Sunday, 5 April 2020

A future for the Kurds in post-war Syria?

        The Kurdish people – some 35 million strong – are the largest stateless nation in the world. Historically they inhabited a distinct geographical area flanked by mountain ranges, once referred to as Kurdistan. Now it falls within the sovereign space of four separate states: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. It is there that most Kurds live, the four communities separated from one another, but there is also a Kurdish diaspora spread across Europe, the Trans-Caucasus and central Asia. 

        Around 12 million Kurds live within Turkey’s borders. Another 6 million are trapped inside Iran’s extremist Shi’ite regime. Iraq’s 6 million Kurds, up in the north of the country, have developed the near autonomous state of Kurdistan. The 2 million Kurds in Syria, forming the country’s largest minority, have also established a self-governing area, but a precarious one. Syria’s Kurdish region, known as Rojava, occupies some 20 percent of pre-civil war Syria. It is constantly threatened, or under actual attack, by the Turks; its leaders can no longer rely on the support of their erstwhile US allies; and its overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim people face a hostile Shia Iran seeking to incorporate Syria into its sphere of influence.

        In Syria the civil war, starting in 2011, provided the Kurds – long the victims of discrimination – with an unforeseen opportunity. The internal situation quickly deteriorated, government forces were overwhelmed, and the Kurdish element of the opposition began seizing control of territory in the north of the country. In mid-2012 Syrian government troops withdrew from three mainly Kurdish areas.

        As Syria descended into total chaos, the militant Islamic State (ISIS) overran and captured large areas of the country. Iran backed Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in opposing them. The highly effective Kurdish Peshmerga forces, with the logistical support of a Western coalition led by the US, opposed both ISIS and Assad. As the Kurds slowly pushed ISIS back, Rojava expanded. The Kurdish region reached its apogee in October 2016, by which time the Kurds had conquered a huge area running almost the complete length of the Syrian-Turkish border. What they had failed to do was to link their consolidated area in the north-east with the whole of Afrin province in the north-west, of which they held only part.

        The strengthening Kurdish presence alarmed Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He consistently maintained that the Kurdish military forces were dominated by the PKK, his political opponents at home who supported Kurdish autonomy, and had occasionally resorted to violence. Erdogan determined to weaken the Kurdish presence along his southern border.

        Accordingly he has launched three military incursions into northern Syria since 2016, and has succeeded in progressively reducing Kurdish control of the region. In 2019 he persuaded President Trump to stand aside as he created what he termed a buffer zone out of part of Rojava, and he has threatened to flood the area with some of the 4 million Syrians who have fled the civil war and sought refuge in Turkey.

        Nevertheless Erdogan’s position is difficult. He has no legal right to be occupying Syrian soil, and the Kurds are determined to defend their hard-won autonomy. Until recently they have depended on their alliance with the US, but Trump’s deal with Erdogan left them feeling betrayed.

        “In light of the invasion by Turkey,” said Mazloum Abdi, commander-in-chief of the Kurds’ Syrian Democratic Forces recently, “and the existential threat its attack poses for our people, we may have to reconsider our alliances.”

        The Kurdish leaders understand that Trump is anxious to withdraw US troops from Syria as soon as possible, but certainly do not want him to do so at the expense of their own people. Knowing that Turkey has subjected its Kurdish minority in the past to treatment amounting to ethnic cleansing, they are determined to resist any further incursion by Erdogan into Kurdish-occupied Syria.

        “We do not trust the Russians and the Syrian regime,” says Abdi, but the Kurds have responded to olive branches held out to their negotiators about a possible post-war accommodation.

       On July 27, 2018, in response to an invitation from the Syrian government, a Kurdish delegation arrived in Damascus to hold direct talks – their first official visit to the Syrian government. The day before the delegation travelled to the Syrian capital, it announced that Kurdish forces were ready to join any military operation by government forces aimed at retaking the Kurdish area of Afrin.

        The Kurdish administration in Rojava – known since 2012 as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) – are not seeking independence, but a degree of autonomy. Both they and Assad understand that, if it is granted, a huge chunk of what was originally sovereign Syria would be brought within some form of government control. The Kurds hope it would be akin to the arrangement in Iraq where an autonomous Kurdistan operates in alliance with the government. From Assad’s point of view, such a deal would mean that his regime, and he himself as its President, would acquire substantial additional political support − vital if ever events force a presidential election on him as part of a peace deal. In short, both parties stand to gain from an accord.

        This is why the Kurdish military leader, Abdi, has said: “The Russians and the Syrian regime have made proposals that could save the lives of millions of people who live under our protection.,,We know that we would have to make painful compromises with Moscow and Bashar al-Assad if we go down the road of working with them. But if we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life for our people.”

Sunday, 29 March 2020

US-Taliban deal breaks down

          These are the bare facts.  Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, it did not take long to establish that responsibility for the onslaught lay with the al-Qaeda movement.  The US was convinced that its master-mind, Osama bin Laden, was being sheltered by the extremist Islamist group controlling Afghanistan, the Taliban. As a result, within a few weeks a US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan.  The conflict has lasted ever since. In the past 19 years it has claimed the lives of more than 4,000 American military and civilian personnel.  Currently about 12,000 US troops are stationed in the country.

          Who are the Taliban? 

          The group emerged following a 10-year occupation of the country by the Soviet Union.  The USSR had invaded in 1979 in an attempt to keep Afghanistan within its sphere of influence, but a decade of international pressure and guerilla warfare, conducted by Sunni extremists called the mujahideen, proved enough to prompt its withdrawal.  Soviet troops departed finally in February 1989, leaving the Afghan government to battle on its own against the insurgents.

          A year or so later a new hardline Sunni Islamist group began emerging. They called themselves Taliban (“students” in the Pashto language). From south-western Afghanistan they quickly extended their influence.  In September 1995 they overran the province of Herat, bordering Iran.  Exactly one year later, they captured the Afghan capital, Kabul, overthrowing the regime of President Burhanuddin Rabbani - one of the founding fathers of the mujahideen.  By 1998, the Taliban were in control of almost 90 percent of Afghanistan.

          At first Afghans, weary of the mujahideen's excesses, welcomed the Taliban as they set about stamping out corruption, curbing lawlessness and making the areas under their control safe.  But they also employed Islamic punishments, such as public executions of convicted murderers and adulterers, and amputations for those found guilty of theft. 

          Other hardline Islamist practices were imposed.  Men were required to grow beards, and women had to wear the all-covering burka. Television, music and cinema were banned, and girls aged 10 and over were forbidden to attend school.  In 2001, in defiance of international outrage, they destroyed the famous Bamiyan Buddha statues in central Afghanistan.  Meanwhile, the Taliban continued to wage their two-handed war against the Afghan government on the one hand, and against the US presence on the other.

          From the moment he took office in 2017, US President Donald Trump pledged to put an end to the conflict and bring the American forces back home.  It took nearly two years of secret back-channel negotiations before the Taliban announced in December 2018 that they would meet with American negotiators in Qatar.

          On February 25, 2019 peace talks began, with the co-founder of the Taliban, Abdul Ghani Barada, at the table. They got off to a good start. Agreement was reached on a draft peace deal involving the withdrawal of US and international troops from Afghanistan, matched by an undertaking by the Taliban to prohibit other jihadist groups operating within the country. 

          Deadlock soon followed. Among other stumbling blocks was the Taliban’s refusal to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they regarded as a US puppet regime.  No less than nine rounds of US-Taliban talks followed, and finally, in September 2019, details of the long-awaited deal emerged. The Taliban would guarantee that Afghanistan would never again be used as a base for militant groups seeking to attack the US and its allies.  The quid pro quo, was an immediate withdrawal of 5,400 US troops. A pullout of the remaining forces would depend on a ceasefire and the start of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. 

          Despite reservations from Afghan media and government figures, who retained vivid memories of the excesses of the Taliban when they held power, the deal was greeted with optimism by President Trump.

          "I really believe the Taliban wants to do something to show we're not all wasting time," he said. "If bad things happen, we'll go back with a force like no-one's ever seen."

          It soon became apparent that the deal was far from watertight.  Two issues were proving a stumbling block: the government’s refusal to release 5000 Taliban prisoners ahead of the ratification of the deal, and the fallout from the disputed 2019 presidential election result.  

          President Ashraf Ghani was declared to have won a second term, only for his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, to reject the result. Abdullah took his opposition to the point of arranging a rival inauguration ceremony, thus creating a presidential schism.
          The country’s election commission agreed to investigate allegations of fraud.  After five months, it announced on February 18, 2020 that no irregularities had been found. Ghani had received 51 percent of the votes cast; Abdullah had received 40 percent.

          Abdullah and his supporters refused to accept the result, and the political stalemate persisted. With the hard fought deal and literally years of diplomatic effort at stake, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a dash to Afghanistan on March 23 to try to move matters forward.  He failed.  Ghani and Abdullah stubbornly refused to compromise in any way.  As he left Kabul empty-handed Pompeo said America was disappointed in both men, “and what their conduct means for Afghanistan and our shared interests.”

          He said their failure to find a settlement, had “harmed US-Afghan relations and, sadly, dishonors those…who have sacrificed their lives and treasure in the struggle to build a new future for this country”.

          As a result, he deployed the only effective measure left to him. He said that Washington would immediately cut a billion dollars of aid, and prepare to cut another billion in 2021.

          Clearly Pompeo hopes the deal can still be rescued.  He told reporters he hoped he would not have to implement the cuts. On his way home he stopped off in Qatar to meet Taliban negotiators, later declaring that he was confident the Taliban were keeping their side of the deal.  A Taliban spokesman said that Pompeo had assured them that a withdrawal of American forces "will continue in accordance with the declared timetable." 

          That, after all, has been Trump’s aim from the start an ambition rendered ever more urgent as the US presidential election draws nearer.  In the final analysis there may be no deal at all, merely a US troop withdrawal, and an Afghanistan left to the type of political and military civil conflict that has ravaged the country for decades.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 4 April 2020:

Published in The Times of Israel, 5 April 2020:

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Open conflict: The US versus Iran’s proxies

          Nominally, Iraq is blessed with two strong allies – the United States and Iran. Unfortunately the two are virtually at war with each other – virtually, because although missiles are flying in each direction, Iran is not itself firing any. A crucial aspect of Iran’s politico-religious strategy has long been to use proxies to execute its less savory operations, thus avoiding direct responsibility for the atrocities committed at its bidding. Among such organizations as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Gaza, and a plethora of jihadist groups in Syria, is Hashed al-Shaabi, a network of armed groups embedded in the Iraqi state. Its most prominent member is Kataib Hezbollah (KH).

          KH is an Iranian-sponsored Shia militia. Founded in 2003, it is in sympathy with the Lebanon-based Hezbollah organization, itself a key element in Iran’s network of jihadist groups. Since late October 2019 KH has been launching rocket attacks on bases housing US troops and diplomats in Iraq – to date no less than 23 such strikes. On March 11, in a rare daytime attack and one of the heaviest ever, at least 33 rockets rained down on air defense units at the Taji air base, some 17 miles north-west of Baghdad. Three people were killed and 14 injured.

          The next day a retaliatory raid by US and British forces hit KH facilities across Iraq.

          How did the US and Iran emerge as allies of Iraq?

          The US-led coalition in Iraq, initially composed of 35 countries, dates back to 2014. They arrived at the direct request of the Iraqi government in order to counter the apparently unstoppable advance of Islamic State, as it swallowed up vast tracts of Iraqi territory. In addition to direct military invasion, the US-led coalition provided extensive support to the Iraqi Security Forces by way of training, intelligence, and personnel. The US contingent currently comprises some 5,000 military personnel.

          Iran’s stranglehold on the Iraqi state is the result of a carefully conceived plan to infiltrate the key elements of the nation, locking Iraq into its so-called Shia Crescent power bloc. A batch of secret intelligence cables, leaked to the media in November 2019, disclosed how Iran, while supporting the fight against Islamic State, slowly expanded its influence inside Iraq, selecting and running sources at the most senior levels of the government. With the aim of keeping the country aligned with its own interests, Iranian intelligence officers infiltrated its military leadership and co-opted much of the Iraqi cabinet. The cables claim that Iran acquired such a grip on Iraq’s affairs that Iranian officers effectively had free rein across key institutions of state, and were central to much of the country’s decision-making.

          A key role in this operation was played by the head of Iran’s powerful IRGC (Islamic Republican Guard Corps) and leader of Iran's network of proxies across the Middle East, Qassem Soleimani – the Iranian leader adjudged so dangerous as to merit assassination on the orders of US President Donald Trump on January 3, 2020.

          The killing of Soleimani was seized on by Iraq’s Iranian-infiltrated government as a cause célèbre. Iraq’s then prime minister, Adel Abdel-Mahdi, denounced it as “an act of aggression” and a “breach of sovereignty,” and engineered a vote in the Iraqi parliament demanding that foreign troops should be withdrawn from the country. The nation as a whole, however, happened at the time to be engaged in mass popular protests directed against Iranian influence in its affairs – exemplified by Soleimani – and against the corruption and failures of the government.

          By March 2020, however, the largest anti-government protest movement in Iraq’s modern history had dwindled in the face of the defection of the influential cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, and fears over the spread of the coronavirus that Iraq’s decrepit health system has been struggling to contain. As a result when the US responded to KH’s latest rocket onslaught with a massive but carefully targeted attack, the Iraqi government was again able to condemn it as “American aggression”. The Iraqi president, Barham Salih, called for an investigation.

          The retaliatory action consisted of air strikes on Iran-backed militia facilities in southern Iraq, including logistics and drone warehouses. "These weapons storage facilities,” ran a statement from the Pentagon, “include facilities that housed weapons used to target US and coalition troops." It described the strikes as "defensive, proportional, and in direct response to the threat posed by Iranian-backed Shia militia groups who continue to attack bases" that are hosting troops of the international coalition fighting Islamic State jihadists.

          Britain’s foreign minister, Dominic Raab, said the strike, in which the UK participated, was "swift, decisive and proportionate…UK forces are in Iraq with coalition partners to help the country counter terrorist activity, and anyone seeking to harm them can expect a strong response.” He urged Iraq to take stronger action to rein in the militias.

          The US strike also extended to an air raid on a headquarters of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) just over the border in Syria. The strike is reported to have killed 26 fighters. The PMF, an umbrella group composed of scores of Shia militias, plays a complex role in Iraqi politics. Although technically under the control of the Iraqi state, many of its commanders take their orders from Iran and the IRGC. A senior PMF leader and head of KH, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed alongside Soleimani. Muhandis had been Iran's top adviser and ally in Iraq.

          With two powerful foreign entities – the US and Iran – operating against each other’s interests within a feeble and unstable regime. Iraq’s future looks bleak indeed. Neither antagonist has the appetite for all-out war, but neither is minded to yield much ground. Continual low-level conflict would seem to be the fate reserved for Iraq for the foreseeable future.

Published in The Times of Israel, 24 March 2020:

Saturday, 21 March 2020

The Unexpected Spy

          As an undergraduate at the University of Southern California in 1998, Tracy Walder’s aim, she tells us in her memoir The Unexpected Spy, was to become a high school history teacher. Today she has achieved her ambition, even if her special topic, and indeed her classroom, are just a little out of the ordinary. She runs a special course on Spycraft, and on a shelf near her desk are photographs of her with leading US politicians and some of her on assignment for the CIA and FBI. Also hanging on the wall is an American flag whose stripes contain the names of every person killed in the terrorist attack on the US on September 11, 2001. 

          For the astonishing fact is that for five years after graduating, Walder – a young woman in her early twenties – had a distinguished career as a counter-terrorism officer in the CIA, followed by a spell in intelligence in the FBI. She was involved in tracking down terrorists, and succeeded in foiling a succession of planned chemical attacks worldwide. She skilfully debriefed captured fighters until they gave her the information needed to seize others and frustrate future attacks. She briefed senior intelligence officers from around the world, and gathered information from them on behalf of the US.

          Tracy, born in Orange County, California, was a shy, inhibited little girl. She came out of her shell at university, flourishing in the companionship of her Delta Gamma sorority. She herself does not quite understand what prompted an impetuous decision at a university Career Fair in her junior year. Major US organizations had set up stalls, seeking to recruit the brightest and best. Ignoring the crowds of students mobbing the dot-com stands, she was drawn to a quiet table with a cardboard placard that read: “Central Intelligence Agency”.

          Tracy Walder is an exceptionally gifted individual. Not only did she successfully navigate the CIA’s stringent recruitment procedures, she subsequently undertook and passed their rigorous training courses. Aged just 22, she found herself inside the CIA at an historically high point in the battle against Islamist extremism. In 2000, the al-Qaeda organization was its exemplar.

          There had been conjecture about al-Qaeda plans to hijack planes or blow up buildings within the US, but no-one in the CIA had any firm information. Their suspicions, however, were passed to the White House. Walder believes they were not taken seriously.

          Walder was at her desk on September 11, 2001 when the first news of the attack came through. The horrific loss of life, and the devastation that followed, left her with a deep determination to hunt down those responsible. In “The Unexpected Spy” Walder tells how her career in the service of her country, and indeed the path she has subsequently taken, has been shaped by the events of that day.

          For example, immediately after the 9/11 attack, she began the search for Osama bin Laden and, assisted by the advanced tracking techniques she was using, by the first week of December CIA agents on the ground in Afghanistan were able to confirm bin Laden’s presence in the caves of Tora Bora. A plan was devised to assault the caves from the air, flush out bin Laden and take him prisoner. Adequate manpower was essential if the plan was to succeed, but the White House did not deliver. It was preparing forces for the invasion of Iraq. As a result bin Laden and his followers escaped, and lived to harass the world for a further decade.

          As regards the Iraq invasion, Walder is scathing. By 2003 she was heavily engaged in tracking the development of chemical weaponry and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and had long since identified its leader, Abu Musa al-Zarqawi. He was running the poison networks for Europe and Africa. She was instructed to find connections between Zarqawi and Saddam Hussein, in order, she believes, to justify the projected attack on Iraq. She and her team searched hard, but came up with nothing.

          On February 4 she handed a document titled Terrorist Chart to the White House, containing the known facts. On February 5 Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the UN, seeking support for the invasion of Iraq. As he spoke he held up a document. It was not Walder’s, and it was titled: Iraqi-Linked Terrorist Chart.

          “The CIA did not betray the White House,” writes Walder. “The White House betrayed the CIA”.

          The twin factors Walder had to fight consistently during her career were her gender and her age. For example, it took two full years for Walder to find a publisher for this book, since again and again she was told that nobody would believe that a girl in her twenties had done what she claimed. This was precisely the situation she found while training to join the FBI. Her instructors believed she was exaggerating her role in the CIA, until finally, towards the end of her course, they sent over to CIA headquarters in Langley for her complete file.

          Throughout her career she found herself the only female in what was decidedly a male-dominated world. This fact, allied to the misogyny she encountered time and again, left her with a determination to inspire girls to go out into the world and help influence the future. That she now sees as her aim in life, and regards The Unexpected Spy as an important step in that direction. In this, as in so many other matters, she is surely not wrong.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 7 February 2020:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 March 2020:

Published in The Times of Israel, 22 March 2020:

Monday, 16 March 2020

The Sahel: A new front line in the anti-jihadist war

           Despite the elimination of ISIS’s territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria, Islamist extremism has remained a potent threat to the civilized world. Think only of the jihadist groups battling for power in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Sinai, Lebanon, Gaza – some of them supported and supplied by Iran. And yet the fight against jihadism is shifting focus. While the Middle East remains a hotbed of battling terrorist groups – some attempting to overthrow established governments, some fighting between themselves for superiority – a new front is opening up in a hitherto under-reported region. It is developing so rapidly that it may soon eclipse the Middle East as the hub of the global struggle.

          The Sahel is the collective name for a belt of territory on the southern fringe of the Sahara. It spans the entire width of the African continent, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea – a vast and underpopulated stretch of arid semi-desert. The zone, some 5,400 km long and up to 1000 km wide in some places, runs through eight countries from Senegal and Mauritania in the west, to Sudan and Eritrea in the east. And it is here that the fighters of extremist Islam have been assembling in ever-growing numbers under the black flag of ISIS.

          For years three international forces have been trying to stem the advancing tide of Islamist extremism – one under French control, one under the UN, and the third drawn from the governments of the region. Independently and collectively they have failed.

          The security crisis started in 2012, when an alliance of armed Islamist groups took over northern Mali. France, the former colonial power, stepped in to stop their advance towards the capital, Bamako, which could have resulted in a total collapse of the Malian state. For some time French troops were able to control the situation, but in recent years armed jihadist groups have expanded their reach. According to the UN, attacks have increased fivefold since 2016 in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

          The two main Islamist organizations involved are the al-Qaeda-linked JNIM (Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin) and the ISIS-affiliated ISGS (Islamic State in the Greater Sahara). Despite repeated French airstrikes, they have expanded their reach beyond their strongholds in northern Mali to unleash bloodshed well outside the country’s borders. Other groups include al-Mourabitoun, Ansarul Islam, Plateforme, Ansar al-Din and Boko Haram.

          Reliable sources report nearly 5,400 deaths in 2019 across the five countries of the Francophone Sahel, also known as the G5 Sahel regional body – Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania. A further 1,214 have died so far this year.

          The deteriorating situation has prompted action at last in a variety of quarters.

          In September 2019 leaders of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), in recognition of the fact that a number of West African countries have also been hit by attacks, announced a billion-dollar plan to help in the fight against armed groups. The financial aid is expected to run between 2020 and 2024.

          A France-G5 Sahel summit in January ended with leaders agreeing to the creation of a new structure aimed at bringing the two parties' forces together under a single command. The idea was to facilitate joint operations and improve intelligence-sharing. In support, France announced in early February that it was expanding its 4,500-strong military presence in the region by an additional 600 troops.

          Now Britain is stepping up to the plate.

          It is doing so in response to clear warnings that the crisis could soon engulf even stable states on the Gulf of Guinea coastline. In addition, General Dag Anderson, who commands US special forces in Africa, warns that if the jihadists consolidate their hold on the region, they could easily use it as a launchpad to carry out terrorist attacks in the West.

         “We know that al-Qaeda especially has the will and desire to attack the West,” he said.

          More immediately, more than a million people have so far been forced to flee. Given that Africa’s main people-smuggling routes cross the Sahel, continued bloodshed could prompt a new surge of desperate refugees into Europe.

          All this has led Britain to announce that it is to augment the 11,620-strong UN force in Mali, known as MINUSMA, by 250 troops. This may not sound particularly significant, but Lt Gen Dennis Gyllensporre, MINUSMA’s Swedish commanding officer, has said that the British contribution will play a vital role in his efforts to turn around a mission that, until now, has widely been seen as a failure.

          He is planning a total change of tactic. Up to now MINUSMA has been unable to to protect civilians or stabilize the country, because it exerts only the most tenuous authority in the northern towns in which it is based. Outside the towns, the jihadists roam at will, while targeting MINUSMA itself. Executive Riccardo Maia reckons that the UN base in Timbuktu has come under attack 41 times since he arrived there in 2015. Twelve peacekeepers were killed when jihadists overran the MINUSMA base in Aguelhok last year.

          Now Gyllensporre plans a radical adaptation of peacekeeping norms.

          He will split his force into two tiers. One will play a traditional peacekeeping role, with UN troops stationed in bases near important towns, as they are today. The second, which will be spearheaded by the British contingent, will carry out long-range reconnaissance patrols of up to 30 days deep into jihadist territory and be on standby for rapid deployment anywhere in the country.

          “With a manoeuverable force,” Gyllensporre is reported as saying, “we can be more proactive in anticipating attacks…and going in where there are confrontations. This will be a more robust, versatile part of the force that will enable us to respond decisively. The British contribution will be the tip of the spear of our adaptation.”

          After eight years of struggle against Sahel’s jihadists, and with the situation worsening, out-of-the-box thinking is undoubtedly called for. Allied to more decisive action from other anti-jihadist players, it is perhaps not too late to prevent the Islamist threat from getting completely out of control.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 14 March 2020:

Published in The Times of Israel, 17 March 2020:

Thursday, 12 March 2020

The Conservative Friends of Israel

This article of mine appears in the new edition of the Jerusalem Report, dated 23 March 2020 
             The organization known as the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) was born out of some of Israel’s darkest days, and some of the UK’s least commendable. 

        In 1973 Yom Kippur fell on Saturday October 6. That was the day chosen by the Egyptian and Syrian presidents to launch a surprise attack on Israel, assisted by a coalition of Arab states. Caught largely unawares, Israel was at first beaten back on its two main fronts, Sinai and the Golan heights. With Egypt and Syria making substantial gains during the first days of their attack, the US supported Israel with military supplies, but Britain’s Conservative government led by Edward Heath imposed an arms embargo on all the combatants.

        Since the Arab states were being massively supported by Soviet arms, Heath must have known that the decision impacted primarily on Israel, and specifically on the supply of spares for Israel’s British-made Centurion tanks heavily engaged in beating off the attack. In addition Heath refused to allow US intelligence gathering from British bases in Cyprus, resulting in a temporary halt in the US signals intelligence tap. He also barred the US from using any British bases to resupply Israel, and refused permission to any US planes supplying Israel to refuel in the UK.

        This episode, which gave rise to a storm of protest from all sides, led a former Member of Parliament (MP) Michael Fidler in 1974 to form the CFI. Fidler, once president of the British Board of Deputies of British Jews, was well aware that the Labour Party had set up its own Labour Friends of Israel as far back as 1957, and that many stalwarts of the Labour movement were passionate Zionists It was generally acknowledged at the time that a fair proportion of the UK’s Jewish community saw the Labour party as their natural political home, and he hoped the new CFI would go some way to redressing the balance.

        It had a good start. Among the CFI’s early patrons was the former prime minister Anthony Eden (Lord Avon), a strong ally of Israel in the 1956 Suez crisis. In 1975, shortly after defeating Edward Heath as party leader, Margaret Thatcher gave the group her endorsement. This was not only an acknowledgement of her genuine admiration for Israel, but as clear an indication as she could provide that she disapproved of Heath’s actions during the Yom Kippur war. Increasing numbers of Conservative MPs followed her lead.

        The CFI has been a feature of British political life ever since. In the last parliament, it claimed a membership of 80 percent of Conservative MPs, but the organization is not confined to parliament. With more than 2,000 supporters, the CFI – dedicated to the twin aims of supporting Israel and promoting Conservatism in the UK – is active at every level of the Conservative party.

        For some 25 years the chairmanship of the CFI’s Commons group was held by Stuart Polak, now Lord Polak, but it has also been in the hands of prominent non-Jews. In the early years the chairman was Conservative backbench MP and former minister Sir Hugh Fraser, who was both a practising Roman Catholic and a Zionist. Currently the chairperson is MP Stephen Crabb, a Christian who believes in the practical value of prayer.

        The full effects of the Conservatives' sweeping victory in the UK’s recent general election have taken some time to sink in. From a so-called “hung” parliament, in which a minority Conservative administration was dependent on the 10 votes of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party – which were not always forthcoming – the December 2019 election projected Boris Johnson into 10 Downing Street as prime minister with a thumping majority of 80 seats.

        That statistic does not tell the whole story, for not only did scores of solid Labour seats switch to the Conservative party, but a considerable number of Conservative seats were won by a new generation of politicians. The end result was that no less than 108 new Conservative MPs took their seats in the House of Commons. Clearly the CFI have a major task ahead of them in winning over as many of the new intake as possible.

        One vitally important method of gaining the interest, sympathy and eventually support of parliamentarians is by bringing them to Israel, escorting them on visits around the country, demonstrating some of achievements as well as some of the problems facing the nation, and providing them with briefings from Israeli leaders and experts. The CFI, which organizes such trips on a continual basis, aims to provide delegates with a greater insight into the issues affecting the region. The programmes are not only political, but cultural and historical, and always include time spent in the Palestinian Authority meeting Palestinian politicians and officials. The CFI explains that its objective is not for delegates to return with all the answers, but equipped to ask more informed questions.

        In mid-February 2020 Stephen Crabb led a delegation of five MPs and a peer on such a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. They met officials from both sides, including senior officers of the IDF up on the Golan heights, and PLO secretary-general Saeb Erekat in Jericho. The group discussed the Trump peace plan with him, and Crabb subsequently declared himself frustrated and disappointed by Erekat’s refusal to regard it even as an opportune jumping off point for possible peace talks.

        Last August the CFI coordinated a delegation to Israel consisting of five Conservative MPs, three Conservative Lords and two prospective parliamentary candidates, many of them visiting the region for the first time. The trip, led by Crabb, included a series of high-level meetings with Israeli politicians, journalists, entrepreneurs and academics, as well as strategic briefings and visits to organizations that promote peaceful coexistence. The delegation also travelled to the West Bank, visiting the first Palestinian-planned city in Rawabi.

        Such visits are a permanent feature of the CFI programme of activities, but the organization also runs an active schedule designed to present Israel in a positive light to leading figures within the UK. For example, in February some 40 Conservative MPs, including 35 newly elected members, met with Israel’s Ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, at a lunch hosted by the CFI in the palace of Westminster, the home of Britain’s parliament. The idea was to provide an opportunity, especially for new MPs, to meet the ambassador and discuss the latest situation in Israel and the wider region. The discussion was led jointly by Stephen Crabb, the CFI’s Commons chairperson, and Lord Pickles, its chairperson in the Lords.

        Another such event took place at the end of January when UK minister Robert Jenrick gave the keynote speech at the CFI’s annual parliamentary reception. Addressing an audience of over 250 CFI supporters, including 100 parliamentarians, Jenrick underlined the government’s pledge to fight antisemitism. Guests included Cabinet ministers and, surprisingly perhaps, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, who relayed his prayers for “our continued friendship and mutual support”.

        Inevitably an organization dedicated to supporting Israel has its detractors, in the UK and beyond. One of the most prominent appeared in a TV series called “The Lobby”, produced by the Qatar-based media organization Al Jazeera, and broadcast in 2017. It claimed to expose the covert and undesirable way in which the “Israel lobby” influences British politics.

        The investigation relied on an undercover journalist working for Al Jazeera infiltrating pro-Israel organizations, acting as an agent provocateur, and using a surreptitious bodycam and other cameras whose presence were not known to those being filmed. The series applied a broad brush in its investigation, targeting the CFI among a host of other pro-Israel bodies. From amidst the plethora of innuendoes about secret conspiracies and powerful pro-Israel influences at work within Britain, the production did throw up a particularly unacceptable exchange between the Al Jazeera journalist and an official attached to the Israeli embassy in London. As a result of the broadcast that officer was dismissed, and the IsraeIi ambassador offered a formal apology to a government minister.

        Opposition parties in the Commons pressed hard for a major inquiry into the issue, but Boris Johnson – then foreign secretary and now the prime minister – rejected calls to take action against the Israeli embassy and declared the matter closed. Nevertheless, the incident did demonstrate the fine line between promoting causes in a way acceptable to public opinion, and aggressive lobbying which public opinion would deem objectionable. It is a lesson which no doubt the CFI, in common with the many other pro-Israel groups in Britain, has taken to heart.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

What game is Turkey playing in Syria?

          Three basic factors underlie Turkey’s stance in the confused military situation in north-west Syria. The first is that Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a Sunni Muslim while Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, adheres to the Shia branch of Islam. Despite any occasional accommodation between Erdogan and the Shi’ite Iranian leadership which is backing Assad, they are far from natural allies. This is why Erdogan has been supporting Syria’s anti-government forces, and explains how the opposition have recently brought Assad’s apparently inexorable advance into Idlib province to a shuddering halt.

          Last week Turkey deployed dozens of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) as well as heavy artillery, and with their help opposition factions managed to recapture a number of villages in southern Idlib province, stopping the advance of Syrian government forces towards the M4 highway, linking Latakia to Aleppo. In the east, the government also lost control of the strategic M5 highway linking Damascus to Aleppo.

          This was the first time that Turkey had deployed its Turkish-made UAVs in the battle against Damascus. They backed their drones with fighter jets flying along the Syrian-Turkish border and powerful ordnance, and so far this has successfully frozen Assad’s advance. The drones have not only hit positions and convoys of government forces along the front line, but they have also penetrated deep into Damascus-controlled areas and reportedly targeted military airports near the cities of Aleppo and Hama. They have also successfully targeted high-ranking officers in both Syrian government forces and allied militias.

          Of course a counter-offensive has begun. Government forces reinforced with Iran-backed militias, Russian regulars and mercenaries, are already attempting to fight their way back into Saraqeb.

          Following the death of 34 Turkish soldiers in southern Idlib, Erdogan gave the Syrian government a deadline of 29 February to withdraw from areas it had taken over in northwest Syria since December. As the deadline expired, Erdogan announced that he was launching operation Spring Shield, targeting Syrian government forces.

          The success of the Turkish drone-led offensive can in part be ascribed to Russia's decreased military activity in the northwest. Russian air raids have been relatively few over the past few days – a fact noted by the pro-Iranian media, which has accused Moscow of abandoning Syrian government forces and Iranian militias on the Saraqeb front line.

          Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow on March 5 and negotiated  a cease-fire which both parties agreed to monitor. The Turkish president, with his newly strengthened bargaining position, was able to freeze the Russo-Syrian effort, undertaken without regard for human suffering, to bring the whole of Idlib into Assad’s grip with a consequent enormous increase in the numbers of refugees fleeing north.

          The second relevant factor in this convoluted situation is that Turkey is a member of NATO, and Erdogan has been demanding an emergency summit to discuss the conflict in north-west Syria following the death of the Turkish soldiers at the hands of pro-government forces.

          The request was made under Article 4 of NATO’s founding treaty, which stipulates that any ally can request consultations when they believe their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened. Hovering in the background of Erdogan’s demand is the implicit threat of a call to implement Article 5, which deems that an attack on any one member of the 29-strong alliance is treated as an attack on all NATO member states.

          However Erdogan’s call for NATO support on the grounds that his soldiers were attacked and killed is questionable. Turkey’s own position is equivocal. It could be argued that Turkey is breaching Syria’s territorial integrity by conducting military operations in Idlib. NATO is unlikely to take up arms on Turkey’s behalf in such circumstances.

          The refugee issue is another bone of contention as far as the European members of NATO are concerned. Under the terms of the 2016 agreement between Turkey and the EU, Brussels pledged €6 billion to Turkey to help it deal with the estimated 3.6 million refugees that had taken refuge in Turkey since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Since then Turkey has housed up to 5 million, and is now opening its borders to allow refugees from Idlib to reach the Greek frontier. Greece, however, is refusing to allow them to cross, and the EU is at odds about how to deal with the prospect of a further influx of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians.

          The third key issue motivating Erdogan is his long-term intention to prevent the establishment of a formal Kurdish entity along the Syrian-Turkey border. In fact the region, known informally as Rojava and occupying about 25 percent of pre-civil war Syria, is home to nearly 5 million Kurds. Because its leading political party has links with Turkey’s militant PKK, Erdogan asserts that Rojava itself is a challenge to Turkey’s national interests. A political crisis was averted in August 2019 when the US reached an agreement with Turkey to create a so-called “safe zone” in north-eastern Syria, to allow Turkey to protect its borders. It amounts to a Turkish occupation of what was once sovereign Syria,

          The Muslim dimension, the NATO-European connection and the Kurdish issue – these are the considerations moving Turkey’s president Erdogan, as he seeks to pluck advantage from the chaos that Syria has become.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 March 2020:

Published in the MPC Journal. 10 March 2020:

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 12 March 2020:

Sunday, 1 March 2020

Palestinians at odds over normalization

          The vexed issue of normalization reared its ugly head again recently, and Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas faced a dilemma of the PA’s own making.

          For hard-line supporters of the Palestinian cause, “normalization” (or “tatbia” in Arabic) is the worst political sin any Palestinian can commit. It brands any form of joint Palestinian-Israeli activity as a form of treachery, and has been adopted as a term of abuse by the Palestinian leadership and organizations which support them.

          In September 2016 the PA arrested four Palestinians for sharing a cup of coffee with Jewish community members in the West Bank town of Efrat, claiming that it was a crime for Palestinians to meet socially with Jewish settlers because it promoted normalization.

          In December 2018 a Palestinian court in Ramallah sentenced a Palestinian-American to imprisonment for life for brokering the sale of a house in the Old City of Jerusalem to an Israeli organization.

          In June 2019 the PA sacked Radi Nasser from its education ministry and removed him as council chief of the West Bank village of Deir Kadis after a social media video showed four Israeli neighbours joining in the celebrations at his son’s wedding.

          In short, in the view of the anti-normalizers, no form of joint activity, cooperation or dialogue with Israelis is acceptable - even engaging with Israeli peace activists who have the best of intentions towards them. All such undertakings must be viewed as collaboration with the enemy of the Palestinian people.

          The latest episode was triggered when reports appeared on social media lambasting Fatah officials for attending a meeting in Tel Aviv organized by the Israeli Peace Parliament, a group consisting of several former Knesset members and ministers, as well as left-wing peace activists and Arab Israelis. It was soon revealed that the PA delegation were members of the “Palestinian Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society”.

          The committee was established by the Palestinian leadership in December 2012 specifically to strengthen relations with sectors of Israeli society. In its first meeting, it agreed to send letters to the leaders of Israel’s political parties, including Likud led by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It also targeted members of the Israeli Knesset and various groups in Israel including those representing Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopian Jews and Jews from Arab countries. Dialogue channels were opened for discussions with research centres and other organizations inside Israel.

          Subsequently Mohammed al-Madani, the head of the committee, secured visits by Israeli delegations to the PA headquarters in Ramallah, where they met Abbas. Meetings of all sorts have been held frequently ever since. The committee has established personal relations with many Israelis, and members have participated in conferences on Israel’s national security, such as the Herzliya Conference on Counter-terrorism in September 2019.

          All this fully sanctioned activity, heavily weighted towards normalization, was occurring at the same time as the PA leadership was giving strong support to the anti-normalization activists, and punishing Palestinians found guilty of the ultimate offence.

          Keeping both balls in the air eventually proved too difficult. When news of the latest joint Israeli-Palestinian encounters broke, a storm erupted on social media led by Palestinians enraged by Madani’s activities. Charges of treachery were hurled at him for promoting normalization “with the Israeli occupation.”

          As the personal abuse intensified, Madani was dismayed at the ominous silence from Abbas’s headquarters in Ramallah. He decided to resign in protest at the PA leadership’s failure to defend him and his colleagues.

          Finally Abbas decided to tackle the dilemma. Refusing to accept Madani’s resignation, he met with members of the committee on February 24, and expressed full support for its work despite the “difficulties and problems they have been facing.” He acknowledged that some Palestinians didn’t understand the nature and importance of the work of the Palestinian Committee for Interaction with Israeli society, but emphasized that in meeting with Israelis “to persuade them that we want peace” it was acting in the national interest.

          “We sent you on a mission,” he told them, “and we won’t abandon you.”

          In short, the PA leadership want to eat their cake and have it, for they will find it politically impossible to sideline the anti-normalization campaign, supported by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls for resistance to Israel’s existence. Any joint project, it says, “that is not based on a resistance framework serves to normalize relations.”

          It seems clear from what BDS and its supporters write and say that, in their minds, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not over and the state of Israel is a temporary phenomenon that will be overthrown, given sufficient time and effort. Any attempt at reconciliation, at normalization, undermines this objective. It is a sad fact that by refusing to accept that Israel is a permanent presence in the Middle East, by advocating continuing resistance and turning their backs on any attempt at reconciliation, they are essentially condemning generations of Palestinians, as well as Israelis, to a perpetual state of conflict.

          There is a glimmer of hope in the fact that the PA, while endorsing anti-normalization on the one hand, is not abandoning its own committee engaged on strengthening relations with Israel on the other. But how long can it sit on that fence?

Published in the Eurasia Review, 29 February 2020:

Published  in the Jerusalem Post, 4 March 2020:

Friday, 21 February 2020

Slaughtered in Syria – the innocent, humanity and democracy

          In March 2011 a few teenagers in a southern Syrian city – fired no doubt by the revolutionary fervour sweeping the Middle East at the time – daubed some inflammatory slogans on a school wall. Unfortunately for them, the Syria that President Bashar al-Assad had inherited in 2000 from his autocratic father was a tightly controlled police state, in which a powerful and all-encompassing security machine ensured that the slightest hint of opposition to the régime was ruthlessly crushed.

          The youngsters were hunted down, arrested and tortured. When details of their ordeal became known, protesters took to the streets. The security forces, unable to break up the demonstration, eventually fired into the crowd. That was enough to spark widespread rebellion. Groups antagonistic to Assad’s government began nationwide protests. Gradually, popular dissent developed into an armed revolt. The opposition, consisting of a variety of groups, but primarily the Free Syrian Army (FSA), were finally seeking to overthrow the despotic Assad régime and substitute a democratic form of government.

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

          Why did Obama shrink from action? Because he had set his sights on a nuclear accommodation with Iran, which always regarded Syria as essential to its Shi’ite empire. Rather than put his projected nuclear agreement in jeopardy, Obama reneged on his declared intention to punish Assad if he deployed chemical weapons. Instead he seized on a deal brokered by Russia, under which Assad would nominally surrender the whole of the chemical arsenal that he had originally denied possessing.

          America’s hesitancy provided Russia’s President Putin with a golden opportunity. He seized the political initiative, turning himself into Assad’s protector, supporter and ally. Ever since he has backed Assad’s ruthless determination to regain as much as he could of Syrian territory lost to Islamic State in the heyday of its caliphate.

          Meanwhile the shining sword of democracy, the weapon the rebels in 2011 hoped would bring down Assad’s dictatorial regime, has become heavily tarnished. Those who are now labelled “rebels” are not fighting for democracy – they are fighting for their lives. The original FSA, once dedicated simply to establishing democracy in Syria, has over the nine years of civil conflict been transformed into an entirely different animal. Literally scores of groups – some political, some religious, some a combination – have attached themselves to the FSA, united by opposition to Bashar al-Assad but espousing a plethora of policies. These bodies include Salafi jihadist groups (such as the al-Nusra Front), and remaining elements of ISIS, for whom establishing an open democratic form of government after Assad is far from their aim.

          A second democratic casualty of the civil war is Kurdish hopes of a recognized identity in a post-war Syria. 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 a semi-autonomous region formally designated the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) or, more simply, Rojava. Back in the summer of 2019, on the assumption that Assad would emerge victorious, its leaders made formal moves to reach an accord with the Syrian president. At that time an accommodation within a new post-war Syrian constitution seemed a distinct possibility, akin to the situation in Iraq, where an autonomous Kurdistan is a separate element within the Iraqi constitution.

          The fly in this ointment was Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Any such formal recognition of Rojava 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. Because Rojava’s leading political party has links to Turkey’s militant PKK, Erdogan asserts that Rojava itself is a challenge to Turkey’s national interests.

           “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... We will not condone it."

          A political crisis was averted when the US reached an agreement with Turkey to create a so-called “safe zone” in north-eastern Syria, to allow Turkey to protect its borders. It amounts to a Turkish occupation of what was once sovereign Syria, but latterly a Kurdish area,

          Meanwhile Assad’s offensive in Idlib proceeds. He has made huge gains in recent weeks and now controls most of the north-west, including the M5 highway connecting Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s second city. As a result, on February 19 a Syrian commercial flight landed at Aleppo airport from Damascus, marking the resumption of internal flights between Syria's two largest cities for the first time since 2012.

          Idlib, however, was established in 2018 as a de-escalation zone by Russia and Turkey. Erdogan, outraged by Assad’s advances into the province, has threatened to launch an operation against Assad’s forces if Damascus fails to withdraw behind Turkish military positions by the end of February. "An operation in Idlib is imminent," Erdogan told parliament on February 19. "We are counting down.” He said Turkey was determined to make Idlib a secure zone "no matter the cost".

          The cost in human lives and suffering is already unacceptable. Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians are being bombed and shelled unmercifully. At the moment of writing Assad’s forces, totally regardless of the humanitarian disaster they are inflicting, are engaged in their final push to capture the province of Idlib, sending up to a million Syrians fleeing the fighting with no safe refuge available. The death, destruction and misery that would result from a military conflict between Syrian and Turkish forces in the region is too horrific to contemplate. Power politics simply must give way to humanitarian relief.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 22 February 2020:

Published in the MPC Journal, 23 February 2020:

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 27 February 2020:

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Lebanese parliament votes yes; Lebanese people vote no

          Ever since October 2019 Lebanon has been in a sort of civil war people against parliament.  Over the months the mass protests and demonstrations have, if anything, increased in their ferocity, expanding to encompass the maneuverings in the political arena.  This explosion of public rage has all the characteristics of a long quiescent volcano suddenly erupting, revealing the boiling turmoil that had been present underground all along.

          To all outward appearances, Lebanon had long been politically apathetic.  When the country went to the polls in May 2018, nine long years had passed since the previous parliamentary elections   supposed to be held every four years. Time and again ministers and politicians had voted to postpone them and extend the current parliament, citing security concerns, political crises and disputes over the election law.

          During the 2018 election campaign, candidates were optimistic that popular dissatisfaction with Lebanon's struggling economy, failing infrastructure and endemic corruption, would provoke the electorate into opting for reform.  Any such hopes were to be dashed. Turnout was less than 50 percent, and the main change was a decrease for the party headed by prime minister Saad Hariri, with a consequential increase in support for Hezbollah. Over the nine years from 2009 political realities had forced Hariri’s government to include in the administration members of the increasingly confident, Iran-backed Hezbollah.  The main effect of the 2018 election was to put more power in Hezbollah’s hands.

          Following the election it took nine months for Hariri to form an administration but, constituted as it was, it was incapable of remedying Lebanon’s endemic problems.  The spark that ignited mass popular protest was a government announcement of new taxes on gasoline, tobacco and access to social media on the internet.  The first demonstrations in October 2019 quickly morphed into nationwide near-riots condemning the stagnant economy, unemployment, corruption in the public sector, and inadequate basic services such as electricity, water and sanitation.  

          In October  prime minister Hariri resigned amid public demands for a government of independent specialists.  He was to be replaced, it was announced, to vociferous public dissatisfaction, by a former minister of education, Hassan Diab.  The public viewed this potential appointment as simply more of the same, discredited, ruling elite clutching on to power.  Nevertheless, with the support of Hezbollah and its political allies, the appointment was confirmed on 22 January 2020, and Diab was charged with forming a new cabinet.

          On Tuesday, February 11, in a parliament building besieged by protesters, and with mass demonstrations being staged throughout Beirut and beyond, a majority of parliamentarians passed a vote of confidence in the new cabinet, and its financial rescue plan.  The vote was passed by 63 of the 84 parliamentarians present. Those in support were Hezbollah members and their allies.  The party of the previous prime minister, Saad Hariri, and his allies voted against.

          As the nine-hour parliamentary session proceeded, security forces including the Lebanese army, riot police and SWAT teams used batons, tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets to clear the roads of protesters trying to delay the crucial vote. Protesters tore down metal and cement barricades put up around Nejmeh Square, the seat of the Parliament. A group of people also set fire to a bank next to the parliament's entrance.  More than 200 people were injured in the riots.

          A group of protesters attacked member of parliament Salim Saadeh in his car. In a video posted on his Twitter account, his shirt stained with blood and his left eye blue and swollen, Saadeh said: “Thank God I am good. I thank everyone for their love.''

          Prime minister Diab’s vote of confidence encompassed also his 16-page government statement on a rescue plan to get Lebanon out of its economic and financial crisis.  The plan includes reforms in the judicial, financial and administrative fields, as well as proposals to fight corruption and fix the country's finances.

          Lebanon’s debt ratio, standing at more than 150 percent of GDP, is one of the highest in the world.  It has been on a downwards path for years, with the country recording nil economic growth and high unemployment.  Diab promised "painful'' measures, including slashing interest rates. Given the reaction of the Lebanese public to the attempt to raise taxes back in October, it is difficult to predict anything other than fierce mass opposition to this administration as long as it remains in power. 

          For that is the nub of the problem.  The public sees all too clearly that the ruling elite, entrenched in power, is heavily dominated by the Iran-controlled Hezbollah.   Over the past few decades this rapacious predator has been consuming the political, military and administrative organs of the once proud state of Lebanon, until only the outer shell of an independent sovereign country now remains.  At one time it seemed that Hezbollah, a body deemed a terrorist organization by large parts of the world, had created a “state within a state” inside Lebanon. Many now believe that the Lebanese state and Hezbollah are in effect indistinguishable. 

          In theory Lebanon should be a template for a future peaceful Middle East. It is the only Middle East country which, by its very constitution, shares power equally between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and Christians. Theory, however, has had to bow to practical reality. Lebanon has been highly unstable for much of its existence, and its unique constitution has tended to exacerbate, rather than eliminate, sectarian conflict. 

          Root and branch reform of the constitution, no less than fundamental improvements to living standards and the rooting out of corruption in public life, lie at the heart of the widespread public dissatisfaction that is shaking Lebanon to its core.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 February 2020:

Published in the MPC Journal, 17 February 2020:

Published in The Times of Israel, 5 March 2020: