Russia pulling its troops out of Syria?

Russian President Vladimir Putin dropped in to a Russian military base in Syria a few days ago and announced that he’s pulling his troops out of the country. I discussed this development with host P. J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh a few minutes ago.

This is the place to express my regrets over the decision to take KQV off the air at the end of the year. I’ve been doing these Mideast analysis broadcasts on KQV for six years, starting in Cairo during Arab Spring, and it’s been a real pleasure. P. J.’s interest in foreign affairs is a rarity in local media these days, and our discussions have been a welcome change from that norm.

Now about Putin and Syria. His pullout announcement creates an opportunity for the US to get its policy reoriented toward aid, not more bombs.

Putin’s rationale is that the war against ISIS in Syria is nearly won, so he doesn’t need forces there any more. But a quick look at Sputnik News, known to be “close” to the Russian regime (that’s to say, it’s a propaganda arm), gives some perspective.

Sputnik News notes what we all know: Russia has a naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast and an air base not far away. Russia wants those bases forever, so there will always be Russian forces in Syria. That’s why Russia is invested on propping up tyrant President Bashar Assad–he’s Russia’s man in Damascus.

The Sputnik analysis also notes that other forces will remain behind, notably Iran. Hezbollah (the Iran-backed Lebanese force) and, of course, the US-led coalition.

So this war is not over yet. It won’t be over any time soon. Another round of UN peace talks has ended in a shouting match, and there’s no real hope for a negotiated settlement at this point.

But Russia is scaling back its presence, intent on protecting its direct interests–keeping Assad in power, or at least keeping a pro-Russian government in power, protecting its military bases, but leaving the fighting to others.

It’s a savvy move. Let’s see if Washington has a counter-move.

I’d recommend scaling back military involvement and using the money saved from that to help the millions of refugees and homeless from the six-year war. It’s a way of restoring the American reputation in the Mideast, badly tarnished by decades of misguided military adventures.

The need is there, the opportunity is there, the money is there. It just needs to be redirected. And with the Russian move, the time is now.

Jerusalem move “destabilizes the Mideast”? Give me a break

The warnings of a region-wide explosion over the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and eventually move the US Embassy there are either misguided or misleading, or both. I talked about this issue with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

The latest warning of mayhem comes from Russian President Putin, saying what his host, Turkish President Erdogan, wants to hear. It’s hard to imagine that Putin, who is up to his ears in a conflict in Syria, actually believes that recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital can “destabilize” the region.

Breathless news reports like this one, “Protests were held across the Middle East and Asia over the weekend in protest of Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” ignore a key fact–the protests, in Middle East terms, are tiny. If you see Palestinians burning an American flag in Beirut, do you also see that altogether there are only about 100 demonstrators? Likewise “all over Asia,” meaning Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, has protests with hundreds of participants–no more.

Even Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza have been small, and Hamas declarations urging a new intifada uprising have not made many waves, at least not yet.

What’s going on here?

Many of us are trapped by an old, discredited axiom: Resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict is the key to peace in the Middle East, and negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are the only way to end it. The bilateral talks even used to be called “Mideast peace negotiations.”

Both halves of that axiom are wrong. Though it was clear along along, Arab Spring proved that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is a side issue in the Middle East. Certainly today, with wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya and unrest in other countries, it’s crystal clear that none of this has to do with the Palestinians.

Bilateral negotiations backed by the US have reached their logical conclusion twice, in 2000 and 2008, without bringing peace. It should be clear to all that there’s no point in trying again with the same formula, especially when there are more pressing problems plaguing the region.

No one feels this more than the Palestinians themselves. Shunted cruelly aside after decades of attention and support from Arab leaders who were really just using them to deflect attention from their own failings, Palestinians are understandably quick to latch onto any issue that can propel them back into the headlines.

But even the volatile Jerusalem issue isn’t enough to restore their former glory. Though “widespread,” the little protests are already dying out. I’ll go out on a limb and venture that by this time next week, we’ll be talking about something else.

US Jerusalem move ignites Mideast? Not even

You have to be blind, uninformed, or politically motivated to contend that the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has “ignited the Mideast,” as many media outlets are doing, apparently fulfilling their own errant prophecies.
There were more Israeli demonstrators in Tel Aviv last night against Israeli corruption than in Palestinian areas, Jerusalem, or even the Arab world against the US move.
Al-Ahram, the semi-official Egyptian newspaper, reported “tens of demonstrators” in Alexandria, and above is the Ahram photo of a few thousand in at al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, which is a city of 22 million.
Here’s my previous post explaining the Jerusalem issue in dispassionate terms, which is the way I work. I wish more people would work like that.

Jerusalem–it should be obvious, but isn’t

Does anyone need to recognize that Washington is the capital of the US? That Paris is  the capital of France? That London is the capital of the UK? So why is it such a big deal that President Trump has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel? I talked about this with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.


Here are some reasons why it’s not obvious:

  • Everything concerning Jerusalem is a big deal.
  • What you mean when you say “Jerusalem” isn’t clear.
  • Jerusalem wasn’t part of the Jewish state according to the 1947 UN partition.
  • Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as their capital, but Israel annexed that section, including the Old City. 
  • It’s a consensus view that changing anything in Jerusalem harms peace efforts.

So let’s take these one at a time:

Jerusalem is the top hot spot of the Middle East, or at least it was until Arab Spring moved the focus elsewhere.

A plateau at the edge of the walled Old City is home today to the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site. They were built atop the ruins of the two biblical Temples, making it Judaism’s holiest site. Jesus preached there, so Christians also have a close tie.

According to an arrangement made just after Israel captured the site in the 1967 war, Israel is in charge of security, and the Muslim Wakf handles day-to-day arrangements. That distinction has blurred over the past three decades as Palestinians have turned the holy site into a political tinderbox through riots and attacks whenever they feel slighted. They hurl rocks at Jews worshiping at the Western Wall below and confront Israeli security forces, who sometimes storm the site in response.

The Second Intifada, or violent Palestinian uprising, began after Ariel Sharon, at the time an opposition leader in Israel’s parliament, visited the site in 2000. Later it emerged that Palestinians were planning the violence for months in advance, but the provocative visit was a good trigger.

Four years earlier, the opening of a tunnel along a buried part of the Western Wall was enough to set off a surge of Palestinian riots that killed nearly 100 people.

This year, after Palestinians smuggled weapons onto the site and used them to kill two Israeli police officers, Israel installed metal detectors at the gates. Palestinians rioted, and Israel backed down, removing the detectors.

So given that history, a change in the status of the city, even on paper, is a big deal.

Jerusalem has more than one municipal boundary, so just referring to “Jerusalem” is ambiguous.

In the 1948-49 war that followed Israel’s creation, when Arab nations sent seven armies in to throw the Jews into the sea, Israel took control of the western part of Jerusalem. A barbed wire barrier split the city for 18 years, until the 1967 war, when Israel captured the rest of the city, Arab villages around it and the attached West Bank. Unlike the West Bank, though, Israel annexed East Jerusalem, including the Old City, and then built new neighborhoods for Jews in a ring around the city.

One of the many politically charged battles I lost at the AP was opposition to calling the new neighborhoods “settlements,” though they were built on land claimed by both sides. My reason was that the term “settlement” conjures up an image of four trailers on a wind-swept West Bank hilltop, while the new neighborhoods each house tens of thousands of Israelis in permanent apartment blocks. Whatever…

President Trump did not use the terms West Jerusalem or East Jerusalem in his address, though he did say that borders and sovereignty must be decided in negotiations. That was enough to allow people on all sides to interpret his words any way they want, and many insist that he has recognized Israeli sovereignty over both parts of the city. Don’t confuse me with facts, in other words.

Under the 1947 partition plan, Jerusalem was supposed to be part of an ill-defined “international zone,” stretching south to include Bethlehem.

Israel accepted the plan despite all its shortcomings, but the Arabs

Jerusalem 1949rejected it and sent in their armies. The result was a divided Jerusalem. Like the cease-fire line between Israel and the West Bank, it is just that–not a border.  And as you can see from this map, there is a swath of no-man’s land running through the city, just to complicate matters.

The map is a 1956 UN copy of the

map on which Moshe Dayan himself drew the cease-fire lines with a wide marker, wide enough to seed disputes over territory if anyone actually considered the lines a border. The historic map, signed by Dayan and a Jordanian official, hangs in my backyard office for ready reference.

Despite the lack of clarity, the terms “West Jerusalem” and “East Jerusalem” are part of the lexicon these days, but the presence of the Old City in the eastern part complicates everything.

The hilltop referred to by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary is a religious site, and religions do not do well when it comes to compromise. Israel insists it will not give up control of its holiest site, and Palestinians insist they won’t give up control of their holy site. It’s the same site, of course. Given good will, there would be ways to finesse this, but there’s no good will these days–just the opposite. After many rounds of failed peace talks, including two in which Israel offered the Palestinians a state in the West Bank and Gaza, with joint control over the Jerusalem hilltop, but the Palestinians broke off the talks, there are no serious prospects for resolving this dispute with another round of negotiations.

That calls into question the last point, that any change in Jerusalem harms prospects for peace negotiations.

We have seen that bilateral negotiations with US backing have not brought peace. It doesn’t matter here who is to blame–the fact remains that the peace process reached its logical conclusion twice, with an offer of a viable Palestinian state on the table, but the talks did not result in peace. It’s arguable that quite the opposite, they brought escalations of violence.

So there may be reasons to oppose moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, but saying that it harms peace negotiations is either intentional smoke-screening or ignorance of history.

Instead, critics of the move are warning that the US move could trigger violence, even a war. This is the place to point out that the Palestinians are trapped from several different directions. They are trapped by corrupt, inept leaders who line their pockets with money meant to build a viable society. They are trapped by a refugee crisis that they themselves, with the eager prodding of the UN, perpetuated for political reasons, but it has now backfired and left them with no choice but to stick to seven decades worth of worthless promises that the refugees and their four generations of descendants will “return” to villages in Israel that no longer exist. They are trapped by their only reaction to slights, perceived and real–violence and terrorism. In that they are goaded on, wittingly and unwittingly, by world leaders who warn that any step by anyone besides the Arabs will inevitably spark violence, and therefore such steps must never, never be taken.

President Trump’s pronouncement does not change anything on the ground. He did not declare Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. That is not in his power. Israel did that 70 years ago. Trump recognized this reality. It does not come at the expense of the Palestinians, unless they make it so.

It becomes a test for the Palestinians. Will there be a few days of demonstrations, perhaps a few attacks, and then back to daily life? Will this be the time that violence, accompanied by the usual threats and demonization of Israel in world bodies, was not their response, even though there is at present no other response available to them? Or will they succeed in setting the region on fire, reinforcing the view that nothing can ever be done here, because the Palestinians will respond with violence?

And will Israel puff out its chest and lord it over the weakened Palestinians some more, or will it seek new ways to lighten their burdens?

Much of the world, including parts of the Jewish world, believes that this is the wrong time for such a US declaration. That time would be only after there is a permanent peace accord. President Trump and much of Israel counters that there is no wrong time to do the right thing.

Recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is the right thing, if only because it is indeed Israel’s capital and has been for seven decades. What we do with that, how we proceed, will be the biggest test of all.






Why is Israel sending signals to Iran with missile strikes in Syria?

Why send signals when everyone already gets it? Why?

When I see a stern-faced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declaring that Israel will not allow Iran to set up shop in Syria, and the whole world (except for Israel) says Israeli fired missiles at an Iranian base and a weapons factory near Damascus to send a “signal” to Iran, well, my exasperation rises to the surface. I discussed the latest from Syria a few minutes ago with host P. J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh a few minutes ago, including a bit on Israeli military censorship, which forces reporters based here to attribute attacks like these to “foreign reports.”

There’s little doubt that the “foreign reports” of the Israeli air strikes, one on an Iranian Revolutionary Guards base and the other on a Syrian weapons facility that has been targeted in the past, are correct. For supposed security reasons, Israelis can’t say that themselves, but a former intelligence officer, also apparently frustrated by the limitations, asked rhetorically on Israel Radio this morning, “Who else would attack such a target in Syria?”

Israel professes to be threatened by the possibility of an Iranian “land bridge” through Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea. Such a frightening prospect, considering that Iran believes that Israel should be wiped off the map.

Please give me a break. Iran has had a land bridge through Syria for decades. Its client terrorist/guerrilla force, Hezbollah, has been getting Syrian weapons since it was established in the 1980s. Hezbollah controls Lebanon’s government–that’s nothing new, either.

That’s not to say there is no threat. Of course there is. Iran is a powerful enemy of Israel. That’s also nothing new. Israel has been handling it in its own way–blustering on the world stage and more quietly developing its military to provide a credible second-strike capability, based on modern submarines, alongside its already formidable missile defenses. Iran already got the message–even Israeli military experts say that.

Politically, Israel has been on the wrong side of the Iran nuclear debate since before and after the accord aimed at stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program was negotiated and signed. Even after it was a done deal, Israel has continued to rail against it and cheer President Trump on in his pronouncements and actions against it. I’ve written extensively here and here why that’s dangerously misguided.

So why is Israel sending signals? It’s internal politics. Netanyahu has to keep his people aware of the threats, to frighten them as much as possible, to get them to ignore his failings, his corruption, and his wrongheaded policies and vote for him anyway. Just by coincidence, of course, I’m ready to publish my second book, which takes on this dumb and dangerous behavior from a historical perspective. Stay tuned.