The Winter 2018 issue of Middle East Quarterly is out. Two of the feature articles address the November 1917 Balfour Declaration, wherein Britain pledged to facilitate "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people," on its 100th anniversary. The other two assess Russia's military intervention in Syria.
Turks and Arabs Welcomed the Balfour Declaration
Contrary to the myth that the Balfour declaration caused the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Middle East Quarterly editor Efraim Karsh argues that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict evolved in spite of it. The declaration, he notes, was endorsed by the League of Nations, mirrored by an official communiqué of the Ottoman Empire, and accepted by Arab leaders and ordinary Palestinians, who "preferred to coexist with their Jewish neighbors and take advantage of opportunities created by the evolving Jewish national enterprise."
It was the ascendancy of extremist Palestinian leaders, prime among them the mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, that ignited the conflict between Jews and Arabs that persists to this day. Consequently, "it is only by shedding their century-long revanchist dreams and opting for peace and reconciliation with their Israeli neighbors that Palestinian leaders can end their people's suffering."
The "Ottoman Balfour Declaration"
Middle East Forum writing fellow Wolfgang G. Schwanitz discusses the Ottoman reaction to Balfour in more detail, in particular the August 1918 communiqué by Grand Vizier Talaat Pasha expressing sympathy "for the establishment of a religious and national Jewish center in Palestine by well-organized immigration." While the communiqué was largely driven by ulterior motives – prime among them the desire to negate whatever real or imagined advantages the British gained from appealing to Jewish sentiments – the fact that it was issued by the temporal and religious leader of most of the Islamic world "underscores both the pervasive recognition of the historic Jewish attachment to this land and the ability to transcend millenarian Muslim dogmas regarding non-Muslim communities."
Russia's Goals Go beyond Damascus
Anna Borshchevskaya, the Ira Weiner fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, explains why Russian President Vladimir Putin has backed Syria's Assad regime to the hilt through six years of civil war, and through direct military intervention since the fall of 2015. Part of the explanation lies with Russia's centuries-long pursuit of warm water ports for its navy, substantial pre-war investments in Syria, and growing arms sales to the country.
But Putin's interest in Syria "has less to do with the country itself than with the gains it represents for the Kremlin both domestically and vis-à-vis the West," according to Borshchevskaya. Military intervention in Syria has "enabled Putin to project great power status at the expense of the West" and "advertise Russia's weaponry." It has also "served as a drug that allowed the Russian people to forget their problems and indulge feelings of patriotism."
She concludes that Western policymakers must "recognize that the Kremlin will not be an honest broker in Syria" and work to "reestablish Western leadership rather than allow Moscow to take the lead."
Russia's Entrenchment in Syria
While Moscow-based researcher Grigory Melamedov concurs that intervention in Syria "provided Putin with a golden opportunity to reassert Moscow's superpower status in the eyes of his constituents" and had little to do with combatting Islamic extremism, he argues that the intervention has been a disappointment for Moscow. In particular, Russia has found that Iran, which has dispatched thousands of foreign Shiite fighters to Syria and vast amounts of financing, exerts more influence over the Assad regime and the war effort than Moscow. Moreover, by 2017, "Russian public opinion was becoming increasingly disillusioned" with the intervention and disagreements over strategy were mounting within Russia's political elite. "Tacit U.S. acquiescence in Moscow's role in a lasting solution to the Syrian civil war" by the Trump administration in the summer of 2017 thus came as a "blessing," transforming what "seemed an uphill struggle just a few months earlier."
As always, this issue of Middle East Quarterly features reviews of books on wide-ranging topics, including Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, founder of modern Turkey Kamal Ataturk, the Palestinian Authority, and ISIS.