Friday, 16 February 2018

Lebanon - one big Iranian arms factory?

                                                                                video version
Lebanon goes to the polls on May 6.  Nine long years have passed since the last parliamentary elections which, according to the constitution, are supposed to be held every four years.  Ever since 2014 ministers and politicians have voted again and again to postpone elections and extend the current parliament, citing security concerns, political crisis and a dispute over the election law.

When the new poll is held, the political landscape within Lebanon and in the region will have changed dramatically.  The intervening period has seen both the rise and the battlefield defeat of Islamic State in neighboring Iraq and Syria, a dramatic extension of Iranian power in both countries, the direct involvement of Hezbollah military forces – ­composed, be it remembered, of young Lebanese fighters – in the civil conflict in Syria, acting under direct Iranian command, and a huge build-up of sophisticated Iranian weaponry in Lebanon itself together with the development of arms manufacturing facilities on a massive scale.

Moreover, the previous pro-Western, Saudi-backed political alliance led by prime minister Saad Hariri, has disintegrated.  Over the nine years from 2009 Hariri’s government has included members of the increasingly confident, Iran-backed Shi'ite movement Hezbollah – one obvious sign of Iran extending its power base into Lebanon by way of its subsidiary.  This was a dangerous development that Saudi Arabia, leader of the Sunni world, was determined to nip in the bud.

In November 2017, urged on − it is surmised − by the charismatic Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, Hariri travelled to Riyadh, and from the Saudi capital he resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister, incorporating a resounding denunciation of Hezbollah and Iran in his announcement.
The resultant political storm could not be contained. He stayed abroad for two weeks, then travelled back to Lebanon where he withdrew his resignation, and resumed his office.  But all was far from well.  Hariri could never be reconciled to the increasingly dominant position that Hezbollah was assuming within the Lebanese body politic.  Regardless of his political objections, his personal reasons are overwhelming. 

On February 14, 2005, his father, Rafik Hariri, one-time prime minister and a powerful opponent of Syrian and Hezbollah dominance in Lebanon, was assassinated.  The subsequent judicial proceedings, which are still ongoing after 12 years, have pretty well established that the murder was ordered by Bashar al Assad, Syria’s president, and carried out by Hezbollah operatives.  So Saad Hariri has business left unfinished by his father to complete.  There is no doubt that Rafik would have been appalled by the extent to which Iran has gained control over Lebanon’s military power, and is using the country as a manufacturing base from which to arm the Shi’ite crescent that it is consolidating.  For Iran is building and equipping a Shi’ite empire extending from Yemen, through Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Syria and through to Lebanon.

Back on March 11, 2017, the Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida reported that an aide to Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, had informed it that Iran had established facilities for manufacturing missiles and other weapons in Lebanon, and had recently handed them over to the management and oversight of Hezbollah.  The newspaper reported that the facilities were more than 50 meters underground and heavily shielded against aerial attacks.

"Moreover,” ran the Al-Jarida report, “manufacture of the missiles does not take place in one factory; different parts are built in different factories and then assembled.”  The weaponry included surface-to-surface and surface-to-sea missiles, torpedoes, spy drones, anti-tank missiles, and fast armored boats.
This report was confirmed in some detail in July 2017 by France’s Intelligence Online.  It referred to at least two underground facilities being constructed in Lebanon for manufacturing missiles and other weaponry, providing details of the weaponry produced and the approximate locations of the plants. One of the factories, being built near the town of Hermel in the eastern Bekaa Valley, will produce the Fateh 110, a medium-range missile. The second, between the towns of Sidon and Tyre, will manufacture smaller munitions.

The Fateh 110 has a range of approximately 300 kilometers − enough to cover most of Israel  − and can carry a half-ton warhead. Israel’s David’s Sling missile defense battery, which went operational in April 2017, is specifically designed to combat medium-range rockets like the Fateh 110.

          These developments highlight the depth of Iran’s involvement in Syria and Lebanon, something that both Israel and some Arab states including Saudi Arabia have been warning against recently. In particular was the article published on January 28, 2018 by Israel Defense Forces spokesman, Ronen Manelis – an article reproduced on several Lebanese websites, including Ahewar, in other Arabic publications and on media outlets including the Voice of Beirut, the Moscow-based Sputnik media group, and Israeli radio's Arabic station.

