“Syria’s Descent into Madness” is the cover story of the May 27 Time magazine, recounting the act of ritual cannibalism by a Syrian rebel commander that transfixed the West last week.
The sort of atrocities viewable on YouTube – the slaughter by government troops of entire families including infants in Tartus province this month, mass rape of women in rebel-held zones, or the rebel leader Abu Sakkar eating a piece of the lung of a dead government soldier – are becoming Syria’s new normal.
Westerners cannot deal with this kind of warfare. The United States does not have and cannot train soldiers capable of intervening in the Syrian civil war. Short of raising a foreign legion on the French colonial model, America should keep its military personnel at a distance from a war fought with the instruments of horror.
There is nothing new about the use of atrocities to persuade one’s own forces to fight to the death because defeat would entail a dreadful retribution. The Nazis “deliberately insinuated knowledge of the Final Solution, devilishly making Germans complicit in the crime and binding them, with guilt and dread, to their leaders,” as the Atlantic Monthly’s Benjamin Schwarz reviewed the latest research.  Both sides in Syria perpetrate crimes against humanity for the same reason. The Assad government encourages its irregulars to rape as many women as possible in towns controlled by the opposition.  Abu Sakkar’s videotaped cannibalism was allegedly retaliation for such rapes.
Something more sinister is at work in the killing fields of the Middle East, however. The danger that Islam would conquer the West attenuated after the Ottomans’ failed Siege of Vienna in 1683. Muslim birth rates are falling faster than those recorded for any people at any time in history, and two of the prospective Muslim powers, Iran and Turkey, will become geriatric shells within a generation. But Muslim societies in their death throes offer a different and deadly threat to the West. It was in response to this threat that I began writing these essays. A month after the 2001 attack on the World Trade center, I warned:
The grand vulnerability of the Western mind is horror. The Nazis understood this and pursued a policy “des Schreckens” (to cause horror) and “Entsetzens” (terror, literally: dislodgement).
Horror was not merely an instrument of war in the traditional sense, but a form of Wagnerian theater, or psychological warfare on the grand scale. Hitler’s tactical advantage lay in his capacity to be more horrible than his opponents could imagine. The most horrible thing of all is that he well might have succeeded if not for his own megalomaniac propensity to overreach.
America, as Osama bin Laden taunted this week, lost in Vietnam. But it was not military setbacks, but the horrific images of Vietnamese civilians burned by napalm, that lost the war. America’s experience in the war is enshrined in popular culture in the film Apocalypse Now, modeled after Joseph Conrad’s story, The Heart of Darkness. The Belgian trading company official, Paul Kurtz, sinks into bestiality and dies with these words: “The horror! The horror!” It was a dreadful film, but a clever reference. At the close of World War I, T S Eliot subtitled his epitaph for Western civilization, The Hollow Men, with a quote from the Conrad story: “Mr Kurtz, he dead.” 
Pre-modern societies competed as a matter of course to commit acts of cruelty horrific enough to paralyze the will of their enemies. The Mongol conqueror Tamerlane – the Boston bomber’s namesake – killed almost all the city’s residents and piled their heads into a pyramid. The Romans lined the Appian Way with 6,000 crucified slave rebels after crushing Spartacus’ revolt in 71 BCE. During the Siege of Jerusalem in CE 76 they crucified 500 victims a day. Among all the ancient peoples only the ancient Hebrews prohibited the public display of executed corpses (Deuteronomy. 21:23), because an atrocity inflicted on the living image of God is an offense to God.
That is what holds the West together. The Christian West summoned the pagans out of pre-history on the authority of a God whose love extends to every individual, so that as individuals they might abandon the collective identity of tribe and instead embrace an individual identity as Christian converts. The bright line that separates pre-modern collective identity from the covenantal identity of the Western individual is nowhere clearer than in the matter of atrocity. Pagan tribes feel no compunction about torturing and desecrating the cadavers of members of another collectivity; Western societies cannot abide such acts without going mad. We cannot even observe them from afar without feeling a touch of madness.
We in the West already are more than a little mad. A gauge of our madness is our preoccupation with horror in popular entertainment. The horror genre supplied one in eight feature films released in the United States in 2009. When Universal Studios made its classic supernatural thrillers during the 1930s, the ratio was 1:200, and in 2000 it still was 1:25. Since 9/11, the volume of horror films has expanded from a trickle to a flood.
Horror films are not merely repellent, but stupid and repetitive. There aren’t enough possible variations on subject matter like vampires, werewolves and zombies to permit much originality, except, perhaps, in the realism of their depiction of mayhem. American audiences watch horror obsessively, the same way they watch pornography.
It is probably not a coincidence that that first big jump in the proportion of horror films (from the 2% to the 4% range) came towards the end of the Vietnam War (with Night of the Living Dead” and Rosemary’s Baby), and the second big jump (from the 4% range to 12%) came after the attacks on the Twin Towers. Americans are horrified because something has horrified them.
That was not always the case. In an essay on the horror genre for First Things magazine in October 2009, I noted that the old classic horror films were viewed as an exotic import:
Hollywood gave us a small run of exotic-origin horror films in the 1930s, all drawn from European fiction: Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. After the Second World War, however, these nightmares of tormented Europeans were mostly naturalized as sight gags for American adolescents. And that was how it was supposed to be. The monsters had a different meaning in their Old World provenance. As Heinrich Heine once observed, the witches and kobolds and poltergeister of German folktales are remnants of the old Teutonic nature-religion that went underground with the advent of Christianity. The pagan sees nature as arbitrary and cruel, and the monsters that breed in the pagan imagination personify this cruelty. Removed from their pagan roots and transplanted to America, they became comic rather than uncanny. America was the land of new beginnings and happy endings. The monsters didn’t belong. 
Horror became an American genre with local themes after Vietnam. The monsters have taken out citizenship papers and are no longer subject to deportation. The pre-modern roots of horror remain evident-every haunted house seems to be built over a Native American burial ground-but they now stem from our own past rather than the remote legends of European tribalism.
Why did Americans display a psychic immunity to the horrors of the European wars, but show such susceptibility to the Black Breath wafting from the World Trade Center? There are many reasons, but chief among them, I believe, is that we have forgotten what makes us different. President George W Bush told us that Islam is a religion of peace, and President Barack Obama told the world in 2009 at Cairo that America and Islam “overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings”. Our clergy inform us that all adherents of the “three Abrahamic religions” are brothers under the skin sharing the same principles, and our political theorists assure us that democratic institutions eventually will make Muslim countries more or less like America.
We were told, and most of us believed, that the so-called Arab Spring of early 2011 portended a great democratic transformation of the Muslim Middle East. As the images of tech-savvy Facebook friends in Tahrir Square gave way to video clips of ravaged bodies, our faces turned gray.
It will get much, much worse. There is a reason that Syria has labored under brutal minority regimes for half a century, since the Ba’ath Party coup of 1963 led by the Christian Michel Aflaq, followed by the Alawite Assad dynasty’s assumption of power in 1971. The colonial cartographers who drew the modern map of the Middle East after World War I understood something that America’s political mainstream does not: states composed of the tribal remnants of pre-modern society can be stable only if the ethnic and sectarian melange is ruled by a minority. Syria’s Alawites ruled over a Sunni majority with Christian support, while Iraq’s Sunnis ruled over a Shi’ite majority, also with Christian support.
Tyrannical as a minority regime might be, it is constrained by the fact that it is a minority. The minority cannot exterminate the majority, so it must find some sort of compromise arrangement. A majority government, though, can (and frequently will) exterminate an ethnic or religious minority. That is why the Sunni majority in Syria long tolerated the Alawite minority regime while the Iraqi Shi’ite majority tolerated a minority Sunni regime.
Syria’s Alawites will fight to the death because a Sunni victory would mean the end of their sect, and Iran will provide unlimited numbers of weapons and fighters. Iraq’s Sunnis, divided from their Syrian cousins by the thin pencils of colonial cartographers, will not stand by and allow Syria to turn into an Iranian protectorate, while Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar support the Sunni rebels with weapons and personnel. What we have seen so far are the preliminary skirmishes. The real horrors of war are yet to come.
It will not help to stick our fingers in our ears and shout, “I can’t hear you!,” as Ron Paul and the new isolationists propose. America cannot abandon a region in which it retains vital strategic interests without disastrous consequences. But it must act in pursuit of these interests, rather than attempt to export democracy.
What America most requires is a renewed understanding of its own uniqueness, and the grim recognition that it cannot prevent civilizations that are determined to destroy themselves from doing so.
1. Hitler’s Co-Conspirators, The Atlantic, May, 2009.
2. Is the Syrian Regime Using Rape as a Tactic of War?, Time, July 12, 2012.
3. Sir John Keegan is wrong: radical Islam could win, Asia Times Online, October 12, 2001.
4. Be Afraid – Be Very Afraid, First Things, October, 2009.
The Coronavirus and Conflicts in the Middle East
The question of the political and socioeconomic consequences the COVID-19 pandemic will have for global development has prompted heated analytical discussions among leading politicians, economists and political scientists. The range of opinions is staggering, varying from “the world will never be the same” (Henry Kissinger) to “the pandemic will accelerate history rather than reshape it” (Richard Haass). Should we, therefore, expect radical shifts in the global leaders’ thinking or will the dangerous inertia of the last two decades ultimately come out on top?
The only thing most people agree on is that the coronavirus has plunged the world into a global, multidimensional crisis. This crisis is made particularly acute and unpredictable by the developments that predated it: the slowdown of global economic growth, the collapse of oil prices, socioeconomic differentiation, the rapid increase in military spending, protracted “unresolvable” conflicts and the growing threat of losing control amid geopolitical rivalry. There are new nuclear missiles, cyber- and biotechnologies, “hybrid wars,” and the consequences of all these trends are not yet entirely clear, which makes this rivalry far more dangerous than the USSR-US confrontation.
Thus far, it is difficult to say confidently what direction these developments will take and whether they will become a turning point. In any case (and here Russian and Western analysts agree), the statesmanship, competency and acumen of all world leaders will be put to the test, as will their ability for reasonable compromise. This “test” will be particularly relevant for those states in the greater Middle East that are involved in various conflicts and for their leaders, whose ambitions are, at this historical juncture, under powerful pressure from both within and without; this test may be even more relevant there than in other parts of the crumbling, yet interconnected world.
“Old” internal conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen, new-type protest movements demanding a change of the ruling elites (the “everyone means everyone” slogan) in Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq, balancing on the brink of an armed conflict in the Persian Gulf – this chronic instability constantly feeds into mutual enmity, the preference for solutions by force, and overall thinking along the lines of “winner takes all.” Regional wars remain a sore point on the Russia-West global agenda, which is already overburdened with many acute problems. At the same time, it has become apparent that domestic driving forces increasingly trump extra-regional influences such as the geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the US, between Western states (France, Italy, Germany, Greece), including Turkey, as is happening in Libya, between the regional powers themselves (Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Qatar) in Yemen, or between all of them in Syria.
The pandemic has affected Libya, Syria and Yemen to a lesser degree than the US and West European states. At the same time, the number of cases is still growing and is gradually approaching the limits of their capacities as these countries are exhausted by protracted wars and external aggressions. In that sense, they have much in common, which causes concern to the UN’s specialised agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and non-governmental humanitarian organisations. The ICRC has warned in a press release that “it will be nearly impossible to fight COVID-19 in countries already devastated by conflict unless a concerted response by states and humanitarian organisations is launched immediately.”
Despite appeals from the UN Secretary-General, from Russia, the US, several leading European states and other members of the international community, military hostilities are still raging in the region; they periodically abate and then flare up again. It takes a strong state, suppressing political violence, and a legitimate authority to succeed in combating the consequences of military conflicts in the Middle East in the middle of the pandemic. In the meantime, these three regional conflict centre have still not restored their territorial integrity, the principal criterion of national sovereignty, and the prospects for a final settlement appear quite vague.
The fight for territories continues. Local administrations of those states’ constituent parts largely depend on non-state actors, various militias, including those of a terrorist persuasion. International humanitarian aid is either inaccessible in many areas or is used for political purposes. Healthcare systems have been completely destroyed or significantly undermined, transport and commercial communication lines have been interrupted, while, according to the UN, about 38.4 million people (25 million in Yemen, 11 million in Syria and 2.4 million in Libya) are in need of humanitarian aid. Until recently, the World Health Organisation had no information about Huthi-controlled areas of Yemen, including the number of COVID-19 cases. Overcrowded city centres, prisons and camps for refugees and displaced persons are seen as the source of the infection.
Syria is a special case in the general picture of Middle Eastern conflicts amid the coronavirus pandemic. The outcome of the internal confrontation will have far-reaching consequences. If compromise solutions are found, a settled Syrian conflict might serve as a precedent for the global community and as a model and a key for resolving other conflicts. Alternatively, if Damascus fails to learn the lessons of 2011, this conflict might become a powder keg under the prospects of Syria’s stable domestic development. Not should we rule out the possibility of the country being split into areas of influence with socioeconomic rehabilitation in each area carried out by external sponsors (mostly with the help of Russia, Iran and China in Damascus-controlled lands, by Turkey in the northwest, and with the support from the US and some Gulf states in the east). The latter variant, though, appears the least probable.
At the extended meeting of the government in early May, President Assad made a powerful statement similar to the one made in the summer of 2015, when the Syrian regime was on the verge of collapse, and the President acknowledged publicly for the first time the dearth of domestic military resources, emphasising the need to “preserve useful Syria.” This time, now that the regime appears to have bolstered its positions thanks primarily to Russia, Assad has again warned the Syrian public and the global community that, if the coronavirus cases spike, Syria would face a “real catastrophe.” The current relatively low level of infection (there were 47 cases at that time), he said, did not mean Syria had avoided the danger. The World Health Organisation lists Syria among high-risk countries.
The President had more than enough reasons to make this statement. In late 2019, only 64% of the country’s hospitals and 52% of its medical outposts were still operating, while about 70% of healthcare workers found themselves among refugees and displaced persons. The geographical distribution of the medical institutions that are working is highly uneven: two-thirds of them are in Damascus, in the provinces of Latakia and Tartus, while there are none in Deir ez-Zor in the country’s east. According to the Brookings Institution, there are 1.4 medical workers per 10,000 people and a grand total of 100 ventilators in Idlib. Immediately after the first coronavirus cases were recorded, food and medication prices went up 20–40% on top of the existing inflation.
Since the first coronavirus cases were recorded on 22 March, Syria’s government has been mobilising its internal capabilities in three areas:
First: preventing the spread of the infection within the area under its control. In Syria’s northeast (Afrin, Idlib), similar measures are being introduced by local authorities that are under the influence of Turkey and several groups that have been declared terrorists, and by the Kurdish administration in inner Syria east of the Euphrates. The announced administrative and legislative measures envisaged even harsher steps than international standards suggested. A curfew was imposed immediately, external borders were closed, control was stepped up over transport between provinces and between the cities within them. This was a vital step for Syria, with its close commercial ties and cross-border contacts with Lebanon, Jordan and Iran (Syria has particularly intensive contacts with the latter). As of late April, Iran accounted for 79.1% of all coronavirus cases in the Middle East; Arab states of the Persian Gulf accounted for 12.1%, and other states for 8.8%. Territorial fragmentation, however, stands in the way of coordinating the fight against the coronavirus throughout the country. It is creating serious difficulties in handing out the international aid that is coming into Syria.
Second: mitigating the socioeconomic consequences for the regime, especially because surges in protests have been recorded since last spring, including in regions with predominantly Alawite population. The government imposed state price regulation, primarily for food, medications and essential goods. Fuel subsidies were maintained and bread stamps were introduced for people in particular need. At the same time, a set of solutions was introduced to remove administrative and bureaucratic procedures for import contracts on essential goods. Syrian importers working with such goods were offered preferential currency exchange rates. The government’s emergency decisions also included exempting individual types of business from taxes for April and gradually (since the first ten days of May) lifting restrictions on work in industrial and service sectors.
Third: concentrating the fragmented financial resources within the inner circle of the President’s power. This could mean transitioning to a policy of centralised distribution of the reduced state revenues, which means the authorities intend to be more decisive in fighting corruption and the “shadow economy” (between 2010 and 2017, GDP fell from USD 60.2 bn. to USD 17 bn.). The experience of many states, including European ones, shows that enhanced financial discipline is a must at a time of crisis, especially in collecting taxes and combating illegal economic activities.
Yet, as regards Syria, Arab and Western media focused rather on looking for sensations than on providing a balanced analysis of the situation with a view to helping find ways out of the crisis that had been compounded by the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. Regrettably, the media show the latest economic steps undertaken by the Syrian government through the lens of the conflict between the President and his cousin, Syria’s wealthiest businessman, multibillionaire Rami Makhlouf.
His business empire does, indeed, span a range of key economic sectors: telecommunications, oil and gas, banking, construction, real estate, commerce, etc. The rise of Rami Makhlouf began soon after Assad came to power, during the short period of liberal economic reforms. During the war, his standing in Syria’s economy was consolidated significantly by the preferences given in exchange for charitable activities and financing militias loyal to the government. Now is the time to pay the bills and some of his assets have been frozen. The conflict peaked when the Syrian oligarch decided to publicise the economic dispute about paying Syriatel’s taxes totaling USD 180 m. He did this at a juncture that was critical for the country. Consequently, the conflict was broadly politicised and resulted in rumourmongering about a split in the presidential elites similar to the late 2017 events in Saudi Arabia (Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had several members of the royal family temporarily detained on allegations of large financial claims against them).
Incidentally or otherwise, precisely in April and May, the western and Arab media were inundated with various speculations concerning Russia-Syria relations. Distorted interpretations were given to those articles in the Russian media and on Russian social networks that contained benign criticism of Damascus’ inflexible policies in political settlement and of the widespread corruption getting in the way of reconstruction and handling the most pressing socio-economic problems. These articles were presented as allegedly reflecting the Russian political elites’ discontent with President Assad personally.
Deliberately fake news affected even the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), whose expert materials always contain objective analysis and verified facts, whether people like it or not. At the instigation of Syrian opposition sources, citing some RIAC paper, fake news was disseminated about Russia, the US and Turkey (with possible participation by Iran) having some plan about removing Assad from power and establishing a “transitional government” consisting of representatives of the “Syrian regime,” the opposition and “Kurdish militias.” Even more regrettable is the excessively emotional response by some “members of the public” in Damascus itself, expressed in the spirit of the ideological rhetoric of the past, of the outdated black-and-white foreign policy notions. They classify members of the Russian expert community (journalists serving purely corporate interests do not count) as “those in favour” and “those against,” into “pro-Western” and “patriotic.” The former naturally strive to “undermine the allied relations” between Russia and Syria.
Meanwhile, despite the many barriers dividing the world, cooperation in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, this “common enemy” as Antonio Guterres called it, is being gradually established, but things are far more complicated in the Syrian conflict.
Besides the WHO, the International Red Cross and some other international organisations, real external aid to Syria’s government is provided only by Russia, China and, to a lesser degree, Iran, with limited aid coming from some European and Arab states. With the start of the coronavirus outbreak, Russia launched humanitarian deliveries to Syria, bringing in face masks, coronavirus testing systems, and other medications and medical equipment. Food aid has been no less important for Syrians. In April, Russian grain, which had previously been in short supply on the market, was delivered to the port of Tartus.
Although the European Union expressed its support for the UN Secretary General’s appeal to lift the sanctions off several states, including Syria, so that the needed medical and humanitarian aid could be provided, in practice, Europe’s contribution is doubtful. First, EU member states have no consensus on Syria and, second, European companies are, as in the case of Iran, extremely wary of secondary US sanctions.
The stance of the Trump Administration is, like that on several other foreign political issues, rather ambiguous, not to say hypocritical. On the one hand, they introduce all kinds of “exceptions,” “authorisations” and “special licences” for providing humanitarian aid to Syria and some other states during the fight against COVID-19. This procedure is detailed in a relevant paper by the US Department of the Treasury dated 16 April 2020 (Department of the Treasury, Washington DC, Office of foreign control, Fact Sheet: Provision of Humanitarian Assistance and Trade to Combat COVID-19). On the other hand, the US is putting “maximum pressure” on Syria, stepping up its verbal threat campaign against President Assad personally and warning those countries, including Arab states, that are willing to provide Syria with the necessary financial and material support, about the consequences. European experts believe that, even if Syria agreed to use the offer of exemptions from the sanctions, this would hardly produce any results because of the large number of duplicate sanctions imposed over the last 20 years and also the “bewildering” bureaucratic procedures.
Many statements made by official US representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey in recent months are just as contradictory and confused. One day, he says the US does not want to overthrow the Syrian regime and supports the launch of the Constitutional Committee; another day, he says that Assad is utterly unacceptable, which can be understood to mean that he is unacceptable even as a presidential candidate at the elections to be held under Resolution 2254. Statements about his contacts with Russian partners and unwillingness to intervene in Russia-Syria relations do not jibe with his words that the purpose of the US is to let Russia get bogged down in Syria. As for jointly fighting international terrorism, there is a certain slyness there, as well, concerning Hay’At Tahrir al-Sham, which apparently cannot really be considered quite terrorist since it has never carried out terror attacks outside Syria and only fights the Assad regime.
The reality is that the coronavirus pandemic caught Syria in the midst of an unsettled conflict and social tensions, a destroyed infrastructure, limited internal reserves and financial resources. We need to understand that in this emergency the way out of the crisis or the simple act of meeting the urgent needs of the people, regardless of their political preferences, is closely linked to the integral progress in several areas: mobilising internal economic resources and creating conditions equally favourable for the work of public-private partnerships and foreign investors; providing a safe environment for refugees to return; creating an atmosphere conducive to national reconciliation; what is required politically is for these efforts to be enshrined through specific steps taken in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, largely spearheaded by Russia.
 See: A. Aksenenok. “The Syrian Crisis: A Thorny Journey from War to Peace” [in Russian] // Valdaiskie zapiski [Valdai Memoranda] No. 104, Valdai Discussion Club. P. 11.
From our partner RIAC
Palestine Ends All Agreements with Israel and the United States
On May 19, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), declared an end to all agreements, including security agreements, with Israel and the United States. On May 22, Palestinian security forces withdrew from the East Jerusalem area.
The reason for this decision was Israel’s claims to annex about 30 per cent of the territories in the West Bank, also known as Judea and Samaria. This was announced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 10 during the presentation of his government to the Knesset. According to him, the time has come to apply Israeli law to these territories and “write another glorified chapter in the history of Zionism.”
It should be noted that the territories mentioned are the Palestinian territories in West Bank captured by Israel during the six-day war of 1967. The United Nations defines these territories as occupied. According to UN General Assembly Resolution No. 181, they are “the area of the proposed Arab State.”
Israel considers these territories disputed. In violation of the Geneva Conventions, banning to move the civilian population into the occupied territory, to date, Israel has created about 140 settlements in West Bank with approximately 500,000 people living there. From the point of view of international law, they are not part of Israel. Another 200,000 Israelis moved to the occupied East Jerusalem.
The vote on extending Israeli sovereignty to the occupied Palestinian territories may take place on July 1. In this effort, Israel is actively supported by the United States, as the annexation of territories in West Bank is part of the so-called “deal of the century” formally unveiled by Donald Trump on January 28, 2020. He is convinced that the establishment of Israeli sovereignty over territories in West Bank is fully consistent with his personal peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that annexing territories in West Bank is “ultimately Israel’s decision to make,” and the U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, the main supporter of Israeli settlements, is confident that Washington will recognize this move.
Netanyahu’s plan is not widely supported by the Israeli society. If the majority of Israeli Knesset members are ready to support it, a rather significant group of former senior military and special services officers are against it. For instance, 220 retired Israeli generals and admirals (including Gadi Shamni, a retired general in the Israel Defense Forces; Tamir Pardo, former Director of the Mossad; and Ami Ayalon, former director of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service) made a collective statement, warning that the annexation would threaten Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, anger allies in the Gulf and undermine the Palestinian authorities collaborating with Israel on important security issues. The generals were supported by 149 prominent American-Jewish leaders and 11 members of the U.S. Congress.
Judging by opinion polls, a significant part of Israeli society is of the same opinion. Many Israeli human rights organizations, including such respectable ones as B’Tselem and Yesh Din, have spoken out against the proposed annexation.
Egypt, a major regional player and mediator between Israel and Hamas, is coordinating with Israel in its fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda in Sinai. The annexation of the West Bank can spark negative reactions from the Egyptian population, which will force President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to reconsider relations with Israel.
The situation with Jordan is more complicated, with a significant number of Palestinians living there. They will get involved if Israel begins to implement its plans. This will lead to even greater radicalization and will inevitably provoke mass protests. The Kingdom of Jordan, facing difficult economic problems exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, will be confronted with enormous challenges. Amman is well aware of this.
For many years, the Jordan-Israel border was the safest border for Tel Aviv. The situation may change after July 1, as warned of by Jordan’s King Abdullah II. On May 15, in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Abdullah II warned that if Israel really does move to change the borders, it would set off a massive conflict with Jordan.
It is unlikely that this time the Gulf monarchies, collaborating with Israel against Iran in recent years, won’t get involved (for example, Saudi Arabia, exchanging intelligence with Israeli intelligence services). They have known about Netanyahu’s plans for West Bank for a long time, now the public in these countries will probably have a negative reaction to the annexation and require actions from the authorities.
The United Nations and the European Union cautioned against the West Bank annexation. Their representatives, in particular, Nickolay Mladenov, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, warned that this would be a devastating blow to the two-State solution for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, would slam the door on fresh negotiations and threaten efforts to advance regional and international peace.
According to Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union, Brussels does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied West Bank. However, this is his personal opinion and not the official position of the EU. The Union does not have a single position on what needs to be done now. Some EU member states, such as Hungary and Austria, believe that this is not the right time for such statements. Ireland, Norway, and Luxembourg, on the contrary, believe that it is necessary to make a statement and take measures against Israel if it does not abandon its plans.
France and Germany expressed their disagreement with Netanyahu’s intentions to extend Israeli sovereignty to Jewish settlements in West Bank. They called on the Israeli authorities to refrain from any unilateral measures that would lead to the annexation of all or part of the Palestinian territories. Given that Borrell’s statement is personal, and the demarches by Paris and Berlin are more like wasting breath, it is unlikely that the EU will move from words to some decisive action against Israel, like imposing sanctions. Moreover, the United States will not allow this.
Turkey, as expected, harshly criticized Netanyahu’s intentions. Ankara warned that the country would always stand by the brotherly Palestinian people.
The Church expressed its utmost concern. On May 7, the Patriarchs and Heads of the Holy Land Churches published a statement on Israeli unilateral annexation plans, “which would bring about the loss of any remaining hope for the success of the peace process.” Church leaders urged the Palestine Liberation Organization, which they called “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” to resolve all internal and factional conflicts so it could present a united front “dedicated to achieving peace and the building of a viable state that is founded upon pluralism and democratic values.” They also called on the UN, the United States, Russia, and the European Union to respond to annexation plans.
The League of Arab States is also making attempts to increase the efforts to oppose Netanyahu’s plans. The Arab League condemned Israel, saying that the implementation of plans to annex any part of the Palestinian territories would “represent a new war crime” against the Palestinians. In late April, in the Arab League Council online extraordinary meeting at the ministerial level, under the chairmanship of Egypt, a joint statement was made to support the Palestinians and Jordan, rejecting the Israeli unilateral moves.
An ambiguous position was taken by Canada. When the people of Crimea decided to join the Russian Federation following to the results of the referendum, official Ottawa was restless about the alleged Russian annexation and not only joined the economic and political sanctions of the West against Moscow and certain Russian politicians and entrepreneurs, but also sent its military instructors and started to provide material and technical support to the Ukrainian army. The country, thus, became directly involved in the civil war in Donbass. Now the Canadian government is abstaining from making public statements condemning Netanyahu’s intentions, let alone imposing practical sanctions.
There is little time left until the moment of truth on July 1. Much depends on how the international community and the Arab world behave. The complicit silence in the face of the situation, as was the case with Israel’s recent annexation of the Golan Heights, might bring about unexpected consequences for the entire Middle East. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki cautioned against the annexation, saying it would “end the two-state solution” and will “turn the battle from a political one to an endless religious war.”
Judging by the statement of Mahmoud Abbas, there is still hope. According to him, Palestinians are ready to return to the negotiating table with Israel, but with the mediation of a third party.
Some experts believe that under the prevailing conditions, the Middle East Quartet – the United Nations, the United States, Russia, and the European Union, could serve as a mediator. However, there are some factors that can obstruct such work.
The European Union is divided at this point. Its members should first decide what they want to achieve and develop an action strategy.
Prior to the U.S. presidential election, the current administration will not refuse the well-publicized “deal of the century.” It is part of the election campaign of Donald Trump, who is extremely interested in the lack of international consensus on measures to influence Israel. In addition, the American President probably takes into account the fact that the Arab world is now focused on internal problems and paralyzed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Russia emphasized its willingness, together with other participants of the Middle East Quartet, to encourage talks between Israel and Palestine and “to continue to facilitate the resumption of the peace process via direct dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians within a generally recognized international legal framework.” On May 22, by the initiative of the Palestinian side, Mikhail Bogdanov, Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa, had a telephone conversation with Hussein al-Sheikh, Fatah Central Committee member, who informed Mr Bogdanov about the latest decisions by the Palestinian leadership regarding relations with Israel. Russia reaffirmed its unwavering commitment to supporting the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, including the establishment of an independent state within the 1967 lines with its capital in East Jerusalem, living peacefully and maintaining neighborly relations with Israel. The Special Presidential Representative of the Russian Federation pointed out that the proposal by Russia’s leadership to hold a face-to-face meeting between President of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow without any preconditions remained on the table.
At the same time, If Palestine is ready for negotiations, Benjamin Netanyahu might not be. In Israel, many of his political opponents believe that discussions around the annexation of part of the West Bank and COVID-19 are the only way for him to stay in politics and evade prosecution for corruption and breach of trust, at least for the next few months. And the Prime Minister is unlikely to refuse it.
From our partner RIAC
Prospects of normalization grim in Libya
Analysts say that Libya is one of the most important crisis to watch for in 2020 because of the involvement of Russia and Turkey. More importantly, the plight of the Libyans after almost 10 years of civil war cannot be ignored.
Jens Stoltenberg, head of NATO military alliance recently said in an interview that Turkey remains an important ally and NATO is ready to support GNA increasing the possibility of Russia and NATO locking horns.
Eight years after Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi eliminated his country’s weapons of mass destruction the colonel found himself on the wrong side of the gun, when he was overthrown and killed in 2011 submerging the country in a civil war.
NATO members led by Britain and France supported the so-called revolution by airstrikes – then watched as the country sank into chaos. Barrack Obama said leaving Libya without a plan after Gaddafi was the “biggest mistake” of his presidency.
There are fears that the global Covid-19 pandemic could devastate the war-torn Libya, where a decade long conflict has ravaged key infrastructure and created dire medical shortages.
Today the country is divided into two factions backed by foreign powers struggling to put the country together.
On the one side, there is the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) under Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj in Tripoli supported by Turkey, Qatar, and Italy. Turkey has deployed Syrian mercenaries.
Tripoli has been under siege by Libyan National Army (LNA) headed by Khalifa Haftar, who started his offensive on Tripoli in April 2019. The offensive was launched while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres arrived in Tripoli to prepare for a peace conference.
Unsuccessful in taking Tripoli, Haftar has laid a siege on the capital city for the last four months.
The 76-year-old Libyan-born commander Haftar is supported by Russia, Egypt, France, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and to a lesser extent Israel. Russia has sent mercenaries.
The Wall Street reported that prior to his April offensive on Tripoli, Haftar was in Riyadh where Saudis gave him tens of millions of dollars.
In his dominion, Haftar is known as “the marshal”, and is the military ruler of eastern Libya, with Benghazi as his stronghold. He has promised to build a stable, democratic, and secular Libya but the regions in his control are without any law and order and corruption abounds.
There were several summits by international community to put an end to the Libyan strife before Covid-19 pandemic sidelined the Libyan crisis.
The last summit was called the Berlin Conference was held on January 19. Haftar and al-Sarraj didn’t even meet face to face and the summit failed to yield results.
China has remained neutral in this conflict. Under the Gaddafi regime, China engaged in various infrastructure activities with 35,000 Chinese laborers working across 50 projects, ranging from residential and railway construction to telecommunications and hydropower ventures. The year leading to Gaddafi’s overthrow, Libya was providing three percent of China’s crude oil supply, constituting roughly 150,000 barrels a day. All of China’s top state oil firms – CNPC, Sinopec Group, and CNOOC – had had standing infrastructure projects in Libya.
In the outbreak of protests in 2011, China sought to preserve economic ties with Libya and rejected the NATO-led military intervention. China abstained at the UN Security Council vote to authorize military intervention.
In late 2015, the GNA emerged as the new political authority, the product of negotiations brokered by the United Nations and backed by China.
Although many Chinese projects were suspended in Libya and bilateral trade decreased by 57 percent, China’s neutrality paved the way for Beijing to stand in good stead with GNA for years to come.
Home to an estimated 654,000 migrants – more than 48,000 of them registered asylum seekers or refugees – many of them cramped conditions with little access to healthcare amidst the pandemic. An outbreak can be catastrophic.
Many live on transfers from friends and family and UNHCR handouts. With work hard to find many hope to proceed with their journey to Europe. Smugglers have put hundreds and thousands of them in boats and sent them across the Mediterranean to Italy.
UNHCR has been evacuating some of the most vulnerable refugees until airspace was shut in early April.
On May 13, WHO issued a joint statement on Libya emphasizing that the entire population of the country, especially some 400,000 Libyans that have been displaced – about half of them within the past year, since the attack on Tripoli — are at risk of Covid-19 pandemic.
The statement reported everyday challenges that humanitarian missions and workers face to carry on with their mission. The UN verified 113 cases of grave violations, including killing and maiming of children, attacks on schools, and health facilities.
The report points out that as of May 13, there were 64 confirmed cases of Covid-19, including three deaths, in different parts of the country. This shows transmission of the disease is taking place and the risk of further escalation of outbreak is very high.
The report talks about food security and latest assessments show that most cities are facing shortages of basic food items coupled with an increase in prices, urging all parties to protect the water supply facilities that have been deliberately targeted.
“We look forward with anticipation to the pledged financial support to the Humanitarian Response Plan for Libya, as announced by the GNA,” WHO statement said.
Oil reserves in Libya are the largest in Africa with 46.4 billion barrels as of 2010. Much of Libya’s oil wealth is located in the east but the revenues are channeled through Tripoli-based state oil firm National Oil Corporation (NOC), which says it serves the whole country and stays out of its factional conflicts.
Prior to the 2011 Libyan civil war, Libya produced over 1.5 million barrels a day. As a result of a blockade of export terminals by LNA by February of this year oil production dropped to 200,000 barrels a day reports Bloomberg. NOC said the North African state’s current level of production is at 91,221 barrels per day as of March 17.
In order to choke GNA from the crucial crude export revenue, the LNA seized Libya’s export terminals and ports in the east in mid-January. The blockade has cost Libya some $560 million, Petroleum Economist reported in January.
According to NOC, the blockade has plunged production from around 1.2 million barrels a day, and added losses had surpassed four billion dollars by April 15.
In the last couple of weeks, significant developments have been happening in the Libyan civil war.
In an interview with Italian daily La Repubblica, Jens Stoltenberg, head of NATO military alliance said that Turkey remains an important ally and NATO is ready to support GNA. He stressed NATO is supporting UN’s efforts for a peaceful solutions to conflicts both in Libya and Syria.
Meanwhile, the independent English language Tripoli-based Libyan Express reported that Haftar launched a rocket attack Thursday on Tripoli, hitting the Central Hospital on other downtown areas.
Tripoli Central Hospital and some civilian areas were targeted. GNA’s Health Ministry said 14 civilians were injured, adding that the hospital will not be able to serve people due to the attack pointing out what a massive setback was amid the outbreak of Coronavirus.
Libyan military forces said Monday that the Libyan army struck forces loyal to Haftar in Al-Watiya airbase in the southwest of Tripoli during the government-led Operation Volcano of Rage.
LNA has intensified attacks on civilians since the beginning of May as GNA made substantial military progress in the offensive in the western part of Tripoli. Armed drones provided by Turkey conducted effective attacks against the LNA.
Libyan Interior Minister Fathi Bashaghe has accused Haftar’s forces had used chemical weapons on the Salah Al-Deen front, south of Tripoli. The accusations were confirmed by Canadian journalist Amru Saleheddine, who found several government soldiers with symptoms to those of epilepsy, usually caused by nerve gas.
The conflict in Libya is backed by foreign actors with different objectives and priorities. Any emerging power configuration will be fragile unless the external actors come to a shared understanding.
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