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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* 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 (DIRCO) argues 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:
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.
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.
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.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.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.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.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:
 Author’s interview with Ambassador Hof, Washington, April 2014.
 Author’s interview with Vladimir Glassman, Paris, December2013.
 Rey, Matthieu (2015). ‘La diplomatie de l’incompréhension.’ Moyen-Orient(automne).
Conference Concept Note
Between society and state: (r)Evolution of non-state actors in the MENA region
Since the beginning of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa that began in 2010, there has been a sustained focus on the role of non-state actors in the region, both armed groups as well as various civil society actors. As the uprisings unfolded, faltered, were undermined, or succeeded (in one case, at least), this focus remained constant. These developments also saw an interesting interplay between civil society and ‘political society’.
The theorisation of civil society is not uncontested. While the dominant discourse today regards civil society as a collection of voluntary organisations and NGOs (the ‘associational’ view) operating outside the state and providing a kind of protection for citizens against the state, Gramsci, for example, views civil society as part of the state or as a protective barrier for the state. But the current mainstream understanding is of civil society as mediating between the state and the individual, engendering democratic culture within the population, and, even, as a sector to which the state might abdicate its service provision responsibilities. The dominant romantic notion of what civil society organisations are also is tenuous, with some critics contending that they are often non-democratic, hierarchical structures that are sometimes vulnerable to state co-option, to use them to repress or marginalise radical ideas, and to weaken opposition to government policy. Shades of these different meanings present themselves in the MENA region.
In general, there is a hesitance to include armed non-state actors as part of civil society. This is partly due to the fact that the current dominant understanding of civil society is of societas civilis, a realm of voluntary and non-violent organisations. This notion is often used by governments to forestall efforts at transformation. In a broader sense, however, armed non-state actors might be regarded as part of civil society, depending on their objectives, methodologies, etc.
As a whole, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region hosts thousands of non-state actors, spanning various forms of civil society and including armed actors. Such groups have proliferated since the beginning of the MENA uprisings at the end of 2010, and include numerous foreign and international civil society groups, as well as foreign involvement in armed groups. In many states that are more tolerant to civil society actors, indigenous civil society actors exist alongside foreign actors and armed groups. Because of state repression, however, some states had no civil society groups to speak of before 2010. In some of these, such as Tunisia, civil society burgeoned after the uprisings. In others, such as Libya, the civil society vacuum that had existed was filled by a proliferation of armed militias.
In some states in the region, civil society groups exist alongside armed non-state actors such as Hamas and Hizbullah, in Palestine and Lebanon respectively. In many cases, such groups are led by political parties which play roles in governance.
Since the 2010-11 MENA uprisings, the focus on civil society organisations in the region has intensified, especially since many foreign powers believed that these alone inspired the uprisings and thus sought to co-opt them, and they were, simultaneously, romanticised and demonised. Most governments in the region, on the other hand, sought to suppress groups they perceived as opposing their dictatorial control. Often, organisations that sought to remain independent of foreign machinations as well as domestic cooption by authoritarian regimes, found themselves in precarious positions. In addition, the civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya forced the space available for civil society action to shrink, while increasing the desperate need for their existence.
The development of civil society in the MENA region occurred in four main phases. The first was before western colonisation, with the growth of religious organisations, guilds, and service organisations over centuries. Phase two, during the colonial era, saw the establishment of institutions such as trade unions and political movements, alongside popular demands for independence. The third and post-independence phase occurred between the 1960s and 1990s, when new regimes instrumentalised civil society organisations, especially those dealing with service provision, to temper citizens’ need for political participation. The last phase, from the mid-1990s, was enhanced by technological advances, and saw groups in different MENA countries inspired by international ideas of democracy and seeking to leverage international networks to advocate for such rights.
By the late 2000s, thousands of civil society organisations existed in the region, including local chapters of international NGOs, though in a few countries organisations not affiliated to the respective regimes were proscribed.
As the uprisings unfolded in 2011, certain foreign governments sought to use civil society organisations as a means of securing their interests in the affected countries and in the MENA region. Generous funding was made available, as was training in media and other skills. At the same time, civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya resulting in these states not able adequately to provide for their citizenry, thus increasing the need for CSOs to assist.
These themes will be interrogated in 2018 international conference of the Afro-Middle East Centre, which will bring together and roleplayers from the MENA region and outside it. The roles and future of civil society groups and other non-state actors will be debated with a view to understand the trajectory of societies in the region.
Tuesday, 28 August 2018
Opening Session: 09:00- 10:00
Opening speeches: Zane Dangor
10:00 -10:30 Tea break
Session One: 10:30 – 12:00
Conceptualising civil society in the MENA region
Lunch: 12:00- 13:00
Session Two: 13:00- 14:30
The architecture: Non-state actors in political, military and social spaces
14:30 – 15:00 Tea break
Session Three: 15:00- 17:00
Manifestations of civil society in MENA
Wednesday, 29 August 2018
Session Four: 09:00-11:00
State and civil society in the MENA region
11:00 – 11:30 Tea break
Session Five: 11:30-13:30
Negative side of civil society in the MENA region
Lunch: 13:30 -14:30
Session Six: 14:30 -16:30:
Future of non-state groups in the MENA region and links beyond
Closing Session 16:30-17:00
The recent and ongoing Saudi-Emirati offensive on the Yemeni port city of Hudaida will render UN special envoy Martin Griffiths’s ‘new’ solution to the five-year-long Yemeni crisis difficult to implement. The partial success of the Hudaida offensive has already emboldened the UAE to demand the return of the city to troops aligned to Yemen’s president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. As Griffiths engages the different players, it is likely that the Houthi, who currently control the port city, will be willing eventually to hand Hudaida over to a third party. Griffiths alluded to this when he referred to his meetings with Houthi officials as ‘fruitful’. This despite the group’s initial rejection of the envoy’s proposal. Clearly, the devastating military hardware supplied by Saudi Arabia and the UAE confronted the group with insurmountable odds, and it has reevaluated its position.
Griffiths will, however, likely face pressure from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which insist that Hudaida be transferred to their direct control, and that UNSC resolution 2216, which calls for Houthi disarmament, be the basis for negotiations. Their belligerence is fuelled by the lack of consequences for their offensive, which has been condemned by the United Nations and most global powers.
Before the Hudaida offensive commenced on 12 June, Griffiths had been meeting roleplayers in an attempt to formulate an enduring solution to the current impasse. His solution closely resembledthe 2016 Kuwait and Kerry initiatives, and called for a ceasefire that would end with the disarmament of the Houthi. The major difference between his proposal and the other two was that he proposed a unity government be formed before disarmament. Other issues, including reconciliation, the status of southern Yemen, and the holding of elections were to be decided in a second phase. Disagreements over the ceasefire and the handover of Hudaida to a third party aborted his initiative. Saudi Arabia and the UAE had previously insisted that the port be handed over to a third party without commensurately agreeing to lift the blockade on Sana'a airport. Significantly, UNSC resolution 2216, adopted in April 2015, ratified Hadi as Yemen’s president and advocated Houthi disarmament and withdrawal. This resolution remains skewed and unrepresentative of the balance of forces, but Saudi Arabia and the UAE insist on it as a basis for negotiations, thus ensuring that no initiative can succeed.
Hudaida is a strategic port through which northern Yemen receives over seventy per cent of its aid; the Saudi coalition has been plotting its capture for two years. The plan to take the city is consistent with the UAE’s recent attempts to secure controlof ports along both the Asian and African sides of the Red Sea. In Yemen alone, Abu Dhabi controls the port of Mukallah, Mocha and Aden, and has significant influence in Socotra; in the Horn of Africa it controlsthe ports of Assab (Eritrea), Berbera (Somaliland/Somalia) and Bosaso (Somalia), and had previously attempted to control Djibouti’s main port.
Fearing that Saudi-Emirati control of Hudaida would halt aid to northern Yemen, the international community had previously scuppered an attack on the city. Significantly, even the USA, in Donald Trump’s first year as president, refused to endorse the operation, and refused to supply Saudi Arabia with military hardware required to detect and remove sea mines and land-sea missiles that have prevented Saudi-backed forces from being able to amphibiously dock in the port.
However, on 12 June, Saudi- and Emirati-supported troops commenced their operation to capture Hudaida, despite warnings from the UNSC, which condemned the offensive and unsuccessfully attempted mediation talks the day before. Worryingly, Saudi Arabia and the UAE forced Yemen’s exiled president, Hadi, to endorse the offensive when it seemed that the international community would not. Under duress, he supported it, believing that his failure to do so would not halt UAE actions, but would, instead, allow the Emiratis to control Hudaida in the same way that they control Aden. Hadi’s lesson from Aden goes back to January when UAE-supported forces routed troops aligned to him. In February 2017, the UAE even forcefully prevented Hadi, a southerner and the internationally-recognised president of Yemen who the UAE supposedly supports, from returning to the region. He was allowed to enter Aden only four months later, on 14 June, after his acquiescence with the Hudaida offensive.
Griffiths has travelled to Sana'a twice in the past two months – between16 and 20 Juneand from 2 to 4 Julyin an unsuccessful attempt to secure a ceasefire. His proposal to broker a solution, including the handover of Hudaida to a third party, was accepted by the Houthi in June, even though they publicly rejected it. Although the group’s support is largely intact, its lacks the military hardware, especially airpower, to contain Emirati- and Saudi-backed forces, allowing them to rapidly capture Hudaida’s airport. Houthi fighters are attempting to stall the offensive through guerrilla tactics. Their leaders realise the asymmetry of forces, and will likely accept a solution which allows them a stake in governance and allows them to keep their weapons. They unsuccessfully proposed a second ceasefire offerfollowing Griffiths’s June visit, offering to surrender the whole of Hudaida to the UN in return for Houthi fighters being allowed to remain. This was rejected by Hadi. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are unwilling to accept any solution that will allow the Houthi to maintain their arms. Further, they have demanded that Hudaida be transferred to Hadi, rather than accepting third party control. The ‘pause’ in operations during Griffith’s recent visit was thus an attempt by the Saudi-UAE coalition to allow him the space to convince the Houthi to capitulate, and has little to do with the flow of aid. Significantly, it was the UAE, not Hadi, that announcedthe ‘pause’, clearly indicating its oversized influence in the conflict.
The Houthi still control most of northern Yemen, including the capital Sana'a, where the majority of the country’s population resides. Moreover, the group’s ability to use guerrilla tactics will ensure that recapturing territory will be a protracted process for the Hadi-Saudi-Emirati coalition, especially since northern Yemen is mostly mountainous. Even in Hudaida, UAE-backed forces are seeking to avert street battles, which would result in a large number of deaths. The UAE ‘pause’ is thus both tactical and strategic.
Despite global criticism of the Saudi-Emirati offensive, there have been no concrete consequences for their actions, which will likely embolden them further. Even the USA, which previously had cautioned against the offensive, now tentatively supportsit. With the capture of Mukallah and Mocha, Saudi- and UAE-backed troops no longer required equipment to detect and remove sea mines and to counter land-to-sea missiles since they are able to travel on land along the coast. Additionally, the defection of troops aligned to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh from the Houthi to the Hadi camp, opened another front against the former. Abu Dhabi also countered concerns that a siege of Hudaida will prevent aid from reaching northern Yemen by sending aid, instead, overland through the UAE. The blockade on Hudaida thus also has economic benefits for the UAE.
Griffiths’s initiative, based on a leaked draft, fails to adequately address Yemen’s complexities. His travels in the past few weeks indicate that he has been forced to adopt a piecemeal approach to find common ground. This too has largely failed owing to Saudi and UAE intransigence, which will likely intensify if Hudaida is handed to Hadi. A solution for Yemen needs to be holistic, allowing for the parties to agree on sets of measures simultaneously in an attempt to catalyse compromise.
In his 18 June report to the UNSC, Griffiths promised that a new peace plan would be presented in July. However, the new situation will render it difficult for him to formulate a solution acceptable to both the Hadi and Houthi coalitions. Further, the leaked plan does not account for the many smaller conflicts within Yemen’s larger milieu.
In addition, the Saudi-UAE rejection of the UN process illustrates how little influence Hadi has in the conflict. Indeed, while he is touted as the recognised president, he is increasingly marginalised. The UAE’s increasing support for Tariq Saleh, nephew of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, could result in Abu Dhabi having him play a role similar to that of Khalifa Haftar in Libya, to ensure that the conflict endures, especially since Saleh’s rise will further pressure the already-fragmented Hadi coalition. Southern Transitional Council (STC) officials, based in Aden, have acknowledgedthat a battle for southern independence will likely commence after the Houthi are defeated. It is probable that Abu Dhabi will continue supporting the STC to secure control of the country’s Red Sea ports, most of which are located in southern provinces.
By Hassan Aourid
An astute observer of Algeria and Morocco will notice that relations between the two countries have taken a dangerous turn and tensions have visibly increased. Bilateral relations over the last forty-odd years have been marked by a situation of ‘no-war-no-peace’, with tensions kept in check on both sides. However, tensions have sometimes peaked dangerously; examples include the clashes that culminated in the first Battle of Amgala in January 1976, and, again, in a second battle a month later. There were, however, periods of de-escalation, starting from 1988 with the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Unfortunately, tensions escalated again in 1992 following a few destabilising events. These included the assassination of Algerian political leader and a founder of the National Liberation Front, Mohamed Boudiaf; Morocco’s imposition of visa requirements for Algerian citizens (in violation of the Marrakech Agreement that created the Maghreb Union), and the Algerian authorities’ closing of land borders in August 1994, which persists.
The longstanding tensions between the two north African neighbours have not been elevated to open confrontation since then, and the military doctrines of both countries disapprove of armed engagement. Despite the deep historical, social and humanitarian bonds that link the two countries, however, their military doctrine has not been able to contain their arms’ race, diplomatic clashes, media and security provocations, and the abandoning of diplomatic courtesy and good neighbourliness. Furthermore, there seems to be no getting rid of the ‘no-war-no-peace’ paradigm that mostly suppresses tensions but sometimes sharply escalates.
Hostile rhetoric in a dangerous international context that is characterised by alliances and the return of the Cold War makes the impossible potentially possible. However, neither the possible nor the impossible are inevitable. The worst case scenario should not be accepted as a fait accompli. Nations write their own histories and determine their own fates, with historical inevitability playing no part. In his book Dimensions de la conscience historique, the French intellectual Raymond Aron reflects on the Peloponnesian War, an almost-three-decade episode in the fifth century BC that played out between the Athenians and the Spartans. Aron draws on the account of the authority on this episode, the historian Thucydides, and concludes that the war did not conform to the logic of the times, and that it happened even though nobody wanted it. He compares it to the First World War – which was also largely unwanted, and which broke out as a consequence of a passing incident that became the proverbial spark that lit the flame in an extremely volatile context. Aron argues that the first case resulted in the end of the city state, the decline of Greek civilisation and the emergence of Alexander, who was drawn towards the East. The second case, on the other hand, heralded the end of the nation state, the shifting of the centre of civilisation from Europe to the United States of America, and the emergence of the Soviet Union. In other words, both episodes resulted in collapse or, rather, self-destruction.
In spite of the tensions and disruptions manifested across the Maghreb, or North Africa, the region remains promising. It is the only unitary framework capable of drawing together a bloc that can match the regional poles of Turkey and Iran, and create some form of balance. In fact, this unitary framework is a strategic necessity that works to the advantage of the entire Arab world; it is its strategic depth and protective shield against the tempestuous storms descending upon the region and ripping it apart. The Economistrecently posited that had the Maghreb Union succeeded, it would have become the strongest economy in the region, matching Turkey, which has in twenty years transitioned from a backwater to an emerging economy.
While the clock cannot be turned back, one can at least benefit from the lessons of history. The current tensions – in spite of their intensity – will not overshadow the awareness of a common destiny, or the depth of the historical, cultural, social and humanitarian roots binding Morocco and Algeria, and the countries of the Maghreb in general. This awareness is shaped by a collective memory, common symbols and cognisance of shared interests. It obviously does not negate points of difference, opposing visions, or the animosity that has entrenched the hostility prevalent in the current generation. Nonetheless, transcending the status quo is not impossible.
Logic has repeatedly dictated that dialogue between Moroccan and Algerian officials be undertaken, but this dialogue, when it did happen, did not lead to any breakthroughs, and there are no indications that new attempts will produce results. Why then should there be any objection to the establishment of unofficial dialogue between parties that possess an acute historical awareness, sense of responsibility, boldness and independence? Dialogue does not, after all, occur between interlocutors that share the same vision, but rather between those who have opposing views and approaches, while being conscious of imminent dangers and being bound by mutual respect and a willingness to listen attentively. Dialogue is a process; it cannot be constructive through a single engagement; it is not a pronouncement of intentions or a media event.
For dialogue to be successful – for it to be able to take place at all – there must be what former Tunisian president Moncef al-Marzouqi called a changing of the paradigm. Longstanding problems cannot be resolved within entrenched paradigms. Success can only be achieved gradually and a lack of confidence built up over years cannot be unravelled in a single instant. The awareness of a common destiny among the Algerians I have encountered in various forums and my perusal of their pronouncements and writings make the prospect of successful dialogue between them and Moroccans a real possibility.
The history books tell us the story of an Ummayad Caliph who dispatched his court jester, Abu Dullamah, to fight the Azariqah, an extremist Kharijite sect prone to warfare. Abu Dullamah was not a man of war, and he knew that confrontation would spell his demise. He therefore thought long and hard about his dilemma before meeting his rival. When the two parties met, Abu Dullamah was sent to face one of the fiercest Azariqah warriors. When they faced off he asked his opponent: ‘You over there, do you know me?’ The warrior responded: ‘No.’ He then asked: ‘Can you bear witness to any malice I have inflicted upon you or your family?’ The warrior responded: ‘No.’ Abu Dullamah then asked: ‘Do you harbour bad intentions toward someone who only wishes you well?’ The warrior responded: ‘No.’ Abu Dullamah then said: “I am sure that you must be quite hungry,” and the warrior said: ‘Indeed! I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday!’ Abu Dullamah responded: ‘I have some food that we can share,’ and retrieved a chicken from his satchel. The two then dismounted from their respective steeds and partook of the meal. What had been intended to be a violent clash was transformed into an amicable engagement because the enemies were given the opportunity to talk and get to know each other. The moral of the story is that familiarity is the source of fraternity and dialogue is a nothing more than a means to gain familiarity.
* Hassan Aourid is a Moroccan intellectual. He served in the Moroccan administration in several positions, including official spokesperson of the Palace.
** This article was originally published in Arabic in al-Quds al-Arabiand was translated by AMEC
In less than a week, on 24 June 20118, Turkish citizens will cast their votes for presidential and parliamentary elections, the first time that both elections will occur at the same time. The elections have been moved to sixteen months earlier than originally scheduled, prompting fears that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is planning for a decisive victory. His decision for early elections are likely linked to the suffering Turkish economy and his desire to usher in the new presidential system, which was decided after a 2017 referendum, so that he may have control of the economy without the impediment of a tedious parliamentary process. Other factors involve the continued state of emergency, the Syrian civil war and resultant migration, regional and national security, and Turkey’s relations with the European Union and other foreign actors. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) hopes to emerge victorious due to a divided opposition and the state of emergency which has resulted in arrests of activists, journalists and opposition members.
The presidential and parliamentary elections
Next week’s elections will be the first time that Turkey votes for the president and parliament on the same day, a new electoral system that was made possible by constitutional amendments adopted after a controversial referendum in April 2017. The referendum sought to convert Turkey’s governance into a presidential system, bestowing more powers on the president, abolishing the position of prime minister, and introducing a vice president. Election for parliament is based on a proportional representation system; a total of 550 seats are contested, allocated by the D’Hondt methodwhich favours larger, national parties over small parties. Each party is required to win more than 4.6 million votes (or ten per cent) to be eligible to enter parliament, a threshold that is critical in determining electoral outcomes.
The ruling party, Erdogan’s AKP, obtained forty-nine per cent of the vote in the November 2015 parliamentary election, winning 317 seats after failing to form government in earlier elections in June (based on Article 116 of the Constitution). The AKP is aiming for more than fifty per cent of the vote in the presidential election so as to win the first round of voting and prevent a runoff, scheduled for 8 July, between the top two candidates. More than three million Turkish ex-patsworldwide started casting their votes on Sunday (17 June 2018), and the AKP is expected to win a significant proportion of votes from over sixty countries where Turkish citizens reside. Erdogan was prevented from campaigningin a number of European countries following Turkey’s spat with Germany and other countries in the run up to the 2017 referendum. Instead, he attempted to reach out to the expatriate community through a massive rally in Bosnia, which attracted a huge number of AKP supporters from Germany, Netherlands, Austria and the Balkans. Erdogan hopes to increase his numbers within ex-pat communities to help secure his majority.
Eleven parties will contest the elections, as announced by the Supreme Board of Elections on 22 April 2018. This includes the new centre-right IYI (Good) Partythat was formed in October 2017 after a split from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). IYI leader, Meral Aksener is a popular former interior minister. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has nominated Muharrem Inceas its presidential candidate. He hopes to eat into Erdogan’s support base using the ‘working-class’ charm offensive that Erdogan had successfully used in his early political career. The CHP has entered a coalition with the similarly conservative Saadet (Felicity) Party, under the banner of Nation Alliance, to challenge the AKP. The alliance also includes IYI and the Democratic Party (DP), and it hopes to gain a parliamentary majority. The Democratic Party, which includes the Motherland Party and the former True Path Party (DYP), will contest the elections with their candidates appearing under the CHP list.
The AKP is also in a coalition, the People’s Alliance, with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Great Unity Party. This coalition will be challenged not only by the CHP-led Nation Alliance, but also the new National Union of Kurds, both of which hope to upset the AKP parliamentary majority. The Kurdish group is led by the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party(HDP), whose leader, Selahattin Demirtas, has been leading the election campaign from inside prison, where he is being held on terrorism-related charges. The Kurdish alliance has emerged as a strong contender, hoping to sway voters in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast region, which includes some 140 000 voters who feel disgruntled because of the government’s decision to relocate a number of voting stations, affecting 114 000 voters. Demirtas and his party have not been allowed freely to campaign in the run up to these elections, have been given no media interviews except a twenty-minute television slot on Sunday, and have had to rely heavily on social media platforms. If the HDP reaches the ten per cent threshold required to enter parliament, it could significantly alter the percentage of AKP seats, thus threatening the AKP’s ability to win an outright majority.
The AKP has dominated Turkey’s politics for sixteen years, and has been accused of employing repression to continue this domination. The state of emergency, imposed after the July 2016 attempted coup, under which the elections will take place is one such security measure that may influence political outcomes. Further, there is an ongoing crackdownon journalists, academics, activists and opposition members, such as the eleven HDP membersof parliament facing terrorism-related charges, that began after the July 2016 attempted coup. Many opposition figures see this crackdown which has seen pro-government media dominating the news, as an attempt to help the AKP emerge victorious at the polls.
Despite these negative aspects, however, Erdogan remains popular, and is likely to sway voters using the nationalist-Islamist rhetoric that he has successfully used for more than a decade. Despite accusations that he seek to usher in conservative religious politics, and his rivals referring to him as the ‘caliph-in-waiting’, Erdogan insists that Turkey will maintain its secularity even after the presidential system is implemented.
Turkish economy running out of steam?
Despite the AKP’s impressive economic successes, which saw the previously troubled economy (reeling from the 2000s financial crisis) attract foreign investment, boost trade ties, and experience unprecedented growth and employment. The economic boom in the past was largely based on investment and export capabilities of mostly electrical goods, which boosted the manufacturing sector and increased consumption. Over the past few months the Turkish Lirahas steadily weakened and inflation has steadily risen. The weakening economy has been a boon for opposition groups, which have lain the blame for it at the AKP’s door, especially after Erdogan’s statementlast month about taking control of the central bank. His statement followed the Lira’s drop by more than twenty per cent this year alone, causing the central bank to raise interest ratesin an attempt to stabilise the currency. Erdogan’s response in his campaign, was to blame ‘foreign powers’ for the crisis, and offering few solutions except government control of the economy.
The president’s failure to effectively address the economic challenge could lose him significant support even if he does win the election, especially since the opposition seems equally oblivious. The opposition continues to blame him for the weakening currency, but offer few practical solutions. IYI’s presidential candidate, Meral Aksener, proposed a ‘Turkey Solidarity Fund’ to erase eighty per cent of the debt of poorer citizens and students, with the rest of the debt to be paid over ten years. But this proposal fails to address the lack of stability in the economy created by excessive borrowing, government tax cuts, and heavy government incentivising of industries that has pushed up the inflation rate.
This month’s elections campaigning has focused mostly on the deteriorating economy, but other pressing matters around foreign policy in the context of the ongoing Syrian conflictand relations with the European Union have also featured prominently. Erdogan has leveraged foreign policy successes such as the recent campaign against the YPG in northern Syria and cross-border military operations in Iraq and Iran against the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). These victories, and the AKP’s former record of high economic growth, supported by a repressive political environment, will benefit Erdogan and his party. Despite AKP denials, the opposition is probably correct that bringing these elections forward is Erdogan’s attempt to leverage government’s popularity before the economic crisis worsens. The opposition alliances hope that economic challenges, coupled with state repression, will help them prevent the AKP attaining a parliamentary majority. However, many opposition parties will struggle to reach the required ten per cent threshold, and divisions within the opposition, reflecting the polarised Turkish society, will weigh against them, and Turkey’s new presidential system will likely be ushered in with the ruling party winning the presidency and increasing its parliamentary majority.
By Fadi Quran
Instead of bringing an end to the occupation, the current Palestinian leadership and its institutions have become a key component of it. Yet a new generation of leaders is slowly emerging. Their goal is to build a new framework for the Palestinian struggle that avoids the mistakes of the past and ensures that freedom is achieved in their lifetime. Their successful entrance into leadership will require both a reckoning with and breaking of a cycle that blocks change.
Looking at former and current Palestinian leadership, one can observe a cyclical trajectory in which members of the elite first acquire the legitimacy to lead through a combination of traditional structures and foreign support. The legitimacy of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Amin Al-Husseini, for example, was grounded in religious and familial authority and enhanced and institutionalised by the Ottoman Empire and then the British Mandate. Ahmed Shuqeiri’s legitimacy derived from the Arab League as well as his educational status and familial ties, while President Mahmoud Abbas’s legitimacy was founded on factional loyalties within Fatah and then significantly consolidated by the US and Israel.
These leaders and the institutions they administer fail to deliver on popular aspirations, leading to stagnation and public dissent. This precipitates an inter-Palestinian power struggle that is often intergenerational and highly destructive. The struggle ends when a national tragedy occurs that either destroys or unites the competing factions. During these historical moments of national chaos, a new generation of leaders rises, mesmerising the public and accruing revolutionary legitimacy that propels them to the top.
In each turn of this cycle, sitting leaders either adopt the new discourse and co-opt members of the new generation or maintain status via intervention by foreign sponsors who kill or arrest insurgents. An example of this dynamic is the death of Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam, and later the leaders of the 1936 Revolt, who were crushed with great brutality by the British. Yasser Arafat’s conquest of the PLO from Shuqeiri in the 1960s, in which Arafat incorporated members of the new generation, is another. Such transitions also occurred on the local level during the First Intifada, and with Hamas’s gradual takeover in Gaza during and after the Second Intifada.
The third phase of this cycle sees the rise of a technocratic class, a generation of leaders that attempts to rebuild or replace the institutions that were destroyed in the internal conflict. These leaders are or perceive themselves to be institution builders, and although they rarely reach the pinnacles of power, they are able to acquire significant authority. These builders can take many forms in their approach to reinvigorate society, from the revolutionary to the neoliberal. Examples include Khalil Al-Wazir, a key founder of Fatah who was pivotal in slowly rebuilding the national movement in Palestine after the PLO’s failures in Lebanon. He was assassinated by Israel in Tunisia for his role in laying the groundwork that launched the First Intifada. Another example is Salam Fayyad, who pursued a Western-backed neoliberal institution-building process in Palestine after the Second Intifada. Regardless of the political leanings of these builders, their efforts are often short-lived as they tend to clash with more deeply-rooted power structures. This phase of the cycle often closes with a return to the first phase, wherein a small set of elites, supported by outside forces, hold control.
Today, this cycle seems blocked. An ossified Palestinian leadership has managed to cling to power for more than two decades. The institutional framework established by the Oslo Accords – a Palestinian Authority (PA) without authority providing inadequate administrative services, low-level employment, and security for Israel – still governs a subset of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The PA has become a buffer zone between the Palestinians and the Israeli occupation, one that largely favours the occupation. Meanwhile, through heavy foreign assistance, the PA has transformed the socioeconomic landscape of Palestinian society by increasing inequality, widening political divisions, and even attempting to alter the media and educational landscape to weaken all forms of effective struggle against the occupation.
The results of these developments, combined with the deteriorating regional politics of the Middle East, has led the most astute observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to conclude that the Palestinian struggle for freedom is comatose.
But one need only look a bit deeper to see that something is stirring. A new generation of Palestinians is organising and growing in strength. They are waiting for the right moment to transform the status quo and create the momentum that will end the occupation. The Israeli security establishment, although it may not fully understand these dynamics, sees this coming. Why else would defence minister Avigdor Lieberman ban the Palestinian “Youth Movement” and put it on the terrorist list? In fact, there is no organisation or organised body called the “Youth Movement” on the ground in Palestine. Rather, the term Al-Hirak Al-Shababi is most commonly used to refer to any social or political action led by youth. What scares Lieberman so? Why does the Palestinian General Intelligence maintain a file on “youth-led activities?”
Over the past five years I have met and spoken with thousands of young Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza Strip and in the diaspora. In every town, city, and refugee camp, youth groups are blossoming. Most focus on very local needs and lead volunteer work. They appear non-political and are not affiliated with any faction. These groups often fail, fall apart, and use what they have learned to try something new. Their growth is anything but linear, but their learning is exponential.
These groups’ driving questions are: What do we need to do to have a better life? What is our purpose? How do we achieve it? Having asked these questions, it is not long before they discover that the occupation and the PA as its governing body are obstacles in their path. This generation’s focus on grassroots action and its ability to conceptualise the PA as an impediment to a genuine liberation movement are fundamental to its potential to transform the stagnant Palestinian leadership model.
Further, many young people in Palestine are despondent about the status quo. This is clearest in Palestinian universities, which have been transformed from beacons of liberation to factories of disenchantment. Once hotbeds of Palestinian political struggle, the universities today produce young men and women focused on two things: a paying job or an opportunity to emigrate. One university dean I spoke with defined his job as simply training a workforce for the PA economy. Although youth groups are active on campuses, offering glimpses of hope, the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank and Hamas's forces in Gaza have turned student politics and electioneering into a shadow of what they once were, ensuring that superficial slogans and fear override genuine student organising and hope.
However, despite these repressive policies, the new generation has not given up on its Palestinian identity or its dreams of freedom. Many are preparing to enter the struggle for freedom under the right leadership: one they can be part of and trust. This new generation of leaders, learning from the experiences of the past, have wisely chosen to work quietly, away from the spotlight, and patiently prepare for when the moment is ripe.
Identifying that moment, however, will be difficult because three stars need to align: a) Reigniting hope: The Palestinian street needs to go from being risk averse to being hopeful that a better future is possible; b) Overcoming the power threshold: The youth must feel they have the human resources and endurance to slog through the obstacles the PA and Israel can put in their way; c) Consolidating to confront the occupation: Given that the PA and its security apparatus are pivotal in maintaining the status quo, and that any more internal Palestinian strife is to be avoided, the youth will have to find a moment when the occupation has committed an act so severe that they can mobilise many of the ranks of the apparatus into the struggle against the occupation and away from internal repression. Of course, Israel and its backers will do their best to make sure these stars do not align, from killing hope to arresting dozens of youth activists. The only way for this moment to arise is for Palestinian civil society and youth activists to build their strength and expand societal self-awareness.
How will these young people avoid the mistakes of the past and break the cycle outlined above? For a new Palestinian leadership to be successful, a culture of transparency, accountability, and feedback must first be created at the local level. No matter how powerful, resilient, and disciplined a leader is, and no matter how much they love their country and people, they are human. It is only through developing a culture of accountability that a community can produce leaders that can move the struggle forward. While Palestine has had many leaders, none have maintained a culture around them that helped birth new leaders and ensured that they remain accountable. Creating this culture is not something done through legislation or rules alone, but is a daily practice.
Although there is not enough space here to flesh out the necessary practices in detail, some are fairly straightforward. For example, leaders at all levels of society, from volunteer groups to ministries, can work with their teams to put forward a clear vision for what they want to achieve, define each person’s responsibilities and specific outcomes, and ensure that leaders take ownership of their and their teams’ results. They should allow team members to provide feedback on the process in an open setting, such as in a weekly meeting when tasks are tallied and learning is discussed in a convivial manner.
In such a process, the group’s leader helps ensure that the team achieves its vision in a united, collaborative spirit. Eventually, this ensures that everyone in the group is a leader because leadership is not couched as a zero-sum process.
The process may not always work perfectly, but the lessons learned are valuable, including lessons about how one’s ego can get in the way of achieving team goals. Most importantly, the youth participants become aware of a method of teamwork and leadership that transcends what they see in local politics. Though it may sound cliché, it is nonetheless true that nothing is more impactful than leading by example and learning through experimentation.
These self-aware leaders and their culture of transformative leadership will clash with the socioeconomic environment and political elite established and strengthened by international players and Israel. Such a people’s-based leadership, whether directly or indirectly, will be the target of massive co-optation and, if that fails, assassination. One can argue that Israel’s “mowing the grass” in Gaza and the PA’s assault on student and youth politics are pre-emptively attempting to destroy rising leaders.
While some argue that a top-down approach to reform will fix the leadership problems – by restructuring the PLO, gaining representation, and holding elections, among other strategies – the current socioeconomic dynamics, reality of occupation, and international intervention in Palestinian politics make these efforts at internal reform easy targets for political manipulation. It is authentic change at the local level that can fix the problem from its roots and bring about a lasting leadership transformation for Palestinian society. If this generation succeeds, it will not only liberate the nation, but will ensure that the future beyond liberation is more beautiful than many of us today can imagine.
* Fadi Quran is a Senior Campaigner at Avaaz and a Popular Struggle community organiser. Fadi is also an entrepreneur in the alternative energy field, where he has founded two companies bringing wind and solar energy to Palestine and other countries in the region.
** This article was first published by Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network as part of its Policy Circle on Leadership and Accountability.
By Madawi Al-Rasheed
The dominant narrative through which many observers understand Saudi Arabia depicts a progressive and modernist leadership struggling to gradually transform an allegedly conservative and traditional society. The amplified divide between the modernists, often believed to be consisting of the princes and their western-educated technocrats on the one hand, and the traditionalists, a large cohort of religious clerics, tribes, and almost everybody else in Saudi Arabia on the other, fails to provide a robust analytical framework to understand Saudi Arabia. However, this persistent narrative has made the country an enigma, not only in its Arab neighbourhood, but across the Muslim world.
The alleged binary opposition between Saudi modernists and traditionalists persists for purely political reasons. The narrative is a convenient paradigm that shows the country as blessed by enlightened leadership which, in the past, had been crippled by the vast sea of Saudi conservatism, traditionalism, and, by implication, backwardness. This paradigm had become the foundation for regime propaganda. Its advocates are not only outside observers, but also many Saudi intellectuals.
by Helen Lackner
Yemen remains in the grip of its most severe crisis ever: the civil war between forces loyal to the internationally-recognised government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition on the one side and those of the alliance between the Houthi rebel movement and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh on the other has devastated the country. ‘Chaos’ is an appropriate term to describe the situation in a turbulent region. With no immediate prospects for the stable, peaceful, and democratic state that hundreds of thousands of demonstrators called for during the 2011 uprisings, what went wrong? Why is there no prospect even of an internationally brokered plan to help end hostilities, let alone find peace? Conflicts in Yemen stem from a combination of internal rivalries between elites, rising demands of an increasingly impoverished population, interventions from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and western states and neoliberal financiers.
On 12 July 2017, the United Nations Special Envoy told the UN Security Council, ‘The situation in Yemen remains extremely grave. The intensity of the conflict increases day after day…The humanitarian situation is appalling…The country is not suffering from a single emergency but a number of complex emergencies, which have affected more than 20 million people and whose scale and effect will be felt long after the end of the war.’ The UN also declared the spread of cholera in Yemen the worst ever recorded worldwide. There are now over 300 000 suspected cases and over 1 700 people have died as a result of the epidemic. Fourteen million people are food insecure, of whom almost 7 million are at risk of famine.
This paper probes the main causes behind the disintegration of the Yemeni state established in 1990, and discusses early promises that were dashed by a succession of problems culminating in the 2011 uprisings, the failed transition of 2012-14, the Houthi takeover of Sana’a, their alliance with Saleh, and the Saudi-led intervention. It also deconstructs the rationale behind the events that led to the collapse of the Yemeni state, as well as the reasons why the international military intervention, starting in 2015, has ensured the prolonging of the war, and its catastrophic consequences for the population.
Origins of the New Republic
The Republic of Yemen was established in 1990 by the merger of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), the former resulting from the overthrow of the imamate in 1962 by a group of republican officers, and the latter emerging from British-administered Aden and the protectorates. These states had different political orientations; the YAR following a capitalist one while the PDRY was the only socialist state in the Arab world. Despite these differences, the two states shared common features that made Yemen a nation: a common culture, a similar fundamental social structure despite both regimes’ efforts to transform society in divergent directions, and a shared economic base of agriculture and fisheries with hopes of discovering oil. Families – and both states – relied considerably on remittances from migrant labour elsewhere in the peninsula and beyond.
Unification was the most popular political slogan on both sides of the border, and was embraced by both populations. But unification was born by forceps rather than through a democratic process: Saleh, who was president of the YAR (1978-2017), persuaded southern leader Ali Salem al-Beidh to agree to a full merger only hours after the PDRY’s ruling Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) had confirmed its commitment to a federal agreement that left considerable autonomy to each former state. This shift laid the basis for tension and led to a short civil war in 1994, decisively won by Saleh with the military support of the factions that had been defeated in the 1986 internal conflict in PDRY, including current ‘legitimate’ president Hadi, and the Salafis returning from Afghanistan.
Mounting Crisis and The 2011 uprisings
The Republic of Yemen’s first two decades were characterised by economic crises. More than 800 000 Yemenis were deported from GCC states when Yemen voted against UNSC Resolution 678 that approved military action against Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait. This reduced foreign economic aid to Yemen to almost zero, and added close to a million job seekers at a time of high unemployment. Although this crisis receded by 1995 and aid was resumed, it is worth remembering that remittances from workers abroad, mostly in GCC states, remained more important to Yemen’s economy than aid. Moreover, remittances directly reached mostly rural households, while aid went to state institutions in the early years. This shift changed in the late 1990s when IFIs actively weakened the state by financing organisations such as the Social Fund for Development and the Public Works Project, which operated according to ‘efficient’ private sector principles, though in fact they are parastatals whose salaries allow them to poach the best staff from line ministries, thus reducing their technical capacity. Other factors, such as climate change, rapid population growth and the corruption of the ‘elite’, contributed to increasing poverty and worsened the gap between the majority of the population and the small group of beneficiaries of the Saleh regime. Earning potential within Yemen and beyond was negatively impacted by constraints on migration and lack of job creation policies at home.
Political tensions increased through three episodes:
Combined with the social and economic crises, the only missing element was a trigger for a major uprising. The turning point came in the form of the apparently successful overthrow of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, encouraging Yemenis to believe that fundamental change was possible. Symbolised in the slogan ‘Saleh out’, the movement included thousands of independent youth and women, and members of opposition parties who were later joined by their leaderships. With a split in the military/security forces in March 2011, the country came close to large-scale warfare between opposing military factions, while the anti-Saleh peaceful civil movement persisted but was increasingly influenced by the political parties, particularly Islah and the Houthi movement. These developments led to intervention by the ‘international community’ in the alleged pursuit of a peaceful solution to the crisis.
The GCC Agreement and the transitional regime
Various events in the course of 2011 gradually weakened the Saleh regime and led, by the end of the year, to the GCC Agreement, which included Saleh’s resignation and his replacement by his former vice-president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who was to lead a transitional regime. According to the GCC Agreement, the two-year transition would get the political and economic support of the international community. It included a government of national unity that brought together Saleh’s forces and the opposition’s forces, the restructuring of the military/security sector, and a National Dialogue Conference (NDC) to design Yemen’s post transition structures. This was to be followed by a Constitution Drafting Committee, a referendum on the draft constitution, and elections.
Most of these steps were formally undertaken between 2012 and 2014. However, they failed to achieve the desired result, largely due to inherent design faults, such as allowing Saleh not only to stay in the country, but to continue leading the GPC, and allocating half of the government posts to his party. While this arrangement reflected the actual balance of power in 2011, it jeopardised the national unity government’s potential as ministers from the two main groups (GPC and Islah) competed for power and actively undermined each other. The government developed an unenviable reputation of being Yemen’s most corrupt ever, while failing to halt the deterioration of living conditions. The international community also shared considerable responsibility for the absence of social and economic development. Close to USD 8 billion was pledged for Yemen in September 2012, but these funds were withheld under various pretexts, resulting in continued deterioration in public services.
This period witnessed the quiet rise of the Houthis, who consolidated their control over the northern governorate of Sa’ada. They expanded their control zone militarily and politically westward towards the Red Sea, aiming to control the small port of Midi to ensure they were not landlocked, as well as controlling the entire western part of the border with Saudi Arabia. They also moved east into Jawf governorate, again on the Saudi border, but this time in the belief that the area had significant oil resources. Moreover, they expanded southwards and reached Amran town in mid-2014, only fifty kilometres north of Sana’a, after taking over the stronghold of the senior Hashed leaders.
There have been several points of correlation between the waning transitional regime and the rise of the Houthis. The former was known for its corruption, incompetence, and inability to address the social and economic problems of the population, whereas the latter benefited from their (secret) alliance with Saleh. A final contributor to their success was the internal rivalry within the transitional regime. Hadi had sought to weaken Islah by allowing the Houthis to defeat it, with the intention of controlling the Houthis. One can only presume that he was unaware of their cooperation with Saleh.
In the summer of 2014, large anti-government demonstrations contested the IMF-recommended rises in fuel prices. The Houthis capitalised on their image as an oppressed minority, supporting the popular demands and pushing for government accountability. They managed to take over Sana’a on 21 September 2014, and consolidated their position in the following months.
By January 2015, the submission of the new constitution draft to the post-NDC body was an excuse for a final showdown. Both Houthis and Saleh regarded the proposed federal state as unacceptable for different reasons. Hadi and his new government were placed under house arrest as the Houthi-Saleh military forces moved further south and captured Aden by March. After escaping from Sana’a, Hadi named Aden the country’s interim capital. He and his ministers escaped to Riyadh, while requesting the GCC to provide military support to restore the transitional regime.
A Wider Radius of the War
In the regional context, there was a likelihood of victory in favour of the Saleh-Houthi forces in spring 2015. The newly-appointed minister of defence in Saudi Arabia, ambitious young Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), saw the Yemen downturn as an opportunity to prove himself as a new leader, full of initiative, and determined to solidify Saudi Arabia’s role in the region. He presumed his modern air force, equipped with the latest western weaponry, would easily defeat the ill-trained forces of the poorest Arab state. The Saudi-led coalition destroyed the Yemeni airforce on the first day of the war. By the summer of 2015, it became imperative to involve ground troops, mostly from the UAE and other coalition members, primarily Sudan, alongside mercenaries from various Latin American states. This tactic enabled the coalition forces to ‘liberate’ the area of the former PDRY and some of the northeast of the country by the autumn of 2015. However, the military stalemate has prevailed.
The UN-sponsored negotiation process has thrice failed to stimulate a settlement plan between the warring parties. Since mid-2016, UN mediation has not been able to convene another round of talks. There have been two main political developments in the last two years:
While the Arab Coalition includes several states, the decision-making process is controlled by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. However, there is increasing divergence in policy and strategy between them, most visible in the south. Regardless of the rhetoric, Emirati forces are actively supporting separatists via the STC and the security forces. While claiming to address the problem of jihadi groups (AQAP and the Islamic State group), most of their interventions and arrests are against Islah, considered by the UAE to be Muslim Brothers, whom they pathologically detest. Outsiders have difficulty understanding support for extremist Salafi groups who are more dangerous to a moderate Islam than the Muslim Brothers. Divergence with the Saudi regime focuses on this aspect as it supports Ali Mohsen, who is an important Islah leader, and have had, for decades, very different approaches to Muslim Brother-related institutions.
Deepening humanitarian crisis
In the poorest Arab country with high levels of poverty and malnutrition, the current war has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Some 22 million of the 29 million population are in dire need of humanitarian assistance; 16 million individuals lack clean water and sanitation; 18 million are food insecure, including 8 million ‘on the brink’ of famine; and more than 1 million are victims of cholera, another world record.
About 16 000 individuals have been killed by coalition air strikes, with the most effective weapon being the blockade of Yemen’s main port Hodeida and other Red Sea ports, as well as the imposed closure of Sana’a airport. Several thousands of Yemenis have died by hunger, disease and other side effects of the blockade, a driving force behind the humanitarian crisis.
An Open-ended war?
The perpetuation of the Yemeni war derives from two main reasons. First, international intervention has added another layer of complex issues, which seem irrelevant to Yemen and Yemenis. The main issue is Iranian-Saudi rivalry. Saudi accusations that the Houthis are no more than ‘Iranian proxies’ have become part of the official discourse throughout the region and beyond, including in the USA. While the reality is that Iran’s actual involvement is minimal, it benefits from a massive propaganda advantage in exchange for limited practical support to the Houthis. This added element tends to complicate the pursuit of a solution.
The second reason is both internal and external vis-à-vis Yemen. In the domestic context, numerous figures on all sides benefit from the war. Not only do they have no incentive to end it, but they have every incentive to prolong it. They include men and boys manning checkpoints and ‘taxing’ passengers and goods (including the basics to keep people alive: food, fuel and people seeking medical aid). Next are the Houthis in areas they control. They both fill their pockets and finance their ‘administration’ through the ransoming of traders and others, but do not use these funds to pay salaries of medical, education or any other civil staff. In the ‘liberated’ areas, the beneficiaries of the war include any number of groups, ranging from AQAP and IS militants to officials of everything from the various southern separatist groups to the few remaining Hadi loyalists. Outside the country, members of Hadi’s government collect massive salaries, submit exorbitant bills to the coalition, but fail to pay staff inside Yemen. This is the irony of the political economy of war.
On the international level, western states sell sophisticated and expensive weapons and ammunition to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. According to SIPRI, in the period 2013 to 2017, Saudi Arabia was the second largest importer of arms in the world, with 10 per cent of all arms imports. Its share of imports had risen by 225 per cent from the previous five-year period. About 61 per cent of its weapons came from the USA, 23 per cent from the UK, and 3.6 per cent from France. In the case of the UAE, the fourth largest importer, the USA is also its largest supplier (58 per cent) followed by France (13 per cent) and Italy (6 per cent). Recently, the US president, Donald Trump, sat with MbS and did a ‘show-and-tell’ display of the latest proposed sales.
This paper has provided a rapid sketch of the events which led to Yemen’s disintegration. Fundamentally, the collapse is due to a combination of internal rivalries between elites, the rising demands of a population which has experienced increased hardship, and the impact of international interventions, both from neoliberal international financiers and politically-motivated actors in support or opposition to the internal rival factions.
The Yemeni war shares some characteristics with the Lebanese civil war, with different external actors attempting to use local factions to pursue international rivalries. Yemenis suffer the consequences to a nightmarish extent. A small ray of hope emerged early 2018 with the appointment of a new Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General, as well as the presence in the UNSC of members who are committed to end this war. This window of opportunity, however, will demand major transformations of the current UNSC resolutions, as well as a new complex and sophisticated approach involving many actors currently excluded from the official negotiating process. This will not be easy, and success is not guaranteed, particularly in view of the complicated international dimension of Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
* This article was first published by AlJeazeera Centre for Studies
* Helen Lackner is a research associate at the London Middle East Institute in SOAS and author of the forthcoming book Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, neoliberalism and the Disintegration of a State
 Helen Lackner (2017). Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State, London: Saqi Books.
 Lackner (2017). “Yemen in Crisis”.
 A detailed analysis of the transition can be found in Helen Lackner (2016), “Yemen’s Peaceful Transition from Autocracy: could it have succeeded?” Stockholm, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
 UN News (2018). “Secretary-General's remarks to the Pledging Conference on Yemen”, 3 April. https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2018-04-03/secretary-generals-remarks-pledging-conference-yemen-delivered.
 SIPRI (2017. “Trends in international arms transfers, 2017”. https://www.sipri.org/publications/2018/sipri-fact-sheets/trends-international-arms-transfers-2017.
The Egyptian government’s need to artificially increase voter turnout in the presidential election at the end of March through a combination of enticements and threats indicates a growing disillusionment among ordinary Egyptians with the political situation in the country. With the victory of the incumbent, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, which was never in doubt, it is likely that Egypt will see an increase in already-high levels of repression.
Long before official electoral results gave Sisi ninety-seven per cent of the vote, his victory had been expected by everyone, especially after former military chief of staff, General Sami Anan, had been arrested in January, and human rights lawyer Khaled Ali had been forced to withdraw from the race. These events occurred in an atmosphere in which dissent was being violently repressed. That repression intensified in the past few months as the regime sought to shut down the already minuscule space available for opposition.
Sisi’s rein has seen thousands killed and tens of thousands arrested; a 2013 law severely curtailed the right to protest; and a 2017 law ensures that only NGOs supportive of the regime are able to operate. Some constituencies that had initially given some level of support to SIsi, such as leftist parties and youth organisations, have seen their members arrested more recently, and the state has been formenting leadership contestation within some such groups. In a 29 January statement, Anan, Ali, and others labelled the electoral process a sham and advocated a boycott. To prevent Sisi being the sole candidate, the regime allegedly influenced Al Gad party’s Moussa Mostafa Moussa, who had already expressed his love for Sisi, to register as a candidate hours before the close of nominations. Until a week before his registration, he had been actively campaigning for Sisi.
With all these shenanigans, the only question that the election would answer was how large the voter turnout would be. The regime resorted to threatening voters to ensure a high turnout, which it believed would indicate support for Sisi. Teachers were forced to sign voter cards with their inked fingers in an attempt to ensure that they had voted, and in the governorates of Beheira and New Valley, officials had promised increased social services for districts with high voter turnouts.
In Minya and Sohag, police sought to pressure citizens to participate, and street vendors were threatened with the confiscation of their property if they failed to vote. Despite these attempts, voting numbers were still low, and the preliminary turnout had to be adjusted upward from forty to forty-two percent; Sisi’s vote of ninety-two per cent was also upped to ninety-seven per cent in order to equal the 2014 poll.
Astonishingly, the National Election Agency (NEA) claimed a high turnout in northern Sinai despite the Egyptian military’s scorched earth operations in the peninsula, and despite many in the region not being regarded as integral to Egypt, and many not even possessing full citizenship rights.
Although Sisi’s victory was guaranteed, the severity of the measures instituted to crack down on dissent and ensure that citizens voted point to his many failings. His handling of the economy has alienated many Egyptians; a twelve billion dollar IMF loan was conditioned on the regime drastically reducing subsidies and allowing the currency to float. This aggravated the conditions of Egyptians, and criticism of the regime has increased, even from previously supportive lawmakers and television personalities. The president’s decision to hand over the Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia angered many Egyptians who had supported his nationalist rhetoric; and the insurgency in northern Sinai (and its spillover into the mainland) saw Sisi’s security credentials being questioned. The opposition from Anan and former air force General Ahmed Shafiq are significant in this regard, and suggest the possibility that there is not unanimity within the military regarding Sisi’s rule. In October 2017, he dismissed his confidante and military chief of staff Mahmoud Hegazy, and in January 2018 he fired the head of intelligence, Khaled Fawzy, leading some former insiders to argue that military discontent is at a high.
With Sisi’s electoral victory, it is likely that harsher measures will be implemented in Egypt, especially as regards economic policy, which could see further subsidy cuts to unlock the second tranche of the IMF loan. This will likely lead to more discontent and further repression, especially if citizens’ socioeconomic conditions worsen dramatically. The international community, especially since the accession of Donald Trump to the US presidency in 2017, and later Emmanuel Macron’s election to the French presidency, has been willing to tolerate Sisi’s repression since Cairo is regarded as being in the frontline of the battle against the Islamic State group, whose strongest branch (Sinai ‘Province’), operates in Egypt, and because Cairo is largely supportive of the dominant powers on regional issues. Sisi’s victory is also being seen by many as a sign that he might attempt to amend the constitution to remove the two-term presidential limit. Already, pro-Sisi parliamentarians are agitating for this, thus laying the ground for a new confrontation.
Vladimir Putin’s return to power in Russia in 2012 signified a dramatic change in the country’s foreign policy and military strategy. Scrapping the achievements of the Dmitry Medvedev era in the Kremlin, which was characterised by a thaw in relations with the West, Putin opted for a more aggressive approach to positioning the country in the international arena. Experts still argue what prompted this review of Russia’s foreign policy strategy, but the developments that likely had a major impact on Putin’s policy planning in 2012 included the war with Georgia in 2008, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) uprisings, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) infamous military campaign in Libya, which brought down Russia’s long-time ally Muammar Qaddafi.
Contours of the new policy approach to the region started emerging when Russia updated two of its key documents, the ‘Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation’ and the ‘Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation’, in 2013 and 2014 respectively. This served as de facto justification for the Russian military campaign in Syria and the Concept became the first official document to elucidate the country’s ambition to play a bigger role in the MENA region. In the three years that divide the two concepts, Putin’s approach to foreign policy evolved and became increasingly securitised. (The word ‘terrorism’ features fifteen times in the 2013 Concept and thirty-five in the 2016 edition.) The Foreign Policy Concept also spells out the Russian president’s growing ambition to deal with instability at its origin, before it reaches Russian borders.
The rationale behind Russia’s re-emergence as a leading power in the Middle East was of a defensive nature and largely reactive. The uprisings in the region were a painful reminder of the Colour Revolutions that broke out across several post-Soviet states in the first half of the 2000s, and, according to the Kremlin, led to the 2014 EuroMaidan revolution in Ukraine. Putin himself believes that the MENA uprisings were a continuation of those Colour Revolutions and that both were foreign-instigated. A wave of revolutions across Eurasia convinced the Russian leadership that the possible domino effect of regime change would eventually target Russia. It is not coincidental that the Russian president likens Colour Revolutions and the MENA uprisings, and often makes no distinction between them. Commenting on anti-corruption protests in Russia in March 2017, he went as far as to call them ‘an instrument of the Arab Spring’.
A gradual withdrawal of the USA from the Middle East under Barack Obama meant that the region’s ‘policeman’ was no longer interested in maintaining order there, which arguably presented Moscow with numerous security challenges. Russia’s re-emergence in the Middle East happened, to a large extent, to fill some of the void left by the retreating Obama. In some cases it was effortless, such as in Egypt, where the US decision to cut aid to Cairo in 2013 led to the emergence of a budding Russia-Egypt alliance. In other contexts, most prominently in Syria, Russia had to invest significant diplomatic and military resources to marginalise the USA in the war and the peace process. What started out as an attempt to replace the USA where it was no longer interested in playing a leading role transformed into an ambition to challenge the USA even where it had no intention of retreating, for instance, in the Gulf region.
Russia’s return to the Middle East differs from the Soviet experience. Today, Moscow is extending its reach without the baggage of Soviet ideology. The idea of using its arms exports to the Middle East in the ideological struggle against the West evaporated when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) disintegrated and was replaced with the idea of making a profit for the cash-strapped budget. The Kremlin hopes to support its geopolitical claims with a strong pragmatic dimension.
In the Middle East, Moscow seeks to reinforce its influence there as well as offset the burden upon the Russian federal budget associated with the expenses of the Syrian campaign. Following in the footsteps of the Soviet Union, Russia has used arms deals to reach out to Cold War-era allies in Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria to consolidate a new power balance. During the Cold War, Wynfred Joshua and Stephen P. Gilbert wrote that as more countries became recipients of Soviet military aid programmes, there was a tendency for them to become greater political allies of the Soviet Union.
With Putin declaring victory over the Islamic State group (IS) during his December 2017 visit to Syria, Russia is faced with numerous opportunities and challenges. Its military operation in Syria may have put Russia back on the radar in the Middle East, and has solidified its position in the region. As Putin eyed re-election as president early March 2018, foreign policy achievements, chiefly in the MENA region, figured prominently in his election rhetoric.
An effect of Russia’s assertive foreign policy has become an expectation from regional partners and opponents alike that Moscow will be active in the Middle East. However, the hard power that brought Russia to prominence in the region will not be helpful to support long-term influence there, and could, in fact, produce a negative impact for Russia’s international standing. As a result, during his next term in office, Putin will be faced with a challenge to depart from hard power, his preferred modus operandi, to embrace a spectrum of other tools that will help make Russia’s presence in the region lasting and sustainable.
From Status Quo disruptor to Status Quo creator
New Military Positioning
In the next few years, due to Russia’s gains in Syria, Moscow will be recalibrating its military position in the wider region. The most significant of its gains has to do with the establishment of permanent military bases in Syria. In December 2017, the Russian parliament approved the agreements with the Syrian government leasing the Tartus and Hmeymim bases to Russia for forty-nine years with an automatic twenty-five-year extension.
The establishment of a permanent military presence in Syria fits with Russia’s strategy to acquire air and naval supremacy in the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, and signals the restoration of the Soviet strategy toward the region. From 1967 until the collapse of the USSR, the Soviet 5th Squadron operated in the Mediterranean, despite Moscow having no permanent bases in the region. In 2013, the Russian president made a decision to revive a perpetual naval presence there and ordered the establishment of the Mediterranean Task Force (MTF) within the Black Sea Fleet.
Russia has developed what some analysts call an anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) strategy in the Mediterranean. Along with the deployment of the S-400 air-defence system to Syria in November 2015 (and to Crimea, in August 2016), the Russian naval group in the eastern Mediterranean is equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles and P-800 Onyx anti-ship missiles, which create an added advantage against a potential enemy. given its security problems, which affect the whole international community.
Russia is increasing its military cooperation with Cairo, a partner with which Moscow had a strong partnership under Gamal Abdel Nasser and now with President Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Military-technical cooperation between the two countries is on the rise. More importantly, this cooperation now extends to annual joint naval drills as Russia looks for additional access to Egypt’s military infrastructure. Moreover, in order to simultaneously boost its Libya portfolio, Russia reportedly boosted the frequency of its use of Egyptian facilities at the border with Libya, including the port of Marsa Matrouh and the base at Sidi Barrani, once used by the Soviet Union. Moscow may now wish to revive, and even expand, this type of relationship.
At the same time, Russia has been increasingly looking at warm-water ports in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco in the 2000s. Moscow has significantly stepped up diplomatic engagement with each of these states over the past twenty years since the Soviet collapse. Moreover, in 2006, the two governments signed Algeria’s largest post-Cold War arms deal, amounting to $7.5 billion. Moreover, the two countries signed an agreement on counter terrorism cooperation in 2016, and have held two rounds of consultations on stepping up joint countering of violent extremism in North Africa and setting up regular exchanges of intelligence on extremist groups. The issue of Western Sahara is the kind of political leverage that Russia could use in order to position itself as a go-to mediator for Morocco.
Military presence in the Mediterranean may be only the first step in Moscow’s ambitious naval expansion. With the MTF deployed to the Mediterranean in 2013, Russia also started demonstrating a keen interest in the Red Sea, sending its warships there for drills as well as to project power. It is yet to be seen how Russia feels about setting up such a base so soon after acquiring a permanent military foothold in the Mediterranean. But proposals like this are indicative of how local powers perceive Russia’s growing role in the region.
It is in Russia’s long-term interest to continue expanding its military capabilities in the Mediterranean to support existing bases in Syria, linking its northern and Black Sea fleets’ operations in the Atlantic, as well as to obtain more leverage against NATO. Given failed Soviet attempts to set up a military presence in Egypt and Libya, Russia may finally revisit this idea.
Channelling growing military clout toward political sustainability
The key challenges facing Russia in the next few years concern how to convert gains made in Syria into sustainable political influence in the wider region. Military power projected by Moscow in the Syrian conflict and, by extension, its political clout, have allowed it to be recognised as a leading external power in the Middle East. Once the fighting dies down, however, Moscow will have a hard time maintaining its relevance in the region at the same level.
Without ways to project political power in the Middle East, Russian military forces there will be irrelevant. The bottom line is that hard power is a crisis management tool but not an agenda setting one. Moscow’s military clout in the region has reached the level at which it guarantees Russia presence in the Middle East, but it does not guarantee long-term political influence.
For Russia to replace the United States as the guarantor of security in the Middle East, it needs to demonstrate a long-term commitment to the region. But if Putin looks to preserve his country’s influence in the region, he will need to come up with ways to engage partners that would convince them of Russia’s resolve. With the Middle East not being the most strategically important region to Moscow, Putin will need to decide exactly how much influence he actually wants to project in the region. Maintaining the image of a great power in the Middle East will require Russia to invest diplomatically and financially in the resolution of other crises, such as the Libyan war and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. However, these investments will chiefly concern maintaining stability in the region and will not yield fast returns.
Finally, Russia will need to set a long-term agenda for the Middle East. Moscow’s Middle East strategy has thus far been characterised by short-termism, with its actions being largely reactive and most decisions ad hoc. This was evidenced by the fact that Russia’s bid on Iran’s ground forces as the main fighting force in Syria later led to multiple attempts by Tehran to hijack international agreements on the ground and undermine Moscow’s mediation attempts. According to him, the mechanism should include the Arab countries as well as Turkey, Iran and Israel. The collective security system must consist of three tracks or ‘baskets’: security, economy and humanitarian cooperation. Disarmament in the Middle East should become a starting point for the discussion on a regional security system. The first steps in this direction could be the creation of demilitarised zones, the prohibition of destabilising accumulations of conventional weapons (including anti-missile weapons), and a balanced reduction of armed forces by the main military powers in the region and neighbouring countries.
Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly on 28 September 2015, when he announced the beginning of the Russian military operation in Syria, Putin proposed creating a global anti-IS coalition ‘similar to the anti-Hitler’ alliance. The proposal, which he has voiced several times in the course of the Russian operation in Syria, pointedly feeds into the idea of creating a regional security system. The viability of a regional anti-IS alliance was demonstrated when Turkey, Iran and Russia partnered to implement de-escalation zones in Syria. Egypt and Jordan played a distinct role in the negotiation process on the creation of de-escalation zones and their implementation, and Putin may try to institutionalise what looks a lot like a regional anti-extremist alliance. An anti-terrorist alliance that could later transform into a collective security system seems to be one of the few areas in which Russia is willing to commit resources, based both on Russia’s domestic security concerns and its foreign policy calculations.
Old and New Partners
With Russia’s military position gradually readjusting as a result of the Syrian conflict, its partnerships night also eventually undergo a broader rethink. Russia will need to find a way to reach out to Sunni Arab powers and win their trust, which was undermined by Russia’s perceived alliance with the Shi'a in the Syrian conflict. According to Pew Research, as of mid-2017, only 28 per cent of people in the Middle East expressed confidence in Russia and Putin’s foreign policy, and only 35 per cent had a favourable view of Russia. The process of reconstruction in Syria also means that Russia and Iran will have to shoulder a heavy financial burden if they want to continue to play a leading political role in the country; neither, however, is capable of doing that. Consequently, Russia has asked world powers, to chip in, which will require a significant draw-down in Iran’s political role in Syria.
While Russia’s relationship with Iran is set to become rockier, there is no guarantee that Moscow’s ties with Sunni powers, specifically Saudi Arabia, will transform into a real partnership. The visit of the Saudi king, Salman, to Moscow in October 2017 may have indicated a positive dynamic in bilateral relations, but it was largely prompted by the Saudi domestic dynamic rather than a genuine desire to reach out to Moscow. The biggest achievement that Moscow and Riyadh can boast about is that they managed to compartmentalise their relations, as demonstrated by the oil deal reached by Russia and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in November 2016, despite the ongoing Syria crisis.
Dichotomy Between Stability and Managed Democracy
Experts who had argued that authoritarianism in the Middle East would maintain stability and keep extremism at bay were proven wrong by the events of the Arab uprisings.
In Turkey, the July 2016 attempted coup was used by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as an excuse to crack down not only on suspected plotters, but also on wider circles critical of the government’s policies. Western powers rebuked Erdoğan over his suspension of the rule of law and mass detentions – but Russia pointedly did not. Putin was the one world leader who called Erdoğan to tell him Moscow supported his campaign to root out dissent, which the Turkish president described as ‘anti-constitutional’. All this occurred just weeks after Erdoğan’s late June apology to Russia for the November 2015 downing of a Russian Su-24 jet over Syria, and it shows how masterfully Putin uses authoritarian movements to his own political benefit.
Egypt is experiencing a similar wave of authoritarianism, with President Abdel Fattah El Sisi cracking down on dissent that is not necessarily associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. That government campaign is happening against the backdrop of economic instability, currency devaluation and increased poverty rates. However, the army’s grip on power and full control over the public sphere give a semblance of stability. Sisi’s fight to eradicate extremism in the Sinai and his crackdown on dissent find support in Moscow, as reflected in official statements from the Kremlin. Egypt reemerged as Russia’s key partner in the Middle East, including in crucial spheres of military-technical cooperation. The two countries signed a protocol on military cooperation in March 2015, significantly ramped up joint military exercises, and are looking to green light an agreement that would allow Russian military aircraft to use Egyptian airspace and infrastructure.
A combination of factors bolstered Russia’s commitment to intervention in Syria. First, geopolitically, the fall of Asad would mean humiliation for Russia, his main global ally, and would deprive Moscow of a springboard to the rest of the Middle East. Second, from a pragmatic standpoint, Syria’s proximity to Russia, coupled with its becoming a training camp for jihadists from the former Soviet Union, meant that the civil war there was becoming a national security issue for Moscow. Hence, Putin undertook this risky affair albeit with no guaranteed outcome.
Syria, however, gives one a skewed idea as to how Russia’s strategy toward the region may look in the future. The military campaign in Syria cost Russia $484 million, according to Putin, These costs have been offset by returns on arms contracts and the existing budget for drills. This sum is manageable for the federal budget, even despite low oil prices. Russia’s defence spending has been continuously growing from 2010; its share in the GDP increased from 3.2 per cent to 4.4 per cent in 2016. Syria was the reason that the Ministry of Defense managed to secure a larger budget until 2016, but it is also the reason that Moscow now looks for ways to cut the overinflated defence expenses. This indicates that the Syria operation is an exceptional affair that Russia is unlikely to repeat elsewhere in the Middle East due to geopolitical risks as well as financial costs that are already too high.
With the focus previously exclusively on Syria, the Russian foreign policy agenda toward the Middle East appears highly securitised. Meanwhile, the military and intelligence circles took charge over policy making towards the region. Despite a wide range of goals that Moscow pursues in Syria, the distinct focus on security issues stoked fears over Russia seeking a military foothold in the Middle East by US officials.
While Syria is a special case, Libya might provide more insight into how Russia will position itself vis-à-vis conflicts in the Middle East in the future. Following the fall of its partner Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Moscow did not show much interest in the Libyan conflict, essentially leaving it to NATO to deal with. At the same time, Libya was a convenient case to revert to in order to lambaste the West each time Russia felt its interests in the Middle East were ignored.
Russia re-emerged on the Libya scene pronouncing no specific agenda and making incoherent statements about the desired endgame as the Libyan civil war erupted. In 2016, following Haftar’s visit to Moscow, the international community was convinced that the Kremlin was looking at Libya within the context of where it would continue to project military power once the conflict in Syria is over. The Russian ambassador to Libya, Ivan Molotkov, publicly spoke of a possible delivery of Russian weapons to the government in Tobruq. Many experts predicted a Russian military operation in the country and looked for signs of a military build-up, but those predictions were repeatedly proven wrong.
This approach worked, and Russia became a go-to power for various parties to the Libyan conflict. Moscow hosted representatives of the Tripoli government as well as representatives from Misrata, the two major power centres in Libya. More importantly, Russia facilitated direct talks between Tripoli and the Touareg and Tobu tribes in November 2017, the first such talks between these parties, given the fact that the tribes had not sided with any party yet. This marks the emergence of a fundamentally new approach to conflict resolution in Russia. Hypothetically, Russian military aid and diplomatic support for Haftar could have resulted in the capture of Tripoli by his Libyan National Army, marking the end of the Libyan Political Agreement. Moscow, however, made a U-turn away from Haftar and opted for a more balanced position towards the settlement of the conflict, which helped it be recognised as a key power broker by all sides in this conflict.
The ‘strategic equidistance’’ approach that Russia adopted in Libya is something Putin might explore further in the future. There are numerous signs that Russia will attempt to become a referee and power broker in other contexts in the Middle East as well. One example is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Following the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Russia did not issue harsh criticism of either the USA or Israel. The Russian Foreign Ministry limited its response to ‘serious concern’.
Russia’s relatively calm reaction to Trump’s move and Israel’s policies toward Palestine can be explained by Moscow’s growing ambition to play a bigger role in the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Russia intensified its diplomacy with Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2016, when Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited both in an attempt to bridge their differences. Later, in January 2017, Russia hosted all major Palestinian political organisations, Saudi Arabia pursued a similar charm offensive, which culminated in King Salman’s visit to Russia.
As Syria gradually falls from the top of Russia’s political agenda in the Middle East over the next years, Moscow will look for new ways to stay relevant in the region. Russia’s permanent military bases in Syria have the potential to change the power balance in the Mediterranean. Moscow has created a heavily guarded perimeter in the eastern Mediterranean by deploying air defence capabilities to Syria, complementing its permanent naval force in those waters. Together, these deployments and growing capabilities will become a challenge for NATO as Moscow spreads its presence into the alliance’s naval underbelly in the Mediterranean. Russia is also expanding military cooperation with Egypt and the future government in Libya, and is expanding its naval presence in the Red Sea.
Politically, however, hard power will produce fewer benefits for Moscow, at higher costs, which is why the Russian government will need to discover new ways to remain relevant in the regional arena. Having used Syria to rebuild its image as a regional power, Russia is faced with the challenge of how to balance its relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, neither of which is a true ally for Moscow. In order to forge stronger regional alliances, Putin might revisit the idea of a global anti-terrorist coalition, which feeds into the concept of a regional system of collective security widely discussed by Russian policymakers.
Trying to insert itself in regional politics in the post-Syria era, Russia is likely to rebrand its image in the Middle East and position itself as a regional referee in an attempt to offset the negative impact of the Syrian conflict for its image. Being a regional referee, however, does not necessarily translate into being a supporter of democracy. The legacy of the MENA uprisings and Russia’s own experience with democratic movements led Putin to believe that authoritarian stability may help the Middle East overcome its security problems. And Russia’s military campaign in Syria has further crystallised this notion for the Kremlin.
* Yuri Barmin is an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, covering the Middle East and North Africa, and Moscow’s policy towards the region
 Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, approved by the president of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin on 30 November 2016. http://www.mid.ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/2542248.
In his widely acclaimed book All the Kremlin’s Men, Mikhail Zygar, an insider into the workings of Putin’s inner circle, argues that Putin absorbed the death of Qaddafi as a lesson: weakness and compromise were impermissible. ‘When he [Gaddafi] was a pariah, no one touched him,’ Zygar wrote. ‘But as soon as he opened up he was not only overthrown but killed in the street like a mangy old cur.’
 ‘Read Putin’s U.N. General Assembly Speech’, Washington Post, 28 September 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/09/28/read-putins-u-n-general-assembly-speech/?utm_term=.c9837439bf3d.
 Nikolay Kozhanov, ‘Arms Exports Add to Russia’s Tools of Influence in Middle East’, Chatham House, 20 July 2016, https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/arms-exports-add-russia-s-tools-influence-middle-east#sthash.JYHR0jTz.dpuf.
 ‘Veliky Novgorod and Kolpino Submarines Fired the Kalibr Cruise Missiles from Submerged Position Against ISIS Critical Objects in Syria’, Russian Ministry of Defense, 14 September 2017, //eng.mil.ru/en/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12142271@egNews">http://eng.mil.ru/en/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12142271@egNews>.
 ‘Putin: Ships in the Mediterranean are not “saber-rattling”’, RIA, 6 June 2013, https://ria.ru/defense_safety/20130606/941878268.html.
 Tom Parfitt, ‘Gadafy offers Russia a naval base in Libya’, The Guardian, 1 November 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/nov/01/libya-russia-gadafy-united-states.
 ‘Mansouria Mokhefi: “Algeria seeks to reaffirm the primacy of its relations with Russia”’, Jeune Afrique, 27 April 2016, http://www.jeuneafrique.com/321456/politique/mansouria-mokhefi-algerie-cherche-a-reaffirmer-primaute-de-relations-russie/.
 Malek Bachir, ‘Russia’s secret plan to back Haftar in Libya’, Middle East Eye, 20 January 2017, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/exclusive-russias-secret-plan-libya-2129027228.
 Habibulah Mohamed Lamin, ‘How Polisario Front hopes to partner with Russia in Western Sahara’, Al Monitor, 11 April 2017, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/04/western-sahara-polisario-sell-russia-moscow-visit.html#ixzz55OoQalcn.
 ‘Bashir Discusses with Russia Setting up Military Base on Red Sea’, Asharq Al Awsat, 26 November 2017, https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1095236/bashir-discusses-russia-setting-military-base-red-sea.
 Igor Ivanov, ‘Three Baskets for the Middle East’, Russian International Affairs Council, 1 February 2016, http://russiancouncil.ru/analytics-and-comments/analytics/tri-korziny-dlya-blizhnego-vostoka/?sphrase_id=4717562.
 ‘Putin is Calling for the Creation of an Anti-ISIS Front’, Gazeta, 16 November 2015, https://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2015/11/16_a_7895243.shtml.
 Anton Mardasov, ‘Russia re-examines relationship with Iran’, Al Monitor, 14 August 2017, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/08/russia-relationship-iran-syria-military-situation-moscow.html.
 ‘Saudi Arabia sets conditions to role in Syria reconstruction’, The Arab Weekly, 15 October 2017, http://www.thearabweekly.com/Gulf/9440/Saudi-Arabia-sets-conditions-to-role-in-Syria-reconstruction.
 World Report 2017, Human Rights Watch, 7, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/world_report_download/wr2017-web.pdf.
 ‘News conference following talks with President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan’, 9 August 2016, http://en.kremlin.ru/catalog/countries/TR/events/52673.
 ‘Meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad’, 21 October 2015, http://kremlin.ru/catalog/countries/SY/events/50533.
 Anton Bayev, ‘A Year in Syria: How Much the Military Operation Cost Russia’, RBC, 30 September 2016, https://www.rbc.ru/politics/30/09/2016/57ebb7199a7947db5bb2b309#xtor=AL-%5Binternal_traffic%5D–%5Brss.rbc.ru%5D-%5Btop_stories_brief_news%5D.
 Alexander Sharkovskiy, ‘The Budget of the Defense Ministry Will be Cut by 100 billion’, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 19 December 2016.
 ‘West reaffirms support for Presidency Council “as the sole legitimate government of Libya”, says military must be under civilian control’, Libya Herald, 24 December 2016, https://www.libyaherald.com/2016/12/24/west-reaffirms-support-for-presidency-council-as-the-sole-legitimate-government-of-libya-says-military-must-be-under-civilian-control/.
 Maxim Suchkov, ‘Russia seeks well-rounded relations with Libyan factions’, Al Monitor, 15 December 2017, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/12/russia-well-round-relations-libya-lev-dengov.html.
 ‘On a new procedure for obtaining short-term tourist visas to the State of Qatar for citizens of the Russian Federation’, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 23 June 2017, http://www.mid.ru/ru/maps/qa/-/asset_publisher/629HIryvPTwo/content/id/2796326.
Israel began this year by announcing that African refugees (who are mostly from Sudan and Eritrea) faced imprisonment if they did not choose the controversial ‘voluntary departure package’ that the government was offering them before April. The package was part of an ultimatum to African migrants in Israel, allowing them two options: accept the $3 500 USD and leave to a ‘third country’ (said to be Rwanda or Uganda) or permanent incarceration in an Israeli jail. Rwanda and Uganda have denied agreeing to host African migrants deported from Israel, but evidence collected by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) suggests otherwise. The decision to kick out around 20 000 African migrants comes as Israel embarked on a new strategy to rally African diplomatic support in international bodies. The UN and certain states – such as Canada – have condemned the Israeli migrant plan, but the African Union (AU) and most African countries remain silent on it, creating the perception that there is no substantial opposition to it.
African migration to Israel
Since 1950, Israel’s Law of Return has allowed the immigration of Jews from around the world, including from Ethiopia. African refugee migration to Israel began in the mid-2000s, and the numbers increased rapidly in the late 2000s. By late 2010, Israel received its highest number of African migrants, with between 30 000 and 45 000 entering through the Israeli-Egyptian border. Currently, around 38 000 African migrants – mainly asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan – live in Israel. The first wave of Sudanese migrants (mostly from the conflict-ravaged Darfur region) started arriving in Israel in December 2005 through Egypt. Due to the circumstances that forced them to flee Sudan, asylum seekers in Israel have a right to have a sur place refugee claim, and should automatically be recognised as such under the 1951 Convention relating to the status of Refugees.
The sur place refugees claim is also applicable to Eritreans, who fled widespread human rights violations, including forced conscription, forced labour and torture. Eritreans who evaded being drafted into the military face persecution if they return. Additionally, according to the UNHCR, many Eritrean migrants seeking asylum in Israel since 2004 have been Christians who faced abuses in Eritrea since 2002, qualifying them for refugee status and asylum in Israel under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Despite this, Israeli officials and Israel’s prime minister have continuously labelled African migrants ‘infiltrators’ who arrived in Israel for economic reasons. Moreover, many of the migrants in Israel do not enjoy asylum status as the application process is notoriously slow and hardly produces favourable outcomes for the migrants.
Asylum application in Israel is so slow that by the end of 2017 only 10 persons had been granted refugee status in response to 15 000 asylum applications since 2010. The slow and unresponsive process seemed to be changing in 2007 when the then-prime minister, Ehud Olmert, granted 500 temporary residence permits to migrants from Sudan under pressure from the UNHCR. This changed when Benyamin Netanyahu became prime minister. The current 38 000 African migrant number is after years of sporadic deportations of Africans to unnamed countries. They are concentrated in south Tel Aviv neighbourhoods, and are from among the refugees who arrived between 2006 and 2013. After Israel built a fence on its border with Egypt in 2013, the number of African migrants arriving through Egypt decreased drastically. Holot, a migrant detention centre in the Negev desert, currently houses 3 000 African migrants.
Holot was built in 2012, and has the capacity to house around 1 400 people at a time. It has been at the centre of Israel’s immigration policy towards African migrants. In November 2017, Israel announced plans to close the Holot centre and to deport the residents of the centre. It is over capacity with 3 000 African male migrants who do not possess residency or work permits. The Holot detainees are unable to work as they are required to report to the centre at specified times during the day. Migrants in other parts of Israel face similar challenges to those at Holot, and work illegally, facing exploitation and below minimum wage salaries. Israeli citizens who hire African migrants without permits face fines, and are required to deduct twenty per cent of their wages to put into a controversial ‘deposit fund’, thus making it near impossible for African migrants to survive.
Migrants regularly face abuse and ill-treatment from Israeli citizens, with many calling for their deportations. In August 2017, tensions came to a boil when south Tel Aviv residents protested the presence of African migrants. This was followed by a visit by Netanyahu, who promised to remove the ‘infiltrators’. The closure of Holot centre and the prior construction of a steel barrier fence at the Egypt-Israeli border form part of the various measures that Israel has taken to dramatically reduce the number of African migrants.
Africa’s (and South Africa’s) complicity
At the Egypt-Israel border stands a steel barrier that stretches for 242 kilometres, boasting five to seven metre high fences constructed of 35 000 tons of metal and steel. This gigantic barrier was to curb the influx of African migrants into Israel. The steel barrier intends to prevent African migrants from entering Israel through Egypt’s Sinai. The construction of the fence also saw contracts awarded to the Yehuda Fences Company, which is part of the Yehuda Group owned by the South African company Cape Gate. This is not Cape Gate’s first foray into illegal Israeli activities. In 2009 a report by the Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid wall campaign revealed that the company was complicit in maintaining and assisting with the construction of what Israel calls a ‘separation barrier’ and the organisation calls an ‘Apartheid Wall’.
The Israeli African migrants’ policy is being abetted by certain African countries that are said to be receiving deported migrants from Israel in exchange for financial compensation. The UNHCR reported that between December 2013 and June 2017, Israel deported 4 000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers under the ‘voluntary departure programme’ to Rwanda and Uganda. Both countries have denied claims that they had been complicit in Israel’s controversial plan. Although they deny having made deals with Israel to accept the migrants, the two countries have embraced Israel’s attempts to strengthen links with African states. In the wake of the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by US president, Donald Trump, the UN passed a resolution rejecting the move; nine African states abstained, including Rwanda and Uganda, suggesting a solidification of links with Israel.
The silence of many African countries about the ill treatment of African migrants in Israel demonstrates complicity. The AU, in which Israel seeks to gain observer status, has not condemned the Israeli deportation plan, nor pronounced on reports that two of its member states, Rwanda and Uganda, have assisted Israel in its deportation and ill-treatment of African migrants.
Voluntary departure package
Israel’s being a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees obligates it not to return refugees to a country where they face serious threats to their lives or freedom. Israel’s policy towards African migrants came into the spotlight around 2013 after the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that Israel was offering a ‘voluntary departure’ ultimatum. Israel attempted to redeem itself by stating that the plan did not include women and children, and targeted only males of working age. The UNHCR responded that the plan could not be considered ‘voluntary’ as both options given to the migrants threatened the life and freedom of the asylum seeker, and was thus in contravention of the 1951 Refugee Convention. By deporting the migrants back to their home countries, Israel placed their lives in more danger than they had previously faced. This is especially significant in the case of Sudanese migrants who, according to the UNHCR, faced jail sentences under Sudan’s Criminal Act, which prohibits citizens from visiting an enemy state, which Sudan considers Israel to be.
Having faced increased pressure from local and international groups to halt the deportations of migrants to their home countries, Israel revised the policy and included a component to allow refugees to choose to be deported to a ‘third’ country, which the UNHCR said was either Rwanda or Uganda. If migrants choose this option, they are given $3 500 USD to help them settle in the new country, an Israeli travel document, and a letter from the ‘third country’ guaranteeing a tourist visa upon arrival. Various Eritrean and Sudanese migrants who took this option and were deported to Rwanda have reported to the UNHCR that although they received the promised $3 500 USD, their documents were confiscated upon arrival and they could not apply for asylum. Further, they claim, immigration officials in Rwanda extorted money from them and ultimately trafficked them to Uganda where they face imprisonment for entering the country illegally.
In a recent twist, in its efforts to accelerate these deportations, the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority has offered an incentive to Israeli civilians to serve as ‘inspectors’ and implementers by forcibly removing African migrants from Israeli neighbourhoods. Under this offer, civilians are recruited as ‘inspectors’ who will rout out migrants who do not take up the ‘voluntary departure’ deal. The main targets under this new plan are African migrants residing in the greater Tel Aviv area. Once the ‘inspectors’ have identified those willing to take the departure package, they will facilitate the paperwork for their departure as well as monitor their entry to the third country. These inspectors will receive an incentive of $8 700 USD per deported person for a two-month period – higher than the total sum of $3 500 offered to the Africans who accept the deal and the $5 000 USD reported to be given to Rwanda and Uganda for each migrant they receive.
Israel insists the majority of African migrants in Israel are not asylum seekers but economic migrants. The UNHCR claims most of them are from Eritrea and Sudan and fled war and persecution, which qualifies them as asylum seekers and refugees. The controversial ‘voluntary departure’ package, the barrier fence on the Egypt-Israeli border, and the plan to close the Holot refugee detention centre signals Israel’s commitment to rid the country of ‘infiltrator’ African migrants seeking refuge. The African migrants have been given until April this year to take up the ‘voluntary departure’ package or face permanent jail detention, prompting widespread protests from the migrants and local human rights groups. Israel has also been condemned by the UN and some western countries, but the silence and the complicity of African countries in this controversial African migrants’ policy leaves little hope for the migrants. With this plan to rid itself off African refugees, Israel adds to its list of human rights and international law violations.
AMEC's executive director, Na'eem Jeenah, spoke as part of a panel organised by SISO (Save Israel, Stop the Occupation) and Liliesleaf Farm on 5 February 2018 at Liliesleaf. The other panelists were Alon Liel, former Israeli ambassador to South Africa, and Benjamin Pogrund former South African journalist now living in Israel. The three speakers addressed the topic 'Israel and Palestine: What lies ahead?'
Let us be clear. ‘What lies ahead’ for Israel and Palestine is not Israel and Palestine!
The reality as it is today is that we do not have two states called Israel and Palestine, and we will not have two states. There is no Palestinian state today, even if certain sections of the official Palestinian leadership would like to convince us and themselves that there is. All we have is a bantustan that is given certain limited trappings of a state – much like Bophuthatswana or Venda were given in South Africa under apartheid. Indeed, the Palestinian ‘state’ that exists today has fewer powers than the South African bantustans did in the 1970s and 1980s; has less authority; less independence; less sovereignty; and cannot rely on the state that spawned it (as South African banstustans could) to support it financially.
The reality today is that we have one state – Israel – that is in control of the whole of Mandate Palestine, in control of all the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. The fact that that state exercises its power over this territory through different regimes of control in different parts of that territory does not derogate from the fact that all this territory is, de facto, under the control of, and therefore part of, a single state.
If we want to talk about a future that will see an Israeli state and a Palestinian state existing side-by-side, then, at the very minimum, the Palestinian state in that configuration should be one in which all Israeli settlements have been dismantled; whose capital is in Jerusalem; whose borders are on the 1967 lines; which has full control over its borders; and that exercises full sovereignty on all of its territory – including the airspace above it and the water, gas and other resources below it. And, such a solution would require the exercise of the right of return of all Palestinian refugees to their homes – wherever in either of the two states those homes were. None of this is a fanciful demand of the Palestinians; all of these are guaranteed and required by international law.
But this is no longer a plausible future reality – if it ever was. Israel has ensured that such a solution cannot come to pass. Israel and its successive governments have ensured that there can be no possibility of an independent, sovereign, viable Palestinian state alongside an Israeli state. This has been done systematically through the construction and expansion of the settlements and settlement infrastructure; the building of the so-called ‘separation wall’ which has stolen Palestinian land; and other geographical and social engineering undertaken by Israel. That is why no Israeli politician talks about two states any longer. This reality and the fact that Israel has a US administration that is willing to give it anything it wants means Israel no longer has to pretend it wants a two-state solution. And even a few years ago, when Israeli government officials would occasionally refer to a two-state solution, it was clear that they were not talking about two states, but about an Israeli state controlling a Palestinian bantustan. Netanyahu’s ‘vision’ of a Palestinian state was one in which that state would have no control over its borders, no control over its airspace, no sovereignty over the Jordan Valley where Israeli troops would permanently be stationed, no control over its security, no army, no police force except one that is under Israeli oversight, no possibility to establish a capital in Jerusalem or to have any claim to Jerusalem whatsoever… In short, Netanyahu articulated a ‘two-state solution’ where the Palestinian entity would be a bantustan and a permanent vassal of Israel.
Of course, all of this, we were told, was necessary in the interests of Israel’s security. Because, of course, Palestinians do not deserve any security; Palestinians do not need to be safe from a belligerent, racist state with one of the most powerful armies in the world that occupies their land; Palestinians have no right to defend themselves. Only Israeli security needs consideration.
Among Palestinians, there are only a few today who believe that a two-state solution is possible. In general, most Palestinians believe that Oslo is dead; and that the agreements and creatures of Oslo are irrelevant.
This event is hosted by SISO, and while I am not criticising the organisation, I ask whether the slogan ‘Save Israel, Stop the Occupation’ is a realistic one. I suppose the answer to that question depends, in part, on what is meant by ‘Israel’. What borders, what powers, what is the nature and character of the state, who are its citizens and its nation…
The future for Israelis and Palestinians – the ‘What lies ahead’ – is not an end to the occupation in a manner that will ‘save’ Israel in the form it exists today. The more likely future scenario is one where the occupation will ‘end’ in a manner that will result in Israel, de jure, being a singe state from the river to the sea.
The real question, then, is not whether we will have one or two states in future. The real question is: what is the path from where we are now to the future one-state reality. The real question is whether that path will be one that is a (largely) non-violent, negotiated, carefully envisioned and re-envisioned one with minimal loss of life and minimal misery for Israeli Jews and for Palestinians (especially for Palestinians); or whether that path will be characterised by belligerence, massive violence, bloodshed, death and misery for all concerned (especially Palestinians).
With the current extreme imbalance in power between Palestinians and Israelis, the decision for which path should be taken lies largely in the hands of Israelis and Israel’s supporters around the world.
If Israel perpetuates its violence – as it seems intent on doing, remains intransigent, continues to use its military and security forces to attempt to suppress the Palestinian people and their legitimate aspirations and demands, then we will arrive at the same future, but through the second, more tortuous and bloody route. Palestinians, as they have proven to us over the past seven decades, will not be perpetual victims; they will fight back – even if the balance of force is hugely against them. As the quotes that we read scattered around Liliesleaf suggest, such resistance is built into the nature of human beings.
Let me end, then, by focusing your attention on two quotes I read here in the past hour, which should give Israel’s supporters in this room cause to pause and ponder.
At the entrance to this institution, museum and monument is a quote from an Umkhonto we Sizwe pamphlet issued soon after its founding. It says: ‘…the people's patience is not endless. The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa.’ Although no quoted on the board at the entrance, the pamphlet continues: ‘We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future and our freedom.’
And at the entrance to this hall is a quote by that former president of the African National Congress known for his emphasis on non-violence, Chief Albert Luthuli, who said, in response to the sentencing at the Rivonia Treason Trial: ‘… no one can blame brave just men for seeking justice by the use of violent methods; nor could they be blamed if they tried to create an organised force in order to ultimately establish peace and racial harmony.’
The choice and the decision, as I said, lies in the hands of Israelis and their supporters.
At the establishment of the African Union (AU) in May 2001, discourses about human security and counter terrorism were ubiquitous both globally and on the continent. In Africa, the experience of the conflicts in Sierra Leone and the Great Lakes region weighed heavily on the continent’s people, and on the new body. The newly-formed AU thus sought to institute measures that would enhance peace and security and ensure human development, even allowing for the possibility of the organisation intervening in member states. Article Four of the AU’s Constitutive Act stated that intervention in a member country could be endorsed by the body in the event that the government of that country severely repressed its population; the prevention of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide were explicitly mentioned.
Within months of the creation of the AU, the September 2001 World Trade Centre bombings in New York took place, forcing an additional imperative onto the AU’s agenda. As a result, the AU has, for the past decade and a half, focused a great deal of effort on counter terrorism (in some instances to the detriment of member state populations). Coordination on counter terrorism has thus been enhanced between member states, and, worryingly, training, skills transfers, and direct deployment of troops from foreign powers – especially the US and France – had been sought to address that has been, to some extent, an exaggerated threat. This has unwittingly allowed, again, the mixing of foreign interests with those of the continent, often allowing foreign agendas to dominate.
In the past few years, a new form of foreign role on the continent has begun to become established, and it is this that we want to highlight as a challenge for the African Union, the continent as a whole, and relationships between African states. We refer here to the phenomenon of the creation of forward military deployment bases hosted by various African states, which, it might be argued, poses, for us, a challenge in terms of continental sovereignty.
The problem of bases
Often promoted by military strategists as reducing the ‘tyranny of distance’, forward deployment bases allow the forward deployment of both troops and equipment, allowing for quicker response times, and a shortening of distance, especially in terms of the need to refuel. This strategy had initially been the forte of the US military – especially after the European war of the mid-twentieth century, or the Second World War. As documented by Nick Turse, US military bases (including forward operating sites, cooperative security locations, and contingency locations) in Africa number around fifty, at least. The US base in Diego Garcia, for example, played a key role in the 2003 Iraqi invasion, with minimal flythrough/docking rights required from other countries.
US bases, compounds, port facilities and fuel bunkers are in thirty-four African countries, including in regional hegemons Kenya, Ethiopia and Algeria. Under the guise of countering terrorism, and through joint partnerships, Washington has infiltrated continental security organisations and has touted the idea of establishing on-the ground liaison offices. American military officials and policy makers view the continent as a full-scale battlefield in the competition against China, and through promoting regionalism, US officials are successfully circumventing continental institutions including the AU. To date, this has not yet been a major factor in interstate conflicts on the continent, but US cooperation has sort to mould partner countries to share its stance on foreign issues. Further, the US uses these bases to carry out activities on other continents; drones operating from Chadelley base in Djibouti have been deployed in Yemen and Syria, for example. This then inserts African states into conflicts unrelated to them, their regions or the continent.
Many other states followed the US strategy – albeit on a smaller scale, especially as international rivalry among global powers (or aspirant global powers) intensified. This lily pad strategy is now utilised by the US, Russia, China, France, and even smaller countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran. This is likely to intensify, especially since advances in technology have increased the efficiencies and efficacy of submarines, thus making it more difficult to deploy carrier vessels as a means of power projection. Further, the advancements in missile defence, and the decreasing costs of obtaining such technology has meant that long-haul flights, as a means of strategic lift, have become riskier; the offense-defence balance in some ways favours the defensive power.
These bases, especially those maintained by global powers, have impaired the AU from implementing indigenous continental solutions, especially those requiring inclusiveness and mediation. Mali is significant in this regard, especially since the presence of French troops stationed there for Operation Barkhane had stymied efforts by Malian civil society to include the Islamist Ansar Dine (now Group for the Protection of Islam and Muslims) in the political process, thus prolonging the insurgency in the north. Similarly, UAE bases in Somaliland incentivise and formalise the fragmentation of Somalia, with negative regional consequences. In the coming decades, problems such as these will be exacerbated, as countries such as India, Iran, and Saudi Arabia construct military bases in African countries, and because the sub-regional coordination mechanisms such as the Multi-National Joint Task Force in the Lake Chad Basin, which have had successes, are more proficient at dealing with cross-border insurgency. It is noteworthy that these initiatives are often continental efforts undertaken by sub-regional states, frequently in opposition to the intentions and programmes of global powers.
There is a great need for Africans to be concerned about these developments and this focus on the creation of bases, because of their impact on the populations of various countries, and implications for state as well as continental sovereignty. Diego Garcia, the base that set the trend for this phenomenon in Africa, illustrates the rather drastic potential impacts of these. The island’s population has been reduced to one lacking rights and freedoms, with many of its members forcibly removed from their homes and deported – most to Mauritius and Seychelles, not allowed the right to return. Further, the presence of the base has ensured that the African Union has little influence over the island; it is still de facto ruled as a British territory.
Similarly, the ‘global war on terror’, coupled with the rise of China, has seen global powers seeking to re-enter or strengthen their presence on the continent, with negative consequences. Both the US and France have constructed new bases in Africa, with China, the UAE and Saudi Arabia following suit. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, they often have other interests, such as France’s bases in Niger, which are more an attempt to protect French interests around Niger’s vast uranium resources.
Last year (2017), China completed the construction of a base in Djibouti, with Saudi Arabia (2017), France, and even Japan (whose base was constructed in 2011, and for which there are plans for extension) maintaining bases in the small country. Eritrea’s Assab port is being used by both Iran and the UAE (2015) to operate bases from, while Turkey (2017) is upgrading the Suakin Island in Sudan under the guise of preserving ancient Turkish relics. Significantly, the Horn of Africa is adjacent to the Bab Al-Mandab and Hormuz straits, through which over twenty per cent of world trade traverses, and it is militarily strategic as it allows control over much of the Indian Ocean. Further, it is noteworthy that almost all the bases not operated by the US and France were constructed after 2010, illustrating that the intentions behind these have everything to do with power projection and little around counter terrorism. The UAE base in Assab, too, is significant in this regard; Abu Dhabi has used it to dispatch armaments and troops from both the UAE and other Saudi coalition countries, for their military campaign in Yemen, leading to dire humanitarian consequences and the likely fragmentation of that country.
Bases and sovereignty
The construction of these military bases has undermined both domestic and continental sovereignty. The UAE base in Somaliland’s Berbera port (2016), for example, heralds the end of the project to ensure a unified Somalia. Already, Somaliland possesses a relatively strong security force; the base construction and consequent support by the UAE will ensure that Mogadishu will not be able to extend control over Hargeisa. This will likely lead to more conflict, especially as Puntland begins to reassert its autonomy, and as al-Shabab exploits these differences to increase its influence.
Moreover, the UAE’s Assab base, coupled with the current Qatari blockade, has threatened to reignite the Eritrean-Djibouti border conflict, since Djibouti’s decision to sever ties with Qatar in light of its close relationship with Riyadh saw Doha withdrawing its peacekeepers (2017); while Emirati support for Eritrea emboldened Asmara to redeploy its troops to the contested Doumeira islands, which the UN designates as belonging to Djibouti.
Further, this race to create bases (along with other geopolitical agendas) has seen foreign countries often support African strongmen (not surprising, considering that some of these foreign states themselves are dictatorships), thus enabling the abuse of human rights and stunting continental efforts at finding solutions. The current Libyan imbroglio, for example, has seen countries such as Egypt and Russia support General Khalifa Haftar, who has promised basing rights in the event of his victory. This should be of great concern as it undermines both the AU and the neighbourhood initiatives that are attempting to resolve the conflict.
The AU and bases
This trend threatens to, in future, undermine the African Union’s already-tenuous sovereignty, especially since the direct influence of foreign powers, in the form of these lily pad bases, threatens to inspire more interstate conflicts. Tension has already risen in Ethiopia in response to Eritrea’s hosting of numerous bases, while both countries expressed their opposition to the Berbera base in Somaliland. The consequent upgrade in arms in these states will ensure that interstate conflicts, such as those between Ethiopia and Eritrea, become more precarious, and dilute the AU’s ability to persuade states to negotiate with each other. Worryingly, basing rights are often coupled with multibillion-dollar arms deal packages. These will not only ensure that cross-border interstate conflicts, such as those between Ethiopia and Eritrea, follow a more violent and destructive path, but also that regimes are once again able to violently suppress dissent within their populations. This ‘authoritarian upgrading’ was a major factor engendering the militancy problem that the AU had been dealing with since its inception.
In addition, as can be observed with the UAE’s use of the Assab base to deploy troops to Yemen, Africa is increasingly being used as a staging ground from which to deploy troops to other conflict arenas. Notably, the UAE, in 2015, sought to strong arm Djibouti to allow Emirati and coalition aircraft the use of its territory as a base for the Yemeni operation. Djibouti and Abu Dhabi subsequently severed diplomatic ties, but the UAE found a willing substitute in Eritrea.
The AU will need to increase its capacity (a challenge in a general sense) to have a stronger focus on preventing foreign exploitation and interstate conflicts – more critical threats than terrorism. The institution has had many successes in the fight against the militancy of non-state actors, especially in the area of promoting sub-regional state coordination. The joint multinational task force amongst Lake Chad basin states and the G5 Sahel (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Chad) are welcome steps in ensuring neighbourhood solutions to cross-border militancy, although though these still need to be coupled with more focus on inclusivity. Even with the G5 Sahel, which has engendered coordination between the five respective Sahelian states, France’s maintenance of forward deployment bases in these countries has ensured that Paris has greatly influenced the formation, structure and objectives of the force. This is having, and will have, dire consequences for, especially, Mali because the GSIM has been excluded from negotiations, ensuring that instability in the North remains persistent. The Liptako-Gourma corridor partnership between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso will see better results as the French are not formally involved in it, and because it relates more to border security than to domestic state politics.
However, partnerships such as these will be difficult to initiate in future conflicts influenced by outside powers, and which involve sub-regional hegemons. This is especially since, unlike the case of these joint forces, regional organisations will be paralysed if the belligerents are sub-regional powers. The AU will need to improve its mediation and coercive capacity or risk being side-lined as is the case in Libya. Even in Burundi, where the major continental powers advised against a third term for Pierre Nkurunziza, his regime is still operating, despite AU threats and sanctions.
By Ramzy Baroud
There is a real - but largely concealed - war which is taking place throughout the African continent. It involves the United States, an invigorated Russia and a rising China. The outcome of the war is likely to define the future of the continent and its global outlook.
It is easy to pin the blame on US President Donald Trump, his erratic agenda and impulsive statements. But the truth is, the current US military expansion in Africa is just another step in the wrong direction. It is part of a strategy that had been implemented a decade ago, during the administration of President George W. Bush, and actively pursued by President Barack Obama.
In 2007, under the pretext of the 'war on terror', the US consolidated its various military operations in Africa to establish the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM). With a starting budget of half a billion dollars, AFRICOM was supposedly launched to engage with African countries in terms of diplomacy and aid. But, over the course of the last 10 years, AFRICOM has been transformed into a central command for military incursions and interventions.
However, that violent role has rapidly worsened during the first year of Trump's term in office. Indeed, there is a hidden US war in Africa, and it is fought in the name of ‘counter-terrorism’.
According to a VICE News special investigation, US troops are now conducting 3,500 exercises and military engagements throughout Africa per year, an average of 10 per day. US mainstream media rarely discusses this ongoing war, thus giving the military ample space to destabilize any of the continent’s 54 countries as it pleases.
"Today’s figure of 3,500 marks an astounding 1,900 percent increase since the command was activated less than a decade ago, and suggests a major expansion of US military activities on the African continent," VICE reported.
Following the death of four US Special Forces soldiers in Niger on October 4, US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, made an ominous declaration to a Senate committee: these numbers are likely to increase as the US is expanding its military activities in Africa.
Mattis, like other defense officials in the previous two administrations, justifies the US military transgressions as part of ongoing 'counter-terrorism' efforts. But such coded reference has served as a pretense for the US to intervene in, and exploit, a massive region with a great economic potential.
The old colonial 'Scramble for Africa' is being reinvented by global powers that fully fathom the extent of the untapped economic largesse of the continent. While China, India and Russia are each developing a unique approach to wooing Africa, the US is invested mostly in the military option, which promises to inflict untold harm and destabilize many nations.
The 2012 coup in Mali, carried out by a US-trained army captain, Amadou Haya Sanogo, is only one example.
In a 2013 speech, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautioned against a "new colonialism in Africa (in which it is) easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave." While Clinton is, of course, correct, she was disingenuously referring to China, not her own country.
China's increasing influence in Africa is obvious, and Beijing’s practices can be unfair. However, China's policy towards Africa is far more civil and trade-focused than the military-centered US approach.
The growth in the China-Africa trade figures are, as per a UN News report in 2013, happening at a truly "breathtaking pace", as they jumped from around $10.5 billion per year in 2000 to $166 billion in 2011. Since then, it has continued at the same impressive pace.
But that growth was coupled with many initiatives, entailing many billions of dollars in Chinese credit to African countries to develop badly needed infrastructure. More went to finance the 'African Talents Program', which is designed to train 30,000 African professionals in various sectors.
It should come as no surprise, then, that China surpassed the US as Africa's largest trading partner in 2009.
The real colonialism, which Clinton referred to in her speech, is, however, under way in the US's own perception and behavior towards Africa. This is not a hyperbole, but in fact a statement that echoes the words of US President Trump himself.
During a lunch with nine African leaders last September at the UN, Trump spoke with the kind of mindset that inspired western leaders’ colonial approach to Africa for centuries.
Soon after he invented the none-existent country of 'Nambia', Trump boasted of his "many friends (who are) going to your (African) countries trying to get rich." "I congratulate you," he said, "they are spending a lot of money."
The following month, Trump added Chad, his country's devoted 'counter-terrorism' partner to the list of countries whose citizens are banned from entering the US.
Keeping in mind that Africa has 22 Muslim majority countries, the US government is divesting from any long-term diplomatic vision in Africa, and is, instead increasingly thrusting further into the military path.
The US military push does not seem to be part of a comprehensive policy approach, either. It is as alarming as it is erratic, reflecting the US constant over-reliance on military solutions to all sorts of problems, including trade and political rivalries.
Compare this to Russia's strategic approach to Africa. Reigniting old camaraderie with the continent, Russia is following China's strategy of engagement (or in this case, re-engagement) through development and favorable trade terms.
But, unlike China, Russia has a wide-ranging agenda that includes arms exports, which are replacing US weaponry in various parts of the continent. For Moscow, Africa also has untapped and tremendous potential as a political partner that can bolster Russia’s standing at the UN.
Aware of the evident global competition, some African leaders are now laboring to find new allies outside the traditional western framework, which has controlled much of Africa since the end of traditional colonialism decades ago.
A stark example was the late November visit by Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir to Russia and his high-level meeting with President Vladimir Putin. "We have been dreaming about this visit for a long time," al-Bashir told Putin, and "we are in need of protection from the aggressive acts of the United States."
The coveted 'protection' includes Russia's promised involvement in modernizing the Sudanese army.
Wary of Russia’s Africa outreach, the US is fighting back with a military stratagem and little diplomacy. The ongoing US mini war on the continent will push the continent further into the abyss of violence and corruption, which may suit Washington well, but will bring about untold misery to millions of people.
There is no question that Africa is no longer an exclusive western 'turf', to be exploited at will. But it will be many years before Africa and its 54 nations are truly free from the stubborn neocolonial mindset, which is grounded in racism, economic exploitation and military interventions.
- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His forthcoming book is ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has 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, University of California Santa Barbara. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.
By Justin Podur
Yemen is a small, poor country in a region empires have plundered for centuries. This civil war is a local struggle that has been escalated out of control by the ambitions of powers outside of Yemen—mainly Saudi Arabia.
The British Empire ruled the Yemeni city of Aden in South Yemen as a colony, a refueling station for ships on the way to the Empire's Indian possessions. Gaining independence in 1967, South Yemen had a socialist government from 1970 on, becoming the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY).
Northern Yemen was ruled by a king from the city of Sana'a who followed of the Zaydi denomination of Islam, clashing periodically with both the British and with the Saudi kingdom over borders in the 1930s. Arab nationalist revolutionaries overthrew the king in 1962, starting a civil war between nationalists, backed by Arab nationalist (Nasserite) Egypt and royalists, backed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iran (then a monarchy too). A peace deal was reached and by 1970, even Saudi Arabia recognized North Yemen as the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR).
North and South Yemen talked about unification throughout the 1970s and '80s, and it finally happened in 1990, after the fall of the Soviet Union that had been South Yemen's most important ally.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was killed this December 3, was a military man who had been president of North Yemen since he was appointed by a junta in 1978. He became president of the unified country in 1990.
Saleh had to navigate a dangerous time for the Arab world. When Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in 1990, the US under Bush declared a New World Order, showing that the US could now operate in the region without any concern about a Soviet deterrent. Yemen happened to be on the UN Security Council in November 1990 when Resolution 678 authorizing the use of force to remove Iraq from Kuwait—authorizing the first Gulf War, in effect—came up for debate. Yemen voted against the resolution. The American representative famously told his Yemeni counterpart, “That was the most expensive vote you ever cast.” Yemen, which had hundreds of thousands of workers in the oil-rich Gulf countries including Kuwait, found its workers expelled and its Western aid programs cut when the war was over. Yemen was made an example of.
The post-1990 war sanctions on Iraq, which by most estimates killed hundreds of thousands of children through malnutrition and preventable disease, as well as the US military bases in the Arabian peninsula, were extremely unpopular in Yemen (as elsewhere in the Arab world). So was the lack of progress in ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by Israel, as people gradually realized that the Oslo Accords had frozen the occupation rather than ending it.
People from wealthy and powerful Yemeni families, among them veteran of the Afghan jihad Osama bin Laden (in fact there were numerous Yemenis who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan), wanted to raise a local Arab force to secure the Arab peninsula and have the US military leave. But the idea was a non-starter with the Saudi kingdom that hosted the Americans.
When bin Laden's al Qaeda attacked US embassies (killing 44 embassy personnel and 150 African civilians), a US naval vessel (the USS Cole), and finally US civilians on 9/11, the US declared a war on terror. Saleh had learned his lesson from 1990 and agreed to cooperate with the US after 2001.
By this time, Saleh had been in power for more than two decades, and had enriched himself and his family in the process (his son, Ahmed Saleh, was a commander in an elite army unit). The vice-president, Abdrabbah Mansur Hadi, also headed a powerful and wealthy family. Other “big names” in Yemen include the Al-Ahmar family (which includes the current Vice President in exile and army general Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, billionaire media owner Hamid al Ahmar, and the founders of the Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Islah party) and of course the Houthi family of Sa'ada, a mountainous governorate on the border with Saudi Arabia. The Houthis, like the old kings of North Yemen, are of the Zaydi denomination.
The term “tribe,” used by the British Empire for its imperial purposes of classification and rule, refers to a genuine social phenomenon, but is not especially useful in explaining the politics of Yemen. The country's elite is indeed organized in extended family networks, but this is arguably not so different from Western countries (how many Bushes and Clintons have participated in ruling the US empire by now?). Politicians and bureaucrats use public office to enrich themselves.
This, too, is not so different from Western countries, with the Trump brand being the starkest example. The Yemeni version of elite profiteering is exemplified in the smuggling of diesel fuel out of the country. Sarah Philips, author of Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis, cites analyses suggesting that 12% of Yemen's GDP is smuggled out, the profits siphoned off by the elite – dollar estimates run as high as $900 million, with reports of a single man from a prominent family taking $155 million in smuggling profits in one year.
As Yemenis watched Israel crush the second Intifada from 2000 on, as well as the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, Saleh's cooperation in the war on terror became ever more unpopular. One prominent scion of the Houthi family, Hussein al-Houthi, led followers in Sa'ada in a famous chant: “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.”
In the chant, "curse on the Jews" stands out from the group of otherwise hyperbolic items seeking victory for one's own side and death to the other. Even before this civil war, the Jewish community in Yemen was very small and long-suffering. Ginny Hill, author of the 2016 book Yemen Endures, found in her travels that “prejudice against the Jews was prevalent and unabashed,” and that Yemeni Jews in Sa'ada and elsewhere have suffered greatly from being caught in the middle of the Houthi insurgency.
Provoked by the Houthi chant and hoping to show his eagerness to fight the war on terror, Saleh sent the army into Sa'ada in 2004. The Houthis fought back. The army killed Hussein al-Houthi, who became a martyr of the Houthis' cause. Six waves of warfare followed over the next seven years, as Saleh's forces kept trying to quell the Houthis, whose power base in the north continued to grow. Saudi Arabia stepped in to support Saleh in 2009, and the Houthis responded with a quick raid from Sa'ada into the Saudi kingdom itself.
Meanwhile, in what had been South Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) was growing as well, and also challenging Saleh's government. President Obama's drone program blasted away in the south, leaving civilian casualties and terror in its wake. Saleh's strategy was to focus on fighting the Houthis and make exaggerated claims that they were sponsored by Iran, while keeping a lighter touch with AQAP, which had more powerful patrons in Yemen's elite.
At the same time, the Saudi royals were escalating their arms purchases, with contracts in the tens of billions with the US (and a $1.5 billion contract with a Canadian company now famous in that country). Saudi oil sales to and arms purchases from the US underpin the unbreakable bond between the kingdom and the empire. It explains why you hear much more about Russian (a competitor in the global arms trade) than Saudi (the greatest and most reliable purchaser of US arms) collusion in the US media. It also explains why the US provides military advice and help with targeting and intelligence to the Saudis as they use all their expensive purchases destroying Yemen.
In 2011, the Arab Spring came to Yemen and an alliance from the elite families joined the mass call for the end of Saleh's rule. Saleh first agreed to step down, then refused. He was injured by a bomb blast in June and went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. He finally did step down, handing power over to his vice-president, Hadi, in 2012.
Hadi presided over a constitution-drafting exercise. One feature enraged the Houthis: a plan to redraw the regions of Yemen, making Sana'a and Aden self-governing and merging Sada'a into a new highland governorate, “a formation that would deny the Houthis control over the Red Sea coast to west, cut them off from natural resources to the east, and fence them up against the Saudi border to the north,” as Ginny Hill wrote.
The Houthis, in alliance with the ex-president Saleh, arrived in force in the capital, besieging the presidential palace in 2014 and taking it at the beginning of 2015. Hadi fled to Aden, where he declared that he was still the lawful president of Yemen.
Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen in support of Hadi in March of 2015. The Saudi intervention magnified the humanitarian impact of the civil war into a full-blown catastrophe, bombing, besieging, and blockading the entire country to try to force the Houthis out.
The Saudi blockade and bombing have scaled up a local power struggle to genocidal proportions. They believe Yemen is their backyard and that it is their right to impose a solution. Military victory has proven elusive for them, but their unlimited resources and the wide license given them by the Western media to freely commit crimes has allowed them to keep raising the stakes and nudging Yemen towards catastrophe.
The Houthis have held on, however, withstanding the bombardment and siege, even as the humanitarian catastrophe continues to expand. By now, the casualty figures are more than 10,000 dead, two million displaced, 2.2 million facing starvation, and one million infected with cholera since 2015 (27% of whom are under 5 years old). In addition to directly helping the Saudi military use its weapons, the US, including the media, has continued to run interference for the Saudi intervention. The humanitarian disaster is presented as a natural disaster, not a direct outcome of the way the Saudi kingdom has pursued the war.
Saleh, a wily operator who had survived in power since 1978, could not survive this last alliance with the Saudis: he was killed within 24 hours of making it. This December 3, Saleh announced he was switching sides, leaving his alliance with the Houthis and joining Hadi and the Saudis. The Houthis quickly routed his forces in the capital and blew up his house. The next day they stopped him at a checkpoint and killed him too, announcing that they had avenged Hussein al-Houthi. Saleh's son Ahmed quickly announced his plans to avenge his father.
The UN, Oman, Iran, and others have put forward peace plans to end the Yemeni civil war. Most feature a national unity government that includes the Houthis, who will convert their movement into a political party, with elections to follow. Saleh switching sides and the Houthi killing him makes a peace deal much less likely in the short term. But the biggest obstacle to peace remains Saudi Arabia, which has also been the biggest escalating force of the war.
* This article was first published on alternet.org
The 4 December death of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, at the hands of his former Houthi coalition partners, is a culmination of the differing interests that informed the coalition’s initial inception, and alludes to the intractable and unwieldy nature of the conflict’s many belligerents. Saleh’s death foreshadows further fragmentation of the warring coalitions, and is likely to ensure that ‘smaller’ wars transpire in the country’s northern highlands in addition to the existent southern conflicts. In addition, the rapid consolidation of the Houthi in Sana'a represents a blow to Saudi Arabia’s attempts to extricate itself from the unwinnable Yemeni quagmire and the UAE’s intention to support regional strongmen in an attempt to contain participatory Islamists.
Having once equated the task of governing Yemen to ‘dancing on the heads of snakes’, Saleh’s death was the result of his incessant duplicity, which saw him fight six wars with the Houthi between 2004 and 2010, with limited success, yet later successfully enticing them to unite with him in efforts to force the Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi government out of Sana'a in 2014. Prior to this Saleh emerged victorious in two civil wars between Yemen’s South and North; angered the USA by not supporting the 1991 Gulf War, but then received US support for his claimed role in the ‘global war on terror’; and withstood the 2011 Arab uprisings, in which he survived a failed suicide bombing in 2011. At the heart of Saleh’s actions was his belief that he alone could only hold Yemen together, and that the November 2011 Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative, negotiated by GCC states in an attempt to contain the Yemeni uprising from initiating real change, had betrayed him. Under the initiative, Saleh received immunity in return for his transfer of power to his then deputy, Hadi. He remained in control of the General People’s Congress (GPC) and was allowed to remain in Yemen, although he was forced to cease his attempt to transfer power to his son Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh’s thirty-three years in control of Yemen had allowed him to entrench alliances with the country’s disparate military, civil and tribal elements, and he remained in de facto control over the elite Republican Guard and tribal leaders in the North. His acquiescence was thus imperative in ensuring the success of the Houthi takeover of Sana'a; Republican Guard forces refused to halt the Houthi move southward, especially in Sana'a and Abyan.
However, the partnership between Saleh’s GPC and the Houthi was bound to fail in light of their differing agendas, and was mainly a ‘marriage of convenience’. At the time, both Saleh and the Houthi were aggrieved at being left out of governing following the implementation of the GCC initiative. Despite having a place at the national dialogue conference between March 2012 and January 2014, which intended to chart a path forward for the country, both quickly realised that a Hadi-Islah coalition still controlled the day-to-day running of the state.
The Houthi remain sceptical of the GPC in light of their history of opposition, while many in the GPC oppose the Houthi’s religious fervour. The alliance was thus tactical; both sought to extend their influence by creating parallel governance structures. Already in February 2015 Saleh criticised the Houthi decision to dissolve the then government, and in March that year, Houthi–GPC conflict erupted over control of the Raymat military base in Sana'a. The subsequent Saudi coalition aerial intervention in March 2015 only served to postpone this inevitability.
Tensions had since increased owing to Houthi weariness over UAE attempts to lure Saleh away from the coalition. As part of these attempts, in June 2017 Saleh’s son Ahmed, the current ambassador to the UAE, met with Ahmed al-Asiri, Saudi Arabia’s former army spokesperson in charge of the Yemeni war and current advisor to Saudi’s defence minister, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Subsequently, ties frayed between Saleh and the Houthis as the Emirates sought to more overtly back the former president as an alternative to Hadi. In August, the intra-coalition violence heightened when the Houthi unsuccessfully sought to halt the GPC’s thirty-fifth anniversary celebrations. Last week’s clashes resulted in the deaths of over two hundred people and Saleh announcing his defection. The Houthi had been preparing for this eventuality since August and had consolidated control of the North’s religious institutions and finances.
Seeking to extricate itself from Yemen, Saudi Arabia supported the defection, and has since provided aerial cover to troops loyal to Saleh. However, Saleh’s death likely means that Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has miscalculated on regional matters once again, especially since the Houthi have largely consolidated control over Sana'a. Further, the reported clash between MBS and Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2015 would ensure that Riyadh does not wholly support him as an alternative to Hadi, inhibiting the fruition of UAE interests in the country. This is in a context in which Abu Dhabi is supporting the Southern Hirak and Southern Belt forces in Aden and Taiz in an attempt to counter the influence of the participatory Islamist Yemeni Islah party, which still receives support from Saudi Arabia.
Houthi troops have since managed to consolidate control of the Sawad and Raymat military bases, the two main GPC-affiliated bases in Sana'a; Saleh’s nephew Tariq, who commanded the Republican Guard, was killed, and his two sons, Salah and Madyan were arrested; and tribal shaykhs, such as the Hashed’s Mabkhout Mashraqi, have been forced to defect. This alludes to the fact that although the Houthi governance of the North is tenuous, the group’s military capacity has increased, and its control over finances in Sana'a has meant that it remains able to pay combatants.
Consequently, clashes in northern provinces are likely to intensify, especially since many tribes support Saleh, and because the UAE will intensify its support for Ahmed. Intra-northern clashes, similar to those between groups in the South, will increase, making a political solution more unlikely. This is especially since the GPC remains popular, as demonstrated by the tens of thousands that gathered in Sabeen Square in August 2017, in defiance of Houthi attempts to halt the party’s thirty-fifth anniversary celebrations. Further, the party’s long existence has enabled it to develop its institutional capacity, and it continues to maintain influence over Republican Guard units. In addition, Saleh’s death will make it more difficult for MBS to conceive a face-saving solution to the conflict, even though the Houthi have expressed their willingness to enter into negotiations. The current civil war is thus likely to continue, ensuring the country’s further fragmentation, and making it more difficult to envisage a solution that will allow the various political, tribal and military elements to reunite.
By Phyllis Bennis
US president Donald Trump’s plan to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and potentially to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, is not going to undermine peace efforts – because there are no peace efforts underway. Protests have already begun, and anger is rising not only among Palestinians but across the Arab and Muslim worlds, among numerous governments including key US allies, and among people across the globe. Understanding what this move represents means viewing it from two different perspectives.
Taken at face value, recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital reflects Trump’s need to placate his key Israel-backing donors, particularly the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, and the Christian Zionist component of his right-wing evangelical base. Pro-Israel partisans in Congress orchestrated a law in 1995 mandating the embassy move, but giving the president a way out – the president could waive the requirement if national security might be at stake. Every president since has taken advantage of that waiver – including Donald Trump six months ago. Congressional Israel-backers could blame the president, the White House could lament that security threats prevented the move...everyone was happy. But Trump’s campaign commitment to move the embassy is more important to more influential supporters than was true of earlier presidents. Plus Trump’s failure to win legislative victories (until the recent potential disaster known as the ‘Republican tax scam’) meant he had more incentive to make good on his Jerusalem promise.
Trump called this move ‘the recognition of reality’. It should be noted that it has been US policy itself – support for Israel, billions of US tax dollars sent to the Israeli military every year, acceptance of Jewish settlements in occupied Arab Jerusalem, protection of Israel in the United Nations – that is largely responsible for that reality. The UN resolution partitioning Palestine into what were supposed to be [thoroughly unfairly apportioned] Jewish and Palestinian Arab states, also recognised a special status for Jerusalem – it was to belong to neither ‘state’, but rather be a corpus separatum, a separate body to remain under international control. Israel claimed West Jerusalem as its capital, and in 1967 when it illegally occupied the eastern half of the city after the Six-Day War, it announced the annexation of Arab Jerusalem and forcibly unified the city as its capital. No country in the world recognised the annexation, and since that time legally binding UN Security Council resolutions continue to reaffirm that East Jerusalem remains occupied Palestinian territory. Trump’s decision stands in direct violation of international law.
But US violations of international law regarding Israel is an old story. Decades of US actions accepting, acknowledging, allowing (even if sometimes rhetorically criticising) the expansion of illegal Jews-only colonial settlements in occupied Arab Jerusalem and across the West Bank set the stage. Decades of rewarding Israeli violations of UN resolutions and international law concerning Jerusalem with billions of dollars in economic and military support set the stage. Vetoing Security Council resolutions condemning illegal Israeli settlement building in Jerusalem set the stage. What’s new this time around is the deliberately provocative, reckless nature of the decision to placate donors whatever the risk – the risk of violent responses across the world, let alone the risk of further violation of Palestinian rights.
What is not at risk is the role of the United States as an honest broker in sponsoring peace talks. Why? Because the US never was an honest broker in Israel–Palestinian talks, it was always, as at least one long-time US negotiator admitted, playing the role of Israel’s lawyer. That hasn't changed either. There are no negotiations underway to be threatened with cancellation.
Sowing chaos and threatening more war across the region
The second perspective has far more to do with the regional situation, and the war-driven, anti-diplomacy foreign policy of the Trump administration. Aside from donor pressure, US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the threat to move the embassy, have to be seen in the context of the effort led by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to consolidate a powerful anti-Iran coalition across the Middle East with ostensible enemies Israel and Saudi Arabia at its core.
Trump has anointed Kushner his point man on reaching the ‘ultimate deal’ on Israel–Palestine. It’s less about any claimed interest in peace than about the collaborative regional plans being hatched by Kushner and his new BFF, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, known as MBS. Together the two crown princes, as it were, are trying to bring Israel and Saudi Arabia together in a newly overt alliance against Tehran. To pull off that kind of normalisation of relations between these ostensible enemies and not risk losing power, or worse, requires changing the rhetoric, if not the actual circumstances. Enter the so-called ‘new Israeli–Palestinian talks’. If the ambitious young Saudi prince can convince the majority of the royal family and at least a majority of Saudi citizens that somehow new talks mean the end of the conflict and we can all stop worrying about the Palestinians, then normalisation of relations with Israel suddenly looks more acceptable. Such a partnership portends a serious rise in the threat of war – with not only the United States but Israel and Saudi Arabia, plus Jordan, the UAE, Egypt and more, openly unified against Iran.
Just a week or so before the announcement about Jerusalem, the Trump administration threatened to close the PLO office in Washington unless the Palestinians accepted Washington’s terms for new negotiations. Those US-brokered talks would be based on pro-settlement, human rights-violating conditions that no Palestinian leader could ordinarily accept. If some Palestinian leader – the current head of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, or some other leader if the Saudis force Abbas to quit as they reportedly threatened – accepts a deal legitimising permanent Israeli control of Palestinian land, Saudi Arabia can easily slip into a cosy partnership with their erstwhile enemy.
The timing remains a question. Why would Kushner and his father-in-law make the goal of an Israeli–Saudi alliance against Iran more difficult by such a provocative move regarding Jerusalem? Part of the answer has to do with the primacy of Israel over Saudi Arabia in Kushner’s world – regardless of his recent bromance with MSB. Kushner has been a supporter of illegal Israeli settlements for years; in his role in one of his family’s foundations he helped orchestrate tens of thousands of dollars donated to Israeli settlements. According to Newsweek, ‘The foundation donated at least $38,000 between 2011 and 2013 to a fundraising group building a Jewish seminary in a West Bank settlement known as Beit El. During that period, Kushner’s foundation also donated an additional $20,000 to Jewish and educational institutions in settlements throughout the region.’
Somehow the Trump son-in-law forgot to mention those transactions when he filed financial reports required for his top-level security clearance. But it fits a pattern. In late 2016 Kushner ordered Michael Flynn, then the Trump campaign’s top foreign policy adviser, to persuade Russia to delay the imminent UN Security Council vote criticising Israeli settlements. President Obama had decided to abstain and to allow the resolution to pass; Trump wanted the Russians to delay the vote so the new administration could veto it. But Moscow refused to play along.
If you just listened to the official rhetoric from both governments, something like a Saudi–Israeli alliance appears unthinkable. But it turns out that many ‘unthinkable’ developments in the volatile Middle East are actually quite thinkable – although it usually means there’s a price to be paid. Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital has been bandied about as a threat for years despite international law. The fundamentalist Saudi government has all but publicly pined for open relations with Israel despite Tel Aviv’s continuing violations of Palestinian rights. National leaders may pay a political price for those moves. But the real price – potentially in destroyed lives, devastated cities and more – will be paid by the people of Iran, who will likely face even more crippling sanctions and a growing threat of war; by the people of Yemen, where the US-backed Saudi war continues to escalate with horrific humanitarian consequences; potentially by Lebanon, where Saudi interference is again on the rise; and as always by the Palestinians, who have paid the price for US support of Israeli occupation and apartheid for more than seventy years, and have just been sold out again.
There are no Israeli-Palestinian peace talks under way that might be threatened by US recognition of Jerusalem. But the move certainly makes peace – or justice – anywhere in the war-torn region far less likely.
Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror. Other books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer, Understanding the U.S.-Iran Crisis: A Primer, Ending the Iraq War: A Primer, and Ending the Us War in Afghanistan: A Primer.
By Ramzy Baroud
On 18 November, just days before the fiftieth anniversary of United Nations Resolution 242, the US State Department took its first step towards severing its ties with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).
The timing of this decision could not be any more profound.
The first formal contact between the US and the PLO occurred in mid-December, 1988, when US Ambassador to Tunisia, Robert H. Pelletreau Jr., picked up the phone to call the PLO headquarters in Tunis to schedule formal talks.
Palestinian PLO officials were 'elated' by the fact that the US made the first move, as reported by the New York Times.
This assertion, however, is quite misleading. For over a decade prior to that 'first move', PLO's chairman, Yasser Arafat, had to satisfy many US demands in exchange for this low-level political engagement.
The 'talks' in Tunisia were prolonged, before the PLO was ready to make its final concession in secret meetings in Oslo, Norway in 1993.
Eventually, a PLO office was opened in Washington DC. It served little purpose, aside from being an intermittent platform to arrange Washington-sponsored talks between Israeli and PLO officials. For Palestinians living in the US, it was almost invisible until the US announced its decision to possibly shut it down.
The American threat followed a United Nations speech last September by Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Chairman of the PLO. From an Israeli-US perspective, Abbas committed a mortal sin for seeking the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to take Israel to task regarding its human rights violations in Occupied Palestine.
By doing so, Abbas, not only violated a peculiar US law that forbids the PLO from seeking ICC help, but also an unspoken rule that allowed the US to engage the PLO in 1988, where the US served the rule of the political and legal frame of reference for the so-called ‘peace process.’ The UN took a backseat.
But even that unequal relationship proved too much for the US government, which is moving fully and unconditionally into the Israeli camp. The Trump Administration is now working to rewrite the nature of US involvement in the Middle East, and, especially, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Unfortunately, Trump’s team has no concrete strategy and no frame of reference, aiming to change 50-years of US foreign policy – unfair to Palestinians and Arabs – but has no alternative plan of its own.
Almost a year ago, Trump made a promise to Israel to be a more trustworthy ally than President Barack Obama, who gave Israel more money than any other US president in history. Obama, however, had violated a golden rule in the US-Israeli relationship: he did not veto a UN resolution that condemned the illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian territories.
Israel panicked at that unprecedented event, not because it feared that the UN Security Council would enforce its purportedly binding resolution, but because the US had, for once, refused to shield Israel from international censure.
Even before officially taking over the White House, the Trump team attempted to prevent UNSC Resolution 2334 from passing. It failed but, come January, it took over the Israeli-Palestinian file with a vengeance, threatening to cut off funds to Palestinians, blocking their efforts from expanding their international reach, and declaring its full and unconditional support for the rightwing government of Benjamin Netanyahu.
But there was more to Israeli alarm at Resolution 2334 than mere US betrayal. This Resolution - which asserted that Israeli settlements have no legal validity and constitute a flagrant violation of human rights – was partly predicated on, and clarified and added to, previous UNSC Resolution 242.
This means that 50 years of incessant Israeli attempts to absolve itself from any commitment to international law have failed miserably.
For Palestinians, and the larger Arab context, Resolution 242 marked their defeat in the war of 1967. Unsurprisingly, this Resolution has been cited in various agreements between Israel and the PLO, but only to give these agreements a veneer of international legitimacy.
However, the Oslo Accords of 1993 gave Israel the opportunity to use its leverage to bypass international law altogether: signing a peace agreement without ending its military occupation became the goal.
Against this backdrop, it is no wonder that Netanyahu was quite shocked to witness that a recommitment to Resolution 242 last year at the UNSC did not garner US opposition. Actually, the longstanding Resolution gained more substance and vigor.
The June 1967 war was Israel's greatest military victory, and Resolution 242 enshrined a whole new world order in the Middle East, in which the US and Israel reigned supreme. Although it called for withdrawal of Israeli military from Occupied Palestinian and Arab lands, it also paved the way for normalization between Israel and the Arabs. The Camp David Agreement between Egypt and Israel was a direct outcome of that Resolution.
This is why Resolution 2334 has alarmed Israel, for it invalidated all the physical changes that Israel has made in 50 years of illegal occupation of Palestinian lands.
The Resolution called for "two democratic States, Israel and Palestine, liv(ing) side by side in peace within secure and recognized borders".
Unlike Resolution 242, Resolution 2334 has left no room for clever misinterpretation: it references the pre-June 1967 lines in its annulment of the Israeli occupation and all the illegal settlements Israel has constructed since then.
The Resolution even cites the Fourth Geneva Convention, the UN Charter and the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion of July 2004, which stated that Israel’s barrier in the West Bank was illegal and should be dismantled.
With international law, once more, taking center stage in a conflict which the US has long designated as if its personal business, Abbas was empowered enough to reach out to the ICC, thus raising the ire of Israel and its allies in the White House.
Even if the PLO’s office is permanently shut down, the decision should not just be seen as punishing Palestinians for seeking ICC support but, ultimately, as the culmination of disastrous US diplomacy, for which the Trump Administration has no clear alternative.
- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His forthcoming book is ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has 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, University of California Santa Barbara. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.