"Through the actions and inaction of the Lebanese authorities,” wrote Manelis, “Lebanon is turning into one big missile factory while much of the international community looks the other way. It's no longer about transfers of arms, money or advice. De facto, Iran has opened a new branch, the Lebanon branch."  With Iran's support, Hezbollah is building "terrorist infrastructure and plants to make arms under the nose of the Lebanese government."

Hezbollah's actions are turning Lebanon into a "powder keg" that its people are living around, Manelis warned, and Iran "is playing with their safety and future".  2018, he said, will determine Lebanon’s future -- a stable and economically prosperous country, or an arm of Iran and Hezbollah.  

Then Manelis turned to the forthcoming elections.  Will Hezbollah, he wondered, manage to elbow out the Sunni camp and officially turn the country into an Iranian client state?

Responsible opinion would deplore such an outcome.  Possible counter-measures range from military action by one or other outside agency in Lebanon or in Iran to prevent any such outcome, diplomatic pressure on the Lebanese government to exert effective control over the overweening power of Hezbollah, or a major internal political effort by Hariri and his allies in the new election campaign aimed at wresting power back into responsible hands.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 February 2018:

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Turkey's enduring emergency

                                   video version
            An emergency, the Oxford English dictionary informs us, is “a sudden state of danger requiring immediate action”. 

            Turkish citizens have been living in a state of emergency for a year and a half, and on 8 January 2018 deputy prime minister, Bekir Bozdag, announced that the government intended to extend it.  This represents the sixth such extension, and Turks might be excused for starting to forget what “normal” life feels like.

            The facts and the reasons leading to the original declaration of a state of emergency might be precisely what the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his government declared at the time.  Conspiracy theories, however, are easy to hatch, and alternative explanations continue to be propounded.

On 15 July 2016, just before 11 pm, military jets were seen flying over Ankara, and a group of Turkish soldiers took over several institutions there and in Istanbul. Prime minister Binali Yildirim announced that action by part of the military was being "taken outside the chain of command," in an "illegal attempt" to seize power.  During subsequent encounters between the insurrectionists and national forces, 250 people were killed and 2,200 injured.  This thwarted coup d’état was adjudged ample justification for the imposition of a state of emergency on the Turkish nation on July 20.

At this time Erdogan had been Turkey’s president for two years, but had made no secret of his determination to transform the office traditionally simply ceremonial into that of a political supremo.  Twice during the course of 2013, when he held the post of prime minister, violence directed against him and the AKP party he leads broke out on the streets of Turkey’s major cities. The underlying cause in both cases was a widespread perception that Erdogan, a close adherent of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, had become too dictatorial in attempting to end Turkey’s role as a model of secularism in the Muslim world.

Opposition centred around followers of Fethullah Gulen, an influential Turkish cleric who lives in the US. Gulen had once been one of the AKP's main spiritual leaders, preaching a blend of moderate, business-friendly Islam that helped the party rise to power. His dispute with Erdogan and the AKP leadership arose over a government decision to shut down the large network of private schools that the Gulen community, or Hizmet Movement, operated. 

Gulen had followers at high levels in the Turkish establishment, including the judiciary, the secret service and the police force.  Early in December 2013 Erdogan was furious to discover that, for more than a year and unknown to him, the police had been engaged in an undercover inquiry into corruption within the government and the upper echelons of the AKP. By the end of the year Erdogan’s own son had been named in the widening corruption investigation.  Erdogan declared the police investigation a plot by foreign and Turkish forces to discredit his government ahead of local elections in March 2014.

Those elections were the key to unlocking Erdogan’s ambitions.  Returned to office, Erdogan was able to change the constitution to allow him to remain as prime minister beyond his statutory three terms.   Subsequently he was able to stand for president in 2014, and in the June 2015 general elections, the AKP made the creation of an executive presidency central to its campaign promises. 

The idea was to enhance the presidential role to a nearly all-powerful position as head of government, head of state and head of the ruling party. The office of the prime minister would disappear, making way for a strong, executive president supported by vice-presidents. The president would have the power to appoint cabinet ministers without requiring a confidence vote from parliament, propose budgets and appoint more than half the members of the nation’s highest judicial body. The president would also have the power to dissolve the national assembly and significantly perhaps impose states of emergency. 

The timetable for accomplishing Erdogan’s constitutional revision envisaged its passage through parliament by the end of 2016, and a popular referendum a few months later.  However the AKP and the Gulenists were at daggers drawn, popular support was spread evenly between them, and the result of the referendum seemed far from certain. 

Then came the events of 15 July 2016, a confused and confusing sequence of incidents amounting to what was apparently a failed coupDespite subsequent intensive inquiries, a considerable number of questions remained unanswered.  The New York Times believes that these loose ends have led to the suspicion that in order to justify the subsequent crackdown, the government may have allowed the coup to unfold, or even encouraged it. The leader of Turkey’s largest opposition party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has described what happened as a “controlled coup.”

The attempted putsch undoubtedly gave Erdogan reason enough to institute retribution of unprecedented severity on those suspected of opposing the regime.  More than 110,000 people were arrested including nearly 11,000 police officers, 7,500 members of the military, and 2,500 prosecutors and judges. 179 media outlets were shut down, and some 2700 journalists dismissed. 

In April 2017 the referendum on the constitutional changes duly took place.  The result a narrow 51 percent in favour and 49 percent against confirmed the suspicions of those unconvinced about the nature of the coup the previous July.  Erdogan might well have lost the referendum, and with it his bid for supreme power. had there not been a strong reason to remove opposition voices and to rally Turkish opinion against rebels in the military seeking to overthrow the government.

          Meanwhile the perpetual state of emergency enables Erdogan to continue governing with virtually dictatorial powers a situation that has met with considerable popular hostility. In July 2017 Kilicdaroglu led a 25-day march from Ankara to Istanbul culminating in a huge rally to protest against the year-long, post-coup crackdown.  

          One way to counter opposition at home is to divert public attention to enemies abroad. Erdogan may be hoping that his current foreign adventure against the Kurds in northern Syria will help disarm his critics and rally popular opinion in his favour.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 3 February 2018:

MPC Journal video published on Youtube as "Turkey's extended emergency":

Saturday, 27 January 2018

The Kurds under attack

                                          video version
The essence of the matter can be expressed in one sentence.  The United States has found the Kurds to be effective allies in Syria fighting the jihadists; Turkey accuses the Kurds of carrying out terrorist attacks against its citizens.  In recent weeks the latter consideration appears to be outweighing the former as far as Turkey is concerned, and then President Recep Tayyip Erdogan mounted a military strike against the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria, known as Rojava.
Turkey is in a strangely equivocal position. Erdogan has long railed against the virtual alliance between the US and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (the YPG) in fighting Islamic State (IS).  At the same time, he is none too enamoured of the virtual alliance between Russia and Iran in the Syrian civil conflict.  Iran’s mushrooming influence in Syria, and even more so in Iraq, does not accord with Erdogan’s Sunni ambitions for the region.
Not so long ago vast swathes of Syria had been overrun not only by IS, but also by a number of rebel fighting groups, and up in the north-east by the doughty Kurdish Peshmerga forces who, in alliance with US air support, proved themselves by far the most effective combatants against IS. Over eight long years of civil conflict Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, with the invaluable military support of Russia and Iran, has won back some 70 percent of the country, but some 25 percent of what had been Syria is currently a semi-autonomous Kurdish region, and this area has suddenly become a major political cause célèbre.
As far as the Kurds are concerned, back in September 2017 the world’s attention focused almost exclusively on the independence referendum held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in north-eastern Iraq – a referendum very soon rendered ineffective by the Iraqi government and internal squabbles, despite the 92 percent popular vote in favour.  Almost no attention was paid to the fact that, at nearly the same time, a different Kurdish election was taking place in neighbouring Syria.
The 2 million Kurds in Syria, accounting for 15 percent of the population before the civil war, had aspired for some time to a degree of autonomy.  The internal uprising in 2011 against Assad’s regime 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 IS, and successfully winning back large areas of Kurd-inhabited territory.
Today the Kurd-occupied region is formally known as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), ruled under a new federal and democratic constitution – the "Charter of the Social Contract".  This provides for all citizens to enjoy gender equality, freedom of religion and property rights. In the poll organized in September 2017 voters elected leaders for about 3,700 "communes" spread across the regions of northern Syria where Kurdish groups have established autonomous rule.  This was to be followed in January 2018 by elections for a People’s Parliament and Congress, but these have recently been postponed.
The reaction of the Assad regime has been astonishing – a virtual volte-face.
In 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 – presumably with the acquiescence of Russia – that discussions could begin once the civil conflict had ended.
This acceptance on the part of the Syrian government is anathema to Erdogan.  Syria’s Kurds may not be seeking full independence, but the degree of autonomy they seem likely to attain can only reinforce the Kurds in Turkey in their separatist demands.  The worst scenario, from Erdogan’s point of view, would be if a Syrian Kurdistan were established, which then amalgamated or federated with Iraq’s KRG. In that eventuality, demands by Turkey’s Kurds to be linked to it in some way might become irresistible.
This explains, perhaps, why a political tempest suddenly tore across the region in mid- January.  A storm of sorts had been brewing for a long time. The Kurdish fighters, the YPG, are considered by Turkey to be a terrorist group.  Erdogan has long been determined to eliminate the threat to the integrity of Turkey posed by Kurdish separatists. By the start of January 2018 Turkey's armed forces had completed preparations for an operation against the Kurdish-controlled region of Afrin, in north-western Syria. On 20 January, they struck.
Despite the tension building on the Turkish-Syrian border, early in January the US announced it proposed training the YPG and the  Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) jointly to be part of a 30,000-strong "border force".  Turkey reacted strongly, threatening to combat any such Syrian-Kurd militia.  Turkey, said Erdogan, must "nip this terror army in the bud".
The Assad regime retaliated by warning Turkey that it would shoot down any Turkish fighter jets and bombers that flew into Syrian airspace, while in Afrin residents took to the streets to protest Turkey's threats. They waved YPG flags and banners of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. Turkey says the PKK and YPG work together.
Appalled by the extreme reactions on both sides to the announcement, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hastened into the media to declare that the “entire situation has been misportrayed, misdescribed, some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all."  Later he declared: "We have IS still attacking in parts of northwest Syria and along the Euphrates valley. So this is just more training and trying to block IS from their escape routes."
Not one whit mollified, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said relations between Turkey and the US would be "irreversibly harmed" if Washington formed the force in question.  Meanwhile Turkish warplanes launched airstrikes on Kurdish fighters, in an attempt to oust the YPG militia.  
So that is where matters are precariously balanced, with the Kurds – this time the Kurds of Syria – again in the world’s spotlight.  In the Kurds’ long march towards national autonomy, this is yet another milestone.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 27 January 2018:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 29 January 2018:

Eurasia Review video published on Youtube:

MPC Journal video published on Youtube:

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Can Russia broker a Syrian peace deal?


                                                                                     video version
There is little doubt that the super-power in the Syrian situation is Russia, and that – despite recent US efforts to bolster the UN’s Geneva peace-seeking initiative – the final settlement, whenever it comes about, will provide Russian President Vladimir Putin with the major political advantages in the region that he is seeking.

          Putin is heavily engaged in constructing a peace process aimed at bringing Syria’s seven-year civil conflict to an end. He kicked off his carefully constructed diplomatic initiative in November 2017, and it may culminate some time in February in a round-table congress in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Despite his many assurances that his efforts are meant to boost the official and long-running UN peace negotiations in Geneva, hosted by the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, popular perception is that he is building a political process outside of the UN exercise.

          In fact the last round of UN peace talks, held in Geneva early in December, went badly. Their collapse was caused by the issue that has bedevilled all efforts at reaching an accommodation – the future of President Bashar al-Assad. Since the rebel forces’ representatives refused to budge on their insistence that Assad should have no future in a post-conflict Syria, the Syrian government delegation refused to meet directly with any of them. De Mistura’s next move starkly illustrates where the real political power in the region lies. Shortly after the Geneva talks ended, de Mistura flew to Moscow to confer with Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.

          As Putin’s peace brokering plans mature, these are some of the outstanding issues. Will he re-establish Syria exactly within its old borders (the US seems to be favouring allowing the Kurds to maintain their semi-autonomous region)? Will he preserve Assad in his presidency? Will he consolidate Iran’s dominance of the political and military establishments in the country? Will he therefore facilitate Iran’s ambitions to establish its so-called “Shia crescent”, an essential factor in its plans for regional dominance, starting in Yemen, running through Bahrain up to Iran and then through Syria to Lebanon?

          Putin’s peace initiative started on November 20, when he summoned Assad to Russia for talks.
Assad’s visit was brief. He flew in on the Monday evening, held his discussion with Putin, and flew out four hours later.  “The military operation is coming to an end,” Putin told him. “Now the most important thing is to move on to the political questions, and I note with satisfaction your readiness to work with all those who want peace and a solution.”

          With the help of Russian airpower and Iranian-backed foot soldiers Assad has been regaining increasing amounts of territory, and now controls more than 70% of the country. The latest success has been the retaking of the Syrian Golan heights from rebels in late December.

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

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

          On Wednesday, November 22, the presidents of Turkey and Iran arrived for their own session with Putin. During the 3-way discussions, Putin said later, they agreed to support a Syrian peoples' congress as an initial step to establishing dialogue between the warring sides. It is on the basis of this congress, announced to take place some time in February 2018, that Putin may be pinning his hopes of ending the conflict and setting Syria on a new political and constitutional path.

          Reliable reports indicate that, behind the scenes, Moscow has been negotiating with the main armed factions across Syria. Wael Olwan, spokesman for the Fallaq al-Rahman rebels, explains: “It’s better to negotiate with the ones calling the shots, which is Russia, than with the regime.”

         “We communicate exclusively with them,” said Hamza Birqdar of the Jaish al-Islam rebel group, “because in reality, when it comes to Assad and his government, they have become toys in the hands of the Russians. They make no decisions... except under Russian orders.”

          Moscow appears to have built these ties to local groups in order to have them included in the truce process, perhaps in the hope of ensuring a widespread agreement that will stick. If this is so, it indicates that Russia is far from wedded to the idea of consolidating Assad’s presidency permanently. In fact, since committing his forces to supporting Assad’s struggle against the Free Syrian Army and the other rebel groups, Putin has been noticeably equivocal about Assad’s future. Rather than handing the presidency back to Assad together with a nation restored to its historic borders, Putin has hinted at the possibility of a presidential election in which Assad might stand as one candidate among several.

          There would be a sort of precedent to fall back on. In late April 2014, Assad himself announced that he would run in Syria's first multi-candidate direct presidential election. In the event it was boycotted by opposition parties, but the concept is not revolutionary.

         Most western nations have asserted that Assad’s early departure was an essential element in any plan for the future of Syria, but reports from the US indicate that the Trump administration is prepared to accept Assad’s continued rule until Syria’s next scheduled presidential election. Given this, Putin may simply decide to strong-arm both Assad and the rebel representatives into agreeing to a presidential election, perhaps in 2021, the formal date for the next poll, as part of a new constitutional order. He would probably be content to allow Assad to continue ruling until the new arrangements could be put in place. 

          The fact of the matter is that Assad continues to command the support of a large section of Syrian society. Nothing succeeds like success, and despite the police state he ran until 2011, people respond to a strong leader. If Assad were to stand in a fully free, fair and internationally supervised presidential poll, the outcome is far from certain.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 21 January 2018:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 22 January 2018:

Published in the MPC Journal, 23 January 2018:

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Egypt versus the New York Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 8 January 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in the Eurasia Review, 11 January 2018:

Published in the MPC Journal, 15 January 2018:

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Opposition in Iran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

         Published in Eurasia Review, 3 January 2018:

        Published in the Jerusalem Post, 4 January 2018:

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

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

                                            Yemen famine map, Oct-Dec 2017                               

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in the Eurasia Review, 29 December 2017: