Thursday, 27 August 2015

Combatting Islamism - the Arab-Israel axis

                              The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
                              And God fulfils himself in many ways…

                                                 Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Morte D’Arthur

        The old order, unsatisfactory though it was, had become commonplace through long usage, like a worn but comfortable garment. We had, in the words of the Lerner and Loewe song, grown accustomed to its face – namely Israel, a tiny island of Western values set in a hostile and often turbulent Islamic sea, marginally bolstered by lukewarm peace treaties with two of its neighbors, Jordan and Egypt. The consensus, accepted on all sides, was that the perennial Israel-Palestinian dispute was the major cause of instability in the Middle East. Solve that, ran the mantra, and the Middle East would morph into a haven of sweetness and light. Until that happy day, the face of Islam would be set implacably against Israel, the foe of foes.

        But out of the innumerable peace negotiations over the years, one inescapable truth emerged. Short of committing hara-kari, Israel could never offer enough. No Palestinian leader, not Yasser Arafat nor Mahmoud Abbas nor anyone who might succeed Abbas, dare sign an agreement that recognizes Israel’s right to exist on what the Palestinian narrative defines as historic Palestine. It would probably be more than his life was worth. From the Palestinian perspective, the insurmountable obstacle lodged within the two-state solution is that one of the states must be Israel. As a result, a state of perpetual antagonism between the Arab world and Israel seemed frozen solid.

        The thawing process began with the so-called Arab Spring, back in 2010. If that revolutionary fervor, spreading like wildfire from nation to nation, demonstrated anything, it was that instability had become endemic within the Arab body politic. The Israel-Palestinian conflict counted for very little when set against the burning discontent of the Arab masses with the repression, human rights abuses, state censorship, and other trammels of dictatorship or absolute monarchy under which most existed.

        From the flames of the Arab Spring arose, phoenix-like, what is now known as Islamic State (IS). IS gave a quasi-religious vindication to the secular discontent. Its brutality, its utter disregard for accepted standards of humanity – justified in the name of its Islamist philosophy – seem to enhance its appeal in the eyes of Muslim youth the world over, and they flock to its banner.

        The mushroom growth of IS, in terms both of territory and influence, is one of the two factors that have conspired to engender a new reality in Middle East politics. The second is the parallel burgeoning of political power and influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

        Just as IS’s self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declares his intention to impose his version of sharia law on the entire world, so too does Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei – the former proclaiming an extreme version of Sunni Islam, the latter an extreme version of Shia. And just as IS justifies any action, however bloodthirsty or brutal, in support of its aims, so too does Iran, which has developed into the world’s leading state sponsor of terror.

        In pursuit of its dream of religious and regional dominance, Iran has indulged in constant attempts, both open and covert, to strike against Western interests and to undermine stable Sunni states across the Middle East. The extent of the concern of Sunni states about the threat posed by Iran was revealed as far back as 2010, in the first batch of some 250,000 confidential documents published by WikiLeaks.

        The distinguished Israeli journalist, Ari Shavit, maintained that the WikiLeaks documents “proved that the settlements, the occupation and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were not the main problem in the Middle East (but) that the entire Arab world is currently busy with one problem only - Iran, Iran, Iran.”

        The leaked cables disclosed that at the time Arab leaders were campaigning for a US attack on Iran’s growing nuclear programme. For example, Saudi Arabia’s then King Abdullah “frequently exhorted” the US to bomb Iran and “cut the head off the snake.” He warned Washington that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, “everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia.”

        Abu Dhabi’s crown prince is reported to have urged Americans to “take out” Iran’s nuclear capacity, or even send ground troops. The king of Bahrain said the US “must terminate” Iran’s nuclear programme, “by whatever means necessary”. Zeid Rifai, then president of Jordan’s senate, said: “Bomb Iran, or live with an Iranian bomb.”

        So whatever their public pronouncements, the true opinion of Arab leaders about the recently announced nuclear deal with Iran requires little imagination. It accords precisely with the rooted opposition expressed by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Strengthening Iran’s political clout by endorsing it as a breakout nuclear power is a recipe for continued instability in the Middle East.

        In short, both Iran and IS have become existential threats not only to Israel, but to a swathe of Sunni Arab states. Never have the interests of the Arab world and Israel been closer. Which explains why Israel, in its first arms deal with an Arab country, has just sold Jordan twelve advanced unmanned drones. They are urgently needed by the Jordanian Royal Air Force to strengthen the anti-IS campaign being waged across Jordan’s borders in Iraq and Syria. According to Debkafile, a usually trustworthy website concerned with Middle East security, secret operations against IS are being run by a joint US-Jordanian-Israeli war room sited north of Amman.

        In recent years, media reports assert, Israeli officials have met counterparts from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf at nuclear non-proliferation talks in Switzerland. The recently appointed director-general of Israel's foreign ministry, Dore Gold, and retired Saudi general Anwar Eshki actually appeared together at a Washington conference in June.

        That there is unprecedentedly close Egypt-Israel military cooperation in Sinai, combatting IS terrorism, is no longer a secret, but recent reports have suggested covert security cooperation also between Israel and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders. Regular, secret flights between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv have recently been documented, despite the ostensible ban on Israeli citizens entering the UAE.

        Even popular anti-Israeli sentiment within these countries may be shifting. A recent poll of Saudi public opinion found that an overwhelming majority regarded either Iran or Islamic State as the major threat. Only a small minority cited Israel as their primary concern, while an astonishing 24 percent of those polled believed that Saudi Arabia should fight Iran alongside Israel.

        A change of atmosphere can certainly be detected, but despite covert cooperation, sober reality continues to rule. Mordechai Zaken, a Middle East expert, believes that between the Arab world and Israel, there is “no love, only interests… Most Arab countries would not be happy to declare and expose their relations or cooperation with Israel. In the Middle East, it is not something to brag about.”

        An Arab-Israel axis may be in the making, but Utopia is not around the corner.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 28 August 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 August 2015:

Thursday, 20 August 2015

The tribulations of Hamas

        Hamas’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse. The de facto government of the Gaza strip suddenly finds itself in difficulties on four fronts: deteriorating external relations, including financial support; internal pressure from Islamic State (IS) supporters; disputes within the Hamas organization; and a new confrontation with the Palestinian Authority (PA).

        For decades Sunni Hamas, dedicated as it is to Israel’s destruction, had been financially supported by Iran, whose hatred of Israel out-trumps its passionately-held Shi’ite Islamic convictions. But when Hamas refused to join the fight against IS in support of Iran’s lackey, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, funding dwindled. 
Future substantive Iranian assistance to Hamas is problematic, given the warming relations between Iran and the US following the nuclear deal, though tactical military aid will probably continue. 

        Unfortunately, from Hamas’s point of view, as financial support from Iran ebbed, Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi embarked on a determined program of closing down the tunnels from Gaza into Egypt, thus effectively cutting the organization off from supplies and financial resources vital for its continued operations. Hamas was forced to try mending fences with Egypt. It did so by approaching Saudi Arabia, Iran’s great rival. The move was not unsuccessful. Saudi Arabia applied some gentle pressure, and Egyptian officials met with Hamas leaders in Qatar early in June. Some sort of deal was struck. In exchange for Egypt agreeing to some limited opening of official crossings, Hamas undertook to refrain from using tunnels connecting Gaza and Egypt.

        However this, and any other understanding between Hamas and Egypt, is fragile in the extreme while the slightest suspicion remains that Hamas’s military arm, the al-Qassam Brigades, is cooperating with the IS-linked Province of Sinai in conducting terror attacks against el-Sisi’s government. The evidence for this, though, is strong, despite emphatic denials by Hamas political spokesmen, and the charge is reiterated not only by Israel, but in a recent statement by Palestinian Authority (PA) foreign minister Riyadh al-Maliki, and by Egyptian military sources.

        In fact, Hamas’s involvement in the Sinai peninsula illustrates a deep internal split within the upper echelons of the organization. For while collaboration with the Province of Sinai is supported by the military arm, it is opposed by the political arm, under the leadership of self-exiled Hamas head Khaled Meshal.

        Something of the internal structure and workings of the Hamas organization is public knowledge. For example it is well known that Hamas has a Shura Council that decides on general policies, and approves plans and budgets. Its membership, which ranges from 50 to 70, is made up of officials from Gaza and the West Bank, the leadership abroad and detainees in Israeli prisons.

        There is, however, also a more elitist inner Shura Council, the final decision-maker in Hamas. Its specific membership is unknown, but it elects the political bureau, Hamas’s highest body. At a slightly lower level than the political bureau, and unelected, is the al-Qassam Brigades’ military council, a body shrouded in intense secrecy – one good reason being that all its members are wanted by Israel. More to the point, politically, is that some of them – charismatic military figures like Mohammed al-Deif, Marwan Issa, Yahya Sinwar and Rouhi Moushtaha – are also members of the top political bureau, and in recent years they have been increasingly influencing Hamas’s overall orientation.

        The inevitable outcome is division within Hamas’s top leadership. Meshal, the head of Hamas's political wing, often clashes with leaders of the Qassam Brigades. Thus at the same time as the military wing is terrorising the population of the Sinai peninsula and striking at Egyptian forces, Hamas’s political arm is working to improve relations with Egypt’s government. It has also, if leaks and rumors are to be taken seriously, quietly engaged in contact with Israel about a possible long-term truce, a policy assuredly anathema to Hamas’s military wing.

        Iran has seized on the divisions within Hamas to further its own political objectives. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have reportedly been funding the military wing because, according to distinguished UK columnist Con Coughlin, “it gives them access to Israel’s southern border, in addition to the northern border with Lebanon, where Iran funds Hezbollah militants."

        If the Hamas leadership shudders at the thought of increased Shi’ite influence within Gaza, it views with greater alarm the prospect of an IS takeover, Sunni though it be. In recent months, a radical jihadist-Salafi group allied to IS, calling itself the Omar Hadid Brigade, has attempted to challenge Hamas’s rule in the Strip. “We will uproot you,” was the message to Hamas in a recent IS video. “The rule of sharia will be implemented in Gaza in spite of you.” In short, Hamas is not extreme enough for IS.

        The Brigade is responsible for launching indiscriminate rocket attacks into Israel in an attempt, analysts believe, to initiate a new conflict with Israel that will further weaken Hamas and enable IS to fill the resulting power vacuum. Hamas has reacted by arresting members of the group and trying to ensure that the precarious truce with Israel is not breached.

        But precarious it remains. When a Palestinian rocket exploded in southern Israel on August 7, the Israeli Air Force attacked a Hamas target in central Gaza. “Hamas is the party responsible for what takes place in the Gaza Strip,” ran the Israeli statement, following the retaliation.

        To add to Hamas’s burdens, the perennial conflict with its rival Fatah, which controls the PA and rules in the West Bank, has flared up again. Hamas has consistently sought to undermine the government of PA president Mahmoud Abbas – whose leadership it declares illegitimate – and to overthrow and replace it. In early July PA authorities in the West Bank arrested over 100 members of Hamas in a mass security crackdown.

        All attempts to reconcile the two wings of the Palestinian body politic, and there have been many over the years, have failed. The most recent – Abbas’s so-called government of national unity – lasted barely a year. The plain fact of the matter is that Hamas is engaged in a life-and-death struggle with Fatah for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people, and it is a struggle that they are by no means assured of winning.

        Viewing Hamas’s current position overall, what comes to mind are the apocalyptic words of poet W B Yeats:
                                 Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…
                                 The best lack all conviction, while the worst
                                 Are full of passionate intensity.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line 20 August 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 August 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 25 August 2015:

Friday, 14 August 2015

What game is Erdogan playing?

        The domestic and foreign policies pursued by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, may seem wayward and full of inconsistencies. But as Shakespeare so appositely puts it: “though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”

        It was on June 10, 2014 that the magnitude of the threat posed to regional and western interests by the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL or ISIS, as it was then known), became apparent. That was the day they captured Iraq’s largest city, Mosul, to be followed by the surrounding province of Nineveh. On the following day Tikrit, another major city north of Baghdad, fell to them. Two weeks later their leader. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, changed the name of his organisation to Islamic State (IS), declared a cross-border Islamic “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, and crowned himself caliph of all Muslims. This series of events precipitated the formation of a coalition of anti-IS interests, headed by the US. Shackled by a strict “no boots on the ground” policy, the coalition concentrated on provided training to anti-IS forces in Syria and Iraq, and backing their ground operations with massive air-strikes.

        From all this, Turkey stood aloof. Erdogan – a Sunni with Muslim Brotherhood attachments – was at daggers drawn with Shi’ite Iran and its lackey, Syrian President Bashar Assad. As regards Syria, there was no way Erdogan would join the US’s unofficial alliance with Iran, which – both directly and via its puppet Hezbollah – was battling against IS in support of Assad.

        As far as Iraq was concerned, the predominant factor from Erdogan’s perspective was the Kurdish dimension. Kurdish Pashmerga troops were by far the most effective fighting force, scoring notable successes against IS. But the subsequent boost to Kurdish popularity within Turkey, to say nothing of the Kurds’ territorial gains, was far from Erdogan’s liking. Despite his earlier tentative steps towards some sort of accommodation with the substantial Kurdish minority within Turkey – an initiative which had faltered by the end of 2014 – Erdogan and much of the Turkish establishment remained deeply opposed to Kurdish demands for greater autonomy.

        Erdogan’s opposition to the Kurds, together with the fact that IS is unequivocally Sunni, led to suspicions that he was surreptitiously aiding IS by permitting foreign recruits to their ranks to enter Iraq by way of Turkey, and was actually funding IS by facilitating the sale of the oil they were extracting from fields captured during their territorial expansion.

        So when a fierce battle developed between the Kurdish Peshmerga and IS for the town of Kobani on the Turkish-Syrian border, it was no surprise that Erdogan refused to engage against IS. He was doubtless disappointed when the Kurds finally captured the town, for by then a political aspect to the game was looming domestically.

        This Kurdish success came just before Turkey began gearing itself for the general elections that were then central to Erdogan’s political aspirations. He was placing his hopes on a sweeping victory for his Justice and Development Party (AKP), to be followed by a new constitution that would vastly increase the power of the presidency. In anticipation of enhancing his popularity among his committed electorate, Erdogan turned his back on the peace pact he had made when prime minister with the PKK, the Kurdish militant organisation, and pushed through a security bill granting sweeping powers to the police.

        His ploy failed. The June election saw his AKP lose its overall majority, and the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) win 13 percent of the vote and gain parliamentary representation for the first time. The result has been a hung parliament, and eight weeks later the AKP has still not managed to form a coalition government. If no coalition appears before August 23, Turkey will have to hold an early election, most likely in the second half of November.

        Early elections will give Erdogan, who has been dubbed Turkey’s neo-Ottoman sultan-in-waiting, a renewed opportunity to achieve his ambition of one-party rule headed by an autocratic president. The HDP, on the other hand, would hope to consolidate, and improve on, the gains it made in June.

        It is against the backdrop of this internal political struggle that recent dramatic shifts in Erdogan’s foreign policy must be viewed.

        Erdogan had long been at the receiving end of US requests to use Turkey's Incerlik air base near Syria's northern border to facilitate its air-strikes against IS, and indeed for Turkey to join the US coalition. On July 22, choosing a singularly opportune moment, President Obama contacted Erdogan directly by phone. Two days earlier an IS suicide bomber killed 32 people in an attack in the Turkish town of Suruç, near the Syrian border. Intense pressure was building on Erdoğan to hit back.

        So the intra-presidential telephone conversation ended in an agreement that Turkey would stem the flow of foreign fighters to IS, secure Turkey’s border with Syria, join the air-strike operations, and allow the US the use of Turkey's Incerlik air base near Syria's northern border. But as with other arrangements involving President Obama, the deal was far from watertight. To change metaphors, the elephant in this particular room were the Kurds, the stalwart allies of the coalition.

        In Erdogan’s eyes, however, the Kurds present as large a threat to his long-term political ambitions as IS – probably larger. With an eye on early elections and the impact on his own AKP constituency, Erdogan is set on curtailing growing Kurdish power along Turkey's southern border. He wants to ensure that Kurdish gains in Iraq and in Syria do not encourage the revival in Kurdish fortunes demonstrated in the last election.

        So from the start Erdogan has combined Turkish air strikes against IS forces in Syria with attacks on the PKK in northern Iraq and its forces in south-eastern Turkey. Since the Kurdish Pershmerga troops have proved themselves IS’s most formidable opponents, the US and its coalition partners are justified in asking whose side Erdogan is really on. He attacks IS; he attacks IS’s most formidable opponents. The truth is, he wants to punish both – IS for its terrorist attacks inside Turkey; the Kurds for their resurgence in self-confidence and recent electoral success. So in effect, as a recent media comment has it, Erdogan is fighting for Erdogan and against anyone who puts him in a bad light.

        What game is Erdogan playing? The game of power politics – a game he dare not lose, for if he does his grandiose ambition to turn himself into a latter-day Ottoman Sultan, or Islamist Kemal Ataturk, will become nothing more than a footnote in the history of modern Turkey.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 14 August 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 14 August 2015:

Published in MPC Journal, 13 August 2015:

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Confronting Islamism

        This summer, as the British parliament take its annual break from business, civil servants are hard at work preparing an unprecedented assault on Islamist extremism. The UK’s Counter-Extremism Strategy, to be published in the autumn, will set out a detailed analysis of the threat posed by Islamism to the nation, and what the British government intends to do to combat it. This plan of campaign promises to be the first effort by a world power to tackle domestic Islamism head-on. There is to be no shilly-shallying around the nature of the danger facing Britain – and, by extension, the civilized world – nor the multi-faceted effort that needs to be taken to counter and conquer it.

        The groundwork for Britain’s forthcoming Counter-Extremism Strategy was laid in a seminal speech delivered on July 20 by the UK prime minister, David Cameron. Uniquely among world leaders who have spoken on this issue, Cameron addressed his Muslim co-citizens candidly. Without beating about the bush, he asserted that condemning violence was not enough. Too many ordinary decent Muslim citizens, he maintained, while thoroughly disapproving of violence, allowed themselves to be seduced by Islamism to the extent of subscribing to intolerant ideas which actively promote discrimination, sectarianism and segregation, thus fostering the very climate in which extremists can flourish. It was clear from what he said that Cameron places high on his list of “intolerant ideas” the mindless anti-Semitism that is endemic to Islamism.

        Also, said Cameron, ideas “based on conspiracy: that Jews exercise malevolent power; or that Western powers, in concert with Israel, are deliberately humiliating Muslims, because they aim to destroy Islam. In this warped worldview, such conclusions are reached – that 9/11 was actually inspired by Mossad to provoke the invasion of Afghanistan; that British security services knew about 7/7, but didn’t do anything about it because they wanted to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash.”

        Cameron pointed out that the backgrounds of those convicted of terrorist offences often reveal that they were first influenced by what some would call non-violent extremists.

        “It may begin,” he said, “with hearing about the so-called Jewish conspiracy, and then develop into hostility to the West and fundamental liberal values, before finally becoming a cultish attachment to death. Put another way, the extremist world view is the gateway, and violence is the ultimate destination.”

        The adherents of this ideology, he claimed, are overpowering other voices within the Muslim debate, especially those trying to challenge it.

        To counter this threat Britain intends to confront, head on, the extreme ideology that underpins Islamism – the cultish worldview, the conspiracy theories, and its malevolent appeal to the young and impressionable. The new strategy will involve exposing Islamist extremism for what it is – a belief system that glorifies violence and subjugates its people, not least Muslim people – and will contrast the bigotry, aggression and theocracy of Islamism with the liberal, democratic values that underlie the Western way of life.

        A key part of the subsequent action programme will be to tackle both the violent and the non-violent aspects of the creed. Cameron was clear that this would mean confronting groups and organisations that may not advocate violence, but which do promote other parts of the extremist narrative.

        “We’ve got to show that if you say ‘violence in London isn’t justified, but suicide bombs in Israel are a different matter’, then you too are part of the problem. Unwittingly or not,” he said, “and in a lot of cases it’s not unwittingly, you are providing succour to those who want to commit, or get others to commit to, violence.”

        He insisted that condemning a mass-murdering, child-raping organisation was not enough to prove that a person was challenging the extremists. The new strategy would demand that people also condemn the wild conspiracy theories, the anti-Semitism, and the sectarianism.

        Acknowledging the religious aspect of Islamist extremism has proved a stumbling block for many previous attempts to combat the problem. Britain’s Counter-Extremism Strategy will face the issue fairly and squarely. As Cameron pointed out, simply denying any connection between the religion of Islam and the extremists doesn’t work, because these extremists are self-identifying as Muslims.

        “They all spout the same twisted narrative, one that claims to be based on a particular faith. It is an exercise in futility to deny that. And more than that, it can be dangerous.”

        To deny that Islamism has anything to do with Islam, claimed Cameron, means that the critical reforming voices from within the faith are disempowered – religious heads who can challenge the scriptural basis on which extremists claim to be acting, and respected leaders who can provide an alternative worldview that could stop a teenager’s slide down the spectrum of extremism. The UK’s Counter-Extremism Strategy will empower, support and fund those individuals and organisations from within the Muslim community that are dedicated to countering extreme Islamism and its nihilistic philosophy. 

        Although an independent Counter-Extremist Project has been running in the US for the past year, and a European counterpart, CEP Europe, was launched in Brussels on June 29, the only government to have grasped the nettle is the UK’s. Britain alone seems to have taken on board the extent of the threat facing the civilized world, to have analysed the issues coolly and hard-headedly, and to be in the process of devising a comprehensive strategy for countering it. In short, the UK is seizing the initiative in the major struggle of our times – a war to the death between a liberal way of life, rooted in parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, and those intent on destroying those values and substituting their own narrow and extremist version of sharia, not shared by the majority of the world’s Muslims.

        It is a war the world can, must, and surely will, win.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 6 August 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 9 August 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 7 August 2015: