Saturday, 13 January 2018

Egypt versus the New York Times

                                                                                    video version          
The full repercussions of US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital have yet to be felt. One rather strange little by-product does not seem to have grabbed the world’s attention as yet. It is a story capable of a number of interpretations, not all of them complimentary to the principal players.

          The facts are these. On January 6, 2018 the New York Times published an exclusive news item based on four audio recordings that it said it had obtained. The Times report did not vouchsafe precisely how they had come into its possession.

          These recordings, it said, took place shortly after Trump had startled the world by announcing that the US recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and would move its embassy there from Tel Aviv. They were, it said, recordings of telephone conversations between an officer in Egypt’s Intelligence Service, Captain Ashraf al-Kholi, and four very well-known Egyptian media personalities, three of them hosts of influential talk shows. The TV hosts were Azmy Megahed, Mofid Fawzy, and Saeed Hassaseen (now an MP). The fourth person contacted by al-Kholi was Egyptian movie star Yousra. 

          Captain al-Kholi told the four people he phoned that Egypt, “like all our Arab brothers,” would denounce Trump’s decision in public, but that conflict with Israel was not in Egypt’s national interest. He suggested that instead of condemning Trump’s decision, these media personalities should persuade their viewers to accept it. In its report, the New York Times included the interesting information that TV chat show host Azmi Megahed had confirmed the authenticity of the recordings, and had described al-KhoIi as a longtime acquaintance.
          The Times article, which was immediately published on-line, raised a torrent of furious commentary in Egypt’s pro-government media and in parliament, where it was denounced as part of an international conspiracy to embarrass Egypt. This accusation was partly confirmed when the very same audio recordings were broadcast by an Istanbul-based television network linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The suggestion of a connection with the Brotherhood, which Egypt has banned as a terrorist group, added to the outrage from supporters of the Egyptian government.

          Once in the public domain, an allegation that Egyptian intelligence had secretly attempted to sway public opinion in favor of accepting Trump’s decision on Jerusalem could not go unanswered. Four days later Egypt’s prosecutor general, Nabil Sadek. ordered a criminal investigation. The New York Times article, he maintained, “undermines Egypt’s security and public peace, and harms the country’s public interest.” 

          The next developments were as one might have expected. Egypt’s State Information Service (SIS) released a statement denying the accuracy of the Times report on almost every count. No one named Ashraf al-Kholi, it maintained, worked for the intelligence service. Fawzi had not presented any TV programmes for years, and Hassaseen’s show had ended weeks before Trump’s declaration, and he was not currently presenting any programme on air. As for Yousra, SIS said that she was a movie actress totally unconnected with TV talk shows.

          Much of this may be true, but it has little relevance to the high profile enjoyed by those particular individuals among the Egyptian public. And it seems clear that SIS, and perhaps other organs of the state, subsequently subjected them to intense political pressure. It was not long before Megahed publicly retracted his original statement authenticating the recordings and claiming that he was an old acquaintance of Kholi. In an Egyptian television interview Megahed said that the New York Times had misquoted him. “This is the first time I’ve heard of this Kholi man,” he said.
          Next, actress Yousra and the other TV anchors denied knowing anyone named al-Kholi or participating in telephone conversations with him. Yousra claimed not to have been in Egypt at the time they were reported to have taken place. The clear implication is that the recordings were faked. Not unsurprisingly, conspiracy theories followed. Pro-government television anchors called on the Times to explain how the recordings ended up with the Brotherhood-affiliated TV channel, and suggested that the newspaper was secretly in cahoots with Qatar. Egypt is one of four Arab nations that imposed a punishing boycott on Qatar last June, accusing it of financing Islamist terrorism and sheltering Brotherhood leaders.
          The speaker of Parliament, Ali Abdel Aal, went along with this, and said the article proved that the Times was allied with the Brotherhood and with Qatar, and was stoking controversy in advance of Egypt’s forthcoming presidential elections. Finally all the SIS could do was issue a statement asserting that Egypt had repeatedly declared its “inalienable position on Jerusalem,” side-stepping the fact that, in doing so, it was confirming what al-Kholi had said would be the official stance. 
          A stout riposte was provided by Michael Slackman, the Times’s international editor. “Our story was a deeply reported, consequential piece of journalism,” he said, “and we stand fully behind it. The audio recordings were provided to the Times by an intermediary supportive of the Palestinian cause, but we had no agenda other than giving our readers the facts they needed to know."

          This whole episode, true or false, comes at a delicate time for Egypt politically. The first round of new presidential elections is scheduled for March 26. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is running for re-election, faces only a weak rival since his principal challenger, former prime minister Ahmed Shafik, pulled out of the race (Shafik’s lawyers claimed that officials had pressed him to quit on the threat of corruption prosecutions). All the same, the Egyptian public is unlikely to look kindly on a government-inspired endorsement – even a covert one – of Trump’s Jerusalem declaration. The last thing Sisi wants, come March, is a poor turnout in his presidential poll. The result of the prosecutor general’s criminal investigation into the New York Times report is bound to make interesting reading.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 14 January 2018:

Monday, 8 January 2018

Damming the Nile – Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia battle it out

video version
         That Egypt’s economic well-being is dependent on the Nile has been a geopolitical fact of life since ancient times.  Fly over the country, and Egypt’s dependence on the river is starkly illustrated.  Amid vast deserts, the river and its cultivated banks appear as a narrow green ribbon snaking its way to the north, where it widens into a delta before reaching the Mediterranean. The vast majority of Egypt’s 94 million people live adjacent to this fertile belt, along which its main cities from Aswan to Cairo to Alexandria cluster.  The lower Nile valley and the delta together comprise about 3.5 percent of Egypt’s total area.  The remaining 96.5 percent is mostly desert.

The Nile that enters Egypt is fed from two sources.  The White Nile, flowing through Sudan, supplies Egypt with 15 percent of its water; the Blue Nile, emanating from Ethiopia, provides 85 percent.

During the colonial era the fact that one of the Nile’s main tributaries rises in Lake Victoria, which lies in Tanzania and Uganda, and runs through what are now eleven African countries before discharging into the Mediterranean, held little significance.  Scant consideration was given by colonial rulers to the needs or the rights of the African hinterland. Given the priorities of the time, it is scarcely surprising that a 1929 treaty with Britain provided Egypt with a virtual monopoly over the Nile waters with veto rights over all upstream projects. In 1959, under the provisions of this treaty, Egypt signed a deal with Sudan which guaranteed the two countries use of 90 percent of the Nile waters.

But the world was changing fast. The eight other nations that shared the Nile basin at that time viewed Egypt’s historic dominance of the Nile as increasingly untenable.  Egypt’s upstream neighbours were all undergoing rapid socio-economic development, and these emerging regional powers began to challenge Egypt’s control of what each regarded as its river. 

The affected countries eventually got together, and in the 1999 Nile Basin Initiative put forward a proposal to “achieve sustainable socio-economic development through the equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile basin water resources.”  

Ten years of negotiations followed.  Finally in 2010, six Nile Basin countries signed the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA):  Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi.  They were joined in June 2012 by the newly-created South Sudan.  The CFA was meant to replace the 1929 colonial agreement that gave Egypt absolute rights over all the waters of the Nile, and provide a mechanism for cooperation among all ten member countries in managing the Nile basin water resources. However Egypt and Sudan rejected its reallocation of Nile water quotas under the 1959 agreement, and Congo also refused to sign.

This was the moment a further major complication entered the already complex Nile situation. 

Back in the late 1950s, the United States Bureau of Reclamation had undertaken a survey of the Blue Nile to identify where a dam might be sited to generate hydro-electricity for the region.  Forty years later, in 2009, the Ethiopian government suddenly decided that the time was ripe to press ahead with the project.  The driving force was former prime minister Meles Zenawi, who had run the country for more than two decades and was obsessed with Ethiopia’s rebirth.

By November 2010 a design for the dam had been drawn up.  On 30 March 2011 the project was made public.  Two days later, on 2 April, Zenawi laid the dam's foundation stone.  The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (or GERD), will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa. 

 Almost incredibly, once constructed the reservoir is estimated to take from 5 to 15 years to fill with water.

          In August 2017, as construction on the dam reached 60 percent completion, tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia began to rise.  Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said the Nile was “a matter of life and death” for his country and that “no one can touch Egypt’s share of the water”. He demanded that Ethiopia cease construction on the dam as a precondition to negotiations.  Ethiopia retorted that the dam was a matter of life and death for it, too, since it was a vital component in its plans for economic development.  

          The Blue Nile rises in Ethiopia, but runs for much of its length into Sudan before joining the White Nile and flowing on into Egypt.  In an attempt to resolve differences, discussions were arranged between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to consider how best to manage the impact of GERD.  In November 2017 the talks broke down. On December 26, Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian foreign minister, flew to Addis Ababa to emphasise Egypt’s concerns.

          At the heart of the dispute lies Egypt’s fear that, once the dam is built, and especially during the initial phase when the reservoir is being filled, the country will receive less than the annual 55.5 billion cubic metres of water it says is the minimum it needs.  With a surging population that President Sisi has termed “a threat to national development”, Egypt will be requiring more, not less, fresh water over the next decade.

Although most of Egypt’s water comes from the Blue Nile, on which the dam is being built, Ethiopia is adamant that, once the reservoir has been filled, GERD will not adversely affect downstream countries. At the same time it refuses to acknowledge Cairo’s right to 55.5 billion cubic metres of water every year, since this emanates from the 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan to which Ethiopia was not a signatory.

          Ethiopia is due to start testing the first two turbines shortly, with construction of the dam due for completion by the end of 2018. But Egypt. Sudan and Ethiopia have yet to overcome their mistrust of each other and agree mechanisms to contain the impact on downstream countries, both during the filling period and once the dam comes into operation. They need to start co-operating soon.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 8 January 2018:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 11 January 2018:

Published in the MPC Journal, 15 January 2018:

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Opposition in Iran

 video version
Born out of widespread popular disaffection some 40 years ago, Iran’s Islamic Republic itself now faces the most widespread manifestation of popular dissent in its history.

By 1978 the 2500-year-old Persian monarchy had become an autocratic pro-Western regime.  It was the Shah’s authoritarian rule, rather than his pro-Western stance, that aroused rumbling opposition over a long period.  By January 1979 this had developed into a widespread campaign of civil resistance.  During 1978, strikes and demonstrations paralyzed the country.  In January 1979 the Shah left Iran, never to return. 

On February 1, after 16 years of enforced exile, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini landed in Iran to a euphoric reception by virtually the entire nation.  Just as when Adolf Hitler’s political opponents in 1933 appointed him German Chancellor believing he would be easily controlled, so Iran’s secular and leftist politicians supported the revolutionary movement, ignoring the fact that Khomeini represented the very antithesis of all their values.  They chose to believe that he was merely a figurehead for the radical change from monarchy to republic, and that power would eventually be handed to the secular groups.

They could not have been more wrong.  On April 1 Iran voted by national referendum to become an Islamic Republic and to approve a new theocratic republican constitution, under which Khomeini became Supreme Leader of the country. The revolution replaced an authoritarian monarchy with an authoritarian theocracy. 

The first signs of opposition showed themselves very early on, during the 8-year Iran-Iraq war, which started in 1980.  The People's Mujahedeen of Iran, the MEK, a Marxist-inspired organization which had been closely allied to Khomeini and his supporters throughout the 1970s, split from the Supreme Leader largely in frustration at being excluded from power.  Marxist ideology was scarcely to Khomeini’s taste.

In 1981, the conflict between the government and MEK fighters descended into street battles. As a result MEK was outlawed. Saddam Hussein gave it a base in Iraq, and supported it in mounting attacks inside Iran.  Currently based in Albania, and with a somewhat dubious past regarding terrorist activities, the MEK is advocating the violent overthrow of the Iranian regime.

Among other opposition groups to emerge in Iran in the 1980s was the Tudeh party, or the "party of the masses".  The Supreme Leader refused to tolerate dissent such as this, and arrests and executions of Tudeh members continued throughout the 1980s.  Intolerance of any but the approved line extended to the Republic’s first president, Abulhassan Banisadr, who was impeached a year after taking office in 1980, and went into exile.

Then, in 1989, another high-profile figure fell foul of the Supreme Leader.  Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, Khomeini's heir apparent, was fired after he criticized the crackdown on dissent.  Montazeri was replaced by the more conservative Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini upon his death in June 1989, and remains Iran’s Supreme Leader.

Nothing, though, could prevent internal opposition to the regime bubbling to the surface from time to time.  In 1999, after the nationwide student paper Salam was shut down, students took to the streets. The protests lasted for six days, during which time at least five people were killed and thousands more were injured and arrested.  Sporadic protests continued in the following decade. but it wasn’t until 2009 that Iranians would, for the first time since the 1979 revolution, witness massive street protests against the government.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, elected to his first term as president in 2005, stood for re-election in 2009 against his main challenger, Mir-Hussein Mousavi, a reformer. In the run-up to the elections Mousavi ran a vigorous campaign supported by mass rallies of supporters, who adorned themselves in green garments of various kinds.  Popular perception was that Mousavi would be the clear winner. In the event, the published results gave Ahmadinejad more than 64 percent of the vote; Mousavi finished second with just under 34 percent.

On June 13, one day after the elections, protesters turned out in their hundreds of thousands across the country, many chanting and carrying signs around the theme, “where is my vote?” Mousavi’s supporters became known as the “Green Movement”.  The protests lasted for weeks.  In the inevitable crackdown more than 100 people were killed and thousands were arrested to face trial. Many were hanged.

When Ayatollah Montazeri died in December 2009, his funeral became a rallying point with tens of thousands of mourners chanting against the government.  One year later, in February 2011, the so-called “Arab spring” was under way.  The opposition called for protests in solidarity, and leading pro-reform politicians were arrested, but protests went ahead in a number of cities for over a week. Again the crackdown resulted in hundreds being injured and arrested.

And now, once again and apparently out of the blue, Iran is in turmoil.  Rallies and street protests are bursting out spontaneously right across the country.  Unlike in 2009, they are not confined to students and the more educated sectors of society.  Reports suggest that the uprisings emanate from a wide swathe of the population.

At first the protests centered on the worsening economic situation, and the ever-rising food and commodity prices.  This soon morphed into opposition to the regime in general and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, in particular.  Particular dissent was being voiced against the foreign adventures indulged in by the regime, including direct involvement in the Syrian civil conflict, and costly military and logistical support for Hezbollah in Syria, for the Houthis in Yemen and for Hamas in Gaza.  The vast sums expended in these foreign adventures are seen as being at the direct expense of the Iranian population. 

When Khomenei launched the Islamic Revolution, liberal, democratic and secular values were to have no place in Iran’s brave new world.  History teaches repeatedly that these ideas can be suppressed, sometimes for long periods, but they cannot be eliminated.  A regime that is too insecure to permit a wide spectrum of political and social expression is a regime doomed eventually to implode.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 2 January 2018:             522625

         Published in Eurasia Review, 3 January 2018:

        Published in the Jerusalem Post, 4 January 2018:

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Yemen’s 1,000 days of agony – a way out

                                            Yemen famine map, Oct-Dec 2017                               

          Dubbed by the Romans “Arabia Felix” (fertile or fortunate Arabia), the southern stretch of the Arabian peninsula that we know as Yemen is now universally described as “the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.”  Tuesday December 19, 2017 marked the 1000th day of the civil conflict that has torn the country apart.  The nation is on the brink of famine. The UN reckons three-quarters of Yemen’s 28 million people need some kind of humanitarian aid. Mounting rubbish, failing sewerage and wrecked water supplies have led to the worst cholera outbreak in recent history.
          What has brought Yemen to this catastrophic state of affairs?  It all started in the sadly misnamed “Arab spring” uprisings of 2011. Mass protests, a near-assassination of the then president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and pressure from neighboring petro-states forced Saleh to step down in favor of his vice-president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Hadi sponsored a draft constitution in 2015 proposing a federal system split between northerners and southerners, but the Iran-backed Houthi rebels rejected it.
The Houthis, a fundamentalist Shia group, take their name from Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a revolutionary leader who launched an uprising against the government in 2004 and was killed by the Yemeni army later that year.  The organization’s philosophy is summarised with blinding clarity by their flag, which consists of five statements in Arabic, the first and the last in green, the middle three in red.  
They read:  "God is Great; Death to America; Death to Israel; A curse on the Jews; Victory to Islam"
Although a Sunni Muslim, Saleh seemed intent on manoeuvering a return to power in collaboration with the Shia-affiliated Houthis.  It was through Saleh that the Houthis were able to gain control of most of the Yemeni military, including its air force. As a result, and supported with military hardware from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, they overran large tracts of the country, including the capital city, Sana’a. 

If any one area is a microcosm of the chaotic and bloody battlefield that is today’s Middle East, it is Yemen.  Here, as across the region, Islam is at war with itself, as the deadly rivalry between Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, guardians of the Sunni tradition of Islam,  and Iran’s equally uncompromising Shia-based Islamic revolution, plays itself out.

Although other militant groups roam the country, the main principals are the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels; and Saudi Arabia which, determined to prevent Iran from extending its footprint into the Arabian peninsula, intervened in March 2015 to beat back the Houthis.  Saudi Arabia’s charismatic young Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, assembled a coalition of Arab states from across the Middle East, obtained the diplomatic backing of the US, Turkey and Pakistan, and launched a series of air strikes against the rebels.

The unconventional Saleh-Houthi partnership came to an abrupt end on December 2, 2017, when Saleh went on television to declare that he was splitting from the Houthi rebels, was ready to enter into dialogue with the Saudi-led coalition, and called on his supporters to take back the country.  This volte-face is rumored to have been master-minded by Saudi’s Prince Mohammed. It was to end in tragedy.

On December 4, Saleh's house in Sana'a was besieged by Houthi fighters.  He managed to escape, but apparently a rocket-propelled grenade struck and disabled his vehicle as he was trying to flee into Saudi-controlled territories. Dead or alive, he was subsequently shot in the head.

Nearly three years of combat have not succeeded in defeating the Houthis.  On the contrary, time seems to have emboldened them. Using Iranian hardware, they have started firing ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia itself, the latest on December 18. Although the Houthis were responsible for initiating the turmoil in the first place, it is the Saudis and their coalition who are at the receiving end of the world’s opprobrium for the humanitarian devastation that the conflict has wrought. More than 350 high-profile figures including six Nobel peace prize laureates, former military generals, politicians, diplomats and celebrities marked the 1,000th day of the civil war by calling on leaders of France, the US and the UK to use their seats on the UN security council to act as peace brokers.

The moment may be opportune.  After investing billions of dollars in the war, Prince Mohammed is said to want to cut his military losses and withdraw from Yemen in exchange for some diplomatic arrangement.  Getting ex-president Saleh to change sides was his first unsuccessful ploy.  Can he possibly mastermind a situation that can extricate Saudi Arabia from the conflict without leaving Iran as victors?

What Yemen needs are elections, an inclusive government, and a new structure for the state.  But efforts by the UN envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, to end the conflict and resume the peaceful political evolution that started in 2011 remain stalled. There have been talks in plenty, but the underlying constant throughout has been the lack of political will on the part of the Houthis to share power.

The international community must summon up the will to insist on the immediate implementation of UN Resolution 2216, which aims to establish democracy in a federally united Yemen. It must back this new effort with a UN peace-keeping force, while Iran must be prevented, by the imposition of new sanctions if necessary, from assisting the Houthis and supplying them with military hardware.  Humanitarian aid must be given unfettered access to all parts of Yemen, and already on December 19 Saudi announced that it would allow such aid through the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah for a month. A lasting political deal would of course involve the end of the Saudi-led military operation, and probably a major financial commitment by Saudi to fund the rebuilding of the country.

Finally the Houthis must be given the opportunity to choose.  Do they wish to remain an outlawed militia permanently, or would they prefer to become a legitimate political party, able to contest parliamentary and presidential elections and participate in government? The price would be withdrawal from Sana’a and serious engagement in negotiations aimed at a peaceful transition to a political solution for a united Yemen.  Let’s hope they consider it a price worth paying to come in out of the cold.

         Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 27 December 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 29 December 2017:

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Erdogan and the Jerusalem issue

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a thoroughgoing Muslim Brotherhood adherent, and has been since he first entered politics. During his early years as prime minister, back in the early 2000s, he was careful not to promote too radical an agenda too soon. Despite his Islamist views, he made an official visit to Israel in 2005 to be feted by Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon. However it was not long before the previously close relations between Turkey and Israel began to sour. The turning point came in 2009, with the first conflict between Israel and Hamas, which had seized power in the Gaza strip and had been firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel.

          In the annual international gathering at Davos that year, Erdogan could not restrain himself. Rounding on Israeli President Shimon Peres, Erdogan called the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip a "crime against humanity" and "barbaric." Wagging his finger at Peres, he declared: "When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill. I know very well how you hit and killed children on beaches." Then, infuriated by the moderator's refusal to allow him more time in response to Peres's emotional rebuke, he stalked off the stage.

          Between that first indication of Erdogan’s extreme Islamist stance and his intemperate reaction to the announcement by US President Donald Trump on December 6, 2017 recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, lies the great barren waste of the Mavi Marmara affair – an encounter on the high seas between Israeli soldiers and a Turkish flotilla of six vessels, nominally on a humanitarian mission to relieve what had been described as the siege of Gaza. During the encounter, nine of those on board the Mavi Marama lost their lives.

          Erdogan manipulated the event into a rupture of Turkish-Israeli relations lasting six years. But the series of investigations that followed revealed a cynical anti-Israel plot planned with the connivance of Turkey’s ruling AKP party and possibly of Erdogan himself, its leader. 

          Under the cloak of providing humanitarian aid to Gaza, an operation aimed at instigating a confrontation with Israel was meticulously planned. A six-ship flotilla was organised by western activists working with the Turkish "Insani Yardim Vakfi" (IHH) movement, a non-governmental organization supported by the Turkish government. The lead ship Mavi Marmara was purchased by the IHH from a major shipping company owned by the Istanbul Municipality, which is run by the ruling AKP party. Far from being crammed to the gunwales with humanitarian aid, three of the six ships in the convoy actually carried no aid at all. Mavi Marmara was one such.

          To implement the plan some 40 armed activists were ushered aboard the leading ship of the flotilla – the Mavi Marmara – at a different embarkation point from the rest of the passengers, and without any of the security checks to which they were subject.  They were led by the head of the IHH.

          A Turkish journalist on board the Mavi Marmara said: "The flotilla was organized with the support of the Turkish government, and prime minister Erdogan gave the instructions for it to set sail."

          Israel's botched military intervention, and the consequent death of nine of the militants, provided Erdogan with a political and diplomatic bonus he could scarcely have hoped for. He was not slow to exploit it, condemning Israel for committing a "massacre". His own alleged involvement, and that of his AKP party, in the plot remained largely hidden.

          It took six long years of intensive negotiations before the affair was finally put to rest in June 2016. Even though Erdogan publicly slighted Israel on an almost daily basis, Israeli-Turkish trade grew over the period 2009-2015 by 19 percent, as against a growth of only 11 percent in Turkey’s overall foreign trade for the same period. 

          A large Turkish business delegation visited Israel in May 2017, enthusiastically advocating a 150 percent increase in Turkish-Israeli trade over the next five years. “We need to change the perception of the Israeli citizens and the Turkish citizens toward one another,” said Mehmet Buyukeksi, chairman of the Turkish Exporters Assembly (TIM).

          Erdogan’s reaction to the Trump announcement on Jerusalem, however, seemed to presage a replay of the Mavi Marmara situation. Speaking in parliament in Ankara, Erdogan declared: “Jerusalem is a red line for Muslims. This could lead us to break off our diplomatic relations with Israel.”

          Three days later he turned his ire on Israel, which he described as a “terrorist state”, vowing to use all means to fight against the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. “We will not abandon Jerusalem to the mercy of a state that kills children.”

          Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to give as good as he got in the battle of words. Denouncing Erdogan as a brutal dictator, he declared “I am not used to receiving lectures about morality from a leader who bombs Kurdish villagers in his native Turkey, who jails journalists, who helps Iran get around international sanctions, and who helps terrorists, including in Gaza, kill innocent people.”

          Erdogan emerged from the Mavi Marmara episode with greatly enhanced prestige both domestically and more widely in the Muslim world. Now he is again seizing the initiative. He convened a special meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), of which he is currently president. Presenting himself as the Muslim defender of Jerusalem. he condemned Trump’s announcement, castigated the Arab world for its lacklustre response and called on world powers to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. 

          Erdogan has three additional reasons for rounding on the United States. First, he hates the assistance America is giving the Syrian Kurds, who are fighting successfully against Islamic State. Second, the US has so far refused to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the leader of the rival religious movement whom Erdogan accuses of initiating the abortive coup against him in July 2016. Third, and most embarrassing to Erdogan, is the trial currently under way in New York involving Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab.

          Zarrab is a key witness in the criminal trial of Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla. In his testimony Zarrab has implicated Erdogan in an international money laundering scheme that he and the banker ran between 2010 and 2015, which allegedly allowed Iran access to global markets despite UN and US sanctions. He testified that in 2012 he was told by Turkey’s then economy minister that Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time, had instructed Turkish banks to participate in the multi-million dollar scheme.

           Erdogan’s most recent threat was to establish a Turkish embassy, accredited to the state of Palestine, in East Jerusalem. Whether making a big stir about the Jerusalem issue will succeed in diverting the world’s attention from other, more embarrassing, matters only time will tell.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 19 December 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 December 2917:

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Greece, Cyprus and Israel – champions of the eastern Mediterranean

video version

The discovery of vast reserves of liquefied natural gas (LNG) off the coasts of Israel and Cyprus was bound to bring equally vast consequences in its train.  Among the least anticipated, perhaps, has been the creation of a new geopolitical entity in the eastern Mediterranean – a tripartite alliance that promises to bring both stability to the region, and the prospect of enormous technological, economic and environmental advances.

“We, Alexis Tsipras, prime minister of the Hellenic Republic, Nikos Anastasiades, president of the Republic of Cyprus, and Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of the State of Israel, having met in Thessaloniki today, 15th June 2017, have agreed to continue strengthening the cooperation among our three countries in order to promote a trilateral partnership in various fields of common interest and to continue working together towards promoting peace, stability, security and prosperity in the eastern Mediterranean and the wider region.”

Those are the opening words of a 2,700-word joint declaration issued after a tripartite meeting between the political leaders of Greece Cyprus and Israel. It was the culmination of years of cooperation, driven forward by the LNG discoveries in Israeli and Cypriot waters.

Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a state is allowed to claim for economic use waters extending 200 nautical miles from its coast. When another country lies less than 400 nautical miles away (as Cyprus does in relation to Lebanon and Israel), governments are expected to negotiate a mutually acceptable line.

Back in 2007 Cyprus and Lebanon agreed on a maritime border that reaches south to a spot designated as Point 1.  Three years later Cyprus negotiated a maritime halfway point with Israel that begins at Point 1 and stretches further south, thus establishing what is known as an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for Israel and safeguarding its rights to its oil and underwater gas reservoirs. The two countries agreed to cooperate in the development of any cross-border resources discovered, and to negotiate an agreement on dividing joint resources.

Despite both Lebanon and Turkey disputing the validity of this Israel-Cyprus agreement, cooperation between the two countries has flourished. It has led to the first-ever visit of an Israeli prime minister to Cyprus, and to subsequent meetings between Israeli and Cypriot ministers. In 2014 the two countries, as one aspect of their cooperation, agreed to hold joint military exercises.

          This past year has seen an intensification of this collaboration.  In March Israel participated in a three-day joint military exercise with Cyprus, in the course of which the Israeli Air Force tested Cypriot air defences.  In June, more than 500 elite Israeli commandos, supported by attack helicopters and fighter jets, held a three-day intensive drill on Cyprus. The first of its kind, it was described by senior Israel Defense Force (IDF) officers as one of the largest exercises by the commandos on foreign soil.

          Then November saw the first-ever trilateral defence summit between Israel, Cyprus and neighboring Greece.  The defence ministers of the three countries met in Athens to discuss strengthening their collaboration in the interest of promoting security, stability and peace in the eastern Mediterranean. Cypriot defence minister Christoforos Fokaides said: “Cyprus, Greece and Israel defend in this volatile and fragile region not just their common interests, but also the interests of Europe and, I would say, those of the international community in general.”

         Ten days later three Israeli missile ships and a naval helicopter participated in the Hellenic Navy’s autumn war games.  The main aim was to provide training in how to deal with modern maritime threats while conducting evacuations of civilian populations.

          “During the drill,” said Lt.-Col. Yaniv Lavi, commander of the Israeli delegation, "the naval forces carried out advanced training [in] search and rescue, prevention of maritime terrorist attacks, as well as advanced maritime medical evacuations.”

This exercise, according to the IDF, is to be followed up by an extensive military drill to be held in Cyprus, involving air and ground forces from both countries. The exercise, part of the ongoing cooperation between the IDF and the Cypriot military, was pre-planned as part of Israel’s 2017 training programme, and is intended to maintain the competence and readiness of the forces.

The growing military collaboration between Israel, Cyprus and Greece is founded on the ambitious joint declaration signed in June by their political leaders, which envisaged the three-nation cooperation extending across a broad spectrum of areas including energy, economic activity, telecommunications, the environment and their shared underwater cultural heritage.

The declaration gave strong support to the establishment of what has been designated “the East-Med Pipeline”, namely another gas corridor, directly linking gas findings in the Cyprus and Israeli EEZs with the European markets. Far from establishing an exclusive three-nation club, the political leaders emphasised that they were ready to welcome other like-minded countries to join in promoting coordination and cooperation, regional peace and stability. A first step in that direction was the establishment of a quadri-lateral working group (Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Italy) aimed at closely monitoring and supporting the EastMed project as an export route for natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe.

In their joint declaration, the political leaders agreed to develop and strengthen collaboration in the manufacturing and commercial sectors, emphasising their intention to promote cooperation in technological and industrial research among research organizations in the three countries. In the field of telecommunication technologies, they agreed to cooperate in electronic technology, telecommunications and electromagnetic compatibility, with special interest given to cooperation in satellite manufacturing, earth remote sensing satellites and communication satellites.  The countries also agreed to encourage the space technology sector and to support new cable interconnections among the three countries by way of Fiber Optic Undersea Cable.

They gave special prominence to protecting the environment, with special focus on the common challenges faced by their three countries, namely protection of the marine environment, water and wastewater management, and adaptation to the impact of climate change.

Partly from self-interest, but surely more from a concern for the common good, Greece, Cyprus and Israel have forged a working partnership with enormous potential for enhancing the prospects and life-chances of all who live in the eastern Mediterranean.  Speaking at the defense ministers’ summit, Israel’s Avigdor Liberman said: “Greece, Cyprus, and Israel share common values as democratic countries and face similar security challenges. The cooperation is intensifying every day on many levels, based on the understanding that we must take our fate into our own hands.”          
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 13 December 2017: 

Published in the Eurasia Review, 16 December 2017:

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Russia – the dominant influence on Syria’s future

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is a man who thrives on seizing the initiative.  Let him spot a chance to gain a diplomatic advantage, and he will not hesitate to act.  Aware that the Geneva-based talks on settling the Syrian conflict were faltering, and realizing that no other player was on the field, he jumped forward to chance his arm at brokering a Russian-led peace deal.

To lay the groundwork, Putin invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Moscow for talks. Assad’s visit – his first publicly-declared travel outside Syria since he visited Russia in October, 2015 – was brief.  He flew in on the evening of Monday, November 20, held his discussion with Putin, and flew out four hours later.

The talks were held in Putin’s Sochi residence.  Although not marked on city maps, everybody knows that Residence Riviera is situated in Riviera Park, Sochi, in southern Russia, just beyond a memorial to the staff of Sochi’s hospitals.  According to reports broadcast by Russian television, Putin kicked off by asserting that the time had come to move from focusing on military operations to searching for a peaceful solution for Syria’s future.

“As far as our joint work in fighting terrorism on the territory of Syria is concerned,” he told Assad, “the military operation is coming to an end, Now the most important thing is to move on to the political questions, and I note with satisfaction your readiness to work with all those who want peace and a solution.”

As he spoke, Syrian government forces and their allies had just taken control of Albu Kamal, the last major Syrian town held by Islamic State, and they now controlled more territory than any other force in the country.  All the same the pre-war Syrian state was certainly not wholly in government hands.  Rebel forces still hold a swathe of northwest Syria, next to Turkey, an enclave in the southwest, near Israel and Jordan, and other pockets close to Damascus and Homs.  Up in the northeast, Kurdish groups and allied US militias control a substantial area.  Assad has sworn to recover the whole of pre-civil war Syria, but it is doubtful if Putin will assist him in this enterprise.  Putin has his sights set on a Russian-inspired negotiated settlement, rather than a long-drawn-out war of attrition.

Immediately after his meeting with Assad, Putin announced that he had arranged to speak with international leaders, among them US President Donald Trump, Saudi King Salman, and the presidents of Iran and Turkey.  He pushed ahead with these discussions, adding Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the list for good measure.

On the Tuesday Putin’s telephone conversation with Trump lasted more than an hour.  The White House later announced that the two had agreed on the importance of the UN-led peace process in resolving the Syrian civil war. According to the Kremlin, Putin told Trump that the Syrian leader had confirmed that he would adhere to the political process, and would  agree to constitutional reform and presidential and parliamentary elections.

On Wednesday, November 22, the presidents of Turkey and Iran descended on Sochi for their own session in Residence Riviera.  During the 3-way discussions, Putin said later, they agreed to support a Syrian peoples' congress as an initial step to establishing dialogue between the warring sides.  This was to take place – where else? – but in Sochi, and was viewed by the West as a rival to the Geneva-based UN-sponsored process.

Then on November 28 Russia suddenly announced that the Sochi conference had been put on hold until at least February.  The reason offered was that Turkey had objected to Russia inviting groups linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey’s south-east - it is known that Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is determined to give no ground to Kurdish demands for greater autonomy.  It is more likely that Putin, virtually controlling the Geneva process, sees no need at present for a rival congress.   

The Geneva talks, with the Turkish delegation in attendance, duly started on November 28.  Prior agreement to unify the opposition delegation, following a meeting of rival groups in Saudi Arabia, gave some modest hope, although the major bone of contention, as it had been from the start, was Assad’s future. All previous attempts to end Syria’s six years of war, and they have been numerous, have foundered on bitter disagreements between the parties on whether Assad should stay in power, and if so, for how long and on what terms.

The US, the UK, France, the EU, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and much of the Sunni world, to say nothing of the Syrian democratic forces that rebelled against him, have said that Assad must be removed from power.  Although the US has appeared to soften its position recently on Assad’s future, it remains a major stumbling block to viable negotiations.  Putting a spanner in the works before the machine had actually started, the new head of the opposition delegation, Nasr Hariri, told a news conference in Geneva on November 27 that he was aiming for Assad’s removal.

His statement was described as “very alarming” by Russia’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, Alexey Borodavkin, who urged western diplomats “to bring the opposition down to earth, as their position is not in line with the real situation”.  In an effort to make it easier for the Syrian delegation to attend the Geneva talks, Russia had won an agreement from the UN envoy that Assad’s resignation at the start of a transition period would not form part of the opening UN negotiations.  Nevertheless, and predictably, the Syrian team refused to sit down at the same table as the united opposition “at this stage”.  

Russia’s dominance as the major political force in the Syrian situation is fully recognised by the opposition delegation.  Its leader, Nasa Hariri, called on Russia, as well as other states, to pressure Assad into peace talks aimed at producing a political solution within six months, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.  He went on to accuse Syria and its ally Iran of failing to abide by their agreement to de-escalate the fighting in areas such as Eastern Ghouta, a besieged rebel-held enclave. Pointing to the pause in the fighting for Eastern Ghouta for two or three days arranged by Russia, Hariri said this clearly demonstrated that Moscow was the effective power broker in the Syrian conflict.

He was not wrong – and he might have added that Russia would have the upper hand in shaping Syria’s future as well.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 7 December 2017:

        Published in Eurasia Review, 8 December 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 11 December 2017:

Friday, 1 December 2017

Which embassy will be first in Jerusalem – the Russian or the American?

Video version.

          It was way back in 1995 that Congress passed legislation requiring the US embassy in Israel to be relocated no later than 31 May 1999. Although adopted by the House of Representatives and the Senate by overwhelming majorities, the Jerusalem Embassy Act was never implemented. For 22 years every President since then – Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, even Trump – used the powers contained in Section 7 of the Act to sign a 6-month waiver “to protect the national security interests of the United States.”

          During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump stated unequivocally that he would move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He was equally keen to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, and has been pursuing that possibility with determination. To avoid compromising the delicate negotiations in progress, led by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Trump delayed acting on the embassy issue in June 2017, his first opportunity to desist from signing the waiver.

          At present not a single foreign embassy is located in Jerusalem. This is because in international eyes the exact status of Jerusalem remains undetermined. Back in 1947 the original two-state UN plan envisaged Jerusalem as “a corpus separatum under a special international regime” to be administered by the United Nations. The UN as a whole, like the European Union (EU), still clings to this concept. But incongruously, both the UN and the EU also assert their support for the objective of “a viable state of Palestine in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem." Now either the city of Jerusalem is an international entity, or part of it is Palestinian. Both cannot be the case simultaneously.

           The UN Security Council in its latest pronouncement on the subject at least appears consistent. Urging countries and organizations to distinguish "between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967", its Resolution 2334, makes no mention of an internationalized Jerusalem, but refers three times to “Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem.”

          2334 was passed by 14 of the 15 members of the Security Council, with only the US abstaining. Until Trump made his ground-breaking announcement on 6 December 2017 recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and undertaking to move the US embassy there, of the 15 Security Council members only one recognized the logical implications of what they had voted for – namely that if East Jerusalem is Palestinian territory, then West Jerusalem must be an integral part of sovereign Israel.

          On 6 April 2017 Russia issued an unequivocal statement. While reaffirming its support for the two-state solution and for East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, Moscow declared: "At the same time, we must state that in this context we view West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel."  Since Trump's announcement, the Czech Republic has followed Russia's lead.

          This declaration carries a corollary. Countries normally site their embassies in the capital city of the country with which they have established diplomatic relations. Is Putin politically in a position to take the statement to its logical conclusion?

          Russia has been fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Iran in Syria, supporting President Bashar al-Assad in his battle to retain power. Iran, its satrap Hezbollah, and Assad’s Syria are all ferocious enemies of Israel and would certainly be opposed to any move that enhanced Israel’s status. On the other hand, their battlefield collaboration did not inhibit Moscow’s recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

          As regards the Palestinians, Putin has fostered good relations with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, but they are as nothing compared with Russo-Israeli relations, which are flourishing. There is Gazprom’s multi-million 20-year contract, signed in 2016, to market Israeli liquefied natural gas from the vast Tamar field. Collaboration is also being developed in a whole variety of other areas including free trade, nuclear and other hi-technology, space cooperation and agriculture. Moving the Russian embassy to West Jerusalem could do nothing but enhance this burgeoning relationship.

          Were Putin to make this move in the US-Russian chess game being played for influence in the Middle East, there is no question of a checkmate, but he could certainly call “Check”. It would prove Russia’s consistency on Jerusalem, provide it with a notable advantage, and extend its growing footprint in the Middle East.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 2 December 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 2 December 2017: