Sunday, 1 May 2016

That Sykes-Picot deal

          A day in May 2016 will mark the centenary of the famous, or notorious, Sykes-Picot agreement – but what day is the subject of some disagreement. The Encyclopedia Britannica says the agreement dates from May 9, 1916; an on-line legal site asserts that it was signed on May 16; the magazine Foreign Affairs offers us May 17; the on-line site history.com favours May 19; the Jewish Virtual Library maintains that it came into existence on May 23.

          Putting the fine detail to one side, the fact remains that during the First World War the so-called Triple Alliance (Britain, France and Imperial Russia), fighting the German-Austro-Hungarian-Turkish alliance, conspired together to dismember Turkey’s Ottoman Empire at the first opportunity. Discussions began in November 1915, and the final agreement took its name from its negotiators, Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and François Georges-Picot of France.

          What was the Sykes-Picot agreement? In essence it was an understanding to carve up the vast areas of the Middle East then under the control of the Ottoman Empire into British and French spheres of influence – some to be under their direct rule, some to be administered by Arab governments but subject to British or French tutelage.

          But oh, perfidious Albion! For at precisely the time that Britain and France, with Russian connivance, were planning the dismemberment and redistribution of the Ottoman Empire, Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt, was in correspondence with Hussein bin Ali. Sharif of Mecca, concerning the future political status of the Ottoman territories. In short, it was a classic double-cross. The Arab world was seeking its independence from the Turkish-ruled Ottoman Empire, and in the exchange of letters Britain proposed a deal. If the Arabs, led by Hussein bin Ali, rose against Turkey – which together with Germany was fighting Britain and its allies – Britain agreed to recognize Arab independence after the war "in the limits and boundaries proposed by the Sharif of Mecca".

          Of course, when the Arab revolt duly began with British military and financial support on June 10, 1916 – the campaign master-minded by T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) – nothing was known by the Arabs about the Sykes-Picot agreement, nor its plan to slice up the Middle East and share it out between Britain and France.

          When Lawrence learned of Sykes-Picot he was furious. He drove the Arabs he led into a desperate race to capture Damascus and declare an independent Arab state before the British Army could get there. That manoeuvre failed, and after Damascus was captured by combined British and Arab forces, Britain insisted that Sykes-Picot was to prevail over promises to bin Ali.

          Lawrence’s guilt about the broken promises to the Arabs led him to reject all honours, give up his rank, and join the Royal Air Force in 1922 under an assumed name, as an aircraftman second class.

          As events transpired, not only were Britain’s promises to bin Ali a dead letter, but so too were the details of the Sykes-Picot agreement, for it never came to fruition as originally conceived. It was revised on a number of occasions. For example, the borders of the newly-founded Republic of Turkey were settled by the Lausanne Treaty in 1923, concluded after the Allied powers lost the war in Asia Minor. And at the San Remo Conference of the League of Nations in 1920, it was only the underlying strategy, not the detail, of Sykes-Picot that was set in place. The significance of San Remo is that the Sykes-Picot agreement ceased to be a secret deal between two imperial powers, but its basic premise became the internationally approved and endorsed foundation of governance in the Middle East.

          The Sykes-Picot agreement did not quite envisage the Mandate system, established by Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, but the underlying presumptions of the Mandate and the agreement are in accord. Article 22 referred to territories which, after the war, were no longer under their previous ruler, but whose peoples were not considered "able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world". The article called for the governance of such peoples to be "entrusted to advanced nations who by reason of their resources, their experience or their geographical position can best undertake this responsibility".

          The process of establishing the Mandates consisted of two phases: the formal removal of sovereigntyfrom the state previously controlling the territory, and the transfer of mandatory powers to an “advanced nation”. It was under these Sykes-Picot inspired provisions that in July 1922 the huge area then designated as Palestine passed into the control of Great Britain, which was charged with establishing a national home for the Jewish people therein. Fifty-one member countries – the entire League of Nations – unanimously declared on July 24, 1922: “…recognition has been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”

          It had been agreed in the Cairo Conference of March 1921, convened by Britain’s Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill, that Transjordan would be added to Britain’s Palestine mandate on condition that the Jewish national home provisions would not apply there. Britain presented this done deal to the League and so, just two months after granting Britain the Palestine mandate, the League of Nations consented to Britain declaring that the provisions for setting up a Jewish national home would not apply to the area east of the Jordan River. Consequently three-quarters of the territory included in the Mandate eventually became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

          The subsequent history of the British Mandate is well-known. Britain failed to reconcile Arab leaders to its commitment under the Mandate, opposition flared into open revolt, armed clashes between Arabs and Jews proliferated, and British troops were pulled further and further in what amounted to open warfare against both sides. Under pressure Britain virtually reneged on its Mandate commitment. Far from facilitating a Jewish national home. the White Papers of 1930 and 1939 restricted immigration and the acquisition of land by Jews. On November 29, 1947 the UN General Assembly adopted the resolution to partition Palestine. Britain announced the termination of its Mandate, to take effect on May 15, 1948. On May 14 the state of Israel was proclaimed.

          A strange symbiosis seems to exist between the Sykes-Picot agreement and Israel’s Independence Day, even as regards the exact anniversary of each event. For Israel’s Independence Day, which occurred on Iyyar 5 according to the Hebrew calendar, shifts around the common calendar year by year. In 2016 it will be celebrated not on May 14, but on May 16 – within touching distance of the Sykes-Picot centenary, whichever of its dates one happens to favour.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 1 May 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/That-Sykes-Picot-deal-452732

Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 May 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/01052016-that-sykes-picot-deal-oped/

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Could a confederate solution break the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock?

          The European Union is strongly in favour of the two-state solution to the perennial Israeli-Palestinian dispute. “A negotiated two-state solution,” said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini in October 2015, “is the only way to bring the lasting peace and security that both Israelis and Palestinians deserve.”

          The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, is not so sure. “Peace in the Middle East is possible,” said Schulz in the same month, “only if the …conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is resolved, and both peoples live together in two states or a confederation.”

        A confederation? Where did Schulz get this idea as a possible alternative to the near-total commitment of world opinion to the two-state solution? Possibly from none other than the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin. On August 7, 2015, President Rivlin in a newspaper interview suggested that an Israeli-Palestinian confederation would be the best means of settling the perennial Middle East conflict.

          Or possibly Schulz had read the article by Israeli elder statesman, Yossi Beilin, published in the New York Times in May 2015: “Confederation Is the Key to Mideast Peace.”

          “This idea isn’t new,” wrote Beilin. “For a brief time in the 1990s, it animated some of my earliest discussions about peace with a spokesman whom Palestinians revered, Faisal al-Husseini. But that was before the Oslo Accords of 1993…In hindsight, it is clear that we should have been looking all along at confederation – cohabitation, not divorce.”

          What is a confederation? It is a form of government in which constituent states maintain their independence while amalgamating certain aspects of administration, such as security, commerce, or infrastructure. In a confederation emphasis is laid on the independence of the constituent states, as opposed to a federation, in which the stress is on the supremacy of the central government.

          The vision of achieving peace in what was British Mandate Palestine through the mechanism of a confederation has its passionate supporters. Some, like the US-based Israel-Palestine Confederation, think solely in terms of a two nation association; others, like the Israel-Palestine-Jordan Confederation, broaden the concept to include Jordan which, after all, was originally within the British Mandate.

          The classic two-state solution developed in the period when Britain, under the mandate granted by the League of Nations in 1923, administered that chunk of the old Ottoman empire known as Palestine. The mandate tasked the British government to establish in Palestine a national home for the Jewish people, but Britain signally failed to reconcile Arab political leaders to this commitment. Civil unrest led Britain to set up a Royal Commission under Lord Robert Peel, and in 1937 the commission recommended partitioning the country between Jews and Arabs – a two-state solution.

          The proposals were not implemented, but partition surfaced again ten years later when UNSCOP (the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine), proposed dividing the territory then designated Palestine (much reduced from its original 1920s extent) into an Arab and a Jewish state.

          Fast forward to 2016, and the Middle East has developed a range of new imperatives that render the classic two-state solution almost otiose.

          Prowling round the Palestinian Authority (PA) stockade is Hamas, the extreme Islamist organization that seized power in Gaza, rules over nearly two million Palestinians, and has been harrying PA President, Mahmoud Abbas, for a decade. Hamas rejects the two-state solution because it rejects the right of Israel to exist at all, and is dedicated to destroying it. It would not take long for Hamas to seize the reins of power in a new sovereign Palestine, just as it did in Gaza. The new state would then become a Gaza-type launching pad for the indiscriminate bombardment of Israel – and now, within easy range, would lie Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion airport, and Israel’s main north-south road network.

          This prospect in itself may not concern the PA leadership overmuch, but what does worry them is the likelihood of losing power to Hamas, either by way of a military coup or via democratic elections (for a Hamas victory at the polls is a probable outcome). Like it or not, they would need stronger defences against “the enemy within” than their own resources could provide.

          Just as haunting an outlook for an independent Palestine is provided by the mushrooming influence of Islamic State (IS) which, despite recent territorial reverses in Syria, has spread its tentacles into Libya and Yemen, and seeks to embrace within its self-declared caliphate first the Middle East as a whole, and then the world. It would pounce on a new sovereign Palestine, entirely dependent on its own weak military for its defense, like a cat on a mouse.

          IS is already harrying both Israel and Jordan on their northern borders with Syria. On 5 April 2016, IS was reported to have overrun several Jordanian border crossings south of the Yarmouk river. Defending Jordan, Israel, and a new sovereign Palestine against the incursions of IS would be of paramount importance in any final settlement. A three-state confederation could be a most effective means of coordinating the defense capabilities of all three to ensure the security of the region.

          An even more fundamental issue now militates against the classic two-state solution. The PA has painted itself into a corner. Vying with Hamas on the one hand, and extremists within its own Fatah party on the other, it has glorified the so-called “armed struggle”, making heroes of those who undertake terrorist attacks inside Israel, continuously promulgating anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda in the media and in the schools, and reiterating the message that all of Mandate Palestine is Palestinian and the creation of Israel was a national disaster. The end-result of their own narrative is that no Palestinian leader dare sign a peace agreement with Israel based on the two-state solution. The consequent backlash from within the Palestinian world, to say nothing of the personal fear of assassination, have made it impossible. 


          If a solution is ever to be found, it will need to be based on an Arab-wide consensus within which Palestinian extremist objections could be absorbed, or any subsequent direct action disciplined. Israel’s status within the Arab world has improved immeasurably in recent times, as moderate Arab states begin to perceive Israel as a stalwart ally against Iranian ambitions, both nuclear and political, and the encroachments of IS. The League could prove an acceptable broker for a peace deal. 

          Indeed. it is only at the instigation, and under the shield, of the Arab League that the PA might participate in hammering out a three-state confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine – a new legal entity (JIP?), dedicated above all to defending itself and its constituent sovereign states, and to cooperating in the fields of commerce, infrastructure and economic development to the benefit of all its citizens – Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian alike.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 24 April 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Could-a-confederate-solution-break-the-Israeli-Palestinian-deadlock-452111

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 Aprll 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/23042016-could-a-confederate-solution-break-the-israeli-palestinian-deadlock-oped/

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Positive action in Yemen yields positive results

          If any one area is a microcosm of the chaos in the Middle East, it is Yemen. Here, as across the region, Islam has been 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, played itself out. Nowhere was the fault-line between the Shia and the Sunni traditions of Islam more obvious – and nowhere was 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 lawful president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi; AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula); 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. Joining the fray one year ago was Saudi Arabia, which intervened both militarily and diplomatically to beat back the Houthis.

          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 summarised 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 long been supported by the élite Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards which has kept them supplied with weapons and other military hardware. As a result they overran large areas of the country, including the capital city, Sana’a. In addition the Houthis were in alliance with the Yemeni security forces that remained loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh, although a Sunni Muslim, seemed intent on manoeuvring a return to power in collaboration with the Shia-affiliated Houthis. With Saleh’s help, the Houthis eventually controlled 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 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 Peninsula). 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 peninsula. 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, the Houthis at first continued their advance into government territory, and as a result, the United States increased logistical support, intelligence and weapons to the Saudi campaign.

          Now, thanks to the unremitting efforts of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, a ceasefire has been agreed in Yemen to take effect on April 10, a year or so after the Saudi-led military intervention. Arab countries, convinced that the Saudi’s positive action in Yemen has borne fruit, have welcomed the UN mediator’s success in achieving a ceasefire, and his proposals for following it through.

          Ould Cheikh’s plan is based on the Gulf Cooperation Council’s initiative of 2011 which led to ex-President Saleh’s resignation, and to giving the Houthis the chance to participate in the government. Ould Cheikh’s plan, which is supported by the United States and Russia, among others, involves a new round of peace talks between the rival sides to take place in Kuwait beginning on April 18,

          “Yemen for long has been a battleground for non-state actors,” asserted a recent editorial in Khaleej Times, a Dubai-based newspaper covering the United Arab Emirates, “especially Al Qaeda. And now Daesh is also in it. The talks should primarily focus on converting the ceasefire into permanent peace, and rebuilding the country.” The paper believes that a real détente is in the offing between the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and the Houthi, who have reportedly been swapping prisoners ahead of their scheduled formal talks. “The warring parties must give peace a chance,” it pronounces, hoping that extra-territorial forces will take a back seat and allow the people of Yemen themselves to overcome the crisis.

          “We in the Arabian Gulf,” writes Saad bin Teflah Al Ajmi in The Peninsula, Qatar’s leading English daily, “must realize that Yemen had become our problem, and that we must not leave it prey to civil wars, conflicts, poverty and Iran. A Gulf “Marshall Plan” is much needed for Yemen – for the sake of the people of Yemen and, equally important, for the well-being and security of the Gulf countries.”  

          Wise words. It is pretty clear that the tight long-term solution for Yemen is political reform, followed by a sizeable financial investment funded by the Gulf states. If the peace talks scheduled for April 18 yield this result, Yemen’s long agony could soon become just an unpleasant episode in the history of one of the oldest centres of civilization in the Middle East – a peaceful, fertile country described by the ancient Greek geographer, Ptolemy, as “Happy Arabia”.


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 17 April 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Positive-action-in-Yemen-yields-positive-results-451467

Published in the Eurasia Review, 16 April 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/16042016-positive-action-in-yemen-yields-positive-results-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 18 April 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/04/18/positive-action-in-yemen-yields-positive-results/

Sunday, 10 April 2016

How to defeat Islamic State - the Blair recipe

          Tony Blair is a man of wisdom and experience, a global player with many positive achievements to his credit, but in UK politics he is a spent force. The charismatic leader who transformed the fortunes of Britain’s Labour Party and led it to three successive election victories, is now the object of scorn by those in charge of the party. They have utterly rejected his middle-of-the-road approach, with its appeal to a wide swathe of moderate electors, in favour of a sharp turn to the left under their new leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

          Nowadays many who supported Blair while he was prime minister view with suspicion his subsequent foray into high-level political consultancy, and resent or envy the multi-million fortune he has accrued in doing so. Clients he has signed up to his advisory practice include the Kuwaiti, Mongolian, Kazakh and Peruvian governments and the Abu Dhabi investment fund, Mubadala. In November 2010 he signed a contract with PetroSaudi, a Saudi oil company, and he is also an adviser to J P Morgan, the investment bank, and to Zurich International, the Swiss-based global insurance company.

          The future is not all golden, however, for looming over it is the shadow of the 2003 war in Iraq to which, in alliance with US President George W Bush, he committed the UK. All those who opposed his decision to join the US in the invasion of Iraq, and many who did not, are awaiting with keen anticipation the comprehensive report being prepared by Sir John Chilcot into Britain's involvement in the conflict. Many expect, and more than a few hope, that Tony Blair himself, and the government he led, will be roundly condemned for mistakes, failures and perhaps even worse, and possibly face future legal action.

          The Chilcot inquiry, set up in 2009, has been in progress for some seven years. From about 2011, when Tony Blair appeared before the committee, there has been consistent pressure from the British public, and particularly from those who lost relatives in the conflict, for Chilcot to complete his report and publish. But Chilcot has not only been meticulous in his investigation, but also scrupulous in seeking comments, clarifications and corrections from every person named in the report before finalizing it. Back in October 2015 Chilcot announced that the long-delayed document will go for national security vetting in April 2016, before being released to the public in June or July.

          However turbulent Tony Blair’s future may be, no one can deny that since resigning as UK prime minister in June 2007, he has acquired a unique knowledge and understanding of the Middle East. For on the very day that he stepped down, he was appointed special envoy to the International Quartet on the Middle East (the UN, the EU, the US and Russia), and he acted in that capacity for the next eight years. It would be fair to say that despite his best efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and he certainly strove hard, especially in the early days – events beyond his control frustrated his good intentions. Cataclysmic changes within the Middle East, sparked in part by the Arab Spring, in part by the US-led invasion of Iraq, rendered all his efforts fruitless.

          Nevertheless, when he chooses to pronounce on the chaos that now engulfs the Middle East, he speaks with a degree of knowledge and expertise that few, if any, can match. On March 27, 2016, in an article in the UK’s prestigious Sunday Times, Blair addressed the urgent question of how the civilized world can overcome the malign organization that threatens its very existence - Islamic State (IS).

          His basic premise is quite clear: we have been dragging our heels. “IS has to be eliminated with greater speed and vigour,” he writes, warning that if we do not get our act together pretty quickly, the West will face “increasingly frequent acts of terrorism”, and may eventually be the subject of a terrorist act “of such size and horror” that it will 
force a change in attitude. “But by then,” he predicts, “the battle will be much harder to win without measures that contradict our basic value system.”

          His recommendation? That the US and its allies bite the bullet, put aside the “no boots on the ground” strategy, and send ground troops to Syria and Iraq and anywhere else that is necessary, with the objective of crushing IS and the extremist ideology that fuels it. He calls also for the West to equip Arab ground forces to support the anti-IS coalition.

          “We must build military capability able to confront and defeat the terrorists wherever they try to hold territory,” writes Blair. “This is not just about local forces. It is a challenge for the west. Ground forces are necessary to win this fight, and ours are the most capable.”

          Beyond Syria and Iraq, Blair has Libya in his sights, where IS has established a formidable stronghold. Britain is known to be considering contributing 1,000 non-combat troops to a 5,000-strong international force to train the Libyan army, as it seeks to overcome IS, but many commentators – Blair among them – consider both the projected 5,000-strong force, and Britain’s proposed contribution, woefully inadequate.

          “To have allowed IS to become the largest militia in Libya, right on Europe’s doorstep is extraordinary,” he wrote. “It has to be crushed.”

          Blair is equally forthright when he turns to the problem of Islamism. He sees the military battle against IS as part of a wider strategy aimed at confronting what he calls this “perversion” of the Islamic faith. Islamism, he maintains, “is not interested in coexistence. It does not seek dialogue but dominance. It cannot therefore be contained. It has to be defeated.” For this to happen, he believes, the “paralysing grip of the present political discourse” on both right and left must be countered – on the right, bigotry against all Muslims; on the left, politically correct aversion to using the term “Islamism” and the belief that “we have caused all of this through western policy”.

          Blair believes Islamism could be defeated by marshalling an alliance within Islam. “The majority of Muslims hate the way their faith has been hijacked,” he writes. It would not be surprising to learn one day that Tony Blair, in the light of the common threats of Islamic State and Iran, has been instrumental in brokering the current rapprochement between moderate Arab states and Israel. 


          In short, Tony Blair has surveyed the extreme danger that Islamic State poses to the world, and in clear-headed and candid fashion has offered his recipe for overcoming it. He is a man whose opinion merits attention.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line: 13 April 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/-450774

Published in the Eurasia Review, 11 April 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/11042016-how-to-defeat-islamic-state-the-blair-recipe-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 10 April 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/04/10/how-to-defeat-islamic-state-the-blair-recipe/

Monday, 4 April 2016

Islamism against the world

          To say that Islamism is at war with the world is to state the obvious. There are two main contenders for leadership of this jihadist battle, and they come from either side of the ancient Sunni-Shia fault line that runs through Islam – the Islamic Republic of Iran and Islamic State (IS).

          About Shi’ite Iran, the self-declared enemy of the West in general, and the US and Israel in particular, little can be done in the short term. In July 2015 President Obama led world powers into concluding a flawed nuclear deal with Iran’s leaders which has provided them with the means of acquiring a nuclear weapons capability within fifteen years, and with the lifting of the most irksome of the sanctions that have been imposed on them. Iran – the scourge of the Middle East, and with an horrific record of terrorist outrages over the past 35 years – is riding high, its sights set on achieving both political and religious dominance in the Middle East.

          Opposition to its ambitions is led by Saudi Arabia, which is combatting Iran and its allies in Yemen, while the Arab League has just designated Iran’s puppet body, Hezbollah, a terrorist organization.

          The other contender as jihadist supremo is Islamic State, which represents an extreme version of Sunni Islam and which seeks to establish a sharia-based world-wide caliphate. In its world view, as Dr Amichai Magen recently explained, the Ummah (or ‘community of believers’) is in a state of total war with three designated enemies: the West, ‘the Jews’, and Shia Muslims together with apostate Arab regimes. This war not only justifies acts of extreme violence against those who have conspired to ‘suppress the true faith’ – beheadings, crucifixions, mass executions and rape – but involves the rejection of all forms of man-made law and democracy.

          IS and its followers also clearly revel in carrying the war into the heart of the enemy, by instigating acts of indiscriminate terror in Western cities and against Western tourists around the world. Adhering to a religious philosophy which glorifies death, its adherents flock to commit suicide in acts designed to destroy as many innocent lives as possible.

          Individuals induced to undertake suicide terror attacks may glory in their own “martyrdom” and gain satisfaction from causing death, misery and mayhem, but it is difficult from the receiving end of these terrorist activities to perceive what strategic advantage accrues to the jihadist cause from them. They seem unlikely to advance the establishment of a world-wide caliphate. They may generate fear in Western populations, but are more likely to stiffen their governments’ determination to boost their counter-terrorist operations and bear down heavily on those who plan and perpetrate terror.

          What is the thinking, then, behind the continuous succession of terrorist outrages committed inside Western countries? It only seems to make some sort of sense if it is based on the assumption that democratic societies are basically unstable, and that under sufficient pressure they will implode – an assumption replete with wishful thinking, and on a par with Hitler’s belief in 1940 that a sustained blitz on London would result in a collapse of morale.

          It was on June 29, 2014 that the leader of what was then known as ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, felt emboldened enough to take a giant step towards achieving a degree of power and status for himself and his organization beyond the wildest dreams of most jihadi leaders. In an audio recording the group announced that it was henceforth to be known as "Islamic State", and that its head, al-Baghdadi, was now "the caliph and leader for Muslims everywhere". Moreover, declared the group's spokesman, Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, “the legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph's authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas.''

          An official document, released in English and several other languages, urged Muslims to "gather around your caliph, so that you may return as you once were for ages, kings of the earth and knights of war."

          What is a caliphate? Effectively an Islamic republic led by one leader, regardless of national boundaries. The original caliphate under the aegis of the Ottoman empire was abolished by Kemal Ataturk in 1924, but Muslim extremists continued to dream of recreating the Islamic state that, over the course of Islam's 1,400-year history, had ruled over the Middle East, much of North Africa and beyond. So the announcement of June 29, 2014 is couched in terms of ending a century-long calamity ­– namely the break-up of the Islamic Middle East into artificial sovereign states following the first World War – and as marking the return of dignity and honor to the Islamic ummah.


          The caliph is historically supposed to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad's Quraysh tribe. Since becoming leader of ISIS, Baghdadi had been claiming precisely that lineage – a claim widely disputed. In his announcement, the new IS spokesman, Adnani, reiterated Baghdadi's claim.

          Other Muslim groups, bodies and leaders, both moderate and extreme, reacted violently against this unprecedented exercise in arrogance and self-aggrandisement, but as IS went from strength to strength, Baghdadi’s “delusions” – which are comparable to those of Napoleon or Adolf Hitler – seemed to know no bounds. On July 2, 2014 the new, self-anointed caliph and supreme leader of Islam, declared that Muslims should flock to the new caliphate. “Syria is not for Syrians,” he proclaimed “and Iraq is not for Iraqis. The land is for the Muslims, all Muslims.” Follow his advice, he said, and “you will conquer Rome and own the world."

          Not the happiest of prospects either for Rome or for the world. The civilized world has taken a long time to realize that it simply has to face down this self-declared enemy of all it stands for. The recent carnage in Belgium, and the emerging picture of security failures by Western powers, is reinforcing the realization that a determined effort must be made to confront, fight, conquer and crush this malign organization, with its grandiose ambitions and brutal and inhumane methods of achieving them. 


          Syria and Iraq are the obvious starting points. “No boots on the ground” has proved an inadequate, ineffective and frankly outdated policy in combatting Islamic State. To eliminate the scourge of IS from the world, the West and its allies must deploy the vast military power at their disposal, and in a sustained, united and determined effort, overwhelm Islamic State once and for all.  

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 4 April 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Islamism-against-the-world-450089

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Putin's mission and omission in Syria

          When President Vladimir Putin sent his forces into Syria on September 30, 2015, he had two main objectives in view – to establish Russia as a potent political and military force in the Middle East, and to secure his hold on both the Russian naval base at Tartus and the air base and intelligence-gathering centre at Latakia. He has achieved both, and now he is leaving.

          Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict certainly boosted President Bashar Assad’s fortunes, but if the Syrian leader expected Putin to remain by his side in a long-drawn-out conflict to regain the whole of pre-war Syria from rebel forces and Islamic State (IS), he has been sadly disillusioned. Putin’s aim was never to ensure total victory for Assad, nor to defeat IS.

          With Putin’s main objectives gained, he is now keen to consolidate them, and for that to happen the peace talks currently taking place in Geneva need to yield positive results – possibly an end to the Syrian civil war. This is why Moscow, along with Washington, pressed hard for the resumption of the talks on March 14. It also explains the growing signs of differences between Russia and the Syrian government in recent weeks. Assad and his supporters have been steadfastly maintaining that new presidential elections are not up for discussion – a “red line” declared Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem on March 12 – but Putin has been noticeably equivocal about Assad’s future. The most he has hinted at is the possibility of a presidential election in which Assad might stand as a candidate – a possibility that US Secretary of State, John Kelly, has not wholly vetoed, but which has been flatly rejected by France and the UK.

          Putin’s withdrawal of Russia’s military support at the very moment that peace talks are due to resume is clearly an intentional weakening of Assad’s position overall. The Syrian regime suddenly appears much more vulnerable. If Assad’s representatives had been planning an unyielding stance on their demands regarding Assad’s future, hoping to negotiate with the threat of continued Russian bombardment of the anti-Assad forces as their trump card, the ground has been cut from under their feet. Putin’s withdrawal means there can be no stone-walling from the Assad side – it is no longer strong enough for that. Its recent successes achieved with Russian military support make the regime somewhat more credible, but mean little more than that.

          So there is room for hope. If the ceasefire continues to hold, and if a deal can be brokered that allows the reconstruction of Syria to begin and millions of refugees to go home, that would be cause for satisfaction. Even this, though, would be something of a hollow achievement if the pressing issue of defeating Islamic State is not addressed.

          Terrible though the Syrian civil war has been in the numbers of civilians killed and the massive tide of dispossessed refugees and migrants created, it is not the main problem facing the civilized world. The main problem is the brutal, inhumane, jihadist movement that calls itself Islamic State, and by others Daesh, that has seized large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria and set about savagely imposing its extremist version of Islamism on the population it controls. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights recently reported that since June 2014 IS had summarily killed 3,967 people.

          Although Putin gave lip service to combating IS in Syria, in fact his airstrikes were very largely directed against Assad’s domestic enemies – the rebel forces led by the Free Syrian Army. In the six months since Russian forces first began military operations they helped pro-Assad loyalists reclaim nearly 4,000 square miles of territory from rebel forces. Little, if any, was won back from IS – the 10-20 percent of territory lost by IS since its apogee in August 2014 was due to the 7000-plus US-led air-strikes, which also killed some 25,000 IS fighters.

          By declaring, in effect, mission accomplished, Putin is acknowledging that destroying IS was never a primary goal. He has left that for others - the US, the West and perhaps Saudi Arabia - to fulfil. For IS is still deeply entrenched in much of northern and eastern Syria, and is continuing its self-imposed mission of extending its caliphate across the Middle East, ruthlessly annihilating people, buildings and artefacts that do not conform to its own extremist concepts of what Islam demands.

          IS is not party to the Geneva peace talks, and will not be bound by any initiatives emanating from them. Though the US-led coalition in Syria is dedicated to its destruction, it is obvious that the West has not yet been prepared to commit full-heartedly to the fight. “No boots on the ground” is an understandable position, given past disastrous excursions by the West into the Middle East quagmire, but new situations need to be assessed anew. The lesson of history is that it is a mistake to fight today’s war on yesterday’s assumptions.

          Saudi Arabia has signalled its willingness to commit its coalition’s ground troops in the anti-IS struggle, for no moderate Islamic state endorses the pretensions of IS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to be establishing a latter-day caliphate to which all Muslims must vow allegiance on pain of death. That is the existential threat that IS poses to the world of Islam.

          What western public opinion has yet fully to grasp is that IS is equally dedicated to the destruction of western values and way of life, and the eventual substitution of its jihadist caliphate across the whole world. Horrific acts of terrorism in France, Belgium, Copenhagen and the United States, attacks targeting foreign tourists in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, the destruction of the Russian passenger jet – all testify to the determination of IS to undermine morale in the West. So, too, does the continued appeal of IS to disaffected Muslim youth the world over, the unabated flow of recruits to its ranks, and the infiltration into Europe of indoctrinated and trained terrorists within the flood-tide of refugees and migrants fleeing the war zones of the Middle East.

          Given these circumstances, “no boots on the ground” seems an outdated and inadequate policy. “Victory at all costs”, Churchill’s famous declaration of Britain’s war aims against Nazism back in 1940, should be the guiding principle underlying the West’s fight against Islamic State.

          To quote him in full, for what he said is equally relevant to today’s struggle:  
“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs - victory in spite of all terrors - victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”

Monday, 21 March 2016

Could an anti-Iran alliance be a new force for peace?

          Quite why or how it happened has yet to be fully determined, but the early years of the 21st century have seen the Middle East morph into a gigantic battleground. Political and religious antagonisms, both ancient and newly conceived, have flared into armed conflict in a dozen places across the region. The ancient fault line within Islam, present from the earliest days of the faith but quiescent for long periods of time, has suddenly become one of the defining elements of the turmoil – the Sunni-Shia divide. Saudi Arabia, with Mecca and Medina within its borders, is the flag-bearer for Sunni Islam; the Islamic Republic of Iran claims to represent the Shi’ite branch.

          Unfortunately it represents much else as well, for it is dedicated to proselytizing the rest of Islam, and to combatting all non-Shia governments and nations, both Muslim and Western. In pursuit of this vainglorious objective, Iran has become the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. The catalogue of individual deaths and mass slaughter for which it has been responsible, either directly or by way of its puppet organization Hezbollah, is horrific and stretches back to the earliest days of the Iranian revolution in 1979.

          The Iranian leadership makes little secret of its desire to achieve religious and political hegemony in the Middle East, nor of its efforts to undermine the governments of the Sunni Gulf states. The rulers of these more moderate Muslim states have long regarded Iran – which, of course, is not an Arab nation – as the major threat to Middle East stability, as the Wikileaks documents released in 2010 made perfectly clear.

          Perhaps a defining moment in this struggle for power was the accession to the throne of Saudi Arabia of Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in January 2015. Salman instantly revealed himself to be a ruler who believes in decisive action, and the man he appointed as defence minister – his favourite son, 29-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman – soon set about energetically implementing his father’s approach in dealing with the Iranian menace.

          In short order Prince Mohammed formed and led a 10-nation coalition to fight Iranian-allied rebels in Yemen, lobbied against Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, and in December 2015 hosted a conference in Riyadh to persuade Syria's opposition factions to settle on a common negotiating position in the forthcoming UN-sponsored peace talks. Then, as part of King Salman's newly assertive foreign policy, Riyadh announced that it was prepared to engage its own military in opposition to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the forces of Hezbollah that, with Russian support, were fighting on behalf of Assad.

          Although Hezbollah, a powerful political, social and military organization, functions within Lebanon’s political structure, it is largely autonomous – virtually a state within a state. Its forces are bigger and better equipped than Lebanon’s own military, and do not answer to it. At Iran’s behest, and without any authorization from the Lebanese government, it has deployed substantial forces within Syria in support of Assad.

          Saudi Arabia, in pursuit of its new proactive approach, decided to punish Lebanon for allowing Hezbollah this degree of latitude. In February it slashed billions of dollars in aid originally intended to boost the Lebanese army, and issued a travel warning discouraging Saudi tourists from visiting the country. Then, on March 2 the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), led by Saudi Arabia, designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization. This was the first time that the GCC, comprising Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, had collectively stood up against Hezbollah.

          Lebanese journalist, Naila Tawani, asks how the country’s relations with Saudi Arabia, its closest ally in the Gulf, have been allowed to hit such a low. Her answer? “Hezbollah has dragged our country into an unnecessary involvement in the Syrian civil war,” she writes. “It is following orders given to it by Damascus, while ignoring Lebanese national interests. How have foreign powers hijacked our government?… It is our responsibility to get our country out of this mess.”

          It was in March 2013 that Bahrain became the first Arab country to define Hezbollah as a terrorist group. The king, Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, and the Bahraini government accused Hezbollah of fomenting unrest among its majority Shi’ite population, and of training Shi’ite groups to rebel against the Sunni monarchy and carry out terrorist attacks in the country. With the Arab League opposed to growing Iranian hegemony in the region, it is not surprising that Khalifa recommended that the League as a whole follow the GCC in designating Hezbollah a terrorist organization, nor that the League followed his advice on March 11 and did just that.


          These moves by the GCC have, not surprisingly, met with vehement condemnation from Iranian and Hezbollah sources, which followed the well-worn path of seeing a malignant Israel behind the scenes. The Iranian Students’ News Agency opined that the GCC decision was the precursor to a new military attack by Israel against Hezbollah. The Ansar Allah Houthi movement in Yemen called the GCC decision “free service to the tyrant Zionist regime."

          More perceptively, perhaps, the Lebanon News maintained that the “designation by the GCC of Hezbollah as a terrorist group is seen as part of a process by Arab nations to align themselves with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the past 3 years has been overseeing back channel discussions with many Gulf states including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. He believes Arab nations share his country's disdain of Iran, and recently has hinted strongly that an alliance is in the wings. He confirmed last month that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not part of the discussions and did not pose a hurdle to Arab countries establishing diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.”

          Such a possibility was outlined by the Bahraini monarch, Khalifa, on March 2 during a meeting with Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation of Ethnic Understanding based in New York. Schneier reported that during their discussion the king said that in his opinion it was just a matter of time before some Arab countries began opening diplomatic ties with Israel. Khalifa maintained that the balance of power in the Middle East between moderates and extremists depended on Israel, which had the power to defend not only itself but the voices of moderation and the moderate Arab states in the region.

          As Schneier himself noted, anti-Iranianism provides a hitherto undreamed-of opportunity for formerly hostile countries to band together, thus providing the basis for peace between Israel and the Arab world. “This,” said Schneier, “could be a game changer in the geopolitical climate of the Middle East.” 

          It could indeed.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 20 March 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Could-an-anti-Iran-alliance-be-a-new-force-for-peace-448542

Published in the Eurasia Review, 2 April 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/02042016-could-an-anti-iran-alliance-be-a-new-force-for-peace-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 1 April 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/04/01/could-an-anti-iran-alliance-be-a-new-force-for-peace/

Monday, 14 March 2016

Russia and the US battle it out in Syria

          Despite the fragile ceasefire that has brought a brief respite to the indiscriminate bombing of soldiers and civilians alike, the situation that has developed in Syria is fraught with dangers, contradictions and ironies.

          In September 2014, in pursuit of restoring stability to that war-ravaged country, a US-led coalition of nations engaged in a twin-objective military effort – in itself almost a recipe for disaster. The first aim was to defeat the rampant Islamic State (IS) that had seized large swathes of the country; the second to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power and establish democratic governance. There was one proviso: there were to be no Western boots on the ground. The strength of the coalition was to be focused on providing training, logistical support and air cover for the “moderate” forces fighting IS and those opposing Assad, mainly the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

          Assad, for his part, controlled the formidable Syrian army and was supported by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, by the forces of Iran’s satrap Hezbollah, and since autumn 2015 by the full weight of a massive Russian military build-up within Syria. Although Islamic State is nominally in Russia’s sights, some estimate that less than 10 per cent of Russian air strikes have targeted IS. Russia’s powerful air support has been directed primarily against the FSA.


          So Russia has been battering the FSA; the US-led coalition has been supporting them. In short, Russia and the US were at war with each other, albeit by proxy. Which side was winning? The assault on Aleppo by Russian-aided pro-Assad forces says it all. The fight was going Russia’s way, and Assad’s grip on power was being strengthened.

          Which perhaps explains the apparently inexplicable decision by President Vladimir Putin to disengage from the conflict. 


          Putin had no desire to become bogged down in a long-drawn-out battle to regain all of Assad’s lost territory for him. His aim in intervening in the Syrian conflict was to consolidate Russia as a major player on the world stage, and to secure his naval and air bases on the Syrian coast at Tartus and Latakia. Having achieved this, he wants the peace talks to succeed. He has never exhibited full-hearted support for Assad remaining in power, and by withdrawing at this critical moment in the Geneva peace process, he has cut the ground from under the feet of Assad’s representatives, who have been adamant in their view that Assad’s position as Syria’s president is a “red line”.  By reducing Assad’s negotiating position, Putin has provided an opportunity for the peace talks to succeed.

          How did the Western allies allowed the proxy war with Russia to develop?

          In the final analysis, the support provided to the FSA by the coalition powers was simply inadequate. The training, the logistical support and the air cover, no doubt of assistance to the ground troops of the FSA, were not enough by themselves to overcome the strength of the enemy. Assuming a genuine victory was desired, “no boots on the ground” was a faulty, if understandable, strategy.

          The coalition’s effort is so obviously deficient that Saudi Arabia, a member from its foundation in September 2014, announced on February 10, 2016, that it was forming a 34-nation Islamic military coalition to combat terrorism, and was ready to participate in any ground operation. Saudi military spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri had already confirmed that Saudi Arabia was ready to send ground troops to Syria to fight IS, but how the new Saudi initiative might relate to the Joint Arab Military Force, agreed by Arab League military chiefs in May 2015, is not made clear.

          Why are the Saudis taking the initiative? Because, in common with other pro-Western Arab states, they are alarmed at the way the US allowed Russia and Iran to lay the foundations for a Middle East that reflects their own, separate, interests.

          Iran seeks regional hegemony. Greatly aided in its bid for power by the ill-advised US-led nuclear deal, it has been boosted by the lifting of western sanctions, the renewed sale of oil, and the unfreezing of $32 billion of foreign-held assets. Now Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have used the state’s new-found wealth to pour thousands more Iraqi and Afghan mercenaries into Syria. So ironically it is the US itself that has contributed both to a racking up of the war in Syria, and to an increase in the misery imposed on the people, more and more of whom are forced to flee their homes

          From its start back in 2009 the Obama administration was intent on abdicating America’s former role as power-broker in the Middle East. Instead it devised a self-defeating strategy of boosting Iran’s power and influence. The idea was that a regenerated Shia Iran would take the initiative in combatting the Sunni jihadist organizations like al-Qaeda and Islamic State, allowing the US to adopt a much lower profile.

          The strategy failed abysmally. Its main result was severely to shake the confidence of America’s erstwhile allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, while affecting Iran’s attitudes and objectives not one jot. The leaders of Iran’s Islamic Republic despise the West and all it stands for – the US in particular, which Iran’s Supreme Leader regards as its greatest enemy. As for the nuclear deal, he lauds it as an Iranian victory over America. Iran remains determined to achieve both religious and political dominance in the Muslim world, and its influence over Syria’s future is a vital element in that strategy.

          As for Russia, President Vladimir Putin has filled the vacuum in the Middle East left by Obama. Putin is determined to re-establish a position for Russia in world politics akin to that of the defunct USSR, and no doubt saw Syria as a convenient stepping stone in that direction. His withdrawal has diminished Russia’s standing not one whit. It has, if anything, resulted in a chorus of admiration from many authoritative voices in government and the media for his statesmanship. 

          It has also remitted the urgent, but unfulfilled, task of defeating Islamic State to the US-led coalition. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 14 March 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Russia-and-the-US-battle-it-out-in-Syria-447728

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 March 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/21032016-russia-and-us-battle-it-out-in-syria-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 22 March 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/03/22/russia-and-the-us-battle-it-out-in-syria/

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The Commonwealth and Arab-Israel reconciliation

        In 2016 Commonwealth Day falls on March 14. That may not mean much to some people, but to the 53 member nations of the Commonwealth, representing some 2.2 billion people, it means a whole range of events sponsored by governments, schools, community groups and individuals, intended to promote the inclusivity of the organization. On March 14 activities the world over will aim to promote international co-operation and “Commonwealth values.”

        What are they, these “Commonwealth values”?

        First outlined in the 1971 Singapore Declaration, and later augmented in 1979 and 1989, they commit the organization to promoting world peace, democracy, individual liberty, environmental sustainability, equality in terms of race and gender, free trade, and the fight against poverty, ignorance, and disease. In short, the Commonwealth is strongly in favour of motherhood and apple pie (and all credit to them for it) – a position finally encapsulated in the “Commonwealth Charter”, signed by Queen Elizabeth in March 2013. So the Commonwealth is indubitably a force for good in this wicked world, but dynamic or proactive it can scarcely claim to be. Perhaps the time has come for it to adopt a somewhat bolder approach to world politics.

        The Commonwealth spans the globe and has a combined population amounting to about a third of the world’s inhabitants. Most, but not all, of the member states were once part of the now defunct British Empire. What unites this diverse group of nations are the association’s values, to which all subscribe, strong shared trade links, and the fact that, regardless of their individual constitutions, all recognize the current British sovereign as head of the organization.

        It was in 1884 that Lord Rosebery, later a British prime minister, first dubbed the British Empire “a Commonwealth of Nations”, but the designation “Commonwealth” remained in the background until 1949, when India achieved independence. Although the new state became a republic, the Indian government was very keen to remain in the Commonwealth – and the Commonwealth, unwilling to lose the jewel in its crown, found no difficulty in changing the rules of the club. Henceforth membership did not have to be based on allegiance to the British crown. Commonwealth members were to be “free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress.”

        That opened the floodgates for fully independent countries from all parts of the globe to join the association. All had some historic connection to the old British Empire – until two other nations, with absolutely no such ties, applied. Once again the Commonwealth demonstrated a flexibility remarkable in bureaucracies and, by sleight of hand, further amended the rules to allow first Mozambique, and a few years later Rwanda, to join.


        Applications and expressions of interest in joining the Commonwealth continue to arrive from countries like South Sudan, Sudan, Somaliland and Suriname. Others expressing interest have included Yemen, Algeria, Madagascar, Senegal, East Timor and Cambodia – to say nothing of the states of Jersey and Guernsey, and the Isle of Man, all three of them islands lying off-shore of the British Isles.

        Back in 2012 the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee considered the “Role and Future of the Commonwealth”, and in general welcomed the idea of the organization extending its membership – always provided a stringent selection procedure was maintained.

        “We welcome the fact that the Commonwealth continues to attract interest from potential new members,” reads the final paragraph of their report, “and see advantages in greater diversity and an extended global reach for the Commonwealth. However it is crucial that the application process is rigorous and that any new members are appropriate additions to the Commonwealth 'family', closely adhering at all times to its principles and values.”

        Israel and the Palestinian Authority – or a sovereign Palestine, if or when this comes to pass –would, if they applied to join the Commonwealth, certainly meet the original criterion of “historic ties with the British Empire”. So, as a matter of interest, would Jordan. In point of fact, both Israel and the Palestinians have, in the past, expressed some interest in the possibility.

        It is not generally known that Israel boasts an “Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association” (IBCA), a body formed as far back as 1953 with the aim of encouraging, developing and extending social, cultural and economic relations between Israel and the Commonwealth. It will be marking Commonwealth Day with a reception hosted by the Australian ambassador, Dave Sharma. And indeed Israel may quite recently have come close to applying to join. It was only in 2007 that the Jewish Journal reported:

        “As a former British colony, Israel is being considered for Commonwealth membership. Commonwealth officials said this week they had set up a special committee to consider membership applications by several Middle Eastern and African nations. Speaking on condition of anonymity, diplomats said those interested in applying include Israel and the Palestinian Authority, both of which exist on land ruled by a British Mandate from 1918 to 1948. An Israeli official did not deny the report, but said, ‘This issue is not on our agenda right now.’”

        Not then, perhaps, but how about right now? Traditionally the Commonwealth secretariat has restricted itself to considering applications from nations eager to enjoy the considerable benefits that come with membership – and sometimes to expelling members who have transgressed its principles. It has never seen promoting the expansion of the association as part of its role, and does nothing to foster interest in potential member nations in the idea of joining the organization.

        Perhaps the time has come for a more proactive approach by the secretariat. The Israel-Palestine situation provides the Commonwealth with a golden opportunity to foster peace in one of the world’s major trouble spots. Thinking laterally, the Commonwealth could exercise a positive and powerful influence for good by issuing a clear invitation to both parties: “As soon as you have reached some sort of deal, join us. We will welcome you into our family of nations.”

        Whatever Israel’s traditional enemies might assert, there is no doubt that Israel’s core values precisely match those of the Commonwealth. The Palestinian Authority – shorn of the malign Hamas régime that dominates the Gaza strip – could make a reasonable case for aspiring to most of them.

        An offer by the Commonwealth of future membership to both – and indeed also to Jordan, which certainly has a stake in maintaining the security of the region against terrorist extremists – would provide a new, and previously unconsidered, framework within which peace negotiations might be conducted, and a peaceful outcome might flourish.  


        An Arab-Israel peace conference, at which the Arab interest was represented by the Arab League, and which was charged with securing a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, might result in a newly conceived legal entity – a confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine, dedicated to close security and economic cooperation. Commonwealth membership of the three sovereign states, or of the confederation, would incorporate acceptance by a swathe of nations from every continent, the assurance of new markets and flourishing trade relations for all three parties, and membership of an association dedicated to democracy, freedom and peaceful co-existence.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 9 March 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/The-Commonwealth-and-Arab-Israel-reconciliation-447207

Published in the Eurasia Review, 14 March 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/14032016-the-commonwealth-and-arab-israel-reconciliation-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 15 March 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/03/15/the-commonwealth-and-arab-israel-reconciliation/

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Arab-Israel peace–Part Two. A new approach is needed

          What is the point of flogging a dead horse? The Israeli-Palestinian peace carriage has advanced not an inch in the 68 years since the founding of the state of Israel. Its horse had no life in it from the very beginning.

          A plethora of dates, strewn across the recent history of the Middle East, mark doomed efforts to resolve the conflict – the Madrid Conference in 1991, the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995, the Wye River Memorandum in 1998, the Camp David Summit in 2000, the Road Map for Peace in 2003, the Annapolis process in 2007, the Obama administration’s direct peace talks of September 2010 followed by its second, intensive effort, led by US Secretary of State John Kerry, over 2013-2014. The truth is that all were predestined to fail, even before the negotiators for each side sat down at the table.

          Ignoring the smoke screen of accusations and excuses thrown up by each side on each occasion, the fundamental reason for the succession of failures is not difficult to deduce. Arab opinion as a whole resents the presence of the state of Israel in its midst. Palestinians regard Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 as a disaster, and mark it annually with their own Nakba Day (“Day of Catastrophe”). Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), leads a Fatah party whose charter 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 back his homeland.

          Why then, one might legitimately ask, has Abbas spent the past ten years nominally supporting the “two-state solution”, and pressing for recognition of a sovereign Palestine within the boundaries that existed on 5 June 1967 – that is, on the day before the Six-Day War? They are, in fact, also the armistice lines that marked where the Israeli and Arab armies stood on July 20, 1949, following the first Arab-Israeli war.

          Given the founding beliefs of Abbas’s party, this tactic – inherited from his predecessor, Yassir Arafat – obviously represents only the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine, an objective explicit in what he says in the Arabic media, but which he never expresses in his statements to the world.

          Supporting the two-state solution is designed to swing world opinion to the Palestinian cause – and it has succeeded very well. But the naked truth is that no Palestinian leader would ever sign up to it, 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. No Palestinian leader – not Yasser Arafat, nor Mahmoud Abbas, nor anyone who might succeed Abbas – dare sign an agreement that recognizes Israel’s right to exist within “historic Palestine”. It would probably be more than his life was worth. From the Palestinian perspective, the insurmountable obstacle lodged within the two-state solution is that one of the states must be Israel. The innumerable peace negotiations have at least yielded one inescapable truth: short of committing hara-kiri, Israel could never offer enough. Its very existence is anathema.

          This is why the oft-repeated cry of Israeli leaders – that only face-to-face negotiations can solve the interminable dispute – is way off the mark. Face-to-face talks have been tried to destruction. As far as reaching a negotiated peace is concerned, the PA is a busted flush.

          What is needed is an Arab-wide consensus, reached with Israel, on the future geo-political configuration of what was Mandate Palestine, starting from the perhaps unpalatable, but nonetheless undeniable, presumption that Israel is here to stay.

          Just suppose, for one mad moment, that Israel simply pulled out of the West Bank, abandoned its towns and smaller settlements, handed over East Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital and, hey presto, a sovereign Palestine was born. Its Fatah government would instantly be vulnerable to its greatest enemy bar none – rejectionist, extremist Hamas, the de facto government of Gaza, which has been at loggerheads with the PA for the past decade, and which seeks to overthrow Abbas’s administration in the West Bank, just as it succeeded in doing in Gaza.

          And not only Hamas, for the Islamic State octopus, seeking to control the Middle East as a whole, has already spread its tentacles into Yemen and Libya. IS, too, would soon be infiltrating a new, weak Arab state, intent on absorbing it into its jihadist caliphate.

          The Arab world is well aware that a newly-born Palestine would be in urgent need of an effective military presence and high-tech security on its borders, as indeed Jordan and Egypt both are. In serious discussion they would recognize that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would require military cooperation across the board – just as Egypt liaises with Israel in combatting Hamas and IS in Sinai, and Jordan in combatting IS across its borders with Iraq and Syria. To create a sovereign Palestine and leave its security to its own puny forces, would be to throw the new state to the wolves.

          Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has shown the way. Speaking to the UN General Assembly in September 2014 he said: “Many have long assumed that an Israeli-Palestinian peace can help facilitate a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world. But these days I think it may work the other way around – namely that a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

          That broader rapprochement has, in effect, been achieved, forced into blossom in the hothouse created by the growing assertiveness of Iran, following its nuclear deal, and the mayhem created in the Middle East by the rampant Islamic State. Albeit covertly, Israel collaborates on a broad range of security issues not only with Egypt and Jordan, but with Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, inter alia.

          An Arab-Israel peace conference, at which the Arab interest was represented by the Arab League, and which was charged with securing a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, might well take as a starting point the Arab Peace Initiative, now 14 years old, and adapt it to take account of today’s realities.

          One possible result of intensive, but realistically-based, negotiations might be the creation of a new legal entity – a Confederation comprising three sovereign states: Israel, Jordan and a new-born Palestine. Such a Confederation, conceived specifically to guarantee the security of all three partners through close military and economic cooperation, could also provide the basis for the future growth and prosperity of each.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 1 March 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Israel-Palestine-A-new-approach-is-needed-446479

Published in Eurasia Review, 1 March 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/01032016-israel-palestine-new-approach-is-needed-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 28 February 2016
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/02/28/arab-israel-peace-a-new-approach-is-needed/

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Arab-Israel peace–Part One. France’s bid to lead the process

        On February 16, 2016 France formally endorsed the plan, originally outlined in December 2014 by its former foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, for an internationally-backed summit to be held in Paris in the spring of 2016, leading to Israel-Palestine peace talks in the summer. The sting in the tail of the French proposal is that if the negotiations fail, France will recognize a Palestinian state.

        France’s direct participation in the creation of the modern Middle East has meant that for the last hundred years it has involved itself in the politics of the region. France was, of course, one of the two principals – the other was Great Britain – responsible for dismembering the Ottoman empire. The division of Turkish-held Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine into various French- and British-administered areas flowed directly from the Sykes-Picot agreement, a secret understanding concluded during World War One, between Britain (represented by Colonel Sir Mark Sykes), and France (represented by diplomat François Georges-Picot), with the assent of Russia. The agreement's principal terms were reaffirmed by the inter-Allied San Remo Conference in 1920 and then ratified by the Council of the League of Nations in 1922.

        As regards the Israeli-Palestinian situation, while consistently defending Israel’s right to exist in security, France has long advocated the creation of a Palestinian state. President François Mitterand said as much in his address to the Knesset in 1982. Any possible incompatibility between these two positions, however, has never been acknowledged, but it is the flaw at the heart of France’s latest proposal.

        Given France’s track record in the region, it is not surprising that it sees itself as a possible facilitator of an Israeli-Palestinan peace accord. Back in August 2009, when it was clear that newly-elected US President Obama was intent on relaunching peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, French President Nicolas Sarkozy offered to host an international conference to facilitate the peace process. The event would, of course, be held in Paris. He went so far as to issue invitations to leaders from concerned countries, including Israel, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, and of course the Palestinian Authority (PA).

        In January 2010, as Obama’s efforts to bring the parties to the negotiating table were inching their painful way forward, Sarkozy repeated his offer. A Paris-located international conference was advocated as a positive path towards achieving peace talks.

        This prescription – obsession would be too harsh a designation – persists in French thinking. It reappeared in December 2014, when France took the lead in drafting a Security Council resolution outlining proposals for an Israeli-Palestinian final-status deal. The formula incorporated a two-year timetable for completing negotiations and – one is tempted to remark “ça va sans dire” – an international peace conference to take place in Paris.

        This was the first time that then French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, waved his stick at Israel. Should the initiative fail, he announced, France would recognize a Palestinian state.

        Fabius played the same tune, with minor variations, during his visit to the Middle East last June 20-22, to meet Egyptian President Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. His aim was to sell the idea of a French-led initiative to reboot the peace process, with backing from an “international support group” formed by the EU, selected Arab nations and UN Security Council members.

        It is this initiative that France has now formally endorsed.

        What is wrong with the French plan? For a start it removes all incentive from the Palestinians to compromise in any way at all. In fact, it is in their interest for the talks to fail. Since they are promised recognition from France ­– no doubt to be followed by a host of other Western nations – without giving an inch of ground, why should they bother to negotiate? In short, it has failure built into it.

        In any event, France ignores the undeniable fact that no Palestinian leader dare reach an accommodation with Israel for fear of the backlash from the extremists on his own side – which explains the failure of each and every attempt at a final settlement over the past half-century. Both the PA and Hamas, the Islamist rulers of Gaza, maintain that the whole of Mandate Palestine, “from the river to the sea”, is Palestinian, and that their aim is to eliminate Israel from the Middle East altogether. For any Palestinian leader to sign an accord which asserts Israel’s legitimate place in part of “historic Palestine” would be more than his life was worth.

        From Israel’s perspective the plan is clearly based on the assumption that all the concessions have to come from Israel, and that the threat that will force them to compromise is French recognition of Palestine. What France does not define is the Palestine that it threatens to recognize. Is it confined to the West Bank and east Jerusalem, or would it include Gaza, home to over a million Palestinians? If so, there is no acknowledgement that Hamas, the de facto ruler of Gaza, rejects the whole concept of a two-state solution, since one of the two states would be Israel to whose destruction it is dedicated.

        France turns a blind eye also to the fact that Hamas is equally determined on overthrowing the Fatah-dominated PA and taking control of the West Bank, just as they did in Gaza. Or indeed that in any future Palestinian election, Hamas would in all likelihood emerge as the winner. Either outcome would result in a security nightmare for Israel. If Hamas moves into the West Bank, then Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion airport and Israel’s major north-south road network are within easy reach of rocket attack. The reality is that strong security coordination between Israel, Jordan and any new Palestinian state would be an essential condition of any peace accord, and that would certainly call for major concessions on the Palestinians’ side.

        Perhaps most fundamental of all, France takes no account of the failure of the PA to generate a desire for peace among the Palestinian man or woman in the street. Fearful of the growing influence of Hamas, and intent on outdoing it in anti-Israel rhetoric, the PA continues to promulgate hatred of Israel and to laud the “martyrs” who commit acts of terror against Israeli citizens. This is not the atmosphere in which leaders approach genuine peace negotiations.

        Unfortunately France’s initiative, well-meaning as it undoubtedly is, almost guarantees continued conflict far into an impenetrable future. As it stands, the plan is misconceived, a cordon bleu recipe for failure.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 23 February 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Arab-Israel-peace-Part-OneFrances-bid-to-lead-the-process-445802

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 February 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/24022016-arab-israel-peace-frances-bid-to-lead-the-process-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 23 February 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/02/23/arab-israel-peace-frances-bid-to-lead-the-process-part-one/