All analyses in chronological order - Afro-Middle East Centre

July began with a major shake-up in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatus. In an attempt to consolidate power after regaining territorial control over most of the country, Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, seems to be focusing his attention internally within his regime, while still battling to retake the last swathe of opposition-held territory in the northern Idlib province. Asad removed formerly powerful and influential figures in Syria’s intelligence agencies and promoted individuals with close ties with Russia. Iranian influence is a major casualty of the shake-up, with a close Iranian ally, Major-General Jamil al-Hassan, resigning days after he walked out of a secret meeting between Syrian, Israeli and Russian military officials in Quneitra, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. With the ousting of Iranian allies, officials with ties to Russia have been promoted into key positions, signalling Asad’s consolidation of military and intelligence structures, and distancing his regime from Iran. The sidelining of Iranians and their allies appears to have Israeli fingerprints, after a secret meeting between Russia, Israeli officials and Syrian military generals in southern Syria on 30 June. The shake-up also signals Russia’s efforts to reform the Syrian military and intelligence services to ensure its interests override Iran’s.

 

Biggest reshuffle in seven years

The 7 July reshuffle of Syria’s intelligence apparatus is the most significant shift in personnel since July 2012, when senior security service personnel were moved after a bombing of the national security headquarters in Damascus left four generals dead. Since then, many of the people that filled these powerful positions in the intelligence apparatus have been implicated in the Asad regime’s atrocities across the country, with some personally accused of committing crimes against humanity. Last month’s reshuffling began Hassan, who headed the Air Force Intelligence Directorate, handed in his resignation. Despite his ill health and inability to carry out his duties effectively, his resignation was unexpected as his contract had recently been renewed for another year. Adding to the mystery is the fact that his deteriorating health was not cited as the major reason behind his resignation, and there have been reports of his having been treated in a hospital in Syria run by the Lebanese Hizbullah.

Hassan was replaced by his deputy, Major-General Ghassan Ismail, a close Russian ally. Ismail has been a key partner of the Russians for front-line operations at the Russian Hmeimim airbase near the city of Latakia. All four Syrian intelligence agencies – Department of Military Intelligence, Political Security Directorate, General Intelligence Directorate, and the Air Force Intelligence Directorate – experienced leadership changes. Another reshuffling of leadership positions occurred in the General Intelligence Directorate, now headed by Major-General Hussam Louqa. Louqa, who hails from Aleppo, was a key Russian intelligence intermediary in Homs, and worked closely with Syrian military commander Brigadier-General Suhail Hassan, who also has close relations with Moscow. Another intelligence veteran and senior Asad advisor, Ali Mamlouk, has been promoted to the position of Vice President for Security Affairs. The Syrian president appears to be grooming Mamlouk for the position of deputy president, returning to his father’s tradition of reserving the deputy president post for a Sunni candidate. Mamlouk’s former position has been filled by Mohammed Deeb Zeitoun, known for his role in strengthening Russia’s links with the State Security Directorate over the past two years.

A number of other figures appointed into new positions on 8 July are also believed to share close links with Russia, including General Nasser Deeb, recently appointed to the strategic post of head of the Criminal Security Directorate. His appointment is viewed as indicative of Asad’s strategy of deploying Russians and their allies within the security apparatus to deal with the growing insurgency in the south, notably in Dara'a, which has seen a number of political assassinations of key opposition figures and those linked to the regime over the past year, since the government retook control of the area. As director of criminal security, Deeb is also tasked with containing the spread of shabbiha gangs, led by members of Asad’s extended family who have carved out territories of personal control in Latakia. The Russians see this post as critical to root out corruption and patronage links between the military and outsiders, as they attempt to herald a political solution to the war-torn country.

Another significant 8 July appointment, without media fanfare, suggested that the shake-up is not limited to the military and intelligence apparatuses. Ali Turkmani, son of a commander killed in the July 2012 bombing of national security headquarters, was promoted to the position of presidential security advisor, while another key political figure, Bahjat Suleiman, a former intelligence chief and former ambassador to Jordan, was reappointed to a key position in the political intelligence bureau. These appointments bear the hallmarks of growing Russian influence in Syria, seemingly at the expense of the Iranians.

 

Russia and Iran vying for influence in Syria’s military

Since the beginning of the war in 2011, both Russia and Iran’s influence in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses have strengthened, and have been critical to the regime’s victories over various rebel groups across the country. Russia’s continuing reform process inside the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses began with its 2015 military intervention, an attempt to stamp its influence in the country, as shown by the creation of the Fourth Corps under joint Russian-Syrian command. The fractured and beleaguered Syrian military has been weakened over time, while coming under the growing influence of Iran and Russia. Iran wields considerable influence in the military and intelligence apparatus in both lower and higher level structures. Furthermore, the presence of an array of Iran-linked militia, supporting the regime, has created a familiarity between generals and commanders through training and combat operations.

On the other hand, Russia entered the fray when the Syrian military was experiencing significant desertions and fractures in the intensifying war against rebel formations, and at a time when the regime had lost a significant amount of territory to the variety of rebel groups, including the Islamic State group. After the creation of the Fourth Corps in 2015 and the Fifth Corps in 2016, Russia set its sights on creating a single unit of command to integrate paramilitaries loyal to the regime into the Republican Guard. To effect this integration, Moscow has tried to exert greater control over the inner workings of the military and intelligence agencies through training and shifting personnel in key leadership positions. The latest reshuffle is an outcome of this process that intensified in late-2018, after the Syrian regime regained control of major territories lost to rebels since 2011.

Russia’s disagreements with the Iranians is not new. Although Iran continues to exercise considerable influence in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses, it has cause for concern as Russia seeks to placate Israeli demands to oust Iranian-linked militia from Syria, especially from the south of the country. In July 2018, as the Syrian regime began an offensive to oust rebels from Dara'a in southern Syria, Russia called for ‘foreign’ forces to withdraw from the southern areas, echoing Israel’s demand for Iranian fighters to retreat from areas close to the Golan Heights, the Syrian territory that Israel has occupied since 1967. In the Astana negotiations process, led by Russia, Iran reportedly condemned Russia for allowing Turkey to launch operations against Kurdish fighters in Afrin in northern Syria in early 2018. In Idlib, the Russians have been dissatisfied with what they see as Iran’s lack of enthusiasm to assist in the regime-led offensive against rebels.

 

Israeli fingerprints?

The security reshuffle, just over a week after a tripartite meeting in Jerusalem between Russia, the USA and Israel, also indicates the increasing role of Israel in the outcome of the Syrian conflict. On 25 June, Israel hosted US and Russian officials for a security conference that focused heavily on the question of countering Iranian influence. In the meeting, Israel urged Russia to assist with ensuring Israel’s security, which involves diminishing Iranian influence in Syria.

Russia was also told by Israel and John Bolton, the national security advisor to US president Donald Trump, that Iran needed to be rooted out of Lebanon and Iraq as well. Seemingly in agreement, Russia soon facilitated a 30 June meeting between Israeli and Syrian military and intelligence officials in Quneitra. The meeting was attended by General Jamil Hassan, accompanied by members of Syria’s Fifth Corps, which is funded, trained and commanded by Russia. Other attendees included leaders of certain rebel groups based in southern Syria, including the Ababil Houran Army, Alaa Zakaria al-Halqi and the Shuhada Inkhal Brigade. The meeting was also attended by the commander of the former Syrian Revolutionaries Front, Ahmed Hamaidi al-Moussa, who had been released from a regime prison days earlier, as a result of Russian pressure.

The Quneitra meeting was arranged as part of Russia’s cooperation with Israel for military operations in southern Syria. Israel demanded at the meeting that Hassan integrate the Fifth Corps into regime military forces, remove Iranian militias from the south of Syria (Dara'a and Quneitra) and maintain a distance of least fifty-five kilometres from the Golan Heights. In exchange, Israel and Russia offered to fund operations to combat rebel militia in Syria’s southern provinces.

Hassan reportedly refused to marginalise the Iranians, hailing them as supporters of the Syrian people. Although presented by Israel, the demand to integrate the Fifth Corps into the Syrian military has been an objective of Russia’s ongoing reform process within Syria’s military and intelligence apparatuses. The sacking of Hassan and other senior leaders in the 8 July reshuffle is the most recent part of the Russian reform process, which began after the formation of the Fourth Corps ‘storming brigade’ in October 2015.

Despite (or, perhaps because of) increasingly close coordination between Israel and Russia, the Israeli military has continued its bombardment of areas in southern Syria, targeting particularly Iranian positions near the Golan Heights. The Israeli bombardment also included Iraq, where several Iranian targets were hit by airstrikes. The frequency of Israeli strikes in Syria has increased, and can be expected to continue in Iraq, as suggested by the Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister, who boasted on 21 July that Israel was the only country that was killing Iranians.

 

Preparing for a new political era

On 13 July, Asad approved the appointments to the UN-guided constitutional committee, composed of regime officials and opposition figures selected by the regime, opposition groups and the UN. The formation of the committee has dragged on for seventeen months, as the UN struggled to establish consensus on the membership of the committee as demanded by the various actors. Geir Pedersen, the UN envoy to Syria, had failed to reach an agreement with the Syrian government on the opposition figures proposed by the UN until a breakthrough on 13 July, after the 8 July reshuffle. Asad and Pedersen announced the agreement on the formation of the committee, and said that talks were expected to continue between the regime and the opposition.

However, there are still disagreements over the constitutional review process. The regime wants to amend the constitution; the opposition has called for a complete redrafting. The latter’s view is supported by the USA, which has believes that a new constitution could see an end to the bitter conflict. It remains unclear whether this position is shared by Russia, which has largely left this process to the UN. For now, the Russians are focused on security sector reform in Syria, while continuing to pursue the Astana political process with Turkey and Iran. With the regime regaining control over most of Syria’s territory, it is expected that the Syrian participation in the Astana process will grow; Asad sent his foreign minister and several high-level security officials to the Astana meeting on 1-2 August.

The ceasefire agreed between the Syrian regime and rebel groups in Idlib on 1 August demonstrates preparation for a new era as combat dwindles. To accelerate this process, Russia intervened and deployed ground troops to assist the regime in Idlib, and this ceasefire is seen as a direct Russian intervention. Russia is therefore on a path of crafting an outcome to the Syrian conflict that is directed and led from Moscow, with regional players – such as Iran and Turkey – playing a mere supporting role.

 

Conclusion

The security reshuffle in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses demonstrates Asad’s intention to consolidate power as he looks towards rebuilding the country while battling the final rebel bastion in Idlib. With his internal consolidation under way, the regime is simultaneously engaging with the UN and beginning talks with the opposition to review the constitution. To do this, the Syrian president has recognised Russia as his most important partner by strategically placing Russian-allied figures in senior positions and allowing Russian training of special forces in the Syrian military. Iran, which continues to enjoy considerable influence in the military and intelligence agencies, is, in the process of the cosying-up with Moscow, seemingly being sidelined. While Tehran and Moscow tussle for influence in Syria, other actors, such as Israel and the USA, continue to play significant roles. Israel’s co-ordination with Russia has been evident in its repeated airstrikes in Syria, with Russia either turning a blind eye or assisting. Israel’s demands to integrate the Fifth Corps, created by Moscow, into the Syrian army to curb Iranian influence in the intelligence apparatuses signals greater Israeli-Russia co-ordination in Syria. Many Russian-trained units, such as the Fourth and Fifth Corps, are being integrated into the Syrian army, while figures allied to Iran, such as Jamil Hassan, are being pushed out. In short, the reshuffle signals that Asad has given Moscow the green light to rebuild Syria’s fractured security apparatuses to secure his future power, even if it comes at the expense of its long-time ally Iran.

Sudan lies in the hotbed of the Horn of Africa, a region that has been plagued by decades of instability and ruin as a result of intense conflicts perpetuated by post-colonial vestiges, ethnic rivalries and competition for key resources. The region is centred along three geostrategic crossroads, flanked by the Bab el-Mandab strait in the Red Sea, positioned in close proximity to the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf of Aden; at the meeting point of the White and Blue Nile; and a transit point between Africa and the Mediterranean. Neighbouring countries beleaguered by failing states, civil wars and counter-revolutionary dictatorships render the regional stability fragile. 

While Sudan is not new to conflict and transformation, the recent revolutionary movement has shaken the foundations of power and forced Sudanese to revaluate and question the legitimacy of the power structures. The civil uprising and the demand for changing the course of history is indicative of a new, youthful yearning for a future devoid of the authoritarian system designed to quell the voices of the people. 

As Sudanese come to terms with the brutal crackdown on protestors on 3 June 2019 and  revel in the euphoric hopes for a peaceful transition, on a macro level, these developments have ushered in a significant shift in the balance of powers in the region and has resulted in the adoption by global actors of aggressive tactics to secure their interests. At the core of the competing agendas lies hegemonic ambitions of the USA, China and Russia; while Middle Eastern players appear to have found a new front to stage their rivalries. 

Until recently, the USA was unrivalled in its exertion of influence over the region in the name of the War on Terror, under the authority of AFRICOM, through which it sought to “neutralize transnational threats” advance American interests and build defence outposts, namely Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. Pariah status was conferred on Sudan, designated as a State sponsor of Terror, with comprehensive sanctions imposed until 2017. Soon after the removal of former President Omar Al Bashir from power, a senior American delegation was deployed to Khartoum for engagement with the Transitional Military Council. Last month, the State Department confirmed that Donald Booth has been named as Special Envoy for Sudan, tasking him with leading US efforts to support a political solution to the current crisis.

With the proliferation of Chinese military and naval facilities in the Horn of Africa initially on the pretext of anti-piracy, and now in line with the Belt and Road Initiative, American influence seems to be waning. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deployed to the Gulf of Aden receives strategic support from their base in Djibouti. The base is seen as a vital part of the String of Pearls network of military and commercial bases throughout the Indian Ocean Rim. Chinese economic interests in Sudan are deeply entrenched, with Chinese investments in infrastructure projects, as well as trade. In 2018, China was the only country to transfer arms to Sudan. At the start of the uprisings in Sudan, China maintained a cautious silence on the developments until former President Omar Al Bashir was officially removed from power. The Chinese are now carefully monitoring developments to ensure that their economic interests are secured.

Countries in the European Union traditionally portrayed themselves as the peace-makers in the region, offering capacity and institution-building in post-conflict reconstruction and development, often with condescension of “we know and you know not”. As increasing numbers of Africans began to traverse great distances to escape their war-torn homes or to seek refuge and economic prosperity in Europe, the EU’s focus on Eritrea and Sudan altered significantly. Sudan stood as a buffer zone between refugees/migrants and the crossing points along the Mediterranean. Sudanese troops were deployed to the border regions with Eritrea and Libya to prevent the movement of people. With the advent of the revolution, the EU is watchful of developments and how this may impact on their quest to curb migration from Africa.  

Russia is a relative newcomer to Africa but seems to be developing a firm foreign policy to counter-balance American and European/French neo-colonial ambitions. Russia and Sudan cultivated an alliance between 2017 and 2018, as the two countries cooperated in brokering a peace deal in Central African Republic. Indications are that Russia seeks to advance its presence in Africa by building relations with several countries, including Sudan. The Russian military presence in CAR not only provides access to the region, but also presents Russia with an opportunity to enhance its economic footprint through acquiring lucrative mining deals. During a visit to Russia in 2017, former President Al Bashir intimated that Sudan could be the key for Russia to enter Africa. During that visit, a concession agreement for gold mining was signed. Reports have emerged that Russian forces were deployed to Sudan to train Sudanese security officials shortly thereafter.

Recent leaked documents allege that in 2018 Russia drew up a programme for economic reform in Sudan, designed to keep Omar Al Bashir in power. Upon recognising the inevitable ousting of Al Bashir, the document was altered and Russian advisors urged the TMC to suppress activists by toughening penalties for participating in unauthorised meetings and gathering, freezing independent media, improving the quality of pro-government media and limiting the influence of opposition press, increasing the costs of newsprint to control print media, detaining coordinators and leaders of protests, define the concept of a “foreign agent”,  and monitoring social media.

By Peter de Clercq

In addition to the standard measures to overcome the crisis, the leaked document suggests the discrediting of protestors by disseminating information on the arson of a mosque, hospital, kindergarten, and the theft of grain from the state repository or to cast the protesters as “enemies of Islam and traditional values” by spreading fake news about meetings with LGBTQ flags. This tactic would be designed to provoke conflict between protest groups and disorganise the protests. Finally, the leaked dossier alleges that plans were designed to punish those responsible for the protests, seen to be traitors to the Motherland; and suppression of activists through “minimal but acceptable loss of life”.

Perhaps the most interesting interventions in respect of the Sudanese uprisings have come from the Middle East. Concerns arose shortly after the massacre in June that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were responsible for the adoption of violent tactics by the TMC, as just days before, leaders of the TMC met with the Saudi and UAE leadership, securing an aid package of $3 billion, 66% of which would be allocated to military and security expenditure. The Saudi-UAE alliance has relied heavily on Sudanese troop deployment as part of the Saudi-led coalition in the war in Yemen. Apart from the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran playing out in Yemen, Sudan has also been central to rivalry, as Saudi Arabia urged Sudan and Eritrea to sever ties with Iran. 

The clout of the Gulf States lies in their oil-rich economies, enabling them to buy influence beyond their borders and assert themselves as players in the international arena. As the war in Yemen enters its fourth year, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have recognised the strategic value of military outposts across the Red Sea. The UAE is the most aggressive in securing contracts for the establishment of bases in the Horn of Africa. It is projecting itself to dominate the maritime domain, having begun with training and development of anti-piracy forces in Puntland and later with securing contracts for the establishment of bases in Somaliland and Eritrea, from which it has launched attacks on Yemen.  The UAE aims to develop and control ports along the Arabian peninsula and the Red Sea, thereby projecting its influence throughout the region. 

The projections by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the Horn of Africa are also influenced by the rift within the GCC, as the blockade countries (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain) seek to limit Qatar’s reach. Qatar had strong relations with Sudan in the past, as it acted as mediator and host of negotiations between the Sudanese government and representatives of the Darfur region. Qatar had enjoyed cordial relations with Eritrea and other regional partners. Investments from the GCC were initially focussed on food security, with the purchase of large tracts of agricultural land. As the rift within the GCC intensified, Saudi Arabia and the UAE exerted greater political influence in the Horn, through the brokering of the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea and with outreach to Sudan. These moves also coincided with the strategic need for partners in the region close to Yemen. 

Qatar’s influence in the region has decreased since the blockade against it led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Last month, reports emerged that the TMC snubbed the Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs who requested a meeting with the Sudanese interim leadership. Qatar, together with Turkey have a contract to rebuild Suakin Island port on the Red Sea coast that was aimed at boosting tourism but would have a dual purpose of acting as a military base for Turkey. 

Egypt, allied closely with Saudi Arabia and the UAE is Sudan’s immediate neighbour. The Egyptians will be watching closely the developments in Sudan, for fear of another uprising the likes of the Arab Spring. Egypt would also be concerned as to how the situation in Sudan would impact on the water security as it pertains to the Nile and the debates by the Nile riparian states for increased shares to the nile waters. 

The Egyptian example must remain prominent in the minds of the interim Sudanese leadership. Transitions from revolutionary movements to civilian governments are not palatable to those who seek control and power. Most of the global players may find comfort with dictators and could potentially implant the ideas that Africans and Arabs cannot self-govern and therefore should be led by the military. Whilst the negotiations on the constitutional declaration appear to be gaining momentum and there are calls for peaceful democratic transfer of power to a civilian-led government, the Sudanese people must be cautious and wary of saboteurs. Deals are already being struck away from the negotiating table and lobbyists are positioning themselves to secure contracts that could be detrimental to Sudan, whilst lining the pockets of corrupt officials.

Lucrative offers will certainly continue to present themselves as Sudan enters the transitional period. Investments of the nature outlined above may appear very attractive for those seeking to address the economic challenges facing Sudan, however most of the deals come with hefty prices that may threaten the sovereignty and security of Sudan. Advantages and disadvantage would have to be weighed, bearing in mind the disproportionate relationships. The revolution must not be sold to the highest bidder and the integrity of the struggle for freedom must be paramount.

WE LEFT SUDAN

In droves
In the late 80’s and 90’s
Indeed, my generation of educated Sudanese professionals are scattered around the globe
(Out of 200 medical graduates from Khartoum University in 1992, 20 remain in the Sudan)
We never lost contact with the country and our friends and families
We followed the news closely
And reacted in exaggerated ways to every small change – as compensation perhaps to make up for being physically distant
But to a great extent, we “disconnected”
We appeared to have abandoned the ideals we embraced in our university years
We had different reasons for leaving
Extreme economic hardships
Overt persecution and other forms of disadvantage
For myself personally, I found the social restrictions as a women suffocating – when I was denied a promotion at work because I needed to sign a document stating that I would abide by “proper” dress forms, that became the final push I needed to leave

WE BUILT LIVES FOR OURSELVES ELSEWHERE

We spent many years trying to advance professionally
For many of us, these were journeys of tears and sweat and incredible struggle
We also committed time to building up our communities in the diaspora
And tried to integrate with our host communities
We debated what kind of a relationship we should [or shouldn’t] have with our embassies
We sometimes organised protests in front of the Sudanese Embassies
And amused our foreign friends when we had meals with the ambassador and his family a few weeks later
In many countries, our communities became polarised into “the opposition” and the “kiyzaan” (pro-government, pro-Islamist)
It must be added, that after the December revolution erupted, and specifically after the June 3rd massacre, there was no more doubt in our minds where we stand with regards to anyone or anything that represents the previous regime and its current extension as represented in the Transitional Military Council (TMC) 

LINKS WITH THE HOME COUNTRY

Some of us bought land in the home country
We bought properties, furnished them and spoke about returning
Indeed, many properties, in prime locations remain empty awaiting the return of those abroad
We struggled with elderly parents being alone back home
Many of us brought our parents to live with us – despite their resistance

AND THE YEARS PASSED

Before long, years had passed
10 years, twenty years, and more
We initially used to discuss our return
We debated how a new generation of Sudanese should bring up children and how we could help in the creation of a new Sudanese identity while not being physically in the Sudan
We debated whether a Sudanese identity relied on a geographical location or whether it could be nurtured elsewhere
We debated what was good in our culture and compared ourselves to other cultures and debated what we should rather adopt
When of some our children started escaping to join ISIS (in the period 2015-2016), we were temporarily shaken out of our complacency… what is our generation in the diaspora getting wrong?
We reached the age where we started debating whether we would retire in our host countries or perhaps go back home
And life went on in a tedious and predictable routine
We thought this was how our lives would continue, and end… 

THEN THE REVOLUTION ERUPTED

Our lives completely changed with the start of the protests in December 2018
For months, we have been glued to our phones – at critical times, we could not sleep
It was a responsibility, we declared, for us to become the voice of those leading and maintaining the struggles internally
We were fascinated by the youngsters who adopted the slogan peaceful (silmiya) and just fall (tasgot bas), and were absolute resolute and articulate in their vision for a non-racist, non-sexist future Sudan – referring to the revolution as a “revolution of awareness” (thawrat waay)
We were inspired by the youth-led revolution and the slogan “the whole country is Darfur” (kul al balad Darfur) and when the revolutionary spirit erupted in a beautiful avalanche of music, art, poetry – and “re-branded” as a cultural and social revolution 

We took pride in the fact that the protestors were disciplined and non-violent at every stage of the revolution
We were concerned when the time extended to months, and we were then reassured as we felt that the long stretch of time had allowed for better organisation and conceptualisation of a way forward
We re-grouped and devised ways in which we could support and actively participate
Through the guidance of the Sudan Professionals Association (SPA), we re-connected as engineers, architects, medical doctors, lawyers, and other professions
We started working on bringing back to life the dismantled professional unions and associations
We devised methods of lobbying support, recording information, designed logos, assisted with communications and raised funding
Though few of us were professional journalists, many of us became involved in trying to develop media and communication strategies
We issued media statements and bugged journalists and human rights activists when no one wanted to cover the Sudan, and we then struggled to respond to media requests when everyone wanted to report on the Sudan 

“Sudan is subjected to multiple marginalisation – too African for the Arabs and too Arab for the Africans.” 

When the protestors occupied the space around the Military Complex for two months, we followed everything and everyone closely; we memorised the protests songs, we knew the people who protected the barricades in name, the artwork was imprinted in our minds and hearts
We wrote articles documenting the site and its activities believing that the site was a microcosm of the envisioned future Sudan of “freedom, peace and justice” (huriya, salaam, aadala)
We sent money to clean the space, to erect the tents, provide the mattresses, to furnish the classrooms and clothe the homeless children who found refuge at the site; we sent money to provide water, food and to erect shade structures
Indeed, I have also labelled this as a revolution of legendary Sudanese generosity 
We broke down when the sit-in was violently dispersed and had to explain to journalists to please forgive us as we are not really politicians or reporters
We used the hashtag #mediacoveragesaveslives when the killings intensified and we wrote academic articles which aimed to assess exactly how many people had died throughout the protests
Having focused on our personal lives, professions and livelihoods for so many years, we were thrown into a new role that we were little prepared for, but wholeheartedly embraced
We were devastated when we saw the janjaweed militia (Rapid Support Forces RSF) take power and optimistic when we felt that agreements might be reached
We started to again believe that maybe we will return… 

THE MAIN ISSUES FOR ME AS AN ARCHITECT

The new global realities – beyond geographic borders: the “city” and the “nation” as concepts have been “unsettled and reorganised in global time and space: the nation has also become increasingly detached from the formal territory of the nation-state through “long-distance nationalism” and the spaces of “diasporic citizenship”” (Crysler, 2003); the relationship between those in the country and those outside of it has come to the fore. Technology has allowed for this new reality. 

The Generational Gaps; the movement has exposed tensions between the different generations; this has been incredibly evident in my own work with the engineering and architectural professional communities; the engineering groupings are split into two, one of the groups very evidently representing “young blood” and the other claiming to be representative of the “authentic” unions before they were dismantled by ElBashir; while they are now working together and have established a combined steering committee to take the profession forward in unity, neither group wants to abandon its name and identity and it is obvious that their modes of operation, communication methods and vision differ. 

Gender representation has also come to the fore: while the movement seems to have been influenced and led by many young women, their exclusion

By Zeenat Adam

17 July 2019

Sudan lies in the hotbed of the Horn of Africa, a region that has been plagued by decades of instability and ruin as a result of intense conflicts perpetuated by post-colonial vestiges, ethnic rivalries and competition for key resources. The region is centred along three geostrategic crossroads, flanked by the Bab el-Mandab strait in the Red Sea, positioned in close proximity to the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf of Aden; at the meeting point of the White and Blue Nile; and a transit point between Africa and the Mediterranean. Neighbouring countries beleaguered by failing states, civil wars and counter-revolutionary dictatorships render the regional stability fragile. 

While Sudan is not new to conflict and transformation, the recent revolutionary movement has shaken the foundations of power and forced Sudanese to revaluate and question the legitimacy of the power structures. The civil uprising and the demand for changing the course of history is indicative of a new, youthful yearning for a future devoid of the authoritarian system designed to quell the voices of the people. 

As Sudanese come to terms with the brutal crackdown on protestors on 3 June 2019 and  revel in the euphoric hopes for a peaceful transition, on a macro level, these developments have ushered in a significant shift in the balance of powers in the region and has resulted in the adoption by global actors of aggressive tactics to secure their interests. At the core of the competing agendas lies hegemonic ambitions of the USA, China and Russia; while Middle Eastern players appear to have found a new front to stage their rivalries. 

Until recently, the USA was unrivalled in its exertion of influence over the region in the name of the War on Terror, under the authority of AFRICOM, through which it sought to “neutralize transnational threats” advance American interests and build defence outposts, namely Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. Pariah status was conferred on Sudan, designated as a State sponsor of Terror, with comprehensive sanctions imposed until 2017. Soon after the removal of former President Omar Al Bashir from power, a senior American delegation was deployed to Khartoum for engagement with the Transitional Military Council. Last month, the State Department confirmed that Donald Booth has been named as Special Envoy for Sudan, tasking him with leading US efforts to support a political solution to the current crisis.

With the proliferation of Chinese military and naval facilities in the Horn of Africa initially on the pretext of anti-piracy, and now in line with the Belt and Road Initiative, American influence seems to be waning. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deployed to the Gulf of Aden receives strategic support from their base in Djibouti. The base is seen as a vital part of the String of Pearls network of military and commercial bases throughout the Indian Ocean Rim. Chinese economic interests in Sudan are deeply entrenched, with Chinese investments in infrastructure projects, as well as trade. In 2018, China was the only country to transfer arms to Sudan. At the start of the uprisings in Sudan, China maintained a cautious silence on the developments until former President Omar Al Bashir was officially removed from power. The Chinese are now carefully monitoring developments to ensure that their economic interests are secured.

Countries in the European Union traditionally portrayed themselves as the peace-makers in the region, offering capacity and institution-building in post-conflict reconstruction and development, often with condescension of “we know and you know not”. As increasing numbers of Africans began to traverse great distances to escape their war-torn homes or to seek refuge and economic prosperity in Europe, the EU’s focus on Eritrea and Sudan altered significantly. Sudan stood as a buffer zone between refugees/migrants and the crossing points along the Mediterranean. Sudanese troops were deployed to the border regions with Eritrea and Libya to prevent the movement of people. With the advent of the revolution, the EU is watchful of developments and how this may impact on their quest to curb migration from Africa.  

Russia is a relative newcomer to Africa but seems to be developing a firm foreign policy to counter-balance American and European/French neo-colonial ambitions. Russia and Sudan cultivated an alliance between 2017 and 2018, as the two countries cooperated in brokering a peace deal in Central African Republic. Indications are that Russia seeks to advance its presence in Africa by building relations with several countries, including Sudan. The Russian military presence in CAR not only provides access to the region, but also presents Russia with an opportunity to enhance its economic footprint through acquiring lucrative mining deals. During a visit to Russia in 2017, former President Al Bashir intimated that Sudan could be the key for Russia to enter Africa. During that visit, a concession agreement for gold mining was signed. Reports have emerged that Russian forces were deployed to Sudan to train Sudanese security officials shortly thereafter.

Recent leaked documents allege that in 2018 Russia drew up a programme for economic reform in Sudan, designed to keep Omar Al Bashir in power. Upon recognising the inevitable ousting of Al Bashir, the document was altered and Russian advisors urged the TMC to suppress activists by toughening penalties for participating in unauthorised meetings and gathering, freezing independent media, improving the quality of pro-government media and limiting the influence of opposition press, increasing the costs of newsprint to control print media, detaining coordinators and leaders of protests, define the concept of a “foreign agent”,  and monitoring social media.

In addition to the standard measures to overcome the crisis, the leaked document suggests the discrediting of protestors by disseminating information on the arson of a mosque, hospital, kindergarten, and the theft of grain from the state repository or to cast the protesters as “enemies of Islam and traditional values” by spreading fake news about meetings with LGBTQ flags. This tactic would be designed to provoke conflict between protest groups and disorganise the protests. Finally, the leaked dossier alleges that plans were designed to punish those responsible for the protests, seen to be traitors to the Motherland; and suppression of activists through “minimal but acceptable loss of life”.

Perhaps the most interesting interventions in respect of the Sudanese uprisings have come from the Middle East. Concerns arose shortly after the massacre in June that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were responsible for the adoption of violent tactics by the TMC, as just days before, leaders of the TMC met with the Saudi and UAE leadership, securing an aid package of $3 billion, 66% of which would be allocated to military and security expenditure. The Saudi-UAE alliance has relied heavily on Sudanese troop deployment as part of the Saudi-led coalition in the war in Yemen. Apart from the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran playing out in Yemen, Sudan has also been central to rivalry, as Saudi Arabia urged Sudan and Eritrea to sever ties with Iran. 

The clout of the Gulf States lies in their oil-rich economies, enabling them to buy influence beyond their borders and assert themselves as players in the international arena. As the war in Yemen enters its fourth year, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have recognised the strategic value of military outposts across the Red Sea. The UAE is the most aggressive in securing contracts for the establishment of bases in the Horn of Africa. It is projecting itself to dominate the maritime domain, having begun with training and development of anti-piracy forces in Puntland and later with securing contracts for the establishment of bases in Somaliland and Eritrea, from which it has launched attacks on Yemen.  The UAE aims to develop and control ports along the Arabian peninsula and the Red Sea, thereby projecting its influence throughout the region. 

The projections by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the Horn of Africa are also influenced by the rift within the GCC, as the blockade countries (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain) seek to limit Qatar’s reach. Qatar had strong relations with Sudan in the past, as it acted as mediator and host of negotiations between the Sudanese government and representatives of the Darfur region. Qatar had enjoyed cordial relations with Eritrea and other regional partners. Investments from the GCC were initially focussed on food security, with the purchase of large tracts of agricultural land. As the rift within the GCC intensified, Saudi Arabia and the UAE exerted greater political influence in the Horn, through the brokering of the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea and with outreach to Sudan. These moves also coincided with the strategic need for partners in the region close to Yemen. 

Qatar’s influence in the region has decreased since the blockade against it led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Last month, reports emerged that the TMC snubbed the Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs who requested a meeting with the Sudanese interim leadership. Qatar, together with Turkey have a contract to rebuild Suakin Island port on the Red Sea coast that was aimed at boosting tourism but would have a dual purpose of acting as a military base for Turkey. 

Egypt, allied closely with Saudi Arabia and the UAE is Sudan’s immediate neighbour. The Egyptians will be watching closely the developments in Sudan, for fear of another uprising the likes of the Arab Spring. Egypt would also be concerned as to how the situation in Sudan would impact on the water security as it pertains to the Nile and the debates by the Nile riparian states for increased shares to the nile waters. 

The Egyptian example must remain prominent in the minds of the interim Sudanese leadership. Transitions from revolutionary movements to civilian governments are not palatable to those who seek control and power. Most of the global players may find comfort with dictators and could potentially implant the ideas that Africans and Arabs cannot self-govern and therefore should be led by the military. Whilst the negotiations on the constitutional declaration appear to be gaining momentum and there are calls for peaceful democratic transfer of power to a civilian-led government, the Sudanese people must be cautious and wary of saboteurs. Deals are already being struck away from the negotiating table and lobbyists are positioning themselves to secure contracts that could be detrimental to Sudan, whilst lining the pockets of corrupt officials.

Lucrative offers will certainly continue to present themselves as Sudan enters the transitional period. Investments of the nature outlined above may appear very attractive for those seeking to address the economic challenges facing Sudan, however most of the deals come with hefty prices that may threaten the sovereignty and security of Sudan. Advantages and disadvantage would have to be weighed, bearing in mind the disproportionate relationships. The revolution must not be sold to the highest bidder and the integrity of the struggle for freedom must be paramount.

A new cold war in Africa

By Mehari Taddele Maru

Last month, the twelfth US-Africa Business Summit, a high-level event attended by eleven African heads of state and government and some 1 000 business leaders, was held in Maputo, Mozambique. During the three-day event, US officials unveiled a $60bn investment agency that will seek to invest in low and middle-income countries, with a focus on Africa.

The announcement came six months after US president Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, presentedthe Trump administration’s ‘New Africa Strategy’. He asserts: ‘Great power competitors, namely China and Russia, are rapidly expanding their financial and political influence across Africa. They are deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States.’

Although both China and Russia are mentioned, the US has demonstrated over the past few months that it is mainly concerned about the former. In fact, it already appears that Africa is set to become yet another battleground for the escalating trade war between Beijing and Washington. With increasing foreign military presence and growing diplomatic tensions, the continent is already witnessing the first signs of an emerging new cold war. And just as the previous one devastated Africa, fuelling wars and forcing African governments to make economic choices not in their best interests, this one will also be detrimental to African development and peace.

Economic war

China’s approach to Africa has always been trade oriented. The continent became one of the top destinations for Chinese investment after Beijing introduced its ‘Go Out’ policy in 1999, which encouraged private and state-owned business to seek economic opportunities abroad. As a result, Chinese trade with Africa has increased forty-fold over the past two decades; in 2017, it stood at $140bn. Between 2003 and 2017, Chinese foreign directed investment (FDI) flows have jumped close to sixty-fold to $4bn a year; FDI stocks stand at $43bn – a significant part of which has gone to infrastructure and energy projects.

China has significantly expanded African railways, investing in various projects in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Angola and Nigeria; it is currently building a massive hydropower plant in Angola, and has built Africa’s longest railway connecting Ethiopia and Djibouti. It also built the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, and that of the West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, in Abuja.

By contrast, the USA has long viewed Africa as a battlefield where it can confront its enemies: the Soviets during the Cold War, ‘terrorists’ after 9/11, and now the Chinese. Washington has never really made a concerted effort to develop its economic relations with the continent. As a result, trade between the USA and Africa has decreased from $120bn in 2012 to just over $50bn today. US FDI flows have also slumped from $9.4bn in 2009 to around $330m in 2017. The new $60bn investment fund announced last month is a welcome initiative, but it will not be able to challenge Chinese economic presence on the continent. Just last year, Chinese president Xi Jinping pledged $60bn dedicated solely to investment in Africa.

The US has repeatedly accused Chinaof using ‘debt to hold states in Africa captive to [its] wishes and demands’, and has warned African states to avoid Chinese ‘debt diplomacy’ that is supposedly incompatible with the independence of African nations and civil society, and poses ‘a significant threat to US national security interests’. Yet Africa is only the fourth-biggest recipient of Chinese FDI after Europe (mainly Germany, UK and Netherlands), the Americas (mainly the USA and Canada) and Asia. The USA has also borrowed heavily from China; its current debt to its rival stands at $1.12 trillion. By contrast, Africa owes China around $83bn.

Africans are fully aware of and concerned about high indebtedness, trade imbalances, the relatively poor quality of Chinese goods and services and Beijing’s application of lower standards of labour and environmental practices. But many do not share the American perspective that their economic relationship with China is detrimental to them, and rather see it as an opportunity that provides much-needed unconditional funding and that takes local priorities into account. As Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh argued, ‘The reality is that no one but the Chinese offers a long-term partnership.’

The pressure the USA is currently exerting on African countries to move away from partnerships with China could hurt African economies. It could force African countries into making choices that are not in their best economic interests, and could cause them to miss out on important development projects or funding. Meanwhile, the USA-China trade war is already affecting the continent. According to the African Development Bank, it could cause as much as a 2.5 per cent decrease in GDP for resource-intensive African economies, and a 1.9 per cent dip for oil-exporting countries.

Militarisation

The escalating tensions between the USA and China could also threaten the security of the continent since both countries are militarily involved in Africa. Over the past fifteen years, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has been engaged in a number of security missions across the continent, making modest auxiliary troop contributions to peacekeeping operations in Sudan, South Sudan, Liberia, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It has also contributed millions of dollars of peacekeeping equipment to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), and provided significant funding to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) for its mediation efforts in South Sudan.

In 2017, the first Chinese overseas military base was opened in Djibouti. The facility, which hosts some 400 staff and troops, and has the capacity to accommodate 10 000, is officially supposed to provide support for the ongoing anti-piracy operations of the Chinese navy, but it also plays a role in securing maritime routes, part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. There has been speculation that this is the first of a number of planned bases meant to secure Chinese interests in Africa.

China’s military presence in Africa, however, pales in comparison to that of the USA. Over the past few years, the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) has run some thirty-six different military operations in thirteen African countries, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia, South Sudan and Tunisia. It has more than 7 000 troops deployed on the continent. It maintains a massive military base in Djibouti – the biggest and only permanent US military base in Africa, but also runs at least thirty-four other military outposts scattered across the west, east and north of the continent where US troops are deployed and military operations (including drone attacks) are launched from. The US also directly supports the armies of Egypt, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mali, Niger and others, as well as the G5 Sahel force tasked with counterterrorism.

While a direct confrontation between US and Chinese forces in Africa is unlikely, their growing presence is becoming increasingly destabilising. Already, Washington’s strategy to contain Chinese influence over Africa is playing out at different conflict and social upheaval hotspots across the continent. The fallout of the US-Chinese competition is particularly apparent in the strategic Red Sea region, through which passes one of the most important maritime routes. Countries in the region are not only feeling growing US and Chinese pressure to take one side or the other, but are also increasingly exposed to outside interference by various regional powers. 

Growing regional tensions

Djibouti recently found itself at the centre of US-Chinese diplomatic confrontation. Being host to military bases of both superpowers, the small country has had to play a difficult balancing act. In 2018, Djibouti seized control of its Doraleh Container Terminal from the Emirati company DP World, claiming the company’s operation of the facility was threatening Djibouti’s sovereignty. The authorities had feared that the UAE’s investment in the nearby Port of Berbera in the autonomous Somali region of Somaliland could challenge its position as the main maritime hub for Ethiopia’s large economy. The decision to terminate the contract with DP World, however, triggered a sharp reaction from Washington, a close Emirati ally. The Trump administration fears that Djibouti could hand control of the terminal over to China. 

Bolton warned: ‘Should this occur, the balance of power in the Horn of Africa – astride major arteries of maritime trade between Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia – would shift in favor of China. And, our U.S. military personnel at Camp Lemonnier could face even further challenges in their efforts to protect the American people.’

Djibouti was forced to publicly declare that it would not allow China to take control of the terminal, but that did not assuage US fears. Ever since, the USA has sought to secure a possible alternative location for its African military base: neighbouring Eritrea. It encouraged regional actors, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to pull Eritrea out of its decades-long isolation. In a matter of months, long-time enemies Ethiopia and Eritrea concluded a peace agreement to end their twenty-year-old cold conflict, while the UN lifted sanctions on Asmara. As a result, Eritrea was able to emerge as a strategic rival to Djibouti, offering its coast for foreign military and economic facilities. The UAE has already set up a military base near the Eritrean port of Assab.

Sudan, to the north, has also been a battleground of the ongoing superpower turf war. China had long been a supporter of Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir. Under his rule, Beijing came to dominate its oil industry, buying some eighty per cent of Sudanese oil, and thus providing Khartoum with much-needed cash to wage war against various rebel groups. It was also one of the few countries, along with Russia, that broke the UN arms embargo and sold weapons to Bashir’s regime. After South Sudan gained independence in 2011, China continued to be a close partner of the Sudanese regime, remaining its main trading partner. Sudan, in fact, became the biggest beneficiary of the $60bn Africa investment package that China had pledged in 2018, having some $10bn in Chinese debt written off. The Chinese government also made plans to develop facilities in Port Sudan, where it already operates an oil terminal. Qatar and Turkey also signed deals with Bashir for various facilities in the port city. When mass protests erupted on the streets of Sudan in December 2018, Beijing stood by Bashir, who it saw as the main guarantor of stability in the country, which lies on strategic routes, inlcudes China’s Belt and Road Initiative. 

Meanwhile, the USA had repeatedly demonstrated that it did not want Bashir running for another term. His removal was approved in Washington, which has since appeared to back the interests of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Sudan. The two Gulf states hope to install another strongman sympathetic to their regional politics, who would maintain Sudan’s participation in the war in Yemen and curb Turkish and Qatari influence. At this point, it seems China is at risk of being sidelined by the significant sway the UAE and Saudi Arabia have with Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC).

Apart from Djibouti and Sudan, various other countries in the region have also felt the consequences of the US bid to contain China. This political confrontation has added to the already-rising tensions between other players in the region, including Egypt, the Gulf countries, Iran and Turkey. The Trump administration has particularly favoured Emirati, Saudi and Egyptian interests, which have emboldened these three countries in their efforts to shape regional dynamics to their advantage.

Thus, in the long-term, given the pre-existing faultlines and conflicts in the region, the US-China cold war could have a detrimental effect, not only on its economy but also on its security. At this stage, to preserve its interests and its peace, Africa has only one option: to reject pressures for it to swear allegiance to either of the two powers. African countries should uphold their sovereignty in policy and decision making, and pursue the course that is in the best interests of their nations.

If the USA wants to compete with China on the continent, it should do so in good faith. It can gain a competitive advantage by offering African countries better, more credible and principled alternatives to those put forward by China. But that can only happen if the USA develops a strategy that focuses on Africa itself, not on containing and undermining the business of a third party.

• Mehari Taddele Maru is an independent consultant on matters of peace and security in Africa

• This article was first published by AlJazeera

 

Aisling Byrne interviews Abdel Bari Atwan

Donald Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ (DoC) - whether in its actual or conceptual form - is ushering in a new strategic era, providing cover for an imposed strategic realignment that lays the foundations for the establishment of Greater Israel. The components already been implemented by the USA and Israel, plus those expected to be implemented (annexation and cancelling the right of return with settlement of refugees in neighbouring states), aim to create a new strategic reality that will fundamentally change the question of Palestine and the geostrategic politics of the region. 

Strategically, the DoC amounts to the construction of a ‘neo Sykes-Picot’ redrawing of the Middle East according to the shared ‘Likud-Republican’ agenda that, with Greater Israel at its epicentre, could well be as destabilising as its original 1916 then-secret counterpart.

The core components of ‘Palestine’ have already been taken off the table, and what will be left for ‘New Palestine’ will be nothing more than a collection of semi-autonomous mini-states on about twelve per cent of historic Palestine. These will be connected by a land route, but will effectively be statelets with little more than the impotency of a bantustan. Demilitarised with only a lightly-armed police force, these statelets would have to pay Israel for providing military security. Lacking any aspect of sovereignty, this ‘New Palestine’ will be no more than an aid-dependent humanitarian macro-project couched in the framework of ‘better standards of living’ for Palestinians. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his colleagues have been explicit: the DoC addresses Israel’s security needs.

This new strategic architecture aims to strengthen the foundations of the Israel-Saudi Arabia-UAE axis. Largely paid for by the Gulf states (with the US and EU contributing), the UN would likely co-ordinate much of the funding (as it has done during the Oslo decades) – all of which will further cement Israel’s political control and its divide-and-rule objectives. The extent to which the DoC is actively resisted remains to be seen: Jordan, Hizbullah (Lebanon), Iran, Syria (to the extent it can) and Turkey will resist rhetorically; although Russia and China said they will not attend the upcoming Bahrain workshop, their position will likely be similar to their position on Oslo and the regime change interventions in the region since 2003 – strategic patience: waiting for these western-led initiatives to collapse.     

Crucially, however, inthe wider context, regional strategic developments are not going Israel’s way, and it is likely that this macro-strategic context will determine the fate of the DoC more than the micro mini-wins. The Gulf states are weak; the northern tier in the region (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hizbullah) is strengthening and has greater missile capabilities. Across the northern front, air defences are slowly being put in place that reduce Israel’s air superiority and its ability to operate. Strategically, these countries - as well as Russia and China - can afford to wait. So, while we might see a ‘twilight decade’ for Palestinians (perhaps not that different to the twenty-five-year Oslo period) at the micro level, the political landscape is changing rapidly in the region more widely. 

The DoC reflects the excessive confidence of Netanyahu and the Israeli right, but it also, to an extent, reflects an acknowledgment of Israel’s greater vulnerability; hence this push to strengthen Israel’s strategic depth. It remains to be seen, however, whether the DoC results in and is reflective of overreach.

If a wider regional conflict erupts, this too would change the strategic circumstances for Palestinians, most likely with them being involved in wider resistance against the key DoC states (Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE). A wider regional conflict may also change Israel’s circumstances dramatically in Galilee and the northern parts of historic Palestine; Hizbullah has warned that the next war will be fought inside Israel.

I asked leading Arab political commentator, Abdel Bari Atwan, about the key strategic and geopolitical aspects and implications of the DoC. 

The DoC appears to be more about cementing Israel into the regional polity and security architecture, and less about the micro context with the Palestinians. What are the key regional pillars underpinning this ‘Greater Israel’ project?

It remains unclear even to what extent the DoC will be officially unveiled as a coherent plan or to what extent it has even been formulated with any coherence. Nevertheless, the concept behind the DoC is to turn the Israeli status quo into a permanent fait accompli, and secure regional and international legitimacy and political acceptance of that reality, or at least resigned acquiescence. We have already seen the ground being prepared: with the US recognition of the annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights; with the financial pressure exerted on the Palestinians to force them – and bribes offered to induce them – to accept the DoC; and with the new Israeli nationality law that rules out any Palestinian state or right to return.

Even if the deal is officially presented, there are no guarantees that any of its clauses will be implemented, even those related to so-called ‘economic peace’. Oslo was not implemented, nor the decisions of the Gaza reconstruction conference, nor even the Paris economic protocol. At best, the implementation of these agreements was partial and selective. Nor will anyone believe any funding pledges made by the Gulf states in support of the DoC. They have a long and consistent record of making promises of aid and investment to various countries or multilateral bodies and then failing to deliver.

The Gulf states – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait – are supposed to fund the economic side of the DoC in exchange for guarantees of American protection and support for their regimes. There are reports that a total of $70 billion is to be pledged at the upcoming Bahrain workshop. This is a paltry price to pay for Palestine; Trump managed to get $450 billion out of Saudi Arabia in a single visit that lasted barely 24 hours. Today, the US is demanding the Gulf states pay more and more for American military protection, and tomorrow Israel will be demanding the same as the price for safeguarding them against Iran and other threats.

The DoC not only targets the Palestinians as a people – it is an updated version of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which, in conjunction with US policies elsewhere – Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya etc. – aims at redrawing the geopolitical map of the region, eliminating anything called Arab nationalism, and establishing the foundations for a Greater Israel. The Palestinians are to be softened up by being starved into submission and denied funding, jut as Iraq was before it was invaded, and the PLO was before Oslo. The same scenario is being played out here.

This ‘deal’ will be the prelude to further chaos. The Gulf regimes it depends on – Saudi Arabia and UAE – rule states that are more fragile than they seem. The idea was to also co-opt Arab countries that host Palestinian refugees – Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt – which are due to receive most of the funding to be pledged at the ‘prosperity workshop’ in Bahrain, in lieu of compensationfor Palestinian refugees and the complete renunciation of their right of return. It is noteworthy that all these countries are in severe financial difficulty and have astronomical levels of debt. Syria too – though out of the picture at present – is just emerging from a devastating civil war and has a massive job of reconstruction facing it.

A specific role is earmarked for Jordan: While Israel is to annex much of the West Bank, the perceived solution for the areas of high population density – Hebron, Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem, etc. – is to annex them to Jordan, either directly or by means of a nominal confederation. Palestinian security forces are to be replaced by Jordanian forces, and we will be given a new version of the Village Leagues in the guise of municipal councils with lightly-armed local police. Israel trusts no-one but the Jordanian army and security forces to do the job of policing the Palestinians, while Israel’s own forces will be responsible for the 600-kilometre border with Jordan.

Having worked with Israel on security co-ordination (crushing resistance) for twenty years, the PA and the Fatah elite now find themselves in financial crisis and bankrupt. Do you see this as part of an intentional process of weakening and getting rid of the PA as a national political body altogether?

If the DoC is applied, the PA will have outlived its usefulness to Israel and the US as a means of sustaining the status quo under the guise of a token national entity engaged in an illusory peace process. But irrespective of the DoC, the PA is approaching the end of its shelf life, and the PLO has become increasingly debilitated and is virtually moribund. I foresee a period of turmoil in the West Bank, which will, in turn, generate new forms of spontaneous and organised resistance, including armed resistance using home-made weapons as in the Gaza Strip, South Lebanon and Yemen. In Gaza, the resistance-based model espoused by Hamas has been more successful; the model has stood fast in the face of a suffocating blockade, every coercive and punitive measure imaginable, and four wars.

Under the DoC, Hamas will effectively govern a mini-state. They will have to disarm; if not, they will face a full Israeli invasion, most likely with full US and Gulf backing. They are already dependent on Egyptian mediation and Israeli security gestures and humanitarian sweeteners (salaries for 36 000 Hamas civil servants, for example, are dependent on Israeli approval, each month, once and if Gulf donors – currently Qatar – agree to provide funds). Hamas and Gaza’s other factions are resisting tactically. We’ve seen the Return Marches, balloons, even Hamas’s improved military capabilities; but to what end? These are little more than a pinprick of resistance against Israel’s strategic hegemony. Hamas recently signed a ceasefire agreement with Israel, cemented by Qatari funds. Given these strategic realities, is Hamas too compromised to resist? Or will the Hamas enclave eventually effectively become an Egyptian ‘province’?

I was myself born in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. We were ten children and my father was ill, so we were dependent on UNRWA’s rations and went to its schools. Poverty and need did not diminish our commitment to our national aspirations for return and just peace at the time, and this has been demonstrated time and again by people in the Gaza Strip in the decades since then, including at present.

The West Bank-Gaza Strip separation and division is clear on the ground and appears intractable at present, but it could soon come to an end, even if geographical separation is maintained, especially with the impending collapse of the PA. There are simply no other national options or alternative solutions. That is the main reason for the policy of starving the Palestinian people into submission. But harsh and vicious as this starvation policy has been, it has not succeeded and has backfired in political terms: the besieged and bankrupt Hamas – for all its many faults and shortcomings – remains more popular than the donor- and aid-dependent PA.

Hamas will not abandon its weapons. It has developed an effective missile arsenal that gives it deterrent power, and it has learned from the mistakes of the PLO. The culture of resistance has deep roots, and Hamas has nurtured them. It has also created a generation of weapons-making experts. This know-how will survive. Gaza is different to the West Bank: eighty per cent of its inhabitants are refugees and only twenty per cent are Gazans – though all are equal in their crushing poverty, while the ratios are roughly reversed in the West Bank. But the direct reoccupation of either would generate fierce resistance. In both places the younger generation has shown that it has freed itself of fear of the occupying power.

How do you see the wider strategic context of an ascendant Resistance Axis impacting the DoC; this will presumably constitute the core of the strategic resistance to the DoC?Where do you think forceful resistance to the DoC will come from? Resistance from Iran and Hizbullah will be strong (perhaps this is one reason we are seeing the current US-Israeli offensive posturing towards Iran); Turkey and Jordan are clearly opposed; a much weakened and divided PA and Hamas are already skirmishing over who will lead the Palestinian opposition. Europe will likely be cautious in its response, unwilling to directly confront or contradict the US; it may highlight a few ‘positive aspects’ to the DoC, but coordinated collective opposition by the EU is unlikely (it has, after all, been the major funder of the outsourced occupation implemented during more than years of the Oslo period). Likewise, Russia and China will likely not intervene directly beyond reaffirmation of international law and existing UN resolutions. Ironically, some opposition is coming from a polarised US.

A key feature of this wider strategic context is the growing regional strength and influence of this Resistance Axis – thus far comprising Iran, Hizbullah, Syria, Iraq and Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The formidable military capability it has developed, especially in terms of missiles, has achieved a measure of strategic deterrence with Israel, and to a lesser extent the US, despite the latter’s hugely more sophisticated military hardware and prowess.

Gulf money destroyed the original Palestinian resistance. It came close to destroying the Hamas movement too. But the Saudi-UAE embrace of Israel will backfire; they are not capable of performing the task set for them. The interventions of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Syria, Sudan, Libya and Yemen have united a large segment of the Arab public against them. You can see this everywhere in the Arab world, and this will negatively impact not only their regional and international image, but also their domestic security and stability.

Israel’s military and economic supremacy is being threatened. Its Gulf allies are in decline, both in terms of regional influence and domestic control, while the Resistance Axis is on the ascendance. This Axis has been bolstered by being joined by Iraq, by its deterrent missile capability, and by its military successes in Syria, Yemen and Gaza. All of this is relative, of course. But the resistance’s missile capacity – however ‘asymmetric’ – has overturned previous assumptions about air power being the decisive factor that Israel could rely on. Israel used to have military dominance both in the air and on land, but it has lost both. Its Iron Dome has proved to be a failure in facing Gaza’s rudimentary, but steadily improving, missiles, and the economies and cities of its allies in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have become vulnerable to Houthi drones (costing only a few hundred dollars each), and more recently, Houthi cruise missiles.

Israel’s ally and protector, the United States, is no longer the sole superpower. China and Russia are there and India is on its way. All are being subjected to economic warfare by the US, which may well intensify. The Europeans are the main financial donors to the Palestinians. It is they who encouraged the PLO to sign the Oslo accords, renounce armed resistance and agree to the two-state solution, on the grounds that this would bring peace and justice. But now the two-state solution is unattainable and justice and peace have never been more elusive. Europe will be a major loser if the PA and the peace process collapse.

So, the strategic outlook is changing to the advantage of the Palestinians and the Resistance Axis in the near term. It is Israel that is afraid and fretting about the prospect of being bombarded with missiles from north, south and east. The DoC could cause significant disturbances in Jordan, which Israel currently counts on as a reliable neighbour. The DoC effectively posits Jordan as an alternative homeland for the Palestinians, and all Jordanians – regardless of their other divisions – are united in opposing this.

War on Iran would open the gates of hell to Israel and its Arab allies, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It could be the last all-out war in the region, just as World War II was in Europe. Every last missile left in the arsenals of Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Iraq would be launched against Israel and these states. And if nuclear weapons were used, chemical weapons could be employed in retaliation, with Israel being the main target.

Trump’s team has been clear that this is a ‘take it or leave it deal’; if it is rejected, the US has said, it will ‘walk away’. Palestinian rejection of the deal is guaranteed, as is a tentative ‘Yes in principle, but…’ from Netanyahu. This will likely result in the selective unilateral implementation of aspects of the DoC by the US and Israel – as is currently happening – with little opposition other than rhetorical from Europe, Russia, China and others. In the event of the DoC’s ‘failure’ or its being ‘dead on arrival’, what do you see happening?

Israel cannot impose the DoC unilaterally. Its annexation of Palestinian and Arab land lacks any legal validity and does not strengthen its hand. Take the issue of the US endorsement of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. This favours the Palestinians because it closes down any prospect of negotiations between Israel and Syria, whatever the future may hold for that country, and ensures that Syria remains a confrontation state forever.

The death of the DoC would mean the termination of the last major US political venture in the Middle East, the final demise of the two-state solution, the burial of the Arab Peace initiative, and the region’s return to square one: the pre-Oslo and pre-Camp David stage of resistance against occupation. Israel and the US, and not the Arabs or Palestinians, would be held responsible for this, for violating signed agreements that were heavily loaded in favour of Israel, not to mention UN resolutions and international law. The biggest winners from the collapse of the DoC will be the culture and policies of the Resistance Axis, and the biggest losers will be Israel, its Arab allies and US policy in the region.

 

* Abdel Bari Atwan is editor of Al-Rai Al-Youm, former editor of Al-Quds Al-Arabi, a leading Arab political commentator, and author of numerous books, including Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate(2015) and The Secret History of Al-Qa'ida(2006).

 

* Aisling Byrne is Director of Projects and Partnerships at Conflicts Forum. She was formerly a Social Policy Adviser with UNRWA in Syria, Jordan and the West Bank, and an organisational development consultant with a number of public bodies in the UK. She has degrees from Balliol College, University of Oxford, an MA from SOAS, University of London, and was a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Touted by its architects as the ‘deal of the century’, US president Donald Trump’s plan for Palestine and Israel has had to again be kept hidden as Israel heads back to elections after a failure by its prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to form a government. The decision for new elections (in September) followed a vote by the newly-inaugurated 120-member Israeli Knesset (parliament), hours after Netanyahu announced he could not form a coalition government, plunging Israel into political chaos. The news was hugely disappointing for Trump, who had been waiting for Netanyahu’s government to be appointed before unveiling his plan. Instead, it now sits in limbo as Netanyahu fights for his political survival and Palestinians reject the proposal outright, based on leaks about what it contains. Trump’s administration has resorted to revelations in small doses, evidenced by the announcement that the economic part of the deal will be unveiled at a 25-26 June summit in Bahrain. This strategy postpones the grand announcement while allowing Israeli occupation to continue unabated. Israel, meanwhile, is in political turmoil, with Netanyahu fighting corruption charges, and increasing tensions between right-wing Orthodox Jews and secular right-wing groups.

Failure forming government

The right-wing bloc, led by Netanyahu’s Likud party, secured major gains in the April election. He was elected prime minister after securing sixty-five votes from the 120-member parliament. The bloc is comprised of Likud (thirty-five seats); Kulanu (four seats); the Union of Right-wing Parties (URP) (five seats) that includes the Kahanist Jewish supremacist Jewish Power Party and Yisrael Beitenu; the ultra-orthodox Shas (eight seats) and United Torah Judaism (eight seats). It had hoped to form a coalition government similar to the one in 2015. Netanyahu, however, failed to get his partners to agree on critical issues, and to break a stand-off between the religious ultra-orthodox parties on the one hand and the racist leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman on the other. Lieberman’s disagreement with the religious parties rested mainly on his insistence on passing the Haredi draft law, a controversial document which seeks to conscript religious Jews into the army (orthodox Jews are currently largely exempt from conscription). The religious parties were unwilling to compromise on the exemption of their members from military service, despite Netanyahu’s efforts. And Lieberman refused to concede, eventually collapsing the coalition effort.

Lieberman has since used Netanyahu’s failure to form a government to garner support for his party, and lambasted the beleaguered prime minister for bowing to pressure from the religious parties. Lieberman hopes to win additional seats in the September elections, and thus wield more influence in coalition talks. If he succeeds, he could weaken Netanyahu by reducing the number of Likud seats. On the other hand, Netanyahu is also working tirelessly to shift the blame to Lieberman for forcing Israel into fresh elections. It seems, therefore, that Netanyahu’s biggest challenge for the September election will be from parties from his own right-wing bloc rather than from ‘centrist’ Blue and White party he battled against in April.

Despite the standoff between Lieberman and the religious parties, Netanyahu also faced several hurdles with other parties in his right-wing coalition. These included managing the demands of Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon who insisted on being finance minister. URP leader Belazel Smotrich also demanded key portfolios for his members, specifically the justice and education ministries. The URP remained aggrieved even after the Knesset’s dissolution because Netanyahu appointed a senior Likud leader as justice minister. Smotrich has threatened to again push for that ministry, which is key for new legislation; he hopes to use it to introduce biblical laws in Israel. If this insistence persists, it would pose a major threat to Netanyahu if he wins the September election.

Bad timing for rerun election

The decision to hold new elections in September could not have come at a worse time for Trump’s long-awaited announcement of his ‘deal of the century’, engineered by his adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt. The deal’s unveiling was to be after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Trump and Kushner had hoped that by then a new Israeli government would be in place to receive a deal heavily biased towards Israel. With Israeli politics plunged into uncertainty, Kushner and Trump are concerned about their plan, which has already been rejected by the Palestinians. 

On a recent visit to Israel, Kushner sought reassurance from Netanyahu. He had travelled to the region as preparation for the25-26 June Economic Summit in Bahrain, where he is expected to announce plans for economic incentives for the Palestinians. He will ask that the financial proposals, which are regarded as the economic part of Trump’s deal, be funded by the Gulf states that will attend the summit – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar. Kushner also met leaders in Morocco and Jordan, in an ultimately successful attempt to convince the two kingdoms to attend the summit.

Israel’s political chaos is now posing problems for Kushner, who had been looking forward to revealing the plan he and his father-in-law had been working on since 2017. Nevertheless, both of them will happily allow Israel to quietly continue expanding the occupation of Palestinian territory as contained in the deal. Leaks suggest the deal will allow Israel to build and expand its illegal settlements in the West Bank (including in Jerusalem), will entrench Israeli control of Palestinian air, land and sea borders, will subject certain Palestinians to military rule, and will deny the right of return of Palestinian refugees. In the context of the current Israeli political reality, the new Kushner strategy is to release the plan in small doses starting with the economic plan to be announced in Bahrain. It will likely focus heavily on the besieged Gaza strip, and will involve economic incentives and plans for Gaza that will be operationalised by Egypt and Qatar.  For the political part of the plan, Kushner’s recent comments that ‘Palestinians have no capacity to govern themselves’ hinted at what the spirit of the ‘deal’ might be. The plan will likely cement and legitimise the status quo of Israeli control of Palestinian lives, Israeli collection of Palestinian tax revenues and continued military rule for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Clearly, Netanyahu is on board with these aspects of the plan, but his current woes could mean he will be replaced by a prime minister who will not be as amenable to Trump and Kushner, thus raising questions about the plan’s future.

 

Conclusion

The April election provided an convincing victory for Netanyahu, who had hoped to form a strong right-wing government and to become Israel’s longest serving prime minister. His celebration halted abruptly after he failed to form a coalition government and was forced to announce new elections that will place on 17 September, two weeks before Netanyahu argues his case at a pre-trial hearing that seeks to indict him for bribery, corruption and fraud charges. These new political developments have thrown a spanner in the works and postponed the announcement of substantive parts of Trump’s plan for Israel and Palestine. A delay in announcing it, however, allows many aspects of the deal to be quietly implemented by the Israeli government anyway, with annexation of large portions of the West Bank and tying Gaza in economically to Arab governments already under way. This leaves the Palestinians with no real resolution in sight, and with no possibility, in the near future, of a Palestinian state.

By Diana Block

Reaffirming Internationalism in the Twenty-first Century

In March 2019 I traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa to attend a conference – Teaching Palestine: Pedagogical Praxis and the Indivisibility of Justice. The conference was co-sponsored by the AMED (Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies) program of San Francisco State University (SFSU), AMEC (Afro-Middle East Centre) in Johannesburg, the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg, and An-Najah University, in occupied Palestine.

 Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi, Director of the AMED program, had initiated the Teaching Palestine project in 2016, ahead of the hundredth anniversary of Britain’s imperialist Balfour Declaration, as an emancipatory pedagogical and advocacy project that would be conducted in multiple sites over a number of years around the world. An integral concept of the project is the “indivisibility of justice.” This framing affirms the integral connections between the struggle for Palestinian freedom and other current struggles against oppression worldwide. It offers a basis for engaging internationalism holistically in an era when global struggles are too often siloed or artificially separated by narrow organizational missions. Since it was initiated, Teaching Palestine has organized workshops and symposia in the U.S. ,Cuba, Seville, Spain, and Montreal. The first Teaching Palestine conference took place in 2018 at Birzeit and An-Najah National Universities in occupied Palestine. Given their closely interconnected histories and ongoing solidarity relationships, it made sense to hold the second international conference in South Africa.

I had traveled to Southern Africa nearly forty years earlier, in April 1980, for the celebration of Zimbabwean independence. I had been part of organizations working with the Zimbabwean African National Union (ZANU) in the United States. ZANU was fighting for the national liberation of the Zimbabwean people from the white supremacist regime that held power in what the settlers called Rhodesia, after colonist Cecil Rhodes. The victory over Ian Smith’s regime was a thrilling culmination of years of struggle by the Zimbabwean people who were supported by a vigorous international solidarity movement. To those of us in that movement, Zimbabwe’s independence signaled the inevitable future downfall of apartheid in South Africa. And the struggles against white supremacy in Zimbabwe and South Africa were part and parcel of the struggle for Black liberation against white supremacy within the borders of the United States. Southern Africa was a focal point for anti-imperialist struggle throughout the seventies and eighties in the U.S. and worldwide.

Forty years later Zimbabwe and South Africa, in different ways, are still struggling to fulfill the liberatory promises of independence. Given the consolidation of the neoliberal world order under U.S. hegemony in the final decades of the twentieth century and the collusion of the new national ruling parties and elites with neoliberalism, these newly independent African countries have faced monumental external and internal challenges. Within the U.S., Southern Africa has largely disappeared from the movement’s political map.

Yet anti-colonial and anti-neocolonial/neoliberal struggles have inevitably continued against a global regime of imperialist dispossession, appropriation and exploitation in the twenty-first century. Now Palestine has in many ways become the epicenter of anti-imperialist struggle as it has continued, across the century mark, to confront the Israeli settler colonial, apartheid state and its U.S. partner-in-chief. The growth of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement since 2005, modeled on the South African boycott movement, demonstrates how the Palestinian movement has skillfully learned from the successful tactics that helped to bring down the South African apartheid regime. A conference on Palestine in South Africa was a means of reaffirming the historic importance of South African struggle and learning about the continuation of efforts to build a different, more equitable and just South African society.

The conference and subsequent study tour addressed the critical role of internationalism for Palestine and South Africa, examined lessons of the South African experience during and after apartheid, and exposed the expanding scope of Zionist assaults on all forms of speech and action in support of Palestine globally.

Ronnie Kasrils, the opening speaker at the conference, was a founding member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), and the Minister of Intelligence in the South African government between 2004-2008. A South African of Jewish descent, he has also played a leading role throughout his political history in building solidarity with Palestinian liberation. He spoke to the critical importance of an internationalist perspective for the ANC historically. He described their careful study of the Vietnamese national liberation struggle and its strategy of people’s war; the influence of victorious movements in Algeria and Cuba on ANC development; and the material support which other national liberation struggles were able to offer South Africa.

Kasrils pointed out the closely intersecting histories of South African and Israeli apartheid. The apartheid government was first elected in South Africa in 1948, the same year as the Israeli Zionist project expelled the Palestinians from their land in the catastrophic Nakba.He highlighted the ways in which the international boycotts and disinvestment campaign became a key pressure tactic against South Africa’s apartheid regime. In 1986 the U.S. Congress adopted the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, contributing to South Africa’s isolation as an outlaw state. While the majority of the world distanced itself from South Africa, Israel cemented its role as one of South Africa’s main strategic military allies. In 1975 Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime and in 1979 Israel and South Africa collaborated on the test of a nuclear bomb in the Indian Ocean.

Robin Kelley, distinguished scholar of African-American history and a professor at UCLA, brought the long history of solidarity between the Black radical movement in the U.S. and the Palestinian liberation movement to the conversation. He argued that solidarity was rooted in a politics of shared principles and that it was important for the U.S. movement today to go beyond the politics of “analogy” based solely on a shared experience of oppression. He pointed out that in the 1960’s, it was not enough to have a common experience of oppression. In fact, Black center/right politicians supported Israel while radical Black forces aligned with organizations such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and its vision of radical Third World nationalism and a democratic socialist state. “It is not the conditions of captivity, but the critique of captivity and shared visions of liberation that form the basis for real solidarity,” Kelley insisted.

Rabab Abdulhadi contextualized the significance of holding the Teaching Palestine conference in South Africa. “The heroic struggle of the South African people must be learned from despite critiques of the current political situation,” she insisted. She also spoke to the importance of the Teaching Palestine initiative as a means of shifting how Palestine is framed – a departure from a narrative of subjugation, submission and defeat to one of resistance, liberation and solidarity. Though this was the intellectual project she initiated, teaching Palestine has been the praxis of Palestine transnationally as long as the Palestinian resistance has been around. Through education, Palestinians could affirm their history, land and struggle in the face of dispossession and displacement. Today, it is not only critical for Palestinians to know their own history but to also learn from and stand in solidarity with other struggles for liberation.

The need to speak the truth about South African history and dispel sanitized distortions was asserted throughout the conference and study tour. Salim Vally pointed out that the end of apartheid and the first democratic elections in April 1994 were a result of a long multi-dimensional struggle. However, the victory is often attributed to a “politics of negotiation and forgiveness,” that gained sway in the period leading up to and after the elections. Such politics are now held up as a model for other struggles such as Palestine despite their problematic impact on South Africa.

As Vally and Jeenah assert in their edited book Pretending Democracy , “For ordinary working-class South Africans, the development of the constitution and the process of ‘reconciliation’ such as it has been, have contributed little or nothing to ending their lives of struggle, misery, poverty and racism.” In his article Martyrs and Reconciliation, Jeenah points out that Zionists often manipulatively advise Palestinians to learn from South Africa’s history of non-violent and peaceful resistance. “We were not peaceful; our struggle was not peaceful! We fought hard, we lost much and we offered up many martyrs in order that we might liberate the people of this country — both black and white.”

Many presenters from South Africa, Palestine and elsewhere reiterated this critique, pointing out that the negotiations that resulted in the 1994 elections involved multiple compromises and the acceptance of a neoliberal economic framework which precluded wealth and land redistribution. Speakers talked about the deep problems of the governing ANC party over the past twenty-five years, exemplified by the pervasiveness of state capture, the term commonly used for government corruption. Within the ANC itself there is a continuing effort to challenge these endemic problems.

Trevor Ngwane, a scholar activist who teaches and conducts research at the University of Johannesburg, pointed out in his presentation during the study tour that the South African constitution exemplifies some of the best aspects of liberal bourgeois legal principles, including democratic and human rights for all, same sex marriage and the legalization of cannabis. Yet when it comes to the socio-economic realities, South Africa is one of the most grossly unequal societies in the world today with unemployment at 40%, land ownership overwhelmingly dominated by whites, and gender violence at crisis proportions.

In a recent article, Ngwane characterizes South Africa as an insurgent democracy because of the ongoing intense level of social movement disruption and protest against the governing status quo by multiple sectors of the South African people. Significant recent protests include the Marikana mineworkers strike of 2012, the #FeesMustFallmovement to decolonize the system of higher education, and the #Total Shutdown movement in 2018 to confront rampant gender violence.

Solidarity with Palestine is also a contested issue in post-apartheid South African society although the government position on Israel is very different than that of the apartheid regime. The ANC and the government it leads have pledged solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and have repeatedly condemned Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and the relentless attacks on Gaza. In 2018, South Africa recalled its ambassador from Israel after Israel’s brutal attacks against the Gaza Great March of Return.

The South African government has also played a role in resisting what Matshidiso Motsoeneng described as Israel’s charm offensive in Africa, a strategy to normalize relationships with African countries across the continent by offering economic support, technological development and military training. South Africa has led the rejection of Israel’s attempts to gain observer status in the African Union which Israel has sought in order to wield more influence in the region.

Civil society and grassroots organizations as well as members of the ANC have consistently pressured the South African government to support the Palestinian struggle. They have called upon the government to sever all diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with the Israeli state and to build solidarity in multiple ways. In 2013 Ahmed Kathrada, a leader of the South African Communist Party and a former political prisoner who spent 25 years on Robben Island, initiated an international campaign to free Palestinian leader and political prisoner Marwan Barghouti. Kathrada commented that South Africans “have a sacred duty to campaign for the unconditional release of Marwan Barghouti and all Palestinian political prisoners as an essential step towards the freedom of the Palestinian people and peace in the region.”

The Palestine Solidarity Alliance, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and BDS South Africa are among a number of groups that consistently organize for Palestine through a variety of tactics, including education and support for BDS. Palestine solidarity activists described the ongoing struggles regarding BDS at universities which bear many similarities to that at U.S. universities. The South African Student Union endorsed BDS in 2011 and in a landmark decision, the University of Johannesburg academic senate voted to end its ties with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University that same year. In 2017, Tshwane University of Technology, the largest residential higher education institution in South Africa, officially endorsed the Palestinian call for an academic boycott of Israel, and imposed a ban on ties with Israel and Israeli institutions.

On the other hand, Tokelo Nhlapo, a researcher and former graduate student at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), explained that he was one of eleven students who were expelled from the University for disrupting an Israeli-funded concert which violated the cultural boycott of Israel. A widespread outrage at this harsh disciplinary action grew at Wits (which resulted in the suspension of the expulsion order). A WITS student leader explained, “Protest is not only an expression that should be protected but protests against Israeli-sponsored events also falls within the principle of internationalism that our country once benefited from. Thousands of students, workers and others protested against Apartheid South Africa sponsored events in the 1980s often disrupting cricket matches, rugby games etc. This international movement of boycotts contributed to our freedom today.”

The Teaching Palestine conference took place against the backdrop of escalating Zionist attacks against speaking and teaching about Palestine worldwide. In the U.S., Zionist groups have recently mounted frontal attacks against Black leaders such as Angela Davis, Marc Lamont Hill, and Michelle Alexander because of their support for Palestinian freedom. Incidents of academic intimidation and suppression regarding support for Palestine continue to increase. Dr. Abdulhadi initiated Teaching Palestine while she was being accused of false charges of antisemitism in a lawsuit filed by the Zionist Lawfare Project in June 2017. The lawsuit was defeated in October 2018 when Federal Judge Orrick ruled that the charges against her had no foundation in fact, but other forms of harassment have continued, including the recent cancellation of AMED’s study abroad program in Palestine.

As I traveled through Germany to South Africa, Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh was banned from speaking at a public meeting in Berlin on March 19th marking International Women’s Day after German officials revoked her visa. The Israeli government claimed credit for the action and the Berlin Senate denounced BDS Berlin, one of the co-hosts of the event, as an “anti-Semitic coalition.” And on March 21, an event where Ronnie Kasril’s was scheduled to speak at the Vienna Museum for Israeli Apartheid Week was canceled for similar reasons. In response Kasrils stated, “South Africa’s apartheid government banned me for life from attending meetings. Nothing I said could be published, because I stood up against apartheid. How disgraceful that, despite the lessons of our struggle against racism, such intolerance continues to this day, stifling free speech on Palestine.”

Mandla Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s eldest grandson, confirmed the comparison with South Africa at the International Conference on Palestine held in Istanbul at the end of April. “We say it to the world that as we were able to undermine the apartheid regime in South Africa, we will be able to do this with the apartheid regime in Israel.” He also called for the South African government to use its seat in the UN Security Council to become “the voice of the voiceless and therefore to speak about the self-determination of Palestine.”

For her part, Rabab Abdulhadi is committed to continuing the work, stating. “We will never be silenced nor defeated. We will continue linking communities, critically analyzing the world and advocating for an indivisible sense of justice. We take our inspiration from the people who are struggling for their freedom, dignity and peace in Palestine, South Africa and here in the United States. This is our community of justice and this is why we teach Palestine.”

Diana Block is the author of a novel, Clandestine Occupations: An Imaginary History (PM Press, 2015) and a memoir, Arm the Spirit : A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back (AK Press, 2009). She is an active member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and the anti- prison coalition CURB. She writes periodically for Counterpunch and other online journals.

By Ranjan Solomon

On 14 February 2019, a convoy of vehicles carrying security personnel on the Jammu Srinagar National Highway was attacked by a vehicle-borne suicide bomber at Lethpora in the Pulwama district, Jammu and Kashmir. The attack resulted in the deaths of the attacker and over forty Central Reserve Police Force personnel. The Indian government claimed the perpetrator was a member of Jaish-e-Mohammed,a Pakistan-based Deobandi jihadi group active in Kashmir. The group’s primary objective is the separation of Kashmir from India and its merger into Pakistan. Since its inception in 2000, the group has carried out several attacks in Jammu and Kashmir.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, eyed enhanced electoral prospects at a time when its popularity was drastically shrinking across the country. By resorting to jingoistic rhetoric, it was relatively successful in whipping up fury and rage by creating the illusion of a massive military vulnerability unless India was to strike first and gain ascendancy. The frenzy that followed gave the Indian government an edge, and a virtual mandate to bomb hard and deep in Pakistan – to teach ‘them’ a ‘lesson’ for their grave indiscretion! In three days, India arrested a number of suspects without so much as having completed an investigation. In the meantime, the government roundly condemned the Pulwama attack and refused to own any part of the tragedy. Meanwhile, Pakistan offered to join a transparent and comprehensive joint investigation of the attack. India, as expected, rejected the offer and, instead, launched invasive attacks into Pakistani territory, leading to claims and counterclaims from both sides.

After a short period of silence when the Indian nation as a whole played ‘patriot’ – irrespective of political affiliation or loyalty/disloyalty to the BJP, voices of disbelief began to surface. Questions were asked of the government and the army. Why was such a sensitive spot no covered by any serious security measures? Some went so far as to call it a ‘deliberate gaffe’ suggesting a hint of a false flag attack. Meanwhile, India’s foray into Pakistani territory was regarded as having failed to achieve its military goals. The euphoria, via the Indian media’s high-pitched xenophobic and pseudo-patriotism, allowed the gullible Indian patriot to celebrate a victory that was being interrogated. All that Indians could be sure of was that one Indian Air Force jetfighter had been shot. The pilot had evacuated and landed in Pakistani territory, only to be released in a goodwill gesture by Pakistan. India, needless to say, denied it was a goodwill gesture, but that it was a response to the massive diplomatic capital accumulated by Modi during his numerous jaunts to an abundant array of countries.  

With many difficult questions from the political opposition and social media, the government went into damage control mode. It underplayed the issue, and probably ordered the hitherto pliant media to go hush. This happened too because the government’s track record on containing strikes across the border, its mishandling of Kashmir as a policy (an obvious failure) were being exposed, and government spokespersons were fumbling with unconvincing explanations.           

The government was also embarrassed after it had allowed a political climate in which ordinary Kashmiris working and studying in different parts of India were subjected to brutal mob attacks. This would not have happened without the triumphalism accompanying India’s ‘war against terrorism’. Kashmiris are victims, and their aspirations and voices are silenced in a thousand ways. The freshly induced dose of triumphalism added fuel to hate crimes being conducted under tolerant eyes, and quickly became unmanageable. Once more, the government had to beat a hasty retreat. It closed all democratic space for discussion and debate and prepared a ground ripe for recruitment by militant groups. At some point the government must have been alerted that the continuation of street brutalities by illegal police-like forces would only serve to worsen the underlying political causes of the Kashmir conflict. It was bad enough that spaces for political dialogue had been shut down and Kashmir was hurtling down the path of disaster. What is visible is that the clumsy and arrogant handling of the Pulwama crisis by the Indian government and the media that sought to hold up the path of triumphalism being tread by the government have served only to seriously heighten the discontent of the Kashmiri people.

Plain facts suggest that the Indian government stands accused of grave human rights’ violations in the region. The United Nations has condemned the routine clashes and use of force by the Indian military towards Kashmiris on multiple occasions. Despite the outcry from the international community and human rights groups, the Indian military continues its regime of brutality against innocent Kashmiris. 

Today, with India’s economy in shambles and unemployment rising, the BJP finds itself in a bind. It ran the ‘Pulwama show’ a bit too early to capitalise on its decline as a political force. The strategy backfired.  Pulwama has been forgotten – except in the minds of the rabid Hindu communalists who are brought up to hate Pakistan. A quick glance at social media shows a well-informed, rational polity wanting to make valid choices and refuting the politics and rhetoric og hate. The masses, especially the critical masses, refuse to swallow the Pakistan bait. 

In desperation, the BJP has resorted to heightening Hindu-Muslim divisions and has relegated issues of policy and development to the background. It has nothing else to clutch on to. India claimed to have won global support and sympathy. Not quite. Too many nations and an alert, agile global media saw through the propaganda.

For the time being, Kashmir is the last thing on the political agenda in India – except for the people of Kashmir. They know that Kashmir cannot be an issue that has a solution in and through war between two nuclear powers. India’s reckless talk of war risked the lives of millions of innocent Indians and Pakistanis. It even threatened the rest of the world with the risk of a nuclear catastrophe. The conflict between India and Pakistan needs diplomatic dialogue for comprehensive and creative solutions based on new formulas.  More militarism will not eliminate years of oppression and instability. India has rejected dialogue, instead demanding that terrorism must end for dialogue to begin. Many previous attempts at dialogue had failed at the ultimate step for want of trust or because one factor of irrationality breached the options of peace. 

There is a border military build-up on either side of the Line of Control (LOC). Ceasefire violations are frequent and are something of a norm. People living in the border areas suffer the uncertainty of army conflagrations punctuated by cross border firings and casualties, which severely impacts their lives and causes panic and distress to many others. Reports suggest that thousands of people living alongside borders have been involuntarily or voluntarily evacuated to other locations; schools have been shut down; farmers have lost their crops. 

The political classes on both sides indulge in frequent bouts of belligerent rhetoric. Muscle flexing by past and current generals further muddies the waters, when even they know how absurd they sound. On the Indian side, the borders are manned by ‘jawans’ (ordinary soldiers) mostly from lower economic classes and castes. Those who propagate war are the upper classes who sit behind their laptops in the absolute safety of their living rooms far removed from the battlefront. Meanwhile, spouses of armed fighters on the war front appeal for calm and common sense. They know that war can only create the peace of the graveyard, and that the avenues for peace exist outside the thinking of politicians who manipulate politics to keep the India-Pakistan border permanently on the boil.

In times of relative peace, trade between the two countries has flourished, defined always by vibrancy and benefit to both sides. When there have been sport and cultural exchanges, deep and lasting friendships have thrived. People who have practised co-existence through meaningful cooperation see little reason to harbour ill-will and antagonism. Indians and Pakistanis are the same people – a common heritage and a common destiny torn apart by one of colonial history’s most colossal errors.

This may be the time when the political leadership of both countries should take serious and sensitive initiatives and de-escalate the violence in border areas. It is also a time when top army officials should keep away from making provocative and political statements. The Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) should reiterate its position that, in a democracy, the armed forces avoid making statements and should allow civilian governments to do their constitutionally-mandated duties. The army or its top-ranking officers making press statements and evoking jingoism is a direct threat to the democratic fabric of the country.

Commenting on the crisis, PIPFPD issued a call for peace, arguing that 'all civilized societies must prevent bloodshed and condemn, mourn killings.' It has also claimed that there s an important reason to go into the genesis of the attack and shun the notion that violence and war can somehow bring solutions. To avenge blood is to be short-sighted.

It is of paramount importance to unpack the inherently-flawed current Kashmir-centric policies of the Indian government. To believe that militancy can be uprooted by sheer military power and interventions is reckless because experience attests to the fact such an approach is untenable. India has not done anything to reach out to the Kashmiris in terms of real political solutions. In contrast, its military formulas are recipes for more militancy. Experience shows that militarism is accompanied by unwarranted tyranny in the Kashmir valley. Reports suggest that in the last four years, young men, women and children have been killed and maimed with bullets and pellets. The PIPFPD reports vast numbers of crackdowns which result in arrests and increasing human rights’ violations. These end up being provocations that anger young people who then see violence as their only resort because they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If Kashmir remains unresolved, so does the political fact that prompts conflict. The Indian state perceives (and interprets) dissent as a daring bid to minimise its authority and, consequently, reorders its political strategy in ways that subvert democracy and human rights. 

How does one disallow dissent when the Indian state indulges in the most bizarre political steps? It is a move that could plunge the Kashmir Valley into a perpetual state of crisis. Jammu and Kashmir are not coping with the contentious decision to ban movement of civilian traffic for two days a week. This two-month long ban will be sorely counterproductive because the people must bear the brunt of an already fragile economy. It is an ‘Israelization’ of Kashmir. Shah Faesal, the chair of Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement (JKPM), asked: ‘How can any democratic society enforce a ban on the movement of people, and how would it justify the diktat?’ This further aggravates the Pulwama-related harassment of the general population through more abuse, harassment, and beating of Kashmiris on the highways by the security forces, particularly by the army.

Warmongering can only serve to counter measures for peace and democracy. It does not allow the people of Kashmir to feel included and keeps them painted as traitors who feel no respect for the nation. The truth is radically different. For as long as India and Pakistan refuse to take courageous steps for peace, they will endanger the sub-continent, and, indeed, the entire region, with the huge risks of war between two emotionally-charged nuclear powers. 

It is now that India must abandon its preoccupation with putting down militancy. Instead, it must unlock ways of conciliation with the people of Kashmir. Immediate confidence-building measures will reduce tensions and open channels for a comprehensive dialogue. It would make even more sense to include the people of Jammu and Kashmir – those who are the subject of the conflict – in such a negotiated outcome.

According to SIPRI, India spends 63.9 billion dollars on military expenditure. That amounts to 2.5% of its GDP. If one juxtaposes that with the poverty figure of at least 700 million people, one would wonder how defence spending and development spending square off. OXFAM reports that India’s top 10 per cent of the population controls 77.4 per cent of the total national wealth. Further, the top one per cent owns a whopping 51.53 per cent of the national wealth. The bottom 60 per cent, the majority of the population, own merely 4.8 per cent of the national wealth.

In the name of Kashmir, would India fight a senseless war in and around Kashmir and ask the poor to eat bombs, tanks, and machine guns for breakfast with a sprinkling of nuclear weapons for added effect?

* Ranjan Solomon is a social activist who also works as a consultant fororganisations and movements working on issues of peace, human rights and social justice.

Since the military ouster of Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir, early on Thursday, 11 April, after three months of protests, different military factions have been jostling for control of the state. The continuation of protests that began late December has helped reveal the factionalism, as different groups within the state seek to instrumentalise the protest movement. This suggests that protesters still possess some power, despite the army taking charge, if they maintain the ability to mobilise the citizenry. This, however, will likely become increasingly difficult as the military tries to split the movement by negotiating minor concessions while protecting its central role. 

In the weeks before his ouster, Bashir had been consolidating control. The size and scope of protests, which had followed the tripling of bread prices, were diminishing and were largely confined to the capital, Khartoum and its twin city Omdurman. Furthermore, his 22 February 2019 cabinet reshuffle, in which military officials were appointed to key positions, seemed to tether the army’s fate to his survival. This, however, began to change on 6 April when protest leaders strategically marched on the military headquarters in Khartoum, which also contained the presidential palace. a week-long sit-in ensued, with personnel of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) clashing with soldiers, as the agency unsuccessfully attempted to violently disperse the protests.

Bashir’s forced resignation was followed by the military’s announcement of the formation of a military council to oversee a two-year transition. The constitution was suspended, a three-month state of emergency declared, and a no-fly-zone instituted, indicating the intention of the security apparatus (consisting of the military, NISS and state-supported militia groups) to protect its interests and oversee a transfer of power to its chosen successor. When Bashir’s resignation did not end protests, the military council head and former defence minister, Lieutenant-General Awad Ibn Awf, and his deputy on the council, Lieutenant-General Kamal Marouf, both resigned on 12 April and were replaced by Lieutenant-General Abdul Fattah al-Burhan and Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (also known as Hametti). Burhan is a former inspector-general of Sudan’s armed forces, and was the main liaison between Saudi Arabia and Sudan in relation to Sudanese troops’ participation in the Yemeni civil war. Hametti headed Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary force formed out of the notorious Janjaweed militia, which Bashir used in Darfur. Power struggles within the security apparatus also played a major role in the resignations, with Hametti and NISS head, Major-General Salah Abdullah Mohammed Saleh (also known as Salah Gosh) attempting to benefit from Bashir’s ouster. There was thus a twelve-hour period between Bashir’s resignation and the military’s first announcement of its role in the resignation and how it envisaged the situation developing, suggesting that there was a struggle around who should be in charge during the transition. Gosh subsequently resigned, on 13 April; besides being another victim of the factionalism, his leadership of NISS was also unacceptable to the protesters. Because Bashir had relied on the security apparatus (the army and intelligence services) to protect his thirty-year rule, he allowed a balance in their powers; that balance has now been upset, allowing the factionalism to come out into the open. He had also empowered militia groups, especially Hametti’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), to assist him to consolidate control in outlying areas, including Darfur.

Burhan has been attempting to present a conciliatory front, as someone who is not tainted by past abuses. He vowed to allow opposition figures to be part of the transition process; to release political prisoners; committed to allowing a civilian to become prime minister during the transition; promised not to crack down on protests, apply the night-time curfew, and to repeal restrictions on the media. However, he insists that the military will control the critical defence and interior ministry portfolios during the transition. He also announced that any soldiers who had participated in protests would be fired, called for protests to end, and has not clarified the powers of the opposition in nominating the transitional government or being involved in it.

Protesters, under the banner of the Freedom and Change Alliance (FCA), a coalition of the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) and older political forces such as the Sudanese Communist Party and the Ummah Party, have vowed to continue mobilising, and have not been placated by the military’s vague promise of protesters having a say in the transitional government. Further, the SPA and FCA have named their negotiating teams, most of whom are little-known professionals. They have called for an immediate transition to civilian rule, said they would allow military officials only minor roles in the government, and want a four-year transitional process. Further, they have called for the disbanding of the NCP, removal of the head of the judiciary and prosecutor general – who was subsequently fired, and expressed concern over Hametti’s growing influence. Clearly, there is still a great distance between the two parties’ stipulations.

Regionally, countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sought to secure their interests by expressing support for a transition and cautioning protesters to consider the ‘national interest’. Gosh’s resignation has upset the plans of both countries Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which together with Israel and the USA saw him as Bashir’s successor since he had been the main liaison between Khartoum and the USA, especially in relation to counterterrorism activities. Nevertheless, it is unlikely they will be unhappy with Burhan at the helm; he has good relations with Saudi Arabia and had been the main liaison regarding Sudanese troops in Yemen. Qatar and Turkey will likely lose influence with the disbanding of the NCP and arrests of a number of Islamists who were close to those states. Further afield, a troika consisting of Norway, Britain and the USA has called for an inclusive transition, while the African Union belatedly responded by giving the military council fifteen days to transfer power to civilian rule, or have Khartoum suspended from AU activities. 

With Sudan experiencing its fifth coup since independence, together with three other attempted putsches, and losing around a third of its territory and seventy-five per cent of its oil wealth as a result of South Sudan’s secession in 2010, the problems currently besetting the transitional regime, like those experienced by Bashir, are likely to endure. The resilience of the protesters, however, provides hope for more substantial change. In its negotiations with the military and its attempts to build a new Sudan, the FCA leadership needs to focus on building resilient institutions that can withstand charismatic personalities and allow for smoother alternations of power, rather than allowing mere changes in names and parties at the helm.

Haftar's march on Tripoli

  • 16 April, 2019
  • Published in Libya

Khalifa Haftar’s 4 April announcement declaring his march on Tripoli, and the subsequent attack on the Libyan capital by his forces, threaten to gravely impact the already tenuous process of placing the country on a more inclusive and representative trajectory, and highlights his intention to subjugate all of Libya to his rule. As a result of the Haftar threat, the Libyan National Conference planned by the UN, and which was to be held this week, was postponed. Significantly, unlike in relation to his rapid capture of the South between December 2018 and March 2019, Haftar’s move westwards is likely to be fraught with challenges; even if it is successful, his grip on power will continue to be subject to low-level insurgent warfare. 

Haftar’s decision to march on Tripoli was likely influenced by the announcement of the UN’s national conference, which was to be held in the southwestern town of Ghadamis. It was hoped the conference would agree on a roadmap for Libya’s future that would include a provision for elections to be held before the end of this year. Haftar’s likely fear was that the diverse, and fairly representative 120-person conference would have opposed his super-sized role in the country’s future, especially since he wants to become the supreme military commander in any future settlement. Significantly, a February meeting in the UAE between Haftar and the head of the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al-Sarraj, sought to formulate a compromise, and proposed reducing the Presidential Council (PC) that controlled the GNA from nine members to three, and tacitly acknowledging that Haftar would be one of the three. Indeed, the proposed compromise was too heavily weighted in Haftar’s favour for it to be implemented by the GNA.

Haftar calculated that his march on Tripoli would spur militia groups in the West to quickly change sides, joining his forces and allowing him to rapidly conquer the city. His previous such offensive was in the South where, through crafting opportune alliances and by instigating rivalry and warfare between southern tribes, he was able rapidly to capture much of that part of the country, even though his hold on the area is tenuous. With the fall of the South, Haftar now controls all Libya’s oil resources, which empowers him in any future negotiations.

However, he had miscalculated; a few smaller towns, such as Rujban and Surman, shifted allegiances, but most militia groups mobilised to defend the capital. Significantly, the large Bunyan Marsus militia from the city of Misrata dispatched troops to defend Tripoli, even though Haftar attempted to involve it in local skirmishes around Sirte. Further, militia form the city of Zintan also joined the Misratans, even though Zintan’s leadership is divided on whether to support the GNA. After Haftar’s initial approach to Tripoli, the frontlines have remained constant, just outside the city, with his self-styled Libyan National Army being unable to breach its barriers.

Foreign powers, especially France, Russia, the UAE and Egypt, continue to support Haftar, even though French diplomats claim they did not authorise the march on Tripoli, and despite the fact that these countries issued a statement on 4 April asking Haftar to halt his offensive. An example of this support is that a 6 April UNSC formal statement condemning Haftar was blocked by Russia, with the result that the UNSC issued just a press statement that called on ‘all forces’ to halt activities. Echoing that sentiment, the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said, ‘both sides will have to come to a new understanding’. 

It is likely that the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia green lighted Haftar’s march on Tripoli. In his visit to Cairo on 6 and 7 April, he received unequivocal support from Egypt’s president, Abdul Fattah El-Sisi. France is unlikely to halt its support to Haftar; Paris is keen to control Libya’s vast oil resources, and Haftar’s counter terrorism rhetoric that paints all Islamists as terrorists appeals to Macron. Paris is also attracted by the ‘stability’ that a Haftar victory would bring, especially since France maintains strong interests in former colonies Niger and Chad, which have been negatively impacted by Libya’s current chaos. 

Moscow dispatched troops, equipment and private contractors to support Haftar; Russia’s interest is resuming the large military contracts it had lost after Gadhafi’s ouster, which it believes Haftar will revive. In general, Moscow also favours strongmen, which it, like France, believes would ease its re-entry into the continent; it has thus supported Sisi’s Egypt and Bashir’s Sudan.

Highlighting the fact that Libya has become a battle ground between foreign powers, Russia warned against outside interference, fearing that the USA and Italy might strengthen support for the GNA. Matteo Selvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister, recently intensified criticism of French activities in Libya in support of Haftar. Meanwhile, the EU’s statement on Libya, which would have condemned  Haftar, similar to the US statement, was blocked by Paris. 

The African Union continues to be a non-player, restricting itself to monitoring events. The continental organisation had planned a July reconciliation conference on Libya, but it is now uncertain whether it will go ahead or have much impact, despite the AU’s insistence that there were no plans for a postponement. Algeria, one of the key actors influencing the AU on Libya, is currently involved in its own leadership transition.

If Haftar’s move on Tripoli intensifies into a battle, Libya’s civil war will enter a deadlier phase, especially since weapons’ proliferation in the country is ubiquitous. It will also increase destabilisation in the region, where contestation over power is occurring in Sudan and Algeria, and where conflicts in Mali, Burkina Faso and, to an extent, Egypt continue. The international community must ensure that the Libyan National Conference goes ahead as soon as possible.

By Salma Sayyid

An insidious, toxic global nexus of right wing, neoconservative organizations from the United States, Europe and South Africa is rapidly gaining momentum as an avowedly racist worldview begins to shape domestic and foreign policy imperatives. From pro white supremacist sympathies emanating from the White House to anti-immigration sentiments of the vexatious Brexit debacle and right wing free marketers in South Africa, the key role players are now flexing their financial muscle with no encumbrances. The time of the muscular neoconservative crusader is upon us!

In Belgrade on 5 April 2019, a former sergeant in Israeli’s military intelligence was a keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Students for Liberty (SFL), a youth group whose mission is “to educate, develop, and empower the next generation of leaders of liberty”. The sergeant, Yaron Brook, whose parents were born in South Africa, is also the current chairman of the Ayn Rand Institute. Rand was a Russian-American writer and philosopher and the ARI promotes her principles of reason, rational self-interest, individual rights and laissez-faire capitalism to the widest possible audience. Brook is an uncompromising exponent of what rationalizing self-interest means. While appearing on the TV show of right wing neoconservative shrill, Bill O’Reilly, on 17 December 2004, Brook argued categorically on how US forces should deal with Iraqi civilians in Fallujah: “I'm suggesting that we start bringing this war to the civilians, the consequences of this war, to the civilians who are harbouring and helping and supporting the insurgents in Fallujah and other places. ... I would like to see the United States turn Fallujah into dust and tell the Iraqis: If you're going to continue to support the insurgents you will not have homes, you will not have schools, you will not have mosques.”

Brook further argued that if "flattening Fallujah to end the Iraqi insurgency will save American lives, to refrain from [doing so] is morally evil." Brook’s comments are neither surprising nor uncommon amongst this crusading movement of “regime change” advocates comprising billionaire right wing ideologues, white nationalists, Christian and secular Zionists, free market extremists and run off the mill neo Nazis. 

The SFL and ARI are just a small part of an extraordinary influential, US-based network of well-resourced politically connected individuals who are intent on expanding their presence and ideas around the globe. Their tentacles have even reached Africa.

In South Africa, the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), Free Market Foundation (FMF), Students for Liberty (Cape Town), Independent Entrepreneurship Group (Ineng), African Liberty Forum, the newly formed Capitalist Party of SA and the new kids on the block, Progress SA, share board members, policy wonks and staff, as well sharing research, policy papers, coordinating their agendas while cloning their sponsor’s international policies and research to fit into domestic politics. More importantly, this cross-fertilization of board members and individuals, globally and locally, enables this network to leverage greater access to a broader spectrum of funding and enjoy greater intimacy to political power. 

At the centre of this global network are the various umbrella organizations in the US providing funding, intellectual cover and anonymity for right wing think tanks, activist groups, university associations, free market organizations and lobbying groups to operate.

 

Koch Brothers

Amongst the world’s foremost mega-donors to right wing causes are the billionaires Charles and David Koch, co-owners of Koch Industries. Their combined fortune is approximately $100 billion, ranking them the second wealthiest family in America. 

Their father, Fred Koch, began building his fortune with $500,000 received from Stalin for constructing 15 oil refineries in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Later on, his company, Winkler-Koch, built the Nazis their third-largest oil refinery. According to Jane Mayer, author of “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right”, Fred Koch wrote in 1938 that “the only sound countries in the world are Germany, Italy and Japan”. Fred hired a nanny, who was a zealous Nazi, to ensure his children were instilled with his ideas and values. When she left for Germany in 1940, Fred became the single enforcer at home. It is no surprise that the brothers have a penchant for supporting and enforcing right wing policies. Their strategic political and funding philosophy is deeply embedded in their fervent desire to support causes that ultimately achieve their own predetermined objectives.

Writing in The New Yorker in August 2010, Mayer says: “The Kochs are long-time libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests.” No doubt the brother’s private agenda drives a global movement that is pro-rich, against corporate taxation, advocates climate change denialism and part of the pro-gun lobby.

An example of their obsessive conservative bent was evident during the run-up to the 2012 US election, when Koch-affiliated organizations raised a staggering $400 million to spend on a campaign, unsuccessful it turned out, to oust President Obama and hand back control of the Senate to the Republicans. At a 2015 gathering of Koch donors, the network announced an unbelievable $889 million spending goal for the 2016 elections.

According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, ”Koch officials vowed to spend between $300 million and $400 million to shape the 2018 midterm elections”.

The Kochs’ chief political strategist is Richard Fink, who approached the brothers in 1977 to urge them to turn their libertarian ideals and love of “free markets” into political advocacy. Fink developed a three-stage model of social change: universities would produce “the intellectual raw materials”; think tanks would transform them into “a more practical or usable form”; and then “citizen activist” groups would “press for the implementation of policy change”. They have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a network of academic departments, think tanks, journals and movements in the US and via conduit organizations globally. The most prominent being the State Policy Network, the Atlas Foundation and the Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund. Donors Trust and DCF allow wealthy individuals and philanthropic organizations to donate to right-wing causes (and even hate groups) with anonymity.

These Koch-funded networks have launched strident attacks on climate science, criticized clean energy and stifled debate on renewable energy via an army of front groups. They have also worked with big tobacco companies, like Phillip Morris, to stop common-sense regulations and public health measures on smoking. In fighting the tobacco cause, the Kochs refined their game plan that they would use to continue to fight against anti-pollution legislation, workers rights and subverting participatory democracy.

According to a 2013 investigation by the US Center for Media and Democracy (Exposed: The State Policy Network The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government): “When the Kochbrothers want to see lower corporate taxes and fewer pollution regulations so Koch Industries can see higher profits, contributing to right-wing think tanks that aggressively call for lowering – or eliminating – corporate taxes and removing environmental regulations serves as an investment that aids their corporation as well as their personal agenda.”

The vast array of front organizations, think tanks, corporate lobbyists, educational programmes, political and consumer groups, pro-free market advocacy organizations are affiliated or indirectly funded by Koch Industries, the Charles Koch Institute, and Charles Koch Foundation. The scale of this powerhouse’s influence and resources was demonstrated at an exclusive Charles Koch Foundation event in 2018, when about 500 Koch donors — each committing at least $100,000 annually — met for the Foundation’s weekend "seminar" that had the usual cast of elected politicians and high-profile political influencers.

Under US law, Koch Industries, which is privately owned by Charles and David, is not obliged to disclose who it funds, in effect meaning that the total amount Koch Industries has spent on advancing the right-wing agenda of its leaders and organizations will never be revealed.The Institute separated from the Foundation in 2011 and has rebranded itself as an “organization specifically dedicated to educating the next generation of professional leaders” with libertarian-minded internships, grant funding and professional development courses. 

 

Atlas Network

Washington-based Atlas Network (formerly known as the Atlas Economic Research Foundation)is a think tank that promotes free market economic policies around the World.  Founded in 1981 Atlas openly funds right-wing activities in more than 90 countries. With an annual budget of almost U$ 11 million, it actively funds and promotes neoconservativeorganizations from funding political activity around the world, each movement is supported by “formation institutes”, which are free to receive funds to carry out their agitation. 

In Brazil where organizations such as the Free Brazil Movement (MLB), the Liberal Institute and Students for Liberty Brazil emerged in Brazil’s political landscape, publishing books and organizing demonstrations as well as providing training and lectures to hand-picked leaders.

On the relationship between Students for Liberty (EPL) with the Free Brazil Movement, Juliano Torres, executive director of the Brazilian branch of EPL, was quoted by journalist Marina Amaral in an article for Agencia Publicia: “We receive money from foreign organizations as well, such as Atlas. Atlas, with Students for Liberty, are our main donors. In Brazil, the main organizations are Friderich Naumann, a German organization, which aren’t allowed to donate money, but they pay for our expenses”.

Various corporations and foundations helped Atlas to donate more than U$ 4 million to various organizations around the world in 2014. Companies such as Google, Exxon Mobil and organizations such as DonorsTrust, State Policy Network were just some of their donors. This neoconservative network has reshaped political power in country after country and at times has acted as a covert arm of U.S. foreign policy, with Atlas-associated think tanks receiving under the radar funding from the State Department and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a critical extension of American quiet diplomacy.

Atlas Network’s modus operandi is simple: “It gives grants for new think tanks, provides courses on political management and public relations, sponsors networking events around the world, and, in recent years, has devoted special resources to prodding libertarians to influence public opinion through social media and online videos.”

That the Trump administration is littered with alumni of Atlas-related groups and friends should not come as a surprise. Trump’s former counterterrorism adviser, Sebastian Gorka, is a right wing Islamophobe once headed an Atlas-backed think tank in Hungary and still has links to the Order of Vitéz- a Hungarian far-right, Nazi-allied group - and Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard) - a paramilitary fascist group. Notwithstanding these links, US Congressman and co-chair of the Congressional Israel Allies Caucus, Trent Franks called Gorka "the staunchest friend of Israel and the Jewish people. Michael Rubin of the influential Washington based right wing think tank, American Enterprise Institute, said Gorka "is about as anti-Semitic as Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That is, not at all." Evidently just a trifling inkling of pro-Israel sentiments is sufficient to absolve one’s anti-Semitic philandering!

US Vice President Mike Pence attended an Atlas event and spoke highly of the organization, while, perhaps the biggest feather in the cap for the Network is the appointment of former senior fellow at the Atlas Network, Judy Shelton, as Trump’s economic advisor and chair of the NED after Trump’s victory. Shelton also served as an adviser to the Trump campaign and transition team.

 

Students For Liberty (SFL)

The US-based Students for Liberty organizes student groups and leaders around the world to become a new generation of libertarian leaders. SFL is funded largely by a network of anonymous conservative donors through the Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, along with several Koch-affiliated groups. At their annual conference in January 2019, Google was the $25,000 platinum sponsor, while Facebook and Microsoft were $10,000 sponsors each.

The SFL programs are carried out in partnership with other foundations, especially the Cato Institute and the Institute of Human Studies, all these organizations are linked to the Koch family. 

As pointed out previously, Juliano Torres, an executive of the Students for Liberty Brazil, participates in an all-expenses paid international conference and leadership meeting in Washington annually. The reported 2015 budget of the SFL Brazil affiliate was R$300,000. On the launch of the EPL, Torres states it happened after he participated in a 2012 summer workshop for thirty students in Petropolis, sponsored by the Atlas Network. After that, Torres went through several training programs at Atlas: “There is one they call MBA, there is a program in New York, and also online training. We recommend to all people who work in positions of a certain responsibility to also go through the Atlas Network training programs.”

In the last two decades, the 11 foundations tied with the Kochs poured US$800 million into the American network of conservative foundations. Another donor to Atlas is The Templeton Foundation, a right-wing philanthropic organization that sets out to “bridge science and spirituality while – on a not obviously related track – promoting free enterprise.” The Foundation has also dabbled in politics when in 2004 it launched the group ‘Let Freedom Ring’, which was aimed at “getting out the evangelical Christian vote for George Bush.”

With considerably larger budgets than the Atlas Network, these organizations have developed and funded fellowship programs globally, which have been executed by Atlas. 

 

South Africa

In 2007 African Liberty was “founded as a project of the Cato Institute, thereafter under the auspices of the Atlas Network. It claims “It is a platform for advancing individual freedom, peace, and prosperity in Africa by promoting civil discussion and debate about social, legal, economic, and world issues affecting Africans” according to information on its website.

On the Advisory Board of African Liberty is Frans Cronje, the Chief Executive Officer of SAIRR. In its 2017 Annual Report, SAIRR lists the Atlas Foundation as one of its “significant donors”. Another important donor is the liberal political, climate change sceptics, German-based Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF). According to its website, the Democratic Alliance (DA) is a longstanding partner of the FNF. 

In May 2017 the Free Market Foundation (FMF) together with the Atlas Network and The John Templeton Foundation, hosted the Africa Liberty Forum in Johannesburg. Discussions focussed on the challenges facing Africa and how to “most effectively advance free-market reforms”. 

Key speakers were Leon Louw, cofounder of the FMF, Unathi Kwaza from the Independent Entrepreneurship Group (Ineng) and current board member of the FMF, and a candidate for the newly formed Capitalist Party of South Africa. Other candidates for the Party are Kanthan Pillay and Roman Cabanac. Cabanac is co-host of The Renegade Report, a right of centre web-based talk show. Cabanac is a self-styled “advocate of individualism and anarchism”. Of free market economics and an avowed supporter of Israel. The SAIRR was also represented by its Vice President for Transatlantic Affairs, Garreth BloorBloor was elected to the Cape Town City Council in 2011 as a DA candidate and was subsequently appointed to the Mayoral Committee in February 2013. 

In July 2016, Leon Louw shared a Foreign Policy Panel discussion at a Charles Koch Institute funded gathering. The panel discussed how government actions abroad relate to markets and the economy. Coincidentally FMF advocacy for Big Tobacco follows a similar agenda of the Kochs and other pro-tobacco lobby groups.

In 2015 Ineng and the SAIRR sponsored the first event for the African Students for Liberty‘s Cape Town chapter. The African Students for Liberty (ASFL) is the continent’s affiliate of the US-based SFL.

Ineng has a partnership with the Atlas Network and in January 2015 Ineng “joined the Atlas Network’s global directory, the third group from South Africa and the first from Cape Town to do so”. Two South Africans are currently listed on the Executive Board of the ASFL. Martin van Stadenjoined ASFL in late 2014 as a Local Coordinator and was accepted onto the African Executive Board in August 2015 and served till August 2018. Martin is a Legal Researcher at the Free Market Foundation and Academic Programs Director of Students For Liberty in Southern Africa. Nicholas Woode-Smith became a Local Coordinator in 2015. In 2016, he became the Regional Coordinator for Southern Africa.  Nicholas co-founded the online publication Rational Standard in 2016 to “provide a libertarian alternative to the mainstream left-wing media in South Africa”. 

Another key player in the Students for Liberty organization is University of Cape Town student, Jordan Seligmann. According to his LinkedIn profile, Jordan currently serves as the Treasurer of the UCT chapter of the ASFL. From November 2017 to November 2018, Jordan was the Secretary of the UCT’s branch of ASFL. From May 2017 – November 2017 he served as Chairperson of the South African Union of Jewish Students (Cape Town) and was elected onto the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies. Seligmann is also the Deputy Chair in Administration of the Democratic Alliance Student Organisation (UCT).

An interesting note in van Staden’s resume on the ASFL website is that he lists Stefan Molyneux as his “Favourite Figures in Liberty”. Molyneux is an Irish-Canadian white supremacist political commentator and a white genocide conspiracy theorist who podcasts on Freedomain Radio.  Molyneux frequently hosts white supremacists like Peter Brimelow (founder of the white nationalist website VDare) and Jared Taylor (founder of the white supremacist magazine American Renaissance. Molyneux was refused entry to Australia because of his racist views.

In a 2017 interview, Brimelow told Molyneux that white nationalism is "a perfectly fine term" and "a legitimate point of view." Molyneux chipped in that whites had spearhead liberation struggles in non-white regions of the world, including South Africa, but that these regions were "backsliding" after whites had left or became a minority. In a 2018 interview with far right activist and internet personality, Lauren Southern, Molyneux stated that the media and NGOs were under-reporting violence against white farmers in South Africa because they "don’t want to scare the whites in the west with what happens when whites become a minority in a highly aggressive and tribalised world".

Newcomers to right wing campus politics is UCT-based Progress SA. Presently the public face of the web-based organization are Tami Jackson and Scott Roberts who have done the media rounds in Cape Town. Progress SA claims it is a “grassroots movement fighting for a free future in South Africa”. The movement's mission is to “search for a rational, moral alternative to racial nationalism, identity politics and other kinds of totalitarianism.”

On its website, the group does not identify any of its  leadership or office bearers. Ironically, an organization whose mission is to safeguard free speech, information regarding the identity of its website registrant and all contact information is redacted. While platformed by the Renegade Report, Tami Jackson acknowledged that the organization received funding from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.

Progress SA has launched a campaign at UCT opposing what it calls the “university's policy framework for decolonising the curriculum”. The group says the proposal would limit academic freedom and introduce “a colour bar” that would allow only lecturers of certain races to teach certain subjects. Predictably it is also opposing the Senate’s resolution in favour of a proposal for UCT to not enter into “any formal relationships with Israeli academic institutions operating in the occupied Palestinian territories as well as other Israeli academic institutions enabling gross human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories”.

 Unsurprisingly, Progress SA posters on the UCT campus are also endorsed by the Students for Liberty.

There is no doubt that there is a growing political and financial alliance between right wing US neo conservatives and South African ngos, think tanks and student organizations. From the Koch brothers to the Institute of Race Relations, Free Market Foundation, Students for Liberty and Progress SA, this network of libertarian, right wing, neoconservative advocacy is finding voice in South Africa at the moment that right wing, white supremacist politics is gaining ground in the US and parts of Europe. This is the ugly face of right-wing politics in the age of Trump!

This toxic politics has consequences both for our democracy, as money from these shady organisations pour into our country; and for Academic Freedom, as this money attempts to influence research directions at our Universities currently starved of funding.

Turkey’s local election concluded with the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) incurring heavy losses in major cities, and the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) making significant gains. The poll, which will result in the election of new mayors, mukhtars and local assembly members, saw the AKP losing the capital, Ankara; the commercial hub and largest city, Istanbul; and a major city, Izmir. Although the AKP and its alliance still won around fifty per cent of the votes overall, losing major cities is an indicator of voters’ waning confidence in the AKP and its leader (and Turkey’s president) Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and punishing the party with its biggest losses since attaining power in 2002.

Erdogan based the AKP’s campaign on national security, side-lining local economic grievances that caused many voters concern about their future. The depreciation of the Turkish Lira against the dollar in 2018 saw inflation increase to twenty-five per cent in October 2018 and resulted in rising unemployment. Although the AKP lodged a complaint with the Supreme Electoral Council, challenging the results in Istanbul and thirty-eight other districts, Erdogan seems to have accepted these election as a learning moment, and has vowed to fix the economy to regain voter confidence ahead of the 2023 national elections. Nevertheless, the current loss signifies the mood of an electorate which finds itself disconnected from the AKP that it once embraced, and is seeking refuge in the opposition. The elections were also seen as a referendum on Erdogan’s rule, after the country moved from a parliamentary to a presidential system in 2018, extending his powers significantly.

Election outcomes reflect a disgruntled electorate

Table 1: Turkish local election results

Turkey election 1

Turkey election 2

Source: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/secim/31-mart-2019-yerel-secimleri/

National security over economic issues

Elections results  show that these elections have been challenging for Erdogan. They are the first elections since he was elected in 2018 as the country’s first executive president after a controversial referendum in 2017 that changed the electoral system from parliamentary to presidential. Under the new system, Erdogan can rule the country almost by decree, and many people fear that the country is in the grip of dictatorial tendencies from the president. Since his election, the AKP has focused on positioning the country internationally in a region that is plagued by political instability and insecurity. This continued to be the case as the AKP and its coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party(MHP), campaigned for the election under the banner of the People’s Alliance.

The Alliance’s campaign focused on national security and terrorism, taking swipes at some candidates by accusing them of links to the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party  (PKK) and of being western agents. Erdogan further blamed the deterioration of the Turkish Lira on foreign powers trying to destroy Turkey. Erdogan’s rhetoric on national security and terrorism meant that he avoided speaking about the country’s economic issues, whereas his opponents focused on the economic problems, blaming them on his government, which they accused of corruption and maladministration. The CHP capitalised on the discontent of the electorate amid inflation increasing from less than ten per cent in March 2014 to a peak of twenty-five per cent in October 2018.

Turkey’s economic difficulties were exacerbated by its international diplomatic problems, specifically its complicated relationship with the USA. In August 2018, the USA imposed sanctions on Turkey over the detention of US pastor Andrew Brunson, who Turkey charged with aiding the 2016 attempted coup. Although Turkey eventually released Brunson – after a series of bilateral diplomatic talks, the Turkish Lira failed to strengthen amid huge government debt created by massive spending and borrowing. In January 2019, the US president, Donald Trump, threatened to destroy the Turkish economy again if Turkey attacked US-supported Kurdish forces in Syria. The Turkish Lira suffered again, but managed to remain steady after Erdogan cut down on his rhetoric threatening the US proxies in Syria. Nevertheless, relations between the USA and Turkey remain fragile, especially after the latter halted the sale of fighter jets to Turkey because of Ankara’s intention to purchase the Russian S-400 defence system. The decision saw the Turkish Lira fall by three per cent to 5.6590 against the dollar. Many issues remain unresolved between the two countries, including the future of Kurdish forces in Syria, which Ankara  sees as the extension of the PKK.

Suppression of Kurdish candidates

Another factor that contributed to the CHP victory was Erdogan’s suppression of Kurdish candidates contesting the election. Before announcing the election, Erdogan removed and replacedmayors in predominantly Kurdish areas  with AKP leaders close to him. Soon after the outcomes of the current election were announced, Erdogan threatenedto again replace Kurdish mayors with trusted ones linked to the AKP. Some Kurdish politicians, such as   former co-chair of the Kurdish-majority People’s Democratic Party  (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas, were forced to campaign from prison, while many others linked to the HDP had been charged with terrorism and links to the PKK. Due to this and other factors, the HDP did not field candidates in many areas, including Istanbul, thus losing their voters to the CHP. Further, the HDP did not enjoy much media coverage during its campaign, with over ninety per cent media coveragegiven to the AKP.

Loss of traditional AKP voters

The AKP did not lose only Kurdish voters but also voters in areas where Erdogan had traditionally enjoyed widespread support, such as the Mediterranean region. Adana and Antalya were bothlost to CHP. In the resort city of Antalya, the AKP won forty-six percentof the vote against the CHP’s fifty per cent. This further frustrated Erdogan, who had hoped to tap into nationalist rhetoric for his traditional supporters in the Mediterranean areas. The loss ofMersin and Hatayto the CHP has almost kicked the AKP out of theAegean and Mediterranean region. It lost many strategic areas in these elections despite the political odds being stacked in its favour. Erdogan’s repeated accusations against opposition candidates of terrorism, his jailing of journalists and closing downof independent media, and his suppression of Kurdish politicians still failed to secure the AKP a victory in the country’s major cities. Ankara fell to the CHP’s fifty-nine per cent win,fifty-eight per cent of Izmir’s voters put their cross next to CHP candidates’ names, and in Istanbul, which is politically important for Erdogan, the CHP won by 48.8 per cent.

Istanbul, the contested jewel in the crown

These major losses led the AKP officially to object to the electoral outcomes, claiming irregularities. The objections reflect Istanbul’s political and personal significance for Erdogan, whose career début was in Istanbul when he was elected mayor in 1994. After the AKP suffered a painful defeat in Ankara, Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council ceased the counting of ballots in Istanbul with around ninety-nine per cent counted. The state-run Anadolu news agency stopped reporting on the vote tallies shortly thereafter. The AKP candidate for Istanbul, Binali Yildirim, a former prime minister, claimed victory over CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu even though the CHP led by around 5 000 votes. The electoral board declared Imamoglu the winner even though the results remain ‘unofficial’ until the objections are dealt with. The indications are that the electoral council will keep the results likely the same despite the AKP objections. Indications are that the electoral council will likely maintain the results in Istanbul, despite AKP claim’s of the involvement of ‘organised crime’ in some Istanbul districts. Despite ongoing recounts in many Istanbul districts, the electoral council is not expected chamge its original result, despite AKP objections.

Conclusion

Together with the overall results and the AKP’s loss of major cities, the Turkish local elections reflect the mood of a discontented electorate. The opposition has been re-energised, and provided with a morale boost to enable it to build support against the AKP and Erdogan ahead of the 2023 general elections. The loss has been a wake-up call to the AKP, which has vowed to work harder to regain lost support. The rhetoric to rebuild AKP support may also be a sign that Erdogan will not take steps to undermine the municipal elections’ outcome by exercising his presidential powers. Turkey’s rampant economic woes, exacerbated by local and foreign challenges that contributed to the AKP defeat might see Erdogan make certain concessions to stabilise the economy using presidential decrees that could undermine democratic processes. With the overall results remaining the same even after the review of the objections, it remains to be seen whether Erdogan will concede defeat in Istanbul. What is more important is what he does going forward, with Turkey mired in a suffering economy and a disgruntled electorate.

Uncertainty follows Moroccan-Saudi spat

  • 16 February, 2019
  • Published in Morocco

By Hassan Aourid

Moroccan-Saudi relations have never been as cool and strained as they have become in the past week, following a report on the Western Sahara disputebroadcast on Al-Arabiya, a television channel close to decision-making circles in Riyadh. The report blatantly deviated from Saudi Arabia’s traditional pro-Rabat line, and was a reaction to an interview on Al Jazeera by Morocco’s foreign minister,Nasser Bourita where he had sketched Morocco’s new foreign policy guidelines, focusing on Morocco’swithdrawal from the Saudi-led coalition in the war in Yemen. 

Morocco’s immediate response to the Al-Arabiya report was to recall its ambassador from Riyadh ‘for consultations’. This is an inappropriate reaction since it was not an official Saudi position that overtly threatened Morocco’s strategic interests.  Reports on a media channel cannot be construed as reflecting the official stance of a state, regardless of its connections with those in power, especially when considering the assertion made by Morocco’s top diplomat that his country has strategic relations with the Gulf states.

Since three Gulf countries – Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain – and Egypt had decided to blockade Qatar, signs of a quiet crisis had emerged not only in relations between Rabat and Riyadh, but also between Rabat and the Abu Dhabi. Morocco did not yield to calls to boycott Qatar, but rather sent food to Qatar and sought to heal the rift between the Gulf countries. This did not sit well with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, whose leaders expected Morocco to abide by the decisions of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, or, more correctly, the decisions of their respective strongmen, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and Mohammed bin Zayed.

Tensions worsened when Saudi Arabia refused to back Morocco’s bid to host the 2026 Football World Cup.  Turki Al-Sheikh, then chair of Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority and an official close to the Saudi crown prince, tweeted provocatively that grey zones were no longer acceptable and that ‘you are either with us or against us’. He mocked Morocco for leaning towards a little ‘emirate’ – meaning Qatar – and, in a spiteful tone, advised the north African kingdom to turn to the ‘tiny emirate’ for help, which, he said, would be futile since everyone knew ‘where the lion’s den can be found’.  Prince Bandar bin Sultan, an expert in Morocco-Saudi relations and a former Saudi intelligence official, further asserted that the time for flattery had passed.

When MbS was in Paris in March 2018, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, attempted to bring together the Moroccan king, Mohammed VI, the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, and MbS, even recording the event for posterity through a selfie. However, that did not persuade the Saudis to reconsider their position on the Moroccan bid. Not only did Saudi Arabia vote against Morocco – even though all Arab states had undertaken at an Arab League summit in Riyadh to back Morrocco – it also led a campaign supporting the US-Canada bid.  Further, it went to great lengths to vilify Morocco, mocking its Berber origins and economic situation through social media.

The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was Morocco’s neutrality over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Riyadh refused to accept such a position a state it viewed as a strategic ally.  The situation became more complicated when Rabat declined to host the Saudi crown prince while he was on a regional tour en route to the G20 summit in Buenos Aires at a time when he was desperate to break out of his isolation. MbS visited Tunis and Algiers but skipped Rabat, ostensibly due to the Moroccan king’s tight schedule which did not allow for a meeting, as Morocco’s foreign minister explained.

Is it ‘a passing cloud’?

Morocco’s ambassador to Riyadh referred to the spat between the two countries as ‘a passing cloud’. However, the current diplomatic crisis between Morocco and Saudi Arabia is actually the culmination of a series of successive developments. Moroccan-Saudi relations will not return to their former state of close relations whose foundations were laid during the rule of Morocco’s King Hassan II and Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd. It was during this period that Hassan II established an American-style university in the heart of the Atlas and named it the Akhawan University (the university of the two brothers) in reference to himself and Fahd.

Spurred on by the aftershocks of the ‘Arab Spring’, Saudi Arabia set up what has been referred to as a ‘club of monarchs’, which included Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states together with Morocco and Jordan. During the 2016 GCC summit, Morocco pledged unqualified commitment to the security of Gulf states, a position best illustrated by the king’s pronouncement that ‘whatever affects you, affects us’.

But this posture did not sit well with the new crop of leaders in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, whose education and outlook starkly contrast with those of their predecessors. The old generation remained true to their Arab pride and to a sense of belonging to the Islamic community – even if these were leveraged as stock-in-trade, as in a business. The new generation, however, does not care much about Arab values, fully embraces current global financial trends, comes across as pragmatic (at times even beyond the bounds of reasonableness), and sees Islam and movements operating under its banner as a threat that warrants their enmity.

What Saudi Arabia did through the Al-Arabiya documentary was not merely a rap on the knuckles;  it signalled a new way of dealing with Morocco, one where all means of inflicting harm and causing disparagement are legitimate. It feels betrayed by its closest ally in the region, and decided to inflict on Morocco similar treatment to that it meted out to Lebanon in 2015, when it closed sea routes and released the names of collaborators and recipients of remuneration, privileges or commissions from Saudi Arabia.

Morocco’s firm and wise response should not focus only on defending its strategic interests, but on doing it well.  Securing the right to host an international sporting tournament cannot be considered a strategic interest, and should not be identified as a factor in determining relations with any other state. Those in power in Rabat must be reminded of this principle. The strength of any county’s foreign policy stems from its ability to reflect the interests of all its people, not only the interests of a specific category of people, and not by yielding to transient considerations of unknown origins and objectives.

Hassan Aourid is a former spokesperson of the Moroccan royal palace and a lecturer in political science at Muhammad the Fifth University in Rabat.

By Ramzy Baroud

Five years after spearheading what is inaptly referred to as a ‘government of national reconciliation’, Palestinian Prime Minister, Rami Hamdallah, has finally resigned.

“We put our government at the disposal of President Mahmoud Abbas and we welcome the recommendations of the Fatah Central Committee to form a new government,” Hamdallah tweeted, shortly after Abbas had ordered him to dismantle the government.

Since the Palestinian Authority was founded in 1994, 17 governments have been formed, and every single one of them was dominated by the Fatah party, the largest faction within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Fatah’s monopoly over Palestinian politics has wrought disasters. Neither did the PA deliver the coveted Palestinian state, nor did Fatah use its influence to bring Palestinian factions together. In fact, the opposite is true.

Most of these 17 governments were short-lived, except that of Hamdallah, which has governed for five years, despite the fact that it failed in its primary mission: healing the terrible rift between Fatah in the Israeli Occupied West Bank, and Hamas in Israel-besieged Gaza.

Moreover, it also fell short of bringing PLO factions closer together. Thus far, the second largest PLO faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) refuses to participate in a future government that will also be dominated by Fatah.

Palestinian divisions have never been as pronounced as they are today. While all Palestinian factions, Hamas and Islamic Jihad included, bear part of the blame for failing to unify their ranks and form a single national strategy to combat Israeli colonialism and occupation, Abbas bears the largest share.

Even before becoming a president of the PA in January 2005, Abbas has always been a divisive political figure. When he was the PA’s Prime Minister, between March and September 2003 under the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, Abbas clashed with anyone who would challenge his often self-serving political agenda, including Arafat himself. His constant clashing with Arafat at the time made him a favorite in Washington.

Abbas was elected on a weak popular mandate, as Hamas and others boycotted the presidential elections. His first, and only term in office expired in 2009. For a whole decade, neither Abbas nor any government of his have operated with the minimum requirement of democracy. Indeed, for many years the will of the Palestinian people has been hijacked by wealthy men, fighting to preserve their own interests while undeservingly claiming the role of leadership.

The 2006 Hamas victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections was a reminder to Abbas (but also to Israel and the United States) of how dangerous free elections can be. Since then, there has been much talk about the need for new elections, but no sincere efforts have been made to facilitate such a task. Logistical difficulties notwithstanding (for Palestine is, after all an occupied country), neither party wants to take the risk of letting the people have the last word.

Palestine and her people are not only trapped by Israeli walls, fences and armed soldiers, but by their inept leadership as well.  

The 2007 Fatah-Hamas clashes which led to the current extreme polarization have split Palestinians politically, between the West Bank, under Abbas’ authoritative control, and Hamas, in besieged and struggling Gaza. While Israeli leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, often complains of the lack of a ‘Palestinian partner’, his government, with the aid of Washington, has done its utmost to ensure Palestinian division.

Several agreements between Fatah and Hamas have been signed, the latest, which appeared most promising, was achieved in October 2017. Palestinians were cautious, then, but also hopeful as several practical steps were taken this time to transfer legal responsibilities from Hamas to the Hamdallah government, whether in the various Gaza ministries, or at the Rafah-Egypt border.

Then, just when the wheels began turning, raising hopes among ordinary Palestinians that this time things were truly changing, Rami Hamdallah’s convoy was attacked as it crossed the main entrance to Gaza, via Israel.

Some sinister force clearly wanted Hamdallah dead, or, at least, it wanted to send a violent message providing the political fodder to those who wanted to stall the political progress between the two main Palestinian parties. Hamas quickly claimed to have apprehended the culprits, while Fatah, without much investigation, declared that Hamas was responsible for the bomb, thus stalling and, eventually, severing all reconciliation talks.

This was followed by clearly orchestrated steps to punish Gaza and push the people in the besieged and war-devastated Strip to the point of complete despair. First, Abbas refused to pay money to the Israeli company that provides some of Gaza’s electricity needs - thus leaving Gaza in the dark; then he significantly slashed salaries to Gaza workers, among other measures.

In response, tens of thousands of Gazans went to the fence separating besieged Gaza from Israel protesting the Israeli siege, which, with Abbas’ latest collective punishment, has become beyond unbearable.

Indeed, Gaza’s ongoing ‘Great March of Return’, which began on March 30, 2018, was a popular response to a people fed up with war, siege, international neglect, but also horrific political tribalism. Since the march began, over 200 Palestinians have been killed and thousands maimed and wounded.

Abbas is now 83-years old with increasingly debilitating health. His supporters within Fatah want to ensure a political transition that guarantees their dominance, because political monopoly offers many perks: wealth, privilege, power and prestige. For Fatah, Hamdallah and his ‘reconciliation’ government have ceased to serve any purpose. Additionally, a unity government with other Palestinian groups at this crucial, transitional period seems too risky a gamble for those who want to ensure future dominance.

The tragic truth is that all such politicking is happening within the confines of Israeli military Occupation, and that Israeli fences, walls, trenches, illegal Jewish settlements and Jewish-only bypass roads encircle all Palestinians, from Gaza to Jericho, and from Jerusalem to Rafah; that no Palestinian, Abbas included, is truly free, and that all political titles hold no weight before the power of a single Israeli sniper firing at Palestinian children at the Gaza fence.

Palestinians do need their unity and urgently so, not expressed in mere political compromises between factions, but the unity of a people facing the same brutal and oppressive enemy.

- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, UCSB.

By Marwa Fatafta

(This article was first published by Al-Shabaka - The Palestinian Policy Network)

Palestinians recently ranked corruption as the second largest problem they face after the economic crisis – higher than the Israeli occupation, which ranked third. Indeed, Palestinians generally view Palestinian Authority (PA) officials as a self-serving, elitist group disconnected from the Palestinian national struggle and the daily sufferings of the people. Such perceptions are fostered by the failure of the Oslo Accords, the death of the Palestinian statehood project, and the continued fragmentation of political leadership in the context of Israel’s ongoing oppressive occupation and its violations of Palestinians’ fundamental rights.1

Despite this dissatisfaction, there has been little change in the last two decades, whether at the top leadership level or within the ranks of PA institutions. What remains a constant is the ‘old guard’ maintaining a tight grip on power, rampant and systemic corruption, and the alienation of Palestinians from participation in decisions that impact their lives and future. 

The present reality of the PA in no way resembles the kind of Palestinian government promised since the heady years of the Oslo Accords. As Nathan Brown observed, ‘Palestine is, in short, a model liberal democracy. Its most significant flaw is that it does not exist.’ This discrepancy between envisaged democratic leadership and reality can be explained by the neopatrimonial nature of the Palestinian political system. Neopatrimonialism is a hybrid model in which state structures, laws, and regulations are formally in place but overridden by informal politics and networks of patronage, kinship, and tribalism. Instead of being organised according to merit, public function, or administrative grades, a neopatrimonial regime finds its glue in bonds of loyalty to those at the top of the political hierarchy.

In an institutional context in which Palestinians have no mechanisms to hold their leaders accountable, Palestinian neopatrimonialism has created a situation impervious to serious change in leadership or political system. Though the PA, after the onset of the Second Intifada, began to make attempts at reform, Palestinian political structures have remained corrupt and captured by one political faction, Fatah. The assets and resources of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the PA have been channelled toward serving the interests of the few at the expense of the majority.

The question of what can be done to remedy this crisis cannot be answered without understanding the nature of Palestinian political corruption and how it has led to the failure to serve the Palestinian people and rendered any attempt at reform useless. This policy brief examines Palestinian neopatrimonialism and corruption through a consideration of PA overreach, patronage practices, and collusion with Israel, as well as pressures from the international community. It ultimately proposes avenues for genuine reform, with the goal of building a truly democratic leadership and a governance system that represents all Palestinian people.

The PA: Overstepping its mandate

A Weakened legislature and judiciary

The two main Palestinian political bodies, the PLO and the PA, in principle should be democratic and representative as set out in the Palestinian Basic Law and the PLO’s constitution. However, the PLO has not only failed in the mission it carries in its name, but has also failed to act as the ‘sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people’. The PLO’s weakness can be seen in the fact that its legislative arm, the Palestinian National Council (PNC), convened in May 2018 after 22 years of inaction. The absence, during which the Oslo ‘peace process’ proved a total failure, demonstrates how the Palestinian leadership impeded the PLO from fulfillingits duty as a representative of Palestinians inside and outside the occupied territories. 

The PA, on the other hand, has overstepped its role as an interim government as stipulated in the Oslo Accords, and has increasingly become an authoritarian governing force in the West Bank. Hamas has followed suit in suppressing political dissent in the Gaza Strip. 

PA President Mahmoud Abbas enjoys almost absolute power as the highest executive authority – an arrangement inherited from former President Yasser Arafat, who is often credited for institutionalising the neopatrimonial regime. During his presidency, Arafat maintained power via political cooptation and suppression.

Since the 2007 shutdown of the PA’s legislative arm, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), Abbas has consolidated more power by assuming the roles of both the executive and the legislative branches of government, issuing legislation through presidential decrees and often in a process that lacks transparency and proper consultation with the public. 

Among Abbas’s most recent legislative decrees is the Palestinian cybercrime law of 2017. The law, despite being amended following a public outcry, allows authorities to block websites and conduct surveillance on ordinary social media users. Palestinians can be arrested for expressing their opinions and political views online and charged with ‘cybercrimes’, punishable by up to fifteen years in prison. 

The executive capture of power also extends to the judiciary. In April 2017, Palestinian judges, lawyers, and prosecutors gathered in Ramallah to protest a draft amendment that would grant the Palestinian president the authority to appoint the head of the High Judicial Council and the head of a committee that oversees judges. The amendment would also allow for the early retirement of judges, opening the door for the executive to interfere and threaten judges’ independence. Under such a provision, judges would have to think twice before issuing a ruling that challenges or opposes the executive authority. In an example of such forced pressure from the executive, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Sami Sarsour signed an undated letter of resignation shortly before he was sworn in. 

The constant failure to reach a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, despite announcing a national unity government in early 2017, also speaks volumes in regard to Fatah’s power monopoly and its marginalisation of other Palestinian political actors and their constituencies. Power sharing is a prerequisite to the establishment of a solid national unity government, and requires fundamental changes to the current political setup. 

Patronage and loyalty 

As a result of Fatah’s control of the PA and the PLO, the Palestinian administrative and political machines run on dynamics of inclusion vs. exclusion and reward vs. punishment – fundamentally, according to loyalty. Appointments of public positions and promotions, for example, are awarded or withdrawn not on the basis of performance or professional merit but on the level of loyalty to the leadership. 

For instance, holders of senior positions in the PA have invariably been appointed. Position descriptions are not publicly posted, nor are there openly established criteria for determining job scales, salaries, promotions, benefits, and bonuses. According to the Coalition for Accountability and Integrity – AMAN, the salaries and bonuses of the heads of some non-ministerial institutions have been higher than the salary of the president of the PA, whose monthly income, as stipulated by law, stands at $10 000. The appointment of freed Palestinian prisoners in the cadres of the civil workforce as compensation for their contribution to the Palestinian liberation movement is another example of the informal nature of PA positions.

Relatedly, in 2017 President Abbas forced 6 145 PA employees in Gaza into early retirement to pressure Hamas to cede control of the Strip. The number of PA employees in Gaza – both civil and security – is estimated to be around 50 000. Despite Hamas seizing control in Gaza, their salaries continue to be paid – albeit at a lower rate – to secure their loyalty to the PA. At the same time, Abbas uses government resources for political exclusion and punishment. A particularly abominable instance of this was the cutting of PA payments to Israel for electricity in Gaza, reducing the electricity supply to the Strip’s two million inhabitants to four hours a day. 

Covert dealings 

The dysfunction of the PLC and the PNC, two toothless legislative bodies, has resulted in the executive monopolising and signing secret negotiations and agreements. The Oslo Accords are a prime example of how the PLO executive monopolised negotiations with Israel and took decisions in the name of the Palestinian people that proved disastrous. In a similar vein, the PA’s executive ignored on numerous occasions the PLC’s decisions mandating that the leadership must immediately stop negotiations with Israel in response to its continuous oppression of the Palestinian people and the expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank.

The PA’s clandestine signing of agreements with Israel on matters related to energy, electricity, water, and communications demonstrates how far the leadership will go in ignoring formal processes and consultation with the public. These agreements have catastrophic political, economic, social, and environmental implications. One electricity-related agreement signed between Israel and the Palestinian private sector in September 2016 settled the PA’s outstanding $550 million debt to the Israel Electric Corporation with the aim of transferring the responsibility of providing electricity in the West Bank to the PA. 

The PA, which celebrated the agreement as a national victory and a step toward liberation, kept the agreement confidential despite public demands to disclose its terms. Palestinian civil society, media, and electric companies wanted to know: How will the power to distribute electricity be transferred to the PA? How will it be regulated? What are the implications? Every Palestinian citizen, as service recipients, should have the right to know of such an agreement. In the absence of basic transparency, Palestinians are denied their right to access information that impacts their daily lives and the basic services delivered to them by their government. This also impedes them from exercising any accountability over the PA.

The Red Sea-Dead Sea agreement, signed by the PA, Jordan, and Israel, was also completed in secret. Palestinian water and environment experts protested, warning that the agreement would cause irreversible environmental damage if implemented, as it will destroy what little is left of the Dead Sea’s ecosystem. Palestinians also protested the pact because it will entrench Israel’s denial of Palestinians’ rights to water, as the agreement undermines Palestinian sovereignty over the West Bank and part of the Jordan River basin. The PA, represented by the Palestinian Water Authority, excluded Palestinian experts from consultation and ignored them when they questioned the motivation behind signing such an agreement that achieves nothing for – and in fact damages – Palestinians. 

This lack of transparency and accountability has translated into the misappropriation, misuse, and waste of public funds. For example, Abbas constructed a presidential palace on a 4,700 square meter parcel of land (with another 4,000 square meters for auxiliary buildings, including a helipad) to host guests and foreign delegations. He decided last year to convert the building into a national library, to the cost of $17.5 million. While a national library is a noble idea, the investment in costly infrastructure by a government who is heavily in debt and dependent on foreign aid is a testament to misplaced priorities. 

International pressures and partnerships

The PA’s reliance on foreign aid has also undermined the Palestinian political system by making it accountable to international donors rather than the Palestinian people. The PA’s reform agenda and anti-corruption efforts have mostly stemmed from US and EU pressure since the outbreak of the Second Intifada, when the security situation on the ground deteriorated. The intent behind the agenda has been clear: Emphasise security over administrative reform and thus ensure the security of Israel at the expense of the security and basic civil and political freedoms of Palestinians. This has been reflected in the prioritisation of security in the PA’s budget allocations, with that sector taking twenty eight per cent of the annual budget at the expense of other, more vital sectors such as health, education, and agriculture.

In his critique of the Oslo aid model – a model based on the neoliberal policy of investing in peace – Alaa Tartir argues that the donor-driven development agenda has worsened the economic and political circumstances for Palestinians. For example, agriculture – a lost, key pillar of the Palestinian economy – received only one per cent of the PA’s annual budget between 2001 and 2005, while around eighty-five per cent went to staff salaries. Consequently, the agricultural sector’s contribution to GDP shrunk from around 13.3 per cent in 1994 to 5.9 per cent in 2011.

Palestinians have launched grassroots campaigns and union strikes, demanding better education and health services, including a massive teacher strike, a campaign against medicine shortages led by a coalition of Palestinian civil society organisations, a campaign against the electricity cuts in Gaza, and a campaign urging the PA to address medical negligence. The PA often leaves these public demands unanswered, and they are rarely reflected in its fiscal planning and public policies. As one member of the National Social Security movement, which leads the opposition to the controversial national social security law, said, ‘The government is not listening to our concerns.’ The law, which obliges private sector employees to pay seven per cent of their monthly salary and employers to pay nine per cent of salaries in exchange for social security coverage, has caused a wave of anger among Palestinians, who have protested mainly against the high monthly deductions as well as the lack of a guarantee to safeguard their money in the context of political and economic instability.

In February 2017, the PA adopted a new agenda, ‘National Policy Agenda: Citizen First 2017-2022’, that aims to prioritise the Palestinian citizen in the government’s policies, promoting accountability and transparency in managing public funds and affairs. This is a US- and EU-supported financial and administrative reform that began during the tenure of former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; the agenda states that it is a second phase, following the previous one of building state institutions and enhancing their capacity. It proclaims that it is now time ‘to improve our citizens’ quality of life by providing high-quality public services, fostering job creation in the private sector, and protecting the vulnerable.’

The PA’s new agenda does not acknowledge that Fayyad’s state-building phase failed to lead to statehood, let alone democracy. The international donor community hailed Fayyad as the Palestinian good governance messiah as his cabinet led efforts to create a de factoPalestinian state under the Israeli occupation in the context of a major political schism between the two largest Palestinian political factions. Fayyad’s reforms did not go beyond technical and administrative parameters to ensure that whatever shakeup the cabinet made did not rock the entire boat. 

The 2003 restructuring of the prime minister position itself under US and EU pressure to loosen Yasser Arafat’s executive grip is another example of how futile these structural reforms are in such a context. The prime minister’s role, decisions, and policies must be in line with Fatah and the president, as the prime minister simply implements the president’s decisions and has no political standing of his own. When Fayyad filled the position in 2007 and embarked on his reform plan, he became the target of senior Fatah officials who continuously pinned the PA’s ailments and the effects of the economic crisis on Fayyad’s policies. The international community’s strong financial and political backing of Fayyad also constituted a threat to Abbas, who did not defend his premier against the attacks of his party and challenged his authority by overruling some of his decisions.

The international community also dictates which Palestinian political figures are in power through financial and political support. This was the case when the US attempted to overturn Fayyad’s resignation, and when it withdrew funds to suffocate unwanted authority even if it was fairly and legitimately elected, such as when Hamas won the majority of seats in the 2006 legislative elections.

Any additional reforms dependent on international approval will not address the legitimacy crisis in leadership, nor will they lead to the much-needed rebirth of a united Palestinian national movement that could fulfil the aspirations of the Palestinian people. These reforms reinforce the same neopatrimonial dynamics that underlie systemic corruption in the Palestinian Authority by acting as a band aid rather than a solution that tackles corruption from the root. 

Essentially, any PA effort to end the occupation and achieve independence – often the stated goal in many of these reform agendas – translates into the PA simply continuing to override the role of the PLO. By doing so, it continues to marginalise if not ignore altogether the voices of the millions of Palestinians who live in the diaspora and have a direct stake in whatever course of action the PA’s executive takes vis-à-vis the Israeli occupation and the ‘peace process’. 

Out of the Quagmire

If Palestinians are serious about democratic, representative, and transparent leadership, they must end the farce of reform and build a representative and democratic system from the bottom up. Palestinians, especially the youth living in the occupied territories, in Israel, and in the diaspora, have a significant role to play in mobilising and initiating national grassroots dialogues to debate and build a common vision for future democratic Palestinian leadership. This task requires a massive effort given the existing challenges. However, the continuation of the status quo offers only a bleak future.

To ensure that a new model, whatever its shape or form, does not recycle the same neopatrimonial dynamics, three fundamental elements must be considered:

1. Decentralisation and separation of powers 

To break the monopoly of one group or party, there must be a healthy political ecosystem of counterbalancing powers. The limitations of the PLO as an umbrella body representing all Palestinians invites the question of whether such a central authority infrastructure is capable of representing Palestinians everywhere. Any Palestinian governance model must be agile enough to lead and be responsive to the Palestinian polities living in different geographical, juridical, and administrative jurisdictions in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, Israel, and the diaspora. The experience of the PA thus far suggests that a central authority, as it exists, cannot fulfill such a role. 

Decentralisation of power, through empowering grassroots and local community leadership, is essential to break the existing power monopoly. The leadership and organisation during the First Intifada, albeit belonging to a different political and social context, offers one example of what a collective leadership could look like.

2. Vertical and horizontal accountability 

Corruption and abuse of power thrive when those in power cannot be held to account. Any new governance model will be vulnerable to capture of power without the following parallel accountability mechanisms in place:

First: A vertical accountability line that enables the Palestinian people to question their leaders and participate in the decision making process. This is not limited to local and national elections but can extend to grassroots public committees and hearings, shadow councils, robust protection of freedom of expression and the media, and Palestinian civil society taking an active role in monitoring not only Palestinian government institutions but also the private sector and service providers. 

Second: Horizontal accountability – such as an independent parliament, independent audit organisations, and so forth – is important to investigate and stop the wrongdoings of public officials. 

While the current system has these institutions formally in place to some extent, the neopatrimonialism of the Palestinian political system renders these internal accountability mechanisms useless. This is why power sharing, decentralisation, and public scrutiny are important first steps to ensure that no Palestinian authority can abuse its power.

3. End impunity

To restore the Palestinian public’s trust in leadership, the impunity of the corrupt must be eliminated. Despite the various attempts and claims of the Palestinian anti-corruption committee to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials, Palestinian officials and politicians remain largely immune to any serious consequences for their actions. Impunity of the corrupt makes individuals hesitant to report corruption they witness or experience because they see no value in, or change resulting from, taking such action. 

There are existing hotlines and legal centers available to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to report corruption cases in a safe and confidential manner, such as the one operated by the Palestinian anti-corruption organisation, AMAN. However, encouraging Palestinians to report corruption must be accompanied by the availability of solid anti-corruption laws and an independent judiciary that can hold the corrupt to account regardless of their political, financial, or social position.

To end corruption and ensure accountability in the Palestinian context, an institutional and political overhaul, rather than limited and fragmented political and legal reforms, is necessary. The repeated patterns of Fatah’s power monopoly, systemic corruption, and informal politics, in addition to the current political stagnation, suggests that it is past time for Palestinians to build new institutions that are more democratic and more representative of their rights and needs.

* Marwa Fatafta is a Palestinian analyst based in Berlin. The MENA Regional Advisor for Transparency International, her work focuses on issues of governance, corruption, accountability and civil society in the Arab world.

Bashir's eroding domestic legitimacy

  • 28 January, 2019
  • Published in Sudan

The large-scale and wide geographic spread of protests in Sudan over the past few weeks pose a greater threat to the regime of President Omar Al-Bashir than ever before in his thirty-year grip on power. After the mobilisation over the period of weeks, the demonstrations on Thursday, 24 January were possibly the largest that Sudan has ever witnessed since the country’s independence. Sparked on 19 December 2018 by bread price hikes and foreign currency shortages, the uprisings mutated into direct calls for the regime’s downfall and for Bashir’s removal, epitomised in the pithy slogan “Tasqut bas!” (Let it [the regime] fall; enough!). 

The protests began in the small town of Atbara, which, like most of the country, has been suffering the ill effects of the government’s austerity measures implemented through its 2018 budget. The budget removed bread subsidies, causing prices to triple from around one Sudanese pound a loaf to three pounds. The currency was also devalued thrice in 2018, and now stands at around fifty Sudanese pounds to one US dollar, down from six pounds to the dollar at the beginning of 2018. Worsening matters, inflation is at seventy per cent, and with shortages of currency, cash withdrawals have been restricted. Significantly, since 2011, Sudan has had to cope with the loss of around seventy per cent of government revenues as a result of the secession of the south to form South Sudan, which produced seventy-five per cent of Sudan’s oil. The economic crisis has been aggravated by economic mismanagement, patronage and wars in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan provinces where the government attempts to militarily suppress dissent in a similar manner to what it previously had unsuccessfully attempted in the south. These combined problems have drained state coffers, and Khartoum is seeking an IMF bailout.

Originally initiated by youth, the protests rapidly grew and escalated to include a broad spectrum of the society; it is currently led by the Sudan Professionals’ Association (SPA), a large organisation with members – mainly engineers, doctors and teachers – in and outside Sudan. The uprising spread throughout the country, including to Darfur, in spite of the government’s heavy-handed response, which resulted in fifty-one deaths and 1 000 arrests to date. Opposition parties, including the influential Umma Party and the Popular Congress Party (PCP) joined the protests. Umma’s Sadiq al-Mahdi, a former Sudanese president, recently ended his self-imposed exile and returned to Sudan from Egypt to participate in the protests. The involvement of these political forces, coupled with the government’s initially repressive approach, contributed to protesters’ demands evolving from economic to political calls for the regime’s ouster.

In addition, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) from Darfur and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement North (SPLM-N) both suspended peace talks with the regime in an attempt to deliver additional pressure. Significantly, the protests are different to those in 2012-13, which were concentrated in the capital city. The current protests have sprouted in areas outside Khartoum, including in many rural areas, resulting in the regime being unable easily to contain them. Moreover, they are more representative of all sectors of Sudanese society, and the leading organisation, the SPA, is independent, not reliant on the state for political survival, and has much respect in Sudanese society. The SPA has also been able to leverage its links with the Sudanese diaspora, many of whom are professionals with influence in their host countries, as a means of amplifying the protests. The regime’s attempts to contain the protests by restricting the flow of information has thus been rendered largely impotent.

Protest leaders insist that their actions will remain peaceful, and, except for an initial attack on the offices of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), that guideline is being adhered to. Even JEM leader Gibril Ibrahim, while expressing full support for the protests, said his group will not provide armed protection for the protesters, arguing that the best protection for them was their insistence on peaceful demonstrations.

Wall poetry from Sudan

Slogan on a wall in Sudan: 'You resemble the night when tyrants die and the revolution wins.'

Bashir reacted to the protests relatively quickly, within a week after the protests began. He initially insisted that the grievances were solely economic, and argued that the government would institute measures to mitigate citizens’ suffering. Later, on 31 December, he also tactically criticised the use of live ammunition by security forces, and established a committee to investigate protester deaths a day later. This was his attempt to contain protests, position himself as supporting legitimate demands and to dissuade protesters from advocating regime change. However, he also sought to externalise the reasons for the protests, claiming that they were sponsored by foreigners, and proposing that elections were the only method of initiating political change. 

Although the protests indicate that the regime is facing unprecedented domestic pressure, Bashir’s position within the region remains strong, and his position in the international community has not been shaken much. By deploying troops to Yemen he has ensured backing from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which also want to ensure that Sudan does not become an Iranian ally. Simultaneously, he receives support from Turkey and Qatar. Relations with Egypt were mended in October 2018, while Bashir’s role in concluding the South Sudanese power-sharing agreement ensures support from regional heavyweight Ethiopia. Even relations with the USA have improved, with the White House in the process of removing Sudan from its list of states it deems as sponsoring terrorism. Ties with Beijing remain warm, and Bashir is an EU partner in the attempt to limit migration from Africa to Europe. Relations with Russia too are good, and it was Russian nudging that persuaded Bashir to visit Syria’s Bashar al-Asad, in an attempt to break his isolation from the Arab world. It is no great surprise, then, that the crackdown on Sudan’s protests have received little condemnation from foreign states, which, in the cases of Qatar, the UAE, and Turkey, have promised aid in fuel and wheat. Significantly, Russian private security personnel, likely sanctioned by the administration, are assisting Bashir to contain protests.

With this weight of external support, a likely scenario moving forward is Bashir’s withdrawing his candidature for the 2020 presidential election. Although the NCP endorsed him as its candidate, and Egypt is insisting he stands, the current protests, coupled with the fact that the 2005 constitution will need amendments for him to run for a third term, will render his candidacy increasingly difficult. The NCP decision caused schisms within the party and the military. Influential figures such as former presidential advisor Amin Hassan Omar and former National Security and Intelligence Services head Nafie Ali Nafie opposed Bashir’s candidature. They might use the protests to force Bashir to step down in 2020. 

However, it seems unlikely that there will be enough of a rupture within the NCP to ensure Bashir’s overthrow as an immediate response to the protests, especially since global powers are intent on ensuring regional stability. Events  on the ground may however change arbitrarily, as was seen in the 24 January protests in Port Sudan, where military officers clashed with NIS officials, forcing the latter to extricate themselves from attempts to contain the protests. If such intrastate tensions become more widespread, the regime will find it much more difficult to contain the protests. Significantly Al-Bashir instituted a minor purge within the military in September 2018, indicating that he does not fully trust the institution’s loyalty. All of this, however, does not guarantee the sustainability of the uprising. As the uprisings in countries north of Sudan in 2011 showed, loosely organised uprisings with powerful slogans do not necessarily lead to revolutions of regime change.

The deal between Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, regarding Syria’s Idlib province, announced on 17 September, sought to avert a campaign by the Syrian army similar to that in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and Dara’a. It followed Erdogan’s appeal to Iran and Russia – his partners in the Astana process – as well as to the USA and Europe to save the three million civilians trapped in the northwestern Syrian province from a fate similar to the one that befell the 400 000 citizens of Eastern Ghouta in March 2018, when Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad launched a brutal bombardment of the area. The September agreement included the establishment of a demilitarised zone twenty kilometres into Idlib from the Turkish border. Turkey insisted that this was necessary to avoid a spillover of clashes on its border, to secure its border by preventing activities of the militant Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), and to prevent an influx of refugees across the border into Turkey.

In terms of the agreement, Turkey was allowed a month – until 15 October – to persuade ‘radical’ rebel groups to leave the demilitarised zone, and ‘moderate’ groups to hand over their heavy weapons. The ‘radical’ groups referred to were – mainly – al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS – formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and an HTS breakaway (comprising mainly foreign nationals), Huras al-Din, while the ‘moderate’ groups were mostly Turkish-supported organisations. Most of the latter had no choice but to comply; they surrendered their weapons and coalesced into the National Liberation Front (NLF), which began playing the role of a police force centred around Turkey’s observation posts in Idlib. HTS and Huras al-Din did not officially announce their acceptance of the deal, with Huras al-Din emphasising its determination to maintain control over all its weapons and continuing its battle against the Syrian government. However, a week before the 15 October deadline, HTS surrendered its heavy weapons and commenced policing operations with the NLF. Early November, just weeks after the 15 October deadline, Huras al-Din joined HTS and participated in NLF patrols.

The Syrian regime, however, does not feel itself fully bound by the Russia-Turkey deal, and has carried out numerous attacks against various rebel groups in and outside the delineated zone, in violation of the agreement. It insists that all heavy weapons have not been surrendered, and that the deal was only temporary, arguing that the deal’s purpose was to avert bloodshed while preparing the ground for the regime to take over control. Russia agrees on the temporary nature of the agreement; Turkey does not. The arrangement for the province resembles the strategy employed in Afrin,Manbij and the area north of theEuphrates River, where Turkey maintains troops and proxies, ostensibly to prevent activities of the YPG (which it regards as a terrorist group), and to protect its borders from jihadists and refugees fleeing Syrian bombardment. In general, Idlib is regarded as a significant threat by the three states that are part of the Astana process – Turkey, Russia and Iran, even if they do not agree on a strategy to counter it. Despite these opposing interests and strategies, however, the Idlib deal represents a victory of sorts – even if only temporary – for Turkey on the diplomatic and military fronts.

Idlib – the last rebel outpost

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Source: https://syria.liveuamap.com/

The mountainous Idlib province is in the northwest of Syria, to the west of which are the cities of Tartous, which is home to a Russian naval base, and Latakia, with its large Alawi population that forms the bedrock of support for Asad’s ruling Ba'athist Party. To Idlib’s east is Aleppo, which was Syria’s largest commercial hub before successive battles between rebels groups (including the Islamic State group) and the regime in 2016. To the south is the city of Hama, which experienced large population transfers carried out by the regime in 2016 and 2017. The north of the province forms the border with Turkey, making it a strategic transit route for refugees fleeing the civil war and militants of various stripes entering Syria. The government lost the province to HTS in 2015 after a series of fierce battles, making Idlib one of the regime’s biggest losses. The loss meant that Damascus also lost control of the strategic M4 and M5 highways. The former links Aleppo and Latakia to oil rich Deir Ez Zor and Raqqa, while the latter is a major trade route to Turkey and Europe.

With its 18 000 fighters, HTS controls around sixty per cent of the province, while the rest of the territory is shared between groups that were evacuated under Russian-brokered deals from various parts of the country. They include the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham. HTS has often clashed with these other groups, but it also collaborated with Turkey since 2017, and it coordinated with Turkey in March in the establishment of observation posts in Idlib as part of thede-escalation zones declared by the Astana process that included Turkey, Iran and Russia.

Despite some coordination with Turkey, HTS continues publicly to denounce Turkey; its leader,Muhammed al-Joulani, emphasised that HTS will not take orders from Turkey regarding the fight against the Asad regime. In reality, however, HTS rejects the Turkey-Russia deal publicly but complies with it silently. The group has also, under Turkey’s direction, been trying to contain its splinter group that comprises mainly foreign fighters, Huras al-Din. Huras al-Din feels marginalised by HTS’s coordination with Turkey, and fears for the safety and future of its foreign fighters if HTS officially dissolves and joins the NLF. This is a distinct possibility, as recent events signal that HTS is considering the possibility of defeat, and might ultimately dissolve the fighting force as part of a deal with Turkey. The group is aware that it will not be able to withstand sustained bombardment by the regime, backed by Iranian militias and Russian airpower. Thus, the group has been silently complying with the Sochi deal, even though it has not formally joined the NLF, which is composed of fourteen rebel groups, including a large contingent of FSA fighters.

Astana de-escalation zones

The Astana deal was reached in May 2017 in Kazakhstan’s capital by the three key foreign players in the Syrian conflict: Russia, Iran, and Turkey. It sought to implement four de-escalation zones in Syria to pave the way for a political process that would end the Syrian civil war, with the three players acting guarantors of the zones.

Under the agreement, Idlib was earmarked for the first implementation of a de-escalation zone. Turkey was to be the guarantor and monitor of Idlib. Twelve observation posts were initially set up by Turkish troops, but Turkey then set its sights on the neighbouring Afrin province, where it targeted the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, whose main component is the YPG. After lengthy negotiations between the three Astana partners, Turkey moved into Afrin with a nod from Russia for Turkish planes to use Syrian airspace.

Control over Idlib is critical for the Asad regime and its allies (Iran and Russia) to declare victory in the conflict which has been raging since 2011. It would give the regime decisive control over all Syrian territory. Their strategy was to deal with Idlib after defeating the opposition in the south – in Dara'a and Quneitra, where the government took back control of territory lost to rebels, and subsequently transferred rebel groups and many civilians to other rebel-controlled areas. Iran was denied a share of the victory in the south because of a Russian agreement with Israel that Iranian forces would leave the south; a number of militias aligned to it, however, did fight with Syrian forces. Iran thus had been anticipating the Idlib campaign when it could fight alongside Syrian troops against the many opposition groups sent there from other parts of the country as a consequence of ceasefire deals. While Iran was looking forward to a battle in Idlib that would finally end all military opposition, Turkey was attempting to prevent a bloodbath and to protect groups allied to it. These opposing interests had already been demonstrated when Iran decried Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in Afrin in January 2018. Iran also opposed Turkey’s plea to avert a military campaign in Idlib when the three partners met in Tehran on 7 September 2018.

After a war of words with the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, Erdogan bypassed Iran, and flew to the Russian island of Sochi to meet Putin, to craft a deal that would protect the northwestern province from a fate similar to that of Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo, where continued rebel fighting resulted in largescale massacres. On 17 September, Erdogan and Putin announced the Idlib deal, undermining Iranian and Syrian ambitions of a fullscale attack on the province. Since the 15 October deadline for demilitarisation of the 20km zone in Idlib, Iranian militias and the Syrian army have continued to shell rebel positions inside the zone, vowing to retake the province from rebel control, in violation of the Turkish-Russian deal.

The Sochi deal mirrors a strategy that Turkey has employed since the start of the war: deploying Turkish troops inside Syrian territory to occupy and clear out areas along its borders of rebels not aligned to it or aligned to the SDF. Starting with the 2016 Operation Euphrates Shield north of the Euphrates River, Turkey deployed forces along its border within Syria to attack and eliminate IS and the YPG. Although Turkey announced an end to the operation in March 2017, full disengagement did not occur, and it maintains a military presence in those areas. Following the Astana agreement in May 2017, Turkey and Iran continued to butt heads over Turkey’s request to be allowed to enter the Afrin province that was under YPG control. In January 2018, Russia allowed Turkey to use air power and, subsequently, to launch Operation Olive Branch against the YPG. Although Turkey claimed the operation was temporary, its troops and proxies continue to control the province. Turkey hopes for a similar outcome in Idlib, especially after seeing a similar result in Manbij, where it negotiated a roadmap with the USA to clear out the YPG by holding joint patrols with the United States.

The Syrian regime regards the agreement as a short-term plan, and is intent on retaking all Syrian territory. Although Russia has stalled Syrian forces for a while, it is unclear for how long it will continue doing so. With this in mind, Turkey is looking for additional support and recently called on France and Germany to assist. Convening a special summit on Idlib in Istanbul, Erdogan hosted Germany, France, and Russia on 27 October 2018 to effectively obtain commitment to the Sochi deal. Noticeable absentees at the meeting were the USA and Iran. For Erdogan, the summit was an attempt to garner European support over and above Russian support.

Conclusion

The Sochi agreement might have been announced as temporary, and viewed as such by Iran and the Syrian government. However, Turkey has no intention of leaving Idlib soon. It seeks to effect in Idlib the same strategy that it employed west of the Euphrates river, in Afrin and Manbij, where it deployed troops and militia groups acting as its proxies. Turkey’s policy of muscular engagement demonstrates its commitment to maintain its interests and security by permanently controlling areas along its border directly or through proxies. As violations of the deal continue from the Asad regime and its Iranian backers, Turkey seems to have managed to get (at least temporarily) what it wants in northern Syria, thanks to Russia. For Turkey, long-term control is a more durable solution against its enemies in Syria, even if it means disregarding Syrian sovereignty.

With the US Republican Party having lost control of the House of Representatives, expectations are that the White House, under President Donald Trump, will have a difficult time meeting its domestic policy or legislative objectives. American presidents, in such circumstances, often focus their attention on foreign policy, attempting to achieve victories there rather than engaging the hopelessness of victories in domestic policy. In Trump’s case, one foreign policy issue that is closely linked to his retaining support within his electoral base is that of his full backing of Israel. It can be expected, then, that over the next few months Trump will focus on concluding what he calls his ‘deal of the century’, which aims to decisively establish Israel’s control of all Palestinian territory and end the Palestinian struggle.

The promise of an Israeli-Palestinian ‘deal’ featured prominently in Trump’s election campaign two years ago. Even then, it was clear that the deal he sought would guarantee Israel’s needs and would be imposed on Palestinians – whether they liked it or not. After assuming the presidency, Trump lobbied selected Arab leaders while virtually ignoring the Palestinian Authority (PA) or any other Palestinian interlocutor. It is accepted by many that his ‘deal of the century’ has largely been crafted already. Although its contents are yet to be made public, various leaks suggest it recycles Israeli demands that had previously been rejected by the Palestinians, and even by previous US administrations. 

Ultimately, Trump’s ‘deal’ will likely enable Israel to continue illegal settlement building on Palestinian land; crush Palestinian ambitions of building a sovereign state with a capital in Jerusalem; subject West Bank Palestinians to continued military rule with a bantustan-type administration that controls none of its borders; ensure that there is no Palestinian-controlled airspace; and there will be no prospect of the realisation of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Gaza will become a protectorate of Egypt, which will facilitate the Strip’s economic transformation, freeing Israel from the Gaza problem.

With Palestinians not being consulted, the PA has emphasised that it will have nothing to do with such a deal, and has rejected the USA as a mediator between it and Israel. The proposals, which are much worse for Palestinians than the disastrous Oslo Agreementsof the 1990s were, have seemingly, however, been supported by certain Arab leaders.

 

Key players

Since assuming office in January 2017, Trump has repeatedly mentioned his efforts to conclude his deal. He appointed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as his special adviser in January 2017, making him the lead person in the ‘deal of the century’ initiative. Kushner and his father-in-law both relate to the resolution of the Israeli occupation as a business arrangement where Israel is the client that needs to be satisfied and Palestinians (and their land) the real estate that has to be disposed of. Kushner, a businessperson like Trump, is part of a family empire that has been funding illegal settlement building in the West Bank. His family contributed $315 000to the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces (FIDF) between 2011 and 2013, and he served on the FIDF board until he joined the Trump administration. His father is also a close friendof Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu. Apart from Trump’s nepotistic streak, the other reason he appointed Kushner is because the latter ‘loves Israel’and is intimately connected to Netanyahu. These connections mean that any deal will be heavily influenced by Netanyahu, who will definitely be pleased with the outcomes. 

Trump also appointed Jason Greenblatt– a Trump confidante and lawyer – as his special envoyto the Middle East. Kushner and Greenblatt undertook numerous trips to the Middle East, meeting various Arab leaders and Israeli officials, as well as PA president Mahmoud Abbas(in August 2017), but ceased engaging the PA when the PA announced it would boycott US involvementin the process. That announcement followed Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018. In their many visits to the region, the pair met, on numerous occasions, with Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MbS), Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the Jordanian king, Abdullah. MbS has been most involved with Kushner and Greenblatt, and has seemingly promised to give up most of the rights that Palestinians have demanded, and to accept the Trump deal. In April, he toldheads of US-based Jewish groups, ‘Palestinians must accept the conditions that will be set up by this deal or shut up and stop complaining.’ He also attempted to bully the PA into accepting a US role and to accept US conditions. In December 2017, he even summoned Abbas to Riyadhto threaten him into acquiescing to the USA. However, MbS appears to differ on this matter with his father, Salman, who expressed support for the Palestiniansand said Saudi Arabia remained committed to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which proposed a Palestinian state along the 1967 armistice line, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Salman’s statement followed an MbS-Netanyahusecret meeting in Amman, facilitated by the Jordanian king, which signalled a strengthening  public relations campaign for the acceptance of Trump’s conditions.

Trump regards Arab leaders’ support for his deal as critical for Israel’s pursuit of legitimacy, and the US goal of countering Iranian influence in the region. Abdullah played a key rolein crafting the deal, trying thereby to safeguard Amman’s interests, particularly its role as the custodian of the holy sitesin Jerusalem. Abdullah is also concerned about the potential implications of the deal’s announcement on Jordan, where a large number of Palestinian refugees reside. Jordan has thus served as a key meeting point for many Kushner-Greenblatt talks, signalling that Amman has been identified as a strategic partner in achieving their desired outcomes. The collaboration of Arab countries such as Egypt,Jordan and Saudi Arabia shows that Israel has made substantial headway in its relations in the region – with the support of the USA. Israel has been growing closer to Arab governments despite the latter’s proclaimed support for Palestinians. 

On 15 August, Egypt’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel arrived in Tel Avivas his attempts to broker a ceasefire deal with Hamas and to implement economic reform in Gaza were under way. Egypt, like Saudi Arabia, has relations with Israel, although it also claims to support the Palestinians. Its involvement seeks to rid Israel of the political nuisance that Gaza has become, especially with the intensifying peaceful Friday return marchesat the Israeli blockade fence.

The PA’s rejection of a US role in negotiations with Israel has not negatively affected the attitude of Arab leaders in Egypt and Jordan. This is despite Abbas’s efforts to forge a united Arab response in rejecting a US role, especially after Trump’s embassy move. With growing Palestinian disillusionment, and the worsening humanitarian conditions in Gaza, Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ is unlikely to be warmly welcomed by Palestinians, especially considering that the deal proposes old conditions that have long been rejected by Palestinians, and new conditions that are unacceptable to Palestinians and in violation of international law.

Contents of the ‘deal’

Although no official announcement has yet been made about the contents of Trump’s proposal, a number of leaks and positions articulated by the US president, Kushner and Greenblatt, suggest the general direction of the proposal and even certain specific provisions. It is no secret that the Trump administration takes its cue on Middle East issues from the Israeli government. The ‘deal of the century’ will therefore represent and uphold Israeli interests over and above everything else. For Palestinians, the demands for a state, an end to illegal settlement building, and the return of all Palestinian refugees will be subjugated to Israeli interests.

Jerusalem

When Trump met with Netanyahu in February 2017, in Washington, he said he supported what ‘both parties like’. ‘I’m looking at two-state and one-state,’ he said, ‘I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.’ What he understood by a two- or one-state solution remained unclear. What isevident is that Trump is determined that there will not be a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. He sealed this matter, in his mind at least, by the US decision to recognise Jerusalemas Israel’s capital. US recognition, the US and Israel believe, legitimises Israeli ambitions to annex all of Jerusalem and to deny any Palestinian claim to it, a plan set in motion after the 1967 war. Clearly, the ‘deal of the century’ is unlikely to refer to a Palestinian state in the way that Palestinians envision it. 

Instead, MbS attempted to persuade Abbas to accept Abu Disas the Palestinian capital in order to smooth the way for Trump’s proposal. A rural village that overlooks the old city of Jerusalem, Abu Dis was touted as the home for the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1995, in the wake of the Oslo Accords. The administration of then-US president Bill Clinton proposed renaming Abu Dis ‘Al-Quds’(the Arabic name for Jerusalem) in order to deceive Palestinians, but it was roundly rejected by Palestinians. With a population of just 12 000, Abu Dis lies in ‘Area C’ of the West Bank, meaning it is fully under Israeli control. Part of the massive illegal settlement of Maale Adumimlies in the Abu Dis district. Palestinians will certainly reject Trump’s proposal for Abu Dis as a Palestinian capital, as they had previously done, knowing that such an acceptance will mean the permanent loss of Jerusalem and access to it, its holy sites and its 300 000 Palestinian residents.

Jerusalem’s status is a major issue of contestation, and if the protests that marked Trump’s Jerusalem decision are any indication, Palestinians will not accept the usurpation of the city by Israel and the USA. It is noteworthy that the Second Intifada was sparked by a large Israeli military entry into the Al-Aqsa mosque; placing the entire old city of Jerusalem under permanent Israeli control could spark another intifada.

Airspace, resources, borders

With Jerusalem promised to Israel by the USA, Trump’s proposal looks to craft a fictitious Palestinian ‘state’ crammed into tiny pieces of West Bank land separated from each other and from Gaza, and having no control over its borders, natural resources or airspace. The Palestinian ‘state’ will also have no sovereignty. The USA and Israel will attempt to convince the world that the bantustan they create is a state, and will attempt to gain entry for that entity to international bodies such as the UN by providing it the trappings of an independent state, much like apartheid South Africa attempted with its bantustans.

The Israeli government currently controls the territorial borders of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Palestinian water sources and Palestinian airspace. Israel also collects Palestinian taxes on behalf of the PA, supplies electricity to Gaza (until last year when the PA refused to pay for Gaza’s electricity), and continues its military control of the West Bank. The Trumpian ‘state’ will maintain this reality. The Trump-Kushner proposal is being drafted based on the assumption that Palestinians will accept its conditions as long as a sufficiently large financial package incentivises it. Palestinians will almost definitely refuse this, and Palestinian airspace, resources and territorial borders will continue to be controlled by Israel.

 

Gaza

Trump’s plan for Gaza consists mainly of an economic initiative, with control of the strip largely being handed over to Egypt. Trump seems to believe that easing Gaza’s economic strain will solve the political headache that the strip represents for Israel. He will thus propose a free-trade zone in El-Arish in the Egyptian Sinai desert bordering Gaza. This plan, its drafters hope, will alleviate the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Gaza, which were created by an eleven-year land and sea blockade by Israel and Egypt. The plan will propose that five industrial projects be established, which will be funded by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Arab states. This plan resembles Israel’s long-time ambition to move responsibility for Gaza to Egypt.

The economic initiative seems to be based on a proposal by Israeli general Yoav Mordechai, which he had submitted to the Trump team in a White House meeting in March. It includes the construction of air and sea ports, and the establishment of a trade zone and power station. Mordechai’s plans are premised on Egyptian cooperation and supervision of the implementation of the projects. Egyptian president el-Sisi discussed the plan with Kushner and Greenblatt, who encouraged Egyptian intelligence officials to present the proposal to Hamas, the de facto rulers of Gaza. The plan to relegate Gaza to a quasi-Egyptian province is not new, and has been an idea that Israel has pushed since it redeployed its soldiers out of Gaza in August 2005. Israel seeks to cement and formalise Gaza’s separation from the West Bank and, with US encouragement, Egypt is expected to come to the party.

The plan will, undoubtedly, be rejected by Palestinians, especially the political and civil society groups that have been participating in the Friday marches of return at the Gaza-Israel fence. Egypt has thus been working tirelessly to get Hamas on board, as Egypt faces stiff pressure from Trump and the Saudi-supporting Arab states. Hamas has engaged in several talks with Egypt in pursuit of humanitarian relief in Gaza and reconciliation with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. The reconciliation project is in tatters because of non-cooperation from Fatah, but the Egyptians are keen to move ahead without the group, especially since most other Palestinian groups have accepted the Egyptian role. If implemented, the plan will alienate Hamas from the PA, which is facing an internal succession battle and declining Palestinian support. This week’s Israeli operation in Gaza, when a Hamas commander and seven other Palestinians were killed, might delay progress of the Egyptian initiative, but it is expected to resume soon with the next stage: negotiations around prisoner exchanges.

 

Return of refugees

Palestinians have always been very clear about the return of Palestinian refugees who were displaced in 1948 when Israel was created. The issue of refugees has thus been a huge sticking point in previous negotiations, with Israel refusing to recognise the right of return of the refugees, who now number around five million (about 700 000 were originally displaced) on the basis that they would be a ‘demographic threat’ to the ‘Jewish character’ of the Israeli state. The Kushner-Trump deal will certainly protect Israel on this issue. To lay the foundation for this protection, the USA has already cut funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Kushner said he wanted to expunge the refugee status of the five million Palestinians living in West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and other countries in the world. This plan has already been set in motion as Trump has started pressuring the Jordanian king, Abdullah, to strip Palestinians living there of their refugee status. This is consistent with Trump’s guarantee to secure and protect Israeli security. The attack against UNRWA is thus part of the US attempt at protecting Israeli interests by ensuring that Palestinian refugees lose their refugee status and can never return to their homes.

Conclusion

Trump hopes to end years of deadlock in talks between Israelis and Palestinians, even though biased US support for Israel has already been demonstrated. Trump, his son-in-law Kushner and the Israelis want an Israeli state with all of Jerusalem as its capital, while maintaining the status quo of Israel building and expanding illegal settlements in Palestinian territories, controlling Palestinian borders, resources and airspace, while subjecting Palestinians to indefinite military control. Under this arrangement, Palestinians will be given limited control over small parts of the West bank, separated from Gaza and Jerusalem. Gaza will be handed over to Egypt with an economic aid package to solve the deteriorating economic conditions created by the Israeli- and Egyptian-imposed land and sea blockade.

Abbas’s PA has refused to engage with the USA on the crafting of this deal, giving Trump, Kushner and Israelis the opportunity to label Palestinians as being opposed to peace, even though any PA involvement would have been unlikely to significantly influence the shape of the final proposal. The ‘deal’ has thus been negotiated without Palestinian input and will certainly not protect any Palestinian interests. Trump and the Israelis hope for international applause when they announce their ‘deal’, despite knowing that Palestinians will reject it. With the proposal having received the support of certain Arab leaders, Palestinians are being set up to lose their land and rights in exchange for crumbs from the Trump and Israeli table. The deal will simply reproduce old proposals which have been rejected multiple times, now  packaged under the Trumpian label.

By Yury Barmin

Introduction

Israel has been an unofficial ally of Moscow since 1991, when diplomatic relations between the USSR and Israel were restored, having been severed following the Six-Day War in 1967. Throughout the rest of the 1990s, Russia was rapidly losing its political and economic clout in the rest of the Middle East region, while its relations with Israel improved.

The relations between the two countries have always taken the form of an informal alliance, as Israel has traditionally been regarded as a key partner in the region of the United States, and Washington has historically guaranteed Israel’s security. In the words of its minister of defence, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel and Russia have developed ‘special relations’ over the past few decades, despite the political pressure being exerted on Israel by the country’s allies. The deep historical ties between the countries serve as the basis for stabilising their relations and give them a less politicised character.

The traditional focus on solving the Palestinian problem, which is rapidly losing relevance in the Arab world amidst talk of the Iranian threat, has started to wane in Russia-Israel relations too, as a direct consequence of Moscow’s decision to pursue a more active policy in the Middle East. While Russia may have seen an opportunity to play a significant role in a Palestinian-Israeli resolution following the decision of the US president, Donald Trump, to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Israeli leadership now sees the Syrian conflict and the Iranian nuclear deal as the main issues on the bilateral agenda. It is these two events that have strengthened Iran’s position, thus becoming a catalyst for threats to Israel’s national security.

Against the backdrop of the escalation in the conflict between Israel and Iran, Russia’s relations with Israel are being put to test over Syria. This was demonstrated by the 17 September incident in which Syria accidentally downed a Russian IL-20 reconnaissance aircraft during an attack by Israeli F-16 jets on targets in Syria. While certain analysts have started to assert that Russia has taken on the role of the USA as a guarantor of Israel’s security and survival in the Middle East, it is hardly likely that the country’s leadership sees it this way.This notwithstanding, Israel has made it clearthat it views Moscow, and not Washington, as the party that is capable of preventing the conflict with Tehran from turning into a full-scale war.

The Israel-Syria-Iran triangle

Israel’s policy of non-involvement in the Syrian conflict

When the war in Syria broke out, active discussion within the Israeli establishment took place as to what position the country should take with regard to the conflict. The 2005 reference of the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to Bashar al-Asad as ‘the devil we know’ when he warned George Bush against attempting to overthrow Asad, was no longer relevant in 2011. In Israel’s estimation, the Arab uprisings, which benefited Tehran in many ways, would, if successful in Syria, greatly reduce Iran’s influence in the region. This is why Israel took the firm stancethat Asad had to go, although this did not evolve into a campaign to support the Syrian opposition.

However, as Damascus grew weaker and the role of Iran in the military conflict increased, Israel’s position started to change. This was primarily due to the commencement of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ operation in Syria in the second half of 2015. Like the Sunni-majority countries in the region, Israel was counting on the Russian military presence to contain and control Asad and, more importantly, Iran. Thus, Israel expected the Syrian war to proceed in a more predictable manner, because neither the potential risk of radical forces coming to power in Syria nor the comprehensive victory of government forces, and therefore Iran, would be in Israel’s interests.

The principle of Israel’s non-involvement in the Syrian conflict, as well as its rejection of the possibility of replacing the Asad government that the country’s leadership has repeatedly stressed at meetings with their Russian counterparts, has in many respects served as a guarantee for Moscow that Israel was concerned exclusively about its own national security. In other words, the threat to Damascus is a ‘red line’ for Moscow, and Israel has thus far indicated that it does not intend to cross it.

Nevertheless, should Iran strengthen its political and military positions in Syria, at the same time that the government in Damascus is stabilising and restoring its control over the country’s territory, this would radically alter Israel’s deliberate distancing from participation in the military conflict. The situation in Syria changed drastically on 10 February 2018, when the Israeli Air Force incapacitated almost half of all Syrian missile defence systems in response to a violation of its airspace by an Iranian drone launched from Syria. During the attack, one of Israel’s F-16 fighter jets was shot down by the Syrian air defence system near Haifa. Given that the Syrian government is no longer in self-preservation mode, and the last opposition enclave in East Ghouta was swallowed up by the Syrian Army in April 2018 (a process that Moscow calls transforming the de-escalation zones ‘in line with peaceful settlement’), it was a matter of time before things started to heat up between Iran and Israel in the country’s southwest. The point here is that the southern de-escalation zone, like similar areas in Syria, turned out to be nothing more than a temporary measure to freeze the conflict. The issue of Golan Heights, whose border had been peaceful for decades, and where the Israeli and Syrian militaries have served under the supervision of the UN Peacekeeping Mission, is becoming both a subject of political dispute and a potential zone of military escalation.

Escalation on the border of the occupied Golan Heights could radically change Israel’s position with regard to the Syrian conflict. In negotiations with Russia, Israel insists on the Golan Heights issue being a ‘red line’ and that ‘with or without an agreement, Golan Heights will remain part of Israel’s sovereign territory’. Israel’s policy of distancing itself from the conflict in its neighbourhood had become noticeably less pronounced. The events in Syria’s south are starting to resemble the 1982 Lebanon War, at least in terms of the scale of Israel’s military operations against Syria. The involvement of the Syrian air defence systems that shot down the Israeli fighter jet on 10 February made Damascus a party to the conflict that is unfolding between Iran and Israel.

In conditions where Damascus is carrying out an offensive campaign near the borders with Israel together with pro-Iranian forces, as far as the Israeli’s military leaders (who are known for being uncompromising) are concerned, the line between the pro-Iranian forces and Damascus is being eroded. In other words, any provocation by Iran aimed at probing the ‘red lines’ set by Israel automatically implies the involvement of Damascus, which could dramatically change Israel’s position on the need to remove the Asad government.

In addition to eliminating the supposed danger, Israeli strikes on Iranian and Hizbullah positions in Syria have two additional goals: to demonstrate to Damascus that its alliance with Iran is dangerous for the survival of the Asad government, and to let Moscow know that, in pursuing its policy in the region, it is not in Russian long-term interests to rely on Shi'a militias. Moscow understands the risks associated with Damascus becoming directly involved in the confrontation between Iran and Israel. The influence of Iran, operationally and politically, on the Syrian government has made its armed forces dependent on Iranian support, and has made Russia dependent on pro-Iranian units when carrying out its operations. Thus, the issue of Iran is extremely threatening to relations between Russia and Israel.

Military cooperation between Russia, Iran and Hizbullah within the framework of the coordination centre in Baghdad cannot but alarm Israel. Thanks to joint military operations in Syria, where pro-Iranian units and the Syrian Army provide ground support and a Russian airborne tactical formation guards the skies, Moscow and Tehran have significantly deepened their military cooperation. Additionally, according to certain media reports, Iran could violate the UN embargo on the import of weapons by receiving certain types of Russian weapons through Syria and sending equipment to Russia for servicing.

Further, during joint military operations with Russia, Hizbullah significantly improved the quality of its combat training and tactical planning and obtained access to better intelligence following joint work of the military staff of the Russian Armed Forces and Hizbullah in Damascus and Latakia. Hizbullah has also mastered its offensive military tactics in Syria, which could have grave consequences for Israel, whose leadership seriously fears Hizbullah, which boasts some 10 000 fighters in Syria. Many in Israel are wondering when, rather than if, and under what circumstances, another war with Hizbullah might break out.

Throughout the Syrian conflict, Israel’s stance on the danger posed by Iran and Hizbullah did not always resonate with the Kremlin. For example, days before Russia launched its military operation in Syria in September 2015, in a meeting with Netanyahu, Putin rejected the Israeli assertion that Iran was, in collaboration with the Syrian Army, attempting to create a ‘second terrorist front’ against Israel in the Golan, saying, ‘The Syrian Army, and Syria in general, is in such a state that it is not even entertaining thoughts about opening up a second front, as it is trying to save its own statehood.’ Nevertheless, Putin did acknowledge that rocket attacks had been launched against Israel. Several key Russian politicians expressed the same position, including the Russian minister of foreign affairs, Sergey Lavrov, and the deputy minister of foreign affairs, Mikhail Bogdanov.

Despite Russia’s clear position on Israel’s security and the role that Iran plays in it, Moscow has given Israel considerable operational freedom. Thus, Moscow refrained from criticising Israeli operationsto destroy convoys transporting weapons (often Russian) across Syrian territory for Hizbullah. That was until the second half of 2015, when Israeli air operations obstructed Russian air defence systems deployed in Syria. Former Israeli defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, also confirmed that, since an emergency channel of communication between the Hmeimim Air Base and the Kiriya Command Centre in Tel Aviv was set up in 2015, Israel has not had to inform Moscow about forthcoming operations, since Russia independently identified Israeli fighter jets and did not consider it necessary to interfere in their operations.

Iran’s Future in Syria

Despite Moscow’s operational dependence on pro-Iranian forces, and despite the strategic proximity of the positions of Russia and Israel on Syria, Russia is unlikely to back either Iran or Israel should an open confrontation break out between them. From a strategic point of view, there is no good option for Moscow in this conflict, other than to strive for balance and to position itself as a referee. Whatever position it takes, Russia’s balancing act between Iran and Israel will inevitably seem like crisis management, and the political dividends of this role will be minimal. One example of this type of crisis response was the telephone call from Putin to Netanyahu on 10 February 2018, which ended the spiralling escalation between Israel and Syria.

Moscow aims to maintain a balance in the Iran-Russia-Israel triangle. In this context, in 2017, Lavrov stated that Iranian units were in Syria legitimately, at the invitation of the Syrian government. In July 2018, he added that it was unrealistic to expect Iran to leave the country soon. At the same time, Lavrov criticised Tehran for calling for Israel’s destruction. Russia also maintains a balanced position on the issue of Golan Heights. All official statements and documents, includingthe Final Statement of the Congress of the Syrian National Dialogue held in Sochi, as well as materials published by the Russian ministry of defence, recognise this region as a part of Syria.This notwithstanding, Russian fighter jets avoid violating the airspace of the Golan Heights, de factorecognising Israel’s sovereignty over the region.

Against the background of escalation in the south of Syria, Israeli media reported in late May that Russia and Israel had reached an agreement on Iran. According to the deal, Israel agreed to return the areas in the southern de-escalation zone that border Golan Heights and Jordan to the partial control of the Syrian Army. Russia, in turn, guaranteed that pro-Iranian Shi'a forces would not be present on the border with Israel, and undertook to withdraw foreign troops from the country. The degree to which the agreement will be implemented in its current form remains unclear. However, in late July, the Russian presidential special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, said Shi'a units and heavy equipment and weaponry had been withdrawn to 85km from the demarcation line with Israel (yet at the same time confirming that Iranian advisers were permitted to be present in the Syrian Army within this radius). It is not clear what Moscow’s position on the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Syria actually is, as the statements of Russian officials often involve mutually exclusive solutions. For example, in November 2017, the minister of foreign affairs announced that Iran was in Syria legitimately at the request of the Syrian government and that Moscow had never promised to ensure the withdrawal of pro-Iranian troops from the country. Nevertheless, in May 2018, Lavrentiev said that the entire foreign contingent, including Hizbullah and Iranian forces, had to be withdrawn.

Recent events have proven that Israel is prepared, and would prefer, to settle the issue regarding the southwestern borders of Syria via negotiations through an intermediary. However, Israel has made it abundantly clear that its ‘red lines’ – the presence of Iran and Hizbullah on its borders – had not shifted. This is why the failure of Russian attempts to achieve a compromise settlement could lead to Israel’s unilateral attempts to resolve the issue militarily, which will affect both the Asad government and Russian interests in Syria.

The terms of the agreement between Russia and Israel on Iran have also not been disclosed. Like Russia, Iran was officially invited to Syria by the Damascus government. While Russia can complain about the illegitimacy of the presence of US troops in Syria, similar, even veiled, attacks on Iran would be seen as unfriendly not only in Tehran, but also in Damascus.

According to some researchers, Iran has set up permanent military bases inside Syria which can accommodate up to 10 000 troops under the command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Russia can benefit from the weakening of Tehran’s military positions in Syria, which it regards as an obstacle to a peaceful settlement, because they create the illusion in Damascus that a military option for resolving the conflict remains open. However, Russia has few political levers to enact a recalibration of Iran’s position. Tehran has already stated that no one has the right to demand Iran’s withdrawal from Syria. Therefore, the Israeli campaign to prevent Iranian forces from taking root in Syria benefits Russia too, as long as it does not look like an open provocation. This could also have a negative effect on the future of the last de-escalation zone in Idlib, which Lavrentiev said will not be a site of any major military operations. The statements by Asad about the forthcoming Idlib campaign, and the fact that Iranian forces are concentrated on the border of Idlib, suggest that, as far as Tehran and Damascus are concerned, a military operation has not been ruled out.

There are currently doubts about Russia’s ability – and political expediency – to impede the establishment of Iranian forces outside the southwest region, despite reports in the Israeli media that Moscow prevented Iran from setting up a naval base in Tartus. In all probability, the most that Russia can guarantee is a reduction in the presence of pro-Iranian troops within a given radius of the Israeli border; it may suggest extending the existing radius beyond the current eighty-five kilometres. In any case, Moscow kept pro-Iranian forces from taking part in an offensive operation in the southwest of Syria, and, according to some reports, caused the withdrawal of some Hizbullah units from the border areas in Syria to Lebanon.

Most likely, Moscow will insist on the partial demilitarisation of southwest Syria and will assume a significant role in guaranteeing security in the region. Thus, as part of the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 350 adopted in 1974 on the disengagement of Syrian and Israeli troops in the Golan Heights, the Russian Military Police helped redeploy the UN Peacekeeping Mission to the demilitarised zone for the first time since 2012. In addition, Russia plans to deploy eight observation stations along the demilitarised zone as a temporary measure to protect the UN contingent. However, it is possible that Russia will maintain a permanent military presence in the region.

It appears that Iran was prepared to partially reduce its presence in southern Syria, at the very least in order to protect its own forces in the country. Just how long and how rigorously this zone might remain ‘Iran-free’, however, is up for debate. There are a number of reasons for this: the 85-kilometre radius includes Damascus, with its strategically important crossing to Lebanon, and the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque, an important place of pilgrimage for Shi'a Muslims. The presence of Iranian forces in the southwest is necessary primarily to support the land bridge from Tehran to Hizbullah in Lebanon. Thus, by securing limited Iranian presence in the region, Moscow addressed the symptom, rather than the problem itself, meaning that it has achieved only a temporary and localised de-escalation of tensions between Israel and Iran.

By withdrawing Shi'a forces from the line of mutual disengagement of forces, Russia has guaranteed the security of Israel’s borders in the medium term. While the IRGC and Shi'a groups are being redeployed to the regions of instability in the Deir ez-Zor and Idlib governorates, the issue of Iran’s military presence in Syria is likely to fade into the background of Russia-Israel relations. This notwithstanding, Israel has made it clear to Moscow that it regards the entrenchment of Iranian troops across the country as unacceptable; there is a clear difference of opinion between Russia and Israel on this.

Outside southern Syria, the coastal regions and Hama, where Russia has a strong presence, Moscow will find it difficult to restrain Iran, particularly in conditions where Asad is skilfully manoeuvring between the interests of the two countries. It will also not be easy for Russia to keep Iran from deploying its air defence systems and surface-to-surface missiles, which is another ‘red line’ for Israel.

Russia will accept a confrontation between Israel and Iran that does not develop into a war but is marked by the regular probing of each other’s ‘red lines’. Moscow cannot demand that Iran reduce its military capabilities while Russia has entrenched itself in Syria with two military bases. Thus, Israel’s campaign to consistently undermine Iran’s military capabilities on the ground and weaken its influence partly fulfils the functions that Russia would like to take on itself but cannot for political reasons.

Moscow will likely reconcile with Tehran’s desire for a military presence in Syria, while assuming the responsibility for monitoring the areas of Iranian deployment and the weapons that it will obtain. It should be noted that Russia has little influence over Iran’s decisions with regard to Syria. A key player in limiting Iran’s influence is Asad himself; he has thus far skilfully balanced the interests of his two allies, using the complex dynamics between them to his advantage.

Iran’s presence in Syria has evolved over the course of the conflict. The Syrian National Defence Forces, effectively a parallel army with approximately 50 000 personnel, are sponsored and trained primarily by Iran. Further, home-grown militia were created and are under the protection of Iran, such as Hizbullah in Syria (Hizbullah fi Suriya), suggesting that the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country will still allow Iran to maintain significant influence on security matters across Syria, including in the southwest. For this reason, the issue that Russia will have to solve in the long term in Syria is not the number of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers and Shi'a fighters from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan deployed in Syria under the Asad’s protection, but rather how the Syrian Armed Forces will be made up in the post-war period and what role Iran will play in security sector reform.

The Nuclear Deal in the Context of the Israel-Iran Confrontation in Syria

Closely intertwined with the growing confrontation between Iran and Israel in Syria is the nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or, rather, the US withdrawal from the agreement on 8 May 2018. Trump’s decision to reject the JCPOA was fully supported, and partially reinforced, by Netanyahu, who produced an archive of documents allegedly proving Iran’s ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons several days before the US announcement. Both Russia and Israel should be concerned by the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, primarily because Iran’s response could be asymmetrical and involve a more aggressive military strategy in Syria, as well as attempts to take it out on one of Washington’s key allies, Israel.

Significant in this regard was an incident on 10 May 2018, when Iran’s elite Quds Force launched thirty-two rockets at the Golan Heights from Syria; Israel responded with strikes targeting a number of military facilities and an ammunition storage dump. This event is important, first, because it was the first time that Iran had committed such actions. The episode, just two days after the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, may be interpreted as a harbinger of what the confrontation between Iran and Israel could resemble in the event of an asymmetric Iranian response to US actions. It also marked the merging of the Syrian conflict and the nuclear agreement into a single political issue for Israel.

The strategy of the USA and Israel on the JCPOA raises the suspicion that the US withdrawal was necessary to force Iran to respond and resume its nuclear programme. Even if Tehran did not make such a decision, the fact that there is suspicion over Iran’s intentions and mistrust will serve as an argument for the USA and its allies to pursue a more aggressive policy of isolation and deterrence. Israel supports a military solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, but it does not have a strategy for dealing with it politically. Military confrontation with Iran and a scenario of containment is far more understandable to the Israeli leadership than political confrontation in a state of coexistence. At the same time, it is clear that if the nuclear deal falls through, Israel will likely pay the highest price.

Although Israel played no role in negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme, the nuclear deal was seen as part of the general policy to contain Iran by both the USA and Israel. Even if Israel is not a key player in diplomatic negotiations, it is clearly seen as a critical player in deterring Iran, being capable of taking unilateral steps to degrade Iranian nuclear infrastructure. In March 2018, ten years after the incident, Israel admitted it had deployed Israeli fighter jets to strike a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, an admission that was meant to indicate to Iran that Israel was ready to launch a military strike on Iran if it believed the latter has resumed its nuclear programme.

Nevertheless, not all Israelis share Netanyahu’s view that the JCPOA was a historical mistake. For example, the chief of general staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Gadi Eizenkot, expressed confidence that ‘right now the agreement, despite all its faults, works and prevents the implementation of the Iranian nuclear programme for the next 10-15 years’. The agreement with Iran did not bring the country any closer to the nuclear bomb that Netanyahu talked about. On the contrary, it was built on the fundamental distrust of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and based on the need for verification.

Within Israeli military circles, a more pragmatic position on the JCPOA has taken root, and it is with people in these circles that Moscow needs to build a more substantive dialogue on the Iranian nuclear issue. Judging by the fact that the discourse on Iran has changed in Israel since the USA pulled out of the deal, with the focus turning to Tehran as a source of regional problems, the dialogue between Russia and Israel is likely to be narrow, and the main challenge that Moscow will face in this context will be to return the focus to the nuclear programme.

The biggest dilemma for Russia within the framework of the Iranian response to the failure of the nuclear deal will be to balance the interests of the various circles within the political elite in Iran. The Iranian leadership is not unanimous on the policy to be pursued in response to the US withdrawal from the JCPOA. Trump’s actions have left Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, in the minority, despite his call for joint action with Europe, Russia and China to preserve the deal.

Rouhani made it clear to the European Union that Iran’s decision about whether it remains part of the JCPOA depends entirely on the EU. Despite the fact that sections of Iran’s leadership threatened to pull out of the deal as soon as Trump had made his announcement, a decision was nevertheless delayed until the EU took its own decision on the matter. It is clear that, despite the warlike rhetoric, which is often little more than populism, for Iran, the nuclear deal – or, more importantly, the potential economic benefits accompanying the deal – is extremely important.

Iranian hardliners reacted sharply to the US decision and sought Rouhani’s resignation, since they did not believe in the ability of the EU to preserve the deal without changing its terms or attaching the regional aspect of Iran’s foreign policy to it. The 10 May events in Syria made it clear that Tehran’s asymmetrical response to the failure of the JCPOA in the form of intentional military escalation is an acceptable option for Iran, or for at least part of the Iranian establishment. In this context, Iran’s campaign in Syria, led by Major General Qasem Soleimani, is becoming extremely risky for Moscow. As far as the USA, EU and Israel are concerned, negotiations on the nuclear deal could very well be combined with the questions of Iran’s ballistic missile programme, and its regional expansion. It should be noted that EU countries are more careful about expressing this position than the USA and Israel.

The positions of Tehran and Moscow remain unchanged. In the negotiation process, neither Russia nor Iran (whose negotiations on the nuclear agreement are still being overseen by Abbas Araghchi, a deputy foreign minister) is prepared to amend the JCPOA and tie new restrictive measures to the agreement. However, judging by recent events in Syria, as far as the Iranian hardliners are concerned, Syria itself has become an unofficial response to the JCPOA’s collapse. Under these conditions, Russia should clearly divide its negotiating tracks and categorically oppose attempts to ‘increase the pressure on Tehran due to circumstances unrelated to the JCPOA and which, to a large extent, have nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear programme’. Moscow will probably not be prepared to use the Syrian problem as a lever in multilateral negotiations on the Iranian nuclear deal, as it understands the lack of unanimity on these issues in Tehran.

Palestinian-Israeli deal

Against the backdrop of the Syrian crisis and growing tensions in the Middle East, the issue of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement is gradually losing its relevance, and many experts now viewthe Middle East Quartet as an outdated format. Were it not for Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the transfer of the US Embassy there, the Palestinian issue would have remained on the global backburner.

Trump’s ‘deal of the century’, as it is being called in Washington, on a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue effectively eliminates key elements of the peace process (the establishment of the Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees), forcing Palestinians to search for new allies. Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, sees Moscow as an actor that can possibly return the processes of recent months into the framework of existing negotiating agreements. The PA has openly asked Russia for this.

Russia has traditionally been clear on the issue of the Israel-Palestine resolution. Putin repeatedly expressed his position at meetings with his Palestinian and Israeli counterparts, emphasising that Russia’s principled position supported the right of Palestinians to self-determination, and that the result of any solution should involve the cessation of the Israeli occupation of Arab lands that began in 1967 and the creation of an independent State of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Russia first offered to host negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in Moscow in 2005. The idea of holding direct talksbetween Abbas and Netanyahu was brought up in the meeting between the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Putin in August 2016. The first direct meeting between the Palestinian and Israeli leaders since 2010 was supposed to have taken place in Moscow in September 2016, but the parties blamed each other for its cancellation. Abbas claimed the Israelis had unilaterally cancelled the meeting, while the Israelis said Palestinian preconditionswere unacceptable.

Moscow made a number of attempts to organise a summit, most recently in June 2018, but they all failed to materialise. Obviously, getting Netanyahu and Abbas to meet with Russian mediation is not an end in itself for Moscow, and such a meeting is not capable of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It could, however, help restart the peace process, the Russians hope. But the Russian mediation initiative, unsuccessful for the past two years, threatens to turn from an intermediate goal into mission impossible for Russian diplomacy.

Multiple international initiatives on Israeli-Palestinian settlement that already exist risk working against the role that Moscow hopes to play. For example, the French conference the issue in 2016, which was actively promoted by the former French president, François Hollande, went no further than a single meeting in Paris. By spearheading mediation efforts, Moscow risks again demonstrating that relaunching the peace process in its current format is impossible. This will assist Washington’s ‘deal of the century’, and will open the path to a review of the terms of the negotiation process based on new facts on the ground since new borders were determined in 1967.

For Russia, a more visible role in the Palestinian settlement would provide it with a unique opportunity to strengthen its clout in the Middle East outside the Syrian setting, that is, outside a military context. To some extent, Moscow’s efforts on this front have to do with its positioning vis-a-vis the USA, Europe and Israel, and many experts agree that, for Putin, the fact of Russia’s participation in the peace process could be more important than the final settlement itself. In this context, the PA’s expectation that Moscow will become the advocate of the Palestinian position in negotiations with Israel is misplaced, despite the fact that the two have similar stances on the issue.

For Abbas, getting Russia involved in the process serves both foreign and domestic policy goals. The PA, headed by Abbas, has been unable to form a sense of national cohesion for Palestinians, while the administration is deeply localised and territorially fragmented. Many Palestinians are disappointed with the ‘peace process’, which has relied on US initiative for over two decades. Russia’s attempts to take a more active role hopes to reboot, in a sense, the internal Palestinian discourse and gives additional internal political support to Abbas.

Israel is not keen on Russia’s initiatives. Moscow is attempting to get Israel to negotiate on the Palestinian issue, but it is clear that Israel is counting on the American ‘deal of the century’. Thus, in April 2017, for the first time ever, the Russian foreign ministry recognised West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. This step, which was received well by Israeli media, should have kickstarted Russia’s negotiation process, but the Israeli leadership approached it with caution.

Despite the fact that Israel does not see Russia’s role as a mediator outside of international initiatives, Netanyahu needs to give at least some leeway to Putin’s mediation initiatives. It is extremely important for Israel to preserve its fragile partnership with Russia, as this partnership is closely linked with cooperation in Syria, while the deterioration in relations against the backdrop of disagreements on Palestine could well undermine the dialogue on Syria. The issue of Israel’s recognition as a Jewish state in the Middle East remains and, in light of Iran’s growing role in Syria, the Israel-Palestinian process becomes even more dependent on the regional context. This is another reason why the Israeli leadership may value Moscow’s support.

Moscow, however, does not view Palestine and Syria as related issues in its relations with Israel. Further, Russia sees the prospect of a Palestinian deal as a logical continuation of its role in the region, a process that was set in motion by the country’s military campaign in Syria. At the same time, however, policy toolkits for Palestine and Syria files will remain different.

Conclusions and Recommendations

  • The escalation between Israel and Iran in the southwest of Syria is a manifestation of contradictions that run far deeper than the Syrian context. Russian mediation in the settlement in this round of tensions freezes the existing conflict in the medium term, but does not resolve the deep contradictions that extend beyond Syria. To minimise the conflict potential between Iran and Israel on the ground, Russia will have to comprehensively review the modality of the pro-Iranian forces’ presence in Syria. Presence of pro-Iranian armed units in the country is an issue whose solution will be part of the political settlement and is likely to become an element in security sector reform. Given deep-rooted Iranian influence, especially in the military sphere, one of Russia’s main tasks in Syria will be security sector reform. Moscow must first integrate the opposition armed units into the Syrian army and its internal forces, and tackle the issue of foreign influence in the security sector. Russia has had experience in instituting the 5thAssault Corps, which is not formed on the basis of ethnicity, religion or geography, and was an attempt to reduce Iranian influence over the Syrian Army. It is likely that Moscow’s task in Syria moving forward will be to consolidate the Syrian Army by combining different pro-government and opposing groups to create an armed force that is free from external ideological influence.
  • Israeli and American conviction of the need to merge negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme and Syria into a single track, as well as the growing understanding of this in Europe, presents a clear risk for Moscow. Russia’s approach to the JCPOA is of an institutional, rather than political, nature. As a consequence, Moscow will be unwilling to discuss the issue of Tehran’s regional influence and its missile programme in connection with the JCPOA. Given the obvious focus of the Russia-Israel dialogue on security issues, it would be wise to discuss the Iranian nuclear deal in the EU-Israel-Russia format more actively with a view to including discussions of the technical details of the JCPOA in the bilateral Russia-Israel agenda as well.
  • Russia’s role as an intermediary between Iran and Israel is justified in the Syrian context, where Russia’s own interests are dependent on the dynamics of the Iran-Israel confrontation, as well as in the context of the Iranian nuclear deal. Nevertheless, Moscow should not position itself as an intermediary between the two countries in order to achieve complete reconciliation. Establishing a modus vivendiis far more achievable than a comprehensive settlement. Moscow’s role as a broker, and the attempt to carry out a clearly impossible task, can work to Russia’s disadvantage, negatively affecting relations with both Israel and Iran, as well as with other regional players. The issue of Hizbullah will continue to be extremely toxic for Russia-Israel relations, and while Moscow does have leverage over the group within the context of the Syrian conflict, it quite clearly has none outside the country. Given the position recently proclaimed by an Israeli minister that‘Lebanon equals Hizbullah’, it now appears that Moscow should confine itself to discussing Hizbullah in the context of the Syrian conflict and avoid talking about the organisation’s role in Lebanon, although attempts have been made to do this by the Israelis.
  • Russia’s role in resolving the instability in the south of Syria and the balancing act it is playing between Damascus and Israel could create the prerequisites for a broader dialogue on Israel and Syria. Given Israeli attempts in 2007 under Ehud Olmert, with Turkish mediation, and again in 2010 by Netanyahu to transfer Golan Heights to Damascus in exchange for peace, as well as the growing understanding in Israel that a dialogue with Damascus is necessary, Russia’s role in establishing this dialogue could significantly increase.
  • Enhancing Russia’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian issue is unlikely to produce the desired results, especially against the backdrop of US initiatives, which disrupt the peace process in the harshest possible way. The Russian initiative to organise a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders will likely not lead to the relaunch of talks due to deep disagreements that exist between the sides. At this stage, Russia should focus on achieving intra-Palestinian reconciliation. The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is only getting worse against the backdrop of the PA losing control of the West Bank, and the Palestinian unity government has not made any serious progress, meaning that the prospects for national dialogue are extremely low. In recent years, Russia has managed to build a rapport with PA representatives, the Hamas Political Bureau and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which regularly meet with representatives of Russia’s foreign ministry in Moscow. Moscow’s interim task in the Palestinian context should be to provide political and humanitarian assistance to reconciliation within Palestine and work towards launching the Palestinian unity government that was created in October 2017.

Yury Barminis an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council. He focuses on issues related to Syria, and consults for government and private clients on issues related to the Russian policy in the Middle East.

By Hassan Aourid

Until last Saturday, I was hopeful that the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at his country’s consulate in Istanbul was not more than a case of censure that might result in his transfer home to face trial or might silence him. But revelations on Saturday night and Sunday indicated an abrupt and dramatic change that might amount to an assassination. This would turn his disappearance into a rerun of the disappearance and murder of left-wing Moroccan politician Mehdi Ben Barka in 1965, coincidentally in the same month as the disappearnace of Khashoggi. Ben Barka’s assassination brought the Moroccan establishment to its knees, tainting its image. It also forced the opposition to radicalise, and threatened reconciliation efforts. Similarly, the Khashoggi case could transform into a burden too weighty for Saudi Arabia to bear.

Nothing is certain, but should Khashoggi’s assassination be confirmed, Saudi Arabia and the entire Middle East region will have taken a dangerous turn. Such a development will also have implications for Saudi Arabia’s future and its relations with Turkey, scuppering the idea of a ‘Sunni NATO’ and adversely affecting Saudi relations with the West – including the USA, particularly following President Trump’s recent pronouncements on bilateral relations. The West cannot remain silent and prioritise its interests over its values if Khashoggi is found to have been murdered.

I made Khashoggi’s acquaintance in May at a conference on security and political arrangements for the Middle East and North Africa convened by the Afro-Middle East Centre and Al Sharq Forum in Istanbul. The gathering gathered a galaxy of intellectuals and pundits from the Arab and Islamic world alongside international observers from the rest of the globe. Khashoggi was among the participants and was a keynote speaker at the closing session.

Speaking polished English in a calm tone, he provided a sensible assessment of the situation across the Arab world, from countries that embraced change and defended it inside and outside the Arab world to those that are openly inimical to change or ask to be left alone after facing adversity and seeing their nations torn apart. The kernel of his presentation  was his defence of the strategic interests of Saudi Arabia and what he regarded as the risks that Iran’s nuclear programme and expansionist designs pose to the region.

It was no secret that Khashoggi was opposed to Saudi Arabia’s new policies, or, rather, new developments in his country led him to keep his distance from decision makers after having been an astute defender of his country, and it policies and institutions.

The new policies and new methods for conducting public affairs in Saudi Arabia have forced him into self-exile and a liberal opposition to the situation in his country. He was not loathe to air his views, whether on television channels, forums or meetings, or in the columns of The Washington Post, which were characterised by depth and audacity. I was a regular reader of his articles to understand what was happening in the Saudi kingdom.

Two months ago, I read one of his Washington Post articles where he referred to David Kirkpatrick’s book on the critical situation in the Arab world. I subsequently bought and reviewed the book. 

Khashoggi wanted to prevent liberal and reformist movements from being left to the mercy of authoritarian regimes by encouraging them to align with with the dynamics of their societies. To put it differently, he wanted to have them recognise Islamic views regardless of differences since they were a reflection of a societal reality and an internal dynamic. Turning them into an enemy might hamper their evolution and drive them into withdrawal and, eventually, extremism. It was a principled position, which he articulated without neglecting the core principles underpinning modernist thought, including the emancipation of women, the introduction of legal standards for political action, balance among branches of government, and democratisation. This vision is bothersome for regimes that unilaterally decide the fate of adversaries and dissidents by pitting one movement against the other. It is also troublesome for regimes focused on dealing with the present to the detriment of the strategic, regimes that refuse to abide by standards, or account for their actions.

Particularly striking and central, to Khashoggi’s credit, was his defence of his country’s strategic interests, a reflection of his maturity and credibility. Some dissidents are driven by their impetuosity to confuse views, persons and regimes with the strategic interests of their countries, losing their credibility in the process. They might find themselves in an ephemeral media bubble and descend into oblivion as soon as it bursts. Khashoggi did not fall in this category, and he thus kept his credibility intact. He stands for something new that observers of Saudi Arabia’s affairs tend to overlook: liberal views which want to be immersed in global trends and universal experience. He was not the first to voice or embrace these tendencies, but he became one of its voices and mouthpieces. His mysterious disappearance signals a dramatic shift; the confirmation of his murder will worsen matters. Yet his forced disappearance will not kill his ideas. When an individual is silenced, the ideas he embraced or was made to embrace by the social dynamics in his country or region will not wither and die. On the contrary, they become more dangerous when they haunt people who were made victims, martyrs and ultimately icons. Khashoggi is now an idea that poses a greater danger to the current establishment in Saudi Arabia.

The tragic disappearance of a person whose sole weapon was his pen brings to mind an incident that changed the course of the Middle East when the henchmen of the Ottoman caliph, then the embodiment of Islamic unity, executed Arab nationalists in May 1916 in Damascus. When Emir Faisal bin Hussein, a leader of the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans and later king of the Arab Kingdom of Syria, heard the news, he sprang to his feet in a fit of rage, removed his headdress, and shouted a line that has become famous and marked a break with a system that was hitherto seen as the custodian of Islam: “Death has never been so appealing, oh Arabs!” The rest of the story is history. The smallest spark can ignite the largest fire.

The gruesome murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was designed to be a clear and firm message for Saudi dissidents, and reflected the current Saudi sense of impunity. Saudi Arabia, and particularly its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), however, seemed to have miscalculated the consequences of the murder. The incident caused immediate international ructions, and increased pressure on Saudi Arabia. It is still unclear, however, whether there will be long-term consequences or whether Saudi Arabia will succeed in covering up the murder. 

Khashoggi’s murder indicates MBS’s paranoia and intolerance for criticism. Khashoggi, after all, was a supporter of the country’s monarchy and an establishment figure – even if he was somewhat critical of MBS. He had been an adviser to another Saudi prince, Turki bin Faisal, former head of the Saudi intelligence service; had worked in Saudi Arabia’s London and Washington embassies; and had initially supported MBS’s ‘reform’ initiative. He was, thus, an insider who had turned his back on MBS, making him, arguably, more dangerous than a dissident. Further, even in the authoritarian monarchy that Saudi Arabia is, the man western media and politicians liked to tout as a great ‘reformer’ has deepened the levels of repression, even arresting dozens of members of the royal family in November 2017, and detaining influential religious scholars such as Salman al-Awda and human and women’s rights activists. These efforts have helped concentrate power in the crown prince’s office, as well as expanded his and the state’s coffers through large amounts of extortion money.

Khashoggi’s murder was undertaken with the brazenness with which MBS has defined himself, taking place in a consulate, with a large kill team flown in using their own passports, ignoring a Turkish camera monitoring the entrance to the consulate. This allowed Turkey to easily gain intelligence about the murder, including video and audio recordings. The attitude also reflects the sense of impunity that MBS has developed, an attitude that is justified when one considers his actions over the past three years – since being appointed deputy prime minister and minister of defence - that he has not had to account for. These include the brutal war against Yemen and the massacre of civilians – including schoolchildren; the blockade on Qatar; the kidnapping of a Lebanese prime minister, Saad al-Hariri – and forcing him to resign; last year’s detention of members of the royal family and the extortion of substantial parts of their wealth; the weakening of the Gulf Cooperation Council; and his insulting of Palestinians and warming relations with Israel. He therefore had every reason to believe that he would escape accountability for Khashoggi’s murder as well.

Saudi Arabia had initially denied that Khashoggi has been killed, claiming he had exited the consulate. However, about ten days later, as Turkish sources leaked ever more information and because international attention and condemnation increased, the Saudis suggested that the murder was carried out by ‘rogue killers’, in an attempt to insulate MBS. They also finally acquiesced to Turkey’s request to search the consulate and the house of the consul-general. It is highly unlikely that MBS knew nothing about the murder, especially since seven of the fifteen-person hit squad are from his personal security detail. The Saudi suggestion that it was a botched interrogation is also difficult to sustain considering that autopsy and forensic specialist Salah Abdulaziz Al-Tubaigy was part of the Saudi team that arrived at the consulate and that he, it is reported, brought a bone saw with. 

Khashoggi’s killing will have immediate short-term consequences for the Kingdom. It has already attracted hostility from the US senate, which in 2017 narrowly failed to halt Saudi arms sales for weapons destined to be used in Yemen. The most vocal critic is right-wing senator Lindsey Graham, a former defender of the Saudis, who said, ‘MBS is toxic. We should sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia’. Already, twenty-one of the twenty-two-member senate foreign relations committee called for the implementation of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Act. The administration now has four months to investigate human rights abuses relating to Khashoggi’s murder; if confirmed, the act stipulates the imposition of asset freezes and travel bans on the culprits. However, the US president, Donald Trump, has dithered between condemning the murder, defending the Saudis, insisting that arms sales to Saudi Arabia were too important to the USA to be jeopardised, and promising ‘severe punishment’. Yet, his is clearly reluctant to take any action against Saudi Arabia, only partly because of arms sales. Other factors include his own business interests with the Saudis, his obsession with Iran and the Saudi support for his anti-Iran initiative, and because MBS is a firm ally in supporting Israel. Further, it is unclear whether the US senate’s righteous indignation will continue or dissipate with midterm elections coming up and Republicans not wanting to seem divided.

The British, French and German governments issued a joint statement condemning Khashoggi’s murder  and advocating an independent credible investigation; the G7 issued a similar statement. But there is no indication that this will result in any concrete action against Saudi Arabia, even if the previous image of MBS they touted – as a moderniser – becomes tarnished.

More Immediately, there has been a significant withdrawal from the Saudi ‘Future Investment Initiative’, MBS’s project to attract funds to Saudi Arabia for his economic ‘modernisation’ and liberalisation  project, scheduled for later this month. Cancellations and/or high-level pullouts have come from companies such as Ford, JP Morgan Chase, Virgin Group, Blackstone and Standard Chartered; media organisations such as Fox, CNN, Bloomberg, Financial Times, and the New York Times; and senior political and economic figures such as the US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, the finance ministers of France and Netherlands, the trade secretary of the UK, and IMF head Christine Lagarde. Uber, which Saudi Arabia has shares in, and Fox Business Network, which was a cosponsor of the event, have also withdrawn –Fox Business also withdrew its sponsorship. These withdrawals are sufficient to threaten a collapse of the summit, disrupting MBS’s project in, at least, the short term. 

Within the MENA region Saudi Arabia has received support from allies Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE, as well as from Kuwait and the Palestinian Authority, all of which have called for an investigation, but expressed their support for the kingdom. Most of these countries are dependent on Saudi largesse, while the UAE and KSA have a strong economic and military partnership and alliance against Qatar and Iran.

A significant development in the region might be Saudi relations with Turkey, which have been cool, mainly as a result of Turkey’s support of Qatar. The manner in which Turkish intelligence services and the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have responded, suggest that they have calculated on pushing Saudi Arabia into a corner, as they have done, but may hope that this will force Saudi Arabia to improve relations with Turkey, on terms dictated by the latter. The current situation represents a public relations coup for Turkey and a disaster for Saudi Arabia.  However the Saudis respond, Turkey will emerge in the stronger position. The Turks have also used the incident to strengthen relations with the USA, which were also strained in the recent past, releasing American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who has been in Turkish custody since 2016. Turkey will likely demand that some high-level Saudi official take the fall. They might not aim as high as MBS, however.

Within Saudi Arabia, the murder has had limited impact, and while there is concern about the possible consequences of external pressure on MBS’s standing, there is no indication yet that he will be removed from his position or disciplined in any way. This will be disappointing both for the Saudi opposition as well as dissident and disaffected members of the royal family who wait anxiously for an opportunity to hit back at the crown prince. At the moment, it seems that the worst consequence for MBS might be his father Salman instructing him to take a low profile in the immediate future while attempts are made to contain the fallout of the Khashoggi murder. MBS remains Salman’s favoured son and nominee as his successor.

It is quite likely that, in the long-term, the pressure on the kingdom will slowly dissipate as western geopolitical and economic needs come to the fore again. Many western companies will seek to benefit from the aggressive expansion of the Saudi 230-billion-dollar sovereign wealth fund (Public Investment Fund), which has recently purchased shares in renewable energy, property, and motion production companies around the world. MBS is already deploying Saudi finances to limit the fallout from the murder, releasing 100 million dollars in funding to the US State Department’s counterterrorism programme.

Trump has already said he will not suspend sales of arms to Saudi Arabia because, he claimed, Russian and Chinese companies would replace American ones. Whatever the USA decides, switching heavy weapons’ technology from American to any other is not an easy or short-term process and the Saudis and Americans will remain tied in their arms seller-buyer relationship in the medium term.

While the immediate global response to the Khashoggi murder has imposed substantial pressure on Saudi Arabia, it is unclear that this will have any impact on Saudi Arabia in terms of reducing its repressive actions internally and externally, ending its war in Yemen, or easing its aggressive policies in the region. It is therefore not certain that this will help create space for Saudi dissenters – even within the royal family – to voice their dissent, even if MBS and his security services become more careful about how they suppress opposition.

by Zeenat Adam

South Africa’s silence regarding human rights atrocities perpetrated by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is conspicuous, as demonstrated in September, when it abstained from voting on a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council that called for extending the mandate of an international investigation into human rights violations in Yemen. The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCOargues that such abstentions on human rights issues (there have been others) are ‘in line with government’s policy in the United Nations to abstain on country-specific situations outside the African continent in order not to align South Africa with any particular geopolitical bloc, and to ensure that we retain our ability to adopt independent policy positions in multilateral forums.’ 

In the Yemeni case, it is plausible that South Africa is reluctant to risk losing the $10 billion in investments pledged by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to President Cyril Ramaphosa during his visits to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in July. Questions have already been raised about the political, diplomatic and reputational cost of these investments to South Africa. Despite these two states’ notorious human rights records, arms exports from South Africa to both countries have grown since the war began in Yemen, rendering Pretoria possibly complicit in war crimes committed since 2015. Both countries remain the most prolific purchasers of South African weapons.

South Africa’s approach of abstaining from voting on human rights issues in international fora renders it ineffectual and raises the question of why it wants to serve on the UNHRC and the UN Security Council – where it will begin its third two-year non-permanent term in 2019, if it is reluctant to take positions on matters of global importance. The fence-sitting deviates from South Africa’s approach during the Mandela era when it stood as a firm human rights defender on the international stage. In recent years, South African foreign policy seems to have drastically shifted from a human rights foundation to a drive for economic development through foreign investment. Using a mask of economic diplomacy, South Africa thus relinquishes its proclaimed core value of human rights.

For more than three years, the war in poverty-stricken Yemen continued, sparked by Houthi rebels and forces loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, seizing control of Yemen’s largest city and then-capital, Sana'a, in September 2014, and their move southwards towards Aden. By March 2015, a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the USA launched a military campaign to defeat the Houthis, who have since been supported by Iran. The Saudi-led campaign exacerbated the humanitarian impact of the war through intense aerial bombardments that caused mass civilian casualties; controlling ports of entry in a way that hindered the delivery of food and basic necessities; and creating the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe.

The United Nations Group of Regional and International Eminent Experts on Yemen released a report in August, in which it stated that there were ‘reasonable grounds to believe that the parties to the armed conflict in Yemen have committed a substantial number of violations of international humanitarian law’. The report covers the period from September 2014 to June 2018, and found that individuals in the Yemeni government and the coalition – including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and in the de facto authorities (the Houthi) have committed acts that may amount to international crimes. Coalition air strikes, the report asserts, may have been disproportionate and caused the most direct civilian casualties. The chairperson of the panel, Kamel Jendoubi, alleged that the UAE and Saudi Arabia interfered with the work of the panel, despite its attempts to maintain neutrality.    

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on Saudi Arabia to end airstrikes in Yemen, and to ensure that the perpetrators of attacks on children are brought to justice, thus adding to the mounting pressure on the coalition. The Panel of Experts’ report highlighted the use of children by all parties as child soldiers. In addition, it provided detailed reports of the use of torture in detention, sexual violence and rape as a weapon of war.

Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders – MSF) reported that outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and diphtheria and an upsurge in fighting have worsened the dire humanitarian situation, where more than three million people have been displaced since the war began. Over 20 million people need humanitarian assistance. MSF adds that indiscriminate bombings and chronic shortages of supplies and staff have led to the closure of more than half of Yemen’s health facilities. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights estimated that Saudi-led coalition air strikes may be responsible for approximately two-thirds of civilian deaths.  Human Rights Watch reported that ‘the armed conflict has taken a terrible toll on the civilian population. The coalition has conducted scores of indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes hitting civilian objects that have killed thousands of civilians in violation of the laws of war, with munitions that the US, United Kingdom, and others still supply.’ In September, UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva failed because the Houthi delegation did not attend, citing obstruction in its attempts to travel by the national delegation.

The ‘others’ that HRW refers to includes South Africa. According to annual reports of the South African National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), South Africa supplied arms, ammunition and armoured vehicles, as well as surveillance and military technology to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2016 and 2017, amounting to more than three billion Rands, while the two states were deeply embroiled in Yemen, with devastating humanitarian consequences. Evidence of South African military equipment being used in Yemen by the coalition emerged as early as 2015 when footage was broadcast by Al Masirah news channel of a Seeker II unmanned aerial vehicle that had been downed. The images indicate a plate worded: ‘Made in South Africa Carl Zeiss Optronics Pty Ltd’.

In August 2018, an attack on a fish market in the port city of Hodeida resulted in the death of at least fifty-five civilians. Indications are that the munition fragments found at the scene resemble 120mm mortar bombs manufactured by the South African arms manufacturer Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM). 

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which documents the global flow of weapons, noted that arms sales to the Middle East increased exponentially between 2013 and 2017, with Saudi Arabia as the largest purchaser in the region, followed closely by the world’s fourth largest arms importer, the UAE. South Africa ranks among UAE’s top arms suppliers for the period 2007-2017.

Despite glaring human rights’ concerns, arms supplying countries like South Africa continue to export weapons to states in the Saudi-led coalition. South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Act mandates the NCACC to ‘avoid transfers of conventional arms to governments that systematically violate or suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms’ and to ‘avoid transfers of conventional weapons that are likely to contribute to the escalation of regional military conflicts, endanger peace by introducing destabilising military capabilities into a region or otherwise contribute to regional instability’.

Established in 1995, the NCACC is a cabinet committee, uniquely protected, and the appointment of whose members is the sole responsibility of the president. Jeff Radebe, currently the Minister of Energy, has served as the committee’s chairperson since 2009. The committee is supported by an inspectorate that looks after matters of compliance, and a Scrutiny Committee that considers applications submitted by companies seeking to sell arms. The NCACC is required to consult certain government departments regularly, including DIRCO, the Department of Trade and Industry, and the State Security Agency (SSA).Cabinet established an NCACC organisational structure that comprises ‘four accountable levels of responsibility:

  • an initial permit application technical processing level;
  • a multi-departmental review and recommendation process on permit application;
  • a scrutiny and recommendation process by Directors-General; and
  • a control, policy and decision-making authority, which is a Cabinet-approved Committee of Ministers, the NCACC.’

The structure was meant to ensure that authority over South African arms sales would be vested in a senior ministerial caucus rather than in civil servants. The NCACC should meet monthly to consider arms transfer applications. However, the committee seems to have been less serious in its responsibilities in the recent few years, thus allowing loopholes for corruption and unchecked weapons’ transfers. If it has doubt over sales to a particular purchaser, the committee should suspend applications until assessments are conducted by the relevant departments. In such cases, DIRCO and the SSA would monitor the country in question and submit recommendations to the committee, which will then decide to approve or deny the application. Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence provides oversight to the committee and is authorised to question its decisions. Radebe and the minister of defence, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, appeared before the Joint Standing Committee, but their responses to questions on arms’ sales to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners appeared deflective. Empty promises were made that investigations would be undertaken to determine the reasons for sales to countries where human rights atrocities are perpetrated. The two ministers feigned ignorance of the situation in Yemen and overlooked the culpability of the Saudi coalition.

The $10 billion investment pledge by Saudi Arabia and the UAE may also play a role in the arms market. Though the investment is expected to focus mainly on the energy sector, indications are that South Africa’s failing defence industry may get a boost off the back of the energy deals. The link between energy and arms raises a concern about the chairperson of the committee. Because the chairperson is required to be neutral in the deliberation of the committee, the position is usually filled by a minister whose portfolio does not conflict with NCACC decisions. In this case, it is debatable whether the minister of energy’s heading the committee might be regarded as neutral.

Apart from domestic legislation on weapons’ sales, South Africa is also a signatory to the Arms Trade Treaty, which it ratified in 2014. The conditions of the treaty stipulate, among other things, that the state parties must assess the potential that conventional arms could be used to commit serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. South Africa continues to authorise the sale of conventional weapons that have been used by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Yemen, despite widely-known allegations, as documented by the UN, of serious violations of international law by members of their coalition in Yemen. Significantly,  Saudi officials themselves claim to have conducted more than 145 000 missions over Yemen in the past three years. One Saudi general estimated that more than 100 000 of those missions were of a combative nature, and that the military had conducted as many as 300 such operations in a single day. 

In addition to the sale of small arms, assault rifles, heavy artillery guns and armoured vehicles, South Africa has supplied the UAE and Saudi Arabia with mortar bombs, armoured personnel carriers, artillery, ammunition, electronic attack systems, software, and a range of other controlled products.

When the Barack Obama administration in the USA declined Saudi Arabia’s request for the supply of Predator drones in 2013, the kingdom turned to South Africa’s Denel Dynamics to assist Riyadh in the development of its own armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programme. Denel adapted the Seeker-400 with a range of 250 kilometres and an endurance of 16 hours to carry the Makopa air-to-ground missile and the Impi laser-guided missile, which has a multipurpose warhead suited for assassination missions. By May 2017, Saudi Arabia unveiled its own combat drone, Saqr 1, which resembled Denel’s design.

In June 2016, South Africa’s then-president, Jacob Zuma, travelled to Saudi Arabia to inaugurate a Saudi Military Industries Corporation facility in Al-Kharjnear Riyadh. He did so together with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who is seen as the architect of the war in Yemen. The 240 million dollar projectiles’ factory was built in collaboration with South Africa’s Rheinmetall Denel Munitions, and is expected to produce a minimum of 300 artillery shells or 600 mortar projectiles per day, as well as aircraft bombs ranging from 500lb-2000lb. 

Earlier this year, notorious South African arms dealer, Ivor Ichikowitz, announced that his Paramount Group was in talks with Saudi Arabia with a view to transferring technology and establishing production plants. Since Saudi Arabia and the UAE are not signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, South African companies may ultimately assist these countries to establish munitions factories that are capable of manufacturing cluster munitions. Both Gulf states have used cluster munitions in the war in Yemen. In transferring its technology, South Africa protects itself from a future legal quagmire that may arise domestically in terms of the NCACC, or, internationally, since it is signatory to the Arms Trade Treaty. It may thus absolve itself of responsibility in case of human rights atrocities committed with the weapons, since they would be manufactured in a country where neither law applies.

MBS is touted as the face of a changing Saudi Arabia and the successor to his father Salman, the king. The young crown prince has consolidated power in himself by violently rooting out dissidents and family members and seizing control of key ministries, including defence. With Saudi Arabia being among the top three global arms purchasers, the regime has plans to grow its arms industry and manufacturing capabilities by 2030 through a new state-owned company, Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI).

In September, SAMI’s CEO, Andreas Schwer, attended the 10th Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) exhibition in Pretoria, where he announced SAMI’s intention to enter into joint ventures with South African entities, and potentially explore an equity investment into South Africa’s cash-strapped state-owned enterprise, Denel. The South Africans seem interested in the proposal, especially suggestions of an economic bailout for Denel. The minister of international relations and cooperation, Lindiwe Sisulu, confirmed the Saudi overtures on 11 October, and indicated that she did ‘not know what the outcome of those negotiations will be when it gets to the NCACC’. She added that the committee would consider the merits of the proposed deal, including human rights implications. 

The reference to human rights came amidst growing media pressure for South Africa to reconsider its arms sales to the Middle East. She too appeared ill-informed about the situation in Yemen. Her department had only issued two statements on the situation in Yemen over the past three years. On both occasions, the statements appeared to justify Saudi actions as a response to Iranian-backed Houthi militia attacks. In the October press conference, she disclosed that Saudi Arabia had approached Pretoria to intervene with Iran. She grappled with questions about South Africa’s commitment to human rights in the light of arms sales to countries such as Saudi Arabia. ‘We do not sell arms to any country that we have been advised by our officials within the security and international relations environment is violating human rights... The reason we established the NCACC in 1994 is that our foreign policy and our own understanding of ourselves is based on human rights. Our common religion is human rights. We have suffered too long to ever veer away from that religious belief,’ she said.

The UAE too has quietly built a formidable military, using its oil wealth to stealthily purchase arms, making it the fourth largest buyer of arms globally. The UAE has also contracted private military security companies linked to Blackwater’s founder Erik Prince to develop a new model army with a strictly no Muslim hiring policy because ‘Muslim soldiers could not be counted on to kill fellow Muslims’. This force consists of foreign troops trained by western veterans and includes several South African mercenaries, in violation of South Africa’s Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act.

Between 2006 and 2016, Denel supplied an estimated 192 Nyala (rebranded as Agrab in the UAE) armoured mortar carriers to the UAE through an Emirati company, International Golden Group. Another significant deal was the sale of Al-Tariq (known as Umbani in South Africa) guided bombs for mirage jets, produced by Tawazun Dynamics, a joint venture with Denel. This deal, worth 500 million dollars, ensured the delivery of at least 1 600 bombs to the UAE by end 2016. After the Emiratis failed to procure Predator drones from the USA, they acquired Chinese-manufactured drones equipped with South African targeting equipment. 

At the 2017 Dubai Airshow, a UAE spokesperson, Staff Pilot Air-Vice Marshal Abdulla Al Sayed Al Hashemi, announced that the UAE had ordered Seeker surveillance drones from Denel Dynamics to the value of AED 48.1 million (USD 13 million), to be delivered in 2018. The UAE has a reputation for redirecting and re-exporting weapons to other countries (including African states), in violation of the Arms Trade Treaty. A recent investigation by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia alleges that the UAE violated the arms embargo imposed on Somalia by transferring military equipment to the Horn of Africa despite international resolutions against the shipments. If South Africa is aware of any such onward sales or transfers of weapons it manufactured, this would violate domestic and international laws, and be in breach of the end user agreement between the UAE and South Africa that assures that any arms purchased would only be utilised by the UAE.

As proxy wars play out between Iran and the Saudi-led coalition in Syria and Yemen at the expense of innocent civilians, there is an increasing indication of an arms race under way in the Middle East. Widespread debate about arms transfers from the UK, Europe and the USA has erupted in those countries because of human rights atrocities committed in the Middle East. Germany and Norway have halted the sale of arms to countries involved in the Yemen war, citing concerns over the humanitarian crisis. To date, the NCACC has not questioned the sale of South African weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, despite glaring allegations of human rights atrocities.

There are other examples too of South Africa not being strict in its responsibility regarding arms sales. In 2010, the NCACC authorised weapons sales to Libya. In responding to opposition questions about the deal, NCACC chair, Jeff Radebe, defended the government position, arguing that at the time the deal was concluded, there had been no evidence that there would be any political unrest in that country. Similar responses were proffered by Radebe when questioned about more recent dubious deals.

South Africa recently applied to the United Nations for authorisation to sell 1,5 billion Rands worth of Umkhonto surface-to-air missiles to Iran, a country that is currently embroiled in the conflict in Syria, and allegedly supportive of the Houthi in Yemen. Such a move would also add to the growing militarisation of a region already fraught with intense conflicts. 

As Saudi atrocities in Yemen and its repression of its own citizens come to light, there appears to be a shift amongst its traditional allies. Following the disappearance and likely murder of Saudi journalist and critic of the regime, Jamal Khashoggi, earlier this month, pressure has mounted on the US president, Donald Trump to punish Saudi Arabia. While he has vehemently defended US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, amounting to $110 billion, the US Senate Foreign Relations chairperson announced that weapons sales to Saudi Arabia would not be passed by Congress. The UK has also threatened serious consequences should Saudi Arabia be found culpable in Khashoggi’s disappearance. Saudi Arabia has begun a diplomatic drive to rescue its reputation and will seek new arms suppliers should the US and UK avenues be blocked. South Africa needs to tread with caution in responding to the temptation to fill such a void, and must ponder carefully its role in further destabilising a region that is already fraught with conflict.

In pursuing its national interests and in advancing economic diplomacy, the South African government believes that promising profitable investments will address the poverty and unemployment scourge. For the South African government, the deals with Saudi Arabia fit well into Ramaphosa’s Thuma Mina (send me) campaign – a slogan inspired by the lyrics of a popular song by the late Hugh Masekela, which paints a picture of societal change. However, the cost to South Africa may be immeasurable. 

The right to life and human dignity that are emphasised in the South African constitution cannot be forsaken in favour of financial gain, while blood continues to be spilled. Continued engagement with the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the defence sector may render South Africa culpable in the deaths of innocent people, the implications of which are far-reaching beyond the Gulf region and could have a direct impact on international stability. Pretoria must carefully consider the long-term costs and consequences of short-term deals. As South Africa prepares to take its seat at the UNSC in January 2019, it must ensure that such offers do not compromise its neutrality, and that it renews its reputation as a fair, independent defender of human rights.

* Zeenat Adam is a former diplomat and an independent international relations strategist based in Johannesburg, South Africa

The recent peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea, signed 16 September 2018, is set to have lasting consequences for both countries and for the Horn of Africa as a whole. The agreement was reached soon after Abiy Ahmed was confirmed as prime minister of Ethiopia in April. Many regional changes have occurred in the five months since his election: Eritrea re-established ties with Somalia in July; thousands of political prisoners were released in Ethiopia and Eritrea; and Djibouti and Eritrea concluded a peace agreement regarding the dispute around Doumeira. The changes are likely to continue, spurring regional integration and revitalising the regional organisation, Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). A worrying factor, however, is the role of outside powers in the negotiations, especially with Eritrea’s strategic location along the Red Sea in a sea lane that certain Persian Gulf states seek to control.

History

Eritrea was annexed to Ethiopia to form part of a federation at the end of British colonisationbetween 1941 and 1952. Before this, Eritrea had been an Italian colony, from around 1869. Ethiopia had eluded European rule except for a brief period between 1936 and 1941, when it was absorbed into Italian East Africa (incorporating Eritrea and Italian Somaliland). There are nine major ethnic groupsin Eritrea: the Tigray- and Tigre-speaking groups include the Mensa and Marya; the other seven groups include the Afar, Bilen, Beni Amir, Kunama, Nera, Rasha’ida and Saho. Eritrean and Ethiopian liberation movements, chiefly the Eritrean and Tigrayan liberation fronts, which emerged during the 1960s, were partners in the fight against Emperor Haile Selassie, who had facilitated Eritrea’s annexation. After Selassie’s ousting in 1974, the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police and Territorial Army (or ‘Derg’), led by Major Mengistu Haile Mariam, controlled the Ethiopian government until 1977. At the time, the core of these liberation movements was opposition to the centralisation of power in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. In Ethiopia, Tigrayans (under the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)) sought control of a strip of territory in the north of Ethiopia, incorporating the homeland of Aksum, while the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) initially sought more control of the territories now known as Eritrea.

The cooperation between the TPLF and EPLF maskedideological and strategic differences between them. Italian colonisation of Red Sea territories, including the Eritrean capital Asmara, had concretised an independence tendency within the EPLF, a Communist movement that wanted to align with the Soviet Union. The TPLF was Maoist, and was critical of Russian support for the Derg. By the 1980s, the TPLF had gained control of Tigrayan territory and sought to extend it toward Addis Ababa, while the EPLF aimed to maintain and consolidate control over Asmara. Although the two groups did not agree on where the border between their respective claimed territories should lie, they agreed to postpone border demarcation negotiations until after the Derg was overthrown, and to continue cooperation in the meanwhile. 

The TPLF also entered into a partnership with Oromo and Amharan groups opposed to the Derg, and together formed the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which took control of the country in 1991. This was partly as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had trained and funded the Derg. The EPLF declared independence for Eritrea in 1993, and was supported in this by the EPRDF under Meles Zenawi. Trade between the two countrieswas largely unhindered and two-thirds of the imports of land-locked Ethiopia traversed through the Eritrean ports of Assab and Massawa.

 

Roots of the recent conflict

In May 1998, a two-year border war was fought between Ethiopia and Eritrea over the town of Badme, claimed by Eritrea but occupied by Ethiopia. Between 10 000 and 50 000 deaths resulted from the war. TheAlgiers Accord, mediated by the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 2000, partially halted the conflict, but Ethiopia rejected a 2002 ruling by a border commission, instituted by the OAU, that declared Badme to be Eritrean. Eritrea subsequently hosted Ethiopian opposition movements, including the Marxist Ginbot 7 group, while Ethiopia’s strategy included ensuring having Asmara expelled from IGAD and a UN arms’ embargo on Eritrea. Both countries, however, refrained from direct clashes, and the border remained relatively quiet. A 2016 skirmish threatened a return to war, but the ‘No Peace, No War’ status was maintained. 

The conflict also played out regionally, with the two governments funding proxies. Thus, while Ethiopia intervened in 2006 to assist the US-supported Transitional Federal Government of Somalia against the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), Eritrea dispatched soldiers to assist the ICU and arm its more militant component (whose successor was al-Shabab). The conflict between the two states also had negative domestic consequences, resulting in increased repression. Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki, for example, used the conflict to justify his policy of indefinite conscription, while Ethiopia used accusations of Eritrean links to justify its crackdown on the opposition.

Roots of the rapprochement

The resignation in February 2018 of Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe from his position as prime minister created space for resuming talks between the two states. His relatively-young successor, Abiy Ahmed (41), used diplomacy with Eritrea as an opportunity to shore up political legitimacy, and released thousands of political prisoners.

Significantly, Ahmed is from the country’s Oromo ethnic group that, although comprising a majority, was largely shunned from governance by the minority Tigrayan (who make up six per cent of the population). Ahmed’s ascension to power thus ended the two-year long Oromo protests, which had threatened to split the EPRDF. Ahmed also began peace talks with another Ethiopian opposition group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), lifting its designation as a terrorist group and freeing its leadership and the leadership of Ginbot 7. Another Oromo group, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) was also removed from the terrorist list and it subsequently signed a ceasefire agreement with Addis Ababa. In August, Ahmed deployed the Ethiopian army to the country’s eastern Somali region, where the ethnic Somali ONLF is active, in order to end abuses by the paramilitary Liyu Police (which had been established to crush the ONLF). The president also weakened the powers of the TPLF and his own Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) by restructuringthe party while retaining its leadership. He is seemingly less concerned about the dispute with Eritrea over Badme than the Tigrayan and Amhara have been, thus ensuring that he is not hamstrung by their sympathies for the region.

These measures have enabled Ahmed to begin peace talks with Asmara. He used Afwerki’s May visit to Saudi Arabia to request the Saudis to facilitate direct communication between himself and Afwerki. Although initially unsuccessful, this offering – coupled with Ahmed’s assertion that Ethiopia would abide by the 2002 OAU border commission ruling on Badme – resulted in the 8 July and subsequent 16 September deals.

Emirati and Saudi roles 

The involvement of Saudi Arabia and UAEwas an important element contributing to the deal. Both Ahmed and Afwerki credited them with having had a crucial role in the success of negotiations. Afwerki visited the UAE twice in July, before and after the signing of the 8 July agreement; Ahmed visited Saudi Arabia in May and July, in his first visit outside Africa since he took power in April. This led to the 16 September deal being signed in Saudi Arabia.

Abu Dhabi had offered Asmara a large aid and security package if it signed the agreement; the UAE subsequently announced over three billion dollars in aid to Ethiopia, and the Emirati crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, visited the country in June.

At the heart of the UAE’s interest is its objective tocontrol the sea lanesaround the Horn of Africa through the creation of naval bases. It aims to manage port traffic as a projection of its power in the Horn and an attempt to undermine Iranian activities in the region. The Emiratis have port and basing agreements in Berbera (Somaliland), Bosaso (Somalia), Assab (Eritrea), Mukalla, Aden and Mocha (Yemen).

Consequences of détente

The détente will bring much-needed change within both Ethiopia and Eritrea. Telephone systems between the countries have been reconnected and families are able to meet after decades apart. Trade is set to recommence, and Eritrea will benefit from Ethiopia’s rapid economic growth, which will be made easier by Eritrea’s decision to again use the Ethiopian currency, the Birr. Ethiopian Airlines has already announced it will purchase around twenty per cent of shares in Eritrea’s national carrier, Eritrean Airlines. Eritrea’s ending of repeated military conscription will allow its citizens to live more normal lives and will likely reduce the number of Eritreans fleeing the country. Currently, Eritrea has one of the largest refugee populations attempting to escape the continent, mainly as a result of the military conscription.

Of course, with such delicate processes, not all will efforts will proceed smoothly. Some residents of Badme, for example, oppose their new designation as Eritrean. Furthermore, there appears to be discontent among Ethiopia’s Tigrayans who had previously benefited under Zenawi and Desalegn. Tigrayans could mobilise against their reduced political influence. Hardliners have expressed opposition to Ahmed’s policies and may again appeal to Tigrayan ethnicity, which becomes particularly concerning when one considers that many Tigrayans hold influential positions in the country’s army and security apparatus.

Within Eritrea, increased economic opportunitiesmay result in a loosening of Afwerki’s grip on the country, which could have unpredictable consequences. These could potentially open up the political situation or worsen it – if the president seeks to maintain tight control. Providing employment opportunities for the tens of thousands of former conscripts will be imperative. There are also logistical difficulties that can be expected, such as those related to the currency changeover and migration. Little is known too about how the Ethiopian government will deal with hundreds of thousands of Eritrean refugees it hosts.

The détente will also have lasting consequences for the region. Eritrea has already re-established diplomatic tieswith Somalia after a fifteen-year break, and Somalia has called for the suspension of sanctions and the arms’ embargo on Eritrea. Furthermore, Ahmed’s negotiations with the ONLF will reduce the need for Ethiopia’s presence in Somalia. It is noteworthy that Ethiopia’s 2006 intervention was partially informedby its fear that disillusioned Ogaden people might appeal to the ICU and use Somalia as a rear base to mount attacks in the Ogaden area.

At the same time, the relative stability within Ethiopia and on its borders will allow the regime to replenish its troops in the multilateral and multinational AU-UN mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Addis Ababa has already signed onto a communique, issued by the five troop-contributing states – Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti – in March 2018, calling for an extension of the 21 500-strong force. This is a vastly different strategy when compared to Addis Ababa’s previous unilateral intervention which was intended to secure Ethiopian interests in Somalia, and to ensure the endurance of conflict in the country in support of US-backed warlords.

In an attempt to reduce tensions with Somalia, Ahmed visited that country’s president, Mohamed Abdullahi ‘Farmajo’ Mohamed, in June. After their meeting, the two leaders issued a joint statement that pledged their cooperation on a number of issues, including the development of four Somali ports, infrastructure (including roads linking the two countries), and expanding visa services to promote cultural exchanges.

The Ethiopia-Eritrea deal also encouraged a 6 September peace agreement between Djibouti and Eritrea over the Doumeira mountain and islands. Although details of the deal are scant, it ends a ten-year conflict between the two countries that had threatened to rupture following the withdrawal of Qatari peacekeepers in 2017. Ethiopia and Somalia played critical roles in mediating the negotiations, which were concluded in Djibouti. Riyadh also played a significant role in forcing both parties to the table, in the interests of protecting its base in Djibouti.

Working through IGAD, Ahmed leveraged Ethiopia’s newfound influence to mediate a peace agreementbetween the two main rival South Sudanese groups, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and its breakaway faction, the SPLM In Opposition (SPLM-IO). Signedon 12 September in Addis Ababa, the agreement is similar to the failed December 2015 power-sharing agreement between the SPLM’s Salva Kiir and SPLM-IO’s Riek Machar.

Yet, not all states in the region are thrilled about the Eritrea-Ethiopia rapprochement. Djibouti stands to lose the most because of Ethiopia’s port diversification. This is aggravated by Ethiopia’s comparably larger economy and almost double-digit rate of economic growth. Currently, over ninety per cent of Ethiopian trade passes through Djibouti’s Doraleh port. Djibouti had previously taken this for granted, leveraging Doraleh’s current and future revenue as collateral for many longterm loans for infrastructure development. A reduction in revenue from Doraleh as Ethiopia begins using Somali or Eritrean ports will thus reduce the Djibouti government’s ability to meet its debt commitments.

Conclusion

The Ethiopia-Eritrea peace agreement may have long-lasting consequences in both countries and within the Horn region. It is likely to spur on regional integration, especially as Ethiopia diversifies its shipping routes. Its strategic location will ensure that Eritrea’s ports remain relevant, with Ethiopian support, for Gulf-African and Indian Ocean trade. The agreement could also re-energise IGAD, particularly if Ethiopia plays a bigger economic role in the region. Eritrea’s re-accession to IGAD and its re-establishment of diplomatic ties with Somalia – which are direct consequences of the deal – could assist in finding a solution to the current Somali crisis that has destabilised much of the Horn in the past ten years. Ethiopia and Eritrea will now have less interest in supporting proxies in the conflict, which was a key factor in the conflict’s perpetuation.

The roles of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in influencing the deal may be a matter of concern, given their aspirations to control strategic Horn ports and establish bases there. Some of these positions have already been used for their attacks on Yemen and to enforce the blockade on Qatar. Additionally, these ports have assisted fragmentation of some states states in the region, with UAE and Saudi funding, thus empowering groups with secessionist aspirations. This has been the case in Somalia and Yemen, where UAE port and base construction has rendered it almost impossible for these countries to remain unified.

By Matthieu Rey

Western powers have recently expressed great concern concerning unfolding events in the Syrian crisis and have denounced the ‘escalation’ of violence, by which they mean the fighting predominantly between Israeli and Iranian forces in the Golan Heights and in the southern part of Syria. Israel appears to have become increasingly more engaged with Syria. An examination of the Israeli commitment to Syria since the beginning of the uprising reveals a certain continuity and sheds light on whether there is a real directional shift for Israeli strategy. 

2011: surprise and circumspection

While Syrians took to the streets in 2011, Syrian and Israeli authorities pursued tumultuous relations. On the one hand, Bashar al-Asad highly publicised his commitment towards Hizbullah’s struggle against the so-called Zionist state, organising meetings in Damascus, and posing with Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad, for example. He also helped transport weapons to Lebanon. On the other hand, al-Asad invited the regional powers to invest in the country and agreed on a new round of negotiations with the Israelis. Chaired by the Americans, Syria and Israel agreed on the main point of contention and seemed ready to find a solution.[1]This policy was part of a broader one towards foreign partners. The Emir of Qatar and the Turks were granted good conditions in which to do business in Syria, while the Gulf elites could buy lands at strategic points. In this regard, the Syrian regime tried to strengthen itself by increasing its resources and stabilising its geopolitical situation in the post-2003 Middle East. It achieved success when French authorities under Sarkozy’s supervision invited Bashar al-Asad to the national celebrations on 14thJuly, 2011 and the Americans initiated discussions to re-open their embassy in Damascus. In this context, both Israel and Syria came closer to settling a major disagreement. 

While settling the Lebanese’s issue under international constraint, informally and unofficially, the Syrian regime pursued discussions with the Israelis under American and partly French auspices. Bashar al-Asad sought a peace agreement that would return all Syrian lands to the regime and a financial commitment from the international community that would protect the agreement. Part of the negotiations involved an expectation that the Syrian regime would end its connections with Hizbullah. Decades previously, Henry Kissinger had laid the groundwork for Syria’s ambiguous diplomatic affinity with Israel. In 1974, Hafez al-Asad signed an agreement to halt strikes against Israel and to stop guerrilla attacks against Israel from its territory, and in exchange, Israel agreed to evacuate part of Syrian territory that it illegally annexed and occupied since 1967. Despite this agreement, Syrian propaganda towards Israel did not change and Hafez and Bashar al-Asad both presented themselves as the vanguard of resistance against Israel via open declaration and tactical support for some of Israel’s opponents. Continuing to covertly help Hamas, Hizbullah, and shelter the PKK was a way for al-Asad to gain traction over American diplomacy without facing retaliation. 

Within a month of the start of the Syrian protests in March 2011, it was clear to the main protagonists that the Syrian – Israeli peace process could not continue while the Syrian regime was facing a massive uprising. From the Syrian regime, the cost of peace with Israel was too high because the Syrian rhetoric soon after the protests broke out sought to project the uprising as an ‘international plot against the Resistance’. While the protest spread from the southern part of Syria to other places and started to become organised, the regime focused on curbing the movement by inviting its historical ally, Iran, to help deal with the problem. From the Israeli side, the authorities put the discussions with Syria on hold, waiting to see if– as was the case with the other regimes – Bashar would fall and, if that was the case, therefore preferred to engage in negotiations with a reliable partner. At the same time, in May 2011, Israel did not complain about the tank movement towards the border, as they were deployed to curb the demonstrations in Hawran and the Golan Heights. 

Israeli attitudes towards the Syrian crisis quickly took a new shape. A common reaction, both in society and in government, was surprise that popular mobilisation could shake a well-known dictator. During this period, Tel Aviv also witnessed protests, sit-ins and demonstrations calling for a new social contract and demands that state discourse and action move away from ‘Palestinian’ and ‘Arab’ issues towards internal distress. These feelings, nevertheless, did not build the new ‘Syrian’ policy. Israeli attitudes towards Asad’s regime had always been ambiguous. On the one hand, Syria provided assistance to enemies such as Hizbullah, Iran, etc. On the other hand, it had not launched any attacks on Israel since 1974, even in 2006 during the Israeli war against Lebanon, when strong popular pressure from Lebanese and Syrian populations called for an armed response from the Syrian regime.[2]The Syrian revolts, therefore, did not immediately shift Israeli policy towards Syria, but discussions and contact between the two sides came to a standstill as diplomats and politicians awaited a more settled situation.

Tension between two positions (2011-2012)

On 6 June 2011, while protests were now taking place on a national scale, Asad’s regime initiated a tactical move to remind the Middle East of Syria’s abilities to harm the region. Syrian demonstrations celebrated Naqsa Day (the anniversary of Palestine’s losses during the Six-Day war) and protestors forced their way through the barricades on the Golan Heights. One protestor was able to reach his family’s land near Tel Aviv and then surrendered to the Israeli police. The police duly interrogated him about his journey, without any physical coercion, and returned him to the border, where the Syrian moukhabarat arrested him. This episode illustrated in several ways how the Syrians played the Israeli card. They launched a symbolic reconsideration of the status quo but refused local actors – even Palestinians – the freedom to act independently. This new policy provoked several reactions on the Israeli side. 

Two main attitudes emerged from the Israeli debates during this period – from the second half of 2011 through the first half of 2012. On the one hand, the long enmity between Israel and Syria prevailed even though both sides undertook peace talks, thus leading some Israeli leaders to seek to undermine the Syrian regime. They voiced the possibility to help topple the regime, requesting either American pressure or support in different ways. The bloodshed also shook Israeli public consciousness. Some wanted to “help the Syrians” and stop what could be the next holocaust. However, these public statements were not connected to any general plan or policy. Therefore, Israeli humanitarian interventions in Syria remained an untaken path because of long-term consideration for the USA’s official policy position on the Syrian civil war. 

On the other hand, the main policy position in Israel regarding Syria and military action was “wait and see”. While the Syrian regime was deeply focused on countering the protests, they fulfilled requests by the Israeli Defense Forcesand the Israeli government. The evolution of a revolutionary impulse in Syria concerned Israel on three main counts, and affected its daily activities. First, the collapse of the Asad regime could provoke chaos equivalent to that caused by the Iraqi crisis in 2003. Such a situation produced concerns that it might deeply threaten the common border. Second, Islamist groups could use the opportunity to take root in Syria and thereafter become a new enemy. In this regard, Israel frequently re-affirmed an old credo: “better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know”. Third, the repressive process of the Syrian regime provided momentum for the Iranian authorities and their allies to extend their positions in Syria. These unfolding developments quickly became a red line for Israel: Iran should not be capable of exchanging weapons on Syrian territory with anyone, and it should not be allowed to build military installations targeting Syrian soil. 

The importance of patiently monitoring the unfolding demise of the Syrian state progressively dominated Israeli policy towards Syria. ‘Wait and see’, or “undermining Asad’s capacities without being involved” seemed the best option to the Israelis. This conviction was strengthened by the international community’s attitude, predominantly the Americans. Two milestones marked the path of the American attitude towards the Syrian crisis and signalled American intentions to the Israelis. First, in August 2011, Barak Obama declared that Asad must to step aside.[3]While Syrians interpreted the American position to imply that the USA planned to get involved in the crisis, the Israelis understood perfectly that the Americans did not plan any further intervention in the Middle East at the time they were withdrawing from Iraq. Second, in May 2012, Obama declared that the use of chemical weapons in Syria, if was found to have been perpetrated by the regime, would constitute a red line that might propel American intervention in the Syrian crisis. While several investigations during Spring 2012 provided evidence of wrong-doing by the Syrian regime, the USA did not pursue further action against the Asad government, thus proving to Israeli that the USA merely delivered speeches but rejected any involvement.

On the humanitarian side, Syrian and international NGOs implemented new programmes that mostly targeted the wounded on the Syrian side. They increased their activities during Summer 2012, when the Golan Heights became a theatre of fighting and the number of casualties increased. They participated to a certain extent in the cross-border operations without ever going over the border, as the Syrian civilian and rebel wounded were delivered to the non-military zone on the Golan. These initiatives came mostly from civil society and did not take into consideration the ideological or partisan positions of the wounded. Operations were supervised by the Israel Defence Forces and were the beginning of encroachment of Israel on the Golan front. 

 

2013-2014: Implementing the red line, playing a diplomatic role

In late 2012 and early 2013, the weakening of Asad’s regime led other participants to get involved in the crisis. While foreign fighters entered the ranks of the opposition, other military groups helped the regime to fight against the Free Syrian Army and its allies. In April 2013, Nasrallah, leader of Hizbullah, recognised that the security of Asad and his organisation went hand in hand. Hizbullah forces then became the vanguard in the battle for the border town of Qusair. On the Syrian stage, Hizbullah’s involvement and its military successes turned the conflict into a more sectarian war than it had been previously. On the regional stage, this change showed Israel that its main enemies were heightening their involvement and interventions in the conflict. 

Israel had its own red lines, and it implemented a response to one of those red lines on 31 January 2013. Israel targeted an alleged weapon convoy in the northwestern part of Damascus with an airstrike. This attack took place a week after the formation of Netanyahu’s third government. The Israeli prime minister had just won legislative elections. He immediately put into practice his hard line which he had been promoting for a long period of time. From his perspective, Iran was a danger to Israel and consequently to the world, especially as it sought to develop nuclear weapons. More generally, in his view, the downfall of the Islamic Republic would help to reshuffle the Middle East by allowing Israel’s friends to establish their dominance. The Free Syrian Army confirmed the death of an Iranian officer during the first bombing. 

Over the next few months, Netanyahu’s government oscillated between two targets. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launched strikes on 3 and 5 May, 2013. Each time the justification was that Israel could not tolerate the planned exchange of high quality weapons. Soon after, Obama declared that “The Israelis, justifiably, have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organisations like Hizbullah”, and therefore provided American validation and support for the Israeli military incursions in Syria. These interventions, nevertheless, were not in any way part of the American policy towards the Syrian regime. During the Spring, oppositional Syrian fighters received supplies and formed a ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ front in Syria. However, these operations were not coordinated because different agencies commanded the fighting without subscribing to a common strategy. From this perspective, the Israeli attacks were one of the several initiatives authorised by the White House to curb recognised terrorist groups without making direct targeting its official policy. 

On 5 June, Israel launched a new strike. This episode shed light on another aspect of Israeli politics. The attack – as has been said – targeted once again, a delivery of weapons to Hizbullah. The novelty was the location and the timing. The operation destroyed a convoy just after its formation on Russian military base. Finally, the United States publicised the strike, proving that Israel could act as a sword arm in the Middle East. This attack took place at a time when Russian military capacities were increasing and becoming more closely connected to the Syrian regime and its allies. The year 2013 constituted a turning point for the Israeli strategy and showed that Syrian anti-aircraft defense could not prevent the national territory from attack. 

Consequently, during the first half of 2013, Israeli strategy became further clarified. Its enemy in Syria was Iran and its allies. The Syrian regime and its allies could not protect its facilities nor transport weapons. Occasionally, Israel supplied the United States with air power to manifest some of the latter’s commitment. In a sense, Israeli movements clarified the true meaning of the American policy. Two further developments confirmed this assertion. In August 2013, after the massive chemical attacks, Israel did not react when the United States postponed their response which paved the way for Russian re-entrenchment. In September 2014, Israel did not commit itself in the war against the Islamic State. Why? This enemy remained confined to the north-eastern part of Syria and Israeli intelligence monitored enemy progress towards its territory. On the southern Syria front, the al-Nusra front did not threaten Israel. Finally, the only change that came with the expansion of Israeli involvement in the conflict was the deployment and use of artillery and tanks from the Israeli side of the Golan against the Syrian side, targeting both opponents and partisans of the regime. Israel also reminded the Syrian regime of the cost of any counter attack against the coalition by destroying a Syrian airplane on the first day of the war. 

Since 2015, playing Russia against Iran 

At the beginning of 2015, with the sudden weakening of the Asad regime and the ascendance of autonomous Hizbullah forces on the ground, the main protagonists established front lines and demarcated territories. This reversal of fortune for Asad’s forces led some officers to call for aid. Vladimir Putin then saw a very specific moment for greater Russian involvement. Three factors underpinned his decision. First, Obama ended his presidency and the American administration was paralysed by the transition. Second, some Syrian officers clearly requested Russian intervention and as a result, Russia could establish talks with certain factions. Third, the latest advance of opposition forces on Hama and Deraa fronts put the whole Russian enterprise in jeopardy. In May 2015, Russia undertook the first steps towards a greater commitment in Syria, deploying forces and negotiating a military base for its actions. 

On 29 May 2015, Benjamin Netanyahu fled to Moscow and meet Vladimir Putin.[4]He was the only head of State to reach the Russian capital immediately after the redeployment of the Russian army in Syria was first announced. While the United States and Russia did not discuss a further common strategy because Russia did not belong to the international coalition active in Syria against the Islamic State, the prime minister of Israel offered mediation between Israel and Russia on the Syrian files. Their negotiations reached some conclusions, the most important one being the exchange of the code to identify military aircraft flights. Consequently, the IDF and the Russian army could coordinate – or at least know about – attacks from both sides. 

Why did Israel and Russia agree on this? The Israeli-American alliance has been well-known since the 1960s. However, since the USSR collapsed, connections between Israel and Russia had increased thanks to the migration of Russian Jews to Israel which motivated increased economic ties with Russia. From this perspective, Russia had an economic interest in Israel, more than in any other country in the Middle East. From the Russian point of view, Israel was important. On the Israeli side, Benjamin Netanyahu understood the opportunity to work hand in hand with Russia in order to implement his own agenda. He wanted to assure that Russia would not counter the Israeli strategy vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis, and particularly its struggle against Iran. 

Since 2015, major lines have emerged. On the one hand, Russia has operated widely in Syria without acting on the southern front. On the other hand, on several occasions, the Israeli army attacked the Syrian territory, targeting weapons transfers, but it did not involve itself in Russian operations. This was the precise time when Benjamin Netanyahu presented his arguments against Iran and its potential nuclear research to the United Nations General Assembly. Israel nevertheless restrained from a massive operation on Syrian territory while monitoring any further advances of the Iranian army into Syria. In turn, it also looked for allies in the rebels’ brigade that might allow for the protection of the Golan Heights border. This strategy seemed to reproduce Israeli strategy in Lebanon whereby Israel targeted groups against Hizbullah to build a southern protection zone. General fatigue and long-term fights between rebels and the regime explained how and why some groups favoured an alliance with Israel. 

The election of Donald Trump changed Netanyahu’s agenda. The new American president deeply committed himself to reversing his predecessor’s politics. He placed troops on the ground in the northern part of Syria, launched further attacks against IS but also targeted the Syrian army when it attempted to encroach on SDF territory. This change in the American approach towards Syria was part of a broader agenda. Trump’s administration quickly adopted a more traditional American policy towards the Middle East that included defending oil roads (that also supported Petromonarchies and their policies) and Israel. Trump asserted three main points: Israel was their greatest ally in the region; the monarchies of the Gulf were strategic allies; the United States had to support leaders whatever their ideologies or policies, if they were in favour of the United States. 

Following these new guidelines, Benjamin Netanyahu waited for a clear sign from the White House to act in Syria. He restrained from launching further attacks during the last sequence of the war against IS. Russia then pursued military operations saving the regime and reconquering most strategic places. When major actors took control over major assets, that is protecting the Asad’s regime for the Russians and controlling the North-Eastern part of Syria for the United States, preserving the link between Iraq and Syria, then, the Israeli government deemed it would be empowered to move against its declared enemy: Iran. Why did Iran push further its local presence? This action was most likely a sign for its Syrian supporters. The Iranian authorities acting in Syria failed to notice the American political reverse towards Iran. When President Trump denounced the Iranian nuclear agreement, it paved the way for the Israeli intervention against Iranian troops and facilities inside Syria. Jordan, Israel, and the United States also agreed in 2017 to de-escalate actions in Southern Syria, thereby further highlighting the new geopolitical approach of the region.

Over the past few weeks, Israelis added a new conflict to the ongoing fight. The authorities’ targets are the Iranians building up a new stage for a regional reconfiguration. Iran’s recent actions have further isolated it. The Iranian regime faces opposition from the Gulf countries, internal political forces (as Sadr in Iraq), Israel, and the United States. Israel moved to be the sword arm of this group. On the other side, Russians did not commit themselves in the protection of the Iranians. They even called for the removal of all foreign troops on Syrian soil which included the international coalition and Iran. Consequently, a low level violence conflict will continue for the next few months between Iran and Israel. The grip of Iranian militias on Quneitra, however, has prevented the Israeli from complete control of the border. 

The southern battle proved how Russia managed its intelligence’s war by obtaining allegiance from most of the rebels’ leaders. Then, using intense bombing, their followers – mostly elite Syrian troops and militias – reconquered cities and villages. Iran did not take a great part in the operation but its forces rooted in Quneitra had not been removed either. The status quo prevailed. The quick move highlighted the Israeli connections and tractions on the Golan front. Since 2013, Israel had financed nearly 12 rebel groups. Militia chiefs were asked why they agreed on an alliance with Israel, they answered hypocritically that Israel does not target civilians, contrary to Bashar al-Asad. This shift also pinpointed the reverse of the Palestinian cause on Syrian minds. Humanitarian help in the Golan Heights had been maintained until last June as a way to keep the Syrian population in Syria (to mitigate mainly a refugee crisis in Israel), and to respond to requests of the public to save civilians dying on the border. Finally, under Jordan, Canadian and European pressure, Israel helped evacuate White Helmets into Jordan. While the Southern battle is over for at least a few months, none of the Israeli partners seemed to leave Syria. The recent strike around Mezze and in the Alawite mountains clarify Israeli commitment to undermine any Iranian facilities in Syria. 

Three main outcomes can be underlined as follows:

  • The Golan Heights and Deraa regions can evolve separately after the Southern Syria battle. The Golan Heights may constitute a buffer zone in which Israel and Iran may fight, the former state may strike with air plane and artillery, the latter state may seek to maintain its grip on certain positions. Deraa may return under Syrian and Russian surveillance and constitute a bridge towards Jordan. The reopening of the border will give high value to this territory.
  • At the same time, tribal leaders and militia chiefs based in the Golan region may maintain a dual allegiance. Some of them have already made deals with Israel, resulting in retribution against them from the Syrians. The Syrian regime has also begun negotiations to return them to its sphere of influence. 
  • On a more general level, Israeli strikes will continue, targeting Iranian positions, without leading to any major involvement on the ground. A new situation should emerge at the end of the Southern Front battle. 

 

 

[1]                Author’s interview with Ambassador Hof, Washington, April 2014.

[2]                Author’s interview with Vladimir Glassman, Paris, December2013.

[3]                Rey, Matthieu (2015). ‘La diplomatie de l’incompréhension.’ Moyen-Orient(automne).

[4]               Delanoë Igor (2016). ‘Russie-Israël, l’alliance qui n’existait’ Orient XII (23 June). Available at: https://orientxxi.info/magazine/russie-israel-l-alliance-qui-n-existait-pas,1379.

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