Category Archives: Lebanon, Yemen, Etc

Iraq: War and Remembrance

Iraq: War & Remembrance

Dispatches From The Edge

June 28, 2014

 

“So far as Syria is concerned, it is France and not Turkey that is the enemy”

T. E. Lawrence, February 1915

 

It was a curious comment by the oddball, but unarguably brilliant, British agent and scholar, Thomas Edward Lawrence. The time was World War I, and England and France were locked in a death match with the Triple Alliance, of which Turkey was a prominent member. But it was none-the-less true, and no less now than then. In the Middle East, to paraphrase William Faulkner, history is not the past, it’s the present.

 

In his 1915 letter, Lawrence was describing French machinations over Syria, but he could just as well have been commenting on England’s designs in the region, what allied leaders in World War I came to call “The Great Loot”—the imperial vivisection of the Middle East.

 

As Iraq tumbles into a yet another civil war, it is important to remember how all this came about, and why adding yet more warfare to the current crisis will perpetuate exactly what the “Great Loot” set out to do: divide and conquer an entire region of the world.

 

There is a scorecard here, filled with names, but they are not just George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice—though the latter helped mightily to fuel the latest explosion—but names most people have never heard of, like Sir Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes, 6th Baronet of Sledmore and Francois Georges-Picot. In 1915, these two mid-level diplomats created a secret plan to divvy up the Middle East. Almost a century later that imperial map not only defines the region and most of the players, but continues to spin out tragedy after tragedy, like some grotesque, historical Groundhog Day.

 

In 1915, the imperial powers’ major goal in the Middle East was to smother any expression of Arab nationalism and prevent any unified resistance to the designs of Paris and London. France wanted Greater Syria, Britain control of the land bridges to India. The competition was so intense, that while hundreds of thousands of French and British troops were dying on the Western Front, both countries secret services were blackguarding one another from Samara to Medina, maneuvering for position for when the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed.

 

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was the compromise aimed at ending the internecine warfare. France would get Greater Syria (which it would divide to create Lebanon), plus zones of influence in northern Iraq. Britain would get the rest of Iraq, Jordan and establish the Palestine Mandate. All of this, however, had to be kept secret from the locals lest they find out that they were replacing Turkish overlords with French and British colonialism.

 

The Arabs thought they were fighting for independence, but London and Paris had other designs. Instead of the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and access to the Mediterranean the Arabs had been promised, they would get the sun-blasted deserts of Arabia, and the rule of monarchs, who were easy to buy or bully.

 

However, to run such a vast enterprise through the use of direct force was beyond the power of even London and Paris. So both empires transplanted their strategies of using religion, sect, tribe and ethnicity, which had worked so well in Indochina, India, Ireland and Africa, to divide and conquer, adding to it a dash of chaos.

 

There are new players in the Middle East since Sykes and Picot drew up their agreement. Washington and Israel were latecomers, but eventually replaced both imperial powers as the major military forces in the region.

 

The enemy of the “Great Loot” was secular nationalism, and the U.S., France, and Britain have been trying to overthrow or isolate secular regimes in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya since they first appeared. The rationale for the hostility is that secular regimes were run by dictators—many were—but questionably no worse than the Wahabi fanatics in Saudi Arabia, or the monsters the Gulf monarchies have nurtured in Syria and northern Iraq.

 

Why is Syria a dictatorship and Saudi Arabia is not? This past February, the Kingdom passed a law equating dissent, the exposure of corruption, or demands for reform with “terrorism” including “offending the nation’s reputation or its position.”

 

The list of names on the ledger of those who nurture terrorism in the Middle East is long. Yes, it certainly includes the Bush administration, which smashed up one of the most developed countries in the region, dismantled the Iraqi state, and stoked the division between Sunni and Shiites. But also the Clinton administration, whose brutal sanctions impoverished Iraq. And further back, during the First Gulf war, George H. Bush pounded southern Iraq with toxic depleted uranium, inflicting a massive cancer epidemic on places like Basra. It was Jimmy Carter and the CIA who backed Saddam Hussein’s rise to power, because the Ba’athist dictator was particularly efficient at torturing and killing trade unionists and members of the Iraqi left.

 

Not to mention members of the Gulf Cooperation Council—Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Morocco and Jordan— who fund the Islamic insurgency in Syria. Some of those countries may decry the excesses of the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL), but it was they who nursed the pinion that impelled the steel.

 

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also on that list. It is through Turkey’s borders that most fighters and supplies pass into Syria. So is the Obama administration, which farmed the insurgency out to Qatar and Saudi Arabia and is now horrified by the creatures that Wahabist feudal monarchies produced.

 

And don’t forget T.E. Lawrence’s French.

 

Paris has never forgiven the Syrians for tossing them out in 1961, nor for Damascus’s role in the 1975-91 Lebanese civil war that dethroned the French-favored Christian minority who had dominated the country since its formation in 1941.

 

The French have been enthusiastic supporters of the insurgency in the Syrian civil war and, along with the British, successfully lobbied the European Union to drop its ban on supplying the rebels with military hardware. Paris has also earned favor from Saudi Arabia by trying to derail efforts to find a solution to the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. France is a member of the P5+1—France, the U.S., Russia, Britain, China and Germany—involved in talks with Teheran.

 

The Gulf Council praised France’s attempted sabotage, and Paris promptly landed a $6 billion contract to upgrade Saudi Arabia’s air defense system. It is negotiating to sell $8 billion in fighter-bombers to the Emirates and almost $10 billion worth to Qatar.

 

Saudi Arabia recently donated $3 billion in aid to the Lebanese Army on the condition that it is used to buy French weapons and ammunition. It is a somewhat ironic gift, since the major foe of the Lebanese Army has been Saudi-supported Wahabists in the country’s northern city of Tripoli.

 

Apparently French President Francois Hollande met with the foreign ministers of Jordan and Emirates last September to discuss a plan for Pakistan to train a 50,000-man Sunni army to overthrow the Syrian government and defeat al-Qaida-affiliated jihadist groups.

 

Members of that army may already be on their way to Europe, much as the mujahedeen from Afghanistan did a generation ago. According to western intelligence services, more than 3,000 European Union citizens have gone to fight in Syria, ten times the number who went to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. The gunman who killed four people May 24 at the Jewish Museum in Brussels was a veteran jihadist from the Syrian civil war.

 

For now, the Gulf monarchies see themselves as pulling the strings, but they have virtually no control over what they have wrought. Those Wahabi fanatics in Syria and northern Iraq may do what Osama bin-Laden did and target the corruption of the monarchies next.

 

The Gulf countries are rich but fragile. Youth unemployment in Saudi Arabia is between 30 and 40 percent, and half the country’s 28 million are under 25 years of age. In other Gulf nations a tiny strata of superrich rule over a huge and exploited foreign work force. When the monarchies begin to unravel, the current chaos will look like the Pax Romana.

 

But chaos has always been an ally of imperialism. If things fall apart and mayhem rules, governments and bankers in Paris, Zurich or New York have not been overly bothered. “The agenda has always been about imposing division and chaos on the Arab world,” wrote long-time peace activist Tom Hayden. “In 1992, Bernard Lewis, a major Middle East expert, write that if the central power is sufficiently weakened, there is no real civil society to hold the polity together, no real sense of common identity…the state then disintegrates into a chaos of squabbling, feuding, fighting sects, tribes, regions and parties.”

 

Military intervention by the U.S. and its allies will accelerate the divisions in the Middle East. If the White House is serious about stemming the chaos, it should stop fueling the Syrian civil war, lean on the Gulf Monarchies to end their sectarian jihad against Shiites, pressure the Israelis to settle with the Palestinians, and end the campaign to isolate Iran.

 

And tell the French to butt out.

 

 

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Turkish Plots

Turkey’s Crisis: More Than Meets The Eye

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 1, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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Syria and the Monarchs: A Perfect Storm

Syria & The Monarchs: A Perfect Storm

Dispatches From The Edge

June 25, 2013

 

 

The Obama administration’s decision to directly supply weapons to the Syrian opposition may end up torpedoing the possibility of a political settlement. It will almost certainly accelerate the chaos spreading from the almost three-year old civil war. It will also align the U.S. with one of the most undemocratic alliances on the planet, and one that looks increasingly unstable.

 

In short, we are headed into a perfect political storm.

 

While the rationale behind the White House’s decision to send light arms and ammunition to the rebels is that it will level the playing field and force the Assad regime to the bargaining table, it much more likely to do exactly the opposite. The US is now a direct participant in the war to bring down the Damascus regime, thus shedding any possibility that, along with Russia, it could act as a neutral force to bring the parties together.

 

Of course the US has hardly been a disinterested bystander in the Syrian civil war. For more than two years it has helped facilitate the flow of arms from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates across the Jordanian and Turkish borders, and the CIA is training insurgents in Jordan. But the White House has always given lip service to a “diplomatic solution,” albeit one whose outcome was preordained: “Assad must go” the President said in August 2011, a precondition that early on turned this into a fight to the death.

 

As Ramzy Mardini, a former U.S. State Department official for Near Eastern affairs, recently wrote in the New York Times, “What’s the point of negotiating a political settlement if the outcome is already predetermined?”

 

It is hard to tell if the administration’s policies around Syria are Machiavellian or just stunningly inept. Take President Obama’s famous “red line” speech warning the Assad regime that the use of chemical weapons would trigger US military intervention. Didn’t the President realize that his comment was a roadmap for the insurgency: show that chemical weapons were used and in come the Marines? And, as if on cue, the insurgents began claiming poison gas was used on them, a charge the Damascus regime has denied.

 

Whether there is any truth to the charge is hard to tell since neither the British, French, nor the US have released any findings. “if you are the opposition and you hear” that the White House has drawn a red line on the use of nerve agents, then “you have an interest in giving the impression that some chemical weapons have been used, says Rolf Ekeus, a Swedish scientist who headed up the UN weapons inspections in Iraq.  Carla Del Ponte, of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, says it was the insurgents who used poison gas, not the Syrian government.

 

 

The French and the British are hardly neutral bystanders, with long and sordid track records in the region. It was Paris and London that secretly divvied up the Middle East in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, and who used divisions between Shites, Sunnis, and Christians to keep their subject populations at one another’s throats. Both countries just successfully lobbied the European Union to end its arms embargo on the Syrian combatants and are considering supplying weapons to the insurgents.

 

Besides the growing butcher bill in Syria—according to the UN the death toll is now over 93,000, with a million and a half refugees—the war is going regional, particularly in Iraq and Lebanon, although Turkey and Jordan are also being pulled into the maelstrom.

 

Fighting between Shites and Saudi-sponsored Sunni extremists in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli is drawing in the Lebanese Army, which recently issued a warning that sectarian violence was getting out of control.  There is fighting between Assad loyalists, Sunni insurgents, and the Shite-based organization Hezbollah on both sides of Lebanon’s border with Syria.

 

In the meantime, Sunni extremist groups, associated with al-Qaeda, are waging a car-bombing offensive against the central government in Iraq. According to the UN, 1,000 Iraqis were killed in May, and the toll continues to mount. A recent bombing in a Turkish border town killed 51 people and local Turks blamed the insurgents, not the Assad regime.

 

The war has put economically fragile Jordan on the front lines. Some 8,000 troops from 19 countries just completed war games entitled “Eager Lion” in that country. The 12-day exercise was aimed, according the Independent (UK), at preparing “for possible fighting in Syria.” The US has deployed Patriot missiles, troops, and F-16 fighter-bombers in Jordan.

 

While the Syrian civil war started over the Assad regime’s brutal response to demonstrators, it has morphed into a proxy war between Syria, Iran, Russia, and government of Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq on one side, and the US, France, Britain, Israel, Turkey and the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on the other. The Council includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and new members Morocco and Jordan.

 

The GCC is playing banker and arms supplier to the insurgency, much the same role it played in Libya’s civil war. Qatar has poured more than $3 billion into the effort to upend Assad, and, along with Saudi Arabia and the US, helped shift Egypt from its initial support for a diplomatic solution to backing a military overthrow of the Damascus regime.

 

Egypt is in the midst of a major financial crisis, and Qatar has agreed to invest billions in its economy. Such investments come with strings, however, and Qatar is not shy about using its cash to get countries on board its foreign policy goals. Ahram Online said a major reason for the diplomatic shift was “the hope of soliciting desperately need financial and fuel aid” from Saudi Arabia.

 

According to Ahram, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi bucked the advice of his top aides to switch positions. The April 6 Democratic Front Movement accused Morsi of caving in to “Washington” and extremist “Salafist Sheikhs.”

 

Egypt is also trying to land a loan from the International Monetary Fund, over which the US wields considerable influence. It is hard to see Egypt’s shift as anything but a quid pro quo for a bailout.

 

The Gulf Council has almost unlimited amounts of cash at its disposal, but how stable are the monarchies that make it up?

 

Last year Bahrain was forced to use Saudi Arabian troops to quash protests by its Shia majority demanding democratic rights. The United Arab Emirates charged 94 people with conspiracy because they asked for democratic rights. They face 15 years in prison. Qatar recently sentenced a poet to 15 years for writing a “subversive” poem.

 

The monarchs’ bitter opposition to anything that smacks of democracy or representative government suggests that their crowns do not sit all that firmly on their heads.

 

Saudi Arabia is a case in point. While it is the world’s biggest oil exporter, it has a growing population—at 30 million, larger than the Gulf members of the GCC members put together—and unemployment among Saudis aged 20 to 24 is around 40 percent. The kingdom is also facing a restive Shia population in its eastern provinces.

 

The Saudi monarchy has dealt with opposition through a combination of stepped up repression and a $130 billion spending program. But as Karen House points out in her book “On Saudi Arabia,” the country’s “High birthrate, poor education…and deep structural rigidities in the economy, compounded by pervasive corruption, all have led to a decline in living standards…Many of [the] young feel their future is being stolen from them.”

 

The other Gulf monarchies are rich—Jordan is the exception—but lack population and rely on imported workers to meet their labor needs. Because there is essentially no public oversight, the monarchies tend to breed corruption. The Saud family has some 7,000 princes, all of whom have special access to the vast wealth of the country.

 

A generation ago that corruption could be easily covered up, but the Internet makes that increasingly difficult. Twitter and YouTube have a huge following in Saudi Arabia.

 

Yet it is with these monarchies—the world’s last bastions of feudal power—that the US and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have made common cause.

 

Reliance on the GCC also means that Washington is essentially part of the Sunni jihad against Shites in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. However, while the Shite-Sunni conflict is important and long-standing, the fact that Iran, Syria and Iraq have very different foreign policies than the GCC has more to do with the Council’s hostility to Teheran than religious differences.

 

It was Jordan’s King Abdullah who first warned that a “Shiite Crescent”—Hezbollah, Syria, Iraq and Iran—was a threat to the Middle East, a “warning” that conveniently fit into the US’s drive to build an alliance against Iran. But elevating sectarian divisions in Islam into an alliance not only helped unleash Sunni extremists—including the al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria that reportedly worry Washington—it opened a Pandora’s Box of ethnic divisions that the US and the Gulf monarchies may yet come to regret.

 

There is still time to halt this looming train wreck.

 

United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon said the US move was “not helpful,” and reiterated, “There can be no military solution to this conflict, even if the [Syrian] Government and the opposition, and their supporters, think there can be.” The Obama administration could use that admonition to call for a ceasefire, hold off sending arms, and instead concentrate—along with Russia—on building a peace conference.

 

The conference would have to involve all the parties, including the countries currently being destabilized by the ongoing fighting. The US will also have to step back from its “Assad must go” position and, instead, seek a way to integrate Syria’s 2014 presidential elections into a formula for peace. But more arms and a tighter embrace of the backward Gulf Council will insure the war will continue to kill Syrians and destabilize the region.

 

 

 

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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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Turkey Haunted by Hubris

Turkey Haunted by Hubris

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Nov. 1, 2012

Two years ago Turkey was on its way to being a player in Central Asia, a major power broker in the Middle East, and a force in international politics. It had stepped in to avoid a major escalation of the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia by blocking U.S. ships from entering the Black Sea, made peace with its regional rivals, and, along with Brazil, made a serious stab at a peaceful resolution of the Iran nuclear crisis.

Today it is exchanging artillery rounds with Syria. Its relations with Iraq have deteriorated to the point that Baghdad has declared Ankara a “hostile state.” It picked a fight with Russia by forcing down a Syrian passenger plane and accusing Moscow of sending arms to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It angered Iran by agreeing to host a U.S. anti-missile system (a step which won Turkey no friends in Moscow either). Its war with its Kurdish minority has escalated sharply.

What happened? The wages of religious solidarity? Ottoman de’je vu?

There is some truth in each of those suggestions, but Turkey’s diplomatic sea change has less to do with the Koran and memories of empire than with Illusions and hubris. It is a combination that is hardly rare in the Middle East, and one that now promises to upend years of careful diplomacy, accelerate unrest in the region, and drive Turkey into an alliance with countries whose internal fragility should give the Turks pause.

If there is a ghost from the past in all this, it is a growing alliance between Turkey and Egypt.

Population-wise, the two countries are among the largest in the region, and both have industrial bases in an area of the world where industry was actively discouraged by a century of colonial overlords (the Turks among them). Ankara recently offered $2 billion in aid to cash-strapped Egypt, and both countries have moderate Islamic governments. Cairo and Ankara have also supported the overthrow of the Assad regime.

“Apparently now Egypt is Turkey’s closest partner in the Middle East,” Gamel Soltan of American University in Cairo told the New York Times. But while Egypt was once the Ottoman’s wealthiest provinces, 2012 is not the world of sultans and pashas, and, in this case, old memories may well be a trap.

Egypt is deeply mired in poverty and inequality. Indeed, it was as much the economic crisis gripping the region as issues of democracy and freedom that filled Tahrir Square. Cairo is in serious debt and preparing a round of austerity measures that will sharpen that inequality. The government of President Mohamed Morsi announced it will slice gas subsidies, which will fall particularly hard on the poor, especially given a jobless rate of over 12 percent and youth unemployment running at more than double that.

At first glance, both governments have a lot in common, particularly because Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood are considered “moderately” Islamic. But many in the Brotherhood consider the AKP and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan far too “moderate”—in Turkey it is still illegal to wear a head scarf if you run for public office or work in a government office.   While the West considers Morsi’s and Erdogan’s government “Islamic,” some of the jihadists groups Cairo and Ankara are aiding in their efforts to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria consider the Egyptian and Turkish government little more than non-believers or apostates.  As Middle East expert Robert Fisk puts it, the jihadists are a scorpion that might, in the end, sting them both, much as the Taliban has done to its Pakistani sponsors.

Turkey apparently hopes to construct a triangle among Ankara, Cairo, and the wealthy oil monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates (Jordan and Morocco, two other monarchies, have been asked to join). The combination of population, industry, and wealth, goes the thinking, would allow that alliance to dominate the region.

The Council does have enormous wealth at its disposal, but how stable are autocratic monarchies in the wave of the democratic aspirations raised by the Arab Spring? Bahrain’s king rules through the force of the Saudi Army. Saudi Arabia itself is struggling to provide jobs and housing for its growing population, while weighed down by inequality, high unemployment, rampant corruption, and a restive Shia minority in its eastern provinces. Jordan’s monarch is wrestling with an economic crisis and a political opposition that is pressuring king Abdullah II for a constitutional monarchy.

How this new alliance will affect the Palestinians is not clear. Turkey had a falling out with Israel in 2009, and Egypt and Qatar have been sharply critical of Tel Aviv’s treatment of the Palestinians. So far, however, it appears the Islamic group Hamas in Gaza will benefit more than the secular Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank.

With the exception of Bahrain, all the countries involved have large Sunni majorities that, at first glance, would put them on the same page religiously. But most the Gulf monarchs are aligned with radical Islamic groups, some of which have morphed into al-Qaeda-like organizations that have destabilized countries from Pakistan to Iraq. On occasion, these groups have turned on their benefactors, as Osama bin Laden did on Saudi Arabia.

Such Islamic groups are increasingly active in the Syrian civil war, where Turkey finds itself in a very similar role to the one played by Pakistan during the 1979-89 Soviet-Afghan war. Some of the groups Pakistan nurtured during those years have now turned on their patrons. Will Turkey become the next Pakistan? In an interview with the Financial Times, one Syrian insurgent said that many of the rebels were stockpiling ammunition for “after the revolution.”

Bulent Alizira of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the Financial Times that Turkey is in danger of becoming “like Pakistan, which became the forward base for the Afghan rebels. If that were to happen, it could confront all the pressures that Pakistan faced and from which it has never recovered.”

And why would the Erdogan government pick a fight with Russia? Russia is a major trading partner, and Turkey is keen on establishing good relations with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) founded by Russia and China in 2001. The organization includes most of the countries in Central Asia, plus observers from India, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. The SCO accounts for 75 percent of the world’s energy resources and population, and coordinates everything from trade to oil and gas pipelines. Why would Ankara irritate one of the major players in the SCO?

Might it be pique at Moscow for blocking more aggressive measures by the UN Security Council to intervene in the Syrian civil war?  Russia, along with China, has consistently called for a political resolution to the Syria crisis, while Turkey has pursued a strategy of forcible regime change.  Erdogan has a reputation for arrogance and letting his temper get the best of him.

“His personal ambitions and overweening certainties may be eclipsing his judgment,” Morton Abramowitz of the Century Foundation told UPI, “and affecting Turkish interests.” Abramowitz served in the Carter and Reagan administrations and was appointed ambassador to Turkey from 1989 to 1991. He is also a director at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Relations between Turkey and Iran have also cooled, in part because of the U.S. anti-missile system, but also because Ankara is trying to overthrow one of Iran’s few allies in the region. In any case, backing Sunni jihadists against the Alawite Assad regime is hardly going to go down well in Shia Iran, or for that matter, in Shia Iraq. The Alawites are a branch of Shism.

Why, too would Turkey alienate major trading partners like Iran and Iraq? It is possible that the wealthy monarchies of the Gulf—who are anti-Shia and view Iran as their greatest threat— made Ankara an offer it can’t refuse. Whether the monarchies can deliver in the long run is another matter.

In the meantime, the Syrian war has unleashed the furies.

*Car bombs have made their appearance one again in Lebanon.

*The Kurds have bloodied the Turkish Army.

*Hundreds of thousands of refugees have poured out of Syria, and the fighting inside the country is escalating.

*Anti-aircraft missiles—the Russian SAM-7, or Strela, most likely “liberated” during the Libya war—have made an appearance. The hand-fired missiles may indeed discomfort Syrian aircraft, but if they get into the hands of the Kurds, Turkish helicopters will be in trouble as well, as will any number of other air forces, from Lebanon to Jordan. A Strela was fired at an Israeli aircraft in the Gaza Strip Oct. 16.

Turkey’s role in the Syrian civil war finds little resonance among average Turks. Some 56 percent disagree with the policy, and 66 percent oppose allowing Syrian refugees into the country.

“We are at a very critical juncture,” journalist Melih Asik told the New York Times. “We are not only facing Syria, but Iran, Iraq, Russia and China. Behind us we have nothing but the provocative stance and empty promises of the US.”

Four years ago Turkey set out to build strong ties with other countries in the region—“zero problems with the neighbors”—and decrease its dependence on the US. Today those policy goals are in shambles. But that is where illusion and hubris lead.

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Moral Drones and the New York Times

Moral Drones and the New York Times

Dispatches From the Edge

July 8, 2012

 “…it may be a surprise to find some moral philosophers, political scientists, and weapons specialists believe unmanned aircraft offer marked moral advantages over almost any other tool of warfare.”—Scott Shane, national security reporter for the New York Times, “The Moral Defense For Drones,” 7/15/12

First, one should never be surprised to find that the NY Times can ferret out experts to say virtually anything. Didn’t they dig up those who told us all that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons? Second, whenever the newspaper uses the words “some,” that’s generally a tipoff the dice are loaded, in this case with a former Air Force officer (who teaches philosophy at the Naval Postgraduate School), a former CIA deputy chief of counterintelligence, and political scientist Avery Plaw, author of  “Targeting Terrorists: A License To Kill?”

Shane has a problem, which he solves by a nimble bit of legerdemain: he starts off by raising the issue of law, sovereignty, radicalizing impact, and proliferation dangers (in three brief sentences), then quickly shifts to the contention that “most critics” have “focused on evidence that they [drones] are unintentionally killing innocent civilians.”

He doesn’t present any evidence that most criticism has focused on the collateral damage issue, but this allows him to move to the article’s centerpiece: “the drones kill fewer civilians than other modes of warfare.”

Actually, critics have focused on a wide number of issues concerning drones. Is using drones in a country with which we are not at war, and one that opposes their use, a violation of international law? Is targeting an individual a form of extrajudicial capital punishment? Is killing American citizens a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of a trial by a jury of one’s peers? Is the use of armed drones by the White House bypassing the constitutional role of Congress to declare war? Does the role of the CIA in directing killer drones violate the prescriptions of the Geneva Convention against civilians engaging in armed conflicts?

But for argument’s sake, let’s focus on the point about civilian casualties. According to Shane, the professor of philosophy has found that “drones do a better job at both identifying the terrorist and avoiding collateral damage than anything else we have.” Shane adds that the drone operators “can even divert a missile after firing if, say, a child wanders into range.”

Nice touch about the kid, but according to London-base Bureau of Investigtive Journalists, *as of February of this year, drones have killed some 60 children, among between 282 to 535 civilians. Other estimates of civilian deaths are much higher.

But, points out the Times, the kill ratio suffered by civilians when Pakistan took back the Swat Valley from its local Taliban, and when Israel goes after Hamas, are much higher. And then, quoting the CIA guy: “Look at the firebombing of Dresden, and compare it with what we are doing today.” In short, civilians should be thankful they are not subjected to the brutality of the Pakistani and Israeli armies, or firebombed into oblivion?

Shane manages to avoid mentioning Part IV of the additions to the Geneva Conventions (1977) on the protection of civilian populations “Against the Effects of Hostilities.” Article 49 and 50 are particularly relevant. Essentially they boil down to the stipulation that only “military objectives” can be targeted.

The Time’s security expert also fails to mention the policy of “signature strikes,” which means anyone carrying weapons, or hanging out in a house used by “militants,” is fair game. “Signature strikes” are an explicit violation of Article 50: “The presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character.”

Of course, none of us know what criteria are used to identify someone as a “militant” or a “terrorist,” because the Obama administration refuses to release the legal findings that define those categories. In Yemen, many of the targeted “terrorists” are not Al Qaeda members, but southern separatists who have been fighting to re-establish the Republic of South Yemen. In any case, people are being killed and we have no idea how they ended up sentenced to death.

For instance, it is apparently a capital offense to try to rescue people following a drone strike, or to go to the funeral for those killed. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, some 50 rescuers have been killed, and more than 20 mourners. Many of these small villages have strong kinship ties, and helping out or mourning the dead is a powerful cultural tradition. Acting as a kinsman to someone the White House defines as an “enemy” may end up being fatal.

In some ways the civilian deaths are a straw man, not because they are not important, but because “critics” have focused on a wide number of issues brought up by the drones. Among them is the apparent dismantling of Congress’s constitutional role in declaring war. When some members of Congress raised this issue with respect to the Libyan War, and whether it fell under the rubric of the Wars Power Act, the Obama administration argued that it did not, because the Libya operation did not “involve the use of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties, or a serious threat thereof.”

But as Peter Singer of the Brookings Institute points out, the Libyan operation certainly involved “something we used to think of as war: blowing up stuff, lots of it.” The U.S. air war was the key to overthrowing Qaddafi. U.S. planes and drones carried out attacks and directed strikes by allied aircraft. The Americans also resupplied allied aircraft with bombs and missiles, and provided in-air refueling.

Given the enormous expansion of drones, the definition of war as limited to acts likely to lead to “casualties” opens up a Pandora’s box. The U.S. currently has more than 7,000 drones, many of them, like the Predator and the Reaper, are armed. The U.S. Defense Department plans to spend about $31 billion on “remotely piloted aircraft” by 2015, and the U.S. Air Force is training more remote operators than pilots for its fighters and bombers.

Fleets of armed drones could be released to fight wars all over the world, with casualties limited to mechanical failures or the occasional drone that wandered too close to an anti-aircraft system. Under the White House’s definition, what those drones did, and whom they did it to, is none of Congress’s business.

What in the Constitution gives the power of life and death over U.S. citizens to the President of the United States? The militant American-Yemini cleric Anwar-al-Awlaki was no admirer of the U.S., but there is no public finding that he ever did anything illegal. Never the less, a drone-fired Hellfire missile killed him last October. And a few weeks later, another drone killed his Denver-born 16-year old son, Abdulraham-al-Awlaki, who was out looking for his father. Ibrahim-al-Banna was the target of that strike, but as one U.S. official told Time, the son was in the “wrong place at the wrong time.” That particular statement is an explicit violation of Article 50 of the Conventions.

“The question is, is killing always justified?” asks University of Texas at El Paso political scientist Armin Krisnan. “There is not public accountability for that.”

The Yemen strike has sparked outrage in that country, as have other drone strikes. “This is why AQAP [Al Qadea in the Arabian Peninsula] is much stronger in Yemen today that it was a few years ago,” says Ibrahim Mothana, co-founder of Yemen’s Watan Party.

There are lots of critics raising lots of difficult to answer questions, and they focus on much more than civilian casualties (although that is a worthy topic of consideration). The “moral” case for drones is not limited to the parameters set by the NY Times. In any case, the issue is not the morality of drones; they have none. Nor do they have politics or philosophy. They are simply soulless killing machines. The morality at play is with those who define the targets and push the buttons that incinerate people we do not know half a world away.

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Dear Conn,

Thanks for referencing the Bureau’s work in your International Policy Digest piece.

A quick correction – the drone data you cite from us is out of date (it looks like Obama-only numbers from a few months back)

Presently we report (for Pakistan alone) from 2004 to today

Total US strikes: 335 
Obama strikes: 283 
Total reported killed: 2,513-3,226 
Civilians reported killed: 482-835 
Children reported killed: 175 
Total reported injured: 1,198-1,324
http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/category/projects/drones/

Do let me know if you ever need numbers crunching for your work – we’re always happy to oblige,

best
Chris

Chris Woods
Senior Reporter
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
Twitter: @chrisjwoods
The Myddleton Building, 167-173 Goswell Road
London  EC1V 7HD
M (+44 (0)7711 633528
O (+44) (0)20 7040 0085
Fax: +44 (0)20 7040 0077
Check out our website: www.thebureauinvestigates.com
Follow us on Twitter: http://twitter.com/TBIJ

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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?

—30—

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Lebanon: Roots of the Crisis

Lebanon: Roots of the Crisis

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 11, 2011

Viewed through the prism of the American mainstream media, Lebanon always appears a place that best defines the term Byzantine: a bewildering mélange of different religions, rival militias, cagey politicians, and shadowy regional proxies taking orders from Teheran, Tel Aviv, Damascus, Riyadh, and Ankara.

Lebanon is a complex place indeed, but it is not quite the labyrinth it is made out to be, and, if France, the United States, and Israel would stop putting their irons in the fire, the country’s difficulties are wholly resolvable.  But solutions will require some understanding of the pressures that have forged the current crisis, forces that lie deep in Lebanon’s colonial past. While history is not the American media’s strong suit, to ignore it in Lebanon is to misunderstand the motivations of the key players.

Lebanon, like a number of other countries in the region—Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Israel, to name a few—is a child of colonialism, created from the wreckage of the World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The colonial power in Lebanon was France, although Paris’ interest in the area goes back to 1861. In that year the French helped Maronite Christians establish a “sanjack,” or separate administrative region around Mt. Lebanon within the Ottoman Empire.

Christian Maronites and French Catholics were natural allies, and the French saw the potential of controlling traffic going from the Mediterranean coast to inland Mesopotamia. For their part, the Maronites had picked up a powerful ally for their dreams of creating a “Greater Lebanon” that would take in not only the mountains they lived in, but the fertile Bakaa Valley to the east and the rich coastline to the west.

Lebanon’s mountains are mostly Christian dominated, though not all Christians are Maronites. There are also Greek and Syrian Orthodox, Armenians, Copts, and Roman Catholics.  But the Bakaa—the northern extension of Africa’s Great Rift Valley—is mostly Muslim, as is much of the coastal plain.  The Muslims themselves are divided between Shiites and Sunnis. As in much of the Middle East, Shiites have been marginalized politically and economically.

Those divisions were set in stone when the great imperial powers carved up the corpse of the Ottoman Empire at San Remo in 1920. France got “Greater Lebanon,” while the British seized oil-rich Mesopotamia—modern Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and Israel. Since Britain already had Egypt, it now dominated the Persian Gulf, and hence Iran’s oil, as well as the Red Sea. While Lebanon may have seemed small potatoes in that exchange, it was the gateway to Damascus and the easiest land route for land-based goods going east and west. It also became the banking capital of the Middle East, with the French skimming off the cream. Manufactured goods flowed east, raw materials and gold flowed west.

“Greater Lebanon,” however, was formed by slicing off a big hunk of western Syria. Indeed, many Syrians still think of Lebanon as “occupied.” Since the Maronites were France’s allies, they got to run the place, and the Sunnis and Shiites—particularly the Shiites—took the hindmost.  The latter became day laborers and peasants, squeezed by absentee landlords and taxed and exploited by the colonial government.

In many ways, Lebanon resembled Ireland, where religion was used to drive a wedge between landless Catholics and privileged Protestants. In reality, Protestants were also exploited, but the fact that they also had rights and privileges denied the Catholics—including the right to own land— kept the two communities divided and easily manipulated by the British.

And so it was in Lebanon. There the religious mix was more complex—it also included a sizable minority of Druze—but the strategy of divide and conquer through the use of religious and ethnic divisions was much the same. Those divisions pretty much defined the country until two great catastrophes befell Lebanon: the 1975-1990 civil war and the 1982 Israeli invasion and occupation.

It was the Israeli invasion that ignited the Shiite community and led to the creation of Hezbollah. And it was Hezbollah that finally drove Israel out of southern Lebanon, though it took 18 years of ambushes and roadside bombs to make the price of occupation unacceptable. And, for the first time in Lebanese history the Shiite community had a voice. It is the sound of that voice we are hearing these days.

Shiites are not a majority in Lebanon, but they may be a plurality. Christian communities likely make up about 32 percent of the population, and the Druze 5 percent, although no one actually knows how large each community is. There has not been a census since 1932, because the Christians, in particular, are nervous about what it would show. Political power in Lebanon is divided up on the basis of ethnicity.

The Israelis characterize Hezbollah as an Iranian proxy, and the Americans dismiss the organization as terrorist. Indeed, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently warned that the U.S. would cut off aid to Lebanon if a government friendly to Hezbollah emerges from the current crisis. The Americans are currently backing away from that threat.

But Hezbollah is not al-Qaeda, it is a homegrown organization that represents the long pent-up frustrations of the Shiite community, nor is it a cat’s paw for Iran, and any thought that the organization would go to war because Teheran ordered it to is just silly. For starters, Lebanese Shiites are very different than their Iranian counterparts. The latter come from a strain of Shiism that believes clerics and religious figures should govern directly. Lebanese Shiites think political power eventually corrupts religion, which is why they are backing Sunni Najib Mikati for the post of prime minister. Under Lebanon’s ethnic-driven system, that office must go to a Sunni.

As for the “terrorism” charge: That all depends on how you define the term. There is no question that Hezbollah has used assassinations and bombs to deal with its enemies, but then so have Israel and the U.S. In any case, Hezbollah is a major player in Lebanese politics, and any attempt to sideline it is the one thing that actually might touch off a civil war.

The current uproar was sparked by the refusal of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri to reject the findings of a United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL)  investigating the death of Hariri’s father, Rafik al-Hariri, in a massive bomb attack in 2005. The bombing led to the so-called “Cedar Revolution” that pushed Syria out of Lebanon and brought Saad Hariri into power.

The  STL investigation is apparently ready to pin the blame for the attack on Hezbollah, and when Hariri backed the Tribunal’s findings, Hezbollah withdrew its allies and the government collapsed.

Reading U.S. press accounts, one would assume that an unbiased investigation found Hezbollah the guilty party and that the Shiite organization ignited the crisis to avoid getting blamed. But a closer look suggests that the STL’s case is less than a slam-dunk.  An investigation by the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) late last year found several key witnesses had apparently lied to the Tribunal, including the man responsible for Hiriri’s security that day, Lebanese Colonel Wisam Hassan.

The Tribunal started off blaming the Syrians, then jailed four Lebanese generals—after four years, the generals were released for lack of evidence—and finally settled on the Shiite organization. Hezbollah presented documents to the STL this past summer indicating that the Israelis were monitoring Hariri the day of the assassination and may have been behind the bombing. If so it would notbe the first time that Tel Aviv has resorted to assassination in Lebanon. But the STL has not questioned any Israeli officials to date, nor has it examined Hassan’s alibi, one that the CBC called “flimsy, to put it mildly.”

Chief UN inspector Garry Loeppky considered Hassan a suspect in the murder, but the Tribunal refused to investigate his alibi because, according to the CBC investigation, he was considered “too valuable to alienate.” Hariri says Hassan’s loyalty is “beyond question.”

Hezbollah and its allies are also upset that the STL leaked its investigation to the Israeli Chief of Staff, General Gabi Ashkenazi, as well as the CBC, Der Spiegel, and the French newspaper Le Figaro.

It may be that Hezbollah—or a rogue element within the organization—is behind the bombing, but the STL’s consistent missteps have lost it a good deal of credibility, and many in the region view it as deeply politicized, and little more than a way for France and the U.S. to pressure Syria and Hezbollah.

In any case, the crisis in Lebanese politics is not over “terrorists” seizing a government. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech Jan. 23 that his organization wanted a national unity government and that “We are not seeking authority.” A U.S. effort to influence who governs in Beirut has not been well received. “Mikati is not coming to power by force of a coup or by civil unrest,” said Hassan Khalil, publisher of the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, “Mikati is coming to power by the parliamentary system of Lebanon.”

Nor is this a proxy war between Iran and Israel. It is an attempt by Lebanese players to rebalance and reconfigure a political system that has long favored a rich and powerful minority at the expense of the majority. The U.S., France and others may want to turn this into an international crisis—Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom called it an “Iranian government” on Israel’s northern border— but its roots and solutions are local.

Certainly there is a role for regional powers, including Turkey, Syria, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. But talk of proxy wars or a triumph for “terrorists” is the language of war and chaos, something the Lebanese are heartily sick of.

–30–

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The ‘Uniquely’ Dangerous lebanon Border

The ‘Uniquely’ Dangerous Lebanon Border

Dispatches From the Edge

August, 31, 2010

While the Middle East—indeed, the world—is riveted by the on-going crisis around Iran’s nuclear program, the most immediate danger of a war may be on Israel’s border with Lebanon: “Exceptionally quiet and uniquely dangerous” was how the Independent’s Robert Fisk described it last month.

That quiet was broken Aug. 3 when the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) got into a firefight over tree trimming that ended up killing one Israeli and three Lebanese. Both sides backed off, but events over the past several months suggest Tel Aviv may be looking for a fight.

“Israel has to be ready for any sudden provocation or outbreak of hostilities, the same way the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war was triggered over Hezbollah capturing Israeli soldiers,” Dan Dicker from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs told the Inter Press Service.

The IDF has been smarting since Hezbollah fought it to a standstill in the 2006 war. While the Israeli air force inflicted massive damage on Lebanon’s infrastructure during the 34-day conflict, even Israel’s vaunted Golani Brigade could make little headway against Hezbollah’s tough and competent militia fighting on its home turf.

For the past two years the IDF has been training for a rematch: “Should another war break out—like the one with Hezbollah almost exactly four years ago—the Golani Brigade will not be unprepared,” reads a headline in the Israeli daily, Haaretz. At the Elyakim army base in northern Israel, soldiers are training how to take bunkers and fight in villages.

The IDF has also made it clear the next war will be vastly more destructive than the 2006 conflict that killed 1200 Lebanese and inflicted $10 to $12 billion in damage. The IDF has instituted the “Dahiya Doctrine,” named after the Shiite quarter of Beirut that the Israeli air force flattened in 2006. According to Amos Harel of Haaretz, the doctrine means the IDF will “respond to rocket fire originating from Shiite villages by unleashing a vast destructive operation.”

Over the past several months the Israelis—sometimes with Washington’s help— have unleashed a steady stream of accusations that Hezbollah is preparing for war, that Syria is smuggling arms, and that Iran is up to no good.

Israeli intelligence claims that Hezbollah has up to 40,000 rockets aimed at Israel, and in April Israeli President Shimon Peres charged Syria with supplying the Shiite organization with powerful Scud missiles. Syria vigorously denies the charge, and the United Nations says there is no evidence for the accusation.

Then the Wall Street Journal reported that a “U.S. defense official” told the newspaper that Iran had deployed” sophisticated” radar in Syria as an early warning device for a possible Israeli attack on Teheran’s nuclear sites. The U.S. State Department’s Philip Crowley chimed in that the radar was a “matter of concern” because of Syria’s relationship with Hezbollah.

Added to the growing tension on Lebanon’s southern border was the exposure of an extensive Israeli intelligence operation aimed at Hezbollah that had successfully penetrated Lebanon’s telecommunication system. More than 70 suspects have been arrested and some 20 charged with treason.

According to UPI, intelligence observers say the ring was uncovered because Israel could be gearing up for war and took some chances. “It may have been the Israelis drive to amass intelligence on Hezbollah’s military capabilities ahead of renewed conflict…that prompted the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, to pull out all the stops in Lebanon when it did.”

The tree-trimming incident is an indication of how volatile the Lebanese-Israeli border is. While the Israelis claim they were on their side of the border, the UN only drew that border in 2000, and Beirut has never fully accepted it. While the UN found the tree was on Israel’s side of the border, Lebanon’s Information Minister Tarek Mitri said the section is “Lebanese territory.”

One reason for Lebanon’s sensitivity over the border is that its placement may have relevance to the enormous natural gas deposits off the coast of Gaza, Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Extended out to sea, a matter of a mile or so in the land border could affect whether Lebanon has a claim on some of the gas.

The U.S. Geological Service estimates the fields could yield up to 122 trillion cubic feet of gas, and the Israelis have already laid claim to it. When the Lebanese protested, Israel’s Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau said that Israel “will not hesitate to use force” to defend its claim on the gas field. Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament, responded, “Lebanon’s army, people and the resistance will be ready to thwart any attempts to steal its resources.”

Added to the tense border, natural gas deposits, and Israel’s cold war with Syria and Iran, is a UN investigation that, according to most reports, will charge Hezbollah with involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Hezbollah claims the investigation is an Israeli plot and that Tel Aviv pulled off the hit, butit has yet to produce any evidence to support that charge.

The UN charge could have a destabilizing effect on Lebanon—Hezbollah is the country’s most important political and military force—and a destabilized Lebanon is in no one’s interest, with the exception of Israel and possibly the U.S. That is why long-time antagonists Saudi Arabia and Syria huddled in Damascus and then flew to Beirut July 30 to confer with the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on how to avoid a Lebanese meltdown.

In the middle of all this, Israel’s supporters in the U.S. Congress decided to stick their finger in the pie and hold up $100 million in military aid to the Lebanese army. “I am concerned that the training and equipment we have provided the LAF for the purposes of counter-terrorism may in fact be used by the LAF against the Israelis,” said House Armed Service Committee chair, Ike Skelton (D-Mo). Skelton went on to say that, since the LAF collaborated with Hezbollah, the latterorganization was an “indirect recipient of our aid.”

The U.S. started aiding the LAF after the 2005 “Cedar Revolution” put a pro-Washington coalition into power and forced Syria to withdraw following the assassination of Hariri. But the reality of Lebanon’s complex and fractious politics soon reasserted itself and what finally emerged from the last round of elections was a coalition government in which Hezbollah plays a prominent role. Regardless of what the Americans think of the Shiite group, marginalizing the largest ethnic group in the country is not an option.

That the military aid the U.S. is sending could pose a threat to Israel is simply silly. Most the aid consists of body armor, uniforms and unarmored Humvees. It includes neither warplanes nor anti-aircraft, and the tanks are M41 Walker “Bulldogs” designed for the Korean War. The Walker is an under-armored, gas guzzling light tank that wouldn’t last five minutes against the Israel’s modern armor or anti-tank weapons. Indeed, one military expert remarked that he was surprised there were any M41s—a weapon more “quaint” than threatening—that still ran.

If a war does break out between Hezbollah and Israel it might spread to Syria, and even Iran. In his recent report to the Council On Foreign Relations entitled “A Third Lebanon War,” former U.S. ambassador Daniel Kurtzer argues that Israel is likely to initiate the war, and that it might “also use the conflict with Hezbollah as a catalyst and cover for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.” The former ambassador said Syria might also be a target. Kurtzer predicts a crisis sometime in the next 12 to 18 months, “but the situation could change or deteriorate rapidly.”

One explanation for Israel’s unwillingness to escalate the tree-trimming incident was because its antagonists were the LAF, not Hezbollah. Kurtzer—who was a Middle East advisor to President Obama during the last election—says Israel would rather “lure [Hezbollah] into a war.” In the tree trimming crisis the Shiite group stayed on the sidelines.

“Hezbollah is keen to avoid an escalation,” says Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group, “knowing how tough an all-out confrontation could be to the movement in Lebanon, and more broadly to the region.”

As analyst Jim Lobe points out, the Obama administration has little ability to prevent a war because it is hamstrung by its refusal to engage with either Iran or Hezbollah, and because it has allowed the Republicans to derail its efforts to improve relations with Syria.

A uniquely dangerous time, indeed.

T

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