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:

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Labour's next leader

This article of mine appears in the new edition of the Jerusalem Report, dated 24 February 2020
          Shortly after presiding over its worst electoral defeat since 1935, Jeremy Corbyn declared that he would be stepping down from the leadership of Britain’s Labour party. The terms of his announcement caused a raising of eyebrows, both within the Westminster bubble and more generally in the media. In the British political system, if you lead your party to electoral defeat you are expected to resign. It is considered the honourable thing to do, rather like a Roman general defeated in battle falling on his sword. You do not – as Corbyn did – declare that you will hold on to the leadership until Labour’s complex electoral system, taking literally months to work through, produces a successor. You resign, and if necessary a temporary leader takes over for a limited period.

          When Ed Miliband lost the general election for Labour in 2015, he resigned at once and Harriet Harman became temporary leader until Corbyn was elected to the office.

          Harman is definitely not a Corbynista. She is a social democrat. This is perhaps the clue to Corbyn’s decision to hold on to the leadership. The hard-left clique, led by the Momentum organization, that has seized the reins of power within the Labour party, will not willingly lose control, even temporarily, and the leadership electoral process will not play itself out until April 4.

          The Labour party’s method of electing its leader, a four-stage process, is complicated to a degree. First, hopeful contenders must be nominated by at least 10% of Labour members of parliament (MPs) or members of the European parliament (MEPs). For this leadership election, candidates were required to obtain 22 signed nominations. Five contenders succeeded in jumping this hurdle; one did not.

          In the next stage, candidates must obtain backing from either three Labour affiliates (that is, trade unions or associated groups like the Jewish Labour Movement) or 5% of local constituency Labour parties. On the affiliate route, two of the affiliates must be trade unions. If candidates are relying on local party support, they must be backed by 5% of the total, which amounts to 33 local parties. This stage, which lasts until February 14, saw one contender quickly eliminated, and another could yet fall at this fence.

          The third leg of the marathon requires winning a ballot of Labour Party members. At a recent count, party membership stood at more than 540,000, including an influx of new members ahead of the leadership vote. The postal ballot will run from 21 February to 2 April. 

          Finally, using the alternative vote system of preferential voting, the winning contender will be announced on  4 April.

          The four candidates who succeeded in reaching stage 2 of the race agreed to participate in a series of joint hustings up and down the country at which they would parade themselves and their varying opinions. Certain indicators likely to influence voting patterns are emerging.

         To start with, of the four candidates who entered the race, three are women. The Labour party, which prides itself on its progressive credentials, has never had a woman leader, unlike their Conservative rivals who have already had two – Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May. There is a strong current of opinion within Labour circles that the moment to correct this anomaly is now. Indeed there have been calls for the male candidate, Sir Keir Starmer, to stand aside for that very reason.

Supporters of Starmer, once Britain’s Director of Public Prosecutions, and later Corbyn’s shadow Brexit secretary, argue strongly that, regardless of gender, the best person for the job should be elected. That may well prove to be Starmer for, with impeccable Labour credentials (he is named after Labour’s very first MP, Keir Hardy), he quickly edged into the lead and was the first to qualify for round three.

His nearest rival, which some polls have already put ahead of him, is Rebecca Long-Bailey.

She is regarded as the Corbyn continuity candidate. Close to Corbyn throughout his leadership, she was a member of his shadow Cabinet and was largely responsible for writing the manifesto on which Labour went to the country in 2019. She is supported by Momentum, which helped Corbyn to the leadership, and has won the support of the UK’s largest trade union, Unite.  She is also the candidate of choice of the so-called Corbynistas within the Labour movement, most of whom are in denial about the toxic effect on the electorate of the manifesto she had so large a hand in producing.

The two other women contenders are Lisa Nandy, a social democrat whose distrust of Corbyn’s leadership led to her resignation from the shadow Cabinet in 2016.

        And Emily Thornberry, who was Corbyn’s shadow foreign secretary but strongly opposed the equivocal stance on Brexit that he adopted as party policy, and pushed for a completely Remain position.
         Nandy has already qualified to enter the leadership ballot.  Thornberry, who does not have a strong base in either the trade union movement or at local party level, had not done so by early February, and may fail to do so.

          The first leadership hustings were held in Liverpool on January 18. Antisemitism within the Labour party, and the failure of Corbyn as leader to deal with it effectively, was one of the major topics discussed. All the candidates pledged to tackle the antisemitism crisis left behind by Corbyn.

          Long-Bailey said she wanted to establish the “gold standard” in dealing with complaints, in order to reset the Labour party’s relations with the Jewish community. 

          Lisa Nandy said there had been a “collective failure of leadership” in the shadow cabinet about the problem of antisemitism, which had let Labour and the country down.

          Thornberry said that Labour needed to drive antisemites out. “I have always been clear about it, and I always will, because it's unacceptable, it undermines us as a party and undermines our soul.”

          Starmer told members that if they were antisemitic “you shouldn’t be in the Labour party”, adding that if elected he would demand a report on his desk every week until the problem was eradicated. At a Holocaust Memorial Day event on January 27, Starmer said that on “day one” of being elected he would demand an update of complaints of antisemitism within the party, and a “clear timetable for their resolution.”

          At the same event, Thornberry asserted that Corbyn would always call out those who play the race card, and was immediately criticized by Labour MPs for supporting him and failing to mention his failure to deal with the problem inside the Labour party.

          By the time the convoluted electoral process has run its course and the Labour Party gets around to announcing its new leader, their catastrophic general election result will be four months behind them. In the interim Jeremy Corbyn continues to present the public face of Labour to the country. Week after week at Prime Minister's Questions, TV viewers endure the spectacle of Corbyn, a lame duck leader, ineffectively facing the UK’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, in the House of Commons. Corbyn sits on the Opposition front bench flanked by the four MPs fighting to succeed him, while the rest of his parliamentary colleagues are vowing their allegiance to one or other of his possible successors.

          Corbyn’s appearances in parliament and the media are object lessons in denial: it is as though the election had not happened and his policies had not been repudiated, especially by voters that Labour had taken for granted for decades. He has never acknowledged his self-evident failure to deal with the upsurge in antisemitism under his leadership, and he continues to promote the policies contained in his election manifesto.

          His refusal to admit what seems self-evident to most people is the line adopted enthusiastically by his hard-core supporters within the Labour movement – the so-called Corbynistas. And because the final stage of the leadership electoral process depends on winning the ballot of members, this denial has infiltrated the leadership contest, and affected the pitches of all four candidates.

          The antisemitism issue was so toxic during the general election that all the candidates have felt it essential to promise to address it. With that exception, Corbyn’s messiah-like status among Labour party members means that those seeking to replace him must pretend that he was not part of the reason they lost. Long-Bailey, asked to mark his leadership out of 10, awarded him 10. Only Jess Phillips was openly critical, and she is now out of the race due to lack of support.

         Momentum is, of course, pushing hard for Long-Bailey, who has every intention of continuing to offer the country the Corbyn vision. Nandy declares that Labour’s debacle in the election was due to media bias against Corbyn, and its misrepresentation of perfectly sound policies. Even Starmer, the front-runner, who has never been considered a hard left politician, is having to defer to socialist rhetoric – perhaps hoping that if he becomes leader he can somehow tame the bucking Momentum bronco. That would be a struggle of herculean proportions – and with Boris Johnson in power as prime minister with a comfortable majority, the nation will have plenty of time to sit back and observe it.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line as "Labour Party on hold", 18 February 2020:

Thursday, 6 February 2020

The Deal of the Century: the Islamic world at odds

        President Trump’s so-called Deal of the Century was revealed, like Salome, after a tantalising dance of the seven veils. Again and again the world was promised that the plan would be revealed, only for it to be disheartened with a new postponement. Titillated almost beyond endurance, a global TV audience was finally presented with the object of desire on Tuesday, January 28. With Benjamin Netanyahu at his side, Trump outlined his plan for a resolution of the unending Israel-Palestine dispute. 

         The revelation produced reactions both entirely predictable and astonishingly unexpected.

        To be expected – and indeed anticipated for at least a year – was the response of the Palestinian leadership, led by PA president Mahmoud Abbas. Trump had scarcely finished speaking before Abbas was addressing the party faithful in Ramallah. “We say a thousand times: No, no and no to the ‘deal of the century,'” he declared, consigning it to “the dustbin of history.”

        Abbas clearly hoped that Muslims the world over would rise up in support of his utter rejection of Trump’s proposals. He summoned a crisis meeting of the Arab League for just this purpose. This is not how matters are panning out. In the event truly solid endorsement of the Palestinian position comes from two major non-Arab players on the Middle East scene – Iran and Turkey. Both, it might be legitimate to assume, are more motivated by anti-Israel than by pro-Palestinian motives. Jordan formally endorses the PA’s position, although the Jordanian Foreign Minister, Ayman Safadi, is reported as saying that his country “supports every genuine effort aimed at achieving just and comprehensive peace that people will accept.”

        As for the majority of the Arab Muslim world, reaction to Trump’s proposals has been surprisingly muted. Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sent their ambassadors in Washington to the White House as Trump was announcing the offer, and subsequently expressed support for the deal.

        Shortly after Trump released the details of his proposal, Egypt issued a statement calling on both sides to consider the offer carefully, and to use it to re-open negotiation channels.

        “In the absence of another political offer,” said an Egyptian diplomat, “and in view of the fact that this offer is actually re-engaging the US in the Middle East peace process, it is not exactly wise to jump to reject the offer. Egypt is not asking the Palestinians to take it as it is, but rather to read it and see how to negotiate their demands from there.”

        The UAE media reported that the country backed the deal, and described it as an opportunity to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians. “The only way to guarantee a lasting solution,” one report ran, “is to reach an agreement between all concerned parties…the plan announced today offers an important starting point for a return to negotiations within a US-led international framework.”

        As for Saudi Arabia, the official response was one of qualified support for the initiative. A Saudi foreign ministry statement, issued shortly after the release ran: "the Kingdom appreciates the efforts made by President Trump's administration to develop a comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli peace plan, and it encourages the start of direct peace negotiations between the sides under US sponsorship, in which any dispute regarding details of the plan will be settled. This is in order to advance the peace process and arrive at an agreement that will realize the fraternal Palestinian people's legitimate rights."

        Political realities require all such positions to be nuanced. Accordingly, parallel to the foreign ministry’s reaction, the Saudi press reported that King Salman had spoken by phone with Abbas, to "stress to him the Kingdom's steadfast position vis-à-vis the Palestinian cause and the rights of the Palestinian people."

        Despite this, the general feeling within political and media circles inside the Kingdom is support for the Trump initiative. Just as in Egypt, some commentators and leading figures have called on the Palestinians not to miss this opportunity, and to approach the plan with a positive mindset. According to a survey undertaken by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) articles and tweets within Saudi Arabia have been saying that history shows that every plan offered to the Palestinians has been worse than the one before it, and that if they reject the Deal of the Century now, they will long for it in the distant future.

        As an example, Saudi journalist Ahmad Adnan wrote in his column in the Saudi daily Okaz: "The PA has made negative statements against the deal. I maintain that at this stage it needs a friend to be honest with it, telling it and advising it: Sign the deal and then curse it as much as you want, day and night. The Palestinians have in decades past specialized in missing golden opportunities because of mistaken assessment of their capabilities and of the crisis.”

        In short, with the exception of Palestinian opinion, much of the Arab world has offered a muted welcome to the Trump peace initiative, and is urging the Palestinians not to reject it out of hand, but rather to use it as the basis for serious negotiation. It has, as its main objective, the eventual creation of a sovereign Palestinian state. Underlying this stance is the fact that, for much of the Sunni Islamic world, the major enemy is Shia Iran, with its undisguised ambition to achieve both political and religious hegemony and its efforts – usually undertaken by its proxies – to undermine Sunni states. To give only one example, Houthis have been firing Iranian-provided missiles into the centre of Riyadh. 

        The Sunni world, which lost faith in America during ex-president Obama’s flirtation with Iran, views the Trump administration, and increasingly Israel, as powerful allies against its main enemy. Unfortunately, the Palestinian leadership is not moved by the same considerations.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 8 February 2020:

Published in the MPC Journal, 8 February 2020, as "The Deal of the Century - Muslim majority countries divided":