Friday, 25 November 2016

A Trump-Putin axis?

        US President-elect Donald Trump admires Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. That much became clear during Trump’s presidential campaign, as did his intention when in office to repair the US’s damaged relations with the Russian Federation. At the moment the US and Russia, although both nominally combatting Islamic State (IS) in the Syrian civil war, are so far from allies that they are very nearly belligerents. 

        In September 2014 the Obama administration brought together a coalition of countries to undertake a twin-objective military effort in Syria: to defeat the rampant IS that had seized large swathes of the country, and to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power, establishing democratic governance in his stead. There was one proviso: there were to be no Western boots on the ground. The strength of the coalition was to be focused on providing training, logistical support and air cover for the “moderate” forces fighting IS and opposing Assad, mainly the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

        Assad, for his part, controlled the formidable Syrian army and was supported by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, by the forces provided by Iran’s puppet, Hezbollah, and in addition, since autumn 2015, by the full weight of a massive Russian military build-up. But although IS was nominally in Russia’s sights from the start, estimates are that less than 10 per cent of Russian air strikes have been targeting it. Russia’s powerful air support, to say nothing of the Kalibir NK cruise missiles first fired on Aleppo from the Russian frigate Admiral Grigorovich on 15 November, has been directed primarily against the FSA.

        So Russia has been battering the FSA while the US-led coalition has been supporting it. In short, Russia and the US are virtually at war with each other in Syria, albeit by proxy. Trump wants to stop that proxy contest turning into a full-scale conflict.

        The long-standing US position has been that to end Syria’s complex and multisided struggle, Assad must be removed from power and democratic elections take place. Trump takes a different stance. Hard-line Sunni Islamist elements are known to be present within the ranks of the FSA, and in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on November 11, Trump cast doubt on its democratic credentials. “We’re backing rebels against Syria,” he said, “and we have no idea who those people are.” Moreover, while he “did not like [Assad] at all”, he judged that shoring up his regime was the best way to stem the extremism that has flourished in the chaos of the civil war and threatens US domestic security.

        Taking his position to its logical conclusion, he said that since Russia is now totally aligned with Syria, if the US goes on attacking Assad, “we end up fighting Russia.”

        This is an essentially pragmatic line to adopt. It acknowledges that the result of President Obama’s weak-kneed policies in the Middle East was to leave a power vacuum that Putin was quick to fill. Trump admires Putin for his diplomatic and military boldness, and seems prepared to allow Putin to enjoy the fruits of his adventurism.

       Putin’s Syrian adventure was partly an effort to counter the sanctions and diplomatic cold-shoulder by Western powers that followed his annexation of Crimea and subsequent military involvement in eastern Ukraine. By bulldozing his way to influence and power in the Middle East, Putin has gained a position in which the West simply has to take account of him. Putting aside any personal admiration for the man’s audacity, Trump is actually bowing to the inevitable.

        Putin’s multi-faceted Syrian initiative kills several birds with one stone. In sustaining Assad in power he is safeguarding Russia’s long-standing military and commercial interests in Syria. Foremost among these is the naval facility at Tartus, Russia’s sole outlet to the Mediterranean, about to become “a fully-fledged overseas base of the Russian Navy” according to an announcement on 21 November 2016. Putin is also protecting the strategic centre of Russia's military operations in Syria – the Hmeymim airbase near Latakia – to say nothing of billions of dollars of commercial investments including oil and gas infrastructure.

        There are also domestic security issues at stake, with which Trump can empathise. Russia is combatting an Islamist insurgency of its own in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, and the last thing Putin wants is for young impressionable Muslims, inspired by further Islamist successes in Syria, to join its ranks.

        But there is an apparent circle to be squared. Russia counts Iran as a close ally in its efforts to shore up the Assad regime. Trump is a harsh critic of Iran and the nuclear agreement (“the stupidest deal of all time”), and while on the campaign trail advocated either renegotiating it or “tearing it up”. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, voted against the nuclear deal in the Senate, while Congressman Mike Pompeo, selected by Trump to be CIA director. has investigated the Obama administration’s secret negotiations with Tehran. In short, a US accommodation with Putin under President Trump is unlikely to incorporate a love-in with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei – a situation much to the liking of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which regard Iran as their worst enemy, and Obama’s consistent appeasement of its leaders as a disaster.

        A continued stand-off between Trump’s America and Iran is not likely to concern Putin overmuch. While providing Iran with billions of dollars-worth of military hardware, Putin by no means shares Iran’s declared intention of eliminating Israel. On the contrary, he seems intent on expanding Russian influence in the Jewish state. One example is the 20-year deal signed recently between a subsidiary of Russia’s Gazprom and Levant Marketing Corporation, allowing for the exclusive purchase by Russia of three million tonnes per year of liquefied natural gas from Israel‘s Tamar offshore gas field. Moreover Putin has met Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, no less than five times in the past year. He seems very nearly as strong a supporter of Israel as Trump claims to be. 

        An agreed US-Russian end to the Syrian conflict, a combined victory over IS, a concerted effort to support a new Israeli-Palestinian peace effort, renewed confidence in America from the Arab world – given the complex factors at play on the Middle East board-game, a future Trump-Putin understanding might do much more for global security than Obama’s “hands-off” policies ever achieved.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 24 November 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 28 November 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 29 November 2016:

Friday, 18 November 2016

UK split over the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia

        Britain’s parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee is at daggers drawn with Britain’s Foreign Office. That is to say, the Members of Parliament who form the influential Select Committee that monitors foreign affairs have taken up cudgels against the government department, headed by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, responsible for formulating and implementing UK foreign policy.

        The spat is all over how Britain should relate to the Muslim Brotherhood. It was sparked by a review, commissioned by the government in April 2014 from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), to examine whether the Muslim Brotherhood put British national security at risk. The report was issued in December 2015.

        In accepting its conclusions, Britain’s then Prime Minister, David Cameron, said: "Parts of the Muslim Brotherhood have a highly ambiguous relationship with violent extremism. Both as an ideology and as a network it has been a rite of passage for some individuals and groups who have gone on to engage in violence and terrorism. The main findings of the review support the conclusion that membership of, association with, or influence by the Muslim Brotherhood should be considered as a possible indicator of extremism."

        Three months later the Foreign Affairs committee announced its intention to inquire into ‘political Islam’, its characteristics, and “how well the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has understood and engaged with ‘political-Islamist’ groups.” The very terms of its self-formulated remit indicated a clash of opinion, even before the committee had begun its work. After nine months gestation, the committee gave birth to a report which thoroughly castigated the FCO review. It was particularly scathing about the appointment to lead the review of Sir John Jenkins, the UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia, which has proscribed the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

        "Notwithstanding his knowledge, experience, and professional integrity, Sir John Jenkins's concurrent service as UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia made his appointment to lead the Muslim Brotherhood Review misguided. It created the impression that a foreign state, which was an interested party, had a private window into the conduct of a UK Government inquiry…This has undermined confidence in the impartiality of the FCO's work on such an important and contentious subject.”

        Some, however, might characterize this particular criticism as the pot calling the kettle black. The chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee is Crispin Blunt – “a Muslim Brotherhood-oriented man,” according to Dalia Youssef, a member of Egypt’s parliament. 

        "Blunt was here in Egypt in 2013,” said Youssef, “and he decided to join the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Rabaa El-Adaweya in Cairo. Blunt stayed in Rabaa for four days, eating and drinking and living the Muslim Brotherhood experience without shame and without reviewing their radical speeches delivered throughout the day."

        What lies at the heart of the clash of opinion inside the British establishment about the Muslim Brotherhood? Liberal/left wing sentiment opposes Egypt’s counter-revolution of 2013, led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which overthrew the unpopular but democratically elected Brotherhood and its president, Mohamed Morsi. It is prepared to take the Brotherhood at its word that it is a populist movement fully engaged in the democratic process, and overlook or downgrade the deeper religio-political agenda that underlies its operations.

        The Foreign Affairs Committee report contends that “the need to appeal to a broad range of the electorate in order to win elections, and the need to work with other political perspectives in order to govern effectively, will serve to encourage Islamist groups to adopt a more pragmatic ideology, and an increasingly flexible interpretation of their Islamic references.”

        Others may maintain that views like these are a triumph of hope over experience. For the evidence of the Brotherhood’s active involvement in terrorism is overwhelming. It is set out in some detail in the Bill submitted by US Senator Ted Cruz in November 2015, requiring the Secretary of State to report to Congress on designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization.

        The Muslim Brotherhood was founded by Hassan al-Banna in Egypt in 1928, after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. Its operating philosophy is that the end – the establishment of a world-wide caliphate – justifies the means, and the means can extend from involvement in democracy and social welfare, to militancy, jihad and terrorism, as expediency requires. Its founding belief, as expounded by al-Banna, is that: “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.”

        In the UK, liberal-left wing suspicion of Saudi Arabia extends well beyond the Muslim Brotherhood issue. In September 2016 the four parliamentary committees that make up the Committees on Arms Export Control were due to publish a report into British arms exports to Saudi Arabia. In the event the four could not agree on a proposal, backed by two of them, to condemn Saudi Arabia for civilian casualties caused in Yemen’s civil war, and to cease all exports of British defense equipment to Saudi until the conclusion of a UN investigation. As a result the Foreign Affairs Committee released its own findings, and the Defence Committee opted out altogether.

        The International Development and the Business Committees, however, published a joint report calling for the government to cease exports of all weapons to Saudi Arabia that could be used in the conflict with rebel forces in Yemen until a yet-to-be set up independent international investigation reports on claims that civilian targets such as hospitals and schools were bombed in violation of humanitarian law.

        The report makes no mention of Saudi’s own investigation into failings in their chain of command structure that led to the loss of innocent life. Nor does it refer to war crimes committed by the Houthi rebels and their Iranian backers who together have plunged the country into bitter conflict. It fails, also, to mention that the Saudis, putting aside their differences with Turkey and Qatar – both supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood – established a coalition of Sunni Arab states which, with the backing of the US and Britain, seeks to prevent Shia Iran from seizing control of Yemen.

        Government reaction was swift. Four ministers, including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, issued a robust joint statement pledging to continue British arms sales to Saudi Arabia, regardless. Perhaps Brexit (to say nothing of Trump’s triumph) foreshadows a less spineless approach by the British establishment to all-too-pervasive political correctness.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 November 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 28 November 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 29 November 2016: