The diplomatic crisis in the Gulf: Saudi Arabia’s hazard, Qatar’s isolation and Iran’s potential win

 

Where does the diplomatic crisis that has been unfolding in the Gulf in the past couple of days stems from and where does it risk leading the region

 

In what to many has been a familiar déjà-vu, a diplomatic crisis with Qatar at the centre of it has been unfolding in the past couple of days in the Gulf. However, despite not being anything new to the region’s inner actors and outside experts, this time the diplomatic rift has assumed more dramatic tones: unlike what happened in 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and the Maldives did not limit to sever diplomatic ties with Doha but also severed all sea, land and air ties; issued expulsion orders to Qataris residing in their countries; and expelled Qatar from the Saudi-led coalition that is fighting in Yemen against the Houthi rebels.

According to what reported by Saudi news agencies on Monday 5th of May, the reasons that led Riyadh to adopt such tough measures against Qatar and that led the other countries mentioned above to follow suit are to be found in Doha’s financial and material support to terrorist and extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and to its excessively close ties to Shia Iran.

As a matter of fact, Qatar has historically characterized itself for a somewhat independent foreign policy that has at times created rifts and tensions between the Emirate and the other GCC countries: it has always maintained cordial ties to Iran, with which it manages gas exploitation in South Pars, the world’s largest gas reserve that lies in the Gulf’s waters between Iran and Qatar; it has traditionally sponsored and provided a safe haven to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood; it has maintained close and cooperative links with PA’s rival Hamas; and in 2011 its news outlet Al Jazeera largely supported the Arab Spring that was conversely arousing the fears of GCC countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen.

Nevertheless, Qatar has always tried to balance its quite independent foreign and regional policy with substantive alignment with the GCC, as its involvement in the war in Yemen to restore President Hadi and its participation in the fight against ISIS proves. Therefore, the decision of Saudi Arabia to cut all sort of ties with Doha, without even clarifying which steps should Qatar take to step out of its current isolation, needs to be explained in light of other and deeper considerations than mere accusations of links with terrorism (from which not even Saudi Arabia itself is exempted) and with Iran (a country with which also Oman has pretty cordial relations).

The tough moves embraced by Saudi Arabia against Qatar are taking place just a couple of weeks after President Trump made of Riyadh the first destination of its first Presidential trip abroad. There, the American President’s words and acts (among which the signature of a new arms deal worth 110 billion $ stands out) revealed an American Middle Eastern policy that sees in Saudi Arabia a major strategic partner with whom to fight terrorism and curb Iran’s aspirations to regional hegemony.

Unsurprisingly, but perhaps more quickly and more dramatically than expected, this new attitude of Washington towards Riyadh has made the kingdom more self-confident in its self-entrusted role as Sunni leader and has encouraged its already assertive posture vis-à-vis Iran. Thus, emboldened by a retrieved friendship with the US that the years of the Obama administration had seemed to cool, Saudi Arabia has decided to act promptly and to assert its prominence as Sunni anti-Iranian leader by cutting ties with a Qatari neighbour judged not belligerent enough against Teheran.

In doing so, though, Riyadh is playing with fire and it is risking unleashing further tensions in an already troubled region.

As Qatar sees itself isolated in the Gulf peninsula and with no reliable friends in the GCC, its only hopes of re-inclusion rest with the mediating role that Turkey and the US might play. However, until now neither Ankara nor Washington has clearly intervened in the diplomatic rift on Qatar’s behalf: the former seems reticent to openly criticize Riyadh’s assertiveness and seems to be considering the UAE as a possible country where to transfer its military base currently installed in Qatar; the latter, on its part, is too absorbed by the fight against the PKK and the dynamics of the Syrian war to search another confrontation.

In this context of deep isolation, in which old enemies resurface and old friends shied away, Qatar might thus find itself in a situation in which strengthening its ties with Teheran becomes the best and only path out of the solitude. If this did occur, the shift of a Sunni major strategic and economic power like Qatar to Iran’s camp would risk exacerbating further the dangerous confrontation between Riyadh and Teheran, with unpredictable –but surely destructive- effects on the entire region.

Saudi Arabia should therefore remember that by playing with fire you risk sparking flames that you cannot control -and getting burnt yourself.

The wave of Afghan refugees infringing against Europe’s unwelcoming shores

 

How the EU should frame a new approach to Afghan asylum seekers starting from a better understanding of Afghanistan’s history and Afghanistan’s diaspora

 

In the century-long history of migration crises that have interested the European continent, 2015 marked the latest turning-point: in that year alone, as reported by the European Parliament and the UNHCR, over a million refugees attempted their way to Europe in search of better lives, of more opportunities, or simply of a chance at survival. With the war in Syria sowing ever more destruction; with the situation in Afghanistan deteriorating under the Taliban resurgence; and with the security in Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa threatened by brutal jihadist terrorism and bitter civil wars, an increasing number of people found themselves with no better –and no other- option than risking everything they still had to flee the desperateness of their countries and reach the security of the European Union.

Among those flows of refugees that suddenly reversed upon Europe’s borders, according to the UNHCR Afghans were (and remained throughout 2016 and in early 2017) the second largest group after the Syrians. In 2015, about 200,000 Afghans –who according to the interviews conducted by the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) were mainly young men travelling alone along the land gateway known as Balkan route that goes from Turkey to Europe via the Aegean Sea and Greece- were amongst those seeking a new beginning in the “old continent”.

However, faced with a sudden and ever increasing number of asylum seekers, the “old continent” that had sparked so many hopes in so many people did not prove able to stand up to the salvific mission that History was entrusting upon it. At the transnational level, the EU failed to pursue the coordination among its member states that should be at the basis of its decision-making and policy-making: EU member states –each driven by its own internal concerns and political considerations- failed to reach an agreement for an equal and fair distribution among them of migration quotas that could give a new home to the refugees while preserving the internal equilibriums of hosting countries and the stability of hosting societies.

As a consequence of this failure at the EU level, European countries and governments had to address the problem at the national level, where they found themselves exposed to a two-pronged challenge: on the one hand, the requirement for all signatories of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees not to return refugees to a country where their life and freedom are threatened; on the other hand, the anti-immigration protests coming from European populist, nationalist, and right-wing parties and from ever wider fringes of the public opinion. In most countries, in fact, a climate of suspicion towards migrants took root and sparked fears about migrants depriving the locals of jobs. These fears at the national level compelled EU governments to take restrictive measures towards migration, such as tighter border controls and the setting of daily quotas. In September 2015, Germany increased its controls along the border with Austria and soon afterwards Hungary started sealing and fencing its border with Serbia and Croatia. Similar measures were also taken by Slovenia and restrictive policies on border controls were enforced by France, Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Norway.

On the background of the incapacity of coordinated action at the EU level and of the growing opposition to immigration at the national level, the situation worsened further with the agreement ratified in March 2016 between Brussels and Istanbul. According to the deal, all new irregular migrants crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece would be returned to Turkey, that in turn would receive financial support from the EU. In this way, the agreement brought about the closure of the Balkan route and thousands of migrants saw their situation becoming ever more desperate and uncertain. In particular, Afghan migrants who had been largely reliant on the Balkan corridor were amongst the worst hit: as reported by the AAN, thousands of them got stuck in the makeshift refugee camps of the Balkan states and Turkey and entered a stalemate made unbearable by the coming of winter. Moreover, their prospects of a future improvement were crashed by the voices of several European leaders claiming that Afghanistan has “safe areas” and that therefore Afghan migrants cannot be equated with Syrians, Iraqis, and Libyans.

The truth is that Afghanistan is in a situation as complex and tough as that of Syria, Iraq, and Libya, but being it geographically further from Europe’s borders it is less of a concern to Europe’s politicians and less of an object of sympathy to Europe’s media and Europe’s public opinion. As a consequence of this general disregard for the plight of Afghans who are perceived as being too far from us for their situation to shake our humanity, the EU signed a re-admission agreement with Kabul (known as Joint Way Forward) whose aim is to return to Afghanistan those Afghans asylum seekers who are not recognized the refugee status. As reported by the AAN, after the agreement was reached last October, 580 Afghans were sent back to their country of origin and many more forced deportations are likely to be observed this year.

The measures implemented towards Afghan asylum seekers by the European Union result from a general disregard and disinformation over the current situation in Afghanistan and over the intricate and painful history of the Afghan diaspora. Promoting a better knowledge of them is therefore essential to encourage the EU to frame more appropriate policies towards Afghan refugees.

 The different waves that have characterized the Afghan diaspora are inextricably linked to the different chapters of the country’s modern history, and it is by looking at the latter that we can understand the flows of Afghan refugees throughout time.  In the modern history of Afghanistan, 1979 represented a major turning-point: after the Saur Revolution that had overthrown King Daoud Khan, the USSR’s Red Army intervened to establish and maintain a government that would be a de facto satellite of Moscow. What ensued from the Russian invasion of the country and from the Russian manipulation of its political dynamics was a ten-year conflict that saw the USSR fighting against the Afghan mujahidin. During the conflict, a first wave of Afghans began to abandon the country and to settle in the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and Iran. As reported by the UNHCR, between 1979 and 1989, about 2.6 million Afghans crossed the border to Iran and 1.5 million Afghans fled eastwards to Pakistan.

In 1989, the Soviet Union –by then on the brink of implosion- left Afghanistan and its withdrawal encouraged most Afghan refugees to return to their country. However, the situation was again reversed after 1992, when a new chapter in the history of Afghanistan and its diaspora began. In that year, the fragmentation among the mujahidin front led to a civil war among the different factions of mujahidin and the country was once again suck into bloodshed and destruction. In the framework of these events, a second wave of Afghan refugees emerged and spilled over Pakistan and Iran as it had before. This time, though, Afghans were particularly unwelcomed in the hosting countries and the Afghan diaspora began to take on bleak and desperate shades. The situation, then, worsen further after 1995, when the recently-emerged but rapidly-spreading Taliban movement managed to bring several regions under its control until occupying Kabul in 1996. With the ascent of the Taliban and the religious extremism embodied by them, the wave of refugees –especially of non-Pashtun and non-Sunni Afghans- rose again, to the point that the UNHCR reports a net migration rate of -6.5/1000 over the period 1995-2000.

This Taliban-caused wave of emigration stopped in 2001, when the US-led invasion led to the removal of the Taliban Emirate. In the renewed climate of confidence that spread after the defeat of the Taliban, a large wave of voluntary repatriation interested Afghanistan: assisted by the UNHCR, 2.7 million of Afghan refugees returned from the camps where they had been hosted in Pakistan and an additional 800,000 returned from Iran. However, the climate of confidence that encouraged this wave did not last much. After 2005, as the war between the international forces and the insurgent groups within Afghanistan embittered, a new wave of Afghan refugees left the country. Peculiar of this post-2005 wave is that asylum seekers began to seek refuge not only in Pakistan and Iran -where Afghans were generally treated as second-class citizens- but also in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe – where hopes of a better life were higher.

As mentioned at the beginning, after 2015 –with the Taliban regaining considerable terrain following the decrease in the number of US and NATO forces deployed in Afghanistan- this tendency has been strengthening and Europe has increasingly become the aspired destination for the hundreds of thousands of Afghans whom the lack of security is driving away from their homeland.

Interviews to the families of Afghan refugees conducted by the AAN have in fact shown how the main drivers behind this latest wave of immigrants are security concerns. Even if some Afghans come to Europe for economic reasons, most of them do so to escape war and terrorist threats. Therefore, they qualify as refugees under international law and they should be recognized as such by the EU.

TWith respect to Afghan asylum seekers, the EU should adopt an approach that is more reflective of the values on which it claims to be founded and frame policies that stem from a sound knowledge of the recent history of Afghanistan’s refugees and of Afghanistan itself. As reported by SIGAR’s latest quarterly report, Afghanistan continues to be one of the most unstable countries worldwide, where war and terrorism are daily reality, and this is something of which the EU must be aware and cognizant. In front of Afghanistan’s tough reality, in fact, denying to Afghans the status of refugees and claiming the existence of safe areas within the country to where they can return means denying the truth. On the contrary, the EU should recognize the tough plight in which the Afghan people verse and use its channels of intra-EU cooperation not to create mechanisms that send back Afghans asylum seekers but mechanisms capable of hosting them and giving them the safe haven that they are entitled to and that they came to us to find.

 

[Photo: Radio TNN]

The return of the “Butcher of Kabul”

 

As Hekmatyar returns to Afghan politics, what hopes are there for an improvement of the country’s political stability?

Saturday the 29th of April was a crucial day in the dynamics of Afghan politics: Hekmatyar –the controversial leader of the Pashtun group Hizb-i-Islami- returned to the Afghan scene and addressed a crowd of around 200 supporters in the eastern province of Laghman where he has maintained his traditional power-base.

During the speech he delivered, which in a way is the rehearsal of the more important speech he is supposed to deliver in Kabul in the upcoming weeks, Hekmatyar touched on delicate topics such as peace, war, national unity and expressed his commitment to the first, his condemnation of the second, and his support for the third.

Hekmatyar’s return to the country’s political theatre is the result of the peace deal which was reached last year by Hizb-i-Islami and Kabul. As of the terms of the agreement, Hekmatyar committed to the acceptance and respect of the Afghan constitution, to the rejection of violence, and the abandonment of any military and financial linkage with terrorist groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda (with whom Hekmatyar has a long history of collaboration behind). On its part, the Afghan government accepted to grant impunity to the north-eastern warlord (who is accused of committing several war crimes during the years of the Afghan civil war), to encourage international actors to lift any sanction and restriction against the group, to release several members of Hizb-i-Islami who are currently in jail, and –the most important clause of all- to allow Hizb-i-Islami to run in Afghanistan’s elections.

Many Afghans, though, are sceptical about Hekmatyar’s new discourse of peace and concerned about his return and the impact that this can have on the country’s political stability (or, rather, what remains of it). Since last autumn, when the deal was signed, the country has thus been deeply divided on whether inviting Hekmatyar to join the political process was a wise move that testifies Ghani’s political acumen or rather a hazardous gambling that proves Ghani’s political weakness- and this divergence of opinions could indeed be seen clearly on Saturday on the streets of Laghman’s major cities, where jubilant crowds of Hekmatyar’s supporters alternated with crowds of opponents tearing his posters apart.

The absence within Afghanistan of a united stance regarding Hekmatyar and, more in general, the role to be reserved to former warlords like him reveals how delicate the entire issue of political integration is and how difficult it is to assess the implications of encouraging controversial figures to take part in the country’s political process.

Obviously, if the terms of the deal were respected by both sides, then Afghanistan would have nothing but benefits to reap: a former warlord giving up his weapons for the sake of the country’s constitution; a more stable central government challenged by opponents through elections rather than through weapons; a better functioning political system made of legitimate competition, inclusiveness, and broad representation.

Yet, reality is never as easy as it is written in agreements and several problems make the road that goes from paper to reality an impervious one.

Firstly, there is the problem of implementation: no matter how brilliantly framed a deal might be, if it is not implemented it is nothing more than a precarious sandcastle. The challenge ahead for Ghani, then, is to ensure that the deal is enforced and that Hekmatyar respects his commitments and embraces the project of a modern and democratic Afghanistan. This challenge, though, is feared by many Afghans to be an extremely tough one since Hekmatyar is renowned for having betrayed all of his allies during the civil war’s years. Ensuring his unrelenting compliance will thus require to Ghani continuous checks, political firmness, and zero toleration of deviations.

Secondly, there is the already mentioned problem of divergence of opinions regarding the deal, as a considerable number of people rejects the idea of seeing the “butcher of Kabul” (as Hekmatyar is known for shelling Kabul with thousands of rockets in the early ‘90s) being granted immunity and running in electoral lists. Until the population remains divided on whether or not the reconciliation between the government and the Pashtun leader was a positive turning-point for the country’s political future, it is difficult to expect a smooth implementation of the deal. For the deal to be enforced effectively and positively, a climate of general support for it needs indeed to be created and, in order to do so, the government should promote honest and informative public debates and encourage a nationwide propaganda capable of explaining to the Afghan people the rationale that lays behind the deal and that calls for its backing.

Thirdly, the impact of the deal will largely depend on the use that Ghani and Hekmatyar will make of it. In the optimal scenario (that though is often the most utopian one) both leaders will rely on the deal’s effective implementation to cancel their previous rivalry and work towards the common objective of a more peaceful and democratic Afghanistan. In the worst scenario (that, unfortunately, is often more likely) both leaders will use the deal for their own interests. Ghani would use it to strengthen his powerbase vis-à-vis the Tajik Abdullah with whom he is forced to share powers and his other political rivals such as former President Karzai. Exploiting the support and influence that Hekmatyar enjoys within the Ghilzai Pashtuns, Ghani could easily succeed in widening his base of supporters and bringing weight in his favour – which would be especially relevant in the case in which a Loya Jirga (national assembly) on the NUG was convened. On his part, Hekmatyar would use the deal to access the political system and the channels of power in a way that his Hizb-i-Islami is no longer capable of doing by means of arms. Exploiting his entrance in the political system and his presence in the highest spheres of politics, he could pretty easily amass power and influence in his hands at the disadvantage of the central government and undermine his non-Pashtun opponents.

As Hekmatyar returns to the forefront of Afghan politics, the consequences of his return are not clear yet since much will depend on whether and how the deal will be enacted now that the “butcher of Kabul” is back.   We cannot but follow him on his upcoming trip to Kabul and see what happens next in the Ghani-Hekmatyar rapprochement’s tale.

The “mother of all bombs” is daughter of no strategy

The US dropping of its largest non-nuclear bomb in Afghanistan reveals all the weaknesses of Washington’s Afghan policy and the need for a more comprehensive strategy capable of responding to the country’s many security challenges and political problems

 

One day after ISIS-Khorasan (the Afghan branch of ISIS) claimed responsibility for an attack near government offices in Kabul that killed five people and wounded ten, the United States dropped a GBU-43 bomb in the eastern province of Nangarhar, where ISIS-K is based. The GBU-43 bomb is a 9,797kg GPS-guided munition that was first tested in 2003, before the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It is the largest non-nuclear bomb that the US has ever used in combat, and because of its destructive potential it has gained the nickname “mother of all bombs”.

After the bomb was dropped on Thursday, the head of American and international forces in Afghanistan Gen. Nicholson said that the operation was intended to damage the operational capabilities of ISIS-K and to increase the protection of international and Afghan forces against its terrorist attacks. On the same line, spokesperson within the Pentagon stressed the efficiency that deploying such a powerful weapon can have in the framework of countering terrorism in Afghanistan and the contribution that it can give to ending a “war on terror” that begun sixteen years ago and that still lacks a clear winner.

 

However, the massive military attack of Thursday does not seem to be part of any broader US Afghan strategy and it is difficult to see how a similar show of military might on part of Washington can respond to the exigencies and the challenges of the Afghan war. The bombing in Nangarhar might perhaps respond to Trump’s foreign policy narrative of an assertive and credible American military power and to the expectations of those voters who supported his project of making America “great again”, but it certainly does not respond to the needs of Afghanistan. Indeed, the problems in terms of terrorism, security, and stability that Afghanistan is facing are too complex for a mere militarist approach to be sufficient.

 

Firstly, there is to consider the weakness of Afghanistan’s democratic experiment and the stalemate that continues to paralyze policy-making in Kabul. Despite the important and undeniable step forward that the instalment of the NUG in 2014 under the leadership of Ghani and Abdullah represented, the country is still characterized by a political system made of patronage and ethnic rivalries/alliances that find their roots in a culture traditionally dominated by tribalism. In this context, it is necessary to embrace a strategy that encourages –as the NUG tried to do, but in a more credible and effective way- the development of a political system based on actual (not merely fictional) power-sharing across ethnic groups, so as to give equal representation to the country’s diverse realities. Only in this way it will be possible to make of the government in Kabul an inclusive one, in which all Afghans can recognize themselves and which all Afghans can come to trust and respect.

Secondly, adding to the NUG’s limited inclusiveness and worsening its low credibility, is the rampant corruption within the government and the military that has created over the years a wide gap between government officials and security forces on one hand, and the population on the other. This gap has eroded the trust of Afghans in the political class and the security apparatus, since they regard both of them as distant, detached from people’s grievances, and exclusively focused on furthering their interests and broadening their privileges. Unsurprisingly, this has helped groups such as the Taliban to gain a considerable degree of popular support, or at least connivance. What the Taliban (and more recently, though to a lesser extent, also ISIS-K) managed to do, in fact, was to exploit the Afghans’ distrust in the government, in the army, and in a political system perceived as corrupt and inefficient, in order to present itself as a viable and better alternative. It is on this background that a battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people –especially in those rural areas that Kabul struggles the most to reach and control- ensued, and no strategy in Afghanistan can successfully deal with the country’s internal conflict without addressing this major challenge. It is indeed crucial to replace the existing political culture of favoritism and nepotism with one of accountability and responsibility that –together with better systems of checks and balances- might restore the Afghan people’s trust. Unless this trust is restored, in fact, non-state groups such as the Taliban and ISIS-K will easily exploit the situation at their advantage, giving to people what corrupted politicians and security forces fail to give and gaining in this way their support.

Finally, there is an exogenous factor to be taken into account when attempting to frame a successful strategy for Afghanistan, and this is the role of Pakistan and its historical use of Afghanistan to gain strategic depth vis-à-vis India. In the specific, since the early ‘90s Pakistan has been doing so by backing the Afghan Taliban in their struggle to control Kabul, and the continuation of this policy up to this date reveals the necessity of a strategy that uses diplomatic and economic leverages to encourage Islamabad to change its traditional Afghan policy. At this respect, though, the picture is made more complex by the need to consider two other major players: China, that has recently supported Pakistan’s economy with investments for $57 bn, and Russia, that is tightening its ties with Pakistan in the attempt of increasing its influence in South Asia. An effective Afghan strategy is thus one that looks not only at what happens within the country but also at the broader set of actors that rotate around it and whose influence on the conflict’s prosecution/ending is of primary relevance.

 

In conclusion, Afghanistan is a country facing an extremely wide array of problems and challenges and if the US is determined to address them in order to bring an end to the conflict, a mono-dimensional and militarist approach such as embodied by Thursday’s attack is not viable nor effective, and a broader and multi-dimensional strategy is required in its stead.

 

[Photo: AP]

 

 

Rising tensions across the Levant

 

The last week has witnessed a heightening of tensions between Syria and Israel. Far from being a two-actor tale, this escalation is expression of the delicate balances of power and axes of alliance involving all the actors of the Syrian war

 

In the Middle East’s complex and ever-evolving arena, the past days have been marked by a worrying escalation of tensions between Syria and Israel. This escalation, that is now adding to the troubles the Levant is already facing, is taking place after a series of incidents that have occurred over the last week and that are the most serious cases of direct Israeli-Syrian confrontation since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.

It all began last Friday when Israeli warplanes conducted a series of air raids near Palmyra against convoys suspected of transferring weapons to Hezbollah. As a response, the Syrian government fired a number of missiles towards Israeli jets and -according to Israeli, Syrian and Lebanese reports- an Israeli drone was even shot down on Monday by Syrian aerial defense systems. Since then, tensions between the two countries have been worsening, with each side warning the other against the risks of retaliation and claiming its resoluteness not to leave attacks un-responded.

 

As these worrisome events unfold in the Levant, understanding the strategic considerations lying behind them, their significance as eventual “game changers”, and their likely future impact on the regional post-war settlement, requires to look at the broader set of actors involved in the Syrian conflict, at the specific regional and national interests motivating each of them, and at the peculiarities of the alliances of which they are part.

 

Of the many foreign actors involved in the Syrian conflict, a major role –both on the battlefield and at the negotiating table- is that played by Russia since its direct intervention in September 2015.  Committed to guaranteeing the survival of its Alawite friend, and allied in its military activities and political moves to Iran and Hezbollah, Moscow is nonetheless determined to oppose any military strategy against Israel that its allies might want to pursue. In particular, it wants to avoid any destabilization on part of its war allies of the border along the Golan Heights (an area bitterly disputed since 1967) since a similar course of action might end up dragging Russia in an unwanted confrontation with Israel. For Russia, indeed, cooperating in the Syrian conflict with Iran and Hezbollah but keeping itself at a distance from their regional ambitions against Israel is the win-win strategy par excellence.

It is this position endorsed by Russia that has led Netanyahu to Moscow more than once (the latest on March 9th), as he sees in Putin an important partner to deter Iran and Hezbollah from challenging Israel’s interests. However, as political analysts and policymakers begin to see an end to the Syrian conflict, the weight of Iran and Hezbollah in negotiating a post-war settlement is something that Russia cannot ignore if it wants to play the role of mediator and peace-broker to which it aspires. In other words, if until now Russia has been able to find a balance between avoiding tensions with Israel over crucial (and to Israel indeed vital) issues such as the Golan border and preserving a united front with its war allies Iran and Hezbollah, continuing to do so is becoming ever more difficult for Moscow.

For its part, Damascus is similarly interested in preventing Iran and Hezbollah from turning the border region along the Golan into a future battlefield that would risk seeing Syria involved in another regional conflict that the country cannot afford (economically, militarily, demographically). However, the Syrian government has become ever more self-confident over the past months and last week’s counter-strikes against Israel not only strengthen the credibility of the regime’s image but also stand as real “game-changers” in the regional balance of power. Indeed, if Israel’s attacks against arms shipments to Hezbollah are nothing new, Syrian assertive response is instead a new factor that has to be dealt with.

On the contrary, Iran and Hezbollah are united in their aspiration to exploit the context of the Syrian civil war, the regional instability triggered by it, and the questionability of the regional borders that it has brought about, to revive the dispute over the Golan area and reignite direct confrontation with Israel. Strong of the successes that they have been achieving during the years of war, Hezbollah and Iran see now themselves in the right military position and with the right diplomatic leverage to destabilize at their advantage the Golan area – an area which is geo-strategically crucial for the pursuit of their security interests in the context of their historical hostility with Israel.

On the opposite side of the conflict, then, there is Israel, whose involvement in the Syrian civil war responds to considerations of national security and, in particular, to the need of preventing any meaningful success for Iran and Hezbollah that might turn them into major and powerful regional actors.  For Tel Aviv, a non-questionable tenet of its security policy is the preservation of the Golan border as defined unilaterally by itself in 1967. Therefore, it perceives as especially worrying the threats posed to the stability of the area by Iran and Hezbollah, and it is to the perception of these threats that one has to look to explain last week’s air raids against weapons convoys headed to Hezbollah.

In addition, Israel aspires to have a say in the post-war regional settlement in order to protect its interests and avert the creation of non-favourable centres of powers along its borders. In this light, last week’s attacks stand thus as Israel’s reminders of its weight and “voice” in the definition of regional balances.

 

In conclusion, as each actor pursues its own interests as peculiarly defined against the prospect of an end of the Syrian war, the escalation between Syria and Israel and the possibility of a post-war confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah/Iran over the Golan have the potential to become the most serious challenges to the region’s equilibrium in the upcoming future.

Interestingly enough, the resolution of these challenges will largely depend on Russia’s capacity to maintain even in a post-war context its crucial balancing role and to adapt it to the changing circumstances on the ground.

 

[Picture rights: Israeli Defense Ministry]

 

The undeniable face of apartheid

Israel’s discriminating policies and the need to acknowledge them as first step to countering them

 

It is hard to find a word as evocative of a specific place and time as “apartheid” is of the South Africa of the decades 1948-1994. As one hears or reads the word “apartheid”, the memories of South Africa’s dramatic experience immediately come to mind and images of South African black people’s discrimination, oppression, and humiliation arouse a mixture of compassion, disgust and shame.

 

Yet, apartheid is not limited to last century’s South Africa. The evils that the phenomenon encourages are indeed still much alive in today’s world and –far from having disappeared from – they have merely changed residence and victims.

 

Last week, the UN-linked ESCWA committee published a report entitled “Israeli Practices Towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid” that came as a detailed analysis of all the legislations, policies, and practices pursued by Israel against the Palestinian people that constitute crimes of apartheid.

Recalling the definition of apartheid of the International Criminal Court, the term “apartheid” applies to all “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them”, and according to ESCWA’s report many of Israel’s policies with regards to the Palestinian people fit indeed into this definition.

 

In particular, the main finding of the report is that Israel pursues different policies in its relations with the Palestinians, giving rise in this way to a four-level apartheid system referred to as “strategic fragmentation of the Palestinian people”. According to this fragmentation, Palestinians are divided into four groups: Palestinian citizens of Israel against whom “civil law” is deployed to restrict their freedom; Palestinians in East Jerusalem governed by ever more exclusionary “permanent residency laws”; Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who live under belligerent occupation; and Palestinians living as refugees or in exile who are precluded by law and policy from returning to their homeland. As stated by the report, these apparently different policies are actually part of a broader single policy of apartheid aimed at the preservation of Israel as a Jewish state based on a privileged Jewish majority.

 

Unsurprisingly the report was met with opposing reactions and the distance between them is perhaps the greatest and most disheartening sign of how long the road to equality for Palestinians still is.

If the Palestinian Authority’s endorsement of the report and Israel’s rejection of it were predictable, the decision by UN Secretary General A. Guterres to distance himself from the report has raised some voices of disappointment and several questions over the credibility of the UN system and its capacity to guarantee the respect of international law. On the same line, the US ambassador to the UN declared her country to be “outraged” from the report, sparking further debate not only on the US’s role but –more broadly- on how the international community should react to the report and to Israel’s discriminatory policies.

 

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the international community played a crucial role in uniformly putting pressures on South Africa for the abolition of apartheid, and those universal pressures that saw the world united in one single cause are what made of the defeat of apartheid in South Africa a story of rebirth and hope that belongs not only to the national narrative of South Africa but to the historical narrative of all of us.

Today, the international community should retrieve that same positive role it once played and use towards Israel all the political, diplomatic and economic leverages that are needed to encourage Tel Aviv to reframe its policies and laws towards the Palestinians in conformity with international law.

 

It took South Africa the courage of its people –black and white alike- to give itself a new identity and an inclusive future. Now, it is the turn of the Israelis to show the same courage. It is time for the Israeli civil society to look into the eyes the apartheid system they have created and reinforced over the years and to see that -if they want to defend all the positive values of which Israel can be expression – then that system has to be acknowledged, denounced, and ultimately dismantled.

 

Acknowledgment of a phenomenon is the unavoidable first step of any effort aimed at countering it, and the ESCWA report should have been taken as the opportunity to do exactly that and move towards building a new, positive, inclusive identity for the state of Israel.

When occupation is made legal – The latest chapter in a saga of expropriation and humiliation

 

The law approved by the Knesset legalizes Israel’s territorial occupation and adds a step to Netanyahu’s run towards the cancellation of any viability of the two-state solution

 

Last Monday the Israeli Knesset approved 60 to 52 the so-called Regulation Bill. According to this law, about 4,000 Israeli settlements built in the West Bank on private Palestinian land will obtain retroactive legitimization as long as the settlers can prove that they were not aware that land was Palestinian private property. Once this is proved, they will obtain the legal permit to remain in their houses, while the legitimate Palestinian owners will have two possibilities: either accept an alternative plot of land where such an offer does exist; or accept a financial compensation set by an ad hoc committee created by the Israeli government.

The Regulation Bill results from a proposal advanced over the past months by the ultra-right Jewish Home Party in reaction to the High Court’s decision to dismantle the illegal outpost of Amona. The choice to refer this proposal to the Knesset reveals thus Netanyahu’s need to find an uneasy balance between external and internal pressures. On the one hand, the Israeli PM has to take into account the stance of the international community and avoid policies that might condemn Israel to isolation; on the other hand, Netanyahu is leading a coalition government whose survivability depends on ultra-right parties (such as Jewish Home), which forces him to take into due consideration these parties’ requests.

That the proposal was not only submitted to the Knesset but even received its endorsement is then sign of a whole other series of factors –both internal and external- that characterize and influence today Israel’s politics.

Above all, the law’s approval reveals the high degree of influence that ultra-right groups have managed to carve out for themselves in the current political environment, where fra from being a marginal force they are a leading force capable of directing policies and law. Tightly linked to the ultra-right ascent is that of those groups that support the policy of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and that, over the past months, have obtained important victories (among the latest the announcement that 6,000 new settlements will soon be built).

Finally, the Knesset’s vote comes as latest confirmation of the renewed confidence of the Israeli Right in front of an American administration that has adopted until now a mild line on Israel’s settlements. After Monday’s vote, in fact, Trump’s government limited itself to make reference to a previous comment on how settlements “may not be helpful” in the framework of negotiating a future Israeli-Palestinian peace, but it postponed further comments to the Israeli Supreme Court’s upcoming pronouncement.

Different reactions, instead, have come from the international community, the Palestinian government, and also from leading figures and NGOs within Israel.

The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has condemned the vote as a violation of international law, and similar words also came from the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs who recalled the UNSC Resolution 2334 recently adopted in condemnation of Israel’s settlements.

In line with the international community was also the reaction of some Israeli NGOs such as Peace Now and Yesh Din that voiced their intention to appeal to the Supreme Court, as well as from the Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit who warned against the adoption of a law that violates Palestinians’ property rights and who stated his refusal to defend the law.

On its part, the PLO defined the law a “legitimization of theft” that violates international law and ends any prospect of a two-state solution, and it declared its intention to appeal to the ICC to fight the impunity that Israel seems to enjoy in front of a Statute of Rome that should apply to all states.

After Monday’s vote, it is now to be waited for the Supreme Court’s verdict. In any case, the mere fact that the law met the approval of the Knesset confirms how the Israeli government is far from seeking a solution that leads to a Palestinian state ad how it aims on the contrary to have a single Jewish state built on as much land as possible and legitimized by any legal means possible.

 

[Picture Rights: Wojtek Arciszewski/Al Jazeera]