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The Geopolitics of the Normalization Agreements

10 Mar

Listen Closely to the Israeli Discourse in an American Liberal Idiom: Geopolitical Dreams, Ethical Nightmares


Thomas Friedman is both an echo of the liberal establishment and a media force to be reckoned with when it comes to post-cold war, post-Trump America. Known for championing the excesses of modernity by conceiving of technology, markets, capital flows, permissive social norms, and science-based truth and rationality as alone capable of offering promises of a good life for everyone. Friedman’s tone has always been arrogant and condescending. He is never shy about offering the rich and powerful the benefit of his technocratic wisdom. When it comes to foreign policy especially in the Middle East, and most particularly where Israel is involved, Friedman seeks to mount a guru’s pedestal so as to position himself above the fray, yet he never departs from the party line that unconditionally affirms Israel while being blind to Palestinian grievances and hostile to Palestinian resistance and global solidarity initiatives. In other words, Friedman is to liberal Zionism, what Sheldon Adelson was to militant Zionism as epitomized by the Netanyahu leadership, but whose stance is endorsed by the spectrum of right-wing political parties in Israel that dominate the scene when it comes to victimizing the Palestinian people. 

Yet even judging by the low standards that Friedman has set for himself over the years, his most recent NY Times opinion piece was as grotesque as informed commentary on the Middle East can become, especially if read carefully, and with a critical eye. Published as an opinion piece on March 2nd with a title that is as foolishly flippant as the text that follows is pernicious: “Jumping Jehoshaphat: Have You Seen How Many Israelis Just Visited the U.A.E.” As if Israeli shopping trips to Dubai or Abu Dubai are political signposts indicating that the region has started to overlook the Palestinian struggle for basic rights, and get on with the more important work of servicing consumers and tourists. If a spike in U.A.E. shopping is one sign, the ICC decision of February 5th to proceed further with investigate well-evidenced allegations of Israeli criminality in Occupied Palestine points in quite a different direction. It seems revealing that this latter development does not warrant even a nod of recognition in Friedman’s warped imagination that heeds market signals far more than international law grievances, especially if put forth by adversaries of the U.S. or Israel.

It is tempting to deal comprehensively with the several perversions of policy encountered in the course of a journalistic piece of less than 1,000 words, but I will mention only those that seem most outrageous from the perspective of law, morality, and transparency. The piece can be read as above all a promotional boost for the normalization agreements reached in the last weeks of the Trump presidency, a triumph of Washington bullying governments. It not only gave Israel a big political victory but helped show the folks back home that Trump’s style of diplomacy succeeded where his more highminded predecessors had failed. Despite being a strident critic of Trump in conformity with his liberal persona, Friedman has this to say about the normalization agreements, which he further blesses by adopting the self-glorifying name of the Abraham Accords bestowed by supporters: “I believed from the start that the opening between Israel, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan—forged by Jared Kushner and Donald Trump could be game-changing.” Not a word about the arms deals and diplomatic payoffs made to twist the arms of the Arab governments, and not even a notation that this normalization ploy was the Trumpist culmination of carrying pro-Israeli partisanship to its extremes, which meant proceeding as if the Palestinians are to be seen nor heard as little as possible, and certainly never acknowledged.

Friedman goes on to say that it is too soon to know whether this good news will go further, recalling his disappointment that the once seemingly hopeful bonding of Israel with Lebanese Christians in the early 1980s turned out to be a ‘shotgun wedding and divorce.’ This meant that this promise an Arab-Israeli rapprochement was nothing more than a disillusioning house of cards that failed to produce lasting results of achieving peaceful relations with Arab countries without the inconvenience of doing something for the Palestinians. Again, it is the silences that are the most revealing aspect of Friedman’s lament. There is not a word in the column that the peak moment of bonding between Israelis and Lebanese Christians came during the Lebanon War of 1982, reaching its dramatic climax when Israel’s IDF collaborated with the Maronite militias in overseeing the civilian massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. To lament the breakdown of this ill-fated marriage of convenience, without noting one of the starkest mass atrocities of the past half century in the region, is a typical embodiment of Friedman’s hypocritical morality and opportunistic geopolitics. Friedman does not stop there. He adds a gratuitous insult directed at Hezbollah coupled with a passing slur directed at Iran because it supports Hezbollah, and thus has the temerity to challenge Israeli/Saudi/U.S. phantasies.

Bad as is this foray into the tragic realities of Lebanese politics, worse is to come. Friedman regards the real payoff of the Trump normalization process is situated in the future. He conjectures that a parallel agreement with Saudi Arabia would be the crown jewel of the process, opining that such “..normalization would be huge for both Israel-Arab and Jewish-Muslim relations.” At the same time, Friedman reluctantly recognizes that the murder of Kamal Khashoggi is seen by some as an awkward impediment to reach this proclaimed goal. Here is how Friedman frames the grisly event: “The CIA-reported decision to have Saudi democracy advocate Jamal Khashoggi, who a long-time U.S. resident, killed and dismembered was utterly demented—an incomprehensible response to a peaceful critic who no threat to the kingdom.”

The language, as always with Friedman is revealing in ways that should make this journalist of post-colonial imperialism squirm. Why the word ‘demented,’ meaning bizarre action without rational justification, when the act in question was a wonton criminal abuse of power, accentuated by the misuse of diplomatic facilities to carry out an act of aggravated state terror—the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Further that the killing Khashoggi was ‘incomprehensible’ because it served no state purpose since there was ‘no threat to the kingdom.’ Cynical and hypocritical to the core: Hezbollah is demeaned for no reason, while a much deserved condemnation of MBS is sidestepped by Friedman’s rather implausible claim of being mystified by what he portrays as the senseless murder of Khashoggi a harmless critic of Mohamed bin Salmon’s Saudi imperium. Having taken note of the bloody deed, Friedman makes his priorities unmistakable by giving a green light to the nefarious business of geopolitics. Friedman always ready to provide unsolicited advice, without pausing for a breath of fresh air, observe that while “[t]he Biden team is still sorting out how it will relate to MBS” it remains right “to insist that that America will continue to deal with Saudi Arabia in general as an ally.”

Without the slightest show of moral inhibition, Friedman cuts to the chase, affirming the triangular relations between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States as a constructive partnership in the region. He celebratory mood is expressed as follows: “If the Abraham Accords do thrive and broaden to include normalization between Israeli and Saudi Arabia, we are talking about one on the most significant realignments in modern Middle Eastern history, which for many decades was largely shaped by Great Power interventions and Arab-Israeli dynamics. Not anymore.” Again, this realignment is presupposed to be a constructive development without any indications of qualifications either by reference to the dangers of inclining the region even more toward a military confrontation with Iran or by acting as if the daily Palestinian ordeal was not worth addressing in the course of assessing such a diplomatic misadventure.

Friedman does go on to contend implausibly that in such an altered diplomatic environment, Israel might become more amenable to a two-state solution without even pausing to point out that even under pressure, Israel never wanted to co-exist with a viable Palestinian state, and now with the rightward drift of its internal politics and its guaranty of continued unconditional support in Washington, it no longer needs to pretend. The accelerating growth of Israeli settlements in defiance of the UN, the deferred pledges of substantial annexation of the West Bank, and the evident resolve by Israel to uphold its claim to govern Jerusalem as a unified whole, capital for Israel alone, makes any resurrection of two-state diplomacy an even crueler bad joke than Oslo told to the world while Palestinian aspirations are drenched in blood and the Palestinian people faced with an indefinite prospect of suffering under an apartheid Israeli regime.

The fact that the Biden presidency wasted no time resurrecting the two-state corpse is the clearest possible demonstration of the moral and political bankruptcy of U.S. policy with respect to the Palestinian struggle to achieve basic rights after many decades of denial. Unlike the Trump years, Friedman can exult in the reality that he is no longer out of step with those who preside over policymaking in the White House when it comes to the Middle East. And now post-Trump I am quite sure Friedman would not urge the Biden/Blinken to take back any of the unlawful gifts bestowed on Israel during the four Trump/Kushner years, including the Syrian Golan Height, the UN-defying move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, the ‘legalization’ of the settlements along with de facto annexation of significant territory in occupied Palestine.   

Nonagon of Toxic Conflict: Notes on the Turkish Quagmire

2 Oct

 

 

The lethal complexity of politics in the Middle East has become overwhelming. The main political actors producing a continuous stream of swerves and turns that randomly juggle alignments and almost casually switch the identity of friends and enemies. In practical terms what this means is that there are indecipherably opaque conflicts, a multitude of state and non-state actors with distinct agendas, a bewildering array of seemingly contradictory and shifting conflict patterns, and controversial media manipulations orchestrated from various sources of governmental and insurgent authority situated both within and without the region. This geometry of conflict can be best approximated as a nonagon connecting the US/Turkey/Kurds/ISIS/Iran/Syria/Russia/Saudi Arabia/Israel, and even this is a crude simplification that leaves out many important actors. It is little wonder the Middle East has become a puzzle so daunting that only fools are clear about what should be done. The best we can do is to pick up a piece at a time, and hope it makes some sense a few weeks later.

 

Amid all these complexities there are some crucial developments bearing on Turkey’s relations to the overlapping realities of civil, national, regional, and extra-regional warfare. Turkey had deftly managed to avoid toxic engagement with the troubles of the region until 2009 when it began to cross swords with Israel, followed by jumping imprudently and overtly onto the anti-Assad side after the 2011 uprising in Syria. These prior problematic issues were temporarily eclipsed recently after Turkey crossed several additional treacherous thresholds of turmoil: the renewal of the deadly clash with Kurdish aspirations in Turkey and Syria; a formal joint undertaking with the United States to combat ISIS presence while still proclaiming solidarity with ‘moderate’ anti-Assad forces; and the recognition that the scale of the unmanageable flow of Syrian refugees across the Turkish border and outside of the camps is becoming unmanageable and a threat to domestic order.

 

As if this is not enough to worry about, polarized domestic politics in Turkey was unable to produce either a governing majority for the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in the June elections or in the aftermath an agreed coalition. As a result Turkey has an embattled interim government until a new election on November 1. The country is also beset by a divisive controversy that targets Recep Tayyip Erdoĝan as primarily responsible for all the above alleged wrongs, accusing him both of harboring the unabashed ambition to run the country as its executive president and of needlessly arousing Kurdish hostility and fears by adopting an ultra-nationalist posture during the electoral campaign that ended in June. The Turkish opposition seems to forget the uncomfortable reality that if by magic Erdoĝan disappeared the array of formidable problems facing the country would not disappear with him. And perhaps, even more uncomfortably, awake to the realization that the AKP since 2002, despite some notable errors and deficiencies, has been responsible for a remarkable series of positive economic, social, and political developments, as well as the upgrading of the country as an importantly independent regional and global political actor.

 

After 30 years of struggle between the Turkish state and it large Kurdish minority (14-18 million) causing up to 40,000 battle deaths there were finally hopes of peace raised in 2013 when a reconciliation process was started and a ceasefire established by the AKP led government. Now these hopes have disappeared and been replaced by daily violence as well as dire fears of what is to come, which includes the possibility of a full-scale civil war. In reaction to these developments Erdoĝan, emphatically declared the end of the peace process, although somewhat later ambiguously renewing a call for national unity, a new ceasefire, and a revived search for reconciliation. As might be expected, conditions were attached by Erdoĝan to such a proposal: abandonment of armed struggle by the Kurdish movement , the PKK (or Turkish Workers Party), which has been operating out of its main base area in Iraq’s Qandil mountains.

 

The recently proclaimed military collaboration of Turkey and the United States with the agreed goal of jointly battling ISIS adds to the confusion. It is Kurdish armed groups, including the PKK, and especially its Syrian offshoot, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), along with the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga militia that have proved to be the most effective forces combatting ISIS and the Assad government in recent months, and an indispensable complement to America air strikes. In effect, the anti-ISIS campaign is at cross-purposes with the renewed Turkish preoccupation with the fight against the PKK and the Assad regime. Fighting against the Kurds weakens the fight against ISIS and Assad, and vice versa.

 

From Ankara’s perspective there is logic to the seeming irrationality of stepping up the fight against the strongest enemy of its main Syrian enemy. Ever since the Iraqi Kurds established their state within a state in northern Iraq and the Syrian Kurds seemed within reach of their goal of establishing Rojava (or Syrian Kurdistan), the more radical parts of the Turkish Kurdish national movement, evidently had second thoughts about negotiating with the Turkish government a peaceful end to their struggle in exchange for rights and some measure of limited autonomy. After so many years of struggle why should Turkish Kurds settle for far less than what their Kurdish comrades in Iraq and Syria achieved? It should be appreciated in raising such a question that the Kurdish minority in Turkey is about three times the size of the Iraqi Kurdish population, estimated to be between 15 and 20 million, which happens to be more than eight times the size of the Syrian Kurdish minority. It would seem that what the reconciliation process would offer Turkish Kurds fell below reasonable expectations, and it could be argued that the success of the Kurdish political party (HDP or Peoples Democratic Party) in the June elections associated with electing 80 members of Parliament as a result of crossing the 10% marker for the first time accentuated rather than alleviated Kurdish anxieties. There is no direct evidence at this point, but circumstantially it seems as if the HDP’s success was not welcome news to the PKK as it seemed to augur a premature accommodation with the Turkish state, and thus a betrayal of more ambitious goals for the Kurdish national movement. How else can we explain the PKK repudiation of the ceasefire with Turkey on June 11th only four days after the historic HDP electoral success in June?

 

Then the ISIS suicide attack on July 20, 2015 in the Turkish border town of Suruç killing 32 young Turkish civilian activists made clear that Ankara could no longer ignore the threat posed by ISIS despite the disturbing contradiction of battling against an opponent of both the Kurds and Assad. Hence, the agreement with the United States with respect to ISIS, and the accusations that Turkey was nevertheless using most of its military capabilities to fight against the Kurds and Assad.

 

In this atmosphere of growing political violence the Turkish government faced a mounting internal security threat. Between the June 7 Turkish national elections and late July, there were over 281 violent attacks carried out in Turkey by PKK operatives, including a series of lethal assaults on police and military personnel. In retaliation, unsurprisingly, the Turkish armed forces launched air attacks against PKK positions in the Kandil area of northern Iraq. To blame this upsurge of violence on Erdoĝan is not only simplistic but deeply misleading.

 

Two other factors can better explain what happened. First, the Kurdish militant leadership in the Kandil base areas came to the conclusion that the political success of Kurdish armed struggle in Iraq and Syria could be duplicated in Turkey; secondly, a concern that the rewards of the reconciliation process started by the Turkish state if allowed to continue would reward Kurdish politicians and business people who took few risks to advance the national movement in Turkey, while the PKK fighters enduring decades of hardship, loss, and danger would end up being invited back to Turkey with an inadequate acknowledgement of their long struggle. Of course, in between the Turkish state and the AKP there were many Kurds and Turks to yearned for peace and political compromise, and opposed any behavior on either side that would resume a zero-sum bloody struggle in which one side or the other would be a winner and the other a loser.

 

The prolonged Syrian civil strife burdens Turkey further. It is relevant to recall that in the years immediately before 2011, and the Arab Spring, when Turkish regional diplomacy was capturing the imagination by its call for ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ it was then Assad’s Syria that served as the poster child of the policy reaching an unprecedented level of cordiality as between the two governments and their respective leaders. Earlier tensions were dissolved and forgotten, friendship and trade flourished in relations between the two countries, and overnight the governments of Syria and Turkey seemed to reconcile their differences, opened their borders, increased economic and cultural interaction, creating an impression that durable harmony will persist long into the future.

 

Then came the Arab Spring in early 2011, which spread to Syria in March shortly after the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The Damascus government responded with torture and crimes against humanity in its reactions to peaceful demonstrators who were initially suppressed in Daraa, and later in many parts of Syria. Turkey, along with the UN, tried for several months to coax the Assad leadership into meeting the political demands of the Syrian people by instituting democratic reforms. Assad seemed to agree, but no power-sharing steps were taken. Instead there was a spread of insurgent activity, and an intensification of indiscriminate violence and frequent atrocities by the government, including heavy bombing of rebel held Syrian cities and towns, and eventually recourse to chemical weapons and barrel bombs. Syrian casualties rose, mass atrocities were documented, and hundred of thousands of refugees streamed across the Turkish border, creating a major humanitarian challenge that continues to grow, reaching the astounding figure of over 2 million.

 

Against this background, Turkey increasingly and overtly sided with the rebel forces. Istanbul becoming the center of operations for anti-Assad political activity, which included explicit backing of the Friends of Syria (a loose and ineffectual anti-Assad coalition put together by the United States and Turkey). Various forms of military assistance were channeled to the Free Syrian Army but it steadily lost ground against the well-equipped Syrian armed forces, which enjoyed support and assistance from Russia and Iran. Early in the conflict Ankara believed that the balance of forces had shifted decisively against Assad, and that the Syrian regime would collapse in a few weeks. It was mistakenly thought that Syria, like Libya, would be easy prey to a popular uprising, forgetting that the Damascus government unlike Tripoli had loyal support from a series of important Syrian minorities as well as from large segment of the urban business world, was strongly backed by Iran and Russia, and possessed significant military capabilities.

 

The situation became even messier. Even before the appearance of ISIS, it seemed that the Al Nusra Front had become the most effective opposition to Assad, was linked to Al Qaeda. In this mix, when ISIS seemingly came out of the blue to mount an even bigger challenge to Damascus the alignments for and against became hopelessly complex. It is not surprising that given these developments the Turkish leadership was initially reluctant to confront ISIS as its battlefield record of success seemed to pose the biggest threat to their biggest enemy! Turkey still understandably wobbles on the tightrope that stretches between opposing Assad and fighting PKK and ISIS.

 

How this interplay of US/Turkish/Kurdish/ISIS actions and reactions will play out is currently unknowable. To intervene in such a zone of multiple conflict is beset with risks, costs, and unknowns but so is standing by as horrified spectators. The assumption in the West has been that military power offers the only way to calm the waters without sacrificing Western interests, but the consistent record of intervention is one of repeated costly failures. Perhaps, the very hopelessness of the situation makes the moment right for bold forms of regional diplomacy. Tangibly, what this means is bringing Russia and Iran into the game, and minimizing the influence of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel seems to be promoting regional disorder, destabilizing the internal public order of the major states in the region. Saudi Arabia apparently cares for little other than the survival of the royal regime in the Kingdom. It can savagely undermine the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza yet claim to be leading the Sunni struggle against the spread of Shia Islam, justifying its interventions in Syria and Yemen. And globally, it is Saudi funds and Wahabi militancy that is bringing extremist politics to the forefront throughout the Middle East.

 

With such tensions, contradictory agendas, and unconditional ideologies at play the outlook for compromise and normalcy is dim. Oddly, Russia without ties that bind is freer to dampen the forces of extremism than is the United States that remains beholden to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Similarly, Iran despite the theocratic and repressive character of its government has the internal stability that Turkey now lacks, and if allowed could play a constructive force role by helping to work out a political transition in Syria and Yemen and playing a leading part in an anti-extremist coalition needed to cope with ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the Al-Nusra Front operating in Syria.

 

Will this happen? Of course, not. It is far too rational and realistic. The United States despite its power and residual leadership potential finds itself stuck in a geopolitical straight jacket of its own devising, and without its ability to behave like a rational actor. The region seems destined in coming years to fluctuate between chaos and autocracy, and this means that Arab populations will experience repression, displacement, chaos, and cycles of demonic political violence. More than elsewhere, the Middle East is badly in need of political miracles.

 

Turkey is one of the few actors, situated within and without the Arab World, that retains the capacity to be a constructive influence in support of compromise and nonviolence conflict resolution. This helpful performance depends on the Turkish recovery of composure within its borders, which seems dependent of the AKP recovering an effective majority allowing it to form a government after the results of the new election on November 1st become known. The second best solution would be a strengthening of the AKP and CHP (Republican Peoples Party) parties in November, followed quickly by a coalition between these two parties that puts national unity, economic development, and political stability ahead of partisan confrontation. It is the anti- Erdoĝan preoccupation that has mainly hindered Turkey’s effort at regional leadership, although Erdoĝan has contributed to this atmosphere by his reliance on autocratic tactics in quelling the Gezi uprising in 2013 and expressing his views without sensitivity to opposition values and outlooks ever since scoring a major victory in the 2011 elections. It is time for Erdoĝan and the AKP to abandon ‘majoritarian democracy’ and also time for the political opposition parties and media to assess the Erdoĝan and the AKP in a more balanced, and less polarized views. It is unfortunate that even prior to 2011, the opposition to the AKP was unyielding in voicing its intense hostility, giving no credit, and insisting the AKP under Erdoĝan’s leadership was guiding the country away from the secularism of the Republic era, and toward the imposition of an Islamic theology in the manner of Iran. Let’s hope that the CHP does well enough in the new elections to join with the AKP in giving Turkey the government it deserves, and that Erdoĝan will be content to be presidential in a constitutional system that is essentially based on parliamentary supremacy but with some recourse to judicial checks on arbitrary power.

 

The focus on Turkey, and its role with respect to Syria and the conflicts with Syria, PKK, and ISIS is not meant to minimize the importance of the other actors in the region that are part of the geopolitical nonogon. There are several overlapping regional proxy wars that have complicated, perhaps precluded, a diplomatic resolution of the conflict, including serious intraregional tensions between Saudi Arabia and Syria as well as the extraregional rivalry between the United States and Russia. Also of indeterminate significance are the variety of undisclosed Israeli regional moves and the leverage exerted by way of its often dysfunctional special relationship with the United States (preventing negotiation of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone or allowing Iran to play an appropriate diplomatic role). Although not as notoriously described, the willingness of the United States to give Saudi Arabia a free pass with respect to internal repression and recourse to force as in Yemen, and earlier Bahrain, is a further source of regional turmoil.