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Saudi Game of Thrones

Now is the moment of maximum danger for Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS).

He has weathered the immediate storm over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi two months ago. He even went to the G20 summit in Buenos Aires a week ago and persuaded several other national leaders to stand beside him for photographs. But the real threat to his power (and maybe his life) is at home.

It’s not the Saudi public he must fear. He’s quite popular with young Saudis, who are a large majority of the population. He’s relatively young himself (33). He has loosened some of the tight social and religious controls (women can drive now, and you can even go to see a movie). And most of them don’t even believe that he is responsible for the killing.

MbS’s problem is his family, who know perfectly well that he ordered the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and understand what that crime means for the kingdom’s standing in the world. They also realise that his foreign policy has been an unmitigated disaster, from the futile war in Yemen to the blockade of Qatar, and that his economic policy hasn’t been much better.

Many prominent Saudis also have personal reasons to hate him. Some were pushed roughly aside in order to facilitate his rapid rise to supreme power. Others were kidnapped, jailed and even tortured in order to extort billions of dollars from them, on the often shaky pretext that their money was the fruit of corruption. If you held a secret ballot among the ten thousand most influential Saudis, MbS would be gone in a flash.

It doesn’t work like that, of course. This is still an absolute monarchy, and so long as MbS has the support of his elderly father, King Salman, he has absolute power – in theory. In practice, he must also have at least the grudging support of the royal family, which sees the Saudi state as a family business in which they all have a stake.

It is a remarkable family, if only for its sheer size: an estimated 15,000 members, many of whom are direct descendants of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud. When he died in 1953 he left 36 sons, and there are literally hundreds of grandsons.

All these men, their spouses and their children and grandchildren are supported (quite lavishly) by the family business, but there are only a few hundred people who really matter. They matter a great deal, however, and by now they would be close to unanimous in seeing Muhammad bin Salman as a wrecker who is endangering their own futures.

So how to get rid of him? In the past, the family’s rule has survived the abrupt removal of kings: one king was forced to abdicate in 1964, another was assassinated by his own nephew in 1975. The princes closed ranks, and the dynasty carried on with a new king. In theory, it should be even easier when you are only trying to remove the crown prince.

Why not just work through his father, King Salman? After all, the king has already appointed and then dismissed two other crown princes; maybe he could be persuaded to do it again. The problem with this approach is that MbS zealously controls access to the 82-year-old king, who is believed to be suffering from mild dementia (Alzheimer’s).

An alternative would be for the Allegiance Committee, a family-run institution created in 2006 which adjudicates on succession issues, to declare King Salman incompetent because of illness, dismiss the Crown Prince, and appoint someone else as his successor. In the absence of more formal rules, any prince descended from Abdul-Aziz would be eligible.

Plotters hoping to use this device would be risking their lives, of course, for MbS is a ruthless man who would strike first if he got wind of the plan. However, they may be emboldened by the fact that he has now arrested his own chief enforcers in an attempt to shift the blame for Khashoggi’s murder. This betrayal will certainly have shaken the loyalty of their colleagues who still serve the crown prince.

But there is one further consideration that is bound to give even the boldest plotters pause. If MbS concludes that he has decisively lost the support of the royal family, he still has a last card to play: war with Iran.

It’s what he wants in the long term anyway, but his preferred option has been to get the United States and Israel to do the actual fighting for him. If he had no other way of heading off a family-backed coup against him, however, he might take Saudi Arabia into such a war unilaterally, counting on the US and/or Israel to bail the country out. In the midst of a war, nobody at home would dare attack him.

So on balance, MbS is likely to stay in power, perhaps to the ultimate ruin of the country he rules.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“He has…killing”)

Corbyn, Palestinians and Brexit

It sounds like a tempest in a teapot, but it could bring down Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party – and that could end up meaning that Britain doesn’t leave the European Union after all.

It started last Saturday with a photograph in the Daily Mail (a newspaper that regards Corbyn as the Devil’s second cousin) of the Labour leader laying a wreath in a cemetery in Tunisia four years ago. He had laid it, said the Mail, at a memorial to the Palestinian terrorists who planned the attack that killed eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

It was a calculated attempt to paint Corbyn as anti-Semitic, and the mud stuck. The Mail also published a 2013 video in which Corbyn said that Palestinians were experiencing “conditions in the West Bank, under occupation, of the very sort that will be recognisable by many people in Europe who suffered occupation during the Second World War.” That’s perilously close to comparing Israel to Nazi Germany.

Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who never misses a chance to portray Europe as a cauldron of anti-Semitism, immediately tweeted: “The laying of a wreath by Jeremy Corbyn on the graves of the terrorists who perpetrated the Munich massacre…deserves unequivocal condemnation from everybody– left, right, and everything in between.”

Corbyn replied at once on his own Twitter feed: “What deserves unequivocal condemnation is the killing of over 160 Palestinian protesters in Gaza by Israeli forces since March, including dozens of children.” Fair comment, perhaps, but that is not what a prudent British politician would choose to say when the Israeli prime minister has just accused him of anti-Semitism. Twitter makes everybody stupid.

Jeremy Corbyn is not anti-Semitic, but he certainly could be described as anti-Zionist. It’s not an uncommon position among British politicians who joined the Labour Party in the 1960s and 70s: admiration for Israel and close ties with the sister Labour Party that then dominated Israeli politics, mixed with a keen awareness that the triumph of Israel had been built on a Palestinian tragedy.

Corbyn is also on the hard left of his party, which means that he has never met an anti-imperial, anti-colonial, or anti-capitalist cause that he did not like. That’s how he found himself attending the ‘International Conference on Monitoring the Palestinian Political and Legal Situation in the Light of Israeli Aggression’ in Tunisia four years ago. And once there, he naturally went along when they all laid a wreath in the cemetery.

The conference was officially linked to the devastating Israeli air strike on Tunis in 1985, which killed 80 senior officials of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, members of their families, and Tunisian civilians. Corbyn doesn’t speak either French or Arabic, the two dominant languages in Tunisia, and he presumably thought that’s what the wreath-laying was about. So he took part in it.

In fact, the wreath was laid in memory of a different bunch of Palestinians, members of the Black September group, who had helped to plan the Munich outrage and were later assassinated by Israeli intelligence agents. Did Corbyn just get confused, or did the Tunisians deliberately mislead him? Who knows? Who cares?

What Corbyn should have done when the Daily Mail broke that story was to admit all, plead ignorance, and make a grovelling apology. It would have been humiliating, but he would certainly have survived to fight again.

He didn’t do that. He is a very stubborn man, and he combined a lame semi-admission of his mistake – “I was present at that wreath-laying. I don’t think I was actually involved in it” – with further criticisms of current Israeli policy. And thereby he turned a little personal problem into a crisis for the Labour Party.

Labour has been tearing itself apart recently over differences about where to draw the line between legitimate criticism of Israeli policy and anti-Semitism. It is certainly not institutionally anti-Semitic – Corbyn’s predecessor as party leader, Ed Miliband, was Jewish – but it has already alienated a lot of its Jewish supporters. Corbyn’s blunder may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Corbyn has never had the support of most Labour members of parliament. It is becoming plausible (though no more than that) to think that he might lose the leadership – especially as it is becoming clear that he’s the main reason Labour doesn’t enjoy a big lead in the opinion polls over the chaotic Conservative government led by Theresa May.

Which brings us to Brexit. The current stalemate in British politics, which has paralysed negotiations for a sensible post-Brexit relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, risks ending next March in a disaster in which the UK crashes out of the EU with no deal at all.

The stalemate is mostly due to the fact that both major parties in the UK are profoundly divided between pro- and anti-Brexit factions, but both parties have pro-Brexit leaders. Recent opinion polls show a small but growing majority of voters would vote ‘Remain’ in a second referendum, but neither party will back such a referendum under the current leadership.

If Labour had a different leader, all that could change – and Corbyn is in deep trouble.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 12. (“It was…Germany”; and “Labour…back”)

Changing Syria’s Demography

With the fall of Deraa last Friday, the end of Syria’s civil war is within sight. What will Bashar al-Assad and his ruling Ba’ath Party do with their victory?

Polishing off the last rebel-held areas in the south, right up against the Israeli border, won’t take long now that Israel agreed that Syrian government troops can re-occupy those territories so long as Iranian and Hizbollah militias don’t accompany them. (Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu discussed the issue with Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday.)

Recovering the thinly populated eastern quarter of the country, currently held by US-backed Kurdish forces, is a tricky diplomatic issue, but it will be accomplished in due course. Reconquering the one province still held by Islamist rebels, Idlib, may take longer, but it’s not going to stop ‘reconstruction’ in the rest of Syria. And that is going to change things a lot.

Syria’s demography shaped the seven-year civil war, in the sense that all the rebels were Sunni Muslims. Lots of Sunnis supported the regime and even fought for it, but 70 percent of the entire Syrian population are Sunnis and a majority of them, especially in rural areas and the big-city slums, backed the rebellion. Hardly any non-Sunnis did.

The pro-regime non-Sunni minorities were Shia Muslims (including the Alawite sect that is the backbone of the regime), Christians, and the Druze, who all feared that a Sunni victory would mean at best oppression, or maybe exile or death for them. This was mainly because the Islamist fighters who dominated the later stages of the revolt were all Sunni extremists whose language made those fears plausible.

So how could the regime make itself safer from another rebellion? Get rid of as many as possible of the poorer Sunnis, and particularly those who lived in the cities.

The present situation presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do just that, because more than half of the pre-war population of 23 million are now out of their homes: 6 million as refugees abroad and another 6 million internally displaced. They are almost all Sunnis, and the Assad regime sees them as ‘bad’ Sunnis, so here’s what he is going to do.

Syria’s new Law No. 10 requires property-owners in parts of the country devastated by the war to produce their ownership documents within 30 days. If they don’t, they will have no further claim to their home or the land it once stood on. It sounds quite straightforward, but here’s the trick.

The devastated areas where most buildings were damaged or destroyed are, of course, those that fell into the hands of the rebels and were smashed up by government bombs and shell-fire. Assad’s regime assumes (probably correctly) that most of the people in those areas, mainly on the outskirts of the big cities, backed the rebels.

Many of those people are now refugees outside the country, and most of the rest are internally displaced persons. Their documents may have been destroyed, or they may never had deeds (if they lived in informal settlements). In either case they will be very reluctant to come home and put themselves in the hands of the regime, so they lose their land.

And then, the regime thinks, they will never come home at all – which is the point of the whole exercise. When these areas are eventually rebuilt, the homes will go to people who backed the regime, or at least stayed neutral: ‘good’ Sunnis and the minorities.

Meanwhile the war will go on for a while here and there at a lower pace, but the Kurdish-controlled areas will probably soon be back under government control. Rather than wait to be betrayed by the Americans (who will not protect them from Turkey in the long run), the Kurds will make a deal with Assad that gives them an autonomous Kurdish regional government and protects them from Erdogan’s anger.

Idlib, the last opposition-held area, will take longer. The province’s population has doubled to 2 million, and a great many of the newcomers are hard-line Islamists who were sent there after the negotiated surrenders in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta or Daraa in the past eighteen months.

Assad doesn’t actually want them back, and the Turks (whose troops are already in Idlib province) might fight to protect them. He may just leave them there, safely quarantined, until some opportunity arises to get rid of them. But in the meantime he is re-shaping the population to guarantee the regime’s long-term future.

The cities may be a bit smaller than before, but they will be reliably regime-friendly. The country as a whole will still have a Sunni majority, but probably a less overwhelming one, and the most hostile elements will be living in exile. It is demographic engineering on a very large scale, and nobody can stop it.

To the victor go the spoils.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“The pro-regime…plausible”)

Peace Process: Still Dead

Like other U.S. presidents before him, Donald Trump invited the current Palestinian leader to the White House and told him that there was a “very good chance” of a peace settlement between Israel and a soon-to-be-independent state called Palestine.

The current Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, did not break with tradition either. Like his predecessor Yasser Arafat (who visited the White Hours 24 times during Bill Clinton’s two terms as president), Abbas concluded his visit on Wednesday with an optimistic remark: “Now, Mr. President, with you we have hope.” But the “peace process” is still dead.

It has been dead for 22 years now, ever since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. That was the peace deal that enshrined the “two-state solution”, with Israeli and Palestinian states living side-by-side in peace, as the agreed goal of the peace talks. But the Jewish fanatic who murdered Rabin in 1995 for promising the Palestinians a state killed the Oslo Accords, too.

During the election that followed to replace Rabin, the radical Hamas movement, which opposed any compromise peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, launched a massive terrorist campaign inside Israel. Its purpose was to drive Israeli voters into the arms of the right-wing Likud party, which also opposed the peace deal. It succeeded.

The winner of the 1996 election was Binyamin Netanyahu, and he has been prime minister for more than half the time since then. Only once, in a single speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, has he publicly accepted the principle of a demilitarized but independent Palestinian state in at least some of the territories conquered by Israel in 1967. But that was just to please the United States; he didn’t actually mean it.

During the last Israeli election campaign in 2015, an interviewer from the Israeli news site NRG asked Netanyahu if it was true that a Palestinian nation would never be formed while he is prime minister. “Bibi” (as he is known in Israel) replied simply: “Indeed.”

Bibi is generally more cautious than that, communicating his true views on the “two-state solution” to the Israeli public by nods and winks. He needs to reassure the Israelis who vote for him that it will never happen, but too much frankness annoys Washington, which prefers to pretend that somehow, some time, a Palestinian state is still possible.

The ministers who populate Netanyahu’s cabinet are not under the same pressure to go along with the pretense, because most of what they say stays in Hebrew. British journalist Mehdi Hasan recently collected some of their more revealing remarks, like Interior Minister Silvan Shalom’s speech to a meeting of Likud party activists in 2012: “We are all against a Palestinian state, there is no question about it.”

Or Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, who said in 2013: “We need to state clearly that there won’t be a Palestinian state west of the Jordan river.” Or frankest of all, Science and Technology Minister Danny Danon: “Enough with the two-state solution. Land-for-peace is over. We don’t want a Palestinian state.”

So this umpteenth attempt to revive the corpse of the late lamented peace process is pure charade. It’s something that American presidents do, mostly for domestic reasons, and Mahmoud Abbas goes along with it because he is desperately in need of some face-time with a leader who really is important. (Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian National Authority for four years in 2005, but there has been no election since.)

There’s plenty of blame to go around. The main Palestinian Islamist organization Hamas withdrew its recognition of Abbas in 2009, and has since ruled the Gaza Strip, its stronghold, as a separate Palestinian proto-state. This gives the Israelis the quite reasonable excuse that there is no united Palestinian authority they can negotiate with.

The brutal truth is that the two-state solution’s time is past. Israel has become so strong militarily that it is the region’s dwarf superpower, so it no longer needs to trade land for peace. Many of the neighbouring Arab states, obsessed by their own much bigger security threats and civil wars, have been co-operating quietly with Israel for years now.

Israeli rule over four and a half million non-citizen Palestinians has already lasted half a century. There is no convincing reason why it cannot last for another half-century, although there is bound to be an eruption of Palestinian resistance from time to time.