Friday, 22 May 2015

The Reshaping of the Middle East

        Battle and bloodshed in a dozen places across the region, a breakdown of law, order and normal existence in large areas, hordes of terrified refugees fleeing from conflict and from the brutal oppression of Islamist extremists, hundreds of thousands of people subsisting in temporary camps, thousands risking their very lives on board unseaworthy vessels attempting to reach European shores – this represents the present grim reality in the Middle East.

        The current chaos can perhaps be traced back to the Tunisian spark in 2010 that kindled the so-called Arab Spring, which then, as uncontrollable as a forest fire, leaped from state to state. At the start it was a rejection by the Arab masses of the repression, human rights abuses, state censorship and other trammels of the dictatorships or absolute monarchies under which most existed. As the revolutionary fervor raged, one by one the autocrats fell – Tunisia’s Zine Ben Au, followed by Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, then Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and finally Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen (though he seems intent on regaining power, and is a key player in the turmoil that has engulfed Yemen).

        Elsewhere, if popular discontent did not result in the overthrow of governments, it certainly produced civil uprisings across the region from Algeria to Saudi Arabia. Syria’s story encapsulates subsequent developments elsewhere in the region. What began in Syria as popular demonstrations against the tightly controlled police state of President Bashar Assad, soon assumed broader proportions. Islamist jihadi groups, each with its own agenda, joined the fray – those from the Sunni persuasion opposing Assad (and sometimes each other as well); Iran and its puppet organization Hezbollah supporting the Assad regime.

        The most disciplined and successful of Assad’s opponents was Islamic State (IS), pursuing its aim of establishing a Sunni Caliphate across Syria and Iraq as the base for expanding ever further into the Middle East and from there across the world. Syria and Iraq remain in turmoil, and the hand of IS is now apparent in other areas of open conflict – Yemen, Sinai, Libya, Nigeria.

        States seeking to maintain stability in the midst of this maelstrom not surprisingly began re-examining historic relationships, and it is right that they should. Autres temps, autres moeurs, as the old French proverb runs ((other times, other customs). Unhappily, one major destabilising element on the Middle East scene has been the underlying policy of the US – consistent since President Obama’s assumption of office, but only now, in the final two years of his second term, becoming clearer by the day. Apparently beguiled from the start by the prospect of some sort of working alliance with Iran aimed at overthrowing al-Qaeda, Washington is pressing ahead with negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, America’s declared enemy and the world’s leading state sponsor of terror – a deal that will enable it eventually to acquire atomic weapons.

        For decades most of the Gulf States, and especially Saudi Arabia, have been at the receiving end of Iranian efforts to destabilize their governments. They are aware that Iran has ambitions to dominate the region and impose its Shi’ite version of Islam. It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that they oppose current US policy and are determined to acquire a nuclear capability of their own should the current negotiations end as predicted. One plausible outcome of the nuclear deal with Iran is a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

        As the London Daily Telegraph observed recently, so tangled has American policy become that US diplomats spend days at a time closeted in bilateral talks with their opposite numbers from Tehran, while Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, is shunned by the White House. Meanwhile, when President Obama hosted a summit at Camp David in support of his nuclear deal with Iran, King Salman of Saudi Arabia – a US ally for 70 years – absented himself, while King Hamad of Bahrain, which hosts the US Fifth Fleet, preferred a visit to the Royal Windsor Horse Show in the UK.

        The stable Sunni Arab states now find themselves in an extraordinary meeting of minds with Israel – a country they do not recognize. Obama sees Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rohani as pragmatic leaders, prepared to abandon their military nuclear ambitions in exchange for a lifting of sanctions. Once that is achieved, Obama believes that Iran and America can together openly combat IS.

        The Sunni powers of the Gulf reject this complacent assessment, just as Israel does. The Arab leaders, just like Israel, perceive Iran as an implacable foe. They know that Iran is hell-bent on overthrowing their regimes and establishing political and religious dominance in the Middle East; Israel knows that Iran has as its stated aim the elimination of the Jewish state. Both view with genuine alarm the prospect of a nuclear Iran – the Arab states because it would totally destabilize the current balance of power; Israel because it would provide terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, whom Iran supports, with a nuclear capability.

        Egypt’s President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi finds himself of one mind with Israel about Hamas, and indeed about Obama’s persistent support for the Muslim Brotherhood – both organizations that el-Sisi regards as deadly enemies. Egyptian and Israeli forces are, indeed, collaborating pretty openly in the Sinai peninsula against ruthless jihadi terrorists, supported by Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose aim is to overthrow the Egyptian government.

        Hamas, which was once funded by Saudi Arabia and enabled by Egypt, is now viewed by both states as part of a Sunni jihad that threatens not only Israel, but them as well. It is no surprise, therefore, that el-Sisi visited Saudi Arabia a few weeks ago to discuss, in the words of Al Arabiya News, “the depth of strategic relations between the Kingdom and Egypt.” In a subsequent interview, el-Sisi emphasised the need for the two countries to work together, considering the “difficult condition” the Arab region is in.

        Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf states and Israel – they now share a community of interest never before recognized. Yet even now it would be politically impossible for the Arab world to cooperate formally with Israel against common foes – unless a clearly understood and openly acknowledged justification was available to placate Arab public opinion. That justification lies in wait, buried in the Arab Peace Initiative, which offers Arab recognition of Israel and the establishment of normal diplomatic relations in exchange for the resolution of the Israel-Palestine dispute.

         Perhaps this explains the appointment of a minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s new Israeli government charged with overseeing the renewal of peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Britain's General Election and Israel-Palestine


[This piece was written one week before the UK went to the polls.  In the event, British pollsters were proved to be just as unreliable as Israeli ones, if not more so.  Their unanimous predictions of a so-called "hung" parliament - that is, no party gaining sufficient seats to form a government - were proved disastrously wrong.  The Labour party was decisively beaten and the Conservatives secured an overall majority.  The main conclusion I draw in the following piece, I stand by.  The new British government is the best outcome the general election could have produced for the Middle East as a whole, and Israel in particular.]

On May 7 the United Kingdom goes to the polls.  For the past five years Britain has been governed by a formal coalition – most unusual for the UK, although commonplace in other democracies.  The general election held in 2010 failed to provide either of the two main parties, the Conservatives or Labour, with a clear majority of parliamentary seats.  As a result the Conservatives negotiated a formal deal with the centrist party, the Liberal Democrats, that provided a workable administration. 

The current general election campaign, which kicked off formally on March 30, has been gathering momentum. The usual swathe of opinion polls, attempting to provide a temperature chart of voter intentions, have consistently shown Conservative and Labour virtually neck and neck.  Their pretty unanimous prediction has been a further “no clear majority” for either party not that over-much confidence should be placed on them.  Given the recent Israeli general election which left the pollsters with much egg on their faces, pre-election opinion polls need to be taken with a pinch of salt. 

However, assuming that they are indeed accurately predicting the outcome, the UK is about to be faced either with a new coalition, or with a minority government sustained by some less formal arrangement with one or more of the smaller parties.  Given the range of permutations, how would possible future governments vary in their approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?  On the face of it, not at all, for in every one of the main party manifestos – tucked away at the very rear, of course – each UK political party asserts its allegiance to the near-global consensus on the issue, namely the two-state solution. 

However, this apparent unanimity is not all that it seems, for it hides wide variations in the actual stance of the main parties on Middle East politics in general, and the Israel-Palestine dispute in particular. One, for example, openly supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Several ascribe the failure to achieve a two-state solution to Israel and its settlement expansion.  Not one identifies any failure of goodwill or intention on the Palestinian side. The realities are perhaps best demonstrated in a poll of British Jews commissioned by the Jewish Chronicle, the UK’s leading Jewish journal.  No less than 69 percent said they would support the Conservatives; only 22 percent would vote Labour.

Current prime minister David Cameron enjoys substantial personal support among the Jewish community – not surprisingly, because he has consistently advocated close relations between Britain and Israel.  Back in 2012, just as during his visit to Israel in March 2014, he was fulsome in his praise: “Israel has got more start-up businesses per head than any other country.  How do they do it?  It’s about the aspiration and drive of its people…So we want to work much more closely with Israel.”

Labour party leader Ed Miliband, on the other hand, despite his Jewish origins, is distrusted.  The Jewish community recalls how, in October 2014, he tried to force every Labour member of parliament to vote in favour of recognizing the state of Palestine – and was forced to back-track in the face of opposition from within his party.

Other political parties participating in the general election got barely any recognition from this poll of Jewish voting intention – scarcely remarkable, since around 73 percent of those polled said that it was the political parties’ attitudes to Israel that were “very” or “quite” important in influencing how they would vote.  And despite the universal kowtowing by Britain’s political parties to the god of the “two-state solution”, those attitudes vary widely.

The manifesto of the Liberal Democrats, the largest of the smaller parties in the last parliament, asserts that they “remain committed to a negotiated peace settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which includes a two-state solution.”  It continues: “We condemn disproportionate force used by all sides…We condemn Israel’s continued illegal policy of settlement expansion, which undermines the possibility of a two-state solution.”  Their leader, Nick Clegg, then deputy prime minister, spoke out against Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in July 2014.  Coming close to accusing Israel of breaching international law, he said its response to the Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza was "deliberately disproportionate"., and accused Israel of imposing a "disproportionate form of collective punishment" on the citizens of Gaza.

Or take the Greens, one of the more prominent of the smaller parties. Their manifesto proclaims: “We seek a just, sustainable and peaceful solution to the Arab-Israel conflict based on mutual recognition of the rights to independent statehood for Palestinians and Israelis.  We condemn human rights violations by both parties and the oppression and disproportionate use of aggression by the Israeli government against the people of Gaza.  We seek to suspend the EU-Israel Association Agreement.”  The Green Party officially supports the BDS movement, and its leader, Natalie Bennett, openly backs the boycott of Israeli artists, musicians and academics.

A dominant feature of this UK general election campaign has been the rise and rise of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP).  In an inexplicable turn of events, ever since suffering a resounding defeat by 10 percentage points in last year’s referendum on Scottish independence, the party has gone from strength to strength.  Opinion polls indicate that they are likely to wipe out the Scottish Labour Party in the forthcoming election, thus depriving Labour of its 50-odd Scottish seats.  The SNP is more socialist in its policies than the Labour party – which has itself veered leftwards since the balmy days of Tony Blair – and the result of a 50-odd contingent of SNPs entering parliament could mean that a minority Labour government would have to depend on their support.

The SNP manifesto states simply: “We will call on the next UK government to pursue a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine and to support the formal recognition of a Palestinian state.”  The party’s track record, however, demonstrates its adherence to the anti-Israel policies of the extreme left-wing.  As commentator Douglas Murray observed last year: “the most rabid forms of anti-peace, anti-Israel activism seem to have become part of the SNP agenda.”

It seems pretty clear that the most desirable outcome of the UK’s general election from the Palestinian point of view would be a Labour-SNP-Green liaison of some kind. The pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel feeling rife in those parties would exert enormous pressure on a future British government. On the other hand Britain’s Jewish community and Israel would benefit from any outcome which placed the Conservative party in the driving seat an outright Conservative victory, a Conservative-led coalition or a minority Conservative administration. 

        Britain’s future Middle East policy hangs in the balance.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 30 April 2015:
http://www.jpost.com/Experts/Britains-General-Election-and-Israel-Palestine-400697

Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 May 2015:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/01052015-britains-general-election-and-israel-palestine-oped/

Friday, 24 April 2015

Pakistan in the Middle East

Pakistan’s long history of direct involvement with the Middle East is not usually the subject of much comment. Now there is reason to believe that Pakistan has played a pivotal role in determining the outcome of the current crisis in Yemen.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when many Gulf countries, flush with oil money, purchased state-of-the-art military hardware, they had also to buy the technical expertise and the training to operate it. They looked to the nearest Muslim country with the capacity to provide this – Pakistan.  Over the years scores of Pakistani army and air force personnel have been posted to Middle Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. Pakistani naval officers also served in UAE, training local naval forces.

More recently, the turbulence affecting the Middle East has brought Gulf states even closer to Pakistan. External and internal threats have resulted in bilateral agreements between Pakistan and individual states that have provided security cover for them – for example, the recent military exercises conducted jointly by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.  The Saudi-Pakistan relationship may go even deeper.  There are reports that last year King Salman of Saudi Arabia – then Crown Prince – visited Islamabad and provided Pakistan with a $1.5 billion grant towards its nuclear programme, the other half of the deal guaranteeing the Saudis a nuclear weapon when, or if, needed. 

This special relationship might have been expected to result in strong Pakistani support for Saudi Arabia’s recent military involvement in the chaos that is tearing Yemen apart.  With the Houthi rebels installed as an interim government, the legitimate President, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, fled to Saudi Arabia.  The Saudis, exasperated by Iran’s continued support for the rebels, instituted a series of air strikes against them in an operation it dubbed “Operation Decisive Storm”.  At the same time it mustered a coalition of ten Middle East states that agreed to form a fighting force to defeat the Houthi take-over in Yemen and restore President Hadi to office.  To support this effort, Saudi Arabia called on Pakistan to contribute troops, a warship and aircraft to its coalition forces. The first response of the Pakistani government was to agree to join the coalition, and to offer its assistance.

This reaction must have sent shock waves through the Iranian leadership.  If Pakistan unleashed its formidable military capability against the Houthis, the Iranian-backed rebels could well be defeated.  So Iran set in train a diplomatic effort designed to eliminate the possibility of direct Pakistani involvement in the conflict.

The diplomatic counter-attack began with an invitation from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the face of it a surprising move, since Turkey had also initially declared itself in support of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen.  Erdogan duly appeared in Tehran, no doubt wondering why the world’s leading Shi’ite Muslim state was seeking to hob-nob with the head of strongly Sunni Turkey. 

Some sort of secret deal must have been concluded, for a few days later Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, flew to Islamabad.  The London-based Arab newspaper, Al-Hayat, reported from several sources that Zarif’s mission was to try to convince Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to join a coalition with Turkey now apparently no longer in support of Operation Decisive Storm against Saudi Arabia. The suggestion was rejected by both Sharif and Pakistan’s army commander, General Raheel Sharif.  Nothing daunted, Zarif held a press conference at which he appealed over the heads of the government to members of the Pakistani parliament, which was just then debating the Saudi request for Pakistan’s assistance.  

         Pakistan and Iran, he said, “need to work together to find a political solution. The people of Yemen should not have to face aerial bombardment," referring to Saudi’s air strikes against Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, which had fallen into Houthi hands.  Zarif's appeal clearly found a responsive audience, for following his visit, parliament voted for Pakistan not to get involved in military action in Yemen, but to take on the role of mediator in the conflict.  Iranian diplomacy had secured a major success.   

It is not surprising that Pakistan’s declaration of neutrality in the Yemen conflict generated a sense of betrayal in the Arab world - “cowardly” and “exploitative” were some of the terms used by Gulf states to lambast Islamabad for not helping the Sunni effort. But as Baker Atyani, Al Arabiya News Channel’s bureau chief, astutely remarked, the prime consideration in Pakistan’s refusal to join the call of its traditional allies in the Middle East was its own national interest.  After all, Iran adjoins Pakistan to the west, and Iran was supporting the Houthis. Had Pakistan chosen to take sides in Yemen, there was always the possibility that sectarian tensions within Pakistan, always ready to boil over, would be exacerbated.

So though Prime Minister Sharif had the constitutional right, following consultation with the armed forces, to send troops, he wisely decided to leave the matter to parliament thus deflecting political pressure and saving the country from possible civil disturbance. Other factors that doubtless weighed with the parliamentarians were that around a third of Pakistani troops are engaged in an internal war with militant groups, and that the eastern border with India is always on a state of alert. But at the end of the day, as Atyani observed, Pakistan is a South Asian entity, not a Middle Eastern one, and its decision not to be part of Saudi’s Operation Decisive Storm demonstrates that geopolitics is more important to Pakistan than chasing less pressing political interests.

Nevertheless, Pakistan’s refusal to be drawn into the military operation must have been a precipitating factor in the next stage of the drama ­ Saudi’s announcement on April 21 that its Operation Decisive Storm would be terminated, to be replaced by a campaign called “Restoring Hope” aimed at rebuilding Yemen. Despite the fact that the Houthis still control the capital Sana’a, and that President Hadi remains in exile, the Saudis' somewhat unconvincing claim was that the operation had achieved its objectives.

Saudi coalition spokesman, Brigadier-General Ahmed al-Asiri, said that the decision to end Operation Decisive Storm was “based on a request by the Yemeni government and President Hadi," adding that the rebels no longer posed a threat to civilians. According to the Saudi defence ministry, the bombing campaign had succeeded in "destroying heavy weaponry and ballistic missiles which were seized by the Houthi militia".

It is no surprise that a triumphalist statement from the Iranian foreign ministry welcomed the end of the Saudi-led operation: "We had previously announced that there is no military solution to Yemen's crisis. Undoubtedly, the ceasefire and an end to killing innocent and defenceless people is a step forward."

The question is – a step forward to where?  An Iranian-dominated Yemen?

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 29 April 2015:
http://www.jpost.com/Experts/Pakistan-in-the-Middle-East-400571

Published in the Eurasia Review, 25 April 2015:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/25042015-pakistan-in-the-middle-east-oped/

Friday, 17 April 2015

Egypt's fight against terror

   “It is not unusual to find a couple of civilians decapitated or shot on the roads of Al-Arish, Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid,” a North Sinai resident told a reporter of Daily News Egypt, which describes itself as Egypt’s only independent newspaper in English.  Beheading is the execution method of choice employed by the terror group “State of Sinai” a comparatively new jihadist conglomerate affiliated to Islamic State (IS), and responsible for a remorselessly bloody campaign against the Egyptian military over the past two years. 

The brutal killings include also civilians whom the terrorists accuse of being “armed forces informers”. For example, in February “State of Sinai” released a video showing the decapitation of eight civilians. Their bodies were later found on North Sinai roads.  On April 11 it posted a video featuring both the beheading of an individual, apparently a civilian, and the shooting of a young soldier, Ahmed Fotouh, who had been kidnapped on April 2 in an attack on seven military checkpoints which left 16 armed forces’ personnel dead.

The village of Qarm Al-Qawadis, the scene of a notorious jihadist attack last October which left at least 33 Egyptian servicemen dead, witnessed a new onslaught on April 12. “State of Sinai” claimed to have shot two mortar shells into a military base resulting in the death of six army personnel.  In a separate incident on the same day, a car bomb targeted a police station in Al-Arish killing six police officers and wounding twenty. Three days later two more policemen were killed after a bomb explosion targeted a security vehicle in the Masaeed area in Al-Arish.

And so it goes on, ceaselessly, relentlessly.

Egyptian journalist Sliman Gawda is convinced that the terrorists “are funded, supported, and even trained by outside sources.”  He is referring to Hamas and its Muslim Brotherhood supporters, some of whom have based themselves in Gaza city.  “As the terrorists become more daring,” he writes, “so should the Egyptian army be more ferocious in its war on terror. Yes, we are paying a heavy price for our war against terror. But we must show the Muslim Brotherhood, once and for all, that we will hunt down each of its individuals until we feel safe.”

After the October attack, which produced the biggest loss of life in decades for Egypt's army, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi imposed a three-month state of emergency in the north and centre of the Sinai peninsula, and closed Egypt's Rafah crossing into the Gaza Strip. Declaring that the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip had become one of the region's main exporters of terror, Egypt mounted a major offensive aimed at overcoming the threat and re-establishing effective control.  A major step was to establish a security buffer zone along Egypt’s shared border with Gaza in order to prevent terrorists from using the vast network of tunnels to launch attacks inside Egypt, or smuggle goods and weapons out. The Egyptian army's security crackdown included imposing a curfew on the region, demolishing hundreds of houses along the border and transferring thousands of people to new locations. 

In a sense Egypt’s war on terrorism began with the overthrow in 2013 of former president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood government that he headed. Their year in office had demonstrated all too clearly to the majority of the Egyptian population what living under an extreme Islamist administration meant, and by and large they rejected it. Even so, the Muslim Brotherhood retained the support of a fair minority of Egyptians, and al-Sisi inherited an inherently unstable situation. In his view, the restoration of stability required the total rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood and all its works, and given the revolutionary situation, their suppression.  Hence the trial of Morsi, the clampdown on leading Brotherhood figures and their supporters, and the jailing of journalists employed by the TV station Al-Jazeera based in Qatar, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al-Sisi’s fight against terrorism has gone further.  It has ventured into an area shunned by most political figures in the West, fearful of being tarred with that most unacceptable of brushes for the politically correct – Islamophobia. On January 1, 2015, al-Sisi visited Cairo’s Al-Azhar University where he addressed a gathering of Egypt’s religious leadership.  He said some rather surprising things.

Ideas held most sacred by religious clerics, he asserted, were causing the entire Islamic nation to be a source of anxiety to the rest of the world. “That thinking (I am not saying “religion” but “thinking”), that corpus of texts and ideas that we have held sacred over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. Is it possible that 1.6 billion Muslims should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is 7 billion – so that they themselves may live?  Impossible! We are in need of a religious revolution. You imams are responsible before Allah. The entire world is waiting for your next move…because the Islamic nation is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost – and it is being lost by our own hands.”

His initiative has not fallen on deaf ears.  On April 2 Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Shawki Allam, spoke not only to the Egyptian people, but to Muslims worldwide.

“There is no true religion that does not regard the sanctity of human life as one of its highest values, and Islam is no exception. Indeed, Allah made this unequivocal in the Qur’an. He emphasized the gravity of the universal prohibition against murder, stating that when a person takes even one life, 'it is as if he has killed all mankind'.”

Referring to the videos showing decapitations in Sinai and Libya, the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot, and other horrific acts by jihadists, he said: “These thugs are invoking religious texts to justify their inhumane crimes.”  This, he asserted,”is a flagrant misreading of both the letter and spirit of the Islamic tradition... These terrorists are not Muslim activists, but criminals who have been fed a mistaken interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah, the teachings and practices of the Prophet Mohammed.

“Beyond a military war on terror, we are in an ideological battle one we must win against radical extremists who use terror as a weapon to achieve their goals of disrupting global stability and the conscience of the peaceful world.  Egypt is in dire need of the world’s support as it fights against the terrorist cancer. In this battle, Egypt is defending not only itself, but also humanity against the encroaching danger of extremism.”

Food for thought.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 20 April 2015:
http://www.jpost.com/Experts/Egypts-fight-against-terror-398672

Published in the Eurasia Review, 18 April 2015:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/17042015-egypts-fight-against-terror-oped/

Saturday, 11 April 2015

The sorry state of Yemen

        The Middle East has become a chaotic and bloody battlefield, where opposing forces wage no-holds-barred war on one another in a ruthless effort to gain power, to regain power, or to retain power.  For years Iran’s nuclear ambitions, linked as they are to its undisguised aim of achieving political and religious dominance, have been fiercely opposed by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf region’s most powerful Sunni state. As a result, both countries are now engaged in a bitter struggle for supremacy throughout the Muslim world, often by proxy.

It is not easy to keep pace with the shifting kaleidoscope of alliances and alienations, or the reasons behind them, but if any one area is a microcosm of the whole, it is Yemen.  Here, as across the region, Islam is at war with itself, as the deadly rivalry between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni fundamentalist ruling family and Iran’s equally uncompromising Shia-based Islamic revolution plays itself out.  Nowhere is the fault-line between the Shia and the Sunni traditions of Islam more obvious – and nowhere is it more blurred, as self-seeking interests cut across it.

Who is fighting whom in Yemen?  There are four main principals:  the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels;  the legal president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi;  AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular); and IS (Islamic State).  To these might be added Yemen’s previous long-serving president, Ali Abdullah Saleh who, forced from office, still aspires to play a leading role in his country’s affairs.  Then, joining the fray is Saudi Arabia, which has intervened both militarily and diplomatically in the past few weeks to beat back the Houthis.  Now latest reports indicate that Iran is becoming directly involved.  On April 8, according to Iranian state television, a destroyer and a back-up vessel were sent to the Gulf of Aden, close to the ancient port city that is being torn apart by heavy fighting between Sunni forces and Shia Houthi rebels. 

The Houthis, a fundamentalist Shia group, take their name from Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a revolutionary leader who launched an uprising against the government in 2004 and was killed by the Yemeni army later that year.  The organization’s philosophy is summarized with blinding clarity by their flag, which consists of five statements in Arabic, the first and the last in green, the middle three in red.  They read:

 "God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam".

        The Houthis have been supported for years with weapons and other military hardware by the √©lite Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.  As a result they have overrun large areas of the country, including the capital city, Sana’a.  Not only do the Houthis receive support from Iran, but they are also in alliance with Yemeni security forces still loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh who, although a Sunni Muslim, seems intent on maneuvering a return to power in collaboration with the Shia-affiliated Houthis.  With Saleh’s help, they now control most of the Yemeni military, including its air force.

A second main player is President Hadi and the government he led from February 2012.  Hadi had been deputy to President Saleh who, facing widespread protests and life-threatening attacks, finally - and very reluctantly - left office and transferred the powers of the presidency to him.  Hadi took over a country in a state of chaos, and when the Houthis captured the country’s capital, Sana’a, in September 2014, Hadi failed to broker a deal with them and resigned.

With the Houthis installed as the interim government, Hadi fled to Aden, and from there, on March 26, to Saudi Arabia.  He arrived just about the time of the first Saudi air-strike against the Houthis.  The Saudis, exasperated by Iran’s continued support for the Houthi rebels, had decided to come to the aid of Yemen’s beleaguered president. A subsequent Arab League summit endorsed the Saudi intervention, and no less than ten Middle East states agreed to unite behind Saudi Arabia to form a fighting force dedicated to defeating the Houthi take-over in Yemen and restoring President Hadi to office.

A third major force in Yemen is the spin-off al-Qaeda group known as AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular). Led by Nasser al-Wuhayshi, a Yemeni former aide to Osama Bin Laden, it was formed in January 2009.  Although a totally Sunni organization, its long-term objective is to topple both the Saudi monarchy and the Yemeni government, and to establish an Islamic caliphate on jihadist lines in the Arabian peninsular. So AQAP opposes both the Shi’ite Houthis and Sunni President Hadi.

Finally among the principals in war-torn Yemen is the recently established Yemenite affiliate of Islamic State (IS).  Although IS is just as Sunni-adherent and just as fundamentalist as AQAP, it marches to a different drum-beat, and seeks to eclipse the al-Qaeda presence.  It therefore opposes not only the Shi’ite Houthis, but also the Sunni AQAP, the legitimate Sunni President Hadi, and the anti-Houthi Sunni alliance led by Saudi Arabia.

Despite the Saudi bombing campaign, which is now in its third week, the Houthis have continued their advance into government territory.  As a result, the United States recently increased logistical support, intelligence and weapons to the Saudi campaign.  On April 8 Secretary of State John Kerry declared that Washington was “not going to stand by while the region is destabilized.  There are obviously supplies that have been coming from Iran. We trace those flights, and we know this.” 

Speaking just days after the announcement of a framework for a nuclear deal with Iran. Kerry said he was seeking to reassure allies, including Saudi Arabia, that the United States could “do two things at the same time” something the principal players in the Yemen conflict have become adept at. 

In Yemen the broad outlines of the Iran-Saudi Arabia struggle, reflecting their Sunni-Shia division, are evident, but in the confusion of the battle Sunni ex-President Saleh throws in his lot with the Iranian-supported Shia Houthis, AQAP seeks to overthrow the Sunni government, and IS is set on eclipsing AQAP and extending the reach of its parent organization into the Arabian peninsular.

In short, the situation in Yemen, reflecting that in the Middle East as a whole, is a prime example of realpolitik in action self-interest taking precedence over principle.  Poor Yemen. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 15 April 2015:
http://www.jpost.com/Experts/The-sorry-state-of-Yemen-398204

Published in the Eurasia Review, 11 April 2015:
http://www.dehai.org/archives/dehai_news_archive/2015/apr/0243.html


Friday, 3 April 2015

Islam's civil war

The Middle East has turned itself into a battlefield in which the age-old fault-line within Islam – the unbridgeable divide between the Shi’ite and Sunni traditions – is being made manifest in bloodshed and terror.  The main protagonists, all professing profound allegiance to the Islamic faith, have engaged themselves in a life-and-death struggle with opponents not only outside their own camp, but sometimes within it. 
 
The Islamic Republic of Iran, proclaiming itself the leader of Shia Islam, declares that its ultimate objective is to become the dominant religious force within the Muslim faith and the dominant political force in the Middle East.  Saudi Arabia, which contains within its borders the two great bastions of the faith, Mecca and Medina, is acknowledged as the custodian of the Sunni tradition of Islam.  Challenging Saudi Arabia for Sunni dominance is the Johnny-come-lately, self-styled Islamic State (IS), which claims to be on a mission to create a new caliphate to embrace first the Middle East and eventually the whole world.  It demands the allegiance of every Muslim, Sunni or not.

The Saudis have been on a collision course with Iran, their powerful Shia neighbour, ever since it was revealed, more than a decade ago, that the Ayatollahs were working on a clandestine programme to develop nuclear weapons. Acquiring an atom bomb would allow Iran to become the region’s undisputed superpower and facilitate the spread of its Shia principles.  So Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been consistently opposed by Saudi Arabia, and the two countries are now engaged in fighting a proxy war for supremacy throughout the Arab world.

Nowhere is this bitter dispute more keenly felt than in Yemen, the chunk of territory lying at the base of Saudi Arabia and bordering the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea.  In 2009 Yemen became the seat of AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), an off-shoot of Osama bin Laden’s terror movement.  AQAP set about provoking ethnic, tribal and social tensions until it brought the country to a state of open civil war. Meanwhile the Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were smuggling weapons to the Houthi rebels, the Shia minority in the north of the country, as well as providing expert military training.  The result?  The Shia Houthi militia finally succeeded in seizing control of Yemen’s capital city, Sana’a.  Its fall sent shock waves across countries on the Red Sea, fearful of Yemen becoming an Iranian hub. The time for action by Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Sunni world had arrived.  So in mid-March, in a move that took the world by surprise, Saudi Arabia launched a series of air strikes against Houthi rebel positions in Yemen.

The situation is not without its irony.  As Saudi opposition to Iran explodes into open warfare, the US is heading a coalition in support of Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq, as they attempt to recapture the strategically important city of Tikrit from IS.  

Nor is this all. In addition to co-operating with Iran on the battlefield, the Obama administration seems intent on fostering close relations in other ways. For many years both Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, have featured on Washington’s annual National Intelligence Estimate, which lists the numerous threats America faces around the globe. This year they do not appear. Obama has turned a blind eye to the fact that Iran has been boosting Hezbollah’s arsenal of missiles and rockets in preparation for its next assault on Israel, to say nothing of Iran’s direct logistical support of the Houthi rebels in Yemen. No doubt he was aiming not to upset the final stage of Iran’s delicate negotiations with the US and other world powers about its nuclear programme. 

Placating Iran is a profoundly short-sighted, not to say skewed, policy.  As veteran foreign correspondent Con Coughlin observes, no matter how much the Obama administration would like to put its relations with Iran on a more even footing, Iranian objectives in the Middle East are in direct conflict with those of the West. It is only by the merest chance that in Iraq their interests happen, for the moment, to coincide. 

The fact is that Iran pursues its own political and religious agenda, and will not be deflected from it. In Iraq, for example, it is fighting IS because it wants to cultivate the large Shi’ite stronghold in the south of the country, which it views as its natural sphere of interest. This area strategically controls the gateway to the Persian Gulf, and contains about half of Iraq’s oil reserves. In short, Iranian intervention in Iraq represents one aspect of its broader strategy to achieve dominance in the region.  In Syria it is fighting IS because it wants to preserve Assad in power as a key element in its Shi’ite axis.

Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Muslim world are not fooled.  The new Saudi ruler, King Salman, a man apparently with backbone, quickly took the lead.  Putting aside differences that had previously vitiated attempts at coordinated Sunni action, such as Qatar’s and Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, he initiated a summit meeting of the Arab League to endorse his air strikes, and to formulate a concerted plan of action. 

At a summit meeting of the Arab League on March 29, Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said that Yemen had been "on the brink of the abyss", and that the Saudi air strikes had been the only option left "to end the Houthi coup".  He said that not only would the Saudi-led bombing raids continue until the Shia rebels withdraw and surrender, but that a joint military task force was being created to tackle the threat from Iran and from IS jihadists across the region. Egyptian officials said the planned reaction force would be made up of 40,000 elite troops, backed by jets, warships and tanks.

And indeed IS has taken advantage of the chaos in Yemen to continue its expansion across the Middle East.  A group calling itself the Yemeni Representative of the Islamic State has appeared on the scene. On March 20 it claimed responsibility for attacks on two Shia mosques in Sana'a, killing at least 160 people in an act of sectarian violence unprecedented in the country. 

If the armed coalition of Arab states that Saudi’s King Salman has masterminded is successful in Yemen, he unlike the pusillanimous Obama administration and the West will have dealt a blow to the expansionist ambitions of Iran’s Islamic Republic, to say nothing of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.  King Salman is emerging as the resolute leader of the Sunni world, and perhaps of the moderate Muslim world as a whole. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 7 April 2015:
http://www.jpost.com/Experts/Islams-civil-war-396415 

Published in the Eurasia Review, 3 April 2015:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/03042015-islams-civil-war-oped/