Saturday, July 11, 2015

Assad regime is collapsing

From The Australian, 8 July 2015, by Shlomo Ben Ami*:

A series of crucial defeats of the Syrian army has laid to rest any illusions that the government in Damascus is in control of its country. By spreading his forces thinly across Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has drastically reduced his capacity to win decisive battles, and he is now being forced to evacuate wide areas of the country to concentrate his army around Damascus and the Alawite enclave in the northwest.

As it becomes clear that Assad is likely to lose the war, his closest allies — as well as world powers and regional players — are beginning to plan for the end game.
In late May, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, gave a speech that spoke volumes about the impact of the Syrian war on his organisation.
“The threat we face is existential...We now have three options: to expand the war and fight far more than we have fought in the last four years, to capitulate and be slaughtered, or to disperse throughout the world, walking humiliated and purposeless from catastrophe to catastrophe.”
More than 3000 Hezbollah fighters have died in Syria, and a further 4000 have been injured. Syrian militants, including Islamic State fighters, have penetrated Lebanon, threatening to rekindle the country’s ethnic war and undermining Hezbollah’s legitimacy as the guarantor of its security. Assad’s fall would deny the organisation its vital logistic hinterland in Syria, making it vulnerable to challenges by insurgent Sunni militias.

Iran, too, is likely to face a reckoning, as its ally in Damascus approaches defeat. The country’s strategic calculations are bound to have been affected by the ascension of Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to the Saudi throne, a real game changer that has resulted in a shift of alliances among the region’s Sunni powers. Stronger ties among Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar — and the spectacular successes of the latter’s Sunni proxies in Syria — will put pressure on Iran to cut Assad loose or risk being drawn even deeper into the Syrian quagmire.

The regional proxy war between the Iran-backed Assad government and Sunni-backed rebels has largely undermined America’s influence on the course of events in Syria. Sunni fighters have ignored US calls to focus on fighting Islamic State instead of the Assad regime. In fact, the most effective fighting force in the country is Jaish al-Fatah — The Army of Conquest — a collection of Sunni rebel groups, some of which the US considers to be terrorist organisations.

The US is rightly worried that a victory by Jaish al-Fatah and others might empower anti-Western elements in Syria. Drawing from its sad experience in Iraq, the US government fears that Assad’s fall would be quickly followed by the collapse of the Syrian army, leaving the country without a stabilising force. Rather than turning their attention to Islamic State, the fractious victors would most likely turn on one another. As in Libya, the fighting would make the country ungovernable.

Meanwhile, Russia, which considers the naval base of Tartus to be strategically vital, can be counted on to do all it can to prevent a total defeat of the regime. When Secretary of State John Kerry proposed, at a meeting last May, a joint international approach to contain the conflict, Russian President Vladimir Putin was not interested. But the Russian regime is not blind to the realities of the battlefield. Following the loss of the city of Palmyra to Islamic State, families of Russian advisers began to be repatriated. In preparation for a possible future without Assad, the Kremlin is now trying to gain influence in opposition groups.

For now, Assad is doing his best to cling to power. A power-sharing agreement is all but unthinkable, and Syria’s geography is not well suited to an orderly division along sectarian lines. Assad’s war aims have been reduced to avoiding decisive defeat and gaining international legitimacy, in the hope of a favourable political solution. The rise of Islamic State did lend support to the government’s claims that Syria risks being taken over by terrorist groups; nonetheless, the regime is finding itself increasingly isolated.

Assad’s final days are unlikely to be pretty. The tight-knit members of his clan, his political allies, and many members of the Alawite minority will be fighting for their survival. Unless a political solution is somehow found, Syria’s fate will come down to the prophetic words a Sunni frontline fighter from Homs told a German reporter in 2012. “It’s a question of numbers,” he said. “There are 18 million Sunnis against him. Assad must kill them all. Otherwise, we’ll win and kill him and his henchmen.”

*Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is vice-president of the Toledo International Centre for Peace.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Israel Should Stop Courting Europe, Turn to Asia

European officials and European civil society often like to think of themselves as the pinnacle of human rights and morality. In reality, Europe has become a moral vacuum and, once again, a breeding ground for casual hate, racism, and anti-Semitism. This has become clear not only through the example of sophisticated elites like former Irish President Mary Robinson, British Labor politician Jeremy Corbyn, or Daniel Bernard, the late French ambassador to the United Kingdom, but also in the increasing European obsession with stable, democratic Israel, while countries surrounding Israel degenerate into anarchy, generate millions of refugees, promote genocide, and incite and sponsor terrorism.

...Israel has long considered itself almost a European country... For too long, however, Israel has if not ignored Asia then put it on the backburner. Sure, there was been sporadic outreach to China, but this was both half-hearted and misguided: When it comes to the Middle East, Beijing is the ultimate realist. Immediate commercial concerns means everything, broader principle mean little if anything.

India—the world’s largest democracy—was largely hostile to the Jewish state for the same reason it was hostile to the United States. Indian nationalist diplomat Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon coined the term ‘non-alignment’ in a 1953 United Nations speech, and the following year Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, co-founded the Non-Aligned Movement. In theory, it sought a third path separate from the Cold War rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States but in practice it was marked by disproportionate hostility to the West.

Non-alignment, a fondness for socialism, and a suffocating bureaucracy hostile both to direct foreign investment and free market enterprises long restrained India’s economic potential. While India still has a way to go, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to bring India’s economy, political culture, and foreign into the 21st century. He recognizes how much India and Israel have in common. They are both democracies in a region where democracies otherwise have not thrived. And Islamist radicals target them both. In the case of both, land disputes — be they have Jerusalem and its environs in Israel’s case, or the Kashmir in India’s — are only an excuse for a far more murderous agenda.

Earlier this year, Modi announced that he would become the first Indian leader to visit Israel. Among tech-savvy Indians, the twitter hashtag #IndiaWithIsrael is trending. Nor does it seem that Modi’s looming visit will be the end-all and be-all of warming ties. As COMMENTARY readers know, the UN Human Rights Council has long been a cesspool of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic bias. 

Consider these statistics of cumulative Council condemnations from its founding in 2006 to the present: Israel has been condemned more than 60 times, yet slave-holding Mauritania, blogger-whipping Saudi Arabia, journalist-repressing Turkey, freedom-extinguishing China, migrant worker-killing Qatar, and expansionist Russia have faced no condemnation. Condemning Israel has become a knee-jerk reaction around the world and, for decades, it has been India’s position as well. But on Friday, July 3, India shocked the Council by abstaining on its condemnation of Israeli actions in last year’s Gaza War. Now an abstention isn’t the same as a vote against, but clearly India-Israel relations are on the upswing, or could be if Israeli leaders are willing to work hard to cultivate them.

But India is not alone. The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) has long sought to cultivate ties between Israel and other Southeast Asian countries—Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, and even Malaysia. The momentum is promising, as have been the results considering the relatively small scale. If Israel made a concerted effort to cultivate these ties, they might find a much more receptive audience than in past years. Not only would this create a strategic buffer, but it might also correct the narrative that all Muslims embrace the radical, anti-peace positions put forward by more rejectionist Arab states and European and American proponents of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. After all, Indonesia is the largest Muslim country on earth by population, and India the second largest, even though it is not even majority Muslim.

Such diplomacy need not be an either-or scenario, but just as Washington navel-gazes and forgets that the United States and the targets of our interest are not alone in the sandbox, so, too, do Europeans forget that they are not the world’s moral barometer or the doyens of the elite club with which everyone wants favor. 

Not only is Southeast Asia booming as many of its countries largely abandon ruinous socialist practices and authoritarianism, but many now also face the same Islamist terror threat which Israel has been confronting for decades. There is a convergence of interests; let us hope that Israeli officials stop wasting undue energy on the Sisyphean task of pleasing European officials inclined to dislike them and recognize that such efforts might lead to greater results with a new eastern push.