Tuesday, 21 June 2016

France’s Middle East peace initiative and the Hamas conundrum

          The exact location in Paris where France’s Middle East peace conference took place on June 3 was not announced in advance to the world’s media. The precaution was fully justified on security grounds. For just prior to the meeting of some thirty foreign ministers from around the globe, Hamas had issued a statement condemning the French initiative. Hamas, be it remembered, rules nearly 2 million Palestinians in the Gaza strip, and is supported by unknown numbers of Palestinians – perhaps a majority – in the occupied territories.

          "Any proposals to bring the two parties back to the negotiating table," declared Hamas leader Yahya Moussa to the website Al-Monitor, “aim at slaying the Palestinian cause. The international community cannot offer any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without the approval of Hamas, which won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006."

          Moussa’s last point is rather sparing with relevant facts. The legislative elections of 2006 indeed gave Hamas a substantial lead over its Fatah rivals, and after much bargaining the two parties agreed to form a national unity government. But sharing power was the last thing Hamas wanted. In a bloody fratricidal coup, it fought, defeated and expelled its Fatah rivals in the Gaza strip. In fact Hamas rules Gaza by might, not by right.

          Moussa had more to say regarding the French initiative. Hamas's solution to end the conflict, he declared, is based "on the Israeli withdrawal from the entire Palestinian territories occupied since 1948, the return of the Palestinian refugees who have been displaced from their home and lands since 1948, and the liberation of all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. Hamas will always opt for armed resistance, he added, until the "restoration of Palestinian rights."

          Hamas is quite explicit as regards its objectives. It intends to continue its armed struggle until it has defeated Israel and rendered Mandate Palestine judenrein. Global opinion, West and East, consistently ignores, or underplays, this factor in the equation. Almost without exception the world supports the two-state concept as the answer to the perennial Israel-Palestine dispute. This was the ideal set out by France’s President François Hollande, as he launched the ministerial peace conference: “two states living side by side in peace.” How peaceful co-existence can be achieved when Hamas, representing a substantial proportion, if not the majority, of Palestinians is opposed tooth and nail to any accommodation with Israel – that is the question not asked, and therefore left unanswered.

          Any yet, in acknowledging the difficulty of the task before the international community, Hollande perhaps nodded in the direction of the Hamas conundrum. Referring to the fact that neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority had been invited to this first of France’s two projected peace conferences, he said: "We cannot substitute for the (absent) parties. Our initiative aims at giving them guarantees that the peace will be solid, sustainable and under international supervision.”

          Could “international supervision” guarantee that a new, sovereign Palestine in the West Bank would not very quickly be infiltrated by Islamic State, as well as taken over by Hamas, either through force of arms or by democratic election? What then of Israel’s security, with Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion airport and Israel’s road and rail infrastructure under direct threat of rocket and missile attack?

          French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault gave a press conference after the summit. He said that the participating ministers had decided to set up teams by the end of June charged with working on "economic and security incentives for the Israelis and Palestinians to reach a deal.” The security incentives he mentions would need to be very explicit and substantial if they are to be meaningful.

          The joint communiqué issued after the conference emphasised that the status quo is not sustainable, and stressed the importance of both sides demonstrating, “with policies and actions, a genuine commitment to the two-state solution in order to rebuild trust and create the conditions for fully ending the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 and resolving all permanent status issues through direct negotiations … also recalling relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions and highlighting the importance of the implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative.”

          The Arab Peace Initiative, let it be said, has been comprehensively rejected by Hamas. Its basis is an undertaking to normalize relations between the Arab world and Israel in return for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute on a two-state basis. Although incorporated into US Middle East policy by President Obama early in his administration, Israel has been equivocal about it until quite recently. On May 30 Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, surprised many by saying: "The Arab peace initiative includes positive elements that can help revive constructive negotiations with the Palestinians. We are willing to negotiate with the Arab states revisions to that initiative so that it reflects the dramatic changes in the region since 2002 but maintains the agreed goal of two states for two peoples."

          More than two weeks passed. Then on June 15 a spokesman for the Arab League rejected Netanyahu’s offer to negotiate. “This is completely unacceptable,” said Secretary-General of the Arab League, Dr Nabil Elaraby, “because the Arab Peace Initiative has a certain philosophy and a certain order.” This delayed response should perhaps be considered as a first move in a longer diplomatic game, especially so in light of the specific mention, not once but twice, of the Arab Peace Initiative in the joint communiqué following the Paris conference.

          What was not mentioned, but ought perhaps to be seriously considered, is the concept of establishing a sovereign Palestine within the framework of a new legal entity – a confederation, either comprising only Israel and Palestine, or even a three-party confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine. In a confederation sovereign states link themselves together to co-ordinate common action on critical issues. A new, weak Palestinian state would be instantly vulnerable to IS and Hamas – but not only Palestine, for both are already knocking on Israel’s and Jordan’s doors. A three-partner confederation might be conceived specifically to achieve close military and economic cooperation, thus providing not only high-tech security for all three, but also the basis for the future growth and prosperity of each partner.

          If something along these lines emerges after France’s second conference, planned for the end of 2016, the whole enterprise will have been worthwhile.

Published in the MPC Journal, 23 June 2016:

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Iran's winning ways

          The Iranians, heirs to the ancient civilization of Persia which stretches back into the mists of time, have inherited both its ruthless and its subtle and devious ways of achieving its purposes. Persia was once the superpower of the ancient world, and Iran’s current repressive Islamist rulers seek again the hegemony the nation once enjoyed. Undeterred by apparent reversals of fortune, they are relentless in their pursuit of their objectives – jihad against western values in general, and the US and Israel in particular; jihad against Sunni states and peoples whom they regard as apostates against the true faith of Islam, namely the Shia tradition of which they claim to be the standard-bearers; and jihad against any of their own citizens who challenge or flout the repressive Islamist way of life they have established in their country.

          In their single-minded determination to achieve their aims, the current Iranian regime continuously initiates, facilitates or supports, regardless of the death and destruction caused, a succession of terrorist activities. This ruthless and amoral single-mindedness brings results, at least in the short term. Time and again Iran seems to triumph in the face of adversity, and bounce back from reversals of fortune.

          Just consider its position in world politics in mid-2016. Uniquely, Iran has succeeded in running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. Not only is Iran courted and deferred to by the United States and much of the West who are dedicated to removing Syria’s President Bashar Assad from power, but it is an active battlefield ally of Russia fighting to support Assad’s bid to regain power. Moreover, it is benefitting from a highly advantageous trade deal with Russia which guarantees it delivery of the long-range S-300 missile system – the most advanced in the world.

          As far as the US in concerned, Iran’s current “favoured nation” status, unreciprocated though it is, is the result of nifty Iranian footwork in the diplomatic area.

          The evidence is now pretty overwhelming that President Barack Obama came to the presidency in 2009 with a pre-determined strategic plan for the Middle East, based on ideas contained in the final report of the Iraq Study Group, a congressional commission co-chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton.

          At the time the major jihadist enemy of the West was al-Qaeda. The report advanced the clever-clever notion that if the US made allies of Iran and the Assad regime in Syria – the heartland of Shia Islam – America could step back, and those states could be relied on to combat the Sunni-led threat to the world, al-Qaeda. The Study Group’s conclusions lined up very well with Obama’s declared intention of reducing America’s direct involvement in the Middle East.

          Obama began his presidency with a great weight of guilt on his shoulders. He renounced the concept of America as the world’s champion of democracy and freedom, prepared to fight if necessary to maintain its values. Early on he asserted that any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail; that “problems must be dealt with through partnership”. His new doctrine emphasized diplomacy to promote its aims, and downplayed military might; it aimed at adopting a more humble attitude in state-to-state relations, and playing a more restrained role on the international stage.

          It is certain that none of this escaped Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. He undoubtedly perceived the golden opportunity this new approach provided for Iran to advance its own interests.

          The good times started in June 2013, with the election as President of the candidate blessed by Khamenei – the self-styled “moderate”, Sayyed Hassan Rouhani. Also blessed, without a doubt, was the deliberate change of tactics from the confrontational stance of ex-President Ahmadinejad, during previous attempts by the UN to induce Iran to control its nuclear program. Henceforth all was to be charm and sweet reason – and indeed, immediately after his election, Rouhani immediately agreed to start substantive talks with world leaders about Iran’s nuclear intentions.

          World leaders swallowed the bait. A succession of negotiations followed, but with Iran convinced that the Obama administration had discounted any sort of military confrontation aimed at preventing Iran achieving its goal – a deal allowing it to produce nuclear weapons in the fullness of time. That was precisely the eventual outcome, while in return for simply talking, Iran was rewarded with the progressive lifting of financial sanctions. 

          The authors of the Iraq Study Group report were either ignorant of some of the realities that rendered their conclusions basically flawed, or deliberately chose to ignore them. They set aside the fundamental philosophy underlying the Iranian Islamic Republic – to oppose, and eventually destroy, Western political and cultural values, and to achieve political and religious dominance in the Middle East.

          For the past eight years the Obama administration has ignored Iran’s clearly signalled political priorities, and has failed to respond adequately to its continued terrorist activities and its support for terrorism. Instead, it has engineered a deal which has enormously enhanced Iran’s clout and alienated, or at least disillusioned, its erstwhile allies in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt, all of whom have good reason to regard Iran as their prime antagonist. Washington may well have initiated a nuclear arms race in the region, for it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia, for instance, would stand idly by while Iran turned itself into a nuclear power.

          Has Obama’s placatory approach resulted in any softening of Iran’s visceral hatred of the “Great Satan”? Not one jot. “The slogans ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Death to America’,“ proclaimed Ayatollah Khamenei just after the nuclear deal was announced, “have resounded throughout the country.... Even after this deal, our policy towards the arrogant US will not change.” 

          For the moment Iran seems to hold a winning hand, but the recent concatenation of circumstances which have favoured it are unlikely to last indefinitely. It faces formidable political and religious foes in the Sunni world led by Saudi Arabia, as well as jihadist opponents such as Islamic State (IS). Much of the Western world seems to have woken to the dangers posed to its way of life by IS, but seems unaware that Iran is as implacable an enemy. One can only hope that realization does not dawn too late.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 15 June 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 16 June 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 19 June 2016:

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Britain's EU referendum - the Israel dimension

          On June 23 Britain mounts only the third nationwide referendum in its history. UK citizens, at home and abroad, will be asked whether they favour the nation remaining in the European Union or leaving it. 

          Can Israel’s interests be affected at all in such an apparently domestic British issue? The Remain campaigners lay heavy stress on the trading advantages that accrue to the UK from membership of the EU, and the financial disadvantages to the economy as a whole, and to individual households, from leaving. Those advocating “Brexit” (the portmanteau term now in common use to describe Britain’s exit from the EU) are concentrating their arguments on the need to regain control of Britain’s borders and thus manage the current influx of migrants from Europe, uncontrollable under EU rules. Also in their sights is the goal of taking back sovereignty from the unelected European Commission which initiates all EU legislation, thus restoring to the UK Parliament democratic accountability for the governance of the nation.

          In the early weeks of the referendum campaign, polls of public opinion showed a small but consistent majority in favour of Britain remaining in the EU. There was, however, also a consistently large body of “don’t knows” – some 20 percent of the electorate – and as the period of “purdah” started (a period of three weeks prior to the election, in which the government is debarred from policy announcements affecting the issue), a sudden reversal in the polls put the Brexiteers in the lead. The best of the campaigning, including a series of TV events, has still to take place, and the effect on the electorate is anyone’s guess.

          What of the Israel dimension?

          The EU’s relations with Israel reached a particularly parlous state on November 12, 2015. The issue? The labelling of goods “from the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967”. The European Commission announcement stated that the EU does not consider the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, to be part of sovereign Israel. So it advised that all products originating from those areas and being sold in the EU should be labelled to indicate they are not from Israel proper.

          “For products from Palestine that do not originate from settlements,” states the notice, “an indication … could be 'product from the West Bank (Palestinian product)' ‘product from Gaza’ or 'product from Palestine'.

          The EU seemed blissfully unaware of the anomaly it was promulgating. Bending over backwards to ensure that certain goods are labelled as not emanating from the Israel that the EU recognizes, it recommends they are labelled as coming from a state of Palestine that does not exist.

          What is this “Palestine”? In effect the EU has determined it consists of the territory occupied by Jordanian forces on July 20, 1949 – the date of the armistice in the first Arab-Israel war – together with Gaza, where the de facto rulers, Hamas, are designated a terrorist organization by the EU.

          This declaration by the EU provided a huge boost to the burgeoning BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, dedicated to the delegitimization and eventual destruction of the state of Israel. Though the EU seemed unaware of, or indifferent to, the implications, the UK government recognized them. On 17 February 2016 the UK formally announced moves designed to make procurement boycotts by public authorities illegal. The proposed legislation will apply across the board to central and local government, NGOs and the National Health Service.

          “Any public body found to be in breach of the regulations,” ran the official statement. ”could be subject to severe penalties.”

          The British government’s plan came under heavy fire from some left-wingers and pro-Palestinian activists. A spokesman for Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn accused the government of restricting local democracy and freedom of expression.

          Israel’s supporters characterized the move as “welcome,” with MP Eric Pickles, the head of Conservative Friends of Israel, declaring “the attempt by the irresponsible left to demonize Israel is bad for British business, bad for the local taxpayer, and deeply damaging to community relations.”

          The gap between the EU and the UK on the anti-Israel activities of the BDS movement and its adherents was emphasized in April 2016, when the UK government ceased funding the charity War on Want. Founded in 1951, War on Want's initial mandate was to tackle global poverty and inequality. But following a disastrous period in the 1980s, when the charity was forced into insolvency under the management of anti-Israel campaigner George Galloway, it was hijacked by anti-Israel activists to emerge as a leading backer of the anti-Israel BDS movement. It also became a major sponsor of so-called "Israel Apartheid Week", the annual anti-Israel hate-fest.

          Reacting to the UK decision to cease funding War on Want, NGO Monitor president, Professor Gerald Steinberg, said: “Other institutional donors, in particular the European Union, should follow suit and immediately end their funding for this anti-human rights organization." According to NGO Monitor, between 2012 and 2015 the British government gave War on Want £500,000 (over $700,000), while the EU gave another £211,000 (over $300,000). There have so far been no signs that the EU intends to follow Steinberg’s advice.

          It seems clear that the UK Conservative government under David Cameron is not at one with the EU on anti-semitism or the BDS movement. But the issue is a comparatively minor one when set against the weighty pros and cons of Britain’s membership of the EU. So David Cameron, a true friend of Israel, is the leading advocate of the Remain campaign for reasons far removed from Israel’s interests. Also among the leading figures on the Remain side, however, is Jeremy Corbyn, the hard left leader of Britain’s Labour party which is currently grappling, though not very effectively, with apparently deeply-rooted anti-semitism in its ranks.

          The two leading advocates of Brexit are doughty supporters of Israel – Michael Gove, the Justice Minister, and Boris Johnson, ex-Mayor of London and strong contender for next leader of the Conservative party. A UK freed from the shackles of the EU could, depending on the political colour of its government, prove a stronger ally for Israel than one constrained by the generally hostile attitude of majority EU opinion.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 8 June 2016:

Friday, 3 June 2016

The Chaos in the Middle East, 2014-2016

In my new book, due to be published on 28 August 2016, I attempt to expose the whys and wherefores of the Middle East’s growing chaos

‘The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016’ attempts to unravel the confusing and intricate modern news of conflict from the Middle East, and provide an accessible overview of the discord that is dominating the media agenda. From the West’s failure to triumph over Islamic State to Iran’s sudden increase in status –  I explain the myriad of forces that have turned the Middle East into a bloodbath.

Through all of its sadness and brutality, the Middle East has become something of a fashionable topic for news media around the world. While millions know that the region has problems, few lay westerners understand why. They know Islamic State means death, but fail to appreciate the long-term objectives of the organization. They see Syrian refugees flooding into Europe, but are hazy as to who is fighting whom in their homeland, and why. I try to explain all this, and much besides.


The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016 provides an up-to-date overview of the problems currently affecting the Middle East, and sets them in context. By not only providing an account of the bewilderingly complicated events of the past two years, but also explaining their background, I try to give readers the tools to understand issues of concern to the whole world. Written in easily understood terms, the book is ideal for readers interested in comprehending the complex problems emanating from the Middle East.

The grim reality in today's Middle East began attracting the world's attention from the beginning of 2014. The growth in size and influence of the bloodthirsty and inhumane Islamic State, and the hordes of terrified refugees fleeing from the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, to name but two examples, forced themselves on the public’s attention. From this time, major themes dominated the politics of the region, such as the rise in the power and influence of Iran, the failure to defeat Islamic State in Iraq or Syria, the continuing devastation of Syria and the surprising incursion of Russia into the Middle East. These, as well as assessments of particular areas of conflict or special interest such as Turkey and the Kurds, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute,Yemen, Tunisia, Libya, Lebanon and South Sudan, form the framework of this book.


Foreword                                                                                          ix     
1. Islamic State and Islamism                                                             1
2. Iran and the nuclear deal                                                               47
3. Syria’s civil conflict                                                                         85
4. Israel and Palestine                                                                      107
5. Turkey and the Kurds                                                                   182
6. Egypt’s struggle for stability                                                          201
7. Russia flexes its muscles                                                              215
8. No end of trouble                                                                          228
                               • Saudi Arabia’s new broom                               232
                               • The sorry state of Yemen                                 243
                               • Libya and the anti-Islamist struggle                 250
                               • Lebanon in limbo                                             260
                               • Why Tunisia?                                                   271
                               • Hope for South Sudan                                     275
                               • The non-Arab Middle East                               280
                               • Arab-Israel peace – a new approach               287

‘The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016’ will be published on 28 August, 2016 as a paperback at £11.99 ($17.50) and as an ebook.

Pre-publication, copies of the paperback are available at only £10 ($14.75) from the Troubador website:

Subsequently both paperback and ebook are available also at Amazon: http://amzn.to/1VMu4OL./ and all other retail on-line booksellers

About the Author:I have been commenting on the Middle East scene for over thirty years. I am Middle East correspondent for the Eurasia Review and my articles also appear regularly in the Jerusalem Post, in on-line publications, and in this blog, “A Mid-East Journal”. My books include “One Man’s Israel” (2008), “One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine” (2011) and “The Search for Détente” (2014). A past chairman of the Society of Authors’ Broadcasting Committee and the Contributors’ Committee of the Audiobook Publishing Association, I am a veteran radio and audio dramatist and abridger. In the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2006 I was awarded the MBE for services to broadcasting and drama.
Visit my official website: http://www.nevilleteller.co.uk/

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:

Published in the MPC Journal, 31 May 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 June 2016:

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:

Published in the MPC Journal, 25 May 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 May 2016:

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:

Published in the MPC Journal, 18 May 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 May 2016:

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:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 11 May 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 12 May 2016:

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:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 4 May 2016:

Published in LinkedIn, 4 May 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 8 May 2016:

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:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 May 2016: