Friday, 13 October 2017

Syria's humanitarian crisis

          Syria’s civil war has created a humanitarian crisis of horrendous proportions.  With most media comment focused on the struggle against Islamic State and the consequent gains and losses on the battlefield, far too little attention has been paid to the immeasurable suffering the conflict has inflicted on huge numbers of the Syrian people. 

          Civilian deaths as a result of the fighting and from poison gas attacks in the course of combat have been estimated at some 300,000.  That, indeed, is a massive toll of innocent life.  But the truly staggering statistics relate to the living.

          The country’s pre-war population was some 21 million.  UN figures show that at the last count, on 28 September 2017, well over half the population – something approaching 12 million Syrians – had been displaced from their homes. Some 6.3 million are homeless within Syria, but no less than 5.2 million have fled the country and are now refugees – over half of them, it has been estimated, under the age of 18. This figure includes 2 million Syrians registered by UNHCR in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, over 3 million registered by Turkey, and more than 30,000 Syrian refugees registered in North Africa.

          All this translates into a humanitarian tragedy that ought to be attracting global attention.  As far as the media is concerned, it seems to have been buried under competing news stories of more immediate public interest.  In the political arena, however, something more sinister seems to be happening.  As Bashar al-Assad’s forces, empowered by Russian and Iranian military support, wrest increasing amounts of territory from Islamic State, and as the regime reasserts authority over it, the prospect of the president remaining in power, at least for a transitional period, seems to be gaining acceptance.  Reports back in March indicated  that US diplomatic policy is “no longer focused on making the war-torn country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, leave power.”

This shift in sentiment could only be enhanced by signs of a return to normality within Syria, such as a flow of returning displaced civilians.  The International Organization for Migration said in August that some 600,000 displaced Syrians had returned to their homes in 2017. When Andrej Mahecic of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) spoke of the trend, he felt bound to add that the number of those coming back was a "fraction" of the estimated 12 million displaced Syrians. 

Turkey, host to by far the largest number of Syrian refugees, offered them a major concession in 2017, perhaps in the hope of trimming the numbers.  It gave formal permission to all Syrian refugees to return temporarily to their country to celebrate the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which began on June 25. Those taking advantage of the offer had to register on a dedicated website and were required to return to Turkey by a given date, different depending on which crossing they chose to use. Otherwise they would be treated as new arrivals and subject to the regular immigration process.

          Missing the due date would indeed have constituted an obstacle of major proportions. Turkey has sealed off its Syrian border with fences, minefields, ditches and a massive security wall aimed at stemming the refugee flow into the country. There are reports of Turkish border guards shooting at Syrian refugees trying to cross the border without going through the formal registration process.  Media reports indicated that most Syrians taking advantage of the Eid al-Fitr concession intended to return to Turkey, but that some 9,000 opted to stay.

The concession was renewed a few weeks later to mark the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice, Eid al-Adha. The main border crossing between Turkey and Syria opened on August 15, and five days later around 12,000 refugees had passed into Syria.  They were allowed back into Turkey as from September 5, and the crossing closes on October 15.

  Meanwhile the snail-pace UN-backed peace negotiations crawl on. Seven previous rounds have failed to persuade the adversaries to hold face-to-face talks, let alone make progress.  Nonetheless the persistent UN Special Envoy, Staffan de Mistura, said in mid-August 2017 that the United Nations hopes for a “serious negotiation” between the government and a still-to-be-formed unified Syrian opposition in October or November.  He expected a unified position to emerge after the three opposition delegations took “stock of the realities on the ground”, at a meeting in October. 

Progress towards meaningful discussions on ending Syria’s civil war and planning a viable future for the country has been frustrated by the failure of the opposition parties to agree a common approach.  The main opposition is the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), which is totally opposed to Bashar al-Assad retaining power of any sort in a reconstituted Syria. The two other dissident groupings, the “Moscow” and “Cairo” platforms, are much less opposed to Assad being associated in some way in a post-war arrangement, perhaps for a “transition period”.

Unsurprisingly, the Syrian government team has refused to engage with the HNC, and would be likely to do so with a united opposition only if the HNC’s hard line had somehow been softened.  

          Ever optimistic, de Mistura has said ““Regarding the (Syrian) government, we are counting very much on Russia, on Iran, on anyone who has got major influence, and on the government of Syria to be ready finally to initiate, when they are invited to Geneva, a genuine, direct negotiation with whatever (opposition) platform comes out.”

          Clearly a long, difficult diplomatic process stretches out ahead.  Meanwhile Syria  remains a battlefield, civilians are still being killed, thousands are fleeing their country, and 12 million displaced Syrians struggle to live anything approaching a decent life.

          The Vatican recently published a 20-point plan on refugees which encourages countries to introduce community sponsorship legislation such as Canada’s system, which allows concerned citizens to organize and raise money to bring refugees to their country and help them towards citizenship. Now other governments, such as Ireland and New Zealand, are exploring the possibilities of allowing citizens to take action through such schemes. Last year the UK actually introduced legislation to make community sponsorship possible. Such people-powered initiatives enable ordinary citizens to demonstrate the humanity that has been conspicuous by its absence in the responses of world leaders. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 13 October 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Syrias-humanitarian-crisis-507281

Published in Eurasia Review, 16 October 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/14102017-syrias-humanitarian-crisis-oped/

Saturday, 7 October 2017

The other Kurdish poll


As far as Kurdish affairs are concerned, the world’s attention is currently focused on the independence referendum held on September 25, 2017 by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in north-eastern Iraq and that, despite considerable international pressure, there was a 92 percent vote in favour, on a 72 percent turnout.  Little attention has been paid to the fact that just three days earlier, another historic Kurdish election took place in neighbouring Syria.

The 5 million Kurds of Iraq represent only a small proportion of their 40 million-strong nation. Most Kurds – some 25 million – live within Turkey’s borders, and nearly 7 million are trapped inside Iran’s extremist Shi’ite regime.  

As for the 2 million Kurds in Syria, accounting for 15 percent of the population before the civil war, they had aspired for some time to a degree of autonomy.  The internal uprising in 2011 against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad gave them their opportunity.  As the civil war inside Syria descended into a maelstrom of at least six separate conflicts, up in the north the Syrian Kurds were battling Islamic State, and successfully winning back swathes of Kurd-inhabited territory.

Today, after a complex series of political and administrative changes mirroring their slow but steady success, the Kurd-occupied area is formally known as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS). 

In the early stages of the Syrian civil war. Syrian government forces withdrew from the Kurdish enclaves, leaving control to local militias.  The original three self-governing cantons, namely Afrin Canton, Jazira  Canton and Kobani Canton, emerged in 2012, to be joined in 2016 by the autonomous Shahba region as a fourth.  Meanwhile the leading political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), was establishing the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), a coalition based on the concept of grassroots democracy – a concept virtually revolutionary in the region.

TEV-DEM has been highly successful. In March 2016 it was agreed that the ever-expanding Kurdish area should be ruled under a new federal and democratic constitution.  Hediya Yousef and Mansur Selum were elected as joint chairmen of a body established to organise it.   The decision to set up a federal government was, Yousef asserted, in large part driven by the expansion of territories captured from Islamic State.

"Now,” he said, “after the liberation of many areas, it requires us to go to a wider and more comprehensive system that can embrace all the developments in the area, that will also give rights to all the groups to represent themselves and to form their own administrations."  

The only political camp fundamentally opposed were Kurdish nationalists, in particular the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which believes in pressing for a nation-state of Kurdistan rather than a polyethnic federation as part of Syria. However, on December  28, 2016, after a meeting of the 151-member Syrian Democratic Council, the new constitution was adopted,  Despite objections by the Kurdish nationalist parties, the whole region was renamed the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. The constitution, known as the "Charter of the Social Contract", provides for all citizens to enjoy gender equality, freedom of religion and property rights.

          As regards a poll of Kurdish opinion, the DFNS took their cue from the KRG’s decision to hold an independence referendum in neighbouring Iraq.   They decided to hold their own elections at about the same time.  Accordingly a poll was organized in northern Syria on Friday, September 22, 2017, as the first of a three-stage process to strengthen Kurdish regional autonomy in the country.

Voters elected leaders for about 3,700 "communes" spread across the regions of northern Syria where Kurdish groups have established autonomous rule.  The first poll will be followed in November by votes for local councils, and the process will culminate in January 2018 with the election of an assembly that will act as a parliament for a federal system of government in northern Syria.

The reaction of the Assad regime has been astonishing – a virtual volte-faceIn August 2017 Faisal Mekdad, Syria's deputy foreign minister, labelled the elections a joke. "Syria will never ever allow any part of its territory to be separated," he said.

   But on September 26, according to SANA, the Syrian state news agency, Walid Muallem, Syria's foreign minister, said that his country was open to the idea of greater powers for the country's Kurds. They ”want a form of autonomy within the framework of the borders of the state," he said. "This is negotiable and can be the subject of dialogue."  He indicated that discussion could begin “once the military campaign of President Bashar al-Assad’s government against the Islamic State group operating in Syria is over.”

This acceptance on the part of the Syrian government is likely to be anathema to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  Syria’s Kurds may not be seeking independence, but the degree of autonomy they seem likely to attain can only reinforce the Kurds in Turkey in their separatist demands. Nor is Erdogan likely to find much external help in opposing the activities of the DFNS.  The Syrian Kurds currently enjoy the support of both the US and Russia in the anti-IS struggle, and these two key permanent members of the UN Security Council seem willing to contemplate Kurdish autonomy within a unified post-war Syria. 

The worst scenario, from Erdogan’s point of view, would be if something like Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan were to be established in Syria, and then amalgamate or federate with Iraq’s KRG.  In that eventuality, demands by Turkey’s Kurds to be linked to it in some way might become irresistible.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 6 October 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/The-other-Kurdish-poll-506818

Published in the Eurasia Review, 9 October 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/09102017-the-other-kurdish-poll-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 10 October 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/?p=6541

Monday, 2 October 2017

How France beat Balfour to his Declaration

          The 2nd of November 2017 will mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration – the seminal document that has come to be remembered as either “one of the greatest acts of Western statesmanship in the 20th century” (vide British parliamentarian Richard Crossman) or “the single most destructive political document on the Middle East in the 20th century” (according to Palestinian scholar-activist Walid Khalidi). What is not generally known is that Britain’s Balfour Declaration was preceded – and may have been kick-started – by a letter from the head of France’s foreign office, Jules Cambon, issued on the authority of French prime minister, Alexandre Ribot.

          On June 4, 1917, Nahum Sokolow, secretary-general of the World Zionist Organization, received the following:

          “You kindly explained to me your project to develop Jewish colonization in Palestine. You believe that, given favourable circumstances, and with the independence of the Holy Places assured, it would be an act of justice and reparation to help in the rebirth, under the protection of the Allied Powers, of Jewish nationality in the land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago. The French government, which entered the current war to defend a people unjustly attacked, and which continues the struggle to ensure the victory of right over might, can feel nothing but sympathy for your cause, the success of which is linked to that of the Allies. I am happy to give you such an assurance.”

          As Weizmann’s biographer Jehuda Reinharz has noted, the Cambon letter “in content and form was much more favourable to the Zionists than the watered-down formula of the Balfour Declaration” that followed it. The French accepted a rationale in terms of “justice” and “reparation,” and acknowledged the historical Jewish tie to the land. The letter bound Zionism to the cause of all the Allies.

          “The Quai d’Orsay had been skillfully and decisively outmanoeuvered” according to historians Andrew and Kanya-Forstner. The French obstacle to a possible British declaration had been neutralized.

          “Our purpose,” explained Sokolow, looking ahead, “is to receive from the [British] government a general short approval of the same kind as that which I have been successful in getting from the French government.”

          And indeed Sokolow deposited the Cambon letter at the British foreign office, where it stimulated a spirit of competition. British officials who sympathized with Zionism now urged that Britain “go as far as the French.”

          Nahum Sokolow has been almost neglected by history. Born in Poland, he received a traditional rabbinic schooling but taught himself secular subjects and quickly gained a reputation as a prolific writer. In 1880 he moved to Warsaw, edited a Hebrew journal and was soon acknowledged as the world’s most prominent Hebrew-language journalist.

          In 1897, Sokolow reported from the First Zionist Congress and fell under the spell of Herzl. It was he who translated Herzl’s utopian novel Altneuland into Hebrew. Leaving journalism in 1906, he became the secretary general of the World Zionist Organization. He then threw himself into lobbying, diplomacy, and propaganda.

          As for the Balfour Declaration itself, for so historic a document, it is surprisingly, even starkly, simple. It is difficult to believe that the British Foreign Office in the very heyday of British imperialism did not run to crested notepaper – which the Cambon letter certainly did. The letter from foreign secretary Lord Balfour to one of the leading figures in Britain’s Jewish community, Lord Rothschild, is a small sheet of paper with the words “Foreign Office” typed just above the date, November 2nd, 1917.

          Asking Rothschild to “bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation”, the declaration in question ran:

          “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

           Subsequent events are too well known to require elaboration. Following the Great War, the League of Nations endorsed an Anglo-French agreement to dismember the Ottoman empire, assigning control of the territories mainly to the two colonial powers. The British government was mandated to take over the whole region then known as Palestine, and to put into effect its desire, as expressed in the Balfour Declaration, to establish there a national home for the Jewish people.

          Despite Britain’s eventual failure to fulfil the hopes set out in the Balfour Declaration, the British government continues to endorse the part it played in the eventual emergence of the State of Israel. In May 2017 a petition to Parliament called on the government to “apologise to the Palestinian people” over the Balfour Declaration because the UK’s colonial policy had caused “mass displacement” and injustice. The petition failed to gather sufficient signatures to trigger a parliamentary debate, but nonetheless the Government issued a formal response: “The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which HMG does not intend to apologise. We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel. The task now is to encourage moves towards peace.”

          As an earnest of Britain’s stance, Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, when in the UK in February 2017, was invited by prime minister Theresa May to attend November’s centenary celebrations of the Balfour Declaration in London.

          From whichever side of the fence one regards the events of 1917 and beyond, it seems clear that France shares with Britain both the bouquets and the brickbats.


Published in the Eurasia Review, 3 October 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/03102017-how-france-beat-balfour-to-his-declaration-oped/

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Balfour in word and deed


         Did Lord Balfour, Britain’s foreign secretary in 1917 and author of the historic Balfour Declaration – the document generally accepted to be the foundation stone of today’s Israel – ever visit the country? Well yes he did, once, and for a very good reason. 

        In the seven years following his letter announcing that the government favoured establishing a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, and especially after the League of Nations had mandated the British government to do just that, opposition to the Declaration had been growing. So it became increasingly important for the world to see what had been achieved by the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. What better way than a highly publicised visit by Lord Balfour to the Holy Land?

          For so historic a document, the letter that has come to be known as the Balfour Declaration is surprisingly, even starkly, simple. It is difficult to believe that the British Foreign Office in the very heyday of British imperialism did not run to crested notepaper. The letter from foreign secretary Lord Balfour to one of the leading figures in Britain’s Jewish community, Lord Rothschild, is a small sheet of paper with the words “Foreign Office” typed just above the date, November 2nd, 1917.

          Asking Rothschild to “bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation”, the declaration in question ran:

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

          Subsequent events are too well known to require elaboration. Following the Great War, the League of Nations endorsed an Anglo-French agreement to dismember the Ottoman empire, assigning control of the territories mainly to the two colonial powers. The British government was mandated to take over the whole region then known as Palestine, and to put into effect its desire, as expressed in the Balfour Declaration, to establish there a national home for the Jewish people.

          Although the British Mandate for Palestine did not come into force until September 1922, its terms were drawn up in April 1920. As soon as they became known, Arab riots broke out in Jaffa. This affected British public opinion, and voices began to be raised opposing the whole enterprise, and especially its likely cost. An All-Arab Congress, meeting in Geneva in July and August 1921, followed up the riots by attacking the Declaration and demanding all-Arab self-government for Palestine. Back in Britain, although a motion to repeal the Balfour Declaration failed in the House of Commons, it won a majority in the House of Lords.

           This growing opposition gave impetus to the idea that Lord Balfour should visit Palestine and that, through him, the world could be shown what had been achieved since his historic letter. Chaim Weizmann arranged for the visit to coincide with the formal opening of the Hebrew University, and Balfour was invited to conduct the opening ceremony on April 1, 1925. In March Lord Balfour’s party travelled by ship to Cairo, and from there took the train to the Holy Land. Yes, as early as the 1920s Palestine Railways had a line running from Egypt via Lydda and Tel Aviv as far as Haifa.

          On the appointed day a vast crowd assembled on Mount Scopus. At the opening of the university Balfour said: “A new era has begun. The great cultural genius that came to an end, and that had been dormant for so many years, is now going to be renewed.” A long list of diplomats and scientists who attended the ceremony described it in glowing terms.

          The fact that the historic event had been recorded on film seemed to pass from the public consciousness. It was only in 2013 that film researcher Yaakov Gross rediscovered the rare footage, and published it on YouTube. Rushes and out-takes from the filmic record of Balfour’s visit to Jerusalem show men and women, unsegregated by gender, praying together at the Western Wall.

          In fact a film crew, led by Kamil Suago and funded by the French-Jewish banker Albert Kahan, accompanied Lord Balfour throughout his travels in Palestine. Balfour was greeted everywhere by enthusiastic crowds, and his visit was adjudged an outstanding success. It confirmed the British government’s determination to exercise its Mandate.

          Despite Britain’s eventual failure to fulfil the hopes set out in the Balfour Declaration, the British government continues to endorse the part it played in the eventual emergence of the State of Israel. In May 2017 a petition to Parliament called on the government to “apologise to the Palestinian people” over the Balfour Declaration because the UK’s colonial policy had caused “mass displacement” and injustice. The petition failed to gather sufficient signatures to trigger a parliamentary debate, but nonetheless the Government issued a formal response: “The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which HMG does not intend to apologise. We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel. The task now is to encourage moves towards peace.”

          As an earnest of Britain’s stance, Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, when in the UK in February 2017, was invited by prime minister Theresa May to attend November’s centenary celebrations of the Balfour Declaration in London.

          The declaration has come to be remembered as either “one of the greatest acts of Western statesmanship in the 20th century” (vide British parliamentarian Richard Crossman) or “the single most destructive political document on the Middle East in the 20th century” (according to Palestinian scholar-activist Walid Khalidi). What is not generally known is that Britain’s Balfour Declaration was preceded – and may have been kick-started – by a letter from the head of France’s foreign office, Jules Cambon, issued on the authority of French prime minister, Alexandre Ribot.

          On June 4, 1917, Nahum Sokolow, secretary-general of the World Zionist Organization, received the following:

“You kindly explained to me your project to develop Jewish colonization in Palestine. You believe that, given favourable circumstances, and with the independence of the Holy Places assured, it would be an act of justice and reparation to help in the rebirth, under the protection of the Allied Powers, of Jewish nationality in the land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago. The French government, which entered the current war to defend a people unjustly attacked, and which continues the struggle to ensure the victory of right over might, can feel nothing but sympathy for your cause, the success of which is linked to that of the Allies. I am happy to give you such an assurance."

          Sokolow deposited the Cambon letter at the British foreign office, where it stimulated a spirit of competition. British officials who sympathized with Zionism now urged that Britain “go as far as the French.”

          From whichever side of the fence one regards the events of 1917 and beyond, it seems clear that France shares with Britain both the bouquets and the brickbats.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Road to anti-Semitism


Letter in the Daily Telegraph, 28 September 2017


SIR – In his analysis of America’s Antifa phenomenon (Sep 23 - see beneath), Rob Crilly omits one important aspect.


Anti-fascists in today’s America have become enslaved to the fashionable “intersectionality” that perceives a link between all manifestations of oppression, however diverse. Female victims of sexual inequality are related to black victims of racial inequality and to victims of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inequality.

Palestinians, Left-wing opinion has decreed, are quintessential victims. Their villainous oppressors are Israel, which it accuses of every sort of monstrous criminality. The logical outcome is that if one opposes racism, homophobia and sexism, then one must oppose Israel, and by extension all those who support Israel, and by a further extension all Israelis, most of whom just so happen to be Jews. The fact that half of all Israelis oppose the policies of their government is immaterial.

This is why the Charlottesville violence differed from the Battle of Cable Street, that seminal moment in the history of anti-fascist action. The Cable Street anti-fascists were Jews supported by non-Jewish friends, neighbours and fellow workers, who hated the anti-Semitism of Oswald Mosley and his bully-boys, and were determined to make a stand against them. Antifa, on the other hand, contains within itself an anti-Semitism as hateful as that mouthed by the fascists it opposes.

Neville Teller


Antifa:  The rise of America's shadowy far-left

Antifa defies standard definitions.

There is no leader, organised network or membership roll. Nor does it have a coherent policy platform to promote, although most adherents describe themselves as anti-government and anti-capitalist.

It has its roots in the anarchist movement but today is a loose network of autonomous anti-fascist groups, ranging from anti-racist organisations, groupings with their roots in Black Lives Matter, or far-Left communist and socialist movements.

Then there are the less traditional members, the gun clubs and self-defence gyms.

It is easier to define in terms of what it is against: Fascism, neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Its name, after all, is a contraction of anti-fascist.

Supporters say it is perhaps best understood as a tactic. Militant direct action - often violent - is its most salient feature, used to prevent the hard Right from organising, putting on rallies or even holding punk music gigs.

During the past year, that has extended to shutting down Trump supporters.

As Mark Bray, author of a new book, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, puts it: “Our goal should be that in 20 years those who voted for Trump are too uncomfortable to share that fact in public. We may not always be able to change someone's beliefs, but we sure as hell can make it politically, socially, economically, and sometimes physically costly to articulate them.”

Rob Crilly

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Will Guterres deliver justice for Palestinian refugees?

         
           António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres became Secretary-General of the United Nations on January 1, 2017. Once Portugal’s prime minister, he was UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 2005. For ten years he headed UNHCR, the world's largest humanitarian organization, during a period when unprecedented numbers of people fled their homes to seek safety or a better life elsewhere. He used his time in office to achieve fundamental organizational reform, cutting staff and administrative costs, while expanding the organization’s emergency response capacity during the worst displacement crisis since the Second World War.
          
        At the end of his term Guterres had more than 10,000 staff working in 126 countries; and the UNHCR was providing protection and assistance to over 60 million refugees, returnees, internally displaced people and stateless persons. The only refugees for which the UNHCR had no responsibility was the Palestinians. This is one desperately costly anomaly that the new UN Secretary-General must address sooner rather than later, as he seeks to reshape an organization that most world leaders agree is in urgent need of change from within.

          Reform of the whole UN organization now looms large on his agenda. Ever more urgent calls for action are emanating from world leaders as diverse as Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On Monday Sep 18, 2017 US President Donald Trump hosted a high level meeting on the subject, which ended with 128 nations signing a declaration of support for UN reforms, only Russia and China abstaining.

          Humanitarian concerns underlie one of the reforms to the UN structure urgently requiring attention. Some 5 million Palestinians under the aegis of UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) are doomed to perpetual refugee status.

          At around the time the state of Israel came into being, something over half the non-Jewish population of what used to be called “Palestine”, some 750,000 people, left their homes. The 1949 General Assembly resolution establishing UNRWA called for “the alleviation of the conditions of starvation and distress among the Palestine refugees.” Yet the resolution also stated that “constructive measures should be undertaken at an early date with a view to the termination of international assistance for relief.” In other words, the new refugee agency’s mission was intended to be temporary.

          Nearly 70 years have passed. The “temporary” UNRWA has been transformed into a bloated international bureaucracy with a staff of 30,000 and an annual budget of around $1.2 billion. As for the number of Palestinians registered by UNRWA as refugees, that has mushroomed from 750,000 in 1950 to 5.6 million today. How could such a situation have been allowed to develop? The transformation occurred according to the diktat of UNRWA itself, which decided to bestow refugee status upon "descendants of Palestine refugees," in perpetuity. The growth in UNWRA’s client base is therefore exponential, justifying an ever-expanding staff and an ever-increasing budget. It has been estimated that by 2050 the number of UNRWA’s “Palestine refugees” will reach just short of 15 million.

          When the civil conflict broke out in Syria in 2011, some 3 million UNRWA registered Palestine refugees were living in some 58 camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. By early 2017 up to 280,000 Palestinians had been displaced inside Syria, and a further 120,000 had fled to neighbouring countries. But what has justified this perpetuation of refugee status on millions of human beings?

          The three key policies pursued by the UN’s main refugee organization, the UNHCR, which Guterres ran so effectively, are voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement. As a result UNHCR has resettled literally millions of unfortunate people who have left their homes, willingly or unwillingly, over the years. A major effect of UNRWA’s humanitarian activities, on the other hand, has been not only to maintain millions of people in their refugee status decade after decade, but to expand the numbers as generation has succeeded generation.

          Over the past 70 years UNRWA has allowed itself to become a tool of those Arab states intent on using the Palestinians as bargaining chips in their anti-Israel politicking. For the receiving states to resettle and absorb these people into their new places of residence would be to remove a formidable negotiating advantage, and have the effect of legitimising Israel. The result? Jordan today contains over two million Palestine refugees, of whom 338,000 are still living in camps. In Lebanon an Amnesty International study described registered Palestine refugees as living in "appalling social and economic conditions". Following Lebanon’s civil war in 1990, the 400,000 Palestine refugees living there were barred from professions such as medicine, law and engineering and were not allowed to own property. A very partial relaxation of these harsh conditions was granted In June 2005 to Lebanon-born Palestinians.

          For its part, UNRWA – unlike UNHCR – made no effort to achieve integration or local resettlement. It washed its hands of any involvement in “final status” considerations.


          None of this is good enough. There has been talk of dismantling UNRWA, or of absorbing it into the UNHCR, or of radically amending its terms of reference. Any of these would be preferable to allowing the present state of affairs to run on indefinitely. Guterres must put this pressing issue high on his agenda for UN reform.

          The signs are good. Guterres is a reformer by temperament. He himself has argued that the UN’s unwieldy bureaucracy and structure need to be reshaped for a more interconnected world. UNWRA which keeps Palestinians permanently dependent as refugees is not currently fit for purpose. If it is to remain in operation, its remit requires fundamental reconsideration, its terms of reference need to be substantially amended, and its functions must be subject to rigorous and continuous scrutiny. If it cannot subject itself to this degree of reform, then it should be wound up, and its functions transferred to the UNHCR. Since this step would require a majority vote in the UN General Assembly, it would represent a major diplomatic challenge for the UN’s new Secretary General.  Antonio Guterres seems the very man to take it on, and succeed.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 30 September 2017 as:
Justice for Palestinian refugees - will Guterres deliver?
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Justice-for-Palestinian-refugees-will-Guterres-deliver-506328

Published in the Eurasia Review, 25 September 2017 as:
"Guterres - The Hope Of Justice for Palestinian Refugees"
http://www.eurasiareview.com/25092017-guterres-the-hope-of-justice-for-palestinian-refugees-oped/

Published in the Mashreq, Politics and Culture Journal, 27 September 2017 as:
"Guterres - The Hope Of Justice for Palestinian Refugees"
http://mpc-journal.org/?p=6514

Sunday, 24 September 2017

The intriguing background to the Balfour Declaration

         On November 2, 1917 a letter was delivered by hand from Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Balfour, to Lionel Walter, the second Baron Rothschild, at his home at 148 Piccadilly, a prestigious address if ever there was one.  The letter contained within in the historic Balfour Declaration, the document generally accepted to be the foundation stone of today’s Israel. 

          A question rarely asked is why Balfour addressed his letter to Lord Rothschild, rather than to Sir Stuart Samuel, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. After all, the Board of Deputies, its origins going as far back as 1760, was – and remains – the body officially representative of Britain’s Jewish community. The Board has been storm-tossed on many occasions during its long life. The reason it was not the recipient of Balfour’s historic communication is connected with a particularly tempestuous episode in its history. 

          Back in 1871 the Anglo-Jewish elite, led by the recently retired editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Abraham Benisch, set up an organization to protect Jewish rights in backward countries. Both Benisch and his co-founder, Albert Lowy, were passionate believers in the emancipation of downtrodden Jews across the world. Calling itself the Anglo-Jewish Association (AJA), it proved to be an effective means of influencing both British and foreign governments in opposing antisemitic activities. 

          The AJA quickly grew in size and influence, and by 1878 it had attained sufficient status for the Board of Deputies to agree to form a Conjoint Committee with it, through which a unified position on the protection of Jews worldwide could be presented to the government. Although the two bodies worked together well enough, something in the nature of a power struggle developed as each strove for recognition by the government as representing the Jewish community in the UK.

          On one matter, however, the leadership of both bodies was agreed – opposition to the wave of pro-Zionist sentiment that was sweeping Britain, an opposition rife among old-established Anglo-Jewish families.

          In 1917 the Board of Deputies was led by David Lindo Alexander, and the AJA by Claude Montefiore. Both were convinced anti-Zionists. In their view national identity and religion were completely separate. They were Englishmen of the Jewish persuasion. There was no such thing as the Jewish nation, and they saw absolutely no need for a separate state for Jews. 

          The Conjoint Committee, composed of selected members from the Board and the AJA, was led jointly by Alexander and Montefiore. Aware that Chaim Weizmann had gained the ear of the prime minister and leading members of the Cabinet, and fearful that the government was on the verge of declaring itself supportive of the Zionist cause, the joint chairmen drew up a statement of their position on the Zionist issue on behalf of the Conjoint Committee. Dated May 17, 1917, they sent it to The Times.

          The editor of The Times, a member of the upper echelons of the British establishment by virtue of his position, was George Geoffrey Dawson. He was certainly aware that prime minister Lloyd George, foreign secretary Lord Balfour, and other Cabinet ministers favoured the Zionist cause. It was no secret, either, that a conference had been convened in London by the English Zionist Federation for Sunday, 20 May, 1917. 

          No doubt to their disappointment, Alexander and Montefiore did not find their letter in the correspondence columns on Friday 18 May. Nor did it appear in the Saturday edition. The Zionist conference duly took place on the Sunday. As it got under way, Weizmann made a momentous announcement. "I am authorized to state in this assembly that His Majesty's Government is ready to support our plans". For the first time Weizmann declared publicly that the Zionists could rely upon British support and protection during their progress towards their final aim – "the creation of a Jewish Commonwealth in Palestine". 

          The wind had been taken out of the Conjoint Committee’s sails. Their letter was held back for another few days, while news of Weizmann’s announcement spread. When it finally appeared on the 24th of May, its attack on Zionism and its argument that establishing a Jewish national identity in Palestine would stamp Jews everywhere as 'strangers in their native lands', seemed petulant and ineffective. 

          On the Monday morning, a Bank Holiday, The Times published three rebuttals. A letter from Lord Rothschild emphasized that the anti-Zionists did not represent Britain’s Jewish community. Britain’s Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz asserted that the views of the Conjoint Committee belonged to a very small minority. A letter from Chaim Weizmann, as chairman of the English Zionist Federation, regretted “that there should be even two Jews who think it their duty to exert such influence as they may command against the realization of a hope which has sustained the Jewish nation through 2,000 years of exile, persecution, and temptation.”

          In the next few weeks the pro-Zionist Jewish Chronicle was bombarded with letters and statements from rabbis, readers, community leaders, synagogues, and Jewish organizations, the vast majority opposing the anti-Zionists. The resultant furore led the Board of Deputies to permit a vote to be tabled censuring the Conjoint Committee, and on June 17 it was passed by 56 to 51, with six abstentions – presumably the six Board members on the Committee. The result: the resignation of the Conjoint members, swiftly followed by that of the President of the Board, David Lindo Alexander, the co-signatory of the letter. Elected in his place was Sir Stuart Samuel, elder brother of Herbert Samuel, a former Home Secretary and later to be the first High Commissioner in Palestine. 

          When Balfour penned his historic letter only four months later, the Board of Deputies was still heavily tainted by the Conjoint Committee affair, and Samuel had scarcely settled into his new position as its President. The Declaration could not be despatched to an organization so equivocal about Zionism. Lord Rothschild, a leading figure in the Anglo-Jewish community and a strong supporter of Zionism, who had written to The Times to condemn the Conjoint Committee’s statement, was the obvious recipient.

          On Sunday December 2, 1917 London’s Royal Opera House was filled to capacity. Rothschild was chairing a meeting of thanksgiving for the Declaration - thanksgiving directed, one presumes, equally to the Almighty and the British government. Besides the government officials present, Zionist dignitaries were led by Chaim ‎Weizmann and included Nahum Sokolow, secretary-general of the World Zionist Congress, Herbert Samuel and Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz. After speeches by clergy, officials and even an Arab representative from Palestine, the occasion ended with loud cheers and the audience singing “Hatikvah.”

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 24 September 2017 as:
"The Balfour Declaration - why Lord Rothschild?"
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/The-Balfour-Declaration-why-Lord-Rothschild-505748

Saturday, 16 September 2017

The persecuted Yazidis

     
          If freedom of religious belief is a fundamental human right, then surely no people is more deserving of universal sympathy and support than the persecuted Yazidis. With a long history behind them of victimization and oppression under Ottoman rule­ – more than 70 genocidal massacres are on record – in recent years their maltreatment has, if anything, intensified.

          The Yazidis are a minority religious sect within the Kurdish nation. Almost all Kurds adhere to Sunni Islam; the Yazidis, although ethnically Kurdish, have preserved their own religious beliefs over the centuries. The Yazidi religion, dating back to the 11th century, is said to be derived from the ancient Persian faith of Zoroastrianism, founded some 3,500 years ago by the prophet Zoroaster, perhaps better known as Zarathustra. Zarathustra’s beliefs, like those of many ancient sages, have echoed down the centuries. “Thus Spake Zarathustra” was the title of a 19th century philosophical novel by Friedrich Nietzsche, and later of a tone poem by Richard Strauss which became the theme music for Stanley Kubrick’s iconic science-fiction movie: “2001 – A Space Odyssey”. 

          Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic faith which is not Abrahamic, but the Yazidis have incorporated into it elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The religious persecution that the Yazidis have been subjected to derives from their worship of Melek Tawwus, or the Peacock Angel, one of seven angels central to their beliefs. Its importance to the Yazidis led to their being dubbed “devil worshippers”, and to have led in the past to massacres. In post-Saddam Iraq, Al-Qaeda denounced Yazidis as infidels and slaughtered them in their hundreds. To Islamic State (IS) their mere existence was like a red rag to a bull.

          Although the Yazidis had once inhabited a wide area stretching across eastern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq, and western Iran, by 2014 only the community in Iraq was still numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Most lived in two areas: Sheikhan, a collection of villages and towns to the northeast of Mosul, and Sinjar, a mountain area close to the border with Syria.

          It was in June 2014 that IS formally declared the establishment of a "caliphate" – a state to be ruled in accordance with Sharia law by God's deputy on earth, or caliph. It demanded that Muslims across the world swear allegiance to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In its first months IS appeared unstoppable, conquering huge swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq. On August 2, 2014, IS forces captured the city and region of Sinjar.

          Yazidi civilians were told to convert to Islam immediately or be killed. More than 100,000 fled to take refuge on Mount Sinjar. The UN said that they ended up in nine locations on the mountain, a craggy, mile-high ridge identified in local legend as the final resting place of Noah’s ark.

          Those who couldn’t flee were rounded up. Many of the men were massacred. Thousands of Yazidis were either executed and thrown into pits, or died of dehydration, injuries or exhaustion on the mountain. According to Iraqi MP Vian Dakhil, herself a Yazidi from Sinjar, well over 6,000 Yazidis – mostly women and children – were enslaved and transported to IS prisons or military training camps. Some were conveyed to the homes of fighters across eastern Syria and western Iraq, where they were locked away, raped and beaten, or sold. By mid-2016, while some had escaped or been smuggled out of the caliphate, 3,793 remained in captivity, many as suspected sex slaves to IS members.

          The crisis is so bad that Yazidi clerics have amended their religious law to accept these girls back despite their having been raped, and to erase the shame on their families, which traditionally could have resulted in the girl being killed by her own family members. If any of the girls or women become pregnant, the Yazidi religion now permits them to have an abortion.

          The rise of Islamic fundamentalism has compelled thousands of Yazidis to seek asylum in Europe and beyond. According to some estimates, 70,000 people, or about 15% of the Yazidi population in Iraq, fled the country. Some 25,000 are reported to have settled in Germany.

          Now upwards of 500,000 Yazidi are in refugee camps across the Kurdish region. Their homeland, the villages in the Sinjar district, has been completely destroyed. In the camps they are facing ethnic and religious oppression, as soldiers and local aid workers deny them the collective opportunity to recover as a community. 

          To survive, the Yazidis need a refuge. So full marks to the organization calling itself “Yazidis International” (YI), working out of Lincoln, Nebraska. Dedicated to educating the public about the Yazidis and the crisis they are facing, it implements a variety of projects aimed at to preserving the Yazidi faith and culture, while working to empower the Yazidi community worldwide. In particular it is lobbying Congress to ease the immigration of Yazidis into the US.

            YI is supported by national and international faith groups and interfaith groups in the US, Canada and around the world. Commercial organizations and banks have signed up to support its work. It is in collaboration with the UN body IAHV (the International Association for Human Values), with the Iraqi humanitarian group “Humanity,” which has been delivering immediate help to Yazidis in need. It is also in a working partnership with HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), the US organization founded in response to the late 19th- and early 20th-century exodus of  Jewish emigrants from Russia, but still very much alive and kicking. 

          Justice for the crimes Yazidis suffered, including sexual enslavement, has so far proved elusive. Nor is the persecution and killing by any means over. "The genocide is ongoing,” said officials of the UN Human Rights Commission of Inquiry on August 3, 2017, “and remains largely unaddressed by the international community, despite the obligation of states ... to prevent and to punish the crime."

          One Yazidi man put the situation in more graphic terms.

          "The Yazidis' wound is still bleeding," he said, at a ceremony attended by several thousand people including the mayor and other local dignitaries, held at a temple at the foot of the mountain that dominates Sinjar. "The Kurds and the Iraqi government are fighting for Sinjar and we are paying the price."

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 15 September 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/The-persecuted-Yazidis-505179

Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 September 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/15092017-the-persecuted-yazidis-oped/

Published in the Mashreq Politics and Culture Journal, 17 September 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/?p=6498

Sunday, 10 September 2017

War-torn Syria – can Saudi Arabia broker peace?


        Devastated after years of conflict, Syria remains a huge battlefield, the scene of at least six separate military clashes.


        Still raging is the initial domestic battle between the Assad regime and Syrian opposition groups seeking a democratic alternative, both sides now bolstered by outside forces – Assad by Iran, Hezbollah and Russia; the opposition by Sunni Arab groupings. The second conflict is between Assad’s forces and those of Islamic State (IS), originally seeking to absorb the whole of Syria into its self-proclaimed caliphate. Thirdly there is the struggle between the 10-country US-led coalition against an IS which continues to be beaten back. Fourthly Turkey, while joining the fight against IS, mounts air strikes equally against the Kurdish Peshmerga troops ­– the Kurds and their campaign for autonomy are a long-standing source of friction within Turkey. The fifth conflict is the anti-IS campaign of the Peshmergas, the “boots on the ground” that the US coalition refused to place, and notably more successful than most of the other anti-IS activity. Finally, IS finds itself battling intermittently against a number of jihadist Sunni groups, including those pledged to al-Qaeda, that reject its claims to be the basis of an eventual world-wide caliphate.

        The maelstrom that is Syria has thrown up continuous attempts to resolve the fighting and settle the future of the country. Saudi Arabia has been involved in this effort from the very beginning, and is now taking a lead.

        The Syrian civil conflict was triggered during the so-called Arab Spring – that surprising manifestation of revolutionary zeal by the Arab masses, eager to throw off the authoritarian and often despotic rule which shackled so many of them. Saudi Arabia was, of course, no supporter of revolution, and in facing down its own potential Arab Spring it pursued a canny domestic policy. In essence the kingdom bought off its potential opposition by deploying its enormous wealth to enhance the incomes and social welfare of its population, spreading its largesse also among some of its fellow Gulf states. 

        The one exception to Saudi’s support for the status quo in the Arab world was Syria.

        There Saudi sided with the revolution, providing vast financial aid and weapons to the forces opposing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. At the heart of this policy lay the intense rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for hegemony of the Muslim world. Syria had become an essential element in Iran’s effort to enhance and extend its Shia Crescent of influence, an effort which encompassed Hezbollah in Lebanon, and support for disruptive forces in many of the Gulf States, including Saudi itself, intent on substituting Shia for Sunni rule.

        Given that before millions fled the country, 74 percent of Syrians practised Sunni Islam, the Saudi government wants to use its religious authority and economic resources to acquire influence over a post-Assad order. The last thing it wants to see is Iran taking over from IS as a dominant power in Syria.

        A variety of peace efforts, starting virtually at the beginning of Syria’s internal conflict, reached a degree of success in December 2016, when the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2254. This envisaged a Syrian-led, Syrian-owned political transition to end the conflict. That same month the foreign ministers of Iran, Turkey, and Russia agreed to hold Syrian peace talks in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, and since then peace has been pursued on a twin track – via the Astana route and by way of further Geneva peace talks under the auspices of the UN, though the Astana Process has the support of the UN’s special envoy, Staffan de Mistura.

        The Astana round in May 2017 resulted in the establishment of four “de-escalation zones” where combat operations were halted and conditions for humanitarian access provided. The deal was rejected by some rebel groups including the Democratic Union Party which believed the ceasefire zones were "dividing Syria up on a sectarian basis". A fragile ceasefire agreed between Moscow and Washington in July 2017 covering a small area of south-western Syria, similarly did not meet with unified approval.

        In fact, division between the various Syrian groups opposed to Assad has been a bugbear of all peace efforts so far. Now Saudi Arabia is taking the initiative in trying to effect a reconciliation. 

        The main body representing the Syrian opposition is known as the High Negotiations Committee (HNC). Currently two other groups, known as the Cairo and Moscow platforms, also claim to represent the Syrian opposition and have attended UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva alongside the HNC. Assad's negotiators have not so far met directly with the opposition, on the grounds that there is no unified delegation.

        Now Saudi plans to host a meeting of all the main Syrian opposition groups in an attempt to “unite the ranks of the opposition”, in the words of Nasr Al Hariri, an HNC spokesman. The meeting is planned for October 2017.

        Even if Saudi succeeds, the biggest bone of contention in the UN Geneva-based peace process would remain the future of Bashar al-Assad. There is “no place for Assad in Syria’s future,” said a Saudi foreign ministry official on 7 August 2017. That was, until quite recently, also the position of the US. Assad must go,” said ex-President Obama in October 2015. Following the poison gas attack in April 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said there was “no role” for Assad in Syria’s future and that “steps were under way” to remove him.

        There seems to have been a subtle shift in the US position. A US State Department official said on 7 August that while Washington “does not see Bashar al-Assad as having a role in the future of Syria … we believe the Syrian people must decide their own future through a political process that is credible, legitimate, and transparent.”

        This change of tone indicates that “we are definitely headed toward implicit acceptance of him staying for now in power,” said Faysal Itani, a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Itani believes the shift reflects the new military realities in Syria and a US desire to shift focus to Iran. Rex Tillerson said recently that “Iranian military forces inside of Syria must leave and go home.” Their departure from Syria was an “end state condition” for the US administration. 

        While Saudi Arabia would doubtless approve of expelling Iranian forces, it would find the prospect of Assad remaining in power in a reconstituted Syria much less appealing. In this, it would be reinforced by a new unified Syrian opposition, if indeed it succeeds in welding it together, come October.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 9 September 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/War-torn-Syria-can-Saudi-Arabia-broker-peace-504625

Published in the Eurasia Review, 10 September 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/10092017-war-torn-syria-can-saudi-arabia-broker-peace-oped/

Published in the Mashreq, Politics and Culture Journal, 15 September 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/?p=6480