Netanyahu’s Surprise Visit to Oman

In a surprising move, for the first time in over two decades, an Israeli leader visited an Arab Gulf state. On Friday of last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a historic visit to Oman, where he was hosted by the ruler, Sultan Sayyid Qaboos bin Said Al Said. The two leaders, accompanied by numerous government and security officials, held meetings in which they discussed pressing regional issues.

Diplomatic relations between the Sultanate of Oman and the State of Israel were initially established in 1994 but were frozen six years later following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. As of now, the two countries still have no formal diplomatic relations.

Israel currently has full diplomatic relations with only two Arab countries; Egypt and Jordan. However, it is understood and confirmed by Israeli diplomats, that the state maintains ties behind the scenes with many nations, including those from the Gulf but these have never been publicly or openly acknowledged.

A day after the visit, Oman’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, whilst speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ 2018 summit in Bahrain, publicly called on the Arab nations to accept Israel as part of the region and for Israel to, therefore, be treated as other regional states and bear the same obligations.

The Palestinian issue has long divided Israel and the rest of the Arab world. But recently, the Palestinian cause has been side-lined by the Gulf states as Israel has warmed relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in a bid to come together in the face of a shared enemy, Iran. Israel has consistently decried Iran’s alleged support of groups such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip (Iran does not in fact support Hamas since Hamas betrayed Iran by opposing Bahar al Assad in Syria) and actual support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and has also vehemently challenged Iran’s nuclear program, viewing the idea of Iran possessing nuclear technology as an ‘existential threat’ to Israel and the greatest threat to the Middle East.

The gradual normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world is not something that is sought to benefit the Palestinians or to help resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Instead, it is an attempt to create a bloc with a shared interest that challenges the influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the region. Whilst Oman is a neutral party concerning Iran’s presence and role in the region; this marks the first and open step in recent years towards publicly recognising Israel’s growing relationship with the Gulf states, a relationship which no doubt will continue to grow.

Algeria’s migrants march across the Sahara

Reports of Algeria’s expulsion of migrants into the Sahara desert have received widespread condemnation from officials around the world. Human rights groups have accused Algerian authorities of arbitrarily arresting and expelling migrants from Sub-Saharan African countries. The expulsions came as pressure mounted from the European Union for North African governments to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean and reaching the shores of Europe.

According to the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM), since May 2017 more than 13,000 people, including women and children, have been rounded up and driven to the desert and pointed towards Niger or Mali.

Survivors who were interviewed by the Human Rights Watch gave accounts of being rounded up on the streets or at their places of work, before being crammed into trucks and driven to the desert. Some also accused the police of beatings and stealing their belongings.

In a report published by the Associated Press, it was found that Algeria forced migrants, by the hundreds every week to traverse the scorching and unforgiving desert where temperatures reached up to 48°C. They were given no food and no water, walking dozens of kilometers before being picked up by UN rescue teams. Survivors told the Associated Press of how their companions vanished in the desert. Migrants used their phones to film their ordeals, documenting their journey as they were being transported en masse in trucks and being marched across the blistering desert.

Algeria has denied all allegations of rights abuses. Journalists were invited to tour their detention centres, or perhaps more accurately described as overcrowded jails, citing it was proof of their humane treatment of migrants. However, journalists were not permitted to travel beyond the detention centers where migrants are held prior to being forcibly expelled, and therefore were unable to see what was transpiring after being ‘deported.’

Since the report by the Associated Press, expulsions seemed to have all but stopped – with the number of expelled migrants dropping significantly. But a recent report suggests that Algeria’s government has again resumed expelling migrants into the Sahara desert, leaving another 391 people to stumble their way through the harsh terrain.

The European refugee crisis admittedly marked an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, which saw the largest influx of migrants into Europe since the Second World War. Yet, figures show that the largest refugee movements happen within Africa itself; with the region of Sub-Saharan Africa being home to 4.4 million refugees and a staggering further 19.5 million “people of concern”. One can hope that the coverage of Algeria’s expulsion of Sub-Saharan Africans highlights the plight of other migrants from not only North Africa but across the entire continent.

NCF presents on war avoidance in Iran – a breakdown of the key issues

Our interns, Ardi Janjeva, Angus Edwards and George Anscombe-Bell, gave a 20 minute presentation to senior diplomatic figures from around the world during a conference on Iran.

Using the mind-mapping software Thortspace, they covered the key issues concerning war avoidance in Iran: the nuclear issue, relations with terror groups, geopolitical ties in the Middle East, and domestic issues.

This presentation begins by laying out the recent history behind uranium enrichment in Iran, before looking more closely at the JCPOA and its implications. In the context of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12 demands, it then traces the complexities behind Iran’s support for militia groups in the Middle East – Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. Moving onto the geopolitical demands, there is a summary of Iran’s regional influence in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, before a narrower focus on domestic demands concerning ballistic missile proliferation and Western political prisoners. The presentation concludes by looking at the current state of Iran’s relations with its two key rivals in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and, in particular, Israel.

We hope that this presentation is useful in clarifying your thoughts on the most pressing issues relating to Iran. Do let us know if you have any thoughts by commenting on the video via the YouTube link provided!

Iraq’s Elections: Is an Inclusive Iraq Possible?

The political bloc led by populist Shi’ite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr has beat out candidates to win Iraq’s first parliamentary election since the Baghdad government’s victory over ISIS. Despite which, Moqtada Al-Sadr will not become prime minister as he did not run for a seat; but he will have a significant role in the formation of the new government.

However, Moqtada Al-Sadr may have a difficult time drawing support from Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. His followers have previously been accused of running death squads in Sunni majority areas and engaging in sectarian violence. Discontent amongst the Sunni population had been growing ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The successive governments of Nouri Al-Maliki and Haider Al-Abadi offered little in the way of protection and support for Sunnis in Iraq. When this is coupled with state marginalisation, lack of employment opportunities and an extremely low standard of living, discontent is understandable.

In order to appeal to the fragmented and fractured Iraqi society, Al-Sadr has sought to rebrand himself as a force for peace in a country that still bears fresh wounds from the war with ISIS.

One example of this is Al-Sadr reaching out to regional Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey. In doing so, Al-Sadr has effectively distanced himself from Iran.

Iran, the pre-eminent Shi’ite power in the Middle East, wields considerable influence in Iraq and had previously publicly stated that they would not allow a bloc run by Al-Sadr to govern. Tehran had made it perfectly clear that Moqtada Al-Sadr was not their man, viewing him as a threat. Yet, despite Al-Sadr beating Iran’s favoured candidates, it is unlikely that any coalition formed by Al-Sadr will be without political groups that are aligned with Iran.

For many years, all Iraq has known is senseless violence, death, and destruction. The people of Iraq deserve a chance at peace more than anyone. Al-Sadr’s call for all Iraqis, inclusive of Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen and other minority groups, to come together and rebuild Iraq is commendable. We can only hope this does not fall on deaf ears.

Iran and Israel: A Dangerous Game

The NCF questions Israel’s ability to pursue an all out long range war with Iran, without the USA in the lead. Indeed, to launch such a war Premier Netanyahu would need to bring on board his inner cabinet plus of course the generals. He is probably in no position to do this. Memories of the disastrous 2006 war with Lebanon which for a time depopulated all of Northern Israel, remain fresh. The NCF Secretary General has stated his belief that one reason President Trump decided to reneg on the nuclear deal with Iran was as a sop to Israel given the fact that he had no intention of ever initiating a US attack on Iran. However, in the following analysis, Qasim Abdul-Aziz argues that the danger is none the less real.

The conflict between Iran and Israel is reaching new heights. The looming threat of a large-scale war in the region is all the more real.

On Wednesday 9 May, Israel’s military reported that Iranian forces had fired more than twenty rockets from Syria into the occupied Golan Heights. Whilst it was claimed that none of the rockets hit their intended targets, Israel’s ‘red-line’ had been crossed. In a conflict that has largely been played out through proxies, this was the first time Iran had openly and brazenly attacked Israel.

Israel retaliated by striking dozens of targets they associated with Iran including weapons storage sites and Syrian Air Defence systems. Damascus braced itself as the sound of explosions rang through the night.

Arguably Iran instigated the conflict by firing their rockets at Israel’s military stationed in the occupied Golan Heights. However, the timeline of that recent escalation between the two states dates back to early April when Israel was the first to bomb Iranian controlled bases in Syria on at least two occasions.

Iran is attempting to gain a foothold in the Levant, expanding its influence across the region by supporting various parties in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. In face of this expansionism, Israel has been particularly concerned about the Iranian presence in neighbouring Syria, fearing a long-term military plan to use Syria and other proxies such as the Lebanese group Hezbollah as a means to dominate the Middle East.

On April 30, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a televised presentation on Iran’s nuclear program, displaying allegedly secret documents obtained by Israeli intelligence. Whilst the current relevance of these documents is unclear, Prime Minister Netanyahu confidently claimed that they proved that Tehran was misleading the international community about its nuclear plans and is indeed pursuing nuclear weapons.

Little more than one week after Netanyahu’s speech, on Tuesday 8 May, the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal. This could arguably be bad for Israel, given that the deal at least placed some constraints on Iran. But certainly Netanyahu perceived it as the best outcome for Israel, and he has pushed long and hard for the United States to pull the deal, citing Iran as the single greatest threat in the region. Hours after the United States announced their rejection of the nuclear deal, Iran launched their missile assault against Israel. This was of course no mere coincidence.

Both Iran and Israel, alongside other regional and international players, already share responsibility for destabilising the region. Whilst Israel’s flagrant aggressions are well-documented against the Palestinians, Iran too, has a stained record. As the Syrian civil war was seeming to wind down after seven long and arduous years, these recent provocations could be the beginning of a new and more open conflict in the Middle East. Let us hope that wise heads prevail.

Latest Update on Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria

When it comes to Syria today we need dialogue. Those who have the courage to stand up and say, “there is another way” have become so important and are much needed at this time everywhere, most especially in the Syrian conflict. We must work for solutions that are in reality something more than a quick fix. We need to look at a long-term solution, rather than a short-term one. A great friend of mine, James Lynn from Northern Ireland, says, “Hatred only destroys the soul of the person who speaks it, for it has no permanent solution to offer.” We all need to be the voice of peace and reason, and keep the Syrian nation very much in our prayers.

So, as a precursor to peace, we need to understand the nature of the war we are facing. Clearly a line must be drawn when it comes to honour in war. And chemical weapons are dishonourable. Chemical weapons are much more widespread and utilised more frequently than the other two types of W.M.D.s. Among the most common chemical agents that have been deployed are G-series nerve gas (in particular, sarin), and mustard gas. Chemical weapons are indiscriminate. Children are particularly the hardest-hit from chemical weapon attacks as their bodies are more vulnerable. Numerous countries still have large stockpiles of chemical weapons despite the Chemical Weapons Convention, which required the destruction of stockpiles by 2012. Due to the Convention, 85% of the chemical weapon stockpiles across the world have been destroyed. This is significant progress, but a considerable number of production facilities and stockpiles remain.

Chemical weapons have been around a long time. The first to use chemical weapons in the Middle East were the British who employed them in the Second Battle of Gaza against the Turks in 1917. Since then they have been used repeatedly, most notably by Saddam Hussein against the Iranians from 1983 to 1988 and the Kurds from 1987 to 1988.

That the Syrian government has chemical weapons is without question. Their existence has been confirmed by the Syrians in oblique statements, most notably by onetime Syrian spokesman Jihad Makdissi who apparently lost his job over the remark.

Syria’s main chemical weapons base, though there are others nearby, was at the Safira base just to the East of Aleppo.

The Free Syrian Army destroyed the Safira base on 29th November 2012. The artillery base was utterly demolished but the nearby air defence base was fought over for some time. Safira was a sprawling military complex. However, the Islamist group Al Nusra joined the fight and by mid February 2013 the entire town had fallen into rebel hands.

Since when both extreme elements of the opposition and the government have used chemical weapons, the government moreso than the opposition but both parties have been culpable.

All of this does however highlight one issue. There is an acute need to promote the Chemical Weapons Convention in the Middle East today.  The are only five countries in the whole world which have either not signed and / or not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. They are: Egypt, Israel, North Korea, Palestine (and yes Palestine is entitled to sign), and South Sudan. They should all be brought onboard urgently.

Back to Syria

Meanwhile let’s come back to the issue of the use of chemical weapons in Syria in recent days. For background, the following timeline of events is drawn from an article by ‘Urayb ar-Rintawi in the Jordanian daily ad-Dustour. These are his words edited for clarity:

On February 18th, the Syrian army began a major Eastern Ghouta offensive via a concentrated artillery and aerial bombardment. And by early March, its units had succeeded in dividing up the Ghouta into different sectors and had recaptured many villages and towns.

The factions affiliated with the “Turkish/Qatari axis” concluded an agreement with Damascus sponsored by the Russian mediators. Thousands of Ahrar ash-Sham, Nusra, and Faylaq ar-Rahman fighters left to Idlib together with their families, and then the Syrian army entered ‘Arabin, Zamalka, and Jobar.

Jaysh ul Islam then denounced ‘the treason and treachery of our brothers-in-arms’ (those affiliated with Qatar and Turkey) who had left for Idlib. Jaysh ul Islam, which is affiliated with Saudi Arabia, could not find a safe haven.

Damascus then began a dialogue via Russian mediators aimed at clearing Douma of the remaining armed opposition giving them the choice of leaving or “settling their affairs” with the Syrian state, leading to an agreement that called for the evacuation of thousands of civilians and military personnel and allowing those who did not wish to “settle their affairs” to head to Jarabulus. This was the deal that came to be known as the ‘Ghouta-for-‘Afrin’ deal.

Convoys of buses then began to carry the armed elements and their families from Douma. In addition, more than 40 thousand civilians left via the Wafideen Gateway and were moved to “shelters provided by the Syrian government”.

Then a coup occurred inside Jayshul Islam. Its leaders who were engaged in the negotiations with Damascus and had reached an agreement with it were either killed or detained. Abu-Hammam al-Buweidani disappeared amidst rumors that he had surrendered to the Russian police, while Abu Qusay and Abu ‘Abderrahman Ka’ka took over the group’s leadership. Implementation of the agreement was suspended.

Next, the Syrian army launched a ruthless offensive on Douma, most of whose stages were broadcast live on air. It tightened the noose around Jayshul Islam’s neck.
Within three hours a chemical attack occurred.

The attack itself

Victims who survived report an odourless gas. This can only be Sarin. The other main gas used in Syria, Chlorine gas, is far from odourless. Some witnesses report a smell of chlorine but our impression is these are less credible accounts from people who were not actually exposed to the gas. Other symptoms are also Sarin specific. Particularly the pinpoint pupils of the dead. For links and fuller details so that you may examine this yourself if you wish, there are full supporting details on our first NCF blog entry on this subject which answers the question “Is this the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack?“. But you will need a strong stomach if you are going to examine all of the links we provide. Some among them are very harrowing. Note that Sarin gas has been extensively deployed before in the Damascus suburbs.

“Chlorine gas generally harms far more people than it kills because it requires comparatively high concentrations (nineteen thousand milligrams per cubic meter) and prolonged exposure to achieve lethal effect”. It is useful to terrorise rather than to kill. For example, to quote National Interest magazine’s excellent extensive report on the issue (we reach slightly different conclusions however), “A helicopter-delivered chlorine bombing in Zubdiya in eastern Aleppo on August 10, 2016, injured around seventy (including forty children) and killed four (including a mother and her two babies). In numerous other chlorine attacks, dozens have been injured, but deaths have numbered “only” in the single digits or even zero.”

Some of the videos relating to the current Douma attack imply that chlorine gas was used. For instance, extensive dousing with water is valuable in dealing with chlorine gas exposure, whereas the removal of clothing is considered an important step in dealing with exposure to Sarin. One repeatedly broadcast video shows the extensive dousing of children with water without the removal of clothing. But it is possible that in the panic in the aftermath of a bomb attack, standard tactics for chlorine were employed as people may not have been as familiar with standard practice for Sarin exposure. There is also a video of two yellow cylinders of the type only normally used to deliver compressed chlorine gas in Syrian government attacks. However, there are various reasons for regarding these as false. For example one of the cylinders is some distance from the blast hole in the roof through which it has supposedly fallen, resting on a bed and comparatively undamaged by the impact and / or blast to which it has been exposed (such cylinders are usually substantially damaged and sometimes blasted apart). In any case, the very high numbers of casualties and the nature of the victim reports make it clear, in our view, that chlorine gas was certainly not employed as the primary agent.

Culpability

There are a number of possibilities. We will make arbitrary assessments. We do so because we believe it is helpful for those that read this to have a benchmark opinion, which they can then use as an assessment against which to examine the available open source material for themselves and draw their own conclusions. This is inevitably just our own subjective report on the subject. The forthcoming OPCW report will not determine culpability. Even when the United Nations has sent in teams (and UN teams are generally less skilled than those of the OPCW) with the prime objective of determining culpability their reports have been confusing and less than satisfactory when it comes to providing conclusive evidence. We reiterate that this is because the government has not been the sole perpetrator of war crimes with chemical weapons in Syria. The more extreme elements of the Islamist opposition have sometimes done so, occasionally with a view to implicating the government through false flag incidents. And one of the most extreme opposition groups, Jaysh ul Islam, was present in Douma, a group that is so ruthless that it at one point held hostages in cages in Douma.

That said it must be stressed in all fairness that the Syrian government is usually the one culpable. The fact that access to the alleged site was delayed until today by Russian troops now in control of the area makes Syrian government culpability more likely. The NCF does however have direct contacts within the ranks of the Syrian military and they deny culpability in this instance. Undoubtedly your reasonable response might be “they would wouldn’t they”.  However, they say that these are victims of “suffocation” after being buried in the aftermath of shelling and that civilians panicked and imagined a gas attack and then some unscrupulous members of the opposition put out false videos or videos from other incidents which they flagged as being from this incident. We give percentage probabilities in an attempt to be helpful. Please note once again that this is an arbitrary assessment:

  1. This was done deliberately by the Syrian government: 75% probability.
  2. That this was done by overzealous elements of the Syrian Army without direct Syrian Government instruction: 5% possibility.
  3. That these were victims of suffocation and the incident was exploited by the unscrupulous: 5% possibility.
  4. That the Syrian government did not attack and this was an entirely false flag incident perpetrated by Jaysh ul Islam: 15% possibility.

What is needed now is not further military action but a concerted international effort to work for peace both at a second track and first track level that engages Russia, Iran, and the United States of America. There are so many factions operating in Syria. As I was reminded just today by a Hawaiian friend, Stafford Clary:

  • Saudi Arabia-Qatar-UAE-Turkey support aggressive Sunni Arab elements against the Syrian government
  • Russia-Iran-Iraq-Hezbollah support the Syrian government
  • Iran-Hezbollah are aggressively anti-Israel
  • Turkey is aggressively anti-PYD (the prime Kurdish faction in Syria)
  • US is aggressively anti-ISIS, pro-PYD, and pro-Israel (however the US does not currently oppose al Qaeda elements in Syria)

All people of good conscience must surely believe that the nations of the world should start working together for peace in Syria.

God bless Syria and all its people, and may his peace rest upon their shoulders.

William Morris LL.D., Secretary General, The Next Century Foundation