Friday, 30 August 2013

Syria and the UK

   “Once bitten, twice shy,” just about sums up UK popular opinion on the vexed issue of whether to become involved in the Syrian conflict.  An opinion poll, following the poison gas attack of August 21 in Syria which resulted, as we now know, in well over 1,000 deaths, found that the British public were opposed to the use of British missiles against military sites in Syria by two to one.

The UK government had to bow to the popular mood. 

Members of both the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament were in the final week of their summer vacation when they were summoned back home.  The purpose, they were informed, was to debate a Government motion that the UK join the US, France and other states in taking military action against the Assad regime.  If the Government won the debate, military intervention would follow.  Many suspected that the debate was called during the vacation in order to permit concerted action to be launched on the weekend starting August 31.

But the memory of the Iraq débacle in 2003 haunts the British public and their political representatives.  Even before the parliamentarians had assembled, leading figures from all parts of the political spectrum were demanding that no action be taken by the UK before the UN inspectors, currently in Syria examining the evidence of the massive poison gas attack by Assad’s forces, had reported.  Others, fearful of assenting to the illegal action that many believe the Iraq war to have been, insisted that before Britain becomes involved in the Syrian conflict, the matter is placed before the United Nations, and their sanction sought.  A third strand of opinion was adamant that any involvement by the UK must be ratified by a positive vote in Parliament.

UK premier David Cameron gave way.  Members of both Houses of Parliament, some perhaps a trifle resentful at losing the last week of their holidays, assembled on Thursday, August 29 for what was now to be simply a debate condemning the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, and endorsing a step-by-step programme that could, subject to a second approving vote in Parliament, lead to the UK involving itself in action along with the US and other states. 

But certainly not by that weekend – and possibly never.  During the debate Conservative MP Edward Leigh said he did not believe the prime minister would ever hold the crucial second vote on Syria “because he knows cannot win it. We were lied to over Iraq. We will not go down that road again."

He was proved devastatingly correct.  In calling the emergency debate the British prime minister was shown to have made a fatal political error of judgment, for the government lost the motion by 13 votes. The vote was historic, for it is the first time that a British government has been blocked from executing a military deployment. It highlights Britain’s deep mistrust of official intelligence and involvement in foreign conflicts. The Iraq war casts a long, deep shadow over the British body politic.

Cameron had hoped to join President Obama in launching a cruise missile strike against the Syrian regime, but that lost vote has put paid to the UK joining the US in any military action at all in Syria, whatever the results of the UN inspectors’ investigation. 

“I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons,” said Cameron after the vote, “but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons.  It is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action.  I get that, and the government will act accordingly.”

  Prior to the debate, the government had published both its Joint Intelligence Committee Assessment on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, and the assessment by the government’s chief legal officer of the legal position on the UK taking military action.

The UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee believes that a chemical weapons attack did occur in Damascus on August 21; that it is highly likely that the Syrian regime was responsible; and that no opposition group involved in the Syrian conflict has the capability to conduct a chemical weapons attack on that scale.

As regards the UK Government's position on the legality of any intervention, it is that if action in the UN Security Council is blocked, the UK would still be permitted, under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, to take exceptional measures including targeted military action in order to alleviate the humanitarian suffering in Syria.

The problem with all this, and it arose clearly during the debate in the House of Commons, is the lack of clarity about what the proposed concerted military action was intended to achieve.  Obama has spoken of “a shot across the bows”.  A senior Labour figure ridiculed the remark.  “A shot across the bows” is a warning that inflicts no damage, but the President could not really mean this.  The only point of firing missiles is to hit something. 

A former Conservative defence minister asked whether Britain’s interests would be so much better served by having an “anti-West, anti-Christian, anti-Israel bunch of jihadists running Damascus”?

In the final analysis Cameron lost the motion simply because the case he made for military intervention by the UK was not strong enough.  He concentrated on the vital need for the civilized world to react against the use of chemical weapons.  Did that mean we were telling Assad that killing 100,000 people is OK provided it is done with bullets and rockets?  Would a missile strike prevent the use of chemical weapons in Syria again?  And what sort of reprisals, and against whom, would a military intervention provoke?  A missile, or a chemical weapons, attack against Israel? Mass action against Syria’s Christians, as the Archbishop of Canterbury feared during the debate in the House of Lords?  Indeed both these, and other forms of reprisal, might yet follow whatever action Obama decides to take.

President Obama in his rose garden address on 31 August took his cue from Cameron’s mistakes.  While he, too, is seeking the backing of Congress for the action that he intends taking, he is bending over backwards to ensure that he carries the majority in both Houses with him – and, unlike Cameron, he is doing his best to win over public opinion too, on the basis of his vision of what America stands for.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 1 September 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 September 2013:

Sunday, 25 August 2013

A matter of grave concern

                                                I will do such things
                What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
                 The terrors of the earth.

                                                                        Shakespeare’s “King Lear”

            A year ago, in August 2012,  President Obama promised "enormous consequences" if Bashar Assad used chemical weapons in the civil conflict raging in Syria.  He called it “crossing the red line.” Over the past year reports and evidence of a series of chemical attacks by the Syrian military have accumulated.  Insofar as Obama responded at all, he confined himself to calling for incontrovertible proof that it was indeed the Assad government that was responsible before he could contemplate unleashing the unspecified “enormous consequences” that he had threatened.  Ducking and diving around the issue, he appeared unwilling to acknowledge that what had happened had indeed happened.

And then, on Wednesday August 21, the world’s TV sets carried horrific pictures of what is generally accepted to have been the largest chemical attack on civilians since Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of his own Kurdish citizens in Halabja in March 1988.  Following that, for three full days, as videos were being shown nightly of the dead in their hundreds made infinitely more poignant by the rows of dead children and rebel fighters were demanding why the world was doing nothing, there was a deathly silence from the White House.

Both France’s President François Hollande and Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, declared that they believed the Assad régime was responsible for the poison gas attack against Syrian civilians.  Finally President Obama spoke.  The episode was a matter “of grave concern”.  Mind you, he would need to seek international support before taking large-scale action.  Cause for more delay.  And if investigations proved what others had been saying, ie that Assad’s military was responsible, it would indeed “require America’s attention”.  Further delay, while agreement is sought from the Syrian authorities for the investigation – and while evidence of the attacks dissipates or is removed.

In the event, international pressure has induced the Assad régime to permit an investigationUnited Nations weapons experts will visit the site of the alleged poison gas attack on Monday August 26.  While the team begins "on-site fact-finding activities", UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office says that Syria has promised to observe a ceasefire at the site in the suburbs of Damascus.

Jonathan Halevi, writing for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, observes that the Syrian régime knew very well that the results of a chemical-weapons attack could not be covered up. Its decision nevertheless to perpetrate one, and now to permit an investigation, reflects its assessment that, under current political conditions and with its Russian, Chinese, and Iranian backing (including threats of revenge attacks in the Persian Gulf), the international community is incapable of dislodging it.

As if to underline its position of strength, the Syrian government and its Iranian allies have been issuing blood-curdling threats about the consequences of any military action by the US against the regime.  It would "create a ball of fire that will inflame the Middle East", says Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi.

President Obama seems absolutely determined that US boots will not touch Syrian soil.  But that does not mean that he has been without options for cowing the Assad regime, or that he lacks them now.  As Middle East observer Peter Foster remarks, he could have armed the rebels, as they begged him to, before al-Qaida and the other Sunni jihadist fighters poured into the country and rendered that possibility too dangerous.  He could at any time have ordered a no-fly zone to cover Syria.

Indeed, that option remains open to him.  It is reported that General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in Jordan recently to inaugurate a new Forward Command center, manned by 273 US officers. The installation is reportedly bomb- and missile-proof against a possible Syrian attack. Obama’s final decision on US military intervention – which could consist of establishing a no-fly and a buffer zone in Syria – could come in the next two to three weeks, depending on Dempsey’s recommendations. 

The US Air Force command section is said to be in direct communication with US, Israeli, Jordanian and Saudi Air Force headquarters, and stands ready for an order by President Obama to impose a partial no-fly zone over Syrian air space. As regards the buffer zone, the plan appears to be for the area as far as Damascus to be captured by 3,000 rebels, who have been trained in special operations tactics and armed by US forces in Jordan. The operation would be spearheaded by Jordanian special forces under US command.

The consequences of either or both these operations might indeed be as devastating as Syria has threatened.  Assad could take the fight outside his borders by launching missiles against Israel and Jordan.  From inside Lebanon, Hezbollah may join in with rocket attacks on Israel. Iran would enhance its military presence in Syria, and might decide to render the Hormuz strait non-navigable.  Meanwhile, Russian rapid intervention units are on standby for saving Assad at their Black Sea and South Caucasian bases.  In short, the danger of the conflict escalating into a full-scale Middle East war is very real.

Which is why General Dempsey has so far favored President Obama’s softly-softly approach to taking action of any kind.  In an August 19 letter to US Representative Eliot Engel, Dempsey effectively ruled out even limited intervention, including US cruise missile attacks and other options that wouldn't require US troops on the ground.

"We can destroy the Syrian air force," he said. "The loss of Assad's air force would negate his ability to attack opposition forces from the air, but it would also escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict.”

So he believes that “the best framework for an effective US strategy towards Syria” is for the US to provide far greater humanitarian assistance and, if asked, do more to bolster a moderate opposition.

But Dempsey’s letter was written before the Assad régime, casting all caution to the winds, launched its chemical weapon attack on the forces opposing it and the civilians who happened to get in the way.  If the UN investigation proves beyond a peradventure that Assad has indeed gassed hundreds of his own citizens, both General Dempsey and his Commander in Chief, President Obama, may decide that enough is enough, and take active steps to curb Assad’s military operations and support the opposition.  What may follow is in the lap of the gods. 

A matter of grave concern indeed.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 26 August 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 26 August 2013: 

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Egypt's siren voices

           In Greek mythology the Sirens were dangerous females who lured sailors with their enchanting singing to shipwreck on their island’s rocky coast.  Their voices literally bewitched hapless mariners into forgetting the dangers they were facing until it was too late to save themselves.

Something of the sort seems to be taking place in Egypt at present.  The siren voices now are those of the Tamarod (or “Rebellion”) movement which, almost incredibly, has launched a mass campaign aimed at rejecting all future military aid from the United States and less incredibly, perhaps at abrogating the 1973 Camp David peace treaty with Israel.

The rationale behind this operation seems to be a macho assertion that Egypt must be allowed direct its own affairs.  Tamarod leaders took exception to the way that President Obama, reacting to the rising toll of civilian casualties as the army cracked down on pro-Morsi protesters, recently cancelled the long-standing Bright Star joint training exercise with the Egyptian military scheduled for this September.  They saw it as an affront to their national dignity. They also assert that the terms of the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty inhibit Egypt’s military and security forces from dealing effectively with terrorist activity in the Sinai Peninsular.  Which assumes that, left to their own devices, they would be capable of doing so.

If ever there were an example of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, it is this campaign by the Tamarod. 

US military aid to Egypt amounts to $1.3 billion each year, covering “as much as 80% of the Defense Ministry’s weapons procurement costs,” according to a June congressional assessment.  What Tamarod objects to is the influence this largesse provides the US over those responsible for Egypt’s domestic and foreign policy.  In particular, perhaps, they oppose Egypt’s persistent maintenance, through thick and thin, of the terms of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, which they ascribe to US pressure applied consecutively to the régimes of ex-president Mubarack, ex-president Morsi, and now the interim government put in place by the coup engineered by army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

What Tamarod seem to discount is that cooperation between Egypt and Israel in defeating the gangs of ruthless terrorists running riot in the Sinai peninsular was never more necessary than at present.  There are ample grounds for believing that the Egyptian military and the Israel Defense Forces have indeed worked together from time to time, and are doing so now.  The Egyptian interim government and Israel are facing a common enemy – jihadist supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, including al-Qaeda and the Gaza-based Hamas leadership, intent on overthrowing the Egyptian administration and restoring ex-president Morsi to power, as well as attacking Israel.

This tacit interdependence was clearly demonstrated in two recent incidents. The first was the two-hour closure on Thursday, August 8, of Eilat airport at Israel’s southernmost tip, following an Egyptian intelligence tip-off over a missile threat from Sinai.  Then on Friday, August 9, came reports of two missiles fired by an Israeli drone in North Sinai that destroyed a missile launcher and killed four or five terrorists at Ajarah.  Israel never confirmed the attack, but Egyptian officials initially attributed the Israeli drone attack to intelligence cooperation between the two armies, later changing their story.

The massacre on August 19 of 25 Egyptian policemen by armed extremists in the Sinai, close to the Israeli border, further cements the connection between the upheaval in Egypt and Israel’s security. Following this incident, and another when a police officer was killed in the north Sinai town of el-Arish, the Egyptian military closed the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza and increased security at checkpoints throughout Sinai. In short, this is a peculiarly inappropriate moment for Tamarod to be pressing for Egypt and Israel to break off their mutually beneficial cooperation in dealing with a major security problem affecting both states.

As for their goal of robbing the Egyptian economy of its annual injection of 1.3 billion American dollars, latest reports indicate that, even without pursuing their objective of a nation-wide petition followed by a referendum, Tamarod may achieve their purpose.  Coming on top of the horrendous total of civilian deaths, which have now exceeded a thousand, the detention by the Egyptian government on August 20 of Mohammed Badie, the Islamist group’s spiritual leader, was roundly condemned by the White House, and President Obama was reported to have assembled members of his cabinet to discuss cutting aid to Egypt. The next tranche of around $585million is due to be sent at the end of September.

The US is not alone in considering how best to react, as Egypt’s interim government struggles to reestablish law and order on the streets of its major cities.  The European Union (EU), which also provides Egypt with substantial financial aid, is sending its foreign affairs supremo, Lady Ashton, to Cairo to try to broker an accommodation between the Muslim Brotherhood and the interim government.  Tamarod have not yet turned their attention to the EU’s interference in Egypt’s affairs, but it may be next on their list. 

Tamarod was founded as recently as April 28, 2013 by five activists, including its official spokesman Mahmoud Badr. Its original purpose was to register opposition to President Mohammed Morsi and force him to call early presidential elections.  As its first objective it announced it would collect 15 million signatures by June 30.  By June 29 the movement had collected more than 22 million.  Tamarod played a major role in harnessing the popular movement that demanded an end to the Morsi regime, and led to the military coup d’état that overthrew it. 

            Its leaders remain vehemently anti-Muslim Brotherhood as well as anti-USA. Addressing President Obama by way of a journalist, Tamarod leader Mahmoud Badr is reported as saying: "Don't lecture us on how to deal with the Brotherhood's terrorism," adding "I tell you President Obama, why don't you and your small, meaningless aid go to hell?"

            He was perhaps bolstered by the knowledge that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait had already provided Egypt’s military administration with a financial transfusion of some $14 billion – far outstripping the US’s meagre $1.3 billion. 

            "What Egypt is passing through now is the price, a high price, of getting rid of the Brotherhood's fascist group before it takes over everything and ousts us all," said Badr. "I did not see anything bad from the army…I think they are right and getting us where we want."

            The dream of Mahmoud Badr, who is only 28, seems to be a democratic Egypt but somehow shorn of its Muslim Brotherhood component, which makes up at least 20 per cent of the population.  He wants Egypt beholden to no other power, financially or in any other way, even when such alliances are clearly in Egypt’s own best interests.  He seems to have taken as his inspiration Joe Darion’s lyrics from “Man of La Mancha”:
            Dream the impossible dream.  Fight the unbeatable foe.  Strive with your last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable star.”

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 22 August 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 August 2013: 

Sunday, 18 August 2013

The battle for Egypt's soul

          If history teaches us anything, it is that a revolution is never an event, but a process – a battle won, a battle lost;  one leader emerging only to be superseded by another; one group in the ascendant, then its downfall to be succeeded by another.  Only after the passage of time – up to 20 years in the case of the English, the American, the French, and the Russian Revolutions, to quote them in sequence do the flames die down and a new order is established (or, in the case of England, the monarchy restored). 
            Taking those precedents, the revolutionary process in Egypt is only in its opening phases.  The popular uprising that resulted in the ousting of ex-president Mubarak, the elections that handed power to the Muslim Brotherhood, the blatant misuse of those powers over the course of a year, a second popular uprising demanding the removal of an administration that had fulfilled none of its promises, the intervention of the military in support of the people’s will, the consequent backlash engineered by the leaders of the régime rejected by popular outcry all this fits very well into the historic pattern of popular revolutions.
            The current phase in Egypt is a particularly ugly one, with blood on the streets and a death toll pushing a thousand. 
"I think with these number of deaths and this amount of violence, they got what they wanted" was the verdict of Ashraf el-Kholy, the Egyptian ambassador to the UK, at a televised press conference on 15 August 2013.  He was referring to the truly shocking number of mostly, though not exclusively, civilian casualties that followed the government’s effort to clear from the streets of Cairo and Alexandria the large encamped groups of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. 
            His comments referred to the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, six of whom, led by Mahmud Izzat Ibrahim, were reported to have fled to Gaza immediately after the coup that toppled ex-president Morsi.  There they were reported to have set up a command post to plan and execute operations aimed at overthrowing the interim Egyptian government.  It seems clear that the Brotherhood leadership have been encouraging their supporters to take to the streets and inciting them to clash with the police and security forces.
            The ambassador made several other remarks during his press conference which have not been so widely reported.  He pointed out that the Muslim Brotherhood, although an important element within Egyptian society, is not confined to Egypt.  It is an extreme Islamist movement with ambitions that extend not only to the wider Middle East, but to the world as a whole.  The Brotherhood’s leaders see the events in Egypt within the context of their global ambitions, which quite simply are to impose Sharia rule as widely as possible.
            Many commentators in the Western media are regarding the events in Egypt simply as the overthrow of a democratically elected government by a brutal military establishment eager to regain power.  The result, several commentators opine, will be to dispel any hope that Brotherhood leaders or followers will be inclined in the future to follow the democratic path.
            What is overlooked in this type of analysis is the fact that, handed the reins of power via democratic electoral process, the Muslim Brotherhood very quickly showed their true anti-democratic nature. Ex-president Morsi’s government, by common consent, was a disaster – a crude grab for autocratic powers on his part, and an equally blatant attempt to impose an Islamist regime on a reluctant population, matched by economic incompetence and failure to deal with the very issues that brought them to power – calls for human rights and social justice.  It must be remembered that the trigger for the current debacle in Egypt was a massive upsurge of popular feeling against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.  In blunt terms, the Brotherhood had their chance, and they blew it.
            The Muslim Brotherhood was born in Egypt, founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna. In setting out the purpose and function of his new organisation, al-Banna declared quite simply: “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.”     Seeking to bring about this Islamic aspiration through political means, the Muslim Brotherhood’s motto is: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Koran is our law. Jihad is our way. And death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our ambitions.”
It is doubtless this last unappetising item on the Brotherhood’s menu that Egypt’s ambassador to the UK must have had in mind during his press conference.  He was also clearly aware of the extraordinary lack of concern shown by many leaders and much of the media in the West about the Muslim Brotherhood’s global intentions, for their activities extend well into Europe and the USA. The Western world seems to be sleep-walking towards, if not positively embracing, the elimination of its own cherished freedoms and way of life.  Egypt had a year’s taste of Muslim Brotherhood rule, and rejected it.  The only power able to redress the balance was the military, and it did so.
The result the revolutionary phase we are passing through has left popular opinion in a strange impasse.  Speaking for many, perhaps the majority, in the current turmoil, is Gamal Edin Mahmoud of the “Free People’s Movement”, his befuddled comments reported in the London Daily Telegraph:
“I am against the Brotherhood and the army,  But for today, after this violence, everyone should just be against the army.  For us the return of Morsi is not a priority.  Our goal is to topple the military’s rule.  They have controlled Egypt since 1952.  We didn’t finish our revolution, so the army stepped in. We will stay on the streets until the army leave.”
In short, in Shakepeare’s telling phrase: “A plague on both your houses.”
If the military live up to their promises, the restoration of civil order will be followed not only by new elections, but by the drafting of a new constitution for Egypt – a process which was hi-jacked by the Muslim Brotherhood regime, and was one of the major causes of popular discontent leading to its overthrow.  It seems pretty clear that the popular majority in Egypt  seek a genuine democratic future for their country.  Their first venture in that direction failed.  They have given themselves a second chance, and the hope must be that the military’s unjustifiable means can lead to the desirable end.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 August 2013:
 Published in the Eurasia Review, 19 August 2013:

Published in the Albany Tribune, 19 August 2013:


Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Terror in Sinai

       For what is formally a demilitarized zone, the Sinai peninsular has recently been the scene of some exceptionally ferocious military activity. 

       The obligation to keep the peninsular demilitarized was laid on Egypt by the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, as a corollary of the requirement on Israel to withdraw completely.  Since 1981 these stipulations, together with the other provisions of the treaty, have been monitored by an international peacekeeping force set up by agreement between the US, Egypt and Israel. 

       The Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) is a 13-nation organisation of well over 1500 personnel, with a remit to “supervise the implementation of the security provisions of the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace and employ best efforts to prevent any violation of its terms."  Headquartered in Rome, it has developed a complex military command and institutional structure – so elaborate, that it issues its own medals to all personnel who complete a 6-month stint in the Sinai.  It does not, apparently, issue medals for gallantry in action – which is just as well, for it would have little cause to do so. The MFO has been conspicuous for its lack of visibility in the past few months.

       It is, in fact, difficult to conceive precisely what role the MFO envisages for itself in current circumstances where, ever since Egypt’s president Mohamed Morsi was toppled, militant groups have been killing members of the police, soldiers and civilians on a daily basis in the Sinai peninsular.  The last entry on the “News” page of the MFO’s impressive multi-page website is the fact that on April 9, 2013 Australia became a donor to the organisation.  Nothing about how, early last week, two Egyptian soldiers were shot and killed near the town of Sheikh Zawid.  Or that on  August 8 terrorists attempted to bomb a police training base in El Arish – fortunately  the bombs detonated earlier than terrorists had planned, killing four would-be attackers. Or that on the 9th, an Egyptian base in the city of Rafiah, near Gaza, came under attack from a mixture of gunfire, rocket-propelled grenade missiles, and mortar shells.

Mohammad Fayez Farahat, from the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, believes that ever since the fall of Egypt’s ex-President Mubarak in early 2011 all kinds of extremist groups have been recruiting fighters, gathering arms and trying to establish an Islamist state on the Sinai. Recently, he says,  organizations like Jahish al-Islam or Ansar Beit al-Makdis have emerged, some affiliated with Al Qaeda and most linked with extremist groups in the Gaza Strip.

The map of terrorist organizations in Sinai  includes dozens of groups scattered across the peninsular. Some are connected to external groups: al-Qaeda branches from Iran and Yemen, World Jihad, Hezbollah in Lebanon and, last but not least, Gaza. There are also armed Bedouins in the region, disaffected with the Egyptian government, who subsist by smuggling people, goods and weapons.

Eilat in the south of Israel, has been under fire from Sinai on several occasions. An attack on August 5, 2012, was particularly spectacular: armed fighters attacked an Egyptian army post, killing 16 soldiers and bursting through the Israeli border in a hijacked army vehicle. In the resulting gunfight, at least five assailants died. In April 2013 two Grad rockets were fired at the town from Sinai, and only last week, Eilat airport was temporarily closed due to an unspecified security threat. The following day, a cell of armed Islamists in Sinai was killed by an air strike. Reports suggested that an Israeli Air Force drone, in cooperation with Egyptian forces, had been responsible for the strike.

Most recently, on August 12 Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defense system successfully intercepted a rocket fired at Eilat. Palestinian sources reported that the extremist Salafist group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, which operates from Sinai, claimed responsibility.

Sinai has become increasingly lawless and violent since the fall of Egypt’s president Mohammed Morsi. Recently Israel has given Cairo a green light to reinforce its troops in the border region, and in a bid to restore order, Egypt’s military has deployed significant forces in Sinai.
       Events in Egypt are clearly a critical factor in the increased violence emanating from Sinai.  The overthrow of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) president and government have resulted in a determined effort by the MB to restore the previous regime. Extremist jihadist groups sympathetic to the MB have been swept up into the struggle against the military overlords of Egypt’s interim government, and in particular against General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who masterminded the coup and is now deputy prime minister.

       One report has it that, immediately following the July 3 overthrow of president Morsi, six MB officials smuggled themselves into the Gaza Strip to lead an uprising against the new interim government. The group, headed by Mahmud Izzat Ibrahim, is reported to have set up a command post at the Gaza Beach Hotel for operations against Egyptian military and security targets, in collaboration with Hamas and armed Al Qaeda-linked Salafist Bedouin in Sinai. The group planned their revolt to spread quickly out from Sinai to Egypt proper and topple the interim rulers in Cairo.

General el-Sisi, for his part, knows that the Brotherhood’s underground command center in the Gaza Beach Hotel must be destroyed – and for effective action in the Gaza Strip, the Egyptian military needs help from Israel’s Defense Forces, just as the IDF needs the Egyptian army to counteract the al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists in Sinai who are dedicated to attacking Israel as well as Egypt.

On August 11, the Egyptian military reported that an operation had been launched against armed groups in the Sinai believed to have been plotting attacks on security forces and other targets. The assault, which involved Apache helicopters striking areas south of Sheikh Zuwaid in north Sinai, resulted in the death of at least seven people, and the arrest of six others.

Israel’s Defense minister commented: “The Egyptian army is fighting first and foremost to defend Egyptian citizens and sovereignty. We will not let rumors and speculation impair the peace relations between our countries.”

Where has the MFO been in all this ferocious activity?  There has been little sign of it – scarcely surprising, since reports indicate that its personnel are holed up in its northern Sinai base, on maximum alert.  More than this, it is reported that the MFO’s 30-year presence in Sinai may be drawing to a close, and that the organisation is awaiting evacuation, lock, stock and barrel, to Europe. A rather ignominious end to an international peacekeeping operation with a reasonably successful record. 

Now it is up to Egypt and Israel, acting together in the spirit of the Peace Treaty, to restore order to the Sinai and eradicate those bent on achieving their undesirable ends through remorseless terror. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 14 August 2013:
 Published in the Eurasia Review, 14 August 2013:

Sunday, 11 August 2013

What's wrong with the Human Rights Council?

The Human Rights Council is a body still in its infancy.  Set up only seven years ago by the UN General Assembly, it had one over-riding purpose – to rectify the egregious faults of its predecessor body, the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR).  The UNCHR had been a working body of the United Nations virtually from its foundation in 1946, but over its 60 years of existence it had accrued a raft of objectionable practices which finally made the organisation totally unacceptable to governments and activists alike.

Among its more unseemly usages was to include flagrant human rights violaters among its members and, moreover, to elect such people from time to time  to chair the commission − representatives of countries like Zimbabwe, Algeria, Syria, Libya, Vietnam and China, all states with extensive records of human rights violations. These individuals, by opposing resolutions to the commission which condemned human rights violations, in effect sustained and promoted despotism and repression throughout the world.

            Another major criticism of the commission was its compliance at being used as a platform from which to castigate selective targets.  Chief among the objects of this blatant politicisation was Israel.  An analysis in 2002 revealed that the commission had devoted no less than 33 per cent of its country-specific resolutions to condemning Israel in one way or another. 

A by-product of this was the commission’s brazen failure to apply the UN charter's standards across the board. When issues such as the stoning of women, honor killings, mutilations, and the apostasy death penalty were raised during the 60th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2004, officials from certain Muslim-majority states rejected any criticism as “interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state."

All this finally became too much even for the General Assembly, which eventually voted to disband the old commission and to set up a shining new United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in its place. 

How has the new body been doing?

It is perhaps, significant, that UNHRC is UNHCR with just one letter transposed.  In short, in the council’s early years you could barely see the difference.

For example, from the time of its foundation in 2006 until 2012, the new council had published no less than 48 reports condemning Israel.  During the same period there were 9 reports on Syria’s mass killings of its own citizens, three on the terrorist-supporting repressive régime in Iran, and not one on China, which is far removed from granting its billion citizens basic human rights.

More than this, the council voted on 30 June 2006 to include as a permanent feature of every session a review of alleged human rights abuses by Israel − a  resolution sponsored by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Calling on the council to avoid the selectivity that discredited its predecessor, Human Rights Watch urged it to look at international human rights and humanitarian law violations committed by Palestinian armed groups as well. This proposal was not followed through.

As a result of all this, eminent UN figures like UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, his predecessor in office Kofi Annan, and  former High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, have criticized the council for acting exactly like the old commission − namely, following the political agenda of some of its members as opposed to advancing human rights. Specifically, in 2006, Kofi Annan argued that the Council should not have a "disproportionate focus on violations by Israel… The Council should give the same attention to grave violations committed by other states as well."  In 2007, Ban Ki Moon said: "The Secretary-General is disappointed at the council's decision to single out only one specific regional item, given the range and scope of allegations of human rights violations throughout the world."

Which countries’ representatives currently sit in judgement on the human rights record of democratic Israel? The UNHRC’s current membership includes Congo, Uganda, Libya, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Qatar, Indonesia, and Malaysia − none with human rights records to be particularly proud of. 

In short, the old UNCHR and the new UNHRC seemed in effect Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and the Council’s decision in March 2012 to establish an international investigative committee on the West Bank settlements was the last straw as far as Israel was concerned.  Israel’s then-Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, severed all ties with the UNHRC.

However the new council has at least one saving grace - its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. This procedure, which envisages all 193 UN member states having their human rights record reviewed every four years, is widely regarded as a cornerstone of the global human rights system.  After breaking with the council, Israel threatened to become the first state to boycott the UPR process.

A number of Western democratic countries feared that this would set a damaging precedent, and provide states such as Iran and North Korea with an excuse not to participate in the UPR.  Acknowledging the validity of this argument, Israel decided not to boycott its UPR, but asked for the process to be postponed until October 2013.

The UNHRC chair is currently occupied by Switzerland, and in May 2013 Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter visited Israel to discuss the renewal of Israel’s cooperation with the council.  During the discussions Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin asked for the cancellation of the council's "Article 7," which stipulates that every conference must include a separate discussion on human rights in Israel – a requirement laid on no other UN member. In addition Israel was interested in joining the Western European and Others Group (WEOG). Currently Israel is not a member of any such group.

Following the discussions, an Israeli official flew to Geneva to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with the UNHRC aimed at renewing ties between Israel and the council.  As a result, in June Israel’s ambassador to the UNHRC, Eviatar Maner, wrote to the council’s president, Remigiusz Henczel: “I wish to cooperate with you with a view to positively resolve all outstanding issues in Israel’s complex relationship with the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms.”

At its meeting on 11 June Henczel told the council about Israel’s letter, and the council endorsed the postponment of Israel’s review until October. Henczel said he hoped Israel would have agreed to cooperate by the scheduled October 29 date for its review.

So the signs look hopeful, both for the re-establishment of relations between Israel and the UNHRC, and – not before time – for a conspicuous reversal of the immoderate obsession with Israel displayed by both the council and its predecessor.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 11 August 2013: