Tuesday, 20 September 2016

CANZUK and Israel

          It did not take long for “Brexit”, a portmanteau term invented in 2012, to become common usage the world over. Now a new expression is bidding for its place in the sun – “CANZUK” – and its emergence on the political scene is not unconnected with Brexit itself.

          CANZUK, grammatically speaking, is an acronym – a word made up of initial letters, rather like NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). It is formed from the initial letters of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom – and it has emerged following a bout of vigorous activity by a body founded in Canada in 2014 called the Commonwealth Freedom of Movement Organisation (CFMO).

          CFMO was formed to expand the existing historical connections between the citizens of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, by creating a sort of travel-free alliance between them. The big CFMO idea is to use mutual travel agreements and visa-free initiatives as a way of encouraging the British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand governments to strengthen and expand economic, political, trade, investment, military and diplomatic relationships.

          The unexpected result of the UK’s EU referendum, and the certainty that the UK will eventually leave the European Union, has thrust the CFMO initiative into prominence, As a result it has gained a more substantive identity in the shape of an off-shoot – CANZUK. In fact, as the UK builds its post-Brexit place in the world, CANZUK provides it with one of several credible paths to follow.

          Eminent British historian, Professor Andrew Roberts, believes that the CANZUK countries should form "a new federation based upon free trade, free movement of peoples, mutual defence, and a limited but effective confederal political structure.” He points out that were CANZUK to become a union, “it would immediately become one of the global great powers alongside America, the EU and China. It would be easily the largest country on the planet, have a combined population of 129 million, the third biggest economy and the third biggest defence budget.”

          In favour of the argument, he points out that the CANZUK countries already have a common head of state in the British monarch, a majority language, legal systems based on Magna Cara and the common law, Westminster parliamentary tradition, and a long history of working together. All they lack is geographical proximity, which is becoming less and less important in the modern world.

          “CANZUK,” concludes Roberts, “is an idea whose time has, thanks to Brexit, finally come again.”

          Momentum towards creating such an entity is mounting. Within a few months of posting a petition on its website, CFMO attracted tens of thousands of signatures, and support continues to grow by the day. The petition, in line with CFMO’s limited objectives, is a modest request to the parliaments of the CANZUK countries to introduce legislation promoting the free movement of citizens between the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In fact, each of the governments concerned is sympathetic to the general concept of strengthening existing ties. CANZUK is far from pie in the sky.

         Suppose such a third major political force were indeed to emerge on the world stage, what might its attitude be towards Israel? Judging by Israel’s current relationship with the countries involved, the connection would surely be considerably warmer than the wary and arms-length – though admittedly strong – association that has developed between Israel and the EU. It would be boosted by thriving Jewish communities in three of the four CANZUK nations – New Zealand being the exception. The Jewish community in New Zealand, which itself has a total population of less than 5 million,amounts to about seven thousand souls.

          Israel’s relationship with Canada is particularly strong. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper often reiterated that “Israel has no greater friend than Canada.” It was during his visit to Israel in January 2014, that the Canada-Israel Strategic Partnership was signed, reaffirming the close and special friendship that underpins the Canada-Israel relationship. The Partnership lays out a strategic direction for stronger future relations between the two countries, paving the way for even greater collaboration in such areas as defence, energy, development, innovation and education.

          Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has changed some of the rhetoric, but not the reality, of the close relationship. On Israel’s Independence Day in May 2016 he said:

          “Canada and Israel unite in their people-to-people ties, shared values, respect for democracy, and growing trade relationship. I look forward to continuing to strengthen our strong friendship. Although today is a joyous day, let us also reflect on the threat that Israel and its people continue to face throughout the world in the form of terrorist attacks, acts of anti-Semitism, and religious intolerance. Canada stands with Israel and will continue to promote peace and stability in the region.”

          With Australia Israel has enjoyed close ties from the founding of the state, and in fact Australia has the distinction of being the first country to vote in favour of the 1947 UN partition resolution. Totally consistent, Australia has been, and remains, a long-standing supporter of a negotiated, two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian issue, as indeed is New Zealand and the UK.

          Meanwhile Australia is deepening bilateral cooperation with Israel. Since replacing Prime Minister Tony Abbott in September 2015, Malcolm Turnbull has continued Abbott's efforts to achieve even closer relations with Israel - choosing Tel Aviv as the site of one of just five designated global Australian "Landing Pads" for innovation entrepreneurship. Support for closer Australia-Israel ties is shared by the ALP Opposition.

          Israel’s relations with the UK were particularly close during David Cameron’s premiership, and there is every expectation that the strong commercial and industrial bonds he forged will be strengthened under the post-Brexit government of Theresa May as it seeks to boost its trade agreements world-wide.

          As a formal union or federation, the four CANZUK countries could be a new, strong entity on the world scene, very favourably disposed towards Israel. Professor Roberts goes so far as to believe that its emergence could bring about the fulfilment of Winston Churchill’s great dream of a Western alliance based on three separate blocs. “The first and second blocs – the USA and a United State of Europe – are already in place,” says Roberts. “Now it is time for the last – CANZUK – to retake her place as the third pillar of western civilization.”

          All in all, Israel would seem to be in a position to benefit substantially from its realization. Bring it on!

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line. 26 September 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 26 September 2016:

Can Syria avoid disintegration?

           On September 10, 2016, after mammoth negotiating sessions held in Geneva, the USA and Russia announced that agreement had been reached on a cease-fire in the Syrian civil war, to take effect at sundown on Monday the 12th. 

          The agreement specified that should the cease-fire, timed to coincide with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, hold for seven days, the US and Russia would collaborate operationally in airstrikes against jihadist militants in Syria, while the Syrian air force would cease flying over rebel-held areas.

          The sun did eventually sink below the horizon on Monday the 12th. After less than an hour residents in war-torn Aleppo reported that a government helicopter had dropped explosive cylinders on a rebel-held district, while a rebel faction in the southern province of Dara’a announced that it had killed four government soldiers. Violations on both sides have continued.

          Whether or not the US and Russia turn a blind eye to these and further possible infringements, the fragile nature of the agreement is obvious. The US and Russia are united only in their opposition to Islamic State (IS) and to the groups of jihadist militants including Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front). Where President Bashar al-Assad and his future is concerned, the US and Russia are on opposite sides of the fence: Russia supports him; the US backs the rebels who want him deposed.

          In fact Syria is currently divided into four main zones: one controlled by the Assad régime, one by Islamic State (ISIS), a third by the Kurdish PYD party, and a fourth by various jihadist groups. Bashar al-Assad, however, remains defiant. Just before the start of the cease-fire, in a symbolic propaganda gesture, he visited the Damascus suburb of Daraya, wrested from rebel control in August. “The Syrian state is determined to recover every area from the terrorists,” he announced (“terrorists” is the term he employs to describe all those opposed to his régime, regardless).

          Backed by both Russia and Iran, and indifferent to the humanitarian catastrophe he inflicts on the civilian population in his existential battle against his opponents, Assad has certainly chalked up some significant gains for the régime. But the US, as well as the 10 countries it leads in its anti-IS coalition in Syria, are determined that Assad can have no part in a reconstituted Syria. This is an issue swept under the carpet in the current cease-fire agreement, but will eventually have to be resolved.

          For the present, the priority is to defeat IS and the other jihadist militant groups that are ravaging large areas of what was sovereign Syria. Virtually the entire civilized world has recognized that IS must be overcome, defeated and removed. This is why no less than 62 countries agreed in September 2014 on a many-sided strategy against IS, including cutting of its sources of finance.

          Assuming the cease-fire holds sufficiently to allow the next phase of the agreement to be implemented, US and Russian forces will shortly begin collaborating in determined anti-IS operations. If successful, they will alleviate the humanitarian crisis for large swathes of the population, significantly weaken IS, and chalk up a loss of prestige and power for the malign organization world-wide.

          They will also, of course, have removed some of Assad’s fiercest opponents from the Syrian scene, thus further strengthening his position. Moreover Putin will have secured Russia’s naval base in Tartus, its military base at Latakia, and its new air base at Khmeimim converted, by way of a formal agreement between the Syrian government and Russia in August, into a permanent Russian air base. In other words, providing Assad remains in power and Syrian sovereignty is restored, Russia will emerge with an immeasurably strengthened military presence in the Middle East – a strong contributory factor, no doubt, in ensuring Russia’s involvement in the cease-fire agreement.

          For the rest of the multi-nation anti-IS coalition, the political and administrative structure of a future Syria, even if currently on the back burner, remains of prime concern.

          A policy document published on September 6, 2016 by the European Council for Foreign Affairs (ECFA) argues strongly in favor of recognizing the realities of present-day Syria. One such reality, the paper asserts, is that although the country is fragmenting into competing centres of power, most Syrians remain attached to the idea of national unity. Despite the chaos, economic links and interdependency persist between the various parts of the country. Its proposal for Syria’s future is some form of political decentralization, including a special status for areas of high Kurdish concentration.

          In what remains of Assad’s regime, state institutions continue to function and maintain law and order. But the rest of what was Syria has had to adapt to the almost complete withdrawal of the state, and local communities have created alternative systems to impose law and order, supply water and electricity, provide social services, educate children, and manage the economy. Opposition areas now have Sharia courts, while Kurdish areas have attempted to impose a cooperative system to run the economy.

          These variegated systems of governance, says the ECFA paper, “are becoming increasingly entrenched.” Accordingly Syria’s National Coalition (NC), which includes most non-armed opposition groups, is also proposing delegating central powers to the regions – in other words, administrative decentralisation. Some groups within the coalition suggest that this could include granting special political rights to the Kurds – some form of Kurdish autonomy, perhaps, although not independence. The NC, however, relies on Turkey’s goodwill, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is totally opposed to the creation of a separatist Kurdish entity on Turkey’s southern border, fearing the effect this might have on the aspirations of his domestic Kurdish population. His rejection of Kurdish separatism, however, does not extend to the idea of administrative decentralisation in a reconstituted Syria.

          Oddly enough, in May 2016 Russia prepared a draft text for a new Syrian constitution that acknowledged the need for decentralisation. According to a report published by Al-Araby, (or the New Arab), a fast-growing news and current affairs website, the text called for removing the word “Arab” from the official name of the country, allowing the use of Kurdish language in Kurdish areas, and establishing a regional council with legislative powers that would represent the interests of the local administrations. 

          Within days, according to Al-Akhbar, a pro-Assad Lebanese journal. the regime rejected almost all the Russian suggestions, but the fact that political decentralization has entered Russian thinking does, despite Assad’s rooted objections, point the way to a possible future.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 21 September 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 September 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 28 September 2016:

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Could Israel join NATO?

        The answer is “no,” if NATO’s official website is to be taken at its word. Setting out its position on future membership, it declares “NATO’s door remains open to any European country in a position to undertake the commitments and obligations of membership, and contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic area.”

        “European country”. It would take a stretch of the imagination to designate Israel a European country. Nor could Turkey be called in evidence as a precedent. Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1951, and the organization’s policy on expanding its membership relates to the future, not the past. Although Turkey can at best be described as a transcontinental state, since it lies partly in Europe, but mainly on the Anatolian peninsula in Western Asia – the Middle East, as the area is generally known – its acceptance into the alliance is past history.

        The decision back in the early 1950s to allow Turkey (and indeed Greece) to join NATO stemmed largely from Cold War strategies directed against the Soviet Union. Both states were viewed by the West as bulwarks against Moscow and the spread of communism in Europe. Accepting non-North Atlantic nations into NATO lay at the heart of the US’s Truman Doctrine -- extending military and economic aid to states vulnerable to the threat of Soviet expansion.

        Could current geopolitical considerations lead to a flexible reinterpretation of NATO’s policy on new members?

        On May 4, 2016 the North Atlantic Council agreed to allow five non-NATO members to open diplomatic missions to its headquarters in Brussels. One of the states so favoured is Israel. The concession provides the ambassadors and attachés of the approved states – Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Israel – upgraded access to exercises, events and alliance-related procurement programmes. Invitations were first issued back in 2011, but in Israel’s case had been blocked for the past five years by Turkey, whose agreement was required under NATO’s rules of unanimous consent.

        Zaki Shalom, a senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, said the NATO initiative was more symbolic than strategically substantive. “It’s not as if Israel is becoming a NATO member …What’s really important is that it demonstrates the warming of relations with Turkey.”

        Since its founding in 1949, NATO has added new members on seven occasions and now comprises 28 nations. The organization has also broadened its operations to encompass both a “Partnership for Peace” programme with states of the former USSR, and a number of “Dialogue Programs”. Among these is the Mediterranean Dialogue, set up in 1994 and intended to link Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia in security discussions.

        Of course, this group of countries lacks any culture of cooperation in security matters, so the programme as such is pretty much a dead letter – except that out of it, Israel alone has forged extremely close links with NATO. For example in October 2006, after prolonged negotiations lasting some 18 months, Israel and NATO concluded an Individual Cooperation Program (ICP). Israel was the first country outside of Europe – and the first among NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue countries – to reach such an agreement.

        The NATO-Israel ICP, renewed and modestly expanded in December 2008, is a wide-ranging framework intended to extend the scope of cooperation across a wide range of fields including response to terrorism, intelligence sharing, armament cooperation and management, nuclear, biological, and chemical defence, military doctrine and exercises, civilian emergency plans, and disaster preparedness.

        NATO-Israeli relations had warmed to such an extent that in March 2013 NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed Israel’s then-president, Shimon Peres, to NATO headquarters to discuss how to deepen the relationship. The main purpose was to enhance military cooperation, focusing on counter-terrorism. The agreement they reached extended the NATO-Israeli association beyond the “Mediterranean Dialogue”. The joint statement issued after the meeting referred to a NATO-Israel partnership, suggesting Israel’s participation in active theatre warfare alongside NATO as a de facto member of the North Atlantic Alliance.

        “The two agreed during their discussions,” ran the statement, “that Israel and NATO are partners in the fight against terror.” In other words, Israel would be directly involved is US-NATO military operations in the Middle East.

        Israel was already a partner in NATO’s naval control system in the Mediterranean. By supporting NATO forces in patrolling the Mediterranean. Israel has contributed on a regular basis to Operation Active Endeavor, which was established after 9/11 and designed to prevent the movement of terrorists or weapons of mass destruction.

        So rather like the UK’s desired position post-Brexit in its relations with the EU, Israel appears to be an active participant in NATO’s activities while not being a member of the organization. Would it in fact be in Israel’s interests to be admitted to full membership, assuming NATO relaxed its current requirements on new members?

       Opinion within Israel is, inevitably, divided. In practical terms NATO’s “all for one, one for all” doctrine – the principle of collective defence enshrined in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which regards an attack against one ally as an attack against all – probably militates against Israel’s acceptance into the alliance. How many of NATO’s 28 members would willingly sign up to fighting for Israel if it were attacked by any of its many potential enemies?

        In any case Israel’s defence and security policies have always been based on self-reliance and freedom of manoeuvre, an approach likely to be constrained within a formal relationship with NATO. Israel’s unwritten alliance with the United States provides an alternative backup, should the need arise. 

        As it currently stands, the NATO-Israel relationship allows both parties to benefit from a uniquely close association, with neither being embarrassed by the requirements of Article 5. On balance, that seems a win-win situation.  

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 16 September 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 September 2016:

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

What if Islamic State becomes stateless?

          The grandiose dreams of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder of Islamic State (IS) who envisioned a jihadist caliphate encompassing the entire globe under his leadership, appear to be crumbling. In parallel with Adolf Hitler’s “thousand year Reich” which in fact lasted barely twelve, IS’s initial period of amazing success and swift territorial gain has been followed by a slow but steady attrition of those early victories. It is estimated that since its heyday in mid-2014, IS has lost about half its territory in Iraq and some 20 percent in Syria. On 4 September 2016, IS was chased from the last of its holdings on the Syrian-Turkish border, depriving it of a key transit point for recruits and supplies.

          Its leaders, moreover, are being eliminated, one by one. The latest, and perhaps most significant, loss was that of Abu Muhammad al-Adnani on  30  August 2016. Adnani, the leading IS strategist, was the mastermind behind many of its spectacular terror attacks against Western interests. In September 2014 he called on Muslims in the West to kill Europeans wherever and however they could, warning foreign governments: “We will strike you in your homeland, especially the spiteful and filthy French.” And he urged them to do it in any manner they could: “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car.”

          Adnani was the most recent in the catalogue of leading IS figures tracked down and killed by the US-led coalition. Last year saw the elimination of Baghdadi’s right-hand man, Haji al-Mutazz, aka Ned Price; Abu Sayyaf; logistics expert Tariq al-Harzi; Junaid Husssein; extortion expert Abu Maryam; chief accountant Abu Salah; Abu Nabil; and chief chemical weapons expert, Sleiman Daoud al-Afari – nor is this an exhaustive list.

          In 2016 those removed include Mustafa al-Qaduli, IS’s chief financier, and Omar al-Shishani, generally considered IS’s minister of war. “The stench of decay hangs over IS” in the words of Middle East commentator David Blair. In March 2016, in a stark illustration of a movement in the process of disintegration, Abu Ali al-Tunisi, commander of IS military operations in northern Raqqa, was killed at the hands of fellow IS militants.

          “Al-Tunisi was attacked by a group of IS militants who used to fight under his command in the northern countryside of Raqqa,” reported local media activist Ammar al-Hassan. The militants apparently opened fire at their commander’s car on 6 March 2016, killing him and two of his escorts.

          This assassination occurred amid escalating rifts within IS. Local disaffection among members has centered on a decrease in salaries resulting from the group’s loss of key resources, and on the promotion of a number of foreign jihadis to senior positions.

          The caliphate that al-Baghdadi professed to be recreating harked back to the idea of an Islamic republic owing allegiance to one leader, regardless of national boundaries. The caliphate concept was abolished by Kemal Ataturk in 1924, 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, in December 2015 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”, set 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 built 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 had “an extremely complex, well-planned infrastructure behind it.”

          IS’s subsequent loss of territory puts paid to these extravagant plans, much to the relief of substantial sections of the population which had languished under IS rule. When Manbij was recaptured by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on 13 August 2016, mass jubilation engulfed the city. Women were seen ripping off their burqas and burning them; men were pictured cutting off their beards. Those subjected to IS governance will not forget the dread of living under an extremist version of sharia, the horrendous mass slaughter of “non-believers”, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, and the glorification of inhumane beheadings, amputations and crucifixions.

          Having suffered a steady loss of territory and continuous depletion of its leading figures, IS is down, but not out. It will doubtless put up an energetic rearguard action against the battalions arrayed against it – the UN-led coalition, the Russian-Iranian alliance, the legions of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, and the Syrian Democratic Forces which encompass the doughty Kurdish peshmerga troops, the fighters who have proved the most effective against IS on the ground. But it will have lost status and prestige, especially among the vulnerable and impressionable Muslim youth worldwide, whom it has targeted in its recruiting drives. Loss of territory carries with it the stigma of loss of power.

          Putting a brave face on IS’s succession of disasters, in May 2016 Adnani declared: “Do you think, America, that defeat is by the loss of towns or territory? No, true defeat is losing the will and desire to fight.”

          He may have had a point, but there is all the difference in the world from the position IS had acquired in its heyday, and a stateless group simply concerned with promulgating terrorism across the globe – a sort of latter day al-Qaeda following the assassination of its leader Osama bin Laden, a movement rendered not toothless, but far less of a universal menace. That is very possibly the fate awaiting Islamic State.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 9 September 2016

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 September 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 14 September 2016: