Friday, 27 February 2015

Assad or IS? No need to choose

          When in 2000 Bashar al-Assad succeeded his autocratic father as president of Syria, he inherited, and subsequently maintained, a tightly controlled police state in which a powerful and all-encompassing security machine ensured that the slightest hint of opposition to the regime was ruthlessly crushed.  In 2012 the BBC’s Tim Whewell broadcast a harrowing account, reminiscent of the worst days of Stalin’s Soviet Union, of the lengths to which reporters and opponents of Assad had to go in order to keep one step ahead of Syria’s secret police.
   But by then, taking their cue from the Arab Spring uprisings that had spread across the Middle East, groups antagonistic to Assad's government had already begun nationwide protests. Gradually popular dissent developed into an armed rebellion.  The opposition, consisting of a variety of groups but primarily the Free Syrian Army, sought to overthrow the despotic Assad regime and substitute a democratic form of government.

Had assistance of any sort been forthcoming from the US or other Western governments at that early stage, Assad could have been defeated, to be replaced by a democratically elected government.  But President Obama hesitated, and went on hesitating even after it was clear in August 2013 that Assad had used chemical weapons against his opponents, regardless of the extensive civilian casualties that ensued. 

Two factors inhibited Obama from taking decisive action Russia and Iran.

Russia had long supported the Assad regime, which leases to the Russian navy a military installation in the port of Tartus, Russia’s only Mediterranean repair and replenishment facility. Tartus saves Russia’s warships the trip back to their Black Sea bases through the Turkish Straits. After the chemical weapons debacle, when Obama seemed to be seriously considering an air-strike against the Assad regime, Russia’s President Putin intervened to broker a deal under which Assad agreed to relinquish his whole chemical arsenal.  Obama held off striking, and Assad has subsequently held on to power in up to 40 percent of Syria.

As for Iran, Assad’s other powerful ally, it has become increasingly clear that Obama’s strategy has been, perhaps from the start of his presidency, to permit Iran some leeway in its efforts to achieve the leading position in the Middle East to which its Supreme Leader aspires.  It seems that this flawed strategy, devised as far back as 2006 by the Iraq Study Group, was based on the idea of engaging with two Shia Muslim ‘axis of evil’ members, Syria and Iran, on the assumption that they would, for their own sakes, combat Sunni Muslim al-Qaeda the major terrorist threat at that time.

In the event Iran has indeed, both directly and by way of its puppet organization, Hezbollah, engaged with the Sunni jihadists in war-torn Syria, and especially with Islamic State (IS) which has proved itself much more of a threat to the rest of the world even than al-Qaeda. What Iran will not do is engage in co-ordinated military operations with the US, despite the reports that Obama has written secretly on at least four occasions to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, urging Iran to involve itself more fully in opposing IS forces in Syria. Suspicions persist that these approaches by Obama are connected with the long-drawn-out negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program and its likely outcome namely an acknowledgement of Iran’s "right to enrichment" and agreement for it to retain its massive centrifuge infrastructure.  Iran might well emerge with the ability to acquire a nuclear weapons capability within a comparatively short period a horrifying prospect, given its record as the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, its support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, and its aim to dominate the Middle East both politically and religiously.

Given this background, and in view of Assad’s continuing struggle against IS, some EU countries are said to be considering restoring relations with the Syrian government despite the view of the US, the UK and France that Assad has lost all legitimacy, and that his departure is a precondition for negotiating an end to the civil war.  But as the collapse of his government seems increasingly less likely, and especially since the US has become more actively involved in combatting IS, at least seven EU states are believed to support thawing relations with Damascus. US officials are still saying that their goal is for Assad to leave power, but with no means of achieving this at an acceptable cost they seem to have put it on the back burner while focussing on the anti-IS struggle.

Meanwhile Assad does not lack apologists in the West, largely from the far-right.  Among those voicing their support are Jean-Marie Le Pen, former leader of France’s National Front, Nick Griffin former leader of the far-right British National Party, and no less than David Duke, former leader of the American Ku Klux Klan. Perhaps the most extreme example of far-right support for Assad is the Greek neo-Nazi Black Lilley group whose members have been reportedly fighting alongside the Syrian army.

One of the most prominent pro-Assad groups affiliated with the far-right is the European Solidarity Front, a coalition of political activists who organise delegations to Syria in support of the Assad government. “The European Solidarity Front is open to all those who love Syria,” the group said in a 2013 statement, “and support solidarity with President Assad, the Syrian nation and its army.”

It is extremely concerning that the idea of supporting Assad, however peripherally, seems to be infiltrating mainstream political thinking in parts of Europe.  It is a form of realpolitik reaction to the lack of a clear lead from Washington and Brussels about how to treat the enemy’s enemy – in other words, while fighting IS how does one deal with Assad who is also fighting IS?

"We don't know what this coalition wants and the United States is not deciding," said Bassma Kodmani, director of the Paris-based Arab Reform Initiative and a former member of the main Syrian opposition in exile. "That's leading to calls in Europe that Assad is the lesser of the two evils."

The logical answer comes, as might be expected, from France.  Asked whether France should resume intelligence sharing with Damascus in the fight against IS, the French Defence Minister, Jean Yves Le Drian, said robustly: "Bashar al-Assad has been murdering his people for years. He is not part of the solution for Syria. We don't need to choose between a bloody dictator and a ruthless terrorist army. The two should be fought." 

Wise words.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 2 March 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 2 March 2015:

Friday, 20 February 2015

Tony Blair's flawed peace plan

            On Sunday, February 15, 2015 Tony Blair visited Gaza.
            It is nearly eight years since Blair took up the role of envoy to the Middle East on behalf of “the Quartet” (the UN, the EU, the US and Russia). On the day he was officially confirmed in post – June 27, 2007, the very day he resigned as UK Prime Minister – the White House announced that both Israel and the Palestinians had signed up to the appointment.

Other voices – not all of them from the Arab world – expressed varying degrees of scepticism about his credibility as an impartial peacemaker, given the controversy already raging about Britain's key role in the invasion of Iraq.  But he threw himself into the job, stressing from the start the two main conditions that he believed would allow the launch of credible negotiations – a more unified position within Palestinian politics, and developing the West Bank economy.

What has he achieved? In February 2015 Palestinian politics are no more unified than when Blair took on his role, nor is the West Bank economy more flourishing.  It would, though, be fair to say that despite his best efforts – and he certainly strove hard, especially in the early days – it is events beyond his control that have frustrated his good intentions. The past eight years have seen cataclysmic changes within the Middle East, and it has been a roller-coaster of a ride as far as the Israel-Palestinian conflict is concerned.

As for the Quartet itself, since the start in July 2013 of the well-intentioned, but eventually abortive, peace effort led by US Secretary of State John Kerry, it has been in virtual hibernation. Early last month, however, the US envoy to the UN, Samantha Powers, unexpectedly announced a lower-level meeting of representatives of the Quartet members. Commentators were quick to speculate that this might indicate a move by the US to reinvigorate the dormant group.

          The statement issued after the meeting seems to justify this interpretation.  It reported that the representatives had explored what the Quartet could do to support the resumption of meaningful negotiations leading to a peace agreement based on a two-state solution. Noting the importance of engaging closely with (unspecified) “Arab partners”, the one matter they agreed on was the importance of convening a meeting of the Quartet Principals as soon as possible.

It is against this background that Tony Blair ventured into Gaza last week for the first time in more than five years.  Having met with members of the Palestinian unity government and various business, community and UN workers, he returned to issue his conclusions about the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.  “We need a new approach to Gaza and a new approach to peace,” he wrote.  And he proceeded to analyse the obstacles to peace, as he sees them, and a proposed approach to overcoming them.

His first, and valid, point is that the “on-the-ground-reality”, as he puts it, is not conducive to peace: ”indeed the opposite.”  Accordingly he sets out three pre-conditions for a successful peace process, and they are not all that different from how he saw the issues back in 2007.  First, he says, because the economy on the West Bank has stalled, there needs to be a dramatic improvement in the daily lives of Palestinians.  A second requirement, now as then, is what he terms “unified Palestinian politics” on a basis that is explicitly in favour of peace and two states, Palestine and Israel.  A third is an enhanced role for the region, in alliance with the international community, which must step up to share leadership of the issue.

But there is an elephant in the room, which Blair pointedly ignores. It is not, as might be thought, the irreconcilable differences between Hamas, the de facto rulers of the Gaza strip, and Fatah which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA), even though these differences are deep and long-standing (there is abundant evidence that Hamas aspires to topple PA President Mahmoud Abbas and take over the West Bank, just as it did in Gaza).  On the contrary, the overwhelming obstacle to effective peace negotiations is the basic accord between Hamas and the PA on the desired outcome to the Israel-Palestine stand-off.

The two wings of the Palestinian body politic agree on one matter: eventually achieving a sovereign Palestine “from the river to the sea” that is, shorn of Israel.  Hamas is perhaps the more honest in its intentions, since it utterly rejects the two-state solution and declares itself at war with Israel.  As for Fatah, although Abbas has spent the past ten years nominally supporting the two-state solution, the charter of the Fatah party states quite unequivocally that Palestine, with the boundaries that it had during the British Mandate – that is, before the existence of Israel – is an indivisible territorial unit and is the homeland of the Arab Palestinian people.  Each Palestinian, it declares, must be prepared for the armed struggle and be ready to sacrifice both wealth and life to win it back. Given these founding beliefs of his party, Abbas’s tactic of supporting the two-state solution – inherited from his predecessor, Yassir Arafat – pretty obviously represents only the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine.

This underlying reality explains why every attempt to negotiate a resolution of the Israel-Palestine dispute has failed. In the final analysis no Palestinian leader has dared to sign up to a two-state solution, since to do so would be to concede that Israel has an acknowledged and legitimate place within Mandate Palestine – and that would instantly brand him a traitor to the Palestinian cause.

This factor Tony Blair ignores, and perhaps he is right to do so. If Abbas were indeed ever brought to the point of appending his signature to a peace agreement, he would need to have been totally supported by those unspecified “Arab friends” (namely the majority of the Arab League, who remain committed to their own peace plan).  Even then he would be playing ducks and drakes with his own life.  

When Blair considers Hamas, though, he asks for clarification of what is already patently clear. “Are they prepared to accept a Palestinian State within 1967 borders or not,” he asks, “with such a State being a final settlement to the conflict? If they are,” he declares, “that would allow the international community to promote reconciliation alongside reconstruction.”

What Blair does not pursue is what the international community should do if as Hamas have declared again and again they are not. And there, as Shakespeare succinctly puts it, is the rub.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 26 February 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 20 February 2015:

Friday, 13 February 2015

That dirty word appeasement

“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
–Winston Churchill

The ghost of Neville Chamberlain is haunting the international political scene.  The disastrous policy with which his name will forever be associated – appeasement – is alive and well, and being pursued with a determination of which he would surely have approved.  

The major lesson to be learned from the history of the 1930s is that there is no satiating the appetites of dictators and autocrats. Conciliation is a fruitless exercise when set against overweening political ambition.  Every concession is taken as a sign of weakness, and simply strengthens the will of the despot.  In short, failure to perceive iniquity for what it is, and to take a firm stand against it, leads to disaster.

Few of today’s leading figures were alive when dictators like Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler rode roughshod over international agreements in pursuit of their grandiose ambitions, and when, fearful of plunging the world into a second global conflict only twenty years after “the war to end wars”, the democracies bent over backwards to avoid frustrating them.

So when in 1935 Mussolini invaded and annexed Ethiopia, the rest of the world condemned him but did nothing.  When Hitler started a massive rearmament program in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles and proceeded to invade first the Rhineland and then Austria, a blind eye was turned. When he directed his attention to Czechoslovakia, Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister of the UK – then a genuine world power – flew on three occasions to Germany determined at any cost to avoid a military conflict.  At a meeting with Hitler, attended by Mussolini and the French prime minister Edouard Daladier, he agreed to chunks of Czechoslovakia being handed over to Germany in return for Hitler’s promise to renounce all future claims to European territory.  “Peace with honour,” Chamberlain triumphantly proclaimed on his return to the UK, waving the worthless document which Hitler had signed. “Peace for our time.”  Six months later German troops invaded and conquered Czechoslovakia.

Last week we found Vladimir Putin being cajoled and reasoned with by the President of France and the Chancellor of Germany.  The subject of their concern was not, as might be expected, his blatant annexation of Crimea – a manifest infringement of the sovereignty of Ukraine which took place in March 2014, and which world opinion seems to have accepted.  Their attention was focused on ending the conflict between Ukrainian forces and those of the so-called “rebels” who are seeking, with Putin’s covert support, to have a large slab of eastern Ukraine absorbed into Russia proper. Whether the ceasefire will stick is anyone’s guess, but Ukraine is likely to have lost absolute sovereignty over the region.

        President Obama has threatened tougher economic sanctions on Russia: “We have to show them that the world is unified and imposing a cost for this aggression,” but the world is far from unified, and Putin received a hero’s welcome when he visited Egypt just a few days ago.  Nor must it be forgotten that Russia is one of the so-called P5+1 group of nations (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) involved in the long-drawn-out negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme, negotiations led by America which also carry a strong whiff of appeasement about them. 

Writing in Ha’aretz recently, political scientist Amiel Ungar quoted leading analysts who believe that the “signature issue of Obama’s diplomacy” has been transforming US-Iranian relations.  Ungar traces the origins of this policy to the conclusions of the 2006 Iraq Study Group headed by former US Secretary of State, James Baker, and former Democratic representative Lee Hamilton. “With an American public disillusioned by the cost of democracy building in Iraq,” wrote Ungar, “Baker and Hamilton offered a balance-of-power approach based on engaging two ‘axis of evil’ members, Syria and Iran, who could be counted on to battle Al-Qaeda for their own sake. Additionally, the group expected Iran ‘to use its influence, especially over Shia groups in Iraq, to encourage national reconciliation’.”

Ungar believes that this recklessly flawed analysis is what underlies Obama’s willingness to accommodate Iran on the political front, and to offer it major and as-yet-unrequited concessions on the nuclear issue. During 2014 it emerged that in secret correspondence with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Obama actually attempted to engage Iran in the anti-Islamic State (IS) conflict.  In November the Wall Street Journal reported that Obama had written to Ayatollah Khamanei concerning the shared interest of the US and Iran in fighting IS militants. 

“The October letter,” asserted the Wall Street Journal, “marked at least the fourth time Mr Obama has written Iran’s most powerful political and religious leader since taking office in 2009, and pledging to engage with Tehran’s Islamist government.”

What has been the result?  As Ungar points out, Iran’s Supreme Leader and the head of the Revolutionary Guards' Al-Quds force, Qassem Soleimani, have both been emboldened.  In its objective to destroy Israel, Iran has re-engaged with Hamas in Gaza, strengthened Hezbollah in Lebanon and opened a new front opposite the Golan Heights in Syria. Meanwhile Obama seeks to placate Iran by recognizing its "right to enrichment" and allowing it to retain its massive centrifuge infrastructure.

Obama’s policy of appeasement has certainly not been opposed by Russia, Iran’s main ally on the P5+1, or by China.  On February 2 the foreign ministers of Russia, India and China met and issued a joint communique: "The Ministers … welcomed the extension of negotiations between P5+1 and Iran, and hoped that the two sides intensify diplomatic efforts with a view to reaching a comprehensive agreement at an early date."

       When the Obama administration came into office, its overt aim seemed to be to eliminate Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons. But was it in fact working to a different and secret agenda?  “The proof of the pudding,” runs the old saying, “is in the eating.” It is plain that Washington has taken no action against Iran’s efforts  to extend its influence across the Middle East.  As the Jerusalem Post recently noted: “From Yemen to Iraq to Syria to Lebanon to the Gaza Strip, the Iranians have been aggressively asserting themselves, in a clear attempt to build a broad swath of influence throughout the region. US inaction seems to signal a willingness to concede Tehran a place as a regional power at the expense of Israel and other US allies such as the Saudis and Egypt.”

        When Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, addresses the US Congress in March, he might well question not only the wisdom of appeasing Iran to the point of allowing it to become a desperately dangerous breakout nuclear power, but also the broader implications of turning a blind eye to its ambition to dominate the Middle East.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 February 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 February 2015:

Friday, 6 February 2015

Arabs lose patience with Hezbollah

A new and defiant spirit is abroad in the Arab world.  Not so very long ago Hamas and Hezbollah, though widely defined as terrorist organizations, were the heroes of Islam, the front line against Israel.  For any Arab state openly to criticize the “Palestinian resistance” would have been unthinkable.
That sacred cow has been slaughtered.  Within the past few weeks not only has Hamas’s military wing been branded a terrorist organization by Egypt, but Hezbollah and its leader have been roundly condemned by the Arab League itself.  Neither move indicates any sudden rush of affection for Israel.  Both were a response to activities by those bodies deemed unacceptable by their Arab co-religionists who, in a changing atmosphere, now feel able to voice their criticisms openly.

Sustained and supported by Hamas, the Ansar Bait al-Makdis terrorist organization, which is allied to Islamic State (IS), has been spreading death and destruction throughout the Sinai Peninsula.  It uses Hamas-controlled Gaza as its launch pad.  Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is dedicated to defeating it. Outlawing Hamas is part of his strategy for doing so.

As for Hezbollah, a self-acknowledged puppet dancing to strings pulled by Iran’s ayatollahs, it has usually escaped the hostility felt for Iran by most of the Arab world. But that hostility is real enough, for Iran’s policies fill most Arab states with alarm – its political ambition to dominate the region, its religious aim to substitute the Shi’ite for the Sunni tradition of Islam and, in pursuit of these objectives, its outright bid to become a nuclear power. With the old constraints on censuring Hezbollah weakened, the organization has been at the receiving end of a barrage of criticism from within the Arab world in the past few weeks – pressure it could well have done without.  For it is currently subject to considerable stresses on its own account.

A major burden for Hezbollah stems from its involvement, at Iran’s behest, in military operations in support of Syria’s President Bashar Assad.  With something like 5,000 fighters on the ground in Syria, and in excess of 600 killed on active service, Hezbollah’s involvement in a military adventure on behalf of a foreign power has led to outright criticism within Lebanon, even from within the Shi’ite community.

Hezbollah’s reputation within Lebanon has also suffered because of the retaliatory action taken against it by anti-Assad forces.  In short, it has been receiving a taste of its own medicine. Tactics it has used against Israel namely lightning strikes and the kidnapping of soldiers are being inflicted on its own forces­ by IS fighters and those of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.  Both organizations have secured enclaves inside Lebanon along its border with Syria.  This faces Hezbollah with the necessity of finding troops to man yet another military front, in addition to its operations in Syria and its permanent stand-off with Israel in southern Lebanon.

These pressures perhaps explain why Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was distracted enough a few weeks ago to wander into a diplomatic minefield. 

Bahrain, an island paradise set in the Gulf off the coast of Saudi Arabia, presents something of a dilemma for Iran and its allies.  While the Bahraini ruling house is, and always has been, Sunni Muslim, the bulk of the population adheres to the Shia tradition of Islam.  Iran would dearly love to bring Bahrain fully into its so-called “Shia crescent”, and typically, in pursuit of this objective, has been facilitating and financing terrorist activity within the kingdom in order to undermine the government.

In November 2014, Sheikh Ali Salman, the Shi’ite head of Bahrain’s ‘main political opposition group, the al-Wefaq Islamic Society, led a protest and boycotted the national elections. He was arrested and charged, among other matters, with agitating for a change of government by force, fomenting hatred and inciting others to break the law.

Nasrallah was unrestrained in his condemnation.  Maintaining that the people of Bahrain were calling for their legitimate rights including “an elected parliament that the people elect and not a parliament half of whose members are appointed,” he denounced Bahrain’s regime as “tyrannical and oppressive”.  He also alleged that in order to change the country’s majority-Shi’ite population, the authorities were encouraging an influx of Sunni foreigners into the country and were naturalizing Sunnis from across the region.

The reaction to Nasrallah’s speech was swift and devastating.

Lebanon's chargĂ© d’affaires, Elias Assaf, was summoned to the Bahrain foreign ministry, asked to condemn “hostile statements made by terrorist organization Hezbollah's secretary-general,” and to take legal measures against him. Nasrallah’s words, he was told, constituted an interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Shortly afterwards the foreign ministers of the Arab League issued a joint statement expressing their total opposition to Nasrallah’s “repetitive interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain.”  Strongly condemning his remarks as “a clear and unacceptable interference” in the kingdom’s internal affairs,” they called on the Lebanese government to follow their lead and condemn Hezbollah outright.

They went further. Plainly exasperated by Hezbollah in general, and its activities in Syria in particular, the Arab League set up a special meeting in Cairo.   Subsequently Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi announced that the League condemned all forms of foreign intervention in Syria, especially that of the Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah, which was acting in support of Iran’s ally, President Assad.

Aware of the country’s fragile political balance, Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil dissociated himself from the decision to condemn Hezbollah.  The Bahraini minister of foreign affairs, Khaled bin Ahmad, was scathing.  The Arab League’s statement regarding the “terrorist” Nasrallah, he asserted, was “clear as day,” and Lebanon must “stand with its brothers, as they stood by it.”

His words found an echo within Lebanon.  Naila Tawini, a Lebanese member of parliament, writing in the journal Al-Nahar, deplored Nasrallah’s intervention in Bahrain’s affairs. “Perhaps now that he is immersed in the Syrian and Iranian crises, he decided to return and stir things up at home. Whatever it is, we must not let him interfere with our efforts for a national dialogue.”

Writing in the international Arabic newspaper published in London, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Abdul Rahman al-Rashed was, if anything, even more caustic about Hezbollah, referring to its “dirty involvement in the Syrian civil war and its brutality within Lebanon…The once-admired organization,” he asserted, “has turned into a villain.”

What has led to this new Arab confidence in condemning the terrorist organizations it was once heresy to criticize?  Perhaps the unutterable brutality demonstrated time and again by IS, and especially the gruesome manner in which it recently chose to slaughter the Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kasaesbeh, is inducing genuine revulsion in the Arab world for those who not only indulge, but glory, in terrorism.  Let us hope so.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 8 February 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 February 2015: