an immediate review of at least £4.7 billion worth of arms deals with Saudi Arabia.

          The fact is that Britain is a key military supplier to Saudi Arabia, which is now the top destination for British-manufactured weapons. But then the arms industry is a major component of the UK’s commercial structure – Britain is the second largest arms dealer in the world. Only the United States is a bigger exporter.

          As regards Saudi’s record on human rights, the subject was raised by Theresa May during her meeting with the crown prince. A Downing Street spokesperson said that May had welcomed recent reforms in Saudi Arabia, “including on women attending sporting events and the cinema, and being legally able to drive,” but that they had agreed to work together to intensify reforms, “particularly on women’s rights and on universal human rights.” This aspect of Vision 2030 will doubtless be promoted by way of the new UK-Saudi Strategic Partnership Council.

          Most political and economic issues in today’s Britain are viewed through the prism of Brexit. The government clearly believes that in opting to sustain and support Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030 program, it will be backing a winner. But there is another side to the coin. With the UK anxious to consolidate global trade relationships post-Brexit, the economic dimension of relations with wealthy Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia will assume great importance.

          Saudi minister and head of Aramco, Kalid al-Falih, has already shown how eager he is to attract further British investment. He is reported to have told British trade representatives that increased business with Riyadh would be their post-Brexit commercial gateway to the Middle East, Africa, and the Islamic world as a whole - "to which Saudi Arabia is central". The movement is already afoot. Following MBS’s visit to London, both sides have concluded mutual investment deals in the education, banking and pharmaceutical sectors worth £65 billion.

It seems as though Vision 2030 might be offering a promising future not only to Saudi Arabia, but also to the United Kingdom.

Friday, 23 August 2019

The disintegration of Yemen

                                                                                Video version
          Distressing as recent events have been in Yemen, a country torn apart by civil war that has led to a humanitarian disaster on a massive scale, the main outline of the conflict and the reasons behind it seemed, until quite recently, reasonably comprehensible. Now new developments have thoroughly complicated the issues. As a result, any progress made by UN special envoy Martin Griffiths towards some sort of agreement between the main parties has been largely negated.

          This Yemen conflict started in the sadly misnamed “Arab spring” uprisings of 2011. Mass protests, a near-assassination of the then president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and pressure from neighbouring petro-states forced Saleh to step down in favour of his vice-president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The political instability was largely caused by attempts of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels to overthrow Saleh’s government.

          The Houthis, although on the Shia side of the great Islamic Sunni-Shia divide, are in fact a minority group – Zaydi Shi’ites, taking their name from Zayd bin Ali, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, a Zaydi monarchy took power in North Yemen, but it was overthrown by republicans, and in 1968 the Yemen Arab Republic was formed.

          These events in North Yemen were echoed by a constitutional upheaval in the south. In 1967 South Yemen was established as a socialist state under the protection of the USSR. Relations between the two Yemens deteriorated, and in 1972 they took up arms against each other. A ceasefire, brokered by the Arab League, included the aspiration of unification in due course. It took a further 18 years of military and political in-fighting before that aspiration was realized, but in 1990 the Unified Republic of Yemen came into being. Ali Abdallah Saleh, who had been president of North Yemen since 1978, was proclaimed president of the newly united state.

          Saleh himself became a victim of the so-called Arab Spring of 2011. He had given up the keys of office with a very bad grace, and was quite prepared to ally himself with his erstwhile enemies, the Houthis, in an attempt to manoeuvre his way back to power. The Yemeni military, including its air force, had remained largely loyal to Saleh. As a result, and supported with military hardware from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the Houthis overran large tracts of the country, including the capital city, Sana’a. 

          The subsequent turn of events seems depressingly familiar in the context of Yemen’s long history. Saudi Arabia, determined to prevent Iran from extending its footprint into the Arabian peninsula, intervened in March 2015 to beat back the Houthis. Saudi’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), assembled a coalition of Arab states, obtained the diplomatic backing of the US, UK, Turkey and Pakistan, and launched a series of air strikes against the rebels.

          The unconventional Saleh-Houthi partnership came to an abrupt end on December 2, 2017, when Saleh went on television to declare that he was splitting from the Houthis and was ready to enter into dialogue with the Saudi-led coalition. This volte-face was to end in tragedy. On December 4, Saleh's house in Sana'a was besieged by Houthi fighters. Attempting to escape, he was killed.

          Now the glue binding the two Yemens has come unstuck.

          The first signs appeared as far back as 2007, when a south Yemen separatist movement was formed with the aim of re-establishing South Sudan as a sovereign state. Ten years later, in 2017, the movement set up the Southern Transitional Council (STC), backed by the United Arab Emirates. 

          Separatists from the STC are part of the military coalition fighting the Houthi rebels; so are the UAE, But suddenly, in the first week of August 2011, separatist forces seized government military bases, and began an assault on Aden. They had soon captured the city, the seat of the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, and thousands of people poured into the streets to support them, waving the old South Yemen flag. 

          It was an delicate situation. The UAE and Saudi Arabia had been firm allies in attempting to crush the Houthis, but they now found themselves on opposite sides of this separatist uprising. Meanwhile support for the separatists was growing. A petition signed by southern trades unions and other bodies called on the Saudi-led coalition to hand over administration of the south to the separatist STC. It urged STC chief Aidarus al-Zubaidi to declare independence, and appealed for international recognition for the breakaway state. This was backed on August 15 by a mass rally in support of the Southern forces and the Southern Transitional Council.

          According to the UN the fighting between elements nominally within the same military alliance has killed at least 40 people and wounded 260 others. In one memorable phrase, it was turning into "a civil war within a civil war".

          Fortunately cooler counsels prevailed. Saudi-UAE discussions led to a ceasefire. By 16 August Southern separatists had vacated key public buildings in Aden, and the STC had welcomed Saudi Arabia’s call for dialogue. 

          But this episode introduces a new factor into an already complex situation. It is more than a minor spat between allies. In the long run, what sort of compromise can there be between the Saudi-backed president of a united Yemen fighting to maintain the integrity of his state, and the UAE-backed STC, dedicated to re-establishing an independent nation of South Yemen? Suddenly Yemen’s President Hadi is facing two enemies: the Houthis and the southern separatists. 

          Words issued on 14 August from UN envoy Martin Griffiths, currently watching events from the sidelines, sound true but ineffectual: “The conflict in Yemen can only be resolved through an inclusive political process.” 

          Yes indeed, but how long must Yemen’s agony persist?

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 August 2019:

Thursday, 15 August 2019

US-Turkey tug-of-war about the Kurds

                                                                                Video version
          Valiant Kurdish Pershmerga troops bore the brunt of the West’s struggle against Islamic State (IS) in Syria. The defeat of IS on the ground is largely due to them, and the US-led coalition owes them a debt of gratitude. The north-eastern region of Syria has always been a Kurdish occupied area, and now the Kurds have established a semi-autonomous self-governing region there known as Rojava. 

          Kurds represent some 20 percent of Turkey’s population, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is struggling against their persistent calls for independence, or at least autonomy. He claims that the Kurdish administration in Rojava is hand-in-glove with his domestic Kurdish insurgents, the PKK, which he has dubbed a terrorist organization. He would like to move troops into Rojava, and crush his opponents.

          This is the issue that has led to a tug-of-war between the US and Turkey.

          Long before civil war erupted in Syria in 2011, the nation’s 2 million Kurds, accounting for 15 percent of the population, had aspired to some degree of autonomy. Their opportunity came with the internal uprising in that year against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Three years after the conflict began, IS intervened and started winning vast swathes of Syrian territory. Up in the north-east, the Kurds began fighting IS. Backed by air support and special forces from the US and its allies, the Kurdish Peshmerga fighting forces began to prevail, winning back large areas of Kurd-inhabited territory.

          By the time Russia involved itself in support of Assad in September 2015, the process of defeating IS was well under way. Gradually but inexorably, its territory shrank Finally on Friday March 22, 2019, following a lengthy battle around the small Syrian town of Baghouz on the banks of the Euphrates, IS lost its final stronghold.

          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 an integrated territory known formally as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS). It is not a sovereign state nor, if statements from its leaders are to be believed, does it aspire to be one. It is a semi-autonomous region, and there have been formal moves by its leaders to reach an accord with the Syrian president. Early indications are that an accommodation within a post-war Syrian constitution is a distinct possibility, along the lines of the arrangements in Iraq, where an autonomous Kurdistan is a separate element within the Iraqi constitution.

          The fly in this ointment is Erdogan. Any such formal recognition of the DFNS 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 – a problem stemming back to 1922 and the establishment of the Turkish Republic under Kemal Ataturk. The subsequent Treaty of Lausanne gave control of the entire Anatolian peninsula, including the large portion of the Kurdistan homeland that lay within it, to the new republic. With a stroke of the colonial pen, some 20 million Kurds were declared Turkish, and they now comprise about 20 percent of Turkey's 85 million population,

          Because the leading political party in the DFNS – the Democratic Union Party (or PYD) – is linked to the PKK, Erdogan asserts that the DFNS itself is a challenge to Turkey’s national interests. Accordingly he objects to Peshmerga forces being positioned along the Syrian- Turkish border. Recently Erdogan began ramping up his rhetoric. "Turkey has the right to eliminate all threats against its national security," he said in a televised speech in Ankara. Rumors of an imminent Turkish attack on the Syrian Kurds began circulating.

          The US found itself torn between supporting its Kurdish allies and standing by its NATO partner, Turkey. Seeking to deflect Turkey from military action. Washington initiated talks with Turkish defense officials. On August 6, while they were still proceeding, Erdogan threatened to launch an assault on the Kurdish fighters, the YPG. On August 7 the US and Turkey announced an agreement. They would create a safe zone in north-eastern Syria, allowing Turkey to protect its borders. Details of the length and depth of the zone were not revealed.

          Erdogan is clearly intent on reducing the size and the influence of Rojava. The borders of the territory, which sits within Syria, run alongside those of Kurdistan, which lies within Iraq. If the two blocs were ever to unite, the Kurds would be some 
way along the road leading to an independent sovereign state. But the Kurdish-occupied region of Turkey abuts both on Syria’s Rojava, and on Iraq’s Kurdistan. The pressure from Turkey’s 20 million Kurds to amalgamate with their ethnic brothers and sisters would intensify. Kurdish independence – a virtual undoing of the Treaty of Lausanne – could well become a new battle-cry.
          So a nightmare for Erdogan is the prospect of a Syrian Kurdistan emerging from the current peace negotiations being led by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin – the Astana process – of which Turkey, along with Iran, are also sponsors.

          “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. They are trying to…change the demographics of the region. We will not condone it."

          His view on that has, if anything, toughened in the last four years. For the moment he is being restrained from taking military action by a newly forged, and rather precarious, agreement with the US. How long will that hold?

Published in the Eurasia Review, 17 August 2019:

Friday, 9 August 2019

Putin hi-jacks Syria's future

                                                                                 Video version
          It’s a quite extraordinary situation, when you think about it. A leading Arab nation is having its future decided by three non-Arab countries. The three states that have seized the fate of Syria into their hands are Russia, Iran and Turkey. 
          “It is clear to any outside observer,” one Saudi commentator wrote, “that these countries lack any legitimacy to speak about peace and security in Syria. In fact, they are part of the problem…”
          Of course he is right. For years Russian planes have bombed civilian targets in Syria, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Iranian-backed militias have fought over large areas and displaced millions of citizens from their homes, and Turkey has invaded northern Syria in its effort to dislodge the Kurdish Peshmerga forces which played a vital role in defeating Islamic State (IS).

          Each of the three is involved in Syria because they seized the opportunity provided by a power vacuum to establish a politico-military presence there. Each has its own priorities. Russian President Putin’s purpose is to establish a power base in the Middle East and consolidate his military foothold in the eastern Mediterranean; Iranian President Rouhani’s aim is to maintain the regime of Bashar al-Assad in power so as to preserve this major link in Iran’s Shia crescent; Turkey’s President Erdogan is intent on dismantling Kurdish PYD rule in the north. 

          The power vacuum was provided by then-US President Obama. By 2013 civil conflict had been raging in Syria for two years, as Assad strove to quell the popular uprising against his dictatorial rule. Assad knew full well that Obama had threatened immediate counter measures if chemical weapons were used in the Syrian conflict, but dictators take risks. In August 2013 – quite regardless of collateral civilian casualties – Assad authorized the use of the potent nerve agent, sarin, in an attack against opposition forces in the town of Ghouta. Sarin is officially designated a weapon of mass destruction. 

          Obama turned somersaults to avoid the decisive response he had promised. When Putin claimed to have extracted an undertaking from Assad to destroy all the chemical weapons he had originally claimed not to possess, Obama seized the chance to avoid punitive action. The result was enormously to strengthen Putin’s position in the Middle East. 

          Incidentally, the deal was not worth the paper it was written on – if indeed it was ever written down. The subsequent record abounds with convincing evidence of the continued use by Assad of chemical weaponry of various kinds, including VX, sulphur, mustard and chlorine.

          Meanwhile the Syrian president had gained a powerful new ally in his effort to cling to power. On September 30, 2015 Putin sent his forces into Syria. He had two main objectives – to establish Russia as a potent political and military force in the region, and to secure his hold on the Russian naval base at Tartus and the refurbished air base and intelligence-gathering centre at Latakia. He achieved both objectives, as he launched massive air and missile attacks not mainly on Islamic State (IS), as he claimed, but against Assad’s domestic enemies, namely the rebel forces led by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

          As a result, Assad started winning back large areas of Syria previously overrun by IS, and strengthening his position against the SFA. The US was engaged in military operations only in a support capacity, so Putin decided to grab control of Syria’s peace process, precisely as he had done in the conflict itself.

          Peace efforts had begun very shortly after the civil conflict started in Syria in 2011. Several efforts by the UN, including two meetings in Geneva, petered out. Then, in December 2015, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2254, tasking the UN special envoy with bringing the Syrian government and opposition leaders together to establish a unity government, and to agree a schedule for drafting a new constitution leading to democratic elections. 

          This UN Geneva-based initiative quickly ran into the sand, and it was in December 2016 that Putin acted. Maintaining that his peace effort was intended to sustain the UN process, Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed to hold Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. In effect, Putin had hi-jacked the process of establishing the post-conflict settlement in Syria. 

          It was no easy ride, but it is possible that Putin was playing for time. While the talks dragged on, the Astana process did succeed in imposing temporary ceasefires in certain areas, but Putin continued to ensure that Assad recovered as much pre-conflict Syrian territory as possible. He currently controls about 70 percent. 

          As the future of Syria is finally hammered out at Astana (now renamed Nur-Sultan), the US is out of the picture. The new arrangements will suit Russia, and to a lesser extent Iran and Turkey. They will probably involve Assad retaining the presidency by one means or another. Iran is likely to acquire a fair degree of power within a reconstituted Syrian administration. Turkey will be allowed a free hand in controlling Kurdish forces in their northern semi-state of Rojava, and indeed on August 5, 2019 – three days after the 13th Astana round of talks ended – was already threatening to overrun them.

          In their declaration following the talks, the parties expressed satisfaction on “progress made towards establishing the constitutional committee” – the pre-requisite to a new or revised constitution for Syria, and the holding of elections. 

          At the current rate of progress, that stage seems far in the future. First the fighting has to come to an end, law and order needs to be re-established together with local health, education and social services. Then the 6.2 million internally displaced civilians, and the 6.7 million refugees who have fled Syria, need to be re-settled. It’s an immense task. Ahead stretches a long, hard road.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 11 August 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 11 August 2019:

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 17 August 2019: