Friday, 20 February 2015

Tony Blair's flawed peace plan

            On Sunday, February 15, 2015 Tony Blair visited Gaza.
            It is nearly eight years since Blair took up the role of envoy to the Middle East on behalf of “the Quartet” (the UN, the EU, the US and Russia). On the day he was officially confirmed in post – June 27, 2007, the very day he resigned as UK Prime Minister – the White House announced that both Israel and the Palestinians had signed up to the appointment.

Other voices – not all of them from the Arab world – expressed varying degrees of scepticism about his credibility as an impartial peacemaker, given the controversy already raging about Britain's key role in the invasion of Iraq.  But he threw himself into the job, stressing from the start the two main conditions that he believed would allow the launch of credible negotiations – a more unified position within Palestinian politics, and developing the West Bank economy.

What has he achieved? In February 2015 Palestinian politics are no more unified than when Blair took on his role, nor is the West Bank economy more flourishing.  It would, though, be fair to say that despite his best efforts – and he certainly strove hard, especially in the early days – it is events beyond his control that have frustrated his good intentions. The past eight years have seen cataclysmic changes within the Middle East, and it has been a roller-coaster of a ride as far as the Israel-Palestinian conflict is concerned.

As for the Quartet itself, since the start in July 2013 of the well-intentioned, but eventually abortive, peace effort led by US Secretary of State John Kerry, it has been in virtual hibernation. Early last month, however, the US envoy to the UN, Samantha Powers, unexpectedly announced a lower-level meeting of representatives of the Quartet members. Commentators were quick to speculate that this might indicate a move by the US to reinvigorate the dormant group.

          The statement issued after the meeting seems to justify this interpretation.  It reported that the representatives had explored what the Quartet could do to support the resumption of meaningful negotiations leading to a peace agreement based on a two-state solution. Noting the importance of engaging closely with (unspecified) “Arab partners”, the one matter they agreed on was the importance of convening a meeting of the Quartet Principals as soon as possible.

It is against this background that Tony Blair ventured into Gaza last week for the first time in more than five years.  Having met with members of the Palestinian unity government and various business, community and UN workers, he returned to issue his conclusions about the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.  “We need a new approach to Gaza and a new approach to peace,” he wrote.  And he proceeded to analyse the obstacles to peace, as he sees them, and a proposed approach to overcoming them.

His first, and valid, point is that the “on-the-ground-reality”, as he puts it, is not conducive to peace: ”indeed the opposite.”  Accordingly he sets out three pre-conditions for a successful peace process, and they are not all that different from how he saw the issues back in 2007.  First, he says, because the economy on the West Bank has stalled, there needs to be a dramatic improvement in the daily lives of Palestinians.  A second requirement, now as then, is what he terms “unified Palestinian politics” on a basis that is explicitly in favour of peace and two states, Palestine and Israel.  A third is an enhanced role for the region, in alliance with the international community, which must step up to share leadership of the issue.

But there is an elephant in the room, which Blair pointedly ignores. It is not, as might be thought, the irreconcilable differences between Hamas, the de facto rulers of the Gaza strip, and Fatah which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA), even though these differences are deep and long-standing (there is abundant evidence that Hamas aspires to topple PA President Mahmoud Abbas and take over the West Bank, just as it did in Gaza).  On the contrary, the overwhelming obstacle to effective peace negotiations is the basic accord between Hamas and the PA on the desired outcome to the Israel-Palestine stand-off.

The two wings of the Palestinian body politic agree on one matter: eventually achieving a sovereign Palestine “from the river to the sea” that is, shorn of Israel.  Hamas is perhaps the more honest in its intentions, since it utterly rejects the two-state solution and declares itself at war with Israel.  As for Fatah, although Abbas has spent the past ten years nominally supporting the two-state solution, the charter of the Fatah party states quite unequivocally that Palestine, with the boundaries that it had during the British Mandate – that is, before the existence of Israel – is an indivisible territorial unit and is the homeland of the Arab Palestinian people.  Each Palestinian, it declares, must be prepared for the armed struggle and be ready to sacrifice both wealth and life to win it back. Given these founding beliefs of his party, Abbas’s tactic of supporting the two-state solution – inherited from his predecessor, Yassir Arafat – pretty obviously represents only the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine.

This underlying reality explains why every attempt to negotiate a resolution of the Israel-Palestine dispute has failed. In the final analysis no Palestinian leader has dared to sign up to a two-state solution, since to do so would be to concede that Israel has an acknowledged and legitimate place within Mandate Palestine – and that would instantly brand him a traitor to the Palestinian cause.

This factor Tony Blair ignores, and perhaps he is right to do so. If Abbas were indeed ever brought to the point of appending his signature to a peace agreement, he would need to have been totally supported by those unspecified “Arab friends” (namely the majority of the Arab League, who remain committed to their own peace plan).  Even then he would be playing ducks and drakes with his own life.  

When Blair considers Hamas, though, he asks for clarification of what is already patently clear. “Are they prepared to accept a Palestinian State within 1967 borders or not,” he asks, “with such a State being a final settlement to the conflict? If they are,” he declares, “that would allow the international community to promote reconciliation alongside reconstruction.”

What Blair does not pursue is what the international community should do if as Hamas have declared again and again they are not. And there, as Shakespeare succinctly puts it, is the rub.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 26 February 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 20 February 2015:

Friday, 13 February 2015

That dirty word appeasement

“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
–Winston Churchill

The ghost of Neville Chamberlain is haunting the international political scene.  The disastrous policy with which his name will forever be associated – appeasement – is alive and well, and being pursued with a determination of which he would surely have approved.  

The major lesson to be learned from the history of the 1930s is that there is no satiating the appetites of dictators and autocrats. Conciliation is a fruitless exercise when set against overweening political ambition.  Every concession is taken as a sign of weakness, and simply strengthens the will of the despot.  In short, failure to perceive iniquity for what it is, and to take a firm stand against it, leads to disaster.

Few of today’s leading figures were alive when dictators like Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler rode roughshod over international agreements in pursuit of their grandiose ambitions, and when, fearful of plunging the world into a second global conflict only twenty years after “the war to end wars”, the democracies bent over backwards to avoid frustrating them.

So when in 1935 Mussolini invaded and annexed Ethiopia, the rest of the world condemned him but did nothing.  When Hitler started a massive rearmament program in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles and proceeded to invade first the Rhineland and then Austria, a blind eye was turned. When he directed his attention to Czechoslovakia, Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister of the UK – then a genuine world power – flew on three occasions to Germany determined at any cost to avoid a military conflict.  At a meeting with Hitler, attended by Mussolini and the French prime minister Edouard Daladier, he agreed to chunks of Czechoslovakia being handed over to Germany in return for Hitler’s promise to renounce all future claims to European territory.  “Peace with honour,” Chamberlain triumphantly proclaimed on his return to the UK, waving the worthless document which Hitler had signed. “Peace for our time.”  Six months later German troops invaded and conquered Czechoslovakia.

Last week we found Vladimir Putin being cajoled and reasoned with by the President of France and the Chancellor of Germany.  The subject of their concern was not, as might be expected, his blatant annexation of Crimea – a manifest infringement of the sovereignty of Ukraine which took place in March 2014, and which world opinion seems to have accepted.  Their attention was focused on ending the conflict between Ukrainian forces and those of the so-called “rebels” who are seeking, with Putin’s covert support, to have a large slab of eastern Ukraine absorbed into Russia proper. Whether the ceasefire will stick is anyone’s guess, but Ukraine is likely to have lost absolute sovereignty over the region.

        President Obama has threatened tougher economic sanctions on Russia: “We have to show them that the world is unified and imposing a cost for this aggression,” but the world is far from unified, and Putin received a hero’s welcome when he visited Egypt just a few days ago.  Nor must it be forgotten that Russia is one of the so-called P5+1 group of nations (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) involved in the long-drawn-out negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme, negotiations led by America which also carry a strong whiff of appeasement about them. 

Writing in Ha’aretz recently, political scientist Amiel Ungar quoted leading analysts who believe that the “signature issue of Obama’s diplomacy” has been transforming US-Iranian relations.  Ungar traces the origins of this policy to the conclusions of the 2006 Iraq Study Group headed by former US Secretary of State, James Baker, and former Democratic representative Lee Hamilton. “With an American public disillusioned by the cost of democracy building in Iraq,” wrote Ungar, “Baker and Hamilton offered a balance-of-power approach based on engaging two ‘axis of evil’ members, Syria and Iran, who could be counted on to battle Al-Qaeda for their own sake. Additionally, the group expected Iran ‘to use its influence, especially over Shia groups in Iraq, to encourage national reconciliation’.”

Ungar believes that this recklessly flawed analysis is what underlies Obama’s willingness to accommodate Iran on the political front, and to offer it major and as-yet-unrequited concessions on the nuclear issue. During 2014 it emerged that in secret correspondence with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Obama actually attempted to engage Iran in the anti-Islamic State (IS) conflict.  In November the Wall Street Journal reported that Obama had written to Ayatollah Khamanei concerning the shared interest of the US and Iran in fighting IS militants. 

“The October letter,” asserted the Wall Street Journal, “marked at least the fourth time Mr Obama has written Iran’s most powerful political and religious leader since taking office in 2009, and pledging to engage with Tehran’s Islamist government.”

What has been the result?  As Ungar points out, Iran’s Supreme Leader and the head of the Revolutionary Guards' Al-Quds force, Qassem Soleimani, have both been emboldened.  In its objective to destroy Israel, Iran has re-engaged with Hamas in Gaza, strengthened Hezbollah in Lebanon and opened a new front opposite the Golan Heights in Syria. Meanwhile Obama seeks to placate Iran by recognizing its "right to enrichment" and allowing it to retain its massive centrifuge infrastructure.

Obama’s policy of appeasement has certainly not been opposed by Russia, Iran’s main ally on the P5+1, or by China.  On February 2 the foreign ministers of Russia, India and China met and issued a joint communique: "The Ministers … welcomed the extension of negotiations between P5+1 and Iran, and hoped that the two sides intensify diplomatic efforts with a view to reaching a comprehensive agreement at an early date."

       When the Obama administration came into office, its overt aim seemed to be to eliminate Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons. But was it in fact working to a different and secret agenda?  “The proof of the pudding,” runs the old saying, “is in the eating.” It is plain that Washington has taken no action against Iran’s efforts  to extend its influence across the Middle East.  As the Jerusalem Post recently noted: “From Yemen to Iraq to Syria to Lebanon to the Gaza Strip, the Iranians have been aggressively asserting themselves, in a clear attempt to build a broad swath of influence throughout the region. US inaction seems to signal a willingness to concede Tehran a place as a regional power at the expense of Israel and other US allies such as the Saudis and Egypt.”

        When Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, addresses the US Congress in March, he might well question not only the wisdom of appeasing Iran to the point of allowing it to become a desperately dangerous breakout nuclear power, but also the broader implications of turning a blind eye to its ambition to dominate the Middle East.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 February 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 February 2015:

Friday, 6 February 2015

Arabs lose patience with Hezbollah

A new and defiant spirit is abroad in the Arab world.  Not so very long ago Hamas and Hezbollah, though widely defined as terrorist organizations, were the heroes of Islam, the front line against Israel.  For any Arab state openly to criticize the “Palestinian resistance” would have been unthinkable.
That sacred cow has been slaughtered.  Within the past few weeks not only has Hamas’s military wing been branded a terrorist organization by Egypt, but Hezbollah and its leader have been roundly condemned by the Arab League itself.  Neither move indicates any sudden rush of affection for Israel.  Both were a response to activities by those bodies deemed unacceptable by their Arab co-religionists who, in a changing atmosphere, now feel able to voice their criticisms openly.

Sustained and supported by Hamas, the Ansar Bait al-Makdis terrorist organization, which is allied to Islamic State (IS), has been spreading death and destruction throughout the Sinai Peninsula.  It uses Hamas-controlled Gaza as its launch pad.  Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is dedicated to defeating it. Outlawing Hamas is part of his strategy for doing so.

As for Hezbollah, a self-acknowledged puppet dancing to strings pulled by Iran’s ayatollahs, it has usually escaped the hostility felt for Iran by most of the Arab world. But that hostility is real enough, for Iran’s policies fill most Arab states with alarm – its political ambition to dominate the region, its religious aim to substitute the Shi’ite for the Sunni tradition of Islam and, in pursuit of these objectives, its outright bid to become a nuclear power. With the old constraints on censuring Hezbollah weakened, the organization has been at the receiving end of a barrage of criticism from within the Arab world in the past few weeks – pressure it could well have done without.  For it is currently subject to considerable stresses on its own account.

A major burden for Hezbollah stems from its involvement, at Iran’s behest, in military operations in support of Syria’s President Bashar Assad.  With something like 5,000 fighters on the ground in Syria, and in excess of 600 killed on active service, Hezbollah’s involvement in a military adventure on behalf of a foreign power has led to outright criticism within Lebanon, even from within the Shi’ite community.

Hezbollah’s reputation within Lebanon has also suffered because of the retaliatory action taken against it by anti-Assad forces.  In short, it has been receiving a taste of its own medicine. Tactics it has used against Israel namely lightning strikes and the kidnapping of soldiers are being inflicted on its own forces­ by IS fighters and those of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.  Both organizations have secured enclaves inside Lebanon along its border with Syria.  This faces Hezbollah with the necessity of finding troops to man yet another military front, in addition to its operations in Syria and its permanent stand-off with Israel in southern Lebanon.

These pressures perhaps explain why Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was distracted enough a few weeks ago to wander into a diplomatic minefield. 

Bahrain, an island paradise set in the Gulf off the coast of Saudi Arabia, presents something of a dilemma for Iran and its allies.  While the Bahraini ruling house is, and always has been, Sunni Muslim, the bulk of the population adheres to the Shia tradition of Islam.  Iran would dearly love to bring Bahrain fully into its so-called “Shia crescent”, and typically, in pursuit of this objective, has been facilitating and financing terrorist activity within the kingdom in order to undermine the government.

In November 2014, Sheikh Ali Salman, the Shi’ite head of Bahrain’s ‘main political opposition group, the al-Wefaq Islamic Society, led a protest and boycotted the national elections. He was arrested and charged, among other matters, with agitating for a change of government by force, fomenting hatred and inciting others to break the law.

Nasrallah was unrestrained in his condemnation.  Maintaining that the people of Bahrain were calling for their legitimate rights including “an elected parliament that the people elect and not a parliament half of whose members are appointed,” he denounced Bahrain’s regime as “tyrannical and oppressive”.  He also alleged that in order to change the country’s majority-Shi’ite population, the authorities were encouraging an influx of Sunni foreigners into the country and were naturalizing Sunnis from across the region.

The reaction to Nasrallah’s speech was swift and devastating.

Lebanon's chargĂ© d’affaires, Elias Assaf, was summoned to the Bahrain foreign ministry, asked to condemn “hostile statements made by terrorist organization Hezbollah's secretary-general,” and to take legal measures against him. Nasrallah’s words, he was told, constituted an interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Shortly afterwards the foreign ministers of the Arab League issued a joint statement expressing their total opposition to Nasrallah’s “repetitive interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain.”  Strongly condemning his remarks as “a clear and unacceptable interference” in the kingdom’s internal affairs,” they called on the Lebanese government to follow their lead and condemn Hezbollah outright.

They went further. Plainly exasperated by Hezbollah in general, and its activities in Syria in particular, the Arab League set up a special meeting in Cairo.   Subsequently Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi announced that the League condemned all forms of foreign intervention in Syria, especially that of the Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah, which was acting in support of Iran’s ally, President Assad.

Aware of the country’s fragile political balance, Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil dissociated himself from the decision to condemn Hezbollah.  The Bahraini minister of foreign affairs, Khaled bin Ahmad, was scathing.  The Arab League’s statement regarding the “terrorist” Nasrallah, he asserted, was “clear as day,” and Lebanon must “stand with its brothers, as they stood by it.”

His words found an echo within Lebanon.  Naila Tawini, a Lebanese member of parliament, writing in the journal Al-Nahar, deplored Nasrallah’s intervention in Bahrain’s affairs. “Perhaps now that he is immersed in the Syrian and Iranian crises, he decided to return and stir things up at home. Whatever it is, we must not let him interfere with our efforts for a national dialogue.”

Writing in the international Arabic newspaper published in London, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Abdul Rahman al-Rashed was, if anything, even more caustic about Hezbollah, referring to its “dirty involvement in the Syrian civil war and its brutality within Lebanon…The once-admired organization,” he asserted, “has turned into a villain.”

What has led to this new Arab confidence in condemning the terrorist organizations it was once heresy to criticize?  Perhaps the unutterable brutality demonstrated time and again by IS, and especially the gruesome manner in which it recently chose to slaughter the Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kasaesbeh, is inducing genuine revulsion in the Arab world for those who not only indulge, but glory, in terrorism.  Let us hope so.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 8 February 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 February 2015:

Friday, 30 January 2015

The Kurds - standard bearers for humanity

At present only one military force is effectively combatting Islamic State (IS) on the ground – the Kurdish guerrilla fighting force known generically as the Peshmerga (“Those Who Face Death”).  For weeks, IS has been losing ground in northern Iraq to Iraqi Kurdish fighters; now they are succumbing to Peshmerga troops in Syria. On January 27 it was announced that the Kurdish forces had “expelled all IS fighters from Kobane and have full control of the town”. After more than four months of intensive fighting, the Kurdish fighting force had chased IS out of the strategically important town situated on the Syrian-Turkish border.  

In fact almost all of the recent victories over IS have been achieved by Kurdish guerrillas, willing to fight where others have collapsed – like Iraq’s security forces, with some million men under arms, which fled in the face of IS’s lightning advance last summer.  More to the point, perhaps, the Peshmerga are the force with “boots on the ground”, unlike any of the 62-nation strong anti-IS coalition, established by President Obama.  All of them promised, and many are providing, financial, logistical, military and humanitarian assistance by the bucketful, but not one fighting soldier on the ground, at least officially.

It is true that the Peshmerga’s military successes might not have occurred so quickly, or so conclusively, without the aid of substantial American support by way of air cover, training by US special forces (and perhaps something more than training, albeit unacknowledged) and the plentiful provision of weapons.  For example, prior to the Kurds securing Kobane, US-led coalition aircraft pounded IS positions 17 times in just 24 hours.  Nevertheless, the Kurdish guerrillas are the ones actually undertaking the fighting, the victories are theirs to celebrate, and they deserve the congratulations of all nations opposed to the brutal and inhumane IS organization and its unacceptable ambitions for the future of the world.

How can the world repay these doughty soldiers, fighting on humanity’s behalf?

The Kurds yearn for the restoration of what might be called “Greater Kurdistan”.  The Kurds are an ethnic group some 30 million strong who inhabit a distinct geographical area flanked by mountain ranges.  It was once referred to as Kurdistan.  No such entity is depicted on current maps.  What was once Kurdistan, together with all its 30-plus million inhabitants, was carved up in the negotiations following the First World War, which dismembered the old Ottoman empire.  Following the treaty of Lausanne in 1923, the territory that had been Kurdistan was divided up and allocated to the sovereign states of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.  Kurds currently form the largest minority in Syria, while within Iraq, following the downfall of Sadam Hussein, they have developed a near-autonomous state across the north of the country which has taken the name Kurdistan. 

Most Kurds, however, live within Turkey’s borders. They comprise about 20% of Turkey's 77 million population and have long been a pressing political problem for Turkey.  In the 1980s an armed insurgency challenged the Turkish state, which responded with martial law.  In the subsequent, and on-going, conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish independence movement, the PKK, more than 40,000 people have been killed.  Which is the most obvious explanation for why Turkey’s president, Rece Tayyip Erdogan, apparently preferred to see IS retain control of Kobane rather than assist Kurdish fighters to recapture it, and sat on his hands for months while the battle raged just over the Turkish border.

But the recapture of the town by the Kurds is precisely what has happened, with the aid and support not only of the US, but of the 62 nations who oppose IS and are dedicated to its destruction.  In short, Erdogan has been backing the wrong horse – and not only Erdogan.  World opinion as a whole has not been noticeably supportive of the idea of Kurdish independence in the past.  Western policy in Iraq has been to attempt to retain the disparate areas Sunni, Shia and Kurd in one unified state, rather than permit the Kurds to transform their autonomous region into a sovereign entity.

One notable exception has been Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.  In a speech delivered on June 29, 2014 at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies, he declared that Israel supports the transformation of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan into an independent Kurdish state. "We need to support the Kurdish aspiration for independence,” he said. “They deserve it."

Following that lead, in August 2014 Senator Conrad Burns urged the US government to support the Kurds in their aspiration. “The people of Kurdistan have been striving for independence and the right of self-government for generations,” he wrote. “They have been close several times only to be struck down by outside world powers. They have endured atrocities and have paid the price for freedom. It is therefore time that the United States took heed of these sacrifices and fulfilled its moral obligation to support the people of Kurdistan and their ambitions for freedom and national sovereignty.”

Britain’s traditional stance has been to back Kurdish autonomy, but to oppose statehood. In a recent editorial, the London Daily Telegraph asked whether that would remain the UK’s position after IS was beaten.  “Britain should be thinking not just about how to defeat IS” it wrote, “but what might lie beyond.”

Meanwhile gallant Kurdish fighters are still putting their lives on the line, combatting the dark forces that glory in violating accepted standards of humane and decent behaviour in pursuit of their political and religious aims. The Kurds deserve the grateful thanks of each one of the 62 nations that have signed up to the anti-IS alliance.  When the final battle has been fought and won  or even in advance of that happy event – supporting the Kurds’ desire for an independent sovereign state would be a suitable gesture of appreciation.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 2 February 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 January 2015:

Friday, 23 January 2015

Iran and Hezbollah - an explosive combination

There is no disputing the fact that Hezbollah is entirely a creature of post-revolutionary Iran its stooge, if you will.  Over its thirty-year life Hezbollah has not only acted in concert with its sponsor in initiating and carrying out multiple acts of terror across the world, but it has also infiltrated itself into the political life of Lebanon.  It is the unstable nature of Lebanon’s constitution that has allowed this foreign-dominated organization to acquire a commanding position in the government of the country, and exercise so much influence on its affairs.

Hezbollah, aka “The Party of God", was born about halfway through Lebanon's fifteen-year civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990. Founded by religious clerics of the Shi’ite persuasion, its ideology and doctrines deliberately mirrored those of the Iranian ayatollahs. Towards the end of 1982 the nascent movement obtained critical financial support and training from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.  That connection has been maintained ever since.

In its founding manifesto, issued in 1985, Hezbollah pledged loyalty to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, urged the establishment of a Shi’ite Islamic regime in Lebanon, demanded the expulsion of Western peace-keeping forces from Lebanese territory, and called for the destruction of Israel. Its struggle against Israel, it declares, “will end only when this entity is obliterated. We recognize no treaty with it, no cease-fire, and no peace agreements, whether separate or consolidated."

From its foundation Hezbollah, following the Iranian pattern, endorsed the use of terror as a means of achieving its political goals. In October 1983 suicide attacks on the US embassy and Marine Corps barracks in Beirut resulted in the deaths of 258 Americans.  Over the 1980s and 1990s the group conducted kidnappings and airplane hijackings, two bombings in Buenos Aires, several in Paris and an attempted bombing in Bangkok. In 1996 it assisted in the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia which killed 19 Americans an operation that resulted in Hezbollah being added to the US State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Syria’s civil war has both strengthened and complicated the Iranian-Hezbollah connection. 

That the Iranian regime is wholly in support of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, and wholly opposed to the Sunni Islamic State (IS) that is seeking to overthrow him, is not in doubt.  Syria is a vital link in Iran’s so-called “Shia Crescent” the chain of allied interests that supports its influence in the region, and is the counterweight to IS’s ambition to establish a Sunni caliphate across the Middle East and beyond. 

Iran, however, is engaged in protracted talks with world powers about its nuclear ambitions, during which it hopes for a lifting of the sanctions that have been crippling its economy. The US has ruled out any possibility of an easier deal on the nuclear issue in exchange for Iran’s direct aid in combatting IS.  Accordingly Iran  will not allow itself to be seen to collaborate with the “Great Satan” and join President Obama’s anti-IS alliance.  Back in December, it vehemently denied that it had carried out airstrikes against IS targets in Iraq, despite Pentagon reports to the contrary. 

But there is ample evidence that Iran, both directly and under cover of its puppet, Hezbollah, has been providing massive support for the Assad regime in terms of men, material and money. Starting in 2012 Hezbollah fighters, backed by Tehran and probably augmented by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, have been directly engaged in combat.  By December 2013 Iran was thought to have approximately 10,000 operatives in Syria. In 2014 Iran stepped up support for Assad and, according to Syria’s Minister of Finance and Economy, "the Iranian regime has given more than 15 billion dollars" to Syria. The fact that Assad is still in power in Syria, and has made some important strategic advances against IS, is undoubtedly due to the Iranian-Hezbollah input.

Meanwhile Hezbollah, by responding so enthusiastically to Iran’s demands, has been facing difficulties at home in Lebanon.  Although its appeal within the Shi’te community remains strong, many have questioned the rationality of involving thousands of fighters in a conflict which seems to run counter to its declared purposes.  Fighting as Iran’s proxy in Syria has no connection to Lebanon’s internal problems, or to the eternal struggle against Israel.  Moreover more than 600 young Lebanese have lost their lives in the conflict, and despite Hezbollah’s generous financial grants to the families who suffer bereavement, these deaths  require some sort of justification. Accordingly, Hezbollah Secretary-General, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, issues somewhat unconvincing statements from time to time reiterating that the movement’s involvement in Syria represents a fight against  the US, Israel, and Takfirism the fundamentalist Sunni movement which is anathema to Muslims who espouse the Shi’ite tradition.

        Now Nasrallah has been relieved of the necessity to make excuses to his own constituency. According to foreign media sources, Israel is responsible for a helicopter attack on January 18 in the Syrian province of Quneitra. The target was a military vehicle containing an explosive combination of Iranian and Hezbollah officials.  Eleven were killed including Jihad Mughniyeh, described by Western intelligence sources as a “relentless terrorist” plotting a series of cross-border terrorist attacks against Israel from Syria.  Other fatal casualties included Muhammad Issa, the head of Hezbollah’s operation in Syria and Iraq, and Iranian Colonel Ali Reza al-Tabatabai, commander of the Radwan force, a special operations unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon responsible for planning attacks against Israel.

        But also killed was Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Muhammad Allahdadi.  Now, killing an Iranian general is no small matter.  According to Debkafile, an independent internet website specialising in strategic analysis, Israel subsequently used Western and Arab media outlets to “clarify” the purpose of its air strike over the Golan, asserting that General Allahdadi and his staff of five were not known to be traveling in the Hezbollah convoy, and were not the target.

 “We thought we were hitting an enemy field unit that was on its way to carry out an attack on us at the frontier fence,” a senior security official in Tel Aviv informed the media. “We went on the alert, we spotted the vehicle, identified it as an enemy vehicle and took the shot.”

This semi-apology, according to Debkafile, was intended to mollify Tehran, and was almost certainly made at the instigation of Washington with one eye on the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran. The Obama administration doubtless feared that the airstrike might snowball into a full-scale military confrontation, leading to the breakdown of the negotiations.

Will Iran accept Israel’s excuse for the death of a senior general? Retaliation is inevitable, emanating either directly from Iran, or more likely via its Hezbollah satrap, but the degree and consequences of any reprisal hang in the balance.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 26 January 2015: 

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 January 2015:

Friday, 16 January 2015

Anti-Semitism and the battle against Jihad

          Talking of cartoons, shortly after the huge and impressive Charlie Hebdo rallies had taken place in Paris and across the Western world, a telling cartoon appeared in the Jerusalem Post.  A boy sits across the table from his father. 
“Why were cartoonists killed?” he asks.
“Over freedom of speech,” says his Dad.
“So, why were Jews killed too?”
“Over freedom of existence.”

And indeed, one has to ask what connection could there be between the murderous attack on the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo and the customers in a kosher supermarket?  The same question might have been asked following the Mumbai massacre of 2008, in which a series of twelve coordinated shooting and bombing attacks were carried out by Pakistani jihadists. Why was the Nariman House Jewish community centre included among the hotel, hospital and cinema targets?  

The world is beginning to understand that within the warped Islamist ideology, bitter resentment at Western intervention into the affairs of Muslim states, fury at less than respectful references to the Prophet, and hatred of Jews, Judaism and Israel are all intermingled.  In their philosophy, terrorist action directed against any is equally justifiable .  So to Amedy Coulibaly, acting to support the terrorists who attacked and killed the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, a kosher supermarket seemed an entirely appropriate target to select.  Just as, in the mindset of Pakistani terrorists engaged in what was essentially an Islamist war against India, murdering Jews was a basic component in the strategy.

From phone conversations between those in Pakistan directing the Mumbai operation and the terrorists – recorded by Indian authorities on November 27, 2008, and later published in The Hindu newspaper – it is clear that the lives of those taken hostage in the attack on the Jewish community centre were of no consequence.
Pakistan caller:  If you are still threatened, then don’t saddle yourself with the burden of the hostages. Immediately kill them."
Mumbai terrorist at Nariman House: Yes, we shall do accordingly, God willing.
Pakistan caller:  Another thing: Israel has made a request through diplomatic channels to save the hostages. If the hostages are killed, it will spoil relations between India and Israel."
Mumbai terrorist: "So be it, God willing."
In the event six Jewish lives were added to the 158 victims mowed down during those four days of terror in November 2008.

Coulibaly, too, having murdered four of his hostages, spoke on the phone and gave a TV interview during the course of his siege of the kosher supermarket.  Claiming he was sent by al-Qaeda in Yemen as a defender of the Prophet, and that his attack had been synchronized with that by the Kouachi brothers on the Charlie Hebdo offices, he offered no justification for attacking a Jewish supermarket. Clearly he assumed that none was called for.

“Sir – In all the comment about last week’s atrocities in Paris, there has been much said about the rights and wrongs of insulting Muslim beliefs… Extraordinarily, I have not heard or seen a single comment that questions the motive of a killer who enters a Jewish supermarket and kills random shoppers. It seems there is no need to explain. They were killed not because they said or did things that were blasphemous or provocative, but because they were probably Jews. Is the world so inured to this that the question “Why?” is not even deemed necessary?

But the reason is not difficult to discern.  Islamists seek to destroy Western freedoms throughout the world and substitute their own version of a Muslim caliphate, and integral to their worldview is not only a total intolerance for Jews, but a positive injunction to kill them whenever possible. This hatred for Jews and Israel has been brought to Europe as part of the baggage of radical Islamist preachers. So far Western governments and organisations have failed to recognize – or at least to acknowledge – two basic truths about all jihadists, whatever their hue: first, that they are in earnest in their desire to pull down the institutions of democracy and obliterate the Western way of life; and secondly that a hatred of Jews, Judaism and Israel is locked into their ideology. 

Joining the dots, it becomes abundantly clear that for decades Israel – an island of Western democracy in a turbulent Muslim ocean – has been in the vanguard of the anti-jihadist fight.  The extremist Islamist entities of Hamas to the east, Hezbollah to the north, and Iran to the west – all vehemently anti-Semitic and dedicated to Israel’s destruction – have been joined by jihadist factions in Syria and Iraq, led by Islamic State (or “Daesh”, as Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, proposes dubbing it, a term it is said to loathe). 

Now, in the light of the assault on the French cartoonists and innocent supermarket shoppers, the Western world seems to have committed itself to a determined effort to combat Islamist terror. Many seem to have understood that this must also mean addressing the way Jew-hatred has become acceptable in European society.  To repeat the mantra “Jews are the canary in civilization’s coalmine,” is almost jejune, yet the aphorism remains as valid as the day it was coined.  If Jews cannot live freely without fear of attack in a democratic society, then everyone is at risk. The rising tide of anti-Semitism throughout Europe is a danger signal for Western democracy as a whole.

Perhaps some are beginning to appreciate the connection between anti-Semitism and the distorted form of Islam promulgated by jihadists of all hues.  A hopeful development is the news that on January 22 the United Nations General Assembly is to hold its first-ever special meeting on “the global outbreak of anti-Semitism.”  The session was arranged following a petition to the President of the General Assembly, Sam Kutesa, signed by 36 countries and mounted on the initiative of the Israeli mission to the UN.  Appropriately enough, the signatories include all 28 members of the European Union – indicating that all acknowledge the recent worrying rise in anti-Semitic activity within the countries of Europe.

Jihadist terrorism is by no means exclusively anti-Semitic, but all anti-Semitic activity panders to the brutal, inhumane and unacceptable world-view philosophy peddled by jihadists.  The time has come for all people of goodwill, whatever their religion or none, to take a determined stand against those who believe that killing innocent people is an acceptable way to achieve their objectives.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 19 January 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 16 January 2015: