March 21, 2016 - Surprises at the heart of the Middle East whirlwind: Putin and Syria, the Syrian Kurds and Murray Bookchin, ISIS striking Israelis in Istanbul, Israel’s readiness to “out” a clandestine relationship with Indonesia


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses what he missed last week (along with every other analyst and commentator) in assuming that Russia would stay firmly in place and not predicting the subsequent Russian military withdrawal; is this good for Israel or the US; what the connection is between the Kurds of northern Syria and a recently-deceased (2006) Vermont-based Jewish anarchist ecologist philosopher named Murray Bookchin; whether Turkish concerns regarding the death of Israelis in Saturday’s ISIS suicide bombing in Istanbul facilitate Turkish-Israeli political reconciliation; and why Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi was not allowed by Israel to visit the Palestinian Authority a week ago, what Israel chose to reveal in the aftermath about its relations with Indonesia, and what this tells us about Israel’s current approach to such clandestine ties.

Q. Last week, in analyzing the ceasefire in Syria, you assumed Russia would stay firmly in place and did not predict the subsequent Russian military withdrawal. What did you (and every other analyst and commentator) miss?

A. I correctly noted last week and earlier that President Putin, having stabilized Bashar Assad’s regime and warned it to limit its territorial objectives, would be concentrating his efforts in Syria on Russia’s new naval facility at Tartus and air force base at nearby Khmeimim. And I noted that Russia’s Syria strategy is “holistic”, integrating military and diplomatic steps and seeking to work with a broad coalition. None of us grasped the corollary: that Moscow could now symbolically remove a portion of its attack aircraft as a limited but strategically significant gesture to put it “one up” on all other relevant actors in the Syria drama.

Putin’s move said something to nearly everybody. It enhanced the significance of Geneva-based ceasefire and peace talks by downgrading the military option. By weakening the Russia-Iran-Hezbollah-Alawite military alliance in Syria, Putin signaled his allies that their efforts were disappointing and inadequate to the task of putting Syria back together again and that they too must compromise. He sent a signal to Assad that he must begin accommodating the need for evolution toward a more inclusive regime not based on Alawite domination. By leaving in place a de facto federative reality, particularly regarding Syria’s Kurds whom Moscow supports and its Alawite region where Putin’s bases are, he signaled--to both an unwilling regime in Damascus and an unwilling Syrian opposition--that a loose federation could be the solution for the country.

Putin also signaled Riyadh that Syria need not be an obstacle to discussing the oil price crisis that is bedeviling both the Saudi and the Russian economies. And he indicated to the US and Europe that he is open to negotiation and compromise, for example in eastern Ukraine as well as Syria.

Putin appears to have avoided a 1980s-style Afghanistan-type disaster for the Russian military. He has defied President Obama’s prediction that Russia would regret its Syria adventure. He appears to be too smart to repeat George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” declaration regarding Iraq in 2003. Instead he has done in Syria what he has done in Georgia and Ukraine in recent years, leaving Russia as the indispensable power-broker, holding a vital piece of real estate (Abhazia in Georgia, Donetsk in Ukraine and now the Alawite coastal enclave in Syria) in an ongoing geostrategic crisis.

But Russia’s withdrawal almost certainly also reflects darker concerns. The Russian economy is ill equipped to sustain a long-term military campaign anywhere. Accordingly the Russian armed forces, too, have their limits. Nor did Putin achieve his declared objectives of defeating the Islamic State or killing all of Russia’s own Sunni Islamists far from home.


Q. Is all this good for Israel? For the US?

A. Israel in particular has learned to accommodate the Russian military presence to its north. Last week, IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan publicly commended the two armies’ constructive and friendly relationship. Israel and possibly the US appear ready to accommodate a federative approach to that portion of Syria (about 40 percent) not held by IS, despite Turkish objections regarding the prospective status of the Syrian Kurds.

The small number of combat aircraft removed by Russia could return overnight--the military infrastructure remains. Putin’s maneuvers are impressive, but they reflect weaknesses as well as strengths. The Syrian civil wars are far from over. American involvement is far from over. The dangers posed to Israel by both Sunni and Shiite militant Islamists based in Syria have not gone away.


Q. You mentioned the Kurds of northern Syria. What in the world is their connection to a recently-deceased (2006) Vermont-based Jewish anarchist ecologist philosopher named Murray Bookchin?

A. If you’re into anarchist ecological philosophers, Google Bookchin. What is relevant to this Q & A is the fact that Bookchin’s “Communalism” is one of the philosophical underpinnings of the Rojava democratic federalist “egalitarian” experiment now governing the lives of the Kurds of northern Syria. Note that the Syrian Kurds are acknowledged by both the US and Russia to be the best fighting force in the country and that they are largely secular and anti-Islamist and promote the equality of women, who are some of their best combatants. Whether Kurdish communalism really means democracy is another question.

Bookchin’s communalism, explained by him in numerous books, was originally embraced by Turkish Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been imprisoned in Turkey since 1998. The Turkish and Syrian Kurds are closely allied. But in Turkey they are known as the PKK, a terrorist group, and in Syria as the PYD, a liberation movement, and their status is a major bone of contention between the US and Turkey.

The Syrian Kurds have emerged as the surprise “dark horse” of the Syrian chaos. So far their communalism, Bookchin-style, has been overshadowed by their military prowess. Unless Turkey’s “moderate” Islamist government can make its peace with Turkish Kurds and find positive ways to channel its influence among Syrian Kurds, more Turkish-Kurdish clashes are a virtual certainty, no matter what happens in Syria itself.


Q. Will Turkish concerns regarding the death of Israelis in Saturday’s ISIS suicide bombing in Istanbul now finally facilitate Turkish-Israeli political reconciliation?

A. The Erdogan government in Ankara made significant gestures by expressing condolences and extending assistance to Israel over the deaths of three Israelis (two of them dual US-Israeli citizens) in the ISIS attack, which may have deliberately targeted Hebrew-speakers on an Istanbul street. No doubt the drawn-out negotiations regarding a reconciliation agreement were discussed during the emergency visit of Israel Foreign Ministry Director-General Dore Gold. Yet the longer the talks continue, the more complications arise.

When negotiations over the May 2010 Mavi Marmara incident commenced, following PM Netanyahu’s March 2013 public apology that was brokered by President Obama, Turkey’s bargaining position was relatively strong regarding its most controversial demand--that Israel remove economic sanctions from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Additional conditions proffered by both sides--that Israel financially compensate the families of nine Turks killed by Israeli commandos on the Mavi Marmara and that Turkey drop its charges against senior Israeli officers involved at the time--have proven more easily negotiable.

But three developments have intervened in the past two years to cloud the issue. For one, Turkey has allowed Hamas to set up a headquarters on its soil, provoking an additional Israeli condition that the Palestinian Islamist movement be expelled. Then too, a few months ago the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian combat aircraft over the Turkish-Syrian border, generating massive Russian anger and pressure from Moscow on Israel not to “reward” Turkey. Finally, the Sisi regime in Egypt, which is resolutely anti-Muslim Brotherhood in orientation, hence anti-Turkey and anti-Hamas, is also pressuring Israel to take a hard line toward Turkey and its demand to open up Gaza economically.

Turkey is today more isolated regionally and internationally than it was three years ago. Its quarrel with the Syrian Kurds (see above) has generated tensions even with the US. It is under terrorist attack by both militant Kurds and the militant Islamists it once clandestinely aided. The Erdogan government is taking near-weekly initiatives to restrict Turkish civil rights, and Erdogan himself has in recent years sounded increasingly anti-Semitic to Israeli ears. Thus Turkey’s hand in its talks with Israel has been weakened, while the Netanyahu government feels it has to represent Russian and Egyptian interests as well as its own and take a stronger stand that does not compromise its strategic relationships with Moscow and Cairo.

If and when agreement is reached, it will be scrutinized very carefully not just by Jerusalem and Ankara.


Q. Why was Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi not allowed by Israel to visit the Palestinian Authority a week ago? What did Israel choose to reveal in the aftermath about its relations with Indonesia? And what does this tell us about Israel’s current approach to such clandestine ties?

A. Marsudi tried to enter the West Bank from Jordan and proceed directly to Ramallah. Israel, which controls the Jordan-West Bank crossing, refused her entry unless she first visited Jerusalem and met with Israeli authorities. In the end, Marsudi visited neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely subsequently explained openly to a Knesset committee that Israel has a clandestine relationship with Indonesia, that she had met earlier with Indonesian authorities and that they had agreed in advance to the Israeli demand for parallel visits. Hotovely’s “outing” of the secret Israeli-Indonesian relationship was unprecedented and shocked many observers.

There are two possible explanations for the Marsudi incident: misunderstanding and mismanagement on Indonesia’s part, or similar failures on Israel’s part. There are also two possible explanations for Hotovely’s Knesset revelations. One is that she exercised colossal lack of judgment regarding the nature of Israel’s discrete ties with the world’s largest Muslim nation--a major faux pas she is perfectly capable of committing in view of her lack of experience managing such relationships and her ideological extremism.

The alternative explanation, which I prefer in view of the overall strategy Netanyahu appears to be adopting regarding Israel’s regional and global reach, is that this was a deliberate revelation. Figuratively, Israel is saying to Indonesia, “We are a regional power that does not have to beg for ties and should not have to hide them. In view of the threat of militant Islam everywhere, you need us at least as much as we need you. In the current global and regional constellation, the Palestinian factor is no longer an issue that should be used to obstruct open relationships. Just look how skillfully we can juggle the Turkish-Russian-Egyptian relationship (see above).”

This mindset explains recent Israeli revelations regarding strategic cooperation with a variety of Arab countries. It also underpins Israeli readiness essentially to ignore US and European pressures, admonitions and initiatives concerning the Palestinian issue.

But there are three major problems with this approach. First, it will prove ephemeral and hard to sustain if and when the Islamist threat abates. Second, it risks the stability of what is still an absolutely vital strategic relationship--with the United States. And third, it throws a smoke screen over Israel’s ongoing descent down a slippery slope toward a single state reality with the Palestinians that poses an existential threat to Israel as a Zionist, Jewish democracy. As Vice President Biden said to the AIPAC convention over the weekend, Netanyahu does not believe his policies augment this threat: “To be frank, the Israeli government’s steady process of expanding settlements and expropriating land is eroding the possibility of a two-state solution. Bibi [Netanyahu] thinks he can accommodate it. I don’t. Because trends on the ground are moving toward a one-state solution, and I feel that’s dangerous.”

Netanyahu is wrong. Hotovely’s revelation regarding Indonesia is just one more expression of Netanyahu’s disastrous exercise in folly.