Friday, 25 July 2014

Egypt and Israel - allies at last?

Ever since the treaty signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, way back in March 1979, Egyptian-Israeli relations have been somewhat equivocal.  The widely-used term “cold peace” seemed most apt to describe them.  Over the years neither the Egyptian public, nor its various leaders, have exhibited a great deal of enthusiasm for a genuine friendship with Israel.  Yet, through thick and thin, the peace treaty has held.

Its main features, drawn up following Sadat’s historic visit to Israel in 1977, were cessation of the state of war that had existed since 1948, Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula  captured during the 1967 Six-Day War, mutual recognition, and normalization of relations.

So ambassadors were exchanged, Egypt repealed its boycott laws, trade began to develop, regular airline flights were inaugurated. Egypt also began supplying Israel with crude oil, and as part of the agreement, the US began a program of economic and military aid which over the years has subsidized Egypt’s armed forces by literally billions of dollars.

But there is no gain without pain, and Egypt certainly paid a price for the benefits it won through the treaty.  The Arab world condemned it root and branch, and Egypt was suspended from the Arab League for ten years.  And, of course, Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by members of the Egyptian Islamic jihad.

The revolution in Egypt in 2011, which resulted in the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak and the election of a Muslim Brotherhood parliament and president in Mohamed Morsi, led some influential voices within Egypt to call for the treaty with Israel to be abrogated.  Although the call was not heeded, and the new government soon announced that it would continue to abide by all its international and regional treaties, the Egyptian-Israeli relationship had been decidedly shaken.  

As far as Hamas, the de facto government in Gaza, was concerned, the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during 2012-2013 was a golden age.  Missiles and massive quantities of ammunition moved through the tunnels dug between Egypt and Gaza, along with the materials needed to manufacture armaments.

Egypt’s second revolution a year later, which replaced Morsi with President Fattah el-Sisi, has given the kaleidoscope a good shake.  Sisi, clearly a believer in smiting his enemies hip and thigh, has declared total war against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and by extension its offshoot Hamas in Gaza.  Within Egypt Sisi has been ruthless in rooting out Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters; as far as Gaza in concerned, he shut down the crossing at Rafah through which armaments once flowed from Egypt, and has destroyed more than a thousand tunnels running under the Egypt-Gaza border which were the hidden conduit for shipments of armaments and other supplies that Hamas could not obtain from Israel. He has, moreover, designated Hamas a terrorist organization.

As respected Arab journalist Khaled Abu Taomeh recently reported, Sisi's Egypt has not forgiven Hamas for its involvement in terrorist attacks against Egyptian civilians and soldiers over the past year, while many Egyptians today understand that Hamas and other radical Islamist groups pose a serious threat to their national security. As a result a growing number of Egyptian public and media figures have actually been voicing support for the Israeli military operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

"Thank you Netanyahu,” wrote Azza Sami of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, “and may God give us more like you to destroy Hamas!"

Addressing the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, Egyptian actor Amr Mustafa told them not to expect any help from the Egyptians. "You must get rid of Hamas,” he said, “and we will help you."

Egyptian ex-general Hamdi Bakhit was quoted as expressing the hope that Israel would re-occupy the Gaza Strip.

On a recent TV program Egyptian presenter Amany al-Khayat launched a scathing attack on Hamas.  "Hamas is prepared to make all the residents of the Gaza Strip pay a heavy price in order to rid itself of its crisis,” she said. “We must not forget that Hamas is the armed branch of the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist movement."

In 2013, a significant chunk of the Egyptian media, in total support of government policy, called for the Muslim Brotherhood’s “liquidation”. These Egyptian journalists link Hamas to ongoing violence in the Sinai Peninsula where in the last 12 months, armed Islamist groups have attacked Egyptian security forces on an almost daily basis. They see the neutralisation of Hamas as crucial to winning Egypt’s undeclared war in the Sinai Peninsula.

Egypt's leading cable channel, CBC, described what was happening in Gaza as "Israeli air force targeting terrorist sites." Meanwhile, Hayat al-Dardiri, a controversial presenter of the Faraeen Cable Channel said on-air that the "Egyptian people will not accept anything less than a strike by Egypt's military to destroy Hamas" ­ a remark which comes remarkably close to declaring the need for a military alliance with Israel.

On July 15 Israel accepted a deal proposed by Egypt that would halt the conflict in the Gaza Strip, but Hamas rejected the plan as "unacceptable".  Its spokesman said the Islamist group had not received an official draft of the proposal, and added that in any case the conditions Hamas has set must be met before it lays down its weapons.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is intent on achieving a cease-fire by further negotiation, but has so far come up hard against President Sisi’s determination to give no further ground to Hamas. The only flexibility Egypt has been willing to display was its statement that any change in the proposal’s wording would require the agreement of “all sides.”

As commentator Zvi Bar’el has noted, this formulation reveals the close cooperation between Israel and Egypt. Not everything Israel wants will necessarily be acceptable to Egypt, but it seems that Sisi isn’t too upset over the prospect of Israel continuing its military operation in Gaza. Meanwhile Sisi is testing his strength against other would-be mediators, especially Turkey with whose prime minister (and would-be president) Recep Tayyip  Erdogan, a vicious critic of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, he is at daggers drawn.

In fact three rival groups are in a tug-of-war over a ceasefire initiative.  First are the US and UN; second are Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia; and thirdly Qatar, Turkey and Hamas. On July 21, US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Cairo to press their case. Sisi told them he would not amend his original ceasefire proposal to suit Hamas’ demands. Israel has reserved its response, needing time for the IDF to accomplish its counter-terror mission in the Gaza Strip.

Egypt and Israel have never seemed closer in purpose.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 28 July 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 25 July 2014:

Friday, 18 July 2014


November 1944.  World War Two is moving towards its close, and an Allied victory is assured.  From Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), a document is issued setting forth one of the major war aims of the United Nations ­ the de-Nazification of Germany.
“It is the declared war aim of the United Nations to extirpate both Nazism and militarism in Germany”, reads the introductory paragraph.  The document proceeds to set out the objectives, which in brief were to destroy the Nazi Party, its political organizations and government agencies; to purge  and re-organize  the police; and to dismiss from government offices and other position of influence all active Nazis, their sympathisers and leading military figures. Very shortly after the end of the war, the programme was set in train. 

Why was it done?  Because Nazism, with its wild-eyed philosophy of Aryan racial superiority, its virulent anti-semitism, its brutal disregard for human rights, its cynical manipulation of the law to serve its own ends, was seen as a virus that had infected the German state and its population, and had to be eliminated.

The programme was fraught with enormous difficulties.  It was only made possible because the Allies had won total victory and extracted an unconditional surrender from Germany.

Hamas is an extremist military organization that shares much of the Nazi philosophy. It is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose leaders in the 1930s and 1940s not only supported, but were actively involved in carrying through, the Nazi’s ”Final Solution to the Jewish problem” – the Holocaust.

As Professor David Patterson demonstrates in a recent article, the jihadists’ virulent hatred of Jews can be traced back to three founding fathers of Sunni extremism: Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, jihadist ideologue Sayyd Quth, and the leader of the Palestinian Arabs from the 1920s to the 1940s, the Jerusalem mufti Hajj Amin Husseini.

Al-Banna was an open admirer of Hitler and Nazi methods of anti-semitic propaganda; modern jihadists take their lead from him.  They not only repeatedly quote the long-discredited forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as proof of a world-wide Jewish conspiracy, but deny the Holocaust.

Sayyd Quth followed the Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg in arguing that all Jews were evil and must be annihilated.  The Nazis contended that Jews were poisoning the Aryan race; Quth provided an Islamist slant by asserting that Jews were “by nature determined to fight God’s truth and sow corruption and confusion.” Just like the Nazis, he argued, the jihadists must eliminate this source of evil that threatens all humanity. In short, hatred of Jews and their extermination is obligatory for Muslims, as it was for Nazis.

The Sunni jihadist who more than any other espoused the Nazis’ loathing of Jews, and their aim of exterminating them, was Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the one-time mufti of Jerusalem. “He who kills a Jew is assured of a place in the next world” was his rallying cry to the Arabs of Palestine in 1929, when they rose against the British mandate government and went on a frenzy of killing.

Just two months after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Husseini met the Nazi general consul in Jerusalem, Heinrich Wolff, and arranged for the Nazis to provide support for the Muslim Brotherhood. He later indicated that the Arab revolt that he instigated in 1936, starting with rioting against the Jews of Jaffa, was engineered with the help of the Nazis.

In October 1937, shortly after the Peel Commission had recommended partition as the best way to resolve the Arab-Jewish conflict, Husseini had his first meeting with Adolf Eichmann head of the Gestapo’s Department of Jewish Affairs. By November 1941 he was in Germany, conferring with Hitler. Before the end of the year, Husseini again met Eichmann, now responsible for carrying out the “Final Solution”. Eichmann’s deputy later stated that the mufti was directly involved in its initiation and execution, and in advising Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS and its architect.

            On 2 November 1943, at a rally in the Luftwaffe Hall in Berlin, Husseini declared, “The Germans know how to get rid of the Jews. They have definitely solved the Jewish problem. [This makes] our friendship with Germany permanent and lasting…”  In a series of broadcasts, he proclaimed that there are “considerable similarities between Islamic principles and those of National Socialism.” He enjoined Muslims to “kill the Jews wherever you find them.”

As the war turned against Germany, Husseini began to fear that it might end before the extermination of the Jews could be accomplished. He wrote to Himmler twice, urging greater speed in completing the enterprise.

Exemplified by Hamas, the modern jihadist movement has remained faithful to its origins. The Hamas charter expands on the theme of the God-approved duty of every Muslim to kill Jews. A good Muslim mother must prepare her children for the fighting that awaits them, for, as article 28 asserts: “The Zionist invasion of the world…[aims] at undermining societies, destroying values…and annihilating Islam.  Israel, Judaism and Jews challenge Islam and the Muslim people.”

The essential pre-requisite for a de-Hamasification programme in the Gaza strip would be a decisive victory by Israel following a ground invasion, but also a well-conceived, comprehensive and fully worked-out plan, prepared and ready to put into execution.  Only half the necessary elements were in place when the de-Ba’athification programme was initiated in Iraq back in May 2003 by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). The goal was to remove the Ba'ath Party's influence in the new Iraqi political system, and accordingly all public sector employees affiliated with the Ba'ath Party were removed from their positions and banned from future employment in the public sector. The policy was less than fully successful mainly because the CPA had no plans in place to fill the vacuum in administration it had created.  The policy was officially rescinded a year later, but the current problems afflicting the Iraqi government are partly ascribable to a continuation of the anti-Sunni programme under the Shia prime minister, Nouri al-Malaki.

The de-Ba’athification exercise is an object lesson in how not to proceed in the case of Gaza.  In any case the current conflict may not provide the opportunity to initiate a de-Hamasification programme. International pressure to agree a cease-fire may pre-empt a complete Israeli victory. A cease-fire would, however, simply provide a breathing space allowing Hamas to regroup and re-arm in preparation for the next encounter.

Limited conflicts followed by ineffective cease-fires cannot go on for ever. If not on this occasion, the time will eventually arrive when Israel will be forced to undertake an all-out effort aimed at achieving a decisive victory over Hamas.  That is when it should seize the opportunity to purge the malevolent Hamas philosophy root and branch, extirpate its Nazi-based anti-Jew, anti-Judaism and anti-Israel ideology from within the Palestinian body politic, and dislodge its leaders and adherents from their positions of power within Gaza.

Published in the Jeruslem Post on-line, 21 July 2014:
Published in the Eurasia Review, 18 July 2014:

Saturday, 12 July 2014

A goal for Gaza: régime change

           History has a habit of repeating itself.  Everyone seems to agree on that.  But circumstances are never exactly the same, and the outcome of apparently parallel events can never be accurately predicted.

            Since Hamas seized power in Gaza in 2007, it has provoked conflict with Israel on three separate occasions – in 2008, in 2012 and now again in July 2014.  Each episode was initiated in precisely the same way – an escalation of rocket attacks into Israel to such an extent that, in order to protect its citizens, Israel felt obliged to respond.  History, in short, repeating itself.  But the circumstances each time have varied – and though Hamas emerged from its two previous adventures with discernible benefits, both materially and in terms of its public relations, there is no guarantee that it will do so on this occasion, and every reason for Israel ensuring that it does not.

            Israel launched its military campaign codenamed Operation "Cast Lead" on December 27, 2008.  Beginning with an intense bombardment  targeting Hamas bases, training camps and civilian buildings used as storage for weapons and rockets, a few days later it moved on to a ground invasion. Extensively covered in the world’s media, the pictures of civilian casualties evoked a massive criticism of the Israeli operation.  The Muslim world proclaimed it a “Gaza massacre”, a cry taken up by a variety of organisations. When fighting came to an end, Hamas emerged with its reputation in the Arab world substantially enhanced, while Israel’s reputation generally had suffered.  

