Sunday, 27 May 2018

Syria - the next steps

                                                                                       (Credit: Reuters)
                                                                               Video Version
Why did Syrian president Bashar al-Assad meet with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on May 17, 2018?  "Quite comprehensive negotiations took place,“ was the explanation offered by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.  

With his tongue in his cheek, no doubt, and perfectly aware of where the credit really lay, Putin congratulated Assad on the success of the Syrian government forces in the fight against terrorist groups.  He then moved on to the consequences of that success. Putin has said more than once that as the military phase of the Syrian civil war reached its end, the time for constitutional reform and the resumption of a fully-fledged political process would follow .This, moreover, would allow him to withdraw the bulk of Russian armed support, another objective he has stated on more than one occasion.

Whether or not any pressure was applied to Assad, he enthusiastically endorsed Putin’s position.  In a statement following the talks, he said: "Today I confirmed to President Putin that Syria will send a list of its delegates to the UN constitutional committee to discuss amendments to the current constitution. This will be done as soon as possible."

Putin riposted: "Russia welcomes this decision by the Syrian president, and will support it in every possible way."

But there was something odd about the whole proceeding, because everything agreed between Putin and Assad on May 17 had already been signed and sealed back in January, at the Congress held in Sochi to which the UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, had been invited.
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De Mistura had appreciated the significance of his invitation.  In a message to media representatives, he noted that in its Final Declaration, the Congress had agreed that a constitutional committee should to be formed tasked to draft a constitutional reform, and that it should include the Syrian government delegation, Syrian experts, independents, tribal leaders, women and representatives of Syria’s ethnical and religious leaders, Also to be included was a widely-representative opposition grouping. Syrian government representatives had so far consistently refused to sit down with the main opposition group, which wants Assad to have no part in Syria’s future. 

De Mistura was pleased that the task of establishing the constitutional committee had been remitted to him as the UN’s special envoy. and that final agreement was to be reached within the UN-led Geneva process. He would decide the criteria for committee members and select about 50 people.

Since agreement had already been reached, why did Putin summon Assad back to Sochi for a further head-to-head?  Perhaps to emphasize that this time the Syrian government delegation simply must sit at the table and negotiate;  perhaps to guarantee that whatever the outcome of the constitutional process, Assad would not be unceremoniously booted from office; perhaps to make a generous offer, if such an eventuality becomes necessary, of a dignified retirement and a luxurious haven in Russia for Assad and his family.

Whatever else Putin’s purposes may have been, there was certainly a need to stiffen Assad’s resolve to proceed with the constitutional committee, because two weeks after the Sochi Congress, at which unanimity seemed to have been reached, the Syrian government delegation reneged on the agreement.

 “As a state,” declared Ayman Soussan, an assistant to the Syrian Foreign Minister, at a press conference in Damascus, ”we are not bound by, nor have any relation with, any committee that is not Syrian formed, led and constituted. We are not bound by anything that is formed by foreign sides, whatever their name or state, we are not bound by it and it is of no concern to us.”

Nine rounds of UN-sponsored peace talks, most of them in Geneva, had failed to bring Syria’s warring sides together.  Finally the powers that had emerged as the principals in the Syrian situation − Russia, Iran and Turkey − had banded together in an effort to move beyond the 7-year war into the political reconstitution of Syria, and had sponsored the Sochi Congress.  Success had been virtually in their grasp, when the cup was snatched from them. The same could not be allowed to happen again.

Yet the path was far from smooth, despite Assad’s apparent compliance with the agreed way forward.  On the face of it, Assad’s team seemed more obstructive than he was himself.  Ahmad Al-Kuzbari, a Syrian parliamentarian and a participant in the Sochi  conference, had pronounced that any constitutional amendments or additions proposed by the new UN constitutional committee would have to be subject to a referendum in Syria.  "Nothing will happen,” said Al-Kuzbari, “except under the provisions of the current constitution, which the people voted on in 2012."

He seemed to envisage the UN Constitutional Committee validating the Syrian constitution hastily introduced by Assad back in 2012, in an attempt to stave off the rapidly growing civil rebellion.  The new constitution, which abolished the one-party state, and instituted a form of democracy and presidential elections, limiting the term of office for the president to seven years with a maximum of one re-election, was adopted on 27 February 2012, following a referendum.   With what authority did Al-Kuzbari speak? 

A careful comparison of Assad’s compliant words to Putin with what de Mistura has said reveals the basis of Al-Kuzbari’s assertion.
Assad: "Today I confirmed to President Putin that Syria will send a list of its delegates to the UN constitutional committee to discuss amendments to the current constitution.”
De Mistura:  “a constitutional committee is to be formed comprising the delegation of the Syrian Arab Republic government, along with a widely-represented opposition delegation, for drafting a constitutional reform.”

In short, Assad envisages discussing amendments to the current constitution; de Mistura believes his committee will be drafting constitutional reform.

If hard-liners believe they can stave off the introduction of a newly conceived constitution by insisting that the 2012 one remains valid and could be used to veto it, they may be greatly mistaken.  It is more than likely that the committee will recommend starting with a completely clean slate.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 6 June 2018:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 4 June 2018:

Published in the MPC Journal, 4 June 2018:

Thursday, 24 May 2018

A straw in the wind

Item in the Jerusalem Post. Thursday, 24 May 2018

Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law, who is leading the US Middle East peace effort: "has been fashioning a plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace that his team says is all but complete, and it will be rolled out in the coming weeks and months: 'when the timing is right'."

Expect some out-of-the-box, lateral thinking.

Monday, 21 May 2018

The trouble with Iran

(Credit: Debka)

                                          Video version
            That the current Iranian regime poses a problem for the free world is a fact of life. But the Iranian dilemma comes into even sharper focus following US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, and the escalation of long-standing tensions between Iran and Israel into open military skirmishes,
            Today’s difficulties stem back to the Iranian revolution of 1979, which chased the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, from the Peacock Throne.  Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the revolution, believed fervently that he was on a holy mission to rid Iran – and possibly the world − of what he saw as Western corruption and degeneracy, and to return his country, under an Islamic theocracy, to religious purity.
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            Khomeini and his radical Shia Muslim regime was viscerally opposed to 80 per cent of the Islamic world − the Sunni branch of Islam − and in particular to its leading state, Saudi Arabia.  Rejecting Sunni Islam as apostasy, Khomeini claimed to be the leader of the entire Muslim world, a claim rejected by the Sunni Muslim rulers of the Middle East.  During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Khomeini declared that Mecca  − which with Medina, two of Islam’s holiest shrines, lies within Saudi Arabia − was in the hands of “a band of heretics” and should be liberated by true Muslims.
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Khomeini’s burning belief in the incontestable validity of his mission led him to undertake and to commission acts of terror against Sunni Muslims and the West, regardless of the loss of life involved.  Starting in the 1980s, a wave of kidnappings, bombings, and assassinations were carried out across the world, maintained after his death in 1989 by his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khameini.  These include the blowing up in 1983 of a van filled with explosives in front of the US embassy in Beirut, killing 58 Americans and Lebanese, and the bombing in the same year of the US Marine and French Drakkar barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 American and 58 French peacekeepers. On May 30, 2003, a US federal judge ruled that Hezbollah carried out the attack at the direction of the Iranian government.
In 1989 Khomeini put a fatwa on Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie because of his novel The Satanic Verses, and the Iranian government offered $2.5 million for his murder.  A bombing in London in August 1989 was assumed to be a failed Hezbollah assassination attempt.
In 1992 Hezbollah operatives boasted of their involvement in the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina killing 29 people.  Two years later Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina and the subsequent death of 85 people. Argentinian courts concluded that Iran was behind the attacks.
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And so the list continues, spanning the globe – 21 people, including 12 Jews, killed in an airplane attack in Panama in 1994; the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing inside Saudi Arabia killing 19 US servicemen; the 2005 assassination of one-time Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri; the 2012 Burgas bus bombing in Bulgaria killing 6; on and on…
The deal to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for a lifting of sanctions − a high-water mark of ex-US President Barack Obama’s legacy − was pursued on the grounds that it would encourage Iran to adopt a more reasonable approach to its dealings with the West, and might even end decades of hostility.  In the event the opposite has been the case. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have spent the billions of dollars they have acquired in expanding their malign influence throughout the Middle East.  Over the past three years Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and Israel have all been on the receiving end of unprovoked acts of Iranian aggression.
In Syria Iran has used its alliance with Assad to build what amounts to a state-within-a state, just as it did in neighboring Lebanon in the 1980s when it set up Hezbollah. Until Israel’s recent air attack which disabled much of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria, the Guard had its own airfield, underground command and control facilities, thousands of missiles, its own dedicated drone base, and an estimated 20,000 Iranian-trained militiamen at its disposal. The purpose of this investment, it seems clear, was to increase Iran’s ability to confront Israel across the Golan Heights, while Hezbollah – armed and equipped by Iran – tackles Israel from south Lebanon.
It is doubtful if Iran’s strategic objectives - to expand its Shia Crescent  so as to dominate the region - have the backing of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.  
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It was widely reported that Israel’s airstrikes on Iranian positions within Syria had been the subject of an understanding with Russia, and that in consequence there was never any danger of a military confrontation between them.  In fact a day or two later, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, flew to Moscow for face-to-face discussions with Putin.
Moreover, Iran’s regional ambitions, both religious and political, lie well beyond Russia’s aims for Syria.  Putin intervened in the Syrian conflict in September 2015 in order to secure Russia’s military foothold in western Syria.  This he has achieved, gaining the additional bonus of a vastly enhanced political presence in the Middle East.  Now he is looking to secure some sort of political compromise and to back out.  Putin understands perfectly well that any final settlement cannot leave Iran entrenched inside Syria as a permanent military and political force. Netanyahu must have made it quite clear that Israel, with whom Putin seeks a close relationship, would not permit it, and would itself destroy any military infrastructure if need be.
Meanwhile the problem of how to deal with Iran remains.  Trump favors bankrupting it with sanctions, in the hope, perhaps, that deteriorating economic conditions will induce the population to rise up and overturn the regime − or that perhaps, in line with his interchanges with the North Koreans, determined opposition might result in Iran agreeing to recast the nuclear deal.  Alternatively, there is the course that remains the bedrock of Obama’s and the Europeans’ policy – to attempt to bribe the Iranian regime by continuing to lift sanctions and encouraging lucrative trade deals, letting the nuclear consequences take care of themselves.
Which is more likely to yield an effective and lasting result?

Published in the MPC Journal, 21 May 2018:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 May 2018:

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 27 May 2018:

Thursday, 10 May 2018

UN human rights: as wrong as ever

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Comparatively speaking, the UN Human Rights Council is still in its infancy.  Set up only twelve years ago by the UN General Assembly, it had one over-riding purpose – to rectify the egregious faults of its predecessor body, the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR).  The UNCHR had been a working body of the United Nations virtually from its foundation in 1946, but over its 60 years of existence it had accrued a raft of objectionable practices which finally made the organization totally unacceptable to many governments, activists and eventually to the UN itself.

Among its more unseemly usages was to include among its members representatives of states with records of flagrant human rights violations and, moreover, to elect such people from time to time to chair the Commission − representatives of countries like Zimbabwe, Algeria, Syria, Libya, Vietnam and China. These individuals, by opposing resolutions to the Commission which condemned human rights violations, in effect sustained and promoted despotism and repression throughout the world.  Finally the Commission seemed to have turned its purpose on its head, and far from identifying and eliminating violations of human rights, in many cases it supported, if not actively encouraged, them.

For example, the Commission turned a blind eye toward violations of the UN charter committed by member states. When issues such as the stoning of women, honor killings, mutilations, and the death penalty for apostasy were raised during the 60th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2004, officials from certain Muslim-majority states rejected any criticism as “interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state."  The Commission meekly gave way, and abstained from pursuing the issues.

The other face of this overt political bias – and a major cause of criticism of the Commission − was its compliance with being used as a UN-backed platform from which selective targets could be condemned and vilified.  The chief victim of this barefaced politicization was Israel.  An analysis in 2003 revealed that the Commission – the old UNCHR − had devoted no less than 33 per cent of its country-specific resolutions to condemning Israel in one way or another. 

All this finally became too much even for the UN General Assembly, which in 2006 voted overwhelmingly to disband the old Commission and to set up a shining new United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in its place.
How has the new body been doing?

It is perhaps, significant, that UNHRC is UNCHR with just one letter transposed.  In short, you can barely see the difference.  For example, in its first six years – that is, from the time of its foundation in 2006 until 2012 − the new council published nine reports on Syria’s mass killings of its own citizens, and three on the terrorist-supporting repressive régime in Iran.  It published nothing on China, which was far removed from granting its billion citizens basic human rights.  Yet in those six years it published no less than 48 reports condemning Israel. More than this, the council voted on June 18, 2007 to include, as a permanent feature of each of its three annual sessions, a review of alleged human rights abuses by Israel − a  resolution sponsored by the Organization of the Islamic Conference. This Item 7, the only standing item directed at a specific country, has become a permanent feature of the UNHRC agenda, and as a result the Council has targeted Israel with more condemnatory resolutions than the rest of the world combined.

Which countries’ representatives sit in judgment on Israel’s human rights record?  The UNHRC’s current membership includes Afghanistan, Angola, China, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Qatar and Venezuela. It almost goes without saying that in its recent 2018 session the Council passed no resolutions on human rights violations by − for example − China, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Qatar, or Venezuela, about each of which there is much to say.  

To keep the record entirely straight, during the latest UNHRC session both the US and Australia opposed every anti-Israel text issued by the council while the UK representative, citing the UNHRC’s criticism of Israel’s presence in the Golan Heights, coupled with its deafening silence on the Assad regime’s atrocities in Syria, said:  “Nowhere is the disproportionate focus on Israel starker and more absurd than in the case of today’s resolution on the occupation of Syria’s Golan.”

A global backlash against the council is well under way.  David May is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.  Writing in the prestigious US political journal, The Hill, he urges a root and branch reform of the Human Rights Council. “As long as some of the world’s worst human rights abusers hold positions on the Council,” he writes, “many of the most egregious human rights violations will languish in darkness.”

He offers a schedule of proposals aimed at ensuring that the UN can meet its obligation to expose and help eliminate violations of human rights, wherever they occur and whatever form they take.  A prerequisite for UNHRC membership, maintains May, should be some basic standard of respect for human rights.  Currently, 14 of the 47 members of the Human Rights Council were ranked “Not Free” – the lowest possible ranking − in the “Freedom in the World 2018” table of country scores run by Freedom House, which annually assesses the state of political rights and civil liberties across the world, country by country.

The present situation regarding the UNHRC is clearly far from satisfactory.  It is surely up to Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, in the interests of the credibility of the UN itself, to take the bull by the horns.  Whatever the difficulties, he must identify the problems, set out the steps needed to correct them, and carry through the necessary reforms. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 May 2018:

Published in the MPC Journal, 14 May 2018:

Friday, 4 May 2018

Post-Brexit Israel

                                                                                         Video version

       The UK will be leaving the European Union at precisely 11 pm on March 29, 2019.  There will be significant consequences for Israel. 

          Israel’s current relationship with the EU, of which Britain has been an important member for the past forty years, might best be described as “creative tension” – a constant tug-of-war between trade interests and politics.  The truth is that the political objectives of the EU have inhibited trade with Israel from expanding at the rate, or to the levels, that might have been possible.

          A prime example is the EU’s 2015 decision to enforce a special labelling system for Israeli goods produced beyond the temporary boundaries that delineated sovereign Israel prior to the Six Day War in 1967.  The EU regards those lines, which simply mark where the Arab and Israeli armies stopped fighting in 1949, as Israel’s international borders – a position fraught with anomalies.  The EU asserts that East Jerusalem is occupied Palestinian territory, but does not acknowledge West Jerusalem to be part of Israel.  It objected strongly when US President Donald Trump declared Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital, even though he left wide open the possibility of an eventual separate or conjoint Palestinian capital in the Jerusalem municipality.  Indeed, recent reports indicate that he will be asking Israel to relinquish control of four neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem to allow this to take place.

          The legal basis for Israel’s trade relations with the EU is the EU-Israel Association Agreement, which came into force in June 2000.  Over the past eighteen years it has certainly fostered healthy, although somewhat unbalanced, trade between the parties. Israel currently has a trade deficit with the EU – in other words, it imports more than it exportsLatest available figures show Israeli imports in excess of €21 billion, against exports to the EU of some €13 billion.  Britain’s departure from the EU should not adversely affect this bilateral EU-Israeli trade, even though EU-Israeli political relations are not cordial.

The same cannot with justice be said of the UK-Israeli relationship.  Both Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, and its foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, have made no secret of their friendship towards the Jewish State.  The latest manifestation is the recent announcement that the first-ever official royal visit to Israel will take place in the summer of 2018, when Prince William tours the Middle East. 

That projected visit follows the recognition and celebration by the British government last November of the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.  Prior to that, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas twice called upon the British government to apologize for what he characterised, in his address to the UN General Assembly, as “this infamous declaration”.  The official UK response ran:  “The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which Her Majesty’s Government does not intend to apologize.  We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel. The task now is to encourage moves towards peace.”

Peace through trade is what Britain has been assiduously fostering for the past few years.  Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, announced on February 27, 2018, that bilateral trade between the UK and Israel had increased by 25% in 2017 to a record £6.9 billion. Speaking at the UK Israel Business Awards dinner, Regev called the rise from £5.5 billion in 2016 to £6.9 billion in 2017 remarkable: “It demonstrates the momentum behind our economic relationship.”
The pace is only likely to increase as Brexit approaches, and once the UK finally leaves the EU, the current Association Agreement will no longer apply. The two countries will be free to determine the best deal for themselves.  In anticipation, ever since March 2017 the two governments have been negotiating a new Free Trade Agreement.  Such an Agreement will open up the UK market to more Israeli exports, in both goods and services, and make a huge contribution to Israel’s economy. It will also foster increased interest by UK companies in the Israeli market, and give Israeli consumers a wider range of product choice.

The Anglo-Israel Chamber of Commerce is a major driving force behind expanding UK-Israel trade.  In the past two years it has encouraged more than 30 Israeli firms to open operations in the UK, investing £152m and creating almost 900 jobs, After Brexit, many Israeli firms will want to use the UK as their main hub outside Israel.  The UK is easily accessible in terms of distance and time zone, and is a convenient base to access Europe and elsewhere. Moreover the UK government has been actively promoting foreign investment.  The UK’s Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) and its Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS) already offer UK taxpayers incentives to invest in early-stage firms, and reduce the costs in the event of failure. These schemes, which enable Israeli companies to operate from Britain while keeping their Research and Development in Israel, make the UK an especially attractive place for Israeli start-ups.  Once Britain is free of EU restrictions, such schemes will undoubtedly be extended.

In addition the UK government offers grants to companies in certain industrial sectors. Israeli entrepreneurs in fields such as electric vehicles and agricultural technology are already choosing to base their entire business in the UK, partly because of targeted government grants which go hand in hand with British expertise.  After Brexit incentives like this will not only be maintained, but almost certainly expanded.

The fact of the matter is that the UK is already so attractive to Israeli entrepreneurs − especially, but not exclusively, those engaged in start-up enterprises – that once Britain has cast off the shackles of restrictive EU regulations, the prospect is that the UK-Israeli trade relationship will flourish as never before.  Floreat Brexit!

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 9 May 2018:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 May 2018: