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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.

Next Year in Jerusalem

“All of us are saying: ‘Hey, United States, we don’t think this is a very good idea’,” said Jordan’s King Abdullah II in 2002, when it became clear that President George W. Bush was going to invade Iraq. But Bush didn’t listen, and it turned out to be an extremely bad idea.

This time, with President Donald J. Trump about to announce that the United States will recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there, King Abdullah
simply sounded resigned: “The adoption of this resolution will have serious implications for security and stability in the Middle East.”

He knows there’s no point in protesting, even if it ends up meaning that Jordan has to break diplomatic relations with Israel. Trump is simply keeping a campaign promise he made in order to win the votes of American Jews and evangelicals, and he neither knows or cares about the implications of his decision for the Middle East.

Neither does he care that he is abandoning an American policy that has endured for seven decades and is still observed by every other country with an embassy in Israel. They are all down on the coast, in Tel Aviv, because the final status of Jerusalem in international law is still to be determined.

It’s still up in the air because the 1947 United Nations resolution that recommended the creation of independent Jewish and Arab states in Palestine also put Jerusalem under a separate Special International Regime, since it is sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

That never happened, because the UN resolution triggered a war that left Jerusalem divided between Israel and what remained of Arab Palestine (all of which was promptly annexed by Jordan and Egypt). And since the Old City, the heart of Jerusalem, was now part of Jordan and exclusively Arab in population, all the embassies stayed in Tel Aviv.

In the 1967 war Israel conquered the eastern, Arab-majority part of Jerusalem (and all the rest of Palestine too), and in 1980 it declared that the entire ‘reunited’ city would be Israel’s eternal capital. The embassies still didn’t move, however, because Israel had not more right to annex East Jerusalem in 1980 than Jordan did in 1948. International law no longer allows borders to be moved by force.

Nothing has changed since then. There are 88 foreign embassies in Tel Aviv, and not one in Jerusalem. This is inconvenient, since most Israeli government offices are up in Jerusalem, but diplomats and foreign ministries generally take international law quite seriously. They’d gladly move if Jerusalem were internationally recognised as Israel’s capital, but it is not.

This view of things is enshrined in the Oslo accords of 1993, a US-sponsored pact that has defined the Arab-Israeli ‘peace process’ for the past quarter-century. It leaves the final status of Jerusalem to be decided by negotiations between the two parties – although, significantly, Israel did not cancel its 1980 annexation of Arab Jerusalem when it signed the accord.

Now in fact, everybody knows that Israel has no intention of ever giving up Jerusalem as its capital, and that it is too strong for any combination of Arab countries to force it to do so. Everybody realises (or should realise) that the ‘peace process’ has actually been dead for at least a decade, and that there is currently no possibility of resurrecting it. So this whole fuss is just about symbolism – but symbols matters.

Everybody goes on pretending that there is a ‘peace process’, just as they pretend that the status of Jerusalem is still unsettled and that the United States is neutral between Israel and the Palestinans, because these fictions allow the Arabs, and especially the Palestinians, to pretend they have not lost the struggle decisively. But they have, at least for this generation.

What Trump is doing now, for no better reason than to keep some American voters happy, is rubbing the Arabs’ noses in their defeat. Being normal human beings, they will respond by re-opening the struggle – not to the point where they risk being destroyed by Israel, but at least enough to save face and do a lot of damage.

Some Arab countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel (and even some other Muslim countries) will feel compelled to downgrade them or cut ties completely. Jordan and Egypt, which actually have peace treaties with Israel, may be forced to reconsider them. The Palestinians may feel obliged to launch a third intifada, just to show that somehow they are still in the game. It won’t be Armageddon, but it could get quite ugly.

There is one important group of pro-Trump voters, however, who would be delighted if it did turn into a real war: white evangelical Christians, or at least the ‘dispensationalists’ amongst them. Armageddon is what the Bible prophesies, in their reading of it, and they eagerly await the prophecy’s fulfillment. Even if it comes at the hand of a thrice-married pussy-grabber.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Nothing…accord”)

The Middle East: Not Enough Wars Yet

“When all the Arabs and the Israelis agree on one thing, people should pay attention. We should stop this Iranian takeover,” said Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last month. So we’re paying attention now, and we even know where the next war will start: Lebanon.

That seems unfair, as Lebanon’s last civil war lasted fifteen years, killed around 200,000 people (out of a population of only 4 million), and only ended in 1990. Couldn’t they hold this one somewhere else? Unfortunately, no. All the other venues are taken.

Iraq is still fully booked. The fight against ISIS is almost over, but the struggle between the Arabs and the Kurds has only just got started again. It never really stops for long.

Bashar al-Assad’s forces, the Russians, and Shia volunteers from Iran and Lebanon are winning the war in Syria, but it will be at least another year before they suppress all rebel resistance.

Yemen’s airspace is too congested, with Saudi, Emirati, Kuwaiti, Jordanian and Egyptian planes bombing the living daylights out of the Houthi rebels who hold most of the country (and anybody else who happens to be nearby). No real room for another war there.

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel want to take Iran down a peg or two, and their efforts to get the United States to do it for them have not yet succeeded. Trump is not opposed in principle, but his current obsession is North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

So the war will have to be in Lebanon, at least at the start. The big Shia militia that controls southern Lebanon, Hezbollah, is closely allied to Shia Iran, and it’s a permanent nuisance along Israel’s northern border, so it’s a suitable place to start rolling back Iran’s influence in the region.

Lebanon is a particularly good choice from Saudi Arabia’s point of view because it’s the Israelis who would have to do the actual fighting there. (Saudi Arabia does not share a border with Lebanon.) But if Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is really serious about curbing Iran’s power, his own troops are eventually going to have to take on the job of cleansing Syria of Iranian influence.

You only have to say that sentence aloud to realise that this project is going to end in tears for the Saudis, the Israelis and (if they get sucked into it) the Americans. There is no way that the inexperienced Saudi army is going to drive battle-hardened Hezbollah and Iranian militia troops out of Syria.

Actually, there is no way that the Israeli army is going to drive Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon either. In Israel’s last war with the organisation in 2006, Hezbollah’s troops fought the Israeli army to a standstill in southern Lebanon. The Israeli air force smashed up Lebanon’s infrastructure, but Israel ended up accepting a ceasefire with Hezbollah and withdrawing its troops in a hurry.

Sunni Arab leaders and Israel’s prime minister have talked themselves into the paranoid delusion that Iran has a grand plan to establish its domination over the whole region and must be stopped by force of arms.

First Iran established close links with the Shia political parties and militias that now dominate Iraq. Then it crossed Iraqi territory to save the Shia ruler of Syria from a revolt by the Sunni majority in that country. Next was distant Yemen, where the Shia tribes of the north, the Houthi, overran most of the country with Iranian help. And now the Shia militia Hezbollah has gained a powerful position in the government of Lebanon.

If the Sunnis don’t stop the Iranians now, they’ll all be enslaved. Or something of that sort.

Nonsense. It was George W. Bush who overthrew the centuries-long rule of the Sunni minority in Iraq on the lying pretext that Saddam Hussein was developing ‘weapons of mass destruction’. The Shias took power in Iraq in a free election, and as the only Shia-majority country in the Arab world they naturally sought a close relationship with Shia Iran.

This made it easy for Iranian volunteers and weapons to move across Iraq and help Bashar al-Assad resist an assault on his rule by Sunni extremists. The Hezbollah militia, which represents the large Shia minority in Lebanon, also went to Assad’s help, but you can hardly portray this as Shia expansionism.

There is absolutely no evidence that the Houthis in Yemen are getting any material assistance from Iran. They are not even Iranian “proxies” in any meaningful sense of the word. They are Yemeni tribes who happen to be Shia, engaged in a typical Yemeni tribal power struggle.

A great many people will die for nothing if the full-scale Sunni-Shia war that Saudi Arabia (and Netanyahu) currently envisage actually gets going. But Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s resignation a week ago, in which he denounced Hezbollah’s presence in the government – delivered not at home but in Saudi Arabia – may have been the starting gun for the war.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 16. (“Both…Jong-un”; and “There is…struggle”)