Category Archives: Israel

Rivers of Dust: Water and the Middle East

Rivers of Dust: Water & the Middle East

Dispatches From The Edge

July 28, 2019

 

 

It is written that “Enannatum, ruler of Lagash,” slew “60 soldiers” from Umma. The battle between the two ancient city states took place 4,500 years ago near where the great Tigris and Euphrates rivers come together in what is today Iraq. The matter in dispute? Water.

 

More than four millennia have passed since the two armies clashed over one city state’s attempt to steal water from another, but while the instruments of war have changed, the issue is much the same: whoever controls the rivers controls the land.

 

And those rivers are drying up, partly because of overuse and wastage, and partly because climate change has pounded the region with punishing multi-year droughts.

 

Syria and Iraq are at odds with Turkey over the Tigris-Euphrates. Egypt’s relations with Sudan and Ethiopia over the Nile are tense. Jordan and the Palestinians accuse Israel of plundering river water to irrigate the Negev Desert and hogging most of the three aquifers that underlie the occupied West Bank.

 

According to satellites that monitor climate, the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, embracing Turkey, Syria, Iraq and western Iran, is losing water faster than any other area in the world, with the exception of Northern India.

 

The Middle East’s water problems are hardly unique. South Asia—in particular the Indian sub-continent—is also water stressed, and Australia and much of Southern Africa are experiencing severe droughts. Even Europe is struggling with some rivers dropping so low as to hinder shipping.

 

But the Middle East has been particularly hard hit. According to the Water Stress Index, out of 37 countries in the world facing “extremely high” water distress, 15 are in the Middle East, with Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia heading the list.

 

For Syria and Iraq, the problem is Turkey and Ankara’s mania for dam building. Since 1975, Turkish dams have reduced the flow of water to Syria by 40 percent and to Iraq by 80 percent. According to the Iraqi Union of Farming Associations, up to 50 percent of the country’s agricultural land could be deprived of water, removing 124 million acres from production.

 

Iran and Syria have also built dams that reduce the flow of rivers that feed the Tigris and Euphrates, allowing salt water from the Persian Gulf to infiltrate the Shatt al-Arab waterway where the twin rivers converge. The salt has destroyed rich agricultural land in the south and wiped out much of the huge date farms for which Iraq was famous.

 

Half a century ago, Israel built the National Water Carrier canal diverting water from the Sea of Galilee, which is fed by the Jordan River. That turned the Jordan downstream of the Galilee into a muddy stream, which Israel prevents the Palestinians from using.

 

Jordanian and Syrian dams on the river’s tributaries have added to the problem, reducing the flow of the Jordan by 90 percent.

 

And according to the World Bank, Israel also takes 87 percent of the West Bank aquifers, leaving the Palestinians only 13 percent. The result is that Israelis on the West Bank have access to 240 liters a day per person. Israeli settlers get an extra 60 liters a day, leaving the Palestinians only 75 liters a day. The World Health Organization’s standard is 100 liters a day for each individual.

 

At 4,184 miles in length, the Nile River is the world’s longest—Brazil disputes the claim—and traverses 10 African countries. It is Egypt’s lifeblood providing both water and rich soil for the country’s agriculture. But a combination of drought and dams has reduced its flow over the past several decades.

 

Ethiopia is currently building an enormous dam for power and irrigation on the Blue Nile. The source of the Blue Nile is Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands. The Egyptian Nile is formed where the Blue Nile and the White Nile—its source is Lake Victoria in Uganda—converge in the Sudan at Khartoum. Relations between Egypt and Ethiopia were initially tense over water but have eased somewhat with the two sides agreeing to talk about how to share it.

 

But with climate change accelerating, the issue of water—or the lack thereof—is going to get worse, not better, and resolving the problems will take more than bilateral treaties about sharing. And there is hardly agreement about how to proceed.

 

One strategy has been privatization.

 

Through its International Finance Corporation, the World Bank has been pushing privatizing, arguing that private capital will upgrade systems and guarantee delivery. In practice, however, privatization has generally resulted in poorer quality water at higher prices. Huge transnational companies like SUEZ and Veolia have snapped up resources in the Middle East and global south.

 

Increasingly, water has become a commodity, either by control of natural sources and distribution, or by cornering the market on bottled water.

 

Lebanon is a case in point. Historically the country has had sufficient water resources, but it is has been added to the list of 33 countries that will face severe water shortages by 2040.

 

Part of the current crisis is homegrown. Some 60,000 illegal wells siphon off water from the aquifer that underlies the country, and dams have not solved the problem of chronic water shortages, particularly for the 1.6 million people living in the greater Beirut area. Increasingly people have turned to private water sources, especially bottled water.

 

Multi-national corporations, like Nestle, drain water from California and Michigan and sell it in Lebanon. Nestle, though its ownership of Shoat, controls 35 percent of Lebanon’s bottled water. Not only is bottled water expensive, and many times inferior in quality to local water sources, the plastic it necessities adds to a growing pollution problem.

 

There are solutions out there, but they require a level of cooperation and investment that very few countries currently practice. Many countries simply don’t have the funds to fix or upgrade their water infrastructure. Pipes lose enormous amounts through leakage, and dams reduce river flow, creating salt pollution problems downstream in places like Iraq and Egypt. In any event, dams eventually silt in.

 

Wells—legal and illegal—are rapidly draining aquifers, forcing farmers and cities to dig deeper and deeper each year. And, many times, those deep wells draw in pollution from the water table that makes the water impossible to drink or use on crops.

 

Again, there are solutions. California has made headway refilling the vast aquifer that underlies its rich Central Valley by establishing ponds and recharge basins during the rainy season, and letting water percolate back into the ground. Drip agriculture is also an effective way to reduce water usage, but it requires investment beyond the capacity of many countries, let alone small farmers.

 

Desalinization is also a strategy, but an expensive one that requires burning hydrocarbons, thus pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and accelerating climate change.

 

As the Middle East grows dryer and populations in the region continue to increase, the situation will get considerably worse in the coming decades.

 

The Middle East may be drying up, but so is California, much of the American Southwest, southern Africa, parts of Latin America, and virtually all of southern Europe. Since the crisis is global “beggar thy neighbor” strategies will eventually impoverish all of humanity. The solution lies with the only international organization on the planet, the United Nations.

 

In 1997, the UN adopted a convention on International Watercourses that spells out procedures for sharing water and resolving disputes. However, several big countries like China and Turkey opposed it, and several others, like India and Pakistan, have abstained. The convention is also entirely voluntary with no enforcement mechanisms like binding arbitration.

 

It is, however, a start, but whether nations will come together to confront the planet wide crisis is an open question without it, the Middle East will run out of water, but it will hardly be alone. By 2030, according to the UN, four out of 10 people will not have access to water

 

There is precedent for a solution, one that is at least 4,500 years old. A cuneiform tablet in the Louvre chronicles a water treaty that ended the war between Umma and Lagash. If our distant ancestors could figure it out, it stands to reason we can.

 

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Diego Garcia: “Unsinkable Carrier” Springs a Leak

Diego Garcia: “Unsinkable Carrier” Springs a Leak

Dispatches From The Edge

April 8, 2019

 

 

The recent decision by the Hague-based International Court of Justice that the Chagos Islands—with its huge US military base at Diego Garcia—are being illegally occupied by the United Kingdom (UK) has the potential to upend the strategic plans of a dozen regional capitals, ranging from Beijing to Riyadh.

 

For a tiny speck of land measuring only 38 miles in length, Diego Garcia casts a long shadow. Sometimes called Washington’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” planes and warships based on the island played an essential role in the first and second Gulf wars, the invasion of Afghanistan and the war in Libya. Its strategic location between Africa and Indonesia and 1,000 miles south of India, gives the US access to the Middle East, Central and South Asia and the vast Indian Ocean. No oil tanker, no warship, no aircraft can move without its knowledge.

 

Most Americans have never heard of Diego Garcia for a good reason: no journalist has been allowed there for more than 30 years and the Pentagon keeps the base wrapped in a cocoon of national security. Indeed, the UK leased the base to the Americans in 1966 without informing either the British Parliament or the US Congress.

 

The Feb. 25 Court decision has put a dent in all that by deciding that Great Britain violated United Nations Resolution 1514 prohibiting the division of colonies before independence. The UK broke the Chagos Islands off from Mauritius, a former colony on the southeast coast of Africa that Britain decolonized in 1968. At the time, Mauritius objected, reluctantly agreeing only after Britain threatened to withdraw its offer of independence.

 

The Court ruled 13-1 that the UK had engaged in a “wrongful act” and must decolonize the Chagos “as rapidly as possible.”

 

While the ruling is only “advisory,” it comes at a time when the US and its allies are confronting or sanctioning countries for supposedly illegal occupations—Russia in the Crimea and China in the South China Sea.

 

The suit was brought by Mauritius and some of the 1500 Chagos islanders, who were forcibly removed from the archipelago in 1973. The Americans, calling it “sanitizing” the islands, moved the Chagossians more than 1,000 miles to Mauritius and the Seychelles, where they have languished in poverty ever since.

 

Diego Garcia is the lynchpin for US strategy in the region. With its enormous runways, it can handle B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers and huge C-5M, C-17 and C-130 military cargo planes. The lagoon has been transformed into a naval harbor that can handle an aircraft carrier. The US has built a city—replete with fast food outlets, bars, golf courses and bowling alleys—that hosts some 3,000 to 5,000 military personal and civilian contractors.

 

What you can’t find are any native Chagossians.

 

The Indian Ocean has become a major theater of competition between India, the US, and Japan on one side, and the growing presence of China on the other. Tensions have flared between India and China over the Maldives and Sri Lanka, specifically China’s efforts to use ports on those island nations. India recently joined with Japan and the US in a war game—Malabar 18—that modeled shutting down the strategic Malacca Straits between Sumatra and Malaysia, through which some 80 percent of China’s energy supplies pass each year.

 

A portion of the exercise involved anti-submarine warfare aimed at detecting Chinese submarines moving from the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean. To Beijing, those submarines are essential for protecting the ring of Chinese-friendly ports that run from southern China to Port Sudan on the east coast of Africa. Much of China’s oil and gas supplies are vulnerable, because they transit the narrow Mandeb Strait that guards the entrance to the Red Sea and the Strait of Hormuz that oversees access to the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The US 5th Fleet controls both straits.

 

Tensions in the region have increased since the Trump administration shifted the focus of US national security from terrorism to “major power competition”—that is, China and Russia. The US accuses China of muscling its way into the Indian Ocean by taking over ports, like Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan that are capable of hosting Chinese warships.

 

India, which has its own issues with China dating back to their 1962 border war, is ramping up its anti-submarine forces and building up its deep-water navy. New Delhi also recently added a long-range Agni-V missile that is designed to strike deep into China, and the rightwing government of Narendra Modi is increasingly chummy with the American military. The Americans even changed their regional military organization from “Pacific Command” to “Indo-Pacific Command” in deference to New Delhi.

 

The term for these Chinese friendly ports—“string of pearls”—was coined by Pentagon contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and, as such, should be taken with a grain of salt. China is indeed trying to secure its energy supplies and also sees the ports as part of its worldwide Road and Belt Initiative trade strategy. But assuming the “pearls” have a military role, akin to 19th century colonial coaling stations, is a stretch. Most the ports would be indefensible if a war broke out.

 

Diego Garcia is central to the US’s war in Somalia, its air attacks in Iraq and Syria, and its control of the Persian Gulf, and would be essential in any conflict with Iran. If the current hostility by Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US toward Iran actually translates into war, the island will quite literally be an unsinkable aircraft carrier.

 

Given the strategic centrality of Diego Garcia, it is hard to imagine the US giving it up, or, rather, the British withdrawing their agreement with Washington and de-colonizing the Chagos Islands. In 2016, London extended the Americans’ lease for 20 years.

 

Mauritius wants the Chagos back, but at this point doesn’t object to the base. It certainly wants a bigger rent check and the right eventually to take the island group back. It also wants more control over what goes on at Diego Garcia. For instance, the British government admitted that the Americans were using the island to transit “extraordinary renditions,” people seized during the Afghan and Iraq wars between 2002 and 2003, many of whom were tortured. Torture is a violation of international law.

 

As for the Chagossians, they want to go back.

 

Diego Garcia is immensely important for US military and intelligence operations in the region, but it is just one of some 800 American military bases on every continent except Antarctica. Those bases form a worldwide network that allows the US military to deploy advisors and Special Forces in some 177 countries across the globe. Those forces create tensions that can turn dangerous at a moment’s notice.

 

For instance there are currently US military personal in virtually every country surrounding Russia: Norway, Poland, Hungary, Kosovo, Romania, Turkey, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine and Bulgaria. Added to that is the Mediterranean’s 6th Fleet, which regularly sends warships into the Black Sea.

 

Much the same can be said for China. US military forces are deployed in South Korea, Japan and Australia, plus numerous islands in the Pacific. The American 7th fleet, based in Hawaii and Yokohama, is the Navy’s largest.

 

In late March, US Navy and Coast Guard ships transited the Taiwan Straits, which, while international waters, the Chinese consider an unnecessary provocation. British ships have also sailed close to Chinese-occupied reefs and islands in the South China Sea.

 

The fight to de-colonize the Chagos Islands will now move to the UN General Assembly. In the end, Britain may ignore the General Assembly and the Court, but it will be hard pressed to make a credible case for doing so. How Great Britain can argue for international law in the Crimea and South China Sea, while ignoring the International Court of Justice on the Chagos, will require some fancy footwork.

 

In the meantime, Mauritius Prime Minister Pravard Jugnauth calls the Court decision “historic,” and one that will eventually allow the 6,000 native Chagossians and their descendents “to return home”

 

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Turkish Leader’s Election Woes

Turkey’s Leader’s Election Woes

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 12, 2019

 

“Democracy is like a tram; you get off when you have reached your destination.” The comment by Recep Tayyip Erdogan—made more than 20 years ago when he was first elected mayor of Istanbul—sums up the Machiavellian cynicism of Turkey’s authoritarian president. As Turkey gears up for municipal elections March 31, it is a prophecy Erdogan has more than fulfilled: the prisons filled with the opposition, the media largely silenced, the courts intimidated, the bureaucracy tamed, and more than 150,000 people fired.

 

But for all that, there are dark clouds on the horizon, much of them largely of the President’s own making. And since it is traditional for the Turkish electorate to use local elections to send a message, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) may be in for a setback.

 

For one thing, the AKP’s bread and butter issue, the economy, is in trouble, and maybe very serious trouble. Industrial production has fallen 6 percent and retail sales 7 percent, and overall growth has dropped from 7.4 percent in 2017 to a projected 2 percent in 2019. Inflation is at 20.3 percent and unemployment is accelerating. The most recent figures show that more than 11 percent are out of work, with almost twice that for young people age 15 to 24, who constitute some 20 percent of Turkey’s population.

 

In the past “terrorism” was the major concern for voters, but recent polls indicate that the economy is the number one issue, followed by unemployment and Syrian refugees.

 

Erdogan constructed his election juggernaut on economic growth that lifted a considerable section of the population out of poverty and fueled a major growth of the middle class. Much of that economy was centered on the construction industry and mega-projects like shopping malls, bridges and the largest airport in the world.

 

For Erdogan an economy built around massive projects was a win-win formula: the AKP handed out lucrative contracts to big construction firms, which, in turn, filled the electoral coffers of a party that went from the margins of the political spectrum to at one point winning almost 50 percent of the electorate.

 

But growth fell to an anemic 1.6 percent in the third quarter of last year, and the construction industry is in a recession, with large layoffs almost certain. The crisis of the building trades has had a domino effect on allied industries in cement, steel and ceramics. And the combination of the lira’s fall in value, coupled with the economic insecurity people are feeling, has depressed sales in the automotive industry, electronics and appliances,

 

The Turkish economy has long been reliant on foreign capital—so-called “hot money”— to keep the factories humming and living standards rising. But hot money is drying up and the bills are coming due. Since much of Turkey’s debt is in foreign currency, it is harder to pay off those debts with a depressed lira. Ankara has opened talks with the International Monetary Fund to explore a bailout, but IMF bailouts come with a price tag: austerity, not exactly a winning electoral program.

 

While much of Erdogan’s political opposition has been jailed or sidelined, it has not been cowed. In spite of nine parliamentary deputies from the Kurdish-based left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP) being imprisoned, that party still managed to get enough votes in the last election to hold their spot as the third largest party in the parliament. A hunger strike by imprisoned Kurdish activists has also generated sympathy for the HDP, and for the first time in Turkish history many of the Kurdish parties have formed a united front.

 

The HDP has also decided not to run candidates for the mayoralties of the big cities like Istanbul and Ankara, in order to help elect candidates from the secular center-right Republican People’s Party (CHP). In short, anyone but the AKP.

 

The AKP used to get a substantial number of Kurdish votes, particularly from conservative rural areas. But when Erdogan launched a crackdown on the Kurds in an effort to marginalize the HDP, he lost many of those voters. While not all of them have migrated to the left party, they have shifted their votes to other Kurdish parties, now united under the Kurdistani Election Alliance.

 

There is a certain amount of irony here. In an effort to make sure the AKP’s ally, the extreme rightwing National Action Party (MHP) made it into Parliament, Erdogan rammed through a law that allows parties form electoral alliances. Even if a party doesn’t reach the 10 percent threshold required to enter parliament, it will still win seats if it is allied with a bigger party.

 

But what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

 

The CHP has formed an alliance with the nationalist Iti (“Good”) Party, and most of the Kurdish parties are under one umbrella. It is likely that those alliances will end up winning seats that they wouldn’t have under the old rules.

 

Besides domestic woes, Erdogan’s foreign policy is hardly a major success. The Turkish occupation of northern Syria has failed to scatter the Kurdish-based Syrian Democratic Forces, and it looks increasingly like Ankara has stumbled into a quagmire. Erdogan’s plan was to drive the Kurds out and re-populate the area with Syrian refugees. Instead he is in a standoff with the Russians and the Americans, and, to protect themselves, the Kurds appear to be cutting a deal with the government of Bashar al-Assad.

 

There is a strong streak of nationalism among the Turks, and Erdogan may yet harvest it by pressing the Kurds in Turkey’s southeast, Iraq and Syria. But the Turkish army is overextended and still reeling from the purge of officers and rank and file that followed the failed 2016 coup. And there are credible reports that the military is not overly happy with occupying part of Syria.

 

The Turkish President did score points in his battle with Saudi Arabia over the kingdom’s murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as with his support for Kuwait and Qatar in their dispute with the United Arab Emirates and the Saudis. His willingness to resist US sanctions against Iran is also popular, because it means trade and a lift for Turkey’s ailing economy.

 

However, the March vote is not likely to turn on foreign policy, but rather on pocket book issues like unemployment and the wobbling economy. Erdogan is doing his best to head off any unrest over the economy by handing out low-interest loans and giveaways, like paying electrical bills for economically stressed families.

 

The opposition also claims that the AKP alliance is stuffing the rolls with non-existent voters. HDP investigators found that one house in Hakkari in the Kurdish southeast has 1,108 registered voters.

 

But Turkish agriculture is a mess, and construction and manufacturing are staggering under an enormous debt load. Erdogan has used the power of the state to hobble his opposition, but the state of emergency is alienating foreign investors and many Turks are increasingly weary of it.

 

In the 2017 referendum that bestowed almost unlimited executive powers on Erdogan, he lost Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, Turkey’s largest cities. A recent poll showed support for the AKP had dropped from 42.5 percent the Party got in the 2018 election to 35 percent today.

 

After 17 years of power, after using every device he could—including stuffing ballot boxes—to build a powerful executive system orbiting around him, it is hard to imagine Erdogan suffering a set back. But tossing people in prison and intimidating opposition has had little effect on repairing the economy or raising living standards. And many Turks may be souring on the “destination” that Erdogan has brought them to, and they could well decide to send that message on March 31.

 

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Iran: The Drift Toward War

Edging Toward War With Iran?

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 1, 2019

 

 

Keeping track of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is like trying to track a cat on a hot tin roof: We’re pulling out of Syria (not right away). We’re leaving Afghanistan (sometime in the future). Mexico is going to pay for a wall (no, it isn’t). Saudi Arabia, Russia, the European Union, China, Turkey, North Korea—one day, friends, another day, foes. Even with a scorecard, it’s hard to tell who’s on first.

 

Except for Iran, where a policy of studied hostility has been consistent from the beginning. Late last year, National Security Advisor John Bolton pressed the Pentagon to produce options for attacking Iran, and he has long advocated for military strikes and regime change in Teheran. And now, because of a recent internal policy review on the effect of US sanctions, Washington may be is drifting closer to war.

 

According to “On Thin Ice,” a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), the Trump administration has concluded that its “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions has largely failed to meet any of the White House’s “goals” of forcing Iran to re-negotiate the 2015 nuclear agreement or alter its policies in the Middle East.

 

While the sanctions have damaged Iran’s economy, the Iranians have proved to be far more nimble in dodging them than Washington allowed for. And because the sanctions were unilaterally imposed, there are countries willing to look for ways to avoid them.

 

“If you look at the range of ultimate objectives” of the administration, from encouraging “protests that pose an existential threat to the system, to change of behavior, to coming back to the negotiating table, none of that is happening,” Ali Vaez of the ICG’s Iran Project, told Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor.

 

That should hardly come as a shock. Sanctions rarely achieve their goals and virtually never when they are imposed by one country, even one as powerful as the US. More than 50 years of sanctions aimed at Cuba failed to bring about regime change, and those currently aimed at Russia have had little effect beyond increasing tensions in Europe.

 

This time around, the US is pretty much alone. While the Trump administration is preparing to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear agreement—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the European Union (EU) is lobbying Iran to stay in the pact. Russia, China, Turkey and India have also made it clear that they will not abide by the US trade sanctions, and the EU is setting up a plan to avoid using dollars.

 

But the failure of the White House’s sanctions creates its own dangers because this is not an American administration that easily accepts defeat. On top of that, there is a window of opportunity for striking Iran that will close in a year, making an attack more complicated.

 

The nuclear agreement imposed an arms embargo on Iran, but if Teheran stays in the agreement, that embargo will lift in 2020, allowing the Iranians to buy weapons on the international market. Beefing up Iran’s arms arsenal would not do much to dissuade the US, but it might give pause to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates (UAE), two of Teheran’s most implacable enemies.

 

It is not clear who would be part of a coalition attack on Iran. Saudi Arabia and the UAE would almost certainly be involved, but that pair hardly has the Iranians quaking in their boots. The rag-tag Houthi army has fought the two Gulf monarchies to a standstill in Yemen, in spite of not having any anti-aircraft to challenge the Saudi air war.

 

Iran is a different matter. Its Russian built S-300 anti-aircraft system might not discomfort the US and the Israelis, but Saudi and UAE pilots could be at serious risk. Once the embargo is lifted, Iran could augment its S-300 with planes and other anti-aircraft systems that might make an air war like the one the Gulf monarchs are waging in Yemen very expensive.

 

Of course, if the US and/or Israel join in, Iran will be hard pressed. But as belligerent as Bolton and the Israeli government are toward Iran, would they initiate or join a war?

 

Such a war would be unpopular in the US. Some 63 percent of Americans oppose withdrawing from the nuclear agreement and by a margin of more than two to one, oppose a war with Iran. While 53 percent oppose such a war—37 percent strongly so—only 23 percent would support a war with Iran. And, of those, only 9 percent strongly support such a war.

 

The year 2020 is also the next round of US elections where control of the Senate and the White House will be in play. While wars tend to rally people to the flag, the polls suggest a war with Iran is not likely to do that. The US would be virtually alone internationally, and Saudi Arabia is hardly on the list of most American’s favorite allies.

 

And it is not even a certain that Israel would join in, although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls Iran an “existential threat.” Polls show that the Israeli public is hardly enthusiastic about a war with Iran, particularly if the US is not involved.

 

The Israeli military is more than willing to take on Iranian forces in Syria, but a long-distance air war would get complicated. Iraq and Lebanon would try to block Israel from using their airspace to attack Iran, as would Turkey. The first two countries might not be able to do much to stop the Israelis, but flying over a hostile country is always tricky, particularly if you have to do it for an extended period of time. And anyone who thinks the Iranians are going to toss in the towel is delusional.

 

Of course Israel has other ways to strike Iran, including cruise missiles deployed on submarines and surface craft. But you can’t win a war with cruise missiles, you just blow a lot of things up.

 

There are deep fissures among the Gulf monarchs. Qatar has already said that it will have nothing to do with an attack on Iran, and Oman is neutral. Kuwait has signed a military cooperation agreement with Turkey because the former is more worried about Saudi Arabia than it is Iran, and with good reason.

 

A meeting last September of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emir Sabah Al-Sabah of Kuwait to discuss problems between the two countries apparently went badly. The two countries are in a dispute over who should exploit their common oil fields at Khafji and Wafra, and the Saudis unilaterally stopped production. The Kuwaitis say they lost $18 billion revenues and want compensation.

 

The bad blood between the two countries goes back to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, when Saudi Arabia refused to accept the borders that the British drew for Kuwait and instead declared war. In 1922 the border was re-drawn with two-thirds of Kuwait’s territory going to Saudi Arabia.

 

Lebanese legal scholar, Ali Mourad, told Al-Monitor that Kuwait has tightened its ties to Turkey because “they are truly afraid of a Saudi invasion,” especially given “the blank check Trump has issued” to Prince Salman.

 

Whether Kuwait’s embrace of Turkey will serve as a check on the Saudis is uncertain. Prince Salman has made several ill-considered moves in the region, from trying to overthrow the government of Lebanon, blockading Qatar, to starting a war with Yemen. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are currently at odds over the latter’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, probably the only thing that the Saudi princes hate more than Iran.

 

Would—or could—Ankara really defend Kuwait from a Saudi attack? Turkey is currently bogged down in Northern Syria, at war with its own Kurdish population, and facing what looks like a punishing recession. Its army is the second largest in NATO, and generally well armed, but it has been partly hollowed out by purges following the 2015 coup attempt.

 

So is US National Security Advisor Bolton just blowing smoke when he talks about regime change in Iran? Possibly, but it is a good idea to take the neo-conservatives at their word. The US will try to get Iran to withdraw from the nuclear pact by aggressively tightening the sanctions. If Teheran takes the bait, Washington will claim the legal right to attack Iran.

 

Bolton and the people around him engineered the catastrophes in Afghanistan and Iraq (the Obama administration gets the blame for Libya and Yemen), and knocking out Iran has been their long time goal. If they pull it off, the US will ignite yet another forever war.

 

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Iran: A Rumor of War

Iran: Rumors of War

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 1, 2018

 

“The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story Inside Iran And What’s Wrong with U.S. Policy” By Reese Erlich

Routledge Taylor & Francis Group

New York and London 2019

 

 

Want another thing to keep you up at night?

 

Consider a conversation between long-time Middle East reporter Reese Erlich and former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Charles Freeman, Jr. on the people currently directing the Trump administration’s policy toward Iran. Commenting on National Security Advisor John Bolton’s defense of the invasion of Iraq, Freeman says “The neoconservative group think their good ideas were poorly implemented in Iraq,” and that the lesson of the 2003 invasion that killed upwards of 500,000 people and destabilized an entire region is, “If at first you don’t succeed, do the same thing again somewhere else.”

 

That “somewhere else” is Iran, and Bolton is one of the leading voices calling for confronting the Teheran regime and squeezing Iran through draconian sanctions “until the pips squeak.” Since sanctions are unlikely to have much effect—they didn’t work on North Korea, have had little effect on Russia and failed to produce regime change in Cuba—the next logical step, Erlich suggests, is a military attack on Iran.

 

Such an attack would be a leap into darkness, since most Americans—and their government in particular—are virtually clueless about the country we seem bound to go to war with. Throwing a little light on that darkness is a major reason Erlich wrote the book. For over 18 years he has reported on Iran, talking with important government figures and everyday people and writing articles on the country that increasingly looks to be our next little war. Except it will be anything but “little.”

 

History matters when it comes to life and death decisions like war, but unfortunately, one of the mainstream media’s glaring deficiencies is its lack of interest in the subject. If newspapers like the New York Times had bothered to read Rudyard Kipling on Afghanistan or T.E. Lawrence on the British occupation of Iraq, the editors might have had second thoughts about supporting the Bush administration’s invasions of those countries. Of course, this was not just the result of wearing historical blinders. As Erlich points out, the mainstream media almost always follows in the wake of American foreign policy, more cheerleader than watchdog.

 

But if that media learned anything from the disasters in Central Asia and the Middle East, it is not apparent when it comes to its reporting on Iran. Most Americans think that country is run by mad mullahs who hate the U.S. and is—in the words of President Donald Trump— a “terrorist nation.” Americans don’t hold that image of Iran by accident, but because that is the way the country is represented in the media.

 

The fact that the U.S. government (along with some help from the British) overthrew Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953, and backed Saddam Hussein’s attack on Iran in 1980 that resulted in over a million casualties has vanished down the memory hole.

 

One of the book’s strong points is its careful unraveling of US-Iranian relations, setting the record straight on things like the development of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. While the Shah was in power, Washington pushed nuclear power plants on Iran, including nuclear fuel enrichment technology, even though the Americans were aware that it could lead to weapon development. Indeed, that is exactly how India produced its first nuclear weapon back in 1974.

 

Erlich also analyzes everything from class structure to Iran’s complex ethnicities and explains how the Islamic Republic functions politically and economically. While he is a long-time critic of US foreign policy, Erlich is no admirer of Iran’s political institutions. Iran is far more democratic than the absolute monarchies of the Persian Gulf—with which the Washington is closely allied—but it is hardly a democracy.

 

“Iran is ruled by a reactionary, dictatorial clique that oppresses its own people,” he writes, “however, that does not make Iran a threat to Americans.” What Teheran does threaten “are the interests of the political, military and corporate elite who run the United States.” On a number of occasions Iran has made peace overtures to the U.S., all of which have been rejected.

 

Iran is a country with a very long history, and its people have a strong sense of nationalism, even if much of the population is not overly fond of Iran’s top-down political system and clerical interference in everyday life. The idea that the Iranian people will rise up and overthrow their government because of sanctions or in the event of a military attack on the government is, according to Erlich, pure illusion.

 

The Iran Agenda Today covers a lot of ground without bogging down in a overly detailed accounts of several millennia of history. It certainly provides enough historical context to conclude that an attack on Iran—which would likely also involve Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and possibly Israel—would unleash regional chaos with international repercussions.

 

Such a war would be mainly an air war—not even the Trump administration is crazy enough to contemplate a ground invasion of a vast country filled with 80 million people—and would certainly inflict enormous damage. But to what end? Iran will never surrender and its people would rally to the defense of their country. Teheran is also perfectly capable of striking back using unconventional means. Oil prices would spike, and countries that continue to do business with Iran—China, Russia, Turkey and India for starters—would see their growth rates take a hit. No European country would support such a war.

 

Of course creating chaos is what the Trump administration excels at, and in the short run Iran would suffer a grievous wound. But Teheran would weather the blow and Americans would be in yet another forever war, this time with a far more formidable foe than Pushtin tribes in Afghanistan or jihadists in Iraq.

 

Mr. Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may get their war, but war is a deeply uncertain business. As Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke, one of the founders of modern warfare, once noted, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

 

Erlich, a Peabody Award winner and the author of five books, has written a timely analysis of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran and why, if our country continues on its current path, we—and the world—are headed into a long, dark tunnel.

 

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The Syrian Chess Board

Syria’s Chess Board

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 10, 2018

 

 

The Syrian civil war has always been devilishly complex, with multiple actors following different scripts, but in the past few months it appeared to be winding down. The Damascus government now controls 60 percent of the country and the major population centers, the Islamic State has been routed, and the rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are largely cornered in Idlib Province in the country’s northwest. But suddenly the Americans moved the goal posts—maybe—the Russians have fallen out with the Israelis, the Iranians are digging in their heels, and the Turks are trying to multi-task with a home front in disarray.

 

So the devil is still very much at work in a war that has lasted more than seven years, claimed up to 500,000 lives, displaced millions of people, destabilized an already fragile Middle East, and is far from over.

 

There are at least three theaters in the Syrian war, each with its own complexities: Idilb in the north, the territory east of the Euphrates River, and the region that abuts the southern section of the Golan Heights. Just sorting out the antagonists is daunting. Turks, Iranians, Americans and Kurds are the key actors in the east. Russians, Turks, Kurds and Assad are in a temporary standoff in the north. And Iran, Assad and Israel are in a faceoff near Golan, a conflict that has suddenly drawn in Moscow.

 

Assad’s goals are straightforward: reunite the country under the rule of Damascus and begin re-building Syria’s shattered cities. The major roadblock to this is Idlib, the last large concentration of anti-Assad groups, Jihadists linked with al-Qaeda, and a modest Turkish occupation force representing Operation Olive Branch. The province, which borders Turkey in the north, is mountainous and re-taking it promises to be difficult.

 

For the time being there is a stand down. The Russians cut a deal with Turkey to demilitarize the area around Idlib city, neutralize the jihadist groups, and re-open major roads. The agreement holds off a joint Assad-Russian assault on Idlib, which would have driven hundreds of thousands of refugees into Turkey and likely have resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties.

 

But the agreement is temporary—about a month—because Russia is impatient to end the fighting and begin the reconstruction. However, it is hard to see how the Turks are going to get a handle on the bewildering number of groups packed into the province, some of which they have actively aided for years. Ankara could bring in more soldiers, but Turkey already has troops east of the Euphrates and is teetering on the edge of a major economic crisis. Pouring more wealth into what has become a quagmire may not sit well with the Turkish public, which has seen inflation eat up their paychecks and pensions, and the Turkish Lira fall nearly 40 percent in value in the past year. Local elections will be held in 2019, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party ‘s power is built on improving the economy.

 

In Syria’s east, Turkish troops—part of Operation Euphrates Shield—are pushing up against the Americans and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the Islamic State (IS). Erdogan is far more worried about the Syrian Kurds and the effect they might have on Turkey’s Kurdish population, than he is about the IS.

 

Ankara’s ally in this case is Iran, which is not overly concerned about the Kurds, but quite concerned about the 2,200 Americans. “We need to resolve the difficulty east of the Euphrates and force America out,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in early September.

 

That latter goal just got more complex. The U.S. Special Forces were originally charged with aiding the Kurdish and Arab allies drive out the IS. President Donald Trump told a meeting in March, “we’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon.” But that policy appears to have changed. National Security Advisor John Bolton now says U.S. troops will remain in Syria until Iran leaves. Since there is little chance of that happening, the U.S. commitment suddenly sounds open-ended. Bolton’s comment has stirred up some opposition in the U.S. Congress to “mission creep,” although Trump has yet to directly address the situation.

 

The Kurds are caught in the middle. The U.S. has made no commitment to defend them from Turkey, and the Assad regime is pressing to bring the region under Damascus’ control. However, the Syrian government has made overtures to the Kurds for talks about more regional autonomy, and one suspects the Kurds will try to cut a deal to protect them from Ankara. The Russians have been pushing for Assad-Kurd détente.

 

Turkey may want to stay in eastern Syria, but it is hard to see how Ankara will be able to do that, especially if the Turks are stretched between Idlib and Euphrates Shield in the east. The simple fact is that Erdogan misjudged the resiliency of the Assad regime and over reached when he thought shooting down a Russian fighter-bomber in 2015 would bring NATO to his rescue and intimidate Moscow. Instead, the Russians now control the skies over Idlib, and Turkey is estranged from NATO.

 

The Russians have been careful in Syria. Their main concerns are keeping their naval base at Latakia, beating up on al-Qaeda and the IS, and supporting their long-time ally Syria. Instead of responding directly to Erdogan’s 2015 provocation, Moscow brought in their dangerous S-400 anti-aircraft system, a wing of advanced fighter aircraft, and beefed up their naval presence with its advanced radar systems. The message was clear: don’t try that again.

 

But the Russians held off the attack on Idlib, and have been trying to keep the Israelis and Iranians from tangling with one another in the region around the Golan Heights. Moscow proposed keeping Iran and its allies at least 60 miles from the Israeli border, but Israel—and now the U.S.—is demanding Iran fully withdraw from Syria.

 

The Assad regime wants Teheran to stay, but also to avoid any major shootout between Iran and Israel that would catch Damascus in the middle. In spite of hundreds of Israeli air attacks into Syria, there has been no counter attacks by the Syrians or the Iranians, suggesting that Assad has ruled out any violent reaction.

 

That all came to end Sept 17, when Israeli aircraft apparently used a Russian Ilyushin-M20 electronic reconnaissance plane to mask an attack on Damascus. Syrian anti-aircraft responded and ending up shooting down the Russian plane and killing all aboard. Russia blamed the Israelis and a few days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Moscow was sending its S-300 anti-aircraft system to Syria, along with a series of upgrades in Damascus’ radar network. Syria currently uses the S-200 system that goes back to the ‘60s.

 

The upgrade will not really threaten Israeli aircraft—the S-300 is dated and the Israelis likely have the electronics to overcome it—but suddenly the skies over Syria are no longer uncontested, and, if Tel Aviv decides to go after the Syrian radar grid, the Russians have their S-400 in the wings. Not checkmate, but check.

 

How all of this shakes down is hardly clear, but there are glimmers of solution out there. Turkey will have to eventually withdraw from Syria, but will probably get some concessions over how much autonomy Syria’s Kurds will end up with. The Kurds can cut a deal with Assad because the regime needs peace. The Iranians want to keep their influence in Syria and a link to Hezbollah in Lebanon, but don’t want a serious dustup with Israel.

 

An upcoming Istanbul summit on Syria of Russia, France, Turkey and Germany will talk about a political solution to the civil war and post-war reconstruction.

 

Israel will eventually have to come to terms with Iran as a major player in the Middle East and recognize that the great “united front” against Teheran of Washington, Tel Aviv and the Gulf monarchies is mostly illusion. The Saudis are in serious economic trouble, the Gulf Cooperation Council is divided, and it is Israel and the U.S. are increasingly isolated over in hostility to Teheran.

 

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Iran & Sanctions: A Prelude to War?

Iran: Sanctions & War

Dispatches From The Edge

May 29, 2018

 

The question is: has the Trump administration already made a decision to go to war with Iran, similar to the determination of the Bush administration to invade Iraq in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington?

 

Predictions are dicey things, and few human institutions are more uncertain than war. But several developments have come together to suggest that the rationale for using sanctions to force a re-negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is cover for an eventual military assault by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia aimed at regime change in Teheran.

 

As clueless as the Trump administration is on foreign policy, the people around the White House—in particular National Security Advisor John Bolton—know that sanctions rarely produce results, and unilateral ones almost always fail.

 

Sanctions aimed at Cuba, North Korea, Iraq and Libya did not dislodge any of those regimes and, in the case of North Korea, spurred Pyongyang into producing nuclear weapons. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi were eventually overthrown, but by American firepower, not sanctions.

 

The only case in which sanctions produced some results were those applied to Iran from 2010 to 2015. But that embargo was multi-lateral and included China, India, and one of Iran’s major customers, the European Union (EU). When the U.S. unilaterally applied sanctions to Cuba, Iran and Libya in 1996, the move was a conspicuous failure.

 

This time around, the White House has made no effort to involve other countries. The Trump plan is to use the power of the American economy to strong-arm nations into line. Back our sanctions, threatens the administration, or lose access to the US market. And given that the world uses the dollar as its de-facto international currency, financial institutions may find themselves barred from using the Society for Worldwide Interbank Telecommunications (SWIFT), the American-controlled network that allows banks and finance centers to transfer money from country to county.

 

Those threats have not exactly panicked the rest of the world. China and India, which between them buy more than 1 million of Iran’s 2.1 million barrels per day production, say they will ignore the sanctions. According to Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign affairs minister, “The European Union is determined to act in accordance with its security interests and protect its economic investments.”

 

Adding up all the countries that will go along with the sanctions—including South Korea and Japan–will cut Teheran’s oil exports by 10% to 15%, nothing like the 50% plus that Iran lost under the prior sanctions regime.

 

In short, the sanctions won’t work, but were they really meant to?

 

It is possible that the White House somehow thinks they will—delusion is a characteristic of the Oval Office these days—but other developments suggest the administration is already putting in place a plan that will lead from economic sanctions to bombing runs.

 

For starters, there is the close coordination between the White House and Tel Aviv. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s April 30 speech shortly before Trump withdrew from the Iran agreement was tailored to give Washington a casus belli to dump the agreement. Virtually all of what Netanyahu “revealed” about the Iranian nuclear program was old news, already known by US, Israeli and European intelligence services.

 

Four days before Netanyahu’s speech Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman met with his American counterparts and, according to Al Monitor, got a “green light” for any military action Tel Aviv might take against Iran.

 

The same day Liberman was meeting with the Pentagon, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Saudi Arabia to end its campaign against Qatar because the Americans wanted the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to be united around a campaign against Iran.

 

Each of these moves seems calculated to set the stage for a direct confrontation with Iran involving some combination of the US, Israel and the two most aggressive members of the GCC, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The latter two are currently waging war on the Iranian-supported Houthis in Yemen.

 

It is almost impossible to imagine what the consequences of such a war might be. On paper, it looks like a cakewalk for the anti-Teheran axis. Iran has an antiquated air force, a bunch of fast speedboats and tanks that date back to the 1960s. The military budgets of the US, Israel and the GCC are more than 58 times those of Iran. But, as the Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz once remarked, the only thing one can determine in war is who fires the first shot.

 

Military might does not translate into an automatic win. After almost 17 years of war, the US is still bogged down in Afghanistan, and it basically left Iraq with its tail between its legs. Indeed, the last time the American military won a war was in Grenada. As for the GCC, in spite of more than two years of relentless warfare in Yemen, the monarchs are no nearer victory than they were when the war started. And Hezbollah fought Israel to a stalemate in 2006.

 

While Iran does not have much in the way of military force, it has 80 million people with a strong streak of nationalism who would certainly unite against any attacker. It would be impossible to “win” a war against Iran without resorting to a ground invasion.

 

But none of Iran’s antagonists have the capacity to carry that out. The Saudis have a dismal military record, and the UAE troops are stalemated in their campaign to take Yemen’s capital, Saana from the rag-tag Houthi militia. The Israelis don’t have the troops—and, in any case, would never put them in harm’s way so far from home—and the Americans are not about to send in the Marines.

 

Most likely this would be a war of aircraft and missiles to destroy Iran’s military and civilian infrastructure. There is little that Teheran can do to stop such an assault. Any planes it put up would be toast, its anti-aircraft weapons are obsolete, and its navy would not last long.

 

But flattening Teheran’s military is not winning a war, and Iran has other ways to strike back. The Iranians, for instance, have shown considerable skill at asymmetric warfare in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and it does have missiles.

 

The real damage, however, will be the fallout from the war. The price of oil is already on the rise, and hostilities in the middle of one of the world’s largest petroleum repositories will likely send it through the roof. While that will be good for the GCC, high oil prices will put a dent into the economies of the EU, China, India, and even the US.

 

What a war will almost certainly do is re-ignite Iran’s push to build a nuclear weapon. If that happens, Saudi Arabia will follow, and the world will be faced with several new nuclear powers in one of the most volatile regions of the world.

 

Which doesn’t mean war is inevitable.

 

The Trump administration hawks broke the JCPOA because they hoped Iran would then withdraw as well, giving the anti-Iranian axis an excuse to launch a war. Iranians are divided on this issue, with some demanding that Teheran re-start its uranium enrichment program, while others defend the agreement. Europe can play a key role here by firmly supporting the Joint Agreement and resisting the American sanctions, even if it means taking a financial hit. Some European firms, however, have already announced they are withdrawing their investments.

 

The US Congress can also help stop a war, although it will require members—mostly Democrats—to put aside their anti-Iranian bias and make common cause with the “stay in the pact” Iranians. This is a popular issue. A CNN poll found that 63 percent of Americans opposed withdrawing from the agreement.

 

It will also mean that the Congress—again, mainly Democrats—will have to challenge the role that Israel is playing. That will not be easy, but maybe not as difficult as it has been in the past. Israel’s brutality against Palestinians over the past month has won no friends except in the White House and the evangelical circuit, and Netanyahu has made it clear that he prefers Republicans to Democrats.

 

Lastly, Congress should cut the arms pipeline to the GCC and stop aiding the Saudis in their war on Yemen

 

If war comes, Americans will find themselves in the middle of an unwinnable conflict that will destabilize the Middle East and the world’s economy, and pour more of this country’s resources into yet another quagmire.

 

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