Six months of War in Ukraine

Jerusalem Post, 3/9

Launch of Kherson offensive marks opening of new phase in the conflict

The Ukrainian armed forces this week launched an offensive in the Kherson region, located in the south east of Ukraine.  Ukrainian media is reporting that Kyiv’s forces have broken through the first line of Russian defenses outside of the city of Kherson.  The Russian state owned RIA news agency is also reporting the Ukrainian push, which it claims has already ‘failed miserably.’ 

Amid the fog of war, and the claims and counter claims, it is too soon for any clear assessment.  But the events in Kherson appear to constitute the beginning of a major Ukrainian effort to retake territory  in the south, earlier than had been predicted by much analysis. This operation in turn marks the opening of a new phase in this gruelling war, which has already passed through two distinctive stages. 

The war in Ukraine is the largest scale and most consequential conflict to take place on European soil since 1945.  Six months since the dramatic opening of hostilities by the Russians in the early hours of February 24, and with a new chapter perhaps in its opening stages, it is an opportune moment to take stock of the war’s progress, and to assess where events may be heading.  

In the first, mobile phase of the war, Moscow sought to make rapid territorial gains along four identifiable fronts. In the northern front/Kyiv area, Moscow launched an attack from Belarus towards the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, after its initial attempt to swiftly seize the city using airborne assault forces failed.  In the north east, the Russians began an attack in the direction of the city of Kharkiv.  In the south, attacks were launched from Crimea, with the intention of rolling up Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline in the direction of Mariupol, Mykholaiv, and ultimately Odessa and the border with Moldova. Kherson, the only regional capital to fall to the Russians, was taken on March 2 as part of this offensive.  In the south east, attacks were launched from Luhansk and Donetsk, with the goal of completing the conquest of the Donbas which had commenced in 2014.

In this dramatic opening phase, many observers feared that independent Ukraine would rapidly be over-run.  Some analyses recalled the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, when Moscow’s forces took over its neighbor in 48 hours, having first seized control of Prague’s international airport.  Others pointed to the crushing intervention by Moscow in 1956 against armed anti-communist revolt in Hungary, an invasion which secured control of that country within a month.   

Many journalists, this author included, made for beleaguered Kyiv at that moment.  I had witnessed the city in revolution in 2013, in the events at the Maidan which began the process that eventually led to the Russian invasion.  Like many others, I assumed that the Russian attempt at encirclement of the Ukrainian capital must surely succeed.  I wanted to witness the city in what I assumed would be the last days of its existence as Ukraine’s sovereign capital. 

The atmosphere in Kyiv in the first days of March was one of grim determination.   The streets were empty. Air raid sirens sounded at regular intervals.  There was still food in the shops, but shortages were beginning.  Across the city, in schools and office blocks and hospitals, soldiers and volunteers were frenetically preparing for the defense of the city. 

But as it turned out, of course, the Russians never entered Kyiv.  Extended and chaotic supply lines, poor leadership, shortages of manpower, and determined Ukrainian resistance all ensured that the push for the city would falter.  The assault on Kyiv was abandoned by mid March.

 A Ukrainian counter attack from  March 16 pushed the Russian forces back from the city,  recapturing the entire area north and east of Kyiv, including Hostomel, site of the Antonov Airport – where Russian airborne forces in the early hours of February 24th had sought to repeat their forefathers’ success in Prague in 1968, in seizing an airport to ferry in the invasion forces – and had failed.

The first, mobile phase of the war was over by early April.  The Russians had enjoyed some success on the southern front. The port city of Mariupol was taken on April 3, following a bitter and bloody siege. Russian shelling of Odessa and Mykholaiv continued. But the anticipated push up Ukraine’s coastline failed to materialize.    

On the north eastern front, the Russians made little progress, trying and failing to capture the city of Kharkiv. 

In the east, Russian forces tried to advance from their existing pre-2022 areas of control in Luhansk and Donetsk.  A Russian attempt to push westwards from Severiodonetsk at this time was repulsed, however.

The result was that by early April, when the main mobile phase of the war ended,  a Ukrainian salient extending roughly 40 km into the main body of Russian held territory had been created in this area. This salient was also roughly 40km wide. 

This salient formed the central focus of the fighting in the period April-July.  With its efforts at a rapid conquest of Ukraine thwarted, Russia now sought to grind forward slowly, using a relentless artillery barrage to reduce areas to rubble, before occupying them.  Yet this Donbas-centered second phase of the war, in which the other frontlines were static, also garnered Moscow only the most modest achievements.

I entered the eastern salient in June, reporting from the towns of Lisychansk, Slovyansk, Bakhmut and Kramatorsk.  In Lisychansk, the shelling was relentless, the remaining civilians reduced to life on the most primitive level by the destruction of infrastructure.  People in Lysychansk, in the eye of the Russian storm, prepared food on improvised wood burners and buried their dead in graves hurriedly dug in waste ground between rounds of shelling.  The town fell to the Russians on July 2nd.  The Russians inherited rubble.  

But the conquests of Severiodonetsk and Lysychansk were the sole meager fruits of the grinding, artillery led Russian effort in the Donbas over summer.  And as Ukraine began to integrate western military systems such as the M142 Himars, the balance of destruction was rendered more even, and a long, static, artillery-led semi-frozen conflict seemed to be in the offing. 

This second, holding phase of the war now appears to be over.  Many thought that the Ukrainians would not manage to stand up a counter offensive before the onset of winter.  Kyiv is evidently mindful of the possibility that Russia may engineer a gas crisis in Europe over the winter months, creating chaos and seeking to undermine western support for Ukraine.  This, in turn, may lead to pressure on Ukraine to agree to a ceasefire in place, leaving Russia with around 20% of Ukraine in its hands.  The counter-offensive toward Kherson currently under way is evidently an attempt to pre-empt any such moves, and to change the dynamic of the war.

Ukraine has in the last six months prevented an attempt to destroy it as an independent state, and has successfully held in place a Russian effort at a slow and grinding advance through attrition.  An attempt is now under way to break the resulting deadlock.  It remains to be seen if Kyiv’s forces can sustain the momentum and move toward real territorial gains in the period ahead.   The third phase of the Ukraine war has begun. 

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Now and in Other Days

The war came in high summer. Paul Randawa was living in Florentin.  War was the last thing on his or his friends’ minds.  The beach and the bars, and late night parties and clubs were what everything was revolving around. On the day of the mobilisation, he had spent the afternoon by the sea. Afterwards, he had called into a small bar on Yair Stern Street where a friend of his was waitressing.  He and fair-haired Ya’ara had exchanged arch and flirtatious remarks as he sat at a table drinking Corona.  Then he had walked home as the evening was coming on.  It was still light. He had collapsed on his bed in his small room. They had no air conditioning but a light breeze was coming though the window and this, combined with the effects of the sea and the beer enabled him to sleep. 

He was awoken by his phone buzzing next to the bed. He had placed it on the wooden chair that served him as a makeshift bedside table. Ya’ara had mentioned the possibility of meeting later on after she finished working. He assumed it was her.  It was not.  It was another young woman’s voice speaking in cool and matter of fact Hebrew.  A recorded message.  Telling him that he had been mobilized, and that he should make his way to a neighboring school. From there, buses would be coming to take them north. 

For a minute or so, he had lain still, staring up at the ceiling, becoming awake.  Nothing but the sound of his own breathing and the cars outside on Yair Stern Street.  Then, cursing in Arabic he had raised himself up.  His head was still swimming with the alcohol, but there was a green holdall in the corner of the room quiet and waiting and ready to go. He had packed it some days earlier as the news from the north worsened.   He took a shower in the tiny bathroom of the apartment.  There was no need for a mad rush.  As long as he was at the mobilizing point within the next few hours.  He dressed in his olive green army trousers and shirt, and black sneakers (his boots were in the holdall). The apartment was empty. One of his room mates, a combat engineer in the reserves, was already in the north.  The other two had gone to their respective families in Jerusalem and in Yeruham for the weekend.  He left the apartment, locked the door and swiftly trotted down the two flights of stairs and into the street below. The heat was still stifling.  He arrived at the border three hours later. 

All was chaos and confusion.  They had a training exercise at a base near the Golan Heights over the next two days. Then they were deployed on the border.  The following night they crossed into Lebanon. 

In the next days, they conducted patrols across the countryside.  They had little idea of the bigger picture in the war.  The war was a place of constant noise, shells or Katyusha missiles falling near and far. The sound of small arms and light machine gun fire.  But in the midst of all that, oddly, one could move across the desolate landscape close to the border, and not run into any active opposition for a while. That was how it seemed, anyway. Their main concern was to ensure they had sufficient food and water.  The villages they moved through were mostly deserted. The shops were  locked up, but on occasion they would break in to take water and juice.  The summer sun had left the landscape yellow and toasted. 

Randawa’s section had taken up a position in a house on the edge of a village east of Ait a Shaab when the firefight began.  There were seven men in the section.  Randawa knew three of them well, having served with them during his regular service. These were Yaron Cohen, the kibbutznik Eitan Ben-Artzi and the section commander, Avi Azoulay.  These men were an exercise in contrasts. Azoulay was from Beersheva, a building contractor in civilian life.  He was a big, handsome, confident man then in his late twenties with slicked back black hair.  Solid, calm Eitan was studying agricultural engineeering at the Technion. Yaron Cohen was a student of design.  He lived with his wife in Tel Aviv.  They had a new young son.  Yaron had an arch and dry sense of humor that Randawa liked. Since his demobilization, he had grown a long mane of brown hair, and to go with it, a rakish little pointed beard. 

Like many in the unit, Yaron had little enthusiasm for the war.  ‘It makes less and less sense to me,’ he had said, talking to Randawa the morning after their mobilization.  He meant that as a parent, the business no longer held any attraction for him. But there were other aspects. The static security operations of the Second Intifada had been their education as soldiers. They had not expected to find themselves operating against Hizballah. The chaos and confusion of the war on every level from the purpose of their mission to the sketchy provision of food, water and equipment had not improved the mood.

Hizballah had been closer than they thought.  As they were brewing coffee on the floor of the main room, an RPG 7 charge ripped into the lower section of the house. It was followed by rifle fire, very close by. They scrambled to take up positions in the lower and upper rooms of the house. The RPG-7 on the house closed any hopes that they might avoid the worst of the action.  The section was cut off from the rest of the platoon. Azoulay immediately radio’ed to the platoon commander that they were taking fire.  The section took positions at either side of the house to prevent the possibility of a surprise assault.  The small arms fire was coming from one direction only. But there was a possibility that this was a diversion, intended to attract their attention while an attack was mounted from the side.  So Randawa, with Yaron Cohen, deployed at the back entrance.  They waited, tense. The rifle fire continued. Then there was a crash and a rifle firing on automatic, in the house, very loud. Did it mean that the assault had begun.  ‘Stay here,’ Randawa said to Yaron., and he ran to the entrance room. The door was open. The body of a Hizballah man, wearing the camouflage uniform of the movement, was stretched out, freshly killed, by the entrance. There was a smell of cordite. 

The door was still open.  Dror Yemini, another member of the section, was standing by the corpse, shaking slightly and with eyes blazing.  ‘He just came in the door,’ he was saying. ‘So I let him have it.’  ‘Are there more of them?’ asked Randawa.  ‘He came in alone, there are others further back. The problem is that there’s a straight stretch of ground between us and the platoon.  So we’re going to have to hold on here til they can maybe get round the back of where the Hizb are.’ 

‘Paul, get back and watch the other side,’ shouted Azoulay the section commander, and Randawa quickly made his way back to Yaron, explaining to him what had happened after he had done so.  ‘Fuck,’ said Yaron, ‘so are we trapped here?’  ‘Looks like, it. for the moment.’

The two Hizballah men killed had clearly been part of an attempt to take the house. The man in the front room had been meant to be the first of the party to enter.   Or at least, that had been the plan.  The returning fire from the Israelis had evidently panicked the Hizballah men, causing them to break formation, with some holding back and the two who had died continuing to move forward til they were neutralised. 

Outside of Randawa and Yaron’s field of vision, a drama was taking place.  Azoulay the commander had noticed that the second Hizballah man to be killed, whose body was around twenty meters from the house on the open ground, had been carrying a mobile communications device.  The device was continuing to broadcast the comms of the Hizballah unit.  If the Israeli force could get hold of the device, it might solve the tactical issue, enabling them to get a sense of how many and where the enemy force was located and of its plans.  The problem was that the corpse was located in the field of fire of the Hizballah force.  Azoulay chose to risk it.  Directing Yemini to lay down automatic fire on the structure to their right, he sprinted forward, reached the corpse of the Hizballah man and managed to detach the comms device from it. Then, zig-zagging, he made it back to the house. 

The last member of the section, Qassem Nasr-al Din, was a Druze from Dalyat al-Carmel, and a fluent Arabic speaker.  Back in the house, he immediately got to work on the comms device. He was able to ascertain that the Hizballah force was not part of a general attack. Rather, it was, like themselves, a section size force which had become separated from the main part of its unit. Its attack on them was part of an attempt at a break out, and it was in  communication with Hizballah in Ait a Shaab to send a force to extricate it. 

Azoulay relayed this to the platoon command.  Then, heading for the back entrance where Randawa and Yaron were deployed, he said ‘The platoon’s located them.  They are only an isolated force. They are going to mortar them and then take the house.  This’ll be in the next few minutes. There’s an APC heading here to extract us in the meantime. It should be here soon.’

‘Good, then we can get the fuck out of here,’ said Yaron, and Azoulay laughed and clapped him on the shoulder, ‘Well done, guys,’ he said.  Azoulay’s quick thinking and the lucky coincidence of Qassem’s presence in the section had clarified the situation and enabled them to come through it so far with no losses.  The APC would be able to get them back to the main body of the platoon. 

‘I hope we can get back across the border soon, anyway,’ said Yaron as they waited.  ‘Enough of this bullshit.’  ‘Hopefully soon,’ Randawa replied. 

About five minutes later, there was a series of explosions close by. These were mortar shells hitting the structure in which the Hizballah men were located. Then a machine gun opened up and there was rapid rifle fire.  Evidently, the other two sections of the platoon were storming the building. 

Then an APC rolled up to the area by the back entrance of the house. Randawa and Cohen were the first to see it.  ‘APC arrived,’ Cohen shouted and Azoulay called back, ‘OK guys, get on board. We’re getting out of here.  The rest of us will be along in a second.’  

They exited the house and headed toward the APC. The engine was running and Yaron knocked twice on the frame of the thing before climbing up and easily lowering himself in. 

Randawa climbed after him.  He looked down into the hold of the vehicle.  Yaron had seated himself easily in the corner.  For no particular reason, Randawa decided to jump straight down onto the floor of the APC, rather than lowering himself in carefully.  As he hit the surface of the vehicle, there was a loud bang as the round he had chambered into his short barrelled M16 went off. 

Yaron Cohen’s first response was a sort of sharp, shocked exhalation.  The blood immediately began to spread on the back of his shirt. Then he began to let out a series of rapid, shocked, sob-like sounds.  Randawa heard the clang as Azoulay and Eitan the medic leapt onto the APC and then Azoulay’s furious shout ‘Paul!  Fuck!  He’s let out a bullet.’

It was so.  Randawa had failed to clear his rifle of the round he had chambered while waiting at the house.  The safety catch of the weapon had been on, which ought to have prevented any unexpected discharge of a round.  But somehow the catch had switched itself to the single shot mode, and then the impact of his landing on the floor of the APC had caused the rifle to fire.  The bullet had ricocheted off the side of the APC and had then embedded itself in Yaron Cohen’s spine.  In a way, he had been lucky.  Had he received it directly, it would  have caused catastrophic damage, leading to near certain and swift death. As it was, he was very badly injured, but there was a chance of saving him.  The initial shock had worn off, and now Yaron began to scream.  Very loudly. And continuously. 

For an insane moment, Randawa considered shooting himself in the head.  He realised in an instant that everything had utterly changed.  And he had an urge to escape what he knew would be coming, which would be the anger and furious contempt of his comrades.  He had committed a beginner’s error, more suited to a man in basic training than to the seasoned infantry soldier which he allegedly was.  Yes, so the temptation to simply turn the rifle on himself was very great. And he might have done it had Azoulay not given him a kick and shouted at him to get out of the APC.  Then it was too late.  The next phase had already begun.  Azoulay wanted him out of the APC so he could run it with Yaron to the platoon as quickly as possible, where the stricken man could receive the medical attention he needed.  His screams could be heard still as the little tracked vehicle began to make its way across the ground to the road and then to the place where the platoon commander and the medics and doctor were located. 

The news spread rapidly.  By the time the APC returned to bring them to where the rest of the platoon was located, everyone already seemed to know what had happened.  To his face, no one said anything. Everything changed, nevertheless. People who he had known for four or five years were henceforth not willing to exchange anything other than a sort of strained irony. 

They held the village and there were no further contacts with Hizballah over the next 48 hours.  Yaron was taken immediately south and across the border, then helicoptered to one of the hospitals in Israel’s north.  They heard the next day that he had been operated on and would survive. But that he would most probably be paralysed for life.  The bullet had ripped into his spinal cord.  He would probably lose use of all four of his limbs.

They were still in Lebanon and there was little time for conversation.  But the atmosphere in the platoon was sullen and angry.  The attitude towards operational errors of  this disastrous kind was not forgiving.  Randawa had generally been regarded as a trustworthy and effective soldier. What could possibly have led to such carelessness, and such catastrophic results? He, of course, thought of nothing else.  How and why had he not cleared the rifle before entering the APC, as was the drill.  In Lebanon they would remain with the magazine in, but no round chambered. But he had chambered the round, in accordance with procedure, when a Hizballah attack on the house had seemed imminent. How could he have forgotten to have cleared it? Excitement and emotion because of the events of the previous minutes. But that wasn’t an excuse. 

They were pulled back from Lebanon the next day.  The battalion had suffered two dead and a number of others wounded.  When they were demobilized a week later, Eitan the kibbutznik came to Randawa and said, ‘listen, someone has to see to Yaron’s car.  To drive it back down to Tel Aviv.  They’ve asked me to do it. But I was wondering if youd like to come with me.’  He hesitated for a moment.  ‘Look, the fact is that I was speaking with Yaron’s parents yesterday and theyve said theyd like to speak with you.  So I thought maybe you could come with me now. I cleared it with the company commander.’  Randawa shrugged and murmured his agreement. 

Yaron Cohen’s car was very obviously that of two rather sentimental young parents.  There were pictures of smiling elves and cartoon characters and animals along the doors, and there was a child’s seat at the back.  They said nothing as they saw it, but Eitan glanced at Paul. Once they were on their way, there was silence for a couple of minutes. Then Eitan said ‘God has mercy on kindergarten children.’ It was a line from a poem by Yehuda Amichai, whose poetry they both loved.  Randawa responded, ‘on schoolchildren he has less mercy, and on grownups he has no mercy at all.’ 

‘He leaves them alone,’ continued Eitan.  ‘and sometimes they must crawl on all fours in the burning sand, to reach the first aid station, covered in blood.’ 

They reached the home of Yaron Cohen’s parents in Ramat Aviv in silence.  Randawa remembered the bland sunlight on the pavement and the thunk of the car door closing as they exited the car and walked toward the entrance of the house.  Yaron’s parents were both professors at Tel Aviv University.  His father opened the door, tall and thin and grey, wearing an open necked blue shirt.  His eyes were very red.  He shook hands with them both, a little grave smile on his face.  He motioned them into a neat front room. The house was one of the old, red topped bungalows of the first settlers in Ramat Aviv. It was exactly as he would have imagined the home in which Yaron had grown up.  The old, secular, Ashkenazi Israel.  The university, the Habima theater, the center left.  A remembered past of tragedy in Europe.  Pictures of various relatives on the walls, one or two in black and white, Central European. And one of Yaron’s father in the Sinai during the war of 1973, looking tired and determined in a black and white snapshot with General Avraham ‘Bren’ Adan, in whose division he had served, and another, un-named officer. 

‘Will you drink something?’ he asked in a firm, matter-of-fact voice as they seated themselves, but Yaron’s mother had already entered carrying a tray with a full cafetier and four cups.  She was darker than the father, with remnants of black in her gray curly hair, fuller of figure and smaller.

Looking at Randawa with clear blue eyes as they sat and drank the coffee, the father said ‘I’m David, by the way.  This is my wife Alona.  Yaron is in the hospital and is still being kept sedated. It looks like it’s going to be a long road for all of us.’  The father spoke quietly and without emotion. Then Alona began, speaking directly to Randawa, ‘We heard what happened. And we heard that you are absolutely torn apart by it, as we are.  We want you to know that we don’t think it was your fault and that youre not to go destroying yourself over it.’ 

‘This can happen in combat.  No question of that,’ said the father.

‘All of you have suffered,’ continued Alona.  ‘I can’t believe the nonsense of this whole business.  The mess of it. Its a disgrace.  This filthy corruption at the top, and sending you in as they did.  That’s what makes us angry.  Thats who is responsible for this.  We wanted to look you in the eyes and tell you this. Because Eitan told us how you have been shattered by this, just as we have been.’ 

This outpouring was, Randawa realized, something for which he should be thankful.  He felt nothing, all the same.  It was as though he were separated from these people by a thick pane of glass, through which sound hardly penetrated.  He realised that he had hardly spoken in the last days. All had seemed numb.  A sort of collapse from the inside.  He had thought it invisible to the outside observer.  A disembodied consciousness, in some other place, operating a puppet that was his body and his physical self.  This was how he had felt when entering Lebanon, also.  His body expressing a mute protest, a desire not to go forward.  A sort of species-level warning that to do so was risking their mutual and conclusive destruction.. ‘Thank you,’ he said.  ‘Is there any news about what will be with Yaron?’ 

‘We have heard that the bullet went into his spinal cord, and the prospects are to our regret not good.  He was out of danger to his life once they got him to the hospital and stemmed the flow of blood. But he will need to have a lot more surgery, it seems.  At the moment, they are keeping him in a coma.  But thank God, anyway, we know that his mind wont be affected. And the main thing is that he is alive.’ 

‘And is there any indication as to the future?’ Randawa asked. 

The father replied; ‘They say that he will almost certainly have lost the use of his legs, and permanently.  But as to the rest, it’s not possible to say.  That is, he may be quadruplegic, without use of his hands also. Or he may have some use, or else its possible that he will have no use of the upper body at all.  That’s what they’ve told us. We are hoping, you know. We know that we are at the beginning of a long journey.’ 

The mother sighed.  ‘Anyway, it looks like he will be in the hospital for quite a time yet.’

‘And what’s happening with your grandson?’ asked Eitan. 

‘Roni, thats Yaron’s wife, and Tom their son are staying with her parents now.  As for what happens next, well again, we’ll see.  A long journey ahead. We know that you had two others killed in there.  So we’re also lucky, in a way.’ 

They sat there for another half hour.  Alona and David asked Randawa about himself, what he would do.  Was he studying? His hopes for the future. They mentioned that they had cousins in London, whom they often visited. 

As they were leaving, Alona said again, ‘Dont take this on yourself and let it eat you alive.  We know that can happen. What was here was an accident.  The ones to blame are the fools who sent you and our son and all your friends to there.’ 

‘And Adon (Mr). Hassan Nasrallah, also.’ said the father drily, as he and Eitan shook hands. 

‘You should go and see Yaron, also, once he’s conscious,’ Eitan remarked as they headed back to the north. 

‘If he wants to see me, of course I will.  If I was them, I’d be angrier, tho.  How can they not be?’

‘They’re trying to keep themselves sane, I guess,’ Eitan replied. 

That night, in the tent and late at night, Randawa wept, for the first and last time since the incident.  It was around two in the morning and he did not make a sound.  He was using his military anorak as a pillow and he buried his face in it and managed to avoid sobbing. Indeed, his facial expression remained blank and inscrutable. Only the tears poured from his eyes and made his cheeks wet.  He thought about the pictures for the child on the inside of Yaron Cohen’s car. 

They were demobilized a few days later. The ceasefire came and after a couple of days holding a village before the UN forces arrived, they were pulled back to the border. The divisional commander turned up and made a speech about the vital role they had played in ensuring the security of the inhabitants of the north.   Then they sang ‘Hatikvah.’   

Once the Katyusha bombardments had ceased on the border, a variety of visitors began to arrive.  Elderly religious American Jews appeared at the tent once and gave out t shirts and clean underwear.  For the most part, they knew no Hebrew and appeared mainly to be conducting a conversation among themselves.  Randawa did not attempt to speak to them in English.  ‘There are no atheists in foxholes,’ he heard one of them say to another as they handed out the t-shirts. 

The foreign media  came by.  The soldiers tried to flirt with the young female Italian and Scandinavian and German correspondents.  An Italian correspondent, a man of about 40,  handed out cigarettes and talked in a dramatic and tragic style about football and war, and his experiences of both.

The Ultra-Orthodox Habad Lubavitch sect also sent representatives. One of them tried to hold a seminar on the concept of ‘Kiddush HaShem’ (martyrdom) in Judaism.  There was some mild interest among the soldiers, and the lone Lubavitch Hassid who had come to deliver the lesson was treated with respect and politeness.  Only Eitan from Kibbutz Gonen remarked that if the young man was that keen on Jews and martyrdom he should have come into Lebanon with them, as he would have had a chance to witness quite a lot of the combination of both close up and for real in recent days.  The young Hassid blinked behind his glasses and looked at Eitan and did not answer. But some others turned round to glance at Eitan with pained expressions and then motioned to the young man to continue. 

On the last night, a famous chef came up from Tel Aviv to cook barbecued meats with pitta and salad for the whole battalion.  Afterwards, someone had set up a sound system and the music continued until late in the night. Randawa lay in his sleeping bag in the tent and in the darkness reflected that one of the great compensations or consolations of military life was often held to be the deep comradeship and brotherhood that is to be found among soldiers.  This thought, and the fact of his utter solitude struck him as amusing. He had never felt more alone. 

When he arrived home, Tel Aviv seemed indifferent. In the pubs and bars he frequented it was not the done thing to make too much of one’s military service, though overt hostility to the army or the state was also not praised.  He changed out of his dusty uniform and left his holdall again on his bedroom floor and he walked down to the sea.  At the beach just by the entrance to Jaffa he floated in the warm Mediterranean water, staring at the emptiness of the blue sky.  Then he returned to the apartment. It was a Thursday and only one of his room- mates was there. This was Tsahi, who was a student of cinema.  ‘Jesus, man, you look shellshocked,’ Tsahi said. ‘and thin too. Didnt they feed you in the army?’ 

Randawa didnt answer.  And Tsahi didnt labor the point. Instead, he rolled a fat joint, lighting it and passing it to him as they sat in the small kitchen.  That was how the Second Lebanon War ended for Paul Randawa. 

Months passed before he saw Yaron Cohen again.  Randawa arranged a transfer to another company for future reserve service.   He did not stay in contact with David and Alona Cohen, regarding it as beyond his strength.  But six months after the war, he wrote to Yaron on Facebook, and asked how he was doing, adding that if Yaron preferred not to be in contact, he would understand.  Yaron replied immediately that he would be happy to meet. 

They met in a cafe in the mall at Ramat Aviv.  He remembered the moment that Yaron came in, his sister pushing the wheelchair.  Yaron’s head was supported by a plastic structure attached to the arm of the wheelchair.  His head seemed slightly tilted back at an un-natural angle.  His hands were resting on the arms of the wheelchair.  Randawa saw that on the left arm, there was a raised semi-sphere on which his hand rested, which he assumed was a means to steer the wheelchair.  Yaron had evidently divined his thoughts,

‘Hello, brother.  Yes, I have some movement in my arms, tho its not total.  But I can operate the chair over shorter distances.  Its also a little better than it was when I first left the hospital.’ 

Yaron did not, however, appear able to lift the orange juice which he ordered to his lips.  His sister Na’ama performed this, while speaking little.  Still, the fact that he was able to eat and drink in the normal way in terms of swallowing was also something.  Randawa remembered a young man he had known wounded in Jerusalem in the years of the Second Intifada who lost also this ability and who took his own life a few years after the incident.    Yaron, by contrast, appeared stable, and serene.  ‘I’m managing to finish my degree.  The university have been ok about it.  And we had some issues with the Ministry of Defense about my disability payments but it all has worked out. Touch wood.’

‘And what about the family?’

‘Its tough but we’re managing.  Mine and Roni’s parents help a lot, so its fucked up, but it is what it is, you know.’  And he managed to smile.  ‘And what about you?  how have you been? What are you doing with yourself?’ 

‘Just keeping on like before, bro.  Pictures, trying to get some stuff done. nothing too dramatic.’ 

‘I know you went to see my parents after the ceasefire.  I appreciate it, Paul.  This has been hard for them too.’ 

There was a silence.  Then Randawa tried to speak again. ‘Listen, Cohen, I’m..I dont really know what to say.  I’m more sorry than I can begin to express.  I dont..’

Yaron made a murmur to indicate that he should not continue.  ‘We arent going to kill ourselves with regrets, are we?  I dont have any time nor desire to be angry with you or with anyone else.  Tom needs his dad.  And you  need to get on ahead too. And we’re the lucky ones, in a way.  Harel and Alon had families too. But they’ve nothing to carry on with. Right?’  

Randawa bowed his head.  After a while, Na’ama said ‘We’re all helping. And we all live quite nearby. So,I can’t even imagine what it must have been like, after you were stuck in that house. Its impossible even to imagine.’ Randawa thought he detected a momentary venom in her eyes, that incongruously accompanied these words.  A little communication just between him and her, and not for her brother to see. 

‘It wasnt so bad,’ said Yaron.  ‘Actually we’ve been in worse shit than that.  But the idiocy of it still offends my intelligence.  Maybe you can explain what exactly we were trying to achieve with those pointless raids across the border? Conquering an area and then leaving it and then going back in the next day?’ 

‘Its a mystery to me, brother,’ said Randawa.  ‘I think about it a lot and I can’t make any sense of it at all.’   They talked more about the war, various mutual friends, Yaron’s problems with the Defense Ministry which had now been largely sorted out.  ‘You know you can get free psychological counselling, bro?’ Yaron said to him.  ‘You should use it.  I mean it. I went to it. It can help. and it doesnt cost anything.’ 

‘Maybe I’ll look into it,’ said Randawa, who had a peasant suspicion and dislike of all such things. 

They parted shortly afterwards. He remembered seeing them exiting the cafe, the other patrons making room for them to leave. Yaron’s long brown hair.  The gentleness of the man. He hadn’t much stayed in touch after that. 

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The Iranian Hand Behind Hadi Matar’s Knife

Jerusalem Post, 20/8

Iranian regime and pro-Iranian media outlets reacted with enthusiasm to the attempted murder of British-Indian author Salman Rushdie last week.  Officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran have maintained a studious silence. But the main mouthpieces of both the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the various Shia militia franchises which the IRGC maintains throughout the Arabic speaking world have been open in their support for the would be assassin, 24 year old Hadi Matar, and for the attempt on Rushdie’s life.

The emerging facts regarding the process by which Hadi Matar was radicalised, meanwhile, showcase the extent to which the Shia Islamist archipelago which surrounds Iran resembles in significant ways the Sunni Islamist world.   It is customary among analysts of political Islam to draw a sharp distinction between the centralized, organized and hierarchical world of the IRGC and its various franchises, and the more chaotic and self-starting landscape of Sunni radicalism.  Matar’s case shows that this distinction is not entirely tenable.  

The central difference between the two is the presence of a state, with the full capacities deriving from that, in the Shia case. But many of the features which characterise those young western-born Sunnis who were drawn to support and action on behalf of ISIS or other similar groups over the last decade appear to be present also in the case of Rushdie’s would be assassin. 

Regarding the support for Matar’s act in pro-Iran outlets, the Telegram channel of al-Sabereen, a media organization associated with Iraq’s Shia militias, wrote that ‘It is noteworthy that the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Sayyid Khomeini,  issued a fatwa on the spilling of Rushdie’s blood because of his famous novel “The Satanic Verses” and his insult to the verses of God,’ before going on to refer to Hadi Matar as ‘the implementer of the fatwa of Sayyid Khomeini.’  Al-Sabereen responded to the announcement of the identity of the would be murderer and the emergent evidence of his pro-Iranian affiliations with a Shia blessing expressing thanks to God.  Elsewhere, the channel headlined its coverage of the attempted murder under the title ‘The Revenge of God.’ 

In Farsi-language outlets directly associated with the IRGC and the Iranian regime, the Kayhan newspaper wrote in its Sunday editorial that ‘God has taken his revenge on Rushdie.’  The Tasnim website, which reflects IRGC positions, meanwhile, described Rushdie as ‘the apostate author of the book Satanic Verses, who had insulted Islam’s sacred realm, the Quran and the beloved Prophet of Islam.’   Tasnim on August 14th in its Farsi section carried an interview with one Saadullah Zarei, who it described as an ‘senior expert and political analyst.’ In the interview, Zarei asserted that ‘Naturally, as a Muslim person or as a Muslim country, we welcome and rejoice in the destruction of Salman Rushdie, in whatever form it takes…this person should be annihilated due to the serious and very major crime he committed.’ 

These sentiments reflect the uncontroversial and accepted opinion in the pro-Iran, Shia Islamist milieu, according to which the February 1989 fatwa of Iranian Supreme Leader Sayyid Ruhollah Khomeini advocating Rushdie’s killing remains in effect, and hence its attempted implementation is to be welcomed. 

Hadi Matar’s path toward becoming the would be ‘implementer’ of Khomeini’s fatwa is less immediately clear.  Born in the US to parents who emigrated from the Shia, south Lebanese town of Yaroun, Matar was raised in California and New Jersey.  His Facebook account, as published in US media (and republished with added celebration by al-Sabereen), shows support for the IRGC and the Iranian regime. When arrested, Matar was carrying a fake driving license in the name of ‘Hassan Mughniyeh.’  While constituting a regular Arabic name, this is also an amalgam of the names of two of the heroes in the pantheon of the IRGC and its Arab franchises – Lebanese Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and Imad Mughniyeh, military mastermind of the same organization. 

Matar, according to an interview with his mother, Silvana Fardos, by the British Daily Mail newspaper, became radicalized following a visit to south Lebanon in 2018.   His father, Hassan Matar, is resident in the town of Yaroun, and Hadi Matar stayed in the area for 28 days.  Yaroun is in an area controlled by Hizballah.  On his return, Matar remained focused on his new interest in Islam, according to the interview.  

At some point between this visit and the attack on Rushdie, it is likely that Matar was in contact via social media with elements ‘ either directly involved with or adjacent to’  the IRGC and the Qods Force, its external wing, according to un-named ‘Mid Eastern intelligence officials’ quoted in a report at Vice News. 

The veracity of such claims remains to be established.  And it should be noted in this regard that the un-named officials cited by Vice do not assert clearly that the attack was initiated and directed by Iran and the IRGC.  Rather, they suggest a range of possibilities.  These would include that Matar was indeed controlled and directed by IRGC/QF officials, or that he was in contact with such figures who might have   helped in his radicalization , and across to the possibility that Matar was simply inspired by the messages emanating from the Iranian regime’s extensive online activity, and then decided independently to act upon them.   

But even if one takes the most minimalist interpretation of the currently available evidence, according to which Matar was ‘self-radicalized’ online following his visit to Lebanon, the picture that emerges is a striking one, at once familiar and new. 

Familiar – because the trajectory by which a western born or raised young man or woman comes across political Islam through online activity or chance acquaintance, and is then drawn into deeper engagement with it, and finally becomes a soldier in its cause is one by now well known in the west.  Figures of this kind have been behind many of the most notorious acts of Islamist terror in recent years.  The Hyper Cacher attack in 2015, the torture and execution of western journalists and aid workers by ISIS in the 2014-19 period, and the 2013 bombings at the Boston marathon were all carried out by individuals of this type.  They are part of a much longer list. 

But striking, because unlike in the aforementioned cases, in the case of Hadi Matar’s attempt on the life of Salman Rushdie, the outlets and messages and indoctrinators were all operating in the service of a state.  Not an improvised arrangement like the short-lived  ‘Islamic State,’ but a recognized, legal entity with a seat at the United Nations General Assembly. 

This ability to navigate between the realms of conventional statehood and paramilitary and terrorist organization is the largest force multiplier possessed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Across the Arabic speaking world, it is this capacity above all others which has brought Teheran to its achievements of the last decade.  As should now be apparent, this combination extends to activity on the soil of western states too.  This, with all its implications, needs now to be internalized by western governments.  The knife that struck Salman Rushdie at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York may have been Hadi Matar’s – but the operating hand behind it was that of Iran. 

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Erdogan’s Secret Prisons in Syria

Jerusalem Post, 15/4

Nadia Hassan Suleiman remembers well the day she was arrested.  It was in Afrin City, north west Syria, in June 2018.  Her husband, Ahmed Rashid, had disappeared two months earlier.  She had received a voice message from him.  The men who pulled up in a car beside her said they were detailed to bring  her to visit her husband.  Instead, Nadia was taken into custody. A two year nightmare had begun. 

With no charges placed against her, and no legal process, Nadia Suleiman was imprisoned in a series of unofficial jails across north west Syria.  For four months she was held in a facility she believes is maintained by Turkish Military Intelligence, and interrogated by Turkish speaking officers. Then, as part of a group of 11 other women, similarly held without charge, she was transferred to a jail of the Sunni Islamist, Turkish supported Hamzat Division.  In the frequent interrogation sessions to which she was subjected, Nadia was accused of association with the Assad regime and the Kurdish PKK. 

Throughout her period of captivity, Nadia Hassan Suleiman was repeatedly tortured, and on several occasions raped.  As she describes it in her recorded testimony, ‘Each of the female detainees underwent various forms of torture and rape. The torture was daily, individually or collectively, and we were repeatedly raped. They gave us narcotic pills, and sometimes they poured cold water on all of us in the harsh winter cold. Even young children were not exempt from the torture.’

Released after two years, Nadia succeeded with the help of smugglers in escaping from the Turkish controlled area of Syria.  She has never heard from her husband again and now believes him to be dead. 

Nadia Hassan Suleiman’s story is only one of many.  Evidence is emerging of systematic and grave violations of human rights carried out by Turkish-supported Islamist militias in north west Syria.  Testimony of survivors reveals a pattern of illegal incarcerations with no judicial process or oversight, grave abuses of detainees, including sexual abuse, rape, torture and instances of murder. 

A dossier received by this author and currently also in the hands of the US State Department contains extensive testimony and detailed evidence.  The dossier was compiled by Syrian activists unaffiliated with any political body.  Independent Syrian experts who have examined the evidence find it to be credible.    According to two  human rights bodies, the Violations Documentation Center and the Zaytouna Project, 8590 people have been held in this system of off the grid prisons since 2018.  Of these, 1500 have disappeared entirely, leaving no record. 

To understand what’s going on, a little background is necessary.  In January 2018, in the ironically named Operation Olive Branch, the Turkish armed forces destroyed the Kurdish controlled Afrin canton, in north west Syria.  In close cooperation with Sunni Islamist militias allied with Ankara, Turkey took control of the area. Around 300,000 residents, mainly Kurdish and Yezidi, fled to other parts of Syria. 

Since then, the self styled ‘Syrian Interim Government,’  which is based in Turkey and supported by Ankara, has been the ostensible governing authority in this area.  Day to day control is in the hands of the Islamist militias who make up the so-called ‘Syrian National Army’.  The real power supporting and training these militias and maintaining ultimate control in the area is Turkey. The unofficial prison system in which Nadia Suleiman was incarcerated is the product of this arrangement.  

The names and locations of the places of incarceration making up this network of un-declared houses of confinement are known, and can be verified. The network extends from Idlib and Afrin in the west, through Azaz, Marea and al-Rai, to Jarabulus and al-Bab in the east. 

Among the facilities forming part of this archipelago: the prison of the security office of the SNA’s Hamzah Division, in Afrin City, the Mazraa Prison, in Afrin’s Maarata District, in the hands of the Hamza Division’s Al-Ghab Brigade, the prison camp at Kafr Jannah, controlled by the Jabha al-Shamiya (Levant Front), the prison of the Levant Front’s security office, at the Souq al-Hal area in Afrin city, al-Barad prison, under the control of the ‘Tanzim al-Ustaz’ (more on this organization below), al-Masara Prison in the al-Ra’I area, controlled by the Turkmen Sultan Murad Division (from which no detainee has ever been released), and the prison of the security office of al-Mutasim Division in the Marea area. 

In these places, Syrian citizens like Nadia Suleiman are incarcerated for long periods without any legal oversight.  Conditions as described to the author by former detainees are primitive in the extreme.  Prisoners are kept in filth encrusted cells, with no access to natural light.  Torture using electric shocks, systematic starvation and beatings are meted out to all. Sexual abuse of both male and female detainees are routine.  Photographic evidence of these conditions, taken at great risk by detainees, has been seen by the author. 

So who is responsible for this system?  What is the overall structure of command? According to the testimony of ‘Yusuf’, a recent defector from the militias, a central coordinating body for the various security structures which maintain these facilities does exist.  It is known as the ‘Tanzim al-Ustaz,’ (Organization of the teacher/professor), or more formally as the ‘Mukhabarat al-Sari’ (Secret Intelligence).  This structure is responsible for the overall coordination, supervision and management of the network of secret prisons described above.  It is the supreme authority for the various security and intelligence teams maintained by the factions.

The individual who stands at the pinnacle of this structure, the ‘professor’ of the title, is  one Kamal Ghazwan Kamal, also known as Abu al-Hassan, an Iraqi by birth, with a Turkish wife.  A former senior security official of ISIS in Mosul, Kamal was arrested by the Turkish authorities in 2017. He then assisted in the apprehending and arrest of ISIS members and formed relationships with senior figures in the Turkish-linked Syrian opposition. As a result of this collaboration, he emerged as a trusted figure with apparently relevant skills. 

No official investigation into any of these allegations is currently under way. The Islamist militias in control on the ground in this area make the normal conduct of journalistic or other inquiry impossible.  But north west Syria is not an abandoned territory.  Rather, it is under the de facto control of Turkey, a NATO member state in good standing.  There is a solid body of evidence to suggest that terrible crimes, like the ones inflicted on Nadia Hassan Suleiman,  are being committed on a systematic and ongoing basis in Turkish controlled north west Syria.  Pressure needs to be applied, and soon, to enable the investigation of these multiple allegations. 

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Understanding the Latest Wave of Terror in Israel

The Australian, 16/4

Four terror attacks in the space of just over two weeks, with a total of 13 deaths  have brought the fraught atmosphere of the Second Intifada days back to the streets of Israel’s cities.  The tension is palpable.  There is an increased presence of armed police and Border Guards in the main thoroughfares of the cities.  One notices also, in Jerusalem at least, a significantly higher number of armed civilians. 

Israel does not have a 2nd Amendment style ‘right to bear arms.’  The cultural assumption here is that the possession of arms is properly limited to those engaged in tasks related to national defence.  The number of people seeking to belong to this group, however, has skyrocketed since the outbreak of the latest round of violence.  It is a reflection of the public mood. At the end of March, the Public Security Ministry, which handles applications for private firearms licences, received 1500 applications in a single day.  The average number of daily applications prior to the current round of violence was 60. 

Déjà vu?

No one thinks that the fourth attack, in Tel Aviv, will be the last.  The waiting, the familiar maintenance of routine and normality in the face of the situation, the management of daily life in a changed public space, all are familiar.  Israeli society has its own practices and responses, honed during the years 2000-4, when urban areas were the target of a sustained, though eventually defeated terror campaign. 

The authorities tend to remove all physical signs of an attack very quickly.  There is usually a short period in which the streets and public spaces close to where the incident took place are deserted, or at least fewer people venture there.  Then, within a day or two, routine and normality reassert themselves.  The Israeli public has a practiced resilience, born of long experience. 

So it is all wearily familiar.  And yet this familiarity is partially deceptive.  In a number of significant ways, the current wave differs sharply from the experience of the past.  The Second Intifada of 2000-4  was an armed insurgency, prosecuted by recognized political/military organizations. 

There are no indications now that anything of this size or type is brewing.  Something clearly very different is happening.  So what do we know?

DIY Terror

The four attacks that have taken place so far differed in the origins of the perpetrators.  The first two, in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba and the northern town of Hadera, were carried out by Arab citizens of Israel.  In both cases, the perpetrators were known supporters of the Islamic State (ISIS) group and its ideology.  Interestingly, ISIS itself claimed responsibility for the Hadera attack, but not for the one in Beersheba.  It appears likely that Ibrahim and Ayman Ighbariah, who carried out the Hadera attack, were in contact with ISIS, while Mohammed Abu al-Qiyan, the Beersheba terrorist, was not. 

The next two attacks, in Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv, were carried out by individuals from the northern part of the West Bank.  The Jenin area, from which both terrorists hailed, is a known hotbed of activity of the Islamic Jihad organization.  Islamic Jihad is a small Islamist group, strongly supported by and directed by Iran. The Israeli security forces carried out a raid into Jenin following the Tel Aviv attack, and made a number of arrests.   

But there are no indications that the perpetrators of any of these attacks were operating at the direct orders of either ISIS or Islamic Jihad.  The Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv attackers emerged from a milieu in the northern West Bank in which individuals loosely associated with one or another organization, or with none, cooperate on the basis of joint support for violent action. The Palestinian Authority has little presence or purchase here.  But the organizations opposed to it, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are not controlling events either. 

So in contrast to the situation twenty years ago, the current terror wave is not an organized insurgency.  It appears rather to be the work of self-directed, and self-motivated individuals.  These men may act entirely alone, as in the case of the Beersheba attack.  Or they may benefit from ad hoc logistical assistance from personal friends or associates, as in the other incidents. 

This improvised, diffuse element of course reduces the potential political impact of the attacks.  Insurgencies have clear goals, demands, objectives.  The current wave reflects a reality of confusion, disarray and widespread Palestinian disillusionment toward official political structures.    

No political goal can be achieved via such means.  Israel will not make territorial withdrawals, or be significantly weakened by such individual acts of terror. 

But on the other hand, the loose and unorganized nature of the attacks presents a particular challenge to the Israeli security forces.  How do you gather intelligence and predict and then prevent the actions of individuals not connected to any organizational structure? This task is made still harder by the fact that individuals planning action of this kind are likely to maintain a very low online profile. They will be aware that monitoring of online activity played an important role in Israel’s successful countering of the wave of stabbing attacks that took place in late 2015 and early 2016.

The weapons for the attacks, meanwhile, are taken from the abundance of unregistered firearms which exist both in Arab Israeli communities, and in the West Bank. The illegal maintenance of arms was long a neglected issue.  In May of last year, this issue came to public awareness when such weapons were used in widespread inter-communal violence within Israel.  But the problem of illegally held weaponry remains acute and unresolved.

The Religious Context

There is a vital larger context to understand.  We are now in the month of Ramadan.  Over the last few years, this period of Islamic religious devotion has seen a sharp rise in tensions and acts of aggression.   While much of the Islamic world approaches this month as a time for reflection, fasting and prayer, it should also be noted that Ramadan is remembered and marked as a period in which a number of famous Islamic military victories took place.  These include the conquest of Mecca by Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, the battle of Badr, in which the prophet and his companions faced and defeated non-Muslims in battle for the first time, and the conquest by Islamic armies of ‘al-Andalus,’ ie southern Spain. 

This aspect of the Ramadan month, and the contrast between past Islamic triumphs and present perceived humiliations, create a potent atmosphere for incitement.  And since Ramadan involves a heightened focus on religious messages, those wishing to incite, via social media or in live lectures at houses of prayer find a ready audience. 

So the campaign now targeting Israelis is of a new type. It is a very 21st century combination of incitement and messaging via social media, fluid, improvised, non-hierarchical modes of organization, and weaponry obtained through unofficial networks and contacts.  All taking place in the context of a grinding, ongoing conflict which remains nowhere close to resolution. 

The challenge now facing the Israeli security forces will be to develop equally deft and light-footed responses to these methods. The goal will be to isolate and neutralise the perpetrators and those who incite them, while avoiding harm to the large populations on both sides seeking to maintain and preserve normal life west of the Jordan River.   The hope is that after the Ramadan month, the mood will change and the attacks subside.  There is still two weeks to go.

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Proving Putin Wrong

The Australian, 18/3

The people of Ukraine have repudiated the Russian President’s claim of their nation’s ‘artificiality.’  But larger matters remain to be settled. 


War is the great transformer.  Everything has changed in Ukraine.  I last visited Lviv in 2015. I remembered the city as a charming, slightly run-down place.  Austro-Hungarian architecture, cobbled streets and red tiled rooves. Friendly, quaint. Full of potential in the right hands, people would say. Now this west Ukrainian city has become the epicenter for the largest movement of people seen in Europe since 1945.  1.4 million Ukrainians have made their way to Poland since February 24th, the day that the Russian invasion of Ukraine commenced.  The majority of these have passed through Lviv. 

Traffic moves at a snail’s pace through the packed city.  At the main station, a teeming throng of refugees from all over Ukraine seek to board the evacuation trains to Przemsyl. 

The war, for the most part, remains far away to the east.  But it is getting closer. There have been missile strikes on the neighboring cities of Lutzk and Ivano-Frankivsk, and most recently in Lviv province itself, where a Russian attack took 35 lives on Sunday.

The atmosphere among the crowds of refugees at the station is nevertheless calm and ordered. There is no shoving, or pushing, no shouting.  The refugee crowd consists overwhelmingly of women, children and elderly people.  Men under 60 are forbidden from leaving the country.  The fathers and sons are back in the east, many of them mobilized in the framework of the army or the Territorial Defense Forces. 

I am travelling in the other direction from the refugees, across from Poland and heading eastwards, with the intention of reaching the capital, Kyiv.  There are reports that it might be encircled soon.  The Russians are seeking to advance from the north west, and from the east.  Only the southerly route remains open. 

In one of the small and unexpected victories which Ukraine has achieved over the last two weeks, transport to and from the besieged capital has been maintained.  These trains, of old, Soviet vintage, operate according to no regular timetable.  The journeys are affected by frequent changes of route because of Russian bombings.  The windows are blacked out, in a forlorn attempt to guard against aerial attack. 

But the rail service, crucially like the Ukrainian state as a whole, has not collapsed.  Contrary to many expectations, not least apparently those of the Russian leadership, Ukrainian state structures have proven over the last two weeks to possess a hardy durability.   

This unexpected resilience of structures and institutions itself derives from an additional factor which Putin apparently failed to predict.  Namely, the vigor of Ukrainian national identity itself, and the willingness of Ukrainians to sacrifice themselves in its defence. 

The question of Ukrainian nationhood is the central point at issue in this conflict.  Putin, in a long essay published in July, 2021 entitled “On The Historical Unity Of Russia And Ukraine,’ expounded the thesis which underlies his invasion.  According to the Russian leader, Ukrainian national identity is a fraud, a product of western geo-political scheming intended to weaken Russia and encroach on its borders.  The Ukrainians, in this view, are wayward siblings of the Russian nation, who must be brought, by force if necessary, back to their true loyalties and affiliations.

The invasion, behind the bizarre talk of ‘denazifying’ and ‘demilitarizing’ Ukraine, is an attempt to advance this thesis by force. 

My own motives for coming to Ukraine at this time are a combination of the professional and the personal.  I have been following the Ukraine story since 2014, when I reported on the protests at the Maidan Nezalezhnosti.  I have reported also from the frontlines in the Donbass region. 

It is now in retrospect possible to see that what we witnessed among the few hundred protestors on frozen Independence Square in 2013/14, was history in the making.  It was the first move in a process which has now precipitated the return of conventional warfare to Europe. 

There is a more personal side too, and here one must tread carefully.  I am, from a certain but complex and problematic point of view, of Ukrainian ancestry.  My maternal ancestors were among those Jewish subjects of the Russian Empire who left its Ukrainian dominions for the west in the early 20th century. 

Any claiming of connections from this feels immediately forced, inauthentic. The Jews of this area at that time did not feel ‘Ukrainian’ in any sense. They did not speak the Ukrainian language.  The area is remembered, if it is remembered at all, as a place of oppression and suffering.  Ukrainian national identity, if it is considered at all, is traditionally seen as something hostile. This is the reason why many, especially older Jewish people find it difficult even now, even when beleaguered Ukraine is led by a Jewish president, to feel unencumbered sympathy and solidarity with Kyiv.  Memories are entangled. There is much which cannot be reconciled. Nevertheless, I want to be here.    

The train east to Kyiv was nearly empty.  I shared my compartment with an Orthodox priest who was making his way back to his congregants in the beleaguered city.  Rostislav, 37, a native of Lviv, had spent the previous two days settling his wife and two sons in with his parents in the safer western city. 

On the near empty platform for the Kyiv train, we had watched as the yellow jacketed volunteers handed out plastic cups of tea to the refugees on the opposite side waiting for the evacuation trains to Poland.  I had remarked on the good order and cheerful demeanor of the crowds.  ‘I’m proud of my people,’ the priest had told me. 


We reached Kyiv by the morning, the city like a lunar landscape as we made our way from the station.  In the half hour walk from the station to my hotel off the main thoroughfare of Kreschatyk, we saw two people.  A middle aged man asked us if we knew of any food shops that were open.  An old lady wanted to know if we were aware of a pharmacy in the local area. 

I had been in Kyiv in September, 2021.  I remembered the crowds on Kreschatyk in the late autumn evening.  The couples walking in verdant and peaceful Marinsky Park. What was to come was entirely unimaginable. And now – apartment blocks with every curtain drawn and no lights.  Air raid sirens piercing the air every few hours.  Speeding military vehicles and uniformed men. Everything changed.  War. 

The auxiliaries of the Territorial Defense Forces are busily at work fortifying every street in the city for the battle that may be to come.  The Russians are only 20km from the city center, at their furthest point of advance.  Chechen mercenaries have arrived to the vicinity of Kyiv. 

Anti-tank ‘hedgehogs,’ made from carved up rail tracks are strewn across the main crossing points. They are at the Maidan too.    

Teams of civilians, wearing the yellow armbands of the Territorial Defernse can be seen busily filling sandbags. The sandbags are then used by the volunteers to build firing positions.  One may assume that similar positions are being constructed inside the empty apartment blocks.  This is a city preparing for a fight for its survival. 

Those who have remained are a mobilized population.  Ukrainians know that their capital is the focal point of the offensive, the place in which the war will be won or lost by Russia.  There are constant rumors of imminent assault. 

Moscow’s resources are not infinite.  One of the most insightful analysts of Russian military capacity, Michael Kofman of the Center for Naval Analyses, estimated last week that Putin has perhaps three weeks until large parts of the force he has sent become no longer operable. 

This means that the Russian leader must increase the tempo and intensity of the attack in the days ahead, or face the prospect of the eclipse of his aims. 

The latest movements around the capital suggest that Kyiv may be the area chosen for an upcoming attempt by the Russian leader to emphatically change the dynamic of his stalled offensive.

The 40 mile long Russian convoy that has been making its way from Belarus since February 24has now  begun to disperse around the city.  Howitzers are being deployed in firing positions.  Armored units are deploying in starting points north of the capital, at Antonov airport and other locations.

At an improvised casualty clearing station prepared by the volunteers in Kyiv, the atmosphere was primed and poised.  Crossing the courtyard of the abandoned private hospital where the volunteers have established themselves, I observed fighters taking part in a lesson in the use of quadcopters. These cheap, small, commercially available drones were first used in large numbers in the insurgent battles of the Middle East over the last decade. They will prove a vital element in any battle for Kyiv’s streets. 

‘Our function here will be evacuation from the battlefield, first medical aid and stabilization, and then evacuation to the hospital,’  34 year old Taras Topol, a paramedic at the facility, tells me.  ‘We are waiting and preparing.’

They have already suffered their first casualties.  On February 27, the building was struck by a Russian missile.  One killed, one badly injured. 

Taras, in civilian life, is a famous singer in Ukraine.  His band Antityla (Antibodies) deals in the emotional, Slavic folk tinged pop rock which is part of the aural landscape here.

‘Putin has made everything clear,’ Taras continues.  ‘Everyone has seen it.  Putin is the devil. We have one enemy. A lot of people in Ukraine didn’t understand before. Putin is our enemy.  Two or three days of the invasion and now everyone understands it.  Every bomb he drops makes everyone understand.  So now there’s a total support of the Ukrainian army and of our resistance. No ‘variants,’ and everyone doing what they can.’ 

There is an alert as we are speaking. An unidentified helicopter has been sighted above the area. Rapidly, we are escorted to our car as the position prepares for a possible attack 

I left Kyiv after four days, joining the flow of refugees on the evacuation trains, first back to Lviv, then on from there across the Polish border to Przemsyl. 

On the 36 hour train journey from the capital to Poland, I met Tatiana, from the town of Bucha just outside Kyiv. Until last week she was an IT worker. Now she is a refugee.  Her husband has rejoined the regular army and is deployed outside the capital. Their apartment was destroyed by a direct hit from a missile. 

‘And it was just after we had finished really getting it ready, just as we’d wanted it,’ she muses, with a smile that’s half regretful, half an ironic acknowledgement of the insanity of the situation. We are standing in open ground by our train, which has made a stop before the border.  Snow is softly falling. 

The Road Ahead

These people wont’t be beaten, it occurs to me. Whatever the immediate tactical outcome of the fighting in the days ahead, they have already won. The thesis that Vladimir Putin wanted to test, concerning the supposed feebleness and artificiality of Ukrainian nationhood, has been conclusively disproven. 

But of course Putin’s thesis is not concerned with Ukraine alone.  At the Maidan in 2014, at the start of all this, I remember seeing US and EU flags raised. Without irony and in deadly earnest.  The Ukrainian desire to draw close to the free life available in the west is also part of what the Russian dictator is trying to snuff out.  Alongside his now disproved notion of Ukraine as brittle and breakable, the Russian leader perceives the western world as rudderless, disunited, incapable of rising to the defence of its allies – an ‘empire of lies,’ as he referred to it on February 28. 

This part of his thesis awaits decisive refutation. The stakes are high. Fears are growing that, frustrated by his army’s failure, the Russian leader could order the use of chemical weapons in Ukraine in the next period. Putin’s assault on Ukraine is an attack on the global order that has existed since 1991.  His victory or defeat will determine the future shape and balance of global affairs.   

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Ukraine invasion opens a new era

Australian, 25/02.

06:00 Moscow time (UTC+3), on Thursday, February 24th, 2022, is likely to be remembered as one of those hinge moments on which history turns.  At that hour, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a military operation with the goal of what he referred to as the “demilitarization and de-Nazification of Ukraine.’  The Russian president described the action about to be undertaken as a long-overdue strike against an American-led world order that he characterized as an “empire of lies.”

The operation, which commenced shortly after the Russian leader’s statement, appears to be nothing less than an effort to reverse the course of events in Europe since the ending of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The implications for the international system, and for the sovereign rights of states and peoples, are grave. 

Reports coming in from Ukraine indicate that the first phase of this operation, currently under way,  is an effort to destroy Ukraine’s air defense infrastructure.   The list of targets struck now extends to the far west of Ukraine, close to the border with Poland.  The western Ukrainian cities of Ivano Frankivsk and Lutsk have received fire. Foreign embassies have now relocated in their entirety across the border to Poland.   

Michael Kofman, a Russia analyst at the Center for a New American Security, tweeting on Thursday categorized the current targets as ‘air defense, command and control, logistics, air bases and air fields, but also large force concentrations.’ 

Russian ground forces, meanwhile, have now crossed in from Belarus, to Ukraine’s north, and from Crimea. Incursions have also taken place into the Luhansk, Sumy, Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Zhytomyr districts.  There is a real possibility that the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, could soon find itself surrounded and then occupied by Russian forces. 

There had been rumors of what was coming.  A Ukrainian military analyst informed me and other colleagues on Monday that ‘with 90% certainty’ a large scale invasion would begin on the 24th. The messages emerging from  western governments regarding the likely imminence of the invasion had been clear and unambiguous.  But the speed and ferocity of what is now transpiring nevertheless caught Ukrainians and outside observers alike by surprise.  Shock and awe is clearly the Russian intention. Putin wants to pulverize Ukraine’s capacity for conventional resistance in the shortest possible time. 

But to what larger purpose?  The extreme and even bizarre terms used by the Russian president – ‘demilitarization’ and ‘denazification’, no less, of a country with a Jewish president many of whose family members perished in the Holocaust – confirm the far reaching dimensions and objectives of what is taking place.

‘They want to destroy the state of Ukraine. Putin wants to crush it, so that it no longer exists,’  is the unambiguous verdict of Mykola, a 35 year old Kiev based journalist, regarding Moscow’s goals.  Mykola is an old friend and colleague of mine from the days when we covered the protests at the Maidan Nezalezhnosti together, in 2014.  He spoke to me this morning from his apartment in the city. 

‘I expect that they will create some quasi state on the east bank of the Dniepr. They wont go into the west,’ he continued. ‘Putin doesn’t see that as part of ‘Russia.’  

As for the mood in the city, ‘people are calm. Many already left, but people are generally calm…our cafeteria’s still open, by the way.’  The ‘cafeteria’ is a favorite bar of ours close to the Arsenalna metro station. I had planned to meet Mykola there next week.  With Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport under missile attack, these plans will have to be postponed, for a while.  Maybe a long while. 

Mykola and other Kievans I spoke to who preferred not to be named noted that they expect the Russians to seek to avoid widespread damage to the infrastructure of the city, if they can.  This, after all, is an invasion, in the Russian telling, of a brother-people, intended to bring them back into the fold.

The focus, instead, will be to hit at key strategic points, crippling Ukraine’s military capacities and rendering organized, state level resistance impossible.  It remains to be seen if this will be rapidly achieved.

The levels of resistance that will then emerge from the Ukrainian civilian populace also remain currently unknown.  Putin may well have considered that the relatively recent vintage of Ukrainian independence, and the Russian speaking traditions of many central and eastern Ukrainians, might ensure rapid acquiescence, once the initial blitzkrieg phase of the operation currently under way is concluded.   

He will also have noted that central and eastern Ukraine, which largely consist of flatlands under cultivation outside of the large cities, are hardly ideal terrain for guerrilla warfare.  

In this expected quiescence, however, the Russian leader may have mis-calculated, leaving his forces or their local puppets vulnerable to an insurgency that may follow the conclusion of conventional operations.  The eclipse of Ukraine’s conventional forces, however, bereft of allies and support, is a foregone conclusion. 

It is worth stating clearly what is currently under way in Ukraine, in order that the severity of the moment be fully understood.  Vladimir Putin is currently in the process of seeking to wipe an internationally recognized sovereign state off the map.  The Russian leader intends to reduce Ukraine once more to the vassal status from which it declared independence in 1991.  No such effort has been undertaken in Europe since the darkest days of the 1940s.  Further afield, one would need to recall Saddam Hussein’s abortive effort to wipe Kuwait out of existence in 1990 to find a parallel. 

In that instance, in those distant days just after the end of the Cold War, a US led coalition firmly re-established the sovereign borders of the attacked country. 

No such coalition will be coming to the rescue of Ukraine.  It is likely, however, that the missiles now landing on cities all over Ukraine are the opening salvos of a new competition that will dominate global affairs in the period to come.  Vladimir Putin has just driven a stake through the heart of what remained of the ‘rules based international order’.   There was always much less to that order than its adherents claimed.  Now its obituary can be written.    

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a new period of power politics and great power competition opens up.  Putin has demonstrated that it will be a time of ruthless aggression. 

The question remaining is whether it will also be characterized by a determined resistance to that aggression.   

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Putin’s Masquerades

Jerusalem Post, 18/2

Past Russian practices of deception and intimidation may offer clues as to the direction of events in Ukraine

History moves in curious patterns. The countdown to the current fraught moment in Ukraine may be accurately identified.  It began nine years ago, on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, in Kiev, in the winter of 2013/14.  Ukraine, independent since 1991, chose irrevocably at that time to link its fortunes to those of the west.

What began as a small protest against the suspension of an EU association agreement turned into a stark challenge to the then prevailing pro-Russian power structure in the country.  I reported from Kiev and from the Maidan in December, 2013.   The issues now at stake on the border were apparent then, both in the organization of the Maidan protest itself, and in the response of its enemies.  Patterns of activity then visible may offer clues to the current direction of events. 

The Maidan was chaotic, shambolic and without real leadership. But spending time there, it rapidly became apparent that it was also a genuine gathering of civil society.  It brought together those forces in Ukrainian society whose aspirations were towards western style democratic practice, and away from the despotic traditions to the east.  There were nationalist and chauvinist forces present on the square, of course. But the prevailing spirit was one of volunteerism, open and tireless debate and grassroots civil organization. 

The nature of the opposing forces was also apparent.  The ‘political technologists’ that specialize in disinformation,  in Russia’s famous ‘maskirovka’ (masquerade, or war by deception), that conjure up political movements and moments out of the air using money, muscle and deception, were busy in Kiev that winter.  Coalminers from the Donbass, paid by the hour,  were bussed in by the Yanukovich government. They organized their own rival ‘demonstration’ across town, in Marinsky Park.  The Berkut security forces working with these men hunted down and terrorized activists by night.    The strategy was an odd combination of uncompromising brutality combined with subtle masquerade. The intended effect – to produce disorientation in the adversary.

The Maidan was victorious. Yanukovich lost control of the situation and of the security forces in February , 2014, and fled to Moscow.  As is common, successful revolution was followed rapidly by war.  The fighting in the east in 2014/15, and on a lower intensity ever since, was testimony to Moscow’s refusal to accept the verdict.  The appearance of hitherto unknown ‘separatist’ movements in Donetsk and Luhansk at that time, meanwhile, loudly demanding autonomy for their regions, was an indication that masquerade remained the preferred Russian partner to the application of force.   

It is now clear  that  the stalemate that has prevailed since 2015 was not Vladimir Putin’s last word on the matter.  As now seems apparent, Moscow is determined to decisively and conclusively reverse the western direction that has tentatively prevailed in Ukraine since the Maidan.  Domination of Ukraine’s foreign policy options and a decisive say in its internal political arrangements are the goal. The objective is the effective neutering of Ukrainian independence.  

Why now? What precipitated this sudden escalation? Ukraine’s western trajectory has been apparent since the Maidan’s victory in 2014.  But under President Volodymyr Zelensky, the pace and intensity has increased.  Zelensky arrested a close associate and ally of Putin’s – Victor Medvechuk, early in his period of incumbency.  He has closed down three pro-Putin TV channels. A law signed by his predecessor requiring all national print media to be published in Ukrainian came into effect on Zelensky’s watch.

Ukrainian civil society and its armed forces, meanwhile, have grown steadily stronger, more confident and better organized since 2014/15.  Ukraine is seeking to move on from the period of close Russian influence in its public life.  The breakaway ‘republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk, far from constituting ongoing tools of pressure for Moscow, have come increasingly to resemble sealed off areas of dysfunction. 

Moscow has apparently concluded that any chance of a slow, incremental and undramatic recouping of influence is now closed. It has therefore decided to escalate.  The core aim is to achieve a guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO.  Moscow also seeks the implementation of the 2015 Minsk II protocols, which will grant the breakaway regions autonomy and allow Russia to re-insert its clients in the east of the country back into Ukrainian politics.

The desire to reverse the direction of events in Ukraine and force Kiev back under its influence, however, is only half the story.  Putin, it appears, has chosen to make Ukraine the arena for the deciding of a larger issue – namely, the future security architecture of central and eastern Europe. Hence, Moscow is demanding a commitment that no further member states be admitted to NATO, that military forces and infrastructure be removed from the territory of member states that have joined since May 1997, and that the US pledge also  not to develop bilateral defense ties with Ukraine and Georgia.  These demands were presented to the US in two draft defense treaties, in December of last year.  They constitute, in essence, a call for the reversal of the security balance in central and eastern Europe to the situation which pertained immediately following the dissolution of the USSR. 

These larger demands place the Ukraine situation in its proper context.  The desire to reimpose control on Ukraine forms an element in a project of revanchism.  Putin is trying to re-constitute the reach of the old Soviet Union deep into Europe. 

So what happens next? Russian military deployments along the northern, eastern and southern (maritime) borders of Ukraine are clearly intended to keep Kiev and the west guessing. A number of operations, or a combination of them, despite the unverified reports of ‘withdrawals’ of the last 48 hours, remain feasible.  Most dramatically, Moscow might seek to make a rapid push for Kiev, using forces assembled in Belarus.  A push south west from the Donbass enclave to unite this Russian area of control with the Crimea is also feasible.  Less likely but also possible would be an amphibious operation to conquer Odessa and cut off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea.  Alternatively, Russia could simply begin a standoff artillery and aerial bombardment of targets in Ukraine, intended to force concessions from the leadership in Kiev. Or, of course, such a bombardment could be used to precede  any of  the other three options outlined, or a combination thereof. 

Interestingly, however, both Russian and Ukrainian analysts that I spoke to this week were much less convinced regarding the likelihood of imminent invasion than were the western media and apparently the US Administration. 

The notion that Putin must either rapidly deploy the force he has assembled on the borders or stand it down is inaccurate. As Michael Kofman, a Russia analyst at Center for a New American Security wrote in late January, ‘’The Russian military is deploying a large force slowly, and deliberately, with equipment that can be parked in the field for months.’ Neither financial constraints, nor public pressure will cause the Russian leader to make haste.   

Many of those closely analysing the situation question whether the forces assembled, sizeable as they are, would be anywhere near sufficient to carry out the conquest and subsequent holding of cities and large areas of territory. 

It is therefore distinctly possible that  Russian leader still intends to achieve his goals in the hybrid 21st century fashion, using a build-up of military force to apply pressure and produce panic in his enemies, causing the west to abandon firm commitments to the government in Kiev out of fear of war, and then leaving that government with no choice but to abandon its western trajectory.   The political technologists, operating their puppets on the Ukrainian political stage, would then return to work.  That is, the methods of subversion and political and psychological warfare that failed to break the Maidan may not have been entirely abandoned now for conventional military options.  Rather, the same combination of brute force and subtle masquerade appears to now be in play. 

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Turkey’s Ethnic Cleansing Strategy in Syria uses Israeli-Arab NGO

Jerusalem Post, 4/2

On June 21, 2021, a newly built mosque was inaugurated in the village of Sheikh Khurez, in north west Syria, close to the Turkish border.  Sheikh Khurez is located in the part of Syria under the nominal administration of the opposition-linked ‘Syrian Interim Government.’ In practice, since the Turkish Armed Forces’ Operation Olive Branch of 2018 destroyed the Kurdish Afrin Canton, the area has been under the de facto rule of Ankara and its associated militias.  The latter are organized in the framework of the Turkish trained and financed Syrian National Army. 

The opening of a small mosque in a remote corner of north west Syria six months ago might generally be seen as an unremarkable event.  The new house of prayer in Sheikh Khurez, however, was noteworthy because of a particular detail.  Namely, the identity of the organization which had sponsored the mosque’s construction, and whose logo is displayed at its entrance. 

The organization in question is called the ‘Jamia’at al aish bi’Karama’, or  ‘Living with Dignity Association.’  This body is based not in Syria, but in the city of Tira, in central Israel.  It achieved some prominence last year, because of the support it afforded to Arab residents of Jerusalem protesting planned expulsions in Sheikh Jarrah. It is linked to other organizations supporting a Sunni Islamist outlook, of the type represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the government of Turkey.  

So what is a Tira charity, apparently devoted to the Palestinian cause, doing building mosques in northern Syria?

To understand, it is necessary first to recall the events of early 2018.   At that time, Syrian Sunni Islamist militias supported by Turkey entered the Afrin area.  Around 300,000 people, mainly Kurds, became refugees following the destruction of the Afrin Canton.  Most of these individuals then made their way to Kurdish controlled north east Syria.  Many of them remain in refugee camps within this area. 

Since that time, Turkey has been engaged in the large scale resettlement in Afrin of Syrian Sunni Arab refugees formerly resident in Turkey.  Turkey claims that 330,000 Syrians have been relocated to the Afrin areas and other parts of northern Syria conquered by Turkey in earlier operations, since 2018.

Most of these families hail from majority Sunni Arab areas of Syria which came under rebel control during the civil war and were then reconquered by the Assad regime, such as the Damascus countryside, Homs and Hama governorates, and southern Idlib. 

A considerable number of Palestinian families caught up by the war have also been re-settled in Afrin. According to a January 28 report at the Rohani website (a news outlet associated with the Kurdish authority in north east Syria), 1535 Palestinian families have been resettled in the Afrin area.  These families hail from the Yarmouk refugee camp, Khan al Sheikh and other areas south of Damascus. 

Living with Dignity’s Facebook page indicates that the organization does not appear to prioritize the interests of these Palestinian displaced persons who have been resettled in Afrin.

Rather, the organization is a participant in the Turkish-led effort to insert a new, Sunni Arab population along the border between Syria and Turkey.   The mosque at Sheikh Khurez is a small detail in a larger strategy of transformation, supported by Ankara, and carried out under the auspices of the Islamist Syrian National Army.  The intention is to permanently transform the demographic and cultural identity of traditionally secular and multi-ethnic Afrin. 

The remaining non Sunni/non Arab populations in Afrin whose communities are the target of this effort include some of the most oppressed and impoverished in Syria.  Living with Dignity has, for example, also financed the construction of a new housing complex for Arab refugees known as ‘Basma’ which is located just south of the Yezidi village of Shadira, 15 km from the Syrian-Turkish border. The now completed housing complex consists of 8 units, totalling 96 apartments. Each apartment is 50 square meters. A mosque, a school, a health center have also been built for the new village. Around 500 Syrian Arab refugees have since been re housed there.  The complex was built on the land of one Ziad Habib, a resident of Shadira who claims that he was coerced into selling the area. 

According to Kurdish sources, the authorities in this area are currently forcing remaining Yezidi residents of the village to attend compulsory Islamic education, and Yezidi residents are also required to recite the Shahadah (a declaration of Islamic faith).   Six similar such villages are under construction along the Syrian Turkish border.   The specific goal appears to be the seeding of a loyal Sunni Arab population along the borderline, as part of the larger demographic transformation under way.  

The Yezidis, a Kurdish-speaking, non-Muslim population in northern Syria and northern Iraq, were the subject of an attempted genocide at the hands of the Islamic State organization in the 2014-19 period.  Widely reviled by Muslims in the area as ‘devil worshippers,’ they remain the victims of widespread prejudice.

Living with Dignity has also, according to regional media, taken part in land seizures from a Syrian Kurdish citizen in the Tal Tawil area, and has financed the construction of mosques in Tal Tawil and the village of Ikidam, all within the framework of the larger project of transformation outlined above.

Living with Dignity, on its Facebook page, solicits donations for its housing projects in Syria, which it refers to under the title of the ‘Noble Housing’ plan.  The advertisement for this project includes details of a Bank Hapoalim account to which donations can be made, and the information that the cost of construction of a single housing unit is NIS 16000. 

The organization’s Facebook page notes that it raises money for these endeavors in a number of Israeli Arab (or ’48 Palestinian’, as it refers to them) communities, including Kalansua, Umm al-Fahm, Jaljulia, and al-Tira. 

This Israeli Arab/Palestinian charity is a single component in a larger archipelago of Islamic organizations involved in the project of resettlement of Arab refugees in Afrin. These include the ‘Ayad al-Bayda’ (White Hands) organization, with which Living with Dignity cooperates closely.  This group, established in 2013, according to its website in turn cooperates with Muslim Brotherhood associated charities and NGOs from the Gulf, including the Kuwait based Rahma International and Zakat House, and the Qatar based Qatar al-Khairiya. 

Pro Syrian regime and other anti-Erdogan outlets have carried a number of articles on this process of ethnic displacement and demographic transformation.  They have, unsurprisingly, found a way to blame Israel for it. Syrian commentator Khayyam al-Zoubi, writing at the Arabic language al Rai al Youm website in June 2021, asserted that the resettlement of Arab refugees in Afrin forms part of a ‘Turkish Zionist conspiracy to deport the Palestinians by uprooting them from the occupied 1948 area to northern Syria, to settle at the expense of Yezidi and non Yezidi Syrians, in order to implement its agenda to destroy Syria.’  A pro-PKK Kurdish language Twitter account also suggested that Israel’s government must surely have ‘approved’ the financial contributions of Israeli Arab charities to this project. An article in Arabic at Ronahi website laments that Palestinian involvement with Erdogan and the Muslim Brotherhood ‘contradicts the essence of their just cause.’   

Pointing out contradictions is not entirely out of place.  The same bodies which argue against alleged ethnic displacement in one context defend and assist it in another. There is nevertheless a deeper consistency apparent here.  Islamist activities in Syria and further south share an essential component – namely, the view that Arab and Muslim communities alone are present in the relevant area by right and with moral agency.  They and they alone are seen to have a right to a life with dignity. Tactics may differ according to the relevant local power balance.  This core viewpoint, however, appears common to both contexts. 

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Iran: the China Connection


With the world focused on the crisis in Ukraine, a joint exercise in the Indian Ocean involving the navies of Iran, China and Russia passed largely un-noticed last week. The exercise, dubbed ‘2022 Marine Security Belt’ was the third of its kind.  It focused on tactical cooperation between the forces. 

Largely overlooked, this naval drill on the high seas signposted processes of potentially no less geo-strategic import for the world than the 127,000 Russian troops currently waiting on the borders of Ukraine.   The drill was a demonstration of China’s growing naval reach. It was also an indication of a slowly crystallizing strategic alliance of countries committed to a fundamental re-shaping of the global order. 

In the Middle East, the relevant component of this gradually emergent bloc is the China-Iran connection.  It’s a developing concern. 

On March 27, 2021, Beijing and Teheran signed a 25 year strategic agreement, intended to lead to $400 billion of Chinese investment in the Iranian economy. But of greater immediate practical import, China is the chief enabler of Iranian defiance of US sanctions, through its purchase of Iranian oil.  China imported 260,312 tonnes of Iranian crude oil in December, according to official Chinese figures. 

Unofficially, the level of Chinese import of Iranian oil remains steady at about 500,000 barrels a day.  This constant flow is a kind of insurance policy for Teheran. 

It has already had considerable consequence.  These imports were the crucial factor in enabling the Iranians to ride out the worst days of the Trump Administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy. 

Confidence in China’s continued support undoubtedly lies behind the uncompromising stances currently held by Iran in the nuclear negotiations in Vienna.  China’s stance ensures that the west cannot realistically threaten Teheran with economic collapse in the event of defiance.  This is a powerful booster enabling the continuation of  Teheran’s regional strategy of subversion in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.  If the talks in Vienna fail, it will similarly have been a significant contributory factor. 

Military cooperation, however, is the key element of concern to US allies in the Mid-East.  In a recent article for INSS, Israel’s premier national security think tank, Brigadier General (Res) Assaf Orion described the situation in the following terms: ‘The strategic agreement between China and Iran, to the extent that the draft reflects the final version, outlines a zone of agreement on cooperation in intelligence, cyberwarfare, precision navigation systems, weapons research and development, and military training and instruction.’

The former general called the prospect of the further advance of this trend ‘alarming’ for Israel.

The picture here is not simple.  China has not sought to develop its relations with Iran at the direct expense of other regional connections.  Its preference, rather, has been to ignore the divides, secure that its size and heft ensure its capacity to do this. 

So alongside the strategic partnership with Iran, Beijing has flourishing relations with Iran’s regional enemies and adversaries. 

Saudi Arabia remains Beijing’s main Mid-Eastern supplier of energy. China is Israel’s third biggest trading partner, behind the US and the EU.  UAE-China relations are also deep and extensive. Abu Dhabi and Beijing in 2019 signed $3.4 billion worth of deals directly related to China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative. The Red Sea, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean are vital nodes on the  ‘Maritime Silk Road’, a series of trade routes intended to run from China’s south coast to Europe. 

A new terminal at Israel’s Haifa port, operated by Shanghai International Port Group, opened in September, 2021. 

So currently, there’s an odd situation in which even as Beijing lines up closer to Iran, Iran’s regional enemies seek to develop closer relations with China. 

Why is this happening?  It’s happening largely because of a credibility deficit.  US allies, even the closest and strongest among them,  believe less and less in the possibility of a strong, US-led architecture sufficient to ensure against shared enemies.  So they are seeking to ‘hedge’ their bets with the new emerging power. 

There is a corresponding greater reluctance to pay heed to US concerns re China in the region, because there is a growing sense that a reciprocal commitment will not be forthcoming as a result.  Regional events going back to the failure to back allied regimes in Egypt and Tunisia during the ‘Arab Spring’, and up to and including the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan have contributed to this effect. 

Unfortunately, the inexorable logic of emergent cold war is likely to continue to push Beijing further toward Teheran, the courtship dances of regional US allies notwithstanding.

What might serve to reverse this, and make up the credibility deficit?  It’s easy to think of immediate policy stances that could contribute.  Clear support for the ongoing UAE/Saudi effort to resist the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, and a return of the Houthis to the list of designated terror organizations, as a response to last week’s drone and missile attack on Dubai and Abu Dhabi would be positive steps. 

But the broader point here is the importance of recognizing that Cold Wars like the emergent one between the US and China will find their way to all global strategic arenas.  The notion of challenging China in the Indo-Pacific while ignoring its ambitions elsewhere won’t work.  The upshot of any such attempt will be to cede vital arenas to the adversary.  ‘Operation 2022 Maritime Security Belt’ in the Indian Ocean isn’t the only security belt that Beijing is offering Teheran. As of now, the China connection is enabling Iran to maintain its defiance on all relevant fronts.   

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