MidEast

Week in Review: Getting Serious on Syria, the United States Leads Again

Getting Serious on Syria

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week made a widely criticized remark that “the longer-term status of President [Bashar al-Assad] will be decided by the Syrian people.” However, following a deadly chemical weapons attack in the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib on Tuesday, which killed at least 70 people, the Trump administration’s view of the Assad regime seemed to shift.

President Donald Trump said Wednesday that the chemical attack “crossed many, many lines” and that his own view of Assad had consequently “changed very much,” while U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley urged the Security Council to “rise to action … as a defender of peace, security, and human rights.” If the council didn’t act against Assad’s war crimes, she hinted that the U.S. might go it alone, saying, “There are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.”

Tillerson also reversed course on Wednesday, saying in no uncertain terms that Assad should have “no role” in the future of Syria.

After consulting with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Trump ordered military strikes against the Ash Sha’irat airbase in Syria’s Homs province, from which U.S. officials say the Assad regime launched the deadly chemical attack.

The move received bipartisan support at home and drew praise from allies including Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Kingdom, Turkey, Australia, Germany, and France. Unsurprisingly, Syria and its patrons Russia and Iran condemned the attack. They were joined by Bolivia, which demanded a closed-door session of the Security Council to discuss the U.S. strikes. However, Haley insisted that the session be conducted openly, so that any “country that chooses to defend the atrocities of the Syrian regime will have to do so in full public view, for all the world to hear.”

Beating Back BDS

The controversial tactics of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel were recently exposed in two separate incidents.

A federal judge last Friday allowed a lawsuit to go forward against the American Studies Association (ASA) for embracing an academic boycott of Israel in 2013. The suit, brought forth by prominent members of the association against its leadership, accused the ASA of corporate waste, breach of contract, and violating the D.C. Nonprofit Corporation Act.

In short, the judge found that the association used its resources to pursue a course of action that had nothing to do with furthering the discipline of American studies.

BDS’s tactics were also highlighted by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who refused to speak this week at San Francisco State University (SFSU), where he was shouted down by protesters last year. While Barkat was invited to return to campus by SFSU president Les Wong, the university planned to let him speak at a small, closed event, rather than in an open forum. “If I were a representative of any other country, no institution of higher learning would have allowed my speech to be drowned out by protestors inciting violence and then bring me back to campus in a limited, secluded way,” Barkat said in a statement declining SFSU’s invitation.

Faced with evidence that the BDS campaign has been ineffective and even counterproductive, given that foreign investment in Israel’s economy has tripled since it began in 2015, a founder of the anti-Israel effort gave away the game.

“BDS is not just working,” Omar Barghouti, who was recently arrested by Israel for tax evasion, told Bloomberg News in June 2016. “It is working far better and spreading into the mainstream much faster than we had anticipated.”

The way that BDS spreads into the mainstream and attempts to change peoples’ minds—as demonstrated by the ASA case and Barkat’s experience—is by breaking rules or subverting existing institutions in order to shut down debate, thereby only allowing an anti-Israel message to spread. But that strategy leaves BDS open to legal and political pushback.

The State of Palestinian Two-State Support

In an extensive study published Monday in Mosaic Magazine, Dan Polisar, the executive vice-president of Shalem College, examined over 400 polls taken from 2003 to 2015 to gauge support in Palestinian society for a two-state solution with Israel, which the international community has insisted is essential to a durable peace.

Polisar found that when Palestinians were asked between 2012 and 2016 if they favored a two-state solution based on six principles—(1) the territory that would make up a Palestinian state, (2) the division of Jerusalem, (3) the requirement that the state be demilitarized, (4) allowing Israel to maintain monitoring stations in Palestinian territory for 15 years, (5) a limited “right of return” for Palestinian refugees, and (6) a commitment to declaring an end to the conflict—in 14 of the 16 polls, Palestinians rejected a two-state solution by a margin of 54 percent to 44 percent.

When one of the leading pollsters added three more elements to a hypothetical two-state solution in the past year, Polisar reported that “59 percent of Palestinians rejected it in June 2016 while only 39 percent accepted it,” even though those new elements made the deal even more favorable to them.

Polisar observed that in recent years, among Palestinians, “clear and growing majorities have expressed opposition to the best deal Israel might agree to in the foreseeable future.”

Why is Palestinian support for a two-state solution dropping?

A survey of Palestinian textbooks used in grades 4 through 12, conducted by the watchdog group Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), found that Palestinian textbooks routinely glorify violence and teach students to question Israel’s legitimacy. The most recent texts “are actually more radical than we have previously seen,” said Marcus Sheff, CEO of IMPACT-se. “There is clear evidence of a strategy of radicalization of young Palestinians, devised and implemented by the ministry, which includes a commitment to an Arab Palestine encompassing the entirety of Israel.”

The poll results observed by Polisar seem to confirm that the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to radicalize its population are working.

Feature: In Assad’s Syria, the Lesser of Two Evils is Still Evil

In an op-ed earlier this week, Michael Totten observed that Assad’s strategy has been to present himself as the only alternative to the Islamic State. “Assad effectively told the world, ‘either I rule or they rule,’ and the world bought it,” Totten wrote in The Tower.

In reality, however, Assad heavily contributed to the rise of ISIS. “In 2011, Assad’s regime shot, tortured, raped, and mutilated peaceful protesters while calling them terrorists,” Totten noted. “You can’t fight a war against terrorism if there are no terrorists, though. He needed to create a terrorist threat inside Syria. So he released the most extreme Islamists, including battle-hardened al-Qaeda fighters, from Sednaya prison north of Damascus.”

These freed terrorists then joined the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, or the largely decimated al-Qaeda in Iraq, which then morphed into ISIS.

But presenting himself as the lesser of two evils didn’t make Assad a good guy. While ISIS may be “the most deranged terrorist army on earth,” Assad’s ally and protector Hezbollah “remains the most powerful.” Hezbollah, Totten wrote, “is more powerful, in fact, than many of the Middle East’s national armies, including Lebanon’s. Its missile arsenal is now robust enough to strike targets anywhere and everywhere in Israel, including as far south as the Red Sea city of Eilat and the Dimona nuclear power plant.”

Given the power and determination of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis, counting on Assad to fight terror “makes about as much sense as Churchill and Roosevelt leaving it to Mussolini and Franco to save Europe from Hitler.”

Totten’s op-ed was published before Thursday’s military strikes against the Ash Sha’irat airbase in northwestern Syria, from which the Assad regime launched a chemical weapons attack against civilians earlier in the week. He called for a “course correction” in the Trump administration’s policy, which seemed to accept Assad staying in power. It appears that Totten may have gotten his wish.

This Week’s Top Posts

Did Russia Just Recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital?

• Hezbollah Cements Control of Lebanon With Beirut Drug Raids

• Iran Approves Massive Raise for Islamic Revolutionary Guards

Three Big Questions

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took offense on Friday at the charge that Iran is defending a regime that uses chemical weapons, writing on Twitter, “As the only recent victim of mass use of chemical weapons (by Saddam in the 80’s), Iran condemns use of all WMD by anyone against anyone.” But if that’s the case, why did Iran demand that the U.S. not take action against Assad for his August 2013 chemical attack on a Damascus suburb that killed more than 1,400 people, even making it a condition for continuing nuclear talks?

Former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in 2015 that Iran is expected to take advantage of sanctions relief “by shoring up its budget, building infrastructure, maintaining the stability of the rial, and attracting imports”—in other words, that it would prioritize civilian needs over support for its military and terrorist activities. Does giving the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a huge boost in funding qualify as “building infrastructure?”

A recent series of drug busts by Hezbollah in Beirut underscore its hold on Lebanon, and serve as the latest indication that the terror group has emerged as the big winner from Syria’s civil war. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah boasted last year that “Hezbollah’s budget, its income … its weapons and rockets are from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” indicating that Iran made good on Zarif’s pledge to use funds gained from sanctions relief to assist the terror group. Does Hezbollah’s growing political and military strength qualify as “building infrastructure?”

[Photo: PBS NewsHour / YouTube ]