Thursday, 4 August 2022

The UK's new prime minister - who will it be?

This article appears in the Jerusalem Post weekend magazine, 12 August 2022

          Pity the Brits in Israel.  They’re not only caught up like the rest of the country in the trauma of Israel’s rotating prime ministers and the political posturings prior to November’s general election, but their emotions are also being thoroughly stirred by the battle in the UK between the candidates vying to replace Boris Johnson as Britain’s new prime minister.

          The reasons for Johnson’s fall sound vaguely familiar to Israeli ears.  Despite astounding electoral and, indeed, political successes, Johnson’s personal failings led to a widespread belief that he was unfit for his office. He blithely breached the Covid restrictions that his government had imposed on the population at large, and was fined by the police for doing so.  He misled parliament about that and related matters, and finally he promoted to a position of importance a man he had been told years before was a sex offender.  That proved the final straw.   His ministers started resigning en masse and he found himself unable to continue governing.

          And so Britain‘s arcane method for moving forward in such a situation was brought into play.  As is often pointed out, Britain does not possess a written constitution, and the rules governing political crises have evolved over time.  The system that brings a person to the position of UK prime minister, and thus head of the government, bears no resemblance to US presidential elections.  In the US system a candidate seeks a personal mandate from the American people; in Britain 650 constituencies each elect a member of parliament, and the leader of the largest party in parliament becomes prime minister.

           In short, it is the winning political party that secures the nation’s mandate to govern, not its leader. So if a leader is deposed, the party’s mandate to govern is not affected.  That is why the Conservative party is currently engaged in choosing a new leader who will automatically become Britain’s next prime minister.

           The party leadership devised a two-stage process.  In the first stage the eight parliamentarians who secured enough support to stand as potential candidates were whittled down by a series of elections to just two.  Rishi Sunak, once Johnson‘s finance minister, came out on top.  Second was Liz Truss, his foreign secretary. 

           The second stage involves the two selected candidates putting their case to the membership of the Conservative party, who will vote for their preferred choice in the period up to September 2. The exact number of Conservative party members is not precisely known, at least by the general public, but it is in the region of 180,000.  The winner – and thus Britain’s new prime minister – will be announced on September 5.

           There is, of course, a vociferous body of opinion within the UK that finds it unacceptable for the nation’s next prime minister to be selected by a handful of Conservative party members.  But the process, or something akin to it, has been used a fair number of times in recent years under both Conservative and Labour administrations, and it does accord with the basic principles underlying the British parliamentary system.

           Although the nation as a whole will have no say in the outcome, the fact that interviews of the candidates, and debates between them, are being broadcast on radio and TV, and splashed all over the print media, has turned the whole process into a national jamboree.

   Would a win by one or other of the candidates make a difference to UK-Israeli relations?  They have never been warmer than they are right now, and both candidates are pledged to enhance them.  The Conservative administrations of the past twelve years, and their changing leaders, have been notably friendly toward Israel, encouraging ever-closer collaboration.  On July 20 the UK trade minister launched negotiations between the UK and Israel for a new, innovation-focused trade deal.

The groundwork for this was laid by Yair Lapid in his visit to the UK in November 2021.  He and foreign secretary Liz Truss struck up a warm relationship right from the start. The close Israeli-UK understanding was demonstrated to the world on November 29 when the Daily Telegraph achieved a journalistic coup – an article written jointly by the British and Israeli foreign ministers, Liz Truss and Yair Lapid. 

Headed: “Together we can propel both our nations to safety and prosperity”, the piece heralded a new UK-Israeli agreement, to be signed later that day, which they described as “a major step forward, transforming our close friendship into an even closer partnership by formally agreeing a new strategic plan for the next decade spanning cyber, tech, trade and defense.” 

 Liz Truss comes from a middle class home – her father was a mathematics professor and her mother a nurse – and she was educated in a state school.  At Oxford University she was president of the Liberal Democrats, but later joined the Conservatives.  Making slow but steady progress up the political ladder, she won a parliamentary seat in 2010.   Once in the House of Commons, her abilities were quickly noticed, and she moved up the ministerial hierarchy from 2012 onwards, ending as Foreign Secretary in September 2021.

   What are Truss’s views about Israel and the UK Jewish community?  In a recent article in the UK’s popular on-line newspaper, Jewish News, she wrote: “Israel and the UK are already closely intertwined with deep relationships in trade, security, culture and tourism. If I am elected as the next Prime Minister I will set about ensuring that alliance grows even closer.”  Asserting that Conservative values and Jewish values go hand in hand, she said “the British Jewish community represents the best of our country and as Prime Minister I will be your strongest champion… I will do everything in my power to ensure that those spewing clear Jew hatred will be prosecuted quickly within the full force of the law.”

Rishi Sunak is as different an individual as it is almost possible to be.  Born to Indian immigrants from East Arica, he is an observant Hindu and, if elected, would become Britain’s first prime minister of colour.  His parents ran a pharmacy, and from there they managed to send their son to the prestigious Winchester College and on to Oxford University.  In 2009, Sunak married Akshata Murthy, the daughter of Indian billionaire Narayana Murthy. He met her while studying at Stanford University in the US. The couple are multi-millionaires.

Sunak was elected to the House of Commons in 2015. He held a junior ministerial post under then-prime minister Theresa May, and when Boris Johnson succeeded her, he became a senior treasury minister.  The early resignation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer propelled him unexpectedly into that post, and he won many plaudits for the support measures he introduced to ease the financial burdens imposed on the population by the Covid restrictions.

In March Sunak met with Israeli finance minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to discuss the ambitious UK-Israel Free Trade Agreement.  He took the opportunity to offer condolences over the Bnei Brak shootings the previous night.  “I assured him,” Sunak tweeted, “that the UK stands with the people of Israel against terrorism.”

 Writing in Jewish News about antisemitism, Sunak pledges: “As Prime Minister, I will continue the work of this Government to support Jewish communities across the country…I am determined to ensure this scourge on our society is eradicated. Antisemitism can take many forms. I will continue to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Bill, that will prevent public bodies engaging in boycotts that undermine community cohesion.”

          The only reference in his piece to Israel is positive, but oblique.  He writes: “The Jewish community is right to call out those who seek to damage the only Jewish state in the world.”

          Meanwhile Brits the world over are agog at the spectacle of two senior figures in the parliamentary Conservative party slogging it out on national media as they struggle for the votes of the membership.  So far polling has shown a marked preference among them for Liz Truss, but some commentators are certain that Sunak is closing the gap and is certain to emerge the winner.  For the Brits in Israel, the exercise makes for a diverting distraction before the hard slog of their own elections in November.

This article appears in the Jerusalem Post weekend magazine, 12 August 2022

Sunday, 31 July 2022

Erdogan’s new offensive

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced that he is planning a new military offensive in northern Syria directed against the Kurds.

If one authoritarian leader can defy world opinion, invade the territory of a sovereign state and incur only minor consequences, why not another?   This may well have been the reasoning that first led Erdogan to send his armed forces into Kurdish occupied areas of northern Syria in August 2016. His precedent would have been the invasion of Crimea by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin two years earlier.

Erdogan’s first incursion into Syria’s quasi-autonomous Kurdistan region – the area known as Rojava and nominally part of sovereign Syria — resulted in Turkish forces seizing and occupying Kurdish-inhabited territory.  It also marked the start of a more aggressive policy toward the Kurdish political faction Erdogan fears the most – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

Historically Kurdistan, although never an independent nation state, was a recognized entity in the world, and during the redesignation of the defunct Ottoman empire after the First World War, the Kurds were promised a referendum leading to independence – a promise that was never kept.  Instead the Kurdish people were arbitrarily assigned to four of the states newly created by the League of Nations – Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Kurds represent some 20 percent of Turkey’s 84 million population, and while many are content with their minority status and contribute to the political process (now somewhat restricted by Erdogan’s reforms), nationalist demands from the more extreme Kurdish elements, which sometimes spill over into violence, represent a threat to the integrity of the Turkish state.

The PKK, founded in 1978, is an armed political group seeking Kurdish independence.  Claiming to represent all people in historically Kurdish regions, its original objective was to establish a socialist Greater Kurdistan uniting the Kurdish regions of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran – an aspiration that would have required the redrawing of national borders.  Mainstream Kurdish political opinion has recently retreated from this extremist objective, in favor of seeking Kurdish autonomy within the borders of states where Kurds are a minority.

The PKK was not averse to pursuing its political ends by way of terrorist attacks within Turkey.  Erdogan’s counter-strategy was to proscribe the PKK as a terrorist organization (a designation now widely adopted internationally), and to combat it externally where it is strongest – in northern Syria and Iraq.

   With the Syrian civil war at its height, Erdogan decided to invade Kurdish-occupied territory lying south of the Turkish-Syrian border, seize a stretch of land and create a sort of buffer zone.  The area was under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) of which the Kurdish YPG militia was a major element.  Erdogan considered the YPG to be nothing more than an extension of the banned PKK.

 At the time the Kurds were in alliance with the US in a highly successful effort to defeat Islamic State and chase them from Syria.  The valiant Kurdish Peshmerga forces were generally acknowledged to have undertaken the bulk of the fighting on the ground.  To the astonishment and condemnation of much world opinion, then-US President Donald Trump, in an apparent deal with Erdogan, withdrew US troops from the Turkish-Syrian border area just a few days before Erdogan launched his attack.

 That operation, and two subsequent efforts in northern Syria, obviously did not satisfy Erdogan. On April 18, 2022 Turkey launched a new ground and air offensive, named Operation Claw Lock, this time against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq.  Supported by helicopters and drones, Turkish jets and artillery struck suspected targets of the PKK, and then commando troops crossed into the region by land or were airlifted by helicopters. Turkey’s Defense Ministry said the northern Iraq offensive was launched after it was determined that the militants were regrouping and preparing for a large-scale onslaught on Turkey.

The PKK has bases and training camps in Sinjar and on the mountainous border with Turkey, and this was far from the first attack by Turkey in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.  These operations have strained Turkey’s ties with Iraq’s central government.  Iraq’s President Barham Salih termed the latest incursion “unacceptable”, describing it as a threat to the country's national security and a violation of its sovereignty.  He is certainly not wrong about that.

Turkey has launched three military operations into northern Syria since 2016, seizing areas south of its own border to create a so-called “safe zone” between Kurdish-inhabited territory and Turkish soil.  The third in 2019 was dubbed “Operation Peace Spring”.  Following 10 days of fighting, a deal was reached under which the YPG pulled its troops 30km back from the border. Turkey sold the operation as a diplomatic and military victory, and agreed with Russia to run joint patrols in the area.

Now Erdogan has announced that he is planning a new military offensive in northern Syria directed against the YPG.

“We are taking another step in establishing a 30 kilometer security zone along our southern border,” he announced in parliament.

 Erdogan took advantage of the meeting in Tehran on July 19 of three presidents (of Russia, Iran and Turkey), to seek support for his new military operation. Speaking to reporters on his return flight, Erdogan said he believed all three think alike as regards the YPG, but he had to admit that they differed on some Syria-related issues.  In short, he failed to obtain a ringing endorsement of his latest invasion plan.  Iran and Russia, none too delighted with Erdogan's deal with Trump in 2016, have previously warned against such operations.


There has always been an ulterior motive for Erdogan’s adventures along his southern border – a desire to rid Turkey of the millions of Syrian refugees who fled their country during its eleven years of civil strife.  His plan has been to resettle them below the Turkish border in the so-called “safe zone” under Turkish security control, namely in Syrian, or possibly Iraqi, territory. The refugees, however, are far from keen to move to what is a heavily militarized and highly populated war zone.  Erdogan can scarcely force his resident refugees to relocate, and it is difficult to envisage what sort of inducements he could offer.

          If he carries out his plan regardless, Erdogan will undoubtedly enhance his political standing at home, ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2023.  So it is odds on that Erdogan’s new offensive will take place, and that vast numbers of reluctant Syrian refugees will be relocated to his “safe zone”.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 1 August 2022, and in the Jerusalem Post on-line as "Turkey's Erdogan's next Syria offensive and the consequences":
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-713580





















Sunday, 24 July 2022

This two-state solution business

This article appears in the Jerusalem Post of 25 July 2022

          Commitment to the two-state solution was voiced by four parties during US President Joe Biden’s recent visit to the Middle East – by Biden himself, by Palestinain Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, by Saudi Arabia’s leadership, and by Israel’s interim prime minister, Yair Lapid.

          Greeting Biden in Bethlehem on 15 July, Abbas said: “Mr. President, we look forward to the efforts of your administration…to stop unilateral actions that undermine the two-state solution.”

          In response, Biden declared: “the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own that’s independent, sovereign, viable and contiguous. Two states for two peoples…living side by side in peace and security”.

          In a press conference just prior to Biden’s departure for Saudi Arabia, Lapid said: “About the two-state solution, I haven’t changed my position. A two-state solution is a guarantee for a strong democratic state of Israel with a Jewish majority.”

          Biden’s meetings with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) resulted in a joint communique in which both sides backed the two-state solution as the only way to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict.


          The Saudi position was later reiterated by its foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir. Jubeir declared in a CNN interview that despite Saudi opening its air space to all commercial flights, which would include Israel, full normalization between Saudi and Israel was dependent on the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state within 1967 boundaries including East Jerusalem.

          The Saudi stance on normalization has been consistent ever since the signing of the Abraham Accords. In his TV interview Jubeir referred to another factor: “We have said that Saudi Arabia supports the Arab Peace Initiative. In fact, we offered it.”. It was King Salman’s half-brother (and predecessor on the throne), then-Crown Prince Abdullah, who conceived and proposed the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Endorsed on three occasions by the Arab League, it declares that given a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine dispute and a just resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue, full normalization of relations between the Muslim world and Israel would follow.

          And yet, in the 55 years since 1967, in a series of peace negotiations and in other ways such as the Trump “Peace to Prosperity” plan, the Palestinians have been offered a sovereign state alongside Israel. Time and again it has been rejected.

          The reason is not hard to discern. Quite simply, a two-state solution is not what the Palestinian cause is all about. Much, perhaps the major part, of Palestinian opinion shares the view that Israel is illegally occupying Palestinian land that it has conquered and colonized, and that the area “from the river to the sea”, that is from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, is Palestinian, and the state of Israel should be ejected from it. The Hamas and PLO charters and the Fatah constitution are at one on this ultimate objective, and indeed on the need to take up arms in support of it. It is on the tactics to achieve it that the two main Palestinian parties differ, and that disagreement is so basic that it has ensured that Hamas and Fatah have remained at each other’s throats for decades. All attempts at reconciliation have proved fruitless.

          Hamas believes that the only effective way to achieve the desired outcome is through continual conflict and terrorism. Any pause in the battle must be temporary and provide a tactical advantage. The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA), however, continues to follow the tactical path set by Yasser Arafat. At the Oslo peace discussions in 1993 and 1995 Arafat – rock solid in his determination to overthrow Israel eventually – decided to woo world opinion by overtly supporting the two-state solution.

          Not long after the conclusion of Oslo 2, he held what was intended to be a secret meeting with Arab leaders in a Stockholm hotel. To his embarrassment, both his tactical plans and his strategic objectives were leaked to the Norwegian daily, Dagen. Among much else, he told Arab leaders that the PLO intends: “…to eliminate the state of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian state.”

          Following Arafat’s death the PA, and its new leader Mahmoud Abbas, took their lead from his prospectus. A determined effort was made to win over world opinion to the idea of establishing a sovereign Palestine within the boundaries that existed before the 6-Day War in 1967 – that is, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. But pressing for a Palestinian state within those boundaries inevitably meant acknowledging that a sovereign Israel existed outside them. This is the pill that Hamas and like-minded rejectionists find impossible to swallow. They refuse to recognize that Israel has any right at all to exist on “their” land, not even as a step toward its eventual destruction.

         None of this is secret, so how is it that a vast swath of world opinion supports a two-state solution in the full knowledge that this outcome is not what the Palestinian leadership or people as a whole desire? Global opinion refuses to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Ever since 2007, when Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian people have been split in two, and at least half would never subscribe to a two-state solution. Indeed, any Palestinian leader signing such a deal would be denounced as a traitor to the Palestinian cause.

          Saudi Arabia advocates it strongly as a prerequisite for normalization within the context of the Arab Peace Initiative, but Saudi leaders fail to take into account that the Initiative was drafted well before Hamas gained control of Gaza. The situation in 2022 is radically different from what it was in 2002.

          It is also odd that so little thought has been given to what sort of two-state solution, acknowledging Israel’s right to exist, could ever be signed in current circumstances. Since Hamas would never participate or be a signatory, Gaza would be excluded from the arrangement. What sort of sovereign Palestine would it be, shorn of half the Palestinian population? In short has world opinion ever faced up to the awkward truth that in order to achieve a genuine two-state solution, the Hamas organization must first be disempowered?

          To avoid a future of constant conflict, truly creative thinking is called for. In 2018, when the Trump peace proposals were being drawn up, Abbas was asked his views on a federation. He is on record as favoring a three-way confederation of Jordan, Israel and a sovereign Palestine. In a confederation, states retain their sovereignty but agree to collaborate on certain security, defense, economic or administrative matters, appointing a joint central authority to coordinate the arrangement. The idea of a three-state confederation – a mini EU – covering the whole of what was originally Mandate Palestine might open a hitherto unexplored path leading away from unending Israel-Palestinian discord.


Published in the Jerusalem Post, 25 July 2022:
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-712956

Published in Eurasia Review, 5 August 2022:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/05082022-this-two-state-solution-business-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 7 August 2022:
https://mpc-journal.org/this-two-state-solution-business/

Published in Jewish Business News, 5 August 2022:
https://jewishbusinessnews.com/2022/08/05/this-two-state-solution-business/


Monday, 18 July 2022

The coalition government’s achievements

This article appears in the Jerusalem Post  of 19 July 2022

The Bennett- Lapid government lasted just one year and a few days. It collapsed under weight of domestic political challenges, and its record at home is patchy.  In the field of foreign policy, however, it can boast significant achievements.  There is no doubt that Israel’s diplomatic relations with many of its neighbors were far better in June 2022 than in June 2021, and that the geostrategic map of the Middle East had started to shift in a positive direction.

Early on, the coalition government focused on deepening the Abraham Accords and  enhancing its anti-Iran policy.  Then-Prime Minister Bennett indicated a strengthening of approach toward Iran in July 2021, just before a visit to Washington.  This re-invigorated policy, according to media reports, became known within the security services as the “Octopus doctrine”.  Comparing Iran’s leadership to the head of an octopus, its tentacles are the various Iranian proxy groups spread across the Middle East. The coalition approved a change in tactics from striking only at the tentacles to going straight for the head. An Israeli security official is reported to have told the London Daily Telegraph: “[Ex-] prime minister Bennett’s Octopus doctrine has proven to be effective. It has caused shockwaves throughout the leadership of Iran.”

Although never acknowledged publicly, there is a widespread belief that the coalition authorized a program of covert action aimed at disrupting or delaying Iran’s progress toward acquiring a nuclear arsenal, including cyber attacks, explosions at key installations and the assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientists.

The coalition government certainly authorized Israel’s security forces to neutralize Iranian attempts to hit Western targets abroad.  In April 2022, Mossad operatives in Iran were reported to have captured and interrogated Mansour Rasouli, who was leading a plot to kill an Israeli diplomat, a US general stationed in Germany and a Jewish journalist in France. In late May, the deputy commander of a unit of Iran's IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodae, responsible for plans to murder Israelis in Turkey, was killed in Iran.

The coalition’s proactive anti-Iran policy included hitting an array of targets inside Iran using drones. In February an airbase near Kermanshah, in Western Iran, was subject to an attack that reportedly destroyed hundreds of drones.  Since then, several advanced quadcopter drones carrying powerful explosives damaged a secret and classified military installation in Iran’s Parchin military technology complex.

In the dying days of the coalition, just ahead of a visit to Turkey by then-foreign minister Yair Lapid, Mossad and its local counterpart in Turkey managed to thwart three Iranian attacks targeting Israeli civilians, including a former ambassador.  Turkish media reported that 10 people had been arrested as part of an Iranian plot.

Suspicions began spreading within the top echelons of the Iranian regime that its top-level security had been breached.  In April 2022 several dozen employees of the Iranian Defense Ministry were detained on suspicion of leaking classified information to Israel. At the end of May Israel published a series of intercepted Iranian documents online, including details about its nuclear program. 

The top leadership became convinced that the rot had infiltrated even to the regime’s powerful IRGC.  On June 23 its fearsome intelligence chief Hossein Taeb was sacked, while on June 20 news emerged that senior Iranian commander Brig. Gen. Ali Nasiri had been secretly arrested on allegations of spying for Israel.

The coalition government’s anti-Iran policy was balanced by a proactive approach to strengthening Israel’s relations across the region and beyond, headed by Lapid as foreign minister.

 “The Middle East is changing and it’s changing for the better” said Bennett in March 2022 at the so-called “Negev forum” meeting of Israeli and Arab foreign ministers in Sde Boker. “We’re cultivating old ties and building new bridges.”

These principles are reflected in Israeli policies towards Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf States over the past year. One of the coalition government’s first foreign policy priorities was mending diplomatic relations with Jordan, which had suffered during the Netanyahu years.  Over the past year King Abdullah II has hosted Israel’s President, prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister.  New trade agreements were signed, raising the ceiling for Jordanian exports to the West Bank from $160m annually to $700m, and Israel approving the sale of an additional 50 million cubic meters of water to the Kingdom.

The two sides also signed an energy cooperation agreement. Helped by finance from the UAE, the November 2021 agreement envisioned the construction of a major photovoltaic (solar) plant in Jordan with the capacity to generate 600 MW to export green power to Israel, while a desalination plant will be established in the Israel to send up to 200 million cubic meters of water to Jordan.

Israel’s relations with Egypt, which were in any case strong and stable under the previous government, also saw an uplift.  In September 2021 Bennett received a warm welcome from President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi in the first summit between Israeli and Egyptian leaders in more than a decade. In March, following the inauguration of a new flight route between Ben Gurion airport and Sharm el-Sheikh, Bennett took part in a trilateral meeting with Sisi and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

During the coalition government’s year of office top-level relations with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco were confirmed and strengthened by a succession of official visits and new political and commercial agreements. Relations with the UK were enhanced by Lapid’s highly successful visit to Britain in January.   The agreement with the EU to export liquified natural gas from Israel’s reserves was another major foreign policy triumph.

Whatever the shortcomings of the coalition government at home during its short tenure of power, it can point to a succession of major achievements abroad.  With its former foreign minister now leading the government until the election in November, Israel can expect successful foreign policy initiatives to continue at least till then.


Published in the Jerusalem Post, 19 July 2022:
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-712439

Published in Eurasia Review, 29 July 2022:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/29072022-what-did-israels-coalition-government-achieve-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 2 August 2022:
https://mpc-journal.org/what-did-israels-coalition-government-achieve/

Published in Jewish Business News, 29 July 2022:
https://jewishbusinessnews.com/2022/07/29/what-did-israels-coalition-government-achieve/

Wednesday, 13 July 2022

Biden aims to boost a Middle East defense strategy

This article was published in the Jerusalem Post on 13 July 2022, just ahead of President Biden's visit to Israel

Once top secret, a multi-national meeting of military leaders in March 2022 forms the basis for discussions that US President Joe Biden is planning for his imminent visit to the Middle East. 

For three months a clandestine get-together of US, Israeli and Arab military chiefs remained secret. Then on June 26 the Wall Street Journal printed an exclusive, revealing details of a meeting hosted by the US in Egypt’s Sharm-el-Sheik the previous March which had apparently included military leaders from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. They had met in secret, according to the report, in order to explore ways of coordinating a joint response to Iran’s growing missile and drone capabilities.

As the WSJ pointed out, these talks marked the first time that such a range of ranking Israeli and Arab officers had met under US military auspices to discuss how to defend themselves and each other against a common threat.

A glance at the participants suggests that something else is new on the regional scene – the positive effect that the Abraham Accords is having in expanding the concept of normalization across the moderate Arab world.  No longer does the idea of sitting round a table with Israelis seem inconceivable, even though Qatar and Saudi Arabia have no formal diplomatic relations with Israel.  On the contrary, it is becoming increasingly obvious to Arab leaders that linking up with Israel’s hi-tech capabilities across a multitude of fields brings them huge benefits not otherwise available.

For example, Arab countries appear increasingly keen to access sophisticated Israeli air defense technology, following a succession of recent drone strikes on oil facilities and infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, perpetrated by Iran or its proxies. One such, carried out in September 2019, was claimed by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.  It hit an Aramco compound in Saudi Arabia, shutting down about 5 percent of global oil production and caused chaos in financial markets. A 3-drone strike directed by Hezbollah against Israel’s Karish oil rig in the Mediterranean on July 2 was shot down by the IDF.

During his visit Biden is due to attend a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), to be augmented by the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq.  It will no doubt include on the agenda the regional threat to security posed by Iran and its proxies. Collaborative counter-measures arising from the Sharm-el-Sheik meeting in March might be reviewed. 

Media reports claim that the participants in the March meeting discussed which country’s forces would intercept drone, ballistic or cruise missile attacks. They agreed in principle to coordinate rapid notification systems when aerial threats are detected, but apparently agreed that for the present a US-style military data-sharing system would not be set up, but that alerts would be sent via phones and computers.

Presidential visits invariable generate intense media speculation, and the word is that during his time in Israel and Saudi Arabia, Biden will announce further steps in the warming relationship between the two nations. There is talk of Biden brokering a new Saudi-Israeli agreement which is believed to include allowing Israeli commercial flights over the kingdom, and Israeli approval of a plan to transfer Egypt’s control of two strategic Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia

In 2017, against much internal objection, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi ratified a treaty to hand over Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. The uninhabited islands figure in the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, which promises safe passage to Israeli civilian and military ships through the narrow waterways of the Straits of Tiran. The transfer was never finalized, and requires Israel’s consent. That now seems forthcoming.

Visits by US presidents to Israel might almost be considered routine (six did so, some more than once), but Biden’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia was long weighed in the balance. The fact that it is going ahead is a mark of the importance that Washington attaches to it.  Liberal opinion in the US declares itself outraged at the idea of Biden shaking hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), in the light of the Khashoggi affair.

On the afternoon of October 2, 2018 journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of MBS entered the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, never to emerge. Having listened to purported recordings of conversations inside the consulate made by Turkish intelligence, a UN special rapporteur concluded that the journalist had been "brutally slain" inside the building by a 15-strong team of Saudi agents, and that his body was then dismembered.

Khashoggi’s murder sparked worldwide outrage. US intelligence agencies concluded that the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, had approved the operation.  MBS denied playing any role. A year after the killing, a Saudi court found five people guilty of directly participating in the killing and sentenced them to death. The sentences were later commuted to 20-year prison terms. Three others received lesser sentences for covering up the crime.

         While Turkey has signed off on its involvement in the case, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and MBS have exchanged visits, liberal opinion in the West refuses to accept the Saudi judicial outcome, and continues to charge MBC with responsibility for the assassination. 

It is against this background that Biden sets foot in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, hoping to achieve a clear commitment by Saudi to increase oil production over time, thus fostering a drop in prices. With renewal of the Iran nuclear deal now unlikely, he will be seeking to expand cooperation between the Gulf states, other Arab countries and, as far as possible, Israel, to counter the threat from Iran.

High on Biden’s list of objectives will be to advance regional normalization, but especially the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel.  Media reports claim that Washington is working on "a roadmap to normalization" between the two countries, and that during his visit, Biden will discuss a "vision for integrated missile defense and naval defense” with his hosts. In other words, the secret meeting at Sharm-el-Sheik in March 2022 virtually set the agenda for this month’s presidential visit.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 13 July 2022:
https://www.jpost.com/american-politics/article-711908

Published in Eurasia Review, 23 July 2022:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/23072022-biden-boosts-middle-east-defense-strategy-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 26 July 2022:
https://mpc-journal.org/biden-boosts-middle-east-defense-strategy/

Published in Jewish Business News, 22 July 2022:
https://jewishbusinessnews.com/2022/07/22/biden-boosts-middle-east-defense-strategy/ 


Monday, 4 July 2022

Saudi Arabia and Turkey mend fences

             The feud is over.  Turkey and Saudi Arabia are on speaking terms again. As of June 22, 2022 the long battle between them to achieve political dominance in the Sunni Islamic world has been set aside. 

            At the latter end of 2021 Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s standing with much of the world was at a low ebb   At home the forecast for 2022 showed Turkey on a steep economic decline fuelled by soaring inflation.  Even in December 2021 the inflation rate in Turkey was over 36 percent.   Moreover, Erdogan had the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for June 2023, well in mind.  So Turkey set in train a wholesale rebooting and softening of its international relations.  A change of approach was signalled to the EU, to Egypt, to Iran, to Greece, surprisingly to Israel – and yes, even to Saudi Arabia. 

Relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia had been at rock bottom ever since the afternoon of October 2, 2018 when journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), was seen entering the Saudi consulate building in Istanbul, never to emerge.

Having listened to purported recordings of conversations inside the consulate made by Turkish intelligence, a UN special rapporteur concluded that the journalist had been "brutally slain" inside the building by a 15-strong team of Saudi agents, and that his body was then dismembered.

Khashoggi’s murder sparked worldwide outrage. Erdogan denounced the assassination as “savage” and “premeditated”.  US intelligence agencies concluded that the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, had approved the operation.  MBS denied playing any role.

A year after the killing, a Saudi court found five people guilty of directly participating in the killing and sentenced them to death. The sentences were later commuted to 20-year prison terms. Three others received lesser sentences for covering up the crime.  Turkey rejected this outcome as "scandalous", and for almost two years a court in Istanbul had been trying 26 Saudi officials in absentia on charges of premeditated murder or destroying evidence.

That was the position on April 28, 2022 when Erdogan, in pursuit of his policy of resetting Turkey’s foreign relations, flew to Saudi Arabia for meetings with King Salman and the virtual ruler of the country, MBS.  It was not long before the Saudi state news agency was publishing images of the Turkish president embracing the Crown Prince and in close discussion with his father, the King. 

The visit came as Turkey’s annual inflation rate hit 70 percent and domestic prices across the board were soaring ever higher.  Erdogan, seen by the Turkish public as primarily responsible for the problem, came to Saudi Arabia seeking what he termed “a new era” in bilateral ties, and no doubt financial assistance.  His Saudi hosts undoubtedly had requirements of their own as a quid pro quo for any assistance they would offer.

Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas had long been a bone of contention with Saudi Arabia, and indeed with Egypt and with Israel.  On his return to Turkey Erdoğan, asserting that “diplomatic circumstances have changed”, shut down the Brotherhood’s Mekameleen TV station and restricted the group’s public relations. In addition, the Turkish government began expelling Hamas activists, including members of the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades, its military wing.  These moves were clearly a direct message to Saudi Arabia, and the world, that a sea-change in Turkey’s foreign relations was in progress.  

Erdogan’s discussions with MBS and his subsequent actions must have gone down well in Riyadh, to say nothing of the Turkish government’s decision on June 17, 2022 to drop all charges against suspects in the Khashoggi case and hand it over to Saudi Arabia.  For on June 22 MBS was stepping onto Turkish soil, beginning what might be described as an historic visit to the country.

          The Crown Prince – who, in March 2018 had referred to Turkey as part of a "triangle of evil" alongside Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood – met Erdogan in the Turkish capital, Ankara. In a joint statement after the talks, the two leaders said they were determined to start a “new period of cooperation,” adding that the talks reflected “the depth of the perfect relations” between them. They had discussed how the two countries could start easing trade and cooperating more closely in a whole variety of areas including energy, business, defense and artificial intelligence.

Saudi’s economy is currently booming. Saudi Aramco says that as global economic growth recovered from a pandemic induced downturn, its 2021 net profit soared by more than 120 percent.  In short, Saudis are in a position to invest abroad, and Saudi Arabia is in apposition to support and improve the ailing Turkish economy. 

With the 2023 presidential elections in mind, Erdogan is no doubt hoping to replicate his success when normalizing Turkey’s relations with the United Arab Emirates in February 2022.   The Gulf state celebrated the new-found friendship by signing 12 agreements across the defense, commercial and cultural sectors and announcing a $10 billion fund to support investments in Turkey. 

Interviewed about the implications of the new-found Saudi-Turkish relationship, Saudi businessman Abdullah Al-Maleihi, head of Al-Tamayoz Holding Company, said that companies in Saudi Arabia and Turkey have already opened negotiations about expanding business dealings in a variety of fields.  Turkish real estate, he said, is considered one of the most popular Turkish commercial sectors to attract Saudi investors, while the infrastructure sector within Saudi Arabia offers great opportunities to Turkish companies. He believed that the projected expansion of economic, investment and commercial cooperation would lead to the reorganization of the Saudi-Turkish Business Council. 

A new era of bilateral trade, business and government-to-government cooperation between Turkey and Saudi Arabia seems about to dawn.  The development is to be welcomed for its own sake.  It is also a significant strengthening of the anti-Iran alliance that is building in the Middle East.

Published in the Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Post on-line, 5 July 2022:
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-711189

Published in Eurasia Review, 15 July 2022:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/15072022-saudi-arabia-and-turkey-mend-fences-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 19 July 2022:
https://mpc-journal.org/saudi-arabia-and-turkey-mend-fences/

Published in Jewish Business News, 15 July 2022:
https://jewishbusinessnews.com/2022/07/15/saudi-arabia-and-turkey-mend-fences/


Monday, 27 June 2022

Putin, Erdogan and the expansion of NATO

This article appears in the Jerusalem Post, 28 June 2022:      

            Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, no less than fourteen of its one-time satellite states in eastern Europe have joined NATO. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has watched the NATO boundary advance inexorably toward his western border with increasing concern. In particular Latvia and Estonia now stand nose-to-nose with Russia, since each shares a land border with it. As for Belarus and Ukraine, Putin has been determined that neither would ever enter the NATO camp, since that would bring NATO right into the heart of Mother Russia. At least, Putin has consoled himself, up in the far north Finland, with its long land border with Russia (1,340 kilometers or 830 miles) is neutral and has always steered clear of NATO membership.

         The failure of the West in general, and NATO in particular, to react decisively to Putin’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 must have led him to regard the West as disunited and ineffective. He had done his best, moreover, to ensure that Western Europe had grown very largely dependent on Russia for its energy needs, putting Putin in a dominant negotiating position. A swift land grab of Ukraine, he must have calculated, would not only halt NATO’s advance in its tracks, but probably evoke as little adverse reaction as his Crimea adventure had done.

          Putin has been proved wrong on each of these assumptions. His invasion of Ukraine brought about an instant and universal adverse reaction. The valiant fight-back led by its President Zelensky evoked admiration in the West, and a determination to support him. Support may have been hesitant at first, but unlike in 2014 the West has finally demonstrated determination of purpose. As for Europe’s overwhelming dependence on Russian energy, that had been real enough, and it has taken time and political will for the EU to change direction and find alternative sources, but the process is under way.

          However much Russian spokespeople may dissemble and word play, it is patently obvious that Putin’s plans have gone disastrously awry. When on February 24, 2022 he sent in the troops he had been amassing for nearly a year on the Ukrainian border, he anticipated a 3-week campaign at the most, and a swift and decisive victory. He most certainly did not expect to find himself in June bogged down in the middle of a still-independent Ukraine, licking his wounds.

          The most surprising of all Putin’s miscalculations, perhaps, concerns Finland and Sweden. Long unwilling to ally themselves to NATO, the raw aggression displayed by Putin in invading Ukraine proved a catalyst, leading them to agree jointly on May 15, 2022 to apply for membership. The time had come to confront the ruthless and power-hungry dictator on their doorstep before it was too late.

          This potential expansion of the NATO alliance is far from a foregone conclusion. NATO rules state that any extension of its membership must have the unanimous approval of all existing members. From out of the shadows stepped President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a long-time NATO member, announcing that he did not favor accepting the Swedish and Finnish applications. They are both, he asserted, “guesthouses for terrorist organizations”.

          Turkey has repeatedly criticized western European countries, including Sweden and Finland, for tolerating organizations it deems “terrorists”, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), as well as the followers of the US-based Muslim scholar Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan accuses followers of Gulen of mounting a coup attempt against the Turkish government in 2016.

          At a press conference on May 16 Erdogan made two demands: that Finland and Sweden end their support for the PKK, and that their ban on arms exports, imposed in October 2019 after the Turkish incursion into northern Syria, be lifted. Two days later he extended his wish list, including extraditing alleged Kurdish terrorists and ending support for Kurdish fighters in Syria.

          His accusations are not a new device, dreamed up for the occasion. Lists of alleged PKK members and Gulen supporters were presented to Sweden and Finland as far back as 2017, with a demand for their extradition. Turkey wants 12 people returned from Finland and 21 from Sweden. Moreover Turkish media has revealed that the Syrian branch of the PKK held meetings in Stockholm, part-hosted by the Swedish foreign office. Turkey also says that Swedish security forces did nothing to prevent a PKK protest held in 2019 in support of the jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan.

          On June 9 Erdogan said: “Sweden at the moment is a country that terror organizations like the PKK, PYD and YPG use as a playground. In fact, there are terrorists even in this country’s parliament.”

          He was referring to the leading Swedish politician Amineh Kakabaveh, who grew up in a poor Kurdish home in western Iran. She says she was just 13 in the late 1980s when she joined Peshmerga fighters rebelling against the Islamic regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

          A strong advocate for Kurdish self-determination in the Middle East and a fierce critic of Erdogan, she is in an extraordinarily powerful position because the Swedish government depends on her vote for its one-seat majority in Parliament. Kakabaveh’s backing allowed Social Democratic leader Magdalena Andersson to become Sweden’s first female prime minister last year. In return, the center-left Social Democrats agreed to deepen cooperation with Kurdish authorities in northern Syria. Erdogan makes no distinction between the Kurdish groups in Syria and the PKK.

As for Finland, its foreign minister Pekka Haavisto has assured Turkey that the PKK connections in the country will be monitored more closely.  "We can certainly give such guarantees to Turkey, since the PKK is listed as a terrorist organization in Europe."

He believes it would take no more than a few weeks for Finland and Turkey to resolve issues related to Finland's NATO application.

Inevitably, there has been speculation that Finland might disengage from its joint application with Sweden to join NATO.  Finland’s president, Sauli Niinisto, and its prime minister, Sanna Marin, hastened to quash it.  Both have said that Finland would continue its application in lockstep with Sweden.

As long as Erdogan remains adamant in his demands, Putin ‘s worst fears regarding NATO’s expansion to his very doorstep will remain unrealized. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 28 June 2022, and in the Jerusalem Post on-line under the title: "Erdogan will ensure Putin's fears of NATO expansion are unrealized":
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-710550

Published in Eurasia Review, 8 July 2022:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/08072022-putin-erdogan-and-the-expansion-of-nato-oped/

Published in MPC Journal, 12 July 2022:
https://mpc-journal.org/putin-erdogan-and-the-expansion-of-nato/

Published in Jewish Business News, 8 July 2022
https://jewishbusinessnews.com/2022/07/08/putin-erdogan-and-the-expansion-of-nato/






Monday, 20 June 2022

Normalization splits the Arab world

    

         On March 28, 2022, the town of Sde Boker in Israel’s Negev region hosted an historic event – a meeting of the top diplomats of four Arab nations with those of the US and Israel. In a joint declaration all six endorsed the objectives of the Abraham Accords, reaffirmed the importance of fostering ties between Israel and the broader Middle East, and declared that the conference represented the launch of what would become a permanent regional forum.

          On May 26 Iraq's parliament approved legislation that criminalizes any form of normalization with Israel. All Iraqis, whether inside or outside the country, are banned from establishing relations with Israel, visiting the country, or promoting normalization. The legislation applies to all state officials, including those in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdistan region, as well as government institutions, private sector companies, the media, foreign companies and their employees.

          The law stipulates that any Iraqi who visits Israel will be sentenced to life imprisonment, and those who establish any political, economic, or cultural relations with Israeli institutions, even through social media networks, will be sentenced to death.

          At the joint press conference in Sde Boker, Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, said the forum was building “a new regional architecture based on progress, technology, religious tolerance, security and intelligence cooperation” intended, he emphasized, to intimidate and deter “our common enemies – first and foremost Iran and its proxies. They certainly have something to fear.”

          Some commentators identify two distinct blocs in the Arab world – a so-called “axis of normalization” consisting of moderate Sunni-Arab states that endorse formal or informal relations with Israel, and an “axis of resistance” comprising Iran and Iranian-supported bodies comprised of Shia-led governments such as Syria, quasi-states such as the Houthis in Yemen, and non-state groups like Hezbollah. It is possible the boundary between these blocs will widen, as remaining Arab states determine whether or not to normalize relations with Israel.

          A few states, such as Kuwait and Qatar remain uncommitted on the issue, maintaining ties with both the US and Iran. Saudi Arabia, which is also currently on the fence, is being wooed by its Gulf neighbors and Israel to join the Abraham Accords, and may be on the point of succumbing since it recently invested $2 billion by way of its sovereign-wealth fund into two Israeli tech start-ups. Turkey’s roller-coaster relationship with Iran has not prevented it from recently rebooting its relations with Israel.

          Within the rejectionist axis Tunisia and Algeria have cordial ties with Iran. Tunisia has on several occasions considered criminalizing normalization with Israel – the last in June 2021. As for Algeria, the Moroccan-Israeli accord has turned it into a hostile state. Algeria has consistently opposed Morocco’s claims on Western Sahara, which were recognized by the US and Israel as a quid pro quo for Morocco joining the Abraham Accords. In any case, relations between Algeria and Iran have been improving fast in recent years, and Algeria now stands virtually aligned with Iran and China against the West.

          Getting the anti-normalization law through the Iraqi parliament was a political coup by Muqtada al-Sadr, a leading Iran-supporting Iraqi politician and Shia cleric.

He heads the Sairoon Alliance, the largest bloc in Iraq’s parliament. Sairoon, which won 74 seats out of a possible 329 in the parliamentary elections held in October 2021, out-maneuvered the not inconsiderable opposition emanating from Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. Many Kurdish political leaders have close and long-lasting links with Israel.

          On September 24, 2021, a conference in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, hosted more than 300 delegates from across Iraq including tribal and religious leaders, and actually called for the normalization of ties between Iraq and Israel, along the lines of the Abraham Accords: "We call for Iraq to enter into relations with Israel and its people through agreements similar to the Arab countries that have normalized." The motion was swiftly condemned by the Iraqi government, which dubbed the event a “illegal meeting”, and the judiciary issued arrest warrants for leading participants.

          Iran controls, either directly or by way of proxies, many of the state and military instruments within Iraq, and it has been pressuring the country to clamp down on the growing Israeli influence in the Kurdish region. In March Iran's IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) claimed to have carried out a ballistic missile attack against alleged Mossad targets in Erbil, possibly over plans to export Kurdistan's gas to Turkey via a new pipeline involving Israel. The Kurdish Regional Government estimates potential gas reserves in the Kurdistan Region at 200 trillion cubic feet.

          But all is not well within the Kurdish body politic. It is split into two camps: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and the leaders are trying to overcome the discord between them.

A visit to the KDP by Kurdistan Region president, Nechirvan Barzani, of the PUK on May 21 was aimed at starting the process, but also with addressing the vexed question of forming a national government. Ever since the parliamentary elections of October 2021, Iraq has been without a government. Kurdish involvement is crucial, since under Iraq’s new constitution the presidency is reserved for a Kurd.

          The KDP and the PUK have allied themselves with opposing sides in the political bartering. The PUK opted to join a pro-Iran Shiite Arab alliance despite its differences with them over links with Israel, while the KDP has become part of a tripartite alliance with the Sadrist bloc and a Sunni Arab grouping that is equally anti-Israel.

          In short, both Israel-supporting Kurdish parties are prepared to collaborate with the political groupings that passed Iraq’s anti-normalization law. What is more, the next president of Iraq, whenever he is elected, has to be a Kurd. This must indicate that al-Sadr’s successful maneuver on May 26 in Iraq’s hamstrung parliament may not be the last word on the subject.

Published in the Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Post on-line, 21 June 2022:
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-709927

Published in Eurasia Review, 2 July 2022:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/02072022-normalization-splits-the-arab-world-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 2 July 2022:
https://mpc-journal.org/normalization-splits-the-arab-world/

Published in Jewish Business News, 1 July 2022:
https://jewishbusinessnews.com/2022/07/01/normalization-splits-the-arab-world/

Tuesday, 14 June 2022

How Iran stands to gain from the war in Ukraine

 

          On June 2 the Dubai-based media outlet, Al-Arabiya News, highlighted the irony of how Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has impacted on the Middle East. Citing reports that Russian troops were being withdrawn from Syria to augment the forces in Ukraine, the article maintained that further Russian retreats will likely follow, “paving the way for Iran to wield complete influence over Syria.” “No one,” it writes, “could have guessed that Iran would gain the most from the Ukraine crisis.”

          Al-Arabiya News favours Russia’s presence in Syria, not so much for sustaining in power Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, as for restricting Iran’s military expansion. Russia’s ambitions in the region, it maintains, were not too grand — to improve its trade and investment balance, use the port of Tartus, and play a significant role in the Middle East.

          “Today, this theoretical foreign balance in Syria is about to be tipped in favour of Tehran… The withdrawal of Russia coupled with the continued military presence of Iran could rekindle the flames of conflict inside and around Syria, as the objectives of Iran’s presence in Damascus go far beyond protecting the Syrian regime.”

          The Moscow Times is Russia’s leading independent media outlet. In March 2022, following a new law in Russia restricting media coverage of the invasion of Ukraine, it moved its main editors to Amsterdam. A few weeks later the authorities blocked access within Russia to its Russian-language website. Nevertheless it continues to publish.

          On May 6 the Moscow Times reported that, in order to strengthen his Ukrainian operations, Russian President Vladimir Putin was downsizing Russian military involvement in Syria. The news outlet maintained that Russia had already begun the process of withdrawing a proportion of its 63,000 troops stationed in Syria, and was concentrating them at three airports before transferring them to the Ukrainian front. The troops being redeployed included the notorious mercenary Wagner Group. Abandoned Russian air bases were being handed over to Iran’s IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and Lebanon’s terrorist Hezbollah.

          Two days later Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, was in Iran. Some commentators believe Assad went specifically to ask for increased Iranian support to make good any Russian scale-back in Syria. Assad is well aware that it was only Putin’s intervention in the Syrian conflict in September 2015 that enabled him to defeat his opponents and retain power.

          Yet Assad is in something of a dilemma. If Russia’s support weakens, he cannot cozy up too closely to Iran even though, as an adherent to the Shi’ite tradition of Islam, he has long been its client. Assad wants to be readmitted to the Arab League, and to succeed he needs Arab support. Any substantial strengthening of Iran’s position in Syria would undoubtedly affect Syria’s relations with other Arab countries, most of whom regard Iran and its regional ambitions with suspicion.

          This political reality was made crystal clear by Jordan’s King Abdullah on May 18.

Visiting Stanford University in the US, Abdullah maintained that the Russian presence in southern Syria was a “stabilizing factor”, and that if it withdrew the void would be filled by Iran and its proxies posing a real threat to Jordan’s stability. He added that ever since Moscow had been distracted by the Ukraine war, his country had been facing the possibility of conflict on its border with Syria

          Abdullah was referring to reports that Iran was already taking advantage of Russia’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine to expand into south and central Syria. Iran’s presence in southern Syria represents a real threat to Jordan. Abdullah has long warned about Iran’s ultimate ambitions in the Middle East. The Jordanian army is currently mobilizing along the border with Syria to combat drug and arms smuggling. In January Jordan announced that in future it will, if necessary, pursue smugglers across the border and apprehend them inside Syria.

          Russia has invested heavily in Syria, partly to ensure its continued access to the Mediterranean by way of the port of Tartus, and Putin would not withdraw fully except under extreme pressure. The extent of his continued presence in Syria depends on how successful his military operation is in Ukraine. If he needs to augment his fighting force there, then he will draw even more heavily on his troops currently stationed in Syria, and the shift in the balance of power would soon become evident. The Assad regime would undoubtedly turn to Iran and its IRGC to maintain control and to continue fighting the opposition and extremist Sunni groups.

          Russia and Iran, although nominally in alliance in Syria, were far from agreeing on such issues as Syria’s political future, its postwar reconstruction, and future economic, political and military policies. Iran could find itself with considerably increased powers in Syria, both military and political. Any significant increase in Iranian troop levels or military activity in Syria would probably attract further Israeli strikes.

          So the political equation turns out to be: Russian failure in Ukraine equals a strengthened Iran in Syria, and a more powerful Iran probably equals increased anti-Iran military activity by Israel. Democratic interests in the Middle East find themselves condemning Putin’s Ukrainian adventure, but fearing lack of success in the operation would boost the Iranian regime’s power base in the Middle East. This is the unexpected and uncomfortable by-product of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Published in the Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Post on-line, 13 June 2022:
https://www.jpost.com/international/article-709243

Published in Eurasia Review, 26 June 2022:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/25062022-how-iran-stands-to-gain-from-war-in-ukraine-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 26 June 2022:
https://mpc-journal.org/how-iran-stands-to-gain-from-the-war-in-ukraine/

Published in Jewish Business News, 24 June 2022:
https://jewishbusinessnews.com/2022/06/24/how-iran-stands-to-gain-from-the-war-in-ukraine/