Category Archives: Iraq

Yemen Re-Draws Middle East Alliances

Yemen War: Redrawing The Fault lines

Dispatches From the Edge

May 8, 2015

 

Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world, bereft of resources, fractured by tribal divisions and religious sectarianism, and plagued by civil war. And yet this small country tucked into the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula is shattering old alliances and spurring new and surprising ones. As Saudi Arabia continues its air assault on Houthis insurgents, supporters and opponents of the Riyadh monarchy are reconfiguring the political landscape in a way that is unlikely to vanish once the fighting is over.

 

The Saudi version of the war is that Shiite Iran is trying to take over Sunni Yemen using proxies—the Houthis—to threaten the Kingdom’s southern border and assert control over the strategic Bab al-Mandeb Strait into the Red Sea. The Iranians claim they have no control over the Houthis, no designs on the Straits, and that the war is an internal matter for the Yeminis to resolve.

 

The Saudis have constructed what at first glance seems a formidable coalition consisting of the Arab League, the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Turkey and the U.S. Except that the “coalition” is not as solid as it looks and is more interesting in whom it doesn’t include than whom it does.

 

Egypt and Turkey are the powerhouses in the alliance, but there is more sound and fury than substance in their support.

 

Initially, Egypt made noises about sending ground troops—the Saudi army can’t handle the Houthis and their allies—but pressed by Al-Monitor, Cairo’s ambassador to Yemen, Youssef al-Sharqawy, turned opaque: “I am not the one who will decide about a ground intervention in Yemen. This goes back to the estimate of the supreme authority in the country and Egyptian national security.”

 

Since Saudi Arabia supported the Egyptian military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government and is propping up the regime with torrents of cash, Riyadh may eventually squeeze Cairo to put troops into the Yemen war. But the last time Egypt fought the Houthis it suffered thousands of casualties, and Egypt has its hands full with an Islamic insurrection in Sinai.

 

While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also pledged Ankara’s support for “Saudi Arabia’s intervention,” and demanded that “Iran and the terrorist groups” withdraw, Erdogan was careful to say that it “may consider” offering “logistical support based on the evolution of the situation.”

 

Erdogan wants to punish Iran for its support of the Assad regime in Syria and its military presence in Iraq, where Teheran is aiding the Baghdad government against the Islamic Front. He is also looking to tap into Saudi money. The Turkish economy is in trouble, its public debt is the highest it has been in a decade and borrowing costs are rising worldwide. With an important election coming in June, Erdogan is hoping the Saudis will step in to help out.

 

But actually getting involved is another matter. The Turks think the Saudis are in a pickle—Yemen is a dreadfully difficult place to win a war and an air assault without ground troops has zero chance of success.

 

When the Iranians reacted sharply to Erdogan’s comments, the President backpeddled. Iran is a major trading partner for the Turks, and, with the possibility that international sanctions against Teheran will soon end, Turkey wants in on the gold rush that is certain to follow. During Erdogan’s recent trip to Teheran, the Turkish President and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif issued a joint statement calling for an end to the war in Yemen, and a “political solution.” It was a far cry from Erdogan’s initial belligerence.

 

The Arab League supports the war, but only to varying degrees. Iraq opposes the Saudi attacks, and Algeria is keeping its distance by calling for an end to “all foreign intervention.” Even the normally compliant GCC, representing the oil monarchs of the Gulf, has a defector. Oman abuts Yemen, and its ruler, Sultan Qaboos, is worried the chaos will spread across its border. And while the United Arab Emirates have flown missions over Yemen, the UAE is also preparing to cash in if sanctions are removed from Teheran. “Iran is on our doorstep, we have to be there,” Marwan Shehadeh, a developer in Dubai told the Financial Times. “It could be a great game changer.”

 

The most conspicuous absence in the Saudi coalition, however, is Pakistan, a country that has received billions in aid from Saudi Arabia and whose current Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, was sheltered by Riyadh from the wrath of Pakistan’s military in 1999.

 

When the Saudi’s initially announced their intention to attack Yemen, they included Pakistan in the reported coalition, an act of hubris that backfired badly. Pakistan’s Parliament demanded a debate on the issue and then voted unanimously to remain neutral. While Islamabad declared its intention to “defend Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty,” no one thinks the Houthis are about to march on Jiddah.

 

The Yemen war is deeply unpopular in Pakistan, and the Parliament’s actions were widely supported, one editorial writer calling for rejecting “GCC diktat.” Only the extremist Lashkar-e-Taiba organization, which planned the 2008 Mumbai massacre in India, supported the Saudis.

 

Pakistan has indeed relied on Saudi largesse and, in turn, provided security for Riyadh, but the relationship is wearing thin.

 

First, there is widespread outrage for the Saudi support of extremist Islamic groups, some of which are at war with Pakistan’s government. Last year one such organization, the Tehrik-i-Taliban, massacred 145 people, including 132 students, in Peshawar. Fighting these groups in North Waziristan has taxed the Pakistani Army, which must also pay attention to its southern neighbor, India.

 

The Saudis, with their support for the rigid Wahabi interpretation of Islam, are also blamed for growing Sunni-Shiite tensions in Pakistan.

 

Second, Islamabad is deepening its relationship with China. In mid-April, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to invest $46 billion to finance Beijing’s new “Silk Road” from Western China to the Persian Gulf. Part of this will include a huge expansion of the port at Gwadar in Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan province, a port that Bruce Riedel says will “rival Dubai or Doha as a regional economic hub,”

 

Riedel is a South Asia security expert, a senior fellow at the conservative Brookings Institute, and a professor at Johns Hopkins. Dubai is in the United Arab Emirates and Doha in Qatar. Both are members of the GCC.

 

China is concerned about security in Baluchistan, with its long-running insurgency against the central government, as well as the ongoing resistance by the Turkic-speaking, largely Muslim, Uyghur people in western China’s Xinjiang Province. Uyghurs, who number a little over 10 million, are being marginalized by an influx of Han Chinese, China’s dominant ethnic group.

 

Wealthy Saudis have helped finance some of these groups and neither Beijing or Islamabad is happy about it. Pakistan has pledged to create a 10,000-man “Special Security Division” to protect China’s investments. According to Riedel, the Chinese told the Pakistanis that Beijing would “stand by Pakistan if its ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates unravel.”

 

The U.S. has played an important, if somewhat uncomfortable, role in the Yemen War. It is feeding Saudi Arabia intelligence and targeting information and re-fueling Saudi warplanes in mid-air. It also intercepted an Iranian flotilla headed for Yemen that Washington claimed was carrying arms for the Houthis. Iran denies it and there is little hard evidence that Teheran is providing arms to the insurgents.

 

But while Washington supports the Saudis, it has also urged Riyadh to dial back the air attacks and look for a political solution. The U.S. is worried that the war-induced anarchy is allowing Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to florish. The embattled Houthis were the terrorist group’s principal opponents.

 

The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is growing critical. More than a 1,000 people, many of them civilians, have been killed, and the bombing and fighting has generated 300,000 refugees. The Saudi-U.S. naval blockade and the recent destruction of Yemen’s international airport has shut down the delivery of food, water and medical supplies in a country that is largely dependent on imported food.

 

However, the Obama administration is unlikely to alienate the Saudis, who are already angry with Washington for negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran. Besides aiding the Saudi attacks, the U.S. has opened the arms spigot to Riyadh.

 

The Iran nuclear agreement has led to what has to be one of the oddest alliances in the region: Israel and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is on the same wavelength as the Netanyahu government when it comes to Iran, and the two are cooperating in trying to torpedo the agreement. According to investigative journalist Robert Perry, the alliance between Tel Aviv and Riyadh was sealed by a secret $16 billion gift from Riyadh to an Israeli “development” account in Europe, some of which has been used to build illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories.

 

The Saudis and the Israelis are on the same side in the Syrian civil war as well, and, for all Riyadh’s talk about supporting the Palestinians, the only members of the GCC that have given money to help rebuild Gaza after last summer’s Israeli attack on Gaza are Qatar and Kuwait.

 

How this all falls out in the end is hard to predict, except that it is clear that, for all their financial firepower, the Saudis can’t get the major regional players—Israel excepted—on board. And an alliance with Israel—a country that is more isolated today because of its occupation policies than it has been in its history—is not likely to be very stable.

 

Long-time Middle East correspondent for the Independent Robert Fisk says the Saudis live in “fear” of the Iranians, the Shiia, the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, U.S. betrayal, Israeli plots, even “themselves, for where else will the revolution start in Sunni Muslim Saudi but among its own royal family?”

 

That “fear” is driving the war in Yemen. It argues for why the U.S. should stop feeding the flames and instead join with the European Union and demand an immediate cease-fire, humanitarian aid, and a political solution among the Yemenis themselves.

Conn Hallian can be read at https://dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and https://middleempireseries.wordpress.com

 

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Syria: Turkey In The Fray

Syria: Turkey In the Fray

Dispatches From the Edge

Dec. 16, 2014

 

The pieces for a political resolution of the Syrian civil war are finally coming together, but the situation is extremely fragile, which is not good news in a region where sabotaging agreements and derailing initiatives comes easier than sober compromise. But while many of the key players have already begun backing away from their previous “red lines,” there remains one major obstacle: Turkey.

 

Back in August, Abbas Habib, coordinator of the Council of Syrian Tribes, met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov to explore the possibility of a “preliminary conference” of the antagonists, first in Moscow, then in Syria. In November, the Russians also met with Qadri Jamil, a leader of the Popular Front for Change and Liberation, an in-house opposition party that functions inside Syria. The outcome of the November talks was an agreement to “promote the launch of an inclusive intra-Syrian negotiation process on the basis of the Geneva communiqué of June 30, 2012.”

 

The 2012 Geneva agreement called for “the establishment of a transitional governing body, which would include members of the present government and the opposition, an inclusive National Dialogue process, and a review of the constitutional order and the legal system.” Implementation dissolved in the face of intransigence on all sides, and stepped up support for the armed opposition by Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf monarchies, plus the U.S., Turkey, and France.

 

But two more years of brutal warfare has accomplished very little except generating millions of refugees, close to 200,000 deaths, and widening instability in neighboring countries. The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad admits there is no military solution to the war, and the U.S. has backed away from its “Assad must go” demand. According to David Harland of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, most of the rebels and their backers have also concluded that “Assad’s departure cannot be a precondition for talks.”

 

In essence, most of the players fear the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) more than they do of the repressive Assad regime. As Harland puts it, “Better to have a regime and a state than not have a state.”

 

But that approach runs counter to Turkey’s strategy, which has as its centerpiece the ouster of Assad. Indeed, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan argues that the threat of the ISIS is secondary to overthrowing the Damascus government, and that once Assad is gone, the Islamic extremists will disappear.

 

That analysis—shared by virtually no on else in the region—is why the Turks have locked horns with the U.S. by resisting to supporting the Kurds fighting to hold the Syrian border town of Kobani against the ISIS. Most of the Kurds involved in that battle are members of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD), an offshoot of Turkey’s long-time nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). As Erdogan told reporters, “The PKK and ISIS are the same for Turkey. It is wrong to view them differently. We need to deal with them jointly.”

 

But aside from the Syrian Army, the PYD is the only serious military force resisting the ISIS, a fact that even the U.S. has come around to recognizing. Initially reluctant to support a group tied to the PKK—officially designated a “terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union (EU)—the Americans have done a 180 degree turn, supplying the PYD with arms, ammunition and food.

 

Under pressure from the U.S., France and Britain, Turkey allowed a modest number of Kurdish Peshmerga forces from Iraq to cross the border and fight in Kobani, and agreed to train insurgents, including Kurds, to fight in Syria. But who those soldiers will fight is hardly clear.

 

So far, the Erdogan government has refused to allow the U.S. to use its huge Incirlik air base to bomb ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq unless Washington agrees to support Ankara’s four demands: a no-fly zone over Syria, a “safe zone” on the Turkish-Syrian border, training of rebels, and equal targeting of the ISIS and the Assad regime.

 

The Americans are already instructing rebel forces in Jordan and Qatar, are preparing to do so in Saudi Arabia, and appear willing to pick up the bill if Turkey opens up training camps. Washington, however, is less enthusiastic about a “safe zone,” which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called “premature.”

 

What a “safe zone” would actually involve is unclear, although Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Darutoglu says it should include the five northern cities of Ibid, Latakia, Hasakah, Jarablus, and Kobani, a significant slice of Syria.

Establishing it would certainly violate international law unless it had UN sanction, and Russia is unlikely to permit that. It would also put the Obama administration at odds with its Kurdish allies in Kobani, who see the “safe zone” as just an attempt by Ankara to meddle in Kurdish affairs.

 

The “no fly zone” would require the U.S. to smash up Syria’s air defense system and ground its air force. That would not be terribly difficult—though it has risks—but it would mean that the U.S. would essentially be at war with Syria. “No fly” zones also don’t have a particularly good track record in the region. The U.S. imposed no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq, but it took the U.S. Army to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

 

As for equally targeting the ISIS and Assad, not even the Turkish public supports that. A recent poll found that 66 percent supported military action against ISIS, but not Ankara’s goal of regime change, and only a slight majority thought Turkey itself should take part in military actions against the Islamic State.

 

Part of this hesitation is the fear that the war will spill over into Turkey, something that has already happened to a certain degree. There have been several car bombings on the Turkish-Syrian border, and last year car bombs in the Turkish town of Reyhanli killed 43 people and wounded dozens more. While Ankara blames Syria, the locals blame the Syrian rebels.

 

In October, Turkish authorities in Gaziantep, a city 40 miles north of the Syrian border, seized dozens of suicide vests, hundreds of pounds of powerful C-4 explosives, grenades and Kalashnikov rifles. Local authorities say that ISIS is active in the area and has cautioned westerners they might be potential kidnap victims.

 

There are also proposals for local ceasefires that might lay the foundation for a general peace agreement. The UN’s special envoy to Syria, Staffen de Mistura, is trying to work out an armistice in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. Russia supports the proposal and de Mistura said the Damascus government expressed “constructive interest” in such an agreement.

 

De Mistrua met Dec. 7 with Hadi al-Bahra of the western-backed National Coalition and the following day with various rebel groups in Gaziantep

 

According to Al Monitor, the plan would “focus on the real threat of terrorism as defined by the resolutions of the Security Council,” reduce violence, and move toward a “political solution.” Under the terms of the ceasefire, all groups would keep their arms. This latter point is an important one, because an earlier ceasefire in Homs required disarmament, an action that many of the opposition groups interpreted as surrender.

 

But the Erdogan government is not happy with a focus on “terrorism” that doesn’t include the Assad government, a posture that has isolated Turkey regionally and internationally. At the 60-nation meeting in Brussels on Dec. 3, Turkey’s argument equating the ISIS and the PKK received zero support. “Erdogan’s fixation with regime change in Syria has blinded his practical decision-making,” Suat Kiniklioglu, a former member of Parliament for the President’s Justice and Development Party told the Financial Times.

 

Ankara’s obstinacy around Kobani touched off riots that killed more than 30 people in Kurdish towns and villages all over Turkey and threatens to derail one of the Erdogan’s more successful initiatives, peace with the Kurds.

 

Ankara is certainly in a position to cause trouble. It has already permitted rebel groups, including ISIS, to infiltrate fighters and supplies through its long border with Syria, and it is hard to imagine a lasting peace without a buy-in from Turkey.

 

The Erdogan government is not the only player in the Middle East that would like to see the Syrian civil war continue. Israel has been aiding rebel forces in Southern Syria and has bombed suspected government weapons depots on several occasions.

 

Getting all the rebel groups on board will be no picnic either. The ISIS is not interested in talking with anyone, and the Free Syrian Army has little support inside the country. The Kurds are willing to talk, but about what? Autonomy? The very thing that Ankara fears the most? Will the newly resurgent Republicans in the Congress—including some Democrats and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton—balk at anything that keeps Assad in power, if only temporarily? And in the end, the Syrian government may be deluded into thinking it can win a military victory.

 

Writing in Foreign Policy, journalist James Traub, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the proposed plan could lead to “an end to the war, a comprehensive reform of the constitution, and internationally supervised elections.”

 

There are myriad ways that a peaceful resolution of the Syrian civil war can be derailed, but the pieces for an agreement are on the table. Failure to put them together will accelerate the destabilizing effects of the war in neighboring countries and deepen the misery of the Syrian people.

 

 

 

 

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Foreign Policy, Lord Palmerston & Appendectomies

Foreign Policy, Lord Palmerston & Appendectomies
Dispatches From The Edge
Sept. 15, 2014

Thinking about U.S. foreign policy these days brings to mind a line from songwriter/comedian Tom Lehrer: if you are feeling like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis you have good reason.

1) The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is creating a Rapid Reaction Force to challenge Russian “aggression” in Ukraine, and the U.S., the European Union, and Russia are lobbing sanctions at each other that have thrown Europe back into a recession. Russian planes are buzzing U.S. and Canadian warships in the Black Sea.
2) The U.S. is bombing Iraq and Syria in an effort to halt the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), while at the same time supporting insurgents trying to overthrow the Assad regime in Damascus, the pool from which ISIL was created.
3) After 13 years of war, Afghanistan is the verge of a civil war over the last presidential election, while the Taliban have stepped up their attacks on the Afghan military and civil authorities.
4) Libya has essentially dissolved as a country, but not without supplying insurgents in central Africa and Nigeria with greatly enhanced firepower.
5) The U.S. encouraged the Japanese government to bypass Article 9 of Japan’s peace constitution that restricted deploying its military outside of Japan. Washington also committed the U.S. to support Tokyo in the event of a clash with China over the ownership of a handful of islands in the East China Sea. American, Japanese and Chinese warships and military aircraft have been playing chicken with one another in the East and South China seas.

What is going on? Did some Greek open a box she shouldn’t have? Is the Obama administration—take your choice—incompetent? Trying to wind down two of America’s longest wars? Giving liberal cover to a neo-conservative strategy to re-institute a new cold war? Following an agenda?

How about all of them?

There certainly has been incompetence. The 2009 surge into Afghanistan did nothing but kill a lot of people, and the Libya intervention substituted Chaos Theory for diplomacy.

It is also true that old wars are winding down. In 2008 there were 110,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and 182,000 in Iraq. By the end of 2014 there will be no U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and—at this time—only a handful in Iraq.

Cover for the neo-cons? The Obama administration did help engineer the coup in Ukraine, and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland—who oversaw the action and handpicked the interim coup president—was Dick Cheney’s principle foreign policy advisor.

And the U.S. certainly has an agenda, which may best be summed up by 19th century British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary Henry Lord Palmerston—England’s hammer of empire, who oversaw the Opium Wars with China and the Crimean War with Russia: “We have no eternal allies and we have no eternal enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and these interests it is our duty to follow.”

What are our “interests” in Ukraine?

Certainly not spreading democracy. We supported a coup against a corrupt, but legally elected oligarch, and replaced him with another oligarch in an election that excluded half the country.

There are, in fact, multiple currents at play. During the Cold War disagreements about foreign policy among the ruling elites were suppressed by the overarching need to defeat what was perceived as a real threat to capitalism, the socialist world. “Politics stops at the water’s edge” was the watchword back then. But once that threat evaporated with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, those disagreements were free to come pouring out. Democrats and Republicans now openly sabotage one another’s policies in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, and different wings of both parties battle over using the American military.

Which doesn’t mean there isn’t common ground.

One shared interest is pushing NATO east, something the U.S. been doing since the U.S. double-crossed Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990. Gorbachev agreed to pull 380,000 Soviet troops out of East Germany provided NATO did not fill the vacuum. “Not one inch east,” U.S. Secretary of State James Baker promised. Now, virtually every Warsaw Pact country is a member of NATO.

There is also general agreement—underlined at the recent Alliance meetings in Wales—to expand NATO into a worldwide military alliance, although that creates a certain dilemma for Washington. Currently the U.S. foots 75 percent of NATO’s bill, but is finding that increasingly hard to do, given the enormous costs of the Afghan and Iraq wars, the pivot to Asia, and the expanding war in Iraq and Syria.

The Ukraine crisis has served as the perfect excuse to dragoon other members of NATO into increasing their contributions, though that won’t be a slam-dunk. Most of Europe is in recession, and while the NATO ministers are all for becoming global policemen, their constituents are less enthusiastic. European publics turned sharply against the Afghan War, and most polls show strong opposition to any more “out of area” deployments or increased military spending at the expense of social services.

One strong current at work these days are the neo-conservatives, whose goals are not to just break Ukraine away from Russia, but go for regime change in Moscow. They also lobby for overthrowing the Assad regime in Syria, and for war with Iran. They are overwhelmingly Republicans, but include Democrats.

Allied to the neo-cons in policy—if not politics—are the liberal interventionists, most of whom are Democrats. The interventionists led the charge on Libya and also lobbied for bombing Assad. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Samantha Powers may not have the same politics on all issues as the neo-conservatives, but in places like the Ukraine they share common ground.

A leading “interest” in Ukraine is challenging Russia’s designation as the world’s top energy exporter and throttling its oil and gas industry. With Siberian fields almost tapped out, Russia is developing offshore and arctic sources, and the sanctions are aimed at blocking Moscow from getting the technology it needs to do that. The sanctions are also aimed at the South Stream pipeline, which, when completed, will run from the Caspian basin, across the Black Sea, to Europe. South Stream will eventually supply Europe with 15 percent of its gas and generate $20 billion in yearly revenue for Moscow. The U.S. and Turkey have been trying to derail South Stream for over a decade.

There are minor currents and back eddies as well.

Eastern Ukraine has large shale deposits that Chevron has been sniffing around, and—if you like conspiracies—one of U.S. Vice-president Joe Biden’s kids, Hunter, is on the board of Burisma Holdings, the Ukraine group exploring the country’s energy potentials. Joe Biden has been particularly hawkish on the Ukraine, comparing it to the Munich appeasement with Nazi Germany in 1938.

But the overriding “interest” of American foreign policy—regardless of the different currents—is to marginalize competition. Russia’s economy is no competition for Washington’s, but Moscow is a major supplier of energy to China. The two countries recently inked a $400 billion pipeline deal.

China’s economy is on the verge of passing the U.S. as the world’s largest, and it has already replaced the U.S. as the leading trade partner for most of the world. It is also the globe’s number one consumer of oil and gas.

This latter fact is a sensitive one, particularly given growing tensions between the U.S. and China. Some 80 percent of Beijing’s energy arrives by seas currently controlled by the U.S. Sixth and Seventh fleets.

Russian supplies, however, travel mostly by train and pipelines, and are, thus, out of the U.S. Navy’s reach. China is also negotiating with Iran over energy, and once again, those energy supplies would mostly move through pipelines.

To understand U.S. interests in the Ukraine involves tracking all of these currents, some of which may run at cross purposes. Obama’s push to damage the Russian energy industry is not popular with the American oil company ExxonMobil. He wants to push NATO east, but there is no indication he is seeking regime change in Moscow, and he has even tried to reduce some of the sturm und drang around the crisis. The neo-conservatives, on the other hand, want to arm Ukraine and put Putin’s head on a stake.

Of course the “interests” the Obama administration is pursuing in Ukraine are not the “interests” of the majority of Americans—or Ukrainians, for that matter. They are the “interests” of the neo-cons, energy companies, arms manufacturers, and international financial organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the European Bank. In short, the interests of the 1 percent over the 99 percent.

Up until ISIL started cutting American journalists heads off, U.S. polls reflected overwhelming exhaustion with foreign wars. The Center for Public Integrity found 65 percent of Americans would choose to cut military spending. But Americans are also easily stampeded by bombast: The “Russians are coming” (while it was the West that marched east). “Chinese cyber warriors are going to crash our national power grid” (except we don’t have a national power grid and the only countries that have engaged in cyber war are the U.S. and Israel). “And the turbans are going to get you in your bed” (even if U.S. intelligence agencies say the ISIL has not threatened the U.S.).

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the U.S. has spent almost $70 million an hour on security and around $62 million on domestic needs. Since 9/11 some 23 Americans have died as result of “Muslim terror plots” in the U.S., while the number of those killed by right-wing extremists is 34.

The reality is the U.S. cannot do much about climate change, growing economic inequality, infrastructure deterioration, and the slow motion collapse of our education system without confronting the $1 trillion it spends annually on military and defense related items, or the $4 to $6 trillion that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will eventually cost us.
With the U.S. about to begin an open-ended air war in Iraq and Syria (to join those in progress in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia) the cost of fighting an almost non-existent “terrorist” threat to the U.S. is about to sharply escalate. In whose interest is that?

Increasingly, what is in the interest of the few is incompatible with the interest of the many.

Conn Hallinan can be read at disptchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com or middleempireseries.wordpress.com

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Iraq: War and Remembrance

Iraq: War & Remembrance

Dispatches From The Edge

June 28, 2014

 

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

T. E. Lawrence, February 1915

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And tell the French to butt out.

 

 

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Turkish Plots

Turkey’s Crisis: More Than Meets The Eye

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 1, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Torpedoing The Iran Nuclear Talks

Torpedoing the Iran Nuclear Talks

Dispatches From the Edge

Oct. 27, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Kurds: Opportunity and Peril

The Kurds: Opportunity & Peril

Dispatches From The Edge

August 27, 2013

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

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

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

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

It is an astounding turn of fate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turkey is a case in point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The solution to all this is not all that difficult.

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

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

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

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

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

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