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:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 September 2017:

Published in the Mashreq Politics and Culture Journal, 17 September 2017:

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:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 10 September 2017:

Published in the Mashreq, Politics and Culture Journal, 15 September 2017:

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Charlottesville and Cable Street - the essential difference

Modern fascism emerged in Italy during the first world war.  Waging war had required the establishment of an all-powerful state able to mobilize the whole nation. After the war fear of left-wing agitation, fostered in part by the Russian Revolution of 1917, led to widespread approval of the authoritarian rule that had arisen in Italy. As a result a fascist party under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini eventually took control of the nation.

Italian fascists believed, among a host of other things, that liberal democracy had become obsolete, that individual rights should be subordinated to the needs of the state, and that society should be purged of supposedly inferior elements.

These ideas, prevalent also in the thuggish Nazi party then fighting to establish itself in Germany, found their echo in the United Kingdom. Oswald Mosley, a scion of a minor aristocratic family, became a member of parliament when only 22. Having joined and then left both main political parties one after another, he founded his own party which veered increasingly towards the extreme right.  Then a visit to Mussolini in 1931 led him to create the British Union of Fascists.

Faced with violent anti-fascist disruptions to his meetings, Mosley established a corps of black-uniformed paramilitary stewards, nicknamed Blackshirts.  With his use of the Nazi salute, a flag highly reminiscent of the swastika, and a misplaced nationalism backed by rabid anti-Semitic propaganda, Mosley clearly saw himself on a par with Hitler, as the potential dictator of a fascist Britain.

“I openly and publicly challenge the Jewish interests of this country,” he declared in April 1935, “commanding commerce, commanding the Press, commanding the cinema. dominating the City of London."

Mosley and his blackshirts were about to provoke the iconic anti-fascist protest of the modern age – a protest that historian Mark Bray describes in his just-published “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook” as a potent symbol of how to stop fascism, an incident central to the anti-fascist mythology, a kind of North Star in the fight against fascism and white supremacy.

In late September 1936. posters appeared across London declaring: “Mosley speaks in East London. Four great meetings. Four marching columns.”

He was threatening to march thousands of blackshirts right through the streets of East London's large Jewish district, known as Whitechapel. This was interpreted by Jews and workers alike as a challenge to battle. The British communist party equipped its cohorts with banners and placards reading "Mosley Shall Not Pass!"

On Sunday, October 4, when the police tried to clear a route for the blackshirts through Cable Street, they met determined resistance. Vast numbers of East Enders, including Irish dockers and railway workers, came to help Jews build barricades. In the ensuing encounter the anti-fascists completely outnumbered blackshirts and police combined.  The police retreated and ordered Mosley to leave. Resolute defiance had won a famous victory.  The Battle of Cable Street went down in history as a prime example of how the forces of intolerance could be overcome by ordinary people acting together in a good cause.

Exactly, it has been claimed, what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11 and 12, 2017.

Nominally the rally on Saturday, August 12 was organized in opposition to a plan by local officials to remove a statue of Robert E Lee, the Confederacy’s top general, from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville.  This seemed to be one in a series of such protests mounted in other Southern cities against taking down Confederate monuments, but the forces behind this rally ran much deeper. Right-wing extremism, including white nationalism and white supremacy, had been on the rise for some time.  The Robert E Lee statue was to prove a flashpoint.

Tensions had begun increasing on the evening of Friday, August 11, when a group of white nationalists marched through the University of Virginia's campus chanting Nazi and white supremacist slogans, including "White lives matter"; "you will not replace us"; and "Jews will not replace us."  The phrase "you will not replace us" has been reported by the Anti-Defamation League to "reflect the white supremacist world view that... the white race is doomed to extinction by an alleged 'rising tide of color' purportedly controlled and manipulated by Jews."

So, just as in Cable Street, we have a group of extreme right-wing fascists shouting anti-Semitic slogans amid a flood of other hate-filled messages, bent on fomenting a violent encounter with those opposed to them.  Where the comparison falls down is when we examine the motives of many of those  by no means all who came to confront them.

The protest was orchestrated by the establishment that calls itself “Antifa”.  Not really a structured organization, Antifa consists of loosely affiliated groups that are, by and large, socially leftist, anti-capitalist , even anarchist, but decidedly anti-racist. Many are also violently anti-Semitic.  Using anti-Zionism as a convenient cloak, Antifa demands that American Jews who support Israel are banned from public life, and it prohibits Israel-supporting Jews from participating in their events.  It advocates the elimination of Israel as a sovereign state, and promotes the anti-Israel BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.  As one commentator recently wrote: “from the American Jewish community’s perspective, there ought to be no distinction between its abhorrence and concern over the white supremacists, and its concerns and abhorrence of the radical left.” 

Why is Charlottesville different from Cable Street? Because anti-fascists in 2017 America have become enslaved to the fashionable “intersectionality”, which perceives a link between all manifestations of oppression, however diverse. Equal pay for women is related to Black Lives Matter. Left-wing opinion has decreed that Palestinians are quintessential victims. Their villainous oppressors are Israel, which it ridiculously accuses of every sort of monstrous criminality from harvesting the organs of dead Palestinians to apartheid to genocide. The logical outcome? If you oppose racism, homophobia, sexism, then you must oppose Israel, and by extension all those who support Israel, and by a further extension all Israelis, most of whom, by a curious chance, happen to be Jews. You must deny them a voice, ban them from public life, cut them off from academic interchange, boycott or disrupt their artistic performances.

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 Nazi-aping bully-boys, and determined to make a stand against them.  Antifa, on the other hand, contains within itself an anti-Semitism as prejudiced and as hateful as that mouthed by the fascists it opposes.  Therein lies the essential difference. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 4 September 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 September 2017:

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Kushner's progress

        Following a whirlwind tour of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace team, headed by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, arrived in Israel on 23 August 2017. A three-hour meeting with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was followed by a journey to Ramallah and a discussion with Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas. Not once, throughout their time in the region, did Kushner or any of his team, mention the words “two-state solution.”

        Hard-liners on each side see a solution only in the utter defeat of the other. Hard-line Israeli opinion favours annexing the West Bank and incorporating it into Israel proper; the Palestinian hard-line objective is to eliminate Israel altogether, converting the whole of what was once Mandate Palestine into a new sovereign state of Palestine. This is not the view held by most Israelis or Palestinians. A joint Palestinian-Israeli poll conducted during June and July 2017 revealed that 53 percent of Israelis and 52 percent of Palestinians favor a two-state solution.

        The idea of partition traces its origins back to the Balfour Declaration, the statement by the British government supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the region then known as Palestine, issued exactly one hundred years ago, in 1917. Britain was subsequently mandated by the League of Nations to realize the project, but reconciling Jewish and Arab interests proved impossible and civil disturbance proliferated. The Arab revolt of 1936 finally goaded Britain into establishing a Commission under Lord Peel charged with reaching a workable solution. After much deliberation, Peel proposed the partition of Palestine into two states – one Jewish, the other Arab.

        The rationale? “An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities … Their national aspirations are incompatible. The Arabs desire to revive the traditions of the Arab golden age. The Jews desire to show what they can achieve when restored to the land in which the Jewish nation was born. Neither of the two national ideals permits of combination in the service of a single State.”

        What was true then remains true today, but the situation has become ever more complicated with the passage of time.  "Any proposals to bring the two parties back to the negotiating table," declared Hamas leader Yahya Moussa in June 2016, “aim at slaying the Palestinian cause.” Hamas's solution to end the conflict, he declared, is based "on the Israeli withdrawal from the entire Palestinian territories occupied since 1948. Hamas will always opt for armed resistance until the restoration of Palestinian rights."

        The world supports the two-state concept, but the question rarely asked is how peaceful co-existence can be achieved when Hamas, representing a substantial proportion, if not the majority, of Palestinians is opposed tooth and nail to any accommodation with Israel. 

        Can Kushner and his peace team square the circle? 

        During his meeting in Ramallah, Kushner is reported to have told Abbas that Trump would present a plan in the next three to four months in exchange for the Palestinian leader abandoning efforts to pursue statehood in international bodies. Abbas is said to have agreed to Kushner’s proposal, but demanded that Trump personally commit to the US peace plan, and asked for a meeting between the two leaders during the UN General Assembly in September 2017.

        According to the official PA news outlet Wafa, Abbas came away from his discussion with Kushner pleased with Trump’s commitment to the peace process. “We know that this issue is difficult and complex, but nothing is impossible in the face of good efforts,” he said during his meeting with Kushner. “We affirm that this delegation is working toward peace, and we are working with it to achieve soon what Trump called the ‘peace deal.’”

        Prior to his meeting with Abbas, Kushner met with Netanyahu. “The president is very committed to achieving a solution here,” said Kushner, “that will be able to bring prosperity and peace to all people in this area. We really appreciate the commitment of the prime minister and his team to engaging very thoughtfully and respectfully in the way that the president has asked him to do.”

        Netanyahu told Kushner he believed peace was “within our reach.”

        The “regional umbrella” concept envisages a pro-peace grouping of Arab states under whose aegis the Palestinian leadership might be emboldened to come to a final status agreement with Israel. It seems, from Kushner’s latest itinerary, that Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt might provide this umbrella. What sort of deal, satisfactory to both Israel and the Palestinians, might be hammered out under its cover?

         An Arab-Israeli peace conference could be convened with the aim of establishing a sovereign state of Palestine – but only within the context of a new three-state Confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine. The two new legal entities, Palestine and the Confederation, would be established simultaneously. The Confederation would be dedicated primarily to defending itself and its constituent sovereign states, with Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian forces acting in concert. It would also foster economic development and infrastructure across the confederate states. Such a solution, based on an Arab-wide consensus, could absorb Palestinian extremist objections, making it abundantly clear that any subsequent armed opposition, from whatever source including Hamas, would be disciplined from within, and crushed by the combined defence forces of the Confederation. 

        A confederation of three sovereign states, dedicated to providing high-tech security and future growth and prosperity for all its citizens – here’s where an answer might lie.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 30 August 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 September 2017:

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Is Qatar weathering the storm?

        On 5 June 2017, without any sort of warning, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar. In addition they suspended all land, air and sea traffic with the Gulf state, and gave any Qatari citizens within their borders 14 days to leave. At the same time Qatar was expelled from the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iranian-backed forces in Yemen. Soon other Arab states joined the anti-Qatar alliance, including Jordan, Yemen, the Maldives and Libya’s crippled government based in Tobruk.

        This bombshell initiative was preceded by two relevant events. The more recent was the visit of US President Donald Trump to Saudi Arabia on 20 May 2017 for a meeting with some 50 leaders of the Arab world. On the subject of Islamist extremism he was characteristically blunt. “A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists. Drive them out!  Drive them out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your holy lands. And drive them out of this Earth.”

        Did he already know of the action to be taken only 16 days later by an influential band of the leaders he was addressing?

        This was not the first time that Qatar’s neighbors had lost patience with that stand-alone kingdom. Back in January 2014 underlying tensions, brewing for years, suddenly surfaced, and Gulf states tried to induce Qatar to sign an agreement undertaking not to support extremist groups and to refrain from interfering in the affairs of other Gulf states.

        When Qatar flatly refused to comply, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain broke off diplomatic relations. In March 2014 Qatar’s 33-year-old Emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, had been in power for less than a year, and the pressure proved too great. In April the Qataris signed the Riyadh Agreement whose terms, though never made public, were believed to be virtually the same as those they had refused to sign a few weeks earlier.

        Whatever the Riyadh Agreement exactly specifies, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain clearly took away a very different view of what had been agreed than the Qataris. They expected Qatar to curtail its support for extreme Islamism, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. They believed that Qatar had agreed to remove, or at least reduce, the appearance of Islamists on Al Jazeera and other Qatari media, and especially to eliminate or soften the constant Muslim Brotherhood-based criticism of Egypt’s government and its president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. They also expected Qatar to expel, or at least silence, the provocative Islamist figures that dominated its media platforms, including Muslim Brotherhood preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the Palestinian Arab nationalist firebrand Azmi Bisha.

        However they were soon to find that Qatar had no intention of meeting their expectations, and simply continued along its chosen independent path – backing Islamists while also offering itself as a key US ally. Qatar’s policy is rooted in pragmatism: it wants to extend its influence by being friends with everybody. “We don’t do enemies,” said Qatar’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah. “We talk to everyone.”

        That philosophy proved a miscalculation. Their patience exhausted, the Gulf states and Egypt, backed by some 10 other Arab nations, finally took drastic action. "We want to see Qatar implement the promises it made a few years back with regard to its support of extremist groups, to its hostile media and interference in affairs of other countries," said Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister.

        On 23 June 2017 the anti-Qatar coalition delivered a 13-item list of issues to be addressed before the standoff could be resolved. These included shutting down the Al-Jazeera media network, severing ties with terrorist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah, and immediately closing Turkey's military base outside the Qatari capital. Qatar was given 10 days to comply.

        Allowing the 10 days to expire, Qatar then did nothing more than issue its response to the ultimatum in a letter from Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Its contents have not been disclosed, but the anti-Qatar bloc described it as "negative".

        However Qatar was not without support. Whether or not the US president had helped initiate the crisis, Washington now urged conciliation. One consideration, no doubt, was the fact that Al Udeid Air Base, outside the Qatari capital, Doha, is home to more than 11,000 American and coalition service members, and that Qatar houses the regional headquarters of the US Central Command and an American intelligence hub.

        And then German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, declaring that the 13-demand list was "very provocative", said that Germany was in close touch with all sides, and that efforts were under way to define which conditions Qatar could accept. He followed this up by visiting Saudi Arabia, Qatar and mediator Kuwait, and then announcing that Germany’s intelligence service would be involved in investigating the accusation that Qatar supports terrorist groups.

        Meanwhile 30 August marks the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, when something like two million people pour into Saudi Arabia. There was initially some doubt as to whether Saudi Arabian airplanes would be allowed to ferry pilgrims into and out of Qatar. After some initial squabbling, a degree of cooperation was hammered out allowing pilgrims to fly on Saudi airlines from Qatar to Mecca.

        Pilgrims are a special case, but most major trade routes into and out of Qatar have been closed off by its neighbours. All the same, Qatar is being sustained by continuous shiploads of food and other goods sent in by Iran and Turkey. As for exports, Qatar is the largest global exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG), a position it is determined to retain against US, Russian and Australian competition. On 2 July, as the opening shot in a price war, Qatar announced its intention to boost LNG output by 30 percent to 100 million tonnes per year. Market analysts say that with low production costs and infrastructure already in place, Qatar is well placed to come out on top.

        So although the credit ratings agency Moody's has downgraded the emirate’s outlook from stable to negative because of the crisis, Qatar seems to be weathering the economic blockade and appears reasonably well placed to sustain itself for some time ahead. The question is whether it can win its political battle with half the Arab world.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 26 August 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 27 August 2017:

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Could the Russian embassy be the first in Jerusalem?

        Wednesday August 23 was something of a red letter day in Arab-Israeli politics. Not only was Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, closeted with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow, but the US team of peace negotiators landed in Israel after a whirlwind tour of Middle East capitals. How Putin views US President Donald Trump’s efforts to foster credible peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is not known. What is undoubted is that Putin is determined to expand Russia’s influence in the Middle East, and that he would jump at the chance of brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

        Immediately after the UN Security Council passed its Resolution 2334 on 23 December 2016, Russia issued a statement that far from endorsed the attempt to impose the structure of a two-state solution on Israel. Direct talks between Palestinians and Israelis without any preconditions was what Russia favoured. “We would also like to reaffirm our readiness to host a meeting of the leaders of Israel and Palestine in Moscow.”

        The main burden of Netanyahu’s conversations with Putin this week was undoubtedly about the dangers of allowing Iran to obtain a permanent foothold in a post-conflict Syria. But he might have touched upon the possibility of Russia out-trumping Trump on the Jerusalem embassy issue.

        During his presidential campaign, 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 is pursuing that possibility with determination. To avoid compromising the delicate negotiations currently in progress, led by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Trump has so far delayed acting on the embassy issue. This provides Putin with a political window of opportunity that will not remain open for very long.

        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, Jerusalem is either an international entity or part of it is Palestinian. It cannot be both.

        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. Of the 15, only one nation has recognized the logical implications of what they 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 a quite astonishing statement. While reaffirming its support for the two-state solution and that East Jerusalem should be 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."

        This declaration, ground-breaking in itself, 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 is currently 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, Russia owes them little, and 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. Moreover Putin is courting Israel to grant Gazprom a share in the even vaster Leviathan 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, and provide it with a notable advantage.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 23 August 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 August 2017:

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Israel-Palestine - a deal in the making?

        From early on in his bid for the presidency Donald Trump was intrigued by the possibility of brokering a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

        On the campaign trail back in February 2016 he declared “I will give it one hell of a shot. I would say if you can do that deal, you can do any deal.” Later, as he earmarked his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to lead the peace-making effort, he said: “I would love to be the one who made peace with Israel and the Palestinians. That would be such a great achievement.”

        There is little doubt that to get viable peace talks off the ground the skills of an expert deal-maker are required. Fortunately an acknowledged expert in the field is available. If there is one thing about Donald Trump that his greatest friends and most impassioned enemies are agreed on, it is that deal-making has been the key to his business success, which has been considerable.

        During his presidential campaign Trump outlined his deal-making philosophy: “Each side must give up something [of] …value in exchange for something that it requires. That's what a deal is.” After one meeting with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, he declared “I think there’s a very, very good chance” of achieving a deal.

        Shortly after receiving his brief, Kushner set to work. He spent months studying the background to the long-running dispute, and subsequently held one-on-one meetings with all the main players. Then a briefing session for interns that Kushner hosted in Washington – a session specifically intended to be private – was surreptitiously recorded and leaked to the press. What Kushner revealed, in what he believed was an off-the-record discussion, was the disillusionment familiar to anybody who has ever engaged on a formidable enterprise – the moment when the magnitude of what you have undertaken suddenly strikes you.

        A great deal was made in the press about a particular remark of Kushner’s, embedded in a 20-minute exposition: “We're thinking about what the right end state is. And we’re trying to work with the parties very quietly to see if there's a solution. And there may be no solution.”

        “Kushner: There May Be No Solution to Mid-East Peace” headed report after report of the leaked discussion. But in effect Kushner was not only stating the obvious, but actually reiterating his father-in-law’s own take on the situation. “A lot of people say an agreement can’t be made,” said Trump, back on the presidential trail, “which is OK – sometimes agreements can’t be made.”

        One thing is certain – Kushner may be experiencing a dark night of the soul, but he has not given up. Where he may be misleading himself is in rejecting the lessons of history. Underlying some of his remarks is a world-weary frustration that is almost palpable. How many apparently endless discussions are exposed in: “You know everyone finds an issue, that ‘You have to understand what they did then’ and ‘You have to understand that they did this.’” One can sense the interminable interchanges he must have endured with one or other of the parties, blinded by their own claims and grievances. He has clearly lost patience with the tit-for-tat recriminations.

        “How does that help us get peace?” he asks.

        He may be right on that matter. It can’t. But he is wrong in the conclusion he drew, that afternoon in Washington.

        “We don’t want a history lesson,” he said. “We’ve read enough books. Let’s focus on how do you come up with a conclusion to the situation.”

        But history is at the very heart of the problem he faces. If there is ever to be a deal, it could not possibly be achieved without an in-depth understanding of the history of the Holy Land, because both the Jewish people’s claim to the land, and the refutation of that claim in the Palestinian narrative, is rooted in the past.

        An inescapable aspect of historical events is that they have no real beginning. Depending on the starting point selected, the rights and wrongs of each party’s position in a political dispute can look very different. In respect of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the Jewish narrative probably begins some 5000 years ago; the Palestinian in the late-nineteenth century, perhaps, with the start of the proactive return to the Holy Land of Jewish settlers. Between 1881 and 1897 – that is, before the formal foundation of the Zionist movement – some twenty new settlements were created by the Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion).

        If a deal acceptable to both sides is ever to be achieved, attempts to reconcile wildly varying interpretations of historical events would have to be put aside – a delicate task in itself. And now it is announced that before the end of August Kushner, accompanied by Jason Greenblatt and Dina Powell, US deputy national security adviser, will be touring the Middle East for discussions with states throughout the region. With Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates on the itinerary, as well as Israel and the Palestinian territories. it seems that the “regional umbrella” concept of nurturing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is being pursued.

        This new impetus has Palestinian support. Head of the PLO mission to the US, Husam Zomlot, following a meeting with Greenblatt on 17 August, “reaffirmed the full readiness of the Palestinian leadership to support President Trump’s efforts to reach a comprehensive solution to the Palestinian-Israel issue.”

        The first signs of a deal in the making?

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 August 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 August  2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 22 August 2017:

Friday, 11 August 2017

A new bid for Kurdish independence

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

        No, this is not the story of the Jewish people. It is the broad outline of the long, convoluted and unresolved history of the Kurds.

        The Kurds – more than 30 million strong – are the largest stateless nation in the world. Historically they inhabited a distinct geographical area flanked by mountain ranges, once referred to as Kurdistan. No such location is depicted on current maps, for the old Kurdistan now falls within the sovereign space of four separate states: Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Most Kurds – some 25 million – live within Turkey’s borders, but the 2 million Kurds in Syria are the country’s largest minority, while within Iraq the 5 million Kurds have developed a near autonomous state. Nearly 7 million Kurds are trapped inside Iran’s extremist Shi’ite regime.

        It was shortly after the end of the First World War that, orchestrated by Britain and France, the dissolution and partition of the Ottoman Empire were set out in the Treaty of Sèvres. In abolishing the Ottoman Empire, the treaty stipulated a referendum to decide the issue of the Kurdistan homeland.

        That referendum never took place, and the Sèvres treaty itself was rendered null and void in 1922 by the establishment of the Turkish Republic under Kemal Ataturk. What followed was a new treaty, the Treaty of Lausanne, which gave control of the entire Anatolian peninsula, including the large portion of the Kurdistan homeland that lay within it, to the new republic. With a stroke of the colonial pen over 20 million Kurds were declared Turkish.

        Kurdish nationalism in Turkey developed largely as a reaction to the secular nationalism that revolutionized the country under Ataturk. After years of struggle, Mustafa Barzani emerged as the figurehead for Kurdish separatism. Comprising about 20 percent of Turkey's 77 million population, fractious Kurds were a constant political problem for Turkey.

        In Syria the civil war, starting in 2011, brought the Kurds to the forefront of the region’s politics. In the face of Islamic State’s (IS) military advance, Syrian government forces abandoned many Kurdish occupied areas in the north and north-east of the country, leaving the Kurds to administer them. In October 2011, sponsored by Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, the Syrian Kurds established a Kurdish National Council (KNC). The KNC is now initiating elections intended to consolidate an autonomous Kurdish region within whatever Syrian state eventually emerges.

        Years of rebellion by the Kurds of Iraq ended in 1970 with a peace deal with the government, granting them a degree of self-rule and recognition of their language. When Mustafa Barzani died in 1979, the leadership of the KDP passed to his son, Masoud. But a new rival force had emerged in Kurdish politics with the founding by Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The journey towards a unified Kurdish movement in Iraq was long and bitter, but finally, in 1998, a joint leadership deal was signed. Eventually the PUK and the KDP set up a unified regional government, and Masoud Barzani became a member of Iraq’s Governing Council.

        When the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, the Peshmerga troops of the Kurds – who retained bitter memories of Saddam Hussein’s poison gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja – joined in the fight to overthrow him. After he was driven from office the Iraqi people, in a national referendum, approved a new constitution which recognized the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as an integral element in Iraq’s administration. Barzani was elected President of Iraqi Kurdistan in June 2005.

        In June 2014 IS began its conquest of much of western and northern Iraq. The Iraqi military largely disintegrated. It was Kurdish Peshmerga forces that stepped in, taking control of Kirkuk and other northern areas long claimed by the KRG but until then outside its control. The Peshmerga subsequently proved to be the most effective of the anti-IS fighting forces, backed as they were by the US-led coalition which adhered to its “no boots on the ground” policy.

        In June 2017, with Mosul in the final stages of being recaptured from IS, Kurdish president Barzani announced that an independence referendum would take place on 25 September 2017 encompassing not only the area within the administration of the KRG, but also three adjacent regions, largely occupied by Kurds but claimed by the central government.

        In announcing the referendum, the leadership made it clear that a “Yes” vote would not automatically trigger a declaration of independence. It would, however, greatly strengthen the Kurds’ bargaining position in future talks 
with the central government on self-determination. 

        Turkey's initial reaction to the referendum announcement was critical. So indeed was that of the US and the UK – the main burden of their opposition being that the referendum was “untimely”. The US understood “the legitimate aspirations of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan”, but believed that they should concentrate on repairing the ravages of war and on collaborating with, rather than confronting, the central government. Baghdad had already rejected the referendum call. “No party can, on its own, decide the fate of Iraq, in isolation from the other parties,” said Saad al-Haddithi, Iraqi government spokesman.

        Shortly after Barzani announced the referendum, Saudi Arabia came out in support. Other Sunni states in the Saudi-led coalition are likely to follow, since Turkey is siding with Qatar in their current conflict. Then on 25 July 2017 Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in perhaps a knee-jerk reaction to the US’s position, announced support for the referendum.

        The Kurds are a brave and battle-hardened people yearning for national independence and the right of self-determination. Long the powerless pawns of others' interests, in taking this next step towards achieving autonomy the Kurds merit support. When the time comes for them to declare an independent Kurdistan, perhaps combining the areas in Iraq and Syria under their control, they deserve the recognition of the free world.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 6 August 2017:

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 11 August 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 11 August 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 14 August 2017:

               [Next posting:  Friday 18 August at 2.30 pm GMT]

Friday, 4 August 2017

China looks towards the Middle East

        China is on the up and up.  That is a truth universally recognized.  Since initiating market reforms in 1978, China has shifted from a centrally-planned to a market-based economy, and has experienced rapid economic and social development. Growth has averaged nearly 10 percent a year – the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history – and has lifted more than 800 million people out of poverty. That rate of growth could scarcely be sustained indefinitely and may now be falling off a little, but the second quarter of 2017 still saw the Chinese economy advance by 6.9 percent.   For comparison, US growth rate in 2016 was 1.6 percent, and the UK and Germany both grew by 1.8 percent.
        This exponential economic growth raised within China’s elite the understandable desire to use it as a springboard for advancing China’s global political status.  Thus was born in 2013 China’s“Belt and Road Initiative”.  Introduced and promoted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the “belt” refers to reinvigorating the old Silk Road economic belt, while the “road” relates to constructing a 21st century Maritime Silk Road.  The aim of the initiative was to  promote the economic prosperity of the countries along the Belt and Road, enhance regional economic cooperation, strengthen exchanges and mutual learning between different civilizations, and promote world peace and development.

        By 2017 it had involved China underwriting billions of dollars of infrastructure investment in countries along the old Silk Road linking it with Europe. The ambition is immense. China is spending roughly $150 billion a year in the 68 countries that have signed up to the scheme. According to the Economist, Xi Jinping is seeking to dominate Eurasia and create an economic and trading area to rival the transatlantic one, dominated by the US.

        In May 2017 Xi Jinping welcomed 28 heads of state and government to Beijing to celebrate the initiative.  There were not many Western leaders among the guests.  The EU’s reservations about China came to a head last year when EU lawmakers voted against China’s application for “market economy status”, which would have reduced possible penalties in anti-dumping cases. Steel was the sticking point: China’s huge production capacity has flooded world markets and threatened jobs, growth, and competitiveness.

        As for the political implications of China’s initiative, the West has largely ignored them. While its attention has been focused elsewhere, President Xi has been pursuing his aim of achieving a global leadership role for China.  Locked into his economic-based political agenda is a desire to make a mark in Middle East politics in general, and the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma in particular.

        Back in May 2013, when the “Belt and Road” initiative was being finalised, both Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, visited Beijing.  Following hard on each other’s heels, Netanyahu stressed the large and growing commercial partnership between China and Israel, while Abbas encouraged China’s ambition to intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, urging the Chinese leadership "to use its relationship with Israel to remove the obstacles that obstruct the Palestinian economy". 

As a result China proposed a four-point plan as the agenda for a dialogue, which it would host, between Abbas and Netanyahu.  It called for the establishment of a Palestinian state on the basis of 1967 lines, respect for Israel’s right to exist and security concerns, halting settlement activities and violence against civilians, and international guarantees to advance the peace process.  No such dialogue took place.

With the PA president back in Beijing in July 2017 for a state visit at Xi Jinping’s invitation, China’s four-point plan was back in play.  Abbas praised China’s desire to resolve the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, and said he supported holding trilateral Chinese-Israeli- Palestinian meetings to move the peace process forward. The trilateral dialogue mechanism had been raised by President Xi Jinping in a closed-door meeting with Abbas. It is aimed at helping “coordinate and push forward key projects to assist Palestine”, according to a statement on the website of the Chinese Foreign Ministry. 

It does not have the feel of an initiative likely to take off.  “We don’t even know if this will be an official dialogue or an unofficial one,” said Pan Guang, a professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “But so far, I doubt if Israel would want any official involvement.”

The proposal of a three-way dialogue comes as Beijing steps up engagement, both diplomatic and economic, in the Middle East, a region Beijing views as critical in its trade and investment “Belt and Road” initiative.  During his visit to the Middle East in January 2017, President Xi pledged $55 billion in investment and loans for the region.  At the same time China remains in a cosy economic relationship with Israel, with a record $16.5 billion of Chinese investment in Israel last year.

There seems little escape from the perception that China is using its unprecedented and growing wealth to buy a leading role in the drama playing on the international stage.  As in all international dealings, mixed motives can often be detected, though realpolitik is usually at the heart of affairs. Wang Lian, an international relations professor at Peking University, assumes China’s benevolent intentions.

“From China’s perspective,” he said, “economic measures could be more effective in connecting different parties in the Middle East, for example in the case of Syria where, as Islamic State falls, China’s involvement in the reconstruction could be more acceptable for both the government and the opposition.”   Which may be true enough, if the other parties involved were inclined to step – or be pushed – aside to allow China space.

What is true for Syria in true for the Middle East generally.  As for mediating an Israeli-Palestinian accord, China has to join the back of a line including the US, of course, but also Russia, France, the Arab League, and the EU. 

Which is not to say that Chinese influence, backed by Chinese investment, and resting on ancient Chinese diplomatic skills, may not in the final analysis result in China being the mediator of choice.

         Published in the Jerusalem Post, 27 July 2017:

        Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 4 August 2017:           501605

Published in the Eurasia Review, 4 August 2017:

[Next posting:  Friday 11 August 2017 at 4.30 pm GMT]