Category Archives: Syria

The Syrian Labyrinth

The Syrian Labyrinth
Book Review
Dispatches From The Edge
Conn Hallinan
Oct. 13, 2014

Inside Syria:” The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect “ by Reese Erlich
Forward by Noam Chomsky
Prometheus Press, New York 2014

Reese Erlich’s informative and insightful book “Inside Syria” brings to mind the Greek myth of a vast maze under the palace at Knossos, with one exception: King Minos’ labyrinth on Crete concealed a single Minotaur, Syria is teeming with the beasts.

Erlich has spent almost three decades reporting from the Middle East, and he brings his considerable knowledge of the region into this analysis of the Syrian civil war. A winner of the Peabody Award and the Society of Professional Journalists explanatory journalism award for “Inside the Syrian Revolution,” Erlich combines on-the-ground reporting with an encyclopedic background in the region’s history. It is a combination that is particularly useful for a subject as complex and nuanced as the current war, one that has gradually drawn Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Iran, and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, along with the U.S., France and Britain.

The mainstream media generally considers history an afterthought, which explains why it does such an awful job reporting on the Middle East. Journalists like Erlich, Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn understand that the history of the region and current events are one and the same, a sort of paraphrase of William Faulkner’s observation that history is as much the present as the past.

While understanding the historical context of a story is a pretty good rule of thumb for producing competent journalism in general, that is particularly so in the Middle East, precisely because many people think they know about that past. Didn’t they see “Lawrence of Arabia”? Read “Exodus”? Or—God help them—read the mainstream press or watch television news?

The book begins with the initial revolt—“The Uprising That Wasn’t Supposed to Be”—and then backs into broader historical context, including a chapter on T.E. Lawrence (if this particular period is of interest to readers, they also might consider picking up Scott Anderson excellent book, “Lawrence In Arabia”). How Syria was created, and the imperial machinations of her architects, Britain and France, is essential to understanding not only the internal dynamics of the country, but its place in the region. The current hostility between Turkey and Syria has roots that reach back almost a century. If you want to understand Lebanon—a key player in the Syrian civil war—knowing how it was created and the strategies of ethnic division that France employed to maintain its colonial grip on this small but strategically placed country is essential.

The book covers Syrian history without bogging the reader down. This is, after all, a report on the on-going civil war. But Erlich does not glide over the important details, including how the U.S. camel first put its nose under the tent. Two chapters cover the period just after World War I, the impact of World War II, and the appearance of the Assads in 1970.

Erlich maintains that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s economic “reforms” helped impel the current uprising. Adopting neoliberal policies, Assad sold off state-owned enterprises—generally to regime allies and insiders—and opened the economy to outside competition. The result—aided by a long-running drought—was growing impoverishment and lots of unemployed youth. Joblessness and economic crisis is a volatile mix and needs only an “incident” to set it off. That happened in March 2011 in the southern city of Daraa, when Syrian security forces brutally attacked peaceful demonstrators.

After laying the historical groundwork for his reporting, Erlich follows with a detailed chapter on the 2011 uprising.

While Erlich has a clear point of view—he detests dictatorship and neo-colonialism in equal measure—he is a careful and thorough reporter. His discussion of the use of chemical weapons is a case in point. Erlich carefully unpacks the evidence that the Assad regime used Sarin gas and finds that some of it has been exaggerated or even possibly fabricated. Which doesn’t mean the Damascus regime is innocent. His discussion weighs the charges on all sides and concludes that we really don’t know. What we do know is that U.S. intelligence didn’t think the evidence against Assad was a slam-dunk, a fact that the Obama administration deliberately obscured. It is a fascinating treatment of the subject—there were several incidents involving the use of chemical weapons, not just the most horrendous at Al-Ghouta that killed several hundred people—and a good example of Erlich’s diligence as a reporter.

His chapters on “the Uprising begins,” and “Who Supports Assad” are a must for anyone trying to figure out who is who in this complex tragedy. Erlich details the various factions, how they interlink and how they differ, and why the U.S. policy of arming “moderate forces” is doomed to failure. These chapters are essential for understanding the internal dynamics of the two sides, which are more like a Rubik Cube than two opposing poles. The book includes an invaluable appendix on the groups involved, as well as a useful timeline of the current uprising.

Syria is part of a much larger picture, and its strategic placement—bordering Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon—means what happens in Damascus doesn’t stay in Damascus. Why is Iran backing Assad? Is this all about religion? (Hint: nope). What will this mean for the 30 million or so Kurds trying to form their own country? Do all the Kurds want to form a country, and, if they do, what will moving that particular piece on the Middle East chessboard do? How might this affect the on-going fight by the Palestinians to form their own country?

The Syrian civil war has morphed into a proxy battle with Iran and Russia on one side, and the U.S., Gulf monarchies and some NATO members on the other. While the battle is not over religion per se, religion greases the movement of arms and aid. “To the pious go the guns,” writes Erlich, which means that adherence to the reactionary brand of Islam favored by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies is a litmus test for whether you get arms and ammunition. It is not an atmosphere in which the American’s favored “moderates” can thrive.

Erlich says the White House recognizes that the “ultra-right wing Islamic groups” like the ISIS, Al-Nusra, and the Islamic Front are growing at the expense of the less extreme or secular groups and at one point considered simply “re-defining” the extremist Islamic Front as “moderate” so it could send aid to that organization.

Because Erlich is one of those old-fashioned journalists who believes that you need to talk to the principals involved, the readers get an opportunity to listen to what Kurds and Palestinians have to say. This combination of street interviews, suite discussions— he beards the U.S. State Department in Foggy Bottom—and historical background makes for a thoroughly engaging read. While he generally keeps his distance, Erlich injects himself when needed, or when he wants the reader to know that this is his opinion, not God’s. He also has a sense of humor. There is a wonderful moment when he gets off a bus in Gaza to be met by Hamas officials.

His final chapter—“U.S., Russia, and outside powers”—discusses the international dimensions of the civil war—virtually anything major that happens in the Middle East, with its enormous oil and gas reserves, has an international dimension—and what ought, and ought not, be done, to solve it.

The Obama administration is slipping into a quagmire that some have even compared to Vietnam. That analogy is probably flawed, but it should still gives us pause—for one, Vietnam demonstrated that air wars don’t work unless you have reliable allies on the ground. Once again, the U.S. is at war. Once again, the U.S. is ignoring international law and choosing to use military force over diplomacy. Once again there is a logic at work here that leads to yet another dark tunnel of escalation.

In 1966 journalist Robert Scheer wrote a small book, “How the United States Got Involved in Vietnam,” that undercut the popular narrative about Communist aggression and toppling dominos. The book shattered the official paradigm and gave the infant anti-war movement ammunition for its confrontation with the administration of Lyndon Johnson. Erlich’s “Inside Syria” has similar heft and should be widely read, because we are once again at war without the slightest idea of where it leads or what its ultimate goals are.

—30—

Leave a comment

Filed under Middle East, Reviews, 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.

 

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Comments

Filed under Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Etc, Middle East, Syria

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.

 

—30—

Leave a comment

Filed under FPIF Blogs, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Yemen, Etc, Middle East, Oil, Syria

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.

—30—

3 Comments

Filed under Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Yemen, Etc, Middle East, Syria

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—

4 Comments

Filed under Iran, Iraq, Middle East, Syria

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.

—30—

3 Comments

Filed under Middle East, Syria

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?

—30—

1 Comment

Filed under Chemical and Biological Warfare, FPIF Blogs, Syria