Saturday, 27 December 2014

Palestinian problems

    Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) seems to be riding high.  Over the past few months he has witnessed declarations of support for a Palestinian state in the parliaments of country after country:  Ireland, Britain, Spain, France, Sweden – and most recently the EU parliament.

        In addition the PA seems determined to force a vote in the UN Security Council, on a draft resolution submitted by Jordan, requiring Israel to have withdrawn to the pre-1967 lines and a Palestinian state to have been established by the end of 2017. The Security Council consists of fifteen members – five permanent, with the power of veto, and ten non-permanent.  The PA requires nine votes for their resolution to be adopted, but this could occur only if it is not vetoed by one or more of the five permanent members.

        One of the permanent members, France, is preparing its own alternative resolution, and another – the US – is not in favor of by-passing a negotiated settlement.  The wording of the resolution very carefully attempts to by-pass US objections by simply affirming  “the urgent need to attain” a two-state solution, and by including “mutually agreed, limited, equivalent land swaps” plus a third-party security presence.  Nevertheless, the chances of the PA draft resolution being adopted are uncertain, but even if it fails the mere act of bringing it before the Security Council will be surely be hailed by the PA as a diplomatic coup.

        So is Abbas riding the crest of a wave?  Appearances can be deceptive.  Two major problems face the PA. First, Palestine is a house divided against itself, with the PA the weaker party; and secondly, because of it, Abbas dare not currently resubmit himself or the PA to the democratic process, for the current polls indicate political defeat. In short, he lacks democratic legitimacy. He would be vehemently and vociferously challenged from within the Palestinian camp if he plunged wholeheartedly into the peace process. To evade the possibility of a humiliating deposition, or – with the fate of Egypt’s late President Anwar Sadat in mind – worse, he would much prefer to see some sort of solution forced on Israel by the weight of world opinion.

Open hostility between Hamas, the de facto rulers of the Gaza strip, and the PA has long been evident. In May 2014, as Abbas was announcing his new “government of national unity”, including so-called technocrats from Hamas, Israeli security forces uncovered an elaborate and well-funded Hamas plot aimed at overthrowing the PA in the West Bank. In August Shin Bet arrested 93 Hamas activists accused of setting up terror cells in 46 Palestinian towns and villages. The intention was to carry out mass attacks on Israeli targets and, under cover of this “third intifada”, to seize rule in Ramallah from Abbas and the PA. The operation would have been led by the "Mohammed Deif of the West Bank" – in other words, Hamas operations officer Saleh al-Arouri, who currently operates out of Turkey.

The inherent incompatability between the aims of Hamas and Fatah was apparent immediately after the end of the conflict in Gaza.  It became clear, even before the Egypt-sponsored talks between Israel and the Palestinians had started, that while Hamas was seeking to restore its status in Gaza – and show some positive achievements from the conflict – Fatah was intent on re-establishing a strong foothold for the PA in the strip.
These tensions, far from being resolved, have been exacerbated since Hamas nominally handed over to the PA responsibility for Gaza reconstruction.  This astute move means that Hamas is able to wash its hands of responsibility for the still unreconstructed state of Gaza.  At the October Cairo conference, donors pledged $5.4 billion to help rebuild Gaza, but barely 2% of the money has been transferred.  Transfer of the donations depends on the reconciliation government actually functioning in Gaza, for the donors want to be sure that the money reaches a leadership it can trust. Open hostility between Hamas and Fatah means that that the reconciliation government is virtually toothless in Gaza.

Abbas’s problems do not end with the PA’s stand-off with Hamas, for Fatah itself is split between his supporters and those of his main political opponent, Mohammed Dahlan – a native of Gaza, who was ousted from the PA by Abbas, and against whom a court in Ramallah is preparing an indictment on charges of corruption. Last week the PA decided to remove dozens of Fatah members affiliated with Dahlan’s faction from the Palestinian security forces in Gaza.  As news of the firings spread, anti-Abbas slogans appeared in Gaza and, with the approval of Hamas, Dahlan supporters demonstrated against Abbas in the center of Gaza.

        Nor is Dahlan his only bête noir. There is also jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, convicted in 2004 on five counts of murder for the deaths of four Israelis and a Greek monk, as well as attempted murder, conspiracy to murder, and membership of a terrorist organisation. From his prison cell Barghouti took issue with the text of the PA draft resolution to the UN Security Council, accused the PA leadership of making unjustified concessions on Palestinian rights, and called on the PA leadership to undertake an immediate and comprehensive revision.

        He criticized the PA’s readiness to conduct land swaps with Israel, claiming Israel would exploit the concept to legalize settlements.  He opposed the document’s wording on Jerusalem.  The PA text says that the city should be the capital of two states; Barghouti stressed that any resolution should emphasize that east Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state. Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, and the continued blockade of the Gaza Strip were other issues he believed should be included in a revised text.

        Tayseer Khaled, a member of the PLO Executive Committee and a leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, also criticized the draft resolution and called on the PA leadership to withdraw it from the Security Council.

        In the light of all this internal Palestinian opposition, it is not perhaps surprising that rumours are making the round to the effect that the PA have recently sent the US secret messages indicating that they would not object to a veto.

        In short, in presenting his draft resolution to the Security Council Abbas may appear to the world in general to have pulled off a diplomatic masterstroke.  From the propaganda point of view, a US veto would be irrelevant, or even positively advantageous.  Within the hopelessly divided Palestinian camp, however, it has already caused even more friction, animosity and disunity than already existed, and can only generate more.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 27 December 2014:

Friday, 19 December 2014

The non-Arab Middle East: Iran, Turkey and Israel

A certain TV art critic, when discussing familiar masterpieces, used to insist on turning them upside down. He maintained that viewing a work of art from an unfamiliar perspective added greatly to one’s understanding. The same can apply in other spheres – for example, the geopolitics of the Middle East.

   The Arab world is located fairly and squarely within that area of the globe now designated the Middle East (it has borne other names), but the Middle East is not exclusively Arab.  In addition to the numerous non-Arab minorities that inhabit the region, three major non-Arab states straddle it – Iran, Turkey and Israel.  In today’s world there is little love lost between them. It was not always so.

   The three differ in several basic respects, the most obvious being size.  Iran consists of some one-and–a-half million square kilometres, Turkey is about half that, while Israel is tiny by comparison at 21,000 square kilometres.  Iran and Turkey both have populations pushing some 80 million; Israel barely achieves 8 million. In geopolitical influence, however, the three probably stand shoulder to shoulder.

Another basic difference is religion.  While Israel is a Jewish state – the national home of the Jewish people – Iran and Turkey represent the conflicting branches of Islam. Iran is the leading exponent of the Shi-ite tradition; Turkey is a committed Sunni Muslim state.  Accordingly Iran and Turkey are actively engaged, though from opposing points of view, in the turmoil that has engulfed the Arab world.

   In the Syrian civil war, Iran supports the Shia-associated regime of President Bashar Assad; Turkey regards Assad as its mortal enemy – partly because of his support for Kurdish independence. Many believe Turkey even goes as far as providing aid and comfort to the brutal, but Sunni, Islamic State (IS), which is intent on spreading its control over as much of Syria and Iraq as possible, before advancing even further into the Islamic world.

   Underlying Iranian-Turkish antagonism lies the Iranian bid for political hegemony in the Middle East, to be underpinned by its acquisition of nuclear military capability – a bid that runs counter to the aspirations of Turkey’s new president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who also seeks to dominate the region.  The ambitions of both, of course, conflict with those of the leading state of the Arab world – Egypt. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has two major enemies:  the Muslim Brotherhood and its satellite, Hamas in Gaza.  The former is heavily supported by Turkey; the latter, despite its Sunni adherence, by Iran as part of its anti-Israel policy.

For if anything unites the political philosophies of these two non-Arab states, it is their opposition to the third – Israel.  Both Iran and Turkey seek to boost their popularity in the Arab world by unrestrained hostility towards Israel.  Iran not only engages in terrorist activities against Israeli targets worldwide, but finances and supports anti-Israel terrorist action from wherever it emanates, in particular Shi-ite Hezbollah in Lebanon, but also Sunni Hamas in Gaza.  Turkey under Erdogan, first as prime minister from 2003, now as president, has sought to enhance its credentials in the Muslim world by adopting a consistently anti-Israel stance.

It was not always so.  Once the three non-Arab states stood side by side. Back in March 1949 Turkey was the first Muslim majority country to recognize the State of Israel; a year later Iran followed suit.  Following Turkish recognition, cooperation between Turkey and Israel flourished, particularly in the military, strategic, and diplomatic spheres. Trade and tourism boomed, the Israel Air Force practised manoeuvres in Turkish airspace and Israeli technicians modernized Turkish combat jets. There were also plans for high-tech cooperation and water sharing.

When Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister of Turkey in 2003, he initially maintained a “business as usual” approach, and indeed paid an official visit to Israel in 2005.  However his sympathies, shaped by his Muslim Brotherhood background, very quickly resulted in his realigning Turkish policy in favour of an Islamist pro-Arab stance. Relations with Israel deteriorated rapidly, reaching their nadir in the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, when an attempt, backed by the Turkish government, to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza led to an armed encounter on the high seas, which resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish nationals. 

As for Iran, from the establishment of the State of Israel up to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty, the two countries maintained close ties. Israel viewed Iran as a natural ally, and fostered the relationship as part of the strategy favoured by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, of an “alliance of the periphery”. After the Six Day War in 1967, Iran supplied Israel with a significant portion of its oil needs, and Iranian oil was shipped to European markets via the joint Israeli-Iranian Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline. Israeli construction firms and engineers were active in Iran, and military projects are believed to have been wide-ranging, including an Iranian-Israeli attempt to develop a new missile.

       In December 1979 the Islamist Ayatollah Khomenei became Supreme Leader of Iran. Before the end of the year, Iran had severed diplomatic relations with Israel, and withdrawn its recognition.

   How extraordinary, therefore, that the leading Arab media organization, Al-Arabiya, on its website on December 16, 2014, should run a long article by Turkish political analyst, Ceylan Ozbudak, headed: “Old Friends Can’t be Foes”.  In it she maintains that “a new warmth is in the air for Turkey-Israel relations,” citing Israel’s offer of $20 to $23 million in compensation for the families of the nine Turkish nationals killed during the Mavi Marmara incident as “a major step forward to secure a normalization process with Turkey”. This, she says, can lead to further positive developments for both countries, and the region, in terms of security, economy and foreign policy.  “Today,” she maintains, “with the latest situation in the Middle East and the ongoing Syrian situation, the countries need the partnership of each other maybe more than ever.”

In support of this, she claims that a Turkey-bound pipeline is the most feasible option for exporting the natural gas being developed in Israel’s offshore exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, and that four Turkish companies are currently involved in negotiations to begin importing Israeli gas starting in 2017.

Ozbudak points out that Turkey is the only regional country to which both Iranian and Israeli citizens can travel without a visa.  Turkey, she maintains, is moving towards a closer diplomatic relationship with Iran. “It’s also high time,” she asserts, “to come closer to Israel to be able to mediate between the two countries when the need emerges.”

        Turkey as honest broker between Israel and Iran?   That would indeed be an upside-down world a re-aligned Turkey and a radically different Iran. But we’ve been there before, and what goes around, comes around. It’s a thought.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 23 December 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 20 December 2014:

Re-published in the MPC Journal, 9 June 2015:

Friday, 12 December 2014

Turkey and the Islamic State

No-one quite knows where Turkey stands in relation to the brutal and bloodthirsty Islamic State (IS), but there are reasons for fearing the worst.  The worst, from the point of view of the West generally, as well as much of the Middle East, is that Turkey’s antagonism towards Syria’s President Bashar Assad outweighs any opposition it may have to IS, and that its current foreign strategy is postulated on that premise. 

Underlying this position is the long-standing aim of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to deny Kurdish aspirations for full independence, and crush the militant Kurdish organisation, the PKK - a stance which has the full support of Ankara’s political establishment.  As demonstrated last autumn in the fight for Kobane, the town on the Syrian-Turkish border, rather than have the Kurds prevail the Turks would have preferred to see it overrun by IS. In the event, due to determined efforts by the US-led anti-IS alliance, Kobane has not fallen, but the Turks have sat on their hands while the battle raged,

The Western powers can perfectly well see what game Turkey is playing – standing by while IS slogs it out with its traditional Kurdish enemies, and using the humanitarian disaster thus created to pressure the US into helping remove Assad and his Shia-supported Islamic government.  In pursuit of replacing the Assad regime with one in the Sunni tradition, many fear that the Turks are actually supporting IS fighters with arms and training, as well as facilitating the flow of foreign fighters across its borders to join IS – something that Turkey strongly denies.

Perhaps this explains the recent influx of foreign visitors to the court of Turkey’s new president.  First to arrive early in December was Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.  He was followed by a high-powered delegation of top officials from the European Union.  Hard on their heels came the UK’s prime minister, David Cameron.  Each was seeking to pull Turkey closer to its own political interests.

Putin's visit highlighted a major disagreement between Russia and the EU involving the supply of gas to southern Europe.  The South Stream pipeline project, announced in 2007, was a plan to transport natural gas from the Russian Federation through the Black Sea to Bulgaria, then through Serbia, Hungary and Slovenia to Austria. The project fell foul of EU competition and energy legislation, and the difficulties could not be resolved.  Putin made his trip to Turkey in order to announce that Russia was scrapping South Stream, and to name Turkey as its preferred partner for an alternative pipeline. The proposed undersea pipeline to Turkey, with an annual capacity of 63 billion cubic metres, would face no EU competition problems, since Turkey remains outside the EU.

No doubt Putin hoped that Turkey would respond by agreeing to retain its neutral stance as regards Russia’s activities in Ukraine, and continue to refrain from imposing  Western-style sanctions.

Facing the prospect of a new Russo-Turkish entente, and clearly fearing the worst as regards Turkish intentions in the anti-IS battle, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, together with other top EU officials, flew to Turkey on December 8 to urge its full participation in the fight against IS militants in Syria, and to persuade Turkey to stop the flow of foreign fighters across its borders.

Underlying the visit was Turkey’s long-standing application, dating back to 1987, to join the EU. The visit by these top EU officials was one of the highest-profile in years and, said Mogherini, is a symbol of: “…our desire to step up the engagement.”

The EU apparently hopes that the coincidence of a new president and prime minister in Turkey, and a new European Commission in Brussels, can mark a fresh start in EU-Turkey relations.  This could at least pave the way for regular high-level talks to discuss common strategic interests, if not lead to granting Turkey’s long-standing wish to join the EU.

One issue up for discussion during the visit was surely the fact that Turkey has not joined in with the sanctions imposed by the West on Russia over Ukraine.  The proposed Russian-Turkish gas project clearly renders such a possibility even more remote, though EU officials doubtless pressed Turkey to join in sanctions, or at least not to take advantage of the situation by exporting affected products to Russia. 

The EU officials had barely left Turkish soil before the UK’s prime minister, David Cameron, flew into Ankara to try to persuade Erdogan to bend his policies in Britain’s direction. In particular IS poses a direct threat to Britain’s national security, both through its brutal beheadings of Western hostages and because of the growing number of British jihadists who are seeking to return home from fighting in Syria to carry out acts of terrorism.

Cameron hoped to persuade Erdogan to help track the movements of British and other foreign jihadists crossing Turkey’s border with Syria. At a joint press conference with Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish Prime Minister, Cameron was able to announce: “The prime minister and I have agreed that we should exchange even more information, we should cooperate more in terms of intelligence.”  This is understood to include requiring all Turkey’s airlines to share timely and accurate information about airline passengers flying from Turkish airports direct to the UK.

As for Turkey’s EU aspirations, Cameron said that he discussed Turkey’s accession to the EU during talks in Ankara on December 10 with Davutoglu.  “In terms of Turkish membership of the EU,” he said, “I very much support that. That’s a longstanding position of British foreign policy.”

Cameron’s difficulty is that Turkey, though a member of Nato, has a very different take on the Syrian conflict, and persuading Turkey’s leaders to alter their focus from overthrowing Assad to defeating IS is a task probably beyond Cameron, let alone the high-powered EU delegation that preceded him in Ankara. 

In fact, Erdogan has already announced the terms on which he might be persuaded to be more active in supporting the anti-IS alliance. His most specific demand is the creation of a buffer and no-fly zone along the Turkish-Syrian border, protected from Assad’s troops and aircraft.  This would represent a serious escalation of the conflict, since establishing a no-fly zone could involve destroying a good chunk of Assad’s air defence system. Moreover, artillery within the range of the buffer zone might also have to be targeted.

There is also the implication for relations with Iran. Creating a buffer zone would be seen by Iran as an invasion of a key ally, and it might well scupper any hope the US may have of linking the on-going nuclear talks with securing Iran’s support for a managed political transition that removes Assad but preserves much of the Syrian state.

All in all, the chances of persuading Turkey to abandon its somewhat equivocal approach to the Syrian conflict seem somewhat remote.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 14 December 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 December 2014: