Category Archives: Middle East

Spiraling Into Permanent War

Dispatches From the edge

Nov. 18, 2016

 

“Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War

Simon & Shuster, 2016

$26.00

 

“We have fallen into a self-defeating spiral of reaction and counterterror. Our policies, meant to extirpate our enemies, have strengthened and perpetuated them.”

-Mark Danner

 

Danner—an award winning journalist, professor and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has covered war and revolutions on three continents—begins his book “Spiral” with the aftermath of a 2003 ambush of U.S. troops outside of Fallujah, Iraq. The insurgents had set off a roadside bomb, killing a paratrooper and wounding several others. “The Americans promptly dismounted and with their M-16s and M-4s began pouring lead into everything they could see,” including a passing truck, he writes. “By week’s end scores of family and close friends of those killed would join the insurgents, for honor demanded they kill Americans to wipe away family shame.”

 

The incident encapsulates the fundamental contradiction at the heart of George W. Bush’s—and with variations, that of Barak Obama’s—“war on terror”: the means used to fight it is the most effective recruiting device that organizations like Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Shabab, and the Islamic State have. Targeted assassinations by drones, the use of torture, extra-legal renditions, and the invasions of several Muslim countries has been an unmitigated disaster, destabilizing several states, killing hundreds of thousands of people and generating millions of refugees.

 

Danner’s contention is hardly breaking news, nor is he the first journalist to point out that responding to the tactic of terrorism with military forces generates yet more enemies and instability. But Spiral argues that what was once unusual has now become standard operating procedure, and the Obama administration bears some of the blame for this by its refusal to prosecute violations of international law.

 

Torture is a case in point. In the aftermath of the 2001 attack on New York and Washington, the Bush administration introduced so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques that were, in fact, torture under both U.S. and international law. Danner demonstrates that the White House, and a small cluster of advisors around Vice-President Dick Cheney, knew they could be prosecuted under existing laws and carefully erected a “golden shield” of policy memos that would protect them from prosecution for war crimes.

 

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Obama announced that he had “prohibited torture.” But, as Danner points out, “torture violates international and domestic law and the notion that our president has the power to prohibit it follows insidiously from the pretense that his predecessor had the power to order it. Before the war on terror official torture was illegal and an anathema; today it is a policy choice.”

 

And president-elect Donald Trump has already announced that he intends to bring it back.

 

There is no doubt that enhanced interrogation was torture. The International Committee of the Red Cross found the techniques “amounted to torture and/or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” How anyone could conclude anything else is hard to fathom. Besides the water boarding—for which several WWII Japanese soldiers were executed for using on allied prisoners—interrogators used sleep depravation, extreme confinement and “walling.” Abu Zubaydah, who was water boarded 83 times, describes having a towel wrapped around his neck that his questioners used “to swing me around and smash repeatedly against the wall of the [interrogation] room.”

 

According to a 2004 CIA memo, “An HVD [high value detainee] may be walled one time (one impact with the wall) to make a point, or twenty to thirty times consecutively when the interrogator requires a more significant response to a question.” There were, of course, some restraints. For instance, the Justice Department refused to approve a CIA proposal to bury people alive.

 

And, as Danner points out, none of these grotesque methods produced any important information. The claim that torture saved “thousands of lives” is simply a lie.

 

There was a certain Alice in Wonderland quality about the whole thing. Zubaydah was designated a “high official” in Al Qaeda, the number three or four man in the organization. In reality he was not even a member, as the Justice Department finally admitted in 2009. However, because he was considered a high up in the Al Qaeda, it was assumed he must know about future attacks. If he professed that he knew nothing, this was proof that he did, and so he had to tortured more. “It is a closed circle, self-sufficient, impervious to disobedient facts,” says Danner.

 

The logic of the Red Queen.

 

The Obama administration has also conjured up some interpretations of language that seem straight out of Lewis Carroll. In defending his use of drone strikes in a 2014 speech at West Point, the President said he only uses them “when we face a continuing, imminent threat.” But “imminent” means “likely to occur at any moment” and is the opposite of “continuing.” A leaked Justice Department memo addresses the incongruity by arguing, “Imminent does not require the U.S. to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

 

Apparently the administration has now added, “elongated” to “imminent,” so that “a president doesn’t have to deem the country under immediate threat to attack before acting on his or her own.” As Humpty Dumpty says to Alice in Through the Looking Glass, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.”

 

Danner turns the phrase “American exceptionalism” on its head. The U.S. is not “exceptional” because of its democratic institutions and moral codes, but because it has exempted itself from international law. “Americans, believing themselves to stand proudly for the rule of law and human rights, have become for the rest of the world a symbol of something quite opposite: a society that imprisons people indefinitely without trial, kills thousands without due process, and leaves unpunished lawbreaking approved by its highest officials.”

 

The war has also undermined basic constitutional restrictions on the right of intelligence agencies and law enforcement to vacuum up emails and cell phone calls, and has created an extra-legal court system to try insurgents whose oversight and appeal process in shrouded in secrecy.

 

The war on terror—the Obama administration has re-titled it a war on extremism—has not been just an illegal and moral catastrophe, it is a failure by any measure. From 2002 to 2014, the number of deaths from terrorism grew 4,000 percent, the number of jihadist groups increased by 58 percent, and the membership in those organizations more than doubled.

 

The war has also generated a massive counter terrorism bureaucracy that has every reason to amp up the politics of fear. And yet with all the alarm this has created, a total of 24 Americans were killed by terrorism in 2014, fewer than were done in by lighting.

 

Terrorism, says Danner, is “la politique du pire,” the “politics of the worst” or the use of provocation to get your enemy to overreact. “If you are weak, if you have no army of your own, borrow you enemy’s. Provoke your adversary to do your political work for you,” he says. “And in launching the war on terror, eventually occupying two Muslim countries and producing Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib celebrating images of repression and torture, the United States proved all too happy to oblige.”

 

Danner argues that idea you can defeat terrorism—which is really just a tactic used by the less powerful against the more powerful—with military force is an illusion. It can and does, however, make everything worse.

 

Even the Department of Defense knows this. In 2004, the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board found that :

  • American direct intervention in the Muslim world has paradoxically elevated the stature and support for radical Islamists while diminishing support for the United States.
  • Muslim do not “hate our freedoms,” they hate our policies, including one-sided support for Israel and for tyrannies in the Arab world.
  • American talk of bringing democracy to Muslim countries is self-serving hypocrisy.
  • The occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan has not brought democracy to those countries, but chaos and destruction.

Increasingly the war on terrorism/extremism is a secret war fought by drones whose targets are never revealed, or by Special Operations Forces whose deployments and missions are wrapped in the silence of national security.

 

And as long as Obama calls for Americans “to look forward as opposed to looking backward,” the spiral will continue. As Danner argues, “It is a sad but immutable fact that the refusal to look backward leaves us trapped in a world without accountability that his [Obama’s] predecessor made. In making it possible, indeed likely, that the crimes will be repeated, the refusal to look backward traps us in the past.”

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Dangerous Diplomatic Proposal

U.S. Diplomacy: A Dangerous Proposal

Dispatches From The Edge

Sept. 30, 2016

 

While the mainstream media focuses on losers and winners in the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, there is a largely unreported debate going on over the future course of U.S. diplomacy. Its outcome will have a profound effect on how Washington projects power—both diplomatic and military—in the coming decade.

 

The issues at stake are hardly abstract. The U.S. is currently engaged in active wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, Yemen and Somalia. It has deployed troops on the Russian border, played push and shove with China in Asia, and greatly extended its military footprint on the African continent. It would not be an exaggeration to say—as former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry has recently done—that the world is a more dangerous place today than it was during darkest times of the Cold War.

 

Tracking the outlines of this argument is not easy, in part because the participants are not always forthcoming about what they are proposing, in part because the media oversimplifies the issues. In its broadest framework, it is “realists,” represented by former National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Harvard’s Steven Walt, and University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, versus “humanitarian interventionists” like current UN Ambassador Samantha Power. Given that Power is a key advisor to the Obama administration on foreign policy and is likely to play a similar role if Clinton is elected, her views carry weight.

 

In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, Power asks, “How is a statesman to advance his nation’s interests?” She begins by hijacking the realist position that U.S. diplomacy must reflect “national interests,” arguing they are indistinguishable from “moral values”: what happens to people in other countries is in our “national security.”

 

Power—along with Clinton and former President Bill Clinton—has been a long-time advocate of “responsibility to protect,” or R2P, behind which the U.S. intervened in the Yugoslav civil war and overthrew the Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya. Hillary Clinton has argued forcibly for applying R2P to Syria by setting up “no fly zones” to block Syrian and Russian planes from bombing insurgents and the civilians under their control.

 

But Power is proposing something different than humanitarian intervention. She is suggesting that the U.S. elevate R2P to the level of national security, which sounds uncomfortably like an argument for U.S. intervention in any place that doesn’t emulate the American system.

 

What is most telling about where all this leads is her choice of examples: Russia, China, and Venezuela, all currently in Washington’s crosshairs. Of these, she spends the most time on Moscow and the current crisis in Ukraine, where she accuses the Russians of weakening a “core independent norm” by supporting insurgents in Ukraine’s east, “lopping off part of a neighboring country” by seizing the Crimea, and suppressing the news of Russian intervention from its own people. Were the Russian media to report on the situation in Ukraine, she writes, “many Russians might well oppose” the conflict.

 

Power presents no evidence for this statement because none exists. Regardless of what one thinks of Moscow’s role in Ukraine, the vast majority of Russians are not only aware of it, but overwhelmingly support President Vladimir Putin on the issue. From the average Russian’s point of view, NATO has been steadily marching eastwards since the end of the Yugoslav war. It is Americans who are deployed in the Baltic and Poland, not Russians gathering on the borders of Canada and Mexico. Russians are a tad sensitive about their borders, given the tens of millions they lost in World War II, something that Power seems oblivious of.

 

What Power seems incapable of doing is seeing how countries like China and Russia view the U.S. That point of view is an essential skill in international diplomacy, because it is how one determines whether or not an opponent poses a serious threat to one’s national security.

 

Is Russia—as President Obama recently told the UN—really “attempting to recover lost glory through force,” or is Moscow reacting to what it perceives as a threat to its own national security? Russia did not intervene in Ukraine until the U.S. and its NATO allies supported the coup against the President Viktor Yanukovych government and ditched an agreement that had been hammered out among the European Union, Moscow, and the U.S. to peacefully resolve the crisis.

 

Power argues that there was no coup, but U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt were caught on tape talking about how to “mid-wife” the takeover and choosing the person they wanted to put in place.

 

As for “lopping off” Crimea, Power had no problem with the U.S. and NATO “lopping off” Kosovo from Serbia in the Yugoslav War. In both cases local populations—in Crimea by 96 percent—supported the takeovers.

 

Understanding how other countries see the world does not mean one need agree with them, but there is nothing in Moscow’s actions that suggests it is trying to re-establish an “empire,” as Obama characterized its behavior in his recent speech to the UN. When Hillary Clinton compared Putin to Hitler, she equated Russia with Nazi Germany, which certainly posed an existential threat to our national security. But does anyone think that comparison is valid? In 1939, Germany was the most powerful country in Europe with a massive military. Russia has the 11th largest economy in the world, trailing even France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and Brazil. Turkey has a larger army.

 

Power’s view of what is good for the Russian people is a case in point. While one can hardly admire the oligarchy that dominates Russia—and the last election would seem to indicate considerable voter apathy in the country’s urban centers—the “liberals” Power is so enamored with were the people who instituted that so-called economic “shock therapy” in the 1990s that impoverished tens of millions of people and brought about a calamitous drop in life expectancy. That track record is unlikely to get one elected. In any case, Americans are hardly in a position these days to lecture people about the role oligarchic wealth plays in manipulating elections.

 

The Chinese are intolerant of internal dissent, but the Washington’s argument with Beijing is over sea-lanes, not voter rolls.

 

China is acting the bully in the South China Sea, but it was President Bill Clinton who sparked the current tensions in the region when he deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups in the Taiwan Straits in 1995-96 during a tense standoff between Taipei and the mainland. China did not then—and does not now—have the capacity to invade Taiwan, so Beijing’s threats were not real. But the aircraft carriers were very real, and they humiliated—and scared—China in its home waters. It was that incident that directly led to China’s current accelerated military spending and its heavy-handed actions in the South China Sea.

 

Again, there is a long history here. Starting with the Opium Wars of 1839 and 1860, followed by the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 and Tokyo’s invasion of China in World War II, the Chinese have been invaded and humiliated time and again. Beijing’s view of the Obama administration’s “Asia pivot” is that it is aimed at surrounding China with U.S. allies.

 

While that might be an over simplification—the Pacific has long been America’s largest market— it is a perfectly rational conclusion to draw from the deployment of U.S. Marines to Australia, the positioning of nuclear-capable forces in Guam and Wake, the siting of anti-ballistic missile systems in South Korea and Japan, and the attempt to tighten military ties with India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

 

“If you are a strategic thinker in China, you don’t have to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist to think that the U.S. is trying to bandwagon Asia against China,” says Simon Tay, chair of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

 

As for Venezuela, the U.S. supported the 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez and has led a campaign of hostility against the government ever since. For all its problems, the Chavez government cut poverty rates from 70 percent of the population to 21 percent, and extreme poverty from 40 percent to 7.3 percent. Infant mortality fell from 25 per 1,000 to 13 per 1,000, the same as for Black Americans.

 

And the concern for the democratic rights of Venezuelans apparently doesn’t extend to the people of Honduras. When a military coup overthrew a progressive government in 2009, the U.S. pressed other Latin American countries to recognize the illegal government that took over in its wake. While opposition forces in Venezuela get tear-gassed and a handful jailed, in Honduras they are murdered by death squads.

 

Power’s view that the U.S. stands for virtue instead of simply pursuing its own interests is a uniquely American delusion. “This is an image that Americans have of themselves,” says Jeremy Shapiro, research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, “but is not shared, even by their allies.”

 

The “division” between “realists” and R2P is an illusion. Both end up in the same place: confronting our supposed competitors and supporting our allies, regardless of how they treat their people. While she is quick to call the Russians in Syria “barbarous,” she is conspicuously silent on the U.S.’s support for Saudi Arabia’s air war in Yemen, which has targeted hospitals, markets and civilians.

 

The argument that another country’s internal politics is a national security issue for the U.S. elevates R2P to a new level, sets the bar for military intervention a good deal lower than it is today, and lays the groundwork for an interventionist foreign policy that will make the Obama administration look positively pacifist.

 

It is impossible to separate this debate from the current race for the White House. Clinton has been hawkish on most international issues, and she is not shy about military intervention.

 

She has also surrounded herself with some of the same people who designed the Iraq war, including founders of the Project for a New American Century. It is rumored that if she wins she will appoint former Defense Department official Michele Flournay Secretary of Defense. Flournay has called for bombing Assad’s forces in Syria.

 

On the other hand, Trump has been less than coherent. He has made some reasonable statements about cooperating with the Russians and some distinctly scary ones about China. He says he is opposed to military interventions, although he supported the war in Iraq (and now lies about it). He is alarmingly casual about the use of nuclear weapons.

 

In Foreign Affairs, Stephen Walt, a leading “realist,” says Trump’s willingness to consider breaking the nuclear taboo makes him someone who “has no business being commander in chief.” Other countries, writes Walt, “are already worried about American power and the ways it gets used. The last thing we need is an American equivalent of the impetuous and bombastic Kaiser Wilhelm II.”

 

The Kaiser was a major force behind World War I, a conflict that inflicted 38 million casualties.

 

Whoever wins in November will face a world in which Washington can’t call all the shots. As Middle East expert Patrick Cockburn points out, “The U.S. remains a superpower, but is no longer as powerful as it once was.” While it can overthrow regimes it doesn’t like, “It can’t replace what has been destroyed.”

 

Power’s framework for diplomacy is a formula for a never- ending cycle of war and instability.

 

—30—

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middlemepireseries.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Turkey’s Coup: Winners and Losers

Turkey’s Coup: Winners & Losers

Conn Hallinan

Aug. 30, 2016

 

As the dust begins to settle from the failed Turkish coup, there appear to be some winners and losers, although predicting things in the Middle East these days is a tricky business. What is clear is that several alignments have shifted, shifts that may have an impact on the two regional running sores: the civil wars in Syria and Yemen.

 

The most obvious winner to emerge from the abortive military putsch is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogen and his campaign to transform Turkey from a parliamentary democracy to a powerful, centralized executive with himself in charge. The most obvious losers are Erdogan’s internal opposition and the Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

 

Post-coup Turkish unity has conspicuously excluded the Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP), even though the party condemned the July 15 coup. A recent solidarity rally in Istanbul called by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) included the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), but the HDP—the third-largest political organization in the country—was not invited.

 

The deliberate snub is part of Erdogan’s campaign to disenfranchise the HDP and force new elections that could give him the votes he needs to call a referendum on the presidency. This past June, Erdogen pushed through a bill lifting immunity for 152 parliament members, making them liable for prosecution on charges of supporting terrorism. Out of the HDP’s 59 deputies, 55 are now subject to the new law. If the HDP deputies are convicted of terrorism charges, they will be forced to resign and by elections will be held to replace them.

 

While Erdogan’s push for a powerful executive is not overwhelmingly popular with most Turks—polls show that only 38.4 percent support it –the President’s popularity jumped from 47 percent before the coup to 68 percent today. With the power of state behind him, and the nationalism generated by the ongoing war against the Kurds in Turkey’s southeast, Erdogan can probably pick up the 14 seats he needs to get the referendum.

 

The recent Turkish invasion of Syria is another front in Erdogan’s war on the Kurds. While the surge of Turkish armor and troops across the border was billed as an attack on the Islamic State’s (IS) occupation of the town of Jarablus near the Turkish border, it was in fact aimed at the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

 

According to Al Monitor, the IS had been withdrawing from the town for weeks in the face of a YPG offensive, and the Turks invaded to preempt the Kurds from taking the town. The question now will be how far south the Turks go, and whether they will get in a full-scale battle with America’s Kurdish allies? The Turkish military has already supported the Free Syrian Army in several clashes with the Kurds. Since the invasion included a substantial amount of heavy engineering equipment, the Turks may be planning to stay awhile.

 

While the YPG serves as the U.S.’s ground force in the fight against the IS, the Americans strongly backed the Turkish invasion and sharply warned the Kurds to withdraw from the west bank of the Euphrates or lose Washington’s support.

 

The Kurds in Syria are now directly threatened by Turkey, were attacked in Hasaka Province by the Syrian government, and have been sharply reprimanded by their major ally, the U.S. The Turkish Kurds are under siege from the Turkish army, and their parliamentary deputies are facing terrorism charges at the hands of the Erdogan government. The Turkish air force is also pounding the Kurds in Iraq. All in all, it was a bad couple of weeks to be Kurdish.

 

There are others winners and losers as well.

 

Erdogan has been strengthened, but most observers think Turkey has been weakened regionally and internationally. It looks as if an agreement with the European Union (EU) for money and visa free travel if Ankara blocks the waves of immigrants headed toward Europe is falling apart. The German parliament is up in arms over Erdogan’s heavy-handed repression of his internal opposition and his support for extremist groups in Syria.

 

Turkey’s decision to shoot down a Russian bomber last Nov. 24 has badly backfired. Russian sanctions dented the Turkish economy and Moscow poured sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons into Syria, effectively preventing any possibility of the Turks or the U.S. establishing a “no fly zone.”

 

Erdogan was also forced to write a letter of apology for the downing and trot off to St. Petersburg for a face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. All were smiles and hand shakes at the Aug. 9 get-together, but the Russians have used the tension generated by the incident to advance their plans for constructing gas pipelines that would bypass Ukraine. Indeed, the EU and Turkey are now in a bidding war over whether the pipeline will go south—Turkish Stream— through Turkey and the Black Sea, or north—Nord Stream—through the Baltic Sea and into Germany.

 

Erdogan apparently has concluded that Russia and Iran have effectively blocked a military solution to the Syrian civil war, and Ankara has backed off its demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has to go before there can be any resolution of the conflict. Turkey now says Assad can be part of a transition government, pretty much the same position as the Russians take. Iran—at least for now—is more invested in keeping Assad in power.

 

Iran has also come out of this affair in a stronger position. Its strategic alliance with Russia has blocked the overthrow of Assad, Teheran’s major ally in the region, and its potential markets have the Turks wanting to play nice.

 

Any Moscow-Ankara-Tehran alliance will be a fractious one, however.

 

Turkey is still a member of NATO—it has the second largest army in the alliance—and its military is largely reliant on the U.S. for its equipment. NATO needs Turkey, although the Turks have mixed feelings about the alliance. A poll taken a year ago found only 30 percent of Turks trusted NATO. The post coup polls may be worse, because it was the pro-NATO sections of the military that were most closely tied to the putsch.

 

Iran’s Shiite government is wary of Erdogan’s ties to the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and Ankara’s close relations with Iran’s major regional nemesis, Saudi Arabia. The Russians also have a tense relationship with Iran, although Moscow played a key role in the nuclear agreement between the U.S. and Teheran, and Iran calls its ties with Russia “strategic.”

 

The Saudis look like losers in all this. They—along with Turkey, France, Britain, and most the Gulf monarchies—thought Assad would be a push over. He wasn’t, and five years later some 400,000 Syrians are dead, three million have been turned into refugees, and the war has spread into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

 

The Yemen war has predictably turned into a quagmire, and even Saudi Arabia’s allies are beginning to edge away from the human catastrophe that the conflict has inflicted on Yemen’s civilian population. The United Arab Emirates, which provided ground forces for the Saudis, is withdrawing troops, and even the U.S. has cut back on the advisors assigned to aid the kingdom’s unrestricted air war on the rebel Houthis. U.S. Defense Department spokesman Adam Stump said aid to Riyadh was not a “blank check,” and several U.S. Congress members and peace groups are trying to halt a $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

 

In military terms, the Yemen war—like the Syrian war—is unwinnable, and Washington is beginning to realize that. In fact, were it not for the U.S. and British aid to the Saudis, including weapons resupply, in-air refueling of war planes, and intelligence gathering, the war would grind to a halt.

 

The Saudis are in trouble on the home front as well. Their push to overthrow Assad and the Houthis has turned into expensive stalemates at a time when oil prices are at an all-time low. The Kingdom has been forced to borrow money and curb programs aimed at dealing with widespread unemployment among young Saudis. And the Islamic State has targeted the kingdom with more than 25 attacks over the past year.

 

Ending the Yemen war would not be that difficult, starting with an end to aid for the Saudi air war. Then the UN could organize a conference of all Yemeni parties—excluding the IS and al-Qaeda—to schedule elections and create a national unity government.

 

Syria will be considerably more challenging. The Independent’s long-time Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn calls the conflict a three-dimensional chess game with nine players and no rules. But a solution is possible.

 

The outside powers—the U.S., Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the Gulf monarchies—will have to stop fueling their allies with weapons and money and step back from direct involvement in the war. They will also have to accept the fact that no one can dictate to the Syrians who will rule them. That is an internal affair that will be up to the parties engaged in the civil war ( minus the IS and the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front.)

 

The Kurdish question will be central to this. The Syrian Kurds must have a place at the table regardless of Turkish opposition. The Iranians are also hostile to the Kurds because of problems with their own Kurdish population. If there is to be eventual peace in the region, Ankara will also have to end its war against the Kurds in southeast Turkey. Turkish army attacks have killed more than 700 civilians, generated 100,000 refugees, and smashed up several cities. The Kurds have been asking for negotiations and Ankara should take them up on that.

 

Erdogan has made peace with the Kurds before—even though part of the reason was a cynical ploy to snare conservative Kurdish voters for the AKP. It was also Erdogan who rekindled the war as a strategy to weaken the Kurdish-based HDP and regain the majority that the AKP lost in the June 2015 elections. The ploy largely worked, and a snap election four months later saw the HDP lose seats and the AKP win back its majority. The Turkish president, however, did not get the two-thirds he needs to schedule a referendum.

 

Erdogan is a stubborn man, and a popular one in the aftermath of the failed coup. But Turkey is vulnerable regionally and internationally, two arenas where the U.S., the EU, and the Russians can apply pressure. The hardheaded Turkish president has already backed off in his confrontation with the Russians and climbed down from his demand that Assad had to go before any serious negotiations could start.

 

If the chess masters agree to some rules they could bring these two tragic wars to a close.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Baiting The Bear: NATO and Russia

Bear Baiting: Russia & NATO

Dispatches From The Edge

April 28

 

Aggressive,” “revanchist,” “swaggering”: These are just some of the adjectives the mainstream press and leading U.S. and European political figures are routinely inserting before the words “Russia,” or “Vladimir Putin.” It is a vocabulary most Americans have not seen or heard since the height of the Cold War.

 

The question is, why?

 

Is Russia really a military threat to the United States and its neighbors? Is it seriously trying to “revenge” itself for the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union? Is it actively trying to rebuild the old Soviet empire? The answers to these questions are critical, because, for the first time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, several nuclear-armed powers are on the edge of a military conflict with fewer safeguards than existed 50 years ago.

 

Consider the following events:

  • NATO member Turkey shoots down a Russian warplane.
  • Russian fighter-bombers come within 30 feet of a U.S. guided missile destroyer, and a Russian fighter does a barrel roll over a U.S. surveillance plane. Several U.S. Senators call for a military response to such encounters in the future.
  • NATO and the U.S. begin deploying three combat brigades—about 14,000 troops and their equipment—in several countries that border Russia, and Washington has more than quadrupled its military spending in the region.
  • S. State Department officials accuse Russia of “dismantling” arms control agreements, while Moscow charges that Washington is pursuing several destabilizing weapons programs.
  • Both NATO and the Russians have carried out large war games on one another’s borders and plan more in the future, in spite of the fact that the highly respected European Leadership Network (ELN) warns that the maneuvers are creating “mistrust.”

 

In the scary aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, the major nuclear powers established some ground rules to avoid the possibility of nuclear war, including the so-called “hot line” between Washington and Moscow. But, as the threat of a nuclear holocaust faded, many of those safeguards have been allowed to lapse, creating what the ELN calls a “dangerous situation.”

 

According to a recent report by the ELN, since March of last year there have been over 60 incidents that had “the potential to trigger a major crisis between a nuclear armed state and a nuclear armed alliance.” The report warns that, “There is today no agreement between NATO and Russia on how to manage close military encounters.”

 

Such agreements do exist, but they are bilateral and don’t include most alliance members. Out of 28 NATO members, 11 have memorandums on how to avoid military escalation at sea, but only the U.S., Canada and Greece have what is called “Preventing Dangerous Military Activities” (DMA) agreements that cover land and air as well. In any case, there are no such agreements with the NATO alliance as a whole.

 

The lack of such agreements was starkly demonstrated in the encounter between Russian aircraft and the U.S. The incident took place less than 70 miles off Baltiysk, home of Russia’s Baltic Sea Fleet, and led to an alarming exchange in the Senate Armed Services Committee among Republican John McCain, Democrat Joe Donnelly, and U.S. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, soon to assume command of U.S. forces in Europe.

 

McCain: ”This may sound a little tough, but should we make an announcement to the Russians that if they place the men and women on board Navy ships in danger, that we will take appropriate action?”

 

Scaparrotti: “That should be known, yes.”

 

Donnelly: “Is there a point…where we tell them in advance enough, the next time it doesn’t end well for you?”

 

Scaparrotti: “We should engage them and make clear what is acceptable. Once we make that known we have to enforce it.”

 

For the Americans, the Russian flyby was “aggressive.” For the Russians, U.S. military forces getting within spitting range of their Baltic Fleet is the very definition of “aggressive.” What if someone on the destroyer panicked and shot down the plane? Would the Russians have responded with an anti-ship missile? Would the U.S. have retaliated and invoked Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, bringing the other 27 members into the fray? Faced by the combined power of NATO, would the Russians—feeling their survival at stake—consider using a short-range nuclear weapon? Would the U.S. then attempt to take out Moscow’s nuclear missiles with its new hypersonic glide vehicle? Would that, in turn, kick in the chilling logic of thermonuclear war: use your nukes or lose them?

 

Far-fetched? Unfortunately, not at all. The world came within minutes of a nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis and, as researcher Eric Schlosser demonstrated in his book “Command and Control,” the U.S. came distressingly close at least twice more by accident.

 

One of the problems about nuclear war is that it is almost impossible to envision. The destructive powers of today’s weapons have nothing in common with the tiny bombs that incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so experience is not much of a guide. Suffice it to say that just a small portion of world’s nukes would end civilization as we know it, and a general exchange could possibly extinguish human life.

 

With such an outcome at least in the realm of possibility, it becomes essential to step back and try to see the world through another’s eyes.

 

Is Russia really a danger to the U.S. and its neighbors? NATO points to Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia and its 2014 intervention in eastern Ukraine as examples of “Russian aggression.”

 

But from Moscow, the view is very different.

 

In 1990, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and German Chancellor Helmet Kohl pledged to then Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not move eastward, nor recruit former members of the East bloc military alliance, the Warsaw Pact. By 1995 NATO had enlisted Pact members Romania, Hungry, Poland, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and signed on Montenegro this year. Georgia is currently being considered, and there is a push to bring Ukraine aboard. From Moscow’s perspective NATO is not only moving east, but encircling Russia.

 

“I don’t think many people understand the visceral way Russia views NATO and the European Union as an existential threat,” says U.S. Admiral Mark Ferguson, commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe.

 

Most NATO members have no interest in starting a fight with Russia, but others sound like they think it wouldn’t be a bad idea. On April 15, Witold Waszczykowski, the foreign minister of Poland’s rightwing government, told reporters that Russia is “more dangerous than the Islamic State,” because Moscow is an “existential threat to Europe.” The minister made his comments at a NATO conference discussing the deployment of a U.S. armored brigade on Poland’s eastern border.

 

Is Russia reneging on arms control agreements? The charge springs from the fact that Moscow has refused to consider cutting more of its nuclear weapons, is boycotting nuclear talks, deploying intermediate range nuclear missiles, and backing off a conventional weapons agreement. But again, Moscow sees all that very differently.

 

From Moscow’s point of view, the U.S. is continuing to spread its network of anti-missile systems in Europe and Asia, which the Russians see as a threat to their nuclear force (as does China). And as far as “reneging” goes, it was the U.S. that dumped the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, not Russia,

 

The U.S. is also pouring billions of dollars into “modernizing” its nuclear weapons. It also proposes using ICBMs to carry conventional warheads (if you see one coming, how do you know it’s not a nuke?), and is planning to deploy high velocity glide vehicles that will allow the U.S. to strike targets worldwide with devastating accuracy. And since NATO is beefing up its forces and marching east, why should the Russians tie themselves to a conventional weapons treaty?

 

What about Russia’s seizure of the Crimea? According to the U.S. State Department, redrawing European boundaries is not acceptable in the 21st century—unless you are Kosovo breaking away from Serbia under an umbrella of NATO air power, in which case it’s fine. Residents of both regions voted overwhelmingly to secede.

 

Georgia? The Georgians stupidly started it.

 

But if Russia is not a threat, then why the campaign of vilification, the damaging economic sanctions, and the provocative military actions?

 

First, it is the silly season—American elections—and bear baiting is an easy way to look “tough.” It is also a tried and true tactic of the U.S. armaments industry to keep their production lines humming and their bottom lines rising. The Islamic State is scary but you don’t need big-ticket weapons systems to fight it. The $1.5 trillion F-35s are for the Russkies, not terrorists.

 

There are also those who still dream of regime change in Russia. Certainly that was in the minds of the neo-cons when they used The National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House to engineer—at the cost of $5 billion—the coup that toppled Ukraine into NATO’s camp. The New American Century gang and their think tanks—who brought you Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria—would love to leverage Russia out of Central Asia.

 

The most frightening aspect of current East-West tension is that there is virtually no discussion of the subject, and when there is it consists largely of distorted history and gratuitous insults. Vladimir Putin might not be a nice guy, but the evidence he is trying to re-establish some Russian empire, and is a threat to his neighbors or the U.S., is thin to non-existent. His 2014 speech at the Valdai International Discussion Club is more common sense than bombast.

 

Expansionist? Russia has two bases in the Middle East and a handful in Central Asia. The U.S. has 662 bases around the world and Special Forces (SOF) deployed in between 70 and 90 countries at any moment. Last year SOFs were active in 147 countries. The U.S. is actively engaged in five wars and is considering a sixth in Libya. Russian military spending will fall next year, and the U.S. will out-spend Moscow by a factor of 10. Who in this comparison looks threatening?

 

There are a number of areas where cooperation with Russia could pay dividends. Without Moscow there would be no nuclear agreement with Iran, and the Russians can play a valuable role in resolving the Syrian civil war. That, in turn, would have a dramatic effect on the numbers of migrants trying to crowd into Europe.

 

Instead, an April 20 meeting between NATO ministers and Russia ended in “profound disagreements” according to alliance head Jens Stoltenberg. Russian ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko said that the continued deployment of armed forces on its borders makes it impossible to have a “meaningful dialogue.”

 

We are baiting the bear, not a sport that ever ends well.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hillary and the Urn of Ashes

Hillary & The Urn of Ashes

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Jan.30, 2016

 

“They sent forth men to battle.

                           But no such men return;

                           And home, to claim their

                                   welcome.

Comes ashes in an urn.”

Ode from “Agamemnon”

in the Greek tragedy

the Oresteia by Aeschylus

 

Aeschylus—who had actually fought at Marathon in 490 BC, the battle that defeated the first Persian invasion of Greece—had few illusions about the consequences of war. His ode is one that the candidates for the U.S. presidency might consider, though one doubts that many of them would think to find wisdom in a 2,500 year-old Greek play.

 

And that, in itself, is a tragedy.

 

Historical blindness has been much on display in the run-up to the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries. On the Republican side candidates were going to “kick ass” in Iraq, make the “sand glow” in Syria, and face down the Russians in Europe. But while the Democratic aspirants were more measured, there is a pervasive ideology than binds together all but cranks like Ron Paul: America has the right, indeed, the duty to order the world’s affairs.

 

This peculiar view of the role of the U.S. takes on a certain messianic quality in candidates like Hillary Clinton, who routinely quotes former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s line about America as “the indispensible nation” whose job is to lead the world.

 

At a recent rally in Indianola, Iowa, Clinton said that “Senator [Bernie] Sanders doesn’t talk much about foreign policy, and, when he does, it raises concerns because sometimes it can sound like he really hasn’t thought things through.”

 

The former Secretary of State was certainly correct. Foreign policy for Sanders is pretty much an afterthought to his signature issues of economic inequality and a national health care system. But the implication of her comment is that she has thought things through. If she has, it is not evident in her biography, Hard Choices, or in her campaign speeches.

 

Hard Choices covers her years as Secretary of State and seemingly unconsciously tracks a litany of American foreign policy disasters: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Georgia, Ukraine, and the “Asia pivot” that has dangerously increased tensions with China. At the heart of Hard Choices is the ideology of “American exceptionalism,” which for Clinton means the right of the U.S. to intervene in other countries. As historian Jackson Lears, in the London Review of Books, puts it, Hard Choices “tries to construct a coherent rationale for an interventionist foreign policy and to justify it with reference to her own decisions as Secretary of State. The rationale is rickety: the evidence unconvincing.”

 

Clinton is undoubtedly an intelligent person, but her book is remarkably shallow and quite the opposite of “thoughtful.” The one act on her part for which she shows any regret is her vote to invade Iraq. But even here she quickly moves on, never really examining how it is that the U.S. has the right to invade and overthrow a sovereign government. For Clinton, Iraq was only a “mistake” because it came out badly.

 

She also demonstrates an inability to see other people’s point of view. Thus the Russians are aggressively attempting to re-establish their old Soviet sphere of influence rather than reacting to the steady march of NATO eastwards. The fact that the U.S. violated promises by the first Bush administration not to move NATO “one inch east” if the Soviets withdrew their forces from Eastern Europe is irrelevant.

 

She doesn’t seem to get that a country that has been invaded three times since 1815 and lost tens of millions of people might be a tad paranoid about its borders. There is no mention of the roles of U.S. intelligence agencies, organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, and of openly fascist Ukranian groups played in the coup against the elected government of Ukraine.

 

Clinton takes credit for the Obama administration’s “Asia Pivot” that “sent a message to Asia and the world that America was back in its traditional leadership role in Asia,” but she doesn’t consider how this might be interpreted in Beijing. The U.S. never left Asia—the Pacific basin has long been our major trading partner—so, to the Chinese, “back” and “pivot” means that the U.S. plans to beef up its military in the region and construct an anti-China alliance system. It has done both.

 

Clinton costumes military intervention in the philosophy of “responsibility to protect,” or “R2P,” but her application is selective. She takes credit for overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, but in her campaign speeches she has not said a word about the horrendous bombing campaign being waged by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. She cites R2P for why the U.S. should overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but is silent about Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain to crush demands for democracy by its majority Shiite population.

 

Clinton, along with Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, and Susan Rice, the Obama administration’s National Security Advisor, has pushed for muscular interventions without thinking—or caring—about the consequences

 

And those consequences have been dire..

 

Afghanistan: Somewhere around 220,000 Afghans have died since the 2001 U.S. invasion, and millions of others are refugees. The U.S. and its allies have suffered close to 2,500 dead and more than 20,000 wounded, and the war is far from over. The cost: close to $700 billion, not counting the long-term medical bill that could run as high as $2 trillion.

 

Libya: Some 30,000 people died and another 50,000 were wounded in the intervention and civil war. Hundreds of thousands have been turned into refugees. The cost was cheap: $1.1 billion, but it has created a tsunami of refugees and the war continues. It also produced one of Clinton’s more tasteless remarks. Referring to Gaddafi, she said, “We came, we saw, he died.” The Libyan leader was executed by having a bayonet rammed up his rectum.

 

Ukraine: The death toll is above 8,000, some 18,000 have been wounded, and several cities in the eastern part of the country have been heavily damaged. The fighting has tapered off although tensions remain high.

 

Yemen: Over 6,000 people have been killed, another 27,000 wounded, and, according to the UN, most of them are civilians. Ten million Yeminis don’t have enough to eat, and 13 million have no access to clean water. Yemen is highly dependent on imported food, but a U.S.-Saudi blockade has choked off most imports. The war is ongoing.

 

Iraq: Somewhere between 400,000 to over 1 million people have died from war-related causes since the 2003 invasion. Over 2 million have fled the country and another 2 million are internally displaced. The cost: close to $1 trillion, but it may rise to $4 trillion once all the long-term medical costs are added in. The war is ongoing.

 

Syria: Over 250,000 have died in the war, and four million Syrians are refugees. The country’s major cities have been ravaged. The war is ongoing.

 

There are other countries—like Somalia—that one could add to the butcher bill. Then there are the countries that reaped the fallout from the collapse of Libya. Weapons looted after the fall of Gaddafi largely fuel the wars in Mali, Niger, and the Central African Republic.

 

And how does one calculate the cost of the Asia Pivot, not only for the U.S., but for the allies we are recruiting to confront China? Since the “Pivot” took place prior to China’s recent assertiveness in the South China Sea, is the current climate of tension in the Pacific basin a result of Chinese aggression, or U.S. provocation?

 

Hillary Clinton is not the only Democrat who thinks American exceptionalism gives the U.S. the right to intervene in other countries. That point of view it is pretty much bi-partisan. And while Sanders voted against the Iraq war and criticizes Clinton as too willing to intervene, the Vermont senator backed the Yugoslavia and Afghan interventions. The former re-ignited the Cold War, and the latter is playing out like a Rudyard Kipling novel.

 

In all fairness, Sanders did say, “I worry that Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change and a bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences may be.”

 

Would Hillary be more inclined toward an aggressive foreign policy? Certainly more than Obama’s—Clinton pressed the White House to directly intervene in Syria and was far more hard line on Iran. More than the Republicans? It’s hard to say, because most of them sound like they have gone off their meds. For instance, a number of GOP candidates pledge to cancel the nuclear agreement with Iran, and, while Clinton wanted to drive a harder bargain than the White House did, in the end she supported it.

 

However, she did say she is proud to call Iranians “enemies,” and attacked Sanders for his remark that the U.S. might find common ground with Iran on defeating the Islamic State. Sanders then backed off and said he didn’t think it was possible to improve relations with Teheran in the near future.

 

The danger of Clinton’s view of America’s role in the world is that it is old fashioned imperial behavior wrapped in the humanitarian rationale of R2P and thus more acceptable than the “make the sands glow” atavism of most the Republicans. In the end, however, R2P is just death and destruction in a different packaging.

 

Aeschylus got that: “For War’s a banker, flesh his gold.”

 

                           —30—

 

 

 

 

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Why Did Turkey Shoot Down That Russian Plane?

Syria: Shooting Down Peace?

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 8, 2015

 

Why did Turkey shoot down that Russian warplane?

 

It was certainly not because the SU-24 posed any threat. The plane is old and slow, and the Russians were careful not to arm it with anti-aircraft missiles. It was not because the Turks are quick on the trigger. Three years ago Turkish President Recap Tayyip Endogen said, “A short-term violation of airspace can never be a pretext for an attack.” And there are some doubts about whether the Russian plane ever crossed into Turkey’s airspace.

 

Indeed, the whole Nov. 24 incident looks increasingly suspicious, and one doesn’t have to be a paranoid Russian to think the takedown might have been an ambush. As Lt. Gen. Tom McInerney (ret), former U.S. Air Force chief of staff commented, “This airplane was not making any maneuvers to attack the [Turkish] territory,” the Turkish action was “overly aggressive,” and the incident “had to be preplanned.”

 

It certainly puzzled the Israeli military, not known for taking a casual approach to military intrusions. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told the press Nov. 29 that a Russian warplane had violated the Israeli border over the Golan Heights. “Russian planes do not intend to attack us, which is why we must not automatically react and shoot them down when an error occurs.”

 

So why was the plane downed? Because, for the first time in four years, some major players are tentatively inching toward a settlement of the catastrophic Syrian civil war, and powerful forces are maneuvering to torpedo that process. If the Russians had not kept their cool, several nuclear-armed powers could well have found themselves in a scary faceoff, and any thoughts of ending the war would have gone a glimmering.

 

There are multiple actors on the Syrian stage and a bewildering number of crosscurrents and competing agendas that, paradoxically, make it both easier and harder to find common ground. Easier, because there is no unified position among the antagonists; harder, because trying to herd heavily armed cats is a tricky business.

 

A short score card on the players:

 

The Russians and the Iranians are supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and fighting a host of extremist organizations ranging from Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State (IS). But each country has a different view of what a post civil war Syria might look like. The Russians want a centralized and secular state with a big army. The Iranians don’t think much of “secular,” and they favor militias, not armies.

 

Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and most the other Gulf monarchies are trying to overthrow the Assad regime, and are the major supporters of the groups Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are fighting. But while Turkey and Qatar want to replace Assad with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia might just hate the Brotherhood more than it does Assad. And while the monarchies are not overly concerned with the Kurds, Turkey is bombing them, and they are a major reason why Ankara is so deeply enmeshed in Syria.

 

The U.S., France and Great Britain are also trying to overthrow Assad, but are currently focused on fighting the IS using the Kurds as their major allies—specifically the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, an offshoot of the Kurdish Workers Party that the U.S. officially designates as “terrorist.” These are the same Kurds that the Turks are bombing and who have a friendly alliance with the Russians. Indeed, Turkey may discover that one of the price tags for shooting down that SU-24 is the sudden appearance of new Russian weapons for the Kurds, some of which will aimed at the Turks.

 

The Syrian war requires a certain suspension of rational thought.

 

For instance, the Americans are unhappy with the Russians for bombing the anti-Assad Conquest Army, a force dominated by the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria. That would be the same al-Qaeda that brought down the World Trade towers and that the U.S. is currently bombing in Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan.

 

Suspension of rational thought is not limited to Syria.

 

A number of Arab countries initially joined the U.S. air war against the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda, because both organizations are pledged to overthrow the Gulf monarchies. But Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have now dropped out to concentrate their air power on bombing the Houthis in Yemen.

 

The Houthis, however, are by far the most effective force fighting the IS and al-Qaeda in Yemen. Both extremist organizations have made major gains in the last few weeks because the Houthis are too busy defending themselves to take them on.

 

In spite of all this political derangement, however, there are several developments that are pushing the sides toward some kind of peaceful settlement that doesn’t involve regime change in Syria. That is exactly what the Turks and the Gulf monarchs are worried about, and a major reason why Ankara shot down that Russian plane.

 

The first of these developments has been building throughout the summer: a growing flood of Syrians fleeing the war. There are already almost two million in Turkey, and over a million in Jordan and Lebanon, and as many as 900,000 in Europe. Out of 23 million Syrians, some 11 million have been displaced by the war, and the Europeans are worried that many of those 11 million people will end up camping out on the banks of the Seine and the Ruhr. If the war continues into next year, that is a pretty accurate assessment.

 

Hence, the Europeans have quietly shelved their demand that Assad resign as a prerequisite for a ceasefire and are leaning on the Americans to follow suit. The issue is hardly resolved, but there seems to be general agreement that Assad will at least be part of a transition government. At this point, the Russians and Iranians are insisting on an election in which Assad would be a candidate because both are wary of anything that looks like “regime change.” The role Assad might play will be a sticking point, but probably not an insurmountable one.

 

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are adamant that Assad must go, but neither of them is in the driver’s seat these days. While NATO supported Turkey in the Russian plane incident, according to some of the Turkish press many of its leading officials consider Erdogan a loose cannon. And Saudi Arabia—whose economy has been hard hit by the worldwide fall in oil prices—is preoccupied by its Yemen war that is turning into a very expensive quagmire.

 

The second development is the Russian intervention, which appears to have changed things on the ground, at least in the north, where Assad’s forces were being hard pressed by the Conquest Army. New weapons and airpower have dented a rebel offensive and resulted in some gains in the government’s battle for Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.

 

Russian bombing also took a heavy toll on the Turkmen insurgents in the Bayirbucak region, the border area that Turkey has used to infiltrate arms, supplies and insurgents into Syria.

 

The appearance of the Russians essentially killed Turkey’s efforts to create a “no fly zone” on its border with Syria, a proposal that the U.S. has never been enthusiastic about. Washington’s major allies, the Kurds, are strongly opposed to a no fly zone because they see it as part of Ankara’s efforts to keep the Kurds from forming an autonomous region in Syria.

 

The Bayirbucak area and the city of Jarabulus are also the exit point for Turkey’s lucrative oil smuggling operation, apparently overseen by one of Erdogan’s son, Bilal. The Russians have embarrassed the Turks by publishing satellite photos showing miles of tanker trucks picking up oil from IS-controlled wells and shipping it through Turkey’s southern border with Syria.

 

“The oil controlled by the Islamic State militants enters Turkish territory on an industrial scale,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said Nov. 30. “We have every reason to believe that the decision to down our plane was guided by a desire to insure the security of this oil’s delivery routes to ports where they are shipped in tankers.”

 

Erdogan did not get quite the response he wanted from NATO following the shooting down of the SU-24. While the military alliance backed Turkey’s defense of its “sovereignty,” NATO then called for a peaceful resolution and de-escalation of the whole matter.

 

At a time when Europe needs a solution to the refugee crisis, and wants to focus its firepower on the organization the killed 130 people in Paris, NATO cannot be happy that the Turks are dragging them into a confrontation with the Russians, and making the whole situation a lot more dangerous than it was before the Nov. 24 incident.

 

The Russians have now deployed their more modern SU-34 bombers and armed them with air-to-air missiles. The bombers will now also be escorted by SU-35 fighters. The Russians have also fielded S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft systems, the latter with a range of 250 miles. The Russians say they are not looking for trouble, but they are loaded for bear should it happen. Would a dustup between Turkish and Russians planes bring NATO—and four nuclear armed nations—into a confrontation? That possibility ought to keep people up at night.

 

Some time around the New Year, the countries involved in the Syrian civil war will come together in Geneva. A number of those will do their level best to derail the talks, but one hopes there are enough sane—and desperate—parties on hand to map out a political solution.

 

It won’t be easy, and who gets to sit at the table has yet to be decided. The Turks will object to the Kurds, the Russians, Iranians and Kurds will object to the Conquest Army, and the Saudis will object to Assad. In the end it could all come apart. It is not hard to torpedo a peace plan in the Middle East.

 

But if the problems are great, failure will be catastrophic, and that may be the glue that keeps the parties together long enough to hammer out a ceasefire, an arms embargo, a new constitution, and internationally supervised elections.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

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Saudi Arabia: A Kingdom Stumbles

A Kingdom Stumbles: Saudi Arabia

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 31, 2015

 

For the past eight decades Saudi Arabia has been careful.

 

Using its vast oil wealth, it has quietly spread its ultra-conservative brand of Islam throughout the Muslim world, secretly undermined secular regimes in its region and prudently kept to the shadows, while others did the fighting and dying. It was Saudi money that fueled the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, underwrote Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran, and bankrolled Islamic movements and terrorist groups from the Caucuses to Hindu Kush.

 

Today that circumspect diplomacy is in ruins, and the House of Saud looks more vulnerable than it has since the country was founded in 1926. Unraveling the reasons for the current train wreck is a study in how easily hubris, illusion, and old-fashioned ineptness can trump even bottomless wealth.

 

The Kingdom’s first stumble was a strategic decision last fall to undermine competitors by upping oil production and, thus, lowering the price. Their reasoning was that, if the price of a barrel of oil dropped from over $100 to around $80, it would strangle competition from more expensive sources and new technologies, including the U.S. fracking industry, the arctic, and emergent producers like Brazil. That, in turn, would allow Riyadh to reclaim its shrinking share of the energy market.

 

There was also the added benefit that lower oil prices would damage countries that the Saudis didn’t like: Russia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Iran.

 

In one sense it worked. The American fracking industry is scaling back, the exploitation of Canada’s oil sands has slowed, and many arctic drillers closed up shop. And, indeed, countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Russia took a serious economic hit. But despite obvious signs, the Saudis failed to anticipate China’s economic slowdown and how that would dampen economic growth in the leading industrial nations. The price of oil went from $115 a barrel in June 2014 to $44 today. Because it is so pure, it costs less than $10 to produce a barrel of Saudi oil.

 

The Kingdom planned to use its almost $800 billion in financial reserves to ride out the drop in prices, but it figured that oil would not fall below $80 a barrel, and then only for a few months.

 

According to the Financial Times, in order to balance its budget, Saudi Arabia needs a price of between $95 and $105 a barrel. And while oil prices will likely rise over the next five years, projections are that price per barrel will only reach $65. Saudi debt is on schedule to rise from 6.7 percent of GDP this year to 17.3 percent next year, and its 2015 budget deficit is $130 billion.

 

Saudi Arabia is spending $10 billion a month in foreign exchange reserves to pay the bills and has been forced to borrow money on the international financial market. Two weeks ago the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) regional director, Masood Ahmed, warned Riyadh that the country would deplete its financial reserves in five years unless it drastically cut its budget.

 

But the Kingdom can’t do that.

 

When the Arab Spring broke out in 2011, the Saudi Arabia headed it off by pumping $130 billion into the economy, raising wages, improving services and providing jobs for its growing population. Saudi Arabia has one of the youngest populations in the Middle East, a lot of it unemployed and much of it poorly educated. Some 25 percent of the population lives in poverty. Money keeps the lid on, but for how long, even with the heavy-handed repression that characterizes Saudi political life?

 

In March, the Kingdom intervened in Yemen, launching an air war, a naval blockade, and partial ground campaign on the pretense that Iran was behind the civil war, a conclusion not even the Americans agree with.

 

Again, the Saudis miscalculated, even though one of its major allies, Pakistan, warned Riyadh that it was headed for trouble. In part, the Kingdom’s hubris was fed by the illusion that U.S. support would make it a short war—the Americans are arming the Saudis, supplying them with bombing targets, backing up the naval blockade, and refueling their warplanes in mid-air.

 

But six months down the line the conflict has turned into a stalemate. The war has killed 5,000 people, including 500 children, flattened cities, and alienated much of the local population. It has also generated a food and medical crisis, as well as creating opportunities for the IS and Al-Qaeda to seize territory in Southern Yemen. Efforts by the UN to investigate the possibility of war crimes were blocked by Saudi Arabia and the U.S.

 

As the Saudis are finding out, war is a very expensive business, a burden the Saudis could meet under normal circumstances, but not when the price the Kingdom’s only commodity, oil, is plummeting.

 

Nor is Yemen the only war that the Saudis are involved with. Riyadh, along with other Gulf monarchies, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, are underwriting many of the groups trying to overthrow Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. When anti-government demonstrations broke out in 2011, the Saudis—along with the Americans and the Turks—calculated that Assad could be toppled in a few months.

 

But that was magical thinking. As bad as Assad is, a lot of Syrians, particularly minorities like Shiites, Christians, and Druze, were far more afraid of the Islamists from al-Qaeda and the IS then they were of their own government. So the war has dragged on for four years and has now killed close to 250,000 people.

 

Once again, the Saudis miscalculated, though in this case they were hardly alone. The Syrian government turned out to be more resilient that it appeared. And Riyadh’s bottom line that Assad had to go just ended up bringing Iran and Russia into the picture, checkmating any direct intervention by the anti-Assad coalition. Any attempt to establish a no-fly zone will have to confront the Russian air force, not something that anyone other than U.S. presidential aspirants are eager to do.

 

The war has also generated a flood of refugees, deeply alarming the European Union, which finally seems to be listening to Moscow’s point about the consequences of overthrowing governments without a plan as to who takes over. There is nothing like millions of refugees headed in your direction to cause some serious re-thinking of strategic goals.

 

The Saudis goal of isolating Iran is rapidly collapsing. The P5+1—The U.S., China, Russia, Great Britain, France, and Germany—successfully completed a nuclear agreement with Teheran, despite every effort by the Saudis and Israel to torpedo it. And at Moscow’s insistence, Washington has reversed its opposition to Iran being included in peace talks around Syria.

 

Stymied in Syria, mired down in Yemen, its finances increasingly fragile, the Kingdom also faces internal unrest from its long marginalized Shiia minority in the country’s east and south. To top it off, the IS has called for the “liberation” of Mecca from the House of Saud and launched a bombing campaign aimed at the Kingdom’s Shiites.

 

Last month’s Hajj disaster that killed more than 2100 pilgrims—and anger at the Saudi authorities foot dragging on investigating the tragedy—have added to the royal family’s woes. The Saudi’s claim 769 people were killed, a figure that no other country in the world accepts. And there are persistent rumors that the deadly stampede was caused when police blocked off an area in order to allow high-ranking Saudis special access to the holy sites.

 

Some of these missteps can be laid at the feet of the new king, Salman bin Abud-Aziz Al Saud, and of a younger generation of aggressive Saudis he has appointed to key positions. But Saudi Arabia’s troubles are also a reflection of a Middle East in transition. Exactly where that it is headed is by no means clear, but change is in the wind.

 

Iran is breaking out of its isolation and, with its large, well-educated population, strong industrial base, and plentiful energy resources, is poised to play a major regional, if not international, role. Turkey is in the midst of a political upheaval, and there is growing opposition among Turks to Ankara’s meddling in the Syrian civil war

 

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is impaled on its own policies, both foreign and domestic. “The expensive social contract between the Royal family and Saudi citizens will get more difficult, and eventually impossible to sustain if oil prices don’t recover,” Meghan L. O’Sullivan, director of the Geopolitics of Energy project at Harvard told the New York Times.

 

However, the House of Saud has little choice but to keep pumping oil to pay for its wars and keep the internal peace. But more production drives down prices even further, and, once the sanctions come off of Iran, the oil glut will become worse.

 

While it is still immensely wealthy, there are lots of bills coming due. It is not clear the Kingdom has the capital or the ability to meet them.

 

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