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Armenia Ceasefire

11 November 2020

This time, the truce will last. The 2,000 Russian troops flying into Armenia this week and fanning out to police the ceasefire lines in Nagorno-Karabakh are being sent there for five years renewable, and neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan will challenge them.

Armenia is in shock, but what remains of the Armenian enclave in western Azerbaijan would quickly be overrun if the Russian troops were not there. As Arayik Harutyunyan, Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist leader, admitted on Tuesday, “had the hostilities continued at the same pace, we would have lost all of (it) within days.”

Azerbaijanis are jubilant about their victory, but they will abide by this ceasefire. It’s enough: about three-quarters of the Armenian-occupied territory in Azerbaijan has fallen into their hands already, or will be handed over by Armenian forces by the end of this month. Besides, the Russians would be very cross if they broke their word.

Armenia won all that territory in a war that was almost inevitable after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan were ‘republics’ during the Soviet era, but the borders that Stalin had drawn for them left a significant ethnic Armenian population inside the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.

The Armenians living in the ‘Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (Province)’ accounted for about four-fifths of the local population. They declared their independence in 1991, and when fighting broke out between them and the Azerbaijanis, Armenia proper, also newly independent, sent troops and weapons to help them.

That war ended in an Armenian victory in 1994, after Armenian troops drove all the Azerbaijanis not only out of Nagorno-Karabakh, but also out of three times as much territory to the north, south and west of it. Armenia wound up with a large territory extending about 50 km east from its own eastern border.

The analogy with Israel’s situation immediately after the independence war in 1948-49 is irresistible.

There were only 800,000 Jewish Israelis in former Palestine in 1949, surrounded not only by a million Palestinian Arabs but by another 50-100 million Arabs in other countries within military reach of them.

There were 3.3 million people on the Republic of Armenia in 1994, and another 145,000 Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. There were no Azerbaijani minorities left in Nagorno-Karabakh nor in the large occupied territories around it, but there were about 75 million Turkish-speaking Muslims in Azerbaijan and Turkey who saw the outcome as an outrage.

That was worrisome, especially for people who were survivors of a recent genocide (the Armenians in Ottoman Turkey in 1915-18, the Jews in Nazi-ruled Europe in 1941-45).

However, both Armenia and Israel are supported by very large ‘connected’ diasporas: around 7 million people in each case, the great majority living in relatively prosperous countries like the United States, France, Canada and Russia. So how did they fare in terms of holding on to their lands?

Both countries have held their core territory as defined at independence. They are likely to do so indefinitely thanks to great-power guarantees, for Armenia by Russia and for Israel thanks to French guarantees until 1968 and subsequently by the United States.

Israel conquered quite a lot more territory in 1968, some of which (the West Bank) it is busily settling with Jews and will probably keep forever. Armenia also conquered extra territory in 1994, but it is losing most of it right now.

The ceasefire lines will probably become de facto borders. All the formerly occupied territories around Nagorno-Karabakh will be repopulated by Azerbaijani refugees, including the one road linking it to Armenia proper (but Russian peace-keeping troops will hold it open).

About a quarter of Nagorno-Karabakh itself was also captured by Azerbaijani forces, and will stay in their hands. Most Armenians have already fled the enclave, and only a minority are likely to return given the precarious lifeline through the Lachin corridor and the fact that Azerbaijani troops will remain within 5 km. of Stepanakert, the capital.

Why such dramatically different outcomes? The obvious answer is that Azerbaijan is oil-rich and was spending nine times as much Armenia on ‘defence’. But the Arab world is oil-rich too. How did Israel manage it?

By mobilising the support of its diaspora a great deal better. Immigration has grown Israel’s Jewish population from 800,000 to seven million since independence. In contrast, the population of the Republic of Armenia has actually fallen by a quarter-million, and there was no big influx of Armenians from overseas to Armenia proper, Nagorno-Karabakh or the empty occupied territories.

As with immigrants, so also with money for defence. Why Armenia couldn’t exploit its diaspora more effectively is a mystery, but that’s the difference. The military defeat was the eventual, inevitable result of a long-running political failure.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“That…1941-45”; and “Both…states”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The Last Days of the Old Middle East

16 September 2020

President Donald Trump declared “the dawn of a new Middle East” in Washington on Tuesday as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrein signed public agreements with Israel for the first time.

Not “peace agreements”, as Trump claimed, since neither country has ever been at war with Israel. Just documents involving an exchange of ambassadors, trade deals and the like. And it was significant that while Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu were there in person, the UAE and Bahreini rulers just sent their foreign ministers.

The only thing that actually happened on Tuesday, however, was that two Gulf mini-states went public on ties with Israel, especially in the arms trade, that had previously been not actually secret, but at least discreet. Apart from that, it’s still the same old Middle East, as corrupt, violent and dysfunctional as ever.

The last time Israel fought an actual war against any of its Arab neighbours was in 1982, a full-scale invasion of Lebanon that ended in a prolonged Israeli military occupation of the southern part of the country. That’s long over now, although Lebanon remains a ghastly mess, but all the region’s other wars trundle on uninterrupted.

The second Libyan civil war continues into its sixth year, with a cast of foreign participants and supporters that now includes Russia, Turkey, France, Egypt and the UAE.

The atrocious foreign military intervention in Yemen, led by Saudi Arabia but involving most of the autocratic Arab states and their Western arms suppliers, is only one year younger and still killing around 5,000 a month.

The Syrian civil war is in its ninth year. It has killed at least half a million people and driven almost half the population from their homes. It may be creeping towards an end now, with only one province still in rebel hands, but the rebels have Turkish military support and the Russian air force fights for the Assad regime.

Iraq is enjoying only its second year of relative peace since the US invasion of 2003, but the signs are multiplying that Islamic State is going to launch a major come-back bid there. The collapse of the oil price has left much of the population destitute. Urban youth are in open revolt, with hundreds shot dead by the police this year.

And when something genuinely new does crop up in the endless churn that distinguishes the region’s politics, it is often unwelcome.

Saudi Arabia, once the stable, conservative linchpin of inter-Arab politics, has turned into a loose cannon, starting unwinnable wars (like Yemen), funnelling money and arms to jihadi extremists (in Syria), and commissioning the cold-blooded killing of critics of the regime (as in the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi).

Overshadowing all these wars, and actually driving some of them, is the religious and strategic confrontation between revolutionary Shia Iran and the conservative Sunni monarchies and dictatorships of the eastern Arab world. That’s what those huge Arab arms purchases are for, not for fighting Israel.

Indeed, Israel is a silent partner in this region-wide cold war between the Sunni Arab states and Iran; that’s what made the little ceremony at the White House on Tuesday possible. There is no ‘Arab-Israeli conflict’: the major Arab players are already undeclared Israeli allies, and the Israeli army refers to its sporadic punitive strikes against the Palestinians as ‘mowing the lawn’.

Real change in this region happens with glacial slowness, if at all, but that does not mean that it is stable. On the contrary, it could tip suddenly into a radically different state. It almost did so in 2010-12, the years of the aborted ‘Arab spring’, and the forces that drove that uprising are even stronger now.

Half the population in Middle Eastern and North African countries is under 25. As populations have soared (Iraq’s has doubled to 40 million since the first Gulf War in 1990), economies have not kept pace, and living standards have fallen almost everywhere. A huge, mostly jobless young population living close to despair is now the Arab norm.

The oil-rich Gulf states used to be the exception to this rule, but no longer. The oil-price crash this time is not temporary: demand is falling and will continue to fall as the climate crisis and cheaper new ‘clean energy’ sources eat into oil’s traditional markets.

The pantomime at the White House on Tuesday was about tidying up a few of the loose ends of an old conflict. It would have a certain relevance if the future was going to be just more of the present, but that is not the case.

The timing is uncertain but the destination is clear: big changes are coming that will sweep away many of the existing regimes and reshape the politics of the region. Happy endings are not inevitable, but different endings are practically guaranteed.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 15. (“Not…ministers”; and “The oil-rich…markets”)

Israel-UAE: Last Days of the Old Middle East

15 August 2020

The ‘two-state solution’ is still dead.

The deal to open diplomatic ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, announced by Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Thursday, opens no new vistas for a ‘just peace’ between the Israelis and the Arabs. It just repackages the existing reality.

There wasn’t any possibility of an independent Palestinian state in the Israeli-occupied territories before last week, and there still isn’t now. There was only a very small chance that Netanyahu would annex the occupied territories to Israel before the Israeli-UAE deal was announced (although he talked about it a lot), and there’s even less chance of it now.

No real change on the international front either. Israel and the Arab countries are already at peace, with the partial exceptions of Syria and Lebanon, although few people in the region would call it a ‘just peace’. And the UAE has already been doing business quietly with Israel on everything from trade to defence planning (against Iran) for years.

Egypt and Jordan have had formal diplomatic relations with Israel for decades, and the other Gulf states will soon follow the UAE’s example, perhaps with Saudi Arabia bringing up the rear. The Palestinians, mostly living under Israeli occupation, understandably complain that they are being abandoned by their Arab brothers, but that really happened long ago.

So what actually changed last Thursday? Very little, although Donald Trump naturally tweeted that it was a “HUGE breakthrough” and his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner promised that the deal would bring “massive change” and “make the Middle East safer.”

Rubbish. The last Arab-Israeli war was 47 years ago, and it’s been decades since either side even had serious plans for one. The only plausible risk of a major cross-border war in the Middle East these days is between Iran on one side and the Arab Gulf states (with or without Israel) on the other.

That’s not really a big risk either, but the Arab Gulf states in particular worry aloud about it, and to some extent they have convinced themselves that it truly is a threat. They hope that they would have Israel’s support in such a war, since in military terms Israel is the region’s dwarf superpower.

Netanyahu’s government hates and says it fears Iran, so it probably would help the Arabs in the end. However, it would be a much more convincing deterrent to Iran if these putative Arab and Israeli allies were actually seen together in public occasionally. That’s the main reason for the Gulf states to go beyond the furtive relationship they have hitherto had with Israel.

What’s in it for Netanyahu? A peace treaty with another Arab state is a feather in the cap of any Israeli prime minister, but this deal also neatly gets him out of the promise he made to right-wing Israeli voters in the last election to annex much or all of the occupied territories.

Annexation would be purely symbolic, since Israel has already ruled all that land for the past 53 years, but he still needed an excuse to renege on his promise. The UAE deal is the perfect excuse: he can say he had to cancel annexing the Palestinian territories because Israel’s new partners in the Gulf would be so upset that they’d walk away from the deal.

Netanyahu insists that annexation is only postponed, assuring Israelis that it is “still on the table.” Donald Trump says “they agreed not to do it. This is a very smart concession by Israel. It is off the table now.” ‘Long-term’ for both of these men is reckoned in months, so they have no idea how irrelevant all this diplomatic fine-tuning will seem in retrospect.

The old Middle East is living through its final years. Across the Arab world every power relationship has been defined by oil wealth for the past two generations, and now the wealth is fading fast. Eight years ago the Arab oil-producing states were making a trillion dollars a year from their exports. Today their oil revenue is down by two-thirds ($300 billion), and it will fall further.

The coronavirus has accelerated this decline, but demand and prices have both been trending down for quite a while, and the growing unpopularity of fossil fuels in a rapidly warming world guarantees there will be no reversal of the trend.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE still have large cash reserves, but some of the smaller oil-states are running out of money right now. Economic devastation will be followed by political collapse: even the map of the Middle East may look quite different in ten or twenty years’ time.

And who will emerge from the wreckage as the sole big powers of the Middle East? Only the two countries with fully modern and diversified economies and little dependence on oil revenues: Israel and Turkey.

Funny how things turn out, isn’t it?
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“What’s…deal”)

Iran’s Nuclear Threshold Game

27 July 2020

“A glance at the history of nuclear weapons manufacture shows that all 11 countries that wished to build bombs did so within three to 10 years,” wrote Yossi Melman, intelligence and strategic affairs correspondent for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, on Sunday. So why, he asked, has Iran failed to do it in over thirty years of trying?

Maybe, Melman suggests, it’s because Iran doesn’t really want to build nuclear weapons. Maybe it just wants to be a ‘threshold’ nuclear power, always able to finish the job quickly if it really needs to.

If Iran’s enemies both nearby (Sunni Muslim countries and Israel) and far away (the United States) know that it can get nukes quickly in a crisis, that’s almost as good a deterrent as having them in hand. But it does not incur the boycotts, sanctions, and risks of ‘preemptive’ nuclear strikes that come with actually having the things.

This is not exactly a new thought, but it’s the first time I have seen it in the Israeli media. It’s also the first time I’ve seen the obvious question put so plainly: how could any country possibly spin the job out that long?

Iran is a country of 80 million people with adequate scientific and technological skills. At any point in the past fifty years it could certainly have built nuclear weapons in less than ten years if it had gone all out. It didn’t. Why not?

Iran’s original nuclear weapons programme was started by the Shah in the 1970s with the blessing of the United States, which was hoping to make him the pro-American policeman of the Middle East.

Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionaries shut that programme down when they seized power in 1979. They reckoned they didn’t need it. The only country in the Middle East that does have nuclear weapons is Israel, and the Iranian assessment has always been that it won’t be reckless with them.

Not only are Israel’s nuclear weapons relatively unthreatening, but Israel has an implicit American nuclear guarantee. There is no point in getting a few Iranian nuclear weapons to deter Israel’s hundreds and America’s thousands of the things. Indeed, when it comes to potential Iranian nukes, it’s never about Israel.

What really does get the Iranians going is nuclear threats from OTHER countries. The first time was after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran (with US support) in 1980. Iraq really did have a nuclear weapons programme, Iraqi ballistic missiles were already falling on Iranian cities, and so at some point during that eight-year war Iran restarted the Shah’s nuclear weapons project.

Saddam’s invasion of Iran failed, however, and his subsequent invasion of Kuwait and defeat in the 1990-91 Gulf war ended with the dismantling of Iraq’s nuclear facilities under UN supervision. So Iran’s nuclear weapons programme went back into hibernation. How can we be sure? Melman’s ‘10-year rule’: if Iran had kept going, surely it would have nukes by now.

The next panic was in 1998, when India and Pakistan each tested half a dozen nuclear weapons. India is no threat to Iran, but Pakistan potentially is. It is a powerful Sunni Muslim state (220 million people) right next-door to Iran, the world’s only major Shia country.

Sunni extremists have never gained power in Pakistan, but there is a big jihadi influence that even extends into the army. Iran panicked again, and in 1999 it secretly restarted its nuclear weapons programme.

That only ran until 2002, however, when an anti-regime Iranian revolutionary group, Mujahedin-e-Khalk, spilled the beans in public. Sanctions were imposed on Iran, and work on nuclear weapons once again ceased.

So the ‘mystery’ is solved. The Iranian nuclear weapons programme has not been active for a total of ten years, let alone ten continuous years. And Iran was willing to sign the internationally guaranteed ten-year deal to stop all potentially nuclear weapons-related work in 2015, because it is already close enough in terms of being a ‘threshold’ state.

There is the same constant tug-of-war between the rational actors and the ultra-hawks in Tehran as there is in Washington, Moscow and Beijing, but most of the time the grown-ups are in charge. If they lose the argument to the extremists in next year’s Iranian election, it will be because Donald Trump pulled out of that deal and reimposed sanctions in Iran.

Why did he do that when even his own intelligence services were saying the Iranians were keeping their promises under that deal? Because the deal was part of Barack Obama’s legacy, all of which Trump is determined to destroy, and for no better reason.

Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu does have a rational reason for wanting to destroy the deal, however. His intelligence services also told him that Iran was fulfilling its commitments under the deal, but he needs the Iranian nuclear ‘threat’ in order to win Israeli elections.

Does the phrase ‘rogue states’ spring to mind?
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“If…things”; and “Not…Israel”)