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Ukraine Revolt’s Dark Side

Ukraine Revolt’s Dark Side

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Mar. 2, 2014

“The April 6 rally in Cherskasy, a city 100 miles southeast of Kiev, turned violent after six men took off their jackets to reveal T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Beat the Kikes” and “Svoboda,” the name of the Ukrainian ultranationalist movement and the Ukrainian word for “freedom.”

–Jewish Telegraphic Agency,

April 12, 2013

While most of the Western media describes the current crisis in the Ukraine as a confrontation between authoritarianism and democracy, many of the shock troops who have manned barricades in Kiev and the western city of Lviv these past months represent a dark page in the country’s history and have little interest in either democracy or the liberalism of Western Europe and the United States.

“You’d never know from most of the reporting that far-right nationalists and fascists have been at the heart of the protests and attacks on government buildings,” reports Seumas Milne of the British Guardian. The most prominent of the groups has been the ultra-rightwing Svoboda or “Freedom” Party.

And that even the demand for integration with Western Europe appears to be more a tactic than a strategy: “The participation of Ukrainian nationalism and Svoboda in the process of EU [European Union] integration, “ admits Svoboda political council member Yury Noyevy, “is a means to break our ties with Russia.”

And lest one think that Svoboda, and parties even further to the right, will strike their tents and disappear, Ukrainian News reported Feb. 26 that Svoboda Party members have temporarily been appointed to the posts of Vice Prime Minister, Minister of Education, Minister of Agrarian Policy and Food Supplies, and Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources.

Svoboda is hardly a fringe organization. In the 2012 election won by the now deposed president, Viktor Yanukovitch, the Party took 10.45 percent of the vote and over 40 percent in parts of the western Ukraine. While the west voted overwhelmingly for the Fatherland Party’s Yulia Tymoshenko, the more populous east went overwhelmingly for the Party of the Regions’ Yanukovitch. The latter won the election handily, 48.8 percent to 45.7 percent.

Svoboda –which currently has 36 deputies in the 450-member Ukrainian parliament—began life in the mid-1990s as the Social National Party of the Ukraine, but its roots lie in World War II, when Ukrainian nationalists and Nazis found common ground in the ideology of anti-communism and anti-Semitism. In April, 1943, Dr. Otto von Wachter, the Nazi commander of Galicia—the name for the western Ukraine—turned the First Division of the Ukrainian National Army into the 14 Grenadier Division of the Waffen SS, the so-called “Galicia Division.”

The Waffen SS was the armed wing of the Nazi Party, and while serving along side the regular army, or Wehrmacht, the Party controlled the SS’s 38-plus divisions. While all Nazi forces took part in massacres and atrocities, the Waffen SS did so with particular efficiency. The post-war Nuremberg trials designated it a “criminal organization.”

Svoboda has always had a soft spot for the Galicia Division and one of its parliament members, Oleg Pankevich, took part in a ceremony last April honoring the unit. Pankevich joined with a priest of Ukrainian Orthodox Church near Lviv to celebrate the unit’s 70th anniversary and re-bury some of the Division’s dead.

“I was horrified to see photographs…of young Ukrainians wearing the dreaded SS uniform with swastikas clearly visible on their helmets as they carried caskets of members of this Nazi unit, lowered them into the ground, and fired gun salutes in their honor,” World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder wrote in a letter to the Patriarch of the Ukrainian church. He asked Patriarch Filret to “prevent any further rehabilitation of Nazism or the SS.”

Some 800,000 Jews were murdered in the Ukraine during the German occupation, many of them by Ukrainian auxiliaries and units like the Galicia Division.

Three months after the April ceremony, Ukrainians re-enacted the battle of Brody between the Galicia Division and Soviet troops, where the German XIII Army Corps was trying to hold off the Russians commanded by Marshall Ivan Konev. In general, going up against Konev meant a quick trip to Valhalla. In six days of fighting the Galicians lost two-thirds of their division and XIII Corps was sent reeling back to Poland. The Galicia Division survivors were shipped off to fight anti-Nazi partisans in Yugoslavia. In 1945 remnants of the unit surrendered to the Americans in Italy, and in 1947 many of them were allowed to emigrate to Britain and Canada.

The U.S. press has downplayed the role of Svoboda, and even more far right groups like Right Sector and Common Cause, but Britain’s Channel 4 News reports that such quasi-fascist groups “played a leading role” in organizing the demonstrations and keeping them going.

In the intercepted phone call between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, the two were, as Russian expert Stephen Cohen put it to Democracy Now, “plotting a coup d’état against the elected president of the Ukraine.”

At one point Nuland endorses “Yat” as the head of a new government, referring to Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the Fatherland Party, who indeed is now acting Prime Minister. But she goes on to say that Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok should be kept “on the outside.”

Her plan to sideline Tyahnybok as a post-coup player, however, may be wishful thinking given the importance of the Party in the demonstrations.

Tyahnybok is an anti-Semite who says “organized Jewry” controls the Ukraine’s media and government, and is planning “genocide” against Christians. He has turned Svoboda into the fourth largest party in the country, and, this past December, U.S. Senator John McCain shared a platform and an embrace with Tyahnybok at a rally in Kiev.

Svoboda has links with other ultra-right parties in Europe through the Alliance of European National Movements. Founded in 2009 in Budapest, the Alliance includes Svoboda, Hungary’s violently racist Jobbik, the British National Party, Italy’s Tricolor Flame, Sweden’s National Democrats, and Belgium’s National Front. The Party also has close ties to France’s xenophobic National Front. The Front’s anti-Semitic leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was honored at Svoboda’s 2004 congress.

Svoboda would stop immigration and reserve civil service jobs for “ethnic Ukrainians.” It would end abortion, gun control, “ban the Communist Ideology,” and list religious affiliation and ethnicity on identity documents. It claims as its mentor the Nazi-collaborator Stephan Bandera, whose Ukrainian Insurgent Army massacred Jews and Poles during World war II. The Party’s demand that all official business be conducted in Ukrainian was recently endorsed by the parliament, disenfranchising 30 percent of the country’s population that speaks Russian. Russian speakers are generally concentrated in the Ukraine’s east and south, and particularly in the Crimean Peninsula.

The U.S. and the EU have hailed the resignation of President Yanukovych and the triumph of “people power” over the elected government—Ambassador Pyatt called it “a day for the history books”—but what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Prior to the deployment of Russian troops this past week anti-coup, pro-Russian crowds massed in the streets in the Crimea’s capital, Simferopol, and seized government buildings. While there was little support for the ousted president—who most Ukrainians believe is corrupt—there was deep anger at the de-recognition of the Russian language and contempt for what many said were “fascists” in Kiev and Lviv.

Until 1954 the Crimea was always part of Russia until, for administrative and bureaucratic reasons, it was made part of the Ukraine. At the time, Ukraine was one of 15 Soviet republics.

The Ukraine is in deep economic trouble, and for the past year the government has been casting about for a way out. Bailout negotiations were opened with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union (EU), but the loan would have required onerous austerity measures that, according to Citibank analyst Ivan Tchakarov, would “most probably mean a recession in 2014.”

It was at this juncture that Yanukovych abandoned talks with the EU and opened negotiations with the Russians. That turn around was the spark for last November’s demonstrations.

But as Ben Aris, editor of Business News Europe, says “Under the terms of the EU offer of last year—which virtually nobody in the Western media has seriously examined—the EU was offering $160 million per year for the next five years, while just the bond payments to the IMF were greater than that.”

Russia, however, “offered $15 billion in cash and immediately paid $3 billion…Had Yanukovych accepted the EU deal, the country would have collapsed,” says Aris.

The current situation is dangerous precisely because it touches a Russian security nerve. The Soviet Union lost some 25 to 27 million people in World War II, and Russians to this day are touchy about their borders. They also know who inflicted those casualties, and those who celebrate a Waffen SS division are not likely to be well thought of in the south or the east.

Border security is hardly ancient history for the Kremlin. As Russian expert Cohen points out, “Since the Clinton administration in the 1990s, the U.S.-led West has been on a steady march toward post-Soviet Russia, beginning with the expansion of NATO…all the way to the Russian border.”

NATO now includes Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovenia, and former Soviet-led Warsaw Pact members Albania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s comment that the IMF-EU package for the Ukraine would have been “a major boost for Euro-Atlantic security” suggests that NATO had set its sights on bringing the Ukraine into the military alliance.

The massive demonstrations over the past three months reflected widespread outrage at the corruption of the Yanukovych regime, but it has also unleashed a dark side of the Ukraine’s history.  That dark side was on display at last year’s rally in Cherkasey. Victor Smal, a lawyer and human rights activist, said he told “the men in the T-shirts they were promoting hatred. They beat me to the ground until I lost consciousness.”

Svoboda and its allies do not make up a majority of the demonstrators, but as Cohen points out, “Five percent of a population that’s tough, resolute, ruthless, armed, and well funded, and knows what it wants, can make history.”

It is not the kind of history most would like to repeat.

 

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Turkish Plots

Turkey’s Crisis: More Than Meets The Eye

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 1, 2014

The current corruption crisis zeroing in on Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyio Erdogan has all the elements of one of his country’s famous soap operas that tens of millions of people all over the Middle East tune in to each day: Bribes, shoe boxes filled with millions in cash, and dark whispers of foreign conspiracies.

As prosecutors began arresting leading government officials and businessmen, the Prime Minister claims that some foreign “ambassadors are engaging in provocative actions,” singling out U.S. Ambassador Frank Ricciardone. The international press has largely dismissed Erdogan’s charges as a combination of paranoia and desperation, but might the man have a point?

The corruption story is generally being portrayed as a result of a falling out between Erdogan’s conservative brand of Islam and the Gulen Community, a more moderate version championed by the Islamic spiritual leader Fethullah Gulen, who currently resides in Pennsylvania. Both are Sunnis. More than a decade ago the two men formed a united front against the Turkish military that eventually drove the generals back to the barracks and elected Erdogan’s Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002.

There are differences between the two currents of Turkish political Islam. Erdogan’s brand comes out the “National Outlook” tradition that tends to be suspicious of the West and democracy, cool to wide-open free market capitalism, and more socially conservative. Erdogan has recently told Turkish women how many children they should have—three—and railed against abortion, adultery, coed housing, public kissing, and alcohol. The AKP is also closely allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Erdogan was a strong supporter of the Brotherhood government in Egypt that was overthrown by a military coup this past July.

In contrast, Gulen’s brand of Islam is pro-West, strongly in favor of a free market, and socially flexible. Gulen supporters were active in last summer’s demonstrations against Erdogan, although their commitment to democracy is suspect. For instance, Gulen has a more hard-line nationalist approach to the Kurds, Turkey’s largest ethnic minority, and only recently began challenging the AKP’s authoritarian streak.

Gulen was also critical of Erdogan for breaking relations with Israel following the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, when Israeli commandos killed eight Turks and a Turkish-American trying to deliver aid to the Palestinians in Gaza. Gulen accused Erdogan of provoking the clash.

The current falling out came to a head when Erdogan proposed closing down one of the Gulen Community’s major sources of financing, the “dershanes” or tutorial schools that prepare Turkish students to take exams. The Community has expanded such schools to over 140 countries, including the U.S. The schools also serve as effective recruiting conduits for his movement. The Russians recently closed down the schools, accusing them of being fronts for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Gulen called the move against the dershanes a “dagger stabbed in our hearts.”

But the timing of the corruption investigations suggests this is more about regional politics—with global ramifications—than a spat over influential schools and interpretations of Islam.

Erdogan’s supporters charge that the investigation is coming from Gulen-dominated prosecutors and judges, and that it is little more than a power play aimed at bringing down the Prime Minister and damaging the AKT on the eve of local elections scheduled for March. “It is clear that I am the real target,” Erdogan told the media.

Gulen supporters counter that corruption is widespread, and that the Erdogan government has alienated former allies throughout the region.

There is certainly truth in that charge. From a former policy of “zero problems with the neighbors” Turkey finds itself embroiled in the Syrian civil war, and feuding with Israel, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran. Even what looked like a breakthrough peace accord with the Kurds appears to be turning sour.

But this past fall, the Erdogan government began reversing course and patching up relations with the locals.

Turkey and Iran jointly agreed that there was “no military solution” to the war in Syria, and Ankara expelled Saudi Arabian intelligence agents, who it had accused of aiding the more extremist elements fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad.

Turkey also buried the hatchet with Iraq. Instead of setting up a separate oil and gas deal with the Kurds in Northern Iraq, Ankara has agreed to work through the central government in Baghdad and is pushing to increase cross border trade between the two countries. Of course much of this is practical: Turkey needs energy and Iran and Iraq can provide it more cheaply than anyone else.

These recent policy turnarounds make the timing of the corruption charges suspicious. For two years Erdogan’s government has played spear-carrier for the U.S. and its allies in Syria and courted the reactionary Gulf Cooperation Council. The latter consists of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and newcomers Jordan and Morocco.

But the Syrian civil war has not gone as planned, and, despite predictions that Assad would quickly fall, his government is hanging on. It is the forces fighting him that are spinning out of control. Ankara’s allies in the Gulf—in particular Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—are funding Islamic extremists fighting in Syria, who are turning the war into Sunnis Vs. Shiites. The Assad government is dominated by the Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Those groups are now also destabilizing Lebanon and Iraq by attacking Shiite communities in both countries. Most these extremists are contemptuous of Turkey’s Islamic government.

From the U.S. point of view, Turkey is no longer a completely reliable ally. It is quarreling with Israel, Washington’s number one friend in the region. It has fallen out with Saudi Arabia and most of the GCC—the new government in Qatar is an exception—and has essentially broken off relations with the U.S.-supported military government in Egypt. Most of all, it is developing ties with Iran, and both countries are suddenly issuing joint communiqués calling for a diplomatic resolution to the Syrian civil war.

Rather than joining in the newly forged Saudi-Israeli-Egypt alliance against Iran, Turkey is feuding with all three countries and breaking bread with Shiia-dominated governments in Teheran and Damascus.

In short, from Washington’s point of view, Erdogan has gone off the reservation.

Seen from this perspective, Erdogan’s suspicions do not seem all that bizarre. Despite denials that the U.S. and its allies are not involved, and that the corruption issues is entirely an internal Turkish affair, Washington and its allies do have a dog in this fight.

For instance, one target of the corruption probe is Halkbank, which does business with Iran. “We asked Halkbank to cut its links with Iran,” U.S. Ambassador Ricciardone reportedly told European Union (EU) ambassadors. “They did not listen to us.” Did the U.S. influence Turkish prosecutors to single out Halkbank?

If Erdogan falls and the Gulen forces take over, it is almost certain that Turkey will re-align itself in the region. If that happens, expect Ankara to patch up its fight with Tel Aviv and Cairo, chill relations with Iran, and maybe even go silent on a diplomatic solution in Syria. The free market section of the Turkish economy will expand, and western investments will increase. And the current roadblocks in the way of Turkey’s membership in the EU may vanish.

Whether this will be good for Turkey or the region is another matter. The Gulf monarchies are not nearly as stable as they look. The military government in Egypt will always be haunted by the ghost of the Arab Spring. Israel’s continued settlement building is gradually turning it into an international pariah. And, in the end, the West does not really care about democracy, as the U.S.’s endorsement of the military coup in Egypt made clear.

Erdogan’s political instincts seem to have deserted him. His brutal suppression of last summer’s demonstrations polarized the country, and his response to the corruption investigations has been to fire or reassign hundreds of police and prosecutors. He has also gone after the media. Turkey has jailed more journalists than Iran and China combined.

There is little doubt but that the Prime Minister has played fast and loose with zoning laws and environmental regulations in order to allow his allies in the construction industry to go on a tear. But Erdogan hardly invented corruption, and the question about the investigations is, why now?

Maybe the charge that this Turkish corruption scandal is orchestrated is just paranoia, but, then, paranoids do have enemies.

 

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“Are You Serious?” Awards 2013

2013 “Are You Serious?” Awards

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 19, 2013

Every year Dispatches From The edge gives awards to news stories and newsmakers that fall under the category of “Are you serious?” Here are the awards for 2013.

Creative Solutions Award to the Third Battalion of the 41st U.S. Infantry Division for its innovative solution on how to halt sporadic attacks by the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Zhare District: it blew up a hill that the insurgents used as cover.

This tactic could potentially be a major job creator because there are lots of hills in Afghanistan. And after the U.S. Army blows them all up, it can take on those really big things: mountains.

Runner up in this category is Col. Thomas W. Collins, for his inventive solution on how to explain a sharp rise in Taliban attacks in 2013. The U.S. military published a detailed bar graphs indicating insurgent attacks had declined by 7 percent, but, when the figure was challenged by the media, the Army switched to the mushroom strategy*: “We’re just not giving out statistics anymore,” Col. Collins told the Associated Press.

Independent sources indicate that attacks were up 40 percent over last year, with the battlegrounds shifting from the south of Afghanistan to the east and north.

*Mushrooms are kept in the dark and fed manure.

The White Man’s Burden Award goes to retired U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and an expert on counterinsurgency warfare. McChrystal told the Associated Press that the Afghans don’t really want the U.S. to withdraw, because they are “Like a teenager, you really don’t want your parents hanging around you, but…you like to know if things go bad, they’re going to help.” The General went on to say the U.S. needed to stay because “We have an emotional responsibility” to the Afghans.

The “Don’t Bring Me No Bad News” Award was split between Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Greek state television network ERT’s reporting of the widespread opposition to the current austerity policies of the center-right Samaras government apparently annoyed the Prime Minister. Samaras dismissed all of ERT’s 2,700 employees and closed down the station (the fired workers are occupying ERT’s headquarters and continue to broadcast programming). When the government restarted broadcasts a month later, it led with a 1960’s comedy, followed by documentary about a Greek surrealist poet.

Turkish PM Erdogan pressured Turkey’s 24-hour television news stations not to cover the massive June demonstrations that paralyzed much of Istanbul and, instead, to broadcast a panel of medical experts talking about schizophrenia and a documentary about penguins. There are no penguins in Turkey, although the schizophrenia program may have been an appropriate subject matter for the Prime Minister .

The Bad Hair Award to the Dublin city government for spending $6.8 million to promote a Redhead Convention in the village of Crosshaven on Ireland’s southeast coast.

Ireland is currently in a major depression triggered by a banker-instigated housing bubble. The International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission—the so-called “troika”—bailed out the banks and instituted a massive austerity program on Ireland. The cost of the bailout is approximately $13,750 for every Irish citizen.

The salaries of government workers were cut 20 percent, and 35,000 public employees were laid off. Pensions, unemployment and welfare benefits were slashed and new taxes imposed. Unemployment is at almost 13 percent—28 percent for young people. A survey found that 67 percent of families with young children are unable to afford basic necessities, and are in arrears on their rent, utility bills, and mortgages. Some 20 percent of Ireland’s children live in houses where both parents are out of work—the highest in Europe—and in a population of 4.6 million people, more than 200,000 have emigrated, about 87,000 a year.

Alan Hayes, the convention’s “king of the redheads,” told the Financial Times that the “Festival of ginger-loving madness” would draw Irish from all over the world. It is estimated that the Irish diaspora makes up about 100 million people.

“Ireland has one of the highest populations of redheads in the world and we will celebrate by getting together as many as possible,” says Hayes. The competitions will include the best red hair, eyebrows, and the “most freckles per square inch.”

The Jackal Award goes to the government of France for leveraging its opposition to a settlement between Iran and the U.S. over Teheran’s nuclear program as a way to break into the lucrative Middle East arms market. France’s spoiler role was praised by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes the monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Jordan and Morocco.

“France could gain financially from the GCC’s frustrations over recent U.S. policy in the Middle East,” the global security analyst group Stratfor notes. “Significant defense contracts worth tens of billions of dollars are up for grabs in the Gulf region, ranging from aircraft to warships to missile systems. France is predominantly competing with Britain and the United States for the contracts and is seeking to position itself as a key ally of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates as it looks to strengthen its defense and industrial ties with the region.”

The French arms company Thales is negotiating to upgrade Saudi Arabia’s short-range missile systems for $3.34 billion and working on a $2.72 billion deal to modernize the kingdom’s air defense system. Paris is also negotiating an $8 billion contract to supply the Emirates with 60 Rafale fighter-bombers and trying to sell 72 Rafales to Qatar. France is smarting over the recent collapse of a $4 billion deal to sell Rafale aircraft to Brazil, and a big sale in the Gulf would more than make up for the loss.

Israel—which also praised the French stance vis-à-vis Iran and the U.S.—invited French President Francois Hollande to be the “guest of honor” at last month’s “France-Israel Innovation Day” in Tel Aviv. Israel’s aeronautics industry had more than $6 billion in sales from 2009 to 1010, and Israel is the fourth largest weapons exporter in the world. France would like to sell its commercial Airbus to Tel Aviv, as well as get in on Israel’s expanding drone industry.

C’est la vie.

The Confused Priorities Award to the Associated Press for its March 5 story titled “Little Reaction In Oil Market to Chavez Death” on the demise of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The authors noted that Venezuela has the second-largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia, but that the leftist former paratrooper had squandered that wealth:

“Chavez invested Venezuela’s oil wealth into social programs including state-run food markets, cash benefits for poor families, free health clinics and education programs. But those gains were meager compared with the spectacular construction projects that oil riches spurred in glittering Middle Eastern cities, including the world’s tallest building in Dubai and plans for branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim Museums in Abu Dhabi.”

When Chavez won the presidency in 2001, some 70 percent of the population was considered “poor,” in spite of $30 billion in yearly oil revenues. Two percent of the population owned 60 percent of the land, and the gap between rich and poor was one of the worst in Latin America.

According to the Gini Coefficient that measures wealth, Venezuela now has the lowest rate of inequality in Latin America. Poverty has been reduced to 21 percent, and “extreme poverty” from 40 percent to 7.3 percent. Illiteracy has been virtually eliminated, and infant mortality has dropped from 25 per 1,000 to 13 per 1,000, the same as it is for Black Americans. Health clinics increased 169.6 percent, and five million Venezuelans receive free food.

But on the other hand they could have had a copy of the Victory of Samothrace or the Mona Lisa.

The Pinocchio Award to the five countries that violated international law by forcing Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane down and then lying about it.

Morales had been meeting with Russian officials in Moscow when U.S. intelligence services became convinced the leftist president was going to spirit National Security Agency whistle blower Edward Snowden back to Bolivia. When Morales’ plane left Russia, the U.S. leaned on France, Italy, Spain and Portugal to close their airspace and deny the plane refueling rights. Morales was forced to turn back and land in Austria, where his aircraft sat for 13 hours.

When Morales protested, the French said they didn’t know Morales was on the plane, the Portuguese claimed its international airport couldn’t fuel the aircraft, the Spanish said his flyover permit had expired, and the Italians denied they ever closed their airspace. The U.S. initially said it had nothing to do with the incident, but that excuse collapsed once Spain finally admitted it had received an American request to close its airspace to Morales’s plane.

The Organization of American States, the Union of South American Nations, and UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon all protested the actions by the five nations as a violation of international law and international commercial airlines treaties.

An angry Morales said, “The Europeans and the Americans think that we are living in an era of empires and colonies. They are wrong. We are a free people…they can no longer do this.”

The Frank Norris Award to the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, the intelligence agency in charge of spy satellites, for its new logo: a giant, frowning octopus, its arms encircling the world, sporting the slogan “Nothing is beyond our reach.” Norris wrote a famous turn of the 20th century novel called “The Octopus” about the struggle between farmers in California and the railroads that dominated the state’s politics.

The Broad Side of the Barn Award to the Obama administration for spending an extra $1 billion to expand the $34 billion U.S. anti-ballistic missile system (ABM) in spite of the fact that the thing can’t hit, well, the broad side of a barn. The last test of the ABM was in July, when, according to the Pentagon, “An intercept was not achieved.” No surprise there. The ABM hasn’t hit a target since 2008.

The $1 billion will be used to add 14 interceptors to the 30 already deployed in Alaska and California.

Runner up in this category was Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the maker of “Iron Dome,” the Israeli ABM system designed to intercept short-range rockets. According to Rafael officials, Iron Dome was 80 percent effective in intercepting Qassem and Grad rockets fired by Palestinians from Gaza during last November’s Operation Pillar of Defense.

But an independent analysis of Iron Dome’s effectiveness discovered that the 80 percent figure was mostly hype. Tesla Laboratories, a U.S. defense company, found that the interception success rate was between 30 and 40 percent, and Ted Postal—the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who successfully debunked the accuracy claims for Patriot missiles fired during the 1991 Gulf War—says Iron Dome has a “kill rate” of between five and 10 percent.

But a lack of success seems to be a sure fire way to open the cash spigots.

The U.S., which contributed more than $200 million to build Iron Dome, will spend an additional $680 million through 2015. The U.S. will also throw $173 million into Israel’s high altitude Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 interceptors, part of which are made by Boeing.

ABMs tend to be destabilizing, because the easiest way to defeat them is to overwhelm them with missiles, thus spurring an arms race. They also give their owners a false sense of security. And while they don’t work, they do cost a lot, which is bad news for taxpayers and good news for Boeing—also, the prime contractor for the U.S. ABM system—and Toys R Us. Yes, Toys R Us makes the guidance fins on the Iron Dome rocket.

 

The Golden Lemon Award once again goes to Lockheed Martin (with a tip of the hat to sub-contractors Northrop Grumman, BAE, L-3 Communications, United Technologies Corp., and Honeywell) for “shoddy” work on the F-35 stealth fighter, the most expensive weapons system in U.S. History. The plane—already 10 years behind schedule and 100 percent over budget—has vacuumed up $395.7 billion, and will eventually cost $1.5 trillion.

A Pentagon study, according to Agence France Presse, “cited 363 problems in the design and manufacture of the costly Joint Strike Fighter, the hi-tech warplane that is supposed to serve as the backbone of the future American fleet.”

The plane has difficulty performing at night or in bad weather, and is plagued with a faulty oxygen supply system, fuselage cracks and unexplained “hot spots.” Its software is also a problem, in part because it is largely untested. “Without adequate product evaluation of mission system software,” the Pentagon found, “Lockheed Martin cannot ensure aircraft safety requirements are met.”

In the meantime, extended unemployment benefits have been cut from the federal budget. The cost? About $25 billion, or 25 F-35Cs that don’t work.

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Iran and Enhancement

Iran & Enhancement

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 2, 2013

There are any number of obstacles that could trip up the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the “P5+1”—the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany— but the right to “enrich” nuclear fuel should not be one of them. Any close reading of the 1968 “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons” (NPT) clearly indicates that, even though the word “enrichment” is not used in the text, all signers have the right to the “peaceful applications of nuclear technology.”

Enriched fuel is produced when refined uranium ore—“yellowcake”—is transformed into uranium hexafluoride gas and spun in a centrifuge. The result is fuel that may contain anywhere from 3.5 to 5 percent Uranium 235 to over 90 percent U-235. The former is used in power plants, the latter in nuclear weapons. Some medical procedures require fuel enriched to 20 percent.

Iran currently has some 15,700 pounds of 3.5 to 5 percent nuclear fuel, and 432 pounds of 20 percent enriched fuel. International Atomic Energy Agency investigators have never turned up any weapons grade fuel in Iran and have certified that Teheran is not diverting fuel to build nuclear weapons. Intelligence agencies, including Israel’s, are in general agreement that Teheran has not enriched above 20 percent. A nuclear weapon requires about 110 pounds of uranium fuel enriched to between 90 and 95 percent.

Iran insists it is not building a weapon, and its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, against the production of nuclear weapons as being contrary to Islamic beliefs.

The U.S. and its allies claim that the NPT does not include an inherent right to enrich fuel because the words “enrich” do not appear in the document. But the Treaty clearly states, in at least two different places, that the only restriction on nuclear programs is the production of a weapon.  It is worthwhile to examine the two passages.

The preamble to the NPT affirms “the principle that the benefits of peaceful applications of nuclear technology, including any technological by-products which may be derived by nuclear-weapon States from the development of nuclear-explosive devices, should be available for peaceful purposes to all Parties of the Treaty, whether nuclear-weapon or non-nuclear weapon States.” (Italics added)

Since one cannot produce a nuclear weapon without enriched fuel, and since it is impossible to obtain weapons-grade nuclear fuel on the open market—it violates the Treaty (and common sense)—all nuclear weapons states enrich fuel. Several non-weapons states, including Japan and Germany, do as well.

The second passage is Article IV, which has two parts:

1)   “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop, research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with articles I and II of this Treaty.” [Articles I and II bar countries from transferring or receiving nuclear weapons or “any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapon…”].

2)   “All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”

The NPT has been signed or agreed to by virtually every country in the world, with the exceptions of Israel, India, Pakistan and South Sudan. North Korea, exercising its rights under Article X, withdrew from the Treaty in 2003. In theory, those countries who do not sign the NPT cannot buy uranium on the open market, but the Bush administration subverted this section of the NPT by agreeing to sell uranium to India. The Obama administration has not repudiated that decision, although the Indians have yet to act on it.

Rumor has it that France supplied the Israelis with the knowledge of how to build its bomb, and Apartheid South Africa supplied the fuel. India and Pakistan developed nuclear weapons on their own. North Korea may have received the technical knowledge on how to produce its nuclear weapon from Pakistan, although there is no “secret” to building a bomb. All one needs is the right fuel and some engineering skills.

Delivering a bomb is another matter. Putting one on a missile requires miniaturization, which is devilishly hard, and delivering one by aircraft is unreliable if the target country has even a semi-modern anti-aircraft system.

It appears as if the P5+1 will eventually allow Iran to enrich fuel, although to what percentage is the rub. Will 20 percent be a red line for the P5+1? One hopes not. While 20 percent is closer to bomb-grade fuel than 3.5 or 5 percent, the increased inspection regime already agreed to two weeks ago would quickly spot any attempt to produce weapons-grade fuel. In any event, the 20 percent fuel can be configured in a way that makes it virtually impossible to upgrade it to bomb-ready material. There is also nothing in the NPT that bars enriching to 20 percent.

At this point the heavy water reactor at Arak is also a potential obstacle to an agreement. Commenting on Iran’s commitment to building the Arak reactor, Teheran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said that such a reactor is a “red line, which we will never cross,” indicating, at this point, that Iran intends to follow through with the project. Iran did, however, invite UN inspectors to examine the plant.

Heavy water reactors produce plutonium, which can also be used in nuclear weapons. The Nagasaki bomb was a plutonium weapon, and many of today’s nuclear weapons use it as a fuel. Heavy water reactors are efficient and don’t require an extensive enrichment industry, but they are expensive and produce what is unarguably the most dangerous and toxic substance on earth.

However, there is nothing in the NPT that differentiates between light water reactors and heavy water reactors, and signers have the right to use both technologies. Whether that is a good idea is entirely another matter, but certainly not an excuse for the massive sanctions that have tanked the Iranian economy. Every country has the inalienable right to do something dumb, like produce plutonium with a half-life of 24,000 years (and you wouldn’t want to get too close to it even after that).

Adherence to the NPT is no obstacle to an agreement. The roadblocks will come from Israel—which is not a party to the Treaty—the Gulf monarchies, the Republicans (and some Democrats) in Congress, and the alliance between the neo-conservatives who successfully pushed for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

A close reading of the NPT is something everyone can do. The document is only four and a half pages and its language is accessible to anyone. In contrast, wading through the 53-page “Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty” , a document certainly as important as the NPT, is an ordeal. But a close reading of the NPT is not necessarily comfortable for the governments of the U.S., China, France, Britain, or Russia. In particular Article VI:

“Each of the parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

 

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Poison Gas and Arabian Tales

Poison Gas & Arabian Tales

Dispatches From The Edge

July 4, 2013

“It is not unlike Sherlock Holmes and the dog that didn’t bark. It’s not just that we can’t prove a sarin attack, it is that we are not seeing what we would expect to see from a sarin attack.”

Jean-Pascal Zanders, former senior research fellow at the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies

Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective, cracked the case of the “Silver Blaze” by concluding that a murder and theft had to be an inside job because the watchdog never barked. It would be a good idea to keep this in mind when it comes to determining whether the Syrian government used poison gas against its opponents. And since the Obama administration is citing “proof” that the chemical warfare agent sarin was used by the Syrian government as the basis for escalating its intervention in the two-year old civil war, this is hardly an academic exercise.

Like Holmes, start with the facts.

According to French, British, Israeli and U.S. intelligence services, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad            used sarin on at least 10 different occasions, resulting in the deaths of some 100 to 150 people. The “proof” for this is based on tissue and blood samples—British intelligence claims contaminated soil as well—from victims of the attacks. The samples were gathered in Syria, taken to Turkey, and turned over to the intelligence services and the United Nations.

The French newspaper Le Monde also reports that one of its reporters suffered blurred vision and nausea during one of these attacks, and the paper has published photos of purported victims being treated. There is, as well, a video of insurgent fighters donning gas masks. Besides the photos and video images, no evidence has been released to the press.

What about the beast itself?

The chemical was invented in Germany in 1938 as a pesticide. It is a nerve agent—as opposed to a “blistering agent” like mustard gas—and kills by blocking the body’s ability to control the chemical that allows muscles to turn themselves off. As the Office of Emergency Management puts it, “Without an ‘off switch,’ the glands and muscles are constantly being stimulated. They may tire and no longer be able to sustain breathing function.”

You suffocate.

Sarin is a colorless and odorless liquid, and it is “volatile”—that is, it quickly turns into a gas. Even in small concentrations, it is very deadly and can kill within minutes. It is absorbed through the skin or lungs and can contaminate clothing for up to 30 minutes. The British created a far deadlier and less volatile variant of sarin called V. It was an errant VX cloud from the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground that killed some 6,000 sheep in Utah’s Skull Valley in 1968.

Many countries have chemical weapons, but some, including the U.S. and Russia, are in the process of destroying them under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. Sarin is considered a “weapon of mass destruction” under UN Resolution 687, although that label is a bit of a misnomer. It is certainly bad stuff. In 1988 Saddam Hussein used sarin to kill several thousand Kurds in the city of Halabja, and sarin and mustard gas were used during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). It is estimated that gas inflicted about 5 percent of Iran’s casualties in that war.

But poison gas is generally considered more of a nuisance than a weapon capable of creating large numbers of dead and wounded. It only accounted for 1 percent of the casualties in World War I, and doesn’t compare with a real weapon of mass destruction. The two nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed some 250,000 people and injured hundreds of thousands more. And by today’s standard of nuclear weapons, those bombs were tiny.

While chemical weapons are scary, they are no more indiscriminate in what they kill than 1,000 lb bombs and cluster weapons, indeed much of the arsenals of modern armies. Small arms, for instance, inflict 90 percent of civilian casualties.

In any case, President Obama made the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war his “red line,” a barrier he claims has now been breached.

Has it?

Philip Coyle, a senior scientist at Washington’s Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has his doubts, telling the McClatchy newspapers that from what he has observed of the evidence, it doesn’t look as if sarin was used.

Jean-Pascal Zanders, former head of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project at the Stockholm international Peace Research Institute questions some of the reports in Le Monde. For instance, the newspaper reports that victims traveled a long distance for medical care, which he suggests is unlikely if sarin was used. He also points out there are no reports of medical workers dying from exposure to victims, even though sarin clings to clothing for up to a half hour. He also questions a Le Monde report that one victim was given 15 shots of the antidote atropine, a dose that would surely have been fatal.

“In a world where even the secret execution of Saddam Hussein was taped by someone, it doesn’t make sense that we don’t see videos, that we don’t see photos showing bodies of the dead, the reddened faces and the bluish extremities of the afflicted,” he says.

While the French claim they have an “unbroken chain of custody” from the attack to the lab, even experts who believe the intelligence reports disagree. Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association says that while his “guess” is that the poison gas was used, there is a lack of “continuous chain of custody for the physiological samples from those exposed to sarin.”

One “Western diplomat” told the Washington Post, “The chain-of-custody issue is a real issue,” in part because the “red line” speech was an incentive to “prove” chemical weapons had been used. As Rolf Ekeus, a Swedish scientist who headed the UN’s weapons inspections in Iraq, said, “If you are the opposition…you have an interest in giving the impression that some chemical weapons have been used.”

According to a report in the New York Times, samples gathered in Aleppo were carried by a civilian courier from that city to the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, “a journey that took longer than expected. At one point,” reports the Times, “the courier forgot the blood vials, which were not refrigerated, in his car. Ten days after the attack, the vials arrived at the Turkish field office for the Syrian American Medical Society.”

In short, the samples were hardly secured during the week and a half it took them to get to Turkey, and they were delivered into the hands of insurgency supporters.

Carla del Ponte, former war crimes prosecutor and currently a member of the UN Commission of Inquiry on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, says it was the rebels, not Syria, who are the guilty party.

Damascus refuses to allow the UN to test for chemical weapons inside of Syria, which certainly raises suspicions. On the other hand the UN has not exactly been a neutral bystander in the civil war. UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon has demanded “unfettered access”—an unlikely event in the middle of a war—and while sharply condemning Iran and Russia for supplying arms to Assad, has muted such criticism of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the main arms suppliers for the rebels.

There is a certain common sense factor in all this as well. Would the Assad government really “cross the red line” in order to kill 150 people?

When U.S. Special Forces invaded Syria in 2008 to attack what they claimed was a “terrorist gathering”—it turned out to be carpenters and farmers—the Syrians protested, but did nothing.  At the time, Syria’s Foreign Minister told Der Speigel that Damascus had no wish to “escalate the situation” with the U.S. “We are not Georgia” he added, an illusion to Georgia’s disastrous decision to pick a fight with Russia in the 2008 Russian-Georgian war.

Nor has Syria responded to three bombing raids by Israel, knowing that challenging the powerful Israeli air force would be suicidal.

Western intelligence services want us to believe that Damascus deliberately courted direct U.S. intervention for something totally marginal to the war. Maybe the Assad regime has lost its senses. Maybe some local commanders took the initiative to do something criminal and dumb. Maybe the whole thing is a set-up.

Shouldn’t we wait until the dog barks?

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Syria: A Multi-Sided Chess game

Syria: A Multi-Sided Chess Match

Dispatches From The Edge

March 31, 2013

In some ways the Syrian civil war resembles a proxy chess match between supporters of the Bashar al-Assad regime— Iran, Iraq, Russia and China—and its opponents— Turkey, the oil monarchies, the U.S., Britain and France. But the current conflict only resembles chess if the game is played with multiple sides, backstabbing allies, and conflicting agendas.

Take the past few weeks of rollercoaster politics.

The blockbuster was the U.S.-engineered rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, two Washington allies that have been at loggerheads since Israeli commandos attacked a humanitarian flotilla bound for Gaza and killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American. When Tel Aviv refused to apologize for the 2010 assault, or pay compensation to families of the slain, Ankara froze relations and blocked efforts at any NATO-Israeli cooperation.

Under the prodding of President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and buried the hatchet. The apology “was offered the way we wanted,” Erdogan said, and added “We are at the beginning of a process of elevating Turkey to a position so that it will again have a say, initiative and power, as it did in the past.”

The détente will align both countries with much of Washington’s agenda in the region, which includes overthrowing the Assad government, and isolating Iran. Coupled with a Turkish push to resolve the long simmering war between Ankara and its Kurdish minority, it was a “Fantastic week for Erdogan,” remarked former European Union policy chief Javier Solana.
It was also a slam dunk moment for the Israelis, whose intransigence over the 2010 incident and continued occupation of Palestinian and Syrian lands has left the country more internationally isolated than it has been in its 65 year history.

Israel’s apology might lay the groundwork for direct intervention in Syria by NATO and Israel. In recent testimony before Congress, Admiral James Stavridis, the head of U.S. European Command and NATO’s top commander, said that a more aggressive posture by the Obama administration vis-à-vis Syria “would be helpful in breaking the deadlock and bringing down the regime.”

According to the Guardian (UK), Netanyahu raised the possibility of joint U.S.-Israeli air strikes against Syria, which Israel accuses of shifting weapons to its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon. There is no evidence that Syria has actually done that, and logic would suggest that the Assad regime is unlikely to export weapons when it is fighting for its life and struggling to overcome an arms embargo imposed on it by the EU and the UN. But Tel Aviv is spoiling for a re-match with Hezbollah, the organization that fought it to a standstill in 2006. “What I hear over and over again from Israeli generals is that another war with Hezbollah is inevitable,” a former U.S. diplomat told the Guardian.

There is some talk among Israelis about establishing a “buffer zone” inside Syria to prevent Islamic groups becoming a presence on the border. A similar buffer zone established after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon turned into a strategic disaster for Tel Aviv.

Admiral Stavridis’s suggested that a more aggressive posture would almost certainly not include using U.S. ground troops. According to former Indian diplomat M. K. Bhadrakumar, a more likely scenario would be for NATO air power to smash Assad’s air force and armor—as it did Mummer Khadafy’s in Libya—and “if ground forces need to be deployed inside Syria at some stage, Turkey can undertake that mission, being a Muslim country belonging to NATO.”

The Gulf monarchies—specifically Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan—have increased arms shipments to the anti-Assad insurgents, and France and Britain are considering breaking the embargo and arming the Free Syrian Army. If this were a normal chess game, it would look like checkmate for Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran. But this game is three-dimensional, with multiple players sometimes pursuing different goals.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia are pouring what one American official called “a cataract of weaponry” into Syria, but the former apparently double-crossed the latter in a recent leadership fight in the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the umbrella organization for the various groups fighting against the Damascus government. Qatar derailed Saudi Arabia’s candidate for the SNC’s prime minister and slipped its own man into the post, causing the organization’s president, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, to resign. While most the western media reported Khatib resigned because SNC was not getting enough outside help, according to As-Safir, the leading Arabic language newspaper in Lebanon, it was over the two big oil monarchies trying to impose their candidates on the Syrians.

Qatar ally Ghassan Hitto, a Syrian-American was anointed prime minister, causing a dozen SNC members to resign. The Free Syrian Army, too, says it will not recognize Hitto.

Khatib also objected to the Qatari move to form a Syrian government because it torpedoed last June’s Geneva agreement that would allow Assad to stay on until a transitional government is formed. The Qatari move was essentially a statement that the Gulf monarchy would accept nothing less than an outright military victory.

Qatar is close to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia favors the more extremist Islamic groups, some with close links to al-Qaida, that the U.S. and the European Union have designated as “terrorist.” Tension between extremist and more moderate insurgents broke into an open firefight Mar. 24 in the northern border city of Tal Abyad. The secular Farouq Battalions, which favors elections and a civil government, were attacked by the Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, that wants to impose Sharia Law and establish an Islamic emirate. Four people were killed, and the leader of the Farouq Battalions was severely wounded.

The Nusra Front has also tangled with Kurdish groups in Syria’s northwest, and its militias currently control much of the southern border with Iraq, Jordan, and the Golan Heights that borders Israel. It was the Nusra Front that recently kidnapped UN peacekeepers for several days and attacked Iraqi soldiers escorting members of the Syrian military who had fled across the border. There have also been clashes between secular and Islamic forces in the Syrian cities of Shadadeh and Deir el Zour.

The Turkish government backing of the Syrian insurgency is not popular among most Turks, and that has to concern Erdogan, because he is trying to alter the Turkey’s constitution to make it more executive-centered and to himself become the next president. Although he is currently riding a wave of popularity over the Kurdish ceasefire, that could erode if the Syria war drags on.

And without direct NATO-Israeli intervention there does not appear to be any quick end to the civil war in sight. Assad still has support from his minority ethnic group, the Alawites, as well as among Christian denominations and many business groups. All fear an Islamic takeover. “If the rebels come to this city,” one wealthy Damascus businessman told Der Spiegel, “they’ll eat us alive.”

The longer the war goes on, the more the region destabilizes.

Fighting has broken out between Shiites and Sunnis in northern Lebanon, a Sunni-extremist fueled bombing campaign is polarizing Iraq, and Jordan is rent by an internal opposition that poses a serious threat to the Hashemite monarchy. Even Saudi Arabia has problems. A low-level but persistent movement for democracy in the country’s eastern provinces is resisting a brutal crackdown by Saudi authorities. As National Public Radio and GlobalPost reporter Reese Erlich discovered, some of those regime opponents are being given a choice between prison and fighting the Assad government, a strategy that the Saudi government may come to regret. It was jihadists sent to oppose the Soviets in Afghanistan who eventually returned to destabilize countries in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, and who currently form the backbone of al-Qaida associated groups like the Nusra Front .

Aaron Zelin, Middle East expert and Fellow at the Washington Institute told Erlich that fighters from Saudi Arabia, Libya, Tunisia, and Jordan are being funneled into Syria.

Chess with multiple players can get tricky.

Turkey wants regional influence and Assad out, but it does not want a neighbor dominated by the Gulf monarchies. It may also find that talking about Turkish “power” doesn’t go down well in the Middle East. Arab countries had quite enough of that during the Ottoman Empire.

The Gulf monarchies want to overthrow the secular Assad regime, isolate regional rival Iran, and insure Sunni supremacy over Shites in the region. But they don’t agree on what variety of Islam they want, nor are they the slightest bit interested in democracy and freedom, concepts that they have done their best to suppress at home.

The French and British want a replay of Libya, but Syria is not a marginal country on the periphery of the Middle East, but a dauntingly complex nation in the heart of the region that might well atomize into ethnic-religious enclaves run by warlords. That is not an outcome that sits well with other European nations and explains their hesitation about joining the jihad against Assad.

Even the Israeli goal of breaking out of its isolation, destroying Hezbollah, and strangling Iran may be a pipe dream. Regardless of Turkish-Israeli detente, the barriers that keep Palestinians out of Israel also wall off Tel Aviv off from the rest of the Middle East, and that will not change until there is an Israeli government willing to remove most of the settlements and share Jerusalem.

As for Hezbollah, contrary to its portrayal in the western media as a cat’s paw for Teheran, the Shite group is a grassroots organization based in Lebanon’s largest ethnic group. It is also being careful not to give the Israelis an excuse to attack it. In any case, any Israeli invasion of Lebanon would automatically rally international sentiment and Arab public opinion—Shite, Sunni, Alawite, etc.—against it.

If Assad falls, Iran would lose an ally, but Teheran’s closest friend in the Middle East is Baghdad, not Damascus. And despite strong American objections, Teheran recently scored a major coup by inking an agreement with Pakistan’s government to build a $7.5 billion gas pipeline to tap Iran’s South Pars field. The pact will not only blow a hole in western sanctions against Iran, it will play well in the May 11 Pakistani elections. “The Pakistani government wants to show it is willing to take foreign policy decisions that defy the U.S.,” says Anthony Skinner of the British-based Maplecroft risk consultants. “The pipeline not only caters to Pakistan’s energy needs but also logged brownie points with the many critics of the U.S. among the electorate.”

In the end, the effort to knock Syria off the board may succeed, although the butcher bill will be considerably higher than the current body count of 70,000. But establishing a pro-western government in Damascus and inflicting damage on Iran is mostly illusion.  “Victory”—particularly a military one— is more likely to end in chaos and instability, and a whole lot more dead chess pieces.

 

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Egypt: A Coup In The Wings?

Egypt: A Coup In The Wings?

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Mar. 18, 2013

When an important leader of the political opposition hints that a military coup might be preferable to the current chaos, and when a major financial organization proposes an economic program certain to spark a social explosion, something is afoot. Is Egypt being primed for a coup?

It is hard to draw any other conclusion given the demands the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is making on the government of President Mohamed Morsi: regressive taxes, massive cuts in fuel subsidies, and hard-edged austerity measures whose weight will overwhelmingly fall on Egypt’s poor.

“Austerity measures at a time of political instability are simply unfeasible in Egypt,” says Tarek Radwan of the Washington-based Atlantic Council. “He [Morsi] is already facing civil disobedience in the streets, protests on a weekly, if not daily basis, clashes between protestors and security—he does not want to worsen the situation.”

The “situation” consists of wide spread police strikes, particularly in the industrial city of Port Said, but also including parts of Cairo and the heavily populated Nile Delta. The police in Sharqiya have even refused to protect Morsi’s house. At its height the strike spread to half of Egypt’s 27 administrative governorates.

Microbus drivers, angered at rising diesel prices and fuel shortages, blocked roads leading into Cairo, setting off massive traffic jams. Farmers in the Delta joined them, refusing to ship crops and shutting down farm machinery.

Added to the tense political situation are rapidly shrinking foreign currency reserves, an economy that is dead in the water, and an unemployment rate that has risen to 13.5 percent, and close to 25 percent for Egyptians aged 15 to 29. The number of Egyptians living below the poverty line has increased from 20 percent in 2010 to 25 percent today. And tourism, which contributes 11 percent of the gross domestic product, has tanked.

Morsi’s Islamist government appears increasingly isolated, although the Muslim Brotherhood is still the best organized political force in Egypt. Reaching out to the opposition, however, is not its strong point. Morsi was elected with only 52 percent of the vote, and most observers think that support has eroded in the face of economic crisis and political instability. The government managed to ram through an Islamist constitution, but only 33 percent of the voters went to the polls. The government had planned on elections sometime between April and June, but a court recently overturned that decision.

The Morsi government has increasingly resorted to the use of force against opponents, including police tactics similar to those used by the Mubarak government. The government Attorney General recently caused an uproar by asking for “civilians” to arrest “lawbreakers.” The opposition charges that the call is cover for the Morsi government to set up militias dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The plagues being visited upon Egypt may not be of Biblical proportions, but they are serious enough to destabilize the biggest Arab country in the Middle East. They certainly threaten the gains of the January 2011 revolution that overthrew the autocratic and corrupt government of Hosni Mubarak and sent the powerful Egyptian army back to the barracks.

They may not stay there long.

Opposition leader Essam Al-Islambouli of the National Salvation Front told Al-Ahram Weekly,  “Today, we don’t just have a convoluted political process, but we are also facing confused and disturbing economic challenges, and we are seeing the threat of citizens bearing arms against each other. We might be reaching a point at which it will become inevitable for the Armed Forces to step in.”

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of Egypt’s Constitutional Party and founding member of the opposition National Salvation Front, told Ahram Online that while he doesn’t “hope the military takes over,” it would be better to be ruled by the military than by Islamic militias.

The Muslim Brotherhood does have a paramilitary wing called the “Hawks” that surfaced in 2006 during demonstrations at Al-Azhar University, and one rumor is that the MB has as many as 5,000 soldiers. There is also a reputed pledge by Hamas to send fighters from Gaza to support the MB. But it is very unlikely that the Brotherhood has anywhere near 5,000 armed men, and Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Zahar denied that the Palestinian organization intends to interfere in Egypt, calling the rumor nothing more than an attempt to smear Hamas. Indeed, relations between Hamas and the Morsi government have recently cooled.

The puzzling thing about the IMF’s demands is that they fly in the face of a recent study by the organization’s chief economist Oliver Banchard, which found spending cuts and taxes hikes only make recessions worse. Stimulus spending are far more effective in restarting an economy.

The Morsi government was hoping the international lending organization would front it $4.8 billion to pull Egypt through the current crisis, but Cairo has delayed asking for the loan, in large part because it is afraid of what the reaction would be.  Cutting fuel subsidies would fall heavily on the poor, who use kerosene for cooking. However, without the IMF loan, loans from the U.S. and the European Union will be put on hold as well.

The Morsi government’s fear is well founded. Egypt has long been a difficult country to govern without the consent of its people unless rulers can call on a powerful army. Its population of 83 million is concentrated in a few urban areas, the Delta, the narrow strip of land bordering the Nile, and several cities in the Canal Zone.

That concentration makes demonstrations formidable, as the Mubarak government found out in 2011. The Morsi government recently discovered that fact when it sentenced 21 soccer fans to death for their part in a 2012 riot in Port Said that killed 74 people. Port Said exploded at the verdict.

With the police overwhelmed—and on strike—Morsi was forced to call in the Egyptian Army to confront the rioters, but military commanders were less than happy at being caught between the demonstrators and the government. “The Egyptian armed forces is a combat institution not a security institution,” grumbled Gen. Ahmed Wasfi, head of the Army division sent into Port Said. “No one can imagine the Army replacing the Interior Ministry.”

Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi warned the Morsi government not to try and “brotherhoodise” the military, and also hinted darkly that the continued unrest could bring about a possible “collapse of the state.” It was a sobering statement from an institution that has intervened on other occasions in Egypt, including during the 1952 coup/ revolution that put Gamal Abdel Nasser into power.

As long as Mubarak controlled the army, he could rule Egypt. When the army stepped back in 2011, the government fell.

It is an old story. Ancient Egypt was one of the few areas in the Roman Empire that required two full legions just to keep the peace. And the Romans found that when Egyptians got riled, it was best to back off and cut a deal. Cleopatra used the power of Egypt’s population to hold off Roman rule for more than two decades. It is a force that no government can afford to take lightly.

It is no secret that the U.S. is not overly enthusiastic about the Morsi government. During his recent visit, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry offered aid—and a modest $250 million at that—but only if the government instituted “painful” austerity measures and kept Cairo’s foreign policy consistent with Washington’s. The U.S. has the most powerful voice in the IMF—it outvotes Japan, Germany and France combined—and the fact that the lending organization demands essentially parallel those made by Kerry is hardly coincidence.

The oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the U.S.’s major allies in the Middle East, have been telling Washington “We told you so” about Islamic governments, and GCC member Qatar, which initially pledged $4.3 billion in aid, has yet to make good on it. Qatar and other GCC nations have also reneged on an economic assistance package.

Morsi’s government is hardly radical. Its economic policies reflect its urban professional roots, and what MB business leader Hassan Malek calls “capitalism with attention to the poor,” a pledge that will be hard to reconcile with the IMF’s formula.

But Egypt has adopted a foreign policy that is not always in perfect alignment with Washington, including re-establishing relations with Iran and sharpening the criticism of Israel for its occupation of the West Bank and Golan Heights.

The U.S. has traditionally been more comfortable with authoritarian governments in the Middle East than democratic or Islamic ones, and it has influence with the Egyptian military through its $1.3 billion in yearly aid.

Are the statements by Egypt’s opposition concerning the possibility of a military takeover simply a political maneuver aimed at forcing the Morsi government to be more inclusive, or are they laying a foundation for a coup? Loose talk about an Army takeover in Egypt is a little like hand feeding a crocodile: a good way to lose a body part.

Why is the IMF ignoring its own findings on austerity to push a program that can only ignite massive resistance? And why is the U.S. piling on?

Egypt is looking at a summer of higher food prices, rising unemployment, blackouts, fuel shortages, and growing political unrest. If the country were a chessboard, it looks like a lot of pieces are lining up for an assault on the king.

 

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