            There were some practical benefits for Israel from the ceasefire, for it certainly provided relief for a period from the rocket bombardment.  As for Hamas, it afforded time to re-equip itself in preparation for the next encounter – which duly arrived in November 2012. 

Responding to the ever-bolder and more frequent rocket attacks directed indiscriminately into the country from within the Gaza strip, Israel’s seven-day incursion codenamed Pillar of Defense started on November 27.  For eight days Hamas stood in the centre of the world stage conducting the “armed struggle” against Israel, and finally it was Hamas, as one of the two principals, which agreed the ceasefire terms negotiated under the auspices of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi.  The result – a self-declared “victory” − greatly increased Hamas’s prestige in Palestinian popular opinion.

            Yet this was not quite history repeating itself.  On this occasion Israel did not face the near-universal condemnation that it had suffered during and after the Cast Lead operation.  World opinion generally acknowledged the extreme provocation that had led to Pillar of Defense, and the restraint exercised by the Israel Defense Forces in conducting the operation. 

            And now, for the third time, Hamas has engineered a military encounter with Israel, relying on the same provocation as in the past.  Israel has responded with its Operation Protective Edge.  But this time Hamas is starting from a position of unprecedented weakness. During the previous operations, it was firmly allied with Hezbollah, Syria and Iran as part of the “axis of resistance” against Israel and the West. Hamas could replenish its stockpile of rockets using an established supply system emanating from Iran and Syria.

Today, the Syrian civil war has fragmented the old alliance.  In the early days of the conflict Hamas – a Sunni extremist organization allied to the Muslim Brotherhood ­­– opposed Syria’s President Bashar Assad, and was accordingly expelled from Damascus. It is also doctrinally opposed to Iran’s Shia confederation, which is supporting the Assad régime.  Even though the Iranians speak out in favour of Hamas, the old relationship under which Iran supplied unlimited quantities of sophisticated long-range rockets is under strain.  Meanwhile, the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo means that Egypt now has a régime with no qualms about sealing off Gaza, destroying the tunnels that used to supply a ceaseless flow of goods, or cooperating with Israel, particularly in countering terrorism emanating from the Sinai.

Even Hamas’s newly-forged alliance with Fatah is now virtually a cipher.  PA President Mahmoud Abbas unequivocally condemned the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers, and is cooperating with Israel in seeking the perpetrators.  Meanwhile, if Hamas had hoped that the deal with Fatah would provide the wherewithal to pay its 42,000 employees, those expectations were quickly dashed.  The seven-month overdue salaries never arrived, and banks had to be closed against the fury of its customers.  In short, Hamas is more isolated than ever before.

Moreover it is apparent that Hamas is expending its store of missiles to little effect.  Israel’s state-of-the-art defences against rocket attack are more effective than ever before. The 200 or more rockets so far fired from within Gaza into Israel have either been destroyed in mid-air, or – through the Iron Dome’s sophisticated tracking devices – been allowed to fall and explode in open ground.

Moreover, Western media coverage of the conflict, at least in its early stages, has been noticeable by its comparative restraint in describing the Israeli operation, even compared to the media response to “Pillar of Defense”.  Israel’s pin-point targeting of military installations and of individual Hamas leaders has resulted in a reasonably balanced picture emerging of its military operations – and, indeed, of the unhappy effects on Gazan civilians in general and some Palestinian families in particular.  Most news coverage has taken care to describe also the effect on Israeli civilians of being under constant fire from Hamas’s rockets.

So the question is whether this time Hamas has made a major miscalculation.  Starting from a position of comparative weakness, it may have hoped to boost its popularity with the Palestinian man or woman in the street, perhaps with an eye to the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.  On this occasion, however, especially with a somewhat more understanding world watching, it would be neither necessary nor wise for Israel simply to call a halt to its military operations before it gains some sort of unequivocal victory over Hamas.

If “unequivocal victory” requires further definition, it should mean removing the Hamas administration entirely – régime change, in short.  Since the régime in question is unequivocally illegal, the result of a coup d’état mounted against the legitimate Palestinian government democratically elected in 2006, little justification would be needed in doing so.

