Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Turkey-Israel normalization - why ever not?

          “Normalization” is a dirty word among Palestinian leaders, of both Fatah and Hamas persuasions. It implies acceptance of Israel’s right to exist and, by some perverse logic, a downgrading of Palestinian rights.

          It must have come as something of a shock, therefore, to read the remarks of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on December 13 about Turkey’s future relations with Israel: "I have already said that once the compensation and the embargo problems were resolved, the normalization process may start. This normalization process would be good for us, Israel, Palestine and the entire region.”

          To be honest, there really is no fundamental reason for relations between Turkey and Israel to be anything but cordial. Indeed for fifty years following the founding of the state of Israel, cordiality was the keynote. In March 1949 Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize the new state. Subsequently, despite occasional differences of opinion following the Six-Day War and its consequences, cooperation between the two countries on a variety of fronts was not only close, but deep. By the end of the 1990s a succession of Turkey’s prime ministers had visited Israel, and then-Israeli president, Ezer Weizman had visited Turkey on three occasions to sign agreements aimed at fostering cooperation in the fields of art, culture, education, science, and sports. This was followed by a series of security agreements designed to ensure the closest cooperation between the two countries on intelligence and military matters. Meanwhile 200,000 Israelis flocked to Turkish beaches and casinos each year, and under a Turkish-Israeli free trade agreement trade between the two countries boomed.

          This happy state of affairs received its set-back with Erdogan’s rise to prominence in Turkey’s political arena. Erdogan came from an Islamist background and, whatever lip-service he may have paid to the Turkey’s secularist tradition introduced by Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s, he was inherently opposed to it. Early in his career he joined the Islamist Welfare Party (IWP), and rose to become a member of parliament. Barred from taking his seat on a technicality, in 1994 he was elected mayor of Istanbul, where he antagonised secularists by banning alcohol in the city's cafés.

           Erdogan then helped form the Justice and Development Party (the AKP) which proved wildly popular and won the parliamentary election in 2002. He took office as prime minister in May, 2003.

          Despite a state visit to Israel in 2005, Erdogan’s accession soon marked a sharp deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations. Rooted in hard-line Islamism, Erdogan’s priority was soon revealed as courting favour with the Muslim world. Support for the extremist terror organizations Hamas and Hezbollah began to dominate Turkey’s approach to foreign affairs. Vehement in his condemnation of Israel’s incursion into Gaza in 2008-9 to counter Hamas’s rocket attacks, he had a memorable public spat with Israel’s then-President Shimon Peres at the Davos conference in 2009, and stormed out of the meeting. Then came the notorious Mavi Marmara affair, when an AKP-inspired plan to provoke an incident with Israel on the high seas succeeded only too well, leading to the death of nine Turkish citizens.

          Despite all this, a community of interests between Turkey and Israel persisted and, in the way of foreign relations, imposed its own imperatives. Between 2009 and 2014 two-way trade between Turkey and Israel positively mushroomed. From some $2.6 billion in 2009, by 2014 it had exceeded $5.6 billion – which perhaps explains why negotiating teams charged with restoring ties between Turkey and Israel had begun meeting as early as April 2013. Quite separately, discussions had also begun on the extent of the financial compensation to be paid by Israel to the families of the Turkish citizens killed on board the Mavi Marmara.

          Russia’s incursion into Syria brought a sudden shake-up of the political pattern. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, side by side with Shi’ite Iran, entered the conflict in support of his long-time ally, President Bashar Assad; Erdogan, profoundly Sunni, was directing some of his fire at Assad’s troops – although he was equally interested in pounding Kurdish forces.

          Then on November 24 came Turkey’s downing of a Russian SU-24 fighter jet along the Syrian border. The result was a crisis in Turco-Russian relations. Turkey imports most of its natural gas from Russia, and for some time the two sides had been discussing a possible natural gas pipeline beneath the Black Sea to channel gas from Russia to Turkey and beyond. Two days after the Russian aircraft was shot down, Russia cancelled the project. Suddenly Turkey’s future energy supplies seemed in jeopardy, and Turkish politicians, energy companies, and others began calling for talks with Israel about future natural gas imports.

          On November 30 Erdogan remarked to reporters in Paris that he believed he was “able to fix ties” with Israel. On December 13 he said: "This normalization process would be good for us, Israel, Palestine and the entire region,,, We need to consider the interests of the people of the region and introduce peace." By December 15 it had become clear that talks between Turkey and Israel to heal the diplomatic rift were gaining momentum. Reports indicated that a key element in establishing “normalized relations” would be Turkey’s ability to import natural gas from the vast reserves that have been discovered in Israel’s sovereign waters much of which is still waiting to be exploited.

          Erdogan is insisting on his three preconditions for re-establishing normal relations with Israel – an apology for the deaths of the Turkish citizens aboard the Mavi Marmara; agreed compensation for the victims’ families, and an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza. The apology has already been given by Netanyahu; compensation terms appear to have been agreed; and the so-called blockade of Gaza has been attenuated to such a degree that only the most obviously military materiel is now prohibited.

          But Turkey is not getting things all its own way. As part of the deal Turkey has agreed to expel Saleh al-Aruri, a senior member of Hamas's military wing. Aruri has been directing terrorist operatives in the West Bank from his base in Istanbul. Moreover, shortly after the Turkey deal was concluded, Israel announced a three-way summit to take place in January between prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras, and Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades. Joint exploitation of the huge Mediterranean gas reserves will doubtless feature largely on the agenda. Israel is in effect telling Cyprus and Greece that any normalization of ties with Turkey will not come at their expense. It is also sending a message to Turkey that Israel has other options in the region.

          Perhaps, also, the sight of Israel and an erstwhile enemy normalizing their relations will send a message to the implacable opponents of normalization in the Palestinian camp. Deals to the advantage of both parties can be hammered out, even where Israel is involved. It can be done.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 29 December 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 31 December 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 10 January 2016:

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

How fares Islamic State?

          “Now let's make two things clear,” said US President Barack Obama, in an address to the nation on September 10, 2014, “ISIL is not ‘Islamic’ …and ISIL is certainly not a state.”

          Depending on how one defines “Islamic” and “state” he may be right, but what is certain is that Islamic State (IS) – or “Daesh” as many now prefer to dub it – aspires to be both.

          As for the Islamic element, the organization’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, claims to be "the caliph and leader for Muslims everywhere". The caliph is historically supposed to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad's Quraysh tribe in Arabia. Since becoming leader, Baghdadi has been claiming precisely that lineage – a claim widely disputed. His definition of “Muslim” is also open to question – he defines any person who does not subscribe to his own extreme version of Sunni Islam as an infidel, and as such worthy of an ignominious death – but all the beheadings, crucifixions, amputations, mass killings and terror attacks that have characterised the rise of IS, unjustified though they undoubtedly are, have been carried out in the name of Islam.

          The caliphate that he professes to be recreating harks back to the idea of an Islamic republic led by one leader, regardless of national boundaries. The caliphate concept persisted within the Ottoman empire until 1924, when Kemal Ataturk abolished it, but Muslim extremists have long dreamed of recreating the Islamic state that, at various times during the course of Islam's 1,400-year history, ruled over the Middle East, much of North Africa and large parts of Europe.

          As regards IS’s intention to do just that, it was as recent as December 7 that the UK’s Guardian newspaper revealed the contents of a leaked internal IS manual showing how the terrorist group had been setting about building a state in Iraq and Syria complete with government departments, a treasury and an economic programme for self-sufficiency.

          The 24-page document, entitled “Principles in the administration of the Islamic State”, sets out a blueprint for establishing foreign relations, a fully-fledged propaganda operation, and centralised control over oil, gas and the other vital parts of the economy. It builds up a picture of a group, according to the Guardian that, “although sworn to a founding principle of brutal violence, is equally set on more mundane matters such as health, education, commerce, communications and jobs. In short, it is building a state.”

          Charlie Winter, a senior researcher for Georgia State University, believes that “IS is a deeply calculating political organisation with an extremely complex, well-planned infrastructure behind it.”

          How have IS’s fortunes fluctuated in the past year or so?

          There have been four major areas of territorial change: IS losses near Baghdad, in the Kurdish areas of Iraq, and along the Turkish border with Syria, and IS gains in and around Palmyra.

          According to John Ford of the US Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps, a clear pattern explains these changes. IS has been able to thrive in areas with a majority Arab Sunni population, but has failed to take hold in areas where Sunni Arabs are the minority or where effective rival ground forces oppose them.

          In northern Iraq and Syria, IS was pushed back by Kurdish militias who had the advantage of fighting on their home turf. IS was not able to take Baghdad, home to the largest Shi’ite population of any Iraqi city. Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias came to the government’s rescue in its defense.

          By contrast, in the area around Palmyra, IS expanded – central Syria is predominately Sunni and lacks militant groups that can rival IS. Now, though, IS positions around Palmyra are coming under heavy fire from Russian airstrikes, and it is far from certain that IS will be able to maintain its stranglehold on that ancient city and continue its wanton destruction of some of the world’s most valued antiquities.

         At its peak in 2014, IS had seized about a third of Iraqi territory. It has subsequently lost a good proportion of that. After more than a year of hard fighting, October 2015 saw pro-government forces wrest control of the oil refinery of Baiji. In Ramadi, Iraqi security forces have steadily progressed in recent months and, according to Iraqi commanders, have encircled the city.

          Across the border, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are preparing for an attack on the town of al-Hawl, while a US-led coalition air operation, dubbed Tidal Wave II, has targeted the Islamic State’s oil infrastructure, disrupting the group’s ability to fund its operations.

          General Ismail, commander of Special Forces in Al Anbar province, believes that IS mounted its terrorist attack in Paris on November 13 “in order to keep up the morale of their fighters and distract from their losses in Syria and Iraq.” If so, it may well be that, on this occasion, IS miscalculated badly and actually shot itself in the foot. It is unlikely that IS’s strategic planners could have foreseen the extent to which Paris acted as a wake-up call to the global community, nor the consequent degree of co-ordinated determination, matched by action, to see an end to IS.

          Evidence of this was forthcoming on December 15, when Saudi Arabia unexpectedly announced the formation of a 34-state Islamic military coalition to combat terrorism, with a joint operations centre based in Riyadh to coordinate and support military operations. The countries involved include not only Arab states such as Egypt, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, but other Islamic countries like Turkey, Malaysia and Pakistan.

         The announcement cited "a duty to protect the Islamic nation from the evils of all terrorist groups and organizations whatever their sect and name which wreak death and corruption on earth and aim to terrorize the innocent."

          Significantly Sunni Saudi Arabia's arch rival for influence in the Arab world, Shi'ite Iran, is not included in the alliance, and by implication is lumped together with Islamic State as among the “terrorist groups and organizations.”

          Saudi’s deputy crown prince and defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman, said that the campaign would coordinate efforts to fight terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan. "There will be international coordination with major powers,” he said.

          On December 2 the UK’s House of Commons voted decisively to extend its anti-IS air strikes from Iraq to Syria. When it emerged that Muslim MP, Nusrat Ghani, had voted in favor of doing so, she received a torrent of abuse and threats. In response, she declared that military success was a key factor in enabling IS to recruit more people to their evil cause,

          “Daesh are an embryonic state,” she said, “and their power comes from taking territory. Their ideology is based on them having territory. To be able to challenge and remove Daesh we have to take back territory.”

          She spoke for the consensus of the civilized world’s opinion.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 22 December 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 December 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 12 December 2015:

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Can the anti-Assad coalition produce the goods in Syria?

          The US-led coalition in Syria hopes to reach its long-term goal by way of twin-track tactics.

          The goal? To impose a crushing military defeat on Islamic State (IS), to liberate the territory it has occupied in Iraq and Syria, and to re-establish a sovereign state of Syria within its previous borders.

          The twin-track tactics? To degrade Islamic State’s infrastructure and fighting capacity as far as possible, while at the same time to deploy every possible diplomatic and political means to bring the Syrian civil war to an end, thus releasing the forces currently engaged in fighting President Bashar Assad and each other, and turning them on IS.

          A great deal depends on those boots on the ground in Syria. One lesson the West has learned is that fighting on Arab soil is usually a recipe for disaster, generating more opposition than it quells. So the coalition, exercising a self-denying ordinance, is restricting its mainstream activities to providing sophisticated air support for indigenous fighting units. 

          Military experts appear to believe that at least 70,000 such troops would be needed to mount an effective co-ordinated campaign that could defeat IS in Syria – and that this number of non-extremist fighters actually exists within Syrian territory. At the moment, though, they are dispersed, lack a unified command structure, and many are engaged in fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian army in the long-lasting civil war.

          That is why it is necessary to take a cold, hard look at the alternative – Assad, and his army.

          Syria’s military is a hardened and disciplined fighting force of some 200,000 regular troops and a further 100,000 irregulars. Recently, under the cover of Russian air support, the regime has been making progress. It is currently taking back large parts of Homs and is only a few miles from Palmyra – the fabled pink-stoned city of monuments, where IS decapitated the 82-year-old curator, Khaled Al‑Assad, before beginning an orgy of cultural destruction.

          To support the Assad regime and the Russians in their effort to recapture that amazing site is not to endorse the idea of keeping Assad in power indefinitely. But bringing an end to Syria’s civil conflict is an urgent priority – and is being treated as such by an impressive collection of 17 world powers plus the EU and the UN, now known as the International Syria Support Group (ISSG).

          When they met in Vienna on November 14, the ISSG agreed that by January 1, 2016 political negotiations should take place between representatives of Assad’s government and the forces opposed to him, to be followed by an immediate UN-monitored cease-fire. The group allotted six months for Syria to form an interim unity government, and wanted free and fair elections to be held in Syria within 18 months.

          To facilitate the cease-fire, the powers agreed that once negotiations were under way, they would stop all support and supplies to “various belligerents” on both sides of the Syrian civil war.

          However in the room where the ISSG spent six hours in close consultation behind locked doors, an elephant, which all parties did their best to ignore, wandered about. Pinned to its forehead was the question: “What part is Bashar al-Assad to play in the battle against IS?”

          In short, should Assad remain in power, if only on sufferance, and deploy his army, still loyal to him, against IS, or would his best contribution to the restoration of order to Syria be to leave the scene? The international community remains deeply divided over Assad’s fate. Believing the Syrian leader to be largely responsible for the conflict, the US, many European countries, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, call for his departure. US Secretary of State John Kerry has said the conflict will never end until Assad leaves.

          Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, however, flatly disagrees. “We have reiterated that Syria’s future will be decided by the Syrian people alone,” he has said, including “the future of Assad.” Russia and Iran believe that as the legitimate head of government, Assad must be involved in the anti-IS effort and the future of the country.

          The thought of collaborating with Russia’s gung-ho president, Vladimir Putin, in fighting IS probably sticks in the craw of many world leaders. Putin’s efforts to re-establish Russia as a global super-power have seen him seize and annex Crimea, while his proxy army has been trying to carve out a Russian-dominated enclave in eastern Ukraine. His incursion into the Middle East, and his massive military and air build-up in Syria, was clearly an effort both to enhance his influence on the international stage and, by supporting Assad, to sustain Russia’s long-standing military and commercial interests in Syria.

          The US has charged Putin with concentrating his fire on Assad’s opponents rather than on IS. However true this may have been at the start of Putin’s air-strike campaign, the downing in mid-air of the Russian passenger jet on October 31, with the loss of all 224 people on board – a terrorist outrage claimed by IS – changed his priorities. Russia is now as committed as the rest of the world to defeating IS and liberating the 10 million people currently subjected to its brutalised and bloodthirsty rule.

          France, currently leading the free world in its determined opposition to IS and all its works, seems under no illusion. “I was in Paris at the end of last week,” wrote MP Boris Johnson. London’s mayor, on December 7, “and the Russian leader’s face glowered sulkily from every billboard. “Poutin”, said the headline, “notre nouvel ami”. Many French people think the time has come to do a deal with their new friends the Russians – and I think that they are broadly right.”

          It is all a question of priorities. What is the prime concrete objective? To remove IS and the threat it poses to the whole world. Everything else should be secondary. We need to end their hideous Islamist rule, with its beheadings, amputations and crucifixions. We need them out of Palmyra and put a stop to their philistine destruction of some of the world’s greatest antiquities.

          The best hope for the future of Syria, and indeed of Iraq, lies in the recent agreement by ISSG to defeat and destroy IS, together with a plan for a new Syrian government. This really should embody the end of the Assad regime and his departure in one way or another, sooner or later. If it has to be done in such a way – perhaps through the ballot box – that neither Putin nor Assad lose face, so be it.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 15 December 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 December 2015:

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Lebanon in limbo

          Something is rotten in the state of Lebanon. Back in August a group of young activists took to the streets of Beirut to launch the “You Stink” campaign. Precipitated by the huge mounds of uncollected garbage polluting streets around the country, “You Stink” refers not only to the foul smell that pervades urban areas in Lebanon, but also to the rampant corruption of the Lebanese political system. The movement’s demands range from indicting the minister of environment for failing to manage the rubbish crisis, to conducting new parliamentary elections.

          That was in August. A move to remedy matters in September broke down, and by early November the situation had deteriorated. Lebanon's Daily Star described swarms of flies covering trash on the street "like sesame seeds." Abou Saleh, a resident of Karantina, a lower-income section of Beirut, said: “And it's not just flies. The rats enter our homes. My daughter was bitten by a rat on her chin a month ago."

          Unfortunately. corruption is ripe in Lebanon, compounded by the fact that the presidency has been vacant for more than eighteen months, and the parliament has been self-perpetuating itself for as long. Effectively, the rubbish crisis lies at the heart of the way that the state was redesigned in 1990 in post-civil war Lebanon. Ever since, the country's leading figures have insisted that the state institutions charged with providing public utility services are weak and incapable. Using this as an excuse, some of them began supporting and promoting private utility services, turning them into personal patronage networks. Services like garbage collection, household electricity, water, waste management and reconstruction became fronts for funnelling money to leaders' friends and political allies.

          Over time, asserts Jamil Mouawad, a research associate at the Institut Français du Proche Orient, these practices hollowed out state public institutions, and lined the pockets of private suppliers. "Private utility service providers directly associated with the ruling elite have taken advantage of the shortage of public services."

          The garbage crisis erupted when the government did not renew the contract of Sukleen, the private company responsible for waste collection and street sweeping in greater Beirut and Mount Lebanon. The reality of piles of foul-smelling garbage on the streets brought the Lebanese face to face with the failure of their government. They could feel it and smell it.

          The paralysis in effective government is exemplified by the fact that Lebanon has held no parliamentary elections since 2009 even though, according to the constitution, elections are supposed to be held every 4 years. The trouble is that the constitution requires parliament to elect a president every 6 years for a single term in office, but when President Michel Suleiman’s term ended in April 2014, parliament was unable to agree on a new candidate – and has been unable to do so for the past eighteen months. While the wheeling and dealing process wound its tortuous course, parliament has been renewing its own mandate, and MPs have not had to face re-election.

          In point of fact the parliamentary Speaker, Nabih Berri, has called at least 30 sessions for the purpose of electing a new president, but on each occasion parliament has been unable to reach a quorum because MPs from the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, and its ally Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform bloc, have boycotted the sessions.

          Effective governance in Lebanon is bedevilled by two contradictory factors – on the one hand, the constitutional sectarian power-sharing system; on the other the fact that the Iranian-inspired and backed terrorist organization, Hezbollah, has managed to infiltrate itself into the body politic so effectively that it has become a state within a state.

          In August Lebanon was favoured with a visit from Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Iran has been blamed for the impasse by many Middle East observers. They believe that Iran does not want a president in Lebanon for the time being, and is working behind the scenes to abolish the 1989 Taif accord, adopted after the Lebanese civil war. Taif adjusted the traditional balance of power in Lebanon, but still required the president to be from the Maronite Christian community, the prime minister to be Sunni Muslim, the parliamentary speaker Shia, and the deputy speaker and deputy prime minister to be Greek Orthodox. Such an arrangement hardly accords with the underlying religious aims of the Iranian Islamic Republic or its Supreme Leader.

          Nevertheless, the latest indications are that a compromise candidate may indeed be emerging. Suleiman Franjieh, who heads the Christian Marada party, is an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and therefore has the backing of Iran and Hezbollah. But Franjieh is also expected to win the endorsement of Saad al-Hariri, whose Future Movement is backed by Iran's regional rival, Saudi Arabia. The two men are reported to have met in Paris recently. The delicacy of such arrangements is exemplified by the fact that Hariri’s father, Rafik, was assassinated on the streets of Beirut in 2005, and although the investigation into his death is still on-going, it is widely believed that Hezbollah terrorists, backed by Syrian President Assad, were responsible.

          Meanwhile on November 20, journalist Nayla Tueni, one of the few female members of parliament in Lebanon, bemoaned the fact that Lebanon was still suffering from a presidential vacuum as it marked its 72nd Independence Day on November 22.

          “The country is like an old man,” she wrote, “no longer capable of keeping up with ordinary life. State institutions’ work is almost at a standstill.”

          Like Saad Hariri, Nayla Tueni endured the assassination of her father, Gebran. A fierce critic of the Syrian government and its policies in Lebanon, he too was killed by a car bomb in Beirut, just ten months after Rafik Hariri. It took seven years for two Syrian officers to be indicted, in October 2012, accused of Tueni’s murder.

          ”Electing a president will not protect us from terrorism,” writes Nayla Tueni, a week after a double suicide bombing in south Beirut left 43 people dead and 239 wounded in the Shia-majority district of Burj al-Barajneh. But she believes that electing a president would restore regularity to the work of institutions that have lost citizens’ trust.

          “The cabinet has failed to resolve the trash crisis due to sectarian divisions,” she writes. “One party names a candidate, another vetoes him. It is all a waste of time, and a violation of the constitution as long as someone obstructs electing a president and boycotts parliamentary sessions on the matter. The collapse of the country will hurt everyone.”

         And indeed Lebanon stands on the brink of collapse.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 8 December 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 9 December 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 12 December 2015
in English:

Published in the MPC Journal, 1 January 2016
in Arabic:

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

France: the new leader of the free world?

        “Nature abhors a vacuum” observed the Greek philosopher Aristotle – a remark that, demonstrably valid, has entered into common parlance. Given US President Barack Obama’s self-evident abdication of America’s role as defender of Western values in the turbulent Middle East, a new leader is indeed emerging.

        “This administration,” said US Senator John McCain, on October 1, “has confused our friends, encouraged our enemies, mistaken an excess of caution for prudence, and replaced the risks of action with the perils of inaction.”

        He was reacting to Russia’s surprising entry into the Syrian civil conflict, a campaign in strength which seemed destined to put America’s so-far ineffective intervention in the shade. At that point it appeared as though Russian President Vladimir Putin might become the global symbol – so needed, but so lacking – of determined opposition to jihadist terrorism. It soon became obvious that Putin’s real agenda was to sustain Bashar al-Assad in power as Syria’s president, support Iran in their struggle against Assad’s enemies, and enhance his own bid for super-power leadership.

        Putin’s priorities suffered a severe shock on October 31, when a Russian Airbus A321, on a flight from Egypt to St Petersburg, was blown out of the sky, killing all 224 people on board, including 17 children. Islamic State (IS) immediately claimed responsibility, and it was soon established that a bomb had been smuggled aboard the aircraft and detonated at 30,000 feet. Putin responded by shifting the focus of the Russian attack in Syria and Iraq to IS.

         No sooner had the world absorbed the fact that over 200 innocent air passengers had been subjected to mass murder, than the global media were filled with another horrendous demonstration of bloodlust – the co-ordinated massacre in Paris of 130 people on the night of November 13. Again IS claimed that it was responsible. Just one week later, 170 people were held hostage, and 27 slaughtered, in a hotel in Mali. It is no coincidence that the Malian capital, Bamako, had been a logistics hub for French forces ever since they intervened in 2013 to help Mali’s government defeat an Islamist attempt to take over the country. At the time France’s unilateral intervention – disapproved of by Germany and a swathe of Arab states – seemed to confirm the willingness of recently-elected President François Hollande to be a force opposing terrorism on the world stage.

        Following the November 13 outrage, as the French capital and the world reeled at the enormity of the brutal onslaught on innocent civilians, his dignified presence in Paris, and his calm and appropriate reaction aroused admiration for him, sympathy for the people of France, and solidarity with them in their shock and grief.

        At the time of the Paris slaughter President Obama happened to be in Turkey, and he gave what could only be described as a lacklustre news conference. He expressed solidarity with France, listed some modest successes in pushing back IS forces in Iraq and Syria, pledged to maintain humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees, “and we’ll continue to stand with leaders in Muslim communities, including faith leaders, who are the best voices to discredit ISIL’s warped ideology.” Scarcely a rousing call to arms.

        President Hollande, on the other hand, responded vigorously to the assault on his country. He immediately instituted an intensified anti-IS air campaign in Iraq and Syria, authorised hundreds of raids on suspected domestic terrorists, declared a 3-month state of emergency, and proposed changes in the constitution to make France less hospitable to jihad. He then sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 2249, drafted by French officials and approved by all 15 members, calling on member states to take “all necessary measures” against IS, a group it described as “a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security”. Countries were urged to step up sanctions and improve efforts to cut off the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria.

        In commenting on the Resolution, France's UN ambassador, Francois Delattre, told the Council that France intended to "scale up its efforts so as to galvanize the international community as a whole, to vanquish our shared enemy." And that is clearly France’s post-Paris strategy – to rally the irresolute, the uncertain, the doubtful, the indecisive, among which, regretfully, must be numbered not only the US, but also the UK, a goodly proportion of EU members, Turkey and, most obviously, many of the stable and moderate Arab states who stand on the side-lines and, for their own complex reasons, refrain from entering the fray.

        Hollande is determined to follow up this series of initiatives by personal persuasion. Two months ago France became the only European country to join US-led strikes in Syria, and the UK government is hovering on the brink of seeking a parliamentary mandate to do the same. However prime minister David Cameron is determined not to repeat the mistake of losing the vote in the House of Commons, a humiliation experienced back in August 2013 when he sought agreement to bomb Assad for employing chemical weapons against his own people.

       So on November 23 Hollande hosted a meeting with Cameron in Paris, in part, no doubt, to strengthen the British prime minister’s case by enabling him to claim he has France’s backing. Hollande then flew to Washington where he met Obama to discuss beefing up the US-led “Operation Inherent Resolve” strikes against IS targets in Iraq and Syria. From there he flew on to Moscow to discuss with Putin how their countries' militaries might work together in an effective anti-IS campaign.

        Clearly it is the French president who is taking the proactive lead in rallying a global campaign against the brutal, bloodthirsty and philistine IS organization. Only when IS has been utterly crushed and defeated, and chased out of Iraq and Syria, can its malign appeal to vulnerable Muslim youth the world over be finally snuffed out. To achieve this objective, an increasing number of voices in the US, the UK and elsewhere are arguing that the strategy of “no boots on the ground” will have to be reversed.

        Peter R Mansoor is a retired US Army colonel who was executive officer to General David Petraeus in Iraq, and who played a key role in the US counter-insurgency strategy in that war. He is now an Ohio State University military history professor.

        “The president says the goal is to degrade and ultimately destroy IS” he said on 17 November, “and yet the amount of resources that he’s applied, and the strategy that he’s fashioned, is not sufficient to get the job done…We need to get serious about actually destroying IS in its homeland in Syria and Iraq, and to put US and European troops on the ground if it’s necessary to accomplish that goal…This administration just isn’t serious about the war in the Middle East.”

        It seems pretty clear that France’s President François Hollande leads an administration that is.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 2 December 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 2 December 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 7 December 2015:

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

EU labelling and the Arab Peace Plan

        If there’s one thing you cannot fault the European Union on, it’s consistency. For the last forty years the EU and its predecessor, the European Economic Community (EEC), have maintained that the territory occupied by the Arab armies on the day the armistice between them and Israel was signed – July 20, 1949 – are the borders of a putative sovereign state of Palestine.

        Of course, Israel was not fighting Palestinians in 1949. There was no such Arab entity. It was facing the armies of Egypt and Jordan, and it was with those sovereign nations that Israel signed the armistice. Article II of the Armistice with Jordan explicitly specifies that the cease-fire agreement had been “dictated exclusively by military considerations,” and did not “prejudice the rights, claims and positions of the parties”. The EU and its predecessors, however, have never acknowledged that the ceasefire lines were not to be regarded as permanent borders.

        What happened after 1949? On April 24, 1950 King Abdullah of Jordan annexed the West Bank together with east Jerusalem, areas the Jordanian army had overrun and occupied during their attack on the new-born state of Israel, and formally incorporated them into the Hashemite Kingdom. In June 1967 Jordan still held this territory – illegally, according to most of world opinion – when it joined with Egypt and Syria in planning a three-pronged attack on Israel.

        In the Six-Day War of June 5-10, 1967 Israel chased the Jordanian army out of the west bank of the Jordan and Jerusalem, pushed the Egyptian army out of Gaza and pursued it across the Sinai peninsula, and captured the Golan Heights from Syrian forces.

        Dr Dore Gold, the renowned expert on Middle East affairs, has pointed out that after the Six-Day War the architects of UN Security Council Resolution 242 insisted that the old armistice line had to be replaced with a new border. “Which is why,” Dr Gold writes, “Resolution 242 did not call for a full withdrawal from all the territories that Israel captured in the Six Day War; the 1949 armistice lines were no longer to be a reference point for a future peace process.”

        In championing Palestinian sovereignty the EU has consistently ignored the fact that in 1967 the West Bank did not, according to international law, belong to Jordan, or indeed to any sovereign state. This became even more obvious in 1988, when Jordan renounced its annexation. Subsequently, however, a general consensus arose that if or when the Israel-Palestinian conflict is resolved by way of a two-state solution, the majority of the area will form part of a sovereign Palestine.

        In 1999, at a meeting held in Berlin, the EU announced: ”The European Union declares its readiness to consider the recognition of a Palestinian State in due course.” This the European parliament duly did, although only in principle, on December 17, 2014.

        The corollary emerged on November 12, 2015. In a “Notice on indication of origin of goods from the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967”, the European Commission stated that the EU does not consider the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967, namely the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, to be part of sovereign Israel. So the notice advises that all products originating from these areas and being sold in the EU should be labelled to indicate they are not from Israel proper.

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

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

        What is this “Palestine”? In effect the EU has determined it consists of the territory occupied by Jordanian forces on July 20, 1949, together with Gaza, where the PA’s writ does not run, and where the de facto rulers, Hamas, are designated a terrorist organisation by the EU.

        “A lasting solution,” runs the EU’s official policy statement, “must be achieved on the basis of the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions, the Madrid principles including land for peace, the Roadmap, agreements previously reached by the parties and of the Arab Peace Initiative.”

        The Arab Peace Initiative was promulgated in March 2002 by the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, when he was still Crown Prince. Basically, he called for peace with Israel in return for Israel withdrawing from all territories captured in the 1967 war. There was a significant condition: a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee crisis based on UN Resolution 194 (a sort of “right of return” or, for those who do not want to go back, agreed compensation). The plan was discussed for a week and adopted on the 28th of March 2002. The Arab League has since readopted the Initiative on several occasions.

        The quid pro quo for Israel’s agreement to the plan would be that all 22 Arab States would consider the Arab–Israeli conflict over, sign a peace agreement and establish normal relations with Israel.

        Early in President Obama’s first term the plan was incorporated into US foreign policy and, just prior to the start of the 2014 peace negotiations, Secretary of State John Kerry achieved something of a triumph in discussions with Arab League delegates. “The Arab League delegation affirmed…the two-state solution,” he announced, “on the basis of the 4th of June 1967 line [note “line” not “border”], with the (possibility) of comparable and mutual agreed minor swaps of the land.”

        On 12 November 2015 Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal called for the revival of the Arab Peace Initiative. In a pre-recorded message to the Israel Conference for Peace in Tel-Aviv, he urged Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to declare that he was “ willing to negotiate on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative,” adding that he believed the plan could jump-start a new peace process. “What better time … for Israel to say, ‘Let us have peace with our neighbours’ and come from a position of strength to the table.”

        This time, to ensure that Palestinian hardliners do not sabotage delicate negotiations, and perhaps to exert some pressure on the PA delegation, the table should include Arab League representatives. Something of the sort was actually suggested by Netanyahu, in his address to the UN General Assembly in September 2014.

        “A broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace,” he said. To achieve that peace, he asserted, not only Jerusalem and Ramallah need be involved, but also Cairo, Amman, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and elsewhere. In short, Israel’s prime minister backs the idea of a broadly-based peace conference. 

        As for the EU, for once he could be assured of its support.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 25 November 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 29 November 2015:

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The Russo-Iranian missile deal

          Russia’s S-300 family of surface-to-air missiles is generally acknowledged to include the most sophisticated and effective air-defence systems in the world. There are nearly 30 variations of S-300 in existence, and the PS and PM versions are, it is believed, fitted with nuclear warheads. It was more than mildly disturbing, therefore, to learn on November 9 that Russia has lifted its embargo on supplying Iran with the S-300, and that a firm contract to provide four systems is signed and sealed. What is not yet clear is when they will be delivered.

          Speaking at the Dubai Airshow-2015, which ran from November 8-12, Sergei Chemezov, the head of Russia’s Rostec Corporation, the conglomerate that includes arms exporter Rosobornexport, said: “The contract for the delivery of the S-300 to Iran…has already entered into force.”

         This deal has had a long gestation. The contract under which Russia agreed to supply Iran with S-300 missile systems was signed back in 2007. Three years later, following the imposition of sanctions by the UN on Iran, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stepped in to prohibit the deal from going ahead. Iran hit back by filing a lawsuit with a Geneva arbitration tribunal against Russia’s Rosoboronexport arms company, claiming nearly $4 billion in damages.

          In April, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin repealed his predecessor’s ban on fulfilling the contract. Following the conclusion of the US-led nuclear deal with Iran on July 14, Putin decided that, since international sanctions on Iran were about to be lifted, Russia would give the S-300 contract the go-ahead. As a result Iranian and Russian officials are negotiating about the withdrawal of the lawsuit.

          But Russia has jumped the gun. The official timeline for implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran allows sanctions to be lifted only when the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) verifies that Iran has implemented key nuclear-related measures, such as reducing its stockpiles of fissile materials and centrifuges.

          But on October 21 Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, published a document laying down nine new requirements before Iran would agree to implement the JCPOA. These unilateral conditions fundamentally change what was agreed on July 14, and virtually declare the JCPOA a dead letter.

          For example, under the JCPOA Iran is obligated to start changing the function of its nuclear reactor at Arak and shipping out most of its stockpile of enriched uranium as a precondition for the lifting of sanctions. In his document Khamenei declares that Iran will not carry out these actions until after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) closes its dossier on Iran, targeted for December 15. But how can the IAEA report by the target date about Iran meeting its obligations, when Iran is not even going to begin doing so by then? In short, the JCPOA has been thwarted from the very start.

            So far the US and the EU appear to have turned a blind eye to Iran’s new position on the nuclear deal, but if Khameini means what he says and acts on it, they will surely have to defer the lifting of sanctions. Russia too, as one of the negotiating parties to the nuclear deal, will have to decide whether to hold off providing Iran with the S-300 missile systems.

          Providing the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism with the world’s most sophisticated surface-to-air missile system might be a lucrative business deal for the Russian arms industry, but it represents a considerable risk for the world in general, and the Middle East in particular. It seems to have little relevance to the joint Russo-Iranian operation in Syria in support of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Neither the Free Syrian Army nor Islamic State have air power at their disposal. The only air combatant besides Russia itself is the US-led alliance, and there could surely be no intention in Tehran to use S-300 surface–to-air missiles against them – although, if Syria’s civil conflict were to be prolonged, Iran’s mere possession of them might act as some sort of deterrent.

          No, Iran is seeking, and Russia is supplying, S-300s as part of a system of defence against aerial attack on one or more of three possible targets: Iran’s nuclear facilities; the military installations of its stooge army, Hezbollah, in the event of a new conflict with Israel; or the Iranian-supported Houthi forces in Yemen, currently under aerial bombardment by the Saudi Arabian coalition.

          No wonder that the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel are all opposed to the missile contract that Russia has signed with Iran. The one saving grace is that no date has been set for delivery of the S-300 systems. Long may it be delayed.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 November 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 20 November 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 21 November 2015:

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Iran reneges on the nuclear deal

          Iran’s body politic is far from tension-free. Not only does the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, keep the tightest of reins on the political process and the politicians who administer it, but Iran’s Revolutionary Guards also regard it as their bounden duty to protect the principles of the revolution by stamping on any politician with too-liberal tendencies.

          Back in 2013, Khamanei had lost faith in the then president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, not least because the sanctions imposed by the US and the EU on Iran since 2005 were biting hard, and Ahmadinejad had no policy for easing them. So Khamenei backed the more accommodating Hassan Rouhani in the new presidential elections, and charged him with negotiating Iran’s way out of the sanctions.

          Rouhani succeeded, but in his very success lie the seeds of his failure. On November 3 the New York Times reported that Rouhani’s hard-line adversaries in the government were promoting an internal backlash against the nuclear deal. In addition, the Revolutionary Guards Corps had started arresting pro-deal journalists, activists and cultural figures.

          The development reflects the current views of the Supreme Leader. Yes, Khamenei heartily approves of the fact that the US and the EU are prepared to lift sanctions on Iran, but no, the Supreme Leader does not like the conditions they have laid down, and that Rouhani has agreed to. Perhaps reckoning that the US president and world leaders are so anxious for a deal with Iran that he has more leeway than the signed document apparently allows, Khamenei has virtually stated in black and white that Iran has no intention whatsoever of adhering to the terms of the agreement reached on July 14, 2015.

          July 14 was the day that world powers, led by the US, reached a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. Under its terms, sanctions will be lifted only when the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) verifies that Iran has implemented key nuclear-related measures, such as reducing its stockpiles of fissile materials and centrifuges.

          “Adoption Day”– the day participants would start the process of implementing their JCPOA commitments – was set for October 18. On that day, therefore, the US and the EU began preparatory measures for lifting the multiple sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy since they were first imposed in 2005. Only three days later, on October 21, Ayatollah Khamenei published a letter of guidelines to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about the JCPOA.

          This letter, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reported, was posted on Khamenei’s website in Persian, tweeted from his Twitter account, posted on his Facebook page in English, and published in English by the Iran Broadcasting Authority. In this document, clearly the definitive statement of the conditions under which Iran would be willing to execute the JCPOA, Iran’s Supreme Leader sets nine new and unilateral conditions that fundamentally change what was agreed on July 14. In short, he has virtually declared the JCPOA a dead letter.

          What are these nine new conditions?

          First Khamenei demands that sanctions are lifted fully, not suspended, before Iran takes steps to meet its obligations under the agreement. In addition he asserts that any endorsement by the West of the “snapback” option (the reintroduction of sanctions should Iran fail to meet the terms of the agreement) will be considered “non-compliance with the JCPOA”.

          Secondly: Any future sanctions against Iran for whatever reason, including terrorism or human rights violations, will “constitute a violation of the JCPOA,” and a reason for Iran to stop executing the agreement.

          Thirdly: Under the JCPOA Iran is obligated to start changing the function of its nuclear reactor at Arak and shipping out most of its stockpile of enriched uranium. In his letter Khamenei declares that Iran will not carry out these actions until after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) closes its dossier on Iran, targeted for December 15. But the IAEA will not be able to report about Iran meeting its obligations regarding the Arak reactor and shipping out its enriched uranium by the target date, because Iran is not going to do so by then. In short, the JCPOA has been thwarted from the very start.

          Fourth: Iran will change the purpose of the Arak reactor only after there is a signed agreement on an “alternative plan” and “sufficient guarantee” that it will be implemented. In other words, Iran intends to postpone fulfilling its obligations under the JCPOA regarding the Arak reactor to some unknown future date.

          Fifth: Iran intends to postpone indefinitely the date set by the JCPOA for shipping out its enriched uranium to another country in exchange for yellowcake. Moreover Khamenei is demanding that Iran receive in exchange for the enriched uranium not raw uranium as per the JCPOA, but instead uranium that has been enriched, albeit to a lower level than the uranium it ships out.

          Sixth: Khamenei instructs President Rouhani, while reducing Iran’s ability to enrich uranium under the JCPOA, immediately to expand Iran’s ability to enrich uranium on a 15-year long-term plan for 190,000 centrifuges. In short, he is nullifying the declared goal of the JCPOA, which is to reduce Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities.

          Seventh: The Iranian Atomic Energy Organization must ensure continued nuclear research and development, in its various dimensions, so that in eight years’ time, Iran will not be lacking in enrichment technology.

          Eighth: Khamenei declares that Iran must be involved in resolving queries about the JCPOA – a recipe for unending dispute and the ability to paralyze the execution of the agreement.

          Ninth: A new committee tasked with monitoring the execution of the agreement is to be established – nominally to obviate any attempt by the US or the West to cheat, but in effect, a mechanism for creating perpetual obstacles to carrying out the agreement.

          So far world opinion has turned a blind eye to Khamenei’s virtual rejection of the nuclear agreement. The US and the EU are proceeding enthusiastically with the first stages of dismantling their multiple sanctions regimes. Government officials and businessmen from around the globe are making a beeline for Tehran, eager to share in the vast commercial opportunities they see awaiting.

          The nuclear agreement is the basis for Iran’s re-entry into the comity of nations, and Khamenei seems to be setting the stage for a battle of wills between Iran and the West. Will the West’s desire to come to terms with Iran outweigh Iran’s determination to give away less than their president has actually signed up to? Will the West delay the lifting of sanctions? Who will blink first?

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 11 November 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 12 November 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 16 November 2015:

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The US and Russia in Syria and Iraq – foes or allies?

        Battlefields are chaotic. In the turmoil created by forces in conflict, it is often difficult to discern a clear pattern until the smoke of battle has cleared. The battlefields that are Syria and Iraq are especially difficult to evaluate. Are the US and Russia foes or allies? Implausible though it may seem, they are actually both simultaneously, at least on a tactical level. Strategically, they are poles apart.

        Long-standing Russo-Syrian accords have provided Russia with invaluable naval and military assets inside Syria. Protecting them means supporting President Bashar al-Assad, at least in the short term. Assad is fighting two main opponents – his domestic enemies represented by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and Islamic State (IS), the Sunni jihadist organization intent on overrunning the whole of Syria and Iraq. On entering the fray Russia undertook to strike both, though so far it has rather concentrated its firepower against the FSA. According to a survey compiled by the Institute for the Study of War, out of 64 targets attacked in air strikes by Russia during the first three weeks of its campaign, a maximum of 15 were in areas held by IS.

        The US, however, entered the Syrian conflict in order to boost the FSA, fight IS in conjunction with them, and overthrow Assad. The US coalition has been supporting FSA military operations with air strikes although, it must be said, to no great effect as yet. With Russia attacking FSA and the US supporting them, the two outside protagonists seem at daggers drawn.

        Russia’s clear aim of establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East is certainly not to America’s liking, and doubtless played a part in the recent accord between the US and Saudi Arabia, both concerned about the growing number of Russian air-strikes in support of the Assad regime. On October 25, they announced a joint agreement to boost their military and diplomatic effort in aid of the Syrian rebels.

        “They pledged to continue and intensify support to the moderate Syrian opposition while the political track is being pursued," announced the State Department.

        The “moderate Syrian opposition” are precisely the forces being attacked by Russia and Iranian-backed fighters. This enhanced US-Saudi activity must be co-ordinated with the Russians in some way, or the two sides, if only by proxy, could find themselves in active combat against each other.

        If they are on opposite sides in this aspect of the conflict, the US and Russia are at one in their opposition to IS and its ruthless drive to extend its power over the region and wider. Even so, Russia’s latest move in this struggle is unlikely to meet with US approval.

        On October 26 Russian officials were reported to have been discussing with senior Taliban warlords in Afghanistan the possibility of an alliance aimed at defeating IS in Syria and Iraq. In return Russia’s President Putin would supply the Taliban with heavy weapons and promise to support it internationally should it overthrow the Afghan government and retake control of the country. Pure self-interest on Russia’s part dictates the move. Bringing Taliban fighters into the conflict on its side could avoid the need to deploy Russian boots on the ground.

        The Taliban and IS would be well-matched as opponents. They are as fanatical, vicious and inhumane as each other. The record of Taliban rule over Pashtun areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan in the mid-1990s is every bit as barbarous as that of IS in Syria and Iraq. Public executions and amputations flourished; men were required to grow beards; women had to wear the all-covering burka; girls were banned from going to school. Television, music and cinema were proscribed.

        The Taliban record, however, counts for nothing in Russian eyes, when set against the realpolitik advantages of a Russo-Taliban alliance, although how Russia intends to square this move with the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, both committed to overthrowing the Taliban, is anybody’s guess.

        The Iranian dimension to Syria’s civil conflict adds a further complication. Iran regards Syria as its client state – an essential building block in the Shi’ite axis it has assembled across the Middle East – and it has supported Assad with money, arms and fighting forces, both its own Revolutionary Guards and scores of thousands of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. It considers Sunni IS its implacable enemy, and directs considerable military effort to countering IS attempts to expand its territorial advances in both Syria and Iraq.

        As regards Iran’s role, the US, unlike Russia, is in a morally ambiguous position. It disapproves of Iran’s pro-Assad activities in Syria, but favours its anti-IS activities in Iraq.

        In September 2014, while Iran was in the midst of negotiating the future of its nuclear programme, the BBC reported that Ayatollah Khamenei had authorised his top commander fighting IS in Iraq to co-ordinate military operations with the US, Iraqi and Kurdish forces. By March 2015, with the delicate nuclear negotiations still under way, the American-led coalition in Iraq launched airstrikes to support Iranian-backed militias and Iraqi troops fighting IS for the key city of Tikrit, which they eventually won back.

        And then, on October 24, the Iraqi government announced that it is authorizing the Russian military to use the Al Taqaddum airbase that is also being used by US troops for operations against IS. So it looks as though Russia and the US have become allies of a sort in Iraq.

        Iran and Russia appear to be in close accord, but everything in the Russo-Iranian garden is far from perfect. A variety of observers believe that the military alliance between Christian Russia and Shi’ite Iran aimed at keeping Assad in power is fraught with underlying tension. For example, Harold Rhode, a senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute and a former adviser at the Pentagon, believes that Russian and Iranian long-term interests diverge.

        “Russia does not trust Iran,” he says. “Russia doesn’t want Iran to be an equal partner in Syria. Russia wants to rule the roost.” He believes Russia has no wish to see an Iranian-led Shi’ite bloc dominating the Middle East.

       If Russia’s strategic interests are indeed out of kilter with Iran’s, the way might be open for the US to seek some kind of deal with Russia aimed at limiting the Shi’ite axis. This possibility, running counter to the whole Middle East approach of the Obama administration, may lie hidden within the present political maelstrom – a prize to be won by a future US president.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 5 November 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 8 November 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 5 November 2015:

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Countering Islamism

          On October 19 the British government announced a raft of new security measures designed to counter the domestic Islamist threat. They were the outcome of an intensive exercise undertaken by the UK civil service over the summer, while parliament was in adjournment.

          The new measures, among other things, enable parents of children under 16 to request the cancellation of their passports; there is to be a ban on radical preachers posting material online; new extremism disruption orders will prevent individuals from engaging in extremist behaviour; law enforcement and local authorities will be given powers to close down premises used to support extremism.

          Together these and other steps add up to the UK’s Counter-Extremism Strategy, the first effort by a world power to tackle domestic Islamism head-on. There is to be no shilly-shallying around the nature of the danger facing Britain – and, by extension, the civilized world – nor the multi-faceted effort that needs to be taken to counter and conquer it.

          The groundwork for this initiative was laid in a seminal speech delivered on July 20 by the UK prime minister, David Cameron. Uniquely among world leaders who have spoken on this issue, Cameron addressed his Muslim co-citizens candidly. Without beating about the bush, he asserted that condemning violence was not enough. Too many ordinary decent Muslim citizens, he maintained, while thoroughly disapproving of violence, allowed themselves to be seduced by Islamism to the extent of subscribing to intolerant ideas which actively promote discrimination, sectarianism and segregation, thus fostering the very climate in which extremists can flourish. It was clear from what he said that Cameron places high on his list of “intolerant ideas” the mindless anti-Semitism that is endemic to extremist Islamism.

          Cameron also singled out ideas “based on conspiracy: that Jews exercise malevolent power; or that Western powers, in concert with Israel, are deliberately humiliating Muslims, because they aim to destroy Islam. In this warped worldview, such conclusions are reached – that 9/11 was actually inspired by Mossad to provoke the invasion of Afghanistan; that British security services knew about 7/7, but didn’t do anything about it because they wanted to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash.”

          Cameron pointed out that the backgrounds of those convicted of terrorist offences often reveal that they were first influenced by what some would call non-violent extremists.

          “It may begin,” he said, “with hearing about the so-called Jewish conspiracy, and then develop into hostility to the West and fundamental liberal values, before finally becoming a cultish attachment to death. Put another way, the extremist world view is the gateway, and violence is the ultimate destination.”

          The adherents of this ideology, he claimed, are overpowering other voices within the Muslim debate, especially those trying to challenge it.

          To counter this threat, he asserted, Britain intends to confront, head on, the extreme ideology that underpins Islamism – the cultish worldview, the conspiracy theories, and its malevolent appeal to the young and impressionable. The new strategy will involve exposing Islamist extremism for what it is – a belief system that glorifies violence and subjugates its people, not least Muslim people – and will contrast the bigotry, aggression and theocracy of Islamism with the liberal, democratic values that underlie the Western way of life.

          A key part of the action programme will be to tackle both the violent and the non-violent aspects of the creed. Cameron was clear that this would mean confronting groups and organisations that may not advocate violence, but which do promote other parts of the extremist narrative.

          “We’ve got to show that if you say ‘violence in London isn’t justified, but suicide bombs in Israel are a different matter’, then you too are part of the problem. Unwittingly or not,” he said, “and in a lot of cases it’s not unwittingly, you are providing succour to those who want to commit, or get others to commit to, violence.”

          He insisted that condemning a mass-murdering, child-raping organisation was not enough to prove that a person was challenging the extremists. The new strategy would demand that people also condemn the wild conspiracy theories, the anti-Semitism, and the sectarianism.

          Acknowledging the religious aspect of Islamist extremism has proved a stumbling block for many previous attempts to combat the problem. Britain’s Counter-Extremism Strategy will face the issue fairly and squarely. As Cameron pointed out, simply denying any connection between the religion of Islam and the extremists doesn’t work, because these extremists are self-identifying as Muslims.

          “They all spout the same twisted narrative, one that claims to be based on a particular faith. It is an exercise in futility to deny that. And more than that, it can be dangerous.”

          To deny that Islamism has anything to do with Islam, claimed Cameron, means that the critical reforming voices from within the faith are disempowered – religious heads who can challenge the scriptural basis on which extremists claim to be acting, and respected leaders who can provide an alternative worldview that could stop a teenager’s slide down the spectrum of extremism. The UK’s Counter-Extremism Strategy will empower, support and fund those individuals and organisations from within the Muslim community that are dedicated to countering extreme Islamism and its nihilistic philosophy.

          Although an independent Counter-Extremist Project has been running in the US for the past year, and a European counterpart, CEP Europe, was launched in Brussels on June 29, the only government to have grasped the nettle is the UK’s. Britain alone seems to have taken on board the extent of the threat facing the civilized world, to have analysed the issues coolly and hard-headedly, and to be in the process of devising a comprehensive strategy for countering it. In short, the UK is seizing the initiative in the major struggle of our times – a war to the death between a liberal way of life, rooted in parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, and those intent on destroying those values and substituting their own narrow and extremist version of sharia, not shared by the majority of the world’s Muslims.

          It is a war the world can, must, and surely will, win.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 29 October 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 October 2015:

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Time for moderate Muslims to bite the bullet

        It is time moderate Islam recognized who its real enemies are, where its real interests lie, and take action accordingly.

        While Islamic State (IS) and the Islamic Republic of Iran – the powers that rival each other in seeking religious and political domination in the Middle East and beyond – have been forging ahead, intent on imposing their own versions of extremist Islam on a reluctant world, moderate Arab and other Muslim states have equivocated. Other considerations have been given priority over confronting them.

        For instance Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, procrastinated for a long time before attacking IS in Syria, fearing to boost Kurdish forces which were successfully combatting the extremist organization. It was only when IS itself mounted terrorist attacks within Turkey that Erdogan took action – although, even now, he seems to be striking IS and Kurdish forces indiscriminately, in a morally ambiguous strategy dictated by the imperatives of the forthcoming elections in Turkey.

        In Yemen it took an Iranian-backed takeover of the capital, Sana’a, and the imminent likelihood of a takeover of the government itself, to move Saudi Arabia to take action. The growing involvement of IS-affiliated Yemeni extremists, and a power struggle between them and the terrorist group “al-Qaeda in Yemen” combined to produce a state in meltdown. A contributory factor leading to Saudi action was perhaps the bombs that exploded outside two mosques in Sana’a after Friday prayers on March 20. Nearly 140 people were killed and 350 wounded, while shortly afterwards responsibility for the outrage was claimed by the group “Islamic State in Yemen”.

        Six days later, on March 26, taking the world by surprise, Saudi Arabia began airstrikes against the Iranian-backed Houthis, with the intention of restoring the legitimate government in Yemen. Within only a few days Saudi had welded together a coalition of Arab states in support of the assault, including Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.

        By the last days of March the Houthi advance had been halted. During the summer Saudi and coalition forces drove the rebels out of Aden, enabling the Yemeni prime minister, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, to return from exile on September 16. And now the Houthis – together with Yemen’s previous president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been supporting them – have agreed to a seven-point plan, brokered by the UN, which includes a ceasefire and the return of the government to Sana’a. Saleh told the Lebanon-based al-Mayadeen TV station on October 12 that he was ready to quit his position as head of the country's largest party, the General People's Congress (GPC), to facilitate an end to the fighting that has killed more than 5,000 people.

        Saudi Arabia’s resolute action is a template for how moderate Muslim nations can, and should, face up to Islamist extremists elsewhere in the Middle East – IS in particular, but Iran too, should its overweening ambition, especially if eventually backed by nuclear weaponry, ever get out of hand. Iran has been supporting terrorist attempts to undermine Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states for decades. Armed with nuclear weapons, Iranian-supported jihadists would constitute a threat that could not be ignored. A nuclear arms race is the last thing the Middle East needs, but nuclear deterrence may eventually be the best road to security for moderate Islam, and an effective counter also if Russia were tempted to support Iranian adventurism.

        Just like Iran, IS has an inherent strategic need to keep expanding its influence. The only way to defeat it is to halt it in its tracks, crush it militarily, and chase it out of its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, where it has overrun, and now controls, vast swathes of territory. The task is no mean one, and requires exactly the kind of united front that has challenged, and is overcoming, the Iranian-backed rebellion in Yemen. Russia’s pro-Iranian involvement in Syria is a hazard, but not insurmountable.

        Declaring himself the caliph of the entire Muslim world, the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, demands the allegiance of all Muslims in his self-appointed task of overturning existing states and substituting the rule of IS. To perpetuate its image of invincibility, IS’s influence simply has to continue growing. To stand still is to decline.

        At first glance, al-Baghdadi has succeeded beyond all measure. By the middle of 2015 no less than 35 jihadist groups in some 14 countries, including Pakistan and Nigeria, had pledged allegiance to IS. As a symbol of its alleged authority, it also announced the establishment of wilayat (governorates) in a number of these countries.

        Barak Mendelsohn, Professor of Political Science at Haverford College and a Research Fellow at Harvard, has analysed IS’s apparent growth and believes that, notwithstanding the fanfare surrounding these announcements, in reality IS's presence and power outside Iraq and Syria is very limited. The stronger groups who joined IS, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in Sinai and Boko Haram in Nigeria, are in decline, and where Boko Haram is concerned, it is unclear to what extent it accepts al-Baghdadi's authority.

        Mendelsohn maintains that IS’s early victories, astonishing as they were, reflected the poor state and morale of its opponents in the Iraqi army, and the lack of advanced armament by the Syrian rebels, more than the prowess of its own forces. Moreover, when it pursued the genocide of the Yazidis, threatened Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region, and beheaded American hostages, it forced the United States to intervene.

        By doing so, it may have initiated the start of its own decline, for ineffective as the US airstrike policy may have been, it opened the way for Russia’s intervention on behalf of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Russia’s military might may be mainly focused on Assad’s domestic Syrian opponents, but IS is also in its sights.

        The question remains – why has the moderate Muslim world left so much of the running to non-Muslims? Russia indeed faces the risk of homeland terrorism from IS, and the West from both IS and Iran, but the Muslim states of the Middle East and beyond face even more direct religious and political threats, namely their own subversion and overthrow.

        Terrorism, extremism, and power-crazed ambitions to conquer the world must be confronted. It is time for the moderate Muslim world to commit wholeheartedly to the battle.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 22 October 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 October 2015: