Category Archives: Israel

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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Pandora and The Drones

Pandora & The Drones

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 3, 2013

In November 2001, when the CIA assassinated al-Qaeda commander Mohammed Atef with a killer drone in Kandahar, Afghanistan, the U.S. held a virtual monopoly on the technology of lethal robots. Today, more than 70 countries in the world deploy drones, 16 of them the deadly variety, and many of those drones target rural people living on the margins of the modern world.

Armed drones have been hailed as a technological breakthrough in the fight against terrorists who, in the words of President Obama, “take refuge in remote tribal regions…hide in caves and walled compounds…train in empty deserts and rugged mountains.” But much of the butcher’s bill for the drones has fallen on people who live in those deserts and mountains, many of whom are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time or get swept into a definition of “terrorist” so broad it that embraces virtually all adult males.

Since 2004—the year the “drone war” began in earnest—missile firing robots have killed somewhere between 3,741 and 5,825 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and injured another 1,371 to 1,836.  The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that this death toll includes between 460 to 1,067 “civilians” and as many as 214 children.

But, because how the U.S. defines “civilian” is classified, it is almost impossible to determine exactly who the victims are. Up until recently, it appears that being between the ages of 18 and 60 while carrying a weapon or attending a funeral for a drone victim was sufficient to get you incinerated.

In his May address to the National Defense University, however, President Obama claimed to have narrowed the circumstances under which deadly force can be used.  Rather than the impossibly broad rationale of “self-defense,” future attacks would be restricted to individuals who pose a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people” and who could not be “feasibly apprehended.” The President added that there had to be a “near certainty that no civilians would be killed or injured.”

As national security expert and constitutional law professor David Cole points out, the new criteria certainly are a more “demanding standard,” but one that will be extremely difficult to evaluate since the definition of everything from “threat” to “civilian” is classified. Over the past year there has been a drop in the number of drone strikes, which could reflect the new standards or be a response to growing anger at the use of the robots. Some 97 percent of Pakistanis are opposed to the use of drone strikes in that country’s northwest border region.

The drones that roam at will in the skies over Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, are going global, and the terror and death they sow in those three countries now threatens to replicate itself in western China, Eastern Turkey and northern Iraq, highland Peru, South Asia, and the Amazon basin.

Drones have become a multi-billion dollar industry, and countries across the planet are building and buying them. Many are used for surveillance, but the U.S., Britain, Sweden, Iran, Russia, China, Lebanon, Taiwan, Italy, Israel, France, Germany, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates all own the more lethal varieties. The world’s biggest drone maker is Israel.

For a sure-fire killer you want a Made-in-the-USA-by-General-Atomics Predator or Reaper, but there are other dangerous drones out there and they are expanding at a geometric pace.

Iran recently unveiled a missile-firing “Fotros” robot to join its “Shahad 129” armed drone. China claims its “Sharp Sword” drone has stealth capacity. A Russian combat drone is coming off the drawing boards next year. And a European consortium of France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Greece and Switzerland is developing the armed Dassault nEURon drone. Between 2005 and 2011, the number of drone programs worldwide jumped from 195 to 680. In 2001, the U.S. had 50 drones. Today it has more than 7,500.

While drone promoters claim that robot warfare is the future, they rarely mention who are the drones’ most likely targets. Except for surveillance purposes, drones are not very useful on a modern battlefield, because they are too slow. Their advantage is that they can stay aloft for a very long time—24 to 40 hours is not at all unusual—and their cameras give commanders a real-time picture of what is going on. But as the Iranians recently demonstrated by downing a U.S. RQ-170 stealth drone, they are vulnerable to even middle-level anti-craft systems.

“Predators and Reapers are useless in a contested environment,” says U.S. Gen. Mike Hostage, chief of Air Combat Command. “I couldn’t [put one] into the Strait of Hormuz without putting airplanes there to protect it.”

But over the tribal areas of Pakistan, the rural villages of Yemen and the coast of Somalia they are virtually invulnerable. Flying at an altitude beyond the range of small arms fire—which, in any case, is highly inaccurate—they strike without warning. Since the drone’s weapon of choice, the Hellfire missile, is supersonic, there is no sound before an explosion: a village compound, a car, a gathering, simply vanishes in a fury cloud of high explosives.

Besides dealing out death, the drones terrify. Forensic psychologist Peter Schaapveld found that drones inflicted widespread posttraumatic stress syndrome in Yemeni villagers exposed to them. Kat Craig of the British organization Reprieve, who accompanied Schaapveld, says the terror of the drones “amounts to psychological torture and collective punishment.”

But do they work? They have certainly killed leading figures in al Qaeda, the Haqqani Group, and the Taliban, but it is an open question whether this makes a difference in the fight against terrorism. Indeed, a number of analysts argue that the drones end up acting as recruiting sergeants by attacking societies where honor and revenge are powerful currents.

In his book “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s war on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam,” anthropologist Akbar Ahmed argues that the drone war’s major victims are not ideologically committed terrorists, but tribal people. And further, that when a drone sows death and injury among these people, their response is to seek retribution and a remedy for dishonor.

For people living on the margins of the modern world, honor and revenge are anything but atavistic throwbacks to a previous era. They are cultural rules that help moderate inter-community violence in the absence of centralized authority and a way to short circuit feuds and war.

Kinship systems can function similarly, and, in the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the drone war ends up creating a broader base for groups like the Taliban. The major target of drones in those countries is the Pashtun tribe which make up a plurality of Afghanistan and a majority in Pakistan’s tribal areas. From the outside, Pashtun clans are a factious lot until they encounter an outsider. Then the tribe’s segmentary lineage system kicks in and fulfills the old Pashtun adage: “Me against my brother; my brother and me against our cousins; my brother, me andour cousins against everyone else.”

Occupying someone else’s lands is dangerous and expensive, hence the siren lure of drones as a risk-free and cheap way to intimidate the locals and get them to hand over their land or resources. Will the next targets be indigenous people resisting the exploitation of their lands by oil and gas companies, soybean growers, or logging interests?

The fight against “terrorism” may be the rationale for using drones, but the targets are more likely to be Baluchs in northwest Pakistan, Uyghurs in Western China, Berbers in North Africa, and insurgents in Nigeria. Some 14 countries in Latin America are purchasing drones or setting up their own programs, but with the exception of Brazil, those countries have established no guidelines for how they will be used.

The explosion of drone weapons, and the secrecy that shields their use was the spur behind the Global Drone Summit in Washington, titled “Drones Around the Globe: Proliferation and Resistance” and organized by Codepink, the Institute for Policy Study, The Nation Magazine, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the National Lawyers Guild. The Nov. 16 meeting drew anti-drone activists from around the world to map out plans to challenge the secrecy and the spread of drones.

Zeus gave Pandora a box, and her husband, Epimetheus, the key, instructing them not to open it. But Pandora could not resist exploring what was inside, and thus released fear, envy, hate, disease and war on the world. The box of armed drones, but its furies are not yet fully deployed. There is still time to close it and ban a weapon of war aimed primarily at the powerless and the peripheral.

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Iran: Rumors Of War

Iran: Rumors of War

Dispatches From The Edge

Nov. 5, 2013

Is Israel really planning to attack Iran, or are declarations about the possibility of a pre-emptive strike at Teheran’s nuclear program simply bombast? Does President Obama’s “we have your back” comment about Israel mean the U.S. will join an assault? What happens if the attack doesn’t accomplish its goals, an outcome predicted by virtually every military analyst? In that case, might the Israelis, facing a long, drawn out war, resort to the unthinkable: nuclear weapons?

Such questions almost seem bizarre at a time when Iran and negotiators from the P5+1—the U.S., China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany—appear to be making progress at resolving the dispute over Teheran’s nuclear program. And yet the very fact that a negotiated settlement seems possible may be the trigger for yet another war in the Middle East.

A dangerous new alliance is forming in the region, joining Israel with Saudi Arabia and the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council, thus merging the almost bottomless wealth of the Arab oil kings with the powerful and sophisticated Israeli army. Divided by religion and history, this confederacy of strange bedfellows is united by its implacable hostility to Iran. Reducing tensions is an anathema to those who want to isolate Teheran and dream of war as a midwife for regime change in Iran.

How serious this drive toward war is depends on how you interpret several closely related events over the past three months.

First was the announcement of the new alliance that also includes the military government in Egypt. That was followed by the news that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were stocking up on $10.8 billion worth of U.S. missiles and bunker busters. Then, in mid-October, Israel held war games that included air-to-air refueling of warplanes, essential to any long-range bombing attack. And lastly, the magazine Der Spiegel revealed that Israel is arming its German-supplied, Dolphin-class submarines with nuclear tipped cruise missiles.

Saber rattling? Maybe. Certainly a substantial part of the Israeli military and intelligence community is opposed to a war, although less so if it included the U.S. as an ally.

Opponents of a strike on Iran include Uzi Arad, former director of the National Security Council and a Mossad leader; Gabi Ashkenazi, former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff; Ami Ayalon and Yuval Diskin, former heads of Shin Bet; Uzi Even, a former senior scientist in Israel’s nuclear program; Ephraim Halevy, former Mossad head; Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, and Shaul Mofaz, former IDF chiefs of staff; Simon Peres, Israeli president; Uri Sagi, former chief of military intelligence; and Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, who bluntly calls the proposal to attack Iran “The stupidest thing I ever heard.”

Mossad is Israel’s external intelligence agency, much like the American CIA. Shin Bet is responsible for internal security, as with the FBI and the Home Security Department.

However, an Israeli attack on Iran does have support in the U.S. Congress, and from many former officials in the Bush administration. Ex-Vice-President Dick Cheney says war is “inevitable.”

But U.S. hawks have few supporters among the American military. Former defense secretary Robert Gates says “such an attack would make a nuclear armed Iran inevitable” and “prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world.” Former Joint Chief of Staff vice-chair Gen. James Cartwright told Congress that the U.S. would have to occupy Iran if it wanted to end the country’s nuclear program, a task virtually everyone agrees would be impossible.

In interviews last fall, reporter and author Mark Perry found that U.S. intelligence had pretty much worked out the various options the Israelis might use in an attack. None of them were likely to derail Iran’s nuclear program for more than a year or two.

Israel simply doesn’t have the wherewithal for a war with Iran. It might be able to knock out three or four nuclear sites—the betting is those would include the heavy water plant at Arak, enrichment centers at Fordow and Natanz, and the Isfahan uranium-conversion plant—but much of Iran’s nuclear industry is widely dispersed. And Israel’s bunker busters are not be up to job of destroying deeply placed and strongly reinforced sites.

Israel would not be able to sustain a long-term bombing campaign because it doesn’t have enough planes, or the right kind.  Most of its air force is American made F-15 fighters and F-16 fighter-bombers, aircraft that are too fragile to maintain a long bombing campaign and too small to carry really heavy ordinance.

Of course, Israel could also use its medium and long-range Jericho II and Jericho III missiles, plus submarine-fired cruise missiles, but those weapons are expensive and in limited supply. They all, however, can carry nuclear warheads.

But as one U.S. Central Command officer told Perry, “They’ll [the Israelis] have one shot, one time. That’s one time out and one time back. And that’s it.” Central Command, or Centcom, controls U.S. military forces in the Middle East.

A number of U.S. military officers think the Israelis already know they can’t take out the Iranians, but once the bullets start flying Israel calculates that the U.S. will join in. “All this stuff about ‘red lines’ and deadlines is just Israel’s way of trying to get us to say that when they start shooting, we’ll start shooting,” retired Admiral Bobby Ray Inman told Perry. Inman specialized in intelligence during his 30 years in the Navy.

There is current legislation before the Congress urging exactly that, and Obama did say that the U.S. had “Israel’s back.” But does that mean U.S. forces would get directly involved? If it was up to the American military, the answer would be “no.” Lt. Gen. Robert Gard told Perry that, while the U.S. military is committed to Israel, that commitment is not a blank check. U.S. support is “so they can defend themselves. Not so they can start World War III.”

Polls indicate that, while most Americans have a favorable view of Israel and unfavorable one of Iran, they are opposed to joining an Israeli assault on Iran.

That might change if the Iranians tried to shut down the strategic Straits of Hormuz through which most Middle East oil passes, but Iran knows that would draw in the U.S., and for all its own bombast, Teheran has never demonstrated a penchant for committing suicide. On top of which, Iran needs those straits for its own oil exports. According to most U.S. military analysts, even if the U.S. did join in it would only put off an Iranian bomb by about five years.

What happens if Israel attacks—maybe with some small contributions by the Saudi and UAE air forces—and Iran digs in like it did after Iraq invaded it in 1980? That war dragged on for eight long years.

Iran could probably not stop an initial assault, because the Israelis can pretty easily overwhelm Iranian anti-aircraft, and their air force would make short work of any Iranian fighters foolish enough to contest them.

But Teheran would figure a way to strike back, maybe with long range missile attacks on Israeli population centers or key energy facilities in the Gulf. Israel could hit Iranian cities as well, but its planes are not configured for that kind of mission. In any case, bombing has never made a country surrender, as the allied and axis powers found out in World War II, and the Vietnamese and Laotians demonstrated to the U.S.

The best the Israelis could get is a stalemate and the hope that the international community would intervene. But there is no guarantee that Iran would accept a ceasefire after being bloodied, nor that there would be unanimity in the UN Security Council to act. NATO might try to get involved, but that alliance is deeply wounded by the Afghanistan experience, and the European public is sharply divided about a war with Iran.

A long war would eventually wear down Israel’s economy, not to mention its armed forces and civilian population. If that scenario developed, might Israel be tempted to use its ultimate weapon? Most people recoil from even the thought of nuclear weapons, but militaries consider them simply another arrow in the quiver. India and Pakistan have come to the edge of using them on at least one occasion.

It is even possible that Israel—lacking the proper bunker busting weapons—might decide to use small, low-yield nuclear weapons in an initial assault, but that seems unlikely. The line drawn in August 1945 at Hiroshima and Nagasaki has held for more than 60 years. But if Israel concluded that it was enmeshed in a forever war that could threaten the viability of the state, might it be tempted to cross that line?

Condemnation would be virtually universal, but it would not be the first time that Israel’s siege mentality led it to ignore what the rest of the world thought.

A war with Iran would be catastrophic. Adding nuclear weapons to it would put the final nail into the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Within a decade dozens of countries will have nuclear weapons. It is a scary world to contemplate.

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Torpedoing The Iran Nuclear Talks

Torpedoing the Iran Nuclear Talks

Dispatches From the Edge

Oct. 27, 2013

As the U.S. and its allies prepare for another round of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, powerful and wealthy opponents—from the halls of Congress to Middle East capitals—are maneuvering to torpedo them. At stake is the real possibility of a war with consequences infinitely greater than the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

When the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany—the so-called “P5+1—sit down with Iran’s negotiators in Geneva on Nov. 7, those talks will be shadowed by an alliance of hawkish U.S. Congress members, an influential Israeli lobby, and a new regional alliance that upends traditional foes and friends in the Middle East.

The fact that the first round of talks on Oct.15 was hailed by Iran and the P5+1 as “positive” has energized opponents of the negotiations, who are moving to block any attempts at softening international sanctions against Teheran, while at the same time pressing for a military solution to the conflict.

Current international sanctions have halved the amount of oil Iran sells on the international market, blocked Teheran from international banking, and deeply damaged the Iranian economy. The worsening economic conditions are the backdrop for the recent election of pragmatist Hassan Rowhani as president of Iran. Hassan’s subsequent efforts to move away from the confrontational politics of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears a signal that Iran wants to peacefully resolve a crisis that has heightened tensions in the region and led to everything from the assassination of Iranian scientists to the world’s first cyber war.

The central issue is whether Iran is constructing a nuclear weapon in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a charge Teheran denies. Iran is a NPT signatory and UN inspectors regularly monitor the country’s civilian power plants and nuclear facilities. Enhanced fuel is required for civilian power plants and medical research, but it is also          an essential ingredient in a nuclear weapon. Iran enhances some of its fuel to 20 percent. Bomb fuel must be 90 percent pure.

While no one claims Iran has a nuclear weapon, Teheran’s has been less than candid about all its activities and critics charge that Iran is preparing to build one. But the Iranians say that secrecy is necessary—four of their nuclear scientists were assassinated by Israeli agents, and their nuclear industry was severely damaged by a joint Israeli-US cyber attack.

The upcoming negotiations will try to find common ground, but there are actors in this drama whose agenda have less to do with nuclear weapons than the shifting balance of power in the Middle East. The coalition opposed to a peaceful resolution of the current crisis is a combination of traditional hawks and strange bedfellows.

On the U.S. side are the usual suspects.

There are the neo-conservatives who pressed so hard to invade Iraq, including former UN ambassador John Bolton, who recently called for Israel to attack Iran, former Pentagon analyst Matthew Kroenig, Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute, and historian Niall Ferguson.

They are joined by congressional hawks ranging from the traditional “we never saw a war we didn’t like” types—Republican Senator Lindsay Graham who plans to introduce a resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iran—to Democrats, like liberal Ron Wyden, co-sponsor of a bill that would urge the U.S. to aid Israel militarily if Tel Aviv attacked Teheran.

A similar cast of characters helped sink a 2010 Brazilian-Turkish peace initiative that would have sent Teheran’s enhanced fuel to a third country.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is lobbying Congress in an effort to constrain the Obama administration’s negotiating options, and encouraging the Senate to pass a bill that would essentially prevent Iran from selling any of its oil. Many in the Congress have adopted the Israeli government’s demand that Iran dismantle much of its nuclear industry and agree to end all enhancement activities, two things Teheran will almost certainly refuse to do.

While enhancement is not specifically mentioned in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Article IV of the document guarantees the right “to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy,” which treaty signers have long interpreted as the right to produce fuel for civilian nuclear power

The Israeli government and its American supporters demand an end to enhancement, a demand that would throw a monkey wrench into the negotiations. So far the Obama administration has remained silent on the issue, although back in 2009 then Senator, and now Secretary of State, John Kerry told the Financial Times that demanding Iran end enhancement was “ridiculous.”

U.S. opponents of any deal that is not an abject surrender by Teheran are the same old, same old, but not so in the Middle East, where a newly formed alliance is mobilizing to derail the nuclear talks: the Gulf monarchies, Egypt, and Israel.

The linchpin of this new alliance is Saudi Arabia and Israel, and their target is any rapprochement between Washington and Teheran. According to UPI, “secret meetings between Israeli and Arab intelligence chiefs” and other “senior officials” have been held in Jordan for several years. Their aim, according to Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, is to destabilize the so-called “Shiite crescent,” the “strategic arc that extends from Teheran, to Damascus to Beirut.” The Shiite-dominated government of Iraq, currently under siege by Sunni extremists, is also in the cross hairs.

The new alliance cut its diplomatic teeth on the recent military coup in Egypt. According to investigative reporter Robert Perry, “While Saudi Arabia assured the coup regime a steady flow of money and oil, the Israelis went to work through their lobby in Washington to insure that President Barack Obama and Congress would not declare the coup a coup and thus trigger a cutoff of U.S. military aid.”

The Saudis are also stepping up their support for anti-government insurgents in Syria and fomenting sectarian trouble in Lebanon. If the alliance is successful it will cement a military-backed authoritarian regime in Egypt, set Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq aflame with sectarian warfare, and sabotage any agreement between the U.S. and Iran.

While the alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel initially seems an odd one, in fact both countries have similar strategic goals. Both support the overthrow of the Assad regime, both want to weaken Shiite-based Hezbollah in Lebanon, both want to see the minority Iraqi Sunnis back in charge, and both view Iran as a threat.

The Saudis and their allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council—the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, and new members Jordan and Morocco—fear domestic unrest, and see the Arab Spring as a direct threat to their monarchal governments. While all these countries have militaries, they are mainly for quelling internal dissent. The last time the Saudis took the field, they got beat up by the rag-tag Houthi in northern Yemen.

The Gulf Cooperation Council may field inept armies, but they have lots of cash. And if it comes to muscle, who better to provide it than the Israelis, the most powerful and competent army in the region? While the U.S. seems to backing away from using force against Iran, the Netanyahu government has sharply escalated its anti-Iran rhetoric. Israel recently began a series of war games built around long distance bombing raids, the kind that would be required to attack Iran.

The Iranians appear to want a settlement, but not one that looks like capitulation. The Obama administration’s positive comments following the last round of talks suggest that Washington would like a way out as well. Key to this is ratcheting down some of the sanctions, but Congressional hawks are trying to poison the well by increasing sanctions and resisting any efforts to ease them.

A study late last year found that unless Washington and its allies ease sanctions, Iran is not likely to curb any of its nuclear programs. And this spring a bi-partisan panel of former U.S. officials and experts argued that sanctions are increasingly counterproductive.

Countering the anti-Iran alliance will not be easy, but Washington’s reluctance to start another war in the Middle East reflects anti-war sentiment at home. The hawks may want a war, but they will find little support for it among Americans. A CBS/New York Times poll found that Americans overwhelmingly support negotiations, are not eager for war, and are evenly split about coming to Tel Aviv’s aid in the advent of an Israeli attack.

AIPAC is influential, but it hardly represents all American Jews, who tend to support Israel, but not if it means a war with Iran. While AIPAC was trumpeting Netanyahu’s characterization of Rowhani as a “sheep in wolf’s clothing,” the liberal Jewish lobby J Street hailed him as a “potentially hopeful sign,” and opposes a military attack on Iran.

The new Middle East alliance has alienated Turkey, which still plays a pivotal, if somewhat diminished, role in the region. If the U.S. were to reach out to Russia, and try to pull Turkey into the process, that tripartite grouping would constitute a counterbalance to the monarchies and Israel, and move the region away from the growing power of the sectarian groups and the looming danger of yet another war.

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Israel and Syria: Behind the Bombs

Israel & Syria: Behind the Bombs

Dispatches From the Edge

Feb. 17, 2013

Now that the dust has settled—literally and figuratively—from Israel’s Jan. 29 air attack on Syria, the question is, why? According to Tel Aviv, the bombing was aimed at preventing the transfer of sophisticated Russian SA-17 anti-craft missiles to Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, which one former Israeli military intelligence officer said would be “a game-changer.” But there are major problems with that story.

First, it is highly unlikely that Damascus would turn such a system over to Hezbollah, in part because the Russians would almost certainly not have allowed it, and, secondly, because the SA-17 would not be terribly useful to the Lebanese Shiite organization. In fact, we don’t even know if an SA-17 was the target. The Syrians deny it, claiming it was a military research center 15 miles northwest of Damascus that was bombed, killing two and wounding five.  The Israelis are refusing to say anything. The story that the anti-aircraft system was the objective comes mainly from unnamed “western officials.”

The SA-17 is a capable, mid-range, anti-aircraft weapon. Designated “Grizzly” by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it consists of four missiles mounted on a mobile launcher. It has a range of 30 miles, a ceiling of close to 50,000 feet, and can down anything from aircraft to cruise missiles. Introduced in 1998 as a replacement for the SA-11 “Gadfly,” the SA-17 has been sold to Egypt, Syria, Finland, China, Venezuela, India, Cyprus, Belarus, and the Ukraine.

It has a bite. During the 2008 Russia-Georgian War, the SA-17 apparently downed three Russian SU-25s close support attack planes, and an ancient long-range Tupolev-22 bomber. It appears Georgia acquired the anti-aircraft system from the Ukraine without the Russians knowing about it.

The SA-17’s manufacturers claim the system is immune to electronic countermeasures, but every arms maker claims their weapons are irresistible or invincible. The SU-25s and the bomber were downed in the first day of the fighting, before the Russians figured out that the Georgians had a trick up their sleeves and instituted countermeasures. Those apparently worked because the four planes were the only ones the Russians lost. Clearly, however, if one gets careless or sloppy around a “Grizzly,” it can make you pretty uncomfortable.

But “game-changer”? The SA-17 is big and vulnerable, a sitting duck for aircraft armed with long-range bombs and missiles and backed up by electronic warfare capabilities. Israeli counter warfare electronics are very sophisticated, as good—if not better—than the American’s. In 2007 Israeli warplanes slipped through the Syrian radar net without being detected and bombed a suspected nuclear reactor. Damascus acquired the SA-17 following that 2007 attack.

Given that there is open talk by NATO of establishing a “no-fly zone” over Syria, why would Damascus hand over one of its most modern anti-aircraft systems to Hezbollah? And what would Hezbollah do with it? It is too big to hide and is generally used as one piece of a larger anti-aircraft system, which Hezbollah does not have. In any case, it would have been a provocation, and neither Hezbollah nor Syria wants to give the Israelis an excuse to beat up on them. Both have plenty on their plates without adding war with a vastly superior military foe.

In brief, there is no evidence that the attack had anything to do with the SA-17, which, in any case, both Tel Aviv and Washington know would not pose any real danger to Israel. According to UPI, the attack was cleared with the U.S.

So what are some other possible reasons for the attack?

The most obvious target is the Assad regime in Syria, which at first glance would seem to be a contradiction. Wouldn’t Israel bombing Syria unite the Arab countries behind Damascus? Indeed, there were condemnations from the Arab League, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and even some of Assad’s Syrian opponents—although the Gulf Cooperation Council, the league of oil-rich monarchies bankrolling the Syrian civil war, was notably quiet.

But the “protests” were mostly pro-forma, and in the case of Turkey, rather bizarre. Ankara has played a major role in supplying the anti-Assad insurgents, deploying Patriot missiles on its border with Syria, and demanding that the president of Syria step down. Yet Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu denounced Assad for not “upholding the dignity of his country” and retaliating against Israel.

According to press reports, Israel is strengthening its forces on the occupied Golan Heights that border Syria and preparing to establish a buffer zone on the Syrian side. Israel established a similar “buffer” in Lebanon following its 1982 invasion of that country, a “buffer” that eventually led to the formation of Hezbollah and a humiliating Israeli retreat in 2000.

Israel claims it has no dog in the Syrian fight and is supposedly worried about Islamic extremists coming out on top in the civil war. But for all the hype about Islamists leading a jihad against Israel, Tel Aviv knows that al-Qaeda and its allies pose no serious threat to Israel. It is good politics (and good theater)—in Washington, as well as Tel Aviv—to cry, “the turbans are coming” (quick, give us lots of money and your constitution), but religious extremism and Sharia law hardly pose an existential danger to nuclear-armed countries with large militaries. Fighters from the salafist Jabhat al-Nusrah will not get far marching on Jerusalem.

The bombing attack was certainly a slap in the face to Assad, but not the first, and seems less directed at the Damascus regime than adding yet another ingredient to the witch’s brew of chaos that is rapidly engulfing Syria and the surrounding countries. And chaos and division in the region have always been Israel’s allies. Divide and conquer is an old colonial tactic dating back to the Roman Empire. After World War I, the English used Jews and Arabs as pawns in a game to control the British Mandate in Palestine. In short, the Israelis have learned from the best.

The growing sectarian war between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds stirred up by the Syrian civil war lets Israel stand on the sidelines. Who is going to notice the steady encroachment of settlements on Palestinian lands when the Syria war has killed some 60,000 people, created almost 800,000 refugees, and is destabilizing Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan?

Lastly, there is Iran. Getting rid of Assad would remove one of Iran’s major allies in the region, and also weaken Shiite Hezbollah, the organization that fought Israel to a standstill in 2006.  Assad, says former Israeli Gen. Michael Herzog, “is a linchpin of the radical Iran-Hezbollah axis…his fall would therefore deal a major blow to Tehran, significantly weaken Hezbollah and dismantle the trilateral axis.”

Sectarian chaos in Syria is already washing over into Iraq, where a brutal bombing campaign by Sunni extremists is fueling talk about re-establishing Shiite militias to defend their communities. Islamists are also increasingly active in Lebanon and Jordan.

For several years the U.S. and the Sunni-dominated Middle East monarchies have warned about the dangers of a “Shiite crescent” of Iran, Iraq, and Hezbollah. But the idea of a “crescent” was always more hype than reality—Shiites make up about 15 percent of the region, and are majorities only in Iraq, Iran and Bahrain. Lebanese Shiites constitute a plurality. In general, Shiites are the poorest section of the Muslim community and with the exception of Iran and Syria, have long been marginalized politically.  Shiite “domination” has always been a bug-a-boo, not very real but useful for stoking the fires of sectarianism.

And sectarianism is on the march today in the Middle East, financed by the cash-rich Gulf monarchies and the hostility of the U.S. and its allies to authoritarian secular governments. While NATO overthrew the Libyan government and aids the Syrian insurgency in the name of democracy, it has no qualms about supporting the absolute monarchs that rule from Morocco in the west to Saudi Arabia in the east.

Was the ease with which the Israelis penetrated Syrian air space a message to Teheran as well? Certainly although the odds on Israel attacking Iran sometime this spring are rather low (though hardly non-existent). Israel could do a lot of damage to Iran, but it doesn’t have the weapons or the air power to take out Teheran’s nuclear program. Plus the Iranians, while angry about the onerous sanctions—and cranky as ever about negotiations—are carefully diverting their nuclear stockpiles into civilian use.

Israel would need the U.S. to really beat up on Iran, and that does not seem to be the direction that the Obama administration is moving. An attack on Iran would isolate Israel and the U.S. diplomatically, and deeply fracture NATO at a time when Washington is desperately trying to keep the alliance together.

In any case, Tel Aviv and Washington are well aware that Iran does not pose an “existential” threat to Israel. Even if Iran were to build several nuclear weapons—and there is no evidence that they have any intention of doing so—it would face an Israel armed with between 100 and 200 nuclear weapons, enough to destroy Iran as a society. Even Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak admits Iran does not pose a threat to Israel’s existence.

If there is one thing that the bombing has accomplished, it is to thicken the walls between Israel and the rest of the Middle East. Tel Aviv is deploying anti-missile systems on its northern border and handing out gas masks in the Galilee. It is beefing up its presence in the Golan Heights, and reinforcing its border with Egypt. In the meantime, the Netanyahu administration just announced yet another round of settlement building.

Whether division and chaos, along with those walls and missiles and gas masks, will keep the surrounding anarchy at bay is altogether another matter. Bricks and bombs never produce real security.

 

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2012 “Are You Serious?” Awards

2012: “Are You Serious?” Awards

Dispatches From the Edge

Dec. 30, 2012

 

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 2012.

Dr. Strangelove Award to Lord John Gilbert, former UK defense minister in Tony Blair’s government, for a “solution” to stopping terrorist infiltration from Pakistan to Afghanistan: Nuke ‘em.   Baron Gilbert proposes using Enhanced Radiation Reduced Blasts—informally known as “neutron bombs”—to seal off the border. According to Gilbert, “If we told them [terrorists] that some ERRB warheads were going to be dropped there and that it would be a very unpleasant place to go, they would not go there.”

The border between the two countries is a little over 1,600 miles of some of the most daunting terrain on the planet. And since the British arbitrarily imposed it on Afghanistan in 1896, most the people who live adjacent to it, including the Kabul government, don’t recognize it.

Baron Gilbert went on to gild the lily: “I am absolutely delighted that nuclear weapons were invented when they were and I am delighted that, with our help, it was the Americans who invented them.” The residents of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were decidedly less enthusiastic.

Runner up in this category is the Sandia National Laboratories and Northrop Grumman for researching the use of nuclear powered drones that would allow un-piloted aircraft to stay aloft for months at a time.  Nuclear-powered drones, like the Reaper and the Predator, would not only be able to fly longer and further, the aircrafts could carry a greater number of weapons.

This comes at a time when the Obama administration has approved the use of drones in the U.S. by states and private companies. “It’s a pretty terrifying prospect,” Chris Coles of Drone Wars UK told The Guardian. “Drones are much less safe than other aircraft and tend to crash a lot.” Iran recently claimed to have brought down a U.S.  Scan Eagle drone and to have fired on a Predator. Last year Iran successfully captured a CIA-operated Sentinel drone.

Pandora’s Box Award goes to the U.S. and Israel for unleashing cyber war on the world by attacking Iran’s nuclear industry. The Stuxnet virus—designed by both countries—successfully damaged Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, and the newly discovered Flame virus has apparently been siphoning data from Iranian computers for years.

But the “malware” got out of Iran—what do these people not understand about the word “virus”? —and, in the case of Stuxnet, infected 50,000 computers around the world. Two other related malware are called Mini-Flame and Gauss.

Iran retaliated this past summer, unleashing a virus called “Shamoon” to crash 30,000 computers in Saudi Arabia’s oil industry. Saudi Arabia provides 10 percent of the world’s oil needs.

A Russian anti-virus specialist recently told computer expert Misha Glenny that cyber weapons “are a very bad idea,” and his message was: “Stop doing this before it is too late.”

The Golden Lemon Award has three winners this year, the F-35 “Lightning” fighter, the F-22 “Raptor” fighter, and the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). The F-35 and F-22 are repeat winners from last year’s awards (it is not easy to cost a lot of money and not work, year after year, so special kudos to the aircraft’s manufacturers Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman).

At $395.7 billion, the F-35 is now the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history, and the costs are still rising. It has constant problems with its engine,  “unexplained” hot spots on the fuselage, and software that doesn’t function properly. Because the cost of the plane has risen 70 percent since 2001, some of our allies are beginning to back away from previous commitments to purchase the aircraft. Canadians had some sticker shock when it turned out that the price tag for buying and operating the F-35 would be $45.8 billion. Steep price rises (and mechanical problems) have forced Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and Australia to re-think buying the plane as well. If that happens, the price of the F-35 will rise even higher, since Lockheed Martin was counting on U.S. allies to buy at least 700 F-35s as a way to lower per-unit costs. The U.S. is scheduled to purchase 2,457 F-35s at $107 million apiece (not counting weapons). The plane coast $35,200 per hour to fly.

The F-22—at $143 million a pop—has a major problem: the pilots can’t breathe. When your traveling 1500 MPH at 50,000 plus feet, that’s a problem, as Capt. Jeff Haney found out in November 2010 over the Alaskan tundra. The Air Force had to wait until the spring thaw to recover his body. Since then scores of pilots have reported suffering from hypoxia and two of them recently refused to fly the aircraft. The breathing problems did not stop U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta from deploying two-dozen F-22s to Japan, although the planes are restricted to lower altitudes and have to stay no more than an hour and a half from land. That will require the pilots to fly to Alaska, and then hop across the Pacific via the Aleutian Islands to get to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa.

The cost of operating an F-22 is $128,389 a flying hour. In comparison, the average income for a minimum wage worker in the U.S. is $15,080 a year, the medium yearly wage is $26,364, and average yearly household income is $46,326. Dispatches suggests paddling the planes to Japan and raising the minimum wage.

The LCS is a very fancy, shallow water warship with lots of bells and whistles (at $700 million apiece it ought to have a few of those) with one little problem: “It is not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment,” according to one Pentagon weapon’s tester. Since combat is generally “hostile” that does restrict what the ship can do. And given that cracks and leaks in the hulls are showing up, it might not be prudent to put them in the water. So while it may not work as a traditional ship—floating, that is—according to the LCS’s major booster in the Congress, U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala) “It’s going to scare hell out of folks.”

Particularly the ones who serve on it.

The LCS was originally designed to fight Iranian attack boats, but the feeling now is that it would lose in such encounters. But all is not lost. According to Joseph Rella, president of Austal USA, the company in Alabama that builds the LCS, “If I was a pirate in a little boat, I’d be scared to death.” Dispatches suggests that rubber “wolf man” masks would accomplish the same thing for considerably less money.

The Golden Sow’s Ear Award to U.S. Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky) for successfully lobbying the Pentagon to buy an oil drip pan for the Army’s Black Hawk helicopter for $17,000 a throw. The manufacturer, Phoenix Products, is a major contributor to Rogers’ campaigns. A similar product made by VX Aerospace costs $2,500 apiece. But Phoenix does have a strong streak of patriotism: The oil drip pans are discounted from the $19,000 retail price.

The Misplaced Priorities Award to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party for shelling out $28 million to celebrate the bicentennial of the War of 1812—including $6.3 million in television ads—while cutting $5.2 billion from the national budget and eliminating 19,200 federal jobs. The cuts have fallen particularly hard on national parks and historic sites.

Canada was not Canada in 1812, and the war was between the U.S. and the British Empire. Canada did not become a country until 1867.

The Queen of Hearts Award also goes to Harper and his Conservatives for “streamlining” the process of approving new oil and gas pipelines and limiting public comment. “Limiting” includes threats to revoke the charitable status of environmental groups that protest the pipelines and unleashing Canada’s homeland security department, Public Safety Canada (PSC), on opponents. The PSC considers environmentalists potential terrorists and lumps them in the same category as racist organizations. Dispatches suggests that Harper and Co. study the works of Lewis Carroll on how to sentence first, try later. Saves time and money.

The Chernobyl Award to the Japanese construction company BuildUp, hired by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to clean up the Fukushima nuclear plant that melted down in the aftermath of last year’s tsunami. A government report found that TEPCO did not issue radiation detectors to most of its workers even though it had hundreds of dosimeters on hand. BuildUp admitted that it had workers put lead plates over the detectors to avoid violating safety thresh holds.

Teruso Sagara of BuildUp said the company only had their employees’ best interests in mind and thought that “we could bring peace of mind to the workers if we could somehow delay their dosimeters’ alarms going off.”

The report also cited the government for refusing to use computer projections on fallout from the crippled plant. In one case, two communities were directed into the middle of the radioactive plume.

The Chicken Little Award to the British government and the International Olympic Committee for approaching the 2012 London Olympics in much the same way the allies did the beaches at Normandy in 1944.  The government deployed 13,500 ground troops, 20,000 private guards, plus the Royal Navy’s largest warship, along with armed helicopters, armored personnel carriers and Starstreak and Rapier anti-aircraft missiles.

According to Linden Empson, Dispatches intrepid reporter on the scene, the announcement that surface-to-air missiles were going to installed on six housing projects in the city were “delivered via a pizza company.” She suggested that was both “terrifying and hysterically funny.” One resident of Fred Wigg Tower told the New York Times that the leaflets “looked like one of those things where you get free pizza though the post, but this was like free missiles.”

The local residents were not amused and sued to stop the deployment. “Is the government seriously suggesting the answer to potential airborne threat is to detonate it over the city?” a former Royal Artillery officer wrote in a letter to The Guardian. The court eventually ruled against the residents.

The cost of all this security is close to $900 million at a time when the Conservative-Liberal government is slashing social welfare programs, education, and health care.

The Selective Reporting Award to the Los Angeles Times for reporting that the Assad regime was using cluster bombs, which “have been banned by most nations.” The newspaper pointed out that more than 100 countries had signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, but that Syria did not.

Quite true. What went unmentioned was that neither did the U.S., Russia, China, Pakistan, India, and Israel. According to the Cluster Munitions Coalition, the weapons “caused more civilian casualties in Iraq in 2003 and Kosovo in 1999 than any other weapon system.” The U.S. also used clusters in Afghanistan. American cluster weapons still take a steady toll of people in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. All of those cluster weapons were made in the USA.

The most egregious use of clusters in the last decade was by Israel, which spread four million submunitions in Lebanon during its 2006 invasion of that country. According to the UN, one million of those “duds” remain unexploded.

But the U.S. also uses the weapon on many occasions. In 2009, President Obama ordered a cluster strike in Yemen that ended up killing 44 people, including 14 women and 21 children. And the White House, according to The Independent, “is taking the leading role “to torpedo the global ban on clusters.” The administration argues that clusters manufactured after 1980 have less than a 1 percent failure rate, but anti-cluster activists say that is not the case. The widely used BLU-97, for instance, has a failure rate of 30 percent.

According to Handicap International, 98 percent of the casualties inflicted by clusters are civilians, 27 percent of those children.

 

 

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Middle East: The Next Four Years

Middle East: The Next Four Years

Dispatches From The Edge

Nov.11, 2012

 

Over the next four years the U.S. will face a number of foreign policy issues, most of them regional, some of them global. Dispatches From The Edge will try to outline and analyze them, starting with the Middle East.

Syria

The most immediate problem in the region is the on-going civil war in Syria, a conflict with local and international ramifications. The war—which the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad ignited by its crushing of pro-democracy protests— has drawn in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Iran, and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The U.S., France and Great Britain are also heavily involved in the effort to overthrow the Assad government.

The war has killed more than 30,000 people and generated several hundred thousand refugees, who have flooded into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. It has also badly damaged relations between Turkey and Iran. The former supports the insurrection, the latter supports the Assad regime. Pitting Shite Iran (and to a certain extent, Shite Iraq and the Shite-based Hezbollah in Lebanon) against the largely Sunni Muslim opposition has sharpened sectarian tensions throughout the region.

The war itself appears to be a stalemate. So far, the regime’s army remains loyal, but seems unable to defeat the insurrection. The opposition, however, is deeply splintered and ranges from democratic nationalists to extremist jihadist groups. The US and Britain are trying to weld this potpourri into a coherent political opposition, but so far the attempts have floundered on a multiplicity of different and conflicting agendas by the opponents of the Assad regime.

Efforts by the United Nations (UN) to find a peaceful solution have been consistently torpedoed, because the opposition and its allies insist on regime change. The goal of overthrowing the government makes this a fight to the death and leaves little room for political maneuvering. A recent ceasefire failed, in part, because jihadist groups supported by Qatar and Saudi Arabia refused to abide by it and set off several car bombs in the capital. The Sunni extremism of these groups is whipping up sectarian divisions among the various sects of Islam.

There are a number of things the Obama administration could do to alleviate the horrors of the current civil war.

First, it should drop the demand for regime change, although this does not necessarily mean that President Assad will remain in power. What must be avoided is the kind of regime change that the war in Libya ushered in. Libya has essentially become a failed state, and the spinoff from that war is wreaking havoc in countries that border the Sahara, Mali being a case in point. In the end, Assad may go, but to dismantle the Baathist government is to invite the kind of sectarian and political chaos that the dissolution of the Baathist regime in Iraq produced.

Second, if the US and its allies are enforcing an arms embargo against Assad’s government, they must insist on the same kind of embargo on arms sent to the rebels by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Third, China and Russia should be asked to negotiate a ceasefire and organize a conference aimed at producing a political settlement and transition government. China recently proposed a four-point peace plan that could serve as a starting point for talks. A recent Assad government controlled newspaper, Al Thawra, suggested the Damascus regime would be open to such negotiations. A key aspect to such talks would be a guarantee that no outside power would undermine them.

Palestinians

The conflict that will not speak its name—or at least that is the way the current impasse between Israel and the Palestinians was treated during the 2012 US elections. But as U.S. Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, the military formation responsible for the Middle East, said last spring, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a “preeminent flame that keeps the pot boiling in the Middle East, particularly as the Arab Awakening causes Arab governments to be more responsive to the sentiments of their populations” that support the Palestinians.

Rather than moving toward a solution, however, the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu recently announced yet another round of settlement building. There are approximately 500,000 Jewish settlers currently on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, although all such settlements are a violation of international law. While Netanyahu says he wants negotiations, he continues to build settlements, which is like negotiating over how to divide a pizza while one of the parties is eating it.

Proposals to annex the West Bank, once the program of far-right settlers, have gone mainstream. A conference this past July in the West Bank city of Hebron drew more than 500 Israelis who reject the idea of a Palestinian state. The gathering included a number of important Likud Party officials and members of the Knesset. Likud is Netanyahu’s party and currently leads the Israeli government.

“Friends, everybody here today knows that there is a solution—applying sovereignty [over the West Bank]. One state for the Jewish people with an Arab minority,” Likud Knesset member Tzipi Hotovely told the audience.

Conference organizer Yehudit Katsover put the matter bluntly “We’re all here to say one thing: the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people. Why? Because!”

A major argument against absorbing the West Bank is that it would dilute the Jewish character of Israel and threaten the country’s democratic institutions. “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish or non-democratic,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak argues. “If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”

But right-wing conference goers dismissed that argument because they reject that there is a demographic threat from the Palestinians. According to The Times of Israel, former ambassador to the US, Yoram Ettinger, told the crowd that estimates of the Palestinian population are based on “Palestinian incompetence or lying” and that there are actually a million fewer than the official population count.

Legal expert Yitzhak Bam said he expected there would be no fallout from the Americans if Israel unilaterally annexed the West Bank, since Washington did not protest the 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria. Both areas were conquered in the 1967 War.

The Times reporter Raphael Ahern writes that that the conference reflects “The annexationists are growing in confidence, demanding in outspoken fashion what they always dreamed of but have never dared to say quite so publically.”

The expanding settlements are rapidly making the possibility of a viable two-state solution impossible. Eventually there will be no pizza left to divide.

The Obama administration has dropped the ball on this issue and needs to re-engage, lest the “pot” boil over.

First, the Tel Aviv government needs to be told that all settlement expansion must cease, and that failure to do so will result in a suspension of aid. At about $3.4 billion a year, Israel is the US’s number one foreign aid recipient.

Second, the US must stop blocking efforts by the Palestinians for UN recognition.

Third, negotiations must cover not only the West Bank and Gaza, but also the status of East Jerusalem. The latter is the engine of the Palestinian economy, and without it a Palestinian state would not be viable.

Iran

The immediate danger of a war with Iran appears to have slightly receded, although the Israelis are always a bit of a wild card. First, the Obama administration explicitly rejected Netanyahu’s “red line” that would trigger an attack on Teheran. The Israeli prime minister argues that Iran must not be allowed to achieve the “capacity” to produce nuclear weapons, a formulation that would greatly lower the threshold for an assault. Second, there are persistent rumors that the US and Iran are exploring one-on-one talks, and it appears that some forces within Iran that support talks—specifically former president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani— are in the ascendency.

Netanyahu continues to threaten war, but virtually his entire military and intelligence apparatus is opposed to a unilateral strike. Israeli intelligence is not convinced that Iran is building a bomb, and the Israeli military doesn’t think it has the forces or weapons to do the job of knocking out Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Polls also indicate overwhelming opposition among the Israeli public for a unilateral attack. This doesn’t mean Netanyahu won’t attack Iran, just that the danger does not seem immediate. If Israel should choose to launch a war, the Obama administration should make it clear that Tel Aviv is on its own.

US intelligence and the Pentagon are pretty much on the same page as the Israelis regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Even with its powerful military, US generals are not convinced that an attack would accomplish much more than delaying Iran’s program by from three to five years. At least at this point, the Pentagon would rather talk than fight. “We are under the impression that the Iranian regime is a rational actor,” says Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Polls also indicate that nearly 70 percent of the American public favors negotiations over war.

In short, a lot of ducks are now in a row to cut a deal.

However, the US cannot make uranium enhancement a red line. Iran has the right to enhance nuclear fuel under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and as long as inspectors are in place—as they currently are—it is virtually impossible to create bomb-level fuel in secret.

Not only has intelligence failed to show that Iran is creating a nuclear weapons program, the country’s leader has explicitly rejected such a step. “The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons,” says the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, calling nuclear weapons “a great and unforgivable sin.”  The Iranian government has also indicated that it will take part in a UN-sponsored conference in Helsinki to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.

The Obama administration should endorse this effort to abolish nuclear weapons in the Middle East, although this will force it to confront the only nuclear power in the Middle East, Israel. Israel is not a NPT signatory and is thought to have some 200 nuclear weapons. Such a monopoly cannot long endure. The argument that Israel needs nuclear weapons because it is so outnumbered in the region is nonsense. Israel has by far the strongest military in the Middle East and powerful protectors in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  While Egypt and Syria did attack Israel in 1973, it was to recover territories seized by Tel Aviv in the 1967 war, not an attempt to destroy the country. And that was almost 40 years ago. Since then Israel has invaded Lebanon twice and Gaza once. Countries in the region fear Israel, not visa-a-versa.

While the White House has recently eased restrictions on the sale of critical medicines to Iran, the sanctions are taking a terrible toll on the economy and the average Iranian. So far, the US has not explicitly said it will remove the sanctions if talks are showing real progress. Since no one likes negotiating with a gun to the head—in this regard Iranians are no different than Americans—there should be some good faith easing of some of the more onerous restrictions, like those on international banking and oil sales.

Lastly, the option of war needs to be taken off the table. Threatening to bomb people in order to get them not to produce nuclear weapons will almost certainly spur Iran (and other countries) to do exactly the opposite. A war with Iran would also be illegal. The British attorney general recently informed the Parliament that an attack on Iran would violate international law, because Iran does not pose a “clear and present danger,” and recommended that the US not be allowed to use the British-controlled island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to launch such an attack.

The Gulf

Because US relies on the energy resources of the Persian Gulf countries, as well as strategic basing rights, it is unlikely that the Obama administration will challenge the foreign and domestic policies of its allies in the region. But then Washington should not pretend that its policies there have anything to do with promoting democracy.

The countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are monarchies that not only suppress dissent but also systematically oppress women and minorities and, in the case of Bahrain, the Shite majority. The extreme jihadist organizations that the countries of the Gulf fund and arm are destabilizing governments across the region and throughout Central Asia. Washington may bemoan extremism in Pakistan, but its Gulf allies can claim the lion’s share of the credit for nurturing the groups responsible for that extremism.

The Gulf Council is not interested in promoting democracy—indeed, political pluralism is one of its greatest enemies, nor does it have much interest in the modern world, aside from fancy cars and personal jet planes. This past summer Saudi Arabia executed a man for possessing “books and talismans from which he learned to harm God’s worshippers,” and last year beheaded a man and a woman for witchcraft.

Lastly, the Obama administration should repudiate the 1979 Carter Doctrine that allows the US to use military force to guarantee access to energy resources in the Middle East. That kind of thinking went out with 19th century gunboats and hangs like the Damocles Sword over any country in the region that might decide to carve out an independent policy on politics and energy.

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Syria: A Way Out

Syria: A Way Out?

Dispatches From the Edge

There are two tales about the crisis in Syria.

In one, the vast majority of Syrians have risen up against the brutality of a criminal dictatorship. The government of Bashar al Assad is on the ropes, isolated regionally and internationally, and only holding on because Russia and China vetoed United Nations intervention. U.S. Secretary to State Hillary Clinton describes Assad as “a war criminal,” and President Barak Obama called him a “dead man walking.”

In the other, a sinister alliance of feudal Arab monarchies, the U.S. and its European allies, and al-Qaeda mujahedeen are cynically using the issue of democracy to overthrow a government most Syrians support, turn secular Syria into an Islamic stronghold, and transform Damascus into a loyal ally of Washington and Saudi Arabia against Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Like most stories, there is truth and fiction in both versions, but separating myth from reality is desperately important, because Syria sits at the strategic heart of the Middle East. Getting it wrong could topple dominoes from Cairo to Ankara, from Beirut to Teheran.

There is no question but that last March’s demonstrations were a spontaneous reaction to the Syrian government’s arrest and torture of some school children in Deraa. What is more, that the corruption of the Assad family—they dominate the army, the security forces, and much of the telecommunications, banking and construction industry, coupled with the suffocating and brutal security forces, underlies the anger that fuels the uprising.

But is also true that outside players—specifically the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the U.S., as well as Sunni extremist organizations—all have irons in the fire. Indeed, there is the profound irony that, while the GCC condemns Syria for oppressing its citizens, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are crushing homegrown democratic movements in their own countries. Or that Washington should be on the same page as Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda.

And while there is no denying the brutality of the Assad regime, or that some 7,500 to 8,000 Syrians have died over the past year, Israel’s 2008-09 invasion of Gaza—Operation Cast Lead—killed a greater percentage of Palestinians per capita. When countries in the region tried to stop the Gaza War, it was the U.S. who blocked any UN action. In the Middle East, double standards and hypocrisy are par for the course.

The Syrian crisis is not a simple “good guys vs. bad guys,” democrats vs. a dictator, with the overwhelming majority confronting an entrenched, thuggish elite.

First, while the current uprising represents a substantial number of Syrians, the Assad regime has domestic support. As Jonathan Steele of the Guardian (UK) points out, a recent You Gov Siraj poll on Syria commissioned by The Doha Debates and funded by Qatar found that, while a majority of non-Syrian Arabs wanted Assad to resign, 55 percent of Syrians wanted him to remain.

The poll was hardly a ringing endorsement of Assad—half of that 55 percent wanted free elections—but it reflects the fact that most Syrians fear a civil war. That is hardly a surprise. The U.S. invasion and subsequent civil war in Iraq flooded Syria with millions of refugees and terrible tales of murder, torture, and sectarian bloodshed. And Syrians had a front row seat for Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.

A Syrian dissident, Salim Kheirbek, told the New Yorker “No more than thirty percent of the people are involved in the resistance. The other 70 percent, if not actually with the regime, are silent, because it is not convincing to them, and especially after what happened in Iraq and Libya. These people want reforms, but not at any price.”

While the recent referendum on reforming the Syrian constitution was widely dismissed by the U.S., Europe and the GCC, it appears that close to 60 percent of the voters turned out to overwhelmingly endorse the proposals.

Part of the Assad regime’s support comes from minority communities, in particular Christians and Alawites, who, make up 10 percent and 12 percent respectively, of Syria’s 24 million people. Alawites are a variety of Shiite, and the sect dominates the government. Sunnis make up the majority. Syria also has Kurdish, Druze, Armenian, Bedouin, and Turkomen communities. It is estimated that the country has 47 different religious and ethnic groups.

Alawites and Christians have reason for concern. As a recent New York Times story reported, demonstrators in Hom, one of the centers of the uprising, chanted “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave.” Al-Qaeda routinely describes Shiites as “a bone in Islam’s throat” and targets Shiite communities in Iraq and Pakistan.

Nor is Syria isolated regionally or internationally. While the Arab League has condemned the Assad government, not everyone in the organization is on board. Damascus has support in Lebanon and Iraq, and neutrality from Jordan (Amman also remembers the chaos of the Iraq war).  Algeria—North Africa’s big dog on the block—has been sharply critical of the League.

“The Arab League is no longer a league and it’s far from Arab,” Algerian State Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadam told Agence France Presse, “since it asks the Security Council to intervene against one of the [the League’s] founding members, and calls upon NATO to destroy the resources of Arab countries.”

On Feb. 15, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for Assad to step down, but countries like Brazil and India, while deploring the violence, have made it clear they oppose anything involving military intervention or arming the main opposition force, the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Even Turkey, while calling for Assad’s resignation, has begun hedging its bets, and dropped any talk of creating “safe zones” along its border with Syria.

Most countries fear that a Syrian civil war would spread to Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and maybe into the Gulf states.

While the situation on the ground in Syria is hardly clear, the Syrian Army and security services appear to be sticking with Assad for now. If that continues, the rebels may keep the pot  boiling, but, without outside intervention by NATO, it is unlikely they can overthrow the regime. On the other hand, after a year of fighting, Damascus has not succeeded in ending the rebellion.

It short, it looks like a stalemate, in which case the current campaign to aid the rebels and force Syria’s president out is exactly the wrong strategy and one guaranteed to prolong the bloodshed.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and several U.S. senators have called for arming the FSA, a particularly bad idea because it is not at all clear who they are. There are persistent reports that the organization includes a goodly number of jihadists from Iraq, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. In any case, handing out weapons to people you don’t know, to fight people you don’t like is a formula for repeating the Afghanistan disaster.

Second, the demand for regime change—and threats to charge Assad and those around him with war crimes—makes this a war to the death. Why would the Damascus government compromise if the end game is exile and prison?

The only solution to a stalemate is negotiations. The Russians have offered to host such talks, but so far the fractious Syrian National Council says it won’t talk until Assad resigns. The U.S. and the GCC have similar positions. However, talks will only work if both sides have an incentive to enter them, which means dropping the regime change demand, ending the sanctions, and shelving any talk of aiding the FSA.

Maybe events have gone too far, but at this point that doesn’t appear to be the case. Instead of condemning them, the Russians and the Chinese should be encouraged to negotiate a ceasefire and the opposition should take up the Russian’s offer to host talks with the Assad government. The recent referendum can serve as a jumping off point for re-writing the constitution.

For this to happen, however, the regional players, the U.S., and the European Union will have to stop using Syria as a proxy battleground. As Dan Meridor, Israel’s intelligence Minister, told the New York Times, supporting the Syrian uprising was important because, “If the unholy alliance of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah can be broken, that is very positive.”

For whom? Is this about freedom and democracy, or a calculated move on a regional chessboard?

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Iran, Israel and the U.S.: The Slide To War

Iran, Israel & the U.S.: The Slide To War

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 22, 2012

Wars are fought because some people decide it is in their interests to fight them. World War I was not started over the Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination, nor was it triggered by the alliance system. An “incident” may set the stage for war, but no one keeps shooting unless they think it’s a good idea. The Great War started because the countries involved decided they would profit by it, delusional as that conclusion was.

It is useful to keep this idea in mind when trying to figure out if there will be a war with Iran. In short, what are the interests of the protagonists, and are they important enough for those nations to take the fateful step into the chaos of battle?

First off, because oil and gas are involved, a war would have global ramifications. Iran supplies China with about 15 percent of its oil, and India with 10 percent. It is a major supplier to Europe, Turkey, Japan and South Korea, and it has the third largest oil reserves and the second largest natural gas reserves in the world. Some 17 million barrels per day pass through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, a significant part of the globe’s energy supply.

In short, the actors in this drama are widespread and their interests as diverse as their nationalities.

According to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran is building nuclear weapons that pose an “existential” threat to Israel. But virtually no one believes this, including the bulk of Tel Aviv’s military and intelligence communities. As former Israeli Chief of Staff Dan Halutz said recently, Iran “is not an existential” threat to Israel. There is no evidence that Iran is building a bomb and all its facilities are currently under a 24-hour United Nations inspection regime.

But Israel does have an interest in keeping the Middle East a fragmented place, riven by sectarian divisions and dominated by authoritarian governments and feudal monarchies. If there is one lesson Israel has learned from its former British overlords, it is “divide and conquer.” Among its closest allies were the former dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia, and it now finds itself on the same page as the reactionary monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman.

Iran is not a military threat to Israel, but it is a political problem, because Tel Aviv sees Teheran’s fierce nationalism and independence from the U.S. and Europe as a wildcard. Iran is also allied to Israel’s major regional enemy, Syria—with which it is still officially at war— and the Shiite-based Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq.

In the Netanyahu government’s analysis, beating up on Iran would weaken Israel’s local enemies and at little cost. Tel Aviv’s scenario features a shock and awe attack, followed by a United Nations mandated ceasefire, with a maximum of 500 Israeli casualties. The Iranians have little capacity to strike back, and, if they did attack Israeli civilian centers or tried to close the Hormutz Strait, it would bring in the Americans.

Of course that rose-colored scenario is little more than wishful thinking. Iran is not likely to agree to a ceasefire—it fought for eight long years against Iraq—and war has a habit of derailing the best-laid plans. In real life it will be long and bloody and might well spread to the entire region.

Iran’s leaders use a lot of bombast about punishing Israel if it attacks, but in the short run, there is not a lot they could do, particularly given the red lines Washington has drawn. The Iranian air force is obsolete, and the Israelis have the technology to blank out most of Teheran’s radar and anti-aircraft sites. Iran could do little to stop Tel Aviv’s mixture of air attacks, submarine-fired cruise missiles, and Jericho ballistic missiles.

For all its talk about “everything being on the table.” The Obama administration appears to be trying to avoid a war, but with the 2012 elections looming, would Washington remain on the sidelines? On the “yes” side are polls indicating that Americans would not look with favor on a new Middle East war. But on the “no” side are a united front of Republicans, neo-conservatives, and the American Israeli Political Action Committee pressing for a confrontation with Iran.

Israeli sources suggest that Netanyahu may calculate that in the run-up to the 2012 American elections, an Israeli attack might force the Obama Administration to back a war and/or damage Obama’s re-election chances. It is no secret that there is no love lost between the two leaders.

But the U.S. also has a dog in this fight, and one not all that different than Israel’s. American hostility to Iran dates back to Teheran’s seizure of its oil assets from Britain in 1951. The CIA helped overthrow the democratically elected Iranian government in 1953 and install the dictatorial Shah. The U.S. also backed Saddam Hussein’s war on Iran, has had a longstanding antagonistic relationship with Syria, and will not talk with Hezbollah or Hamas. Tel Aviv’s local enemies are Washington’s local enemies.

When the Gulf monarchs formed the GCC in 1981, its primary purpose was to oppose Iranian influence in the Middle East. Using religious division as a wedge, the GCC has encouraged Sunni fundamentalists to fight Shiites in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, and blocked the spread of the “Arab Spring” to its own turf. When Shiites in Bahrain began protesting over a lack of democracy and low wages, the GCC invaded and crushed the demonstrations. The GCC does not see eye-to-eye with the U.S. and Israel on the Palestinians—although it is careful not to annoy Washington and Tel Aviv—but the GCC is on the same page as both capitals concerning Syria, Lebanon and Iran.

The European Union (EU) has joined the sanctions, although France and Germany have explicitly rejected the use of force. Motivations in the EU range from France’s desire to reclaim its former influence in Lebanon to Europe’s need to keep its finger on the energy jugular vein. In brief, it isn’t all about oil and gas but a whole lot of it is, and, as CounterPunch’s Alexander Cockburn points out, oil companies would like to see production cut and prices rise. A war would accomplish both.

Iran will be the victim here, but there will be some who would take advantage of a war. An attack would unify the country around what is now a rather unpopular government, allow the Revolutionary Guard to crush its opposition, and give cover to the current drive by the Ahmadinejad government to cut subsidies for transportation, housing and food. A war would cement the power of the most reactionary elements of the current regime.

There are other actors in this drama—China, Russia, India, Turkey, and Pakistan for starters, none of whom support a war—but whether they can influence events is an open question. In the end, Israel may just decide that its interests are served by starting a war, and that the U.S. will go along because it is much of the same mind.

Or maybe this is all sound and fury signifying nothing?

The sobering thought is that the three most powerful actors in this drama—Israel, the U.S. and its European allies, and the Gulf Cooperation Council—have many of the same interests, and share the belief that force is an effective way to achieve one’s goals.

On such illusions are tragedies built.

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Israelis Divided On Whacking Iran

Israelis Divided on Whacking Iran

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 20. 2011

Behind the recent appointment of Israel’s new military chief of staff are several months of bitter infighting among Israeli generals and intelligence agencies over whether to attack Iran, and, in the event of such an attack, how to rope the U.S. into the war.

The replacement of Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi with Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz is the outcome of a seesaw battle between a wing of the Israeli army, allied with the intelligence services, that have cautioned against a war with Iran, pitted against Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and a coterie of more aggressive generals. The feud has become so intense that veteran military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai says, “The state of Israel is sinking into anarchy.”

According to the Asia Time’s Victor Kotsev, Ashkenazi, backed by Israel’s intelligence chiefs, and possibly with quiet support from Washington, maneuvered to block Barak’s choice for a new chief of staff by torpedoing the candidacy of Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, and then blocking the Defense Minister’s attempt to appoint the hawkish Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh as acting chief of staff.

The civil war, according to Kotsev, reflects “a split in Israeli political and military circles on whether to attack Iran. According to [veteran Israeli journalist Aluf] Benn, the outgoing chiefs of the army and the intelligence …are firmly opposed to a unilateral military intervention, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak have stacked their political fortunes on a strike.”

The falling out between Ashkenazi and Barak began last year when the latter opposed the defense minister’s proposal to attack Iran, remarking, “Initiating such a war will only bring disaster on Israel.” Barak responded by shortening Ashkenazi’s tenure and replacing him with Galant, the controversial general who lead operation “Cast Lead,” the brutal assault on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009 that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians.

According to the Israeli Daily Haaretz, Galant was seen as “more aggressive on Iran and will not block Netanyahu and Barak, who are eager to go into battle against Iran.”

But Galant had to withdraw when it was revealed that he had appropriated public land that surrounded his villa in northern Israel, and Barak blamed Ashkenazi—almost certainly correctly—for leaking the scandal. Barak had already alienated the military by trying to shift the blame for last year’s disastrous interception of the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara onto the army and intelligence agencies.

The whole brouhaha has weakened Barak, who lost whatever base he had when he recently pulled out of the Labor Party to start up a more centrist organization. “Barak suffered one of the toughest routs of his life, second only to his loss of the Prime Minister’s post in the 2001 elections,” says Israeli journalist Amir Oren.

Israeli analyst Benn suggests that Washington might have had a hand in the affair by encouraging resistance to Barak within the Israeli military. Gantz is seen as a general with close ties to his American counterparts, and word has it that the Pentagon was chilly toward Barak during his recent visit to Washington. With Barak badly wounded by the fight, there are a number of players on the sidelines, including rightwing Likudites Moshe Ya’alon and Dan Meridor, who are hankering after his job.

This fight is hardly a split between doves and hawks. According to columnist J.J. Goldberg of the Jewish weekly Forward, while the new Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, has “spoken scathingly” of the “short-sighted strategic vision of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak,” he is hardly part of some peace faction. Rather the division seems to be between aggressive right-wingers supported by the settler movement and opposed to any agreement with the Arabs, and a more “cautious faction” that includes Ashkenazi.

Ashkenazi favors “covert action”—military-speak for targeted assassinations—and returning the Golan Heights to Syria as a strategy to divide Damascus and Teheran, “a view shared unanimously by the heads of Israel’s intelligence agencies” says Goldberg.

But the now-retired chief of staff is hardly some kind of peacenik. In his farewell address, Ashkenazi talked of “tectonic changes” in the Middle East and gave a generally gloomy view of an Israel surrounded by growing Islamic fundamentalism in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and possibly Egypt. His opposition to attacking Iran has less to do with the political fallout than the fear that Israel would do so “unilaterally.”

It is not clear where Gantz or the newly appointed intelligence heads stand on the matter of Iran, but Reuters reports that “the new crop of generals and spymasters could prove more cooperative to war orders” from the civilian administration.

There are powerful forces arguing for attacking Iran, many of them among the newly resurgent American neo-conservatives. U.S House Resolution 1533, introduced last year by 46 Republicans, supports Israel using “any means necessary” against Iran. While H-1533 languished in the Foreign Affairs Committee when Democrats controlled the House, the resolution is certain to re-emerge with Republicans in charge.

The charge to war, according to Gareth Porter of IPS, is led by neo-cons like Reuel Marc Gerecht, the former director of the New American Century, a think tank that can claim much of the credit for getting the Bush Administration to invade Iraq. “What is important to understand about this campaign,” says Porter, “is that the aim of Gerecht and the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu is to support an attack by Israel so that the United States can be drawn into a direct, full-scale war with Iran.”

The neo-cons want more than surgical strikes aimed at Iran’s nuclear industry, they want a real war—“No cruise missiles at midnight to minimize the body count” says Gerecht—and regime change. As David Wurmster, former vice-president Dick Cheney’s key advisor on the Middle East, put it, “If we start shooting, we must be prepared to fire the last shot. Don’t shoot a bear if you are not going to kill it.”

The campaign is aimed at creating domestic pressure on the Obama administration to back Israel once it attacks. Israel has a powerful air force and navy, but unless it used some of its nuclear arsenal—an act that is hard to contemplate but by no means out of the question—it can’t do the job on its own.

Would most Americans back such an attack? Polls show that a majority of Americans don’t want a war with Iran, but that they also strongly support Israel. If the Iranians can be demonized enough—the current regime’s crackdown on dissent is already doing a pretty good job in that regard—might those numbers shift? Gerecht thinks they will: “If the Israelis bomb now, American public opinion will probably be with them, perhaps decisively so.”

In the meantime, the Netanyahu administration is doing its best to whip up anti-Iranian sentiment. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called the recent transit of two Iranian warships through the Suez Canal a “provocation,” even though the canal is an international waterway and recently saw several Israeli warships pass through it on their way into the Persian Gulf. “Unfortunately, the international community is not showing readiness to deal with the recurring Iranian provocations,” Lieberman said. “The international community must understand that Israel cannot ignore these provocations forever.”

Bombast? Certainly the Israeli Foreign Minister is renowned for that, but in this case he has strong support in the Tel Aviv government, among the powerful settler movement, and with at least some of the military. As the Israeli daily Haaretz notes, “2010 went by without a war with Iran. In the winter no one goes to war because the clouds limit air force operations. But in 2011, a conflict is brewing.”

It is a conflict that could escalate from a regional calamity to an international disaster if the U.S. joins in.

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