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.
By Na'eem Jeenah
The dramatic news out of Saudi Arabia over the past week, including stories of arrests of members of the royal family, assassinations, purges and torture are not entirely a domestic matter. There is most certainly an international dimension to it, as evidenced by the coerced resignation of Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, Saudi threats against Lebanon and Iran, and the Saudi call for its citizens to leave Lebanon. That international dimension, it is becoming clearer, also includes the USA and Israel.
Soon after Muhammad bin Salman (or MBS as he is often referred to), the king’s son and now crown prince of Saudi Arabia, was appointed deputy crown prince, he began ingratiating himself to the US Trump administration – with the assistance of the UAE, and is now close friends with Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, who was briefed about last weekend’s crackdown a week before when he saw MBS on a ‘personal visit’ to Saudi Arabia. There are numerous reasons why MBS would want the kingdom and the US to strengthen relations that had frayed over the US approach to the 2011 uprisings in North Africa, and particularly, their lack of support – from the Saudi view – for Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. One of those reasons is the common hatred of Iran that both MBS and Trump have. Both administrations are bitterly unhappy about the Iran nuclear deal (which the US signed onto during the Obama administration).
In this, MBS has also made common cause with Israel. And that has led to a developing relationship between the Saudis and Israelis. It was recently reported that the Saudi crown prince visited Israel on a secret but official trip, an unprecedented occurrence. And, less than a day after MBS arrested dozens of potential rivals in Saudi Arabia, the Israeli foreign ministry sent a cable to its foreign missions asking them to piggyback on the Saudi repressive actions in order to ramp up criticism of and action against both Iran and the Lebanese group Hizbullah. The classified cable, made public by Israel’s Channel 10 News, also asked Israeli diplomats to express support for the Saudi war against Yemen, which has become a humanitarian nightmare.
Israeli diplomats were told to contact foreign ministries in their host countries, and reiterate the Saudi position on Hariri’s resignation, using it to paint Hizbullah and Iran as “destructive”, and to pressure the host governments to regard Hizbullah as a “danger to the stability of Lebanon and other countries of the region”.
Israel regards Hizbullah as probably its second most dangerous enemy after Iran. It was, after all, Hizbullah which forced Israel to end its occupation of areas in the south of Lebanon, and which withstood a sustained war by Israel in 2006. However, Hizbullah is a legal political party in Lebanon, and is part of the government headed by Hariri.
Not long after the Israeli cable, Saudi Arabia, strangely, announced that Lebanon had declared war on the Saudi kingdom – simply because Lebanon has Hizbullah as a political party. Many Lebanese interpreted that announcement as a Saudi declaration of war, a perception that was strengthened when, on Thursday, the kingdom called on its citizens in Lebanon to evacuate the country. Clearly, the Saudi and Israeli agendas not only dovetailed with each other, but were, in fact feeding off and reinforcing one another.
There is a strong belief among Lebanese people and commentators on Saudi Arabia that the Lebanese prime minister, Hariri, was forced by MBS to announce his resignation, and that he is being held prisoner in the kingdom, along with the scores of others arrested last Saturday night. Even Hariri’s own Future Party made similar comments to the media later in the week. Hariri announced his resignation on Saudi TV rather than on his own TV channel, and did so from Riyadh rather from his own country. In an announcement that was scripted for him, Hariri blamed his resignation on interference in Lebanon by Iran, and non-cooperation with Hizbullah.
Trump’s tweets of support for the authoritarian actions of MBS reinforce the common agenda between Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US. “They know what they are doing,” he said, referring to MBS’ crackdown, which included Saturdays arrests – including those of two sons of the former king, a son of the former crown prince (who was also sacked from his position as head of the powerful National Guard), numerous businesspeople (including Waleed bin Talal, one of the richest men in the world), heads of three major media networks, and former ministers. Through these moves, MBS has taken full political control and sidelined all other sections of the Saudi royal family; he now has complete control of all sections of the Saudi security and armed forces; he is able to shape the Saudi narrative as he wants it; and he has prepared the way for his father’s abdication and his ascension to the throne – without any criticism from other Saudis.
That he is in the process of transforming an authoritarian system and power structure into an even more authoritarian absolute monarchy where all power is controlled by one person does not faze Trump or the Israelis. Indeed, as the Israeli cable indicates, such authoritarianism can be useful in the effort to isolate Iran and destroy Hizbullah.
The repercussions of this triumvirate of cooperation can be catastrophic for a Middle East region that is already mired in a number of wars – with large parts of Syria and Yemen completely destroyed, facing humanitarian disasters, and is dealing with more than 13 million displaced people (mainly from Syria and Yemen). While Iran is more than capable of defending itself against all three, Lebanon, more than 20 percent of whose population is refugees from neighbouring Syria and Palestine, is now under psychological, propaganda, diplomatic and military threat from both Israel and Saudi Arabia. With a fragile political system, the country is bracing itself for a possible external attack from Israel, and internal upheaval from Saudi-funded extremists. If such actions begin, Lebanon could be plunged into another civil war that could destroy the country. And it is quite likely that all three countries will bring their battle with Iran onto the African continent as well.
The newly-emerging Saudi-US-Israeli alliance could prove to be disastrous for the Middle region and for Africa.
Na'eem Jeenah is the Executive Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre
* This article was first published in the the Sunday Independent and Sunday Tribune in South Africa
by Azzam Tamimi
For a change, all concerned parties seem eager to see Palestinian reconciliation succeed. Each player has its own reasons, of course. Yet, it would not have been possible to come this far so quickly had it not been for the deepening humanitarian crisis inside the Gaza Strip and the growing predicament that Hamas, which controls Gaza, finds itself in as a result. There is no doubt that the siege imposed on Gaza by Israel and Egypt has achieved its objectives. Life has become so unbearable in the Strip that public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of any deal that promises easing the pressure.
This has prompted Hamas to express readiness to make concessions that had until recently been inconceivable. The full extent of these concessions is, however, unclear, and the deal under discussion is shrouded in ambiguity. What is known thus far is that Hamas has agreed to disband its own administrative committee in charge of the Gaza Strip in a prelude to handing over control to the Ramallah-based Palestinian National Authority (PNA), whose prime minister, Rami al-Hamdallah, arrived in the Strip on Sunday for the handover by Hamas. As part of the new arrangement, Hamas is expected to relinquish control over the border crossings with Egypt and Israel.
While some Hamas leaders have maintained that the movement’s military force is not up for negotiation, Fatah spokespersons insist that reinstating the PNA in Gaza would have to result in an end to all military manifestations outside the control of the PNA. It is inconceivable that the Americans and the Israelis, who are said to be in favour of the current reconciliation effort, will settle for anything less than dismantling Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing. This is believed also to be the position of the government in Cairo.
Another important factor that brought about a shift in Hamas’s position was the election of a new leadership. Over the past decade, Hamas developed a complex organisational structure that consisted of three regional administrations – one for Gaza, a second for the West Bank, and a third for the diaspora – and an overarching leadership.
In February 2017, a new leadership for the Gaza region was elected, with Yahya al-Sinwar, a freed war prisoner, as its head. A few months later, Ismail Haniyyah was elected as the new head of the overarching leadership. Both men are based in Gaza.
In the past, decision-making within Hamas was a laborious process. The head of the political bureau had to consult with the leadership of every region as well as with his comrades in the overarching structure. When former Hamas leader Khaled Mesha'al once violated this norm by individually consenting to a proposed arrangement with PNA president Mahmoud Abbas without consultation, he was severely criticised, particularly by Hamas leaders inside Gaza. Now the exact opposite is happening. Hamas leaders in Gaza are accused of not being bothered to consult with anyone. It is no longer a secret that tension has been building within the movement since Sinwar decided, on his own, to meet and negotiate with his former schoolmate Mohammed Dahlan, a close associate of Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed and an arch enemy of Hamas.
But to his credit, Sinwar seems to be consistent with the public mood within Gaza. People are not only exhausted because of the siege and want to see it end, but they are also tired of remaining the prisoners of old rivalries. Dahlan was Fatah’s main security person when war erupted between Fatah and Hamas in the Strip in June 2007, resulting in the death of dozens on both sides and with the eventual takeover by Hamas in Gaza and by Fatah in the West Bank.
