Sunday, 27 March 2016

Putin's mission and omission in Syria

          When President Vladimir Putin sent his forces into Syria on September 30, 2015, he had two main objectives in view – to establish Russia as a potent political and military force in the Middle East, and to secure his hold on both the Russian naval base at Tartus and the air base and intelligence-gathering centre at Latakia. He has achieved both, and now he is leaving.

          Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict certainly boosted President Bashar Assad’s fortunes, but if the Syrian leader expected Putin to remain by his side in a long-drawn-out conflict to regain the whole of pre-war Syria from rebel forces and Islamic State (IS), he has been sadly disillusioned. Putin’s aim was never to ensure total victory for Assad, nor to defeat IS.

          With Putin’s main objectives gained, he is now keen to consolidate them, and for that to happen the peace talks currently taking place in Geneva need to yield positive results – possibly an end to the Syrian civil war. This is why Moscow, along with Washington, pressed hard for the resumption of the talks on March 14. It also explains the growing signs of differences between Russia and the Syrian government in recent weeks. Assad and his supporters have been steadfastly maintaining that new presidential elections are not up for discussion – a “red line” declared Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem on March 12 – but Putin has been noticeably equivocal about Assad’s future. The most he has hinted at is the possibility of a presidential election in which Assad might stand as a candidate – a possibility that US Secretary of State, John Kelly, has not wholly vetoed, but which has been flatly rejected by France and the UK.

          Putin’s withdrawal of Russia’s military support at the very moment that peace talks are due to resume is clearly an intentional weakening of Assad’s position overall. The Syrian regime suddenly appears much more vulnerable. If Assad’s representatives had been planning an unyielding stance on their demands regarding Assad’s future, hoping to negotiate with the threat of continued Russian bombardment of the anti-Assad forces as their trump card, the ground has been cut from under their feet. Putin’s withdrawal means there can be no stone-walling from the Assad side – it is no longer strong enough for that. Its recent successes achieved with Russian military support make the regime somewhat more credible, but mean little more than that.

          So there is room for hope. If the ceasefire continues to hold, and if a deal can be brokered that allows the reconstruction of Syria to begin and millions of refugees to go home, that would be cause for satisfaction. Even this, though, would be something of a hollow achievement if the pressing issue of defeating Islamic State is not addressed.

          Terrible though the Syrian civil war has been in the numbers of civilians killed and the massive tide of dispossessed refugees and migrants created, it is not the main problem facing the civilized world. The main problem is the brutal, inhumane, jihadist movement that calls itself Islamic State, and by others Daesh, that has seized large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria and set about savagely imposing its extremist version of Islamism on the population it controls. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights recently reported that since June 2014 IS had summarily killed 3,967 people.

          Although Putin gave lip service to combating IS in Syria, in fact his airstrikes were very largely directed against Assad’s domestic enemies – the rebel forces led by the Free Syrian Army. In the six months since Russian forces first began military operations they helped pro-Assad loyalists reclaim nearly 4,000 square miles of territory from rebel forces. Little, if any, was won back from IS – the 10-20 percent of territory lost by IS since its apogee in August 2014 was due to the 7000-plus US-led air-strikes, which also killed some 25,000 IS fighters.

          By declaring, in effect, mission accomplished, Putin is acknowledging that destroying IS was never a primary goal. He has left that for others - the US, the West and perhaps Saudi Arabia - to fulfil. For IS is still deeply entrenched in much of northern and eastern Syria, and is continuing its self-imposed mission of extending its caliphate across the Middle East, ruthlessly annihilating people, buildings and artefacts that do not conform to its own extremist concepts of what Islam demands.

          IS is not party to the Geneva peace talks, and will not be bound by any initiatives emanating from them. Though the US-led coalition in Syria is dedicated to its destruction, it is obvious that the West has not yet been prepared to commit full-heartedly to the fight. “No boots on the ground” is an understandable position, given past disastrous excursions by the West into the Middle East quagmire, but new situations need to be assessed anew. The lesson of history is that it is a mistake to fight today’s war on yesterday’s assumptions.

          Saudi Arabia has signalled its willingness to commit its coalition’s ground troops in the anti-IS struggle, for no moderate Islamic state endorses the pretensions of IS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to be establishing a latter-day caliphate to which all Muslims must vow allegiance on pain of death. That is the existential threat that IS poses to the world of Islam.

          What western public opinion has yet fully to grasp is that IS is equally dedicated to the destruction of western values and way of life, and the eventual substitution of its jihadist caliphate across the whole world. Horrific acts of terrorism in France, Belgium, Copenhagen and the United States, attacks targeting foreign tourists in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, the destruction of the Russian passenger jet – all testify to the determination of IS to undermine morale in the West. So, too, does the continued appeal of IS to disaffected Muslim youth the world over, the unabated flow of recruits to its ranks, and the infiltration into Europe of indoctrinated and trained terrorists within the flood-tide of refugees and migrants fleeing the war zones of the Middle East.

          Given these circumstances, “no boots on the ground” seems an outdated and inadequate policy. “Victory at all costs”, Churchill’s famous declaration of Britain’s war aims against Nazism back in 1940, should be the guiding principle underlying the West’s fight against Islamic State.

          To quote him in full, for what he said is equally relevant to today’s struggle:  
“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs - victory in spite of all terrors - victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”

Monday, 21 March 2016

Could an anti-Iran alliance be a new force for peace?

          Quite why or how it happened has yet to be fully determined, but the early years of the 21st century have seen the Middle East morph into a gigantic battleground. Political and religious antagonisms, both ancient and newly conceived, have flared into armed conflict in a dozen places across the region. The ancient fault line within Islam, present from the earliest days of the faith but quiescent for long periods of time, has suddenly become one of the defining elements of the turmoil – the Sunni-Shia divide. Saudi Arabia, with Mecca and Medina within its borders, is the flag-bearer for Sunni Islam; the Islamic Republic of Iran claims to represent the Shi’ite branch.

          Unfortunately it represents much else as well, for it is dedicated to proselytizing the rest of Islam, and to combatting all non-Shia governments and nations, both Muslim and Western. In pursuit of this vainglorious objective, Iran has become the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. The catalogue of individual deaths and mass slaughter for which it has been responsible, either directly or by way of its puppet organization Hezbollah, is horrific and stretches back to the earliest days of the Iranian revolution in 1979.

          The Iranian leadership makes little secret of its desire to achieve religious and political hegemony in the Middle East, nor of its efforts to undermine the governments of the Sunni Gulf states. The rulers of these more moderate Muslim states have long regarded Iran – which, of course, is not an Arab nation – as the major threat to Middle East stability, as the Wikileaks documents released in 2010 made perfectly clear.

          Perhaps a defining moment in this struggle for power was the accession to the throne of Saudi Arabia of Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in January 2015. Salman instantly revealed himself to be a ruler who believes in decisive action, and the man he appointed as defence minister – his favourite son, 29-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman – soon set about energetically implementing his father’s approach in dealing with the Iranian menace.

          In short order Prince Mohammed formed and led a 10-nation coalition to fight Iranian-allied rebels in Yemen, lobbied against Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, and in December 2015 hosted a conference in Riyadh to persuade Syria's opposition factions to settle on a common negotiating position in the forthcoming UN-sponsored peace talks. Then, as part of King Salman's newly assertive foreign policy, Riyadh announced that it was prepared to engage its own military in opposition to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the forces of Hezbollah that, with Russian support, were fighting on behalf of Assad.

          Although Hezbollah, a powerful political, social and military organization, functions within Lebanon’s political structure, it is largely autonomous – virtually a state within a state. Its forces are bigger and better equipped than Lebanon’s own military, and do not answer to it. At Iran’s behest, and without any authorization from the Lebanese government, it has deployed substantial forces within Syria in support of Assad.

          Saudi Arabia, in pursuit of its new proactive approach, decided to punish Lebanon for allowing Hezbollah this degree of latitude. In February it slashed billions of dollars in aid originally intended to boost the Lebanese army, and issued a travel warning discouraging Saudi tourists from visiting the country. Then, on March 2 the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), led by Saudi Arabia, designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization. This was the first time that the GCC, comprising Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, had collectively stood up against Hezbollah.

          Lebanese journalist, Naila Tawani, asks how the country’s relations with Saudi Arabia, its closest ally in the Gulf, have been allowed to hit such a low. Her answer? “Hezbollah has dragged our country into an unnecessary involvement in the Syrian civil war,” she writes. “It is following orders given to it by Damascus, while ignoring Lebanese national interests. How have foreign powers hijacked our government?… It is our responsibility to get our country out of this mess.”

          It was in March 2013 that Bahrain became the first Arab country to define Hezbollah as a terrorist group. The king, Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, and the Bahraini government accused Hezbollah of fomenting unrest among its majority Shi’ite population, and of training Shi’ite groups to rebel against the Sunni monarchy and carry out terrorist attacks in the country. With the Arab League opposed to growing Iranian hegemony in the region, it is not surprising that Khalifa recommended that the League as a whole follow the GCC in designating Hezbollah a terrorist organization, nor that the League followed his advice on March 11 and did just that.

          These moves by the GCC have, not surprisingly, met with vehement condemnation from Iranian and Hezbollah sources, which followed the well-worn path of seeing a malignant Israel behind the scenes. The Iranian Students’ News Agency opined that the GCC decision was the precursor to a new military attack by Israel against Hezbollah. The Ansar Allah Houthi movement in Yemen called the GCC decision “free service to the tyrant Zionist regime."

          More perceptively, perhaps, the Lebanon News maintained that the “designation by the GCC of Hezbollah as a terrorist group is seen as part of a process by Arab nations to align themselves with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the past 3 years has been overseeing back channel discussions with many Gulf states including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. He believes Arab nations share his country's disdain of Iran, and recently has hinted strongly that an alliance is in the wings. He confirmed last month that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not part of the discussions and did not pose a hurdle to Arab countries establishing diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.”

          Such a possibility was outlined by the Bahraini monarch, Khalifa, on March 2 during a meeting with Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation of Ethnic Understanding based in New York. Schneier reported that during their discussion the king said that in his opinion it was just a matter of time before some Arab countries began opening diplomatic ties with Israel. Khalifa maintained that the balance of power in the Middle East between moderates and extremists depended on Israel, which had the power to defend not only itself but the voices of moderation and the moderate Arab states in the region.

          As Schneier himself noted, anti-Iranianism provides a hitherto undreamed-of opportunity for formerly hostile countries to band together, thus providing the basis for peace between Israel and the Arab world. “This,” said Schneier, “could be a game changer in the geopolitical climate of the Middle East.” 

          It could indeed.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 20 March 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 2 April 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 1 April 2016:

Monday, 14 March 2016

Russia and the US battle it out in Syria

          Despite the fragile ceasefire that has brought a brief respite to the indiscriminate bombing of soldiers and civilians alike, the situation that has developed in Syria is fraught with dangers, contradictions and ironies.

          In September 2014, in pursuit of restoring stability to that war-ravaged country, a US-led coalition of nations engaged in a twin-objective military effort – in itself almost a recipe for disaster. The first aim was to defeat the rampant Islamic State (IS) that had seized large swathes of the country; the second to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power and establish democratic governance. There was one proviso: there were to be no Western boots on the ground. The strength of the coalition was to be focused on providing training, logistical support and air cover for the “moderate” forces fighting IS and those opposing Assad, mainly the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

          Assad, for his part, controlled the formidable Syrian army and was supported by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, by the forces of Iran’s satrap Hezbollah, and since autumn 2015 by the full weight of a massive Russian military build-up within Syria. Although Islamic State is nominally in Russia’s sights, some estimate that less than 10 per cent of Russian air strikes have targeted IS. Russia’s powerful air support has been directed primarily against the FSA.

          So Russia has been battering the FSA; the US-led coalition has been supporting them. In short, Russia and the US were at war with each other, albeit by proxy. Which side was winning? The assault on Aleppo by Russian-aided pro-Assad forces says it all. The fight was going Russia’s way, and Assad’s grip on power was being strengthened.

          Which perhaps explains the apparently inexplicable decision by President Vladimir Putin to disengage from the conflict. 

          Putin had no desire to become bogged down in a long-drawn-out battle to regain all of Assad’s lost territory for him. His aim in intervening in the Syrian conflict was to consolidate Russia as a major player on the world stage, and to secure his naval and air bases on the Syrian coast at Tartus and Latakia. Having achieved this, he wants the peace talks to succeed. He has never exhibited full-hearted support for Assad remaining in power, and by withdrawing at this critical moment in the Geneva peace process, he has cut the ground from under the feet of Assad’s representatives, who have been adamant in their view that Assad’s position as Syria’s president is a “red line”.  By reducing Assad’s negotiating position, Putin has provided an opportunity for the peace talks to succeed.

          How did the Western allies allowed the proxy war with Russia to develop?

          In the final analysis, the support provided to the FSA by the coalition powers was simply inadequate. The training, the logistical support and the air cover, no doubt of assistance to the ground troops of the FSA, were not enough by themselves to overcome the strength of the enemy. Assuming a genuine victory was desired, “no boots on the ground” was a faulty, if understandable, strategy.

          The coalition’s effort is so obviously deficient that Saudi Arabia, a member from its foundation in September 2014, announced on February 10, 2016, that it was forming a 34-nation Islamic military coalition to combat terrorism, and was ready to participate in any ground operation. Saudi military spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri had already confirmed that Saudi Arabia was ready to send ground troops to Syria to fight IS, but how the new Saudi initiative might relate to the Joint Arab Military Force, agreed by Arab League military chiefs in May 2015, is not made clear.

          Why are the Saudis taking the initiative? Because, in common with other pro-Western Arab states, they are alarmed at the way the US allowed Russia and Iran to lay the foundations for a Middle East that reflects their own, separate, interests.

          Iran seeks regional hegemony. Greatly aided in its bid for power by the ill-advised US-led nuclear deal, it has been boosted by the lifting of western sanctions, the renewed sale of oil, and the unfreezing of $32 billion of foreign-held assets. Now Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have used the state’s new-found wealth to pour thousands more Iraqi and Afghan mercenaries into Syria. So ironically it is the US itself that has contributed both to a racking up of the war in Syria, and to an increase in the misery imposed on the people, more and more of whom are forced to flee their homes

          From its start back in 2009 the Obama administration was intent on abdicating America’s former role as power-broker in the Middle East. Instead it devised a self-defeating strategy of boosting Iran’s power and influence. The idea was that a regenerated Shia Iran would take the initiative in combatting the Sunni jihadist organizations like al-Qaeda and Islamic State, allowing the US to adopt a much lower profile.

          The strategy failed abysmally. Its main result was severely to shake the confidence of America’s erstwhile allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, while affecting Iran’s attitudes and objectives not one jot. The leaders of Iran’s Islamic Republic despise the West and all it stands for – the US in particular, which Iran’s Supreme Leader regards as its greatest enemy. As for the nuclear deal, he lauds it as an Iranian victory over America. Iran remains determined to achieve both religious and political dominance in the Muslim world, and its influence over Syria’s future is a vital element in that strategy.

          As for Russia, President Vladimir Putin has filled the vacuum in the Middle East left by Obama. Putin is determined to re-establish a position for Russia in world politics akin to that of the defunct USSR, and no doubt saw Syria as a convenient stepping stone in that direction. His withdrawal has diminished Russia’s standing not one whit. It has, if anything, resulted in a chorus of admiration from many authoritative voices in government and the media for his statesmanship. 

          It has also remitted the urgent, but unfulfilled, task of defeating Islamic State to the US-led coalition. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 14 March 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 March 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 22 March 2016:

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The Commonwealth and Arab-Israel reconciliation

        In 2016 Commonwealth Day falls on March 14. That may not mean much to some people, but to the 53 member nations of the Commonwealth, representing some 2.2 billion people, it means a whole range of events sponsored by governments, schools, community groups and individuals, intended to promote the inclusivity of the organization. On March 14 activities the world over will aim to promote international co-operation and “Commonwealth values.”

        What are they, these “Commonwealth values”?

        First outlined in the 1971 Singapore Declaration, and later augmented in 1979 and 1989, they commit the organization to promoting world peace, democracy, individual liberty, environmental sustainability, equality in terms of race and gender, free trade, and the fight against poverty, ignorance, and disease. In short, the Commonwealth is strongly in favour of motherhood and apple pie (and all credit to them for it) – a position finally encapsulated in the “Commonwealth Charter”, signed by Queen Elizabeth in March 2013. So the Commonwealth is indubitably a force for good in this wicked world, but dynamic or proactive it can scarcely claim to be. Perhaps the time has come for it to adopt a somewhat bolder approach to world politics.

        The Commonwealth spans the globe and has a combined population amounting to about a third of the world’s inhabitants. Most, but not all, of the member states were once part of the now defunct British Empire. What unites this diverse group of nations are the association’s values, to which all subscribe, strong shared trade links, and the fact that, regardless of their individual constitutions, all recognize the current British sovereign as head of the organization.

        It was in 1884 that Lord Rosebery, later a British prime minister, first dubbed the British Empire “a Commonwealth of Nations”, but the designation “Commonwealth” remained in the background until 1949, when India achieved independence. Although the new state became a republic, the Indian government was very keen to remain in the Commonwealth – and the Commonwealth, unwilling to lose the jewel in its crown, found no difficulty in changing the rules of the club. Henceforth membership did not have to be based on allegiance to the British crown. Commonwealth members were to be “free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress.”

        That opened the floodgates for fully independent countries from all parts of the globe to join the association. All had some historic connection to the old British Empire – until two other nations, with absolutely no such ties, applied. Once again the Commonwealth demonstrated a flexibility remarkable in bureaucracies and, by sleight of hand, further amended the rules to allow first Mozambique, and a few years later Rwanda, to join.

        Applications and expressions of interest in joining the Commonwealth continue to arrive from countries like South Sudan, Sudan, Somaliland and Suriname. Others expressing interest have included Yemen, Algeria, Madagascar, Senegal, East Timor and Cambodia – to say nothing of the states of Jersey and Guernsey, and the Isle of Man, all three of them islands lying off-shore of the British Isles.

        Back in 2012 the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee considered the “Role and Future of the Commonwealth”, and in general welcomed the idea of the organization extending its membership – always provided a stringent selection procedure was maintained.

        “We welcome the fact that the Commonwealth continues to attract interest from potential new members,” reads the final paragraph of their report, “and see advantages in greater diversity and an extended global reach for the Commonwealth. However it is crucial that the application process is rigorous and that any new members are appropriate additions to the Commonwealth 'family', closely adhering at all times to its principles and values.”

        Israel and the Palestinian Authority – or a sovereign Palestine, if or when this comes to pass –would, if they applied to join the Commonwealth, certainly meet the original criterion of “historic ties with the British Empire”. So, as a matter of interest, would Jordan. In point of fact, both Israel and the Palestinians have, in the past, expressed some interest in the possibility.

        It is not generally known that Israel boasts an “Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association” (IBCA), a body formed as far back as 1953 with the aim of encouraging, developing and extending social, cultural and economic relations between Israel and the Commonwealth. It will be marking Commonwealth Day with a reception hosted by the Australian ambassador, Dave Sharma. And indeed Israel may quite recently have come close to applying to join. It was only in 2007 that the Jewish Journal reported:

        “As a former British colony, Israel is being considered for Commonwealth membership. Commonwealth officials said this week they had set up a special committee to consider membership applications by several Middle Eastern and African nations. Speaking on condition of anonymity, diplomats said those interested in applying include Israel and the Palestinian Authority, both of which exist on land ruled by a British Mandate from 1918 to 1948. An Israeli official did not deny the report, but said, ‘This issue is not on our agenda right now.’”

        Not then, perhaps, but how about right now? Traditionally the Commonwealth secretariat has restricted itself to considering applications from nations eager to enjoy the considerable benefits that come with membership – and sometimes to expelling members who have transgressed its principles. It has never seen promoting the expansion of the association as part of its role, and does nothing to foster interest in potential member nations in the idea of joining the organization.

        Perhaps the time has come for a more proactive approach by the secretariat. The Israel-Palestine situation provides the Commonwealth with a golden opportunity to foster peace in one of the world’s major trouble spots. Thinking laterally, the Commonwealth could exercise a positive and powerful influence for good by issuing a clear invitation to both parties: “As soon as you have reached some sort of deal, join us. We will welcome you into our family of nations.”

        Whatever Israel’s traditional enemies might assert, there is no doubt that Israel’s core values precisely match those of the Commonwealth. The Palestinian Authority – shorn of the malign Hamas régime that dominates the Gaza strip – could make a reasonable case for aspiring to most of them.

        An offer by the Commonwealth of future membership to both – and indeed also to Jordan, which certainly has a stake in maintaining the security of the region against terrorist extremists – would provide a new, and previously unconsidered, framework within which peace negotiations might be conducted, and a peaceful outcome might flourish.  

        An Arab-Israel peace conference, at which the Arab interest was represented by the Arab League, and which was charged with securing a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, might result in a newly conceived legal entity – a confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine, dedicated to close security and economic cooperation. Commonwealth membership of the three sovereign states, or of the confederation, would incorporate acceptance by a swathe of nations from every continent, the assurance of new markets and flourishing trade relations for all three parties, and membership of an association dedicated to democracy, freedom and peaceful co-existence.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 9 March 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 14 March 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 15 March 2016: