Sunday, 18 March 2018

Reality checks in the Middle East

A new pragmatic spirit is dawning in the Middle East.  Old outworn attitudes are beginning to crumble.  For example, when have officials from leading Arab states sat round a table with those from Israel – which many of them do not formally recognize as yet − to discuss how to alleviate a problem affecting the region?  Yet that is precisely what happened on Tuesday, 13 March 2018, when Israeli national security officials met their counterparts from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates in the White House to discuss a humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Gaza Strip. The meeting was not covert.  The Arab states involved were content for it to be conducted in the full glare of the media.

Despite having been under a virtual blockade imposed by neighbouring states for months, Qatar was invited, and had agreed, to participate in the discussion.  Their presence was an ironic illustration of the complexity of affairs in the region, but also a sign of its growing realism.  Consecutive US and Israeli governments had long criticized Qatar for its support for Hamas in Gaza, and a prime reason cited by the Gulf states and Egypt for imposing sanctions was that Qatar had consistently poured money into Hamas’s coffers.  Clearly, though, Qatar’s financial support had done little to alleviate the desperate living conditions afflicting a large part of the civilian population.  Most of the millions received by Hamas from Qatar, Iran, overseas charitable associations and fundraising, went on vast military expenditures including the construction of hundreds of sophisticated tunnels under the Israel and the Egyptian borders – the former intended to launch attacks on civilian targets in Israel, the latter to facilitate the smuggling of goods and equipment.

The summit on Gaza had been called by Jared Kushner, the US president’s son-in-law and senior adviser on Middle East peace, as well as Jason Greenblatt, his special representative for international negotiations.  It marked an unprecedented moment for Israeli diplomacy, as their dialogue with officials from Arab states was publicly recognized for the first time. The Trump administration had planned the meeting over several weeks and released a list of attendees on the morning of the summit which also included officials from Canada and various European governments.  A notable absentee was the Palestinian Authority, which had elected not to attend.

“We regret that the Palestinian Authority is not here with us today,” said Greenblatt, in opening remarks to the conference. “This is not about politics. This is about the health, safety and happiness of the people of Gaza, and of all Palestinians, Israelis and Egyptians.”

The purpose of the meeting was to address the humanitarian challenges in Gaza but, as media reports indicated, Greenblatt and Kushner were at the same time putting the final touches to a comprehensive peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of which the resolution of the Gaza crisis was an integral part. The Jerusalem Post reported that the White House was even then deciding on the exact timing for rolling out the plan.

In anticipation of its appearance, however, it was the subject of an unusual article in the London-based Arabic journal Asharq al-Awsat, a further demonstration of the new pragmatism affecting the region. On March 10, 2018, journalist Abdulrahman al-Rashed wrote a piece under the title “Will Trump’s ambitious Middle East policy succeed?”  The universally hostile reaction by the Arab world to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the declaration by PA president Mahmoud Abbas that the US had ruled itself out as a peace broker,  seems to have lasted just three months.  Here was an authoritative Arab journal, albeit with great caution, suggesting the possibility of Trump’s key peace effort actually succeeding.  Al-Rashid wondered whether Donald Trump could pull it off where every other American leader had failed.  Would he be able to bring both Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table and help them reach what has become known as "the deal of the century"?

“Truthfully,” said al-Rashid, “the chances are low. Dozens of gifted statesmen and mediators have attempted to solve this issue in the past, but to no avail. However, I still wouldn't rule out Trump's potential success. I say this not because I believe in the American president's superb negotiating skills, but because the international and regional conditions that prevailed for so many decades have changed dramatically in recent years.”

He pointed out that Arab leaders who so vehemently opposed reaching a solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis people like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, and even Bashar Assad have disappeared from the political arena. So have radical socialist organizations such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which once dominated Palestinian politics. Islamist movements too, he claimed, are struggling to survive, let alone gain momentum. Moreover. the Arab public has shifted its attention away from Palestine, focusing instead on the turmoil within their own societies.

All the same Al-Rashid believes that bringing an end to the suffering of the Palestinian people will remain a top Arab priority, but that all that is needed is a reasonable and realistic framework that could be sold to both sides. “Trump understands the huge opportunity that stands before him,” wrote al-Rashid. “His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, together with adviser Jason Greenblatt have ensured that forging this deal stays at the top of the president's list of priorities. While l remain sceptical that anything will come out of this effort, I am also curious to learn more about Trump's peace  proposal.  It may be so crazy that it might just work.”

A final straw in the wind.  On March 15, in reacting to the attempted assassination in England of Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, Israel, while vigorously condemning the attack, did not specifically mention Russia as the most likely perpetrator, the position of the UK itself and a number of other countries,   On March 16 the Russian embassy in Tel Aviv, in a statement about Israel’s reaction, noted what it termed “the wise position of West Jerusalem” Moscow’s first formal recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Britain turns its back on BDS

                  video version
          The organization dedicated to isolating and delegitimizing Israel by way of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) has so far not reacted officially to the announcement that Britain’s Prince William is to visit Israel this summer. Since he will also be visiting Jordan and what are described in the announcement as “the Palestinian occupied territories”, and since both Jordan’s King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, have welcomed the news, hard-line BDS supporters do not have much of a leg to stand on. Moreover Prince William probably ranks considerably higher in the public popularity stakes than either Roger Waters or Lorde – performers closely associated with their pro-BDS views – and so the prince’s visit is likely to have a major positive effect on young people’s view of Israel across the world. 
          The extreme sensitivities of the situation were on display within minutes of the announcement. When the British embassy in Tel Aviv issued a Hebrew-language press release, it omitted the word “occupied” from the Kensington Palace statement. 
          “What kind of translator do you have?” tweeted a Palestinian official, Xavier Abu Eid, pointing out that the British consulate in Jerusalem did include “occupation” on its Arabic-language account. 
          In fact, the term “Palestinian occupied territories” is an exact reflection of the British government’s position on the vexed Israeli-Palestinian situation. Although more than 70 percent of the countries of the United Nations have, at the urging of the PA, recognized a State of Palestine, the European Union has not formally done so but has left it to individual states to act on this matter as they choose. A clutch of them have granted Palestine official recognition, but the UK government has always adopted a nuanced approach. Back in 2011 Britain was prepared to grant Palestine non-member observer status at the UN, though it refused to approve full state membership. In October 2014 a House of Commons motion called on the government to recognize Palestine as an independent state, but the government has not subsequently implemented the advice. 
          A fair number of contemporary issues bear on the forthcoming royal visit. In Britain all eyes are on Brexit, and the delicate, not to say precarious, state the negotiations with the EU have reached. In Prime Minister Theresa May’s keynote speech on March 2, 2018, she made it crystal clear that, after withdrawal, the UK would not enter into any formal customs union with the EU. Several considerations affected this decision, but high among them was the UK’s determination to negotiate independent trading arrangements around the world – impossible when locked into a customs union. 
          Israel is a prime potential trading partner for the UK, and areas in which Israel excels − especially in high-tech fields such as cyber security, Research and Development, and Fintech (financial technology) − are largely outside the EU-Israel agreement which currently governs the terms of trade. A recent UK government White Paper identified Israel as a trading priority for post-Brexit Britain because of the potential synergies between Israel’s high levels of innovation and British strengths in design, business growth, finance and high-technology. 
          A second factor is the United States’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The immediate, almost universal, wave of protest has largely died down, and recognition seems to have dawned − in certain quarters at least – that President Donald Trump’s announcement drew no boundaries in Jerusalem, but left wide open the possibility of an eventual separate or conjoint Palestinian capital in the Jerusalem municipality. Far from placing an additional obstacle in the path of an eventual agreement, Trump’s announcement appears to have injected a cold douche of reality into the situation. For there is no denying the plain fact that Jerusalem is indeed Israel’s capital. Nor has Trump’s announcement inhibited the UK from proposing a royal visit. 
          Thirdly, as the visit to Britain in March 2018 of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman demonstrated, the UK allies itself with the moderate Arab world that is opposing radical jihadist terror organizations intent on disrupting the Arab world. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are all known to be collaborating with Israel – albeit below the radar − in combatting the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hezbollah, Iran’s instrument in its bid for political and religious dominance of the Middle East. 
          Fourthly 2018 marks Israel’s 70th anniversary, and an official royal visit is a logical consequence of the recognition and celebration by the British government last November of the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. PA President Abbas has welcomed Prince William’s intention to visit the Palestinian occupied territories, but at the back of his, and the prince’s, mind will doubtless be his demand in March 2017 that Britain apologises for the Balfour Declaration – a demand that was swiftly rejected by the British government, just as when Abbas addressed the UN General Assembly the previous September. “We ask Great Britain,” said Abbas, “as we approach 100 years since this infamous declaration, to … bear its historic, legal, political, material and moral responsibility for the consequences of this declaration, including an apology to the Palestinian people...” 
           The official UK response: “The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which HMG does not intend to apologise. We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel. The task now is to encourage moves towards peace.”
          A royal visit in 2018 fits neatly into that policy position.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 12 March 2018:

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

The enigma that is Qatar

                                                                                    video version
          It is not easy to pigeon-hole Qatar, a stand-alone Middle Eastern state in more ways than one − geographically, politically, economically, influentially. Itself a small peninsula projecting into the Persian Gulf from the vast Arabian Peninsula, Qatar clearly aspires to become a major player in the region and beyond. In pursuit of this objective, its tactics have sometimes puzzled, sometimes infuriated, its neighbors. But then, as one of the world’s wealthiest nations – and certainly number one on a per capita basis – Qatar has reckoned for a long time that it could afford the luxury of proceeding along its own preferred path, without too much concern for what others thought.

          For example, Qatar’s strategy of backing Islamists − from Hamas in Gaza, to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to hard-line Syrian opposition fighters − while also offering itself as a key US ally, was rooted in pragmatism: Qatar wanted to extend its influence in the region by being friends with everybody. “We don’t do enemies,” Qatar’s one-time foreign minister is reported to have said: “we talk to everyone.” And talk they certainly did through the Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera world-wide media network.

          But Qatar’s wayward policies, especially with regard to Islamist groups, had long infuriated its neighbouring Arab states, and back in January 2014 − perhaps influenced by the fact that Qatar’s 33-year-old Emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, had been in power for less than a year − Gulf states suddenly pressured Qatar to sign an agreement undertaking not to support extremist groups, not to interfere in the affairs of other Gulf states, and to cooperate on regional issues.

          When the Qatari government flatly refused to comply, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain broke off diplomatic relations. The inexperienced Al-Thani was unable to withstand the pressure. In April, at a meeting in Saudi Arabia, his arm was twisted, and the Qataris signed an undertaking known as the Riyadh agreement whose terms, although never made public, were believed to be virtually the same as those they had refused to sign a few weeks earlier.

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

          They were soon to find that Qatar had no intention of meeting their expectations, but simply continued its support of Islamist extremists intent on undermining the stability of the region. Finally, their patience exhausted, the Gulf states and Egypt took drastic action. On 5 June 2017, without any sort of warning, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar. In addition they suspended all land, air and sea traffic, virtually imposing a trade blockade on the Gulf state.

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

          So for some eight months Qatar has been under siege, Although most major trade routes into and out of the country have been closed off, Qatar has been sustained by continuous shiploads of food and other goods sent in by Iran and Turkey. As for exports, Qatar is the largest global exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG), and this has been maintained. As a result, the country seems to be weathering the blockade and to be reasonably well placed to sustain itself for some time ahead.

           In fact in 2017 Qatar’s economy showed one of the fastest growth rates in the region. Its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by 1.9 percent during the third quarter of 2017 compared with the same period in 2016. Its economy is still growing at 2.5 percent, with the building and construction sector growing by 15 percent – a phenomenon not unconnected with government spending on infrastructure development and facilities for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

          Around which issue controversy has raged since 2010, when Qatar was awarded the hosting rights. Just how the tiny Arab emirate managed to win this glittering prize remains an open question. Accusations of bribery on a massive scale have persisted, and on 22 February 2018 the journal Goal contained reports that the 2022 hosting rights might be pulled from Qatar on two grounds – bribery and political instability.

          The main charge levelled at Qatar in the June 2017 débacle was that it had failed to fulfill the undertakings it entered into in 2014. "We want to see Qatar implement the promises it made a few years back with regard to its support of extremist groups," Saudi Arabia's foreign minister told reporters, “to its hostile media, and to interference in affairs of other countries.”

          Qatar refused to comply with an initial list of 13 demands, and has since been told by its neighbours that they want it to accept six broad principles on combating extremism and terrorism such as its support for groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and its cooperation with Iran. Shi’ite Iran is, of course, the main rival of Sunni Saudi Arabia in both the religious and the political arenas. There has been little meeting of minds on these matters either.

          Qatar continues on its capricious way regardless. While continuing to inject vast sums into Hamas’s coffers, it has recently been wooing US Jewish American leading figures by way of meetings with the Emir and funded trips to the Gulf state. These overtures, to which some distinguished individuals have succumbed, sit uneasily alongside Israel’s fragile, developing, and vitally important relationship with the Sunni Arab world which initiated the blockade of Qatar in the first place. 

          Winston Churchill once described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Qatar is close to meriting the same epithet.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 12 March 2018:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 10 March 2018:

Published in the MPC Journal, 9 March 2018:

Saturday, 3 March 2018

"Documenting Horrors" - A Review of "Days of the Fall" by Jonathan Spyer

Documenting Horrors
by Neville Teller

            Author and journalist Jonathan Spyer’s latest book explores the disintegration of the Middle East over the past decade. Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars is an up-close and personal account of the two major conflicts in the region that exemplify its descent into chaos, both physical and moral.

            British-Israeli reporter Spyer, whose column “Behind the Lines” appears in The Jerusalem Post had been focusing on the Levant in general, and Syria in particular, for a good few years before President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was caught up in the revolutionary fervor sweeping across the Arab world. 

           As the Arab Spring, sparked just before the end of 2010 in Tunisia, spread like wildfire across the region, some of its leaders began to be consumed in the flames. January 2011 marked the fall of Tunisia’s president. In February Egypt’s Mubarak was overthrown. In March, Assad’s Syria was set ablaze as pro-democracy protests erupted following the arrest and torture of some teenagers who had painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall. When security forces opened fire on demonstrators, nationwide protests demanded Assad's resignation. 

          “As soon as the uprising began,” writes Spyer, “I started to bother my Syrian contacts to get into the country.”

          He succeeded, and there followed a series of intrepid, hair-raising incursions into the very heart of the conflict in Syria itself, and later into neighboring Iraq. Dicing with death on more than one occasion, Spyer managed to infiltrate heavily guarded borders, sometimes crawling at night through mud and under barbed wire to do so, and then undergoing the same unpleasant experience to get himself out again. Sometimes it required the risky business of bribing security guards. In each war zone that he penetrated Spyer interviewed a wide variety of people, civilians and fighters, affected one way or another by the conflict that had overwhelmed them.

          It is through his account of these personal, sometimes moving, always thrilling adventures, that the broader political story of the past few years emerges. As Spyer reminds us, it is a story not yet concluded.

          Given the extent of the revolutionary ardor sweeping across the Arab world, and the fate of several of its leaders, it seemed to many in the early days of Syria’s uprising as though Assad‘s days of power were numbered. “How long until Assad is destroyed?” Spyer asked a Salafi rebel fighter, on his first incursion into conflict-torn Syria. “I give it roughly a month,” was the reply. And yet the regime clung on.

          The US and other western governments had ruled out taking direct military action in support of the opposition, and they stuck to this policy even when, in the spring of 2013, evidence emerged that Assad, indifferent to the collateral misery inflicted on innocent civilians, had used chemical weapons against the rebels. Spyer believes that it was this spineless US and western stance that enabled the regime to transform almost certain defeat into what may turn out to be nearly complete victory. Undisguised brutality and an unrestrained use of military force were the hallmark of Assad’s approach. Spyer asserts that his backers – Iran and Russia – saw the world as he did. “Assad, Iran and Russia tested the will of the tired hegemon, and it was found wanting.”

          Not the least impressive of Spyer’s achievements over the course of the Syrian conflict was how he, a Jew, often carrying an Israeli passport concealed about his person, managed to evade detection as he came and went in one of the world’s major conflict zones. He found himself relying on dubious contacts who could have betrayed him at any time. Western journalists were being caught, kidnapped, and sometimes executed. Spyer had more than one hairbreadth escape.

          On one occasion, in a vehicle crammed full of Muslim refugees who might have lynched him had they known he was an Israeli, he had to show his passport to a Turkish security officer. Luckily for him the distinguishing gold menorah on the cover had been quite rubbed away from its long concealment about his person, and what he presented seemed to have an innocuous plain blue cover. For another assignment – to Damascus in 2017 – Spyer had to adopt a false name and a concocted identity. In deep cover, expecting to be unmasked at any moment, he joined a delegation of pro-Assad fellow travelers for an official tour of Aleppo, Homs and Damascus.

         Nerve-wracking episodes like this were bound to take their toll. Spyer recalls that just after his return to Jerusalem from a visit to Iraqi Kurdistan – a visit that nearly ended in his capture by Assad’s border guards – his voice suddenly disappeared, and he remained unable to speak for three or four days.

          Days of the Fall chronicles the life-threatening missions undertaken by one journalist in pursuit of the human reality behind the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. At the same time Jonathan Spyer provides an authoritative background to the political events surrounding them. On both counts this is a book well worth reading. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post Magazine, 2 March 2018:

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Sisi’s Islamist enemies and secret friends

                                                                                                    video version
Egypt has been battling with Sinai-based terrorists ever since the overthrow in 2013 of former president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood government that he headed.

Their year in office demonstrated all too clearly to the majority of the Egyptian population what living under an extreme Islamist administration meant, and by and large they rejected it. Even so, the Muslim Brotherhood retained the support of a fair minority of Egyptians, and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, later to be president, inherited an inherently unstable situation which, he believed, could only be contained by suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood and all its works.  Hence the trial of Morsi, the clampdown on leading Brotherhood figures and its adherents, and the jailing of journalists employed by the TV station Al-Jazeera based in Qatar, which supported the Muslim Brotherhood.

As Sisi’s clampdown grew in severity, prominent Brotherhood figures fled the country, while existing Islamist bodies in Sinai affiliated either to al-Qaeda or Islamic State were joined by new extremist terror groups. The Sinai Peninsula, vast and sparsely populated, was the ideal launching pad for pro-Brotherhood bodies intent on harassing Egypt’s new administration.

 But the eastern edge of the Sinai Peninsula delineates the internationally recognized 213 kilometer (132 mile) border between Egypt and Israel. Military action by either nation in the region is subject to a delicate balance set out in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979.  On the one hand the agreement imposes strict limitations on Egyptian military deployment; on the other, any Israeli incursion into the Peninsula requires Egypt's permission.

Ever since the jihadist groups stepped up their terror attacks in the Sinai, Israel has given its approval to Egypt’s greatly enhanced military presence. Equally, as reports like that in the New York Times on February 4, 2018 assert, Egypt has been approving Israeli air strikes – more than 100 of them over the past two years − against Islamic State targets in northern Sinai. That suggestion was vehemently denied by Egypt’s military spokesperson Tamer El-Refaai.  The Egyptian army, he asserted, was the sole entity conducting military operations in North Sinai.

Although at least six other extremist Islamist groupings have been identified in the region, most of the attacks in the Sinai Peninsula in recent years have been claimed by Sinai Province, the Egyptian affiliate of Islamic State. The group has never claimed responsibility for what has been described as the “deadliest militant attack in modern Egyptian history”, but all the evidence points to it.  It was this atrocity that has led to the intensive military effort just launched by the combined Egyptian military forces.

In the midst of Friday prayers on November 24, 2017, militants launched a bomb and gun attack on the al-Rawda mosque in the town of Bir al-Abed, in Egypt's North Sinai province. 311 people were killed, including 27 children, and at least 122 other people were wounded. When ambulances arrived to transport the wounded to hospitals, the attackers opened fire on them as well, from pre- selected ambush points.

Immediately after the attack Sisi declared three days of national mourning and ordered his armed forces to mount a full-scale military operation aimed at defeating the Sinai-based militants within three months.  It took some eight weeks to plan the campaign. On February 16 the operation, named Sinai 2018, began.  Involving the army, navy, air force and police, it is targeting "terrorist and criminal elements and organizations" in north and central Sinai, parts of the Nile delta and the western desert.

According to Egypt’s Colonel Tamer al-Rifai in a news conference broadcast on state television, forces have so far destroyed over 1,000 kg of explosives, 378 militant hideouts, and weapon storage facilities including a media center used by the militants. Some 680 people have been detained. The air force has carried out more than 100 airstrikes in northern and central Sinai, focusing on militant hideouts outside residential areas to avoid hitting civilians.

Major General Yasser Abdel Aziz of Egypt’s Military Operations Authority said that the operation would only end when Sinai was free of "terrorists".  When this happy state of affairs had been achieved, he said, Egyptian authorities would push ahead with a comprehensive development plan for Sinai.

Sinai 2018 started just a couple of days before US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Cairo. For several years now, American commanders have provided intelligence assistance to Egyptian commanders in Sinai including reconnaissance imagery, intelligence gleaned from eavesdropping devices, and other information from sophisticated sensors.  In addition, ever since 2015 there have been reports of Egypt working closely with Israel in Sinai, and of Israeli drones, helicopters and jets carrying out dozens of attacks in the region.

Neither Egypt nor Israel is acknowledging their growing cooperation as they face a common foe − a jihadist insurgency in the Sinai. Their relationship mirrors that between Jordan and Israel − security cooperation, but as far from the public eye as possible. Nothing, however, can disguise the $15 billion natural gas deal just struck under which the operators of Israel’s vast Tamar and Leviathan fields will be selling some 64 billion cubic meters of gas to Egypt over ten years – an agreement mirroring Israel’s 2016 gas deal with Jordan worth some $10 billion.  Today’s political and commercial realities are overriding the outworn imperatives of yesteryear.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 25 February 2018:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 25 February 2018:

Published in the MPC Journal, 5 March 2018:

Friday, 16 February 2018

Lebanon - one big Iranian arms factory?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published on the Eurasia Review, 21 February 2018:

Published in the MPC Journal, 26 February 2018:

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Turkey's enduring emergency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 27 January 2018

The Kurds under attack

                                          video version
The essence of the matter can be expressed in one sentence.  The United States has found the Kurds to be effective allies in Syria fighting the jihadists; Turkey accuses the Kurds of carrying out terrorist attacks against its citizens.  In recent weeks the latter consideration appears to be outweighing the former as far as Turkey is concerned, and then President Recep Tayyip Erdogan mounted a military strike against the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria, known as Rojava.
Turkey is in a strangely equivocal position. Erdogan has long railed against the virtual alliance between the US and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (the YPG) in fighting Islamic State (IS).  At the same time, he is none too enamoured of the virtual alliance between Russia and Iran in the Syrian civil conflict.  Iran’s mushrooming influence in Syria, and even more so in Iraq, does not accord with Erdogan’s Sunni ambitions for the region.
Not so long ago vast swathes of Syria had been overrun not only by IS, but also by a number of rebel fighting groups, and up in the north-east by the doughty Kurdish Peshmerga forces who, in alliance with US air support, proved themselves by far the most effective combatants against IS. Over eight long years of civil conflict Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, with the invaluable military support of Russia and Iran, has won back some 70 percent of the country, but some 25 percent of what had been Syria is currently a semi-autonomous Kurdish region, and this area has suddenly become a major political cause célèbre.
As far as the Kurds are concerned, back in September 2017 the world’s attention focused almost exclusively on the independence referendum held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in north-eastern Iraq – a referendum very soon rendered ineffective by the Iraqi government and internal squabbles, despite the 92 percent popular vote in favour.  Almost no attention was paid to the fact that, at nearly the same time, a different Kurdish election was taking place in neighbouring Syria.
The 2 million Kurds in Syria, accounting for 15 percent of the population before the civil war, had aspired for some time to a degree of autonomy.  The internal uprising in 2011 against Assad’s regime gave them their opportunity.  As the civil war inside Syria descended into a maelstrom of at least six separate conflicts, up in the north the Syrian Kurds were battling IS, and successfully winning back large areas of Kurd-inhabited territory.
Today the Kurd-occupied region is formally known as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), ruled under a new federal and democratic constitution – the "Charter of the Social Contract".  This provides for all citizens to enjoy gender equality, freedom of religion and property rights. In the poll organized in September 2017 voters elected leaders for about 3,700 "communes" spread across the regions of northern Syria where Kurdish groups have established autonomous rule.  This was to be followed in January 2018 by elections for a People’s Parliament and Congress, but these have recently been postponed.
The reaction of the Assad regime has been astonishing – a virtual volte-face.
In August 2017 Faisal Mekdad, Syria's deputy foreign minister, labelled the elections a joke. "Syria will never ever allow any part of its territory to be separated," he said. But on September 26, according to SANA, the Syrian state news agency, Walid Muallem, Syria's foreign minister, said that his country was open to the idea of greater powers for the country's Kurds. They ”want a form of autonomy within the framework of the borders of the state," he said. "This is negotiable and can be the subject of dialogue."  He indicated – presumably with the acquiescence of Russia – that discussions could begin once the civil conflict had ended.
This acceptance on the part of the Syrian government is anathema to Erdogan.  Syria’s Kurds may not be seeking full independence, but the degree of autonomy they seem likely to attain can only reinforce the Kurds in Turkey in their separatist demands.  The worst scenario, from Erdogan’s point of view, would be if a Syrian Kurdistan were established, which then amalgamated or federated with Iraq’s KRG. In that eventuality, demands by Turkey’s Kurds to be linked to it in some way might become irresistible.
This explains, perhaps, why a political tempest suddenly tore across the region in mid- January.  A storm of sorts had been brewing for a long time. The Kurdish fighters, the YPG, are considered by Turkey to be a terrorist group.  Erdogan has long been determined to eliminate the threat to the integrity of Turkey posed by Kurdish separatists. By the start of January 2018 Turkey's armed forces had completed preparations for an operation against the Kurdish-controlled region of Afrin, in north-western Syria. On 20 January, they struck.
Despite the tension building on the Turkish-Syrian border, early in January the US announced it proposed training the YPG and the  Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) jointly to be part of a 30,000-strong "border force".  Turkey reacted strongly, threatening to combat any such Syrian-Kurd militia.  Turkey, said Erdogan, must "nip this terror army in the bud".
The Assad regime retaliated by warning Turkey that it would shoot down any Turkish fighter jets and bombers that flew into Syrian airspace, while in Afrin residents took to the streets to protest Turkey's threats. They waved YPG flags and banners of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. Turkey says the PKK and YPG work together.
Appalled by the extreme reactions on both sides to the announcement, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hastened into the media to declare that the “entire situation has been misportrayed, misdescribed, some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all."  Later he declared: "We have IS still attacking in parts of northwest Syria and along the Euphrates valley. So this is just more training and trying to block IS from their escape routes."
Not one whit mollified, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said relations between Turkey and the US would be "irreversibly harmed" if Washington formed the force in question.  Meanwhile Turkish warplanes launched airstrikes on Kurdish fighters, in an attempt to oust the YPG militia.  
So that is where matters are precariously balanced, with the Kurds – this time the Kurds of Syria – again in the world’s spotlight.  In the Kurds’ long march towards national autonomy, this is yet another milestone.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 27 January 2018:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 29 January 2018:

Eurasia Review video published on Youtube:

MPC Journal video published on Youtube: