Monthly Archives: April 2015

Royal Reshuffle: Saudi Shakeup Consolidates King’s Power

Saudi Arabia's new King Salman attends a ceremony at the Diwan royal palace in Riyadh on January 24, 2015, following the death of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. Dignitaries and leaders from around the world were to arrive in Saudi Arabia today to offer their condolences to its new King Salman, a day after the death of his half-brother King Abdullah. AFP PHOTO / POOL / YOAN VALAT (Photo credit should read YOAN VALAT/AFP/Getty Images)

King Salman’s recent shakeup of the highest levels of government in Saudi Arabia has several clear and important themes. First, the new king is moving to further establish his authority and make an early mark on the administration of the kingdom through personnel and, indeed, policy changes. Moreover, he is ensuring that his own immediate relatives and branch of the royal family are firmly empowered. Second, the king’s new appointments reflect a continued focus on, and development of, Saudi Arabia’s security concerns as the highest priority of government policy. And, third, and not least, almost all of the new appointments bode well for the United States and for U.S.-Saudi relations.

Salman has named his nephew, the country’s Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, as the new crown prince, replacing Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz. He has also appointed his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is reportedly in his early 30s, deputy crown prince. And, also highly significantly, the long-serving Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal – who reportedly asked to be relieved of his post due to health problems – has been replaced by Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir. Some of the other Cabinet changes are harder to interpret, but these three major appointments each convey clear signals to the Saudi public and the world at large.

Salman’s shakeup ensures that the most important government posts in Saudi Arabia are now occupied by either his own Sudairi wing of the royal family or by non-royals who are more easily controlled or overruled than would likely be possible with other royals. This branch of the family was established by one of the wives of King Abdulaziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi, a scion of the prominent Al Sudairi clan of Najd, the same part of the Arabian Peninsula that the Al Sauds are from, had seven sons with King Abdulaziz. Among them is the new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. These brothers collectively became known as the “Sudairi Seven,” and along with their sons and close relatives they constitute what traditionally has been, and currently is now, a very powerful wing of the royal family.

The promotion of Prince Mohammed bin Salman to deputy crown prince is one of the most dramatic moves by the new king to establish not only his own authority, but that of his nuclear family, on Saudi royal dynamics. Mohammed bin Salman is now effectively second in line for succession, at least in theory and to all appearances. The next generation of Saudi royals is now positioned to come to power in the foreseeable future and in an orderly manner. Mohammed bin Salman has been unequivocally placed at the forefront of this next generation of leadership in Saudi Arabia.

He had already been promoted at a strikingly young age to the post of defense minister shortly after the accession of his father to the throne. From that position, Mohammed bin Salman has been heavily involved in, and identified with, the Saudi-led intervention against Houthi rebels in Yemen and a series of other moves designed to enhance the Saudi posture in the region such as plans to create a joint Arab League military force. He is therefore a symbol of, as well as a key player in, the new policies of more proactive and assertive Saudi leadership. His elevation to, in effect, the role of crown-prince-in-waiting strongly indicates that this new, more robust defense and security posture is being consolidated and can be expected to continue and quite possibly expand.

The elevation of Mohammed bin Nayef sends a similar message on the Saudi approach to national security. As the former Saudi counter-terrorism chief, he is widely credited with having led the fight against al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. He will reportedly retain his position as interior minister, meaning that he will retain command over the most effective and competent of the Saudi security and armed forces. He was educated in the United States and is well-regarded in Washington, where he is seen as a very pragmatic and strategic thinker.

His accession to the role of crown prince also marks a significant generational change, although not one as dramatic as that of Mohammed bin Salman. At 55, Mohammed bin Nayef, should he become king as he is now poised to do, would be the first Saudi monarch who is a grandson, rather than a son, of Saudi Arabia’s founding monarch, King Abdulaziz, or Ibn Saud. Mohammed bin Nayef is noted for maintaining strong relations with most political factions in Saudi Arabia, including conservatives, while presiding over strong anti-extremist and anti-terrorism policies as counter-terrorism chief and interior minister. He was the subject of an attempted assassination by al-Qaeda in 2009 as a consequence of his crackdown on violent radicals, and several other attempts on his life by Islamist extremists.

These two key appointments, however, may lead to some tension between the new crown prince and deputy crown prince. Despite his youth, Mohammed bin Salman is reputed to have been ambitious for advancement within the Saudi system for some time. And while the deputy crown prince is young, the crown prince himself can also look forward to a long time as monarch, since he is only 55. Ambition, if it remains strong in the younger prince, may therefore be tempered by the need for a considerable period as the anointed successor. On the other hand, the new crown prince has been a key player on a number of policy fronts – for example, Yemen – that are now much more in the domain of the new deputy crown prince. This again raises the prospect for some competition, or even tension, between the second and third highest-ranking figures in the Saudi government.

Finally, the promotion of Adel al-Jubeir to the post of foreign minister further solidifies the national security and U.S.-oriented aspects of the new Saudi shakeup. He is only the second non-royal to serve as foreign minister, after representing the kingdom in Washington since 2007. Among other things, Jubeir’s non-royal status suggests a further consolidation of power by King Salman, as he will not have the same degree of influence or independence of action on foreign affairs as did Faisal, or likely would any royal family member. In future policy disputes, it is likely that Foreign Minister Jubeir could be fairly easily overruled by the king, or even the crown prince or deputy crown prince.

Jubeir is noted as a strong proponent of the intervention in Yemen and other aspects of the more assertive approach to Saudi national security initiated by Salman. But even more, his promotion reflects a clear desire on the part of Riyadh to have at the helm of its diplomatic corps someone who is highly qualified to present Saudi policies and perspectives to an American audience. Jubeir was educated in the United States and spent most of his diplomatic career dealing closely with Americans in one capacity or another. He is well-liked and respected in Washington and has been a frequent and effective spokesman for Saudi Arabia on U.S. television and other media. He was allegedly the target of a plot by Iranian agents to assassinate him by bombing a restaurant in Washington in 2011.

Jubeir can therefore communicate Saudi views to Western, particularly U.S., officials in a manner that to many will be familiar and, hence, reassuring, even when views may diverge. Even more than the other changes, his new role suggests a strong desire to communicate effectively with the United States, and that relations with Washington are being given a new emphasis in Saudi national security and diplomatic strategy.

At a time of stress in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and in the run-up to the Camp David U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council summit in May, this emphasis is welcome indeed and should prompt serious reflection in U.S. policy circles. The changes at the top in Saudi Arabia also came on the same day that Saudi security reported that it arrested some 93 suspects who were allegedly planning to bomb the U.S. Embassy on behalf of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Little else is known about the alleged conspiracy.

The timing of the announcement, however, could be linked to a broader effort to send a clear message to Washington and the rest of the world: Saudi Arabia is more proactive in its own defense, both at home and regionally, than ever before, but that it values its allies, especially the United States, and will defend their interests as well. The threat of terrorism is one of the clearest and most important of the common interests shared between the two countries. But there are other shared concerns, including containing Iranian hegemony; ensuring the freedom of shipping in the Gulf and other key regional waterways; managing the petroleum and other energy markets; and ensuring Middle Eastern regional stability and security, which involves preventing new conflicts from erupting and finding political solutions to existing ones.

The U.S.-Saudi alliance is decades old and time-tested. It arises from these concrete, irreducible shared interests that have not changed for decades and are highly unlikely to for the foreseeable future. Saudi Arabia and the United States have needed each other in the past and they will certainly need each other, for the self-same reasons, in the future.

This does not mean that there are not real differences or disputes that need to be resolved. There are valid U.S. concerns about intolerant discourse among Saudi clerics and others, support for extremism by private citizens, women’s and other human rights issues, and more. Saudi Arabia joins others in the Arab world in wondering about the U.S. commitment to its regional allies, concern about the direction of U.S. policy toward Iran, and dissatisfaction with U.S. policies toward Israel and the Palestinians that have failed to resolve the conflict.

Nonetheless, the Saudi-U.S. relationship remains vital to both states, and to the stability and security of the Middle East in general and the Gulf region in particular. That the recent changes in the Saudi government seem to be sending, loudly and clearly, very positive messages on regional security, the fight against extremism, and the importance that Saudi Arabia places on its relationship with the United States can only be a welcome development. While Washington cannot precisely reciprocate these gestures, the United States should receive these messages warmly and, in its own interests, provide Saudi Arabia with appropriate – and timely – reassurances.

US boycott law will further damage the peace process

US boycott law will further damage the peace process

Israel and its allies are playing a dangerous game regarding settlements and the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. It stands to backfire on them very badly.

This miscalculation could force individuals, organisations and even states to take positions more hostile to Israel than they would prefer. But Israel’s government and its allies are leaving them no choice. And in the process, further damage is being done to the prospects for peace and a two-state solution, which is the only viable means of ending the conflict.

Legislation is moving through the US Congress that conflates Israel with the occupied territories, and attempts to penalise states and other entities that refuse to do business with settlements. Worse still, the legislation as it is currently phrased proposes a legal definition of the BDS movement that is inaccurate and exceptionally dangerous.

The relevant language of the pending legislation is worth considering in full: “The term ‘boycott, divestment from, and sanctions against Israel’ means actions by states, non-member states of the United Nations, international organisations, or affiliated agencies of international organisations that are politically motivated and are intended to penalise or otherwise limit commercial relations specifically with Israel or persons doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories.”

Under this formula, American law will define BDS as including, without distinction, measures that attempt to boycott and sanction Israel and Israelis in general and those that carefully target only Israel’s illegal and illegitimate settlement activities.

The self-defined BDS movement is very much focused on the first of these approaches. It is mainly supported by those who view a two-state solution as inadequate and insist on a one-state agenda that seeks to eliminate Israel altogether. This movement is almost entirely rhetorical and has met with very little success because there is not much of a constituency in the West for boycotting, let alone eliminating, Israel in its internationally recognised borders.

The real target of the legislation is the boycott project that actually exists and is having an impact. Led by the European Union, this strategy seeks to defend the prospects for peace and the two-state solution by carefully targeting Israel’s settlements and refusing to trade with, or invest in, them.

The European approach meticulously distinguishes between Israel in its internationally recognised boundaries, which is a legitimate UN member state, and Israel’s settlement project which is illegal and illegitimate, and is a human rights violation against the occupied Palestinian people. This approach is gaining ground throughout Europe and is even starting to make inroads in the US.

The European approach highlights the distinction between Israel and the occupation, whereas the BDS agenda conflates them. The pending American legislation, along with official Israeli rhetoric on the topic, complains bitterly about the “delegitimisation” of Israel.

Settlement boycotts do not “delegitimise” Israel at all. On the contrary, they insist on the legitimacy of Israel but also on the illegitimacy of the settlements. The irony is that, following the lead of the Israeli government, actions such as the pending American legislation do, in fact, delegitimise Israel by collapsing the distinction between the legitimate Israeli state and the illegal settlement programme.

By attempting to force, under penalty of law, the same attitude towards Israel and its settlements in occupied territories, this legislation is effectively saying there is no distinction. But if there is no distinction, it will not be the case that Israel’s legitimacy legitimizes the settlements. To the contrary, the illegitimate settlements will undermine the legitimacy of Israel.

The logic of the Israeli manoeuvre is obvious. It seeks to block the European approach of challenging settlement activity by confusing it with the BDS approach. The hope is that because there is little appetite in most of the West at the moment for a generalised boycott of Israel, boycotts of settlements can be undermined and possibly blocked altogether.

There is every likelihood this will backfire. If those who seek to defend the only viable prospect for peace – a two-state solution – are told what they are doing is no different from boycotting Israel, are they really likely to just give up? Or, instead, and especially over time, are they not more likely to, however reluctantly, boycott this undifferentiated greater Israel?

Whose bluff is really being called here?

A few years ago, two Italian supermarket chains, COOP and Nordiconad, decided they no longer wanted to help subsidise Israel’s settlements and asked for labelling of settlement produce. Israel would not comply, so the stores no longer sell any Israeli produce at all.

In the long run, the most plausible paradigm is a widespread repetition of this same pattern. And, amazingly enough, it will be Israel that has not only, and yet again, damaged the prospects for peace, but actually led the delegitimisation, boycott and sanctions campaign against itself.

Signs of hope for Yemen?

Saudi readjustment suggests potential for a political solution

A Yemeni member of the southern separatist movement, allied to fugitive President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, carries ammunition on his shoulder and gestures at checkpoint in the southern city of Aden, on 21 April 2015. (AFP/Saleh al-Obeidi)

Skepticism is helpful. Cynicism isn’t. Skepticism allows that, in spite of the chorus of negativity surrounding them, recent events in Yemen should be properly seen as generally encouraging, although they also point to the difficulties that lie ahead. Cynicism stands off to the side, rolling its world-weary eyes and shaking its jaded head. But to what purpose?

The announcement by Saudi Arabia and its allies that the initial and major part of the aerial intervention in Yemen is over should be welcomed. The Saudis apparently believe that the goals of the air campaign have been largely met. Saudis say that enough of the Houthi militia’s command-and-control centers, ballistic missile launch vehicles and weapons caches have been destroyed to meet the aims of the first and decisive phase of Operation Decisive Storm.

At midnight on Tuesday, Decisive Storm gave way to a second phase of the operation, Restoring Hope. The Saudis say that the purpose of this second part of the intervention is to “protect civilians” and provide ongoing but less aggressive support for the military and other armed forces acting in the name and interests of the internationally-recognized government.

Skepticism prompts us to question the extent to which the largest goals set for Decisive Storm at its outset—the reversal of the Houthi ‘coup’ in early February and the restoration of the government of exiled President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi—have really been met. And, indeed, to ask if they were ever achievable aims, especially given the limitations of what can be accomplished through air power alone.

But only unwarranted cynicism would fail to register that the Saudi announcement of the end of Decisive Storm is a positive development, even if the broadest aims of the campaign remain unfulfilled. The move to scale back the intervention recognizes that a pattern of diminishing returns has set in and that it is wise now to move towards a series of agreements with the Houthis and others in Yemen leading to a managed political transition in the country.

Hopes for peace now focus on the emerging role of Vice President and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah. He is widely seen as the national figure best placed to lead negotiations, as he is trusted, at least to some extent, by most factions in the country. Many observers believe that the fortunes of Bahah and those of a negotiated agreement to end the conflict are closely linked, if not interdependent. They will be viewing the level of his prominence and engagement at the center of national politics as a barometer for the likelihood of a workable deal to end the fighting.

Cynics, of course, were pointing to the resumption of airstrikes and fighting on Wednesday, immediately after the Saudi announcement that Decisive Storm had ended. Bombing raids were aimed at a meeting of Houthi militia leaders at a military headquarters near the old airport southeast of the city of Taiz—a meeting the Saudis claim was a violation of the agreement the two sides had just concluded. There were also raids in Aden, which was the scene of intense street fighting between Houthis and troops loyal to the government that left over a dozen killed.

As White House spokesman Jen Psaki dryly noted: “Obviously, the job is not done.” But neither is the continued bombing and fighting simply a bad sign. The ending of Decisive Storm strongly suggested that Saudi Arabia is aware of the possibility of being sucked into a quagmire in Yemen, but is determined not to allow that to happen. At the same time, the resumed attacks and continued fighting show that the Saudi side is not going to simply walk away or allow the Houthis or others to carry on as they please and that it reserves the right to act.

Instead, there is reason to be hopeful that what is being pursued is a sensible two-track approach that seeks, on the one hand, to pull back from the fighting and seriously pursue a political agreement with the Houthis and, on the other hand, to continue to be willing to ensure that the basic interests of the coalition and its Yemeni allies are maintained.

Some Saudi media are proclaiming Decisive Storm to have been an unqualified masterstroke, producing success after success, both on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. There is no basis for such triumphalism. But there is equally no basis for opposite claims in much Western and some Arab media that the intervention in Yemen was a blunder, a disaster for Saudi Arabia, or even a failure. It may one day become any or all of those, but is none of them yet by any means.

And, to the contrary, the apparent willingness of the Saudi-led coalition to restructure the goals and aims of the mission, to pull back from an intensive engagement that did threaten to become a pointless and damaging stalemate on the ground, and to leverage what had been achieved through the air campaign into progress at the negotiating table suggests a more thoughtful and potentially effective approach than many had been willing to concede was plausible.

Yes, there is “much to be done” in Yemen. Yes, there is still fighting and bombing taking place and that is deeply troubling. Yes, there is a long way to go before the Houthis come to a modus vivendi with the rest of Yemeni society and the common battle against Al Qaeda—which has inadvertently been the main beneficiary of the conflict thus far—can once again, and properly, be the focus of military action in the country.

Yet, in spite of all of that, today one can identify real reasons to hope that better judgment is starting to prevail. One can finally begin to discern flashes of light at the end of Yemen’s dark tunnel. Although a cynic can and will not, even the most experienced and committed skeptic can and should recognize hopeful signs when they occasionally begin to sprout.

Al Qaeda expands its toxic footprint in Yemen

Al Qaeda expands its toxic footprint in Yemen

As the war in Yemen intensifies, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the big beneficiary has been Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap). None of the parties are attempting to strengthen the terrorist group. On the contrary, all of the other principal combatants are clearly concerned about the rising power of the extremists. However, with most other groups involved directly in the growing civil conflict, Aqap is expanding its footprint in parts of Yemen.

This is mainly taking place far away from the rest of the fighting, and in areas where Aqap was already present. The terrorist group overran the city of Al Mukalla, relieving the local bank of its cash and the local prison of its most important prisoners, including a senior Aqap leader. It also seized control of Riyan airport and the adjacent military base near Al Mukalla, which just happens to be the fifth largest in the country. In the process, and in other encounters with the fragmenting Yemeni army, Aqap has reportedly grabbed heavy weaponry including tanks, along with Katyusha rocket launchers and small arms. The cherry on top was a significant oil terminal.

All of this happened while Saudi-led air strikes were targeting the Houthi rebel militia in the country’s major cities including the capital Sanaa, Taiz and Aden, as well as the Houthi stronghold, Saada. After four weeks of bombing, the Arab air intervention does not yet appear to have significantly slowed the Houthi advance, let alone turned the table in favour of troops fighting in support of exiled president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi. But it has inadvertently eased pressure on Aqap in Yemen and created space for the extremists to consolidate and expand their presence in the country.

More dangerous still, United Nations negotiator Jamal Benomar recently told The New York Times that Aqap is taking advantage of the conflict to also strengthen its political standing in Yemen and build alliances.

“For the first time, Al Qaeda is building a strategic alliance with the tribes,” he reportedly said. “It is a strengthened and dangerous Al Qaeda. This is what worries everybody.”

The conflict with the Houthis is being cast by some in sectarian terms, allowing Aqap to falsely pose as champions of the local Sunni Muslim population. The Houthis, for their part, claim that Aqap dominates the forces confronting them on the ground, further cementing a dangerous sectarian narrative which, though essentially false, can nonetheless become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The strengthened Aqap also appears to be using the conflict in Yemen to its advantage in its burgeoning rivalry with ISIL, a rival terrorist network. ISIL affiliates in Yemen claimed responsibility for the bombing of two Houthi-frequented mosques in Sanaa on March 20 that killed 137 worshippers. But the chaos in Yemen generally appears to be strengthening the hand of Aqap, which may be poised to regain dominance in the terrorist subculture as ISIL finds itself being rolled back territorially in Iraq, facing an increasingly united opposition from regional and international states, and increasingly unpopular in Arab public opinion due to its extreme brutality.

In Al Mukalla, the capital of the Yemeni province Hadramaut, Aqap has established what is generally regarded as the most effective Al Qaeda franchise currently extant in the Middle East, and the only one capable of attempting significant terrorist acts internationally and in the West. Indeed, Aqap claimed responsibility for the January 7 massacre of 11 people at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

As a consequence of this capability, the group has been a frequent target of American drone strikes. On April 14, the group said that one of its senior ideologues and spokespersons, Ibrahim Al Rubeish, a 35-year-old Saudi national who is a former detainee at the US military prison in Guantanamo was killed in a drone attack near Al Mukalla. At least six other senior Aqap figures have reportedly been killed by American drone attacks over the past year. In 2011, the American cleric and terrorist ideologue Anwar Al Awlaki, one of the most important figures produced by Aqap and the leading proponent of “lone wolf” or small-scale terrorist attacks in the West, was killed in a drone attack.

However, any notion that the terrorist group was effectively contained, let alone degraded, has clearly been dissipated given the advances it has made in the context of the expanding war and lawlessness in Yemen. Obviously this outcome is not acceptable, including to the Arab states currently intervening in the conflict.

Stopping the Houthi advance and creating conditions for the restoration of order and political legitimacy in Yemen, and a negotiated peace agreement in the country, are exceptionally important. But they cannot be pursued in a manner that ends up strengthening Aqap, particularly if that is because the approach is insufficient to resolve the conflict and instead creates a stalemate.

A settlement boycott is the least we can do

Everyone who cares about peace should boycott settlements

Israeli security forces hold a position during clashes with Palestinian youths from the Jalazoun refugee camp in the Beit El settlement, north of Ramallah, following a protest against Israeli settlements in the West Bank on 13 March 2015. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

With Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, the peace process and the viability of the only workable formula for peace—a two-state solution—on life support following the reelection of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a platform of opposing the creation of a Palestinian state, the world cannot simply throw up its hands and walk away. The temptation may be overwhelming, but the irresponsibility of “benign neglect” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will become painfully evident sooner rather than later. History shows that the issue does not remain quiet for long—it has an impeccable track record of erupting without warning in an extremely dangerous and destabilizing manner.

Among the numerous measures that ought to be employed by the international community to salvage the prospects for an eventual peace—without which the parties in the region are doomed to interminable conflict which will simply get more violent and intractable over time—one of the most obvious and indispensable is a thoroughgoing international economic boycott of Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. The settlements are a direct violation of black letter international law, most notably Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. They are prohibited because they are a human rights violation against people living under occupation, who have a right not to be forcibly colonized by a foreign military power. This principle was not controversial in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, when the Convention was drafted and approved.

Moreover, the settlements are by far the most damaging of all of the destabilizing elements that threaten short-term calm and long-term peace. They, alone, fundamentally alter the strategic landscape and basic reality that define relations between the occupying power, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian people. With every new settlement home, the Jewish Israeli constituency with a vested interest against making the compromises necessary for peace is enlarged and strengthened. From a Palestinian point of view, Israel’s aggressive settlement activity makes a mockery of negotiations by systematically prejudicing the future of key areas that are, or theoretically should be, the subject of peace talks, and would be indispensable parts of a future Palestinian state.

One obvious example of the kind of settlement activity that, even with a few structures, radically changes the political map in the occupied territories was announced on 30 March when Israel said it intends to build 143 new settlement housing units in an area it calls “Har Homa.” Building in this area has been strategically planned in order to create a ring of continuous Jewish Israeli settlements around the periphery of Israel’s definition of the municipal borders of Jerusalem, cutting the city off from the rest of the West Bank. The purpose is clear: to consolidate and perpetuate Israeli control over Jerusalem and undermine the prospects of a meaningful compromise on Jerusalem, which is an essential element of any peace agreement.

American opposition has frequently restrained Israel from completing plans in such sensitive areas, but it has also sometimes failed. And when that happens, there are no consequences. Under the current circumstances, it’s easy to imagine that Netanyahu and his colleagues decided to go ahead with this and other highly damaging settlement projects without being very concerned about the reaction of the Obama administration. A recent report by the European Union found that in addition to this kind of highly-provocative settlement activity, home demolitions, the evictions of Palestinian families, and other repressive Israeli actions have created a highly-volatile atmosphere in Jerusalem. The report says that Jerusalem has now reached a “boiling point of ‘polarization and violence’ not seen since the end of the second Intifada in 2005.”

In addition, a new report by Human Rights Watch, “Ripe for Abuse: Palestinian Child Labor in Israeli Agricultural Settlements in the West Bank,” outlines the exploitation of Palestinian child labor by Israeli settlements. It claims that Palestinian children are subjected to low wages and dangerous working conditions that violate international standards. The practices documented in the report would be illegal in Israel itself, but these child labor laws and other protections are not enforced against Israeli settlements.

A great deal of the agricultural produce grown in Israeli settlements, with or without the exploitation of Palestinian child labor, is slated for exportation, much of it to Europe. European states, though, are slowly but steadily moving towards a prohibition against the importation of Israeli settlement goods. Sixteen of the 28 European Union foreign ministers, including those of Britain and France, have recently signed a letter to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini asking her to coordinate policies insisting on the clear labeling of settlement goods.

The ministers said the measure was necessary “in relation to the preservation of the two-state solution” since “continued expansion of Israeli illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and other territories occupied by Israel since 1967, threatens the prospect of a just and final peace agreement.” Israel’s continued settlement activity is also reportedly threatening its long-standing efforts to join the EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation program.

The United States does not appear to oppose these European moves, but, unfortunately, shows no signs of following suit for now. On the contrary, the current interpretation of the US-Israel Free Trade Agreement in effect provides preferential treatment for Israeli settlement goods. But a settlement boycott—and not just a refusal to buy settlement-produced goods but a prohibition on investing or financially underwriting settlement activity and industries—are really the least that any state or society that sincerely believes in the need for an eventual two-state solution can and should do.

A settlement boycott isn’t going to transform the strategic landscape between Israel and the Palestinians. Even a full-scale boycott of Israel, reminiscent of that which was imposed on apartheid-era South Africa, wouldn’t do that (and it is almost certainly not achievable, particularly in the United States). But it would send a crucial signal to Israel that, because of its commitment to peace, the international community does not accept Israel’s settlements as legitimate. And because the settlements are illegitimate, their products are also illegitimate. As such, the respectable countries of the world decline to buy illegitimate products. It should be a small part of a whole string of actions designed to shore up the two-state solution and making sure Israelis understand there is a real cost to unacceptable policies such as aggressive settlement expansion.

It’s really not asking for much. And if we actually care about peace, it really is the very least we can do. But, under the present circumstances, it may not be achievable in the United States without considerable groundwork. This is why the European states need to be strongly encouraged to continue to develop these policies and blaze the trail for others to follow.

History teaches the perils of half measures in war

History teaches the perils of half measures in war


It’s premature to label, as some observers are, the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen a “quagmire”, let alone that country’s “Vietnam”. But there is a danger that the Arab forces trying to restore order to Yemen could find themselves bogged down in a conflict that saps their strength without achieving their basic objectives.

The reasons for the Arab intervention are clear enough and rational. Saudi Arabia and its allies concluded that the Houthi takeover of Yemen was the last straw, both inside that country and in regional terms.

When it comes to the domestic Yemeni political scene, the Houthi advances threatened a wide range of undesirable outcomes. They spurred southern secessionist trends. They strengthened Al Qaeda and other extremist groups. They contributed to the growing humanitarian crisis, which involved economic collapse, drought, refugees and other factors of profound stress for Yemeni society. Above all, they made likely a free-for-all civil war resulting in total chaos on Saudi Arabia’s immediate borders.

Regionally, because the Houthis are seen as at least inspired and supported by Iran, if not its outright proxies, their advance in Yemen represented yet another extension of Iran’s regional sphere of influence. It’s a cliché to say that Iran added Sanaa to Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus as Arab capitals in which it holds historically unprecedented and politically unwarranted influence.

Therefore, it was easy to see why Riyadh and its allies concluded that enough was enough and that decisive intervention was essential. This sentiment was widespread enough to, in short order, create a sizeable coalition of countries actually taking part, as well as rhetorical and practical American support.

Yet, as with the unfolding campaign against ISIL in Syria and Iraq, it’s highly questionable whether the resources currently committed to the campaign to roll back the Houthi advance in Yemen will be sufficient to achieve its declared goals. And it is from this questionable arithmetic that the prospect of a potential quagmire emerges as a danger to be carefully avoided.

In another unmistakable parallel to the conflict with ISIL, the campaign against the Houthis is largely an air campaign involving bombing and other air interventions. It is, however, an undisputed military maxim that little can be accomplished by air power alone. Territory can only be gained and held by ground forces, even though air power may be decisive in determining which forces on the ground prevail.

But in the campaigns against both ISIL and the Houthis, the principal ground force is not at all clear. Indeed, what ends up being supported is an opportunistic hodgepodge of different armed forces, militias, gangs and others who find themselves battling against ISIL and the Houthis, in various areas and for varying reasons.

The American head of the campaign against ISIL, retired Gen John Allen, never tires of pointing out that, particularly in Syria, the coalition will require a clearly defined and effective allied ground force in order to make real headway against the terrorists. The same applies to the struggle against Houthi expansion in Yemen. As long as the campaign is restricted to air power, and does not have a robust ground force dimension, it’s going to be very difficult to achieve long-lasting reversals and to restore order or stability to that country.

Therefore, as long as it’s restricted to an air war, the battle against Houthi domination in Yemen is likely to prove at least a kind of political quagmire involving considerable costs but with very limited gains that are stable and secure. Worse still, the introduction of a coherent and effective ground force, either from neighbouring states or from within Yemen, could still mean a protracted and indecisive conflict with the powerful Houthi militia that drags on interminably. After all, in a 2009 eruption of violence, Houthi forces entered parts of Saudi Arabia and killed over 100 Saudi troops.

Insofar as the intervention in Yemen is partly perceived as an effort to stop the expansion of Iranian influence in the Arab world, it must be remembered that while a wide range of Arab forces, both Yemeni and otherwise, are already directly involved, Iranian forces are not. States risk little in having their proxies or clients become bogged down in stalemates, but they risk much if they find themselves in that position.

None of this is an argument against the regional intervention in Yemen. On the contrary, the stakes are so high that the intervention is widely supported both regionally and internationally, including by the United States. It is also readily defensible. Therefore, it’s essential that it is, sooner rather than later, successful.

The spectre of a quagmire like Vietnam immediately suggests what should be avoided: an open-ended conflict with unattainable goals, backed up by insufficient resources. Therefore, the keys to avoiding such a scenario are to define the aims of the conflict narrowly, and in achievable terms, and to commit the necessary resources and determination in order to secure those goals.

Half measures or insufficient steps won’t do. That is precisely how quagmires are produced. History teaches that such interventions must either be decisive and effective, or they are better not undertaken in the first place.

The tragedy in Yarmouk

The Syrian Palestinian refugee camp has become “hell on earth”

A man stands inside a demolished building in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital Damascus on 6 April 2015. Around 2,000 people have been evacuated from the camp after ISIS seized large parts of it. (AFP/Youssef Karwashan)

Given their tragic modern history, Palestinians are used to being trapped between Scylla and Charybdis in one form or another. But rarely has the situation been as stark and alarming as has now befallen the 18,000 remaining Palestinians and Syrians in the Yarmouk refugee camp just outside of Damascus.

Much of Yarmouk has been overrun by the fanatical terrorists of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The group’s familiar campaign of repression, beheadings and vicious abuse have already been reported in parts of Yarmouk. Meanwhile, Syrian government forces loyal to the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad have been attacking the camp with the regime’s equally familiar deadly assortment of indiscriminate firepower, including the dreaded barrel bombs.

One resident reported that in Yarmouk, “people are trapped because of the clashes and the continuous and indiscriminate bombing. It’s hard to go out at all. But they can expect where the guerilla war will take place, but they can never predict where the barrel bombs will come. There is no water. People are running out of food.”

Christopher Gunness, of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), summed up the dire situation as “beyond inhumane.” He explained that “the camp has descended into levels of inhumanity which are unknown even in Yarmouk, and this was a society in which women died in childbirth for lack of medicine, and children died of malnutrition. Now ISIS have moved into the camp and people are cowering in their battered homes, too terrified to go outside. We in UNRWA have not had access since the fighting started, so there is no U.N. food, no U.N. water, no U.N. medicine. Electricity is in very, very short supply. It is astonishing that the civilized world can stand by while 18,000 civilians, including 3,500 children, can face potential imminent slaughter and do nothing.”

One child who fled the camp reported seeing “two members of ISIS playing with a severed head as if it was a football” on Yarmouk’s Palestine Street. Residents have reportedly been reduced to surviving on 400 calories a day. Those who have made it out are the lucky ones. Many are trapped and have nowhere to go.

It’s true that the humanitarian crisis in Syria is perhaps the worst since the Second World War, and that there are many millions of other refugees and displaced persons produced by this war. But the fate of the stateless Palestinian refugees has long and properly been considered to be a special international responsibility and concern, given the direct and proactive role of the League of Nations and the United Nations in producing the circumstances that led to their exile and dispossession. This is why it is particularly poignant when Palestinian refugees find themselves caught in tragic circumstances such as the Lebanese Civil War and now the catastrophic conflict in Syria.

Yarmouk is, therefore, a particular international responsibility. The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on the crisis on Monday, but there is no indication that the international community intends to actually do anything about this calamity. Indeed, given the shameful “hands-off” approach to Syria that the West, and particularly the United States, has adopted, and the shameless support for the brutal Syrian regime by Russia and China, it’s not immediately clear what they could do about the tragedy in Yarmouk. This is what happens when options are intentionally foreclosed and responsibilities abandoned.

Beyond the humanitarian disaster that it entails, this development is politically catastrophic as well. It signals the arrival of ISIS in southern Syria and the direct environs of Damascus in a dramatic new level of engagement and strength. They are using the same methodology they did to rise in parts of the north and east of Syria two years ago. And there is no reason to think that, with determination and perseverance, they won’t be as effective in parts of the south as they have been in the other areas that have fallen under their control.

The attack on Yarmouk is part of a broader and alarming campaign by ISIS to establish a strong presence in the south of Syria. It is attempting, with considerable success thus far, to expand its footprint in Syria even as it is slowly rolled back in Iraq. It may have just lost control of Tikrit, but it has gained control of Yarmouk.

The Islamic State’s presence in the south gives it access to the slowly developing battle for Damascus and the ongoing fight over the strategically vital mountain region of Qalamoun, near the Lebanese border. There, Hezbollah has been one of the mainstays of regime power, and if ISIS supplants more moderate rebel groups in the south, we might see a protracted battle between the two groups over Qalamoun and other areas near the Lebanese border—possibly spilling over into northern Lebanon as well.

Meanwhile, the Assad regime is trying to use the crisis to draw Palestinians into its orbit, offering them arms and “firepower” if they agree to take them in an effort to expel Islamic State fighters. That would obviously be a disastrous mistake, and one which Palestinians are unlikely, in the main, to make.

But that means that the Palestinian refugees in Syria will continue to find themselves trapped between the ruthless and brutal forces of a dictatorship that coldly and often remotely kills people indiscriminately with devices of mass murder like barrel bombs, and a monstrous terrorist organization that enjoys killing people up close and personally through a variety of antediluvian techniques of horror, from decapitation to burning people alive and flinging them from the tops of high buildings.

The situation in Yarmouk was tragic enough already, particularly given the siege imposed on the camp by the regime, but it has just gotten infinitely worse. Unfortunately, there is still the potential for an even further deterioration. “The worst is not so long as we can say ‘This is the worst.'”

The international community may be shirking its responsibility, but that doesn’t mean the responsibility goes away. On the contrary, an urgent moral responsibility that is ignored only becomes a greater ethical conundrum, and a deeper indictment.

Anxious Allies: The Iran Nuclear Framework in its Regional Context

John Kerry and Mohammad Zarif

The framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program achieved by the American-led P5+1 international coalition in many ways goes further, and is significantly more detailed, than most observers had considered possible. However, even as it opens up additional possibilities regarding diplomacy with Iran and the potential for a long-term solution to the question of its nuclear agenda, it leaves significant questions unanswered and raises new concerns that must be urgently addressed. In particular, questions likely to arise in Congress and elsewhere about the specifics of the framework, and perhaps even more significantly among traditional American allies in the Middle East regarding the overall context of the agreement, will have to be effectively answered.

The diplomats are to be congratulated. They have achieved more than most experts had considered likely, and insofar as they are genuinely making progress towards a peaceful and effective resolution of the Iranian nuclear question, that is certainly to be welcomed. No responsible or rational power has any interest in a dangerous and destabilizing military confrontation between Iran and the United States over nuclear weapons. It is strongly in the interests of regional, and indeed global, stability and security that such issues are resolved at the negotiating table. However, it remains essential to unpack the strengths and weaknesses of the framework and to dispassionately evaluate its political, diplomatic and strategic implications.

The framework achieves a real reduction in the assets and capabilities of Iran’s nuclear program for the first time following a decade of numerous failed efforts. About two thirds of Iran’s centrifuges will be mothballed for at least 15 years. The country’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium will be significantly reduced. Enrichment will be greatly restrained, and carried out far below weapons-grade status, no greater than 3.67 percent. For the next 15 years, Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium will be limited to 300 kg. The Arak heavy-water reactor will also be effectively removed from weapons-grade fuel production, and its main reactor dismantled and replaced. Nonetheless, President Barack Obama’s assessment that the framework agreement will “cut off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon” seems optimistic, or at least premature.

Some of the concerns about the framework involve details that must be clarified in a broader agreement which is scheduled to be reached by June 30. Key aspects of the inspection and verification regime remain either unresolved or undisclosed. It’s not clear whether Iran and the P5+1 share a common understanding of how the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s 1997 “Additional Protocol” for International Atomic Energy Agency inspections (which Iran has promised to re-affirm) might apply in this case, or how intrusive they can be. But clearly they fall far short of the “anywhere, anytime” regime of inspections and access to facilities and personnel that applied to Iraq during the 1990s, for example. For skeptics, details of the inspection, monitoring and verification protocol will be among the most important issues to be clarified in the broader agreement, or otherwise before June 30.

Other concerns, however, appear to be hardwired into the framework itself. The broadest of these is that the agreement does not appear to ensure that Iran will never become a nuclear power. Instead, key aspects of its program will be placed on hold for 10, or in some cases 15, years. After that, many of the most important of the restrictions will simply expire. The framework could therefore be viewed as postponing rather than resolving the largest of the big-picture issues. In the meanwhile, Iran will, in fact, continue to enrich uranium with at least 5,000 actively working centrifuges. None of its facilities, or its 19,000 existing centrifuges, will actually be dismantled. Reaching the agreement required significant adjustments in the Obama Administration’s earlier parameters for an acceptable deal. Nonetheless, the Administration probably did achieve most of what it was looking for, at least at this stage. Additional progress is to be encouraged, and the specifics of the framework potentially allow for that.

Perhaps the most significant questions, however, lie beyond the specifics of the framework, and even the nuclear negotiations as such. Rather, they involve growing concerns among traditional American allies in the Middle East about the potential for a broad restructuring of US policy in the region and/or the reordering of the balance of power, particularly in the Gulf. These concerns have arisen from both American words and deeds.

American policies, such as Washington’s unwillingness to maintain a strong or consistent stance regarding the future of the Iranian-allied dictatorship in Syria, have suggested to some observers an unwarranted deference to Iranian interests. Assuming that there is a link between US policy toward Syria and perceived Iranian sensitivities, they could be explained simply by according the nuclear negotiations primacy over all other concerns. However, they could also be understood as reflecting a desire for a far broader rapprochement between Washington and Tehran that involves a new acquiescence to Iranian spheres of influence and regional hegemony at best, or at worst a strategic partnership between the two parties without a significant change in Iran’s regional attitudes.

Some Administration rhetoric has not helped. Comments by President Obama and other senior Administration officials, including suggestions that Iran might be a particularly “rational” Middle Eastern actor as opposed to other regional powers, particularly Sunni Arab societies, raised many eyebrows. Rightly or wrongly, concerns have spread that the Obama Administration is actively seeking to shift the American strategic alignment in the region towards Iran and its sectarian allies, or to create a new “balance” between what could crudely or reductively be described as either “Sunni vs. Shiite,” or even “Arab vs. Persian-led,” alliances.

These perceptions are stressors for US relations with traditional American allies in the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf region. The nuclear framework agreement is likely to strongly exacerbate these anxieties. Not only may several key players in the region feel ever-less inclined to rely on Washington’s assurances, damaging American interests and ability to successfully pursue its policy goals, if they perceive the nuclear agreement as insufficient, they may begin to consider their own need for strategic deterrence. Anxiety and uncertainty are surefire recipes for regional instability, tensions and an invigorated arms race with alarming added dimensions.

The timing of the framework agreement with Iran is particularly sensitive but not coincidental, especially given that a Saudi-led Arab coalition has recently launched a sustained intervention in Yemen against the pro-Iranian Houthi militia that has been making significant gains in its effort to seize power throughout the country. The intervention has involved the creation of a joint Arab military force, clearly prompted by the expansion of Iran’s influence and hegemony through allies, clients and proxies. The battle in Yemen is only the most dramatic and explicit manifestation of a growing direct military confrontation between Iranian-supported and Arab regional forces on numerous fronts throughout the region.

Progress in the negotiations with Iran and the growing confrontation between Tehran and a Saudi-led Arab coalition are strongly linked. Arab (and Israeli, and some extent Turkish, as well) anxieties about Iran’s regional role are exacerbated by the potential that successful nuclear negotiations have for easing economic pressure on Iran, enriching its coffers and strengthening its ability to bankroll its numerous and often effective clients. At least as alarming are fears that a nuclear accommodation could at last secure the reintegration of Iran into the international community as an empowered and respected actor, but crucially without any adjustment in Iran’s regional policies, merely a deal regarding its nuclear program. This prospect suggests a kind of quid pro quo in which many of Iran’s other ambitions would be accommodated as long as its nuclear program is put into a deep freeze over the next 10-15 years. Even if such fears are exaggerated or misplaced, significant effort will be required to dispel them.

President Obama implicitly acknowledged this delicate regional strategic context in his remarks announcing the Iran framework agreement, particularly through his commitment to invite the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to Camp David this spring to “further strengthen our security cooperation.” President Obama pointedly stated that he had already had a telephone conversation about the situation with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and would get around to consulting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sometime later in the day.

There is much the United States can and should do to assuage these concerns. Washington does not lack the means or opportunities to express, and, much more importantly, practically demonstrate, the strength of its commitment to long-standing alliances that are based on deep-seated shared interests and not caprice or tradition. The Camp David meeting is a welcome initiative, but it can and should be buttressed by other diplomatic, defense and intelligence cooperation.

The challenges are regional, and therefore the responses should be based on multilateral Middle Eastern strategic considerations. The GCC-US Strategic Cooperation Forum’s fourth ministerial meeting last September was based on but went beyond the common fight against ISIL terrorists in Iraq and Syria. Building on that meeting, and in the context of the present unease, much more progress on returning to earlier patterns of consistent consultation and coordination should be well within reach. The developing return of closer relations between the United States and Egypt, with the recent restoration of American military assistance, is a further example of the strengthening of ties with traditional Arab allies that is reassuring on a regional basis. The GCC in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular, are clearly going to be playing a more assertive regional role, and one that is presently characterized by rivalry with Iran.

In this context Egypt and Saudi Arabia have combined to lead the establishment by the Arab League of a joint Arab military force. At a minimum, this move underscores the emerging Saudi-Egyptian axis in the Middle East and reflects a new willingness on the part of Arab states to act militarily in their own interests rather than simply waiting for the United States to take the lead in every crisis. The ongoing Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, Egyptian attacks against extremists in Libya, American-led attacks on ISIL in Iraq and Syria with Arab support and participation, and even the 2011 GCC action in Bahrain, all suggest a determination by pro-American Arab states to cooperate and act in their own interests, including to curb the expanding power of Iran and its clients. Both diplomatic and practical American support, within reason and in the American national interest, for this Arab assertiveness might well be the most effective and convincing means of communicating Washington’s determination to preserve and even strengthen its relations with its Arab allies as it simultaneously pursues an agreement with Iran on the nuclear file, and perhaps even a new relationship with Tehran altogether. This is a circle that — with sufficient resources, skill and determination, and with a reciprocal commitment from the Arab states — can indeed be squared.

Clarity on US policy toward Syria, and particularly the future of the Assad dictatorship, would not only strengthen the American position more broadly, it would be a crucial gesture in dispelling the notion that the United States is carefully crafting its policies to accommodate an expanded interpretation of Iran’s legitimate interests in the region. At a November 16 press conference President Obama was asked whether the Administration was considering ways of removing President Assad as part of a plan for political transition in Syria. He replied with a curt, “No.” Dispelling the impression that the US is no longer committed to the removal of the Assad dictatorship is not optional if strong relations with Arab allies are to be fully restored. It is essential. The struggle to “degrade” and ultimately “destroy” ISIL is similarly dependent on policy clarity on Syria that emphasizes American opposition to the continued rule of the Assad dictatorship, despite Iran’s interest in maintaining it.

It is essential that the United States act quickly to forestall any possibility that the nuclear framework adds to the impression that American policies tend to inexplicably comfort enemies and alarm friends. This is especially urgent since a successful negotiated resolution to the problem of Iran’s nuclear program is in everybody’s interests, whereas a conflict over it serves no rational or responsible actor. But if such an agreement is to avoid creating new problems or exacerbating old ones, and potentially even doing more harm than good, it is essential that crucial, long-standing strategic alliances are protected and reinforced. Traditional American allies in the Middle East require and deserve persuasive reassurance that progress on nuclear negotiations with Iran will not come at their expense, and that, if a broader agreement with Iran is achieved, they, too, will be beneficiaries.