Monday, September 30, 2013

Iranian diplomatic charm is offensive

Is the current attempt by the new President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, to charm his western critics truly offensive and false, or is there really something to it? Therein lies the question of the moment.

There is no doubt that from the point of view of rhetoric and public relations, Rouhani is a vast improvement over the former President Ahmedinejad. But, is this purely superficial, is Rouhani just covering the real Iranian intentions of developing a nuclear weapon and destroying Israel with a smoother rhetoric designed to lull the West into a sense of false security. After 10 years of fruitless negotiations with the EU and the IAEA over its nuclear programs and the application of severe international sanctions against Iran, that are finally having an effect on its economy, is Iran now working to reduce the sanctions without actually changing its policies or programs, or is there really a new intention by Rouhani towards moderation?

As far as I can judge from his speech at the UN and most of what is being said and written about the new situation, it actually is not new in any real way. First, we should acknowledge that Rouhani does not have the final say in these matters, he is merely the messenger of the true Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamanei. It seems that Khamanei had a falling out with Ahmedinejad because he was too caustic and extreme in his views towards the West. Now Khamanei has a more moderate-sounding and presentable representative. Second, we know that Iran uses dissimulation and lies to further its policies and there is no doubt that Rouhani's current smoother rhetoric cannot be relied upon. Even the US spokesmen have emphasised that they will wait to see the results of Iranian actions rather than depend on Rouhani's rhetoric.

In his UN speech not only did Rouhani criticize Israel's existence, but he also placed the onus on Israel to join the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and destroy its nuclear arsenal (what chutzpah). Yet there was none of the extreme rhetoric of Ahmedinejad, no public denial of the Holocaust, no call for the destruction of Israel, and no anti-Semitic barbs. PM Netanyahu will have a harder time this time at the UN painting Iran as the enemy of western civilization, he will have to tone down his own rhetoric to remain believable following Rouhani's slick performance. After they did not meet at the UN there was a 15 min courtesy phone-call between Pres. Obama and Rouhani, of which Netanyahu was informed in advance. Whether this presages a new and improved situation in the world or is merely a blip on the screen remains to be seen.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Diplomatic breakthroughs

Two major developments in the diplomatic sphere have taken place this week at the UN. First, the UN Security Council has passed unanimously the first joint resolution on Syria, after 2.5 years of deadlock, that calls for the removal of all chemical weapons from Syria and provides the means for their verification and destruction. Second, was the first official meeting between representatives of the USA and Iran in 35 years.

The SC Resolution was only possible because of the agreement between the US and Russia in Geneva two weeks ago and the agreement of Russia and China to the Western-initiated draft. Although the Resolution does not itself call for military action or force if Syria does not comply, it does indirectly invoke Clause Seven of the UN charter that allows the use of force or sanctions if UN SC resolutions are not implemented. Actual force would require a follow-up resolution, that might be blocked by a Russian/Chinese veto, but the US resesrves the right of unilateral military action in the case of Syrian non-compliance. For the moment, the new agreed Resolution is a major step in the right direction and shows that Russia, i.e. Pres. Putin, can be amenable, as long as his interests are protected.

The other significant outcome has been the first official meeting between representatives of the USA, Secty of State Kerry, and of the Islamic Republic of Iran, FM Javad Zarif, after 35 years without diplomatic contacts. This breakthrough has been subsequent to the election of the so-called moderate Hassan Rouhani as the President of Iran, and his more mild tone towards the West at the UN. But, Secty Kerry stated clearly that one meeting and a change in tone do not make a fundamental difference to the situation, what that requires is action on the ground. We will see if this meeting will bear diplomatic and practical fruits at the follow-up meeting in Geneva in October, but In the meantime the biting sanctions on Iran will not be lifted or reduced.

These developments do indicate that the UN, for all its anti-Israel bias and drawbacks, still has a useful role to play in the international sphere. It is unlikely that such breathroughs could have come about without the role played by the UN. Those of us who legitimately criticize the organization for its faults must also acknowledge that it still does have its positive uses.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Staying alive

My doctor confided in me recently that his main function as a GP is to keep people alive with drugs, maintaining their lives with selective medications. For example, I now take five different drugs each morning and a further three each night. How can it be that I need all these drugs to retain a natural balance in my physiological condition. And how is it that each of these drugs performs a specific function that does not interfere with any other.

Let's start with a condition I have, hypo-pituitarism, a lowering of the level of hormones from the pituitary gland, the so-called "master gland" of the body, because it controls many of the other hormone-producing glands. How did I get this way? Well, I had a small non-malignant growth removed in 1990 from above my optic nerve just adjacent to the pituitary gland, and because it was so close and the pituitary is so delicate, this gland was damaged and was then unable to deliver its essential hormones into my body. So now I must take a steroid, in my case Hydrocortisone, on a daily basis to replace the natural steroid from the adrenal gland that would normally be produced, namely adrenaline. I also take the drug Eltroxin that replaces the natural thyroid hormone.

For some time I have had high blood pressure and a low heart pulse rate (ca. 40). The problem was that when I took any of the normal bp lowering drugs it also lowered my pulse rate even further, which was not good. So I managed without any heart medication, that is until my blood pressure went even higher (170/90). Then I went to a cardiologist, who gave me an alpha-blocker Losartan instead of the usual beta-blocker. The alpha and beta refer to different types of drug receptors in the heart muscle, beta being the more common one. Most bp medications are beta-blockers, but now that I take an alpha blocker, it lowers my bp without lowering my pulse rate, so I am much better off.

Like many older men I need to get up during the night to take a pee. When this became regularly 3-4 times, I complained to my doc, and he gave me a drug called Cadex, that contains an active ingredient that regulates the need to pee. Even though these tablets contain only 1 mg of the active substance, they work over a period of time to gradually reduce the need to get up during the night, and this makes for a better sleep experience and affects the whole of my life.

I had been suffering from a chronic cough that I experienced especially in the evening and morning when lying in bed. I assumed this was due to the build up of phlegm in my throat, but after some tests the doctor concluded that I had acid reflux that caused the coughing when I was lying down, so he prescribed an antacid tablet, Ompradex, that reduces the production of acid in the oesophagus. Net result, no coughing.

In addition to the above, I take a low dose of aspirin as Tevapirin, an anti-coagulant against blood clotting and strokes, an anti-cholesterol statin called Pravalip, and Vitamin D. All these eight drugs act independently on their own protein receptor or active sites in the body and cause a specific effect. Added together they greatly improve the quality of my life and keep me alive and healthy. Everybody has some things that go wrong that need drugs. Hooray for pharmacology! (note: I must confess a personal interest here, I was a Professor of pharmacology).

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Router reset

This is a true story, I don't make anything up. I had lost access to the internet last week, so when I returned from the Succot holiday I tested it and still had no internet access or e-mail, even though the modem and the wi-fi router looked as if they were acting normally. I tried several times turning them off and on, but it made no difference, I had no internet access.

So Sunday morning (a working day here) I called my internet provider Bezeq, and after about 20 mins someone came on line and I spoke to him in a mixture of Hebrew and English, and he told me to try to access the router web-site, but I could not do this because the password that is required was unknown to me. He told me that it should be the same as the user name, "admin" but that didn't work. So he told me he couldn't help me, that I had to call the HOT company that runs the cable connection to the router and get the password from them, and he put me through to HOT.

After about another 20 mins a girl came on the line, but she couldn't speak English or Hebrew at anything less than express speed, so since I couldn't understand her she said she would get me someone who spoke English. I waited a further 30 mins until another girl answered in English, and then she started asking me technical questions, such as "where is the clock on your device?" As I was trying to tell her I had no idea what she was talking about, I was cut off. After over an hour waiting to get thru I was pissed off, but no further ahead. I called again and left my tel number automatically in a queue that will take up to 3 hrs to respond.

While I was sitting here I though to myself, someone as supposedly intelligent as I am should be able to solve this problem. I kept trying to input different passwords into the empty space and hitting return, but nothing worked. However, every now and then the web-site got angry with me and displayed a notice that had three warnings. The first told me to fill in the user name and password, the second told me to make sure if it didn't work that I did not have "caps-lock" set. The third one, that I had not bothered to read until now said that if the settings were unknown you could re-set the values to the original factory settings of "admin" by pressing the "reset" button on the back of the router for 5 secs. I looked carefully at the back of the router and sure enough there was a little hole with "reset" written around it, but it was not a button. I tried pressing it and nothing happened, so I decided to take a risk, I took a paper clip and inserted the end into the hole and pressed it in for 5 secs and guess what happened, the internet was immediately accessible!!!

OK, I admit this was more luck than deep thinking, but get this, in 5 sec I had solved a problem that in ca. 1.5 hrs three experts had been unable to help me with. The fact of the matter is, buddy, you are on your own! I am still waiting for the call back.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Israel and the global economic crisis

A lecture was given by Pinchas Landau at AACI Netanya with the above title, which focused mostly on Europe. Pinchas Landau is a graduate of LSE and was for several years the financial editor of the Jerusalem Post, he still writes a column in the Post, but has his own consulting company and publishes the Landau Report, that provides intelligence on investments mainly for companies. His lecture was excellent, informative and coherent. This is my summary of his lecture.

He had bad news and good news, the bad news is that Europe is doomed, financially, economically, politically and demographically. The good news is that Israel among the many countries of the world that have been negatively affected by the global economic crisis is one of the least affected and has relatively good prospects. What does he mean that Europe is doomed; if you look at the published debt/GDP of all countries of Europe, including the USA and UK, the figures are too high, somewhere between 90-120%, when the official limit required for the Eurozone is supposed to be a maximum of 60%. But, these are only the official figures, if one takes into account the unofficial financial commitments of all these countries, the figures come out above 400% and in the case of Greece up to 850%. In other words, Govt. spending and social entitlements have essentially bankrupted all European countries, to an extent from which they can never recover. The idea that people can depend on their pensions and entitlements is no longer valid, mainly since the population of Europe is aging and those young people that are left cannot support the entitlements of the older people. Further, the younger people cannot find employment, for example whereas the overall unemployment rate of the EU is ca. 12%, that among young people (16-25) is around 20-25%. So the young cannot find jobs and careers and since there are fewer of them they cannot support the mounting debt that the governments have accumulated.

There is a well-known cycle that has been documented thoughout history, that a financial crisis leads to an economic crisis, ie. reduced public spending leads to reduced government income and less social entitlements. This in turn leads to political instability and the turning of a significant portion of the public to extreme political parties that offer drastic solutions, that often include scapegoating and oppression of minorities. Such a process is already happening within the EU, where countries that have recently become democratic are turning to fringe right-wing parties, such as in Hungary and Slovakia. Even in France, where social entitlements are among the highest in the world, recently the French Cabinet expelled most Roma from France back to Romania, because they were considered to be a drain on the French economy. In the UK there is the UKIP and the EDL, in France there is Le Pen, in Greece there is the New Dawn. In effect, every country of the EU will follow the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) down the same road, of drastic cuts in Government spending, drastic cuts in social entitlements, social unrest and then reversion to political extremism.

One corollary of this situation is that the middle class is being squeezed, a phenomenon that has been noted throughout the western world. Another factor is the north-south divide, between Germany and its allied states of Holland, Belgium, Scandinavia, and the Baltics, where citizens pay their taxes and fiscal responsibility is taken seriously, and the Mediterranean countries, Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, where people don't pay taxes and there is a relaxed attitude about fiscal responsibility. Many think that technology will come to the rescue. But, this is a myth, technology can to some extent help, but usually only a few gain significantly from the financial windfall of new technology. The rest of us have to pay for it, thus we buy the computers, software and smartphones that puts money into the coffers of the already rich.

This analysis has not touched on India and China, but both of these rapidly expanding economies are shackled to their endemic cultures of corruption and nepotism. Russia is not much better off, the oligarchs (who are mostly Jewish) are rapidly exporting the wealth of Russia to the west. France is one of the most worrying countries, because although its debt is as high as the PIIGS, it seems to be going along as if there is no real problem, and if its economy fails then the Eurozone will definitely collapse, even Germany cannot bail out France. An alternative to the breaking up of the EU/Eurozone is greater central control, for example with a central European Bank, along the lines of the US Federal system. But, the countries of Europe are loath to give up their cherished independence, and who would be in charge of a unified EU, why of course, the Germans.

A major collapse of Europe would affect Israel significantly. Yet, Israel is poised to continue its careful economic path, in which it has had hardly any sovereign debt or banking collapses. Also, the upheavals foreseen in Europe would result in a mass emigration of Jews from France, with the second largest Jewish population in the diaspora (ca. 500,000) and from the UK (260,000). Although these influxes would put further strain on the Israeli economy, nevertheless, these immigrants would be both relatively well-off and quite productive. So while the future looks gloomy for Europe, it looks relatively positive for Israel.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Terrorist incidents

There have been a series of terrible terrorist incidents that have been carried out recently that should give us pause. The most serious is the current attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, by terrorists of the Somali Al-Shabab organization. About a year ago, after several border attacks and incidents, the Kenyan Army invaded Somalia and flushed out the Al-Shabab rebels from several southern Somali cities. Al-Shabab vowed revenge and this attack is part of that response. As of now the reports are 63 people killed and many injured. At least a dozen heavily armed terrorists were seen entering the Mall and shooting the security guards. Although the Mall is surrounded by the Kenyan Army they are not yet in control of the building. It is reported that an Israeli commando unit is on site to help the Kenyan military. The terrorists chose to attack when there was a children's festival and it is feared that many of the dead are European women and children. This is how cowardly and degenerate are these Muslim extremist terrorists.

In Iraq, the pattern of inter-sectarian attacks continues apace. The latest one was the bombing in several cities of Shia targets, and in Sadr City in Baghdad the toll was over 65 dead. This was one of the deadliest attacks in several years, over 92 were killed throughout Iraq in one day. For how long can this continuous death toll be tolerated. Also in Yemen, another attack by Islamist extremists on an Army barracks left 31 soldiers dead and many injured. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are attempting to take over parts of Yemen in order to establish their own mini-state from which to launch greater operations around the world. In Pakistan, there was another bombing of a Church in Peshawar, part of a nation-wide campaign, that killed ca. 70 worshippers as they exited. The terrorists used a car bomb and two suicide bombers.

In Bat-Yam, Israel, an IDF soldier, Sgt. Tomer Hazan, who worked in a restaurant was lured to the West Bank by a Palestinian co-worker Nadel Amar, who was in Israel illegally. Apparently the Palestinian has a brother who is in prison in Israel for terrorist-related activity. He hoped to use the soldier to exchange for his brother, so he lured him to his village near Kalkilya and there killed him and secreted his body down a well. The police found him and an accomplice very quickly and they are under arrest. Many people are angered by this incident because the Palestinian should not have been employed illegally in an Israeli restaurant and secondly it shows that the rule against Israelis going to the West Bank, especially soldiers, is very serious. Under the guise of friendship Palestinians murder Israelis.

Another shooting incident occured on the West Bank in Hebron yesterday, where after another riot an IDF soldier on guard at a checkpoint was shot dead by a sniper. The city of Hebron was put under lock-down while the IDF searched for the killer.

Finally, an incident in which a group of EU diplomats were involved in the Jordan Valley, when they took a truck loaded with tents and other "humanitarian" material into the West Bank in order to help some Palestinians whose homes had been demolished under a Supreme Court order. It may be that the Palestinians needed help, but to drive a truck into the middle of an ongoing riot and then to take the side of the Palestinians is hardly a diplomatic approach. During the rioting the cameras clearly caught a young French woman diplomat, Marion Castaing, fighting with the Israeli soldiers and hitting one in the face. She was then dragged out of the truck and thrown to the ground. She then claimed that her diplomatic immunity was breached. What hypocrisy, these EU diplomats come here and take a pro-Palestinian position, rather than act as neutral diplomats, and then complain when they are caught in the act. The EU has called for an investigation and Israel has lodged a complaint with the EU that its personnel are active anti-Israel combatants rather than diplomats.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


I was lying in bed trying to think of something useful, when a map of London flashed into my head, perhaps because we had visited there in August. I remembered how to find my way around large parts of the city, even though I haven’t visited for many years and even though I haven’t lived there for over 50 years, but I did grow up there and I have visited many times in the past. Then as a mental exercise I began to think of which other cities I carry maps of around in my head. I was surprised at the large number of them that I could in principle find my way around without too much difficulty.

We lived in New Jersey for about 3 years and often drove into New York City and I think I could find my way around there, but like the “Bonfire of the Vanities” by Tom Wolfe, I would be afraid to take the wrong turn, as I did once leaving Kennedy Airport with my newly arrived wife and kids. I went straight ahead to Astoria on the Van Dyck Highway rather than turn left on the Driveway to the Verrazano Bridge and Staten Island to get to NJ. This mistake in rush hour cost me three hours, a mistake that nearly ruined my marriage. But, if we could survive that I reasoned we could survive anything.

Jerusalem, I know quite well because I lived there for a bitter winter in 1995 when I had a visiting professorship at Hebrew University and lived in student housing in Kiryat Hayovel, which was very basic and terribly cold. Then I used to work part-time in the Pharmacy School at Hadassah for 5 years and used to stay overnight rather than drive home and back from Netanya where I live, and I got to know a lot of the restaurants in Jerusalem. I also know my way around Tel Aviv, but have often been lost there.

I know San Francisco very well, because I used to attend many conferences there, it is the favorite conference city for scientific meetings in the USA, and can accommodate tens of thousands of visitors. Also, my son lives near there, an hour’s drive away in the Bay area, and so we have visited many times. We have become so blasé that the last few times we have visited him and his family in Livermore we haven’t even bothered to go into the city.

We lived in Bethesda MD, just outside Washington DC for 27 years and I know the whole area like the back, or even the front, of my hand. I could drive around the most obscure short cuts to avoid the traffic. I used to take Seven Locks Road, which runs parallel to the Beltway, to get to Georgetown or even Virginia, where I worked for several years, in order to avoid the terrible 5-lane traffic jams. Of course, Bethesda has changed in the past 20 years, it has grown into a more habitable and pleasurable entertainment area, with lots of restaurants and bars, but it still is a suburb of Washington.

There are many cities that I have visited that I know quite well, Baltimore of course, Stockholm, Sweden, Beersheva, and especially Copenhagen, Denmark, which I visited many times when I collaborated with a friend there. And of course, Toronto and Vancouver, which is one of my favorite cities. We drove there once from Seattle and around the Olympic Peninsula and took the ferry to Victoria and then another to Vancouver itself, a great trip.

There are many cities I’ve visited that I wouldn’t have a clue how to get around, such as New Delhi, Kyoto, Madrid, Tokyo, Moscow, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Sydney, and so on. The fact that I carry the maps of about ten cities in my head is amazing. I told my wife about this and she said “send me a postcard.”

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Assad's credibility

Much has been made of the US-Russian agreement for the surrender by Pres. Assad of his stockpiles of chemical weapons and his vountarily releasing them to be verified and destroyed by international inspectors. Many think it is a chance for a peaceful diplomatic resolution of the problem of his use of chemical weapons and the avoidance of a US military strike on Syria.

But, suppose Pres. Assad is non-compliant, suppose he releases only partial information and tries to hide some weapons and the ability to make more. Suppose he blocks the inspectors from finding and verifying some of the stockpiles. His excuse of course could be that it is in the middle of a war and access is very difficult or impossible. But, let's go back two steps, first it was reported last week that Pres. Assad was dispersing his chemical weapons stockpiles so that they could not be targeted by a US military strike. Presumably some of them are well-hidden by now. Second, a week before the agreement Pres. Assad denied publicly that he has chemical weapons, he told that to reporters just days before the Russians on his behalf agreed that he will specify the locations and amounts of his stockpiles. In other words he lied.

Let's ask why is it that a small country like Syria has the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the world. The answer from Syria is that it wanted them to counteract Israel's reported cache of nuclear weapons. The fact is that Assad has no compunction of using such weapons when they were banned by international agreement for 100 years and using them against his own defenceless people. His army has also killed over 100,000 Syrians and he is allied with Iran that is expert at delaying tactics with the Europeans in negotiations over their nuclear weapons program. Let's face it, Pres. Assad's credibility is nil.

The credibility of the agreement and its implementation lies with the Russians. Pres. Putin is the guarantor for Assad's full cooperation with the international inspectors. But, since Assad is a liar and a war criminal, how much trust can we put in him. And is Pres. Putin all that reliable, will it be in his interests to stretch out the process, even though it is supposed to be finished by mid-November, a very short schedule according to experts. No, this story has many chapters yet to be written.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Still Oslo

Many people think that the Oslo Accords that were signed on the White House lawn 20 years ago, on Sept 13, 1993, between Pres. Clinton, PM Rabin of Israel and Yasir Arafat of the PLO, have been a failure, and consequently have become null and void and have been replaced by subsequent agreements. But, the fact is that although the Accords have been seriously breached, particularly by Arafat who launched a wave of terrorist bombings against Israel during the second intifada of 2000, these Accords are still in effect, since no actual agreement has ever been made between the two sides to replace them. They are still in effect, even though Israel has suspended its withdrawal from areas that were supposed to be turned over to the Palestine Authority because of the wave of terrorism. Indeed the existence and legitimacy of the PA is entirely based on the Accords. If the Accords were to be abrogated, the PA would cease to exist and Israel would become once again the occupier of all the Palestinian cities of the West Bank. This is something that opponents of Oslo must recognize before they push for such an abrogation.

The current negotiations, following many previous attempts, are a natural continuation of the Oslo Accords of 1993, and hopefully will build on their base and expand their scope. Most significantly it is anticipated that the PA will be tranformed into a Palestinian State, with full sovereignty over its agreed territory and within its agreed borders. But, for this to happen the PA leadership must accept certain realities, the rightful existence of the State of Israel within its own borders and the fact that Israel is indeed the Jewish State in its own ancient homeland. Furthermore, the Palestinian population must be educated to accept peace with Israel, a situation that is remote from the current state of undisguised enmity.

Failing any positive outcome of these negotiations, there is a distinct possibility that the PA, that has not had an election in 6 years, could collapse, that then the Oslo Accords would be abrogated and that the whole situation would return to the status quo ante 1993. I don't think anyone really wants this to happen. Another possibility is that an interim agreement, that covers only some of the issues being discussed, could stabilize the current status quo, and leave the negotiations for a future time, when perhaps the current turmoil in the Arab world, in Syria , Egypt and Iraq, would be resolved. Don't hold your breath, that could take until hell freezes over.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

A win, win, win situation

The transition from a military strike against the Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles to a diplomatic solution is a win situation for three actors. It is a win for Pres. Obama in that he avoided defeat in the Congress and did not have to change from the President who is against war to one who might have initiated another one. Only the credible threat of American military force was enough to scare Russia's Pres. Putin and Pres. Assad of Syria into agreeing to a previously unachievable diplomatic solution whereby the undeclared illegal chemical weapons held by the regime in Syria will be turrned over to international control to subsequently be destroyed. How exactly this will be implemented during the civil war in Syria is not clear, but the real cooperation of Assad under Russian pressure is a necessary component of the agreement.

Another winner is of course Pres. Putin, he gets to save his client Assad from attack, he saves his warm water port in Latakia, and he increases his credibility and influence in the Middle East at America's expense. What the consequences of this win for Putin are remain to be seen, but expect Russia to flex its muscles in the region in the future. Can the US now act in the Middle East without getting the approval of Russia?

Another winner is Israel. Certainly it is bad for Israel to have a US President who appears indecisive, for example in postponing the military strike and asking Congress for approval, thus diluting the powers of the President, who did not have to consult Congress. But, an even greater positive is that Assad's chemical weapons will hopefully be destroyed without Israel having to act at all and without a single shot being fired, thus avoiding a greater conflagration. The removal of this chemical threat from Israel was an Israeli government imperative and would have been a causus belli. If the agreement can indeed be implemented and verified, then Israelis can breath easier (!) and the run on gas masks in Israel will cease. Note however that this agreement in no way absolves Assad and his regime of the war crime of having gassed hundreds of his own people. After the agreement was announced the first foreign visit by Secty Kerry is to PM Netanyahu in Israel.

The losers in this situation are the insurgent opposition to Assad, they feel that Assad has escaped a military strike against his regime and they are prepared to lose more civilian supporters to gas attacks rather than have the chemical weapons removed from the equation. Nevertheless, the US is compensating them by supplying more weapons and materiel to the rebels, at least those who are pro-western and democratic. However, the US cannot prevent these weapons from falling into the hands of the anti-democratic al Qaeda and al Nusrah Islamist extremists. Much as in Afghanistan years ago, the US is fueling the situation that like a scorpion can turn around and sting them with its tail.

Iran is also a loser, although not on a major scale. They see their client Assad being brought down to size by the threat of American power. For them the loss of chemical weapons WMD could be equivalent to their own loss of nuclear weapons WMD if a similar situation develops eventually with Iran. Let's hope that too could be solved by a diplomatic solution after all these years of haggling that have brought nothing. Only the credible threat of military force by the US and possibly by Israel could achieve such a parallel outcome.

On Sat an agreement was concluded in Geneva between the US and Russian representatives, Secty of State Kerry and FM Sergei Lavrov, that requires Pres. Assad of Syria to present a list of all his chemical weapons holdings within a week, and the unfettered access of inspectors to find and verify said weapons, which must be accomplished before November and their destruction must be completed by mid-2014. Although there is no threat of force contained in the agreement, if there is non-compliance by Syria then there is the capability to take the issue to the Security Council, where the threat of sanctions and force could be approved. If it is not approved, the US still retains the right to strike Syria itself or with its allies. This US-Russian agreement must be approved by the Intl. Org. for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons of the UN, when it will acquire the force of law. Syria is in the process of joining the Intl. Covenant Against Chemical Weapons, thus being subject to that law.

While many see potential reasons for the failure of this agreement, it represents a diplomatic breakthrough that is significant in its implications for world peace. Russia is no longer the Soviet Union, and while there are many differences in interests between the US and Russia, Pres. Putin's agreement to force his ally Assad to accept this agreement, under threat of a US military strike, may be a major watershed in Middle Eastern history. One drawback is that the opposition to Assad has rejected the agreement, since they were hoping for a US military strike that would weaken Assad. But, Secty Kerry stated that all or almost all of the chemical weapons in Syria are held by the regime and their locations are known, so as long as Assad cooperates there should be no serious problem in implementing and verifying the agreement.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Yom Kippur War

This evening starts Yom Kippur, that unique day of atonement that is the cornerstone of western religions. In commemmoration of the 40th ann iversary of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Jerusalem Post Magazine is running a series of articles by Abraham Rabinovich, a former reporter who has written what is considered the authoritative version "The Yom Kippur War" (Schocken, 2004). In the first article (J. Post Mag. Sept. 4), entitled "Facing apocalypse," he writes, "After 40 years, the Yom Kippur War remains the most traumatic event in the country's would be years before Israelis were able to recognize the achievements of the battered army on the battlefield of 1973 as far greater than the trumpeted victory of 1967." ( ). Many are not aware of this fact and that it was the arrogance of a small number of generals that almost spelled doom for Israel.

The signs of a potential joint attack by Egypt under Anwar Sadat and Syria under Hafez Assad were glaring, extensive and even obvious. Not only did Israelis see the preparations, tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks gathering across the Suez Canal and on the Golan Heights and intercepted messages, but Israel was specifically warned by several sources. One was the spy Ashraf Marwan, Nasser's son-in-law, and another was King Hussein himself, who helicoptered into Israel 11 days before the war started to specifically warn PM Golda Meir. However, all these signs were ignored by military intelligence chief Maj-Gen Eli Zeira, who, based on the performance of the Arab armies in 1967 (only 6 years before) had totally ruled out any possible attack. His opposition to any significant preparations for war by the Israeli political and military echelons was mainly responsible for the deaths of thousands of Israeli soldiers and the near defeat of the Israeli forces.

Other Generals were also at fault for not responding to the reality of the situation. For example, intelligence told them that the Egyptians had thousands of new Sagger long-range anti-tank missiles, but they didn't bother to inform the tank corps of this significant fact. For example, the air force was not aware of the capability of the Russian SAM missiles that lined the Suez canal and had no effective means to counter them and this led to the loss of over 100 planes and pilots. The Generals, still fighting the previous war, believed that tanks alone and air force alone could win any war, and neglected to include the infantry and other armed units in their battle plans. It was the raw courage of the soldiers themselves and the Israeli capability to improvise under fire that eventually led to Israel's stunning victory.

The rest is history, the tanks corps used sand to create dust that defeated the Saggers, the pilots developed tactics to avoid the SAMs, the Egyptian Army sensing their early victory forged ahead beyond the safety of the SAMs and were slaughtered and Gen Ariel Sharon brought his troops across the Suez Canal. In the end the IDF, being only 100 km from Cairo and within artillery range of Damascus, convinced the Arab elites to give up their dreams of destroying the Jewish State. This victory led directly to Anwar Sadat signing the peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Yet, even today, every Yom Kippur, and on all other occasions, the Israeli state and its defence forces must be ready for any surprise or sneak attack. It was this defeat that eventually contributed to the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring, because no society can ignore forever the true signs of its own decadence.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Tennis inevitability

In both the women's and the men's singles in the US Open in Flushing Meadow NY, both the players seeded nos. 1 and 2 were in the finals. Was this inevitable? If so, why bother to go through the whole rigmarole of having all these players compete against each other almost pointlessly for two weeks, why not just have the two top seeds play each other on day one and then its all over?

OK, I know, you must have a fair, open competition, and anything could happen, unseeded and low seeded players have defeated much higher seeded players. For example, this time around it was Stan Wawrinka (seeded 9) and Richard Gasquet (8) who got into the semifinals, by defeating Andy Murray (3) and David Ferrer (4), respectively, and also let's not forget Tony Robredo (19) who unexpectedly defeating Roger Federer (7). So it looks as if Federer's domination of the game is over and as if Murray, who won the US Open last year, could not sustain his effort. So the final came down to Rafa Nadal (2) and Novak Djockovic (1), as expected, and Rafa won in four sets. There was no doubt who was the better player this time, in fact the Djocker made too many unforced errors to win, over 50, more than twice as many as Rafa.

In the women's game, the resurgence of domination by Serena Williams (1) seems to be unending. She is the oldest woman to win the US Open at the age of 32. But, she had a relatively hard time against Victoria Azarenka (2) who managed to take a set from her in a tie break in the final, making it a good and exciting match. Serena hits the ball so hard that she seems to play like a man. She reminds me of a fairly elephant in her pink dress, can she really think it suits her, but she really packs a punch.

This was the first US Open when there were no Americans in the last 16. And the nationalities of the finalists were very mixed, Djockovic from Serbia, Nadal from Spain, Li Na China, Azarenka Belarus. I like tennis so much because its an individual sport, where the player's origin makes no difference, its one man, or woman, against another. So if nos. 1 & 2 are always going to win, tennis will become monotonous. But, the change over from Federer to Nadal and Djockovic is a historic move in tennis, from a proponent of style to brute force and tricky shots. At least the finals had some great tennis. Now bring on snooker.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Saving face

In an apparent attempt to save face over a potential defeat in the Congress of the bill to authorize a strike on Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, Pres Obama is prepared to accept a Russian proposal to have Pres. Assad's chemical weapons put under international supervision, as he said in his address on Tues evening. This proposal apparently arose out of an exasperated statement by Secty of State Kerry at a press conference in London, when questioned by reporters over what could avoid such a military strike. He said something to the effect that "I suppose if he (Assad) were to put his chemical weapons under international supervision we might accept that, but he won't." Russian FM Lavrov jumped on the suggestion and publicly declared that Assad would accept such a proposal and Syrian FM Moallem immediately followed up with a supporting statement followed by Pres. Assad himself. Later Pres. Obama said that he had actually discussed this possibility with Pres. Putin of Russia at the recent G20 Summit in St. Petersburg.

This all looks good, and could avoid such a strike and any of its potential consequences. The problem is, can it be achieved and will Assad cooperate fully with it. Of course, he and his regime have prevented UN observers from visiting such facilities many times in the past, why would they actually allow it now. The answer is that they really want to avoid a strike by US forces that could have a potentially damaging effect on the Assad regime, and might lead to its downfall. This is the main aim of Assad, to ensure the continuation of his family business, running Syria. Therefore the credibility of Pres. Obama's intention to strike Syria becomes the basis for such a diplomatic solution.

The Iranians have become masters of prevarication and delay in dealing with the international community over their development of nuclear weapons, but hopefully in this case urgency will ensure a quick and verifiable outcome. Congress is supporting this face-saving measure, no strike and getting rid of the chemical weapons are now included in its draft bill, that would delay implementation of any stike by 2 weeks. The French at the UN Security Council are already drawing up a draft resolution, that might have the US and Russia both voting for it. Once that is accomplished, if it can be, then there is the question of implemenation and the subsequent destruction of all Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles, the largest in the world, which are illegal under international law. If that actually happens, and can be verified, then everyone will be happy and Obama will save face.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Reminiscences of aliya

On Sunday we went to hear our friends Yoel and Tova Sheridan, who came from Surbiton near London, tell the story of their aliya to Israel during the Yom Kippur war. They didn't plan it that way, but it happened to coincide that they came during the middle of the war. People on both sides, England and Israel, thought they were crazy (meshuggah) to go through with it, but they did. That was 40 years ago in October 1973.

When they arrived they had no idea what was happening on the fronts. They of course found it strange, that everything was blacked out, but they remembered the black-out in London during the blitz of WWII. As new immigrants (olim) they still had to go to the various government offices and get the bureaucratic stamps required, and the war made no differerence to this. They had bought a house in Ra'anana that was being constructed, and of course construction stopped during the war, so they could not move in and it took a further 8 months to finish the house while they lived in one room in an absorption center. They became friendly with the builder (kablan) who was wounded in the war and was in hospital in Nahariya, so they went there, a three hour drive, with some friends to visit him (this could only happen in Israel).

When they went to receive their furniture at Haifa port things went smoothly, until as they were leaving they were selected by the customs for a thorough spot-check. But, they argued that they had to leave because the agent would only keep the house open for them until 5 pm and they couldn't leave their furniture in the street (you know what would happen to it). So after much argumentation the customs men got into their car and drove with them to Ra'anana to supervise the unloading of their shipment to check for contraband. But, it was taking too long, so the customs men ended up helping them to unload their goods, also only in Israel. Unfortunately, all Tova's (costume) jewelery was stolen, so they said well its not worth reporting in the middle of a war, but everyone told them, are you crazy, you must act as normal, as if the war is not going on, you must report it, which they did, although they never got any of it back.

These reminiscences unleashed some of my own memories of coming to Israel. When we came in 1963 on our first trip, one of the members of our group was very sick on the boat and had a high fever and was receiving a drip. So we arranged with the doctor to have an ambulance meet us at Haifa port when we docked. But, the customs men who came and set up a table on deck would not let us off the ship without a disembarcation stamp and told us to wait in line. I said "are you crazy, I've got a very sick person here, and the ambulance is waiting," so I managed to get to the top of the line, and the first time I arrived in Israel was by ambulance racing with a siren through the streets of Haifa.

When I went to the Weizmann Inst. in 1964 as a Fellow, it was customary for most of the visitors to pay an agent to clear their goods thru customs. But, since I was a poor British student then, I decided that I was going to do it myself. So I left Rehovot at 6 am and got to Haifa port by 7.30 am and went from one office to another, persuading and pleading and shoving and pushing, until I had all the necessary permissions, except the customs clearance. So I went to the huge customs shed and outside were men with trucks to rent. I asked one of the men if he could take me to Rehovot and we agreed on a price, but it was nearly 5 pm and I realized that the customs crew were finishing for the day. So I asked the driver what should I do and he said give me some money, so I gave him some and he went over to the foreman and I saw him try to give him the money. Then the foreman shouted at him and I saw that he was very angry that the driver had tried to bribe him. So when the driver came back I asked him what he said and he told me to forget it. But, I went over to the foreman myself and in halting Hebrew I explained that it wasn't my idea to give him money, it was the driver's idea and I desperately needed him to clear my small container because I could not come back from Rehovot for a whole day just for that. And he took pity on me, he said "OK, clear that one," to his crew and in a few minutes they did the paperwork and wrote on the box and it was cleared and we got out of there just as they were closing the gate.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Powder kegs

Three situations are developing in the Arab world that have consequences for Israel and the rest of the world.

Above and beyond the question of the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria, the vicious civil war there continues. Both sides are commiting atrocities, but the overriding facts are that ca. 500 people are killed per day, a total of over 100,000 have been killed, there are 2 million refugees in the surrounding countries, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, and it has been revealed by the UN refugee organization, the UNHCR, that there are an estimated 5 million internal refugees (Diplaced persons) within Syria, making a total of 7 million refugees out of 22 million Syrians or nearly a third!

What is in Israel's interest in the Syrian civil war situation? The simplest answer is for Pres. Bashar Assad and his regime to be defeated. Syria is already a destroyed country and therefore no longer a serious military threat to Israel, but the removal of the Assad regime would be a significant defeat for its sponsor, the Islamic Republic of Iran. They would no longer be able to transfer arms and ammunition, not only to Syria, but also to Hizbollah in Lebanon via Syria. Hopefully, an attack against the regime's infrastructure by the US over the chemical gas attack on civlians in Damascus would be the first nail in Assad's coffin. What will happen subsequently remains to be seen, but even if anti-Assad Sunni extremists (al Qaeda or al Nusrah) occupy the Syrian Golan, it would be less dangerous for Israel than the alternative of having Iranian Revolutionary Guards on our northern border.

In Egypt, the Interior Minister, who recently gave orders to remove the Moslem Brotherhood encampments in Cairo by force, survived an assassination attempt when his convoy was bombed. This is fortunate, since he also supports the interim government's military campaign to rid the Sinai of terrorists. This is in both Egypt's and Israel's interests, as well as the concerted operation to close all the tunnels under the Egyptian-Gaza border and stop the traffic in arms and terrorists. This action by the Egyptian Army, that appears to have been highly successful, would have been impossible under a Muslim Brotherhood Government, that was allied with Hamas in Gaza. So this is a blow to Hamas, it strengthens Pres. Assad of the PA and also saves Israel from having to take any action to interdict the tunnel traffic.

Iraq is still in thrall to a sectarian conflict, during which ca. 100 people are killed per day, in bombings and shootings. The Shia extremists are being supported by Iran and the so-called moderate Shia Government under PM Maliki is either unable or unwilling to control them. In western Iraq, the Sunni-controlled area of Anbar province, there are terrorist groups from Syria, both training and carrying out attacks against Shia Muslims. It is a low intensity civil war in a failed state. Just as well the western forces have all but withdrawn.

Meanwhile an American warship docked in Haifa and a Russian intelligence ship transited the Bosphorus into the Mediterranean. Also, the secret Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations continue, overlooked because of these other intense situations. In summary, the situations in Syria, Sinai and Iraq are developing basically in Israel's interests, but with such powder kegs surrounding us, one can never be sure of the consequences.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Fold our tents?

I listened to Pres. Obama's speech and answers to questions during his press conference on Weds with the Swedish PM in Stockholm, on his way to the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg. As usual, I found Pres. Obama to be very articulate and persuasive. He made two major points regarding the crisis in Syria and the potential recourse to a military strike in response to the Assad regime using chemical weapons against its own civilians. This is, of course, assuming that the evidence for this is conclusive, as Pres. Obama stated that it is, based not only on the analysis of samples but also on intercepted conversations of Syrian regime members.

The first point that I found persuasive is that Pres. Obama stated that "it wasn't my red line" it was a red line adopted by the world in the Geneva Convention of 1925, that the use of poison gas against civilians is illegal under international law, and that countries may take any action deemed appropriate to prevent it. This was not only accepted by all the countries of the world, but also specifically by the US Congress, which makes it US law, which binds a US President to act accordingly. The argument, not a moral one but a pragmatic one, is that if such an unlawful action was taken and 1,400 people were killed, including over 400 children, then if no reaction occurs the law as such is rendered ineffectual and anyone, such as Iran, may resort to the use of forbidden WMD without expecting any consequences.

The other argument he used in response to the challenge, why not wait for a Security Council resolution and work under the auspices of the UN. He answered this as follows, suppose we do wait, and the SC is blocked by divided interests, as it is by Russia and China, what then, should we do nothing? It is important to realize that there are in fact differing interests in the world, and the US and the international community cannot afford to stand by and let such atrocities be commited without response. Should we fold our tents and leave the field of battle as a result of an absolute blockage by allies of the transgressor. The answer to this is of course, no! We cannot allow our sacred duty to be dependent on those who would veto any action.

Pres. Obama confirmed that he plans a "surgical" attack without "boots on the ground" to deter the Assad regime from taking any further such action, and that he engaged the Congress in the decision-making because it was appropriate to do so in this case, since no immediate US national interests were involved. On the contrary, this case it totally different from the actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, which involved war situations which were considered to be directly and imminently related to US national interests.

I was persuaded by these arguments and hopefully the Congress will be also, and in the not-too-distant future the US will launch a time-limited strike on Syrian Govt. capabilities. Then we will await the consequences, and I for one, as an Israeli, am prepared to accept the consequences of this action. Let us not fold our tents in the face of evil.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

To strike or not to strike?

If you ask to enough people you can generate strenuous objections to even the most inocuous question, and attacking Syria is by no means an innocuous question. David Cameron learned to his regret that asking the question "should I attack Syria or not?" to a lot of people raised many uncomfortable answers. Now Pres. Obama, having decided to ask Congress the same question is in a fix.

Certainly, I believe, that the Assad regime used chemical weapons on a large scale in Damascus against its own people and murdered 1,400 or so of them. And there is little doubt that in 14 prior instances chemical weapons were used before in Syria. Further, there are reports that Israel has given the US intelligence collected locally of conversations between members of the regime discussing their use of chemical weapons. So given the facts, it should be an open and shut case, punish the Assad regime for carrying our illegal and terrible attacks that have broken all the rules of war established 100 years ago (this is called the "moral imperative"). And make no mistake about it, noone else other than the US could administer such punishment to the Assad regime.

But, what are the potential consequences? The most likely that is batted around, is that either Syria itself, or its proxy Hizbollah in Lebanon or its master Iran will either singly or in concert counterattack either western interests and/or Israel. Some say that if Obama makes a small "pin-prick" of an attack, then Assad will absorb it and not strike back. But, unlike the US, the Assad regime, although previously known for its caution, is not in a cautious state anymore, it is fighting for its life and not to respond is to respond, that is, the US President can afford to lose face, but a Middle Eastern dictator under duress cannot! It would certainly not be in his long-term interests to counter-attack, but the situation is not one of rationality, and in such circumstances irrational things have been known to happen.

As Pres. Obama meets with members of Congress and tries to persuade them to support a "surgical" strike against Syria, he hopes to persuade those who want no strike (mainly Democrats) and those who want a major strike (mainly Republicans) to support a compromise strike. But, the US forces have made preparations, there are now 6 US military vessels in the eastern Mediterranean, and the Russians have a few warships around to protect their interests too. At this point in time Israel chose to launch a missile into the Med as a test, just to remind everyone that Israel is here and can look after itself. So the message is, if the US does go ahead and administer a surgical strike on Syria, don't retaliate on us, we can take care of ourselves. Iran will be very wary of this, because if Hizbollah strikes back PM Netanyahu has let it be known that he will regard the order as having come from Damascus and Tehran, and everyone knows that Bibi would love to have an excuse to strike the nuclear weapons facilties in Iran, that might in the not too distant future be in a similar situation to the chemical weapons in Syria. To strike or not to strike, that is the question.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Practical science

On Sunday Sept 1, I gave a lecture at AACI Netanya in their "Coffee and..." series on the subject of "Practical Science", based on several blogs I had written in the past.

Many people think of science as a remote and difficult subject. But, actually science is all around us and is part of our lives all the time. Here are some examples that might intrigue you.

· How does a towel work? Water has an intrinsic surface tension that results in capillary action, namely water rises in a capillary, the narrower the diameter the higher the rise. This is because the forces that hold the water molecules tegether are unequal at the surface. This effect is used for example when a drop of blood is collected into a capillary. In a towel, capillary action causes the water to cling to the narrow spaces within the weave of the towel and results in a drying effect

· Why is hair curly or frizzy when dry and lank when wet? Water causes a change in the structure of the protein called keratin that makes up hair; the dry form is a bent or helical structure (frizzy or curled hair) and the wet form is an extended one. This was discovered by William Astbury in 1936 when he did X-ray diffraction patterns of wool kertatin in dry and wet conditions in Leeds and observed two different patterns. These were called the a and b-forms, the former shortened into a helix and the latter elongated. The same experiment was done with DNA fibers by Rosalind Franklin in 1952 showing that there are two forms of DNA, the A and B-forms. It was the latter form at high humidity that gave a relatively simple X-pattern in the x-ray diffraction photo that allowed Francis Crick to determine that the structure was a helix, and that led to the formulation of the Watson-Crick double helical model for DNA.

· How does a detergent work? The detergent has a combination of water-soluble and oil-soluble parts joined together chemically, so it is capable of causing oil and water to mix, in effect to dissolve in each other. The ionic part of the molecule is termed hydrophilic (loves water) and the tail portion is hydrophobic (hates water, i.e. is fat soluble) and so the bifunctional detergent molecule allows the solubilizatrion of fat into water.

· Why does transparent egg white form a solid white substance when heated? This is due to the denaturation of the lysozyme protein that makes up the egg white and once this change happens it is irreversible. Proteins are made up of strings of amino acids linked together like beads on a necklace. But, it is the folded structure or conformation that gives the proteins their native structure and function, for example the enzymes of the gut that degrade food. When proteins are heated above a certain tempertature they denature or unfold and become random structures that have no activity and intertwine around each other forming a white opaque solid. This is what happens when we boil an egg. This is the basis of sterilization, by heating things in boiling water, this denatures the proteins of any microorganisms that are present and in effect kills them.

· How does electromagnetism work? Electricity and magnetism are intimately connected and an electrical generator works on the same principle as an electromagnet. If you run an electic current through a wire this produces a magnetic field, for example if you wind a wire solenoid around a piece of iron, you can induce it to be magnetized and to pick up paper clips or other metal objects. Equally, if you pass a wire through a magnetic field you produce a current in the wire. This is how electricity is produced, except that many thousands or millions of wires are turned rapidly thru magnetic fields in huge generators turned by steam and this produces electricity, that is then distributed throughout towns and cities.

· How can water be turned into blood or wine? With the appropriate chemical it can appear to happen. For example a few crystals of the substance potassium permanganate can turn a large volume of water a deep red color. This might explain how people supposedly turned water into wine or blood.

· How can chemical substances in a complex mixture be separated? Applying a complex mixture of substances, such as green chlorophyll extracted from plants, onto filter paper then allowing a solvent (such as alcohol) to spread them out, the components can be seen as colored bands. Thus, it was found that there are 8 different chemical components in chlorophyll. This simple process is called chromatography, or the study of colors, but actually it involves the separation of chemical substances that don't have to be colored but can be detected by other means, such as UV light. When this method of chromatography is applied on a large scale, pure components can be isolated and their chemical structures determined.

· How can diamonds and graphite be the same substance? Diamonds and graphite are both forms of carbon, yet they have entirely different properties that are dependent on their totally different chemical structures. In diamonds the carbon atoms are joined together in the form of many tetrahedra, that give the structure a very hard and crystalline form, but in graphite the carbon atoms are joined together in separate planes, that can slide over each other and makes the whole structure soft and so it is used in pencils.

· How do drugs work? Someone once asked me how do drugs know where to go in the body? Of course, they don't, this is teleological, drugs don't know anything. Drugs work at the molecular level by binding to specific binding sites of proteins into which they fit, something like a baseball fitting into a glove. Usually this causes a molecular change in the protein, called a conformational change that triggers biochemical and physiological responses. Often drugs enter cells by transiting their cell wall or membrane. But, often there is a transmembrane receptor protein, that spans the cell wall, many of which have 7 transmembrane elements. When the drug moleclue binds to an outside receptor element, it causes a change in the macromolecular structure, which in turn triggers an intracellular biochemical event. So drug action can be very complex.

Science is the nearest thing we have to magic. In fact a lot of what was considered magic in the distant past can be explained by subsequent scientific knowledge. The explanations given here should enhance understanding of the world around us.

Monday, September 02, 2013

US and UK difference

Pres. Obama has decided to follow the lead of PM Cameron in the UK and to take the decision on whether or not to respond militarily to the chemical attack in Syria to Congress. This can be regarded as another example of Obama dithering in foreign policy or a triumph for democracy. But, there is a main difference between the UK and the US in this respect, Cameron is a Conservatrive and his motion to attack Syria was defeated in the vote by a coalition of the left-wing Labor opposition and Liberal Democrats from his own Government. However, in the US, Obama is a liberal Democrat and his opposition is the Republican-controlled Congress , which is far more conservative than he is. So it is very likely that while Parliament voted against intervention in Syria, Congress will vote for it and support Obama's plan.

In the debate in Parliament, the Head of the Opposition Ed Milliband, argued that there was not definitive evidence that the Assad Government forces had in fact carried out the terrible gas attack in Damascus and also that there needed to be international approval from the UN Security Council for such an attack, which was not forthcoming. In light of the sense of having been duped over the WMD debate on Iraq 10 years before, Parliament voted against the Government. There was undoubtedly a strong influence of the anti-war movement in Britain. However, in the US, the much more right-wing Congress is unlikely to be influenced by either the Iraqi precedent or the anti-war movement, and are very likely to support Obama. So in this respect, Obama's move can be regarded as smart, he gets his way and shares responsibility with Congress, a good thing and insurance in case anything goes wrong.

Who are gloating about this appearance of indecision in the western democracies? Assad, Iran and Hizbollah. Who are disconcerted by this appearaqnce of delay and lack of purpose, the rebel insurrection in Syria, and their supporters in the Sunni Arab world, notably Saudi Arabia and Turkey. In fact, the Arab League, which has not itself attacked Syria, are publicly calling for US intervention. Usually when a western nation attacks any Arab or Muslim country the Arabs unify, but here the opposite is happening. So the attack is delayed, but not cancelled. Watch this space.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Little England

So Great Britain has decided not to support military intervention against Syria for using chemical weapons against its own civilians. PM David Cameron, whose Conservative-Liberal coalition Government was divided on the issue, took the question to Parliament, that was called into session four days early, and was defeated in the vote. He has stated that he will abide by this decision.

He lost because of two things, first the memory of the Iraqi intervention that led to an unpopular war in which many British soldiers died and second the fact that there has been no unequivocal finding that proves that the regime forces carried out the chemical weapons attack on Aug 21 and the lack of a unanimous UN Security Council resolution supporting intervention. Of course, it can be argued that the so-called 'deception' by PM Tony Blair at the time of the Iraqi conflict over the so-called WMD in Iraq was not an intentional deception, and this time noone doubts that the Syrian Govt. does have a chemical weapons arsenal. Also, Russia and China have taken a stand in support of their ally Pres. Assad, for their own national interests, that include economic ties with Iran. And so the chance of any international agreement is nil, and so to rely on such proof and such an agreement is essentially to decide not to intervene.

In this context, not to decide is to decide, and Great Britain has shown itself to be unable to play its accustomed role in the world. The fact that the PM could not persuade his colleagues and the Labor opposition to vote for intervention in support of US Pres. Obama, indicates a change in the world order. Britain has been retracting from its former larger role in the world since WWII and this is the final straw. Long gone are the days of Maggie Thatcher and the Falklands intervention, gone are the actions of Britain in support of the US in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US can no longer rely on its former strongest ally for more than moral support in the world.

Who benefits from this decision? Certainly not the people or the opposition in Syria, but Pres. Assad benefits, he can look forward to a lessened attack if any should come from the US. Now the Congress will have to look carefully at Pres. Obama's plans and may also decide that they don't want to be dragged into another Mid-East Arab conflict. The anti-war coalition may think that they are preventing war by this negative act, but what they are doing is condemning the Syrians to futher suffering. It may be a harbinger that the West is in decline and that the probability of any future interventions is greatly reduced. The Arab world is in turmoil, but the causes and interests of the West are not critically at stake (the US and others have enough oil), and this retraction of intervention may be a sign that the people of the Western democracies have had enough of the Arabs and are prepared to let them fight it out among themselves. Let Syria burn, let Egypt boil!