Wednesday, 28 August 2019

The trials - and tribulations - of Judge Richard Goldstone

My review of "The Trials of Richard Goldstone" by Daniel Terris appears in the edition of the Jerusalem Report of September 9, 2019

        In The Trials of Richard Goldstone Daniel Terris, a friend and admirer, provides us with an in-depth account of a remarkable career.

     Goldstone, 80, is a third-generation South African who was born into a Jewish family in Boksburg, near Johannesburg.

        In the book we follow, and are helped to understand, the events and circumstances that led to the emergence of a towering figure in international jurisprudence. As Goldstone’s legal career progressed in his native South Africa, where he combatted and helped defeat apartheid from within the system, and as chief prosecutor for the UN in bringing the Bosnian Serb political and military leaders to justice, he proved himself a dedicated advocate of human rights and an unwavering upholder of international humanitarian law. Terris both describes and explains the challenges that Goldstone faced along the way, and the principles that informed his many decisions – principles that evolved over the course of his career, and have become his legacy.

        Then late in the story, when he was already past 70, came the débacle of the Goldstone Report, a pivotal episode in his life and in his career. Terris describes the episode with scrupulous honesty. Under the auspices of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), a five-person fact-finding team was set up to look into the events of the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza in 2008-9, known as Operation Cast Lead. Goldstone agreed to lead it. Despite his best efforts to paint a balanced picture, lack of access to an Israeli version of events and a consequent over-reliance on accounts from partisan sources, resulted in a report perceived on all sides to be a searing indictment of Israel’s conduct of the conflict.

        When published, the effect of the Goldstone Report on his personal and professional life was devastating. He was reviled across the Jewish world, to the point where he was not only refused an Aliyah on his grandson’s barmitzvah, but only narrowly escaped being refused entry to the synagogue. Equally mortifying, perhaps, was the triumphalist use made of the report by Israel’s enemies.

        It is well known that, a couple of years later, Richard Goldstone published an article in the Washington Post containing the key sentence: “If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.” His partial retraction of the report’s conclusions was condemned at the time as “too little, too late”, and in a sense this was true. Yet Terris also highlights the reactions of some in the human rights world who applauded Goldstone’s moral courage in acknowledging when mistakes had been made. “Heroism of the first order”, one editorial called it.

         Surveying the episode from start to finish, Terris identifies the one fundamental misjudgement that might have averted the whole traumatic affair. Goldstone had been warned, and he ought to have realized, that when he accepted the UNHRC’s mandate, his report would be used as a weapon to delegitimize Israel.
        In refusing to co-operate, Israelis in government and military circles knew only too well how partisan the UNHRC was. In 2009 it was just three years old. It had been set up with one over-riding purpose – to rectify the egregious faults of its predecessor body, the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). That organization had been disbanded because of the raft of objectionable practices it had accrued over the years, not least of which was its compliance with being used as a platform from which selective targets, but in particular Israel, could be condemned and vilified.
        Unfortunately, the change of organization made virtually no difference in this respect. The new Council, its membership heavily weighted against Israel, had issued more condemnatory resolutions against Israel than against the rest of the world combined. In 2007 this policy had culminated in a decision to include, as a permanent feature of each of its three annual sessions, a review of alleged human rights abuses by Israel – a scrutiny extended to no other nation, whatever its human rights record.

        The dangers in accepting a brief from the UNHRC should have been instantly apparent to Goldstone from the blatantly biased terms of the remit it originally offered him: “to investigate all violations of human rights law and the laws of war by the occupying power, Israel, against the Palestinian people in Gaza.”

        It is no surprise that Goldstone refused to accept such a brief. When it was presented to him he said: “I would need to be assured that the investigation would be even-handed,” asking specifically whether he would be permitted to take into account the indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. Eventually, with the approval of Martin Uhomoibhi, the Nigerian president of the UNHRC, Goldstone himself drafted the remit to which his mission worked: “to investigate all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law that might have been committed at any time in the context of the military operations in Gaza in 2008-2009, whether before, during or after.”

        Yet Goldstone must surely have been aware that adjusting the remit was not enough to ensure even-handedness for his report. He must have known that, once it had been presented to the UNHRC, he would have no control over how it would be interpreted or used. Deeper reflection about the UNHRC’s offer and its possible consequences might have led him to reject it, and thus have spared him, his friends, colleagues and family, a great deal of anguish. Unfortunately, as he himself must realize, his name will always be linked to that episode.

        Despite, but perhaps also because of, the Goldstone Report incident, Daniel Terris leaves us in no doubt that Richard Goldstone is a very great man indeed. Throughout a long and distinguished legal career, says Terris, he has abided steadfastly by three core principles: holding to account those responsible for inflicting suffering; equality before the law – in South Africa, for example, he bore down equally on the apartheid regime and wrong-doing by the ANC; and an abiding belief in the importance of international institutions, especially perhaps the UN despite its faults.

        Was it this last deeply-held belief that over-ruled the wiser judgement he might have made, back in 2009?

Saudi Vision 2030 – the British connection

This article of mine appears in the edition of the Jerusalem Report dated September 9, 2019

          The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is such an established feature of today’s Middle East that it comes as something of a surprise to realize that it is less than a hundred years old. It was a British explorer, Captain William Shakespear, who charted large areas of northern Arabia and first made official contact with Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, later to be king of Saudi Arabia. In 1915 Shakespear, by then military adviser to Ibn Saud, was killed in a local skirmish. He was only 36 years old. It took Ibn Saud seventeen more years of political and military struggle against other local chieftains and the Ottoman empire before, supported by Britain, he was able in 1932 to name the area that he had conquered “Saudi Arabia”, and proclaim himself monarch. The bond with Britain, originally forged by Shakespear, had been maintained after his death, and has subsequently withstood the test of time.

          It was doubtless with an eye to the eventual centenary celebrations of the monarchy and the kingdom that in April 2016 Saudi’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), launched Saudi Vision 2030, an ambitious plan to revitalize the nation. If it succeeds, by 2032 Saudi Arabia will have been transformed from its current dependency on oil revenues into a modern, liberalized, thriving, entrepreneurial society, its prosperity underpinned by flourishing industrial, financial, economic and commercial sectors.

          “The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Britain,” said MBS, just prior to a visit to the UK in March 2018 “…goes back to the foundation of the kingdom. We have a common interest that goes back to the earliest days of the relationship. Our relationship with Britain today is super.”

          Saudi Vision 2030 has been described as a “neo-liberal blueprint”. It envisages, among hundreds of initiatives, privatizing entire sectors of the economy, cutting subsidies, courting investors at home and abroad, streamlining government services, and going public with the national oil company, Saudi Aramco. 

          It was in respect of this last objective that MBS envisaged the UK connection coming into its own. Funding the reform program requires vast sums of money, and MBS envisaged raising it by floating a stake in Saudi Aramco, the state-owned energy company. Several stock exchanges vied to handle the flotation, but it was the London Stock Exchange that MBS favored. The deal, said to involve the raising of $2 trillion, the largest flotation that London has ever handled, were just about finalized when, for unexplained reasons, they were put on hold. A few months later, in July 2019, they were revived. The Saudi energy minister, Khalid al-Falih, said on July 2 that officials were working to list the company within the next two years. The expected proceeds are considered integral to the Saudi Vision 2030 undertaking.

          In the interim, as an alternative means of funding its Public Investment Fund (PIF), the chosen instrument for financing Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia has settled on raising substantial loans. Some of the most senior names in international banking pitched for two short-term loan deals, each around $10-11 billion. 

          MBS landed in Britain on March 7, 2018 for a three-day visit, armed with an ambitious agenda to explain and promote Vision 2030. Another prime objective was to consolidate the ties between the British royal family and the new generation of the house of Saud. With this aim endorsed by the government, Queen Elizabeth hosted a lunch for the crown prince – a rare honor for a man not yet head of state – while a separate dinner was also arranged with Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, and Prince William.

          On the political front, no efforts were spared to show MBS that he was a very special guest. Meetings with then-prime minister Theresa May took place at 10 Downing Street and at Chequers, her country residence, and most unusually the Saudi crown prince was invited to attend a meeting of the British Cabinet. Moreover, recognizing Saudi’s important contribution to combating terrorism and extremism, the government arranged for the crown prince to have private meetings with the heads of MI5 and MI6, Britain’s security and intelligence agencies, as well as attending a meeting of the full National Security Council.

          The visit achieved a significant result. The UK and Saudi Arabia agreed to set up a new bilateral government body, to be known as The Strategic Partnership Council. Its remit will be to assist in the roll-out of Vision 2030, and to promote British involvement in Saudi’s rapidly developing service sectors. The Council will provide a mechanism through which the two governments can cooperate on the Saudi reform agenda. It will also serve as a forum for inter-governmental dialogue, and will oversee the work of envoys appointed jointly to drive economic and social progress in Saudi Arabia.

          The need for social progress was recognized and built into Vision 2030 from the start, and it was Saudi’s procrastination in this area that was one of the main causes for public dissent during MBS’s visit to Britain. For mass anti-Saudi demonstrations there certainly were.

          The main charges hurled at MBS and his officials during public protests concerned Saudi’s involvement in Yemen and vehement antagonism to Britain selling arms to Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of people gathered outside Downing Street to voice their opposition to MBS’s visit as Theresa May held talks with him inside. Leading Labour and Green Party figures were among the speakers as protesters chanted “Hands off Yemen - stop the bombing now” and demanded that the UK halt arms sales to the Gulf state. 

          A fiery exchange in parliament between Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn underlined the tension in Britain over MBS’s trip. Corbyn accused the government of "colluding" in war crimes by selling arms to Riyadh.

          Then in June 2019 the Campaign Against Arms Trade brought a case against the then-international trade secretary, Liam Fox, charging the government with selling arms to Saudi Arabia illegally. The case went to the court of appeal, which ruled that certain sales had been unlawful, since they had been made without properly assessing the risk to civilians. As a result, the court said that the UK export licensing process was “wrong in law in one significant respect,” and ordered Fox to hold an immediate review of at least £4.7 billion worth of arms deals with Saudi Arabia.

          The fact is that Britain is a key military supplier to Saudi Arabia, which is now the top destination for British-manufactured weapons. But then the arms industry is a major component of the UK’s commercial structure – Britain is the second largest arms dealer in the world. Only the United States is a bigger exporter.

          As regards Saudi’s record on human rights, the subject was raised by Theresa May during her meeting with the crown prince. A Downing Street spokesperson said that May had welcomed recent reforms in Saudi Arabia, “including on women attending sporting events and the cinema, and being legally able to drive,” but that they had agreed to work together to intensify reforms, “particularly on women’s rights and on universal human rights.” This aspect of Vision 2030 will doubtless be promoted by way of the new UK-Saudi Strategic Partnership Council.

          Most political and economic issues in today’s Britain are viewed through the prism of Brexit. The government clearly believes that in opting to sustain and support Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030 program, it will be backing a winner. But there is another side to the coin. With the UK anxious to consolidate global trade relationships post-Brexit, the economic dimension of relations with wealthy Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia will assume great importance.

          Saudi minister and head of Aramco, Kalid al-Falih, has already shown how eager he is to attract further British investment. He is reported to have told British trade representatives that increased business with Riyadh would be their post-Brexit commercial gateway to the Middle East, Africa, and the Islamic world as a whole - "to which Saudi Arabia is central". The movement is already afoot. Following MBS’s visit to London, both sides have concluded mutual investment deals in the education, banking and pharmaceutical sectors worth £65 billion.

It seems as though Vision 2030 might be offering a promising future not only to Saudi Arabia, but also to the United Kingdom.

Friday, 23 August 2019

The disintegration of Yemen

                                                                                Video version
          Distressing as recent events have been in Yemen, a country torn apart by civil war that has led to a humanitarian disaster on a massive scale, the main outline of the conflict and the reasons behind it seemed, until quite recently, reasonably comprehensible. Now new developments have thoroughly complicated the issues. As a result, any progress made by UN special envoy Martin Griffiths towards some sort of agreement between the main parties has been largely negated.

          This Yemen conflict started in the sadly misnamed “Arab spring” uprisings of 2011. Mass protests, a near-assassination of the then president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and pressure from neighbouring petro-states forced Saleh to step down in favour of his vice-president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The political instability was largely caused by attempts of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels to overthrow Saleh’s government.

          The Houthis, although on the Shia side of the great Islamic Sunni-Shia divide, are in fact a minority group – Zaydi Shi’ites, taking their name from Zayd bin Ali, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, a Zaydi monarchy took power in North Yemen, but it was overthrown by republicans, and in 1968 the Yemen Arab Republic was formed.

          These events in North Yemen were echoed by a constitutional upheaval in the south. In 1967 South Yemen was established as a socialist state under the protection of the USSR. Relations between the two Yemens deteriorated, and in 1972 they took up arms against each other. A ceasefire, brokered by the Arab League, included the aspiration of unification in due course. It took a further 18 years of military and political in-fighting before that aspiration was realized, but in 1990 the Unified Republic of Yemen came into being. Ali Abdallah Saleh, who had been president of North Yemen since 1978, was proclaimed president of the newly united state.

          Saleh himself became a victim of the so-called Arab Spring of 2011. He had given up the keys of office with a very bad grace, and was quite prepared to ally himself with his erstwhile enemies, the Houthis, in an attempt to manoeuvre his way back to power. The Yemeni military, including its air force, had remained largely loyal to Saleh. As a result, and supported with military hardware from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the Houthis overran large tracts of the country, including the capital city, Sana’a. 

          The subsequent turn of events seems depressingly familiar in the context of Yemen’s long history. Saudi Arabia, determined to prevent Iran from extending its footprint into the Arabian peninsula, intervened in March 2015 to beat back the Houthis. Saudi’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), assembled a coalition of Arab states, obtained the diplomatic backing of the US, UK, Turkey and Pakistan, and launched a series of air strikes against the rebels.

          The unconventional Saleh-Houthi partnership came to an abrupt end on December 2, 2017, when Saleh went on television to declare that he was splitting from the Houthis and was ready to enter into dialogue with the Saudi-led coalition. This volte-face was to end in tragedy. On December 4, Saleh's house in Sana'a was besieged by Houthi fighters. Attempting to escape, he was killed.

          Now the glue binding the two Yemens has come unstuck.

          The first signs appeared as far back as 2007, when a south Yemen separatist movement was formed with the aim of re-establishing South Sudan as a sovereign state. Ten years later, in 2017, the movement set up the Southern Transitional Council (STC), backed by the United Arab Emirates. 

          Separatists from the STC are part of the military coalition fighting the Houthi rebels; so are the UAE, But suddenly, in the first week of August 2011, separatist forces seized government military bases, and began an assault on Aden. They had soon captured the city, the seat of the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, and thousands of people poured into the streets to support them, waving the old South Yemen flag. 

          It was an delicate situation. The UAE and Saudi Arabia had been firm allies in attempting to crush the Houthis, but they now found themselves on opposite sides of this separatist uprising. Meanwhile support for the separatists was growing. A petition signed by southern trades unions and other bodies called on the Saudi-led coalition to hand over administration of the south to the separatist STC. It urged STC chief Aidarus al-Zubaidi to declare independence, and appealed for international recognition for the breakaway state. This was backed on August 15 by a mass rally in support of the Southern forces and the Southern Transitional Council.

          According to the UN the fighting between elements nominally within the same military alliance has killed at least 40 people and wounded 260 others. In one memorable phrase, it was turning into "a civil war within a civil war".

          Fortunately cooler counsels prevailed. Saudi-UAE discussions led to a ceasefire. By 16 August Southern separatists had vacated key public buildings in Aden, and the STC had welcomed Saudi Arabia’s call for dialogue. 

          But this episode introduces a new factor into an already complex situation. It is more than a minor spat between allies. In the long run, what sort of compromise can there be between the Saudi-backed president of a united Yemen fighting to maintain the integrity of his state, and the UAE-backed STC, dedicated to re-establishing an independent nation of South Yemen? Suddenly Yemen’s President Hadi is facing two enemies: the Houthis and the southern separatists. 

          Words issued on 14 August from UN envoy Martin Griffiths, currently watching events from the sidelines, sound true but ineffectual: “The conflict in Yemen can only be resolved through an inclusive political process.” 

          Yes indeed, but how long must Yemen’s agony persist?

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 August 2019:

Thursday, 15 August 2019

US-Turkey tug-of-war about the Kurds

                                                                                Video version
          Valiant Kurdish Pershmerga troops bore the brunt of the West’s struggle against Islamic State (IS) in Syria. The defeat of IS on the ground is largely due to them, and the US-led coalition owes them a debt of gratitude. The north-eastern region of Syria has always been a Kurdish occupied area, and now the Kurds have established a semi-autonomous self-governing region there known as Rojava. 

          Kurds represent some 20 percent of Turkey’s population, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is struggling against their persistent calls for independence, or at least autonomy. He claims that the Kurdish administration in Rojava is hand-in-glove with his domestic Kurdish insurgents, the PKK, which he has dubbed a terrorist organization. He would like to move troops into Rojava, and crush his opponents.

          This is the issue that has led to a tug-of-war between the US and Turkey.

          Long before civil war erupted in Syria in 2011, the nation’s 2 million Kurds, accounting for 15 percent of the population, had aspired to some degree of autonomy. Their opportunity came with the internal uprising in that year against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Three years after the conflict began, IS intervened and started winning vast swathes of Syrian territory. Up in the north-east, the Kurds began fighting IS. Backed by air support and special forces from the US and its allies, the Kurdish Peshmerga fighting forces began to prevail, winning back large areas of Kurd-inhabited territory.

          By the time Russia involved itself in support of Assad in September 2015, the process of defeating IS was well under way. Gradually but inexorably, its territory shrank Finally on Friday March 22, 2019, following a lengthy battle around the small Syrian town of Baghouz on the banks of the Euphrates, IS lost its final stronghold.

          Assisted by the massive Russian military intervention, Assad has regained some 70 percent of what was once sovereign Syria. The Kurd-occupied region, which is about 25 per cent of the old Syria, is now an integrated territory known formally as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS). It is not a sovereign state nor, if statements from its leaders are to be believed, does it aspire to be one. It is a semi-autonomous region, and there have been formal moves by its leaders to reach an accord with the Syrian president. Early indications are that an accommodation within a post-war Syrian constitution is a distinct possibility, along the lines of the arrangements in Iraq, where an autonomous Kurdistan is a separate element within the Iraqi constitution.

          The fly in this ointment is Erdogan. Any such formal recognition of the DFNS would be anathema to him. Fractious Kurds struggling to achieve a degree of autonomy have been a constant political problem for all Turkish governments including Erdogan – a problem stemming back to 1922 and the establishment of the Turkish Republic under Kemal Ataturk. The subsequent Treaty of Lausanne gave control of the entire Anatolian peninsula, including the large portion of the Kurdistan homeland that lay within it, to the new republic. With a stroke of the colonial pen, some 20 million Kurds were declared Turkish, and they now comprise about 20 percent of Turkey's 85 million population,

          Because the leading political party in the DFNS – the Democratic Union Party (or PYD) – is linked to the PKK, Erdogan asserts that the DFNS itself is a challenge to Turkey’s national interests. Accordingly he objects to Peshmerga forces being positioned along the Syrian- Turkish border. Recently Erdogan began ramping up his rhetoric. "Turkey has the right to eliminate all threats against its national security," he said in a televised speech in Ankara. Rumors of an imminent Turkish attack on the Syrian Kurds began circulating.

          The US found itself torn between supporting its Kurdish allies and standing by its NATO partner, Turkey. Seeking to deflect Turkey from military action. Washington initiated talks with Turkish defense officials. On August 6, while they were still proceeding, Erdogan threatened to launch an assault on the Kurdish fighters, the YPG. On August 7 the US and Turkey announced an agreement. They would create a safe zone in north-eastern Syria, allowing Turkey to protect its borders. Details of the length and depth of the zone were not revealed.

          Erdogan is clearly intent on reducing the size and the influence of Rojava. The borders of the territory, which sits within Syria, run alongside those of Kurdistan, which lies within Iraq. If the two blocs were ever to unite, the Kurds would be some 
way along the road leading to an independent sovereign state. But the Kurdish-occupied region of Turkey abuts both on Syria’s Rojava, and on Iraq’s Kurdistan. The pressure from Turkey’s 20 million Kurds to amalgamate with their ethnic brothers and sisters would intensify. Kurdish independence – a virtual undoing of the Treaty of Lausanne – could well become a new battle-cry.
          So a nightmare for Erdogan is the prospect of a Syrian Kurdistan emerging from the current peace negotiations being led by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin – the Astana process – of which Turkey, along with Iran, are also sponsors.

          “We will never allow a state to be formed in northern Syria, south of our border,” declared Erdogan in 2015. “We will maintain our struggle whatever the cost. They are trying to…change the demographics of the region. We will not condone it."

          His view on that has, if anything, toughened in the last four years. For the moment he is being restrained from taking military action by a newly forged, and rather precarious, agreement with the US. How long will that hold?

Published in the Eurasia Review, 17 August 2019:

Friday, 9 August 2019

Putin hi-jacks Syria's future

                                                                                 Video version
          It’s a quite extraordinary situation, when you think about it. A leading Arab nation is having its future decided by three non-Arab countries. The three states that have seized the fate of Syria into their hands are Russia, Iran and Turkey. 
          “It is clear to any outside observer,” one Saudi commentator wrote, “that these countries lack any legitimacy to speak about peace and security in Syria. In fact, they are part of the problem…”
          Of course he is right. For years Russian planes have bombed civilian targets in Syria, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Iranian-backed militias have fought over large areas and displaced millions of citizens from their homes, and Turkey has invaded northern Syria in its effort to dislodge the Kurdish Peshmerga forces which played a vital role in defeating Islamic State (IS).

          Each of the three is involved in Syria because they seized the opportunity provided by a power vacuum to establish a politico-military presence there. Each has its own priorities. Russian President Putin’s purpose is to establish a power base in the Middle East and consolidate his military foothold in the eastern Mediterranean; Iranian President Rouhani’s aim is to maintain the regime of Bashar al-Assad in power so as to preserve this major link in Iran’s Shia crescent; Turkey’s President Erdogan is intent on dismantling Kurdish PYD rule in the north. 

          The power vacuum was provided by then-US President Obama. By 2013 civil conflict had been raging in Syria for two years, as Assad strove to quell the popular uprising against his dictatorial rule. Assad knew full well that Obama had threatened immediate counter measures if chemical weapons were used in the Syrian conflict, but dictators take risks. In August 2013 – quite regardless of collateral civilian casualties – Assad authorized the use of the potent nerve agent, sarin, in an attack against opposition forces in the town of Ghouta. Sarin is officially designated a weapon of mass destruction. 

          Obama turned somersaults to avoid the decisive response he had promised. When Putin claimed to have extracted an undertaking from Assad to destroy all the chemical weapons he had originally claimed not to possess, Obama seized the chance to avoid punitive action. The result was enormously to strengthen Putin’s position in the Middle East. 

          Incidentally, the deal was not worth the paper it was written on – if indeed it was ever written down. The subsequent record abounds with convincing evidence of the continued use by Assad of chemical weaponry of various kinds, including VX, sulphur, mustard and chlorine.

          Meanwhile the Syrian president had gained a powerful new ally in his effort to cling to power. On September 30, 2015 Putin sent his forces into Syria. He had two main objectives – to establish Russia as a potent political and military force in the region, and to secure his hold on the Russian naval base at Tartus and the refurbished air base and intelligence-gathering centre at Latakia. He achieved both objectives, as he launched massive air and missile attacks not mainly on Islamic State (IS), as he claimed, but against Assad’s domestic enemies, namely the rebel forces led by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

          As a result, Assad started winning back large areas of Syria previously overrun by IS, and strengthening his position against the SFA. The US was engaged in military operations only in a support capacity, so Putin decided to grab control of Syria’s peace process, precisely as he had done in the conflict itself.

          Peace efforts had begun very shortly after the civil conflict started in Syria in 2011. Several efforts by the UN, including two meetings in Geneva, petered out. Then, in December 2015, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2254, tasking the UN special envoy with bringing the Syrian government and opposition leaders together to establish a unity government, and to agree a schedule for drafting a new constitution leading to democratic elections. 

          This UN Geneva-based initiative quickly ran into the sand, and it was in December 2016 that Putin acted. Maintaining that his peace effort was intended to sustain the UN process, Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed to hold Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. In effect, Putin had hi-jacked the process of establishing the post-conflict settlement in Syria. 

          It was no easy ride, but it is possible that Putin was playing for time. While the talks dragged on, the Astana process did succeed in imposing temporary ceasefires in certain areas, but Putin continued to ensure that Assad recovered as much pre-conflict Syrian territory as possible. He currently controls about 70 percent. 

          As the future of Syria is finally hammered out at Astana (now renamed Nur-Sultan), the US is out of the picture. The new arrangements will suit Russia, and to a lesser extent Iran and Turkey. They will probably involve Assad retaining the presidency by one means or another. Iran is likely to acquire a fair degree of power within a reconstituted Syrian administration. Turkey will be allowed a free hand in controlling Kurdish forces in their northern semi-state of Rojava, and indeed on August 5, 2019 – three days after the 13th Astana round of talks ended – was already threatening to overrun them.

          In their declaration following the talks, the parties expressed satisfaction on “progress made towards establishing the constitutional committee” – the pre-requisite to a new or revised constitution for Syria, and the holding of elections. 

          At the current rate of progress, that stage seems far in the future. First the fighting has to come to an end, law and order needs to be re-established together with local health, education and social services. Then the 6.2 million internally displaced civilians, and the 6.7 million refugees who have fled Syria, need to be re-settled. It’s an immense task. Ahead stretches a long, hard road.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 11 August 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 11 August 2019:

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 17 August 2019:

Thursday, 1 August 2019

The US-China struggle in the Middle East

                                                                                                                                        Video Version
          China was one of the signatories of the nuclear deal with Iran. When US President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal in May 2018, the first visit made by Iran’s foreign minister, Mohamad Javad Zarif, to shore up support was to China, its number one trading partner. It is an unlikely alliance – the largest communist country in the world and the rogue Muslim theocracy dubbed the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism – but it is real, viable and of long standing.

          China- Iranian trade covers a vast field, but oil is at its base. China has been importing approximately 10 percent of its oil from Iran.

          In an effort to force Iran back to the negotiating table, Trump has been increasing sanctions on Iran and on any organization or country that contravenes them. On July 22, 2019 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US was sanctioning the Chinese state-run energy company Zhuhai Zhenrong for allegedly violating restrictions imposed on Iran’s oil sector. Later he said that, following the expiry of a special sanctions waiver that had covered China, Zhuhai Zhenrong had “knowingly engaged in a significant transaction for the purchase or acquisition of crude oil from Iran.”

          Zhuhai Zhenrong — which was set up 25 years ago as the then-sole importer of Iranian crude to China — will be barred from engaging in foreign exchange, banking or property transactions under US jurisdiction, as will its chief executive, Youmin Li. How this spat will play out is anybody’s guess. It is likely to be resolved within the context of an eventual broader US-China trade agreement.

           Trump’s firm stand on sanction-busting has indeed trumped what once seemed to China a winning hand. The Iran connection suited China in a number of ways. It was an energy producer hostile to the US in a region of US allies, and the relationship helped insulate China from US efforts to squeeze it. Even if the US succeeds in cutting off the supply of Iranian oil to China, the Iranian connection will continue to serve China’s strategic interests. The US conflict with Iran has split the US from its allies, and this enhances China’s position both in the Middle East and globally.

          On the other hand China is vying for influence and profit with two of America’s major allies in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In 2017 China overtook the US as Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, when Saudi King Salman signed $65 billion-worth of memorandums of understanding with Beijing. The two countries immediately began implementing agreements in petrochemicals, high technology, and other sectors. Today Saudi Arabia is China’s largest trading partner in the region, and China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner worldwide. The ambitious Saudi Vision 2030 development programme, designed to transform the kingdom into a modern thrusting industrialized nation no longer dependent on oil revenues, has provided Chinese construction firms with the major opportunity of developing Saudi infrastructure.

          China has a thriving relationship also with the UAE. It is the UAE’s largest trading partner, and the port of Dubai is a vital global shipping and logistics hub for Chinese goods. Chinese business enterprises are heavily engaged in the country, which sees itself as an essential element in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

          Introduced in 2013, and heavily promoted subsequently by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Belt and Road Initiative is Xi’s blueprint for China’s eventual political and economic domination of, or at least dominance in, the world. The “belt” refers to reinvigorating the old Silk Road economic belt, while the “road” relates to constructing a 21st century Maritime Silk Road. The stated aim of the initiative is to promote the economic prosperity of the countries along the Belt and Road, enhance regional economic cooperation, strengthen exchanges and mutual learning between different civilizations, and promote world peace and development.

          By 2017 it had involved China underwriting billions of dollars of infrastructure investment in countries along the old Silk Road linking it with Europe. The ambition is immense. China is spending roughly $150 billion a year in the 68 countries that have signed up to the scheme.

          Egypt also features in Chinese strategic thinking. As China’s commercial activities in the Middle East mushroomed, it grew increasingly concerned with transit through the Suez Canal. As a result it has invested billions of dollars in Egypt. Chinese firms are helping construct Egypt’s new administrative capital in the desert outside of Cairo, and they are developing a Red Sea port and industrial zone in Ain Sukhna. Egypt’s President Sisi has made at least six trips to Beijing since taking office in 2014, compared to just two trips to Washington.

          And then, of course, there is Israel. Israeli-Chinese relations have been excellent for decades – sometimes too close for US comfort. Finally Washington put a definitive end to Israeli cooperation on military technology with US roots. Instead, Israel developed close commercial relationships in advanced technology and cooperation at government level in security and counter terrorism. Between 2016 and 2017 Chinese investment in Israel increased tenfold, totaling more than $16 billion. Today Chinese firms are deeply engaged in Israeli infrastructure, building tunnels for light rail, expanding port facilities in Ashdod and Haifa, and striking agreements to operate the ports for 25 years. This close collaboration remains unpalatable to some in the US Senate, who may seek to challenge Israel about it in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

          US-China tension over Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Israel – and that is only in the Middle East. Underlying these potential flash points is the as yet unresolved trade war between the Titans. Cool heads and calm deliberation is called for.
Published in the Eurasia Review, 3 August 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 7 August 2019: