Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Gang warfare in Jihadi-land

Then, on Sunday February 23, 2014, Abu Khalid al-Suri, senior al-Qaeda operative and one-time confidant of Osama bin Laden, was killed by a suicide bomber.  Reuters reported that during fratricidal fighting near Aleppo, five members of ISIS entered the headquarters of Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist brigade that al-Suri helped set up, and as four of them fought with guards, one ISIS fighter blew himself up. He took al-Suri, and half-a dozen of al-Suri’s colleagues, with him to the paradise and the 72 virgins he had been promised for martyring himself.

ISIS is not a branch of al-Qaeda” ran Zawahiri’s statement, posted on jihadist websites, “and we have no organizational relationship with it.”  As a result, it added, al-Qaeda is no longer responsible for the “actions and behaviours” of ISIS, which has been fighting a bloody campaign against other rebel groups in Syria while imposing strict Islamic law on the parts of Syria it controls, often executing people it finds to be insufficiently pious.

Al-Suri’s killing is further evidence that ISIS leader al-Baghdadi has no intention of caving in to al-Qaeda’s top leadership, and means to maintain the gang warfare that is fracturing the jihadist movement and, incidentally, represents the biggest challenge it has faced since US special forces disposed of bin Laden. 

“This is going to make the infighting worse,” says Akram al-Halabi, spokesman for the Islamic Front, a coalition of half-a-dozen Islamist brigades, some which have links with al-Qaeda.  He is right.

According to Thomas Joscelyn of the US-based think tank ‘The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’: “The longer al-Baghdadi lasts, the stronger ISIS becomes as a rival to the al-Qaeda-backed groups. This has turned into a full-fledged blood feud.”

ISIS is not having it all its own way, however.  Just weeks ago ISIS, which claims tens of thousands of fighters among its ranks, appeared the dominant military force in northern Syria. More recently, though, its attempt to impose the severest form of Sharia in the areas under its control, its public executions, and the unutterable brutality with which its deals with its opponents, have turned opinion against it. 

Islam Aloush, spokesman for the Islamic Front, a new more moderate grouping of anti-Assad interests, told CNN that ISIS’s activities had become unacceptable and has generated a backlash.  Recently, rebels besieged at least 100 ISIS fighters at a police station used as a base by the group in the key Salheen neighbourhood of Aleppo. Elsewhere in the province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, ISIS surrendered bases and withdrew from towns and villages.

"ISIS cannot withstand the losses they are taking and the numbers now held as prisoner of war," said Aloush, claiming that his organization, the Islamic Front, far outnumbered ISIS. The Islamic Front boasts an estimated 40,000 fighters, making it probably the single largest rebel command.

In Raqqah, the first provincial capital under rebel control, full-scale fighting resulted in losses for ISIS on February 18. Just a day earlier insurgents freed at least 50 people held in an ISIS detention facility, while further to the west, in the Zawiya Mountain region, rebels executed at least 34 foreigner jihadists from ISIS.

According to CNN all this infighting further complicates matters for international observers such as the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which announced in January that it will cease updating the death toll for the Syrian civil conflict. It can no longer verify the sources of information that led to its last count of at least 100,000 in July 2013 nor, it said, said could it endorse anyone else's count, including the widely quoted figures from the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.  Their latest tally is more than 130,000 killed in violence in Syria since March 2011.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Israel in the Pacific

          A vast sector of the globe receives less than its due share of attention from the world’s media.  Latin America covers nearly 13 per cent of the world’s land surface, has a population of some 600 million and a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) totalling nearly 6 trillion US dollars, outpacing India’s by some distance and approaching China’s.  The region’s potential is enormous, held back from its full realisation by poverty on a vast scale and staggering inequalities in income.  All the same, great steps have been taken towards creating effective economic, financial and commercial structures designed to enhance the region’s development and its trade, both internally and with the outside world.

            Equally unnoticed by the media has been Israel’s long-time involvement in Latin America – and the fact that the Arab-Israeli dispute is being played out not only in the Middle East, but also halfway across the world.

The overwhelming presence of the world’s super-power, the United States, to the north has produced varied reactions in the nation states of Latin America.  Four of them are distinguished by their vehement opposition to the USA and all its works - Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.  Iran has seized on this antagonism to advance its own global strategy Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, believes Iran has terrorist bases in all four states.  To gain political, economic, cultural and religious influence in the region, Iran has been using every opportunity to exploit these countries’ desire to combat what they see as “American imperialism”.

Two of them, Venezuela and Bolivia, egged on by Iran, have been subscribing to a rabid anti-USA, anti-Israel line for years.  Both are now deeply involved with Mercosur – or the Southern Common Market – which was created as far back as 1991 as an economic and political bloc by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Venezuela became a full member only in 2012; Bolivia’s membership awaits ratification. But it was back in 2005, before either had become involved, that Mercosur concluded a framework agreement with Israel aimed at liberalizing trade between them.

The Mercosur-Israel accord covered 90 per cent of bilateral trade, and incorporated a calendar of progressive tariff reductions in four phases: immediate, 4, 8 and 10 years. The resulting free trade agreement – the first between Mercosur and a country outside Latin America – was sealed in December 2007 and became fully effective in March 2011 when it was finally ratified by the Lower House of the Argentine parliament. The other Mercosur members – Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay – had already voted legislative confirmation.

A glance at the map will reveal that the countries that now constitute Mercosur cover by far the majority of the South American land mass, but that none has a Pacific coastline.  In June 2012 a grouping of Latin American countries with just that factor in common came together to form a new bloc – the Pacific Alliance.  Founded by Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, the new mechanism aims to integrate the economic and trade development of its members both internally and with the rest of the world.  With a GDP of  some 2 trillion US dollars, this group of nations is the eighth-largest economy in the world.

It so happens that Israel had already negotiated a free trade agreement with one of the founding members of the Pacific Alliance,Mexico, back in 2000, and  had been in intense negotiations with another, Colombia, for no less than fifteen years when, in June 2013, the two nations finally signed a free trade treaty in Jerusalem.  The treaty aims to increase trade and promote investment particularly in the field of technology.

Under the terms of the Colombia-Israel agreement 70 per cent of the two countries’ exports will be exempt of tariffs and customs duties immediately, and the percentage will increase gradually in the following ten years until it covers the whole of bilateral trade.  Bilateral trade, weighted heavily in Colombia’s favour in 2013, reached almost 700 million dollars. Israel sells mainly manufactured and high technology goods and services and Colombia provides items such as coal, coffee, and emeralds.

Israel’s involvement with the non-Mercosur sector of the Latin American world was further strengthened when, on February 10, 2014, it was accepted as an observer nation to the Pacific Alliance.  Except for Turkey, Israel is the first Middle East country to be granted observer status in this group. Observer status, which includes involvement in staff work and attending conferences, is the first step in expanding relations with a group whose combined economies amount to some $2 trillion.

Meanwhile Iran continues to take advantage of its stronger standing with the West to improve relations with various countries, including its friends in Latin America.  In January 2014 Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Majid Ravanchi, toured Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia on a relations-boosting exercise.

Taking his cue from Iran, and striking while the iron is hot, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will later in 2014 be paying a rare visit to Mexico and Colombia, the two Pacific Alliance countries with which Israel has free trade agreements. 

Latin America is a global economic and trade powerhouse with enormous potential, but also a political battleground on which vested interests manoeuvre to gain strategic advantage on the world stage.  It must be acknowledged that Israel has played the political game in Latin America unlike, perhaps, in other theatres extremely well. It now finds itself positioned advantageously to exploit the gains to its own, and to its partners’, benefit.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 20 February 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 February 2014:

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Making Cyprus whole again

         A framework agreement leading to peace talks and the resolution of a long-running dispute. Sounds familiar?  No, not the Israel-Palestine negotiations, which  have not reached that stage yet. But they are, in a sense, being upstaged by the reunification talks currently under way in Cyprus between the leaders of the Greek portion of that divided island, and the Turkish.

   On February 11, at the disused Nicosia international airport in the UN-operated buffer zone separating the two Cypruses, Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades met his Turkish Cypriot counterpart Dervis Erogluy.  Their meeting was made possible because, a few days earlier, after months of UN-brokered talks and the intervention of the US in the person of Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, a road map for the talks was agreed.

            Two major factors lie behind this renewed bid to end the Greco-Turkish dispute following the last failed attempt in 2012. They are the EU and oil.

   It  was in April 1987 that Turkey knocked on the EU’s door and asked to be let in.  Twenty-seven years later Turkey is still lingering on the threshold – and the Cyprus issue is one reason why.

Historically the population of Cyprus has consisted of about 75 per cent Greek and 25 per cent Turkish origin.  Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, Greek Cypriots began to press for Enosis − union with Greece.  Matters came to a head in 1974 when the military junta then controlling Greece staged a coup in Cyprus and deposed the president.  Five days later, Turkey invaded and seized the northern portion of the island.  The Turkish invasion ended in the partition of Cyprus along a UN-monitored Green Line. In 1983 the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus declared independence. Turkey is the only country in the world which recognises it.

Greece itself was admitted to the EU as far back as 1981; Cyprus (the portion, that is, not occupied by Turkey) became a full member in 2004.  So one major stumbling block to Turkey’s accession was the fact that the country was at daggers drawn with two established EU members.  The reunification of Cyprus by agreement,  and with the approval of Greece, would remove that particular obstacle to Turkey’s application.  There are, though, a variety of other difficulties for Turkey to overcome if her bid is eventually to succeed.

Perhaps more important in changing the dynamics of the long-unresolved conflict are Cyprus’s untapped offshore gas and oil riches, and the huge natural gas finds in waters off neighbouring Israel.  Hubert Faustmann, associate professor of history and political science at Nicosia University. believes that the lack of a Cyprus settlement after 40 years of division is hindering Israel’s intention to cooperate with Nicosia in exporting gas.  Moreover, he says, it is the current cooperation in energy issues between Turkey and Israel that triggered the American intervention.

Washington has put so much weight behind this latest peace effort because oil and gas is a game-changer in the wider context. It’s a win-win situation for all.”

Israel is seeking to diversify by way of a gas pipeline through Cyprus waters to Turkey, and to invest in a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant on the island. “But,” said Faustman, “Israel won’t give its gas to Cyprus unless there is a solution.”  He is right.

What sort of outcome do the peace negotiators have in mind for a reunified Cyprus?  Clues lie in the statements issued by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and by the Security Council itself as the talks got under way. 

Ban Ki-Moon welcomed the re-launching of negotiations aimed at reaching “a comprehensive settlement” of the Cyprus problem.  “The United Nations will continue to support the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots in their efforts to reunify the island and move on from decades of separation. I personally pledge our resolute commitment to these efforts.”

In its own press statement, the Security Council expressed the hope that the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders would take advantage of the opportunity “to reach a comprehensive settlement based on a bi-communal, bi-zonal federation with political equality.”

It seems that the targeted outcome for these renewed reunification talks is the eventual establishment of a federal government in Cyprus with a single international personality, consisting of a Turkish Cypriot Constituent State and a Greek Cypriot Constituent State, each of equal status.

In  short. Turkey’s seizure of northern Cyprus back in 1974 will, in a sense, be ratified and authenticated by the new status for the island.  Unlike the agreed objective for resolving the Israel-Palestine dispute a two-state solution the final agreement for Cyprus aims to establish a unified national state:  two ethnic communities preserving as much administrative autonomy as possible, but agreeing to merge sovereignty.  

For Greek Cyprus and Turkish Cyprus that might indeed be a workable solution, since each community recognises its ethnic neighbour’s historic rights, and neither lays claim to the whole island.  For Israel and Palestine it would be an unworkable impossibility.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 12 February 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 February 2014:

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Israel-Palestine: the Commonwealth connection

The Commonwealth, a voluntary association of 53 nations most of whom were once part of the British Empire, is indubitably a force for good in this wicked world, but dynamic or proactive it can scarcely claim to be. Perhaps the time has come for it to adopt a somewhat bolder approach to world politics.

The member states of the Commonwealth span the globe and have a combined population of 2.1 billion people, almost a third of the world’s inhabitants. What unites this diverse group of nations are the association’s values of democracy, freedom, peace and the rule of law, and the fact that, regardless of their individual constitutions, all recognize the current British monarch as head of the association. Alongside shared values, Commonwealth nations share strong trade links.

The Commonwealth's objectives were first outlined in the 1971 Singapore Declaration, which committed the organization to promoting world peace, representative democracy, individual liberty, equality, opposition to racism, free trade, and the fight against poverty, ignorance, and disease. To these, were added in 1979 opposition to discrimination on the basis of gender, and in 1989 environmental sustainability. In short, the Commonwealth is strongly in favor of motherhood and apple pie (and all credit to them for it) – a position finally encapsulated in the “Commonwealth Charter”, signed by Queen Elizabeth in March 2013.

It was in 1884 that Lord Roseberry, later a British Prime Minister, first dubbed the British Empire “a Commonwealth of Nations”, but the designation “Commonwealth” remained in the background until 1949, when India achieved independence. Although the new state became a republic, the Indian government was very keen to remain in the Commonwealth – and the Commonwealth, unwilling to lose the jewel in its crown, found no difficulty in changing the rules of the club. Henceforth membership did not have to be based on allegiance to the British crown. Commonwealth members were to be “free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress.”

Since then, fully independent countries from all parts of the globe have flocked to join the Commonwealth, all with some historic connection to the now defunct British Empire – until two other nations, with absolutely no such ties, applied to join. Once again the Commonwealth demonstrated a flexibility remarkable in bureaucracies and, by sleight of hand, further amended the rules to allow first Mozambique, and a few years later Rwanda, to join. Applications and expressions of interest in joining the Commonwealth continue to arrive from countries like Yemen, Algeria, Madagascar, Senegal, East Timor, Cambodia and South Sudan.

Back in 2012 the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee considered the “Role and Future of the Commonwealth”, and in general welcomed the idea of the organization extending its membership – always provided a stringent selection procedure was maintained.

“We welcome the fact that the Commonwealth continues to attract interest from potential new members,” reads the final paragraph of their report, “and see advantages in greater diversity and an extended global reach for the Commonwealth. However it is crucial that the application process is rigorous and that any new members are appropriate additions to the Commonwealth 'family', closely adhering at all times to its principles and values.”

Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority – or a sovereign Palestine, if or when this comes to pass – would, if they applied to join the Commonwealth, certainly meet the criterion of “historic ties with the British Empire”. In point of fact, both have, in the past, expressed some interest in the possibility. Israel even boasts an “Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association” (IBCA), a body formed as far back as 1953 with the aim of encouraging, developing and extending social, cultural and economic relations between Israel and the Commonwealth.

And indeed Israel may quite recently have come close to applying to join. It was only in 2007 that the Jewish Journal reported:  “As a former British colony, Israel is being considered for Commonwealth membership. Commonwealth officials said this week they had set up a special committee to consider membership applications by several Middle Eastern and African nations. Speaking on condition of anonymity, diplomats said those interested in applying include Israel and the Palestinian Authority, both of which exist on land ruled by a British Mandate from 1918 to 1948. An Israeli official did not deny the report, but said, ‘This issue is not on our agenda right now.’”

Not then, perhaps, but how about right now – with the peace negotiations soon to suffer the seismic shock of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s “framework agreement”? Shrill voices from both Israeli and Palestinian camps, knowing nothing but fearing the worst, and intent on rejecting whatever it is that Kerry may eventually propose, are already creating a cacophony in the media. One thing is virtually certain: Kerry’s document will make no mention of the Commonwealth.

Traditionally the Commonwealth secretariat has done nothing to foster interest in joining the organisation. It has restricted itself to considering applications from nations eager to enjoy the considerable benefits that come with membership – and sometimes to expelling members who have transgressed its principles. The Israel-Palestine situation provides the opportunity for a more proactive approach. This is a moment for the Commonwealth to think laterally - to intervene in an intransigent world issue and exercise a positive and powerful influence for good. What the Commonwealth could do is issue a clear invitation to both parties: “As soon as you have reached some sort of deal in the current peace negotiations, join us. We will welcome you into our family of nations.”

Whatever Israel’s traditional enemies might assert, there is no doubt that Israel’s core values precisely match those of the Commonwealth. The Palestinian Authority – shorn of the malign Hamas régime that dominates the Gaza strip – could make a reasonable case for aspiring to most of them. An offer by the Commonwealth of future membership to both Israel and Palestine would provide a new, and previously unconsidered, framework within which the two states might flourish – for it would incorporate acceptance of both states by a swathe of nations from every continent, the assurance of new markets and flourishing trade relations for both parties, and membership of an association dedicated to democracy, freedom and peaceful co-existence.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 5 February 2014:http://www.jpost.com/Experts/IsraelPalestine-The-Commonwealth-connection-340434?prmusr=WmLa%2bGOgKqK1BcPQWGZsdyyX82RhAiedq207aUoiMsGPgLlbDq8mexEYIUVQNh5D

Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 February 2014: