Tag Archives: Middle East

Strategic Heights

On the 21st of March 2019, with a characteristic lack of warning, the President of the United States stunned allies and adversaries alike by announcing — on Twitter — the United States should “fully recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.” The surprise move reversed 52 years of US policy toward the contested area and prompted emergency meetings in capitals across the globe. Within minutes, a storm of diplomatic protests from around the world reiterated support for a 1981 United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR 497) that specifically rejects an Israeli move to annex the Golan.

Not surprisingly, Syria vowed to retake its strategic terrain by “all means available”, a proclamation vigorously supported by Syria’s traditional backers, Russia and Iran. They were not alone, however. Even America’s allies rejected the move, citing principles of customary international law and warning the President it could decrease stability in the Middle East and have ripple effects elsewhere. As the President tweeted, the Golan Heights is strategically important and its annexation will have strategic consequences.

Trump Golan Tweet
President Trump forecasted his move to recognize Israeli rule in the strategic Golan Heights.

Strategic History

The topography and hydrology of the Golan has divided empires, fixed boundaries, and concentrated warfare since Biblical times. When one considers its history, it is easy to understand the Golan’s intense strategic importance to the security and stability of the greater Middle East. Shaped like a bowl surrounding the Sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights provides a significant percentage of Israel’s fresh water. The terrain feature rises rapidly east from the Sea of Galilee to a ridge that towers 1000 feet over the Transjordanian Plateau and provides a commanding view across southern Syria to the ancient Damascus-Amman Road. Whoever holds the Golan Heights commands all north-south movement in a significant part of the Middle East.

The first Jewish communities settled in the Golan in the 6th Century BCE but later fell under Seleucid rule after the partition of Alexander the Great’s empire in the 3rd Century BCE. The Jews regained their independence after a revolt only to be conquered and crushed by the Roman 10th Legion under Vespasian in the winter of 66 A.D.. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the area changed hands in step with the ebb and flow of fortunes in Constantinople. First the Byzantines, then the Ottomans ruled the Golan until their defeat in the First World War placed the area under the British Mandate. The British ceded it to France a year later and Syria inherited it at the end of the Mandate in 1944.

The British decision to cede the Golan Heights to France left Palestine without a defensible northeastern frontier. When Israel declared independence a few years later, it found itself in a vulnerable position with a modern Arab army in a strong position to threaten Israel’s main source of water. The Six-Day War in 1967 provided the opportunity for Tel Aviv to address the vulnerability by seizing the Golan. At the time, the United States joined the world in calling for an Israeli withdrawal, a policy every President since has supported. When Israel attempted to annex the area in 1981, the Reagan administration went even farther, joining the UN in declaring the move “null and void and without international legal effect.”

Golan Proclamation
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold up a proclamation recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, March 25, 2019. Source credit: REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo

Elsewhere Matters

President Trump’s move to recognize Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights is a historically significant break from the policies of every US President since Lyndon Johnson. Though there will be immediate impacts on the stability of the Middle East, international law and the overlapping interests of regional stakeholders will cause ripple effects on US interests in unexpected places.

When Russia employed ‘hybrid warfare’ to invade and annex Crimea in early 2014, the US response was fairly robust and focused. Aside from a frenzy of bilateral military exercises in the Baltic states and Poland, US messaging on the legality of Russia’s move battered Moscow with principles of international law. The United States specifically cited Article 2 of the UN Charter which prohibits the use of force in territorial disputes. More importantly, perhaps, the White House invoked the principle that states have an obligation ‘not to recognize as legal’ the acquisition or occupation of territory resulting from aggression or the threat or use of force. The Obama Administration argued at the time that Crimea was taken by force and therefore the United States had an obligation to reject its annexation by Russia.

Recognition of Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights effectively abandons this legal principle as a basis for US foreign policy, putting the US position at risk in Crimea and damaging other, longer-term US interests. The occupation of Northern Cyprus for example, seized by Turkey in 1974, is still not recognized internationally. President Trump’s capitulation on the Golan may give Turkey a sense that now is a good time to push for annexation of Northern Cyprus. Timing aside, such a move could threaten peace with Greece and destabilize NATO. Further afield, the principle of non-recognition protected the Baltic states for 51 years and guaranteed support for their independence after the fall of the Soviet Union. Already nervous about Russian territorial ambitions, Baltic leaders are concerned abandonment of the principle now could encourage Russian ambitions in ways detrimental to numerous NATO member states. One can imagine similar issues arising in the South China Sea and the Senkakus, and perhaps even provoking sovereignty questions in US territories conquered during World War II or the Spanish-American War.

Some argue changing the status of the Golan Heights will not significantly affect the situation on the ground. However, the political narrative will have global consequences as states with territorial disputes rush to take advantage of America’s recent flexibility with international law. As the most powerful nation in the world, the United States is the principal benefactor of an international system that affords states a privileged position on questions of sovereignty. Eroding the legal principles that underpin those positions weakens our foreign policy. Doing so in pursuit of short-term gains is the exact opposite of principled action and certainly not the height of strategic thinking.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC

Year of the Nationalist

In a great outpouring of respect, the world came to Washington in December to say goodbye to one of the last century’s great champions of liberal internationalism, President George H. W. Bush. The touching remembrance of a life spent connecting nations reminded us all about the value of international cooperation. However, we have to be honest with ourselves that democracy around the world is increasingly under stress.  President Bush’s funeral took on the flavor of a valiant appeal to world leaders to once again reject the forces of nationalism and authoritarianism that ignited the world twice during the last century. Despite this, the struggles that tested President Bush so many times during his career have reemerged. Therefore, we are dubbing 2018 the “Year of the Nationalist,” a moniker we hoped never to attribute to any year since the Great War buried nationalism in the misery of Flanders Fields.

A Shaky Future

Europe is at the epicenter of massive challenges to the liberalized democracies that have kept the peace since the conclusion of World War II. Lingering effects of the 2008 global recession combined with refugee crises from Syria and Libya have invigorated the demons of the globalized economy. These stressors left many feeling abandoned, and their frustration fueled a rise in nationalism. Anti-immigrant parties won large sections of governments throughout Europe. The anti-immigrant party of Sweden is now the country’s third largest political party. Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, showed such undemocratic tendencies, it prompted the typically diplomatic European Union to condemn his authoritarian leadership style. The Freedom Party in Austria, part of the governing coalition, has past ties to the Nazi Party; and Poland, currently governed by the nationalistic Law and Justice Party, is no stranger to recurring far-right demonstrations.

Meanwhile, France is experiencing nation-wide demonstrations against liberal reform initiatives, and the United Kingdom (UK) is struggling to come to terms with the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote. In Death of Brexit: Return from the Right, Adam Pharaoh asserted the Remain faction had initially underestimated the strong forward momentum of the British economy following the Brexit referendum but was belatedly proven right. He concluded correctly (in January) that Brexit-related economic pressure could lead ordinary Britons to call for another referendum. Indeed they did, but as the political turmoil accelerates with the approaching endgame, a second referendum is politically unlikely, leaving a worst-case “No Deal Brexit” as the only probable result.

At the exact moment the UK is withdrawing from the European Union (EU), nationalist impulses in the Trump Administration are casting doubt on America’s commitment to NATO. Cracks in Alliance unity have real consequences and may be the reason for recent tests of resolve by Russia, which seems on the verge of a massive escalation in Ukraine following a crisis at sea resulted in the capture of three Ukrainian ships by Russia. Meanwhile, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is expanding Beijing’s influence into an uncertain EU by pushing increased reliance on Chinese investments in Eastern Europe. This convergence is causing real fear throughout the European community and reviving an old idea about the utility of a European army. In A Tale of Two Armies: Defending NATO, Steve Nolan argued that a European Army is at odds with the EU’s purpose and would, regrettably, dilute critical support for NATO itself. Worse, it would further strain relations with the US and ultimately be a liability to the security of Europe rather than its guarantor.

Authoritarianism Reigns

Europe is not the only region experiencing resurgent nationalism. Latin America has its own brand of authoritarianism fueled by rampant organized crime and corruption. In Tearing Down the Walls, Ligia Lee described the crisis associated with transnational gangs in Central America and analyzed a corrective measure that depends on international outreach rather than seclusion behind walls.

Looking further south, John Boswell discussed tensions in Peru over last year’s pardon of its former president, Alberto Fujimori, in Pardon Me: Peru’s Fujimori Problem. The controversial leader was serving a 25-year prison sentence for corruption and human rights abuses when his pardon resulted in nationwide protests and a condemnation from the UN Human Rights Council. That drama and the political turmoil surrounding it has since brought down President Kuczynski and landed Fujimori’s daughter Keiko – herself a powerful presidential candidate – in jail on a “preventative sentence”.

Though Peru seems at the front end of an excruciating period of political soul-searching, nothing compares to the immense man-made disaster playing out in Venezuela. The failure of authoritarian nationalism in the Bolivarian Republic is the genesis of an exploding humanitarian catastrophe. In Maduro Drones On, Lino Miani argued that President Maduro’s repressive tactics to maintain power have degraded security in what was once South America’s richest state. The attempted assassination of Maduro by aerial drones marked the first notable proliferation of the technology outside of the Middle East and should serve as a wake-up call for security practitioners everywhere.

MBS
Authoritarianism personified: Mohammed bin Salman is the face of one of the world’s last functional monarchies.

The Status Quo Remains

While democracy continues to struggle in Europe and Latin America, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is inspiring the worst impulses of authoritarian nationalists from Ankara to Aden. In Master of Puppets: Pulling the Strings in Turkey, Nuno Felix called into question the stability of President Erdogan’s power as his pursuit of the now exiled Fethullah Gülen continues for its fifth year. This history describes the context behind Erdogan’s authoritarian tactics to amass power and sheds light on his more recent attempts to exploit the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to drive a wedge between regional rival Saudi Arabia and the United States.

In The Huydaydah Trap, Lino Miani outlined the precarious position of the United States in balancing regional conflicts. With strategic resolution of the war in Yemen focused on a single port city on its Red Sea coast, the sum total of centuries of geopolitical rivalry is concentrated on the previously unknown port of Hudaydah. Though most experts agree that battle there will trigger unimaginable suffering by famine and disease, America’s humane and decent call for a ceasefire could revitalize a beleaguered Houthi resistance and prolong the misery of millions.

Best Wishes

Our analysis throughout 2018 highlights the issues that result from a global shift away from international cooperation. We hope President Bush’s funeral will serve as a bulwark against authoritarian nationalism and not as a memorial to international cooperation itself. Though we will never be able to predict the future, one thing we can all agree on is that a well-informed public is a good thing. Our hope is to provide you with the best context to issues facing our world. Follow us throughout 2019 to receive more insightful articles as we make sense of a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape. For now, we at the Affiliate Network would like to wish you a very happy holiday season and a great beginning to the new year.


CrushThe views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any government or private institution.

Major John “Crush” Gerlach is the Blogmaster and editor for the Affiliate Network. He is a US Air Force Officer and C-17A Weapons Instructor Pilot with deployments in support of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is currently serving in Lyon, France.

 

The Hudaydah Trap

For the last 14 years, the war in Yemen has taken a brutal toll on the innocent population of one of the world’s poorest countries. Though an extension of long simmering tribal conflicts, the war is in some ways a proxy battle between the Iranian-sponsored Houthis and the Saudi-led Coalition of Sunni Arab states. Backed by American weaponry, intelligence, logistics, and political top cover, the Coalition has almost managed to completely surround the last Houthi stronghold in Sanaa, Yemen’s traditional capital. In what amounts to an operational siege of a fortified enclave, the port of Hudaydah is both the key to victory and the final lifeline for millions of Yemenis caught in the middle and slowly starving to death. Despite the emergence of dramatic images of malnourished children in the final stages of starvation, Yemen has raised very little public attention from the Pentagon…until last week.

Yemen Conflict
The Saudi-led Coalition has the Houthis surrounded. The fall of Hudaydah will complete the double envelopment and may end the war.

In a stunning reversal, the Secretaries of Defense and State announced that the United States would demand a ceasefire in Yemen. Communicated simultaneously, the demand came with an aggressive 30-day timeline. With Coalition forces massing for a final assault on Hudaydah, the timing of the announcement comes on the eve of what looks to be an irrevocable turning point in Washington’s favor. Some believe the curious timing makes sense given the dire humanitarian situation, but others point out that none of the warring factions are anywhere close to a negotiable position. A peace process, they suggest, is not only doomed at this point, but will likely prolong, and possibly magnify, the escalating humanitarian catastrophe. The opposing positions illustrate the intensity of the ethical dilemma Yemen presents to the world; is it better to stop the fighting or just get it over with?

Tragic Yemen

Experts among the humanitarian community say famine is a uniquely avoidable disaster but, once triggered, it cannot be easily reversed. Suffering from years of privation, currency collapse, and the world’s worst Cholera epidemic, Yemen rides the famine tripwire in every measurable way. Jeremy Konyndyk, recent Director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, believes an assault on Hudaydah will plunge the fragile region into the abyss, if it’s not already there. With some justification, he thinks this realization may be the basis for Washington’s policy shift in favor of ceasefire.

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Jeremy Konyndyk, once Director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, believes an assault on Hudaydah will trigger a famine in Yemen. His opinion on this matter is authoritative.

It is very easy to see the moral value of stopping the fighting to save the starving children of Yemen. However, the effectiveness of that course is as ambiguous as the political and military vagaries of the war in Yemen itself. Dave Harden, a respected diplomat that recently led US efforts to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen (and briefly Konyndyk’s boss) takes a dim view of the prospects for peace.

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Dave Harden believes the combatants are not ready for peace.

If Mr. Harden is correct, which seems likely, it is doubtful a ceasefire will last very long or have a measurable positive impact on the conditions that lead to famine. Worse, a respite could breathe new life into a failing Houthi defense and crystallize the war into years of intractable stalemate. The resultant mortality of this outcome will eclipse anything Yemen is likely to suffer if Houthi resistance collapses quickly.

Both Sides

Hudaydah and the spiraling famine in North Yemen present a dilemma in the truest sense. Though it is impossible to calculate just how much good can come from a ceasefire, it is also impossible to know how quickly and effectively the fall of Hudaydah will put an end to the war. The answer will be lost in complex analysis of relative combat power, skill of the commanders, tactical geography, and the unknowable will to win inherent in the opposing forces. There is simply no way to determine which is the ethically superior option from the purely utilitarian standpoint of: what is the most good for the most people?

Rather than making an ethical choice, the United States is shrewdly playing both sides. Calling for a ceasefire widely expected to fail makes it easier to blame one’s opponent for the disappointing result. Though this sounds intensely cynical, it can have the practical outcome of weakening Houthi/Iranian resolve, eroding international support, and may increase their need to make concessions. Giving the Coalition thirty days to implement it, however, encourages an attempt to settle the matter. Though calling for a ceasefire is probably the only politically acceptable option in this gamble, with Coalition troops already advancing into the outskirts of the city, the Hudaydah trap has been sprung, and there is no going back. History will balance the intensity of resultant suffering against the durability and justice — if any — of the political outcome.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

 

 

 

 

 

For additional information concerning the war in Yemen please reference the following articles:

“A hint of hope for a ceasefire in Yemen.”

“Ali Abdullah Saleh’s death will shake up the war in Yemen?