Today, the new leaders of Hamas want to turn over this dark page in the history of the strip. Hamas’s Cairo meetings with Dahlan, who now commands the loyalty of nearly half of Fatah’s members of the Palestinian Legislative Council and is a serious rival of Abbas, paved the way for what is known as community reconciliation. With funding from the United Arab Emirates and cooperation from Egypt, Dahlan set up a fund to compensate families who are willing to be part of a programme aimed at healing old wounds. Each family stands to receive the sum of $50 000 in exchange for publicly renouncing demands to avenge the deaths of family members.
Finally, Hamas has been considerably weakened in recent years. Since 2008, it has been the target of three major Israeli military campaigns and numerous smaller attacks and incursions. Yet, the most devastating development has been the success of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in aborting the Middle East and North Africa uprisings. The 2013 military coup in Egypt was a particularly catastrophic blow to Hamas. Since then, the movement has been left deserted and besieged. Earlier, disagreement with Iran over Syria cost it hundreds of millions of dollars in Iranian sponsorship of its Gaza administration, not to speak of the lost military and logistical support both Iran and Syria used to provide.
Palestinian reconciliation is likely to succeed this time around because all parties concerned desire to see it succeed. Egypt has a chronic security problem in Sinai and has concluded that Gaza can be part of the solution rather than the problem. The Arab counterrevolution states, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia, believe that Palestinian reconciliation will pave the way for official diplomatic and trade relations with Israel. It is no secret that these Arabs are dying to go public with their Israeli ties, but are barred by the lack of progress in the peace process. They believe that once Fatah and Hamas are reconciled, the PNA and Israel can resume final-status talks, and once the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is fully resolved they will be able to justify ending their own public hostility toward Israel.
It is very likely, therefore, that the success of Palestinian reconciliation will mark the end of an era and the beginning of another in the history of Palestinian resistance. If so, and if ever allowed, Hamas may, under new terms, revert gradually to being a modified version of what it used to be before December 1987, a socio-religious movement. But will it ever be allowed to do so? With the military in control of Egypt, it is highly doubtful.
* Azzam Tamimi is a British Palestinian academic, political activist, and author of Hamas: Unwritten Chapters and Hamas: A History from Within
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Recent statements by Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa criticising the Arab boycott of Israel and advocating Bahraini visits to Tel Aviv, point to the increasing normalisation of Gulf Arab states with Israel under the auspices of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Al-Khalifa’s statement can be read as as a testing of the waters by Saudi Arabia, and partly as an attempt to gain favour with the US administration to form an alliance against Iran. It is also part of a bigger trend among Gulf Arab countries to normalise links with Israel, thus likely resulting in a decrease in the already-limited support for the Palestinians.
The statements, disclosed by Abraham Cooper and Rabbi Marvin Hier of the pro-Israel Simon Wiesenthal Center, emerged following the participation of Bahrain’s Prince Nasser Al-Khalifa in an event of the centre, and his visit to the pro-Israel Museum of Tolerance, both in Los Angeles, USA. The Wiesenthal Centre event was funded by Bahrain, and, during it, Nasser, accompanied by over forty Bahraini officials, signed a declaration on religious tolerance, which was endorsed by Hamad. In an indication of his royal family’s attitude to Israel, Nasser agreed to the playing of the Israeli national anthem at the event, and respectfully stood for it. The king’s subsequent silence reinforces the veracity of the revelations, and illustrates his regime’s confidence that no reputational harm will result. Cooper and Hier also announced their intention to construct a ‘tolerance museum’ in Bahrain’s capital Manama. The Wiesenthal Centre built a similar museumover the Ma'man Allah Muslim cemetery in East Jerusalem, despite opposition from Palestinians.
Manama often touts its treatment of minorities as a regional exemplar, mainly in an effort to deflect from criticism of its suppression of the Shi'a majority, which has endured systematic marginalisation, and which regularly experiences state violence, including torture, including at the hands of Nasser. Incidences of such violence have increased since the 2011 Middle East uprisings that saw large protests in Bahrain and resulted in the deployment of Gulf (mainly Saudi) troops to Bahrain in March 2011.
Hamad’s statements point to a broader pattern of Gulf Arab normalisation with Israel, partly in an attempt to contain Iran. In recent years, visits between Israeli and Gulf officials have increased, and covert cooperation and intelligence sharing between the Gulf and Israel has intensified. In July, Britain’s The Times reported discussions between Saudi and Israeli officials aimed at fostering economic ties, while some reports claimed that bin Salman secretly visited Israel in August. Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, had previously invited the crown prince for an official visit, and Netanyahu has repeatedly recently bragged that Israeli-Arab ties were at their best levels. Saudi Arabia and Israel have common cause in their desire for a regional bloc to contain Iran, which Saudi Arabia sees as threatening its regional aspirations. Bahrain fears the influence of the Islamic republic on its Shi'a population, which comprises two-thirds of the total. Bahrain often accuses Iran of meddling, and has instrumentalised this to crack down on dissent. These dynamics have been bolstered by the US president, Donald Trump, his vigorous support for Israel, and his focus on containing Iran at Tel Aviv’s request. Saudi, Bahraini, and Emirati officials have enthusiastically supported Trump’s administration, leveraging their connections with Israeli sympathetic think tanks to garner favour.
It is thus likely that Hamad’s comment was issued with Saudi endorsement. This is especially since the Bahraini monarchy is dependent on Saudi largesse for its survival. Saudi troops remain in Bahrain, and, in 2012, Riyadh unsuccessfully sought GCC unification as a means to protect the Bahraini regime, and to consolidate Riyadh’s influence in the council. Moreover, Bahrain generates most of its revenue from the Saudi Aramco-controlled Abu Safah oilfield, and is disproportionately reliant on Saudi tourism. Bahraini foreign policy has thus been beholden to Saudi Arabia. Manama touted GCC unification in 2012, and Bahrain is a key supporter of both the 2014 Gulf ambassadorial recall from Qatar and the 2017 blockade on Qatar. Hamad has also defended the Saudi king, labelling twitter critics as Qatar proxies, and threatening Bahrainis sympathetic to Qatar with five-year imprisonment terms. This despite the fact that Bahrain-Qatar ties regarding oil exploration and trade had been increasing since 2014, and Bahrain, unlike Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is supportive of its Muslim Brotherhood-styled party, Minbar Al-Islami.
Warming Gulf ties with Israel are likely to damage the already-debilitated Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. The flawed 2002 Arab peace initiative, which proposed Arab governments normalise ties with Israel in return for Israeli relinquishing of territories occupied since 1967 and Tel Aviv’s partial endorsement of the Palestinian right of return, will be rendered more irrelevant as Israel will no longer see any need to make any concessions. Israel’s strategy of negotiating with individual Arab states has seen results, and this is likely to continue. Moreover, Gulf Arab regimes are increasingly forcing Palestinians to forego their aspirations in an attempt to speed up this process. Gulf and Egyptian support for Mohammed Dahlan to succeed Mahmoud Abbas can be partially understood in this light, especially since Dahlan maintains good ties with Israel, and is willing to consider land and population swaps as part of a ‘peace’ initiative.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
After seven years of the raging Syrian civil war, Israel has emerged from the shadows to launch a campaign in Syria, continuing its battle with Hizbullah, Iran and Syria, while also looking to capture more Syrian territory along its borders. Soon after Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu returned from a trip to Russia, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) attacked a branch of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre in Syria’s Hama province on 11 September. The centre is located in the town of Masyaf, sixty kilometres east of Tartus, where the Russians maintain a naval repair base. Israeli strikes in Syria are not uncommon. In this context, however, Israel hopes to eliminate any possible challenge to its activities in Syria, hence the recent (more than normally-) aggressive tone against Iran. Unlike Russia and the USA (two of the major external actors in Syria), Iran (with Hizbullah) and Turkey are uninterested in having Israeli interests protected. The quest to malign Iran in the region, and discredit its presence in the Syrian conflict is the reason that Israel’s double-edged campaign seeks to create a buffer zone from the border of Golan Heights further into Syria, and ward off any present and future threats from Iran and Hizbullah.
Relations between Israel and its northeastern neighbour have always been rocky. After the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel occupied the Golan, Syrian territory which lies within an area of 444 square kilometres – from the Yarmuk River in the south, Jordan Rivre and the Sea of Galilee in the west. m Syria’s military and diplomatic attempts to force Israel out of the Golan have failed on numerous occasions, including after the 1973 war; in 1981 Israel illegally annexed two-thirds of the Golan Heights, and has been building settlements there since. Over the past five years, the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan has changed hands between the Syrian regime and rebel forces.
Today, the area controlled by Israel is inhabited by approximately 40 000 people, of which half are Syrian and the other half Israeli Jewish settlers. The Golan Heights is a strategic asset that supplies Israel with 30 percent of its fresh water from the Jordan river. The Golan also has fertile agricultural lands for multiple products and is useful for the production of renewable energy.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Israel’s occupation of the Golan has remained in the background, allowing Israel’s ambitions to extend its control beyond two-thirds of the Golan Heights to fester. This is seen starkly in Israel’s demands to extend its current twenty-kilometre ‘buffer zone’ into Syria. Israel wants to expand the buffer zone to sixty kilometres from the border on the Golan Heights to the west of the road connecting Damascus and the city of al-Suwayda in southwest Syria.
This buffer zone in Syria would mirror Israel’s ‘Good fence’ policy employed in Lebanon when the civil war broke out in 1975. There, Israel established military and social networks with local Lebanese groups, assisting them to fill the vacuum that had been left by the government in terms of service provision as a way to sustain its occupation of Lebanese territory. In Syria this ‘good fence policy’ aims to consolidate Israeli control over Syrian territory as Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad’s position strengthens in the six-year civil war, and Hizbullah and Iran become increasingly entrenched.
In June 2017, Israel provided funding and aid to certain Syrian rebel factions – particularly Fursan al-Joulan (Knights of Golan), through the Golan. Fursan al-Joulan boasts 400 fighters and is close to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra), and the Israeli effort to support it was set up in 2013 by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Fursan al-Joulan has effectively maintained security on Israel’s behalf in Syria-controlled Golan in exchange for the group receiving $5 000 a month, as well as food and medical supplies. Israel seeks to thus alter and shape the outcome of the Syrian civil war, in a way that ensures that it continues its occupation of the Golan. Israel also seeks to realise its interests is by getting the USA and Russia to uphold these interests in Syria via the ceasefire deal negotiated in Astana in Kazakhstan by Turkey, Iran, Russia, the Syrian regime and opposition groups in Syria.
With the recent agreements between Russia, Iran and Turkey, supported by Jordan and the USA, Israel saw an opportunity to expand its control of Syrian territory further, and its sporadic air-strikes in Syria are part of this agenda. The strikes, which Israel claims targetHizbullah arms convoys or warehouses, have been the biggest indicator of its involvement in the Syrian war. These airstrikes had previously resulted in strong diplomatic reaction from Russia. Earlier this year, Moscow summoned Israel’s ambassador in protest, to show that it did not appreciate Israel’s actions against a Russian partner, Iran, which has played a strategic role in supporting the Asad regime. However, this Russian attitude seems to have changed more recently with a seeming romance between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Israeli prime minister Netanyahu.
Astana de-escalation deal
The Russian role in Syria has been critical to the survival of the Asad government, and has strengthened the regime’s position in the war, as well as created the possibility of a ceasefire deal that will see Turkey, Russia and Iran act as guarantors in different zones in Syria. Such a deal, which has been accepted by the USA, has spurred Israel’s campaign against what it calls a ‘permanent Iranian threat’ in Syria.
The Russia-Iran-Turkey de-escalation zones deal was signed in May in Astana, Kazakhstan, and calls for an end to hostilities between (most) rebel groups and Syrian government forces in four regions. The first zone – Idlib province in the northern region, including north-eastern areas of Latakia province, western areas of Aleppo province and northern areas of Hama province – will be monitored by Turkey; the second – Rastan and Talbiseh enclaves in northern Homs province – and the third – which includes eastern Ghouta in northern Damascus – will be monitored by Russia. The fourth zone – including areas along the Jordanian border and parts of Dar'a and Quneitra provinces – will be monitored by Iran, and this is what the Israelis are upset about.
Israel justifies its demand for a stake in the Syrian pie by focusing on this fourth zone, and its supervision by Iran. Hostilities between Israel and Iran date back to the Iranian revolution in 1979, when Iran altered the previously friendly relations with Israel by ceasing ties with the latter and openly supporting the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. More recently, Israel has focused on Iran’s nuclear programme, which, it claims, threatens its existence and stability in the Middle East. Additionally, Israel regards Iran as an enemy for its support of the Palestinian resistance group Hamas, and the Lebanese party Hizbullah.
As part of its campaign to realise greater Israeli control of Syrian territory, the head of Israel’s foreign intelligence service, Mossad, Yossi Cohen, was dispatched to the USA to warn US President Donald Trump of ‘the imminent threat of Iran’s presence in Syria’. In addition, Netanyahu himself flew to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin while the latter was holidaying in Sochi. Netanyahu informed Putin (and the world) that Israel was prepared to act unilaterally to prevent an expanded Iranian military presence in Syria. Israel values its relations with Russia and recognises the strategic position of Moscow in the Syrian civil war. With this trip, Netanyahu hoped to gain Russian support to curb Tehran’s role in Syria in the future.
The Russians, trying to appear unfazed by Israel’s warning and requests against the ‘threat of Iran in Syria’, have not fully given in to Israel’s demands, but have made certain concessions. Although not agreeing to the extension of the buffer zone, they have, for example, propose a deal that Israel will find beneficial: keeping Iranian troops away from the south of Syria, and preventing them from maintaining a permanent presence in Syria. The deal might not fully give Israel what it wants, but effectively accedes to part of Israel’s request.
Despite being slightly rebuffed by the Russians, and not evoking sufficient American interest, the Israeli campaign will not easily back down, with Netanyahu hoping to insert Israel into the de-escalation deal, and expanding the Syrian territory that it controls. In July this year, a ceasefire deal brokered between the US, Russia and Jordan was widely welcomed by Israel. This deal – also hailed by Jordan – covers parts of Dar’a, Quneitra and western Suwayda, and is set to continue to secure the Jordanian border, which closed in June 2016. Under the deal, groups fighting against Iranian and Syrian forces were asked to cease fighting in the area by their US backers. They have also been asked to return artillery and anti-tank missiles. Israel prefers this agreement to the Astana deal, which recognises Iran as the monitor of areas along the Jordanian border, Quneitra and Dar’a. This zone seeks to create more of a de-militarised zone than a de-escalation zone, warding off the presence of any military hardware (belonging to regime or opposition groups) in the south, thus lifting the threat of an attack on Israeli assets in the Golan.
The Syrian civil war has been characterised by a complex web of involvement by and relations between foreign states. Despite a myriad of attempts to find a solution to the crisis, only the Russian-sponsored Astana (Kazakhstan) process has, thus far, yielded any results – modest as they might be. One of those outcomes has been the de-escalation deal that seeks to create ceasefire zones monitored and supported by Russia and Iran – which are major players in the war and have strengthened the Asad regime, as well as Turkey – which has backed the Syrian opposition. Israel sees in the de-escalation plan an opportunity to advance its own interests – particularly the extension of its territorial control further into Syria – in addition to its occupation of the strategic Syrian Golan Heights. It is using the fact of Iran’s role in the plan to, first, attempt to stymie Iran’s involvement in Syria for the future, and, second, to attempt to justify its own bid for control over Syrian territory. It seeks to thus lay the foundation for a long-term plan of expanding territory beyond Golan into Syria.
Although the USA usually readily supports Israel’s ambitions in the region, it is not an architect of the Astana deal, and has to defer to Russia. It is unclear whether the latter will ultimately give in to Israel’s requests. Although Russia and Iran are currently allies, Moscow is also concerned about Iran’s role in the region being elevated through a resolution in Syria, and might be willing to allow Israel to fulfil some of its ambitions in the interests of keeping Iran in check. Support from Russia and the USA on the issue will also embolden Israel to continue building settlements on Palestinian lands.