Category Archives: Syria

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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The Kurds: Opportunity and Peril

The Kurds: Opportunity & Peril

Dispatches From The Edge

August 27, 2013

For almost a century, the Kurds—one of the world’s largest ethnic groups without its own state—have been deceived and double-crossed, their language and culture suppressed, their villages burned and bombed, and their people scattered. But because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Syrian civil war, and Turkish politics, they have been suddenly transformed from pawn to major player in a pivotal part of the Middle East.

The Kurds—who speak a language distantly related to Farsi, the dominant language of Iran—straddle the borders of north eastern Syria, northern Iraq, and western Iran, and constitute a local majority in parts of eastern and southern Turkey. At between 25 to 30 million strong, they have long yearned to establish their own state. Now, with their traditional foes weakened by invasion, civil war, and political discord, the Kurds are suddenly in the catbird’s seat.

But in the Middle East that can be a very tricky place to dwell.

The Kurds’ current ascent began when the U.S. established a no-fly zone over northern Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War. When the Americans invaded and overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraqi Kurds saw their opportunity: they seized three oil rich northern provinces, set up a parliament, established a capital at Erbil, and mobilized their formidable militia, the Peshmerga.  Over the past decade, the Kurdish region has gone from one of the poorest regions in Iraq to one of the most affluent, fueled in the main by energy sales to Turkey and Iran.

It is an astounding turn of fate.

Twenty-nine years ago the Turkish government was burning Kurdish villages and scattering refugees throughout the region. Some 45,000 people—mostly Kurds— lost their lives in that long-running conflict. Today, Turkey is negotiating with its traditional nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and trying to cut a peace deal that would deliver Kurdish support to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s push to amend Turkey’s constitution and give him another decade in power.

In 1988, Saddam Hussein dropped poison gas on the Kurdish town of Halabja, killing between 3,000 and 5,000 people. Today, the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki may be outraged by the Kurds’ seizure of oil assets, but the Baghdad regime is so preoccupied by a sectarian-led bombing campaign against Shiite communities that it is in no position to do more than protest. Last November, the Maliki government backed away from a potential showdown with the Peshmerga in the northern town of Tuz Khurmatu.

Fifty years ago the Syrian government stripped citizenship rights from 20 percent of its Kurdish minority—Kurds make up about 10 percent of that country’s population—creating between 300,000 to 500,000 stateless people. Today, Syria’s Kurdish regions are largely independent because the Damascus regime, locked in a life and death struggle with foreign and domestic insurgents, has abandoned the northern and eastern parts of the country.

Only in Iran are Kurds in much the same situation they were a decade ago, but with the Teheran government’s energy focused on its worsening economic situation and avoiding a confrontation with the U.S. over its nuclear program, that, too, could change.

In short, are the Kurds’ stars finally coming into alignment?

Maybe and maybe not. If the invasion, politics, and civil war have created opportunities for the Kurds, they are fragile, relying on the transitory needs or current disarray of their traditional foes, the central governments of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Turkey is a case in point.

Endogen needs the votes of Kurdish parliamentarians to put a new constitution up for a referendum in time for the 2014 elections. Ending the conflict with the Kurds could also boost Turkey’s application for European Union membership and burnish Ankara’s regional leadership credentials. The latter have been tarnished by a number of Erdogan missteps, including his unpopular support for the Syrian insurgents and his increasingly authoritarian internal policies.

Most Kurds would like to end the fighting as well, but that will require concessions by the Endogen government on the issues of parliamentary representation and the right educate Kurds in their own language.

But Endogen has balked at these two demands, and the Kurds are growing impatient. PKK leader Cemil Bayik recently warned that “September 1 is the deadline” for a deal and a failure to reach an agreement by then “will be understood that the aim [of the Turkish government] is not a solution.” Given the long history of animosity, it would not take much to unravel peace talks between the two parties.

Syria’s Kurds have threaded a hazardous path between their desire for autonomy—some would like full independence—and not taking sides in the current civil war. Indeed, the fighting going on in northern and eastern Syria is not between the insurgents and the Assad government, but Kurds represented by the Kurdish Democratic Union and the combined forces of the extremist al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, both of which are affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Most of Syria’s oil reserves are in the Kurdish region and control of them would provide a financial base for whatever side emerges victorious.

The Assad regime may have abandoned the north, but Damascus recently has made headway against the insurgency, gains greatly aided by infighting among its opponents. So far the war is a stalemate, but it might not stay that way forever. Even Syrians opposed to the Assad government are tired of the fighting, and most have no love for the sectarian groups that have increasingly taken over the war against the Damascus regime. In short, the current autonomy of Syria’s Kurds may be a fleeting thing.

Of course, it is possible that the Syrian Kurds might cut a deal with Assad: help drive the insurgents out of the area—maybe in alliance with the Iraqi Kurds—in exchange for greater autonomy. That would enrage both the Turks and the Maliki government, but it is not clear either could do much about it.

Erdogen’s support for the Syrian insurgents is widely unpopular in Turkey, and any direct intervention by the Turks to block autonomy for Syria’s Kurds would put Ankara in the middle of a civil war. With an election looming next year, that is not a move Erdogan wants to make. As for Iraq, thanks to the U.S.’s dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s army, Baghdad doesn’t have the capabilities to take on the Peshmerga at this point.

What will finally emerge is hard to predict, except that a return to the past seems unlikely. Iraq’s Kurds can only be dislodged by a major invasion from Turkey in cooperation with the Baghdad government. Given that Kurdish oil and gas are increasingly important to the Turkish economy, and that any invasion would be costly, why would Ankara do that?

And cooperation between Baghdad and Ankara has been soured by Turkey’s willingness to ignore Baghdad’s protests over its exploitation of Kurdish-controlled (but Iraqi owned) oil and Turkish support for the Sunni extremists trying to overthrow Assad. Those same extremists are massacring Shite supporters of the Maliki government in Basra, Baghdad and Karbala.

Turkey’s Kurds—between 20 and 25 million, the largest Kurdish concentration in the world—are on a knife’s edge. There is little doubt that the average Turkish Kurd wants the long-running conflict to end, as do the Turks as well. But Endogen is dragging his feet on the key peace issues, and the PKK may decide it is time to pick up the gun again and return to the old Kurdish adage: trust only the mountains.

The solution to all this is not all that difficult.

For Turkey, granting Kurdish language rights and cultural autonomy, and reducing the minimum percentage of votes to serve in the Turkish parliament from its current 10 percent, would probably do the job.

For Syria, the formula for peace would be much the same, with the added move of restoring citizenship to almost half a million now stateless Kurds. But that is only likely to happen after a ceasefire and a political settlement of the civil war.

The Iraqi government will have to bite the bullet, recognize that an autonomous Kurdish area is a reality, and work out a deal to share oil and gas revenue.

As long as Iran is faced with an attack by the U.S. and/or Israel, that country’s Kurds will be out in the cold. The U.S. and its allies should keep in mind that sanctions and threats of war make a peaceful resolution of long-standing grievances by Iran’s minorities, which also include Azeris, Baluchs, and Arabs, impossible. If the U.S. is truly concerned about minorities in Iran it should find a way to negotiate with the Teheran government over Teheran’s nuclear program.

But the Iranian government, too, would do well to seriously engage with its Kurdish population. Autonomy for the Kurds is out of the bag and not about to go back in, regardless of what the final outcome in Syria and Turkey are. Sooner or later, Iran will have to confront the same issue that governments in Damascus, Ankara and Baghdad now face: recognition and autonomy, or war and instability.

—30—

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Turkey: Unrest’s Currents Run Deep

Turkey: Uprising’s Currents Run Deep

Dispatches From The Edge

July 29, 2013

For the time being, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyio Erdogan—with the liberal use of brutal police tactics and massive amounts of tear gas that killed four people and injured more than 8,000— appears to have successfully crushed demonstrations aimed at blocking the demolition of Gezi Park in central Istanbul and has weathered a similar outbreak in the country’s capital, Ankara.

But the upsurge was never just about preserving green space, and the picture conjured up by most the Western media—secular Istanbul liberals vs. a popular Prime Minister backed by a conservative religious majority based in Turkey’s Anatolian hinterlands—was always an over simplification of the grievances behind the unrest.

Nor are those grievances the kind that are easily dispersed by clubs and gas, and the “popularity” of the Erdogan government may be shallower and more fragile than it appears. According to Turkey’s MetroPOLL research center, Erdogan’s popularity has dropped from 60.8 percent to 53.5 percent.

Certainly the demonstrations around Gezi Park reflect tensions between secular forces and Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). In the months leading up to the outbreak, the AKP-dominated parliament passed laws restricting the use of alcohol and tobacco, public kissing, and abortion, and the Prime Minister called on mothers to have three children. The Turkish daily Zaman found that 54.4 percent of the population “thought the government was interfering in their lifestyle.”

While the demonstrations may have begun with secular youth in Istanbul, according to Kemel Dervis, former Turkish economic affairs minister, it is now a “social movement” embracing the whole country and includes “observant Muslims, mid-career professionals, factory workers and many others.”

The unrest gripping Turkey has less to do with headscarves and Islam than with politics and economics, fueled by a growing discomfort with the AKP’s policies of privatization, its push to centralize authority in the hands of the country’s executive branch, and its silencing of the media. The three are not unrelated.

A case in point was the AKP’s recent move to turn the authority of the Chamber of Engineers and Architects—a group that opposed the commercial development of Gezi Park and challenged the government with a lawsuit—over to the Ministry of Environment and Development, effectively sidelining the Chamber. Private developers close to the AKP were then handed the contract for razing the park and building a mall modeled after an Ottoman barracks.

Suppression of the media doesn’t just involve tossing journalists in jail, although the government has jailed more journalists than Iran and China combined. It is also about a culture of mutual back scratching between media owners and the AKP.

According to Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar, “Turkey’s mainstream media is owned by “moguls who operate in other sections of the economy, like telecommunications, banking and construction,” and that support for the AKP translates into lucrative “public works contracts, including huge urban construction projects in Istanbul.”

For instance, the owners of the news channel NTV discontinued a popular publication (also called NTV), because it ran a cover story on the history of Gezi Park. NTV is owned by the Dogus Group, which recently won a $700 million government contract to develop Istanbul’s old port for tourism, real estate and commercial shops.

Turning public lands over to private developers has long been a central plank in the AKP’s approach to governance. In May 2011, the Erdogan government was granted the right to bypass parliament and make laws by decree for a period of six months. In August, the AKP dissolved the independent commissions overseeing the environment and “decreed” all such decisions now rested with the Ministry of Environment and Urban Development. According to Asli Igsiz, a professor of Middle East Studies at New York University, this meant that the environment was now at “the mercy of urban developers.”

The Erdogan government is currently trying to pass a “Preservation of Nature and Biodiversity” bill that would dissolve independent watchdog commissions and hand all authority over national parks over to the Ministry of Forestry and Waterworks. If passed, the bill would essentially open 12,000 national parks, heritage sites and forests to “development, even the construction of nuclear and conventional power plants and factories,” according to Igsiz.

The AKP’s push for privatization is consistent with conservative, business-orientated platforms of the Muslim Brotherhood—of which the Turkish party is a branch —throughout the Middle East.  In the year that the Brotherhood dominated the Egyptian government, it sold off state-owned industries at bargain basement prices, resulting in the widespread layoff of workers.  Erdogan has done much the same thing, earning the ire of Turkey’s trade union movement.

On June 17, the Confederation of Public Workers (KESK) and the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DISK), representing 800,000 Turkish workers, struck to protest police brutality and demand the resignation of the government. “Freedom loving laborers who are striking a claim on their future” are taking to the streets throughout the country, a joint union statement read, to protest the “AKP, which has transformed [the] country into a hell by inserting its authoritarian practices.”

The widespread participation of trade unionists in the Turkey demonstrations has largely been ignored by the Western press, which also failed to report similar support by Egyptian trade unions—particularly those in textile and cotton—for the overthrow of  Hosni Mubarak and, more recently, Mohamad Morsi.

Erdogan is still popular in Turkey, but that popularity has thinned and largely rests on the AKP keeping the economy running smoothly and coming to some kind of agreement to end the long-running war with its Kurdish population.

But there is trouble on the horizon for the economy. The growth rate has dropped, and, while the AKP has overseen a dramatic rise in living standards over the past decade, the economy has cooled, income is stagnant, and the demonstrations have spooked the stock market and foreign investors. The stock market plunged 10.47 percent on June 3, and, as Tim Ash of Standard Bank told the Financial Times, “Simply put on a risk-rewards basis, Turkey does not appear to offer convincing values at present, and investors would be well advised to adopt a cautious approach.”

Even a peace agreement with the Kurds appears to be in danger.

According to the Guardian (UK), Ankara has flooded the Kurdish region with security forces, military camps, and checkpoints, in an effort to shut down one of the area’s major economic activities: smuggling.

But after 30 years of war and some 40,000 deaths, the region’s economy is in ruins, and smuggling is sometimes the only economic activity left to the Kurds. “People here feel they are under siege,” Nazif Ataman, a Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party member told the Guardian. “The military controls are reminiscent of war. We lack everything here: schools, hospitals, factories. Peace has come, but the government only invests in security.”

And, under pressure from Turkish nationalists, Erdogan has refused to consider two core Kurdish demands: that the Kurds be allowed to use their own language for education, and that the 10 percent threshold for entering parliament be reduced. Kurds make up about 10 percent of Turkey’s population and are concentrated mostly in the country’s east

At the very time that Kurds in Iraq and Syria are increasingly autonomous from their central governments, the Turkish government is cracking down. On July 19, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) gave the Turkish government a “final warning” to “act quickly” and take “concrete and practical steps” to reach a peace agreement.

Lastly, the AKP’s support for the insurgency against the Assad regime in Syria is increasingly unpopular among Turks. The AKP pushed its Egyptian counterpart to back the insurgency, which in part led to the recent coup in Cairo. It was Morsi’s called for a jihad against Damascus that helped propel the Egyptian Army’s move against the Brotherhood government.  Egypt’s new foreign minister has already distanced Egypt from Morsi’s all out support for overthrowing Assad. Will the Muslim Brotherhood’s fall in Egypt reverberate in Turkey? It might.

In the meantime, anti-AKP activists are continuing their campaign, one in which ridicule of Erdogan—he has a thin skin—has emerged as a tactic. Thus the “Alcoholic Unity League” (more than 80 percent of Turks do not drink) has joined with the “Looters Solidarity Front (Erdogan referred to demonstrators as “looters”). Despite water cannons, rubber bullets, and gas, the Turks have kept a sense of humor.

But issues that fueled the May and June protests are hardly a laughing matter, and they are not about to quietly disappear.

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Poison Gas and Arabian Tales

Poison Gas & Arabian Tales

Dispatches From The Edge

July 4, 2013

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

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

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

Like Holmes, start with the facts.

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

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

What about the beast itself?

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

You suffocate.

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

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

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

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

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

Has it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shouldn’t we wait until the dog barks?

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Syria 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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Syria: A Multi-Sided Chess game

Syria: A Multi-Sided Chess Match

Dispatches From The Edge

March 31, 2013

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

Take the past few weeks of rollercoaster politics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chess with multiple players can get tricky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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Mali and Chickens

Mali & Chickens

Dispatches From the Edge

Jan. 16, 2013

 

“It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts”

Charlie Marlow from Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’

 

The vision that Conrad’s character Marlow describes is of a French frigate firing broadsides into a vast African jungle, in essence, bombarding a continent. That image came to mind this week when French Mirages and helicopter gunships went into action against a motley army of Islamic insurgents in Mali.

That there is a surge of instability in that land-locked and largely desert country should hardly come as a surprise to the French: they and their allies are largely the cause.

And they were warned.

A little history. On Mar. 17, 2011, the UN Security Council approved Resolution 1973 to “protect civilians” in the Libyan civil war. Two days later, French Mirages began bombing runs on Mummar Gaddafi’s armored forces and airfields, thus igniting direct intervention by Britain, along with Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Resolution 1973 did not authorize NATO and its allies to choose sides in the Libyan civil war, just to protect civilians, and many of those who signed on—including Russia and China—assumed that Security Council action would follow standard practice and begin by first exploring a political solution. But the only kind of “solution” that anti-Gaddafi alliance was interested in was the kind delivered by 500 lb. laser-guided bombs.

The day after the French attack, the African Union (AU) held an emergency session in Mauritania in an effort to stop the fighting. The AU was deeply worried that, if Libya collapsed without a post-Gaddafi plan in place, it might destabilize other countries in the region. They were particularly concerned that Libya’s vast arms storehouse might end up fueling local wars in other parts of Africa.

However, no one in Washington, Paris or London paid the AU any mind, and seven months after France launched its attacks, Libya imploded into its current status as a failed state. Within two months, Tuaregs—armed with Gaddafi’s weapons’ cache—rose up and drove the corrupt and ineffectual Malian Army out of Northern Mali.

The Tuaregs are desert people, related to the Berbers that populate North Africa’s Atlas Mountain range. They have fought four wars with the Malian government since the country was freed from France in 1960, and many Tuaregs want to form their own country, “Azawed.” But the simmering discontent in northern Mali is not limited to the Tuaregs. Other ethnic groups are angered over the south’s studied neglect of all the people in the country’s north.

The Tuaregs are also currently fighting the French over uranium mining in Niger.

The Gaddafi government had long supported the Tuareg’s demands for greater self-rule, and many Tuareg’s served in the Libyan Army. Is anyone surprised that those Tuareg’s looted Libyan arms depots when the central government collapsed? And, once they had all that fancy fire power that they would put it to use in an effort to carve out a country of their own?

The Tuareg’s are nomads and had little interest in holding on to towns like Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal in northern Mali, and after smashing up the Mali Army, they went back into the desert. Into the vacuum created by the rout of the Malian Army flowed Islamic groups like Ansar-al-Din, al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It is these latter organizations that the French are bombing, although reports are that civilians are getting caught in the crossfire.

The U.S. is also involved. According to Democracy Now, the Obama administration is moving French troops and equipment into the area, and deploying surveillance drones. And with the war spreading into Algeria, where almost two-dozen westerners, including several Americans, were kidnapped in retaliation for the French attacks in Mali, the U.S may end up with boots on the ground.

Why are the French once again firing into a continent?

First, France has major investments in Niger and Mali. At bottom, this is about Francs (or Euros, as it may be). Some 75 percent of France’s energy needs come from nuclear power, and a cheap source is its old colonial empire in the region (that besides Mali and Niger included Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Chad, Algeria, and the Central African Republic). Most of its nuclear fuel comes from Niger, but Al Jezeera reports that French uranium, oil and gold companies are lining up to develop northern Mali. Lest one think that this “development” is good for the locals, consider that, according to the UN’s Human Development Index, Niger is the third poorest country in the world.

There are other issues as well.

Like a Napoleon complex.

“The French, like the Americans, judge presidents on their ability to make tough decisions, and there are few tougher ones than to send young men into battle,” writes New York Times reporter Steve Erlanger in a story on French President Francois Hollande’s decision to intervene in Mali. Titled. “Hollande, long seen as soft, shifts image with firm stance” (which makes it sound vaguely like a Viagra ad), the article quotes “defense expert” Francois Heisbourg praising Hollande for acting “decisively” and “demonstrating that he can decide on matters of war and peace.”

Actually, back in 1812 that “war and peace” thing came out rather badly for the French, though today’s new model Grande Armee won’t face much in the way of snow and ice in Mali. But Mali is almost twice the size of France—478,839 vs. 211,209 square miles—which is a lot of ground for Mirages to cover. In fact, the French warplanes are not even based in Mali, but neighboring Chad, some 1,300 miles away from their targets. That is a very long way to go for fighter-bombers and gives them very little time over the battlefield. Apparently the U.S. is considering helping out with in-air refueling, but, by any measure, the French forces will face considerable logistical obstacles.  And while Mali’s geography may not match the Russian steppes in winter, its fierce desert is daunting terrain.

Lastly, Hollande would like to take some pressure off his domestic situation. There is nothing like a war to make people forget about a stagnant economy, high unemployment, restive workers, and yet another round of austerity cuts.

But this war could get very nasty, and if you want the definition of a quagmire, try northern Mali. Instead of being intimidated by the French attacks, the insurgents successfully counterattacked and took the town of Diabaly in Central Mali. If Paris thought this was going to be a simple matter of scattering the wogs with a few bombing runs, one might suggest that Hollande revisit his country’s past counterinsurgency campaigns, starting with Vietnam.

The Islamic groups appear to have little local support. Mali is a largely Islamic country, but not of the brand followed by the likes of Ansar al-Din or AQIM. But if you hand out lots of first-class fire power—which is exactly what the war to overthrow Gaddafi did—than you don’t need a lot of support to cause a great deal of trouble.

The rebels are certainly not running into any opposition from the Mali Army, whose U.S.-trained leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, overthrew his country’s democratic government two months after the Tuaregs came storming out of the Sahara to take Timbuktu. Apparently a number of those U.S.-trained troops switched sides, taking their weapons and transport over to the insurgents.

There is evidence that the Mali Army may have provoked the Tuaregs in the first place. It appears that, rather than using the millions of dollars handed out by the U.S. over the past four years to fight “terrorism” in the region, the Mali Army used it to beat up on the Tuaregs. That is until the latter got an infusion of superior firepower after the fall of Gaddafi.

The French plan to put about 2,500 troops in Mali, but are relying on the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) to raise an army of 3,300. But the ECOWAS army will have to be transported to Mali and trained, and someone will have to foot the bill. That means that for the next several months it will be the French who hold down the fort, and that is going to cost a lot of Euros, of which France hardly has a sur.

The people of northern Mali have long standing grievances, but the current crisis was set off by the military intervention in Libya. And if you think Libya created monsters, just think of what will happen if the Assad government in Syria falls without a political roadmap in place. Yes, the French are very involved in Syria right now, a civil war that is increasingly pitting Sunnis against Shites and has already spread into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Next to Syria’s weapons hoards, Libya’s firepower looks like a collection of muskets and bayonets.

Dominique de Villepin, the former prime minister of France and a sharp critic of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, recently wrote in the Journal du Dimanche “These wars [like Mali] have never built a solid and democratic state. On the contrary, they favor separatism, failed states and the iron law of armed militias.”

So what do Mali and the French intervention have to do with chickens?

They always come home to roost.

 

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