The Great March of Return: where are the terrorists – The NCF Gaza reports

Palestinians are protesting against restrictions on what goes in and out of Gaza. They are also supporting ‘right to return’ calls from Palestinian refugees. The moving of the USA’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has exaserbated the situation. On Monday 14th May 40,000 Gazans joined the border protest. At least 110 Palestinians, including children, have been killed thus far and thousands injured. Israel claims that protestors are terrorists attempting to break through the barrier. However several hundred metres separate protestors from IDF personnel. Most of the protestors were not violent and avoided getting too close to the ‘border’. Protestors included families with children. Gazans struggle to deal with increasing difficulties. Residents only have around four hours of electricity a day, there is limited access to clean water, limited health services and unemployment in the region is at around 64%. 

The response from the NCF in Gaza

The devastating reality of the situation has been reinforced by the Next Century Foundation’s office in the International Press Centre in Gaza. We were able to speak to them following the events of Monday 14th which they described as a “bloody, bloody day” and the worst so far. Award winning Gazan journalist Adel Zanoun told us that 3,288 people had been injured with a range of severity levels, including journalists. When asked about our journalist friends in Gaza, he said that they are all under threat regardless of whether they are national or international. The targeting of the press indicates that Israel’s claims that they are merely protecting themselves and responding to threats are not credible. Journalists are clearly marked with the word ‘PRESS’ across their chests. If Israel were combatting ‘terrorists’ then why have so many journalists, an estimated 175, been injured with several dead?

Regarding the use of force by Israel, Zanoun said that people were being injured by live fire against the Palestinian demonstrators that had steadily increased over the weeks; he said it was live ammunition that was injuring these people and not rubber bullets. Critical of Israel, he repeatedly tells me of how “bloody” it has been and the intense pressure that the Palestinians in Gaza are under. He makes reference to Hamas, stating that they have definitely played a role in the organisation of the demonstrations and that they may, following on from the intensity of Israel’s response, establish a counter response of their own. He also said that neither Ramadan nor the violence will deter demonstrations from continuing. However, he does not believe that the protests mask terrorism and emphasises that these were Palestinian people objecting to mistreatment.

Citing a widespread “collapse” of infrastructure, he emphasised the severity of the humanitarian situation, Public sector workers have been impacted with their salaries being cut; he says this has led to hospitals opening intermittently and no authorities in place to protect or serve the people in Gaza. There is no knowledge as to when full salaries will be reinstated. Zanoun repeatedly said that the Palestinian people are truly under such pressure that is only likely to worsen. With hospitals closing and virtually no ability to move in and out of the region, and no option for people to return if they do leave, the injured were not adequately cared for*. He says that there had been a breakdown of reconciliation between Hamas and Palestinian authorities in Ramallah thus contributing to the absence of humanitarian or political progress.

The Palestinian people in Gaza are suffering, as they have been for many years. The firing of live ammunition against thousands of mostly innocent and unarmed protestors has furthered the suffering. When I asked Zanoun what he thinks about the future and the next steps, he said “there is no hope for Gaza now”. There is uncertainty, he says, that means that “no one knows what will happen” in one hour, one day or one month. What he does know is that the pressure continues to mount against the people and that political and humanitarian solutions are needed immediately to address the declining situation in Gaza. He said that people and politicians need to be working towards helping those in Gaza.

*N.B. Since speaking to Zanoun, Egypt has opened the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza strip throughout the month of Ramadan. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi tweeted that this would help “alleviate the burden of the brothers in the Gaza strip”

The background to the response

Since the end of March, 110 Palestinians, including children, have been killed in Gaza by Israel’s forces and thousands have been injured as they protest by the ‘border’. The response from the international community was weak to begin with, little attention was paid in the earlier days of these protests. However, since the 14th, Gaza is very much top of the international agenda with varied responses to the atrocities committed.

Israel’s representatives have denied acting wrongfully. They believe that Hamas was the driver of these protests and that the intention was to target Israel, target the borders and do so under the guise of a demonstration. Therefore, they have said their intention was to simply protect their borders and target ‘terrorists’ who were supposedly conducting a terrorist operation. It is undeniable that Hamas have been involved in the organising of these protests, something Zanoun said freely. However, to justify opening live fire on civilians because they are ‘terrorists’ is unacceptable. Not all of those who have died were terrorists, the members of the press who have been wounded, for example, were not terrorists.

In the immediate aftermath, the United States aligned themselves with Israel and did not, unlike their French and British counterparts, condemn the actions of the IDF. They believe their actions were justified. Nikki Haley spoke at the United Nations the following day where Israel was praised for showing “restraint” and blamed Hamas for the death of Palestinians and the violence, stating that it was what they wanted. The USA believed that ultimately, Israel acted in the best interests of its national security. Their stance is perhaps unsurprising given the choice to move the embassy on Nakba Day, a strong display of alliance with Israel and their lack of support for a future peace process.

Britain and France have expressed their disapproval of the actions of Israel and the wish to go forward in peace. Prime Minister Theresa May said that this level of violence is ‘destructive to peace efforts’ and that both sides should be acting with ‘restraint’. Britain’s shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, stood up and passionately condemned the ‘massacre’ committed by Israel against protestors.  French President Emmanuel Macron was openly disapproving of the violence exercised by Israel’s forces and expressed empathy and compassion for the Palestinian people in Gaza.

As aforementioned, Egypt’s opening of the border crossing with the Gaza strip is emblematic of the attention and compassion that is now being shown to the Palestinians in Gaza by the international community. The United Nations has expressed its concern for the events that have happened since March in Gaza. Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the current High Commissioner for Human Rights, has emphatically highlighted the plight of those in Gaza and their suffering. He also raises the point that there have been no casualties on Israel’s side thus demonstrating the asymmetry in any violent exchanges. Israel, according to al-Hussein, has acted without constraint and excessively. On Friday 18th May the UN Human Rights Council held a special session resolving to call an urgent independent enquiry into Monday’s events. The UK was amongst the 14 countries who abstained, citing the need for Israel to carry out their own independent investigation; the USA and Israel rejected the resolution. The latter once again cited the events in Gaza as a response to Hamas’ terrorist activities.

In Gaza itself, demonstrations continue unabated. The numbers are less and people are more cautious yet there is still drive there. It was quieter though as people across the region, including Israel, said their prayers for the people of Gaza and the ones who have been lost.

The international community has taken notice of Gaza and the suffering and unfairness that its people are subjected to. Israel may affirm the idea that their use of force was a way of responding to a perceived terrorist threat, but these arguments have little credibility. Of course there were agitators and violent protestors present, but children, impartial observers and thousands who posed no threat to the IDF have been injured, some killed. The treatment of Palestinians and their human rights has long been a cause for concern. With several nation states now openly criticising recent events and condemning the use of force against civilians, it leads to hope that there may be, as Adel Zanoun wished, humanitarian and political change for the people of Gaza.

Netanyahu’s Folly . . . or a gamble that paid off?

On the 30th April, through live broadcast from Jerusalem, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered an assertive presentation to the world accusing Iran of “brazenly lying” about their nuclear weapons ambitions. The presentation itself seemed amateur and the Prime Minister delivered it as if he were at school. But his intention was to make a serious point.

His point being that various Iranian leaders have falsely denied that they had ever been working on acquiring nuclear weapons with several citing the idea as “immoral”. Netanyahu’s PowerPoint presentation featuring diagrams, photographs and blueprints sought to demonstrate that Iran was in violation of the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action known commonly as the Iran nuclear deal) and that Iran, through what was known as Project Amad (1999-2003), had had the active goal of building a nuclear weapon.

The key allegation Netanyahu made in this presentation was that Project Amad, a supposedly merely scientific program, had been a covert nuclear weapons development project and that even after the closure of Project Amad, the work had secretly continued. He said that top-secret documents proved it. However, the Next Century Foundation does not find any real merit in Netanyahu’s further suggestion that the JCPOA allows Iran to continue their alleged nuclear weapons development unabated. Evidence to support the accusation that Project Amad was a covert nuclear weapons project is definitely compelling, but is nothing new to anyone in the international community. However, Netanyahu explicitly states throughout that Iran continues with its pursuit of its nuclear weapons ambitions. For these accusations he provides no real evidence. He simply opines that the retention of these documents, already known about since before the JCPOA, indicates that they are doing so and that their denial of the existence of prior nuclear weapon development efforts means they are liars.

The Presentation in Detail:

This presentation was built around alleged evidence from 55,000 pages and 183 CDs of “top secret” documentation that only a few Iranians and Israelis were supposedly aware of. Netanyahu does not specify how or when these documents were obtained but states that they were being kept in a top-secret, unassuming compound in Tehran. The acquisition of said documents was described by Netanyahu as a “great intelligence achievement”  by the Israeli intelligence services. The Iranians refute the claims made by Netanyahu and say that they would never keep official documents in the “dilapidated warehouse” Israeli intelligence allegedly acquired them from.

Project Amad ran for four years before closing in 2003. The documents obtained by Israeli intelligence seem to show, according to Netanyahu’s presentation, the active pursuit of nuclear weapons acquisition because Iran pursued the development of ballistic missiles with high power capability. However the development of a long range missile program does not necessarily mean an intention to have nuclear warheads. Several photographs, videos, blueprints and scans of documents were presented on different slides to enforce the message Netanyahu was pushing.

Rather more importantly Netanyahu did pull up one specific document that said the project was going to “design, produce and test … four nuclear warheads each with 10 kilotons of TNT yield for integration on a missile”. Israeli intelligence analysis of the documents determined that Project Amad had the ‘five key elements of a nuclear weapons programme’ including developing nuclear cores and preparing nuclear tests. To support the latter allegation, he provided scans of maps detailing five potential test locations in eastern Iran. Furthermore, he claims that despite Amad’s closure, the project continued in a devolved and both covert and overt way with the full knowledge of Iranian leaders and under the pretence that it was for scientific knowledge development. One cannot dismiss such evidence. The evidence was lacking in  quantity but it was supportive nonetheless. When taking this evidence into consideration, his point that Iran has lied could be considered compelling.

However, this evidence and knowledge has been in the public domain for many years. Concerns about Project Amad and nuclear weapons, deriving from official documents, are not ground-breaking in the slightest. It is of course concerning, but Netanyahu is essentially regurgitating old knowledge. This knowledge was reported on by international journalists at the time. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the ‘nuclear watchdog’ with whom Netanyahu said he would share these documents, had their own concerns over Iran and nuclear weapons. However, they were addressed at the time and in the years following. Yes, Iran did lie about the intentions and activities of Project Amad and subsequent nuclear ambitions. However the IAEA conducted their own investigation and by the time it came to signing the JCPOA in 2015, there was confidence that Iran were no longer pursuing the development of nuclear weapons. We knew this and the world knew this. Netanyahu is not offering us anything more.

Unlike the wealth of documentation supporting claims that Project Amad and its subsequent activities do show nuclear weapons development, Netanyahu failed to prove that Iran are still lying. He believes that holding such knowledge of nuclear development and “advanced work on weaponization” shows that Iran are continuing with their nuclear weapons ambitions. In his eyes the JCPOA nuclear deal “gives Iran a clear pass to an atomic arsenal” through allowing them to continue uranium enrichment and failing to address Project Amad and any other subsequent development of nuclear weapons. He does not provide anything substantive to support this.

Conclusions

Netanyahu delivered what he believed was a ‘ground-breaking’ presentation that addressed issues previously unaddressed or acknowledged. However, this was not the case. There has been an awareness of Iran’s nuclear activities by the international community and that this supposedly top-secret documentation has been known about and is nothing new. What Israel’s premier presented did indeed show a contradiction between the denials of nuclear weapons development by Iranian leadership and what was actually happening. Whilst the presentation may have raised legitimate concerns, it was no turning point.

It is important to be aware of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own perceptions of Iran and place this presentation in a wider geopolitical context. He refers to Iran as a “terrorist regime” and expresses his distrust and disdain for Iran’s leadership. The presentation concluded with his opinion on the JCPOA and his belief that President Trump would do “the right thing” and withdraw from the nuclear deal. Stating that he would share the gathered intelligence with other countries and the IAEA, he said that “the United States [could] vouch for its authenticity”. In the ten days that have followed the presentation, President Trump has withdrawn from the deal and tensions have heightened between Israel and Iran. It appears that Netanyahu’s big presentation was successful.

Afghanistan and the Difficult Road to Peace

For more than 17 years Afghanistan has been a nation torn apart by conflict. However, the current President Ashraf Ghani is trying to push for definitive peace and reconciliation between his government and the Taliban. On February the 28th 2018, he made an offer to the Taliban that was seen by some as a ‘game changer’. Ghani would like the Taliban to engage in peace talks and recognise the legitimacy of his government. In exchange, Ghani has said that the Taliban will be recognised as a legitimate political party, may open offices in locations of their choosing, and have some of their prisoners released. The government will also support efforts to remove their leaders from international sanctions lists. At face value, this offer appears to be a turning point, with Ghani pioneering a new vision for Afghanistan’s future. However, is it realistic? Ghani’s offer to work cohesively on peace and reconciliation with the Taliban may be too little too late given the fragility of the current political situation.

Just this week Ghani met with senior diplomats in Uzbekistan to discuss the next steps required in Afghanistan peace talks. The Taliban were absent. They have remained notably silent in response to Ghani’s offer. This could be regarded as indicative of the possibility that the offer may have sparked some kind of conversation amongst Taliban officials and senior members. However, whilst this may be true, it does not mean that there will be a positive outcome. The Taliban are somewhat fractured in their views. Some accept that peace negotiations could happen in Washington however the majority have a deep dislike and distrust of US intervention. A response to Ghani’s offer may not be put on the table for some time. One Taliban southern military commander said that there needs to be a huge descaling and step back by foreign interveners before the Taliban can even participate in talks. This in itself is problematic as the USA has given its unwavering commitment to supporting Afghanistan whilst President Trump has made it very clear that he is unwilling to engage with the Taliban at all. The US is not the only other actor in Afghanistan right now. The Taliban continue to engage in a fatal back-and-forth with ISIS forces that has left many dead. The presence of various different agents in Afghanistan, whether positive or negative, contributes to the complexity of the situation, a complexity that Ghani’s offer does not reflect.

The political situation in Afghanistan is one that is not conducive to peace talks between a ‘legitimate government’ and the Taliban. The government wishes the Taliban to recognise the Afghan government’s legitimacy. However, this current government came into being after 2014 elections that were fraught with accusations of voter fraud on both sides. The US ultimately stepped in and brokered a deal between Ghani and his opposition. Whilst Ghani has a clear and positive vision for his nation, this stands on shaky grounds. Furthermore, the current extension of the parliamentary mandate has been criticised as illegal by some. Parliamentary elections were meant to take place in 2016 but were then pushed back to July 2018 with the predicted date now set for October 2018. Most in the international community do not even see 2018 as a possibility. This due to multiple problems surrounding organisation of elections and disagreements within the government. Consequently, a picture emerges of a less than strong government. This is compounded by the Taliban’s continued growth in control and influence over parts of Afghanistan. Their control has doubled since 2015. The government is therefore speaking to a sizeable group that operates outside of their authority. The government is  not as strong as their offer implies.

Once you frame the offer from Ghani within this context, suddenly nothing about peace talks in Afghanistan seems clear or straightforward. He presents the incumbent government as the future for Afghanistan but the reality is that the situation is incredibly complex and conflict continues. The only way forward is for Afghanistan’s government to work with the Taliban and whilst Ghani’s offer seems like a positive step, one has to question its viability at the present moment.

The need for objectivity and transparency in response to the Russian threat

Countries around the Western world have joined the UK in expelling Russian diplomats. Considering Russia’s actions since the 2014 Crimean annexation, this solidarity from the West is not surprising. Whilst the nerve agent attack has evidently provided the spark, there has been growing unease in the West concerning Russia’s behaviour. Russia’s foreign policy since 2014 has been aggressive, characterised by consistent interference in Western politics.

However, the West’s response has been weak-minded, cowardly and, as a consequence, has heightened tensions. This is not to suggest that the West should fight fire with fire and restart programs of brinkmanship, collusion and the dirty tactics that defined international relations in the 20th Century. Nevertheless, unsubstantiated allegations of partisanship partnered with a refusal to present transparent findings have prevented clear and untainted evidence of Russia’s actions from being published, allowing Russia to deny all allegations whilst continuing to be a sort of spectre looming over the west.

The current response to the attack in Salisbury is a perfect example. With little information other than the strong assumption that Russia was behind it, Russian diplomats across the world have been expelled. Investigations have not concluded and findings detailing the extent to which parties were involved have not been published. Reactionary rhetoric has been used over objective, procedural, unequivocal evidence. Russia can continue to deny their involvement. Russia remains a vague, unquantified threat.

There is a desperate need for transparency in the West to combat this growing threat. The major problem preventing Russia from being held accountable is that it is difficult for the public to truly know the extent of their involvement. Investigations have, understandably, needed to remain opaque in order to be successful. However,  investigations have been tainted by the politics of the country. Jeremy Corbyn’s rather innocuous claim that the investigation should be completed before any action was taken led to character assassinations from right across the British political spectrum. A similar situation occurred in the USA. Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s involvement in the US election has devolved into an apparent war between the President and the intelligence services, preventing any findings from being considered in an objective and untainted way. With constant accusations of misinformation and partisanship, made with apparent ulterior motives, the institutions created to defend against such foreign attacks are being eroded into impotency. Investigations need to be allowed to continue without political rhetoric twisting them at every step. We need to see unequivocal evidence of Russia’s culpability.

The issue is compounded by allegations that Russia is making use of social media and data analysis in the USA (as well as conceivably in regard to the Brexit vote). Misinformation and targeted propaganda are the major stories of the day, and again, Russia’s involvement is assumed and alleged but not certified or explained. At the moment the argument revolves around statements like, “Our data has been taken by third parties” and these third parties have “influenced elections”. Such vague statements allow Russia to continue to deny and deflect criticism. Our elections have been affected by this data collation, but we are unsure how or to what extent. We need transparency, both from Facebook, regarding how they protect and distribute our data, and from the companies and organisations that use our data. Only with this level of transparency can the threat from Russia be detailed, realised and prevented. As it stands, this vague allegation that “Russia is meddling” fixes nothing and simply breeds further tension and distrust.

Trumping Middle East Policy

statue-of-liberty-267949_960_720The Next Century Foundation takes a look at the National Security Advisors and the Senior Foreign Policy team in the new U.S. administration, as well as the sort of Middle Eastern policy that might be pursued.

Rex Tillerson: Secretary of State

Rex Tillerson joined Exxon in 1975. One of the crowning jewels of his career was the acquisition of XTO Energy by ExxonMobil in 2009 for $31 billion. Michael Corkery of the Wall Street Journal wrote that “Tillerson’s legacy rides on the XTO Deal.”

We know more about Tillerson’s views on the Middle East than we do Kushners’. One dependable policy is less involvement in the whole region. He is critical of the U.S’ involvement in Libya, and although called the Iraq war “well-intended”, he also described it as unsuccessful. In this light, we can speculate that he wants to see less American intervention in the region. Through his role at Exxon, he had close ties with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. In 2011, Tillerson, on behalf of ExxonMobil, signed a deal to develop oil fields in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. The agreement defied Iraqi law, which forbids companies from dealing directly with Iraqi Kurdistan. Whether this will result in more robust support for the Kurds or not remains to be seen. However, it is important to note that his diplomatic interests as Secretary of State are different to that of his economic interests as CEO of Exxon.

One big policy issue currently is Iran, Russia’s major ally in West Asia. In the wake of Trump’s forceful rhetoric towards Iran, Tillerson might be expected to project a calmer voice. Indeed, Tilerson is described by the Kremlin as a solid and very professional man, he also enjoys a less antagonistic relationship with President Putin than many other officials. Secretary Tillerson is interested in expanding the American footprint in the world at large including Iran. For example, there are large Iranian oil reserves in which Tillerson’s former company has shown interest in, there are also many opportunities for American companies to sell products to Iran. However, the imposition of new sanctions against Iran following its ballistic missile tests, as well as strong bipartisan congressional opposition against warmer Iranian ties may push bilateral commercial consideration to the backburner.

James Mattis: Secretary of Defence (Gen Ret.)

James “Mad Dog” Mattis is the U.S. Secretary of Defence. While he is criticised for being too single minded, he also has an impressive CV. A U.S. Marine since 1969, he has an M.A. in International Security Affairs and is (in)famous for carrying around a copy of ‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius throughout his deployments. He is noted for his intellectualism and study of history. Having served in the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan, his handling of his Marines is well noted. He made them complete cultural sensitivity training, and encouraged them to maintain good relationships with Iraqi civilians.

On the Middle East, Mattis has been much clearer in his views than both Tillerson or Kushner. He has reaffirmed the U.S. – Saudi strategic relationship and praised the friendship of regional allies. These allies and friends include: Jordan, the UAE and Egypt. He wants to work more closely with these countries; strengthening ties with their spy agencies and expanding naval exercises. On Israel, he supports the two-state solution, calling the current situation “unsustainable” and believes the settlement construction could theoretically lead to an apartheid-like situation in the West Bank. He believes the lack of a two-state solution upsets the Arab allies of America, which weakens US esteem amongst its Arab allies.

The biggest threat, according to Mattis, is Iran. “The Iranian regime, in [his] mind, is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.” He believes the nuclear halt is actually only a pause. He wants to increase the U.S. naval presence in the Gulf. He also considers ISIS an excuse for Iran to “continue its mischief”. A worry concerning Mattis’ hawkish Iranian rhetoric is that it risks undermining the very real threat of ISIS. While Iran is engaged in proxy wars in the region, the very existence of ISIS sustains the threat of Jihadist terrorism not only in the Middle East but also in Europe and the West.

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster: National Security Advisor

Herbert Raymond McMaster is a serving three-star general. He is a graduate of the US Military Academy and holds a PhD in military history from the University of North Carolina. He is the author of the book “Dereliction of Duty”, which heavily criticised the U.S. military policy in Vietnam. He is best known for successfully leading the 2005 counterinsurgency operations in Tal Afar in Iraq, a city of 250,000, and commanding the 140-soldier Eagle Troop, part of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment during a 1991 tank battle. Both cases pioneered tactics that are studied by the U.S. military to this day; neither approach the political complexity of the role McMaster has been assigned to in the administration.

McMaster is a strategic thinker, he has a record of military achievement and is very widely respected among national security professionals from both the Democratic and Republican sides. On the topic of the Middle East, he refuses to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism”, believing that the U.S. should not play into the jihadist propaganda that suggest that this is a religious war. He replaces Michael T. Flynn who resigned after admitting that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about a phone call with a Russian diplomat. McMaster has a reputation for speaking his mind within military ranks, causing some to wonder if that is why he was not promoted more rapidly. How this translates into White House policy and politics remains to be seen. Rumours are circulating that unlike Chief Strategist Bannon, McMaster will not have walk-in privileges to the Oval Office.

Michael Pompeo: Director, Central Intelligence Agency

A former army officer and Kansas Congressman, Mike Pompeo was an editor of the Harvard Law Review, served in the Gulf War, and served three terms in congress. He won a fourth, but resigned to take up his current position. He opposes closing Guantanamo, criticises the closing of ‘black sites’, and is currently on a visit to Turkey.

Pompeo is fiercely critical of Islam. He has said that Muslim leaders who fail to denounce acts of terrorism done in the name of Islam are “potentially complicit” in the attacks. He has also spoken of a war between the Christian West and Islamic East, emphasising the need for the west to “destroy the threat of radical Islamic terrorism”, and remove the “dozens of groups that are founded on the central principle of the destruction of the West and the imposition of Sharia Law”. He is fundamentally grounded in his Christian faith and claims that “Jesus Christ is truly the only solution for [the] world. He is also a strong critic of the Iranian nuclear deal, and agrees with the argument that Iran is “the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism”. Iran, in his opinion, is the most dangerous threat to Israel. His views on Russia are reasonably common, he believes the country is aggressively reasserting itself without doing much to combat ISIS, and accuses the Russians of “siding with rogue states” as well as participating in “unpunished affronts to U.S. interests.

Jared Kushner: Senior Advisor to the President

Jared Kushner comes from an Orthodox Jewish family. His paternal grandparents were holocaust survivors, and is married to the President’s daughter Ivanka. He took the reins of his father’s property empire after Charles Kushner was convicted for tax evasion, illegal campaign donations and witness tampering. Widely known to have been instrumental in the running of Trump’s online campaign, Kushner has been made Senior White House Advisor, and given the task of ‘brokering Middle East Peace’.

Little is known of Kushner’s views on the Middle East. Trump asserts that Kushner “knows the region, knows the people, knows the players”, but his role as a ‘peace broker’ is still shrouded in vagueness. One can speculate that he is sympathetic to the state of Israel considering that his family has donated over $300,000 to Friends of the Israeli Defence Force. The Kushner foundation has also donated around $40,000 to a well-established settlement of Bet El that is considered hard-line and ideological.

Of course, supporting charities in Israel does not mean that Kushner himself is supportive of settlement expansion, or of hard-line pro-Israel views. It does mean, however, that his actions, especially those concerning Israel and Palestine will be scrutinised both domestically and abroad.

Steve Bannon: Chief Strategist

Steve Bannon has appointed himself to the National Security Council. He is a fierce outspoken critic of Islam, calling it “the most radical” religion in the world and claims that the U.S. and the Western world are engaged in a “global existential war”. There are numerous editorials stating that many of his supporters in the developing ‘alt-right’ group are anti-Semitic, despite Bannon’s apparent strong support for Israel. By reorganizing the National Security Council and elevating Bannon, Trump’s Chief Strategist will now sit in on the top inter-agency group for discussing national security, some experts deem this to be controversial.

Conclusions

The Trump administration’s Middle Eastern Policy will be shaped not only by the President himself, but also by four of his key advisors. There are some conclusions we can make regarding the ME policy.

Israel: Stronger support as emphasised by the plan to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Whether this translates into support for all Israeli communities in the West Bank, or potentially U.S. approval of the largest settlements in Israel remains to be seen.

Iran: There are attempts to renegotiate the nuclear deal, but safeguarding Israel’s security is a priority. There is strong anti-Iranian rhetoric, and a desire to increase military presence, (most likely the U.S. Navy in the Gulf), but there is also pressure from congress not to reduce sanctions.

With so many countries actively engaged in the region and sponsoring proxies, it is no wonder that the new administration wants to detangle itself from the region, however, how this translates to effective foreign policy, considering Russia’s alliance with Iran remains to be seen. We are likely to see continued support for Jordan, Sisi’s government in Egypt, and possibly Turkey, as long as they continue the fight against ISIS. We might also see an emphasis on Saudi and Gulf allies to shoulder more responsibility for combating ISIS, and acting as a bulwark against Iranian ‘meddling’. One certainty is “uncertainty”.

By Edward Tebbutt

“She doesn’t have the stamina”

Hillary Clinton’s campaign and consequential loss of the US 2016 Presidential election symbolises a key moment in time for women across the world. It is clear that the white, (semi) working-class members of the American public feel disregarded by the political elite, which has widened divisions in society throughout the course of the Obama administration. Donald Trump’s victory represents a very clear rejection of a political establishment and economic system that has not been working for a vast proportion of people in America today. It is common practice for an opposition party to trump another (pardon the pun) when the public begins to feel that their views are not being reflected by the government, but what is most baffling about this election in particular is that the most qualified presidential candidate of this generation was defeated by, undoubtedly, the most unqualified of all time. Countless people have explained this result by highlighting Trump’s ability to appeal to disenfranchised, anti-establishment voters. However, a much more polarising ‘elephant in the room’ is the fact that the American people were more comfortable with seeing a bigoted, under qualified, tax-evading, judgemental, xenophobic man in the Whitehouse than a woman.

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Cecile Richards, President of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, stated that “To be elected as a woman, you have to be twenty times as good as your opponent” – and the recent elections have simply confirmed this. Hillary did what every professional, driven, ‘good’ woman should do – she put her head down and worked hard, devoted her entire life to the beliefs she holds most dear and calmly waited her turn to represent her country. Certainly, she made mistakes en route and not everyone can agree with her policies – but it is difficult to understand why voters, the media and public figures thought it was acceptable to condemn her so brutally, when the majority of her opponent’s actions are completely indefensible. Factors such as this have contributed to a so-called ambition gap amongst women, meaning that they are much less likely to be encouraged or recruited to run for higher political or professional positions as they continually underestimate their own abilities.

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It would be unfair and unjust to completely condemn Trump’s presidency before it has even began. We can only hope that, despite the policies advocated throughout his campaign, he is going to unite people. Even though the political future of America is for now largely ambiguous, what remains clear is that there is still work to do for women across the world. It is of upmost importance for women to not become disheartened by Hillary’s loss, but instead use it as a springboard for endeavours towards a more equal and just future. The 2016 US Presidential elections had the potential to be the greatest day in the entirety of women’s long march towards equality – but we must now remind ourselves that this particular day is yet to come, and we can only look forward to it.

 

Ellie Davies – 11/11/2016

The Immolation of the West?

There are persistent claims in the media that amount to a picture of a possible combined ‘Sunni’ intervention in the Syrian conflict. It is said that Saudi Arabia is considering an armed incursion. Turkey is frequently tipped to engage and then nothing happens. Lord Howell of Guildford asked a most interesting question in the House of Lords which concluded:

Could she [the Minister responsible] just comment on reports that the British Army is now sending 1,600 troops to Jordan as part of some exercise, while the Egyptian troops are moving to Saudi Arabia to ally with them in preparation for possible moves to Jordan? The Jordan authorities have been urging for a long time that this is where we should open a new front, develop a buffer zone in the north and strike into the heart of ISIL territory. Is the war entering an entirely new phase? Could she just bear that in mind? She may not be able to answer that question at the moment, but we need to be kept up to date if things are changing as rapidly as it seems they really are.

The Minister gave no clear reply. We may note a related question on British engagement in the region in the House of Commons which received the following answer from Penny Mordaunt Minister of State, Minister for the Armed Forces:

We have deployed a small number of military personnel serving as liaison officers in Saudi headquarters to provide insight into Saudi operations. They remain under UK command and control. These liaison officers are not involved in the targeting process – whether it be the selection, decision making or directing. British personnel are not involved in carrying out strikes, directing or conducting operations in Yemen or selecting targets and are not involved in the Saudi targeting decision-making process.”

Something is up and Parliament seems unclear precisely what. But British military personnel are already involved in one or more regional conflicts without a very clear mandate. Is mission creep already in danger of setting in? Meanwhile, it is becoming more and more clear that the US is disinclined to intervene directly despite fairly aggressive lobbying from the Syrian Opposition in Washington (which also has strong links to the High Tory element in Parliament and Government).

We can speculate and speculate but anything we say may well result in egg on our faces when the facts are known, Nevertheless, what seems to be happening is two-fold. First, an appreciation that the Russian intervention is not going to result in the fall of Assad at the hands of the rebels and, second, that the drive outwards from Damascus could, if unchecked, destroy the ‘moderate’ Opposition and send waves of refugees into Turkey and thence to Europe and south into Jordan. Jordan is the forgotten nation here and its stability is a major concern of certainly the British.

The solution may be to use armed force to hold enclaves that stop border movements (and retain some bargaining position for the opposition) and also act as barriers to ISIS – but to secure these enclaves may require sovereign nations to invade another sovereign country which may then turn the business into a war of national liberation and pull in the countervailing regional powers, trigger opportunistic revolts amongst minorities within the primary invading powers and lead the superpowers into a confrontation that neither wants. The problem of Ukraine and the Baltic States lies behind this in a world where everything is connected.

It is, of course, an utter mess. The secrecy of the British Executive in relation to its own Parliament under conditions where many Britons have deeply negative feelings towards the two Sunni regional powers is a sign of its political weakness. The Government does not have the historic consensus on foreign policy to rely on – quite the contrary, although divided the Labour Opposition is led by a man who is suspicious of NATO, prefers dialogue to armed intervention under almost all conceivable conditions and is a known critic of the human rights record of just about everyone.

There are a number of things to consider here other than the obvious fact that, despite Kerry’s sterling work, Russia and, more indirectly, Iran hold all the cards in Syria. The ultimate fear in the White House is that the Sunni states intervene, ‘blow it’ and, in responding, Russia triggers a proto-global conflict by ‘accident’ that results in domestic protests in the West that would make Vietnam look like a picnic. Bear in mind that the New Hampshire Primary has now badly frightened the Washington Establishment – we have two lead candidates who oppose the consensus and many of whose supporters would rather vote for the other than for an Establishment alternative within their own Party.

This utter mess could even be presented as the fifteen year history of a reversal – the blundering attempt to bring liberal democracy to the Middle East has resulted in conditions that threaten liberal democracy at home, initially from a security state mentality and now from reactive revolutionary populisms.

Given the hysteria about terrorism and refugees and the rise of the new left-wing and national populist movements, a major destabilising crisis involving overseas armed engagement would actually destabilise Europe and even perhaps (though less certainly) the US and split the Alliance – what a prize for Mr. Putin! Note the reluctance of the UK Government actually to do anything publicly that would be effective in Syria (using its air power) despite winning a vote. The contentious vote that almost split the Opposition now looks as if it was designed only to cause some political mayhem domestically and to re-establish the principle that the Government could do what it willed.

The truth is that the Western public is deeply divided. It is unlikely to go to war willingly to defend Muslim obscurantism no matter how moderate the Islamists (and it will turn on its own Governments if it is pushed too far). Worse for the old elite, the psychological operation to demonise Russia and give NATO the latitude for action are falling rather flat except amongst the High Tory and Atlanticist Labour converted. Social media scrutiny is creating a substantial minority ready to take a resistance view of the matter and the mass of the population simply do not care but know they are not going to die for a bit of East European black earth or Middle Eastern desert. Short of an instant nuclear exchange, Putin holds a lot of the propaganda cards which he can then turn to his benefit in Europe and especially in destabilising both France (where he has been courting the NF) and Germany (where Russia has always had friends in high places).

In terms of the consequences of a civilised settlement in Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia may actually be part of the problem for the West, more than Iran and Russia (neither of which actually wants to go to the brink). That is, I believe, understood by policymakers and is a situation that will continue until Obama is replaced (over a year away) but only if his successor is not an outlier like Sanders or Trump, both of whom express some radical new views about America’s interests.

As for Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom’s attitude to Al-Assad is partly a matter of calculated interest and partly a matter of ‘honour’ that goes back to the assassination of Hariri, their primary agent in the Levant. Killing their regional man requires a remorseless vengeance that cannot end – this is politics but politics that is also personal in a world where the clientage systems of tradition matter. The personal is the political. Honour (no longer an issue in Western rational minds) remains live in Saudi minds.

This is not fully understood by many outside analysts. They dismiss it as ‘irrational’ or something that can be negotiated away but it cannot be so because it has its own inner logic. Saudi networks of allegiance are based on a feudal commitment to service in return for protection. The Saudis failed to protect their man because of ‘treachery’. They must avenge him to show that they will do so in other such cases and that their service providers need not go elsewhere if things get wobbly.

We have also detected a rising Saudi nationalism in the Saudi middle classes – analogous to being British and relating that Britishness to allegiance to the Crown (rather than to the People au Corbyn). A certain degree of militarism and swaggering goes with the territory as it did at the equivalent stage of development in European proto-nationalism. But it is sincere and growing stronger. The primitive view that Saudis are primitives is worse than insulting. It is wrong. It is a highly sophisticated political culture with close links to the British Royal Family and an intimate understanding of power and of how it is held and maintained.

Saudi nationalism rather than simpler reliance on feudal relations is a natural development that is culturally transformative if risky. Many Saudis respond to it.  It has also become a political necessity that binds the old tribal interests with the rising middle classes in a common destiny and it helps to explain a strategy of assertive and disruptive intervention across the region. One’s eyes should turn not north but south to Yemen where this is expressing itself most forcibly and where Western claims about ‘right conduct’ are dismissed when necessary.

For example, the Saudis (and Emiratis) need access to Assab Port to maintain their war in Yemen yet Assab Port is held by a pariah government (Eritrea) as far as the West is concerned. Given the criticality of Ethiopia to the anti-Islamist struggle, the West’s instinct is to retain Eritrea as a pariah (while seeking to bring it into the fold on its terms like Burma or Cuba) yet the Saudis have had the Eritrean President to Riyadh twice late last year and have integrated into their anti-terrorist alliance. The riots and killings in Oromia last week cannot be disconnected from Ethiopian fears of Muslim revolt and the Horn of Africa adds another line to the ever-expanding zone of conflict that now stretches to the Arctic.

The West clearly supports Yemen’s Government against the Houthis (as the Minister for Armed Services’ answer testifies) but no one seriously considers this a serious part of the ‘war on terrorism’ as opposed to a regional strategic play between the Saudi and Iranian networks where the Saudis clearly resent the fact that the West, in the person of Obama but also institutionally in Europe, has shifted towards an obvious and collaborative respect for Iranian aspirations.

Saudi concerns about the Iranians are thus so great that they are quite prepared to destabilise Western anti-Sunni Islamist strategies – not only in Syria but in the Horn of Africa. It is as if the Saudis have said to themselves that they will make themselves troublesome so that the West will have to mollify them by agreeing to their demands, perhaps without realising that the big picture does not allow that. But what is this fearsome big picture? It is one in which the Middle East is only one part of a great whole.

The potential danger of all these instabilities is horrendous. Saudi Arabia is a potentially unstable feudal polity moving towards a modernisation strategy that reminds one of the age of Stolypin under the Tsars. It is countering not merely the strategic interests of the West by default but it may be taking on more than it can administratively handle. And yet it feels it has no alternative. The model may not be Russia and revolution (as so many anti-Saudi liberals assume) but the United Kingdom in the Age of Castlereagh.

Even worse, it has perhaps not understood that the depth of resentment against the Kingdom within the West that was mollified in association with Western Governments after 9/11 has recurred with a vengeance under extremely unstable political conditions – the quite weird situation in the US political cycle with Trump and Sanders, deep concerns in Europe about Saudi involvement in mosque-building, human rights and Islamic migration and, above all, growing perception that, if not backing ISIS, the Kingdom may be backing some dark forces of its own in Greater Syria.

So, Saudi actions in this context are critical. If it enters into the Syrian morasse, with or without Turkey, Egyptian and ‘secret’ British support, and things go wrong, these things that go wrong can go wrong all the way down that fissure that leads to the Arctic, through a basket case of a Ukraine to the Balts who treat Russians as second class citizens. For the first time since the era of Nixon, Western peoples will be faced with the possibility of a nuclear exchange (and not just on the terms of the BBC’s ridiculous war games) and may not take it lying down. Senator Kerry, if he was reported correctly in his outburst to a Syrian NGO activist (“‘What do you want me to do? Go to war with Russia? Is that what you want?”) on Saturday subconsciously revealed the truth of the matter – getting this wrong is an existential question now. The end game could be the immolation of the West if we have many more blunders.

[Tim Pendry is Chairman of TPPR – www.tppr.co.uk and http://blog.tppr.co.uk – but only writes on the Next Century Foundation blog in a personal capacity. He welcomes criticism.]

 

 

Briton’s anger over US comments on Russia’s action in Syria

A British NCF interlocutor sent this comment to the NCF this morning. It is strongly worded but we thought we would place it on this blog regardless:

So the US is up in arms about Putin’s statement just now. Am I alone in hearing his (Putin’s) words and thinking how they make such sense. I think Russia has it right …. do the job the US coalition can’t. Go in, join whoever the **** is fighting Isis, presumably Asaad’s army, and do the job..

The US coalition has been bombing Isis for over a year now …. and how has that stopped the spread … and the flow of refugees. The West has caused this problem and continues to (inadvertently) fund it, supply it with arms etc etc …. so let Russia have a go … we are all one world. This worldwide threat needs to be put above geopolitics and the West’s obsession with deposing regimes leading to further chaos, displacement of people and heartache.

But no, if Russia goes in, the US will use it as an excuse to take us all into war. Doesn’t it make sense to try and eradicate this world threat first before deposing Asaad?

Just wondering.

U.S. Moves to Block Russian Military Buildup in Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in 2013.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in 2013.

THE FOLLOWING COMES TO US FROM A SENIOR BOARD MEMBER OF THE NCF:

INTRODUCTION & COMMENT: Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia expressed surprise at receiving a call last Saturday from Secretary of State John Kerry warning Moscow not to expand its military role in Syria. Minister Lavrov said that Washington should be aware that Russia has always supported President al-Asad and supplied him with weapons and other assistance.

Of course, it is Washington’s view that Russia’s continued support to the Asad government has actually fostered the growth of ISIS inside Syria and made the situation worse. The State Department spokesman yesterday stated that, ”If they want to be helpful against ISIL, the way to do it is to stop arming and assisting and supporting Bashar al-Asad.”

This argument makes little sense. The Syrian government is currently fighting on three fronts. What good would its collapse do us and the broader international interest if Asad is deposed and the subsequent vacuum is filled by the current opposition?

The three main fronts of conflict are as follows —

  1. Almost forty percent of the country is under the control of Islamists fighting for the Islamic State or ISIL as the administration insists in calling it (ISIS or Da’ish are much preferred terms). The bulk of IS fighters are non-Syrian, and their cause is so horrific and abhorrent that no modern, civilized government should be against any force which is keeping them out of Damascus — even if it is the current government’s.
  2. A second front in the south is composed largely of groups of the former Free Syria Army, the Nusra Front — al-Qa’ida’s core group in Syria — and other Islamists and secularists of varying stripe and seriousness.
  3. Meanwhile, it is the the third front in the north which is now bearing down on the Alawi heartland of Latakia where the Russians are basing their new presence. The opposition to al-Asad here is led by the jaysh al-fatah or “army of conquest.” This grouping brings together the Nusra Front (again, al-Qa’ida), other Salafist, and a few secularist groups which are armed, funded, and supported by Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Most of these fighters are believed to be Syrian.

Now, the latter three countries are allegedly allies of the U.S. Note that the strongest member of their ‘army of conquest’ is the Nusrah Front — or “al-Qa’ida” which still considers the USA to be its number one enemy (after Israel perhaps) and one which the U.S. still regularly targets with drone strikes when an opportunity affords itself — especially in Afghanistan and in embattled Yemen.

This is the ‘army’ which recently detained the 50 or so men whom the U.S. had trained to fight the IS — at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. It is also the army which is now within artillery or at least rocket range of Latakia whose 1.5 million pre-war population has now doubled to more than twice that number with frightened Syrian refugees who are fleeing the Islamist onslaught.
It would seem that, during their recent bilaterals about Syria, Secretary Kerry either wasn’t listening to the points made by his Russian counterpart about a potential problem in Syria if Asad is deposed without an acceptable Plan B or that he simply and naively believes the Saudis and the Turks who tell him that these Islamists really aren’t all that bad.

U.S. and western policy towards Syria has been both feckless and ineffective since the first years of the Arab Spring when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State. This rather than Benghazi, is her Achilles heel in terms of negligent policy.

The U.S. has never been able to see the forest for the trees on Syria. We have given only the most modest support to UN efforts to introduce a cease-fire, have given in to blatant, biased accounts which have pilloried Bashar while ignoring the equally abhorrent policies of his foes, and have turned a blind eye to calls for a robust UN-sponsored role which might have preserved a government in Syria, started a process of genuine political reform from within, and set the stage for an efficient handling of the unfolding humananitarian catastrophe which has now spread far beyond Syria’s borders and is knocking at Europe’s — but not Arabia’s — doors.

Can matters be turned around? Yes, possibly, but only in partnership with Russia which, in this instance, has had a policy worth listening to and emulating since the start of this war. It is not that the Russians have better Arabists. It is perhaps more the case that their government listens more intently to its specialists than does our own. However, given the record of this administration on Middle East policy, one should not hold one’s breath.

Quite rightly, we don’t trust the Russians. But, perhaps, in this one instance of common cause, we should find a way for some wiggle room and develop and try to implement a policy which will not put an Islamist government in Damascus — moderate or otherwise — which seems to be the desired result of President Erdogan, King Salman, and the Amir of Qatar. End Introduction and Comment.

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“U.S. Moves to Block Russian Military Buildup in Syria” THE NEW YORK TIMES By Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt

9 September 2015

WASHINGTON — The United States on Tuesday moved to head off preparations for a suspected Russian military buildup in Syria as Bulgaria agreed to an appeal from the Obama administration to shut its airspace to Russian transport planes. The planes’ destination was the Syrian port city of Latakia.

The administration has also asked Greece to close its airspace to the Russian flights, Greek and American officials said, but Greece has not publicly responded to the request.

The apparent Russian military preparations and the Obama administration’s attempt to block them have escalated long-running tensions between the White House and the Kremlin. Although the United States and Russia agree that the Islamic State is a threat, the new dispute shows that they remain far apart on how best to combat the militant group and on the political future of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria — divisions that are likely to be on display when President Obama and President Vladimir V. Putin speak to the United Nations General Assembly this month.

The administration’s concerns were fueled last week by intelligence reports indicating that Russia appeared to be making preparations to deploy advisers and military personnel to an airfield south of Latakia and might also bring in aircraft and fly airstrikes from there.

Those preparations included the delivery of prefabricated housing for as many as 1,000 personnel and a portable air traffic control station to the airfield.

Over the weekend, two giant Russian Condor transport planes ferried more supplies and equipment from an air base in southern Russia across Iran and Iraq to Latakia, according to an American official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was discussing intelligence reports.

A Russian troop transport plane, probably an Ilyushin model, also landed at the same airfield in Latakia over the weekend. That aircraft, which flew over Greece and Bulgaria, is believed to have carried Russian military personnel.

“They’re clearly establishing some sort of forward operating base,” the American official said.

There have also been unconfirmed sightings of Russian Spetsnaz special forces at the Syrian Naval Academy, officials said.

Providing a benign explanation for the operations, the Russian news media has suggested that the planes were carrying humanitarian assistance. That is the same rationale Russia used to explain convoys that are believed to have delivered military supplies to Ukrainian separatists and that Iran has used to fly arms to Damascus to support the Assad government.

Bulgarian officials said on Tuesday that they had closed their nation’s airspace to Russian transport planes through Sept. 24.

“The reason for the refusal is associated with incorrect information in the requests to fly over the territory of the Republic of Bulgaria regarding the purpose of the flights and the cargo,” Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

While Bulgaria’s move will block one of the major air routes from Russia to Greece, it does not fully resolve the issue since Russia may still be able to continue its flights over Iran and Iraq. There is also a route from Russia to Syria over Turkey, but Russians avoid Turkish airspace because they fear the Turks will force a Russian military plane to land, as they have in the past.

State Department officials declined to discuss publicly what requests have been made to foreign governments to close their airspace to Russian aircraft, citing the need to maintain the confidentiality of diplomatic communications. But the officials made clear they were pressing the issue.

“We have encouraged our allies and partners to ask tough questions of Russia’s increased military deployments to Syria,” said John Kirby, the State Department spokesman.

At the least, the flights have highlighted the deepening differences between the United States and Russia over Syria. While the Obama administration has argued that Mr. Assad’s brutal crackdown against his opponents fueled the sectarian passions that strengthened the Islamic State, the Russians still appear to see the Syrian president as a bulwark against extremists, at least for now.

Western officials say that Russia’s intentions are not entirely clear. Although Mr. Putin spoke in Vladivostok last week about the need to form a coalition against the Islamic State, Iran and the Syrian government appear to be the only potential members so far.

One possibility is that Russia is not only trying to support the Syrian government but is trying to expand its role inside Syria so it can influence the choice of a new Syrian government in case Mr. Assad is ousted. Another theory is that Russia is putting itself in a position to defend a rump state should Mr. Assad be driven from Damascus and find refuge in a stronghold near the coast. None of these possibilities are mutually exclusive.

On Saturday Mr. Kerry called Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and warned Russia not to expand its military role in Syria. On Monday, a spokeswoman for Mr. Lavrov said that the Kremlin had long provided military assistance to the Syrian government in its fight against extremists and expressed surprise at Mr. Kerry’s warning.

But on Tuesday, Mr. Kirby repeated the criticism of Russia’s role.

“Russia is not a member of the coalition against ISIL, and what we’ve said is that their continued support to the Assad regime has actually fostered the growth of ISIL inside Syria and made the situation worse,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “If they want to be helpful against ISIL, the way to do it is to stop arming and assisting and supporting Bashar al-Assad.” ###

U.S. led coalition air strikes targeting ISIS, kill hundreds of civilians

A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq early in the morning of Sept. 23, 2014, after conducting airstrikes in Syria. These aircraft were part of a large coalition strike package that was the first to strike ISIL targets in Syria. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Matthew Bruch/Released)
A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq early in the morning of Sept. 23, 2014, after conducting airstrikes in Syria. These aircraft were part of a large coalition strike package that was the first to strike ISIL targets in Syria. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Matthew Bruch/Released)

A year ago, the Obama Administration announced that it would begin a campaign of airstrikes in Syria to target ISIS fighters. However these strikes have led to increasing numbers of civilian deaths. Civilian casualties of US air strikes are commonly reported in Afghanistan and Pakistan, however the ongoing violence in Syria has meant that civilian fatalities from U.S. air strikes in Syria are less known or have been merely dismissed. Like most U.S. drone and air strikes, they are unauthorized and no approval was sought to enter the Syrian airspace from the Assad Government. Thus technically making the strikes a violation of international law.

There have been over 2,000 US led coalition strikes in Syria alone this past year, which have killed hundreds of ISIS fighters. Allegations of civilian harm have not been adequately investigated and thus the exact number of civilian deaths is unclear. However the deaths are certainly far more than the U.S. Central Command (Centcom) admits. The death toll ranges from 200 to 498 according to Airwars, a group that monitors the international coalition’s airstrikes against ISIS. 100 of those deaths are supposedly children. Centcom, who are in charge of carrying out the air strikes, are formally investigating only five incidents of civilian fatalities. They announced they would only investigate incidents where they have received “credible” evidence. However Airwars has been tracking up to five times more civilian casualty events. The ability to verify these events is limited due to the dangers of visiting Syria, particularly areas that are under ISIS control. However incidents with civilian fatalities are taking place on a much greater scale than the U.S. will ever admit. Neutralizing civilian areas from military operations is becoming increasingly difficult as ISIS continues to gain a strong hold in areas in Syria.

The war in Syria has left millions displaced and thousands killed. If the U.S. weren’t to intervene with air strikes, they would be under scrutiny. Syrians although frustrated at the strikes, know they are not being actively targeted. An important distinction to make is that the U.S. air strikes are taken with precision and aim to avoid hitting civilians while attacks by other factions including the al-Assad government itself sometimes appear to be actively targeting civilians.

Although the current air campaign has been described as the most precise and disciplined in the history of aerial warfare, this shouldn’t mean that we should accept the deaths of civilians as collateral damage.

The USA and Russia bury the hatchet to focus on Syria – at last

GCC meeting pic
Secretary Kerry participates in the GCC meeting

In the first few days of August, the foreign ministers of the GCC, Russia and the U.S. descended on Doha, Qatar, for talks. The U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, assured GCC foreign ministers that the risk Iran poses had been greatly minimised as a result of the Iran nuclear deal. Secretary Kerry had just been to Egypt where he assured his counterpart, Sameh Shoukry that “There can be absolutely no question that if the Vienna plan is fully implemented, it will make Egypt and all the countries of this region safer than they otherwise would be or were”.

Secretary Kerry clearly wanted to secure the support of America’s crucial Persian Gulf allies for the deal in a bid to give it more credibility, as the Obama administration is currently fighting to prevent a Congressional attempt to derail the deal. The GCC states gave Kerry tacit support for the nuclear deal, saying that it should bring stability and “good neighbourliness”, rather than interference.

Qatari foreign minister, Khalid al-Attiyah said the alliance wanted to spare the region “from any dangers and threats from any nuclear weapons.” He said that this should be done by authorising the use of nuclear power for peaceful purposes in line with international rules. Many Gulf States are worried that the agreement will quicken reconciliation between Tehran and Washington, emboldening the Islamic Republic to support their paramilitary allies in the region. 

Russia’s agenda

A curious and clearly significant meeting occurred on the sidelines of this GCC meeting, where Secretary Kerry held trilateral talks with the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir, regarding the Syrian Civil War. Ever since the Iran nuclear deal, which Russia helped in securing, Moscow has been ramping up its once low-key foreign policy in the region. There has been a marked rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Russia, with the Saudi Minister of Defence Mohamed Bin Salman recently meeting President Putin. This trilateral talk between Saudi Arabia, Russia and the U.S. marks a significant rise in not only Russia’s foreign policy presence, but also of Saudi Arabia’s.  The meeting looked at ways forward for the Syrian conflict, and attempted to find common ground in the fight against ISIS.

Secretary Kerry announced that the US would defend moderate Syrian rebels against any attack, thus suggesting it could target Syrian government troops in future. Mr Lavrov condemned this new strategy and said it would be a violation of international law and represents an obstacle on the road to forming a united front against terrorism. He added that Russia provides military and technical support to the Syrian government to fight ISIS, just as they provide support to Iraq to do the same. Kerry stressed Washington’s commitment to supporting anti-ISIS fighters on the ground but also, that Assad’s “brutality” against Syrians is helping incite foreign fighters to join ISIS. At least publicly, Secretary Kerry and Mr Lavrov kept to the same line they have maintained since the onset of the conflict.

The man to watch?

Another meeting that was not reported in the press and is worth mentioning was Sergei Lavrov’s meeting with former chairman of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces Moaz al-Khatib during his working visit to Qatar. They focused on discussing the situation in Syria and emphasised the need to find political settlement of the Syrian crisis. Moaz al-Khatib is arguably one of Syria’s most respected opposition figures and one possible reading of this meeting is that it is hinting at Lavrov’s diminishing faith in Assad. The West loves Moaz because, as one NCF member put it, “He doesn’t throw all his toys out of the pram”.

A Damascus-Riyadh link?

At the end of last month Syrian National Security Bureau chief, Ali Mamlouk visited Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to have an unusual talk with the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman. This unexpected meeting has been described as “the miracle meeting”. The sit down was brokered by President Vladimir Putin of Russia who, after organising it, flew Mamlouk – one of Assad’s chief advisers – to meet Prince Mohammad. During their meeting Mamlouk appealed to Prince Mohammad for Saudi Arabia to change its policy regarding Syria, saying that Qatar was unduly influencing Riyadh. Mamlouk also thanked Russia for it’s “noble initiative” and said that Saudi Arabia and Syria both need to resolve their differences. At the same time Mamlouk blamed Saudi Arabia for everything that’s happened in Syria and accused the Kingdom of submitting itself to the will of Qatar’s ruling elite.

Prince Mohammed responded to this by expressing his fears to Mamlouk that Iran was exercising too much influence in Syria. He said that Saudi’s main issue with Syria is that they let themselves be led by Iran who are involved in a large scale conflict with Saudi on the level of the entire region. The deputy crowned prince ended the discussion by saying “may this meeting be an opening for us to talk to each other”. The two parties agreed to maintain communication but did not arrange a date for another meeting.

And meanwhile Iran

While these talks were happening, several Arab newspapers published an article written by Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, asking the GCC states to work with Iran to counteract instability in the Middle East. As optimistic as the tone was, the reality is that Iran and Saudi Arabia remain arch-rivals in the Middle East, and the recent incident of a deadly sectarian bombing in Bahrain suggests that Saudi-Iranian competition won’t be abated anytime soon.

For more detailed behind the scenes analysis those that are subscribing members of the NCF can go to the private NCF blog 

The ‘New Syrian Forces’: A Failed U.S. Initiative

Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter testifies before the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services' hearing discussing Counter-ISIL Strategy
Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter testifies before the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services’ hearing discussing the Counter-ISIL Strategy

The New Syrian Forces (NSF) is a Syrian armed group officially sanctioned by the United States and trained by the Pentagon. The NSF program was launched in May this year and the forces are a part of the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) 30th division, which consists of around 1,200 fighters. The division was established from several smaller armed groups to streamline the recruitment and training of fighters by the Pentagon, but the division is still largely under development. The Obama administration sees the formation of a moderate, reliable and trained military force that would fight directly with ISIL in Syria as key to the global strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy the organisation. The NSF, however, continues to be far off from fulfilling the administration’s vision.

The “ISIL-first” principle of the Pentagon initiative, where Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government forces are not targeted, is one of two key reasons why the programme hasn’t yet been successful. Only a handful have signed up for the NSF because many see Bashar al-Assad’s government as worse than ISIL and would prefer to fight the government instead. The second reason the program has been so disastrous is that those that do sign up also have to be evaluated through a stringent screening process in order to root out extremists seeking to infiltrate the program. Besides a background check, the screening process involves a polygraph test and a counterintelligence interview. The division’s leaders have complained about such stringent procedures as it saps resources from the actual training and arming of the fighters.

Since the NSF program’s launch, only 60 fighters have been successfully trained according to Defence Secretary Ashton Carter in an early July Senate hearing. Secretary Carter said that 7,000 potential fighters were undergoing screening but that the number of trained fighters was a lot smaller than he had hoped.  The program has a budget of $500 million, of which an astonishing half has so far been spent. This new force remains small and is uninspired and mediocre in quality, as the best opposition rebels are fighting the Syrian government forces and would not like to take ISIL head on.

The aforementioned 60 NSF fighters are currently active in Syria alongside the FSA’s 30th division but have run into severe trouble recently, not from ISIL, but unexpectedly from Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the strongest and best-financed armed groups operating in the country. On the 30th of July, Jabhat al-Nusra captured two leaders and six fighters of Division 30. The day after, the Nusra Front mounted an intense assault, with medium and heavy weapons, on the division’s encampment near the town of Azaz in Aleppo province, which is located near the Turkish border. Five FSA fighters from the division were killed in the attack, with 18 wounded and 20 captured by the al-Qaeda linked group. The abductions and the subsequent attacks by Jabhat al-Nusra were seen as a significant intelligence failure in Washington and took Pentagon officials by surprise. The U.S. went to great lengths to defend the 30th Division from the surprise assault on Friday. American warplanes provided defensive support fire through precision air-strikes.

The Pentagon trainers had prepared the initial 60 trainees to withstand attacks from both ISIL and the Syrian Army, but never expected Jabhat al-Nusra to mount an attack considering their opposition to ISIL in recent months. Indeed, some officials expected Jabhat al-Nusra to welcome Division 30 as allies in the fight against ISIL. This was a fanciful assumption, and the U.S.-trained NSF, along with the 30th division, now finds themselves with no allies in a hostile and war-torn country.