            There is a potential downside.  Active in Gaza are Sunni jihadists especially groups in sympathy with the newly-renamed Islamic State ready and willing to extend their grip on the Muslim world.  If Israel succeeds in knocking out Hamas in Gaza, it must be ready to counter any such move.  It must ensure that the Palestinian Authority, shorn of its newly-acquired Hamas partners,  moves in and brings the whole of the Gaza strip under its control.  An outcome along these lines might conceivably set the scene for an eventual renewal of realistic peace talks.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 14 July 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 14 July 2014:

Sunday, 6 July 2014

ISIS becomes IS

ISIS is an acronym that has become all too familiar in the past year.  It stands for the “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” (al-Sham meaning the historical Levant, including both Syria and Lebanon), and refers to the Islamist military organization, founded in 2013, and operating in Iraq and northern Syria. But events move fast in the Middle East, and it seems that ISIS has outlived its usefulness.

ISIS started life as an offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq.  In the early days, it called itself simply the “Islamic State of Iraq.”   When its founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in a targeted strike by the US Air Force in June 2006, into his shoes stepped Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Zarqawi had been the most brutal of al-Qaida's leaders, responsible for a succession of mass suicide bombings and highly publicised beheadings, videoed and posted online. Baghdadi adopted the same approach in his fanatical opposition to any attempt to impose law, order and a democratic framework upon the disrupted state of Iraq.

But Baghdadi had a wider vision for the militant organization he led and, indeed, for his own future.  In 2013 he announced that he intended to merge his “Islamic State of Iraq” with the main al-Qaida force in Syria under Jabhat Al-Nusra, which was fighting the Assad regime alongside other rebel groups. He proclaimed that his organization would henceforth be called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).  The overweening ambition that lay behind that title sent shivers down the spines of the al-Qaida leadership, and Baghdadi’s move interpreted as a bid for supreme power within the jihadist cause was rejected. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's head since the death of Osama bin Laden, renounced Baghdadi and dissociated al-Qaida from ISIS and its activities.

Since then, in addition to the civil conflict between Syria’s President Assad and the Sunni forces opposed to his regime, there has been a second Sunni civil war fought across northern Syria between ISIS on the one hand and Jabhat Al-Nusra and other rebel groups on the other.  This conflict is undoubtedly being won by Baghdadi who, in the space of a year, has become the most powerful jihadi leader in the world.  Living up to the intention inherent in its name, ISIS simply ignored the border between Iraq and northern Syria, and swept across to capture territory extending from the city of Aleppo in northwestern Syria, to Diyala province in northeastern Iraq. At the end of June 2014 his forces captured Mosul, the northern capital of Iraq, and were threatening Baghdad.

It is a measure of Baghdadi's success and personal charisma that ISIS has become the jihadi organization of choice for thousands of foreign would-be fighters who have flocked to his banner. In the areas of Syria that it controls, it has set up courts, schools and other services, flying its black jihadi flag everywhere. At the same time Baghdadi  has maintained his policy of extreme brutality.  Crucifixions, beheadings and amputations mark the ruthless progress of ISIS across Syria and Iraq.

Then, on June 29 – the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan – Baghdadi felt emboldened enough to take a giant step towards achieving a degree of power and status for himself and his organization beyond the wildest dreams of most jihadi leaders.  In an audio recording the group, formerly known as ISIS, announced that it was henceforth to be known as the "Islamic State", and that its head, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was now "the caliph and leader for Muslims everywhere".  Moreover, declared the group's spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, “the legality of all emirates, groups, states and organisations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph's authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas.  Support your state, which grows every day.''
          An official document, released in English and several other languages, urges Muslims to "gather around your caliph, so that you may return as you once were for ages, kings of the earth and knights of war."

What is a caliphate?  Effectively an Islamic republic led by one leader, regardless of national boundaries.  Ataturk's abolition of the caliphate on March 3, 1924, has long been seen as the end of the last line of caliphs, but Muslim extremists have long dreamed of recreating the Islamic state, or caliphate, that ruled over the Middle East, much of North Africa and beyond in various forms over the course of Islam's 1,400-year history.  So the announcement of June 29, 2014 is couched in terms of ending a century-long calamity ­ namely the break-up of the Islamic Middle East into artificial sovereign states following the first World War and as marking the return of dignity and honour to the Islamic umma.

The caliph is historically supposed to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad's Quraysh tribe in Arabia. Since becoming leader of ISIS, Baghdadi has been claiming precisely that lineage – a claim widely disputed. In his announcement the new IS spokesman, Adnani, reiterated Baghdadi's claim and his intention henceforth to use his real name, Ibrahim, as caliph.

The reaction of other Muslim groups, bodies and leaders, both moderate and extreme,  to this unprecedented exercise in arrogance and self-aggrandisement can well be imagined.  Abdel-Rahman al-Shami, a spokesman for the Army of Islam in Syria, poured scorn on the announcement.

“The gangs of al-Baghdadi are living in a fantasy world. They’re delusional. They want to establish a state but they don’t have the elements for it. You cannot establish a state through looting, sabotage and bombing.”

The spokesman of the Grand Mufti of Egypt dismissed the new caliphate as an "illusion". "What they called the Islamic caliphate is merely a response to the chaos which has happened in Iraq as a direct result of the inflammation of sectarian conflict in the entire region."

This is no doubt true, but it scarcely serves to counter facts on the ground.  On July 3, Baghdadi’s forces captured Syria's largest oil field from rival Islamist fighters, the Al-Nusra Front. Facing no resistance, it took control of the al-Omar oil field, giving the Islamic State access to crude reserves, and the considerable financial assets they represent.

Meanwhile Baghdadi’s “delusions” – which are comparable to those of Napoleon or Adolf Hitler – seem to know no bounds.  On July 2 the new, self-anointed caliph and supreme leader of Islam, declared that Muslims should flock to the new caliphate.  “Syria is not for Syrians,” he proclaimed, “and Iraq is not for Iraqis. The land is for the Muslims, all Muslims.”  Follow his advice, he said, and “you will conquer Rome and own the world."

Not the happiest of prospects either for Rome or, indeed, the world.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 7 July 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 July 2014:

Saturday, 28 June 2014

The Kurds and Israel: Straws in the wind

Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, a proud and independent nation lived and thrived in its own land in the heart of the Middle East.  Throughout the ages, although subject to many foreign invasions, this people refused to be integrated with their various conquerors and retained their distinctive culture.  At the start of the First World War, their country was a small part of the Ottoman empire.  Afterwards, in shaping the future Middle East, the Western powers, in particular the United Kingdom, promised to act as guarantors of this people’s freedom.  It was a promise subsequently broken.

The broad outlines of this story may sound familiar, but no, it is not the Jewish people or Israel being described.  It is the long, convoluted and unresolved history of the Kurds.  Yet events have conspired to bring the Kurdish and the Jewish people into an embryonic relationship that might yet develop into a new political force in the Middle East.

The Kurds are an ethnic group who have historically inhabited a distinct geographical area flanked by mountain ranges, once referred to as Kurdistan.  No such location is depicted on current maps, and the old Kurdistan now falls within the sovereign space of four separate states.  Even so, the area is still recognizable, and the people who inhabit it still consider themselves Kurds.

It is certainly an odd, indeed unique, situation.  What was once Kurdistan, together with all its 30-plus million inhabitants, is currently divided between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.  Most Kurds live within Turkey’s borders, but Kurds form the largest minority in Syria, while within Iraq they have developed a near autonomous state. 

     As for Turkey, more than 40,000 people have been killed in the three-decade conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish independence movement, the PKK. Comprising about 20% of Turkey's 77 million population, fractious Kurds have long been a pressing political problem for Turkey.  But on June 25, 2014 Turkey's government took its first concrete step in an effort to secure peace with its Kurdish population, seeking to advance talks ahead of elections in August, when Erdogan will doubtless become the country's first directly elected president. Even though Erdogan is seeking the Kurdish vote, there is no possibility of Turkish Kurds being granted any form of autonomy. It may seem paradoxical, but Erdogan strongly supports Kurdish independence in Iraq mainly, one suspects, because he would prefer a weakened and divided Iraq on his doorstep to a strong unified state.

As for the rest of historic Kurdistan, the current turmoil within the Middle East has provided the Kurds an unexpected opportunity to reassert their long-suppressed yearning to rule themselves.  There is a surprising sub-text to this upsurge in Kurdish self-confidence    growing indications that the Kurdish leadership is anxious for a close and friendly working relationship with Israel.

