Monday 14 October 2019

Patrick Cockburn: 'By backing Israel's Golan claim, Trump rips up rules that keep a fragile peace'


On the border: Members of the Druze community on the Israeli-controlled sector of the Golan Heights use loud-hailers to talk to fellow Druze in Syria. Photo: Getty Images
On the border: Members of the Druze community on the Israeli-controlled sector of the Golan Heights use loud-hailers to talk to fellow Druze in Syria. Photo: Getty Images

Patrick Cockburn

The Trump wrecking ball strikes again as he recognises Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights in Syria. The unexpected and arbitrary nature of the decision makes the world feel a more anarchic and dangerous place where territorial land grabs are abruptly legitimised.

Trump is tearing up the international rule book largely devised by the US since 1945 and of which Washington was the main beneficiary. The alliances and multilateral institutions through which the US once asserted its superpower status are contemptuously discarded.

Please log in or register with for free access to this article.

Log In

Why did the president do it? The obvious short-term motive is to strengthen Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the eve of Israel's elections on April 9. A feature of Trump's way of operating, which is to support populist nationalist right-wing leaders wherever they emerge - from Sao Paulo to Tel Aviv and Manila.

"President Trump just made history," said Netanyahu on hearing the news and he may well be right. But what kind of history is in the making and what does it portend for the rest of the Middle East: territorial aggrandisement at the expense of neighbours was a central theme of international politics up to the end of WWII.

Could it now be coming back into fashion?

Critics of Trump's action on the Golan point out that it is good news for Vladimir Putin, who will ask how the US and its allies can go on condemning Russia's annexation of the Crimea. Chinese leaders may react similarly when it comes to their claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea.

But in dealing with Trump one has to be careful to keep a sense of proportion and weigh the dramatic nature of his pronouncements and gestures against what he actually does. He usually shows greater caution and willingness to curb radical initiatives than is obvious from his first outrageous tweets.

Last year he announced the withdrawal of US troops from Syria, a policy that had more going for it than might appear, only to retreat from it in the face of strident opposition from the security establishment.

As happened when Trump decided to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2017, the change over the Golan is mostly symbolic - but the symbolism is important. Fig leaves that masked the nastier realities of US power are being discarded: any idea of American even-handedness in mediating between Israel and the Palestinians had always been a nonsense aimed at pretending there was a "peace process", or that there was a chance of a "two-state solution" when Israeli settlements were gobbling up the West Bank and penning Palestinians into isolated fragments of territory.

But fig leaves do serve a purpose in obscuring or delaying confrontation. Trump was supposedly assembling a great Sunni Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia to oppose Iran and curb its influence. It may be that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other Gulf states' leaders do not care what the US and Israel do in the West Bank or Golan.

But Saudi Arabia is in competition with Turkey for leadership of the Sunni Muslims and has so far got very little in return for its close cooperation with the US where, for the first time, it is under constant and damaging congressional attack over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

The anti-Iranian coalition looks more bedraggled and dysfunctional by the day.

Trump's démarche over the Golan comes as the political and military landscape of Syria is changing. The last Isil fighters are hiding out in caves and bomb-shattered trenches in eastern Syria but they cannot survive for long against the vastly superior forces ranged against them. Trump is expected to announce a famous victory with his usual exaggerations and pretence that it was all his own work.

His claims will be met with some scepticism - and it is always going to be impossible to stop Isil gunmen murdering lone Shia travellers in the deserts of eastern Syria and western Iraq. But a decisive victory has been won in that the caliphate declared by Isil in 2014 is destroyed and the extraordinary bid to create a salafi-jihadi state has failed.

There was an inevitability about this. Isil was like an Islamic version of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s, which was a militarised cult of great fighting power and unrestrained violence. Both movements were defeated by their very fanaticism, which led them to treat everybody else as enemies to be defeated, thereby provoking a counter-reaction that destroyed them.

Isil retains some fighting capacity and has always foreseen that it was likely to lose the battle to defend its once vast territories. But it is unlikely to rise again in the face of a multitude of enemies determined to stop the group resurrecting itself.

An effect of Isil's savagery is to give the impression that it was at the heart of the problems facing the Middle East.

The movement was born out of the chaos of wars in Iraq and Syria and these conflicts have not ended. So long as they go on, along with similar conflicts in Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and beyond, there is the possibility of other al-Q'aeda like groups gaining traction.

The other great unanswered question in the region revolves around Trump and Netanyahu: both leaders specialise in bellicose rhetoric but avoid full scale wars, if we except the one-sided Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

In Syria and Iraq, Trump's policy has not been much different from that of Barack Obama, though it is scarcely a comparison he would relish.

Some of this was a matter of chance. Trump has yet to face a crisis in the Middle East on the scale Obama did during the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 or the blitzkrieg victories of Isis in 2014 when for a few months the jihadis were advancing on every front. But the Middle East is always generating fresh crises that strike unexpectedly - and when this happens we will see how Trump reacts if, for example, a US ally in the Middle East is overthrown in a coup.

Recognition by the US of Israel's annexation of the Golan helps stir the pot in Syria, adding a destabilising sense that old rules no longer apply so far as the Trump administration is concerned.

Only hours earlier US secretary of state Mike Pompeo had been telling journalists that no such change was contemplated.

It is all very much in keeping with the behaviour of past populist nationalist leaders, with their invariable contempt for legality, who have sprung up all over the world and may one day lead it to disaster.

©Independent News Service

Independent News Service

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News