Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Yemen’s 1,000 days of agony – a way out

                                            Yemen famine map, Oct-Dec 2017                               

          Dubbed by the Romans “Arabia Felix” (fertile or fortunate Arabia), the southern stretch of the Arabian peninsula that we know as Yemen is now universally described as “the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.”  Tuesday December 19, 2017 marked the 1000th day of the civil conflict that has torn the country apart.  The nation is on the brink of famine. The UN reckons three-quarters of Yemen’s 28 million people need some kind of humanitarian aid. Mounting rubbish, failing sewerage and wrecked water supplies have led to the worst cholera outbreak in recent history.
          What has brought Yemen to this catastrophic state of affairs?  It all started in the sadly misnamed “Arab spring” uprisings of 2011. Mass protests, a near-assassination of the then president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and pressure from neighboring petro-states forced Saleh to step down in favor of his vice-president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Hadi sponsored a draft constitution in 2015 proposing a federal system split between northerners and southerners, but the Iran-backed Houthi rebels rejected it.
The Houthis, a fundamentalist Shia group, take their name from Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a revolutionary leader who launched an uprising against the government in 2004 and was killed by the Yemeni army later that year.  The organization’s philosophy is summarised with blinding clarity by their flag, which consists of five statements in Arabic, the first and the last in green, the middle three in red.  
They read:  "God is Great; Death to America; Death to Israel; A curse on the Jews; Victory to Islam"
Although a Sunni Muslim, Saleh seemed intent on manoeuvering a return to power in collaboration with the Shia-affiliated Houthis.  It was through Saleh that the Houthis were able to gain control of most of the Yemeni military, including its air force. As a result, and supported with military hardware from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, they overran large tracts of the country, including the capital city, Sana’a. 

If any one area is a microcosm of the chaotic and bloody battlefield that is today’s Middle East, it is Yemen.  Here, as across the region, Islam is at war with itself, as the deadly rivalry between Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, guardians of the Sunni tradition of Islam,  and Iran’s equally uncompromising Shia-based Islamic revolution, plays itself out.

Although other militant groups roam the country, the main principals are the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels; and Saudi Arabia which, determined to prevent Iran from extending its footprint into the Arabian peninsula, intervened in March 2015 to beat back the Houthis.  Saudi Arabia’s charismatic young Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, assembled a coalition of Arab states from across the Middle East, obtained the diplomatic backing of the US, Turkey and Pakistan, and launched a series of air strikes against the rebels.

The unconventional Saleh-Houthi partnership came to an abrupt end on December 2, 2017, when Saleh went on television to declare that he was splitting from the Houthi rebels, was ready to enter into dialogue with the Saudi-led coalition, and called on his supporters to take back the country.  This volte-face is rumored to have been master-minded by Saudi’s Prince Mohammed. It was to end in tragedy.

On December 4, Saleh's house in Sana'a was besieged by Houthi fighters.  He managed to escape, but apparently a rocket-propelled grenade struck and disabled his vehicle as he was trying to flee into Saudi-controlled territories. Dead or alive, he was subsequently shot in the head.

Nearly three years of combat have not succeeded in defeating the Houthis.  On the contrary, time seems to have emboldened them. Using Iranian hardware, they have started firing ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia itself, the latest on December 18. Although the Houthis were responsible for initiating the turmoil in the first place, it is the Saudis and their coalition who are at the receiving end of the world’s opprobrium for the humanitarian devastation that the conflict has wrought. More than 350 high-profile figures including six Nobel peace prize laureates, former military generals, politicians, diplomats and celebrities marked the 1,000th day of the civil war by calling on leaders of France, the US and the UK to use their seats on the UN security council to act as peace brokers.

The moment may be opportune.  After investing billions of dollars in the war, Prince Mohammed is said to want to cut his military losses and withdraw from Yemen in exchange for some diplomatic arrangement.  Getting ex-president Saleh to change sides was his first unsuccessful ploy.  Can he possibly mastermind a situation that can extricate Saudi Arabia from the conflict without leaving Iran as victors?

What Yemen needs are elections, an inclusive government, and a new structure for the state.  But efforts by the UN envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, to end the conflict and resume the peaceful political evolution that started in 2011 remain stalled. There have been talks in plenty, but the underlying constant throughout has been the lack of political will on the part of the Houthis to share power.

The international community must summon up the will to insist on the immediate implementation of UN Resolution 2216, which aims to establish democracy in a federally united Yemen. It must back this new effort with a UN peace-keeping force, while Iran must be prevented, by the imposition of new sanctions if necessary, from assisting the Houthis and supplying them with military hardware.  Humanitarian aid must be given unfettered access to all parts of Yemen, and already on December 19 Saudi announced that it would allow such aid through the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah for a month. A lasting political deal would of course involve the end of the Saudi-led military operation, and probably a major financial commitment by Saudi to fund the rebuilding of the country.

Finally the Houthis must be given the opportunity to choose.  Do they wish to remain an outlawed militia permanently, or would they prefer to become a legitimate political party, able to contest parliamentary and presidential elections and participate in government? The price would be withdrawal from Sana’a and serious engagement in negotiations aimed at a peaceful transition to a political solution for a united Yemen.  Let’s hope they consider it a price worth paying to come in out of the cold.

         Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 27 December 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 29 December 2017:

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Erdogan and the Jerusalem issue

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a thoroughgoing Muslim Brotherhood adherent, and has been since he first entered politics. During his early years as prime minister, back in the early 2000s, he was careful not to promote too radical an agenda too soon. Despite his Islamist views, he made an official visit to Israel in 2005 to be feted by Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon. However it was not long before the previously close relations between Turkey and Israel began to sour. The turning point came in 2009, with the first conflict between Israel and Hamas, which had seized power in the Gaza strip and had been firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel.

          In the annual international gathering at Davos that year, Erdogan could not restrain himself. Rounding on Israeli President Shimon Peres, Erdogan called the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip a "crime against humanity" and "barbaric." Wagging his finger at Peres, he declared: "When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill. I know very well how you hit and killed children on beaches." Then, infuriated by the moderator's refusal to allow him more time in response to Peres's emotional rebuke, he stalked off the stage.

          Between that first indication of Erdogan’s extreme Islamist stance and his intemperate reaction to the announcement by US President Donald Trump on December 6, 2017 recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, lies the great barren waste of the Mavi Marmara affair – an encounter on the high seas between Israeli soldiers and a Turkish flotilla of six vessels, nominally on a humanitarian mission to relieve what had been described as the siege of Gaza. During the encounter, nine of those on board the Mavi Marama lost their lives.

          Erdogan manipulated the event into a rupture of Turkish-Israeli relations lasting six years. But the series of investigations that followed revealed a cynical anti-Israel plot planned with the connivance of Turkey’s ruling AKP party and possibly of Erdogan himself, its leader. 

          Under the cloak of providing humanitarian aid to Gaza, an operation aimed at instigating a confrontation with Israel was meticulously planned. A six-ship flotilla was organised by western activists working with the Turkish "Insani Yardim Vakfi" (IHH) movement, a non-governmental organization supported by the Turkish government. The lead ship Mavi Marmara was purchased by the IHH from a major shipping company owned by the Istanbul Municipality, which is run by the ruling AKP party. Far from being crammed to the gunwales with humanitarian aid, three of the six ships in the convoy actually carried no aid at all. Mavi Marmara was one such.

          To implement the plan some 40 armed activists were ushered aboard the leading ship of the flotilla – the Mavi Marmara – at a different embarkation point from the rest of the passengers, and without any of the security checks to which they were subject.  They were led by the head of the IHH.

          A Turkish journalist on board the Mavi Marmara said: "The flotilla was organized with the support of the Turkish government, and prime minister Erdogan gave the instructions for it to set sail."

          Israel's botched military intervention, and the consequent death of nine of the militants, provided Erdogan with a political and diplomatic bonus he could scarcely have hoped for. He was not slow to exploit it, condemning Israel for committing a "massacre". His own alleged involvement, and that of his AKP party, in the plot remained largely hidden.

          It took six long years of intensive negotiations before the affair was finally put to rest in June 2016. Even though Erdogan publicly slighted Israel on an almost daily basis, Israeli-Turkish trade grew over the period 2009-2015 by 19 percent, as against a growth of only 11 percent in Turkey’s overall foreign trade for the same period. 

          A large Turkish business delegation visited Israel in May 2017, enthusiastically advocating a 150 percent increase in Turkish-Israeli trade over the next five years. “We need to change the perception of the Israeli citizens and the Turkish citizens toward one another,” said Mehmet Buyukeksi, chairman of the Turkish Exporters Assembly (TIM).

          Erdogan’s reaction to the Trump announcement on Jerusalem, however, seemed to presage a replay of the Mavi Marmara situation. Speaking in parliament in Ankara, Erdogan declared: “Jerusalem is a red line for Muslims. This could lead us to break off our diplomatic relations with Israel.”

          Three days later he turned his ire on Israel, which he described as a “terrorist state”, vowing to use all means to fight against the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. “We will not abandon Jerusalem to the mercy of a state that kills children.”

          Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to give as good as he got in the battle of words. Denouncing Erdogan as a brutal dictator, he declared “I am not used to receiving lectures about morality from a leader who bombs Kurdish villagers in his native Turkey, who jails journalists, who helps Iran get around international sanctions, and who helps terrorists, including in Gaza, kill innocent people.”

          Erdogan emerged from the Mavi Marmara episode with greatly enhanced prestige both domestically and more widely in the Muslim world. Now he is again seizing the initiative. He convened a special meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), of which he is currently president. Presenting himself as the Muslim defender of Jerusalem. he condemned Trump’s announcement, castigated the Arab world for its lacklustre response and called on world powers to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. 

          Erdogan has three additional reasons for rounding on the United States. First, he hates the assistance America is giving the Syrian Kurds, who are fighting successfully against Islamic State. Second, the US has so far refused to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the leader of the rival religious movement whom Erdogan accuses of initiating the abortive coup against him in July 2016. Third, and most embarrassing to Erdogan, is the trial currently under way in New York involving Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab.

          Zarrab is a key witness in the criminal trial of Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla. In his testimony Zarrab has implicated Erdogan in an international money laundering scheme that he and the banker ran between 2010 and 2015, which allegedly allowed Iran access to global markets despite UN and US sanctions. He testified that in 2012 he was told by Turkey’s then economy minister that Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time, had instructed Turkish banks to participate in the multi-million dollar scheme.

           Erdogan’s most recent threat was to establish a Turkish embassy, accredited to the state of Palestine, in East Jerusalem. Whether making a big stir about the Jerusalem issue will succeed in diverting the world’s attention from other, more embarrassing, matters only time will tell.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 19 December 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 December 2917:

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Greece, Cyprus and Israel – champions of the eastern Mediterranean

video version

The discovery of vast reserves of liquefied natural gas (LNG) off the coasts of Israel and Cyprus was bound to bring equally vast consequences in its train.  Among the least anticipated, perhaps, has been the creation of a new geopolitical entity in the eastern Mediterranean – a tripartite alliance that promises to bring both stability to the region, and the prospect of enormous technological, economic and environmental advances.

“We, Alexis Tsipras, prime minister of the Hellenic Republic, Nikos Anastasiades, president of the Republic of Cyprus, and Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of the State of Israel, having met in Thessaloniki today, 15th June 2017, have agreed to continue strengthening the cooperation among our three countries in order to promote a trilateral partnership in various fields of common interest and to continue working together towards promoting peace, stability, security and prosperity in the eastern Mediterranean and the wider region.”

Those are the opening words of a 2,700-word joint declaration issued after a tripartite meeting between the political leaders of Greece Cyprus and Israel. It was the culmination of years of cooperation, driven forward by the LNG discoveries in Israeli and Cypriot waters.

Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a state is allowed to claim for economic use waters extending 200 nautical miles from its coast. When another country lies less than 400 nautical miles away (as Cyprus does in relation to Lebanon and Israel), governments are expected to negotiate a mutually acceptable line.

Back in 2007 Cyprus and Lebanon agreed on a maritime border that reaches south to a spot designated as Point 1.  Three years later Cyprus negotiated a maritime halfway point with Israel that begins at Point 1 and stretches further south, thus establishing what is known as an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for Israel and safeguarding its rights to its oil and underwater gas reservoirs. The two countries agreed to cooperate in the development of any cross-border resources discovered, and to negotiate an agreement on dividing joint resources.

Despite both Lebanon and Turkey disputing the validity of this Israel-Cyprus agreement, cooperation between the two countries has flourished. It has led to the first-ever visit of an Israeli prime minister to Cyprus, and to subsequent meetings between Israeli and Cypriot ministers. In 2014 the two countries, as one aspect of their cooperation, agreed to hold joint military exercises.

          This past year has seen an intensification of this collaboration.  In March Israel participated in a three-day joint military exercise with Cyprus, in the course of which the Israeli Air Force tested Cypriot air defences.  In June, more than 500 elite Israeli commandos, supported by attack helicopters and fighter jets, held a three-day intensive drill on Cyprus. The first of its kind, it was described by senior Israel Defense Force (IDF) officers as one of the largest exercises by the commandos on foreign soil.

          Then November saw the first-ever trilateral defence summit between Israel, Cyprus and neighboring Greece.  The defence ministers of the three countries met in Athens to discuss strengthening their collaboration in the interest of promoting security, stability and peace in the eastern Mediterranean. Cypriot defence minister Christoforos Fokaides said: “Cyprus, Greece and Israel defend in this volatile and fragile region not just their common interests, but also the interests of Europe and, I would say, those of the international community in general.”

         Ten days later three Israeli missile ships and a naval helicopter participated in the Hellenic Navy’s autumn war games.  The main aim was to provide training in how to deal with modern maritime threats while conducting evacuations of civilian populations.

          “During the drill,” said Lt.-Col. Yaniv Lavi, commander of the Israeli delegation, "the naval forces carried out advanced training [in] search and rescue, prevention of maritime terrorist attacks, as well as advanced maritime medical evacuations.”

This exercise, according to the IDF, is to be followed up by an extensive military drill to be held in Cyprus, involving air and ground forces from both countries. The exercise, part of the ongoing cooperation between the IDF and the Cypriot military, was pre-planned as part of Israel’s 2017 training programme, and is intended to maintain the competence and readiness of the forces.

The growing military collaboration between Israel, Cyprus and Greece is founded on the ambitious joint declaration signed in June by their political leaders, which envisaged the three-nation cooperation extending across a broad spectrum of areas including energy, economic activity, telecommunications, the environment and their shared underwater cultural heritage.

The declaration gave strong support to the establishment of what has been designated “the East-Med Pipeline”, namely another gas corridor, directly linking gas findings in the Cyprus and Israeli EEZs with the European markets. Far from establishing an exclusive three-nation club, the political leaders emphasised that they were ready to welcome other like-minded countries to join in promoting coordination and cooperation, regional peace and stability. A first step in that direction was the establishment of a quadri-lateral working group (Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Italy) aimed at closely monitoring and supporting the EastMed project as an export route for natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe.

In their joint declaration, the political leaders agreed to develop and strengthen collaboration in the manufacturing and commercial sectors, emphasising their intention to promote cooperation in technological and industrial research among research organizations in the three countries. In the field of telecommunication technologies, they agreed to cooperate in electronic technology, telecommunications and electromagnetic compatibility, with special interest given to cooperation in satellite manufacturing, earth remote sensing satellites and communication satellites.  The countries also agreed to encourage the space technology sector and to support new cable interconnections among the three countries by way of Fiber Optic Undersea Cable.

They gave special prominence to protecting the environment, with special focus on the common challenges faced by their three countries, namely protection of the marine environment, water and wastewater management, and adaptation to the impact of climate change.

Partly from self-interest, but surely more from a concern for the common good, Greece, Cyprus and Israel have forged a working partnership with enormous potential for enhancing the prospects and life-chances of all who live in the eastern Mediterranean.  Speaking at the defense ministers’ summit, Israel’s Avigdor Liberman said: “Greece, Cyprus, and Israel share common values as democratic countries and face similar security challenges. The cooperation is intensifying every day on many levels, based on the understanding that we must take our fate into our own hands.”          
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 13 December 2017: 

Published in the Eurasia Review, 16 December 2017:

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Russia – the dominant influence on Syria’s future

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is a man who thrives on seizing the initiative.  Let him spot a chance to gain a diplomatic advantage, and he will not hesitate to act.  Aware that the Geneva-based talks on settling the Syrian conflict were faltering, and realizing that no other player was on the field, he jumped forward to chance his arm at brokering a Russian-led peace deal.

To lay the groundwork, Putin invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Moscow for talks. Assad’s visit – his first publicly-declared travel outside Syria since he visited Russia in October, 2015 – was brief.  He flew in on the evening of Monday, November 20, held his discussion with Putin, and flew out four hours later.

The talks were held in Putin’s Sochi residence.  Although not marked on city maps, everybody knows that Residence Riviera is situated in Riviera Park, Sochi, in southern Russia, just beyond a memorial to the staff of Sochi’s hospitals.  According to reports broadcast by Russian television, Putin kicked off by asserting that the time had come to move from focusing on military operations to searching for a peaceful solution for Syria’s future.

“As far as our joint work in fighting terrorism on the territory of Syria is concerned,” he told Assad, “the military operation is coming to an end, Now the most important thing is to move on to the political questions, and I note with satisfaction your readiness to work with all those who want peace and a solution.”

As he spoke, Syrian government forces and their allies had just taken control of Albu Kamal, the last major Syrian town held by Islamic State, and they now controlled more territory than any other force in the country.  All the same the pre-war Syrian state was certainly not wholly in government hands.  Rebel forces still hold a swathe of northwest Syria, next to Turkey, an enclave in the southwest, near Israel and Jordan, and other pockets close to Damascus and Homs.  Up in the northeast, Kurdish groups and allied US militias control a substantial area.  Assad has sworn to recover the whole of pre-civil war Syria, but it is doubtful if Putin will assist him in this enterprise.  Putin has his sights set on a Russian-inspired negotiated settlement, rather than a long-drawn-out war of attrition.

Immediately after his meeting with Assad, Putin announced that he had arranged to speak with international leaders, among them US President Donald Trump, Saudi King Salman, and the presidents of Iran and Turkey.  He pushed ahead with these discussions, adding Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the list for good measure.

On the Tuesday Putin’s telephone conversation with Trump lasted more than an hour.  The White House later announced that the two had agreed on the importance of the UN-led peace process in resolving the Syrian civil war. According to the Kremlin, Putin told Trump that the Syrian leader had confirmed that he would adhere to the political process, and would  agree to constitutional reform and presidential and parliamentary elections.

On Wednesday, November 22, the presidents of Turkey and Iran descended on Sochi for their own session in Residence Riviera.  During the 3-way discussions, Putin said later, they agreed to support a Syrian peoples' congress as an initial step to establishing dialogue between the warring sides.  This was to take place – where else? – but in Sochi, and was viewed by the West as a rival to the Geneva-based UN-sponsored process.

Then on November 28 Russia suddenly announced that the Sochi conference had been put on hold until at least February.  The reason offered was that Turkey had objected to Russia inviting groups linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey’s south-east - it is known that Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is determined to give no ground to Kurdish demands for greater autonomy.  It is more likely that Putin, virtually controlling the Geneva process, sees no need at present for a rival congress.   

The Geneva talks, with the Turkish delegation in attendance, duly started on November 28.  Prior agreement to unify the opposition delegation, following a meeting of rival groups in Saudi Arabia, gave some modest hope, although the major bone of contention, as it had been from the start, was Assad’s future. All previous attempts to end Syria’s six years of war, and they have been numerous, have foundered on bitter disagreements between the parties on whether Assad should stay in power, and if so, for how long and on what terms.

The US, the UK, France, the EU, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and much of the Sunni world, to say nothing of the Syrian democratic forces that rebelled against him, have said that Assad must be removed from power.  Although the US has appeared to soften its position recently on Assad’s future, it remains a major stumbling block to viable negotiations.  Putting a spanner in the works before the machine had actually started, the new head of the opposition delegation, Nasr Hariri, told a news conference in Geneva on November 27 that he was aiming for Assad’s removal.

His statement was described as “very alarming” by Russia’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, Alexey Borodavkin, who urged western diplomats “to bring the opposition down to earth, as their position is not in line with the real situation”.  In an effort to make it easier for the Syrian delegation to attend the Geneva talks, Russia had won an agreement from the UN envoy that Assad’s resignation at the start of a transition period would not form part of the opening UN negotiations.  Nevertheless, and predictably, the Syrian team refused to sit down at the same table as the united opposition “at this stage”.  

Russia’s dominance as the major political force in the Syrian situation is fully recognised by the opposition delegation.  Its leader, Nasa Hariri, called on Russia, as well as other states, to pressure Assad into peace talks aimed at producing a political solution within six months, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.  He went on to accuse Syria and its ally Iran of failing to abide by their agreement to de-escalate the fighting in areas such as Eastern Ghouta, a besieged rebel-held enclave. Pointing to the pause in the fighting for Eastern Ghouta for two or three days arranged by Russia, Hariri said this clearly demonstrated that Moscow was the effective power broker in the Syrian conflict.

He was not wrong – and he might have added that Russia would have the upper hand in shaping Syria’s future as well.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 7 December 2017:

        Published in Eurasia Review, 8 December 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 11 December 2017:

Friday, 1 December 2017

Which embassy will be first in Jerusalem – the Russian or the American?

Video version.

          It was way back in 1995 that Congress passed legislation requiring the US embassy in Israel to be relocated no later than 31 May 1999. Although adopted by the House of Representatives and the Senate by overwhelming majorities, the Jerusalem Embassy Act was never implemented. For 22 years every President since then – Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, even Trump – used the powers contained in Section 7 of the Act to sign a 6-month waiver “to protect the national security interests of the United States.”

          During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump stated unequivocally that he would move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He was equally keen to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, and has been pursuing that possibility with determination. To avoid compromising the delicate negotiations in progress, led by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Trump delayed acting on the embassy issue in June 2017, his first opportunity to desist from signing the waiver.

          At present not a single foreign embassy is located in Jerusalem. This is because in international eyes the exact status of Jerusalem remains undetermined. Back in 1947 the original two-state UN plan envisaged Jerusalem as “a corpus separatum under a special international regime” to be administered by the United Nations. The UN as a whole, like the European Union (EU), still clings to this concept. But incongruously, both the UN and the EU also assert their support for the objective of “a viable state of Palestine in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem." Now either the city of Jerusalem is an international entity, or part of it is Palestinian. Both cannot be the case simultaneously.

