Tag Archives: Middle East

Trump Cries Havoc! – Dogs (still) Kenneled

Dear Readers, I am taking a sabbatical from my weekly columns in Facts and Opinions in order to finish writing a book that I started a few months ago. The book is on matters very much in the news, so it needs to be finished as soon as feasible, with the aim of publishing in the fall of 2018. I plan to return to these pages when my desk is clear again. — Jonathan Manthorpe

 

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JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
June 10, 2017

Donald Trump in the last few days has given the world a master class on how ignorance and miscalculation by a United States president can trigger conflict and set the stage for war.

Look at what has happened this week since Trump’s pronouncement late last month that the rivalries in the Middle East are a “battle between good and evil.” Trump went on to pillory Iran as the main sponsor of terrorism in the region, and to pledge that the current White House regime is solidly behind the Saudi Arabian faction.

There has been a cascade of events triggered by that speech. It has brought the long-running rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran to boiling point. Even Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, bullish after winning a referendum to dramatically increase his executive powers, spotted an opportunity to follow his dream of re-establishing the old Ottoman Empire’s patrimony over the Middle East and strode into the ring.

As of today, a regional war is not imminent, but the rival champions are sizing each other up. The possibility of a major conflict is far more likely than it was before Trump’s speech in Riyadh on May 21.

Previous U.S. presidents have always leaned towards supporting Saudi Arabia, on which the U.S. depended until recently for its oil supplies, in the Riyadh monarchy’s rivalry with Iran. But until Trump, the U.S. chief executives maintained a degree of ambiguity in their dealing with Riyadh so as to restrain the House of Saud.

However, the emboldened Riyadh monarchy has interpreted Trump’s speech as a licence to strike out at its enemies. On Monday the Saudi government marshalled its allies Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Bahrain to join in the almost total diplomatic, economic and transportation isolation of the fellow Gulf State of Qatar.

Qatar has been an irritant for the Saudis for years. The emirate is fabulously wealthy from its holds on some of the world’s largest known oil and gas reserves. It has the world’s highest per capita income and the Emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, spends lavishly on projects that consume his interest.

One of his preoccupations is the Al Jazeera TV news network, funded from the Qatar state coffers. The English language side of the network was established and staffed by respected, and often well-known, figures from British, U.S., Canadian, and Australian networks, and has a reputation for independent and accomplished journalism.

The Arab language network is another matter, however. It is fiercely anti-Israeli and very pro the most extreme Islamic terrorist organizations, such as the Islamic State group, and other hardliners such as Hamas in the Palestinians’ Gaza Strip. It is also deferential towards the puritanical Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which briefly held power for a year after elections in mid-2012, until ousted in a military coup.

All these biases reflect the broader leanings of the Emir, who along with his family has been a major source of funds and support for radical Sunni Muslim terrorist groups. So too has the Saudi royal family and its hangers on, but that hasn’t stopped Riyadh getting increasingly irritated by Qatar’s influence.

What particularly gets the Saudi goat is the al-Thani family’s refusal to toe the Riyadh line on opposition to Iran. Indeed, Qatar has often been vocal in its opposition to Saudi goading of Tehran and has called for dialogue instead of political rivalry.

Qatar has good practical reasons for the strong lines of communication it keeps with Tehran. Much of Qatar’s wealth comes from the South Pars natural gas field under the Persian Gulf, whose ownership Doha shares with Tehran. Just the daily management of this vast resource demands open channels of communication.

Riyadh’s immediate justification for launching its sanctions attack on Doha was an article posted briefly on the Qatar News Agency website on May 23. The article quoted the Emir, Sheikh Tamim, as warning against confrontation with Iran in the wake of Trump speech. The story also quoted the Emir as defending the Palestinian group Hamas, and the Lebanese Shia Muslim movement, Hezbollah, which is Tehran’s proxy in the Syrian civil war.

Riyadh trumpeted this article as evidence of Qatari support for terrorists, and gathered its friends in Qatar’s neighbouring states to back the embargo. Trump, in his ignorance, even tweeted support for the move. He called it a major advance in the campaign against the Islamic State group, which is under siege in the territory it holds in the Iraq/Syria border region, and which has inspired recent attacks in Britain, France and Belgium by local jihadists.

However, it now appears from information from various western and Middle Eastern intelligence agencies that the posting of the story was a fake, and was planted by hacking of the site, probably by Russia.

In the meantime, though, the juggernaut of Riyadh’s sanctions started rolling. This ostracising is a very serious matter for Qatar. It is a desert nation with almost no agriculture and depends on imports for the bulk of its food supply, most of it coming from or through Saudi Arabia. Doha is also a regional financial centre, and the closing of airspace by all of Qatar’s neighbours has more or less shut down air traffic.

Qatar is a good example of why “hypocrisy” and “irony” are insufficiently potent words to describe Middle Eastern politics.

As well as being a major material supporter of the Islamic State group and other extremist outfits, Qatar is home to the largest U.S. military facility in the Middle East. There are about 10,000 U.S. military personnel at the huge al-Udeid Air Base, from which are launched most of the air and special forces attacks on the terrorists in Syria and Iraq that Qatar is funding. The Saudi embargo has given the Americans the very practical problem that military liaison officers from neighbouring Gulf States may no longer come to al-Udeid.

Qatar’s ability to walk in opposition directions on both sides of the street doesn’t stop there. While Doha is promoting links with Iran, it is also part of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen against Houthi rebels who are supported by Iran and who have taken over most of the country.

By mid-week, Kuwait had offered to broker some kind of resolution between Riyadh and Doha. If that happens, Doha will have little option but to capitulate on most Saudi demands, especially on reining in Al Jazeera.

But on Wednesday there was another significant shift in the state of the game board. In a special night-time session the Turkish parliament rushed through legislation allowing the Turkish army to conduct joint military exercises with Qatar and for Turkish police to train their Qatari counterparts. This adds to Turkey’s establishment a year ago of a military base in Qatar where 3,000 Turkish troops are stationed.

The move by the Ankara parliament followed a speech on Tuesday evening by President Erdogan in which he said “I want to clearly say that we disapprove of the sanctions on Qatar.” Erdogan’s statement followed a round of telephone calls with all the leaders involved in which he tried to act as a peace broker. His decision to come down on the side of Qatar apparently came after he decided there was no peace to be brokered.

Erdogan and Sheikh Tamim share views on several issues, especially their support for the Muslim Brotherhood, a puritanical Islamic group active throughout the region, but mainly in Egypt. The Brotherhood, along with the even more radical Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, who benefit from the patronage of the royal family, are the main theological inspiration for the leading terrorist groups of recent years from al-Qaida to the Islamic State.

Although Turkey and Qatar are both adherents to the Sunni faction of Islam, they share a desire to keep open relations with Iran, which champions the rival Shia Muslim code. This illustrates well that the tendency from outside to define the divides in the Middle East purely along the religious lines of Sunni and Shia factions is overly simplistic. When all is said and done, the divides in the Middle East are the age-old ones of money and power.

For Erdogan, a major reason for a working relationship with Iran is Turkey’s perennial problem, largely self-inflicted, of its Kurdish minority. The 35 million Kurds live in eastern Turkey, north-eastern Syria, northern Iraq, and northern Iran. They are the world’s largest ethnic group without a nation state, but there are active hopes and expectations that if and when the dust settles in the Middle East, there will be a new, internationally recognized Kurdish state.

There has been a de facto independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 1990, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. This week the Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani announced he intends to hold a referendum on independence on September 25.

Turkish president Erdogan has had generally good and functional relations with Barzani, who has helped him contain the Turkish Kurds. But this week Erdogan warned the Iraqi Kurds against seeking independence. Erdogan fears that if a Kurdistan is established in what is now northern Iraq it will further fuel the already blazing campaign for independence among the 14.5 million Turkish Kurds and the secession of Turkey’s eastern Kurdish region. Iran has similar concerns about its six million Kurds, which give Tehran a natural joint interest with Ankara.

Erdogan is already uneasy about the use by the U.S., Canada and other western states of the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds as the main frontline troops against the Islamic State fighters. The Turkish leader regards the Syrian Kurds in particular as indistinguishable from his own Kurdish separatists, the Kurdish Workers’ Party, whom he sees as terrorists.

Erdogan’s military actions in the Syrian civil war have been aimed just as much at the Syrian Kurds as they have at the troops of President Bashar al-Assad and the Hezbollah fighters from neighbouring Lebanon aiding him with Iran’s support. Indeed, on several occasions U.S. forces have put themselves in positions to prevent Erdogan’s troops from attacking the Syrian Kurds.

Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Emir of Qatar, with US President Donald Trump May 21, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo by Shealah Craighead, US government

Events came thick and fast on Wednesday. Most dramatic were simultaneous terrorist attacks in Tehran on the Iranian parliament and mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khmoeini, who led the 1979 revolution that ousted the Shah and established the Islamic Republic. At least 17 people were killed and over 40 injured in the attacks by six terrorist, all Iranians, who were killed after lengthy gun battles. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack, and there is evidence some of the terrorists had fought with the group in Syria and Iraq.

The timing of the attack was undoubtedly mostly to do with the Islamic State group trying to boost and burnish its image as it steadily looses territory and control of cities like Mosul and Raqqa. It is highly unlikely the Islamic State could have organized the Tehran attacks fast enough to be responses to the events earlier in the week. But the group had great luck with the timing. The attacks inevitably were meshed into the script of Trump’s speech, rampant Saudi Arabia, and the demonizing of Qatar.

There is a conviction among Iranian security and intelligence agencies that the Islamic State group and all other Sunni-inspired terrorist organizations are creations of Saudi Arabia. It’s a conviction for which there is good historic evidence, though the information on current official support by Riyadh is less definitive.

So it was inevitable that Iran would interpret Wednesday’s terrorist attacks on Tehran as retribution by Saudi Arabia for Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria. The attack is also seen in Tehran as a test of Iran’s resolve in the face of Trump’s granting of a free licence to Riyadh.

In a statement, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the country’s most powerful military force which is overseeing much of the Assad regime’s fight against the Islamic State and other rebel groups in Syria, blamed Saudi Arabia and the U.S. for the attacks. “We will avenge the blood of those martyred in today’s terrorism attacks,” said Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami, deputy commander of the Guards Corps.

Thus the stage is set for Act Two of the drama unfolding from Trump’s speech. As this action-packed week has shown, the Middle East story is spinning erratically and unpredictably, with actors from major, minor and even sub-plots suddenly appearing at centre stage.

Sadly, there are no signs that Trump has learned anything from four months as a tenant of the Oval Office. There is little reason to hope he will grasp the reality that what the President of the United States says, the words he uses and the sentiments he adopts are matters of life and death for many people.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2017

Contact Jonathan Manthorpe, including for queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.” Return to his column page.

 

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Battle Ends, Bloody Syrian War Grinds On

By Laila Bassam, Angus McDowall and Stephanie Nebehay 

Rebel resistance in the Syrian city of Aleppo ended on Tuesday after years of fighting and months of bitter siege and bombardment that culminated in a bloody retreat, as insurgents agreed to withdraw in a ceasefire.

The battle of Aleppo, one of the worst of a civil war that has drawn in global and regional powers, has ended with victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his military coalition of Russia, Iran and regional Shi’ite militias….

However, the war will still be far from over, with insurgents retaining major strongholds elsewhere in Syria, and the jihadist Islamic State group holding swathes of the east and recapturing the ancient city of Palmyra this week. …. Read our full report here  

Related on F&O:

In 2013 F&O partner Jonathan Manthorpe called Syria our modern Gordian knot. Here are F&O’s works that explain and put Syria’s agony in context:

Aleppo will fall, but Syrian war will go on — Analysis, by By Samia Nakhoul October, 2016

Syria’s mobile amputee clinic, photo-essay, By Khalil Ashawi April, 2016

Heartbreak in starving Syrian town, By Lisa Barrington and Stephanie Nebehay January 12, 2015

Our selective grief: Paris, Beirut, Ankara, and Syria, by  Tom Regan November, 2015  Column

Syria: new weaponry test bed By David StupplesCity University London  October, 2015

Ethnic groups flee as Syrian Kurds advance against Islamic State, By Humeyra Pamuk July, 2015

Al-Qaida Jihadists Suspicious of Iraq-Syria Caliphate, by Jonathan Manthorpe July 16, 2014   Column

Putin supports Syria for fear of revolution spreading to Russia’s Muslims, by Jonathan Manthorpe  : September 6, 2013 Column

Cutting Syria’s Gordian knot no simple feat, by Jonathan Manthorpe   August 28, 2013  Column

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Recommended:

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Battle of Aleppo Ends

A man carries a child with an IV drip as he flees deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

A man carries a child with an IV drip as he flees deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

By Laila Bassam, Angus McDowall and Stephanie Nebehay 
December 13, 2106

Smoke rises as seen from a governement-held area of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Smoke rises as seen from a governement-held area of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) – Rebel resistance in the Syrian city of Aleppo ended on Tuesday after years of fighting and months of bitter siege and bombardment that culminated in a bloody retreat, as insurgents agreed to withdraw in a ceasefire.

The battle of Aleppo, one of the worst of a civil war that has drawn in global and regional powers, has ended with victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his military coalition of Russia, Iran and regional Shi’ite militias.

For rebels, their expected departure with light weapons starting on Wednesday morning for opposition-held regions west of the city is a crushing blow to their hopes of ousting Assad after revolting against him during the 2011 Arab uprisings.

However, the war will still be far from over, with insurgents retaining major strongholds elsewhere in Syria, and the jihadist Islamic State group holding swathes of the east and recapturing the ancient city of Palmyra this week.

“Over the last hour we have received information that the military activities in east Aleppo have stopped, it has stopped,” Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told a heated U.N. Security Council meeting. “The Syrian government has established control over east Aleppo.”

Rebel officials said fighting would end on Tuesday evening and a source in the pro-Assad military alliance said the evacuation of fighters would begin at around dawn on Wednesday. A Reuters reporter in Aleppo said late on Tuesday that the booms of the bombardment could no longer be heard.

Fighters and their families, along with civilians who have thrown in their lot with the rebels, will have until Wednesday evening to quit the city, a Turkish government source said on Tuesday. The ceasefire was negotiated by Turkey and Russia, without U.S. involvement.

A commander with the Jabha Shamiya rebel group said that Aleppo was a moral victory for the insurgents. “We were steadfast … but unfortunately nobody stood with us at all”, the commander, who declined to be identified, told Reuters.

People walk as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

People walk as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

“UNCOMPROMISING VICTORY”

The plight of civilians has caused global outrage in the wake of a sudden series of advances by the Syrian army and its allies across the rebel enclave over the past two weeks.

To our supporters, thank you. Newcomers, welcome to reader-supported Facts and Opinions, employee-owned and ad-free. We will continue only if readers like you chip in, at least 27 cents, on an honour system. If you value our work, contribute below. Find details and more payment options here.

“We appear to be witnessing nothing less than … a total uncompromising military victory,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday.

The rout of rebels from their ever-shrinking territory in Aleppo sparked a mass flight of terrified civilians and insurgents in bitter weather, a crisis the United Nations said was a “complete meltdown of humanity”. There were food and water shortages in rebel areas with all hospitals closed.

The United Nations earlier on Tuesday voiced deep concern about reports it had received of Syrian soldiers and allied Iraqi fighters summarily shooting dead 82 people in recaptured east Aleppo districts. It accused them of “slaughter”.

“The reports we had are of people being shot in the street trying to flee and shot in their homes,” said U.N. spokesman Rupert Colville. “There could be many more.”

“They have gone from siege to slaughter,” British U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said. “Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later – Halabja, Rwanda, Srebrenica and now Aleppo,” said U.S. ambassador Samantha Power.

The Syrian army has denied carrying out killings or torture among those captured, and its main ally Russia said on Tuesday rebels had “kept over 100,000 people in east Aleppo as human shields”.

An official with an Aleppo rebel group said the bulk of about 50,000 people was expected to be evacuated.

Fear stalked the city’s streets. Some survivors trudged in the rain past dead bodies to the government-held west or the few districts still in rebel hands. Others stayed in their homes and awaited the Syrian army’s arrival.

For all of them, fear of arrest, conscription or summary execution added to the daily terror of bombardment. “People are saying the troops have lists of families of fighters and are asking them if they had sons with the terrorists. (They are) then either left or shot and left to die,” said Abu Malek al-Shamali in Seif al-Dawla, one of the last rebel-held districts.

Damaged buildings are seen in the government-held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, during a media tour, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Damaged buildings are seen in the government-held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, during a media tour, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

WASTELAND OF RUBBLE

A Syrian military source said the evacuation of fighters would start at 5 a.m. (0300 GMT) on Wednesday. The source said fighters’ families would also leave, but did not mention other civilian evacuations.

Behind those fleeing was a wasteland of flattened buildings, concrete rubble and bullet-pocked walls, where tens of thousands had lived until recent days under intense bombardment even after medical and rescue services had collapsed.

The once-flourishing economic centre with its renowned ancient sites has been pulverised during the war which has killed hundreds of thousands of people, created the world’s worst refugee crisis and allowed for the rise of Islamic State.

The U.N.’s Colville said the rebel-held area had become “a hellish corner” of less than a square kilometre. Its capture was imminent, he added.

The Syrian army and its allies could declare victory at any moment, a Syrian military source had said earlier, predicting the final fall of the rebel enclave on Tuesday or Wednesday, after insurgent defences collapsed on Monday.

Terrible conditions were described by city residents. Abu Malek al-Shamali, a resident in the rebel area, said dead bodies lay in the streets. “There are many corpses in Fardous and Bustan al-Qasr with no one to bury them,” he said.

“Last night people slept in the streets and in buildings where every flat has several families crowded in,” he added.

People carry their belongings as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

People carry their belongings as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

TIDE OF REFUGEES

State television broadcast footage of a tide of hundreds of refugees walking along a ravaged street, wearing thick clothes against the rain and cold, many with hoods or hats pulled tight around their faces, and hauling sacks or bags of belongings.

One man pushed a bicycle loaded with bags, another family pulled a cart on which sat an elderly woman. Another man carried on his back a small girl wearing a pink hat.

At the same time, a correspondent from a pro-Damascus television station spoke to camera from a part of Aleppo held by the government, standing in a tidy street with flowing traffic.

In some recaptured areas, people were returning to their shattered homes. A woman in her sixties, who identified herself as Umm Ali, or “Ali’s mother”, said that she, her husband and her disabled daughter had no water.

They were looking after the orphaned children of another daughter killed in the bombing, she said, and were reduced to putting pots and pans in the street to collect rainwater.

In another building near al-Shaar district, which was taken by the army last week, a man was fixing the balcony of his house with his children. “No matter the circumstances, our home is better than displacement,” he said.

“The crushing of Aleppo, the immeasurably terrifying toll on its people, the bloodshed, the wanton slaughter of men, women and children, the destruction – and we are nowhere near the end of this cruel conflict,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said in a statement.

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Reporting By Laila Bassam in Aleppo, Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Lisa Barrington, John Davison and Tom Perry in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Peter Millership)

To our supporters, thank you. Newcomers, welcome to reader-supported Facts and Opinions, employee-owned and ad-free. We will continue only if readers like you chip in, at least 27 cents, on an honour system. If you value our work, contribute below. Find details and more payment options here.

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Russia declares Aleppo offensive over; U.S. calls its violence “modern evil”

By Michelle Nichols

A man pushes a cart with belongings as he flees deeper with another man into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

A man pushes a cart with belongings as he flees deeper with another man into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – A Syrian government military offensive in Aleppo, backed by Russia and Iran, was over, Russia’s U.N. envoy said on Tuesday as the United States described the violence in the besieged city as “modern evil.”

Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said an agreement had been struck for rebels to evacuate the north-western city and he said civilians would be unharmed, despite western and U.N. accusations of the intentional killing of civilians.

“Over the last hour we have received information that the military activities in east Aleppo have stopped, it has stopped,” Churkin told a heated U.N. Security Council meeting called by France and Britain. “The Syrian government has established control over east Aleppo.”

A surrender or withdrawal of the rebels from Aleppo would deliver Syrian President Bashar al-Assad his biggest battlefield victory in the nearly six year conflict.

The United Nations said on Tuesday it had reports that Syrian soldiers and allied Iraqi fighters had summarily shot dead 82 civilians in recaptured districts of Aleppo, which was Syria’s largest city before the civil war began in 2011.

“They have gone from siege to slaughter,” British U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft told the 15-member council.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in his briefing to the council, called on the Syrian government, Russia and Iran to urgently allow civilians to escape Aleppo.

“There was an abundance of early warning given to this council regarding the situation in Aleppo,” Ban said. “We have collectively failed the people of Syria … History will not easily absolve us.”

Churkin told reporters that Russian military personnel had not seen “any abuses of international humanitarian law.” The Syrian army has denied carrying out killings or torture among those captured.

The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said the Syrian government, Russia and Iran would be responsible for atrocities committed in Aleppo.

“By rejecting U.N./ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) evacuation efforts you are signalling to those militia who are massacring innocents to keep doing what they are doing,” Power said.

“Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later – Halabja, Rwanda, Srebrenica and now Aleppo,” she said.

A crackdown by Assad on pro-democracy protesters in 2011 led to civil war and Islamic State militants have used the chaos to seize territory in Syria and Iraq. Half of Syria’s 22 million people have been uprooted and more than 400,000 killed.

U.N. Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura told reporters after the meeting that the United Nations wants its representatives to be allowed to be there when civilians are evacuated and opposition fighters withdraw.

De Mistura said there were an estimated 50,000 civilians still in rebel-held territory of Aleppo, along with 1,500 opposition fighters of which he said about 30 percent belong to jihadist group Nusra Front.

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Grant McCool)

Related on F&O:

In 2013 F&O partner Jonathan Manthorpe called Syria our modern Gordian knot. Here are F&O’s works that explain and put Syria’s agony in context:

Aleppo will fall, but Syrian war will go on — Analysis, by By Samia Nakhoul October, 2016

Syria’s mobile amputee clinic, photo-essay, By Khalil Ashawi April, 2016

Heartbreak in starving Syrian town, By Lisa Barrington and Stephanie Nebehay January 12, 2015

Our selective grief: Paris, Beirut, Ankara, and Syria, by  Tom Regan November, 2015  Column

Syria: new weaponry test bed By David StupplesCity University London  October, 2015

Ethnic groups flee as Syrian Kurds advance against Islamic State, By Humeyra Pamuk July, 2015

Al-Qaida Jihadists Suspicious of Iraq-Syria Caliphate, by Jonathan Manthorpe July 16, 2014   Column

Putin supports Syria for fear of revolution spreading to Russia’s Muslims, by Jonathan Manthorpe  : September 6, 2013 Column

Cutting Syria’s Gordian knot no simple feat, by Jonathan Manthorpe   August 28, 2013  Column

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Disappearing the Middle East

TOM REGAN: SUMMONING ORENDA
December 3, 2016

An Afghan policeman patrols next to a burning vehicle in the city of Kunduz, Afghanistan October 1, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

Related story: Security Chief: Europe Must Brace for New Extremist Attacks Above, an Afghan policeman patrols next to a burning vehicle in the city of Kunduz, Afghanistan October 1, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

Strangely enough, I don’t want to start this column by talking about the Middle East. I start  instead in Afghanistan in Southeast Asia, because its case is a microcosm of what’s happening throughout the Middle East, and a valuable lesson in the way most media covers what’s happening there or — to put it bluntly — doesn’t cover it.

Are you aware that little more than a week ago, the top commander of the US and allied forces in Afghanistan said the Afghan government only controls about 60 per cent of the country? The rest is controlled by insurgent Taliban forces, which are getting stronger and are likely to take over even more territory. This despite the fact that the United States alone has spent billions of dollars in aid to Afghanistan (as of January 1, 2015, the total was $685.6 billion, making it one of the two most expensive wars in American history – the more expensive one is Iraq). This includes training Afghan troops to fight the Taliban, supplying hardware and troops and drones attacks to wipe out Taliban commanders, yet it appears the Taliban is poised to recapture Afghanistan once again.

Do you remember reading about any of this? Or seeing it on America’s nightly news? Or hearing it being discussed on CNN or Fox News or MSNBC? The chances are highly unlikely. While the story was certainly covered by wire services like Associated Press, almost none of the major media outlets in America carried it for longer than about 10 minutes. It probably didn’t appear on cable news at all, a medium that is more fascinated by Donald Trump’s tweets than by America’s longest and second-most costly war.

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Migrants, hoping to cross into Hungary, walk along a railway track outside the village of Horgos in Serbia, towards the border it shares with Hungary, August 31, 2015. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Migrants, hoping to cross into Hungary, walk along a railway track outside the village of Horgos in Serbia, towards the border it shares with Hungary, August 31, 2015. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Now let’s look at the Middle East. Are you aware that over 600 car-bombs have been used against Iraqi security forces in their attempt to retake Mosul from the Islamic State (IS)? Are you aware that the battle of Mosul is still happening? Do you know that Lebanon has a new president who is closely aligned with the terrorist group Hezbollah and Iran? Do you know that Libyan forces have almost wiped out IS forces in Libya, isolating the remainder in the Libyan town of Sirte? (The Pentagon claims IS forces now control only about two blocks and 50 buildings in Sirte itself.) Or that the biggest problem may come after the IS forces have been wiped out, because the various groups who came together to fight them don’t get along and could fall to fighting amongst themselves for control of the country? What about accusations that Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia has committed war crimes against its battles against Shia Muslim Houti forces in Yemen? Did you even know Saudi forces were fighting in Yemen? Or that many experts have said the US and the UK may be complicit in some of these war crimes because of their support of Saudi Arabia? How about the recent success of Islamist, nationalist and liberal (strange bedfellows indeed) opposition forces in Kuwaiti parliamentary elections that may throw the country into complete chaos?

The answer to all these questions is … probably not. Because, to all intents and purposes, the Middle East has disappeared from American media. Americans have moved on: the recent presidential elections hardly focused on questions of foreign policy outside President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to block illegal Hispanic, and most Muslim, immigrants, and his claim that China is trying to destroy jobs in the US and so invented the climate-change “hoax” as a way to accomplish that goal.

Since covering Trump generated much, much more money for the news media —  in particular the cable news networks — these very important developments in the Middle East, which have serious implications for the United States and the world, were barely mentioned. Some were not mentioned at all.

The disappearance of the Middle East from American newspapers, radios and TV screens probably has several causes: President Obama’s attempted pivot away from the Middle East to focus on relations with Pacific nations; the non-stop Trump-fest coverage of the presidential election; media fatigue after almost 14 years of covering conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan; dwindling resources that force many outlets to focus on coverage of the Syria conflict (and even that is increasingly dropping off the media radar); and the fact that Americans are just bored and want the whole thing to go away.

But there’s the rub — it won’t just go away. The issue of millions of people displaced by war in the region isn’t going away; it played a role in both Brexit and the US election, and will likely also do so in Italian, Austrian, Dutch, and France elections in the coming months. While the Islamic State has been weakened, it isn’t going away. Iran’s presence in a divided Syria isn’t going away. The Palestinian issue is likely only to get worse under a Trump administration.

The Middle East is still the other elephant in America’s living room (the bigger one is racism). Despite the best efforts of the American media and the US public in general, the Middle East will continue to be a cause for concern. No matter how hard they try to ignore it.

Copyright Tom Regan 2016

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com

 

You might also wish to read:

Security Chief: Europe Must Brace for New Extremist Attacks, by Alastair Macdonald

 Islamic State will attack Europe again, security chiefs warned Dec. 2, and may add car bombs, cyber and chemical warfare to its local arsenal as European militants drift home after reverses in Syria and Iraq.

Related in F&O’s Archives:

Turkey’s Shock Waves Slam Middle EastJONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs, July 30, 2016

The Middle East: Meltdowns, Crises and DaeshBy Simon Mabon, January, 2015  

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Afghanistan http://www.unocha.org/afghanistan

Further information:

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Conflict Induced Displacements graphic as of Nov. 27, 2016: http://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/afghanistan-conflict-induced-displacements-27-november-2016

 

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Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92. He is based near Washington, D.C.

Return to Tom Regan’s page 

 

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Aleppo will fall, but Syrian war will go on — Analysis

The sun sets over Aleppo as seen from rebel-held part of the city, Syria October 5, 2016.  REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

The sun sets over Aleppo as seen from rebel-held part of the city, Syria October 5, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

By Samia Nakhoul
October, 2016

A public garden converted to a graveyard due to overcrowding is pictured in the rebel held Salah al-Din neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. The text on the grave reads in Arabic: "Unknown, Salah allah." REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

A public garden converted to a graveyard due to overcrowding is pictured in the rebel held Salah al-Din neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. The text on the grave reads in Arabic: “Unknown, Salah allah.” REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

BEIRUT (Reuters) – It may take weeks or months, but Aleppo is likely to fall to Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power and the most lethal bombardment in nearly six years of war.

Capturing the strategically important city, an economic and trading centre which is key to controlling Syria’s northwest, would be an important military triumph for President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.

It would be a crippling setback for the Western-backed Syrian rebels who, without quick reinforcements from their foreign backers, look set to be bombed out of their stronghold.

But the fall of Aleppo will not mean an end to the war, military and political analysts say.

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Instead it is likely to give way to a long-term Sunni guerrilla insurgency in which the remaining moderate rebel groups, backed by the West and the West’s regional allies, are driven into the arms of militant jihadis.

In a war with so many global and regional actors backing local clients, Assad will survive as leader of a shrunken, broken and fragmented country enduring the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War Two.

“The Russians are doing in Aleppo and Syria what they did in Grozny — it is the same”, said Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria in 2011-14, referring to the fierce bombardment that all but destroyed the capital of Russia’s Chechnya region during Moscow’s 1999-2000 war against Islamist separatists there.

The opposition to Assad, he told Reuters, will “go from holding territory … to being an insurgency, a guerrilla war, and that will continue a long time.”

Syria’s war began in 2011 after a popular uprising, against the Assad family’s more than four-decade rule, that was inspired by the Arab Spring revolts across the Arab world.

The war, pitting rebels mostly from Syria’s Sunni majority against a minority rule rooted in Assad’s Alawite community, has killed more than 300,000 people. Half the population has been displaced and much of urban Syria has become a wasteland.

There have been moments during the conflict when it looked like Assad might be toppled. Russia sent its air force to bolster Iran-backed militias a year ago when Moscow and Tehran feared Assad was on the point of succumbing to rebel offensives.

The bombing of eastern Aleppo, with a pro-Assad force on the ground spearheaded by seasoned Iran-backed fighters such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, is meant to deal a decisive blow against the rebels.

People walk past a burnt bus in the rebel held Seif al-Dawla neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

People walk past a burnt bus in the rebel held Seif al-Dawla neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

ASSAD LUCKY WITH FRIENDS AND ENEMIES

A damaged road is pictured in the rebel held al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

A damaged road is pictured in the rebel held al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran’s clerical leaders have not wavered in their support for Assad.

But the backers of the rebellion — ranging from the United States to Turkey and the Gulf — have been wary of being sucked into a Levantine quagmire and unnerved by concerns that Islamic State will fill the vacuum if Assad’s rule implodes.

Yet, despite the ferocity of the bombardment of eastern Aleppo, it may be too soon to count the rebels out.

Assad loyalist forces encircled the opposition enclave in July. But with manpower shortages, the Syrian army could not keep step on the ground with the Russian aerial assault. In August, rebels broke through government lines southwest of Aleppo, opening a corridor and briefly lifting the siege.

As a harbinger of the future, the rebel counter-offensive was led by Nusra Front, the jihadi force that had just split from Al Qaeda and rebranded itself as the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or Front for the (Islamic) Conquest of the Levant.

Even while negotiating the terms of a short-lived ceasefire with Washington, Russia kept bombing the corridor south of Aleppo. When the brief break in hostilities ended, the intensity of the bombing increased.

The Russian and Syrian forces have been using much more powerful “bunker-buster” bombs, which residents of opposition-held areas say have the force to bring down entire buildings.

A boy plays with a bicycle past damaged buildings in the rebel held Seif al-Dawla neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

A boy plays with a bicycle past damaged buildings in the rebel held Seif al-Dawla neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

Western countries say Syria’s government and its Russian allies are guilty of war crimes for targeting civilians, aid deliveries and hospitals. Moscow and Damascus say they target only militants and deny they have hit hospitals.

Despite the intensity of the bombing, the opposition are unlikely to stop fighting, not least because the Syrian establishment has left it nowhere else to go.

“Aleppo is not a turning point, not yet,” said Ford, who is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington who has criticised U.S. President Barack Obama for failing to arm the mainstream rebels.

“It shows that the (Assad) regime is winning the war now but there will be no end to the war because the opposition will continue to fight,” he said. “Aleppo will fall but it may not be quick, it may take one year but it will fall.”

Rolf Holmboe, a former Danish ambassador to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan who is now a research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, says Aleppo’s fall would be devastating for the rebels, who have used it as a major hub throughout the war.

“The rebels will be isolated in enclaves. The regime will continue attacking one after another without difficulty,” he said. “If Aleppo falls, it will be a strategic loss for the rebels … Now there is no getting around the fact you have to make peace with Assad –- basically he would have won the war.”

Holmboe considers it would be very difficult for the West or Turkey to resupply rebels in Aleppo — even supposing they wanted to — and that Russia and Assad have unleashed a two-pronged attack on eastern Aleppo.

Like Ford, he drew comparisons with Russia’s bombardment of Grozny.

People walk near an over-crowded graveyard in the rebel held al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

People walk near an over-crowded graveyard in the rebel held al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

CHANGING DYNAMICS

Crucial to the outcome of the war in Syria is the stance of external powers: how much they support their Syrian proxies and how they interpret their interests in a conflict with regional and global ramifications.

Russia and Iran not only want to salvage Assad but also hope to establish themselves as regional or global powers, though such goals leave Moscow with little way out of a conflict that could be a huge financial burden.

Under Obama, whose presidency ends in January, the United States seems to have more limited goals — the main one being to drive Islamic State out of its strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

An over-crowded graveyard is pictured in the rebel held al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

An over-crowded graveyard is pictured in the rebel held al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

Washington’s attention is divided, with the U.S. presidential election campaign nearing a climax and U.S. forces also focusing on driving IS out of Mosul and Raqqa.

Gulf Arab countries, which supply weapons and funds to the Syrian opposition, have also been distracted — by a war in Yemen against Houthi rebels aligned to Iran, their regional foe.

Ford said some regional powers could have more influence in Syria but no longer had the stomach for the war.

Jordan, he said, has all but shut down a supply route it ran for the so-called southern front of the rebel Free Syrian Army.

Turkey, which backs the Syrian rebels, is now preoccupied with halting Syrian Kurdish advances near its border. It has diverted its proxies away from Aleppo to fight Kurdish militia crossing west of the Euphrates river at the Syrian city of Jarablus, a move seen by some Syrian rebels as ruinous.

But it remains important for Ankara that the rebels are not defeated, not least because this could increase the flow of refugees to Turkey, which is already sheltering 3 million people who have fled the conflict.

Holmboe foresees the rebels becoming “isolated in various enclaves”, with Assad in control of all big cities and “able to dictate a peace solution on his own terms”.

“Maybe it’s going to take five years, maybe it will take 10 years … (but) he (Assad) will be the leader of a broken country,” Ford said.

Sarkis Naoum, a leading Arab commentator, predicted a protracted conflict and the de facto partitioning of the country. But he suggested countries in the region would opt to increase their arming of rebel groups.

“The Gulf states are not pleased with the way things are going. They’re willing to repeat the experience of Afghanistan,” he said in reference to the 1980s when they supplied arms for the Mujahideen to fight the Soviet Union.

“For them this is the war of the century.”

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Christian Lowe, Writing by Samia Nakhoul, Editing by Tom Perry and Timothy Heritage)

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Putin, Grand Master of the Great Game, awaits next opponent

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
October 1, 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, in this October 20, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/ Files

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, in this October 20, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/ Files

When the new United States president moves into the Oval Office early next year, at the top of her foreign policy priorities will be what to do about Vladimir Putin.

Forget the various manifestations of Islamic extremism. Their outrages may be dramatic, but they are, when all is said and done, only irritants committed by a small bunch of mad mullahs and their deranged followers.

Forget the demented Teletubby in North Korea. Kim Jong-un’s tottering regime will implode or be swatted out of existence before it becomes a real danger.

Even concerns about China’s Xi Jinping and his fantasies about recreating the glory days of the Middle Kingdom surrounded by obsequious vassal states can be put on the backburner for the moment. The most pressing concerns for China’s president are the faltering economy and a citizenry ever more willing to take to the streets to display its unhappiness with the terminally corrupt Communist Party.

In contrast, the Russian President is a clear and present danger.

Every now and then the fog of daily life lifts and there is a clear picture of our moment in history. This week is one such.

Two events have brought into sharp relief what many have known about Putin, but which many others – Donald Trump springs to mind – have preferred to overlook.

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The purposeful bombing of hospitals and relief operations in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo shows the value Putin puts in the strategic use of terror and brutality.

And Moscow’s response to evidence presented this week by investigators showing Russia’s involvement in the July 2014 shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 is the latest example of Putin’s mastery of disinformation and capitalising on the weaknesses in the western media.

Putin has every reason to feel emboldened by his dealings with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union and recent U.S. Presidents. In every confrontation he has either forced a stalemate or won a significant victory.

Putin came to power in Russia in August 1999, and used the eight years of the George W Bush presidency to quietly stabilise the country internally, reassert state Kremlin control of the oligarch economic tsars, and begin to rebuild its military power after the chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In this he was aided by the ease with which Bush was flattered into silence, and the Washington administration’s preoccupation with Islamic extremism and the ill-fated invasion of Iraq after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Putin also had his own Islamic problems in Chechnya, where he honed his predilection for the strategic usefulness of unrestrained brutality in the crushing of the capital Grozny in 2000. In 2003 the United Nations called Grozny “the most destroyed city in history.” But with the West’s attention fixed on Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, no one was ready to push the point with Putin.

Bush was halfway out the door in 2008 when Putin made a move that directly confronted the U.S. and NATO. The Black Sea republic of Georgia, a former Soviet satellite, was leaning heavily towards joining the EU and NATO when, early in 2008, two predominantly ethnic Russian enclaves, South Ossetia and Abkhazia sent a request to Moscow to have their independence recognized. Tensions increased and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili unwisely inflamed the situation in the apparent hope of engaging NATO in the sqabble.

NATO and Bush did not bite. Putin – now taking a temporary and constitutionally-required break from the presidency as Prime Minister – invaded Georgia. Saakashvili’s troops were easily overcome and the West did nothing. The two enclaves remain Russian reserves.

Putin learned from his Georgia escapade that the West’s trip wire for intervention is set very high – in part because of the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently in Libya. There is plenty of room closer to the ground for Putin to pursue his objectives of securing Russia’s borders and re-establishing its influence without triggering any meaningful push-back from the West.

Barack Obama came to the U.S. presidency in 2009 with a predilection to get his country out of the wars in which it had been embroiled by Bush. Obama was therefore just as determined to avoid embarking on new ones. With that mindset, it was foolish of him to box himself into a corner in the early months of the Arab Spring in 2011 by saying that any further use by the regime of President Bashar Assad of chemical weapons against rebels would be a “red line” demanding outside intervention. When Assad tested Obama’s resolve with further gas attacks, and Washington backed down, the message echoed around the Middle East, and nowhere louder than in the Kremlin.

The stage was set for Russian intervention in the Ukraine.

In February 2014, protesters in Kiev who wanted closer ties to Europe and NATO forced the resignation and flight of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who had been democratically elected in 2010. Almost immediately, Moscow began organizing armed groups among the pro-Russian and ethnic Russian populations in the Crimea peninsular and eastern Ukraine. This was the first outing of the “little green men,” the heavily armed and well-trained groups without any national insignia, but who it is now certain are Russian special forces. In mid-March a referendum was held in Crimea, which backed becoming part of Russia. The international community has not approved Russia’s takeover of Crimea, but that is now an established reality.

So is the Russian presence among the anti-Kiev rebels in eastern Ukraine. There is now yet another de facto buffer state in the chain created by Putin to protect Russia from the eastward push of the EU and NATO. At the eastern end are the two enclaves in Georgia. In Moldova is Transdniester, an enclave occupied by Russian troops. This territorial dispute effectively blocks any moves towards EU or NATO membership by the Chisinau government.

No wonder then that NATO allies are now focussed on the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, where there are also large Russian minorities from these countries’ days in the Soviet Union. Troops are being deployed from other parts of NATO to these countries to deter Putin from again using his skills at asymmetrical warfare to create another buffer zone along Russia’s north-western border.

For the moment, Putin is more interested in Syria, where he sent forces last year to back besieged President Assad. Putin’s campaign is going well. It now seems inevitable that any political settlement will involve Assad, and that he will probably remain in power, at least in the western and economically most important part of Syria. Indeed, the battle for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial hub when the country is functioning, suggests Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies may well win outright the war against rebels backed by the U.S. and its Gulf State allies.

Two weeks ago Putin and the Obama administration agreed on a ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered to rebels holed up in the eastern part of Aleppo. But it soon became evident that Putin, Assad and Iran only intended the pause to be a piece of psychological warfare and an opportunity for their forces to prepare for the final assault.

The demoralising effect on the besieged rebels can only be imagined. They knew the United Nations had relief columns all lined up, that they were prevented by Damascus from proceeding, and that one was destroyed by Russian or regime warplanes.

Then came the purposeful bombing of hospitals and relief organizations by regime or Russian bombers. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was incandescent with rage this week. He called the attacks “war crimes” and said “such attacks are often deliberate to aggravate suffering and force people from contested territory.”

That is indeed the purpose, and in all likelihood it will work within the next few days. Putin knows he can do whatever he likes without any serious repercussions, especially not from the U.S. He no longer bothers to portray Russia as a mediating force in the Syrian conflict. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has flatly admitted that there is no point now in trying to negotiate a ceasefire process with Moscow.

Putin’s willingness to use the most brutal methods of warfare against civilians to achieve a strategic aim has been matched by plunging levers into another weakness in Western society.

That fissure was described succinctly by Edward Lucas, a senior editor at The Economist magazine. “Russia has really grasped the post-truth environment,” he wrote. “And they will lie about things absolutely brazenly. They understand the weakness of our media in the post-Cold War environment: that we prioritize fairness over truth.”

(Putin’s great fan, Donald Trump, has also recognized the value of the brazen lie and that the media, especially the U.S. media, is so dedicated to fairness and balance that it would not call him out. In the final days of the presidential campaign, that seems to be changing.)

Putin comes from the culture of the old Soviet secret police and intelligence service, the KGB, of which he was an officer. KGB officers were masters of disinformation and spreading confusion by the planting of fabricated, but marginally plausible stories.

These old skills have been relearned and redeployed under Putin. On the allegations that in July 2014 Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was downed killing all 298 people on board by a Russian 9M38 missile fired from a Buk anti-aircraft system stationed in rebel-held eastern Ukraine, Moscow has mounted a massive disinformation campaign. It has put out doctored photographs and satellite images, trying to make the case that the airliner was either shot down by a Ukrainian fighter jet, or by an anti-aircraft missile fired from territory controlled by the Kiev government. Dutch investigators – they headed the inquiry because the flight originated at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport – conclusively exposed the Russian duplicity this week. The Buk system was tracked coming over the border from Russia into eastern Ukraine and then being taken back after downing the Malaysia Airlines plane. The only remaining questions are who exactly oversaw the operation, which may well have been a mistake. The real target was probably Ukrainian air force cargo planes. The Dutch have the names of 100 suspects.

Yet even with this evidence Moscow continues with its denials. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zarkharova, said in response to the report: “The conclusions of the Dutch Prosecutor’s office confirmed that the investigation is biased and politically motivated.”

Putin is using the same retort to charges that Russia is involved in the bombing of hospitals and relief organizations in Syria. Russian spokesmen have denied that either their or Syrian warplanes have been involved in the destruction of relief convoys or medical centres, even though it is only their planes that have been operating in those areas.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has sown more confusion by blaming the U.S. and its allies for derailing the ceasefire. Peskov said the breakdown was caused by the U.S. failure to separate the so-called “moderate” rebels, backed by Washington and the Gulf States, from extremist groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al Nursa), which recently shifted allegiance from al-Qaida to the Islamic State group.

This is nonsense. A major problem in attempts by Washington to co-ordinate with Russia attacks on the extremist Islamic State group and its allies has been that Moscow and Assad see all the rebels as terrorists and are indiscriminate in trying to slaughter them.

Putin would undoubtedly be delighted to see Donald Trump in the White House; a man with whom he appears to share attitudes towards the truth.

And then there’s all those unanswered questions about how much Russian oligarch money is propping up the Trump real estate empire, if such an empire actually exists. Trump’s disdain for NATO and most U.S. allies is also a great boon for Putin. He won’t have to sow confusion in the ranks of Russia’s adversaries if the President of the United States is willing and able to do it for him.

Hilary Clinton will be an entirely different challenge for Putin. From her record, she is a more willing interventionist than Obama. And when one looks at the record of women who have risen to government leadership in democracies – Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher – they can be more willing to back their country’s interests with military might than their male counterparts.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

Contact, including queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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Bush’s War on Terror Unending

Fifteen years ago George W. Bush launched the “War on Terror.” It was an incalculable strategic mistake, and there is no end in sight
President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair shake hands after a joint press conference following their meeting at Hillsborough Castle near Belfast April 8, 2003. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair shake hands after a joint press conference following their meeting at Hillsborough Castle near Belfast April 8, 2003. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
September 24, 2016

Fifteen years ago this week President George W. Bush uttered a few phrases that have tainted much of what has happened in the world since.

He made an incalculable strategic mistake when, in a speech to a joint session of Congress on September 21, 2001, he declared war on terrorism.

“Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” he said. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

Well, all these years later that end is now closer to achievement for the simple reason that it was the wrong objective with the wrong approach. Perhaps even worse, other contemporary and subsequent leaders, particularly in the West, have not had the wisdom or the guts to change the futile course on which Bush and his coterie launched the planet.

From the start of terrorism in the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s, there has been no serious effort by Western political leaders to define and understand the underlying causes. Terrorism may be evil in its consequences, but it always stems from inequity, injustice, hopelessness and explosive frustration. Terrorism is an expression of political and social dislocation and history tells us it can never be defeated militarily. The only solutions to the causes of terrorism are political and social.

Despite this blindingly obvious fact, the notion has become so deeply embedded that military intervention is seen as the answer not only in response to acts of terrorism, but to all civic upheaval in unstable countries. What is only now beginning to sink in is the lesson that military intervention in a country comes with the responsibility to reconstruct the politics and administration afterwards. The United States with allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Britain, France and Canada in Libya, have failed abysmally to follow through on military interventions with feasible and lasting reconstruction programs. Indeed, these three countries are now less stable – in the case of Libya, a wasteland of warring factions — and even more the founts of the social discord that breeds terrorism than before the military interventions.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron speaks after Britain voted to leave the European Union, outside Number 10 Downing Street in London, Britain June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron speaks after Britain voted to leave the European Union, outside Number 10 Downing Street in London, Britain June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

It is easy to prophesy that there will be similar results from the Saudi Arabian military mission in neighbouring Yemen, where Riyadh is trying to stop the takeover by Houthi rebels and their allies linked to Iran. And if Russia’s campaign in Syria achieves its objective of keeping President Bashar Assad in power, the chances are the country will be partitioned and Damascus that will secure only a rump in the western region. The rest will likely be a battleground between Kurds and Sunni Muslim extremists such as the Islamic State group, which now occupies much of the east, with Turkey making forays from the north when the situation threatens to inflame its own Kurdish minority.

This culture of blind violence, that has dominated the international agenda since Bush’s 2001 speech and subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, got a long overdue drubbing on September 15. A British House of Commons committee, dominated by the ruling Conservative Party, delivered a damning indictment of its former Tory leader and Prime Minister, David Cameron, who championed and led the 2011 allied air campaign in Libya, in which Canada took part.

After resigning the Conservative leadership in June in the wake of losing the Brexit referendum, Cameron resigned from parliament two days before the committee report was published. He has thus avoided having to give serious answers to the questions about the Libyan intervention, though whether that was his intention only he knows.

Libya is now a disaster zone. It has two competing governments. Most of the country is in the hands of local, tribally-based warlords. It has become a haven for radical Islamic groups linked either to the Islamic State group or al-Qaeda. It is a highway for human traffickers bringing people from sub-Saharan Africa to the coast to be shipped across the Mediterranean to Italy. These people are economic migrants trying to take advantage of the European Community’s confused refugee laws and regulations. But these migrants encounter en route what amounts to slavery to the traffickers, and many thousands have drowned when the overcrowded and unseaworthy boats in which they are dispatched sink.

Among the hundreds of people dying in the sinking of rickety boats being used by people traffickers to take refugees from Africa to Europe are many Eritreans. Italy / boat people / The Italian Coastguard ship Gregoretti disembarks refugees and migrants rescued from the Mediterranean. / UNHCR / F. Malavolta / April 14, 2015

The Italian Coastguard ship Gregoretti disembarks refugees and migrants rescued from the Mediterranean in April, 2014. Photo by  F. Malavolta, UNHCR

For over 40 years Libya had been the domain of the thoroughly nasty dictator Muammar Gaddafi when, early in 2011, the so-called Arab Spring swept across the Middle East. From the movement’s inception in Tunsia, where another dictator was swiftly ousted from power, to Egypt, where the authoritarian Hosni Mubarak was removed by his own military, the quest for political reform appeared to be infecting the whole region.

Western governments were overtaken by self-delusion and short-sightedness. It was evident even at the time that their enthusiasm for the Arab revolutions was motivated — at least in part — by the hope that this upsurge of support for reform would justify the military interventions of the previous decade.

No such luck. Tunisia has made a reasonably successful political transition. But in Egypt an ill-considered swift introduction of elections brought to power the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s only organised opposition whose radical theology inspired al-Qaeda and several other violent Islamic groups. The army swiftly stepped in and Egypt is again a thinly disguised military dictatorship.

Syria, of course, is now approaching the fearful denouement of the nearly six-year civil war.

Libya under Gaddafi was a bizarre and Kafkaesque place that was also a true supporter of international terrorism. But Gaddafi was a cunning desert fox. When he saw the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the threats from Bush to take out Iran and North Korea because of their nuclear weapons programs, he rushed declare fealty to Washington. Gaddafi handed over the components of his own nuclear weapons program and named names in his own dealings in the international arms and terrorism trade.

His reward was lifting of embargoes and the arrival of much-needed foreign investment in his dilapidated oil industry.

But he remained unloved or trusted by his new friends in Europe and Washington. When the Arab Spring spread into Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi early in 2011 the West was temperamentally inclined to aid the rebels. When Gaddafi started to use his airforce to pummel the rebels, Cameron in London and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, led a campaign among the Arab League and at the United Nations for intervention. They urged the imposition of a no-fly zone and invoked the international community’s responsibility to protect civilians targeted in conflicts.

The Canadian government of Stephen Harper, and Canadians in general, were easy marks to sign on for this crusade. The haunting experience of General Romeo Dallaire and his inability to stop the genocide in Ruanda in 1993 because of his restricted UN mandate has become part of the Canadian national consciousness. Canada sent a frigate and six CF18 fighter jets to the mission.

With UN and Arab League backing, the intervention began on March 19, 2011, with French warplanes attacking Gaddafi’s air-defence systems preparatory to imposing the no-fly zone.

The report of the British House of Commons select committee, chaired by Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, underlines that the objective protect civilians in and around Benghazi was achieved within 24 hours. That should have been the end, but it was just the beginning.

“There is a debate,” says the report of Blunt’s committee, “about whether that intervention was necessary and on what basis it was taken, but having been achieved, the whole business then elided into regime change and then we had no proper appreciation of what was going to happen in the event of regime change, no proper understanding of Libya, and no proper plans for the consequences.”

No attempt was made to use the political links to Gaddafi that had been established since he decided to ally himself with the West. Putting pressure on Gaddahi to moderate his response to the demands for reform might not have worked. But no one, especially not in Britain, even thought of trying it. Instead there was a rush to follow the Bush doctrine of bombing first and contemplating the resultant mess afterwards.

The result of the French, British and Canadian intervention – other participants were Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Spain, Qatar, Norway and the U.S. – “was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of Isil (the Islamic State group) in North Africa,” says the report.

A good day’s work, then, whose results President Barack Obama once cogently summed up in an interview as “a shitshow.”

Obama has tried to limit the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and the multi-national turmoil around Iraq and Syria, but he is just as guilty as others of projecting the quest for a military solution.

The additional disturbing element now is that the military campaigns have become largely invisible. In contrast to his affable, open and engaging personality, Obama is overseeing a war of secret assassination using armed drones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and anywhere in Africa where militant Islamic groups operate. Inevitably, there are civilian casualties. The numbers may not match the unintended consequences of manned bomber raids, which also continue throughout the region, but the outrage and anger these killings cause among survivors are just as potent. Drone assassinations feed terrorism and make political and social solutions just as unobtainable as full-blown warfare.

The other arm of Western intervention in these conflicts is special forces, whose activities are also largely invisible and unreported.

The current response to terrorism is guaranteed only to continue feeding the bitterness at its source. Until that response changes from the military to the political and social, terrorist groups will continue morphing and moving, and Bush’s war will continue without end.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

Contact, including queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

~~~

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Iranians close in on Aleppo, not Mecca

A boy rides a bicycle near rubble of damaged buildings in the rebel held al-Maadi district of Aleppo, Syria, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

A boy rides a bicycle near rubble of damaged buildings in the rebel held al-Maadi district of Aleppo, Syria, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
September 10, 2016

 

There will be no Iranians this year among the two million Muslims who make the hajj pilgrimage to the holy sites at Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia that starts on Sunday, September 11.

About 60,000 Iranians joined the pilgrimage last year, but now they are barred as part of the increasingly sharp-edged struggle for power in the Middle East between Tehran and Saudi Arabia.

But at least this religious embargo is a relatively peaceful, diplomatic skirmish. Sixteen hundred kilometres to the north of Mecca in the Syrian city of Aleppo the contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia is being fought street by street. It is a war of barrel bombs, gas attacks, targeted hospitals, artillery barrages, and the threat of snipers lurking on every roof top and in the dark behind every shattered window. As always, civilians are the main casualties in the bloody urban warfare being waged in large part by proxy armies for Riyadh and Tehran.

Iranians may be suffering the embarrassment of being barred from the hajj this year, but on the battlefield it is Tehran’s senior military officers and their allies fighting for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad who are poised for victory against the Saudi-backed Syrian rebels in the five-year civil war.

The prelude to a cease fire announced on Friday by United States Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov offers a slim sliver of hope. But the central strand of the Washington/Moscow accord is an agreement to co-ordinate their own attacks on the terrorist Islamic State group and the Nusra Front, which is allied to al-Qaida. It is not immediately obvious what benefits the deal offers the Assad regime and its Iranian backers or the Saudi-supported moderate rebels. Even less apparent is what pressure either Moscow or Washington can put on their factions to enforce a cease fire.

The rebel hold on Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial hub, began to slip a year ago when Russia intervened on Assad’s side and backed the regime’s ground forces with its airforce. Since then the Saudi-backed rebel forces and Aleppo’s remaining civilian population have suffered slow strangulation as one after another of the supply routes into the city were cut off by the encircling regime troops.

This week the pro-Assad forces captured the Alramousa Road, the last supply route into the rebel-held areas of Aleppo. It is clear the regime’s coalition is preparing for a final assault on the city, and it seems highly unlikely that the rebels will be able to hold out.

The recapture of Aleppo by the pro-Assad forces will not be the end of the five-year civil war. Rebels still hold other territory, the Kurds control large areas along the northern border with Turkey and the terrorists of the Islamic State group are still well entrenched in the desert regions on both side of the eastern border with Iraq. But the collapse of the rebellion in Aleppo will put most of the Syrian economic heartland – or what remains of it – back in the regime’s hands and almost ensure that Bashar al-Assad himself survives whatever ceasefire process finally ends this calamity.

And Iran’s reputation, influence and power in the Middle East will rise along with Assad’s survival. Saudi Arabia will suffer the ignominy of failure to adequately support the Syrian rebels at a time when it is also bogged down in the civil war in Yemen. The intervention in Yemen ordered by Saudi Arabia’s young heir to the throne and defence minister, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is not going well. The Saudi forces have failed to roll back the advance by Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran. The partition of Yemen now seems likely.

Iran signalled on Tuesday that it feels confident that it has the upper hand over Saudi Arabia. Several Middle Eastern news outlets published pictures of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani inspecting pro-Assad forces in and around Aleppo during the preparations for the assault on the last rebel hold-outs in the city.

Gen. Soleimani is among the most potent military commanders in the Middle East at the moment. He is the leader of Iran’s elite foreign operations troops, the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is the mainstay of the regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

There has been a significant change in the make-up of the forces under Gen. Soleimani’s command in recent months after the Quds Force suffered significant losses, especially among officers, who take pride in leading their troops from the front. To counter rising public indignation in Iran at the death toll, more reliance is being put on Iran’s allied and proxy forces. Among the many thousands of troops under Gen. Soleimani’s command are large contingents of fighters of Hezbollah, the Iranian trained and funded militias from neighbouring Lebanon. He also has about 8,000 fighters from Harakat al Nujaba from Iraq, and others from even further afield. There are contingents from the Afghan Fatemiyoun and the Pakistani Zeynabiyoun.

Some military analysts see in this multi-national composition of the Quds Force the development of a foreign legion by Iran that it may use widely throughout the Middle East to serve its perceived interests. It is evident that since Tehran signed an agreement last year with the United Nations and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the United States, China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom – plus Germany to open its nuclear development program to inspection it has become more active in the region. The removal of economic sanctions and the lifting of diplomatic isolation have given Tehran the confidence and assets to pursue its interests without fear of serious diplomatic repercussions, especially from Washington.

What all the Quds Force militias have in common with Iran as well as with the Assad regime is that they are followers of the Shia faction of Islam. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is the leader of the orthodox Sunni branch of Islam, which it regards as the only legitimate interpretation of the religion. While this religious divide is undoubtedly a powerful motivator among supporters of both interpretations of Islam, it is also often a convenient distraction from the essentially worldly thrust for power in both the Iranian and Saudi regimes.

The current outbursts on the religious front from both Tehran and Riyadh stem from a deadly stampede during the hajj last year in which about 2,300 foreign pilgrims were killed, including nearly 470 Iranians. Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei has been highly critical of the Saudi authorities, saying the hajj was badly organized. He also lambasted Riyadh for showing insufficient remorse for the deadly incident, as well as lack of resolve in trying to find out who was directly responsible.

Matters came to a head on January 2 when Saudi Arabia executed the imprisoned prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Nimr had been in custody since 2011, accused of leading a protest movement among the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.

Riyadh tried to dull the impact of its killing of the esteemed cleric by at the same time executing three other Shia protesters and 43 militants from the al-Qaida terrorist group. It didn’t work. Angry crowds stormed and gutted Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran, and on January 3 diplomatic relations between the two were cut.

They remain severed, hence the inability of Iranians to join this year’s hajj. But the rhetoric has not dimmed. On Monday, Iranian leader Khamenei published a diatribe against the Saudi monarchy calling the Riyadh regime a “small and puny Satan” that has politicised Islam in order to maintain its relationship with Washington.

“The world of Islam, including Muslim governments and peoples, must familiarise themselves with the Saudi rulers and correctly understand their blasphemous, faithless, dependent and materialistic nature,” he wrote in a statement on his website.

The Saudi royal family has shown itself unqualified to act as custodians of Islam’s holy sites in Mecca a Medina, or to administer the hajj, he said. “The world of Islam must fundamentally reconsider the management of the two holy places and the issue of the hajj,” wrote Khamenei.

Saudi Arabia’s leading cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, responded on Tuesday, saying he was not surprised at Khamenei’s comments.

“We have to understand that they are not Muslims,” he said, adding that Iranian leaders are sons of “magus”, a reference to Zoroastrianism, the dominant belief in Persia until the Muslim Arab invasion of the region that is now Iran 13 centuries ago.

The Saudi regime and its Sunni clerics usually try to hide their disdain for the Shia and believe that they are not true Muslims. But as the power play in the Middle East gathers pace, all courtesies will be abandoned.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

Contact, including queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

~~~

 

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

~~~

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F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Turkey’s Shock Waves Slam Middle East

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
July 30, 2016

Supporters of Tukish President Tayyip Erdogan celebrate after soldiers involved in the coup surrendered on the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey July 16, 2016. REUTERS/Yagiz Karahan

Supporters of Tukish President Tayyip Erdogan celebrate after soldiers involved in the coup surrendered on the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey July 16, 2016. REUTERS/Yagiz Karahan

The fascist coup of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – for that is what it is – has thrown a large boulder into the boiling, muddy waters of the Middle East.

Turkey’s fellow Sunni Muslim neighbours are apprehensive that Erdogan’s massive purge of his opponents and grabbing of personal power will be accompanied by a reaffirmation of his support for radical Islam. This fear has already thrown off balance efforts by Saudi Arabia to build an Islamic Military Alliance among Sunni Muslim states to battle terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State, and to present a united front to the increasingly assertive Shia Muslim state of Iran.

Erdogan, meanwhile, appears to be oblivious of the wider implications of his actions following what he claims was an attempted coup on July 15 by army officers and others who follow exiled religious leader Fethullah Gulen. In the aftermath of whatever it was that really happened on Friday two weeks ago, Erdogan’s security forces have got about 15,000 people in detention, revoked the passports of nearly 50,000 people, and suspended more than 66,000 people from their jobs. Warrants have been issued for the arrest of 89 journalists.

Erdogan has reacted angrily to disquiet expressed by the United States and European government that his purge of the civil service, military, judiciary and educational establishment is out of all proportion to the coup threat, if, indeed, there was one.

“Instead of thanking this nation that quashed the coup in the name of democracy, on the contrary, you are taking sides with the coup plotters,” Erdogan said on Friday. He is especially upset that Washington will not immediately hand over Gulen, who has been in self-imposed exile in the U.S. since 1999.

In his speech Erdogan went further and suggested Washington might have been behind the failed plot in alliance with Gulen, who was the Turkish leader’s political ally until they fell out. Erdogan became suspicious of the popularity of Gulen’s vision of Islam among the military, judges and judicial officials, and in the education system where the cleric’s organisation operated many schools and colleges. Gulen has denied any involvement in whatever happened on July 15.

This is a major breech between Turkey and its partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, to which the Ankara government contributes the second largest military after Washington. And Erdogan’s actions in the last two weeks also put even further out of reach than they already are Turkey’s ambitions to join the European Union. Those negotiations are already stalled on most fronts, and if Erdogan reintroduces capital punishment, as has been widely hinted, his EU membership application will be torn up.

The most immediate effects, however, are on the three-cornered civil war in Syria, the occupation by the Islamic State of large areas of western Iraq and eastern Syria, and even the war in Yemen.

There was a strong indication on Monday this week of the dislocation among Arab Middle Eastern leaders. The 22 leaders of the member states of the Arab League were due to meet in Mauritania for their annual summit with the hammering out of a joint approach to the Syrian civil war high on the agenda.

It didn’t happen. Only eight Arab heads of state showed up, and those were all from irrelevant nations such as Somalia, Sudan, the Comoros, and Djibouti. The big boys, such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan, and Egypt, stayed away.

Following on from the upheaval in Turkey, this is a set-back to what had begun to look like positive moves among Sunni Muslims to build an alliance against violent radical Islam. In December last year Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defence, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, announced the formation of a 34-nation Islamic Military Alliance, which included Turkey and other Muslim countries as far away as Malaysia and Pakistan. The idea is to share intelligence on radical terrorist groups like the Islamic State, al-Qaida and its affiliates, and to train, equip and provide forces to fight together against these groups.

Significantly, the alliance does not include Iran, the leader of Shia Islam with strong links to the Shia majority in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shia minority populations in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and most other Muslim countries.

The creation of this alliance was welcomed by the U.S., and it appeared to herald the healing of breeches between Turkey and Saudi Arabia in particular. Erdogan went to Riyadh and signed a far-reaching strategic co-operation agreement with the Saudi government. Then, in February this year, Saudi troops were sent to Turkey for joint exercises that for a while looked as though they might be a prelude to a ground invasion of northern Syria.

All this looked like a welcome repair in relations between Riyadh and Ankara, which had plummeted after the Arab Spring at the beginning of 2011. Riyadh accused Ankara of supporting the radical Muslim Brotherhood, which took power in Egypt before being removed by the military, and which is a major underground opposition movement in Saudi Arabia.

The rift widened when rebels in Syria rose up to try to oust the Shia President Bashar Assad, who is supported by Iran and Hezbollah. Riyadh, and many in Washington and the capitals of Europe, believed Erdogan was doing little to assist the moderate opposition to Assad, but was allowing arms, money and recruits easy transit to the Islamic State group and other ultra-radical Syrian rebels like the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front.

As well as doing much in recent months to shut off these channels, and stem the flow of war refugees to Europe, Erdogan has also restored relations with Israel. Previous co-operation with Israel ended in May, 2010, when Israeli special forces boarded a ship trying to break the blockade of the Palestinian Gaza enclave and killed nine Turkish activists.

Erdogan is also back on speaking terms with Russia after months of tense relations following the Turkish shooting down of a Russia warplane supporting the Assad regime’s forces.

Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting of the Russia High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council. Photo handout, Turkish press office

Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting of the Russia High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council. Photo handout, Turkish press office

But Erdogan’s purge since July 15, and much uncertainty about the future shape and direction of the Turkish government, overshadows all these advances.

The dislocation in the camp of Sunni Muslim nations comes as Iran, the champion of Shia Islam, is displaying growing self-confidence after last year’s deal with the United Nations, the U.S. and Washington’s allies ended the long-running dispute over Tehran’s nuclear development programme.

When all the underbrush of Middle East politics is cut away, the rivalry for influence between Tehran and Riyadh is the core fault line in the region. With sanctions lifting, much-needed investment beginning to flow in, and Tehran now able to expand its diplomatic reach and grip, Iran is flexing its muscles in the contest with Riyadh.

That has been most visible in Iran’s support for the majority Shia government in Iraq, and the military aid for Assad in Syria. Senior members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are advising Assad’s forces. Major military elements of Hezbollah, Tehran’s proxy in Lebanon, are also fighting with the Syrian government army.

More recently, Iran has begun stepping up its support for Shia rebels who have control of large parts of Yemen, where Saudi forces are attempting to support the government. In reaction to all this, there have been attacks on the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia. One of the reactions from Iran has been incursions by its military vessels into Persian Gulf waters claimed by Saudi Arabia and Gulf States. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have complained to the UN about these “repeated transgressions and assaults.”

The actions by Iran’s military, especially the elite IRGC, are propelled in part by domestic politics. Since “reformist” president Hassan Rouhani – “reformist” is a relative term in Iran – was elected in 2013 he has been in a slow-motion tussle for influence with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is not only the arbiter of religious life, but controls the military, the IRGC in particular.

The influence of the Guards Corp within the military establishment is set to rise with the appointment this week of a new chairman of the Armed Forces General Staff – the chief military advisor to the Supreme Leader – with close links to the IRGC. Major General Mohamad Hossein Bagheri’s background is in military intelligence, and that has implications for the ways Iran is likely to continue asserting its influence in the Middle East.

Bagheri is a strong advocate of fighting hidden, intelligence-driven wars. He is likely to push cyberware, the utility of which Iran is well aware after thousands of its uranium enrichment centrifuges were destroyed by the Stuxnet computer virus created by U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies. Bagheri will probably also emphasise the use of clandestine operations of one sort or another against regional enemies and dissidents abroad. For example, he was behind an operation in 1995 when IRGC units went into northern Iraq to attack and destroy a base of the Iranian Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Bagheri has little history of contact or working with the civilian government, so he can be expected to take uncompromising stances against the Rouhani administration on matters such as military budgets and social reforms.

With Washington primed to take a harder stance against Iran after November’s U.S. election no matter whether it is Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump who wins, the Middle East is set to continue to provide the world with more drama and intrigue than anyone needs.

 

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com. Please address queries about syndication/republishing this column to jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

 

~~~

 

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

~~~

Real journalism is not free. If you value evidence-based, non-partisan, spam-free information, please support Facts and Opinions, an employee-owned collaboration of professional journalists.  Details here.

 

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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The Collapse of the Caliphate

Iraqi security forces sit in a military vehicle near Falluja, Iraq, May 31, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

Iraqi security forces sit in a military vehicle near Falluja, Iraq, May 31, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

JIM MCNIVEN: THOUGHTLINES
April, 2016

A long time ago, I was involved in a number of studies about declining communities in eastern Canada, a topic that is ‘coming round again’. One of the observations I took away from this experience was that communities, like people, do not normally die by inches. It cannot be represented as a straight-line decline, angling down to zero but instead is a gradually-sloping line until some inflection point is reached, followed by a precipitous crash. My feeling as a distant observer of events, is that this inflection point has been passed in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate. I want to distinguish between the ideology of ISIS and its territory; it is the latter we are talking about here.

Once the airstrikes against the Caliphate began, it was only a matter of time until we would reach this moment. The question I often put to people who were concerned about the power of this organization was to tell me how many planes had the Caliphate shot down. Clearly, if there were wreckage, it would have been publicized. The answer, so far, is ‘none’. This is a testament to their mismatch of ambitions and capabilities.

Iraqi security forces and Shi'ite fighters sit in military vehicles near Falluja, Iraq, May 31, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

Iraqi security forces and Shi’ite fighters sit in military vehicles near Falluja, Iraq, May 31, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

Further, and unlike the Vietnam War, the territory controlled by the Caliphate at its zenith was all in dry to desert lands, offering no cover to movements. Transportation was degraded, supplies and facilities destroyed and the leadership group disrupted by assassination. This last is important, as the British discovered in the Irish Nationalist campaign of the late 1900s; the second rank of leaders often proved less politically adept and more brutal, thus alienating local supporters.

Today, the Caliphate has been reduced to three major urban areas, Raqqa, Mosul and Falluja. None of them have dependable resupply routes for either military goods or civilian needs. Short of their opponents falling into disarray and not pressing on, an unlikely hope this close to the end, things for ISIS can unravel simply by waiting. Sieges are a question of will on both sides and it appears from reports that ISIS is beginning to have to use its famously brutal methods on its own subjects to keep them in line. Further, the Mesopotamian summer has already begun, so even the elements are arraigned badly for ISIS.

So, what comes after the Caliphate? It is clear that the poisonous Wahhabi doctrine that underlies the Saudi state has produced something in Al Qaeda and ISIS that has awakened both the ‘West’ and the farther, more moderate reaches of the world of Islam. The reaction over the next few years will likely go beyond just preventing Saudi subsidization of mosques around the world, but will lead to more pressure on them to back away from the religious-political deal reached a century ago.

The Jihadist ideology does not present an existential threat to anyone outside of those areas distant from urban civilization, such as the Sahara and the northwest Indian Ocean. The Paris, Brussels and California incidents caused intense political reactions, but no country is going to collapse from such isolated tragedies. In America, the San Bernardino shootings in one way were the 350-somethingth mass murder incident in that country in the year 2015. It had the added ingredient of ISIS, but the victims were no more or less dead than in all the rest of the incidents perpetrated by over-angry, mentally disturbed or isolated people and the like.

The Arab East is wracked with virulently conflicting factions of nations, ethnicity and Islamic sectarianism. Neighbors such as Iran, Turkey and Israel all have different interests in the Arab heartland. Easy oil revenues add a layer of corruption to this stew. Then add in the outside players in Europe and North America and it is clear that the mess will not be going away soon, but will take on some different characteristic.

Perhaps the greatest problem arising out of the Caliphate has to be that which came out of a similar mess in the Balkans in the early 1900s, when one country, Austria-Hungary, decided it was futile to deal with that region in concert with the other major powers. Their unilateral decision to ‘solve’ the Serbian problem led to World War I, whose aftermath led to more war and destruction all over the world. It is to the credit of the outside protagonists in the Syrian civil war and the war on the Caliphate that they have not become so involved and stiff-necked as to bring this mess into big power relationships so far.

This whole mess is therefore not over. The proponents of Jihad have tried four tactics so far, with some initial success, but ultimate failure. These have been covert international operations, such as 9/11, tribal uprisings, such as the Taliban, armed assaults against weak states, as in Africa on the desert fringes, and the Caliphate, a proto-state based on a medieval model coupled with 21st Century technology. We do not know what is next; all we know is that there will be a ‘next’. America may be tired of this 20-year arm-wrestling with the Jihadists, but it went through the 45-year Cold War and came out the stronger for it. I expect this one will last as long and will end satisfactorily as well.

 Copyright Jim McNiven 2016

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Jim McNiven

James McNiven has a PhD from the University of Michigan. He has written widely on public policy and economic development issues and is the co-author of three books. His most recent research has been about the relationship of demographic changes to Canadian regional economic development. He also has an interest in American business history and continues to teach at Dalhousie on a part-time basis.

 

 

 

 

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