Thursday, 1 October 2015

Russia's game in Syria

          Alexander Golts knows what he is talking about. As deputy editor of Yezhednevny Zhurnal and a columnist for the Moscow Times, he is perhaps Russia's most respected journalist on military and security matters. How does he view President Vladimir Putin’s substantial military intervention on the Syrian battlefield?

           For substantial it undoubtedly is. A senior US official confirmed on September 18 that in the previous 10 days more than 20 Condor transport plane flights had delivered tanks, weapons, other equipment, and marines to Russia’s new military hub near Latakia in western Syria. This was followed by 16 Russian Su-27 fighter aircraft, along with 12 close support aircraft, 4 large Hip troop-transport helicopters and 4 Hind helicopter gunships.

          Russia’s military build-up in Syria now includes surface-to-air missiles as well as combat aircraft, and by the end of September it had started flying drone aircraft on surveillance missions. On September 24, Moscow announced that over 40 naval “combat exercises” were due to start in the eastern Mediterranean, including rocket and artillery fire at sea and airborne targets.

          Putin maintains that his sole motive is to fight IS. "We support the Syrian government in fighting the terrorist aggression,” he recently asserted. However, more than one defence analyst has pointed out that Islamic State (IS) has no air capability. The only logical explanation for the range of sophisticated aerial and military hardware being poured into Syria is that Putin has a deeper purpose than simply fighting IS – namely to establish a significant military presence in the Middle East.

          In short, Russia's support for Syria has become the latest front in a wider battle being fought by the Kremlin for influence on the international stage. As Alexander Golts has it: "All Russian policy in Syria is very clearly directed at overcoming international isolation because of Ukraine." Putin’s annexation of Crimea, and his subsequent military involvement in eastern Ukraine, led to sanctions and the diplomatic cold-shoulder by Western powers. It is this that he is countering in his Syrian adventure. He is bulldozing his way to a position of influence and power in the region, a position in which the West simply has to take account of him.

          Putin’s initiative is a clever, multi-faceted manoeuvre. He is killing three or four birds with one stone. For example, any Syrian regime change could seriously prejudice Russia’s long-standing military and commercial interests in Syria. Foremost, of course, is the naval facility at Tartus, Russia’s sole outlet to the Mediterranean, but also at stake would be billions of dollars of commercial investments including oil and gas infrastructure.

          Then, he is worried about the effect on domestic security if IS were to take over more of Syria than is already in its possession. IS already exercises a malign influence on young Muslims across the world, and Russia has an Islamist insurgency of its own in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. Some of IS’s top military commanders are of Chechen origin. Further IS successes could pose serious security risks within Mother Russia.

          Putin recently said something of especial significance. Speaking at a regional security conference in mid-September in Tajikistan, he not only defended his support for the Assad régime, but encouraged other countries to do the same.

          "We have been, and will be, providing all necessary military-technical assistance [to Syria] and we call on other countries to join us."

          His actions, no less than his words, have won grudging admiration in a number of quarters, together with recognition by the US administration that he must now be taken seriously as a major player on the Middle East scene – to the extent that Secretary of State John Kerry now concedes that President Bashar al-Assad might indeed be allowed to retain power for a period, and Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has said that the West will have to engage with Assad if it is to have any chance of resolving the Syrian civil war. Britain is already indicating a similar shift in policy.

          Fortune favours the bold, and Putin has stepped in where others have feared to tread – on the very ground of Syria, Fighting IS at long distance and without boots on the ground, the preferred method so far of the US, the UK and the West generally, has proved an abject failure. According to the assessments of American intelligence agencies IS is as strong today as it was when the US launched its allied air strikes against the organization in August 2014. “We've seen no meaningful degradation in their numbers," said a defence official, citing estimates that put the group's strength at 20,000 to 30,000 fighters, the same as when the strikes began.

          The time has come for some clear thinking. Which poses the greater threat to the world – the despotic Bashar al-Assad, responsible though he undoubtedly is for horrific war crimes against his own people during his desperate effort to retain power; or the monstrous, barbaric, inhumane and philistine IS and its power-crazed leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled caliph of all Muslims, determined to subject first the Middle East, and then the whole world, to his rule?

          UK Middle East expert, Con Coughlin, believes that deep-rooted confusion lies within the highest ranks of both the American and British governments over what should be the main objective in Syria – overthrowing the Assad regime, or destroying IS.

          “Whatever his sins – and they are many,” asserts Coughlin, “Assad does not constitute a threat to the outside world… it is the terrorist fanatics associated with IS who pose the greater threat.” He might have added that chasing IS out of Syria and restoring stability is the most effective way to halt the massive outflow of civilians from that war-scarred nation, and to ease the migration crisis that is nearly overwhelming Europe.

          The logical conclusion sticks out a mile. If Putin wants to wage total war against IS, the West should be prepared to give him total backing. The prospect of a “grand alliance” to defeat IS is becoming a possibility. In short, as Alexander Golts so astutely asserts in a piece for the Moscow Times on September 21: “By raising the stakes in Syria, the Kremlin has achieved the status of a major player that is indispensable to the West.”

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 1 October 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 2 October 2015:

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Iran's business

        Tuesday, July 14, 2015 is a date with double significance. Not only is it the day on which world powers, led by the United States, signed the deal with Iran that nominally limits its nuclear programme, but it also marks the re-emergence of Iran into world markets after decades of crippling sanctions. In truth the consequential commercial and economic benefits of the deal will be as vital to Iran’s ambitions as the nuclear.

        As for Iran’s ambitions, its leaders have never concealed them. The Islamic Republic of Iran seeks to become the dominant political and religious power in the Middle East. As the prime exponent of the Shi’ite tradition of Islam, Iran views as its main rival the leading Sunni state, Saudi Arabia. Iran seeks to impose its own version of Islam on the world, just like its Sunni mirror image, Islamic State (IS). And just like IS, it regards Western democracy with contempt. It dubs its leading exponent, the United States, the “Great Satan”. and has for decades initiated and supported terrorist attacks on US targets, many of them deadly. Iran abhors Israel in particular, and it makes no secret of its intention eventually to eliminate the State of Israel from the map of the Middle East.

        It is to this rogue state that the much-vaunted nuclear deal has handed the keys to an eventual nuclear arsenal, and the means to enjoy a mushrooming economy and commercial growth on a previously unimaginable scale. Starved of economic development, and with a population of some 80 million, Iran is replete with juicy commercial plums simply waiting to be plucked.

        “The early bird catches the worm.” The ink was barely dry on the nuclear agreement, before a German government plane filled with some of the nation’s top economic and commercial interests touched down in Tehran.

        The German delegation was led by vice-chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, who declared that the nuclear deal “has laid the foundations for a normalisation of economic relations with Iran.” He led a team which included the chief executive of Siemens, the German industrial conglomerate, and leading figures from Daimler, Volkswagon and ThyssenKrupp.

        “A lot of companies at the moment are preparing agreements to be signed the moment sanctions are lifted,” said Michael Tockuss, head of the German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce. He said that his association was organising a trip every week for companies interested in doing deals in Iran.

        Germany is far from alone. Newspaper reports speak of European ministers and business people flocking to the country: “Upscale Tehran hotels are packed and tables at trendy restaurants are scarce, as foreigners jostle for bargains.” There are reports of businessmen across Europe packing conference halls to discover how to unlock Iran’s vast potential after three decades of isolation. On August 27 four hundred of them piled into a hotel in Zurich for a day of briefings. Austria’s president is planning to take 240 businessmen with him when he visits later in September.

        Meanwhile, major deals are in the making, while some have already been signed. Italian bank Mediobanca signed a memorandum of understanding in Tehran earlier this month to finance deals between Italian and Iranian businesses. The loans would be guaranteed by Italy’s state-run export credit company.

        On September 15 the Iranian firm Aria Ziggurat Tourism Development Company signed an agreement with the major French hotel chain, AccorHotels. Under the contract, the Iranian company will use the Novotel and Ibis brands, both owned by AccorHotels, for 15 years. Iran hopes to increase tourist arrivals from the current 4.5 million to 20 million over the next 10 years, the head of Iran's Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization, Masoud Soltanifar, said during the signing ceremony.

         But there are even bigger fish to fry on Iran’s giant cooker. Towards the end of August Iran’s Tasnim News reported that two Russian companies had signed a deal with an Iranian firm to develop a remote-sensing satellite observation system based on the Russian Kanopus-V1. Satellite observation systems can be used to gather information about the Earth's atmosphere, surface, and oceans. What else they can be used for was not specified in the Iranian news report, leaving the imagination to run riot.

        Under the terms of the deal, NPK BARL of Russia will build the ground infrastructure, while another Russian firm VNIIEM will be responsible for building and launching the satellites. Bonyan Danesh Shargh of Iran will operate the observation system. The launch is scheduled for 2018 aboard a Soyuz carrier rocket.

        Scientific cooperation between Tehran and Moscow is nothing new – it is well known that Russia had helped Iran build its Bushehr nuclear power plant. Now reports indicate that Russia has agreed to cooperate with Iran in the fields of aviation and shipbuilding, and plans to supply Iran with commercial airplanes in the future. In addition a deal is close to being finalized for the sale by Russia of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Tehran. Soon after the nuclear deal was signed, Moscow lifted the ban on the potential sale of the advanced surface-to-air missile systems, and Iran increased the order from three to four systems.

        As a matter of interest, the nuclear agreement explicitly prioritizes "the sale of commercial passenger aircraft and related parts and services to Iran." In consequence Iran has started negotiations aimed at upgrading its commercial air transport system. Transport Minister Abbas Akhoundi estimates that 400 new planes could be needed. Negotiations with Airbus and Boeing are under way to rebuild the fleet and finalize leasing arrangements for short-term cover. In addition to fleet upgrades, Iran's infrastructure will see massive investment in areas like radar, air traffic management, the 300 domestic airports and passenger experience. All are key opportunity areas for international firms. Already organized for March 2016 is the first Aviation Iran trade show, to be hosted in Dubai.

        Underneath all this frenetic commercial activity lies something not quite so appetising. A major beneficiary will be Iran's highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, thanks to his close control of one of the most powerful and secretive organizations in Iran -- "Setad Ejraiye Farmane Hazrate Emam," or Setad, a multi-billion dollar operation at the heart of Iran’s economy.

        The nuclear deal lifts US secondary sanctions on Setad and about 40 firms it owns or has a stake in. With a finger in nearly every sector of Iran's economic pie, Setad built its empire by confiscating thousands of properties belonging to religious minorities, business people, and Iranians living abroad. According to a 2013 Reuters investigation, which estimated the network's holdings at about $95 billion, Khamenei exerts exclusive control over Setad's economic empire.

        Do the government officials and businessmen, falling over each other to grab the business opportunities now opened up, know or care what nefarious activities their commercial deals will be facilitating? Probably not. “Business is business” they are likely to declare. “Let the politics take care of themselves.” 

        A dangerous philosophy.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 24 September 2015:

Thursday, 17 September 2015

The Kurds, Turkey, oil and Israel

        One picture dominated the world’s TV and press on September 4 – a Turkish coastguard bearing the lifeless body of a little boy, drowned with his mother and elder brother in a doomed attempt to reach the Greek island of Kos. The dead child epitomized the humanitarian catastrophe that is overwhelming the world in general and Europe in particular. Like literally millions before them, the family were fleeing from a war-ravaged region of the Middle East.

        Virtually every report about the incident described the youngster and his family as Syrians. Few mentioned the fact that Aylan, his 5-year-old brother Galip, and their mother Rehan were Kurds (indeed their family name is Kurdi). The home they were abandoning was situated in Kobane, the town captured by Islamic State (IS) in October 2014, fought over for months, and finally recaptured in January by the gallant Kurdish Peshmerga fighting force. Their personal tragedy brings the Kurds and their problems into the forefront of the unfolding disaster.

        The Kurds are not Arabs but an ethnic group who historically inhabited a distinct geographical area referred to as Kurdistan. No such location is depicted on current maps, for after the first world war the old Kurdistan, together with its 30-plus million inhabitants, was divided between four states – Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Modern Kurdish history is replete with uprisings against one or other of them in a continuous battle for independence. The near-century of struggle has not been in vain. The Kurds have slowly but surely been gaining political clout.

        With Kurds forming some 20 percent of its population, Turkey has always been intolerant of the Kurdish independence movement, regarding it as a threat to national unity. In 2014, prior to national elections, then-prime minister – soon to be president – Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seeking the Kurdish vote, promised some relaxation of the restrictions placed on them. The result was a dramatic reversal in Kurdish political fortunes. In the June 2015 elections, much to Erdogan’s chagrin, his Justice and Progress Party (AKP) lost its overall majority, and the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) won 13 percent of the vote and gained parliamentary representation for the first time.

        For one reason or another, the Turkish electoral system failed to deliver an effective government out of this result, and Erdogan doubtless hopes that new elections, to be held in November, will enable his AKP to regain a majority, thus ensuring the sweeping constitutional changes he is seeking in order to transform the Turkish presidency into an autocracy.

        Erdogan’s policy towards the Kurds is contradictory. Domestically, he is opposed root and branch to any hint of separatism, autonomy, or independence, and in this he has the support of the majority of Turkey’s establishment. Kurdish demands run counter to the national unification achieved by Kemal Ataturk’s revolution in the 1920s. Repeated offensives by successive Turkish governments, aimed at crushing the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). have however left the so-called “Kurdish problem” unresolved.

        The PKK are strong in the Kurdish area just across Turkey’s border with Syria. If anything like Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan were to be established in Syria, it would feed demands by Turkey’s Kurds to be linked to it in some way. “We will never allow a state to be formed in northern Syria, south of our border,” declared Erdogan in Istanbul on June 26. “We will maintain our struggle whatever the cost. They are trying to…change the demographics of the region. We will not condone it."

        This explains why Erdogan, on joining the US-led anti-IS coalition in Syria in July, began air-strikes against IS and the Kurds indiscriminately, tarring both with the terrorist brush. But wherever they are sited the PKK remain prime targets for Turkey. On September 6 Turkish warplanes bombed PKK targets in Iraq, in retaliation for an assault on the army in which dozens of Turkish troops were killed.

        The PKK is one thing, oil revenues are another. Take Erdogan’s policy in respect of the Kurdish autonomous administration in Iraq – to say nothing of his duplicitous stance towards Israel. The authoritative Financial Times reported on August 23 that roughly 77 percent of Israel’s oil is currently being imported from Kurdistan via the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. In short, while Turkey maintains its strong anti-Israel stance for public consumption, it is daily providing Israel with thousands of barrels of oil, and reaping the consequential rewards. “Diplomatic hypocrisy at its finest,” was the verdict of the Saudi Arabian newspaper Al-Arabiya on August 30.

        This oil traffic reflects a weakening of the Iraqi government’s authority over its Kurdish component, which it certainly suspects of eventually planning to bid for complete independence. Meanwhile the oil sales to Israel have provided a revenue lifeline for the Kurdistan authorities, strapped as they are for the cash required to fund the Peshmerga military operations against IS. The emergence of Israel as one of the biggest buyers of Kurdish oil, comments the Financial Times, illustrates the widening gap between Kurdistan and the Iraqi government on fundamental policy. Baghdad, like many Middle Eastern capitals, refuses to recognise Israel and has no official ties with the country. On the other hand, relations between the Kurds and Israel, both small non-Arab entities battling against discrimination, have historically been close.

        A recent visit to Iraqi Kurdistan left two Israeli journalists with no doubt of the genuine empathy felt by many Kurds towards Israel: “Old Peshmerga fighters cradling AK-47s reminisced about the 1960s, when Israel helped them in the war against Saddam Hussein.” Bookshops in the capital, Erbil, sold history books about the Jews of Kurdistan with a Star of David on them – an impossibility in much of the Middle East.

        What they found accords with statements by Kurdish leaders reported in June 2014. In a letter to Israel’s then President-elect Reuven Rivlin, the leader of the Kurdish Left, Mahsum Simo said plainly: “Israel isn’t our enemy.” Amir Abdi, the head of foreign relations for the Kurdish Party, when asked what kind of relationship his party envisages with Israel, responded: “We share a strong relationship with the friendly State of Israel.” 

        It seems clear that if Iraqi Kurdistan eventually emerges as a sovereign state, Israel will be among the first to recognize it. And if any sort of united or autonomous Kurdistan straddling Syria, Iraq and Iran emanates from the current turmoil, Israel might find itself with a valuable friend and ally within the very heartland of the Middle East.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 16 September 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 17 September 2015:

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Libya's struggle for stability

        Libya today is not only a country torn apart politically, but a battlefield where armed militias attack each other with scant regard for any civilians who happen to get in their way, and a happy hunting ground for criminal gangs and people traffickers. The West in general, and Britain perhaps in particular, bears some responsibility for the chaos into which Libya has descended.

        The UK became intimately involved in Libyan affairs about half-way through Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year-long rule. The mid-air explosion of a PanAm plane above the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988, soon ascribed by the US to Libya, caused relations between Britain and the Gaddafi regime – already icy because of the murder of a British policewoman outside the Libyan embassy ­in London in 1984 – to freeze solid.

        The thaw, when it came, was swift and dramatic. Apparently inexplicably, in 2003 the Gaddafi regime, which had stonewalled on the Lockerbie issue for fifteen years, suddenly acknowledged responsibility for the disaster, paid handsome compensation to the families of those killed, and handed over two Libyan suspects, one of whom, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, was convicted for the attack. Gilding the lily, as it were, Gaddafi then announced that Libya intended to abandon its manufacture of weapons of mass destruction, and invited international inspection to verify the elimination of all its stocks.

        It seems increasingly clear that a covert relationship between Gaddafi and Tony Blair, Britain’s then prime minister, was behind this remarkable reversal of policy – a relationship now being subject to intense, and often hostile, scrutiny in the UK media and government circles. 

        As part of a secret deal, revealed some years after the event, Blair apparently travelled to Tripoli, met with Gaddafi and finalised an alleged “deal in the desert”, in which Gaddafi agreed to eschew global terror in return for international companies helping him extract Libya's massive oil reserves. 

        And now a forthcoming biography of Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, goes further and alleges that Blair tried to save Gaddafi’s neck during the 2011 international military campaign aimed at ousting the Libyan dictator. It claims that Blair telephoned Downing Street saying he had been contacted by “a key individual close to Gaddafi” who wanted to “cut a deal”.

        Cameron was having none of it however, and immediately after Gaddafi’s downfall began patting himself on the back for having achieved régime change without putting a single British boot on the ground, or incurring a single British casualty. It is now painfully clear that this “hands-off” policy has backfired badly, for the result of leaving Libya to sort out its own problems is today’s war-ravaged land, where criminals and gun-toting Islamists are running riot.

        Cameron has belatedly acknowledged that Britain has a “moral obligation” to Libya, and should try to restore some semblance of order. Which explains recent newspaper reports that British troops may be sent to Libya as part of a European stabilisation force – a complete volte-face on the UK’s “no boots” position.

        It is undeniable that Libya has turned into a main transit route for migrants fleeing conflict and poverty to make it to Europe. The number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean has passed 300,000 this year, up from 219,000 in the whole of 2014. That the criminals master-minding this traffic have little regard for the safety of the migrants is demonstrated repeatedly. Since the start of the year some 2,300 people have died trying to reach European shores many, perhaps most, via Libya. One recent tragedy saw a boat packed with some 400 people capsize and sink off the Libyan coast, killing up to 200. That same day the Italian coastguard rescued around 1,400 people off the coast of Libya, while the day before it had pulled 3,000 to safety.

        Libya is certainly in need of outside help. Politically it has been carved into two major warring segments. Following its first free national election in six decades, the interim government established by the General National Congress (GNC) failed to gell. Islamist militant groups refused to accept its authority, and in September 2014 General Khalifa Haftar, a former Gaddafi loyalist, formed “Operation Dignity”, specifically to attack them. To counter Dignity, an alliance of Islamists formed “Operation Dawn”. Now the Dawn coalition controls most of western Libya; the Dignity coalition rules much of Cyrenaica in the east. Each has its own self-declared parliament and government – Dawn in Tripoli, Dignity in Tobruk.

        Will the efforts of UN special envoy to Libya, Bernardino Leon, yield a political truce? Hopeful that the country’s main warring factions would agree to form a unity government by mid-September, Leon consulted with representatives of the GNC in Turkey on September 1, ahead of peace talks which started on September 3. However the prospects are not bright, for the talks exclude the jihadists affiliated with Islamic State (IS) or Ansar al-Sharia – the widespread Salafist Islamist grouping – which regard both Dignity and Dawn as enemies.

        Taking advantage of Libya’s political instability, these Islamist groups are using the country as a base from which to extend their grip across the region. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-appointed caliph of all Muslims, has already declared Libya to be part of his caliphate. Their growing presence escalates the violence and reduces the chances of restoring stability.

        Indeed, authoritative newspaper reports, back in February 2015, asserted that evidence existed of plans by IS to take over Libya, and use that benighted country as a "gateway" to wage war across southern Europe. Documents were said to reveal that the jihadists intended flooding Libya with fighters from Syria and Iraq, who would then sail across the Mediterranean on people-trafficking vessels, posing as migrants. According to plans seen by Quilliam, the British anti-extremist group, the fighters would then run amok in southern European cities, and also try to attack maritime shipping.

        Whether these plans have been put into operation, and whether the torrent of migrants pouring out of Libya do indeed include jihadist infiltrators, are questions as yet unanswered. The mere possibility must give added urgency to plans by the UN, the US, the UK and other EU countries to provide genuine assistance to the rump of Libya’s democratic government in Tobruk. 

        A restoration of law and order, the re-establishment of effective government. a crack-down on the people traffickers and other gangsters running amok in the country, above all a determined effort to counter and overcome the nefarious and subversive activities of the jihadists, especially IS, not only in Libya but in its heartlands of Syria and Iraq – these must be the objectives for those now pledged to assist Libya.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 11 September 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 11 September 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 21 September 2015:

Thursday, 3 September 2015

What future for Syria?

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

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

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

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

        However the Assad régime did no such thing, concluded US intelligence agencies in July 2015. On the contrary it concealed certain deadly chemical stocks 
and, adding insult to injury, actually continued developing a new type of chemical munition using chlorine.

        Now, more than four years after it began, the full-blown civil war that developed in Syria has killed over 230,000 people, half of them civilians. In addition, the UN estimates, nearly 8 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes. When the additional 4 million Syrians who have fled into neighbouring countries are taken into account, it follows that a humanitarian disaster has overtaken more than half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million.

        This is the outcome to date of the complex series of battles that have developed within Syria over the past five years. An overview of the devastated battlefield that Syria has become reveals no less than six separate conflicts in progress. 

        There is first the initial domestic battle between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition seeking a democratic alternative. Both sides are supported by outside forces – Assad by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah; the Syrian opposition by Sunni Arab groupings. The second major battle is between the forces of Assad and those of Islamic State (IS), which is set on extending its territorial gains to encompass the whole of Syria and Iraq.

        Thirdly there is the struggle between IS and the US-led coalition that, fighting under the less-than-inspiring slogan of “no boots on the ground”, confines itself to training local forces and supporting their operations with air-strikes.  Fourthly, Turkey has renewed its attacks on the Kurdish PKK. As soon as Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, decided to join the fight against IS, he mounted air strikes equally against the Kurds, whose campaign for autonomy is a long-standing source of friction within Turkey.

        The fifth conflict on Syrian soil is that of the Kurdish Peshmerga troops against IS – a notably more successful effort than most of the other anti-IS activity over the past few years. Finally, IS finds itself battling intermittently against a number of jihadist Sunni groups that reject the claims of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to be caliph of all Muslims, and his organization to be the basis of an eventual world-wide caliphate.

        This maelstrom that is Syria has thrown up three recent attempts to settle the future. One, sponsored by Saudi Arabia, calls for the removal of Assad and his régime, and supports the Sunni Arab rebellion against it. Another, sponsored by Saudi’s rival, Iran, is a four-point plan calling for an immediate ceasefire, a national unity government, the safeguarding of minority rights, and internationally supervised presidential elections – apparently reasonable proposals which did not fool the London-based Arab newspaper, Al Hayat. In an article on August 16, it reveals what it dubs “Tehran’s hidden motives”.

        In 2012, the UN and the Arab League adopted a six-point peace plan for Syria, subsequently ratified in the 2014 Geneva II Conference. Integral to it was a call for Assad’s resignation. Inevitably Iran and Russia opposed the proposals, and this new Iranian initiative, Al Hayat asserts, is an attempt to by-pass the Geneva plan.

        “By promoting a plan of its own, supported by Russia,” says Al Hayat, “Tehran is … trying to use a cease-fire in order to give an official status to the militias it has built in Syria…The leaders in Tehran talk about a diplomatic solution in Syria, while deploying more and more Revolutionary Guard militias, supported by Hezbollah, to fight alongside Assad. It uses noble rhetoric to deceive the international community.”

        The third current peace initiative, conceived by Staffan de Mistura, a UN special envoy, was endorsed by the UN Security Council in mid-August. Although the plan is based on the Geneva II proposals, it calls for a transitional government “on the basis of mutual consent “, implying that Assad and his regime would be party to the arrangement. This plan does envisage the eventual removal of Assad, but at some unspecified time in the future. It has been positively welcomed by Iran, and is backed Russia - possibly one reason for recent media rumours that Russia and Iran are considering abandoning their unquestioning support for Assad.

        So what might Syria’s future be? A country wholly over-run by IS, and under its control? A country from which IS has been expelled, the government returned to Bashar el-Assad, and therefore once again firmly within the Iranian sphere of influence? A country split into its component parts, one of which might be an autonomous Kurdish area, possibly linked to Kurdistan in Iraq? A country with a new constitution and a democratically elected government? The possibilities are many and various. 

        It is, as they say, in the lap of the gods.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 3 September 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 September 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 3 September 2015:

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Combatting Islamism - the Arab-Israel axis

                              The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
                              And God fulfils himself in many ways…

                                                 Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Morte D’Arthur

        The old order, unsatisfactory though it was, had become commonplace through long usage, like a worn but comfortable garment. We had, in the words of the Lerner and Loewe song, grown accustomed to its face – namely Israel, a tiny island of Western values set in a hostile and often turbulent Islamic sea, marginally bolstered by lukewarm peace treaties with two of its neighbors, Jordan and Egypt. The consensus, accepted on all sides, was that the perennial Israel-Palestinian dispute was the major cause of instability in the Middle East. Solve that, ran the mantra, and the Middle East would morph into a haven of sweetness and light. Until that happy day, the face of Islam would be set implacably against Israel, the foe of foes.

        But out of the innumerable peace negotiations over the years, one inescapable truth emerged. Short of committing hara-kari, Israel could never offer enough. No Palestinian leader, not Yasser Arafat nor Mahmoud Abbas nor anyone who might succeed Abbas, dare sign an agreement that recognizes Israel’s right to exist on what the Palestinian narrative defines as historic Palestine. It would probably be more than his life was worth. From the Palestinian perspective, the insurmountable obstacle lodged within the two-state solution is that one of the states must be Israel. As a result, a state of perpetual antagonism between the Arab world and Israel seemed frozen solid.

        The thawing process began with the so-called Arab Spring, back in 2010. If that revolutionary fervor, spreading like wildfire from nation to nation, demonstrated anything, it was that instability had become endemic within the Arab body politic. The Israel-Palestinian conflict counted for very little when set against the burning discontent of the Arab masses with the repression, human rights abuses, state censorship, and other trammels of dictatorship or absolute monarchy under which most existed.

        From the flames of the Arab Spring arose, phoenix-like, what is now known as Islamic State (IS). IS gave a quasi-religious vindication to the secular discontent. Its brutality, its utter disregard for accepted standards of humanity – justified in the name of its Islamist philosophy – seem to enhance its appeal in the eyes of Muslim youth the world over, and they flock to its banner.

        The mushroom growth of IS, in terms both of territory and influence, is one of the two factors that have conspired to engender a new reality in Middle East politics. The second is the parallel burgeoning of political power and influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

        Just as IS’s self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declares his intention to impose his version of sharia law on the entire world, so too does Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei – the former proclaiming an extreme version of Sunni Islam, the latter an extreme version of Shia. And just as IS justifies any action, however bloodthirsty or brutal, in support of its aims, so too does Iran, which has developed into the world’s leading state sponsor of terror.

        In pursuit of its dream of religious and regional dominance, Iran has indulged in constant attempts, both open and covert, to strike against Western interests and to undermine stable Sunni states across the Middle East. The extent of the concern of Sunni states about the threat posed by Iran was revealed as far back as 2010, in the first batch of some 250,000 confidential documents published by WikiLeaks.

        The distinguished Israeli journalist, Ari Shavit, maintained that the WikiLeaks documents “proved that the settlements, the occupation and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were not the main problem in the Middle East (but) that the entire Arab world is currently busy with one problem only - Iran, Iran, Iran.”

        The leaked cables disclosed that at the time Arab leaders were campaigning for a US attack on Iran’s growing nuclear programme. For example, Saudi Arabia’s then King Abdullah “frequently exhorted” the US to bomb Iran and “cut the head off the snake.” He warned Washington that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, “everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia.”

        Abu Dhabi’s crown prince is reported to have urged Americans to “take out” Iran’s nuclear capacity, or even send ground troops. The king of Bahrain said the US “must terminate” Iran’s nuclear programme, “by whatever means necessary”. Zeid Rifai, then president of Jordan’s senate, said: “Bomb Iran, or live with an Iranian bomb.”

        So whatever their public pronouncements, the true opinion of Arab leaders about the recently announced nuclear deal with Iran requires little imagination. It accords precisely with the rooted opposition expressed by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Strengthening Iran’s political clout by endorsing it as a breakout nuclear power is a recipe for continued instability in the Middle East.

        In short, both Iran and IS have become existential threats not only to Israel, but to a swathe of Sunni Arab states. Never have the interests of the Arab world and Israel been closer. Which explains why Israel, in its first arms deal with an Arab country, has just sold Jordan twelve advanced unmanned drones. They are urgently needed by the Jordanian Royal Air Force to strengthen the anti-IS campaign being waged across Jordan’s borders in Iraq and Syria. According to Debkafile, a usually trustworthy website concerned with Middle East security, secret operations against IS are being run by a joint US-Jordanian-Israeli war room sited north of Amman.

        In recent years, media reports assert, Israeli officials have met counterparts from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf at nuclear non-proliferation talks in Switzerland. The recently appointed director-general of Israel's foreign ministry, Dore Gold, and retired Saudi general Anwar Eshki actually appeared together at a Washington conference in June.

        That there is unprecedentedly close Egypt-Israel military cooperation in Sinai, combatting IS terrorism, is no longer a secret, but recent reports have suggested covert security cooperation also between Israel and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders. Regular, secret flights between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv have recently been documented, despite the ostensible ban on Israeli citizens entering the UAE.

        Even popular anti-Israeli sentiment within these countries may be shifting. A recent poll of Saudi public opinion found that an overwhelming majority regarded either Iran or Islamic State as the major threat. Only a small minority cited Israel as their primary concern, while an astonishing 24 percent of those polled believed that Saudi Arabia should fight Iran alongside Israel.

        A change of atmosphere can certainly be detected, but despite covert cooperation, sober reality continues to rule. Mordechai Zaken, a Middle East expert, believes that between the Arab world and Israel, there is “no love, only interests… Most Arab countries would not be happy to declare and expose their relations or cooperation with Israel. In the Middle East, it is not something to brag about.”

        An Arab-Israel axis may be in the making, but Utopia is not around the corner.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 28 August 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 August 2015:

Thursday, 20 August 2015

The tribulations of Hamas

        Hamas’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse. The de facto government of the Gaza strip suddenly finds itself in difficulties on four fronts: deteriorating external relations, including financial support; internal pressure from Islamic State (IS) supporters; disputes within the Hamas organization; and a new confrontation with the Palestinian Authority (PA).

        For decades Sunni Hamas, dedicated as it is to Israel’s destruction, had been financially supported by Iran, whose hatred of Israel out-trumps its passionately-held Shi’ite Islamic convictions. But when Hamas refused to join the fight against IS in support of Iran’s lackey, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, funding dwindled. 
Future substantive Iranian assistance to Hamas is problematic, given the warming relations between Iran and the US following the nuclear deal, though tactical military aid will probably continue. 

        Unfortunately, from Hamas’s point of view, as financial support from Iran ebbed, Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi embarked on a determined program of closing down the tunnels from Gaza into Egypt, thus effectively cutting the organization off from supplies and financial resources vital for its continued operations. Hamas was forced to try mending fences with Egypt. It did so by approaching Saudi Arabia, Iran’s great rival. The move was not unsuccessful. Saudi Arabia applied some gentle pressure, and Egyptian officials met with Hamas leaders in Qatar early in June. Some sort of deal was struck. In exchange for Egypt agreeing to some limited opening of official crossings, Hamas undertook to refrain from using tunnels connecting Gaza and Egypt.

        However this, and any other understanding between Hamas and Egypt, is fragile in the extreme while the slightest suspicion remains that Hamas’s military arm, the al-Qassam Brigades, is cooperating with the IS-linked Province of Sinai in conducting terror attacks against el-Sisi’s government. The evidence for this, though, is strong, despite emphatic denials by Hamas political spokesmen, and the charge is reiterated not only by Israel, but in a recent statement by Palestinian Authority (PA) foreign minister Riyadh al-Maliki, and by Egyptian military sources.

        In fact, Hamas’s involvement in the Sinai peninsula illustrates a deep internal split within the upper echelons of the organization. For while collaboration with the Province of Sinai is supported by the military arm, it is opposed by the political arm, under the leadership of self-exiled Hamas head Khaled Meshal.

        Something of the internal structure and workings of the Hamas organization is public knowledge. For example it is well known that Hamas has a Shura Council that decides on general policies, and approves plans and budgets. Its membership, which ranges from 50 to 70, is made up of officials from Gaza and the West Bank, the leadership abroad and detainees in Israeli prisons.

        There is, however, also a more elitist inner Shura Council, the final decision-maker in Hamas. Its specific membership is unknown, but it elects the political bureau, Hamas’s highest body. At a slightly lower level than the political bureau, and unelected, is the al-Qassam Brigades’ military council, a body shrouded in intense secrecy – one good reason being that all its members are wanted by Israel. More to the point, politically, is that some of them – charismatic military figures like Mohammed al-Deif, Marwan Issa, Yahya Sinwar and Rouhi Moushtaha – are also members of the top political bureau, and in recent years they have been increasingly influencing Hamas’s overall orientation.

        The inevitable outcome is division within Hamas’s top leadership. Meshal, the head of Hamas's political wing, often clashes with leaders of the Qassam Brigades. Thus at the same time as the military wing is terrorising the population of the Sinai peninsula and striking at Egyptian forces, Hamas’s political arm is working to improve relations with Egypt’s government. It has also, if leaks and rumors are to be taken seriously, quietly engaged in contact with Israel about a possible long-term truce, a policy assuredly anathema to Hamas’s military wing.

        Iran has seized on the divisions within Hamas to further its own political objectives. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have reportedly been funding the military wing because, according to distinguished UK columnist Con Coughlin, “it gives them access to Israel’s southern border, in addition to the northern border with Lebanon, where Iran funds Hezbollah militants."

        If the Hamas leadership shudders at the thought of increased Shi’ite influence within Gaza, it views with greater alarm the prospect of an IS takeover, Sunni though it be. In recent months, a radical jihadist-Salafi group allied to IS, calling itself the Omar Hadid Brigade, has attempted to challenge Hamas’s rule in the Strip. “We will uproot you,” was the message to Hamas in a recent IS video. “The rule of sharia will be implemented in Gaza in spite of you.” In short, Hamas is not extreme enough for IS.

        The Brigade is responsible for launching indiscriminate rocket attacks into Israel in an attempt, analysts believe, to initiate a new conflict with Israel that will further weaken Hamas and enable IS to fill the resulting power vacuum. Hamas has reacted by arresting members of the group and trying to ensure that the precarious truce with Israel is not breached.

        But precarious it remains. When a Palestinian rocket exploded in southern Israel on August 7, the Israeli Air Force attacked a Hamas target in central Gaza. “Hamas is the party responsible for what takes place in the Gaza Strip,” ran the Israeli statement, following the retaliation.

        To add to Hamas’s burdens, the perennial conflict with its rival Fatah, which controls the PA and rules in the West Bank, has flared up again. Hamas has consistently sought to undermine the government of PA president Mahmoud Abbas – whose leadership it declares illegitimate – and to overthrow and replace it. In early July PA authorities in the West Bank arrested over 100 members of Hamas in a mass security crackdown.

        All attempts to reconcile the two wings of the Palestinian body politic, and there have been many over the years, have failed. The most recent – Abbas’s so-called government of national unity – lasted barely a year. The plain fact of the matter is that Hamas is engaged in a life-and-death struggle with Fatah for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people, and it is a struggle that they are by no means assured of winning.

        Viewing Hamas’s current position overall, what comes to mind are the apocalyptic words of poet W B Yeats:
                                 Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…
                                 The best lack all conviction, while the worst
                                 Are full of passionate intensity.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line 20 August 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 August 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 25 August 2015:

Friday, 14 August 2015

What game is Erdogan playing?

        The domestic and foreign policies pursued by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, may seem wayward and full of inconsistencies. But as Shakespeare so appositely puts it: “though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”

        It was on June 10, 2014 that the magnitude of the threat posed to regional and western interests by the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL or ISIS, as it was then known), became apparent. That was the day they captured Iraq’s largest city, Mosul, to be followed by the surrounding province of Nineveh. On the following day Tikrit, another major city north of Baghdad, fell to them. Two weeks later their leader. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, changed the name of his organisation to Islamic State (IS), declared a cross-border Islamic “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, and crowned himself caliph of all Muslims. This series of events precipitated the formation of a coalition of anti-IS interests, headed by the US. Shackled by a strict “no boots on the ground” policy, the coalition concentrated on provided training to anti-IS forces in Syria and Iraq, and backing their ground operations with massive air-strikes.

        From all this, Turkey stood aloof. Erdogan – a Sunni with Muslim Brotherhood attachments – was at daggers drawn with Shi’ite Iran and its lackey, Syrian President Bashar Assad. As regards Syria, there was no way Erdogan would join the US’s unofficial alliance with Iran, which – both directly and via its puppet Hezbollah – was battling against IS in support of Assad.

        As far as Iraq was concerned, the predominant factor from Erdogan’s perspective was the Kurdish dimension. Kurdish Pashmerga troops were by far the most effective fighting force, scoring notable successes against IS. But the subsequent boost to Kurdish popularity within Turkey, to say nothing of the Kurds’ territorial gains, was far from Erdogan’s liking. Despite his earlier tentative steps towards some sort of accommodation with the substantial Kurdish minority within Turkey – an initiative which had faltered by the end of 2014 – Erdogan and much of the Turkish establishment remained deeply opposed to Kurdish demands for greater autonomy.

        Erdogan’s opposition to the Kurds, together with the fact that IS is unequivocally Sunni, led to suspicions that he was surreptitiously aiding IS by permitting foreign recruits to their ranks to enter Iraq by way of Turkey, and was actually funding IS by facilitating the sale of the oil they were extracting from fields captured during their territorial expansion.

        So when a fierce battle developed between the Kurdish Peshmerga and IS for the town of Kobani on the Turkish-Syrian border, it was no surprise that Erdogan refused to engage against IS. He was doubtless disappointed when the Kurds finally captured the town, for by then a political aspect to the game was looming domestically.

        This Kurdish success came just before Turkey began gearing itself for the general elections that were then central to Erdogan’s political aspirations. He was placing his hopes on a sweeping victory for his Justice and Development Party (AKP), to be followed by a new constitution that would vastly increase the power of the presidency. In anticipation of enhancing his popularity among his committed electorate, Erdogan turned his back on the peace pact he had made when prime minister with the PKK, the Kurdish militant organisation, and pushed through a security bill granting sweeping powers to the police.

        His ploy failed. The June election saw his AKP lose its overall majority, and the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) win 13 percent of the vote and gain parliamentary representation for the first time. The result has been a hung parliament, and eight weeks later the AKP has still not managed to form a coalition government. If no coalition appears before August 23, Turkey will have to hold an early election, most likely in the second half of November.

        Early elections will give Erdogan, who has been dubbed Turkey’s neo-Ottoman sultan-in-waiting, a renewed opportunity to achieve his ambition of one-party rule headed by an autocratic president. The HDP, on the other hand, would hope to consolidate, and improve on, the gains it made in June.

        It is against the backdrop of this internal political struggle that recent dramatic shifts in Erdogan’s foreign policy must be viewed.

        Erdogan had long been at the receiving end of US requests to use Turkey's Incerlik air base near Syria's northern border to facilitate its air-strikes against IS, and indeed for Turkey to join the US coalition. On July 22, choosing a singularly opportune moment, President Obama contacted Erdogan directly by phone. Two days earlier an IS suicide bomber killed 32 people in an attack in the Turkish town of Suruç, near the Syrian border. Intense pressure was building on Erdoğan to hit back.

        So the intra-presidential telephone conversation ended in an agreement that Turkey would stem the flow of foreign fighters to IS, secure Turkey’s border with Syria, join the air-strike operations, and allow the US the use of Turkey's Incerlik air base near Syria's northern border. But as with other arrangements involving President Obama, the deal was far from watertight. To change metaphors, the elephant in this particular room were the Kurds, the stalwart allies of the coalition.

        In Erdogan’s eyes, however, the Kurds present as large a threat to his long-term political ambitions as IS – probably larger. With an eye on early elections and the impact on his own AKP constituency, Erdogan is set on curtailing growing Kurdish power along Turkey's southern border. He wants to ensure that Kurdish gains in Iraq and in Syria do not encourage the revival in Kurdish fortunes demonstrated in the last election.

        So from the start Erdogan has combined Turkish air strikes against IS forces in Syria with attacks on the PKK in northern Iraq and its forces in south-eastern Turkey. Since the Kurdish Pershmerga troops have proved themselves IS’s most formidable opponents, the US and its coalition partners are justified in asking whose side Erdogan is really on. He attacks IS; he attacks IS’s most formidable opponents. The truth is, he wants to punish both – IS for its terrorist attacks inside Turkey; the Kurds for their resurgence in self-confidence and recent electoral success. So in effect, as a recent media comment has it, Erdogan is fighting for Erdogan and against anyone who puts him in a bad light.

        What game is Erdogan playing? The game of power politics – a game he dare not lose, for if he does his grandiose ambition to turn himself into a latter-day Ottoman Sultan, or Islamist Kemal Ataturk, will become nothing more than a footnote in the history of modern Turkey.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 14 August 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 14 August 2015:

Published in MPC Journal, 13 August 2015:

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Confronting Islamism

        This summer, as the British parliament take its annual break from business, civil servants are hard at work preparing an unprecedented assault on Islamist extremism. The UK’s Counter-Extremism Strategy, to be published in the autumn, will set out a detailed analysis of the threat posed by Islamism to the nation, and what the British government intends to do to combat it. This plan of campaign promises to be the first effort by a world power to tackle domestic Islamism head-on. There is to be no shilly-shallying around the nature of the danger facing Britain – and, by extension, the civilized world – nor the multi-faceted effort that needs to be taken to counter and conquer it.

        The groundwork for Britain’s forthcoming Counter-Extremism Strategy was laid in a seminal speech delivered on July 20 by the UK prime minister, David Cameron. Uniquely among world leaders who have spoken on this issue, Cameron addressed his Muslim co-citizens candidly. Without beating about the bush, he asserted that condemning violence was not enough. Too many ordinary decent Muslim citizens, he maintained, while thoroughly disapproving of violence, allowed themselves to be seduced by Islamism to the extent of subscribing to intolerant ideas which actively promote discrimination, sectarianism and segregation, thus fostering the very climate in which extremists can flourish. It was clear from what he said that Cameron places high on his list of “intolerant ideas” the mindless anti-Semitism that is endemic to Islamism.

        Also, said Cameron, ideas “based on conspiracy: that Jews exercise malevolent power; or that Western powers, in concert with Israel, are deliberately humiliating Muslims, because they aim to destroy Islam. In this warped worldview, such conclusions are reached – that 9/11 was actually inspired by Mossad to provoke the invasion of Afghanistan; that British security services knew about 7/7, but didn’t do anything about it because they wanted to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash.”

        Cameron pointed out that the backgrounds of those convicted of terrorist offences often reveal that they were first influenced by what some would call non-violent extremists.

        “It may begin,” he said, “with hearing about the so-called Jewish conspiracy, and then develop into hostility to the West and fundamental liberal values, before finally becoming a cultish attachment to death. Put another way, the extremist world view is the gateway, and violence is the ultimate destination.”

        The adherents of this ideology, he claimed, are overpowering other voices within the Muslim debate, especially those trying to challenge it.

        To counter this threat Britain intends to confront, head on, the extreme ideology that underpins Islamism – the cultish worldview, the conspiracy theories, and its malevolent appeal to the young and impressionable. The new strategy will involve exposing Islamist extremism for what it is – a belief system that glorifies violence and subjugates its people, not least Muslim people – and will contrast the bigotry, aggression and theocracy of Islamism with the liberal, democratic values that underlie the Western way of life.

        A key part of the subsequent action programme will be to tackle both the violent and the non-violent aspects of the creed. Cameron was clear that this would mean confronting groups and organisations that may not advocate violence, but which do promote other parts of the extremist narrative.

        “We’ve got to show that if you say ‘violence in London isn’t justified, but suicide bombs in Israel are a different matter’, then you too are part of the problem. Unwittingly or not,” he said, “and in a lot of cases it’s not unwittingly, you are providing succour to those who want to commit, or get others to commit to, violence.”

        He insisted that condemning a mass-murdering, child-raping organisation was not enough to prove that a person was challenging the extremists. The new strategy would demand that people also condemn the wild conspiracy theories, the anti-Semitism, and the sectarianism.

        Acknowledging the religious aspect of Islamist extremism has proved a stumbling block for many previous attempts to combat the problem. Britain’s Counter-Extremism Strategy will face the issue fairly and squarely. As Cameron pointed out, simply denying any connection between the religion of Islam and the extremists doesn’t work, because these extremists are self-identifying as Muslims.

        “They all spout the same twisted narrative, one that claims to be based on a particular faith. It is an exercise in futility to deny that. And more than that, it can be dangerous.”

        To deny that Islamism has anything to do with Islam, claimed Cameron, means that the critical reforming voices from within the faith are disempowered – religious heads who can challenge the scriptural basis on which extremists claim to be acting, and respected leaders who can provide an alternative worldview that could stop a teenager’s slide down the spectrum of extremism. The UK’s Counter-Extremism Strategy will empower, support and fund those individuals and organisations from within the Muslim community that are dedicated to countering extreme Islamism and its nihilistic philosophy. 

        Although an independent Counter-Extremist Project has been running in the US for the past year, and a European counterpart, CEP Europe, was launched in Brussels on June 29, the only government to have grasped the nettle is the UK’s. Britain alone seems to have taken on board the extent of the threat facing the civilized world, to have analysed the issues coolly and hard-headedly, and to be in the process of devising a comprehensive strategy for countering it. In short, the UK is seizing the initiative in the major struggle of our times – a war to the death between a liberal way of life, rooted in parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, and those intent on destroying those values and substituting their own narrow and extremist version of sharia, not shared by the majority of the world’s Muslims.

        It is a war the world can, must, and surely will, win.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 6 August 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 9 August 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 7 August 2015:

Friday, 31 July 2015

Who's in favour of a Middle East peace conference?

          For nearly fifty years the accepted mantra has been that only direct face-to-face negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians can yield a mutually acceptable settlement. That formula has been tested to destruction.

           It founders on two jagged obstacles. One is the basic Palestinian ethos, consistently promulgated through the media and in the classroom, that the very presence of Israel is anathema. All political parties subscribe to the aim of eventually regaining Mandate Palestine complete, “from the river to the sea”. Hamas and Fatah differ only on the method by which this desirable objective is to be achieved. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel at all and champions the armed struggle; Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA), chooses to give lip-service to the concept of the two-state solution – but only as a first step towards the final goal. But no PA leader dare take that first step and sign a peace agreement with Israel. The political backlash would be too great, and he would be lucky to escape with his life.

          So however close in their direct negotiations with Israel Yasser Arafat, and later Mahmoud Abbas, came to achieving a fully-fledged sovereign Palestine, actually signing off on an agreement proved a step too far. The Oslo Accords of the early 1990s, the Camp David negotiations of 2000, the intensive wheeling and dealing of 2007 – all finally came to naught.

          The second apparently insurmountable barrier follows from this: the maximum that Israel is able to offer in face-to-face negotiations is less than the minimum the Palestinians are able to accept – whatever that minimum, if it exists, may be.

          In short, direct bargaining between Israel and the Palestinians is a busted flush. Is there a viable alternative route leading away from a bleak future of endless conflict?

          Yair Lapid, chairman of Israel's Yesh Atid party, believes : “The only way to achieve the two-state solution is to give up on direct talks and manage the negotiations through a regional conference supported by the United States.” His idea has been gathering support from members of Israel's Labor, Likud, Yisrael Beytenu, Kulanu and Meretz parties.

          Its rationale is that the Palestinian leadership alone is incapable of making the compromises needed to reach a deal with Israel, especially regarding Israel’s security. The PA, political writer Dov Lipman recently maintained, can and will make the necessary compromises only in the context of a regional solution in which Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states give it the backing – or force it – to do so. The motivation for these “moderate” states to pressure the Palestinians has, Lipman maintains, increased significantly following the completion of the Iranian deal, which emphasises their community of interest with Israel in confronting extremist Islam in the form of a potentially nuclear armed Iran, and with Islamic State (IS) spreading across the region.

          It may come as a revelation to some that the idea of a broadly-based peace conference is backed by Israel’s prime minister. In his address to the UN General Assembly on September 24, 2014, Benjamin Netanyahu advanced the concept of a working alliance between Israel and those Arab states opposed to militant Islamists in general, and IS and Iran in particular.

          “After decades of seeing Israel as their enemy,” he declared, “leading states in the Arab world increasingly recognize that, together, we and they face many of the same dangers. Principally this means a nuclear-armed Iran and militant Islamist movements gaining ground in the Sunni world. Our challenge is to transform these common interests to create a productive partnership – one that would build a more secure, peaceful and prosperous Middle East.”

          He was on thin ice.  However willing some Arab governments may be to enter into a recognised relationship with Israel, they would find difficulty in carrying popular opinion with them. Netanyahu of course understands this, but he soldiered on, in effect inviting the active involvement of Arab countries into the peace process.

          “Many have long assumed that an Israeli-Palestinian peace can help facilitate a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world. But these days I think it may work the other way around – namely that a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

          To achieve that peace, he asserted, not only Jerusalem and Ramallah need be involved, but also Cairo, Amman, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and elsewhere.

          This position is not so very far from the initiative recently announced by France. As a former colonial power, France has long seen itself as a possible facilitator of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. As far back as August 2009, when newly-elected US President Obama was clearly eager to relaunch peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, French President Nicolas Sarkozy offered to host an international conference to facilitate the peace process, going so far as to issue invitations to leaders from concerned countries, including Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria.

          In January 2010, as Obama’s efforts to bring the parties to the negotiating table were inching their painful way forward, Sarkozy repeated his offer. The concept of a Paris-located international conference reappeared last December, when France took the lead in drafting a Security Council resolution outlining proposals for an Israeli-Palestinian final-status deal. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius played the same tune, with minor variations, in his recent visit to the Middle East – a French-led initiative to reboot the peace process, with backing from an “international support group” formed by the EU, Arab nations and UN Security Council members.

          More recently, Paris seems to be having second thoughts about the resolution, though not about a possible conference. Having met with Fabius in Cairo, PA foreign
minister Fiyad al-Maliki, speaking on Voice of Palestine radio on July 7, said: “I can say that the idea of the French draft resolution in the Security Council is not a main topic for decision makers in France anymore.” However, said Maliki, still uppermost in their minds was a negotiations support committee comprised of representatives of the UN Security Council, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

          As for the possible US reaction to this French initiative, President Obama is holding his cards close to his chest, but some remember the rumours of April 2013 – never wholly quashed – that the US favoured a multi-national peace conference. Given Netanyahu’s own words on the concept, Washington and Jerusalem may be preparing a somewhat surprising response.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 3 August 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 2 August 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 3 August 2015:

Friday, 24 July 2015

The sovereign state of Palestine that never was

           “What if” is a fascinating game.  It forces you to use your imagination, think round a subject, probe possibilities, consider options.

On July 11, 2000, Israel’s prime minister Ehud Barak, and Palestinian Authority (PA) chairman Yasser Arafat, met at Camp David under the chairmanship of US president, Bill Clinton. Their declared aim was to reach agreement on all outstanding issues between Israel and the Palestinians – a so-called final status settlement.  The summit ended on July 25 without a settlement. 

What if the negotiations had proved successful?  TV archives would hold pictures of Barak and Arafat shaking hands, backed by a beaming Bill Clinton and we could be marking July 25, 2015 as the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of an independent, sovereign state of Palestine.

What sort of Palestine would it have been?

No official records exist of the final position of the two parties, and the unofficial accounts differ in important respects.  So some guesswork and a little creative imagination are called for. 

An agreement would probably have been on the basis of the final set of recommendations (known as the “Clinton Parameters”) formally put to the two principals in January 2001.  Israel accepted the plan in principle, the Palestinians did not.

What if they had done so? Well, a sovereign state of Palestine would now control 97 percent of the West Bank plus a Gaza Strip larger by roughly a third, to compensate for the 3 per cent of the West Bank absorbed into Israel.  Israel would have withdrawn from 63 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, all of which would have passed into Palestinian hands, and Palestinian territory on the West Bank would be contiguous, with no cantons. The West Bank would be linked with Gaza by both an elevated highway and an elevated railroad running through the Negev.

Sovereign Palestine would have as its capital a new municipality– Al Quds.  The boundaries of Jerusalem would have been re-drawn. Al-Quds would incorporate Arab neighbourhoods previously inside Jerusalem's boundaries, together with adjacent regions such as Abu Dis, el-Azaria, Beit Jala, Anata and A-Ram.  In the Old City the Palestinian state would have religious autonomy over the Temple Mount, while the Muslim and Christian quarters, though also autonomous, would remain under formal Israeli sovereignty.

The new Palestine would by now have become home to hundreds of thousands of refugees, all with the right of return to the Palestinian state.  Those returning would have received reparations from a $30 billion international fund set up specifically to compensate them.

How different might the events of the past fifteen years have been? 

There would, of course, have been no second intifada – which means there would have been no sudden increase in terrorist attacks inside Israel, and therefore no need for Israel’s security fence or wall. 

Yasser Arafat maintained a firm grip on Palestinian politics.  What he said for Arab consumption differed pretty radically from his public utterances in English, or his stance on the world stage. For example, Arafat had told an Arab audience in Stockholm in 1996, ‘We plan to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian state. We will make life unbearable for Jews by psychological warfare and population explosion… We Palestinians will take over everything, including all of Jerusalem.’ 

Arafat’s colleague Faisal al-Husseini was even more explicit.  He described the Oslo process as a ‘Trojan Horse’ designed to promote the strategic goal of ‘Palestine from the river to the sea’ in short, replacing Israel with Palestine.

Fully aware of Arafat’s real agenda, Hamas would have had little incentive to oppose a settlement approved by him.  So there would have been no take-over of Gaza by Hamas, and therefore no indiscriminate firing of rockets on Israeli citizens and no Israeli response in the form of operations Cast Lead, Pillar of Defense or Protective Edge. There would have been no naval blockade of Gaza by Israel.  Accordingly, there would have been no “freedom flotilla”, and no Mavi Marmara incident – no death of nine Turkish citizens, and perhaps no freezing of Turkish-Israeli relations in consequence.

There would, of course, have been no need for any attempt to secure recognition by the United Nations for a sovereign Palestine, for by now Palestine would have long been a fully-fledged UN member.  Palestine would have followed Serbia into membership (they joined in November 2000), and beaten East Timor (September 2002).

Would the new sovereign Palestine have become a base for terrorist attacks on Israel, in pursuit of Arafat’s stated long-term aim – or would shorter-term political and economic realities have exerted their logic?  Would self-interest have dictated that the fledgling state co-operate industrially, commercially, economically, militarily, even culturally, with its nearest, flourishing neighbor?  By now, would Palestine be thriving under mutually advantageous treaties not only with Israel, but perhaps also with Jordan and Egypt?  In fact, would a sovereign Palestine by now be cultivating a prospering economy and be well on the way to becoming part of the developed world?   Who may say?  It is certainly a possible scenario.

One school of historical thought tends to reject “what if” hypotheses.  It maintains there is a sort of inevitability attached to major historical events regardless of possible minor variations. On this reading, Arafat’s death in 2004 would have resulted in Mahmoud Abbas being elected President of Palestine, but his attempt to form a national unity government would still have foundered on the Fatah-Hamas split. Hamas would still have taken over Gaza, and subsequent events would not have been very different.  With the objective of ousting Israel entirely from the Middle East, the rockets would still have been fired, Israel would have had to respond and we might well have found ourselves pretty much where we stand in July 2015. That is another, if overly pessimistic, possibility.

But only consider the wasted opportunity of that 2000 Camp David negotiation, and all the avoidable death and destruction over the past fifteen years, both Palestinian and Israeli. So felicitous a concatenation of circumstances from the Palestinian point of view is unlikely to present itself again in the foreseeable future.  The political wheel has turned. 

So we are unable to wish a sovereign Palestine “Happy 15th Anniversary”.  Fifteen years ago the Palestinian leadership, not for the first time, signally failed to recognize this truth, expressed so felicitously by William Shakespeare:
 “There is a tide in the affairs of men,
  Which, taken at the flood leads on to fortune:
  Omitted, all the voyage of their life
          Is bound in shallows and in miseries."

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 24 July 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 July 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 24 July 2015: