Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The jihadist civil war

          The bloodthirsty jihadist organization that calls itself Islamic State (IS) sprang from the loins of al-Qaeda, once the supreme bane of the western world, which achieved its apogee with the destruction of the twin towers in New York. Over the past decade the fortunes of the two Islamist bodies have diverged, with IS apparently going from strength to strength and al-Qaeda apparently diminishing in influence. Now the wheel of fortune has turned, and as a result parent and offspring are at each other’s throats.

          The assault on the United States that shook the civilized world to its foundations occurred on the 11th of September 2001. An investigation by the FBI quickly determined that those responsible were directly connected to al-Qaeda. By the start of December 2001, US special operations forces had tracked the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and some one thousand of his followers, to their six square mile hideout deep in the Tora Bora mountains of eastern Afghanistan. For two weeks nearly a million pounds of American bombs rained down on them. Although about two hundred terrorists were killed and fifty captured, the US operation could scarcely be deemed a success, for most the jihadists, together with their leader, evaded capture, fled into Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt and disappeared.

           It took nearly ten years before a special commando force of the US Naval Special Warfare Development Group, known as SEALs, finally located bin Laden’s new headquarters inside Pakistan, tracked him down and killed him. During that decade al-Qaeda groups mounted a succession of bombings and terrorist attacks across the globe.

          Only a few weeks after bin Laden’s death, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had helped found Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, became the new leader of al-Qaeda. In the 22 "most wanted terrorists" list announced by the US government in 2001, Zawahiri was number two - behind only bin Laden. Al-Zawahiri vowed to continue al-Qaeda’s jihad against "crusader America and its servant Israel, and whoever supports them". At that time, in 2011, al-Qaeda was the supreme representation of Islamist jihad of the Sunni persuasion. What al-Zawahiri did not realize was that he was nurturing a viper in his bosom – the nascent Islamic State.

          IS grew out of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. An off-shoot of al-Qaeda, dedicated to opposing any attempt by Western powers to impose law, order and a democratic framework on that unhappy country, was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In the early days, it called itself simply the “Islamic State of Iraq.” When al-Zarqawi was killed in a targeted strike by the US Air Force in June 2006, into his shoes stepped Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

          Baghdadi had a wider vision for the militant organization he led – and his own future. In 2013 he announced that he intended to merge his “Islamic State of Iraq” with the main al-Qaeda force in Syria under Jabhat Al-Nusra, which was fighting the Assad regime alongside other rebel groups. He proclaimed that his organization would henceforth be called ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, meaning Syria and the Levant).

          The overweening ambition that lay behind that title sent shivers down the spines of the al-Qaeda leadership. At that moment the two organizations parted company. Ayman al-Zawahiri denounced Baghdadi and dissociated al-Qaeda from ISIS and its activities.

          But the new organization was on the up-and-up. In the space of a year, Baghdadi became the most powerful jihadi leader in the world. Ignoring the border between Iraq and northern Syria, ISIS swept across to capture territory extending from Aleppo in north-western Syria, to Diyala province in north-eastern Iraq. In June 2014 Baghdadi’s forces captured Mosul, the northern capital of Iraq, and were threatening Baghdad. Crucifixions, beheadings and amputations marked its ruthless progress.

          June 2014 was when Baghdadi felt emboldened enough to take a giant step towards achieving power and status for himself and his organization beyond the wildest dreams of most jihadi leaders. In an audio recording ISIS announced that it was henceforth to be known as "Islamic State", and that its head, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was now "the caliph and leader for Muslims everywhere". Moreover, declared the group's spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, “the legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph's authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas.''

          Al-Qaeda and its associated jihadist groups simply refused to bow the knee to Baghdadi. In September 2015 al-Zawahiri accused Baghdadi of “sedition”, insisting that he was not the leader of all Muslims, not “caliph” of the Islamic State, and was not the supremo of militant jihad.

          In November 2015, IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani warned Sunni Muslims that unless they pledged allegiance to the organization, they faced death. The response was a 26-minute-long video statement from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in which they declared unequivocally that the Islamic caliphate promoted by IS was illegitimate.

          Now the two contenders as the world’s leading Sunni jihadist organisation stood face-to-face in the ring.

          Al-Qaeda seems to have regained its momentum. The withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, was the signal for al-Qaeda terrorist cells to leave their Pakistan hideaway and move back into southern Afghanistan. According to Afghan security officials, al-Qaeda chiefs are hoping to use their new Afghan base to plot a fresh wave of terror attacks against the West and its allies.

          If IS had hoped to displace al-Qaeda as the jihadi vanguard, their plans have badly misfired. IS has found itself at war with its former patrons throughout the Muslim world. Nor is it necessarily winning the battle, suggests Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a widely respected counter-terrorism expert. "The Islamic State has encountered one serious obstacle after another as it has tried to expand its presence beyond Syria and Iraq," writes Gartenstein-Ross, “and several of its nascent affiliates have met decisive defeat”, and he proceeds to enumerate a series of setbacks suffered recently by IS.

          Al-Qaeda and Islamic State seek goals which are nominally the same – “liberating” all Muslim lands, imposing their version of sharia law on Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and creating a global caliphate. But each seeks supremacy. In the words of Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institute, giving testimony to a Congressional subcommittee: “The two are now competing for more than the leadership of the jihadist movement: they are competing for its soul.”

          The longer the fratricidal battle, the safer the world.


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 31 May 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/The-jihadist-civil-war-455517

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

What is France up to in the Middle East?

          The name of the game is power politics. France was a major presence in the Middle East following the First World War, but has been on the retreat ever since, as decolonization has taken hold. Now France has seized an opportunity to reassert itself and take centre stage, probably seeing itself in competition with Russia to fill the power void left in the Middle East by President Obama and his misplaced policy of disengagement.

          France’s chosen subject? The interminable Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Its proposed course of action? A multi-nation conference, excluding the principals, to be held in Paris, tasked with setting the parameters for a second peace conference to which Israel and the Palestinians would be invited. There, one presumes, the end game would be to present both sides with the conclusions agreed at conference number one, and pressure them into acceptance.

          The problem with this scenario is that originally France announced that if the two sides failed to reach an agreement, France would formally recognize Palestine as a sovereign state. As Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netahyanu, was quick to point out, this intention immediately removes any incentive from the Palestinian side to negotiate at all. On the contrary, it provides them with an in-built excuse for ensuring the negotiations fail. Reports indicate that France has wisely pulled back somewhat from its early position on this. Has it pulled back far enough?

          This latest initiative of France has a history behind it. As one of the victors of the First World War France, together with Britain, gained the League of Nations’ backing to the secret Sykes-Picot deal, reached in 1916, which envisaged carving the vast Ottoman empire into French and British spheres of influence. France’s direct participation in the creation of the modern Middle East has meant that for the last hundred years it has involved itself in the politics of the region. So it is not surprising that it has seen itself as a possible facilitator of an Israeli-Palestinan peace accord.

          Back in August 2009, when it was clear that newly-elected US President Obama was intent on relaunching peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy offered to host an international conference to facilitate the peace process. The event would, of course, be held in Paris. He went so far as to issue invitations to leaders from concerned countries, including Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria.

          In January 2010, as Obama’s efforts to bring the parties to the negotiating table were inching their painful way forward, Sarkozy repeated his offer. Resumption of the peace process was dubbed a French “priority”, and a Paris-located international conference was perceived as a positive path towards achieving it.

          This prescription – obsession would be too harsh a designation – persists in French thinking. It reappeared in December 2014, when France took the lead in drafting a Security Council resolution outlining proposals for an Israeli-Palestinian final-status deal. The formula incorporated a two-year timetable for completing negotiations and (one is tempted to remark “ça va sans dire”) an international peace conference to take place in Paris.

          France’s then foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, played the same tune, with minor variations, on a visit to the Middle East in June 2015. His aim was to sell the idea of a French-led initiative to reboot the peace process, with backing from an “international support group” formed by the European Union, Arab nations and UN Security Council members. The formula he presented to the UN Security Council was vetoed by the US.

          Undeterred by this setback, France has bounced back with a new proposal centring on not one, but two, Paris-based conferences. The intention clearly is to position France fairly and squarely as a prime mover and shaker in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and perhaps in achieving an even wider formal détente between the Arab world as a whole and Israel.

          Acceptances for conference number one already include not only the Middle East Quartet (representing the UN, the US, the EU and Russia), but also US Secretary of State John Kerry, the Arab League, and at least Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.


          The date for this first conference has been set for June 3.  Originally scheduled for May 30, French President François Hollande declared in a radio broadcast on May 17 that because US Secretary of State John Kerry could not make that date, the conference would be postponed until he could.  The presence of the US Secretary of State was too great a prize to forgo.


          Shorn of the tempting titbit of recognition of a sovereign Palestine should the second conference fail to produce an agreement, France’s initiative makes a lot of sense. History proves beyond a peradventure that face-to-face talks between Israel and the Palestinians based on a two-state solution always fail – and must fail. No Palestinian leader could ever sign up to it. Not Yasser Arafat, nor Mahmoud Abbas, nor anyone who might succeed Abbas, dare sign an agreement that recognizes Israel’s right to exist within “historic Palestine”. To concede that Israel has an acknowledged and legitimate place within Mandate Palestine would instantly brand him a traitor to the Palestinian cause, and would probably be more than his life was worth. 

          No, face-to-face talks have been tried to destruction. As far as reaching a negotiated peace is concerned, the Palestinian Authority acting as a sole principal is a busted flush. So France is right in seeking a much wider consensus – Arab-wide through the Arab League, and world-wide through the UN and related groups – on the future geo-political configuration of what was Mandate Palestine, starting from the presumption, notably absent in the Palestinian narrative, that Israel is here to stay. Should the first conference agree parameters for subsequent final status negotiations, the Palestinians would be provided with the cover necessary to acquiesce in deed, as well as in word, to a two-state solution which provides Israel with a copper-bottomed guarantee of its security.

          The success of France’s initiative stands or falls on how seriously conference number one takes on board Israel’s security needs in any two-state solution – or in any extension of that concept that might be put before conference number two, such as an Israel-Palestine confederation, or even a three-way Jordan-Israel-Palestine confederation. Each possibility would deliver a sovereign Palestine, but the last could also ensure high-tech, state-of-the-art security for all three nations against Islamist extremist groups such as Hamas or Islamic State – both already knocking on Israel’s and Jordan’s doors – that would surely pounce on a new, weak, sovereign Palestine.


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 24 May 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/What-is-France-up-to-in-the-Middle-East-454842

Published in the MPC Journal, 25 May 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/05/25/what-is-france-up-to-in-the-middle-east/

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 May 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/30052016-what-is-france-up-to-in-the-middle-east-oped/

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Lethargy in Lebanon

          There are two major and long-standing areas of controversy in Lebanon – one political, the other judicial – and a casual observer might be forgiven for believing that things were on the move in both. It would be a flawed perception.

          On the political front Lebanon, although log-jammed nationally, is in the midst of municipal elections. The voting is taking place in four phases, governorate by governorate, around the country. The first poll was held on May 8 in the capital, Beirut.

          These, the only elections to be held in Lebanon since 2010, are providing Lebanese citizens with their first chance to react to the vast influx of refugees into the country as a result of the Syrian civil war, and the paralyzing crisis in garbage collection and disposal lasting some nine months, and only partially resolved in March.

          The first phase of the elections indicates that neither factor has weighed very heavily with the public. If the Beiruti electorate has demonstrated anything, it has demonstrated apathy. Voter turnout was only some 20 percent and, despite the emergence of a go-getting party of young activists promising reform all round – Beirut Madinati (Beirut My City) – all 24 seats on the council were won by an alliance of “traditional” politicians, led by former prime minister Saad Hariri. The result was pretty conclusive: Hariri’s list 60 percent of the vote, Beirut Madinati 40 percent.

          The stalemate on the national political scene – a result of Lebanon’s immensely complex power-sharing administration – also shows little signs of resolution. Lebanon’s politicians, hamstrung by conflicting interests, have repeatedly postponed the parliamentary elections originally scheduled for June 2013, and the country has been without a president since May 2014. Amid this political impasse, municipal elections were the only available means of generating political accountability. What happened in Beirut in the first phase does not inspire much confidence that the log-jam will be broken very soon.

          Some did pin their hopes on the new Beirut Madinati party. The deterioration in basic services ­– uncollected rubbish, worsening electricity cuts, unreliable public transport – had reached such a state that a group of activists formed Madinati and published a 10-point policy programme that focused on practical family needs, such as transport, water, rubbish, natural heritage, housing, public and green spaces and community services.

          But Rome was not built in a day. Lebanese voters have a tradition of blindly supporting their sectarian leaders, and it will clearly take more than one election to shift this to voting for candidates who reflect their policy concerns.

          Sloth also marks the interminable judicial process to determine who was guilty of the assassination of Lebanon’s one-time Prime Minister, and to bring the culprits to justice.

          Just before noon on St Valentine’s day 2005 – February 14 – a motorcade swept along the Beirut seafront. In one of cars sat Lebanon’s ex-Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri – father of Saad, winner of the Beirut municipal elections. As the line of vehicles reached the Hotel Saint Georges, a security camera captured a white Mitsubishi truck alongside the convoy. Seconds later a massive explosion shook the city. In the midst of the carnage Rafik Hariri, along with 22 other people, lay dead. Some 200 were injured. The blast left a crater on the street at least 10-metres wide and two metres deep.

          Ten days later then-UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, sent a fact-finding mission to Beirut to discover who was responsible for the attack. In doing so he was certainly unaware that he was giving birth to what might be termed a new judicial industry – the Lebanon Inquiry process. Now in its tenth year, it is currently under the aegis of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (the STL), a body voted into existence by the UN Security Council in 2007, formally established in 2009, and now, if its elaborate website is anything to go by, comparable to some large commercial enterprise.

          Operating on a budget of over $150 million, half of which is provided by the Lebanese government, the STL court consisting of 11 judges sits in The Hague. Hearings are broadcast through the STL website. The tribunal runs its own public affairs office. Located within the STL building is a media centre whose facilities include Wi-Fi internet access, television screens to follow the hearings, and recording facilities in Arabic, English and French.

          Annan’s fact-finding mission recommended an independent international enquiry. Six months later a second UN report concluded that the white truck seen on the security camera outside the Hotel Saint Georges had carried some 1,000 kilograms of explosive. Basing its findings on key witnesses and a variety of evidence, including patterns of telephone calls between specific prepaid phone cards that connected prominent Lebanese and Syrian officials to events surrounding the crime, it concluded that these officials had been planning the assassination from as far back as mid-2004.

          So the finger was pointing at Syria and its Hezbollah supporters inside Lebanon. But Lebanese public opinion pre-empted this conclusion. Syria had been enforcing Big Brother control over Lebanese affairs for decades. Rafik Hariri had been actively seeking to loosen Syria’s oppressive grip, and had become a thorn in the side of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. Following Hariri’s assassination a massive protest was organized in Martyrs’ Square in the heart of downtown Beirut, denouncing the atrocity and demanding that Syrian troops be expelled from the country. This so-called Cedar Revolution led to a diplomatic coalition, with the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia at its helm. On April 26, 2005, after some three months of civil agitation, the last Syrian troops left Lebanon.

          It took another four years of fact-finding by the United Nations International Investigation Commission (UNIIC) before sufficient additional and convincing evidence had been collected to enable the STL to be set up. Even so, largely because of blocking tactics employed by Hezbollah officials inside Lebanon, the five identified defendants have not been apprehended and the trial is being held in their absence. They are named as: Salim Ayyash, Mustafa Amine Badreddine, Hussein Hassab Oneissi, Sassad Hassan Sabra, and Hassan Habib Merhi.

          The trial of Ayyash et al. began on 16 January 2014, nine years after the Hariri assassination, but it was diverted for over a year by a number of side judicial issues. It was only on 9 May 2016 that the court resumed hearings. When or if they will end is lost in the mists of the future. So, too, apparently, is a date for the long-delayed parliamentary elections, to say nothing of a time when the country will again be blessed with a president.


          Clearly nothing moves very fast in Lebanon. Inertia seems preferable to the conflict engendered by action.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 17 May 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Lethargy-in-Lebanon-454176

Published in the MPC Journal, 18 May 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/05/18/lethargy-in-lebanon/

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 May 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/23052016-lethargy-in-lebanon-oped/

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Will Assad survive?

          It is almost unbelievable, given the roller-coaster ride of Bashar al-Assad’s fortunes these past five years, that he remains President of Syria (albeit a much reduced dominion), and stands a fair chance of remaining so. 

          At the start of 2011 Assad was the absolute ruler of a brutal and repressive regime, and as firmly entrenched in power as his father, Hafez, had been throughout the thirty years of his presidency. For at that time the so-called “Arab Spring” – popular uprisings against repressive regimes which began in Tunisia in December 2010 – had as yet claimed no victims among the autocratic rulers of the Arab world.

          Then they started to topple – on 14 January 2011 Tunisian President Zine el Abidine fled to Saudi Arabia; on 11 February Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak resigned; on 23 August Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown; in February 2012 Yemeni President Saleh abdicated and was replaced. Later the president of Sudan resigned, as did the Iraqi and Kuwaiti prime ministers. The uprising in Tunisia had spread like a forest fire across the Middle East, engulfing state after state.

          Not all succumbed. Some managed to douse the flames with the firehose of financial generosity. For instance in February 2011, immediately after the fall of Egypt’s President Mubarak, Saudi Arabia announced a social welfare package for its citizens worth $10.7 billion, featuring pay raises for government employees, new jobs and loan cancellation schemes. By the end of the month, the handouts totalled $37 billion. In March Saudi’s King Abdullah announced an additional $93 billion in social spending.

          The United Arab Emirates provided some $2 billion in housing loans to Emiratis, while Qatar announced an $8 billion payout in salary and benefits increases for all state and military personnel. Oman and Bahrain also increased social spending by billions.

          This was not Bashar al-Assad’s reaction when, in March 2011, a few teenagers in a southern Syrian city daubed some inflammatory slogans on a school wall. Unfortunately for them, the Syria that Assad had inherited in 2000 from his autocratic father was a tightly controlled police state, in which a powerful and all-encompassing security machine ensured that the slightest hint of opposition to the régime was ruthlessly crushed.

          The youngsters were hunted down, arrested and tortured. When details of their ordeal became known, protesters took to the streets. The security forces, unable to break up the demonstration, eventually fired into the crowd. That was enough to spark widespread rebellion. Groups antagonistic to Assad’s government began nationwide protests. Gradually, popular dissent developed into an armed revolt. The opposition, consisting of a variety of groups, but primarily the Free Syrian Army, were finally seeking to overthrow the despotic Assad régime and substitute a democratic form of government.

          Assad brought himself to offer concessions, but they were too little and too late. He released dozens of political prisoners, dismissed the government, lifted the 48-year-old state of emergency and pledged to start a "national dialogue" on reform. It was all to no avail. Armed anti-regime protests intensified, and in May Assad sent tanks into Deraa, Banyas, Homs and the suburbs of Damascus in an effort to crush them.

          Given the sequence of events elsewhere in the Middle East, Assad’s days seemed numbered. Surely he would succumb to popular rebellion as fellow autocrats had done. Both the Western world led by the US, and the Arab League, declared that Assad’s rule was unsustainable. In May 2011 the US and the EU tightened sanctions against him. In November the Arab League suspended Syria from membership, and itself imposed sanctions. 

          Had assistance of any sort been forthcoming to those fighting Assad in the name of democracy, he could have been defeated, to be replaced by a democratically elected government. But President Obama continued vacillating, even after it was clear in August 2013 that Assad had used chemical weapons against his opponents, utterly indifferent to the extensive civilian casualties that ensued. Calls by the US and the EU urging Assad to step down, echoed by Jordan’s King Abdullah and Turkey’s President Erdogan, fell on deaf ears. 

          By 2014 Assad was facing two existential dangers – not only his domestic rebels fighting a civil war aimed at replacing autocracy with democracy, but also so-called Islamic State (IS), set on establishing a caliphate across Iraq and Syria. Over 2014 and 2015 IS succeeded in seizing great swathes of Syrian territory. At the nadir of his fortunes in August 2015, Assad controlled only some 20 percent of his original dominion.

          Obama’s policy decision to abstain as far as possible from direct engagement in the Middle East had created a power vacuum which Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was only too eager to fill. In September 2015 Putin sent in a vast arsenal of Russian military equipment, and began full-scale operations in support of Assad. The resultant readjustment of the relative strengths of the opposing forces, added to the enhanced operations of the US-led anti-IS coalition, resulted in IS losing some 22 percent of the territory it had controlled. It also facilitated the UN’s peace-keeping efforts, although too late for the demand of most Western leaders that Assad should play no part in Syria’s future.

          So Assad hangs on, his position strengthened by both Russian and Iranian support and by his consequential territorial gains. A UN-sponsored truce in February 2016 between Assad's forces and so-called "moderate" rebels – with Assad’s future left out of the agreement – seemed a hopeful step towards resolving the five-year conflict. Then, on May 4, negotiations began in Berlin aimed at finalizing a new truce agreement. These, though, are unlikely to succeed until Assad’s bid, backed by his Russian and Iranian allies, to seize back the city of Aleppo from his domestic rebels is resolved, although the brutality of his onslaught, and the mounting civilian death toll, will do little to soften the West’s opposition to him. 

          Clinging to power in a much-reduced domain, Assad nevertheless remains a major player in the effort to resolve the multi-layered battles raging across what has been “Syria” since it became an independent republic in 1946. Whether he will survive as president, what sort and size of state he would be ruling over if he does, and if he does not, what manner of state or states will succeed his regime – these are matters that only time, chance and circumstance will resolve.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 11 May 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Will-Assad-survive-453603

Published in the Eurasia Review, 11 May 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/11052016-will-assad-survive-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 12 May 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/05/12/will-assad-survive/

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Anti-Semitism and the British Left

          Pursue a left-wing agenda around the political race track long enough and you’ll meet a right-wing agenda sprinting at you from the other direction.

          In the twentieth century Nazism and Bolshevism stood at opposite extremes of the political spectrum and their philosophies were poles apart, yet their regimes bore remarkable similarities to each other: the smothering of dissension, the persecution of political opponents, insistence that the state was more important than the individual, total disregard for the rule of law, rejection of religion, and so on.

          Now, in the early years of the twenty-first century, Britain finds itself witness to an extraordinary situation in which the hard left leadership of the main opposition party – the Labour Party – has been revealed as harbouring extreme forms of anti-Semitism, the defining policy of fascists world-wide.

          The current scandal, which has resulted in the suspension of two prominent Labour figures and a number of minor ones, and the setting up of an independent enquiry into anti-Semitism in the party, was sparked off in February. When the Oxford University Labour Club – the largest student Labour group in the country – voted to endorse Israel Apartheid Week, the co-chair resigned, asserting that the club was riven with anti-Semitism.

          Alex Chalmers wrote: “Whether it be members of the Executive throwing around the term 'Zio' (a term for Jews usually confined to websites run by the Ku Klux Klan) with casual abandon, senior members of the club expressing their 'solidarity' with Hamas and explicitly defending their tactics of indiscriminately murdering civilians, or a former co-chair claiming that 'most accusations of antisemitism are just the Zionists crying wolf’, a large proportion of both OULC and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews.”

          Chalmers’s whistle-blowing statement was unusual, if not unique, in bringing to the surface the monster that had been lurking in left-wing waters for a very long time – a monster obvious to those outside the charmed left-wing enclave, but never acknowledged within it.

          Following the pattern of such events, one revelation was soon followed by others, and the scandal mushroomed. The MP for Bradford, Naseem Shah, suddenly found anti-Semitic Facebook comments she had posted in 2014, before she was elected, splashed across the media. After a deal of humming and hawing, Labour’s extreme left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, agreed to her suspension from the party. She subsequently made a full apology to the House of Commons for proposing that all Israelis should be deported to the United States.

          The next bizarre twist came when Ken Livingstone, London’s former mayor and a close colleague of the Labour leader, took to the airwaves in vociferous support of Naseem Shah. His defence included a series of bizarre, not to say irrelevant, remarks linking Hitler to Zionism, as if an early and short-lived Nazi plan to permit German Jews to emigrate to Palestine somehow made Hitler an advocate of Jewish national independence. Livingstone’s remarks seemed to many designed to link Zionism with Nazism, and the subsequent media furore was intense. After a period of havering, Corbyn thrust Livingstone, too, into the outer darkness.

          The indecisiveness that marked Corbyn’s response to these episodes directed the spotlight also on him and his record of consorting with anti-Israel and Jew-hating terrorists and terrorist sympathisers. There is no evidence that he himself is anti-Semitic, and much that he is passionately anti-racist, but he seems utterly purblind to the implications of consorting openly with individuals and organizations dedicated to killing Jews whoever they are, or wherever they can be found, inside or outside Israel.

          Leading UK journalist, Charles Moore, has noted that Jeremy Corbyn refuses to share a platform with Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, over the EU referendum, although both favour remaining in the EU. Mr Corbyn’s stated reason is that “We are not on the same side”.

          But, as Moore points out, Corbyn has shared a platform with – among many other such – Sheikh Raed Saleh, who (elsewhere) repeated the “blood libel” against the Jews, and called them “monkeys” and “bacteria”; with representatives of the British Muslim Initiative, which plays the anti-Semitic card of comparing Jews with Nazis with its “Stop the Holocaust in Gaza” placards; and with what he calls his “friends from Hamas”, an organization whose Charter positively encourages the killing of Jews.

          Moore observes that Naseem Shah and Ken Livingstone must feel bewildered by the condemnation heaped upon them, because they inhabit a party whose leader has, over his 40 years in politics, spent hundreds of hours sharing platforms with virtually every sort of Muslim anti-Semite and advocate of terrorism that one can imagine. They may, he conjectures, have thought they had permission.

          When did it all start? Perhaps after the 6-Day War, in June 1967. The enormous territorial gains made by Israel in that short week resulted in millions of Palestinians coming under Israeli governance – but also in the consequential demand for independence from it.

          Until ‘67, Jews and Israel had usually been well regarded by the Left in Britain. They were perceived as allies in the fight against fascism. Now this changed. Left-wing groups started to become militant about the Palestinian cause. As the ideology spread, it morphed into an all-encompassing narrative of dispossession and oppression, a burning grievance against the West in general and Israel in particular.

          Left-wingers like Corbyn have never endorsed the more extreme tenets of Islamism, but neither have they confronted them. To have done so would have been to betray their sacred anti-colonialist beliefs. As for the charge of anti-Semitism, in their minds it is, like all other forms of racism, a hallmark of fascism. They are anti-fascists, so they simply can’t be racists.

           As Israel’s ambassador to Britain, Mark Regev, remarked, to say “anti-Semitism, that’s the Right, that’s the fascists,” is a cop-out. “Part of the Left,” he said, “is in denial.” 


          In short, in Britain today Marxism and Fascism are shaking hands, and the left-wing leadership of the Labour party is in disarray.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 3 May 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Anti-Semitism-and-the-British-Left-452949

Published in the Eurasia Review, 4 May 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/04052016-anti-semitism-and-the-british-left-oped/

Published in LinkedIn, 4 May 2016:
https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/anti-semitism-british-left-neville-teller?published=t

Published in the MPC Journal, 8 May 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/05/08/anti-semitism-and-the-british-left/

Sunday, 1 May 2016

That Sykes-Picot deal

          A day in May 2016 will mark the centenary of the famous, or notorious, Sykes-Picot agreement – but what day is the subject of some disagreement. The Encyclopedia Britannica says the agreement dates from May 9, 1916; an on-line legal site asserts that it was signed on May 16; the magazine Foreign Affairs offers us May 17; the on-line site history.com favours May 19; the Jewish Virtual Library maintains that it came into existence on May 23.

          Putting the fine detail to one side, the fact remains that during the First World War the so-called Triple Alliance (Britain, France and Imperial Russia), fighting the German-Austro-Hungarian-Turkish alliance, conspired together to dismember Turkey’s Ottoman Empire at the first opportunity. Discussions began in November 1915, and the final agreement took its name from its negotiators, Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and François Georges-Picot of France.

          What was the Sykes-Picot agreement? In essence it was an understanding to carve up the vast areas of the Middle East then under the control of the Ottoman Empire into British and French spheres of influence – some to be under their direct rule, some to be administered by Arab governments but subject to British or French tutelage.

          But oh, perfidious Albion! For at precisely the time that Britain and France, with Russian connivance, were planning the dismemberment and redistribution of the Ottoman Empire, Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt, was in correspondence with Hussein bin Ali. Sharif of Mecca, concerning the future political status of the Ottoman territories. In short, it was a classic double-cross. The Arab world was seeking its independence from the Turkish-ruled Ottoman Empire, and in the exchange of letters Britain proposed a deal. If the Arabs, led by Hussein bin Ali, rose against Turkey – which together with Germany was fighting Britain and its allies – Britain agreed to recognize Arab independence after the war "in the limits and boundaries proposed by the Sharif of Mecca".

          Of course, when the Arab revolt duly began with British military and financial support on June 10, 1916 – the campaign master-minded by T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) – nothing was known by the Arabs about the Sykes-Picot agreement, nor its plan to slice up the Middle East and share it out between Britain and France.

          When Lawrence learned of Sykes-Picot he was furious. He drove the Arabs he led into a desperate race to capture Damascus and declare an independent Arab state before the British Army could get there. That manoeuvre failed, and after Damascus was captured by combined British and Arab forces, Britain insisted that Sykes-Picot was to prevail over promises to bin Ali.

          Lawrence’s guilt about the broken promises to the Arabs led him to reject all honours, give up his rank, and join the Royal Air Force in 1922 under an assumed name, as an aircraftman second class.

          As events transpired, not only were Britain’s promises to bin Ali a dead letter, but so too were the details of the Sykes-Picot agreement, for it never came to fruition as originally conceived. It was revised on a number of occasions. For example, the borders of the newly-founded Republic of Turkey were settled by the Lausanne Treaty in 1923, concluded after the Allied powers lost the war in Asia Minor. And at the San Remo Conference of the League of Nations in 1920, it was only the underlying strategy, not the detail, of Sykes-Picot that was set in place. The significance of San Remo is that the Sykes-Picot agreement ceased to be a secret deal between two imperial powers, but its basic premise became the internationally approved and endorsed foundation of governance in the Middle East.

          The Sykes-Picot agreement did not quite envisage the Mandate system, established by Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, but the underlying presumptions of the Mandate and the agreement are in accord. Article 22 referred to territories which, after the war, were no longer under their previous ruler, but whose peoples were not considered "able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world". The article called for the governance of such peoples to be "entrusted to advanced nations who by reason of their resources, their experience or their geographical position can best undertake this responsibility".

          The process of establishing the Mandates consisted of two phases: the formal removal of sovereigntyfrom the state previously controlling the territory, and the transfer of mandatory powers to an “advanced nation”. It was under these Sykes-Picot inspired provisions that in July 1922 the huge area then designated as Palestine passed into the control of Great Britain, which was charged with establishing a national home for the Jewish people therein. Fifty-one member countries – the entire League of Nations – unanimously declared on July 24, 1922: “…recognition has been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”

          It had been agreed in the Cairo Conference of March 1921, convened by Britain’s Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill, that Transjordan would be added to Britain’s Palestine mandate on condition that the Jewish national home provisions would not apply there. Britain presented this done deal to the League and so, just two months after granting Britain the Palestine mandate, the League of Nations consented to Britain declaring that the provisions for setting up a Jewish national home would not apply to the area east of the Jordan River. Consequently three-quarters of the territory included in the Mandate eventually became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

          The subsequent history of the British Mandate is well-known. Britain failed to reconcile Arab leaders to its commitment under the Mandate, opposition flared into open revolt, armed clashes between Arabs and Jews proliferated, and British troops were pulled further and further in what amounted to open warfare against both sides. Under pressure Britain virtually reneged on its Mandate commitment. Far from facilitating a Jewish national home. the White Papers of 1930 and 1939 restricted immigration and the acquisition of land by Jews. On November 29, 1947 the UN General Assembly adopted the resolution to partition Palestine. Britain announced the termination of its Mandate, to take effect on May 15, 1948. On May 14 the state of Israel was proclaimed.

          A strange symbiosis seems to exist between the Sykes-Picot agreement and Israel’s Independence Day, even as regards the exact anniversary of each event. For Israel’s Independence Day, which occurred on Iyyar 5 according to the Hebrew calendar, shifts around the common calendar year by year. In 2016 it will be celebrated not on May 14, but on May 16 – within touching distance of the Sykes-Picot centenary, whichever of its dates one happens to favour.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 1 May 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/That-Sykes-Picot-deal-452732

Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 May 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/01052016-that-sykes-picot-deal-oped/

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Could a confederate solution break the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock?

          The European Union is strongly in favour of the two-state solution to the perennial Israeli-Palestinian dispute. “A negotiated two-state solution,” said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini in October 2015, “is the only way to bring the lasting peace and security that both Israelis and Palestinians deserve.”

          The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, is not so sure. “Peace in the Middle East is possible,” said Schulz in the same month, “only if the …conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is resolved, and both peoples live together in two states or a confederation.”

        A confederation? Where did Schulz get this idea as a possible alternative to the near-total commitment of world opinion to the two-state solution? Possibly from none other than the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin. On August 7, 2015, President Rivlin in a newspaper interview suggested that an Israeli-Palestinian confederation would be the best means of settling the perennial Middle East conflict.

          Or possibly Schulz had read the article by Israeli elder statesman, Yossi Beilin, published in the New York Times in May 2015: “Confederation Is the Key to Mideast Peace.”

          “This idea isn’t new,” wrote Beilin. “For a brief time in the 1990s, it animated some of my earliest discussions about peace with a spokesman whom Palestinians revered, Faisal al-Husseini. But that was before the Oslo Accords of 1993…In hindsight, it is clear that we should have been looking all along at confederation – cohabitation, not divorce.”

          What is a confederation? It is a form of government in which constituent states maintain their independence while amalgamating certain aspects of administration, such as security, commerce, or infrastructure. In a confederation emphasis is laid on the independence of the constituent states, as opposed to a federation, in which the stress is on the supremacy of the central government.

          The vision of achieving peace in what was British Mandate Palestine through the mechanism of a confederation has its passionate supporters. Some, like the US-based Israel-Palestine Confederation, think solely in terms of a two nation association; others, like the Israel-Palestine-Jordan Confederation, broaden the concept to include Jordan which, after all, was originally within the British Mandate.

          The classic two-state solution developed in the period when Britain, under the mandate granted by the League of Nations in 1923, administered that chunk of the old Ottoman empire known as Palestine. The mandate tasked the British government to establish in Palestine a national home for the Jewish people, but Britain signally failed to reconcile Arab political leaders to this commitment. Civil unrest led Britain to set up a Royal Commission under Lord Robert Peel, and in 1937 the commission recommended partitioning the country between Jews and Arabs – a two-state solution.

          The proposals were not implemented, but partition surfaced again ten years later when UNSCOP (the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine), proposed dividing the territory then designated Palestine (much reduced from its original 1920s extent) into an Arab and a Jewish state.

          Fast forward to 2016, and the Middle East has developed a range of new imperatives that render the classic two-state solution almost otiose.

          Prowling round the Palestinian Authority (PA) stockade is Hamas, the extreme Islamist organization that seized power in Gaza, rules over nearly two million Palestinians, and has been harrying PA President, Mahmoud Abbas, for a decade. Hamas rejects the two-state solution because it rejects the right of Israel to exist at all, and is dedicated to destroying it. It would not take long for Hamas to seize the reins of power in a new sovereign Palestine, just as it did in Gaza. The new state would then become a Gaza-type launching pad for the indiscriminate bombardment of Israel – and now, within easy range, would lie Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion airport, and Israel’s main north-south road network.

          This prospect in itself may not concern the PA leadership overmuch, but what does worry them is the likelihood of losing power to Hamas, either by way of a military coup or via democratic elections (for a Hamas victory at the polls is a probable outcome). Like it or not, they would need stronger defences against “the enemy within” than their own resources could provide.

          Just as haunting an outlook for an independent Palestine is provided by the mushrooming influence of Islamic State (IS) which, despite recent territorial reverses in Syria, has spread its tentacles into Libya and Yemen, and seeks to embrace within its self-declared caliphate first the Middle East as a whole, and then the world. It would pounce on a new sovereign Palestine, entirely dependent on its own weak military for its defense, like a cat on a mouse.

          IS is already harrying both Israel and Jordan on their northern borders with Syria. On 5 April 2016, IS was reported to have overrun several Jordanian border crossings south of the Yarmouk river. Defending Jordan, Israel, and a new sovereign Palestine against the incursions of IS would be of paramount importance in any final settlement. A three-state confederation could be a most effective means of coordinating the defense capabilities of all three to ensure the security of the region.

          An even more fundamental issue now militates against the classic two-state solution. The PA has painted itself into a corner. Vying with Hamas on the one hand, and extremists within its own Fatah party on the other, it has glorified the so-called “armed struggle”, making heroes of those who undertake terrorist attacks inside Israel, continuously promulgating anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda in the media and in the schools, and reiterating the message that all of Mandate Palestine is Palestinian and the creation of Israel was a national disaster. The end-result of their own narrative is that no Palestinian leader dare sign a peace agreement with Israel based on the two-state solution. The consequent backlash from within the Palestinian world, to say nothing of the personal fear of assassination, have made it impossible. 


          If a solution is ever to be found, it will need to be based on an Arab-wide consensus within which Palestinian extremist objections could be absorbed, or any subsequent direct action disciplined. Israel’s status within the Arab world has improved immeasurably in recent times, as moderate Arab states begin to perceive Israel as a stalwart ally against Iranian ambitions, both nuclear and political, and the encroachments of IS. The League could prove an acceptable broker for a peace deal. 

          Indeed. it is only at the instigation, and under the shield, of the Arab League that the PA might participate in hammering out a three-state confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine – a new legal entity (JIP?), dedicated above all to defending itself and its constituent sovereign states, and to cooperating in the fields of commerce, infrastructure and economic development to the benefit of all its citizens – Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian alike.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 24 April 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Could-a-confederate-solution-break-the-Israeli-Palestinian-deadlock-452111

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 Aprll 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/23042016-could-a-confederate-solution-break-the-israeli-palestinian-deadlock-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 25 April 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/04/25/could-a-confederate-solution-break-the-israeli-palestinian-deadlock/

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Positive action in Yemen yields positive results

          If any one area is a microcosm of the chaos in the Middle East, it is Yemen. Here, as across the region, Islam has been at war with itself, as the deadly rivalry between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni fundamentalist ruling family, and Iran’s equally uncompromising Shia-based Islamic revolution, played itself out. Nowhere was the fault-line between the Shia and the Sunni traditions of Islam more obvious – and nowhere was it more blurred, as self-seeking interests cut across it.

          Who is fighting whom in Yemen? There are four main principals: the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels; the lawful president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi; AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula); and IS (Islamic State). To these might be added Yemen’s previous long-serving president, Ali Abdullah Saleh who, forced from office, still aspires to play a leading role in his country’s affairs. Joining the fray one year ago was Saudi Arabia, which intervened both militarily and diplomatically to beat back the Houthis.

          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, 
                                               Curse on the Jews,
                                               Victory to Islam".


          The Houthis have long been supported by the élite Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards which has kept them supplied with weapons and other military hardware. As a result they overran large areas of the country, including the capital city, Sana’a. In addition the Houthis were in alliance with the Yemeni security forces that remained loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh, although a Sunni Muslim, seemed intent on manoeuvring a return to power in collaboration with the Shia-affiliated Houthis. With Saleh’s help, the Houthis eventually controlled most of the Yemeni military, including its air force.

          A second main player is President Hadi and the government he led from February 2012. Hadi had been deputy to President Saleh who, facing widespread protests and life-threatening attacks, finally – and very reluctantly – left office and transferred the powers of the presidency to him. Hadi took over a country in a state of chaos, and when the Houthis captured the country’s capital, Sana’a, in September 2014, Hadi failed to broker a deal with them and resigned.

          With the Houthis installed as the interim government, Hadi fled to Aden, and from there to Saudi Arabia. He arrived just about the time of the first Saudi air-strike against the Houthis. The Saudis, exasperated by Iran’s continued support for the Houthi rebels, had decided to come to the aid of Yemen’s beleaguered president. A subsequent Arab League summit endorsed the Saudi intervention, and no less than ten Middle East states agreed to unite behind Saudi Arabia to form a fighting force dedicated to defeating the Houthi take-over in Yemen and restoring President Hadi to office.

          A third major force in Yemen is the spin-off al-Qaeda group known as AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). Led by Nasser al-Wuhayshi, a Yemeni former aide to Osama Bin Laden, it was formed in January 2009. Although a totally Sunni organization, its long-term objective is to topple both the Saudi monarchy and the Yemeni government, and to establish an Islamic caliphate on jihadist lines in the Arabian peninsula. So AQAP opposes both the Shi’ite Houthis and Sunni President Hadi.

          Finally among the principals in war-torn Yemen is the recently established Yemenite affiliate of Islamic State (IS). Although IS is just as Sunni-adherent and just as fundamentalist as AQAP, it marches to a different drum-beat, and seeks to eclipse the al-Qaeda presence. It therefore opposes not only the Shi’ite Houthis, but also the Sunni AQAP, the legitimate Sunni President Hadi, and the anti-Houthi Sunni alliance led by Saudi Arabia.

          Despite the Saudi bombing campaign, the Houthis at first continued their advance into government territory, and as a result, the United States increased logistical support, intelligence and weapons to the Saudi campaign.

          Now, thanks to the unremitting efforts of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, a ceasefire has been agreed in Yemen to take effect on April 10, a year or so after the Saudi-led military intervention. Arab countries, convinced that the Saudi’s positive action in Yemen has borne fruit, have welcomed the UN mediator’s success in achieving a ceasefire, and his proposals for following it through.

          Ould Cheikh’s plan is based on the Gulf Cooperation Council’s initiative of 2011 which led to ex-President Saleh’s resignation, and to giving the Houthis the chance to participate in the government. Ould Cheikh’s plan, which is supported by the United States and Russia, among others, involves a new round of peace talks between the rival sides to take place in Kuwait beginning on April 18,

          “Yemen for long has been a battleground for non-state actors,” asserted a recent editorial in Khaleej Times, a Dubai-based newspaper covering the United Arab Emirates, “especially Al Qaeda. And now Daesh is also in it. The talks should primarily focus on converting the ceasefire into permanent peace, and rebuilding the country.” The paper believes that a real détente is in the offing between the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and the Houthi, who have reportedly been swapping prisoners ahead of their scheduled formal talks. “The warring parties must give peace a chance,” it pronounces, hoping that extra-territorial forces will take a back seat and allow the people of Yemen themselves to overcome the crisis.

          “We in the Arabian Gulf,” writes Saad bin Teflah Al Ajmi in The Peninsula, Qatar’s leading English daily, “must realize that Yemen had become our problem, and that we must not leave it prey to civil wars, conflicts, poverty and Iran. A Gulf “Marshall Plan” is much needed for Yemen – for the sake of the people of Yemen and, equally important, for the well-being and security of the Gulf countries.”  

          Wise words. It is pretty clear that the tight long-term solution for Yemen is political reform, followed by a sizeable financial investment funded by the Gulf states. If the peace talks scheduled for April 18 yield this result, Yemen’s long agony could soon become just an unpleasant episode in the history of one of the oldest centres of civilization in the Middle East – a peaceful, fertile country described by the ancient Greek geographer, Ptolemy, as “Happy Arabia”.


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 17 April 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Positive-action-in-Yemen-yields-positive-results-451467

Published in the Eurasia Review, 16 April 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/16042016-positive-action-in-yemen-yields-positive-results-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 18 April 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/04/18/positive-action-in-yemen-yields-positive-results/

Sunday, 10 April 2016

How to defeat Islamic State - the Blair recipe

          Tony Blair is a man of wisdom and experience, a global player with many positive achievements to his credit, but in UK politics he is a spent force. The charismatic leader who transformed the fortunes of Britain’s Labour Party and led it to three successive election victories, is now the object of scorn by those in charge of the party. They have utterly rejected his middle-of-the-road approach, with its appeal to a wide swathe of moderate electors, in favour of a sharp turn to the left under their new leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

          Nowadays many who supported Blair while he was prime minister view with suspicion his subsequent foray into high-level political consultancy, and resent or envy the multi-million fortune he has accrued in doing so. Clients he has signed up to his advisory practice include the Kuwaiti, Mongolian, Kazakh and Peruvian governments and the Abu Dhabi investment fund, Mubadala. In November 2010 he signed a contract with PetroSaudi, a Saudi oil company, and he is also an adviser to J P Morgan, the investment bank, and to Zurich International, the Swiss-based global insurance company.

          The future is not all golden, however, for looming over it is the shadow of the 2003 war in Iraq to which, in alliance with US President George W Bush, he committed the UK. All those who opposed his decision to join the US in the invasion of Iraq, and many who did not, are awaiting with keen anticipation the comprehensive report being prepared by Sir John Chilcot into Britain's involvement in the conflict. Many expect, and more than a few hope, that Tony Blair himself, and the government he led, will be roundly condemned for mistakes, failures and perhaps even worse, and possibly face future legal action.

          The Chilcot inquiry, set up in 2009, has been in progress for some seven years. From about 2011, when Tony Blair appeared before the committee, there has been consistent pressure from the British public, and particularly from those who lost relatives in the conflict, for Chilcot to complete his report and publish. But Chilcot has not only been meticulous in his investigation, but also scrupulous in seeking comments, clarifications and corrections from every person named in the report before finalizing it. Back in October 2015 Chilcot announced that the long-delayed document will go for national security vetting in April 2016, before being released to the public in June or July.

          However turbulent Tony Blair’s future may be, no one can deny that since resigning as UK prime minister in June 2007, he has acquired a unique knowledge and understanding of the Middle East. For on the very day that he stepped down, he was appointed special envoy to the International Quartet on the Middle East (the UN, the EU, the US and Russia), and he acted in that capacity for the next eight years. It would be fair to say that despite his best efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and he certainly strove hard, especially in the early days – events beyond his control frustrated his good intentions. Cataclysmic changes within the Middle East, sparked in part by the Arab Spring, in part by the US-led invasion of Iraq, rendered all his efforts fruitless.

          Nevertheless, when he chooses to pronounce on the chaos that now engulfs the Middle East, he speaks with a degree of knowledge and expertise that few, if any, can match. On March 27, 2016, in an article in the UK’s prestigious Sunday Times, Blair addressed the urgent question of how the civilized world can overcome the malign organization that threatens its very existence - Islamic State (IS).

          His basic premise is quite clear: we have been dragging our heels. “IS has to be eliminated with greater speed and vigour,” he writes, warning that if we do not get our act together pretty quickly, the West will face “increasingly frequent acts of terrorism”, and may eventually be the subject of a terrorist act “of such size and horror” that it will 
force a change in attitude. “But by then,” he predicts, “the battle will be much harder to win without measures that contradict our basic value system.”

          His recommendation? That the US and its allies bite the bullet, put aside the “no boots on the ground” strategy, and send ground troops to Syria and Iraq and anywhere else that is necessary, with the objective of crushing IS and the extremist ideology that fuels it. He calls also for the West to equip Arab ground forces to support the anti-IS coalition.

          “We must build military capability able to confront and defeat the terrorists wherever they try to hold territory,” writes Blair. “This is not just about local forces. It is a challenge for the west. Ground forces are necessary to win this fight, and ours are the most capable.”

          Beyond Syria and Iraq, Blair has Libya in his sights, where IS has established a formidable stronghold. Britain is known to be considering contributing 1,000 non-combat troops to a 5,000-strong international force to train the Libyan army, as it seeks to overcome IS, but many commentators – Blair among them – consider both the projected 5,000-strong force, and Britain’s proposed contribution, woefully inadequate.

          “To have allowed IS to become the largest militia in Libya, right on Europe’s doorstep is extraordinary,” he wrote. “It has to be crushed.”

          Blair is equally forthright when he turns to the problem of Islamism. He sees the military battle against IS as part of a wider strategy aimed at confronting what he calls this “perversion” of the Islamic faith. Islamism, he maintains, “is not interested in coexistence. It does not seek dialogue but dominance. It cannot therefore be contained. It has to be defeated.” For this to happen, he believes, the “paralysing grip of the present political discourse” on both right and left must be countered – on the right, bigotry against all Muslims; on the left, politically correct aversion to using the term “Islamism” and the belief that “we have caused all of this through western policy”.

          Blair believes Islamism could be defeated by marshalling an alliance within Islam. “The majority of Muslims hate the way their faith has been hijacked,” he writes. It would not be surprising to learn one day that Tony Blair, in the light of the common threats of Islamic State and Iran, has been instrumental in brokering the current rapprochement between moderate Arab states and Israel. 


          In short, Tony Blair has surveyed the extreme danger that Islamic State poses to the world, and in clear-headed and candid fashion has offered his recipe for overcoming it. He is a man whose opinion merits attention.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line: 13 April 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/-450774

Published in the Eurasia Review, 11 April 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/11042016-how-to-defeat-islamic-state-the-blair-recipe-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 10 April 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/04/10/how-to-defeat-islamic-state-the-blair-recipe/

Monday, 4 April 2016

Islamism against the world

          To say that Islamism is at war with the world is to state the obvious. There are two main contenders for leadership of this jihadist battle, and they come from either side of the ancient Sunni-Shia fault line that runs through Islam – the Islamic Republic of Iran and Islamic State (IS).

          About Shi’ite Iran, the self-declared enemy of the West in general, and the US and Israel in particular, little can be done in the short term. In July 2015 President Obama led world powers into concluding a flawed nuclear deal with Iran’s leaders which has provided them with the means of acquiring a nuclear weapons capability within fifteen years, and with the lifting of the most irksome of the sanctions that have been imposed on them. Iran – the scourge of the Middle East, and with an horrific record of terrorist outrages over the past 35 years – is riding high, its sights set on achieving both political and religious dominance in the Middle East.

          Opposition to its ambitions is led by Saudi Arabia, which is combatting Iran and its allies in Yemen, while the Arab League has just designated Iran’s puppet body, Hezbollah, a terrorist organization.

          The other contender as jihadist supremo is Islamic State, which represents an extreme version of Sunni Islam and which seeks to establish a sharia-based world-wide caliphate. In its world view, as Dr Amichai Magen recently explained, the Ummah (or ‘community of believers’) is in a state of total war with three designated enemies: the West, ‘the Jews’, and Shia Muslims together with apostate Arab regimes. This war not only justifies acts of extreme violence against those who have conspired to ‘suppress the true faith’ – beheadings, crucifixions, mass executions and rape – but involves the rejection of all forms of man-made law and democracy.

          IS and its followers also clearly revel in carrying the war into the heart of the enemy, by instigating acts of indiscriminate terror in Western cities and against Western tourists around the world. Adhering to a religious philosophy which glorifies death, its adherents flock to commit suicide in acts designed to destroy as many innocent lives as possible.

          Individuals induced to undertake suicide terror attacks may glory in their own “martyrdom” and gain satisfaction from causing death, misery and mayhem, but it is difficult from the receiving end of these terrorist activities to perceive what strategic advantage accrues to the jihadist cause from them. They seem unlikely to advance the establishment of a world-wide caliphate. They may generate fear in Western populations, but are more likely to stiffen their governments’ determination to boost their counter-terrorist operations and bear down heavily on those who plan and perpetrate terror.

          What is the thinking, then, behind the continuous succession of terrorist outrages committed inside Western countries? It only seems to make some sort of sense if it is based on the assumption that democratic societies are basically unstable, and that under sufficient pressure they will implode – an assumption replete with wishful thinking, and on a par with Hitler’s belief in 1940 that a sustained blitz on London would result in a collapse of morale.

          It was on June 29, 2014 that the leader of what was then known as ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, felt emboldened enough to take a giant step towards achieving a degree of power and status for himself and his organization beyond the wildest dreams of most jihadi leaders. In an audio recording the group announced that it was henceforth to be known as "Islamic State", and that its head, al-Baghdadi, was now "the caliph and leader for Muslims everywhere". Moreover, declared the group's spokesman, Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, “the legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph's authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas.''

          An official document, released in English and several other languages, urged Muslims to "gather around your caliph, so that you may return as you once were for ages, kings of the earth and knights of war."

          What is a caliphate? Effectively an Islamic republic led by one leader, regardless of national boundaries. The original caliphate under the aegis of the Ottoman empire was abolished by Kemal Ataturk in 1924, but Muslim extremists continued to dream of recreating the Islamic state that, over the course of Islam's 1,400-year history, had ruled over the Middle East, much of North Africa and beyond. So the announcement of June 29, 2014 is couched in terms of ending a century-long calamity ­– namely the break-up of the Islamic Middle East into artificial sovereign states following the first World War – and as marking the return of dignity and honor to the Islamic ummah.


          The caliph is historically supposed to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad's Quraysh tribe. Since becoming leader of ISIS, Baghdadi had been claiming precisely that lineage – a claim widely disputed. In his announcement, the new IS spokesman, Adnani, reiterated Baghdadi's claim.

          Other Muslim groups, bodies and leaders, both moderate and extreme, reacted violently against this unprecedented exercise in arrogance and self-aggrandisement, but as IS went from strength to strength, Baghdadi’s “delusions” – which are comparable to those of Napoleon or Adolf Hitler – seemed to know no bounds. On July 2, 2014 the new, self-anointed caliph and supreme leader of Islam, declared that Muslims should flock to the new caliphate. “Syria is not for Syrians,” he proclaimed “and Iraq is not for Iraqis. The land is for the Muslims, all Muslims.” Follow his advice, he said, and “you will conquer Rome and own the world."

          Not the happiest of prospects either for Rome or for the world. The civilized world has taken a long time to realize that it simply has to face down this self-declared enemy of all it stands for. The recent carnage in Belgium, and the emerging picture of security failures by Western powers, is reinforcing the realization that a determined effort must be made to confront, fight, conquer and crush this malign organization, with its grandiose ambitions and brutal and inhumane methods of achieving them. 


          Syria and Iraq are the obvious starting points. “No boots on the ground” has proved an inadequate, ineffective and frankly outdated policy in combatting Islamic State. To eliminate the scourge of IS from the world, the West and its allies must deploy the vast military power at their disposal, and in a sustained, united and determined effort, overwhelm Islamic State once and for all.  

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 4 April 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Islamism-against-the-world-450089

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Putin's mission and omission in Syria

          When President Vladimir Putin sent his forces into Syria on September 30, 2015, he had two main objectives in view – to establish Russia as a potent political and military force in the Middle East, and to secure his hold on both the Russian naval base at Tartus and the air base and intelligence-gathering centre at Latakia. He has achieved both, and now he is leaving.

          Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict certainly boosted President Bashar Assad’s fortunes, but if the Syrian leader expected Putin to remain by his side in a long-drawn-out conflict to regain the whole of pre-war Syria from rebel forces and Islamic State (IS), he has been sadly disillusioned. Putin’s aim was never to ensure total victory for Assad, nor to defeat IS.

          With Putin’s main objectives gained, he is now keen to consolidate them, and for that to happen the peace talks currently taking place in Geneva need to yield positive results – possibly an end to the Syrian civil war. This is why Moscow, along with Washington, pressed hard for the resumption of the talks on March 14. It also explains the growing signs of differences between Russia and the Syrian government in recent weeks. Assad and his supporters have been steadfastly maintaining that new presidential elections are not up for discussion – a “red line” declared Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem on March 12 – but Putin has been noticeably equivocal about Assad’s future. The most he has hinted at is the possibility of a presidential election in which Assad might stand as a candidate – a possibility that US Secretary of State, John Kelly, has not wholly vetoed, but which has been flatly rejected by France and the UK.

          Putin’s withdrawal of Russia’s military support at the very moment that peace talks are due to resume is clearly an intentional weakening of Assad’s position overall. The Syrian regime suddenly appears much more vulnerable. If Assad’s representatives had been planning an unyielding stance on their demands regarding Assad’s future, hoping to negotiate with the threat of continued Russian bombardment of the anti-Assad forces as their trump card, the ground has been cut from under their feet. Putin’s withdrawal means there can be no stone-walling from the Assad side – it is no longer strong enough for that. Its recent successes achieved with Russian military support make the regime somewhat more credible, but mean little more than that.

          So there is room for hope. If the ceasefire continues to hold, and if a deal can be brokered that allows the reconstruction of Syria to begin and millions of refugees to go home, that would be cause for satisfaction. Even this, though, would be something of a hollow achievement if the pressing issue of defeating Islamic State is not addressed.

          Terrible though the Syrian civil war has been in the numbers of civilians killed and the massive tide of dispossessed refugees and migrants created, it is not the main problem facing the civilized world. The main problem is the brutal, inhumane, jihadist movement that calls itself Islamic State, and by others Daesh, that has seized large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria and set about savagely imposing its extremist version of Islamism on the population it controls. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights recently reported that since June 2014 IS had summarily killed 3,967 people.

          Although Putin gave lip service to combating IS in Syria, in fact his airstrikes were very largely directed against Assad’s domestic enemies – the rebel forces led by the Free Syrian Army. In the six months since Russian forces first began military operations they helped pro-Assad loyalists reclaim nearly 4,000 square miles of territory from rebel forces. Little, if any, was won back from IS – the 10-20 percent of territory lost by IS since its apogee in August 2014 was due to the 7000-plus US-led air-strikes, which also killed some 25,000 IS fighters.

          By declaring, in effect, mission accomplished, Putin is acknowledging that destroying IS was never a primary goal. He has left that for others - the US, the West and perhaps Saudi Arabia - to fulfil. For IS is still deeply entrenched in much of northern and eastern Syria, and is continuing its self-imposed mission of extending its caliphate across the Middle East, ruthlessly annihilating people, buildings and artefacts that do not conform to its own extremist concepts of what Islam demands.

          IS is not party to the Geneva peace talks, and will not be bound by any initiatives emanating from them. Though the US-led coalition in Syria is dedicated to its destruction, it is obvious that the West has not yet been prepared to commit full-heartedly to the fight. “No boots on the ground” is an understandable position, given past disastrous excursions by the West into the Middle East quagmire, but new situations need to be assessed anew. The lesson of history is that it is a mistake to fight today’s war on yesterday’s assumptions.

          Saudi Arabia has signalled its willingness to commit its coalition’s ground troops in the anti-IS struggle, for no moderate Islamic state endorses the pretensions of IS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to be establishing a latter-day caliphate to which all Muslims must vow allegiance on pain of death. That is the existential threat that IS poses to the world of Islam.

          What western public opinion has yet fully to grasp is that IS is equally dedicated to the destruction of western values and way of life, and the eventual substitution of its jihadist caliphate across the whole world. Horrific acts of terrorism in France, Belgium, Copenhagen and the United States, attacks targeting foreign tourists in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, the destruction of the Russian passenger jet – all testify to the determination of IS to undermine morale in the West. So, too, does the continued appeal of IS to disaffected Muslim youth the world over, the unabated flow of recruits to its ranks, and the infiltration into Europe of indoctrinated and trained terrorists within the flood-tide of refugees and migrants fleeing the war zones of the Middle East.

          Given these circumstances, “no boots on the ground” seems an outdated and inadequate policy. “Victory at all costs”, Churchill’s famous declaration of Britain’s war aims against Nazism back in 1940, should be the guiding principle underlying the West’s fight against Islamic State.

          To quote him in full, for what he said is equally relevant to today’s struggle:  
“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs - victory in spite of all terrors - victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”