Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Israel-Palestine: French recipe lacks ingredients

        As a former colonial power, France retains considerable influence in the Middle East. France was, of course, one of the two principals (the other was Great Britain) responsible for dismembering the Ottoman empire. The division of Turkish-held Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine into various French- and British-administered areas flowed directly from the Sykes-Picot agreement, a secret understanding concluded during World War One, between Britain (represented by Colonel Sir Mark Sykes), and France (represented by diplomat François Georges-Picot), with the assent of Russia. The agreement's principal terms were reaffirmed by the inter-Allied San Remo Conference in 1920 and then ratified by the Council of the League of Nations in 1922.

        France’s direct participation in the creation of the modern Middle East has meant that for the last hundred years it has involved itself in the politics of the region. As regards the Israeli-Palestinian situation, France has consistently defended Israel’s right to exist in security, while long advocating the creation of a Palestinian state. Any possible incompatibility between these two positions has never been acknowledged. It was certainly not referred to by former French president, François Mitterand, when he addressed Israel’s parliament in 1982. 

        Given France’s track record in the region, it is not surprising that it sees itself as a possible facilitator of an Israeli-Palestinan peace accord. Back in August 2009, when it was clear that newly-elected US President Obama was eager to relaunch peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, French President Nicolas Sarkozy offered to host an international conference to facilitate the peace process. The event would, of course, be held in Paris. He went so far as to issue invitations to leaders from concerned countries, including Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria.

        In January 2010, as Obama’s efforts to bring the parties to the negotiating table were inching their painful way forward, Sarkozy repeated his offer. Resumption of the peace process was dubbed a French “priority”, and a Paris-located international conference was perceived as a positive path towards achieving it. 

        This prescription – obsession would be too harsh a designation – persists in French thinking. It reappeared last December, when France took the lead in drafting a Security Council resolution outlining proposals for an Israeli-Palestinian final-status deal. The formula incorporated a two-year timetable for completing negotiations and – one is tempted to remark “ça va sans dire” – an international peace conference to take place in Paris. Should the initiative fail, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said, France would recognize a Palestinian state.

        Fabius played the same tune, with minor variations, in his recent visit to the Middle East on June 20-22, to meet Egyptian President Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

        His aim was to sell the idea of a French-led initiative to reboot the peace process, with backing from an “international support group” formed by the European Union, Arab nations and UN Security Council members. The draft resolution France is considering submitting to the UN Security Council calls for peace talks to start immediately, and specifies that negotiations on future borders should be based on the 1967 armistice lines with mutually agreed land swaps. It sets a deadline of two years for the process to be completed. If that is not met, then wholesale recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state would follow.

        In a joint press conference with Fabius, Netanyahu was far from enthusiastic, largely because, in his words, the French initiative makes “no real reference to Israel’s security needs. They are trying to push us to borders that aren’t subject to protection, while completely ignoring what will be on the other side of the border.” 

        He was referring to Israel’s assessment that if it were to withdraw from the West Bank, the Islamist terrorist movement Hamas would soon take control, placing Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion airport and Israel’s major north-south road network within easy reach of rocket attack.

        “Peace will only come from direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions,” said Netanyahu. “It will not come from UN resolutions that are sought to be imposed from the outside.”

        At a separate news conference before leaving Jerusalem, Fabius asserted that France would submit a resolution to the UN Security Council only if it would pass, and denied that he was trying to elbow the Americans away from the peace table. His aides said that Fabius was working with his counterparts to craft language that could be supported — or at least not vetoed — by the United States and that could garner Arab backing as well.

        Asked how his talks with Netanyahu went, Fabius said: “Prime Minister Netanyahu told me he wants negotiations. And no, this is not a joke.”

        Nor is it, for only the give and take of genuine face-to-face negotiations between the two principals could provide Israel with the cast-iron security arrangements it deems essential as part of a final settlement. France’s initiative on its own would fall far short. For example, the French position on the status of Jerusalem and the issue of Palestinian refugees remains undisclosed. Nor does it delineate the Palestinian state that France threatens to recognize. Would it include Gaza, home to over a million Palestinians? There is no acknowledgement that the de facto rulers of Gaza – the Islamist movement Hamas –reject the whole concept of a two-state solution, since one of the two states would be Israel to whose destruction it is dedicated. France turns a blind eye also to the fact that Hamas is equally determined on overthrowing the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) and take control of the West Bank. Or indeed that in any future democratic Palestinian election, Hamas would in all likelihood emerge as the winners, resulting in exactly the security nightmare that Netanyahu foresees.

        Perhaps most fundamental of all, France takes no account of the failure of the PA to generate a desire for peace among the Palestinian man or woman in the street. Possibly fearful of the growing influence of Hamas, the PA continues to promulgate hatred of Israel and to laud the “martyrs” who commit acts of terror against Israeli citizens. France fails to recognize that this policy is a two-edged sword, for one consequence is that no Palestinian leader dare reach an accommodation with Israel for fear of the backlash from the extremists on his own side – which explains the failure of each and every attempt at a final settlement over the past half-century.

        Unfortunately France’s initiative, well-meaning as it undoubtedly is, is a recipe for continued conflict far into an impenetrable future.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 24 June 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 25 June 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 26 June 2015:

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Russia and Islamic State - time for action

        In addition to the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran pursuing its aim of dominating the Middle East, the world is facing two further major threats to its peace and security, namely the resurgent Russia of President Vladimir Putin and the rampant Islamic State (IS) under its self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Bahgdadi.  The world’s response so far can be summed up as hesitant, weak, undecided, vacillating and ineffective.  However neither Putin nor Baghdadi can be allowed to ride roughshod indefinitely over the principles of moral behaviour accepted by the civilized world; finally they must be brought to heel.

        What is Putin’s offence?  Violating the sovereignty of an independent state, and flagrantly continuing to do so.      

As the old USSR fragmented in 1991, Ukraine became an independent republic. Three years later, Russia, the US, Britain and Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum. Under it, the three powers promised to respect Ukrainian territory and sovereignty and never threaten or use force against it.

Things did not go well for the fledgling republic. By November 2013 Ukraine was saddled with massive debt and endemic corruption. In the early weeks of 2014 the EU offered it a trade deal.  Putin, desperately anxious to avoid either the EU or NATO gaining a foothold so close to Russia, countered with an offer of a $15 billion loan  providing Ukraine joined a "Eurasian Union", Putin's alternative to the EU.  When President Yanukovych took up Putin’s deal, protests erupted in Kiev.  On 22 February 2015, parliament voted to oust him and hold new elections in May. 

On the night of 22–23 February, Putin convened an all-night meeting with security services chiefs to discuss extricating deposed President Yanukovych. At the end of that meeting he is reported to have remarked: "we must start working on returning Crimea to Russia."   

Next day Russian trucks and aircraft flooded into Crimea from its Black Sea military base. Parliament and airport were seized.  On 27 February masked Russian troops withjout insignias took over the Supreme Council of Crimea. Shortly afterwards a pro-Russian government was installed, and a disputed, unconstitutional referendum endorsed Russia’s intention to annex Crimea.  On 18 March Crimea was formally absorbed into Russia.

Subsequently, as if his “increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on” (as Shakespeare has it), Putin has engineered and maintained military action in the east of Ukraine nominally in support of the demands of ethnic Russians, who form a majority in the region, to integrate with Russia.  In truth, if former Rear-Admiral of the Latvian navy, Andrejs Mexmalis, is to be believed, the current armed conflict taking place in Ukraine is in pursuit of a deliberate plan with three main objectives , namely to
1.    re-establish the Russian Empire, Soviet- or Tsarist-style;
2.    establish a land route from “mother Russia” to Crimea in order to ensure that  occupied Crimea becomes a viable part of Russia achievable only by occupying the eastern provinces of Ukraine, followed by the Odessa region and Moldova;
3.    grab the potentially energy-rich areas of eastern Ukraine the coal fields and potential oil and gas fields.

What has the world’s reaction been to Putin’s brazen grab for power?  To turn a blind eye to his takeover of Crimea, thus virtually endorsing it, and to impose a handful of pretty ineffective sanctions for his support of military action in eastern Ukraine sanctions which even now the White House is urging Congress to ease, since the US is apparently dependent, for the time being, on Russian-made rocket engines.  Should Congress give way, Putin would simply be emboldened in his determination to re-extend Russian dominance into the old Soviet empire.

Putin is motivated by powerful political convictions. In the case of IS it is burning, yet misplaced, religious zeal, allied to an unquenchable thirst for power, that drives its bid for world domination.  In the mind of its leader al-Baghdadi and his followers, any human being who does not agree with its religious beliefs is fair game for slaughter.  In regions IS has captured, it subjects the population to a simple choice: convert to the IS interpretation of Islam or be butchered in most savage fashion. Respect for the dignity of human life has been discarded.  Any act, however brutal or bloodthirsty, however inhumane, however philistine, is justifiable according to the IS’s perverse interpretation of Islam which, let it be said, is widely and vociferously rejected across the Muslim world.

Al-Baghdadi is utterly convinced that his vision of an extremist Sunni-based caliphate, led by himself, will triumph in Syria and Iraq, be extended further into the Middle East (and indeed it already has adherents in Libya, Yemen, Sinai, Gaza and as far afield as Nigeria), and will eventually encompass the whole world.  On the other hand, just as convinced of the eventual triumph of a Shi’ite caliphate is the Islamic Republic of Iran, its adherents and its puppet organization, Hezbollah.

“Know your enemy” is a basic and fundamental rule of war.  So far most of the civilized world with a few notable exceptions like the Kurdish Pashmergas has deliberately down-played the existential dangers posed by IS, and has engaged with it at arms’ length. More direct involvement against this enemy to civilization has no doubt been inhibited by the unsatisfactory results of the West’s incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq.  As a result, under the banner of “No boots on the ground”, the West has attempted an alternative form of engagement military personnel to train local forces, and air-strikes in support of local field operations a policy which has clearly failed to deal IS any sort of knock-out blow.

The time has surely come for the civilized world to bite the bullet. IS and all its works is abhorred by most of the world.  The US could – and should assemble a multi-nation alliance and lead a joint military operation across both Iraq and Syria, administer a full-scale defeat on IS, and sweep it off the face of the Middle East.  Only when it is beaten into submission will the baleful attraction that IS exercises over immature and vulnerable Muslims be exorcised.

No one in his right mind would suggest any such approach to the dangers posed by Vladimir Putin.  But his actions should be ringing alarm bells in the mind of anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history of Europe in the 1930s.  A pusillanimous approach when dealing with autocrats and dictators leads only to disaster.  Strength of purpose must be met with strength of purpose. The West must support the sovereignty of Ukraine with all the economic and diplomatic tools at its disposal.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 June 2015:
Published in Eurasia Review, 18 June 2015:

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Who's fighting who in the Middle East?

        Across today’s Middle East armed forces engage each other in constant conflict. The largest of the battlefields are Iraq and Syria; others include Yemen, Sinai and Libya.

        When combatants set out to kill each other, they normally know who their enemies are, and who their friends. But in the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of political, religious, economic, strategic and tactical considerations that mark the Middle East, little is clear-cut. With startling speed yesterday’s enemy can become today’s ally, and vice versa. Even more unsettling is that a foe on one battlefield can turn into a friend on another.

        Iraq, disrupted following the West’s invasion of 2003, has become caught up in the turmoil generated by Islamic State (IS), an organization intent on establishing a Sunni caliphate first in Iraq and Syria, then more broadly across the region, and finally encompassing the whole world.

        The brutality and bloodlust with which this philistine body conducts itself has shocked the civilized world. And yet the Turkish government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – which had set its face against Kurdish independence – has been tacitly permissive of IS. Erdogan deliberately withholds support from the Kurds, whose Pashmerga troops have been successfully opposing IS in the north of Iraq. Following last week’s elections, with the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party entering the Turkish parliament for the first time, a change in Turkey’s attitude might be expected.

        Outside Kurdish areas, most of the effective fighting against IS is currently being undertaken by a military set-up called Hashed al-Sha’abi, a coalition of Shi’ite forces led by the charismatic Hadi al-Ameri. Although the Hashed has won a series of victories against IS, including retaking key towns north of Baghdad like Dhuluwiya and Tikrit, they are not best liked by the US. Ameri is close to General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s élite Al-Quds Brigade. Soleimani created the terrorist units that fought the American and British presence in Iraq after the invasion of 2003.

        US policy, which can only be described as ineffective, has concentrated on air support to the institutionally weak Iraqi army and the Sunni tribes loyal to the government. The result has been a series of defeats, culminating in the recent loss to the IS of the strategically important city of Ramadi, capital of Anbar province.

        Turkey, which borders both Iraq and Syria, has apparently begun to appreciate the risk to its frontiers from the territorial expansion of IS. As the London-based Arab paper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat recently reported: “A great development occurred on the Syrian front this week, when Turkey, for the first time ever, actively intervened in the Syrian quagmire.” The Turkish Air Force will be providing air cover to all the militias fighting President Bashar al-Assad, except IS. So Turkey tolerates IS in Iraq, but opposes it in Syria.

        Why? Perhaps it is taking seriously the US state department’s recent accusation that Assad is virtually working hand-in-glove with IS. Following attacks by both IS and the Syrian Air Force on rebel positions in northern Aleppo,Marie Harf, a state department spokesman, claimed it was a joint operation demonstrating that Assad “does not want to use his forces to root out IS’s safe haven in Syria, but really on the contrary, is actively seeking to bolster their position for his own cynical reasons.” Cynical? Well, to cling to power Assad needs to overcome his domestic rebels; but they are no friends of IS, which wants to destroy them as well.

        That a tacit alliance exists between Assad and IS seems borne out by a recent study by Janes, which found that just 6 percent of 982 government military operations had targeted IS, while only 13 per cent of IS’s 923 attacks in Syria targeted government security forces.

        What can one make of this criss-crossing of wires? On the face of it IS, an extremist Sunni organization, is dedicated to sweeping away the Shia-orientated Iran-supported Assad regime. But Assad and IS face a common enemy – the Western powers led by the US, who have declared their intention both to remove Assad from power and to defeat IS. Some temporary Assad-IS accommodation does make a sort of sense.

        The US is not immune from this sort of equivocation. On June 3 in Iraq, US warplanes began providing air cover to Iranian-backed militias in a joint effort against IS. On the same day, 1,200 miles to the south in Yemen, the US was providing guidance to Saudi pilots bombing Iran-supported Shia insurgents. So the US was bombing Iran’s enemies in one country, and helping to bomb Iran’s allies in another.

        Yemen itself presents a picture of cross-alliances. The Shia Houthi rebels. provisioned and sponsored by Iran, have defeated the elected government, captured the capital, and sent the President into exile – which is why Saudi Arabia assembled a coalition of nine Sunni states and is attacking them. Is this a classic Sunni-Shi’ite conflict? Not quite, for assisting the Houthis we find none other than the Sunni ex-President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, deposed during the Arab Spring, and now jumping on the Shia bandwagon in the hope of a return to power.

        Sunni-Shia enmities can indeed give way to marriages of convenience. Hamas, the de facto rulers of Gaza, are an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, an extremist Sunni organization, yet for decades they have been financed and supported by Shi’ite Iran, the two bound together by a common desire to destroy the state of Israel.

        But today Hamas is under attack from a Sunni body more extreme than itself – the Omar Hadid Brigades which denounces Hamas for agreeing to last summer's ceasefire with Israel. This salafist body, challenging Hamas’s rule in Gaza, is firing rockets into Israel, provoking Israeli air strikes in retaliation. But Hamas is not prepared, at the moment, to jeopardise its ceasefire “arrangements” with Israel, and in consequence has arrested hundreds of jihadists over the past month.

        Examples of other “arrangements” abound. Revealed for the first time on June 4 is that Israel and Saudi Arabia have held five secret meetings since the start of 2014 to discuss the common threat that Iran poses to the region. Although historic enemies (Saudi Arabia refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist), they have nevertheless engaged in clandestine diplomacy in an effort to thwart Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East.

        Or again, in the Sinai peninsular Egyptian and Israeli military units cooperate closely, though unofficially, to combat the extremist bodies, supported by the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, that are intent on destabilising the Egyptian government under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

       The moral to all this tangle, if there is one? Perhaps: Common interests create strange bedfellows. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 11 June 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 14 June 2015:

Published in the MPC journal, 15 June 2015:

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Saudi Arabia's new broom

A new broom sweeps clean – that’s how the adage runs.  To see the precept in action look no further than King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia.  In the four short months since he ascended the throne, he has emerged as a startlingly proactive player on the Middle East scene. 

Immediate and surprising initiatives were the last thing that international opinion expected of the new monarch.  The Saudi royal family had long been renowned for its conservative approach to public affairs.  Change proceeded, if at all, at a snail’s pace.  There was no reason to suppose that 79-year-old Salman, Crown Prince since 2012, would deviate from the approach, let alone the policies, of his predecessor and half-brother, King Abdullah.  He astonished everybody.

“King Salman,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a few weeks into his reign, “has accomplished in 10 days tasks that usually take new leaders 100 days.”  Ford M. Fraker, a former United States ambassador to the kingdom, followed that up with: “Now, suddenly, change has become the norm.”

Those remarks referred merely to the tranche of administrative and governmental changes Salman announced within a few days of assuming power. Much more was to follow.

His first step was to streamline the kingdom’s top-heavy government machine.  He abolished 12 secretariats, including the National Security Council, and replaced them with two high-powered bodies: The Council of Political and Security Affairs (CPSA) and the Council for Economic and Development Affairs (CEDA).   

This dramatic reorganisation was reinforced by Salman’s settling of the royal succession.  The CPSA was to be headed by Salman’s nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, whom Salman nominated as Crown Prince and his eventual successor.  The CEDA was to be under the leadership of his 30-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, who was designated deputy crown prince.  In one sweeping gesture, Salman had not only stabilised the future royal governance of the nation, but had radically reformed the administration.

If forceful and enterprising initiatives marked his domestic policy, he was to prove just as proactive in foreign affairs.  He had been on the throne for barely two months when, to the astonishment of world opinion, he put together a coalition of ten Muslim countries and ordered the formidable Saudi military machine into operation in Yemen.  At last decisive action was being taken against jihadists and terrorists.  How different from the vacillation and irresolution that has marked the reaction of most of the rest of the world to the overweening ambition and inhumane, brutal and bloody behaviour of such groups as Islamic State (IS).

Salman took in his stride the concept of “boots on the ground” – the step that deterred Western powers from decisive action against IS in Syria and Iraq.  Knowing the mindset of his fellow Arabs far better than the gurus and political advisers in far-off Washington or London, Salman was aware that anything less than a demonstration of superior force would be ineffective.  A combination of National Guard troops and massive air-strikes was launched against the rebel Houthi forces, backed by Iran, that had conquered great swathes of the country including the capital Sana’a.  As elsewhere in the Middle East, the battle was essentially a proxy for the age-old conflict between the Sunni branch of Islam (represented by Saudi Arabia and its king, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, namely Mecca and Medina), and those of the Shi’ite persuasion (represented by Iran and its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei).

The mark of the good leader is to be nimble-footed.  The decision by Pakistan not to engage directly in the conflict required a tactical re-think by the pragmatic Salman.  He decided to close down his Operation Decisive Storm, as he had dubbed it, and replace it by a campaign called “Restoring Hope”, nominally aimed at rebuilding Yemen.  Nevertheless the struggle to oust the Houthis and restore President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, exiled in Riyadh, continued. On May 27 Reuters reported the deadliest day of bombing by Saudi-led air strikes in over two months of war in Yemen.

Pragmatism marks Salman’s approach in other spheres of his foreign policy.  Saudi Arabia had long regarded the Muslim Brotherhood as a fundamental threat to regional stability.  Salman’s predecessor, King Abdullah, branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and cooperated with Egypt in trying to suppress it.  Because fellow-Sunni states Turkey and Qatar supported the Brotherhood, relations with them remained at arm’s length.

Salman took a clear-headed look at the new regional realities and decided that a triumphal Iran, soon to conclude a nuclear agreement with the US-led negotiating team and enjoy a further lifting of crippling sanctions, could not be allowed to benefit also from a successful Shi’ite rebellion in Yemen. His fear was that Iran would use Yemen as a base from which to foster unrest within Saudi Arabia’s own Shi’ite minority.

In short, Saudi opposition to the Brotherhood had become an unaffordable distraction to the far more essential business of curbing and restraining a rampant Iran.  So Salman quietly discarded the kingdom’s traditional anti-Brotherhood stance, and in building his anti-Houthi coalition he successfully brought both Turkey and Qatar on side. Moreover, in Yemen he allied himself with Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood political party. Islah, which has a long history of conflict against the Houthis, was Salmam’s most feasible ally on the ground.

In the few short months since he ascended the throne, Salman has shown himself to be a pragmatic man of action in both the domestic and foreign arenas, willing to discard outworn practices and adopt unconventional methods in pursuit of well-considered strategic  objectives.  He needs to turn his attention back to the home front, and to consider whether the application of sharia law can be brought more into line with what the world expects of a civilized country.  In a recent report Amnesty International maintains that court proceedings in Saudi Arabia fall “far short” of global norms of fairness, while trials in death penalty cases are often held in secret with defendants rarely allowed formal representation by lawyers.

The number of public executions in Saudi Arabia in the first five months of 2015 exceeded the total for the whole of 2014.  So far 88 individuals have been executed in public – most beheaded by sword – for offences such as drug trafficking, murder, apostasy and sedition.  The upsurge seems set to continue, for last week the government advertised for eight more public executioners.

Saudi Arabia’s new broom has a lot of sweeping yet to do.  The question is – does he even want to try? 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 3 June 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 3 June 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 6 July 2015: