23 March 2013

On the Israeli Mavi Marmara Apology

I have read many reports regarding Netanyahu's call to Erdogan to apologize about the Mavi Marmara incident. Most of them were convinced that it was Obama who forced that apology. BBC's breathless headline read: US Extracts Last-Minute Israeli Apology. It sounds like Obama tied Netanyahu to a chair and made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Where is Mario Puzo when you need him?

Even the setting was pure Hollywood.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his phone call of apology to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan from a trailer on the tarmac at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. 
Air Force One stood idling while the call was placed. Barack Obama sat in the trailer with Mr Netanyahu and is understood to have intervened in the call at one point. 
Another point that most commentators emphasized was the fact that Lieberman, Netanyahu's combative former Minister of Foreign Affairs, was no longer in the cabinet (he is fighting corruption charges). He was the public face of Israel's refusal to apologize for the incident. And the understanding is that, if he were still present, he would never have allowed it.

Being a contrarian, I am not persuaded that easily.

This presentation of the affair is pure spin. This was not a last minute deal, something Obama pushed before Air Force One was about the take-off for Jordan. Nor was it something they had to do quickly before Lieberman could make a come back. It was a significant undertaking that was part of a larger process.

Let's go back to the beginning. What was the deal after the Mavi Marmara incident? Turkish government asked for three things. Israel should apologize, pay compensation to the families of the dead activists and lift its decade-long embargo in Gaza.

When you think about it, the package was hardly about an apology (Israel offered regret over loss of life) or the people who died in the incident. It was about providing Turkey with the image of a country that can stand up to Israel (and by proxy its protector, the US) to protect the rights and lives of Palestinians.

In short, the whole incident and its aftermath was designed to give Turkey street creds and to make it appear as the only country in the region that can redress the staggeringly one-sided balance of power between Israel and Palestinians.

Since his nomination, John Kerry was on the phone with Davutoglu almost on a daily basis and he visited him in Ankara at the beginning of March. A couple of weeks ago, despite Erdogan's incendiary comments about Zionism, Kerry called Davutoglu and asked for Turkey's help and assistance in the Palestinian peace process. And Davutoglu (in a widely leaked rebuff) told him off and ruled out any Turkish involvement unless Israel apologized for the incident.

Now, here is the interesting part. After the apology (which was promoted as a last minute, spur-of-the-moment thing with Air Force One idling in the runway), Davutoglu told the Turkish media that the package was something they had been working on for three years. And just the actual text of the conversation was prepared by the US, Turkish and Israeli diplomats working around the clock in the last six days. He was on the phone with Kerry every day. The text they hammered out was so sensitive that not one word was changed during the conversation (which took roughly 30 minutes).

And, here is the kicker, before he took Netanyahu's call, Erdogan called the leaders of Hamas and Fatah and informed them of the content and got them to give their agreement what was going to be said during that conversation. He then talked to the Egyptian President and Lebanese Prime Minister.

In other words, what media outlets left out in their breathless commentary is that Turkey has silently dropped its key demand, you know, the lifting of the embargo. Instead it simply accepted an apology and compensation. Moreover,  it did so after it informed Palestinian leaders and got their blessings. Not to mention other potential partners and participants in the peace process.

To me, that means only one thing. The Turkish side was informed that insisting on the embargo clause was no longer necessary, as pretty soon this issue was going to be resolved through a comprehensive peace process. They passed on the message to the relevant parties and the package became something that everyone could accept. Incidentally, Israel have been saying, for some time now, that they would apologize and pay compensation, it was the third demand that prevented further progress. Suddenly, this became a non-issue.

This reading of this situation is further strengthened by the spin that was put on the apology. By presenting it as something Obama forced upon a reluctant Netanyahu (something he "extracted" from him, as the BBC put it) the Americans were able to present their efforts under a different light. Until now, people in the region viewed the US as a steadfast ally of Israel who will always support anything and everything Israeli governments do. This (largely accurate view) made people suspicious of US intentions and interventions. And it made the peace process pretty much impossible. When the power imbalance was so great and the failure to achieve peace was cost-free, there was no incentive for Israel to make any effort to stay at the table or to make any concessions.

With this symbolic gesture Obama sent two signals. One, the peace process is no longer between the powerful alliance of Israel and the US on the one side and powerless and divided Palestinians on the other. By asking for Turkey's direct involvement and by appearing to force Israel to make Turkey's participation possible, they changed the equation behind the balance of power. From Erdogan's calls to Egypt and Lebanon it looks like other regional actors will be part of the new equation as well.

Secondly, by putting out the spin of a forcibly extracted apology, he signaled that the peace process was so important to the US that they might occasionally distance themselves from Israel. And the US might even force Israel to make some concessions every now and then.

Together, these signals project a different setting for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

I concede that it is a small opening but, from where I stand, it is indicative of bigger things to come.

22 March 2013

Ocalan's Truce Declaration and Parallel Developments

Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK had announced at the beginning of the week that he was going to have a historic declaration on Thursday. He is known to enjoy grand gestures and over-the-top posturing but in this case he might have been fairly accurate in his pronouncement.

The declaration itself is just about a basic ceasefire. And there have been many similar declarations in the past. But there are a few differences this time around. Previous truce offers were unilateral and the PKK eventually unilaterally withdrew them. Moreover, this time (and for the first time), the government acknowledged Ocalan's role and negotiated with him directly. In fact, the head of the Turkish intelligence services was Ocalan's primary interlocutor.

As I have been maintaining that a peaceful end to the Kurdish and Palestinian struggles was inevitable, my take is cautiously optimistic. And it is not just because the US has every reason to bring stability to the region that this will happen: Ocalan played his cards very shrewdly and made sure that he was the key to the orderly unraveling of Syria. PKK's offshoot PYD made every possible move to make the Turkish government incredibly nervous: they were looking at a prolonged civil war and a huge border area (covering both Northern Iraq and Syria) that can be used by the PKK to conduct its operations.

Still, the key was the American push. You could see it in other developments.

First, Erdogan appeared (uncharacteristically) to soften his recent controversial remarks about Zionism being a crime against humanity. As Obama was landing to Israel, Erdogan was off to a state visit to Denmark. And he said this in Copenhagen:
“Let no one misunderstand what I said. Everyone knows that my criticism [of Israel] focuses on some critical issues. It’s directed especially toward Israeli policies on Gaza,” Erdogan said in an interview with Politiken, a Danish newspaper. “As long as Israel denies Palestinians the right to statehood, our criticisms will continue. On the other hand, we have recognized Israel’s existence within 1967 borders based on a two-state solution.”
Secondly, suddenly there were reports all over the place that bilateral relations between Turkey and Israel are thawing.
In the last months, there have been numerous signs that both countries may be in the process of restoring their political relations. Several high-level meetings have taken place, including the heads of intelligence in Cairo. Besides, far away from the political upheaval, bilateral trade did not really suffer and its volume is in fact at its highest level in history.
My long term readers will remember that even after the Mavi Marmara incident, during the sound and fury months, I suggested that nothing of substance was affected, including trade volume and military relations. It looks like this is now being mentioned as a sudden thaw.

And the Israeli apology that just came through shows how the American push is instrumental in all this.
A statement issued by Mr Netanyahu's office said that in the telephone conversation with Mr Erdogan he had expressed regret over the deterioration in bilateral ties and noted his "commitment to working out the disagreements in order to advance peace and regional stability". 
"The prime minister made it clear that the tragic results regarding the Mavi Marmara were unintentional and that Israel expresses regret over injuries and loss of life," it added.
"In light of the Israeli investigation into the incident, which pointed out several operational errors, Prime Minister Netanyahu apologised to the Turkish people for any errors that could have led to loss of life and agreed to complete the agreement on compensation." 
The two leaders had also agreed to continue to work on improving the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian Territories, the statement said.

A statement from Mr Erdogan's office said the two prime ministers had agreed on making arrangements for compensation for families of the dead activists.
"Erdogan told Benjamin Netanyahu that he valued centuries-long strong friendship and co-operation between the Turkish and Jewish nations," it added.
Can you doubt the American resolve to bring stability to the region after this statement?

It is not just Netanyahu, they got a very agreeable quotes from both sides.

Expect more about the Palestinian peace process in the coming weeks.

20 March 2013

Obama in Israel

As you probably know, President Obama is on his first state visit to Israel. From what I can see, the consensus in the corporate media seems to be that this is a routine exercise and it is designed to smoothen their bilateral relations.

I do not share their opinion. From my perspective, I see this as the last face-to-face meeting between Netanyahu and Obama before significant developments take place in the region. And it is designed to ensure that they share the same playbook.


As a prelude to Obama's visit, Iran and the possibility of a military strike has been brought back to the agenda.  Obama knows that once he is in Israel standing next to Netanyahu, he will be asked all kinds of theoretical questions that could be used to justify a military response to Iran's nuclear program. And he will have to use stronger language to reassure both the Israelis and his constituency back home.

However, Obama knows that a strike is the last thing that will contribute to Israel's long term security. Last May, I enumerated the reasons why the military option is completely counterproductive. They are still valid. More so with the imminent implosion of Syria.

So, a couple of days before his trip to Israel, Obama seized the occasion of Newrouz (the Iranian New Year) to declare that Iran should do more to convince the international community that it does not intend to pursue a nuclear weapons program. He sounded reasonably conciliatory in that he mentioned the possibility of a sanction-free future if Iran played ball. Since he knows that the sanctions are biting and the Iranian regime is forced to come up with new and innovative approaches to buy basic necessities, he wants to keep the focus on economic relief and good citizenship in international community.

Whereas Netanyahu wants to convey the idea that Israel might strike anytime and the mullahs should feel insecure and weary.

The problem with his approach is that it is not very credible, as everyone is aware that the military option is extremely unlikely to provide the kind of relief Israeli government is seeking. Unlike Osirak or the Syrian reactor, Iran has multiple sites and most of them are either underground or in well protected bunkers. Besides, contrary to the official discourse on the success of the Osirak strike, Operation Opera did not convince Saddam to give up his nuclear program: It encouraged him to redouble his efforts. It was the first Gulf War that put an end to his nuclear ambitions. A military operation against Iran (besides being very risky and almost certainly inconclusive) could also lead to a renewed resolve to build a nuclear weapon.

The danger is that by continually talking about it, Netanyahu is creating a tense situation that might encourage Iranian leadership to take stupid risks.

Think about it from their perspective. They had an ally in Syria and is now all but certain that he and his regime will be gone in a few months. They managed to get a Shiite to head the government of Iraq. But Iraq is a weak and de facto partitioned country. Kurds are controlling the North and Shiites are in charge of the southern Basra region and the Sunnis are in the middle. The central government is so powerless that it cannot even stop Kurds from making deals with foreign powers.

In both cases, the regional power that is most responsible with this state of affairs is Turkey. Turkey provides protection to Northern Iraqi Kurds and has been doing its best to destabilize the Assad regime in Syria. Iran feels increasingly isolated as they see the Turkey as a regional super power promoting a seemingly unstoppable Sunni ascendancy.

There is also the renewed problem of Kurds. If Turkey succeeds in placating the PKK and co-opt them through a larger a peace process, the PKK's satellite organizations in Syria (PYD) and Iran (PJAK) will resume their operations against their host governments (currently, alegedly on the say-so of the PKK leadership, the PJAK retreated to Northern Iraq and ceased its insurgent operations in Iran). Iran would have a much more serious Kurdish problem if Kurds manage to stitch together a semi-autonomous political entity that encompasses Iraq, Syria and Turkey. That would make the Iranian section of Kurdistan a very important prize. And they would have the means (financial and military) to go after it.

Moreover, as I mentioned over a year ago, there is an oil rich region in Iran, largely populated by ethnic Arabs, called Khuzestan. The US has been trying very hard to change the mood in the region against Tehran. The local Arabs stayed loyal to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war but after decades of clandestine work undertaken by the CIA, they might have developed a different perspective. I am sure that Iranian government is extremely worried about losing that region.

And all of this is happening when they are simply cut off from the international trade system. Talk about feeling under threat.

My sense is that, in that volatile setting, Obama is walking a very tight rope. Publicly, he needs to reassure Israelis that the US will not let anything bad happen to them while privately dissuading their leaders from contributing to the sense of doom that must be paramount in Tehran.

In that context, he also needs to ensure that Iranian government do not go crazy by believing that they lost the strategic power game and the demise of their Islamic Republic is imminent.

It will be fun to watch the body language of Obama and Netanyahu during their first press conference.


Before the last Israeli elections, I was one of the few people to claim that they might result into a more pro-peace cabinet. Despite Bennett's presence in it, the new Netanyahu government seems a lot more inclined to negotiate a two-state peace accord. Tellingly, that portfolio was given to Tzipi Livni, the only senior Israeli politician who has credibility in that regard. The fact that his cabinet does not include ultra-orthodox parties is also a big plus (and it foretells a serious showdown between Haredim and secular Israelis in the coming years).

My guess is that Obama will try to discourage Netanyahu from negotiating to fail by reminding him a few facts.

He will point out that to keep a single state as a Jewish state is demographically impossible and that situation would only create many unpalatable solutions.

He will tell him that Egypt is and will remain a very unstable country and a reasonable peace with Palestinians will go a long way towards reducing the level of radicalization in Egypt and in neighboring countries. And such de-radicalization is more important than trying to maintain the military upper hand.

He will urge him to work with Turkey as this latter is likely to be the dominant force in the coming years. (I always maintained that, Erdogan's personal feelings about Israel notwithstanding, the public animosity between the two sides was a kabuki theater designed to give Turkey some serious credibility in the region after decades of being perceived as a puppet of the West)

He will point to Hamas' new leadership and their distance to Iran and urge him to seize that opportunity.

Finally, he will gently break it to him -and that is a point that is hardly emphasized- that Israel will have serious economic (and consequently social) problems if it maintains this militaristic approach and devote an enormous portion of its resources to its military and security apparatus.

In that sense, Obama and Netanyahu might not announce a peace initiative but I believe that one of the goals of this visit is to finalize the parameters of a platform that will become the Palestinian peace initiative later this year.


President Obama knows first hand that Syria is about to go kaboom.

If this was allowed to happen without a solid plan and the ability to make critical interventions, when needed, Israel might find itself in a serious danger. An imploding Syria would almost certainly engulf Lebanon and possibly even Jordan. And Israel would be unable to stop this spread by itself.

This means that the Syrian endgame would require a close cooperation between the US, Israel and Turkey. In that trio, Israel is the one that needs the other two badly. My guess is that, currently plans are being drawn up to secure chemical and biological weapons if no one appears to be in control.

There are also general discussions of several scenarios for post-Assad Syria. Syria is a large country but like Iraq, many regions are hardly inhabited. When you look at the map, you can see the population clusters.

Clearly, the Kurds will inherit the North east of the country as it is part of the historic Kurdistan. Secondly, after such a bloody and protracted civil war, (not to mention the previous decades of Alewite supremacy) it will be next to impossible for Alewites and Sunnis to live together. If you look at the map, Alewites are mostly on the West by the Mediterranean coast (Latakia and Tartus region). There is an internal Alewite exodus towards Tartus and the New York Times reported that, according to some, if the regime in Damascus fails "Mr. Assad and the security elite will try to survive the collapse by establishing a rump Alawite state along the coast, with Tartus as their new capital."

The map also shows how Lebanon is really linked to Syria and how close the two are to Israel. And of course, the disputed Golan Heights.

I think more than anything else, this map will convince Netanyahu that the Obama playbook for the region is in Israel's best interest.

In short, I expect that this state visit will not produce much on the surface (besides a few awkward Netanyahu bluster moments, that is).

But I remain convinced that, behind the scenes this visit is designed to iron out the last bit of differences between the two sides and to put the finishing touches on a grand play that will transform the region in the next few years.


This was on BBC News:
Arriving in Tel Aviv, Mr Obama told PM Benjamin Netanyahu the US was proud to be Israel's "strongest ally", and that "peace must come to the Holy Land".

19 March 2013

Notes About Post-Assad Syria

We are about to enter a new and probably final phase in the simmering Syrian civil war. Until recently, the Free Syrian Army was a poorly trained, inadequately armed and largely disorganized military force. It had a few successes in the early days but was unable to hang on to those gains.

Its commanders were mostly in Turkey pleading for heavier arms. And the US and Turkey were unwilling to give them what they want fearing that these same weapons could be used against them at the end of the conflict. Hard lessons from Afghanistan or Chechnya are still fresh on people's minds.

But lately, the rebel forces seem to be on the rise. They seized the country's largest hydro-electric dam, they took over a large military base in the north and they now claim total control over Hasaka province, Syria's oil rich north-east region.

It is clear that the rebel forces are now much better equipped and trained. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are leading the way to get them rocket launchers and multiple grenade launchers. Most of them are purchased through United Arab Emirates and transported through Turkey.

The Rise of the Salafists

The other development is the continuous inflow of jihadist fighters. They seem to be originating from Saudi Arabia and Yemen for the most part. Saudi Arabia has always been very keen to push its extreme Islamist citizens hoping to get rid of them in Jihad-like conflicts.

The most notorious brigade is the Al Nusra Front whose fighters distinguished themselves with their discipline, bravery and ruthlessness. While some claim that they are linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq, I find this irrelevant as I consider the "brand" Al Qaeda irrelevant. What is relevant is Al Nusra's clear salafist roots and its desire to establish a strict Sharia based Sunni fundamentalist regime in post-Assad Syria. Already, there is deep resentment towards them and many skirmishes are reported [link in French] between Al Nusra and other "brigades" fighting under the banner of Free Syrian Army.

These two factors represent a serious post-conflict problem. Syria's ethnic and religious mix and a well equipped victorious Sunni fundamentalist army are unlikely to lead to a peaceful settlement. The longer the civil war continues the more radicalized these Sunni fighters will become. And when they toppled Assad's regime after a long and protracted war, they will not be inclined to act with tolerance and benevolence.

Russian Play

Russia is also increasingly worried about its position in post-Assad Syria. They know that their man is about to become a footnote in Syria's history. But they are not in a position to form an alliance with Sunni fundamentalists that make up the bulk of the FSA. Chechen fighters would be amused.

The only card they have is to offer themselves as an honest broker that can force Assad to a peace deal. And this is what they offered recently. But, unfortunately for them, the Syrian National Council did not take the offer seriously.

Despite Turkey's prominent position against Assad from the beginning, Russians have been careful not to criticize Ankara. And it seems that they now look at Turkey as their entry point in post Assad Syria.


Another interesting development was a new agreement between the Syrian Kurds and FSA. Last year a similar agreement was signed between them but it did not hold. The two sides have been clashing since November. The Islamist forces entered the city of Ras al-Ain to seize a strategic crossing on the Turkish border and they met with resistance from Popular Protection Units (YPG) who are attached to PYD (which is an offshoot of PKK in Turkey). The cease-fire negotiated by Michel Kilo, a well-known dissident, has been in effect on and off.

The key in all this, as I mentioned before, was the Kurdish peace initiative in Turkey. Turkish government had to acquiesce (finally) to what the US has been telling them, that without dealing with the PKK they have no way of controlling events in the region. In fact, if Northern Syria was controlled by PYD, the PKK would have two regions (the other being Northern Iraq) from which to battle Turkish forces.

Talks have been going on with Ocalan for months and he has just announced that he was going to have a momentous declaration on Thursday.

Once this arrangement in place, I expect the Syrian knot to be cut with the appropriate Alexandrian flair.

Incidentally, if you have been following this blog and my hypothesis about the region you might appreciate this bit of news: the Syrian dissidents have just chosen a new government in Istanbul. It is led by Ghassan Hitto who is an American citizen (an IT executive from Texas) and he is of Kurdish descent.

Need I say more?

We Resume Our Regular Programming

It has been a while since I was able to post something new.

The main reason was the fact that my desktop computer died rather unexpectedly and it took me a long time to rescue my data and rebuild a new desktop.

Intermittent travelling didn't help either.

Anyway, I am back with some new perspective on my dual claims about the Kurds and the Palestinians and changes in the Middle East.

Stay tuned.