Kurdistan Emerges

Jerusalem Post, 7/3

In late February, The Jerusalem Post spoke to prominent Kurdish leader Zubeyir Aydar in the Brussels offices of the Kurdistan National Congress (KNK).

Aydar’s official title is vice-president of the Koma Civakên Kurdistan (KCK) (Group of Communities in Kurdistan. 

He is one of the top figures in the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), second only to movement leader Cemil Bayik, and is the head of the movement’s European operations.

The PKK has been engaged in an insurgency against Turkey since 1984. It was once widely condemned as a terrorist organization, and remains on the EU and US list of terror groups – though this designation has little connection to the group’s current activities.

Today, the PKK rules over one of the two de facto Kurdish autonomous enclaves currently in existence – that of northeast Syria, or “Rojava.” It has emerged as one of two very different pan-Kurdish movements competing for the overall leadership of Kurdish nationalism. The other is Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which rules northern Iraq.

The Middle East order, established after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, has been rocked to its foundations in recent years. One of the results of this is that nations and groups which lost out in the period of ferment that followed the Ottoman collapse now have the distinct sense that history may be about to afford them a second chance.

Most prominent among such peoples are the Kurds. This ancient, non-Semitic Middle Eastern nation of around 40 million people is spread between four Middle Eastern states – Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Aydar is soft-spoken and precise – a lawyer, not a military man. Born in the town of Siirt, in the Kurdish heartland in southeast Turkey, he fled the country in 1994, and has made his base in Brussels ever since. Our conversation was the first this senior PKK official had conducted with an Israeli publication.

It took place in the KNK offices in the Belgian capital, which are located behind discreet wooden doors in an elegant if slightly shopworn old Brussels house. The Kurdish official’s messages were clear and unambiguous.

First and foremost, he noted the reality of emergent Kurdish self-government: “In the Middle East, a Kurdistan is rising,” Aydar said. “It doesn’t yet have official borders. But it is there, a reality. There is Kurdish authority running all the way from the Iranian border to close to the Mediterranean.”

Quizzed on the subject of his movement’s strategy with regard to the ongoing war in Syria, Aydar made clear that the Kurds see “no end in sight” to the bloodletting in that country – and no allies on either side of the line in the Syrian civil war: “Kurds will not accept the return of the Ba’ath regime; an Islamist regime would also be disastrous for the Kurds. So our strategy is to keep our areas safe – and to stay out of this fight.”

In the longer term, “if possible, we’d like to build a democratic Syria – which would either be a federal state, or be divided into autonomous regions.”

“It’s possible Syria may collapse,” he continued.

“If it does, the Kurds won’t put it back together. They will rule their own areas. The map of the Middle East may change. Its not written by God; no one asked us when they drew the map. In any case, the Kurds must be ready for all possible developments.”

One of the central accusations made by Syrian oppositionists regarding the Kurdish enclave in northern Syria is that it maintains a clandestine alliance with the Assad regime and with Iran.

Certainly, as this reporter can attest, there is a regime presence in some parts of the enclave – specifically, in the cities of Qamishli and Hassakeh. Aydar, however, indignantly rejects these allegations.

“Iran called for the Kurds to align with the Assad regime. The Kurds rejected this… The purpose of the Iranian regime is to preserve Assad and fight the Sunnis, so they can leave Rojava be for a time. But if the regime achieves victory, Iran would support Assad in destroying Rojava.”

On the vexed question of Kurdish disunity, Aydar expressed a formulaic support for the convening of a congress bringing together the PKK, KDP and all Kurdish political forces. He did not sound particularly optimistic, however, and probably with good reason.

Relations between the PKK/Democratic Union Party (PYD)-dominated administration in Rojava and the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq are not good.

The KRG sharply restricts the passage of aid to Rojava via the Fishkabor border crossing.

This leads to resentment.

But more broadly, both KDP and PKK see themselves as the natural leaders of the Kurdish nation. Each has enjoyed considerable success, and each are formidable movements in their own way. Competition and friction between them are probably inevitable.

“Barzani sells oil to Turkey,” said Aydar, “but the conditions in which Kurds live in Turkey and Syria and Iran apparently don’t bother him.”

Aydar also made some fascinating and far-reaching comments about Israel and its place in the region. His tone was one common among Kurds, yet probably without parallel elsewhere in the region.

“There is an Islamic approach toward Israel in the Middle East,” he said. “Before that, there was a leftist point of view. But both of these were based on Arab nationalism. This view was saying that Israel has no place in the Middle East, and Jews have no rights in the Middle East.

“The other nations in the Middle East – Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Kurds – have to accept the existence of Israel in the Mideast. They have to recognize that these people are from the region, and are indigenous people of the region. And whatever rights Arabs have, Israel also has. This nation has the right to live on its own soil.”

Aydar went on to call for “breaking the walls between Kurds and Israelis, and getting to know each other. If we can continue our friendship, both sides will benefit from it. The region needs the Israeli experience.

So it’s important that we develop and further relations – not just as two peoples, but also at the highest levels.’ The conversation also touched on the troubled “peace process” between the PKK and the government of Turkey. Aydar was one of the Kurdish officials involved with the talks from the start. These talks have rapidly run aground over the details of such issues as Kurdish language rights, and the degree of autonomy to be afforded Kurdish areas. “Expectations have come to an end,” Aydar said. “We don’t say the process has stopped, but there are core problems that we currently can’t surmount.”

Local elections are set to take place in Turkey on March 30. The PKK-associated Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) is expected to do well. There are rumors that following election gains, the BDP may declare a Kurdish autonomous zone in southeast Turkey. The gains in Rojava, the stalled peace process and the current travails of the Erdogan government all make such a move more likely.

Aydar would not be drawn out on this possibility. But the very fact that it is being discussed is testimony to the strides taken in the recent period by Kurdish nationalism in general, and by the group of parties and movements associated with the PKK in particular.

“The reality of Kurdistan is emerging in the Middle East – Kurdish sovereignty is on its way,” Aydar reiterated at the end of our conversation. That this statement sounds more realistic today than at any time in recent memory is a testament to the deep and historic changes underway in the region.

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The end of the ‘wrong side of history

PJmedia, 4/3


President Barack Obama, in criticizing Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s conquest of the Crimean Peninsula, described Putin as standing on the ‘wrong side of history.’  This curious and arresting phrase has become a common usage among western liberals. 


It is testimony to their self-confidence, and to their belief that they have accurately read the deeper currents and inevitable direction of human affairs.  These, in the view of the president and his supporters, point inexorably toward greater cooperation between peoples, a decline in attachment to particularist ethnic, national or religious histories, and a decline in the use of force to settle disputes between states. 


The unspoken assumption behind all this, of course, is that being on the right side of history also means accepting the unmatched dominance of the US in global affairs, and in turn the unchallengeable domination of the US by people supporting the particular progressive world view of the president and his supporters. 

That is, Obama and his supporters use the word ‘history’ to refer to themselves. 


The problem with all this is that in the last five years, many players on the world stage have learned that if ‘history’ and ‘Obama’ are synonyms, being on the wrong side of Obama is a not particularly uncomfortable or worrying place to be.  So the threat of it has rather less impact than the president might hope or assume. 

This is not a marginal point. Rather, it is the key factor defining the direction of strategic affairs globally, and in the Middle East in particular. 


Let’s examine the record:


In the Middle East, declining respect for being on the wrong side of the United States is the single factor which underlies the direction of events in the key conflict zones of the region.


In Egypt, the current de facto administration of General Abd al Fattah al-Sisi came into being on July 3rd, 2013 as a result of a military coup against a US-supported Muslim Brotherhood government.  Sisi as of now appears to command immense popularity among the Egyptian population. 


He has paid no apparent price for directly challenging the will of the US Administration.  He is likely to win the Egyptian presidency this year and to set in motion another long period of de facto military rule in Egypt.  He is also in the process of reviving Cairo’s relations with Russia. 


In Syria, an anti-American dictatorship is holding its ground, despite ostensible US support for its overthrow, and despite the dictator Assad’s responsibility for the deaths of over 140,000 of his countrymen over the last three years.  Iranian and Russian aid to the Assad regime have proved decisive.  Bashar Assad was smart enough to stick with allies who would stick by him. 


In Iran, the regime has stage-managed the emergence of a supposed ‘moderate’ president.  The true powers in that country, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards Corps have as a result obtained sanctions relief. This in turn is enabling them to continue to develop their missile program and uranium enrichment capacity undisturbed.  They are also proceeding apace with their program of regional outreach, and are currently aligned with the dominant forces in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. 


But even among the supposed allies of the US in the region, it has become apparent that defying the will of the patron carries no particular price.  The Saudis united with their Gulf allies to crush an uprising against the King of Bahrain in 2011.


More recently, the  Saudis have pursued their own policy of arms supply to Islamist and jihadi rebels in northern Syria.  In February, it became clear that the kingdom intends to supply Chinese-made shoulder fired anti-aircraft systems to rebel elements in Syria. This is in direct contravention of US wishes.


Washington evidently (and justifiably) fears that such systems could end up being used against western targets. The Saudis are going ahead anyway. 


So what do General Sisi, Bashar Assad, the Iranian mullahs, the Saudi monarchy and of course Vladimir Putin all have in common?  They are all on the wrong side of ‘history’ (ie the wrong side of the US Administration and its supporters).  And they have all come to the conclusion that this doesn’t matter, and they will experience little difficulty in pursuing their wishes regardless. 


Which brings us to the latest interactions between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  It appears that the Administration believes that even if no-one else much listens anymore, surely the small State of Israel can be frightened and bullied into getting on the right side of ‘history.’  Hence the thinly veiled threat in Obama’s recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, according to which failure to reach an accord with the Palestinian Authority will lead to Israel’s facing international isolation and the closing of the ‘window’ for a peace deal. 


All this is quite surreal, of course, given the very obvious insurmountable gaps between the sides, because of the PA’s insistence on the ‘right of return,’ rejection of mutual recognition between the sides and rejection of defensible borders for Israel.  These stances lie behind the PA’s rejection of Secretary Kerry’s framework for continued negotiations.


But the US Administration should also understand that Israeli determination to act in their country’s own self-defined interests is no less deeply rooted than that of the other players on the global stage noted above. 


Israelis remember that they buried 1,100 of their own citizens in the period 2000-2005 because of a mis-reading of history and the consequent placing of trust in an enemy committed to their demise.  They will be unlikely to rush to repeat the experiment. The waving of the bogeyman of increasing isolation will not induce them to do so. 


As for inducements to get on the right side of ‘history,’ – the president might note that all the players noted above, Israel included, are operating on similar lines. These involve the protection and assertion of clearly defined national interests, the use of force where deemed necessary, the judicious backing of allies and the effort to deter enemies.  


Those who operate along those lines most effectively will get to write the history, in which they will portray themselves as the natural and inevitable victors.  Those who fail to do so will find that efforts to equate their own preferences with the natural tide of human events will be a subject for the increasing derision of their peers, and probably also of history. 




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Holding back al-Qaeda

Jerusalem Post, 21/2

Will Israel be dragged into the Syrian conflict?

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit this week to an IDF field hospital where wounded Syrians are receiving treatment served to showcase the Israeli humanitarian effort to respond to the crisis facing Syrian civilians caught up in the ongoing conflict.  Recent reports suggest that the Israeli focus on events in southern Syria goes beyond purely humanitarian concerns. 

Increasing attention is being paid by Israeli planners to the buildup of extreme Sunni Islamist forces close to the border with the Golan Heights.  There are indications that Israel has already begun to implement a strategy intended to keep the jihadis from the border.

According to a report by prominent Israeli Middle East analyst Ehud Ya’ari published recently at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Israel  is currently moving toward ‘assuming a modest role in the Syrian civil war.’ 

Ya’ari notes that the extent of Israel’s humanitarian operation inside Syria suggests that  ‘a system of communications and frequent contacts have been established with the local rebel militias.’   

The Israeli analyst reports  that the background to such increased engagement is the loss by the Assad regime of control of most of the border area between southern Syria and the Golan Heights.   Israeli contacts with the rebel militias in this area would serve to facilitate the latter acting as a de facto buffer against the jihadis. 

This largely off-the-radar activity in the south forms part of a broader Israeli concern at the increasingly prominent role played by jihadi and Sunni Islamist elements in the Syrian rebellion. 

An un-named senior IDF officer quoted in a recent article in Defense News noted that  ‘Today, rebels control most of the area of the south Golan Heights…Among rebel forces, the moderates are increasingly exhausted while the radicals have become strengthened.’

He added that ‘For the moment, they are not fighting us, but we know their ideology. … It could be that, in the coming months, we could find ourselves dragged into confrontation with them.”

IDF Military Intelligence head Aviv Kochavi, meanwhile,  in an address at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv on January 29 estimated that around 30,000 jihadi fighters were active in Syria.  Ya’ari, meanwhile, estimated the strength of Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) as around 40,000 fighters. 

These numbers are of particular interest in that they are considerably in excess of the estimates made by most analysts of Syria concerning the numbers of extreme jihadis present on the Syrian battlefield.  While accurate estimates of combatant forces on the Syrian rebel side are notoriously hard to come by,  the more usual estimate of the combined strength of al-Qaeda linked forces in Syria would be between 15-20,000. 

This suggests that Israeli estimates may take a somewhat broader definition of what constitutes extreme salafi and al-Qaeda linked groups than those made by western analysts. 

A third openly salafi force plays a prominent role mainly in northern Syria.  This is the Ahrar al-Sham group, thought to number around 20,000 fighters.  This group has no known links with the central leadership of al-Qaeda.  Yet it adheres to an extreme salafi ideology. One of its leading members, Abu Khaled al-Suri, recently described himself as a member  of al-Qaeda. 

If it is indeed the case that Israeli analysts would include Ahrar al Sham and groups of this type under the rubric of potentially dangerous Sunni jihadi forces (and there are good reasons to do so), then this has interesting implications.  

Ahrar al-Sham is a component part of the Islamic Front, which is the largest single rebel formation, numbering over 60,000 fighters, and which is the beneficiary of extensive aid from Qatar and Saudi Arabia.  So if Jerusalem regards this force as on a par with more obviously al-Qaeda aligned groups, this is a significant point of contention between the two main anti-Iran countries in the region – Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

Israel’s concerns regarding the Sunni jihadis are certainly not limited to the border area.  The al-Qaeda linked cell whose capture was announced on January 22nd was apprehended while preparing to enter northern Syria via Turkey for training purposes. 

It has also not escaped Israel’s attention that a de facto sovereign jihadi -controlled zone now exists in eastern Syria’s Raqqa province, stretching into western Anbar province in Iraq. 

Such an enclave has never existed in the Levant before. The jihadis are busy fighting Assad and his Iranian backers now.  But they are open in their desire to engage also against Israel. 

While close attention should be paid to Israel’s concerns re the Sunni jihadis and the consequent relationship with the rebels in the south, there are also factors likely to militate against any broader Israeli intervention into the Syrian war. 

Firstly, the Iran-led regional bloc remains by far the most potent and dangerous alliance challenging Israel at the present time.  As Kohavi said in his address:  ‘The new phenomenon of Global Jihad at our borders is disturbing, but we shouldn’t be confused. Our mortal enemy remains the ever-strengthening axis of evil formed by Hezbollah, Syria and the Iranian regime.’ 

This point, and the Iranian responsibility for events in Syria was underlined by Netanyahu in his remarks made at the field hospital.   The Iran-led bloc includes paramilitary clients but is led by a powerful state with nuclear ambitions.  There is no parallel structure to this on the Sunni jihadi side. 

Secondly, unseen but unmistakable, the trauma of Israel’s long involvement in Lebanon remains written into the DNA of Israeli commanders and planners and of the Israeli system as a whole.  There is a very deep aversion to anything that might look like interference in the internal processes of neighboring states – particularly where this could involve Israeli boots on the ground and hence loss of Israeli life.   

This salient institutional memory will probably ensure that despite its very real concerns, Israel’s engagement against the Sunni jihadi threat in southern Syria will remain as far as possible invisible, and on a limited, deniable scale.   

Yet this engagement is taking place.  On a daily basis, a few kilometers north-east of Tiberias, Israeli forces are involved in the complex task of keeping al Qaeda at a safe distance from the Golan Heights and the northern Galilee. 

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War across the borders – one sectarian war in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon

 A version of this article appeared in the February 2014 issue of Tower magazine:

A single sectarian war is currently under way across the Middle East.  This war has a number of fronts, some more intense and active than others.  Is most intensive arena is the single land area taking in the current states of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.  But this conflict is also manifest further afield – in Bahrain, in north Yemen, to some degree also in Kuwait and eastern Saudi Arabia. 


The core powers on each of the sides are the Islamic Republic of Iran for the Shia, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the Sunnis. 


Allied with Iran are the Assad regime in Syria, Hizballah in Lebanon, the Maliki government and assorted Shia militias in Iraq, the Houthi rebels in north Yemen, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Iranian regime possesses a cadre with both experience and expertise in building proxy organizations and engaging in political and paramilitary warfare. 


Allied with Saudi Arabia are various iterations of the Syrian rebels, the March 14 movement in Lebanon, the military regime in Egypt, the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain, Jordan, and, sometimes Turkey. 


The Saudis possess no parallel instrument to the IRGC.  They also have complex and problematic relations with the extreme Sunni jihadis of al-Qaeda who are taking a prominent role in the fighting in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. 


So how did this situation come about?  What is the evidence to support the claim of clear linkage between the various components of the two sides?  Why has this conflict manifested itself in such an extreme form in certain countries, such as Syria and Iraq where arguably it is leading to the break up of these states, while it exists only in much more controlled or latent form elsewhere, such as in Bahrain or Kuwait? 


In what follows, I will seek to address these questions, focusing mainly on the area of most intense engagement – namely, the  land area covering Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.


This war emerged as a result of the confluence of a number of circumstances.


Firstly, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are home to a host of differing sectarian and ethnic communities.  The issue of stark fissures in these societies was never resolved.  Rather, for most of the last half-century, in Syria and Iraq, the reality of ethnic and sectarian diversity was held in place by the existence of brutal dictatorships.


Both the regime of the Assads in Syria and that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq were family dictatorships, which rested on the co-optation or support of minority ethno-sectarian communities for their survival (the Alawis in Syria’s case, the Sunni Arabs in Iraq’s), while claiming to rule in the name of  a Pan-Arab nationalism.


In the name of this ideology, the dictatorships in Syria and Iraq ruthlessly suppressed all signs of ethnic or sectarian separatism.  Kurdish nationalism in both countries, Shia Islamism in Iraq, the Sunni variant in Syria were the main manifestations. All were treated without mercy.    


Lebanon, by contrast, a far weaker state, was ruled by a system of consociationalism which collapsed into sectarian civil war in 1975.  The issues underlying this war were never resolved.  Rather,  the entry of the Syrian army to Lebanon in 1990 placed a similarly firm lid on the basic issues of state and national identity and loyalty, without resolving them. 


In the course of the last decade, the ironclad structures of dictatorship that  kept the ethnic and sectarian faultlines and tensions in these states from erupting have been weakened or have disappeared.  The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 destroyed the regime of Saddam Hussein.  A sectarian Shia government, resting on the support of the Shia Arab majority in Iraq and the conditional acceptance of the Kurds, emerged to take its place.  The civil war in Syria has severely curtailed the power of the Assad regime, which now rules over only about 40% of the territory of Syria.  Enclaves representing the Sunni Arab majority and the Kurdish minority have emerged in what remains. 


Western hopes that a non-sectarian identity would take hold in the areas formerly ruled by Saddam and Assad have proved persistent but illusory.  Remarks by then National Security Advisor Condolleeza Rice about Iraq in 2004 perfectly sum up these hopes and the tendency to self-delusion that tends to accompany them.  Rice said:


‘What has been impressive to me so far is that Iraqis – whether Kurds or Shia or Sunni or the many other ethnic groups in Iraq – have demonstrated that they really want to live as one in a unified Iraq.’  She went on; ‘I think particularly the Kurds have shown a propensity to want to bridge differences that were historic differences in many ways that were fuelled by Saddam Hussein and his regime.’  And later ‘what I have found interesting and I think important is the degree to which the leaders of the Shia and Kurdish and Sunni communities have continually expressed their desires to live in a unified Iraq.’    


This faith has persisted with the Obama Administration, despite the complete absence of any basis for it. 


The Administration’s support for the Maliki government in Iraq is a result of this belief.  The US relates to Maliki’s opposition to Sunni insurgents in western Anbar as to the opposition of an elected government to extremist rebels.  This view fails, of course, to take into account the sectarian nature of Maliki’s own rule, and the discriminatory policies he has pursued against the Sunnis of western Iraq. 


There are no automatic ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys in this story.  But the reality of the collapse of brutally imposed central authority in Iraq and Syria has been the entirely predictable re-emergence of a politics following ethnic and sectarian faultlines.  In turn, the re-emergence of sectarian conflict in Syria is having a spillover effect into Lebanon. 


The initial spillover, of course, was in the opposite direction.  The decision of the Hizballah organization to intervene on behalf of the Assad regime was the first move in drawing Lebanon into the conflict.  This led inexorably to a response by elements among the Sunni rebels against Hizballah targets within Lebanon and a current escalation which has brought Lebanon to the brink of civil war between Sunnis and Shias. 


Supporters of the Sunni rebels in Syria have three times succeeded in penetrating Hizballah’s Dahiyeh compound in south Beirut and attacking it  – on July 9th, August 15th, 2013 and January 2nd, 2014.  The January bombing was carried out by a young Lebanese member of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), named Qutaiba Muhammad al-Satem.  ISIS is an Iraqi/Syrian franchise of al-Qaeda. 


Understanding the Hizballah decision to intervene on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria and the subsequent Sunni reaction requires a broadening of the lens.  The sectarian war reaches its most intense point in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon because of the riven nature of those societies and the unresolved questions of national identity in them.  However, broader regional power rivalries, also of a partially sectarian nature, are a driving force behind the conflict.


Hizballah’s decision to intervene in Syria came not as a result of automatic sentiments of solidarity.  Hizballah forms part of a regional alliance headed by Iran.  The Assad regime in Syria is also a member of this alliance.  Hence, when Assad found himself in trouble, Hizbalah was mobilized to assist him.  On the opposing side, the Syrian rebels have benefitted from the support and patronage of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 


The sectarian conflicts in the fertile crescent, though they have discernible local origin, are hence fueled and exacerbated by the influence of this broader, region wide sectarian competition between two states – Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. 


The rivalry between the Saudis and the Mullahs in Iran is of long standing.  It is related not only or mainly to theological differences.  Rather, it is about power.  Iran is controlled by a revolutionary regime whose strategic intention is to emerge as the hegemonic force in the region. 


The Iranians certainly regard the Saudi monarchy as an enemy, and as an unfit custodian of the most holy sites of Islam.  But the Iranians’ main intention is to supplant the US as the guarantor of Gulf energy security.  Teheran well understands that it is in the Gulf that true strategic power in the region is located.  Hence, the Iranians seek to tempt or coerce the Gulf monarchies away from the protection of the US and toward alliance with Teheran. 


Riyadh has emerged as the principle obstacle or opponent to the success of Iranian regional ambitions principally because the former guarantor of the current regional order, the United States, has chosen to leave the field of engagement. 


Up until 2011, the Middle East appeared to be locked into a kind of cold war system, in which the Iranians and their allies and proxies sought to supplant a US dominated regional order in which Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel formed the lynchpins. But the events of the last half decade combine to create the impression that the US no longer wishes to play this role. 


The US signally failed to back its ally, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, when he faced domestic unrest in early 2011. It failed to support the rebels against the Iran-backed Assad regime in Syria, when it too faced insurgency.  It failed to support pro-US Bahrain against an Iran-supported uprising in the same year.  And the US now appears to be seeking a general rapprochement with the Iranians.   As a result of all this, Saudi Arabia has begun to take a far more pro-active role in the region. 


Riyadh helped to finance the military coup in Egypt that ended Muslim Brotherhood rule. 


The Saudis also began to take a leading role in supporting the Syrian rebels. Riyadh has well-documented relations with the March 14 movement in Lebanon.  In December 2013 the Saudis pledged a donation of $3 billion to the Lebanese Armed Forces.  Riyadh supports anti-Maliki elements in Iraq.  Riyadh is also seeking to draw other Gulf countries closer into an alliance against Iran (with partial success.) 


The result of all this is that a full-fledged cold war in the region is now under way, pitting Saudi Arabia against Iran. The most intense fronts of this war are in the area of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.  As described above, the heterogenous nature of these states in terms of sect and ethnicity, and the weakening or collapse of former authoritarian regimes combined with the active support of Iran and Saudi Arabia for the opposing sides produce the current reality of cross-border sectarian war. 


So what is the evidence for the links between the combatant sides in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon?


On the Iranian/Shia side:   The Iranians no longer make any serious attempt to deny the immense assistance they have afforded the Assad regime in Syria. Indeed, what has taken place is a mobilization by the Iranians of all available regional assets in order to keep the Syrian dictator in place. 


Commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force Qassem Suleimani has himself spent time in Syria coordinating the efforts.  The Iranians in mid-2012 began the training of an alternative light infantry force for Assad, called the National Defense Force (NDF).  This force, now numbering around 50,000 men, was necessary because Assd was unable to use much of his own army, which consisted of Sunni conscripts of unclear loyalty. 


In April, 2013, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah was called to Iran and instructed to deploy his own fighters as necessary in Syria in order to preserve the regime.  Up to 10000 Hizballah fighters are engaged in Syria at any given time. They played a crucial role in the regime’s re-taking of the town of Qusayr in western Syria in August, 2013.


This victory was presented by regime propagandists as a turning point in the war, though subsequent regime gains have been very limited.  Hizballah fighters are also taking a prominent role in the battle for the Qalamun area near the Lebanese border and in fighting around Damascus. 


Iranian financial donations have been vital in keeping the regime alive.  Iran announced in January 2013 a ‘credit facility’ agreement with Syria which gave Assad a $1 billion line of credit.  Later in the year, an additional credit line of $3.6 billion was announced.  One estimate by an Arab official quoted in a recent article on this subject had Iran spending $600-700,000 per month on supporting Assad. 


IRGC fighters have themselves taken part in fighting in Syria, as has emerged from footage taken by an Iranian cameraman who was later killed by the rebels, by the testimony of defected Syrian officers, and by the capture of a number of IRGC men in August 2012, who were later freed in a prisoner exchange.   


Iraq has played a vital role in allowing its territory and its airspace to be used for transporting weaponry from Iran to Assad’s forces.  This at first glance appears strange.  Relations prior to the Syrian war were not good, with Maliki openly accusing Assad of support for Sunni insurgents in Iraq.  But this situation has now changed.  Maliki openly supported Assad from the outset.  This reflects the Iraqi leader’s increasing closeness to Iran, which played a vital role in ensuring his emerging as prime minister after the elections of 2010.  Iran at that time exerted pressure on Assad to support Maliki’s push for a second term as prime minister. This marked the beginning of improved relations. 


In addition to Iraqi government support, Iraqi Shia militias are engaged on the ground in Syria.  The Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigades, Ktaeb Hizballah and the Ahl al-Haq group all have fighters in Syria, and are playing an important role, given that Assad’s key weakness throughout has been the lack of sufficient loyal fighters. 


The eruption of violence in western Anbar province in Iraq further cements the common interest of Assad and Maliki.  The violence is a direct result of the advances made by Sunni jihadis in Syria.  Similarly, the violence in Lebanon – in Tripoli, Sidon, the Syrian border area and now also in Beirut itself – serves to tighten the alliance between Assad and Hizballah. 


Thus, in the violence now taking place from western Iraq all the way to the Mediterranean, the mainly Shia side is a tightly organized alliance, heavily financed by Iran, and able to act in a coordinated way, pooling resources for the common goal. 


The opposing, Sunni side is a somewhat more chaotic, disjointed affair.  There is no single, dominant network.  Saudi Arabia is the main financier, but the Saudis have no equivalent cadre to the Qods force and the IRGC, who are world leaders in the practice of subversion and irregular warfare. 


Among the most extreme jihadi elements, there is clear coordination across borders.  Thus, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as the name suggests, is active in both countries and controls a contiguous area stretching from western Anbar province in Iraq to eastern Raqqa province in Syria, as well as being active in other parts of Syria.


ISIS regards itself as a franchise of al-Qaeda though it does not take orders directly from the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan.  In Syria, an additional al-Qaeda group is active – Jabhat al-Nusra.  In Lebanon the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a third franchise of al-Qaeda, has taken a role in attacks on Hizballah.  Both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are active in Lebanon.   


But beyond the most extreme groups, Saudi Arabia backs March 14, the main Sunni opposition party in Lebanon. The Saudis have begun to finance the Lebanese Armed Forces, as noted above. In Syria, the Saudis have managed the establishment of a large alliance of 8 non al-Qaeda Islamist brigades – the Islamic Front. This is emerging as the key rebel grouping, bringing together some of the strongest rebel brigades, such as Ahrar al Sham, Liwa al Islam and Liwa al Tawhid.  The Saudis also dominate the external opposition, with Ahmed Jarba, who has close links to Riyadh, recently re-elected as chairman of the Syrian National Coalition. 


In Iraq, there are no indications that Riyadh is backing the Sunni insurgents in the west. But certainly the broader Sunni community is looking to Saudi Arabia for help. Relations between Riyadh and the Iraqi government are very bad, with the border closed except during the Haj.  There is no Saudi embassy in Baghdad and commercial relations are at a minimum.  Some of the tribes in western Anbar have close links to the Saudis. While the tribes are hostile to al-Qaeda, they are also opposed to the Maliki government, which they regard as a sectarian, Shia regime.  In October, Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of Saudi intelligence, said that  Iranian meddling was the “cause of the daily killings and suffering that the Iraqi people are enduring.”


The third element to be considered in all this is that of the Kurds.  A flourishing Kurdish autonomous zone exists in Northern Iraq, enjoying most of the elements of de facto sovereignty.  Since July, 2012, an additional autonomous zone has been established in north-east Syria.  The two areas occupy a contiguous land mass.  However, they are not politically united. Rather, each is under the control of a rival pan-Kurdish political movement.  The Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq is controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani.  The autonomous zone in north east Syria is controlled by the PYD (Democratic Union Party) which is the Syrian franchise of the PKK. 


Each of these movements sees itself as the appropriate leader of the Kurds.  But while there is tension between them, each appears to be securely in control of its respective area.  The Kurds are not the beneficiaries of state support.  Both the Iranians and the Saudis look on Kurdish aspirations with suspicion. But the Kurds have managed to gather sufficient organizational and military strength to ensure the survival of their self-governing areas. 


So two discernible regional sectarian alliances are clashing in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. There are myriad practical links between the various combatant elements. There are many examples of forces from one of the countries operating in another (Hizballah in Syria, Syrian rebels in Lebanon, Iranians in Syria, ISIS in Syria etc). Iran is the leader of one of the alliances.  Saudi Arabia is the main backer of the other.   


A third, Kurdish element, meanwhile, is maintaining its areas of control and trying to stay out of the conflict. 


The result of all this has been to cast into very serious question the continued existence of Syria and Iraq as unified states.  Syria is already split into three areas, each controlled by one of the three elements listed above.  Iraq, too, has split into Kurdish and Arab parts, with Sunnis and Shias in conflict over the Arab part.  Lebanon, arguably, ceased to function as a unified state some time ago.  Hizballah pursues its own interests without reference to the will of other elements. 


The Sunni population of Lebanon lacks a military tradition and has proved helpless in the face of Iran-supported Hizballah.  But the emergence of the Syrian rebels and the growing popularity of Islamist sentiment among the Sunni underclass may be altering this balance.  The recent surge in Sunni violence against Hizballah targets is the result of the attempt by the Syrian jihadis and rebels to bring the war to Lebanon, in concert with their local allies, and in response to Hizballah’s activities in Syria. 


The eclipse of the Arab nationalist dictatorships in Iraq and Syria, the failure to develop a civic national identity in these states, their mixed ethnic and sectarian make up, and the withdrawal of the US from its dominant position in the region, with the resulting dynamic of Saudi-Iranian rivalry as a central element in the region have combined to produce an extraordinary result: namely, a single sectarian war taking place in the areas still officially referred to as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. 

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Salafi insurgency fermenting in northern Sinai

Jerusalem Post, 14/2

Northern Sinai has long played host to a variety of smuggling networks and jihadi organizations. Since General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s military coup of July 3rd, 2013 in Egypt, however, there has been an exponential increase in attacks emanating from this area.

This increasingly lawless region is now the home ground for an emergent Islamist insurgency against the Egyptian authorities. Since July, 2013, more than 300 reported attacks have taken place in Sinai. The violence is also spreading into the Egyptian mainland, with attacks in recent weeks on a security facility in Cairo, and the killing of an Interior Ministry official in the capital.

Some of the groups engaged in the fighting are linked to global jihadi networks, including al-Qaeda. Others have connections to elements in Hamas-controlled Gaza. The precise links between the various organizations engaged are difficult to trace.

This emergent reality in northern Sinai has serious implications for Israel. While the main focus of the jihadi activity is directed against Sisi’s administration in Cairo, some of the groups centrally involved have a track record of attacks against Israeli targets. In al-Qaeda’s official propaganda channels, the north Sinai area is described as a new front in the war against ‘the Jews and the Americans.’

The most significant group operating in northern Sinai today is the Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem) organization. This organization has been active since 2011. It originated in Gaza, and made its way to Sinai following the ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

The group’s name will raise a wry smile for Israeli and Jewish readers. The Arabic term ‘Beit al-Maqdis’ (House of the Holy) for Jerusalem derives from the older Hebrew name for the Jewish Temple – Beit Hamikdash, with the same meaning.

Contemporary Islamists and jihadis, of course, would fiercely deny that any Jewish Temple ever stood in Jerusalem.

But this absence of logical consistency appears to have little impact on the organization’s energy for violent activity.

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis was responsible for repeated attacks on the El-Arish-Ashkelon gas pipeline in 2011-12, which eventually led to the suspension of supplies via this route.

The group also carried out the cross-border terror attack on August 18, 2011, in which eight Israelis were murdered, and an additional strike into Israel on September 21, 2012, which took the life of an IDF soldier.

More recently, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis claimed responsibility for the rocket attack on Eilat on January 20, 2014. The rocket was intercepted by the Iron Dome system.

The organization’s main focus in recent weeks has been on increasingly high-profile attacks against Egyptian targets. These have included an attempt on the life of Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim on September 5, 2013, and a series of bomb attacks in Cairo in January,2014. On January 25, 2014, the group claimed responsibility for downing a military helicopter over northern Sinai.

The weapon used in this attack, a Russian Igla air-defense system, was reportedly smuggled out from Gaza, where the group maintains links with Salafi Jihadi elements.

So what exactly is Ansar Beit al-Maqdis?

According to a former militant of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization, Nabil al-Naeim, the group is funded by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, following a deal brokered with powerful Brotherhood strongman Khairet al-Shater.

Naeim suggested that Ansar Beit al Maqdis is supplied with weapons by the Brotherhood via the Gaza tunnels and Libya. He maintains that the Hamas authorities in Gaza are aware of the deal.

The alleged Brotherhood links were also asserted by Sameh Eid, described in an al-Arabiyya article as an ‘expert on Islamist groups.’ Eid referred to the group as the ‘military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood,’ and said that Shater had threatened the Egyptian authorities with ‘escalation in Sinai and the targeting of the Egyptian Army.’

Little hard evidence, however, has yet emerged to support the claims of a direct Muslim Brotherhood link to Ansar Beit al-Maqdis.

The Egyptian authorities have an obvious interest in linking the violence erupting out of northern Sinai with the Muslim Brothers. Having brought down the Muslim Brotherhood government, General Sisi’s subsequent strategy has been to deny the Brotherhood any way back into political activity, preferring to force it along a path of confrontation on which it is likely to be defeated by the army.

It is certainly possible, of course, that the Brotherhood has now as a result elected to begin to link itself to armed groups and to prepare for insurgency. But hard facts have not yet emerged to support this contention.

Clear links between Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and the al-Qaeda network, however, do exist. In recent testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, Tom Joscelyn of the Federation for the Defense of Democracies noted that the group uses al-Qaeda’s official channels for its propaganda – such as al Fajr Media Center.

Also, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has on many occasions praised its operations. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis also often features al Qaeda leaders and ‘martyrs’, including Osama Bin Laden, in its videos.

This shows that at the very least, a clear ideological identification is there, along with probable organizational links at one or another level.

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis is only the most active and prominent of a whole number of jihadi networks operating against the Egyptian authorities from Sinai. Joscelyn in his testimony notes evidence that elements of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are active in Sinai. He also mentions a third grouping directly linked to al Qaeda, the Muhammad Jamal network, as also active on the peninsula.

What does all this add up to?

An Islamist insurgency is now under way in northern Sinai. It involves groups with roots in the Gaza Strip. If some accounts are to be believed, both the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Hamas authorities in Gaza are involved in it on one or another level. Almost certainly, the regional networks of al Qaeda form a significant part of it. The Islamists have already begun to strike west into Egypt proper.

What this means is that any hopes that Sisi’s coup would lead to a rapid return to quiet and order in Egypt should rapidly be abandoned. Rather, the new regime is facing a similar test to that endured by Mubarak in the 1990s and Nasser in the 1950’s. Islamism in Egypt is not going to quietly accept the verdict of July 3rd, 2013.

For Israel, the emergent insurgency raises the prospect of two de facto al Qaeda controlled areas adjoining its border – one in southern Syria and the other in the Salafi playground that is now northern Sinai.

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Geneva II: An exercise in futility

Jerusalem Post, 24/1

The international conference that convened this week in the Swiss town of Montreux in an attempt to find a way toward resolving the war in Syria is one of the more strange international gatherings of recent years.

The aims of the combatant sides in Syria remain entirely irreconcilable.

Neither the Assad regime nor the rebellion against it is strong enough to strike a decisive blow against its opponent.

Neither side is sufficiently weak to feel compelled to accept whatever outcome its enemy wishes to impose on it.

In such a situation, diplomacy becomes reduced to the rituals of protocol.

Form replaces content. And the purpose of bringing the sides together becomes unclear.

This conference has all the familiar paraphernalia of an important diplomatic event. Foreign ministers are gathered. Speeches will be delivered. An atmosphere of grave seriousness will prevail. But the basis for substantive progress appears entirely absent.

Conceived over a year ago, the conference is intended to set in motion the implementation of the ‘Geneva Communique’ of June 30, 2012. In its key passage, this document calls for the ‘establishment of a transitional governing body with full executive powers that could include members of the government and opposition, and should be formed on the basis of mutual consent.’

The Syrian dictator, whose foreign minister Walid Mouallem is present at the conference, has made clear that he does not accept this goal if it means that he should step down.

As regime information minister Omran al-Zoabi expressed it succinctly on the first day of the conference: ‘Assad isn’t going.’

Assad himself told Russian MPs at a meeting in Damascus earlier this month that his departure would not be under discussion at the conference. “If we had wanted to surrender, we would have surrendered from the very start. We stand at the guard of our motherland,’ the dictator informed his guests. ‘This issue lies beyond the sphere of discussion.’

Assad has made clear that as far as he is concerned, the main subject that will lie within the sphere of discussion in Geneva will be his ‘war on ‘terrorism.’ His message is that the regime is locked in combat with the same Sunni jihadi enemies that threaten the west.

From Assad’s point of view, such a stance makes perfect sense.

He is in no danger of imminent defeat. The war in Syria has been at a bloody stalemate for about a year now. The regime controls the capital, Damascus and a contiguous land area stretching up to the Mediterranean cost in the west. Assad also still maintains his grip on the main cities of the country, with the exception of Raqqa in the east (controlled by the al-Qaeda affiliated ISIS group) and Aleppo, which is divided between the government and the rebels. Assad’s allies, Iran and Russia, appear to still be standing firmly behind him. He has no incentive for compromise.

As for the rebels, they have similarly solid reasons not to submit.

They control an area of roughly equal size stretching from the border with Iraq up to the Turkish border in the north west.

Since early January, the opposition-controlled area has been engulfed in an internal civil war, with the al-Qaeda affiliated ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) resisting attacks from the Saudi-supported fighters of the Islamic Front. This fighting made possible relatively minor gains by government forces in the northern Aleppo area.

But the rebels, too, are not facing imminent defeat. They have no shortage of men willing to engage on their behalf. Assad failed to capitalize or expand on some modest military successes in the summer. So they too see no pressing reason to compromise their core demand – that Bashar Assad cannot form part of any transitional administration.

Rebel controlled areas have borne the brunt of extraordinarily brutal tactics employed by the regime over the last three years. These have included the use of chemical weapons against civilian targets, as took place in eastern Ghouta on August 21, 2013, with the loss of 1429 lives, according to US figures. A newly released report claims that the regime has carried out the mass slaughter of 11,000 detainees.

The dictator’s uncompromising position led to a very great reluctance on the part of the opposition to take part in the conference at all. A no-show by the western financed opposition would have turned the gathering into a farce. As a result of western threats and pressure, the Syrian National Coalition eventually agreed to show up.

But this coalition in any case exerts little or no authority over the overwhelmingly Sunni Islamist fighting groups that are conducting the actual war in Syria.

They will not be there in Geneva, and will certainly not feel bound by any commitments made by the external leadership.

The Kurdish PYD, which rules the largely peaceful Kurdish enclave in the north east of the country, is also not invited.

So there are fundamental disagreements between the two sides attending the conference. On the rebel side, the most important and influential factions won’t be attending at all. The government side has no intention of conforming to the conference’s key premise (Assad’s resignation and his replacement by a transitional authority.) The opposition representatives have no intention of compromising on this demand.

The chances of such a gathering leading to any type of diplomatic breakthrough are surely close to zero.

What then is the point of all this?

The Geneva II conference is happening, it appears, for the not particularly edifying reason that the west doesn’t want to entirely ignore Syria, and can’t quite think of anything else to do.

The Geneva II conference’s main contribution to the diplomacy of the region is thus likely to be to pave the way for the Geneva III conference. And ‘all the way up to Geneva 17, before this thing’s finished,’ as one Syrian observer put it. In Syria itself, meanwhile, the bloodletting looks set to continue.

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Confrontation in Kiev

Jerusalem Report, January, 2014.

Ukraine events showcase Russian strength, Western confusion with the Jews caught on the fringe

Kiev’s Euro-Square (the renamed Independence Square) was roiling with anger and confusion in the frozen late afternoon of December 17. Word had just come through of the deal between Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his Russian counterpart, Vladmir Putin, to cut gas prices and purchase Ukrainian government bonds.

Putin had apparently outflanked the protestors who were demanding Yanukovych’s resignation and new elections. Having pressured the government of Ukraine not to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union, the Russian leader made a counter offer of his own: Russia would slash the price Ukraine would pay for gas by a third; and Moscow would also acquire $15 billion in Ukraine bonds. The offer was a generous one, but it was clear that its rationale was not economic in nature. Moscow was willing to pay whatever price was necessary to keep Ukraine in the fold.

The demonstrators were not impressed. A middle-aged man from a group of veterans of the Afghan War who had turned up to perform security duties at the square grimaced with disgust when I asked him about the deal. “This changes nothing,” he insisted. “We want a change of government, and new national elections –
parliamentary and presidential – and the EU Association agreement.”

Kiev was tense amid the sub-zero temperatures. The security forces had cordoned off a whole area close to European Square with buses used to block roads. At Mariinsky Park, about a kilometer from the square, meanwhile, a rival, pro-Yanukovych demonstration was hastily assembled. The talk throughout the city was of the protests, and where it was all heading.

The protests erupted after Yanukovych failed to sign an Association Agreement with the EU on November 21. Ukrainians were aware that the refusal constituted a move in the broader tug of war between those who wish to take Ukraine further toward the West and those determined to couple it to Russia. So the square demonstrations quickly took on the colors of a general protest movement of all those forces opposed to the move toward Russia.

The government attempted to destroy the protest camp on November 30, and again on December 10. These attacks further polarized the situation, and increased the number of protestors in the square. They began to call for the resignation of Yanukovych and the holding of new presidential and parliamentary elections.

Many Ukrainians noted that the EU was no longer all it was cracked up to be. In particular, they observed the situation of recent new members of the EU, and noticed that their situation had not drastically changed or improved as a result of their membership.

But for the thousands of people in European Square the main issue was not the specific short-term benefits; it was about the longer-term future.

As journalist and anti-corruption activist Nikolai Vorobyev tells The Jerusalem Report, “People here haven’t read the association agreement. It’s over 100 pages long and it’s almost certain that Yanukovych himself hasn’t read it too. The issue for the protesters is simple: They want to move closer towards Europe, towards civilization, and away from Russia.”

The roots of anti-Semitism run deep in Ukrainian political culture, particularly in its nationalist variant (the Nazis, enthusiastically abetted by Ukrainian collaborators, murdered a million and a half Jews in the Ukraine in World War II).

On New Year’s Eve, a large anti-government gathering took place in Independence Square – or euro-square, as the anti-government protestors have renamed it. There was a show in which the Nativity story was presented in a modern Ukrainian context. Among the various stock figures was a stereotypical Hasidic Jew, played by Bohdan Benyuk, a deputy from the far right Svoboda party. The Jew was presented as a swindler, speculator and coward, who nevertheless eventually joins the demonstrators against Herod, i.e. Yanukovych.

“The Jewish community is highly concerned by a very significant participation of Svoboda party and ultranationalists in these anti-Semitic manifestations, the President of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee Oleksandr Feldman, tells The Report. “This reminds us of the horrors of Holocaust when Ukrainian ultranationalists were actively taking part in the killing of Jews. I myself was highly upset a few days ago watching a live nativity scene from Maidan? performed by Ukrainian politicians and celebrities depicting anti-Semitic lies.”

Feldman, a Member of the Ukraine Parliament, is a firm supporter of association with Europe, “I strongly believe that Ukraine should and will follow the path of European integration as this is the will of majority of people, its historical destiny and also would be mutually beneficial for all the parties. Also it would be good for Jews,” he concludes.

The demonstrators at European Square look at the EU and see societies that, for all their problems, retain independent judiciaries, working parliaments, and functioning civil societies. They look eastwards and see Putin’s combination of corruption and authoritarian rhetoric. And they know which one they want.

Elena, a 27-year-old IT worker from Kiev who joined the demonstrations, also asserted that the Association Agreement was not the main issue: “There are no rights in Russia and we don’t want to live in that kind of country,” she tells The Report. “This is really the main reason. But what made people crazy angry was using riot police against a peaceful demonstration, and officials completely supporting that way of acting.”

The stark East-West discrepancy was reflected in the nature of the rival political mobilizations in Kiev.

In European Square, the mix was a chaotic one, from civil society and democracy activists to shaven-headed radical Ukrainian nationalists. The makeshift security detail of army veterans and volunteers handled entry and exit through the crude barricades guarding the protest area. Far into the night, one could see people arguing, debating and singing. It had the unmistakable, fragile look of a civil society in revolt.

Ukraine is an uneasy amalgam of sharply differing political traditions. It consists of the linked borderlands of two empires – the Russian and Austro-Hungarian. The dividing line between East and West runs through it. In the Ukrainian-speaking west, a strong nationalist tradition espouses deep hostility towards Moscow and a fervent desire to move towards Europe. In the Russian-speaking industrial east, however, there is an equally strong determination to retain and strengthen the link with Russia. This was reflected in the events of the last weeks, as the government bussed in its own supporters and constructed its alternative to the protests in European Square

The protestors in the square are themselves divided. Many of them are young civil society activists with a liberal orientation. But there is also a sizeable contingent of Ukrainian nationalists. One may see the red and black flags of the Banderisty, nationalist paramilitary associations from the west. These groups are of an openly anti-Russian and anti-Semitic orientation. Many of them trace their lineage back to units that fought on the German side in World War II and took part in atrocities against Jews and Poles.

Stas, a butcher from the western Ukrainian town of Rivne, and a member of the nationalist Ukrainian National Assembly, showed me the collection of clubs and fire extinguishers that he and his associates, shaven-headed men in camouflage jackets, had assembled in their tent on the square. “For defense against the Berkut [special police],” he tells The Report me. “The entire government, police and prosecutors,” he told me, “are criminals. We will be here to fight them to the end.”

At the rival, pro-Yanukovych gathering in Mariinsky Park, the participants were mainly tough-looking young men from the Donbass region – Yanukovych’s eastern heartland; coalminers and factory workers given time off to remind the world that Yanukovych also has supporters. Pro-government demonstrators were paid $50 a day for their activities, according to Kiev residents.

Mariinsky Park, the “anti-square,” as Kiev residents called it, was deserted by nightfall. The Donbass men were not there to debate politics and policy into the night. They finished their day at an agreed time, and could be found in large groups round Arsenalna Metro station a little further south, smoking and drinking bottled beer, entirely impervious to the freezing temperatures.

It was civil society, with all its flaws, versus Putin-style political technology, which conjures up political manifestations, for an agreed price.

On Wednesday, December 25, following the announcement of the Putin-Yanukovych deal, an opposition journalist, Tatyana Chernovil, was dragged from her car in Kiev and badly beaten by unknown assailants. Chernovil, 34, a campaigner against corruption, had just written an article about Ukrainian Interior Minister Vitaly Zacharchenko. The article asked how Zacharchenko was able to afford the massive estate where he lives on the salary of a public employee.

This incident offered some insight into the reasons behind the passion and fury of the protests in the square. The Yanukovych government regularly engages in the intimidation of its critics and opponents. This large, fertile country of 46 million has long lagged behind its neighbors to the west in the development of democratic norms. The ongoing protests at Independence Square were intended to kick-start a process of reform.

Instead, the trajectory of the protest campaign and the swift agreement between Yanukovych and Putin is an object lesson in the balance of power in international affairs. They showcase the determination of Moscow to preserve and advance its geopolitical interests, the relative fecklessness of the West by comparison, and, as a result, the helplessness of the Ukrainian people in the face of the tactics of their Moscow-supported government.

The power game between Russia and the EU in this regard is not a game of chess. It has real life consequences such as the assault on Tatyana Chernovil. It is an example of what happens when a country is absorbed into the alliance of states led by Moscow – namely, corruption as a norm, assaults on civil society, and the removal of all structures of defense protecting ordinary citizens from the will of the powerful.

The official Ukrainian political opposition is also no cause for celebration. Inna Korsun, an activist with the Democratic Alliance movement, noted that a crucial difference between the current protests and the Orange Revolution of 2004 was that this time around, the protestors did not see the heads of the official opposition as their leaders. “People don’t want to march under opposition flags, don’t support Yulia Timoshenko [the jailed former opposition leader], and so on,” she states to The Report.

The wariness towards the official opposition derives from the great disappointment that followed the Orange Revolution. Squabbles between the rival camps of Timoshenko and then-president Victor Yushenko and accusations of corruption rapidly soured the hopes of that time.

“There’s a need for a new leader, someone from the young people in European Square,” says Korsun. But she readily admitted that no such leader or organized movement had yet emerged.

Currently, the liberal Udar (Punch) party of heavyweight boxing champion and Kiev Mayor Vitaly Klitschko remains the main organized force backing the protests. The far-right, anti-Semitic Svoboda party of Oleh Tyahnybok is also in evidence in the square. The third organized element is the Batkivschnya (Fatherland) party, which is close to Timoshenko.

None of these forces or any other organized political grouping exercises complete control over European Square. It is diffuse and leaderless, with only a confused message and no clear strategy. But for the most part, at its root, and despite the worrying presence of far-right elements, it represents a longing for normality among Ukrainians, for the kind of imperfect but ordered societies that they see to their west.

It is hard to see even this modest ambition being achieved any time soon.

The events in Ukraine show the extent to which Russia and the West are thinking in entirely different terms. To the bureaucrats in Brussels, the addition of another impoverished, populous, former communist country to a closer relationship with the Union would be at best a mixed blessing. The EU is in any case a troubled entity, with sharp divisions between its richer and poorer member states.

In the US, the Kiev protests might have been expected to spur some echoes of titanic struggles of the past. There was a time when enthusiastic crowds in public squares in central and Eastern Europe, challenging the encroachment of authoritarianism and arguing about their country’s future direction, might have found the clear and active support of Washington DC. That time appears to have gone. Only Senator John McCain came to visit from the front rank of American politicians – with no particular consequence.

The determined outside support in the Ukrainian crisis has come from the other side – from Moscow, for the government, and against the protestors. The people who may well have been implicated in the assault on Tetyana Chornovil appear to have won in Ukraine – at least for the moment.

Meanwhile, the protesters in frozen European Square, gathered under EU flags, continue through the night to shout their demand for membership in a club of Western states that appears neither willing nor able to come to their aid.

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