           The UN Security Council in its latest pronouncement on the subject at least appears consistent. Urging countries and organizations to distinguish "between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967", its Resolution 2334, makes no mention of an internationalized Jerusalem, but refers three times to “Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem.”

          2334 was passed by 14 of the 15 members of the Security Council, with only the US abstaining. Until Trump made his ground-breaking announcement on 6 December 2017 recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and undertaking to move the US embassy there, of the 15 Security Council members only one recognized the logical implications of what they had voted for – namely that if East Jerusalem is Palestinian territory, then West Jerusalem must be an integral part of sovereign Israel.

          On 6 April 2017 Russia issued an unequivocal statement. While reaffirming its support for the two-state solution and for East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, Moscow declared: "At the same time, we must state that in this context we view West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel."  Since Trump's announcement, the Czech Republic has followed Russia's lead.

          This declaration carries a corollary. Countries normally site their embassies in the capital city of the country with which they have established diplomatic relations. Is Putin politically in a position to take the statement to its logical conclusion?

          Russia has been fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Iran in Syria, supporting President Bashar al-Assad in his battle to retain power. Iran, its satrap Hezbollah, and Assad’s Syria are all ferocious enemies of Israel and would certainly be opposed to any move that enhanced Israel’s status. On the other hand, their battlefield collaboration did not inhibit Moscow’s recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

          As regards the Palestinians, Putin has fostered good relations with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, but they are as nothing compared with Russo-Israeli relations, which are flourishing. There is Gazprom’s multi-million 20-year contract, signed in 2016, to market Israeli liquefied natural gas from the vast Tamar field. Collaboration is also being developed in a whole variety of other areas including free trade, nuclear and other hi-technology, space cooperation and agriculture. Moving the Russian embassy to West Jerusalem could do nothing but enhance this burgeoning relationship.

          Were Putin to make this move in the US-Russian chess game being played for influence in the Middle East, there is no question of a checkmate, but he could certainly call “Check”. It would prove Russia’s consistency on Jerusalem, provide it with a notable advantage, and extend its growing footprint in the Middle East.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 2 December 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 2 December 2017:

Thursday, 30 November 2017

America’s peace team – a softly softly approach

          On 18 November 2017 Israel’s TV Channel 2 claimed a scoop, as it unveiled what it claimed were details of Washington's nascent peace plan. According to their report, the deal in the offing involved the US recognizing a Palestinian state in an arrangement that involved exchanges of territory with Israel, but that it would not be conforming to the long-held insistence by the international community, the Obama administration and the Palestinians that the new state must be based on the pre-Six Day War Green Line. The US, it seemed, would be reverting to the view generally held back in 1948 by all concerned, including Jordan, that those armistice lines were not appropriate as international borders. These needed to be established and agreed by negotiation. 

          The Channel 2 report maintained that the US had gone along with Israel’s insistence that its security demanded a military presence in the Jordan Valley, but had not accepted that it must be the Israel Defense Forces, or perhaps not exclusively the IDF. Questions surrounding the future status and administration of Jerusalem, the TV network reported, were not yet on the table.

          At every step of the way, Channel 2 reported, issues would be discussed in detail with a number of Arab states, Saudi Arabia in particular, and the idea of a regional conference on Israel-Palestine peace was being considered. Locked into the proposals was the idea of promoting Palestinian economic development to the tune of millions of dollars, donated largely by Sunni Arab states.

          Trump’s Israel-Palestine peace initiative is led by Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, and Jason Greenblatt, the US special representative for international negotiations. Heavily engaged in devising a foolproof diplomatic initiative aimed at achieving a comprehensive peace agreement, they have deliberately set no time limit on their enterprise, convinced that painstakingly slow consolidation of each small step along the way is the key to bringing their enterprise to a successful conclusion.

          When it is finally ready, reports indicate that the team will release what has been described as “an intricately detailed plan”, after which, they believe, “a comprehensive MidEast peace deal” could be negotiated within two years.

          The Trump team is in accord with the principle of partition, an idea which traces its origins back to the Balfour Declaration, the statement by the British government in 1917 supporting the concept of a Jewish homeland in the region then known as Palestine. Subsequently Britain was mandated by the League of Nations to realize the project, but reconciling Jewish and Arab interests proved impossible and civil disturbance proliferated. The Arab revolt of 1936 finally goaded Britain into establishing a Commission under Lord Peel charged with reaching a workable solution. After much deliberation, Peel proposed the partition of Palestine into two states – one Jewish, the other Arab.

          The rationale? “An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities … Their national aspirations are incompatible. The Arabs desire to revive the traditions of the Arab golden age. The Jews desire to show what they can achieve when restored to the land in which the Jewish nation was born. Neither of the two national ideals permits of combination in the service of a single State.”

          What was true then remains true today, but the situation has become ever more complicated with the passage of time. For example, the question rarely asked is how peaceful co-existence can be achieved when Hamas, representing a substantial proportion of Palestinians, is opposed tooth and nail to any recognition of Israel. The recent Hamas-Fatah accommodation simply muddies the waters.

          Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas leads a Fatah party whose constitution states that Palestine, with the boundaries that it had during the British Mandate, is an indivisible territorial unit and the homeland of the Palestinian people. Why then has he spent the past twelve years nominally supporting the two-state solution? Because pressing for recognition of a Palestine within the pre-Six-Day War boundaries is a tactic inherited from Abbas’s predecessor, Yassir Arafat. It represented the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine.

          The Trump team have recognized that a Palestinian state on pre-Six Day War boundaries will not do. Hamas would almost certainly seize power, just as it did in Gaza, and the PA leadership is very worried at the prospect of losing power to Hamas. Like it or not, they would need stronger defenses against “the enemy within” than their own resources could provide.

          An even more fundamental issue militates against the classic two-state solution. Vying with Hamas on the one hand, and extremists within its own Fatah party on the other, the PA has glorified the so-called “armed struggle”, making heroes of those who undertake terrorist attacks inside Israel, promulgating anti-Israel propaganda in the media and the schools, and reiterating the message that all of Mandate Palestine is Palestinian. The end-result is that no Palestinian leader dare sign a peace agreement with Israel unilaterally. The consequent backlash, to say nothing of the personal fear of assassination, have made it impossible.

          The Trump team understands these political realities, and their embryonic proposals indicate how they see the circle being squared.

          They are suggesting bringing the moderate Arab world on side, to provide a shield for the Palestinian negotiators. The nature of the projected peace conference has not been revealed, but what is known of the plans suggests that it might conceivably encompass Arab-Israeli peace as a whole, leading to “a comprehensive MidEast peace deal”. It is in this context that a new sovereign state of Palestine might be established and, in accordance with the 2002 Arab Peace Plan, normalisation of Arab-Israeli relations could follow.

          The concept of a three-state Confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine has not appeared in the peace team’s plans, but it makes sense in terms of providing the security required by all three. A confederation is a political entity of independent sovereign states which agree to cooperate on issues of common concern. Such a confederation could be established simultaneously with a sovereign Palestine, and its prime purpose could be the defense of the confederation as a whole. Cooperation in the fields of commerce, infrastructure and economic development might be other objectives, and would accord with proposals already leaked from the Trump team. 

          What has emerged so far is promising. Further leaks are eagerly awaited.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line: 28 November 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 November 2017:

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

A new Cold War?


        The struggle for dominance between Saudi Arabia and Iran – one the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, the other of the Shi’ite – is being conducted up and down the Middle East. In Syria and Yemen, the conflict has descended into open conflict. In Iraq it is largely a struggle for political superiority. Elsewhere the two countries are competing by proxy, providing varying degrees of support to opposing sides in disputes in Bahrain, Qatar, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

        This long-time rivalry has itself been caught up in a wider geopolitical struggle –Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev has called it the "New Cold War" – namely, American support for Saudi Arabia and its allies as opposed to Russian support in Syria’s civil war for Iran, Hezbollah and President Bashar al-Assad.

        The analogy with the original super-power standoff, however, is far from exact, because the position of the two principals – US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin – are ambivalent. Trump admires strong man Putin, and was quite prepared in July 2017 to sign a joint US-Russian cease-fire agreement covering south-western Syria. Unfortunately Trump realized too late that one effect of the deal was greatly to strengthen Iran’s position in Syria, the last thing he wishes. An attempt by Trump to readjust the balance may have led to a further joint US-Russian agreement in November, under which Iranian forces were barred from operations on the Golan Heights.

        Putin’s acquiescence in this curbing of Iranian expansionism demonstrates his own nuanced position. He is collaborating closely with Iran in the Syrian civil conflict because both are intent on benefitting from the eventual re-establishment of full Syrian sovereignty. His cooperation does not extend to endorsing Iran’s toxic anti-West, anti-Israel policies. Nor does he want to be seen by the Sunni majority in the Middle East, or by Russia’s millions of Sunni Muslim citizens, as enabling the Iranians to build a Shia crescent across the region. And Putin has rejected Iranian demands to share Russia’s long-established naval base at Tartus.

        So Russian and Iranian interests do not always coincide, but the Kremlin is not about to ditch its current alliance with Iran. At the same time it remains keen to maintain good relations with Israel. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been trying to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent presence in Syria. According to well-placed sources in Moscow, Putin is planning to propose a formula under which no foreign country will be allowed to turn Syria into a platform for attacking neighboring states. This is unlikely to satisfy Netanyahu, since it would still leave Iran powerfully placed politically inside Syria, although it could prevent them from establishing air and missile bases there. 

        Putin by no means shares Iran’s declared intention to eliminate Israel from the Middle East. On the contrary, he seems intent on expanding Russian influence in the Jewish state. One example is the 20-year deal signed in 2013 between Russia’s Gazprom and the Levant Marketing Corporation, allowing for the exclusive purchase by Russia of three million tonnes per year of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Israel‘s Tamar offshore gas field.

        LNG is a major player in the developing political configuration in the Middle East and beyond. For example, Netanyahu visited Moscow in April 2016, and while Syria was the nominal subject for discussion in his closed-door meeting with Putin, media speculation centered on the possibility that they were also exploring whether Russia’s Gazprom might have a major hand in developing Israel’s Leviathan LNG field in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

        That possibility has since been exposed as a pipedream (literally), since plans for new multi-national pipelines from Israel’s Leviathan LNG field to the EU have been agreed, and they will break Gazprom’s virtual monopoly in supplying Europe with gas. Two Leviathan projects are in prospect: one pipeline going via Cyprus to Greece and Italy, the other running to Turkey, where it will join the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline (TANAP) and from there to Europe. The agreement to construct the first was signed in April 2017 by the energy ministers of Israel, Cyprus, Greece and Italy. It is estimated that the project will take about eight years to complete, and cost some six billion euros. 

         As for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his energy ambitions stretch far beyond the shores of Israel. He dreams of using TANAP to transport gas not only from Azerbaijan and Israel, but also from Qatar. In the current stand-off between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, supported by the Gulf states, Erdogan has placed himself firmly on Qatar’s side, even to the extent of sending troops there. Qatar has the world's largest reserves of natural gas, reserves that will enable it to maintain production for 160 years, and media speculation has it that together with Turkey it is indeed resurrecting the dream of a gas pipeline from Qatar to Turkey.

        In the current political climate it stands little chance of realization. Such a pipeline would have to run through Saudi Arabia and Syria. Even if the standoff between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is one day resolved, as long as Putin retains his dominance in Syria he would never approve the project. Gazprom’s current dominance of the European gas market is already heavily threatened by the Leviathan-based projects. Another competitor drawing on Qatar’s LNG reserves could deliver Gazprom its death blow in Europe. Putin will ensure that it never happens.

        In this area, too, the US does not find itself at odds with Russia. The US is well on the way to becoming completely self-sufficient in energy – a situation estimated to arise as soon as 2021 – but at the moment is still importing LNG and crude oil. The US may have started to export petroleum products and coal, but this represents no threat to Russia’s Gazprom.

        So Trump is content to allow the LNG head-to-head in the Middle East play itself out, estimating that the end game will see Russia diminished, at least commercially, as Israel’s oil-based products begin competing in the European market. For the rest, Trump does not like Putin‘s liaison with Iran, but it is clearly a marriage of convenience. There is no love lost between the parties.  

        By and large the waters in the Middle East are muddied. As for a new Cold War, the situation scarcely seems to match up to the historic model.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 21 November 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 25 November 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 3 December 2017:

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Kurdish pawn sacrificed on the Middle East chessboard

 Polls, referendums and declarations of independence have become a 21st century fashion, but none can claim much success.  South Sudan has been a hotbed of civil strife ever since it broke away from Sudan in 2011.  When the prospect of Scottish independence was put to the people in a constitutional referendum in 2014, it failed to gain a majority.  Catalonia’s bid for independence in an unconstitutional poll on October 1, 2017 is collapsing before the Spanish government’s determination to uphold the constitution.  And the referendum held by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) on 25 September, despite achieving over 90 percent approval from voters, has backfired spectacularly. Instead of paving the way to statehood, or boosting the Kurds’ bargaining power in negotiations, it has triggered a humiliating reversal of fortunes for Iraq’s Kurds.

Denounced as illegal by Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, the Kurdish referendum was – for various reasons, not all of them consistent – viewed as “untimely” by the US and much of the Middle East.  As far as the US was concerned, the referendum came at a peculiarly inappropriate moment.  President Donald Trump’s administration has committed itself to the delicate process of tying Saudi Arabia into the anti-Islamic State (IS), anti-Assad, coalition in Syria, of creating a Saudi-Iraqi alliance, and thence possibly of binding Saudi into a broader initiative aimed at addressing the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Brett McGurk, the US special presidential envoy, has played a key role. When Iraqi prime minister al-Abadi (a Shia Muslim) met King Salman of Saudi Arabia (leader of the Sunni Muslim world) on October 22. 2017, McGurk was present, together with US secretary of state Rex Tillerson.  This wooing of Saudi Arabia – which may have started in earnest in May 2017, with Trump’s visit to Riyadh – was carried a stage further in late October when Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, undertook a secret mission there, his third in 2017.    

It was into the midst of this flurry of diplomatic activity that the Kurdish referendum and its aftermath intruded.  It was an unwelcome distraction from what the Trump administration undoubtedly regarded as matters of greater moment.  The trouble is that in Iraq Trump, perhaps unwittingly, has been pursuing a policy – including his attitude to Kurdish independence – ultimately destined to empower the very player he least wishes to: Iran. 

Iran’s influence within Iraq is formidable and growing. In 2014 when IS, having seized Mosul, advanced south towards Baghdad, the first power to respond was Iran.  It rapidly dispatched weapons and military advisers to support Iraq’s struggling army. Since then Iranian-backed Shia militias have formed part of Baghdad’s efforts to defeat IS.

 The weak and ineffective Iraqi military of the early 2000s, transformed by US training and equipment into a highly effective fighting force, is now largely run by Iran which vastly increased its influence during the Obama years. Iran also controls a significant part of Iraq’s political apparatus.  The Shi’ite Supreme Islamic Council parliamentary bloc, under Iranian guidance, introduced laws on October 31 making it illegal to demonstrate support for Israel, for example by raising the Israeli flag in public.    

Behind this new anti-Israel legislation lies the long-standing warm relationship between the Kurds and Israel.  Media images during the independence campaign showed the Israeli flag in rally after rally being waved alongside that of the Kurds. This counted for nothing with Washington as far as the independence referendum was concerned.  “The vote and the results lack legitimacy,” declared Tillerson, “and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq.” 
          But the Trump administration seems to have turned a Nelsonian blind eye to the true state of affairs in Iraq.  In pursuit of prime minister al-Abadi and a possible Iraqi-Saudi coalition, they chose to sacrifice the freedom-seeking Kurds on the altar of a so-called democratic Iraq that is already under the thumb of the President’s main bête noir – Iran.

It was always most unlikely that any Saudi-Iraqi agreement would stick, but the firing of an Iranian missile on November 4, 2017 by the Iranian-controlled Houthis in Yemen aimed at Riyadh, almost certainly scuppers the idea before it was launched.  Fortunately the Saudis intercepted and destroyed it in mid-flight, but the moving spirit behind the operation could scarcely be in doubt.

Meanwhile al-Abadi, backed by the US and also the Iranian power brokers in Iraq, has moved decisively against the disheartened Kurds.  He tried to assure them that they are not the enemy, even as Iraqi forces backed by Shi’ite militias moved into areas of the north previously held by the KRG.  Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish president, who announced on 29 October that he was resigning, blamed the loss of Kirkuk on a deal cut by a wing of Kurdistan’s other main party to allow Iraqi troops to enter. As a result the KRG’s international airspace has been closed, and the Kurds have lost nearly half of the territory they have controlled since the war against IS began. Neighboring Turkey and Iran have closed their borders to the land-locked area. 

Some newspaper reports allege that the Trump administration attempted to broker a delay in the Kurdish independence referendum.  In return for a postponement, it is suggested, the Kurds were offered letters from the United States and Britain promising to facilitate and support the Kurds’ negotiations with Baghdad, and if, after two years, negotiations had not progressed, the US would support a referendum.

Saadi Pira, a spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the main opposition to Barzani, said members of his party told Barzani that they supported the US initiative. But, said Pira, nothing would dissuade Barzani from conducting the referendum.  Two US officials did not deny to the Washington Post that a draft letter had been written, but said Tillerson never sent it to Barzani.

Barzani blames elements in “another party” for the loss of Kirkuk, but the PUK maintains that a deal was necessary to avoid bloodshed, and that economic pressures could bring Kurdistan, already struggling to pay salaries, to its knees.

As Iraqi forces entered Kirkuk, the Peshmerga were ordered to stand down in line with the deal.

“We have betrayed Kirkuk,” said Lt. Burhan Rashid, a Peshmerga fighter.  “We have betrayed Kurdistan.”

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 14 November 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 18 November 2017:

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Putin's Syrian strategy

In March 2011, inflamed by the popular uprisings then spreading across the Middle East, 15 boys from a Syrian village scrawled on a wall some graffiti in support of the so-called Arab Spring. They were arrested by Syrian security forces and brutally tortured. One of them, 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb, was killed. Protests erupted across the country. The response by President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces was to kill hundreds of demonstrators and imprison many more. Opposition to Assad hardened, and in July defectors within the military announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a rebel group dedicated to overthrowing the government. Syria slid into civil war.

          The UN Security Council viewed the situation developing in Syria with alarm, and on October 4, 2011 put to the vote a statement expressing grave concern, maintaining that the solution to the crisis was "through an inclusive and Syrian-led political process with the aim of effectively addressing the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the population." The resolution was vetoed by both China and Russia.

          The position adopted by Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, was dictated by his belief that the rapidly worsening Syrian crisis provided him with a major political opportunity.

          Historically, Russian influence has been strong in Syria. It extends back to before Syria emerged from French control as an independent sovereign state in April 1946. Two months earlier an agreement between the USSR and Syria had already guaranteed Soviet support for Syrian independence. No surprise, then, that in 1971, under an agreement with President Hafez al-Assad, the Soviet Union was allowed to open a naval base in Tartus, a facility which Russia continues to regard as vital to its national interests. The collaboration deepened. In October 1980 Syria and the Soviet Union signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation providing for regular consultations, coordination of responses in the event of a crisis, and military cooperation. That treaty remains in force.

          This is the background to Putin’s declaration, early in 2012, of his firm support for Assad in the civil conflict then raging in Syria. Shortly afterwards Russia began supplying him with large quantities of arms. On 20 August 2012, moved no doubt by suspicions that chemical weapons were being deployed by the Assad regime, US President Barack Obama declared: "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” Just a year later, on 21 August 2013, suburbs around Damascus held by forces opposed to Assad were struck by rockets containing the chemical agent sarin. Estimates of the death toll ranged up to 1,729.

          Despite his clear warning, Obama havered and wavered over his response. Putin, however, sprang into action. Setting himself up as an honest broker, Putin succeeded in diverting Obama from taking military action by convincing him that Assad had agreed to dismantle and dispose of his chemical arsenal - the arsenal that Assad had
 denied owning in the first place.

          In the event Assad did nothing of the sort. Chemical stockpiles were retained, production of nerve gas maintained and its deployment continued. Despite this, Russia has subsequently vetoed no less than nine Security Council resolutions that sought to condemn Assad's government for its conduct of the war, impose sanctions or refer it to the International Criminal Court.

          Putin’s latest blocking action is particularly egregious.

          In April 2017 there was a chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun that left dozens of civilians dead and hundreds wounded.

          Back in 2015 the UN had set up its Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) specifically to identify the perpetrators of chemical attacks, and to assign accountability for human rights abuses that have drawn international condemnation. The mandate of the JIM. which was to report on the nerve agent attack on Khan Sheikhoun by the end of October, was due to expire in November. On October 24 a resolution intended to extend the JIM’s mandate was put to a Security Council vote. It was vetoed by Russia.

         The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria is tasked with probing war-crimes allegations, and its investigators had already formally accused the Syrian government of using sarin in that attack. Their report added that this was one of over 20 Syrian government attacks involving chemical weapons since March 2013. This report, too, was rejected by Russia.

          Moscow’s veto decisions have been condemned by the US, Britain and others as an attempt to shield the perpetrators from answering for the most controversial human rights abuses of Syria’s six-year civil war. But in the realpolitik world of the Middle East nothing succeeds like success. When Putin sent his forces into Syria on September 30, 2015, he had two main objectives in view – to establish Russia as a potent political and military force in the region, and to secure his hold on the Russian naval base at Tartus and the refurbished air base and intelligence-gathering centre at Latakia. He achieved both, as he launched massive air and missile attacks mainly against Assad’s domestic enemies, namely the rebel forces led by the FSA.

          With the sustained support of Russia, allied to the huge self-interested Iranian military effort, Assad has succeeded, against all the odds, in retaining his grip on power and in winning back large areas of Syria once overrun and occupied by Islamic State. As a result his hand has been greatly strengthened in the Geneva-based peace negotiations with the various rebel factions. 

          Assad continuing as president of Syria, even in the short-term, would guarantee Putin’s military presence and consolidate his increasing political clout in the affairs of the Middle East. It would also raise the prospect of replicating the old Cold War alignments, with the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and its allies in one camp, and Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and the Shi’ite world of Islam in the other. Fortunately that outcome is not really in prospect because Russia’s relations with Israel, a matter of commercial self-interest on both sides, are particularly close, centred as they are on the natural gas deposits in Israeli waters. In that lies the hope of a non-confrontational outcome to the Syrian tragedy.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 8 November 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 9 November 2017: