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The Caesar Act: A New Challenge for Syria?

Igor Matveev

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On June 17, the United States began implementing the Caesar Act (the “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act”) following a six-month grace period that was granted to the administration so that it could prepare secondary sanctions against foreign citizens for cooperating with Damascus in oil, gas, aviation, defence and construction. The original sanctions list was made up of 39 Syrian individuals and legal entities, including Bashar al-Assad, his wife and his brother and sister. Paradoxically, however, not only do the new restrictive measures create difficulties, but they also form prerequisites for mobilizing Syria’s internal resources and expanding Russia’s economic presence in the country.

Factors Aggravating the Socioeconomic Situation in Syria

The COVID-19 Pandemic

At first glance, Syria does not appear to be a coronavirus hot spot. The country has a population of over 16.4 million, yet the Ministry of Health has reported just 496 cases, 25 deaths and 144 recoveries as of July 17. Humanitarian NPOs reported the first case of COVID-19 in the mutinous city of Idlib on July 9 — it had been previously noted that the number of COVID-19 cases could have been greater by an order of magnitude due to the lack of quarantine measures. The Kurdish Self-Administration identified two more cases in northeast Syria back on April 28.

Initially, Syrian experts thought that the country’s marginalization in the global economy would make it less vulnerable to the pandemic. The authorities established a governmental headquarters and deployed a standard set of measures to combat the infection: borders were closed, air travel was suspended, people arriving in the country from abroad had to quarantine, a curfew was introduced, travel between governorates was restricted, public events were banned, and schools, universities, markets and restaurants were closed. The elections to the People’s Council (Parliament) were rescheduled for July 19, 2020. In order to support the population and businesses, the Ministry of Labour launched the “National Campaign for Social Emergency Response,” while the Ministry of Tourism approved a plan for supporting the tourism industry. The government abolished the 40-per cent import deposits and allowed private enterprises to import flour. Sugar, rice, tea and fuel were distributed at subsidized prices under the “smart card” programme. In late May, the government followed the example of other countries around the world, started to relax the protective measures: the curfew was abolished and government agencies resumed their regular operations.

However, it should be noted that, according to the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, the conflict in Syria meant that the country was poorly prepared to handle the pandemic. The lack of consensus among foreign actors on how to provide aid to Syria did not help — the country’s additional needs totalled USD 385 million, according to the May 7 briefing of UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric. Damascus had to be content with donor deliveries from China, India and Russia. The sanctions took away the competitive edge of the local products due to high prices on energy, diesel fuel and gas and the shortage of raw materials and skilled labour, which played into the hands of commercial monopolies.

The pandemic nullified the government’s effort to present the reconstruction effort as a “prize” for investors, since all exhibitions, including the 62nd Damascus International Fair, were rescheduled for 2021 (despite Washington’s warnings, 38 countries participated in the 61st Fair, including business delegations from the United Arab Emirates and Oman). The coronavirus paralyzed trade with Iraq through the Abu Kamal — Qaim border checkpoint that was opened on September 30, 2019, and on which both parties had pinned great hopes.

The falling living standards produced an upsurge in protests: in January and June 2020, the Druze population in the relatively calm southern governorate of As-Suwayda held rallies demanding the resignation of Bashar al-Assad. To defuse social tensions, the President dismissed the unpopular Prime Minister Imad Khamis, who had been in office since 2016.

The Lebanese Crisis

The crisis in neighbouring Lebanon, which was particularly acute in October–November 2019 and April 2020, had a far greater effect on Syria’s economic situation than the pandemic. By early 2020, Syrian deposits in Lebanese banks had reached USD 40–50 billion — a quarter of all deposits. Tighter control over cash withdrawals and banking transactions made it harder to transfer assets out of banks and diminished the effectiveness of the Intervention Fund for Supporting the Syrian pound established by the Syrian government. Wire transfers from Syrian diasporas abroad also dropped, which impacted the state’s foreign currency revenues and narrowed the domestic investment base. Syria’s total net wealth (USD 21.1 billion as of June 2019, according to Credit Swiss) is still many times less than Lebanon’s (USD 232.2 billion), not to mention that of Saudi Arabia (USD 1.56 trillion, making it the richest country in the Arab world).

The Caesar Act immediately delivered a blow to the banking cooperation between Damascus and Beirut, as Lebanon’s CSCGroup stopped servicing Syrian ATMs. On June 23, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Syria Walid Muallem spoke about coordinating efforts to prevent secondary American sanctions, but never received a clear response from Lebanon.

Devaluation of the Syrian Currency

The high demand for U.S. dollars on the back of the devaluation of the Lebanese pound (the exchange rate had long sat at around LBP 1500 to the dollar, but has now fallen to LBP 2200 to the dollar) accelerated the depreciation of the Syrian currency. By mid-January 2020, the Syrian pound had dropped below the record figure of SYP 1000 to the dollar, while the pre-war exchange rate was SYP 47 to the dollar. The situation was also negatively affected by Turkish liras circulating in Idlib and northern regions that are formally controlled by the opposition’s “transitional government” formed with Ankara’s support.

In an attempt to keep control of the situation, on January 18, Bashar al-Assad issued Order 2/2020, introducing harsher punishment for illegal transactions in foreign currencies. In February, the government capped currency imports at USD 100,000, with currency in excess of USD 5000 subject to declaration. Currency exports by Syrian citizens were capped at USD 10,000. The government took the unprecedented step of allowing a private company to put an e-currency (lira) into circulation starting on January 1, 2020, which was to be tied to domestic accounts nominated in Syrian pounds, but it could be used abroad as an alternative to the dollar in order to finance imports. The idea was that it would stimulate demand for Syrian pounds since participants in such transactions would buy them in order to exchange them for liras.

The Fragmentation of Syrian Territory

Thus far, Bashar al-Assad has failed to keep his promise to “liberate every inch of the Syrian land.” Approximately 40 per cent of the country, including Idlib, the north, and the trans-Euphrates territory is not under Damascus’ control. The lawyers at the Syrian Law Journal website hit the nail on the head when they noted that the Caesar Act is intended primarily to isolate government-controlled regions, which will inevitably result in the growth of “shadow” commerce. In October 2017, Herbert McMaster summed up the gist of the American approaches, “We should ensure that not a dollar […] goes to reconstruct anything that is under the control of this brutal [Syrian] regime.”

Discord in Syria’s Top Echelons

The economic crisis was compounded by Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, the most prominent of the “state bourgeois” whom Syrians nicknamed the “children of the power” (Awlad alsulta), falling out of favour. Last year, he was rumoured to have been placed under house arrest for his refusal to donate the bulk of his 5-billion-dollar fortune to advance the Syrian President’s personal efforts to involve the private sector in the reconstruction of the country. Foreign commenters put forward an ambiguous version claiming that Makhlouf had a complicated relationship with Bashar al-Assad’s wife Asma, who was planning to create, together with Samer Foz, another “child of the power,” Syria’s third cellular service provider to compete with Syriatel, the flagship of Makhlouf’s “empire.”

The Caesar Act as an Aggravating Factor

While the Department of State insists that secondary sanctions do not extend to the humanitarian sphere, they cannot but have an effect on regular Syrians, since they aggravate the economic crisis in the country. This is an apt place to quote Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Vershinin who said at the IV Brussels Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region on June 30, 2020, that the Caesar Act ignores UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s call to suspend restrictions in the face of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Along with its destructive influence on the situation inside Syria, the Caesar Act is clearly intended to scare away those who may want to invest in the country’s reconstruction efforts. This applies primarily to Washington’s Arab allies, even against the backdrop of positive signals sent to Damascus, such as the telephone conversation between Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Bashar al-Assad, when the parties discussed aid to Syria in combating the COVID-19.

The Caesar Act and Russia’s Economic Presence in Syria

Nothing Good Can Come of it for Moscow?

Despite the obvious obstacles that the Caesar Acts creates for Russian companies, the are a number of examples where the reverse is true in terms of Syria leaning more and more towards Russia economically. Russian business has experience in dividing up the roles with Iran, the leading economic player in Syria. For instance, the global media took notice of the agreement to jointly develop the phosphate fields in Palmyra, which was liberated from ISIL by pro-Iranian units.

New sanctions will most likely postpone China’s involvement in the reconstruction effort, since China was already somewhat cautious, confining itself to humanitarian aid on a rather modest scale by Chinese standards (on March 4, an agreement was signed for Beijing to provide a 14-million-dollar grant). Lebanon’s domestic crisis rendered the possibility of non-sanctioned Lebanon acting as an intermediary, suggesting that China invest in the Tripoli port in order to transform it into a “hub” for entry into Syria, moot.

The potential of Abkhazia and Crimea, which have already been hit by sanctions, to act as intermediaries is objectively increasing. For instance, the Agreement between the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Crimea and the Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade of the Syrian Arab Republic on Trade and Economic Cooperation as part of plans to create a joint trading house to export grain and industrial products to Syria with payments to be made in roubles, and the Agreement on Cooperation between the Government of the Republic of Abkhazia and the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic in the Field of Trade Promotion and Economic Cooperation may be injected with specific substance.

The Caesar Act may prompt Syrian IT sector operators to choose Russian analogues or unique technologies instead of the American software they previously used, thus bypassing the sanctions, or instead of cooperating with India. The first sign that this may be the case was the launch of the Electronic Signature Certification Centre with the assistance of RusinformExport LLC in September 2019.

Russia’s Economic Strategies in Syria

There are two emerging approaches concerning Russia’s participation in Syria’s post-war reconstruction effort. The “broad” concept entails involving large- and medium-sized business with financial and administrative governmental support and under the auspices of the Permanent Russian–Syrian Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, and Technical Cooperation (which held its 12th in Moscow meeting on December 23–25, 2019). The Commission prioritizes energy, transportation and the IT sector.

The “narrow” strategy entails putting the “Syrian dossier” within the purview of a very narrow circle of entrepreneurs who have experience of working in Syria in peacetime and wartime, such as Gennady Timchenko’s Stroytransgaz JSC (STG), which assisted in the construction of two gas-processing plants and now focuses on ensuring the end-to-end cycle of producing, processing and exporting phosphates. STG’s bodies have leased the Syrian port of Tartus for 49 years as a result.

Given the appearance of the Caesar Act, it would appear that Moscow will choose the “narrow” option in order to avoid secondary sanctions being imposed on Russian businesses, many of which work in Europe and with the member states of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf. Companies such as STG are used to operating under sanctions and dealing with security issues. They have a “financial security margin” for investing and wealthy local partners. They could help recoup the money spent on the military operation in Syria by mining valuable minerals on exclusive terms.

Russia’s Prospective Role in Restoring Economic Ties

Moscow is prepared to act as an intermediary in implementing projects throughout Syria by using summit-level dialogue with Turkey, connections in Kurdish business circles, and the presence of the Military Police of Russia in Syria’s northern regions and other parts of the country. It should be remembered that Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed that Turkey, Russia and the United States jointly manage oil fields in the Deir-ez-Zor Governorate, which he believes would benefit all the parties to the conflict, including the Syrian authorities, the opposition’s “transitional government” and the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Possible Responses of Damascus to the Caesar Act

Complicated Relations with Iran and Russia

It is no secret that Damascus has to manoeuvre between Moscow and Tehran, as they pursue different interests. Iran banks on proxy militias as it advances its influence “beyond the Syrian state” as part of its anti-Israel “Shia Crescent” project. These actions open up the Syrians to U.S. sanctions and make them a target of Israel’s surgical strikes. They also allow Tehran to claim a special role in the reconstruction effort, which, once again, prompts a harsher retaliation from the United States. Russia, on the contrary, is interested in bolstering the official institutions of “al-Assad’s Syria” which, by ousting non-state actors, would monitor business projects, primarily those related to valuable minerals.

If there is a shortage of commercially profitable projects, we cannot rule out the possibility of Russia rigidly protecting its interests by keeping Damascus from escalating the conflict and getting too friendly with Iran. Western media reported some backstage agreements between Syria and the United Arab Emirates that entail Syria continuing the operation in Idlib in exchange for “financial compensation” and in contravention of Russia–Turkey arrangements. It was against this backdrop that the Russian media ran stories of Moscow’s discontent with Bashar al-Assad this past May.

Paying for Russian and Iranian Aid with Valuable Minerals

Heeding the imperative to provide its main allies with access to its mineral resources, the People’s Council of Syria ratified three oil field development agreements in December 2019, just as Donald Trump was signing the Caesar Act. These agreements were concluded between the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources and Mercury Limited (units and 19) and Velada (unit 23). Since little is known about these companies, it was speculated that they are a front for an entrepreneur with ties to the Kremlin. In an attempt to maintain a balance between Moscow and Tehran, the Syrian parliament opened discussions in May on giving unit 12 near Abu Kamal to the Iranians as partial repayment of loans received from Iran in 2013–2019. A new military agreement with Iran was signed in Damascus on July 8, 2020. Adviser to the President of Syria Bouthaina Shaaban called it the first step to defeating the Caesar Act.

The Syrian Government’s Dialogue with Kurds

Despite the fact that the Syrian government does not recognize the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, it did not interrupt its commercial and economic contacts with the Kurds. In June, the government approved an increase in the purchase price of wheat from SYP 225 to SYP 400 per kilogram, as opposed to SYP 315 per kilogram paid by the local authorities, in order to purchase maximum amounts of wheat in Jazira (in the north-eastern Al-Hasakah Governorate) known as Syria’s “grain stores.” This showed that Damascus was ready to restore economic ties before the political settlement of the Kurdish problem had been achieved.

The EU’s Stance on the Caesar Act

Much will depend on the stance that Europe takes on the Caesar Act, and this is a complicated matter. In May, Brussels once again extended its sanctions against Syria for another year. On the other hand, Europe is debating adjusting its approaches to the Syrian reconstruction effort. The German expert Muriel Asseburg notes that the European Union’s consolidated standing is eroded by differences between the United Kingdom, Germany and France on the one hand, as they favour preserving the hard-line approach, and Austria, Hungary, Italy and Poland on the other, as they are ready to expand their economic presence in “al-Assad’s Syria.” The proposal is to become involved in the reconstruction effort in the areas controlled by the authorities, thus raising living standards under the slogan of “sustainable stabilization” and refraining from completely normalizing relations with Damascus.

To sum up, even though the Caesar Act is a challenge for Syria and its allies, there is real potential there for neutralizing its consequences through the mobilization of Syria’s internal reserves and strengthening economic cooperation with Russia.

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D. in History, Full State Counsellor of the Russian Federation, 3rd class; Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Lecturer at MGIMO University under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation; expert on Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean, RIAC Expert

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Shaping Palestinian politics: The UAE has a leg up on Turkey

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The United Arab Emirates may have the upper hand in its competition with Turkey in efforts to shape Palestinian politics. Similarly, the UAE’s recognition of the Jewish state gives it a leg up in ensuring that its voice is heard in Israel and Washington irrespective of who wins the November US election.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t miss a beat during his address to the United Nations General Assembly, insisting that he, unlike the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, would not accept a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is not endorsed by the Palestinians.

Mr. Erdogan’s solemn pledge may earn him brownie points with large segments of Middle Eastern and Muslim public opinion critical of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the two Gulf states but does not strengthen his weak hand.

The UAE, with whom Mr. Erdogan is at loggerheads over Libya, Syria, and the future of political Islam, may have less clout than it thinks in bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, but has, for now, more cards to play.

What those cards are worth will only emerge over time.

The UAE is betting that a combination of soft power garnered through recognition of Israel and close security, economic and technological cooperation will enable it to convince the Israeli government that an independent Palestinian state is in Israel’s interest.

While there is little reason to believe that the UAE will succeed where others have failed in recent decades, Emirati leaders, in contrast to Turkey, potentially could in cooperation with Israel also try to impose an unpopular Palestinian figure who has close ties to the US, Emirati and Israeli leadership.

The move would be designed to install a leader who would be  more conducive to engaging in peace talks on terms that hold out little hope of meeting long-standing Palestinian aspirations.

It is a scenario that 84-year-old Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appears to be taking seriously and appears to be trying to pre-empt.

The Democratic Reform Bloc, a political group headed by Mohammed Dahlan, a controversial Abu Dhabi-based former Palestinian security chief believed to be close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE’s de facto ruler, said dozens of his supporters had been arrested or summoned for questioning by Palestinian security forces in recent days.

Mr. Dahlan appeared to be walking a fine line when he recently denied any role in mediating relations between the UAE and Israel.

Mr. Abbas’ suspicions stem from an unsuccessful effort last year by the UAE to engineer a deal in which Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, would share power with Mr. Dahlan.

Mr. Dahlan went into exile in the UAE in 2007 after Hamas defeated his US-backed efforts to thwart the group’s control of Gaza. US President George W. Bush described Mr. Dahlan at the time as “our boy.”

He has since been indicted by Mr. Abbas’ Palestine Authority on corruption charges.

UAE recognition of Israel constituted an acknowledgment that the 18-year old Arab peace plan that offered Israel diplomatic relations in exchange for land and a Palestinian state had produced naught.

In its rivalry with Turkey, whose assertive support for the Palestinian cause has likewise failed to produce results so far, the UAE is banking on the expectation that it has the upper hand in getting not only Israeli but also the attention of Washington that under US President Donald J. Trump has disregarded Palestinian rights.

The UAE assumes that it will be able to capitalize on the fact that Emirati recognition of Israel has further complicated Turkey’s relations with its NATO ally, the United States.

Turkey’s relations with the US are already troubled by US support for Syrian Kurds; Turkish military backing of the Libyan government in Tripoli; tensions between Turkey and Greece, another NATO ally, in the Eastern Mediterranean; and Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile defense system.

The Trump administration hopes to finalize by December the sale of F-35 fighter planes to the UAE in the wake of the deal with Israel.  Earlier, it cancelled Turkey’s acquisition of the same plane in response to the country’s S-400 deal with Russia.

For now, Turkey can look at appreciation by important segments of Arab and Muslim public opinion as an upside of its  strident support for the Palestinians.

Seeking to capitalize on its Palestinian goodwill, Turkey has been attempting to end the rift between Mr. Abbas’ Al Fatah movement and Hamas in a bid to get the Palestinians to agree on elections and the formation of a joint government.

The two groups, agreed during  talks in Istanbul this week to work together and hold long overdue elections in the next six months.

The joker in Turkish-Emirati differences over Israel and Palestine is the upcoming US presidential election in November.

Irrespective of who wins, Turkey has lost to the UAE the beneficial mantle of being Israel’s best Muslim friend.

Nonetheless, an electoral victory by Democratic challenger Joe Biden, who is expected to be more critical of arms purchases by the UAE and other Gulf states and take them to task on human rights issues, could put both Turkey and the Emirates on the back foot.

A Biden victory would be for Turkey a lost opportunity. The very issues that are at the core of its strained relations with the UAE are likely to complicate its relations with a Democratic administration.

Recent media reports reminded Mr. Erdogan that Mr. Biden had described him in a conversation with The New York Times early this year as an “autocrat.” The Democratic candidate suggested that the US. should “embolden” his opponents to defeat him in elections.

In the conversation, Mr. Biden mentioned other issues, including the Kurds, Syria, and tension in the Eastern Mediterranean that do not bode well for US-Turkish relations should the Democrat occupy the White House. Mr. Biden is expected to be also critical of the UAE’s interventions in Yemen and Libya.

Nonetheless, the UAE, despite its own issues with the US, is likely to still find itself in a better place in Washington no matter who emerges victorious from the November election.

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Arabs-Israeli Peace must be Well-Anchored, not Neatly Fantasized

Mohammed Nosseir

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Watching a few Emirati and Israeli citizens dance in Chabad House, Dubai to celebrate normalization may give the impression that these nations have realized a genuine peace; a false assumption that disregards the facts that the peace treaty between Israel and two Arab Nations is meant to serve Donald Trump in his upcoming presidential election, values the “ground reality” that clearly favors Israel over United Nations resolutions upholding the “land for peace” principle, and advances western politicians’ view that peace can be imposed top-down, seconded by autocratic Arab rulers.

As an Egyptian, I highly value the peace treaty between my country and Israel that was based on regaining occupied Egyptian land, the Sinai Peninsula. The treaty has helped to alter Egyptians’ views of Israel fundamentally; no longer seen as a permanent enemy, Israel is presently perceived as a “cooperative” neighbor that has offered us millions of tourists and a few sound investments – solid pillars for normalization. Meanwhile, the clear majority of Egyptians, Arabs and Muslims continue to sympathize with the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation – a crisis that can only be resolved by pursuing the same path towards peace as that of Egypt.

For years, the United States has been trying to impose a peace treaty between the Arab nations and Israel based on the concept that Arabs should accept Israeli territorial expansion in return for the injection of substantial U.S.  funds to boost the Palestinian economy, a proposition strengthened by Israel’s military power and Arab rulers’ injudicious, hasty attitude towards the crisis. Underneath this reality lurks the further empowerment of the political Islamist proposition that places Israel as a permanent enemy, which could easily drag our region into additional, unpredicted violence. 

Arabs societies generally appear to lead a “double life”. On the one hand is the reality that 60% are either poor citizens or citizens who are vulnerable to poverty, an unemployment rate of roughly 11%, the lack of basic freedoms and living under autocratic rule; a sad status that has become even more dramatic with the advent of Covid-19. These factors combined intensify Arab youth’s anger and frustration towards their rulers and towards the United States, seen as a solid supporter of those rulers. Obviously, Palestinians living under Israeli occupation rule have an extra challenge to deal with.

On the other hand is the fantasy life constituted of GDP growth and the implementation of a few mega projects that Arab rulers like to exhibit and that western politicians and scholars tend to recognize as a sign of success – completely overlooking the fact that these projects are often awarded to the rulers’ cronies and that the unequal distribution of wealth will keep large portions of Arabs living in poverty for generations to come, making them more vulnerable to violence. Likewise, expanding trade deals between Arab nations and Israel or receiving economic incentives from the United States have proven to benefit only the same cronies.

Moreover, the present rumour that the United States is building a block of Arab nations and Israel meant to potentially engage in a war with Iran is a catastrophic approach. Should it happen, it will thrust the entire region into a state of intense violence and enduring war that could well lead to the collapse of many of the signed treaties. Furthermore, a peace treaty between Israel and two Arab nations, who are not in conflict with Israel, will not help to resolve either the Palestinian crisis or the Iranian conflict – Bahraini and the Emirati citizens will never validate such a treaty, if it is presented to them fairly.

There is a huge difference between a peace treaty concluded between two mature, democratic nations whose respective governments truly represent their citizens, and an agreement that is imposed on nations whose citizens are – to put it mildly – in disharmony with their rulers. Arab citizens, often accused of engaging in violence and declining to peacefully settle with Israel, are in fact caught between two fires: their autocratic rulers, who deliberately offer them undignified living conditions and Islamic extremists, who promise them eternal salvation as a reward for engaging in violence and terrorism.

Permanent Arab-Israeli peace can only be achieved through a bottom-up approach that is designed to last, which entails keeping away from western pragmatism and enforcement, both of no value to this crisis. Israel is continually working to enhance its security, an absolute necessity for its citizens. It needs to offer Palestinians the opportunity to live a dignified life based, first, on regaining their occupied land and establishing a state of their own, followed by advancing their economic status. Offering the later at the expense of the former will keep us in this vicious circle of violence for decades to come.

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Untangling Survival Intersections: Israel, Chaos and the Pandemic

Prof. Louis René Beres

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MUNCH, Edvard The Scream (detail) 1893 Oil, tempera & pastel on cardboard, 91 × 73.5 cm The National Gallery, Oslo

Is it an end that draws near, or a beginning?”-Karl Jaspers, Man in the Modern Age (1951)

INTRODUCTION TO THE ANALYSIS:  Day by day, traditional global anarchy (with discernible roots in the seventeenth century Peace of Westphalia) is being supplanted by chaos. This exponential replacement has very substantial implications for (1) comprehensive global stability; (2) regional stability in the Middle East; and (3) Israeli national stability. Because the replacement  is taking place alongside a still-expanding global pandemic, variously resultant forms of chaos must be considered as multi-layered, tangled and synergistic.

 What next? Among others, Israel’s senior strategists and policy-makers will have to examine these dissembling expressions of chaos by proceeding with continuously capable scholarship.  Accordingly apt emphases in  Jerusalem and Tel Aviv should soon be placed upon plausible alterations to decisional rationality (both Israeli and adversarial) and on prospective nuclear competitions oriented to achieving intra-crisis “escalation dominance.” In the worst case scenario, such analyses would pertain to certain potential instances of nuclear war-fighting, a sobering narrative that reinforces Israel’s unceasing imperative to seek nuclear deterrence ex ante, and not revenge ex post.

There is more. The article that follows is self-consciously conceptual/theoretical. By design, it is unlike other more usual essays that concern global/ regional stability in world politics.

This article can be useful to military practitioners and national security planners because it could lead them well beyond any orthodox or narrowly “current events” focus on applicable strategic thought. By explaining this historically unprecedented transition from anarchy to chaos, it can also point serious readers toward a new corpus of pertinent strategic theory. “Theory is a net,” we all learned earlier from Karl Popper’s classic The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959), “only those who cast, can catch.”

—————–

As Chair of “Project Daniel,” a special policy task force assembled to analyze the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel two decades ago,[1] the author is not new to analytic assessments of complex geo-strategic hazards, including existential ones. Still, twenty years back, when Daniel sprang from a private conversation he was having in Tel-Aviv with two-time Israeli Ambassador to the United States Zalman Shoval,[2] overriding security perils were being examined as part of some presumptively coherent world order. This is not meant to suggest that the post-Westphalia[3] order was ever reassuringly stable or satisfactory, but only that the classical  balance-of-power regime had not yet become entirely unpredictable.

               That was then. Today, all serious scholarly assessments, irrespective of  specific country particularity, must be undertaken with a starkly different view. This updated perspective assumes, inter alia, that the world order system is no longer “merely” anarchic,[4] but is also chaotic. Now, a crucial part of this dissembling context is worldwide disease pandemic, a devastating plague that only renders an already unstable global structure even worse.[5]

               In essence, an incremental metamorphosis of system-wide anarchy into chaos has been underway for some time, but the sudden and sweeping comprehensiveness of Covid19 has produced a quantum jump in this already-significant transformation.

               Though a decidedly  global issue, some states will be affected more than others by any spreading chaos. In the specific case of Israel, our focus here, the prospective impacts of certain ongoing change patterns are apt to be considerable. This is because of that country’s conspicuously small size, its still-multiple enemies and its correspondingly unique dependence (for deterrence,[6] not war-fighting)[7] upon nuclear weapons and strategy.[8]

               Looking ahead, the challenging security tasks for Israel need not be regrettable or without any tangible benefits. There do exist sound and science-based reasons to acknowledge advancing chaos as a  security positive for Israel, at least in part. While distinctly counter-intuitive, such compelling reasons ought now be more closely and capably examined.

               These reasons should not be casually minimized or disregarded.

                As drawn from its core meanings in classical philosophy and mythology, chaos represents the literal beginning of everything, the good as well as the bad.

               This “positive”  concept of chaos now warrants very serious and meticulous scholarly assessment. This is not the same thing as suggesting, more prosaically, that scholars and policy makers should try to make better analytic sense of assorted security threats and circumstances, e.g., the Iran nuclear threat or the Palestinian terror threat (neither of which has in any way been diminished by the new Israel-UAE agreement). What is being urged here is the more self-conscious construction of pertinent theories, a painstaking process that must inevitably be contingent upon an antecedent and more refined conceptual understanding.

               Analysts may begin such epistemological processes at their most proverbial beginnings. To wit, Jewish theology discovers its primal roots in Genesis, an observation to be generally viewed with favor in a Jewish State. Whether in the Old Testament or in more-or-less synchronous Greek and Roman thought, chaos can be understood as an intellectual tabula rasa, a blank slate which, when thoughtfully completed, can best prepare the world for all things, both sacred and profane.

               Most significantly, chaos can represent that inchoate place from which absolutely all civilizational opportunitymust credibly originate.

                With such unorthodox thinking, chaos is never just a repellant “predator” that swallows everything whole; callously, indiscriminately, and without purpose. Here, instead, it is more usefully considered as an auspicious “openness,” that is, as a protean realm within which entirely new kinds of human opportunity may be suitably revealed or gleaned.  For Israel, this means that any advancing chaos in the Middle East need not necessarily be interpreted by the country’s senior military planners as a portentous harbinger of regional violence and instability, but rather, in at least some respects, as a potentially gainful condition for critically improving national security.

                There is more. By extrapolation, this same caveat should be extended to include any discernible elements of chaos in certain other regions of the world, though the intellectual or analytic arguments would then be based upon determinably other underlying conditions or outcomes.

               The next question arises. How best to harness such a radical re-conceptualization of chaos in Jerusalem (politics) and Tel Aviv (military strategy)? This is a manifestly difficult, subtle and many-sided question. Still, it would be better answered imperfectly than be wholly disregarded. Such an answer should suggest the following: Israel’s authoritative decision-makers must more intentionally stray beyond ordinary or usual national security assessments,[9] and then venture more wittingly in the direction of illuminating avant garde analyses.[10]

               To be sure, any such venture would have its detractors. “Whenever the new muses present themselves,” warned Spanish existentialist philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset in The Dehumanization of Art, “the masses bristle.

               Among these studies would be scholarly examinations that hypothesize various radical redistributions of power in the Middle East, including some never-before considered alignments. Such unexpected alignments, born of a now palpably expanding regional chaos, could include not only assorted state-state relationships (e.g., Israel-Egypt; Israel-Jordan; Israel-Saudi Arabia; Israel-UAE; Israel-Russia), but also state-sub state or “hybrid” connections (e.g., Hezbollah-Iran; Hezbollah-Russia). Just as with certain state-state relationships, relevant intersections could sometime be synergistic. In these potentially most worrisome cases, the “whole” of any specific intersection would exceed the simple sum of its constituent “parts.” Of course, for Israel, not every expected synergy would necessarily be harmful or “bad.” Some of these intersections could be determinably auspicious or “good.”

               As an example of positive synergistic outcome for Israel, scholars and planners could consider alignments that would favor directly Israeli goals or objectives, and alignments that would be presumptively harmful or injurious to that country’s acknowledged foes.

               Similarly unprecedented but also worth considering would be steps taken toward alleviating the more expressly structural conditions of chaos in the Middle East region, including certain specific forms of cooperation that could move incrementally toward assorted forms of regional governance. Such  forms would have to be tentative, and also very partial, but they could nonetheless provide a generally welcome start toward greater area order than area chaos.[11] In specifically Hobbesian terms, these forms of governance would be intended to supplant the generally corrosive “war of all against all”[12] in the Middle East with some designated “common power.”[13]

                Recalling English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the core objective here would be to keep all state and sub-state parties “in awe.”[14]

               Ironically, a unique opportunity for regional movements toward greater area collective security would have been made possible by decision-maker perceptions of a more general revulsion with anarchy or chaos. This opportunity will have been born of a growing existential desperation, that is, of a sense that “business as usual” in Middle East peacemaking can no longer suffice. Of course, it is altogether possible that this particular sense of opportunity could sometime be mistaken or misunderstood, in which case any presumed benefits of chaos might turn out to be a double-edged sword.

               There is more. With regard to any such injurious inversions of opportunity for Israel, Jerusalem need only be reminded of its unchanging obligation to avoid taking existential risks wherever possible.[15] Ultimately, this fixed and immutable obligation can be fulfilled only by assessing all risks and opportunities according to well-established and optimally rigorous intellectual standards. Among other things, even when chaos might beckon seductively to Israel as an unanticipated font of future strategic opportunity, there could be no adequate substitute for capable scholarly or intellectual analysis.

               Reciprocally, however, any such diligent analysis must eschew “seat of the pants” determinations, and rely instead upon an amply-refined strategic theory. Always, theory is a “net.” Only those who “cast” such an indispensable net can ever expect to “catch.”

               What else? When “casting,” Israel’s strategic planners should pay especially rapt attention to any discernible links between a prevailing or still-anticipated chaos, and the expected rationality of its relevant adversaries.[16] What might first appear as an unwittingly promising source of improved national safety could be reversed promptly by those enemies who would value certain normally subsidiary preferences in world politics more highly than national or collective survival.

               Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosopher Tertullian. “I believe because it is absurd.”

               Such “absurd” enemies are not historically unknown in world politics.[17]

               Not at all.

               At this moment, the most compelling threat of such enemy irrationality appears to come from a seemingly still-nuclearzing Iran. Significantly, there is no way for Israel’s decision makers to systematically or scientifically evaluate the authentic probabilities of any such uniquely formidable threat.[18] This is because (a) any truly accurate assessments of event probability must be based upon the determinable frequency of pertinent past events; and (b) there have been no pertinent past events (i.e., no nuclear war).

               All the same, an eventual Iranian nuclear threat to Israel remains plausible; it should thus suggest certain worrisome prospects for a “final” sort of regional chaos. To make reassuringly positive or at least gainful use of this vision, Israel ought soon to focus explicitly and meticulously on its still-tacit “bomb in the basement” nuclear strategy.  Preparing to move beyond the prospectively lethal limits of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity,” Jerusalem would need to (1) rank-order identifiable thresholds of enemy nuclear peril as tangible “triggers” for its incremental nuclear disclosures; and (2) prepare for rank-ordered release some very specifically limited sets of information concerning the invulnerability and penetration-capability of its own nuclear forces.

               These sets would include selected facts on nuclear targeting doctrine; number; range; and yield.

               As Israel can learn from certain intimations of some impending chaos, the country’s national security might be better served by reduced nuclear ambiguity than by any more traditional commitments to complete strategic secrecy. This seemingly counter-intuitive argument is rooted in the altogether reasonable presumption that Israel’s continued survival must depend very considerably on successfully sustained nuclear deterrence.

               When 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche initially explained chaos as something contained deeply within each individual human being,[19] he did not intend this to represent a distressingly negative portent. On the contrary, like the German poet Hölderlin,[20] with whose work he was intimately familiar, Nietzsche understood that even from apparent formlessness can emerge things of great or even inestimable value. Accordingly, at this currently precarious moment in its contemporary history, Israel’s leadership would be well advised (a) to think seriously and inventively about such challenging conceptual opportunities; and (b) to fashion strategic theories that begin but do not end with conspicuous portents of the apocalyptic  “abyss.”

               This would not be a task for the intellectually faint-hearted, or for those who are constitutionally unable to recognize promising strategic “muses”[21] But the security payoff for Israel’s national defense could still prove overwhelmingly gainful. It follows that such a task would be determinably “cost-effective.”

               One last point in this broad argument now bears repeating. It is that Israel has absolutely no choice about either welcoming or rejecting chaos. Incontestably, this condition is not something that Israel can in any way push aside, negotiate, forestall or prevent. Because chaos in some form will inexorably emerge from a traditional global anarchy, Jerusalem must do whatever it can (as soon as it can) to reconcile and optimize its pertinent security strategies with chaos. A full acknowledgment of this unavoidable imperative could represent the acme of Israel’s decisional acumen and decisional rationality.[22]

               In the months and years ahead, Israel’s overriding obligation remains plain and obvious. To best meet this evident security imperative of collective survival, that nation’s strategic analysts and planners will first have to better understand the relevant policy correlates of any expanding chaos, and to accomplish this goal by means of a markedly advanced conceptual scholarship. At a particularly fragile moment in contemporary history when biology could prove even more fundamentally worrisome than capable enemy armies, this scholarship will need to take special note of our current and still-expanding Corona virus pandemic. 

               This “plague,” though “merely” biological, will likely produce certain unanticipated and hard to remediate forms of  social and political disintegration, both expressly regional (Middle East) and worldwide. At the same time, should Israel and its relevant area foes sometime recognize this viral pandemic as an exceptional menace that is nonetheless common to all –  one best diminished by some generally shared strategies of cooperation –  it could conceivably become a welcome agent of a more genuine Middle East peace.[23] Though ironic and more-or-less implausible,  microbial assault could represent just the right agent for enhanced geopolitical vision, for shaping a tabula rasa from which more promisingly audacious national security opportunities could sometime be born.

               If this novel opportunity for embracing chaos were sufficiently acknowledged, it could be a “beginning” that “draws near,” not an “end.”


[1] Our formal report, “Israel’s Strategic Future,” was discussed widely in global media and delivered by hand to PM Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem on January 16, 2003. http://www.acpr.org.il/ENGLISH-NATIV/03-ISSUE/daniel-3.htm

[2] Ambassador Shoval has been Professor Beres’ several times co-author on vital matters of Israeli security and international law. Most recently, see Louis René Beres and Zalman Shoval, West Point (Pentagon) https://mwi.usma.edu/creating-seamless-strategic-deterrent-israel-case-study/

[3] The historic Peace of Westphalia (1648) concluded the Thirty Years War and created the still-existing state system. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1., Consol. T.S. 119. Together, these two treaties comprise the “Peace of Westphalia.”

[4] Hobbes, the 17th- century English philosopher, argues that anarchy in the “state of nations” is the only true “state of nature.” In Chapter XIII of Leviathan (“Of the Natural Condition of Mankind, as concerning their Felicity, and Misery”),  Hobbes explains famously: “But though there had never been any time, wherein particular men were in a condition of war, one against the other, yet in all times, kings and persons of sovereign authority, because of their independence, are in continual jealousies, and in the state and posture of gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is their forts, garrisons, and guns upon the frontiers of their kingdoms, and continual spies upon their neighbors, which is a posture of war.”

[5] With chaos, but not anarchy, even the usual mainstays of decentralized world politics (e.g., deterrence and balance of power processes) are replaced by more eccentric or idiosyncratic factors of national decision  making.

[6] As emphasized at Israel’s Strategic Future: The Final Report of Project Daniel (Israel, 2003): “The primary point of Israel’s nuclear forces must always be deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post.”

[7]See, for example: Louis René Beres, https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2018/5/29/israels-nuclear-strategy-enhancing-deterrence-in-the-new-cold-war-part-i; Louis René Beres, INSS Israel, https://www.inss.org.il/publication/changing-direction-updating-israels-nuclear-doctrine/

and, at Harvard Law School, Louis René Beres: https://harvardnsj.org/2014/06/staying-strong-enhancing-israels-essential-strategic-options-2/

[8] See,  by Professor Beres, https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy

[9] Such proposed “straying,” which might range anywhere from an eleventh-hour preemption to much greater commitments to regional collective security, could still be in more-or-less complete accord with pertinent international law. In this connection, a core or jus cogens principle of international law remains the unambiguous imperative: “Where the ordinary remedy fails, recourse must be had to an extraordinary one.” (Ubi cessat remedium ordinarium, ibi decurritur ad extraordinarium.” (Black’s Law Dictionary, 1520 – 6th ed., 1990).

[10] In his 1927 preface to Oxford Poetry, W.H. Auden wrote: “All genuine poetry is in a sense the formation of private spheres out of public chaos….” Looking ahead with an appropriately avant-garde orientation, Israeli strategists must essentially seek to carve out livable national spheres from a steadily expanding global chaos. Ultimately, of course, following Nietzsche, they must understand that such chaos originally lies within each individual human being, but – at least for the moment of their present strategic deliberations – they must focus upon collective survival in a true Hobbesian “state of nature.” This is a condition wherein “the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest,” normally possible only where individual human beings coexist in nature, but possible also in world politics wherever there exists nuclear proliferation. Accordingly, the German legal philosopher Samuel Pufendorf reasoned, like Hobbes, that the state of nations “lacks those inconveniences which are attendant upon a pure state of nature….” Similarly, said Baruch Spinoza: “A commonwealth can guard itself against being subjugated by another, as a man in the state of nature cannot do.” (See: A.G. Wernham, ed., The Political Works: Tractatus Politicus, iii, II; Clarendon Press, 1958, p. 295).

[11] Back at Princeton in the late 1960s, I spent two full years in the University library, reading everything available about world order. The initial result was published in my early book The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (University of Denver, 1973) and two years later, in Transforming World Politics: The National Roots of World Peace (University of Denver, 1975).

[12] This Hobbes-described orientation represents the explicit underpinning of US President Donald Trump’s announced foreign policy, and stands in direct opposition to the core jurisprudential assumption (i.e., international law) of imperative solidarity between all states. This immutable or jus cogens assumption was already mentioned in Justinian’s Digest (533 CE); Hugo Grotius’ Law of War and Peace (1625); and Vattel’s The Law of Nations, or the Principles of Natural Law (1758). According to General McMaster, Mr. Trump’s earlier National Security Advisor, this policy is an expression of “pragmatic realism.” Historically, this term is essentially a self-reinforcing falsehood, as no forms of “realism” or “Realpolitik” have ever worked for long. For Israel, the best “lesson” to be extracted from this egregious US policy error is to think of the erroneous Trump-era posture as one of “naive realism,” and to draw upon certain expectations of advancing chaos to inspire more promising forms of both national strategy and international cooperation.

[13] Following the recently negotiated Israel-UAE and Israel-Bahrain agreements, it could be assumed or alleged that this “corrosive” condition has been correspondingly modified or reduced. Nonetheless, Israel’s principal security challenges have never come from these Gulf states; it is also arguable that the threat of renewed Palestinian terrorism has actually been increased by these US-brokered pacts.

[14] See Hobbes, Leviathan, especially Chapter XVII, “Of Commonwealth.” More generally, the presumed obligation to use force in a world of international anarchy forms the central argument of Realpolitik from the Melian Dialogues of Thucydides and the Letters of Cicero to Machiavelli, Locke, Spykman and Kissinger. “For what can be done against force without force?’ inquires Cicero. Nonetheless, the sort of chaos that Israel could confront shortly is much different from traditional anarchy or simply decentralized global authority. In essence, it is conceivably more primordial, more primal, self-propelled and potentially even self-rewarding.

[15] Such a primary warning is the central motif of Yehoshafat Harkabi’s The Bar Kokhba Syndrome: Risk and Realism in International Politics,” (New York: Rossel Books, 1983).

[16] See, by Professor Beres: https://besacenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/516-Israeli-Security-and-Enemy-Rationality-Beres-Author-approved-version.pdf

[17] See Sigmund Freud in Civilization and its Discontents: “Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles at all times in the history of mankind….usually they have wreaked havoc.”

[18] Regarding also the expected consequences or “disutilites” of a nuclear war, by this author, see: Louis René Beres, SURVIVING AMID CHAOS: ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016/2018); Louis René Beres,  APOCALYPSE: NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE IN WORLD POLITICS (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres,  MIMICKING SISYPHUS: AMERICA’S COUNTERVAILING NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1983);  Louis René Beres, REASON AND REALPOLITIK: U S FOREIGN POLICY AND WORLD ORDER (Lexington MA;  Lexington Books, 1984);  and Louis René Beres, ed.,  SECURITY OR ARMAGEDDON: ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1986).

[19] “I tell you,” says Friedrich Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “ye have still chaos in you.”

[20] In philosophy, Hölderin, Nietzsche and Heidegger struggled with the fundamentally same ontological problems of existence, or “being,”

[21] Once again, “Whenever the new muses present themselves,” cautions Spanish existentialist José Ortega y’ Gassett in The Dehumanization of Art, “the masses bristle.”

[22] Reciprocally, a rational state enemy of Israel will always accept or reject a particular option by comparing the costs and benefits of each alternative. Wherever the expected costs of striking first are taken to exceed expected gains, this enemy will be deterred. But where these expected costs are believed to be exceeded by expected gains, deterrence will fail. Here, whatever the prevailing levels of order or chaos, Israel would be faced with an enemy attack, either as a “bolt-from-the-blue” or as an outcome of anticipated or unanticipated crisis-escalation. In this connection, too, Israeli planners will want to stay abreast of each side’s ongoing search for “escalation dominance.”

[23] More generally, see by this writer, Louis René Beres, at Jurist:  https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/04/louis-beres-trump-empathy/ To be sure, the recent US-brokered Israel agreements with UAE and Bahrain are actually net-negative for Middle East Peace because they provide no per se Israeli advantages with these Gulf states, and because they exacerbate Israel’s much more essential relationships with Iran, the Palestinians and Hezbollah.

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