Kurdish nationalism emerged with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, largely as a reaction to the secular nationalism that revolutionized Turkey under Mustafa Kemal in the 1920s.  The first of many violent uprisings occurred in 1923 and, after 20 more years of struggle, Mullah Mustafa Barzani emerged as the figurehead for Kurdish separatism. He helped set up a Kurdish Republic (KDP) in Iran in 1946, but this was crushed by the Iranian army and he was forced into exile.

When the monarchy in Iraq was overthrown in 1958, Barzani returned but, just two years later, after another uprising, his KDP was broken up by the Iraqi government.  A peace deal between the government of Iraq and the Kurdish rebels was eventually signed in 1970, granting recognition of their language and self-rule, though clashes over control of the oil-rich area around Kirkuk continued.

When Barzani died in 1979, the leadership of the KDP passed to his son, Masoud.  But a new – and, as it turned out, rival – force had emerged in Kurdish politics with the founding by Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).  During the Iran-Iraq War, which began in 1980, the KDP sided with the Iranians against Saddam Hussein and helped launch an offensive from the north. In retribution Saddam ordered the notorious poison gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, during which some 5,000 civilians were massacred.

Later, during the 1990s, the KDP and the PUK fought a bitter civil war for control of the Kurdish-dominated parts of northern Iraq. Finally, in 1998, Barzani of the KDP and Talabani of the PUK agreed a peace treaty and signed a joint leadership deal.  Eventually the two organizations established a unified regional government. Masoud Barzani became a member of the Iraqi Governing Council and later served as its president. He was elected President of Iraqi Kurdistan in June 2005.

Meanwhile in Syria the civil war brought the Kurds to the forefront of the region’s politics.  Syrian government forces abandoned many Kurdish occupied areas in the north and north-east of the country, leaving the Kurds to administer them themselves. In October 2011, sponsored by Iraqi Kurdish President Barzani, the Syrian Kurds established a Kurdish National Council (KNC) composed of no less than 15 separate parties all pressing for Kurdish autonomy.

In June 2014 the leader of the Kurdish Left, one of the 15, penned a letter to Israel’s President-elect Reuven Rivlin.  Israel “isn’t our enemy,” wrote Mahsum Simo; Syrian President Bashar Assad and his aides were.  “We in the Kurdish Left Party ask the government and people of Israel to stand by the Syrian people [more than before],” he said.

On June 25, the Jerusalem Post reported that 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 and do not forget” the aid they have given to wounded Syrians inside their country.

His sentiment was reiterated by Mohammed Adnan, chairman of the Revolutionary Congregation for Syria’s Future which, he explained, was made up of all ethnic and religious groups in Syria.

“It is our job to build a peaceful future,” he said, and “cooperate with Israel...We are ready to make peace.”

Mendi Safadi, an Israeli Druse who served as former Likud deputy minister Ayoub Kara’s chief of staff, has independently met with members of the liberal and democratic Syrian opposition who want friendly relations with Israel. Safadi asserts that these moderate opposition groups want to make the unprecedented offer of inviting an Israeli representative to take part in future working meetings with foreign government representatives.

These are straws in the wind, indeed.  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, 2 July 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 June 2014:

Saturday, 21 June 2014

The West and Iran - a muddle and a mistake

On June 16 Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, announced that diplomatic relations between the UK and Iran are to be restored.  The British embassy in Tehran and the Iranian embassy in London are to be re-opened, initially on something less than ambassadorial level.

It was in November 2011 that the Majlis, Iran’s parliament, voted amid cries of “Death to England”, to sever ties with London.  Afterwards, hundreds of protesters stormed the British embassy compound and looted the residence. The UK ambassador, Dominick Chilcott, and his family were evacuated at some speed.

This pattern of events is nothing new.  Ever since the Islamic revolution in 1979, the UK and Iran have been in an on-off diplomatic relationship.  Immediately after the overthrow of the Shah, Britain suspended all relations with Iran, and it was not until 1988 that the British embassy was reopened.  Only one year later, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomenei issued a fatwa ordering Muslims across the world to kill British author Salman Rushdie. Diplomatic ties with London were broken off again, only to be resumed at a chargé d'affaires level in 1990. 

They remained uneasy until the election in June 2013 which resulted in the elevation to the presidency of the apparently “moderate” Hassan Rohani – the man who had held the UN and the West at bay with soft words for month after month, while allowing Iran’s uranium enrichment  programme to forge ahead.

Nevertheless much international opinion, the US, the EU and the UK among them, seized on Rohani’s election as on a gift from heaven – a chance to avoid grasping the nettle of Iran’s unacceptable nuclear and political ambitions and to by-pass outright confrontation.  Hence the talks about Iran’s nuclear program – an initiative enthusiastically entered into in November 2013 by the six countries known as the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council:  China, France, Russia, the UK and the US, plus Germany).  The talks which have of course got nowhere were heavily supported by Russia, since this was a sure way to avert the one-time threat of a military strike, by either the US or Israel, against their ally’s nuclear facilities.

Meanwhile, events within Syria and the wider Middle East have given the geo-political kaleidoscope a thorough shake-up – and a new pattern has emerged.    

The Syrian conflict, which began as an internal protest against the regime of Bashar Assad, quickly morphed into a free-for-all where jihadists of many persuasions joined the conflict to fight each other with ferocity.  Assad and his regime were part of the wider Shia axis, master-minded by Iran’s ayatollahs, and including their heavily-armed instrument, Hezbollah in Lebanon.  They were initially opposed by a grouping of Syrians opposed to Assad – a grouping half-heartedly supported by the US and the West, though not to the extent of providing direct military assistance.  When al-Qaeda, representing  Sunni Islam, joined the fight against Assad, any hope of direct Western support for the opposition vanished. 

Then a Sunni military force, far more extreme, more bloodthirsty, more ruthless than al-Qaeda began to make its presence felt in Syria.  With the ambition of creating a caliphate across the Middle East, subject to the strictest application of Sharia law, the new body became known by the acronym ISIS, standing for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (or the Levant).  The first stage of the plan was to take over all of northern Syria and turn it into an Islamic state.

However Assad, supported by Russia, Iran and a substantial Hezbollah force, appears to have turned the tide.  So ISIS, forced to flee parts of Syria, has spilled over into Iraq where, confronting the demoralised Iraqi army, it has made substantial gains and could soon be threatening Baghdad itself.

But the prospect of this formidable force controlling large areas of Iraq is a genuine threat to the West. Among a number of other undesirable consequences, it puts oil supplies in jeopardy.  So although in next-door Syria the West is opposing Assad and his Shia Iranian ally, in Iraq the West is making overtures to Iran, in the hope that it will act as proxy for them in beating back the fanatical Sunni ISIS. This is what is behind the UK’s diplomatic overtures to Iran, and Washington’s recent statement that the US is “open to engaging the Iranians” over the crisis in Iraq.

What a mistake!  In a twinkling of an eye Iran has been transformed from a sponsor of terror around the world, supporting the Assad regime’s mass slaughter in Syria, developing nuclear weapons to further its war against the West and its declared aim of exterminating Israel. Suddenly it has become America’s ally and the West’s new best friend.

Both President Obama and Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, have ruled out any prospect of taking direct military action to tackle ISIS. They are looking to Iran to take the steps necessary to halt the Sunni extremists in their tracks – and indeed Iran has already sent the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force to supervise the defence of Baghdad.

The Quds Force has, of course, undertaken a similar – and highly successful – role in neighbouring Syria, where its efforts have helped to revive the fortunes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And herein lies the fundamental paradox that both US and British policymakers must now contend with. In Syria they oppose the Iranian-back Assad regime, in Iraq it is the Iranian-backed Shia forces they support.  Indeed, desperate for help to enable Iraq’s government prevail against the Islamist militants, they are increasingly relying on the experienced Shia fighting forces flooding in from Syria.

When you sup with the devil, runs the old saying, be sure you use a long spoon.  Deep confusion about the challenges posed by the Middle East seems to hold sway both in the White House and in Whitehall. But assuredly there will be a price to pay for the West’s determination not to engage directly with ISIS on the ground.  Look to the on-going negotiations aimed at curbing Iran’s ambition to become a nuclear power.  Iran suddenly finds itself with a dominant – if not winning – hand.    What quid pro quo will it exact for its continued involvement against ISIS forces in Iraq, and what price will the West have to pay for it further down the line? Time will tell.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 22 June 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 22 June 2014: